Archive for the ‘Airline Reviews’ Category

Virgin Atlantic is still “A Cut Above” – but it’s losing some of its lustre

August 4, 2010
  •  It’s been a tough time for airlines, but Virgin Atlantic has always given more for your travel dollar than almost anyone else. My recent r/t New York to London to Newark flights were both fine, but the Upper Class experience is not auite as good as I’d remembered.
  • The famous clubhouses at JFK and London were still more interesting than most club rooms, but my traveling companions and I all felt they were looking a little worn.  Furniture in the famous London Flagship Clubhouse was dated, and the overcrowded New York clubhouse had little of the style one expects from Richard Branson enterprises.   Still, the F&B options on the ground far exceed what one usually finds in club lounges.  The bars are excellent, especially the one in London which borders on the amazing.  Professionally mixed cocktails aer actually delivered with Bransonesque flair, and there were a slew of professional, energetic servers who made you feel really welcome in both places.

    The London Clubhouse has a barber shop (which was available for quick trims at no cost) and even a full size, 10 person jacuzzi (which remained empty during the entire 3 hours I was in the lounge).   Nice knowing it was there, but it seems like an idea that might have been designed for Austin Powers – (yeah baby!)   Could it really be that the swank, new American Admirals club one level down was actually more sophisticated following it’s two year renovation?  I’d have to say yes, but the Clubhouse is probably still more fun…

    On the down side, the interior of the Airbus 30 was looking a little worn.  No in seat power meant limited work time.  The basic seat design was awkward – I couldn’t get lighting to work effectively on the night flights.  The VOD worked fine in one direction, but was on the old fashioned 2 1/2 hour loop on the way back.  The choice of movies was better than on most carriers.   The headsets were old-fashioned and were not noise-canceling, but they did produce good, clear sound (once you found the plug in spot, inconveniently located behind the inconveniently located pop-up armrest and pop-down drink holder.

    The seats DO convert to flat beds, which are great.  The mattress pad was thin, but adequate to soften the surface.  The duvet was better than some, but not as good as British Airways fluffier counterpart.  They do offer comfortable sleep suits (if you can make it into the bathroom to change before takeoff) – and a cool amenity kit that comes in a kick-ass shoe bag.   Overhead storage space on the Airbus 340 is really tight; it was a good thing most people checked their luggage, since the overnight comforter and pads take up half of the storage space before anyone even boards.

    Meal service was OK, but none of the choices on offer made me go “wow.”   Admittedly, these were the late night flights in both directions – so the meals were all served at once so customers could sleep, but the menu didn’t offer as much choice as many carriers.  The execution of the dinner service was just OK; not much flair and very practical.  (Exception:  whimsical salt and pepper shakers in the shape of airplanes).  Champagne (with the same excellent quality served before takeoff – take note American) was better than most business class offerings, but the red and white wine offerings did not match those on offer by Lufthansa or American on my recent flights.

    For the special fare cometing with BA’s post-strike offer at $2800 R/T in business, it was a GREAT deal, but at $7500 – well, I would not have been so happy. Still, it’s a flat bed and much more comfortable than the US carrier typical offerings. I think the 747 upper class flights are a lot more confortable, so if you can, go for those.

    Mr. Branson – your staff is still top flight, and that makes the experience worth while.   How about a little updating of your lounges and airliner seats?  They are looking less “smart” these days, although I still love the way flying Virgin is not like flying anyone else.

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    The Jet Blue Experience

    July 26, 2010

    I’ve finally taken the plunge and flown Jet Blue for the first time.   Yes, I know they’ve been flying for 10 years.   But if you, like me, haven’t flown Jet Blue yet, you need to try them.   Really!

     Those of you following my blogs know that I often review high end, business and first class experiences on some of the world’s best (and worst) airlines.   But for those of you who are road warriors in the US, well, most of us have ratcheted down our expectations for coach air travel to inexcusable but predictably low levels.   Facing the facts, people want to fly cheap, and there are few people willing to pay even a little more for basic conveniences unless the airlines force them to do so.

    Enter Jet Blue – and it’s still hard to believe they’ve been flying for 10 years, isn’t it?  Since I live in Austin and they fly to LA, SF, JFK and Ft. Lauderdale from my home base, it’s hard to believe I’ve never set foot on a Jet Blue (Code B6) place.  

     This weekend, I was swayed by the Happy Jetting advertising campaign and flew from Ft. Lauderdale to Newark as a chance to test out their service.  Hey, I already knew what Continental, the only other carrier on the route, was going to deliver!  My decision was also partly made after ready the continuously glowing reviews of Jet Blue by The Cranky Flier, a blogger based out of the greater LA area.  He much prefers the – shall we say “gritty” but convenient – experience of flying out of Long Beach, which is a primary tenant of that airport, to the O’Hare-like ambiance of LAX.  

     A word to the wise – if you ARE flying Jet Blue, be sure you join their TrueBlue frequent flier program and check in online 24 hours before you travel.  Otherwise, you’re like to face a long line at the airport behind Aunt Mabel and the kids, before you can check in, get your seat assignment, and check your bags.  

     Benefit number one – you can more or less assure yourself some relatively spacious seating accommodation by purchasing a premium legroom seat assignment, for between $10 and $50 per flight.   Our $25 upgrade between Ft. Lauderdale and Newark bought us exit row seats 11 A and C – and in the absence of a full flight, I figured “Who was going to shell out $25 for a middle seat, exit row or not?”   It was a good call, we had and empty middle seat between us and the long and short of it was we had the equivalent of “poor man’s first class” for only $50 for two. Not a bad deal at all!

     Benefit number two – your first checked bag is FREE – no “status” or credit card required! Even better, my second bag was only $30 – so right off the bat I was ahead of the game.  If you aren’t flying on your preferred carrier and getting free baggage and free upgrades, it’s a terrific deal.

    You won’t have any preferred access through security, so be sure to allow enough time, to make it to the gate.  And of course there aren’t any lounges to wait in, so bring something to read and stake out a seat.

    About The Flight

     Our Airbus 320 was relatively spacious, since even regular coach seats have 34” of legroom – at least advertised as such.   I sat in a regular seat, and I would bet it was closer to 32”, but at least my 6’2” knees didn’t hit the seat in front of me like the do on most coach configurations.   The exit row space was advertised as 38”, but again, I think it was a bit short of that – but if you need to pull out a laptop and work, it’s at least possible!  

     Onboard service consisted of a wide variety of soft drinks (The Cranky Flier would be pleased to know Ginger Ale was available)  – and an equally wide variety of complimentary snack food.  Some of it was junk food (I picked Doritos snack mix and chocolate chip cookies – sue me!) but there were also 100 calorie Animal Crackers and packages of Craisins.   Beats American’s first class snack food on short flights…

    Time literally flew by with the 36 channel Direct TV which was available for almost the entire flight.  I got to catch up on Kathy Griffin and her D-List, watched part of National Lampoon’s European Vacation on TBS, and wrote 3 business letters before landing.  I was also able to follow our progress on the Jet Blue in-flight channel, although the advertising that cycled through every 10 seconds was getting annoying.  Fortunately, you can turn your personal viewing screen off if you wish.

     We landed exactly on time.   Luggage came out at Newark less than 20 minutes – about half the time I expect from the major carriers.

     The Verdict

     Once is not enough to recommend without equivocation… but I give Jet Blue an “A” on my first flight.  On time, easy check in, the ability to purchase extra legroom for a reasonable cost, free entertainment, good junk food – all at a bargain price.   So – if you haven’t tried Jet Blue, why not give them a shot – especially if you’ve already qualified for top tier status on your favorite carrier…

    The Emirates A380 Experience – Uplifting and Unexpected

    July 17, 2010

    I’ve been intrigued by Emirates Airlines advertising over the past few years.  While my travels don’t often take me through Dubai, I recently had the opportunity to spend a night at the Park Hyatt and experience Emirates new A-380 flight from Bangkok.   I couldn’t have been more surprised or pleased with the experience.

    The Emirates A-380 made me feel like I was flying for the first time.   As someone who has flown 200,000 miles a year for the last 10 years, that’s quite an accomplishment.  

    Check in at Bangkok’s new airport was quick and as pleasant as it can be in a major city airport.  But once through security, the lounge beckoned with a wide selection of food and drink that was so far above what’s typically offered in airport lounges I might have been at an exclusive cocktail reception.

    How You Can Get Airlines to Stop Raising Bag Fees – A Call to Action!

    January 20, 2010

    The latest salvo of bag-checking cost increases is now ricocheting across the US airfare landscape like the latest fake “fare-war” sale.   But this is yet another add-on charge the airlines aren’t advertising to the public.  Instead of raising minimum fares to a reasonable and sustainable level, they’re still advertising $99 coast-to-coast fares (if you fly on Tuesday after midnight, and stand on your left foot for at least half the flight).

    Perhaps you have noted Southwest Airline’s latest advertisements with a hip-hop “Bags Fly Free” message.  It’s a major differentiator, and Southwest deserves to be recognized.  Jet Blue is also among the last holdouts which does not charge for everything that goes into the holds of their planes.

    Our friends at “The Cranky Flier” have both a point and a plan – something you can do today to let the airlines know you will shift your allegiance.   We highly suggest that you sign up for The Cranky Flier’s well written commentary on all things airline.  Even frequent fliers, who don’t usually pay a fee to check bags on our preferred carriers, should take action.    I know I just did – here’s why:

    I just booked two travelers who work for my company and who AREN’T elite fliers on Jet Blue between Austin and San Francisco.  Aside from having lower fares (by $20 roundtrip) on Jet Blue, more legroom and “better” service, since they’re each checking two bags, the total savings on fare and bags is $140 per person – $280 total.    That’s actually MORE than the price of one of the roundtrip tickets!    Do you find this INSANE?

    Charging for bags at this level is getting to be completely out of hand.  If you agree, check out this short article and write to the airlines.   Before the cost to check a bag exceeds the cost of your next ticket, check out this short article, and send a message to your favorite airline.  And some of your not-so-favorite airlines!

    CLICK HERE:     How You Can Get Airlines to Stop Raising Bag Fees.

    I remember buying three $120 tickets from Madrid to Vienna last year on discount carrier Clickair (now a part of Vueling) – and thinking we got a great deal.  When we got to the airport, we were hit with $850 worth of baggage fees – nearly twice the cost of our tickets!  Let’s hope we don’t get to that point here in the USA – it’s hard to travel for a two week trip with just carry-on luggage!

    Happy travels,

    Rob Lipman

    Should Japan Air Lines be Extinct? Will the “Battle of the Alliances” Winner be the Ultimate Loser?

    January 17, 2010

    Japan Air Line’s recent financial distress is front page news around the world.  Four of us recently boarded a spanking new JAL Boeing Triple 7  in San Francisco.   JAL 001 – the carrier’s flagship flight – was bound for Tokyo, and we were connecting in Narita for Singapore.   Two of us were experienced worldwide “business” travelers, and two were highly experienced leisure travelers.  We all walked away with the same conclusion – this airline needs to adapt or die.

    As the third leg of an around the world tour, I admit to looking forward to this flight eagerly.  While most Americans also admit some degree of uncertainty with how to react to Japanese culture, I was not prepared for the complete indifference of the JAL cabin crew towards non-Japanese passengers.

    As a first impression, we were surprised that the Japan Air Lines lounge in San Francisco appeared to have been decorated sometime in the late 70’s.   The Wi-Fi system in the lounge didn’t work – we actually had to piggy-back off of a nearby airline’s lounge which offered a strong enough signal.  When business travelers are about to embark on a 14 hour flight,  they need a reliable connection.   Requests for assistance were met with half-hearted apologies.  Clearly, connectivity was not a priority.   The lunchtime departure was delayed slightly, but with 30 some-odd passengers in the lounge, there “snacks” on offer were minimal, and clearly geared to an Eastern audience.   And while two of us will try almost anything Asian, the seaweed wraps in cellophane were pronounced inedible by both of us.  Peanuts and an egg-salad sandwich quarter were the other alternatives.  So – we headed for the flight and settled in.

    Great Expectations

    We all gave the new JAL business class pod seat high marks for comfort and flexibility.  Even at 6’3″ – the seat was comfortable enough to sleep in.  While not completely flat, the angle of inclination did not make one feel as if we were sliding on to the floor – as is so often the case on US carrier business class seats. 

    The spacious seating of the 2-3-2 business class configuration did not seem as cramped as US versions on the plane, and in fact the sleeker design somehow contributed to a cleaner design.  Perhaps the absence of gray leather and a lower profile seat  made a difference.   The advertised “next generation” seats delivered as promised.   But from there on – it was all down hill.

    The first ominous sign came from a flight hostess who instructed us – each of us separately –  to turn off our mobile phones, even though the aircraft door was still open.   This breach of basic international protocol again prevented last minute connectivity, but for no apparent reason.  Certainly it’s been proven that mobile phones have nothing to do with safety while parked at the gate!  We chalked this one up to quirkiness.

    (Incidentally, the phone police mercifully did not force themselves into the cramped (but immaculate) toilets prior to takeoff).

    In another protocol lapse, there were no pre-flight drinks, or even water and juice, offered prior to take off.  It was something we could live without, but seemed strange to us.  But as petty as some of the following complaints might appear, there are relatively few avenues upon which airlines can differentiate themselves.

    Safety is, of course, “Job One” as the old saying goes.   While I never felt unsafe for a second on JAL, of far more importance was the general inability and/or unwillingness of the crew to converse with passengers in English.  5 minute long public address announcements in Japanese were followed by heavily accented, hard to understand 30 second messages in English.  

    A Clash of Cultures

    I have Japanese clients and work more than most Americans to understand the Japanese culture.  But I have also flown extensively on Chinese, Korean, Spanish, German, and French National Carriers, and even when traveling between non-US city pairs, the flight announcements are always understandable.   Had there been an emergency, I wonder if less well traveled American travelers would have known what to do – it was clear that one would be on one’s own in the case of emergency.

    Airline food is a major differentiator between airlines, and while I know never to expect too much – especially in coach – it seemed that the presentation needed a lot of work.  The western cuisine was unappetizing, but the Japanese cuisine was in short supply.  Apparently, the airline did not anticipate multiple “western” passengers opting for Japanese meals.  The crew’s gracious apology for running out was accepted, but it seemed odd to run out of the modest sukiyaki styled beef offering.   Overall, the Asian style appetizer selection was excellent, but the rest of the meal was quite disappointing.

    The second offering on this 13 hour flight was a western style “curried” crepe.  For those of us who dislike curry, the Japanese offering was even less appetizing.  Both meals were of a level typical of coach meals on European transatlantic carriers.

    I don’t want to be trivial, but for some reason, water bottles were handed out to Japanese speaking passengers, but not to Americans.  Only after three requests was bottled water brought.  

    There was no “in flight” amenity kit – a first on my intercontinental travels. 

    Blankets were flimsy, and of limited value, which was OK, because the cabin stayed warm throughout the flight.  (My thermometer, which I carry to check meeting room temperatures, read 73-74F through most of the flight.  I always think airlines crank up the heat to encourage sleep).

    Finally, for some reason, the frequent “turbulence” periods seemed to extend 5 to 10 minutes longer than they do on other carriers – long after the flight seemed to smooth out.

    Tight Connections and “Making Up Time”

    Our flight left nearly an hour late, and typically, airlines will make some effort to “make up time.”   Not so with either leg of our JAL flights.   We flew at well under maximum speed (sometimes under 450 MPH) and were 70 minutes late landing at Narita (followed by an interminable 20 minute taxi to a gate on the other end of the airport.  Since we only had 75 minutes for our connection, we were distressed that the crew seemed unaware that we and other passengers were going to miss our connections.  

    Extensive information about Japanese domestic transfers was provided –  followed by – nothing! – about International connections.   We raced off the plane expecting there to be a contact at the jet bridge – but – again, Nothing!  We knew we could not be the only connecting passengers, but there were no directions and no one to guide in the right direction.  

    Having transited Tokyo Narita many times, we still expected some sort of staffing at the gate, but only after 5 minutes fast walk did we come to the contact point with all our names – and the names of 15 other passengers.   We were given a sticker, and rushed to security.

    Now, to JAL’s credit, the plane was held for us.  We underwent an extensive security check, including every possible electronic item (not JAL security of course) – and then were told to HURRY!   RUN! to the connecting flight.   Where we made it to our seats, and then promptly sat there for 40 minutes before the doors were closed.  (No cell phones, of course!)  

    JAL is not the only airline to do this kind of thing, of course, but the urgency of having to run through Narita, only to sit for more than 1/2 hour with – again- no pre-flight beverage… well, it was no way to treat a customer. Again, the late departure was met by a disturbing insouciance by the flight crew – we were advised we would land 90 minutes late – at 1:45 AM instead of 12:05 AM – as the flight lumbered along – according to the screen display at a leisurely 390 MPH.   I don’t think they can blame that kind of performance on congestion at Narita!

    Passengers or Cargo?

    The moral of the story is – you can’t treat customers like cargo on competitive routes and expect them to return.   I now know I’m not missing anything by flying American or Delta to Japan.

    Flying transatlantic with JAL, I expected to be treated like an honored guest.   I felt like I was an inconvenience. Would I take JAL again?  Well, only if it meant saving a significant amount of money, or if there were no other options.   I sure wouldn’t have my hopes up for an extraordinary flight.  I realize these observations are based on a single trip and two flights, but carriers rarely get a second chance to make a first impression.

    So, what does all this mean for JAL’s future?   Well, in my humble opinion, if  JAL management thinks it can fill planes with 100% Japanese guests and still turn a profit, they might make it.   We can probably assume the Japanese government won’t abandon their National Flag Carrier, but you never know these days.

    The Winner as the Loser

    But if on lucrative US – Asia and European – Asian routes they lose a 5 or 10% market share, the only way they can stay afloat is with government money.  JAL has to become a truly International Carrier – and not one that just takes Japanese businessmen and tourists to foreign destinations.   Something has to give!  

    On the other hand, JAL might stay afloat with  the foolish capital investment of a US based carrier who thinks they can make up a wasteful and ridiculous investment in a failing carrier with “volume.”  

    Whether the courtship for JAL is ultimately won by Sky Team or One World investors, the winner of the battle will likely be the loser of the war!