Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ 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.


    American and One World Alliance “Wins” Bankrupt Japan Airlines Prize

    February 10, 2010

    Monday’s announcement that American Airlines and One World Alliance had won the battle of Japan Airlines – keeping JAL from switching to the Sky Team – ended months of speculation about whether another major airline would shift allegiance and upset the Airline Strategic Alliance Balance of Power.  

    A different result could have destroyed the Open Skies Agreement between the US and Japan.  For one thing, protracted anti-trust litigation fueled by American, British Airways and Qantas opposition – would almost certainly have held up any attempt by Japan Air Lines to switch to the Delta led alliance. 

    What does the decision mean for US Corporate Travelers?    

    In the short run, the status quo will be maintained.  

    First off,  American Airlines and other One World Alliance frequent fliers can breath a sigh of relief.   A reallignment of allegiances in Tokyo would have dealt a major blow to interline traffic, ticketing, frequent flier mileage redemption opportunities and revenue flow for the entire alliance. 

    Looking five years down the road, JALs decision to maintain financial independence may allow management a wider range of alliance options if it can reverse its financial fortunes.   And the Japanese government has at least temporarily prevented the American Carriers from pumping more than $1 Billion into the flailing, failing carrier. 

    Delta, following its acquisition of Northwest last year, acquired a major Trans-Pacific presence with the Northwest mini-hub in Tokyo.  All Nippon Airways is poised to become the largest carrier in Japan.   ANA’s participation in the Star Alliance may spur healthy competition in the US-Japan markets for at least the next five years.  With three major alliances in the mix, there should be at least some pressure on pricing, which bodes well for consumers. 

    Business Week’s Justin Bachman concluded, “…No matter how much airlines contend such alliances are for customer service, they truly are about carrier finances.”  

    Bachman also observed that the rejection of overtures from Delta and the Sky Team Alliance was more likely a result of the inability of JAL’s new management to restructure during bankruptcy AND switch alliances at the same time.  Switching alliances is costly in many ways, including physical costs required to make a change as well as significant losses of customer loyalty.   

    To read Mr. Bachman’s analysis in full, click here. 

    One wonders where already shaky US Carriers planned to raise the kind of money they were offering in support of  JAL, but fortunately, the Japanese government has nixed the possibility.  US shareholders and passengers should be grateful!   Why fight to purchase an interest in a bankrupt airline with too much capacity, a moribund route structure, huge liabilities, and customer service ill suited to the international marketplace? 

    Delta, still feeling the logistical challenge of integrating Northwest into its vast network, has a gaping hole which resulted from Continental’s defection  to the Star Alliance last year.  

    Continental Abandoned Sky Team in 2009 

    Unwilling to serve as the “Junior”  US Partner in the Sky Team Alliance, Continental’s  bolted to the Star Alliance carriers, even though it competes with its new partners on most International routes.  Continental has been quite forthcoming about the costs of switching alliances, and has been investing heaving in educating its frequent fliers about the benefits of booking Star Alliance flights.  Switching to Sky Team would have cost JAL a fortune, and would have further eroded market share. 

    Japan Airlines’ new Chairman, Kasuo Inamori, faces a wide range of challenges from within his company, from his government, and from the marketplace.  Forced to maintain unprofitable routes by the government, JAL has been hemorrhaging cash.  Many International Flights have lost lucrative business class travelers, perhaps scared away by the impending bankruptcy.   

    A Recent Flight Experience 

    On a mid-January flight from San Francisco to Tokyo on JAL’s flagship flight 001, we found the business class cabin half empty.  Inflight service appeared to be geared exclusively toward Japanese passengers, reflecting a regionalism  inappropriate in a global economy.    

    True, JAL had just finished installing new business class seats and a premium economy class US carriers haven’t matched.   But while Western menu choices were in short supply, we found business class service and catering to be sorely lacking.  Served all at once, (see below) our transpacific dinner (see below) looked and tasted like a coach meal rather than an international business class meal.  

    We didn't think much of JAL's Inflight Service

    Only time will tell whether JAL can become a truly vibrant global force.  Maybe the change of management will help; installing an outsider to lead the recovery certainly couldn’t hurt. 

    In the meantime, unless there’s a significant cost savings, your Summit Team recommends that you consider another choice for your Pacific travel.

    Quick Review of TSA Security Developments from “Smarter”

    February 6, 2010

    Just came across this interesting summary of the TSA’s  “No Change” changes instituted since last month’s security breaches.   After braving 4 domestic airports and and international return via Heathrow, I didn’t see any significant changes and if anything, the speed of screening actually seemed faster.   Your results may vary.

    Check out Smarter’s take on the situation by clicking here:

    Southwest Joins In-Flight Internet Access Rollout Parade

    February 5, 2010

    Southwest Airlines has announced a rollout of Internet Access on its fleet of 737 Aircraft.  The low-cost Airline leader has steadfastly resisted installing any type of inflight entertainment, but now competition from legacy carriers is dictating the need for business friendly services on long distance flights. 

    From its humble beginnings in Texas with average flight duration of less than an hour, Southwest has expanded to become a true coast-to-coast carrier, with trans-continental flights and five hour flights in markets such as Buffalo – Phoenix and Albany – Las Vegas.  Southwest has also recently entered heavy-duty business markets at New York LGA and Boston.  A four-aircraft test that has been going on for nearly a year has seemingly convinced Southwest’s management that passengers are willing to support wi-fi service. 

    By this summer, Southwest will ramp up installations to approximately one plane every two days, which means it will take up to two years to fully equip the Southwest fleet.   

    Air Tran, one of Southwest’s most aggressive low-cost competitors, already has wi-fi on its entire fleet, joining Virgin America as the first two carriers to offer internet service on all of its planes.  Legacy carriers American, Delta, United, and USAir are already offering various levels of internet service on its flights, with Delta being the carrier most likely to have its entire domestic fleet outfitted first. 

    All of the carriers, as well as federal law, prohibit using the internet service for VoIP phone call services, such as Skype, although SMS and e-mail services are both viable.

    With Southwest’s announcement that it’s committing to full scale rollout of Internet Access, it’s become clear that Email in the air has come into its own, and only the smallest regional carriers will not be on board.

    The Battle of the Lounges at Heathrow – Round 4

    February 4, 2010

    It started with Virgin Atlantic’s cheeky “ClubRoom” concept back in the 90’s, where for the first time, business class passengers could check in for their flights a bit early and actually enjoy some quality time at what had become an extremely dull and boring airport.  British Airways stodgy Concorde lounge, until that time the lone bastion of exclusivity at the airport, couldn’t hold a candle to the brash Virgin upstart, and soon premium travelers were defecting to Richard Branson’s upstart product.

    Last week, we experienced the first phase of American Airlines’ new Admiral’s Club in Terminal 3.  We’ve been accustomed to AA’s ancient lounge for so long that almost anything would be an improvement.  While we expected to still see the old lounge, we were pleasantly surprised to find a major portion of the new facility operational.   Clean, functional and much larger than the old lounge, we were impressed.  But first a few words about recent  historical developments in the Heathrow Lounge Wars. 

    British Airway’s Terminal Five opened in mid-2007 to wide critical acclaim, as well as a series of embarassing service failures that made headling news for years.   Despite the opening glitches, British Airway’s First Class, Concorde, and Business Class Galleries lounges were an immediate hit with the traveling public.  Perhaps wisely having conceded the “fun” title to Virgin, the new BA lounges offered a level of premium lounge comfort rarely found in Europe.  The elegance of the BA First Class lounge, which features two serve – yourself Champagne Bars, a wide selection of truly premium wines, and a self-serve buffet, shares an exclusive two level facility with the business class Galleries lounge, which is both spacious and well equipped with a hot buffet that puts some restaurants in Britain to shame.  Even more exclusive is the Concorde Room, which can only be accessed by those traveling on full-fare first class tickets – no self service here, pre-flight meals and drinks are served by bespoke staff in an environment that defines the word exclusive.  (On a recent visit, we spotted Pierce Brosnan and Naomi Sims in corner lounge chairs).

    Heathrow has finally begun to demolish some of its oldest buildings (I still think the remains of some luggage I lost 20 years ago in Terminal 2 might be found in the rubble).  Terminal 3 – home to One World carriers American, Iberia, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Finnair, Japan Airlines, and Royal Jordanian is in the midst of an upgrade of sorts.  Even though it’s theoretically possible for top tier passengers of any of these airlines to use any of the One World lounges, we’ve discovered as a practical matter one is often refused admission unless actually flying that airline.  Citing space limitations, the better lounges are not really open to would-be interlopers, although we’ve been known to wheedle our way in to most of them as top-tier fliers in the AAdvantage program.  Generally, it hasn’t been worth the effort.

    Last year, British Airlines opened a Galleries Business class lounge in Terminal 3, providing a cool and inviting atmosphere for travelers on BAs intra-European flights to eight cities while construction on BA’s 2nd satellite terminal in T5 continues at a snail’s pace.  We suspect ultimately this facility will become a One-World lounge for non-AA airlines flying out of T3.  

    American Airlines (the largest US Carrier at Heathrow), started revitalizing its Admiral’s Club and Flaghip First Class Suite 18 months ago.  The two year project included absorption of two smaller club lounges of other airlines, and was sorely needed.  Furniture from the 1960’s had never been updated, and looking at the competition’s offerings, calling American’s lounge tired would be kind.

    The new Admiral’s Club is reached down a long construction corridor which will no doubt be replaced by a more acceptable entry when the entire club opens later this year.   But once past the makshift welcome desk, travelers will find a new and fresh look which has vastly improved offerings compared to its predecessor.

    First and foremost, for business travelers, AA has finally installed wireless internet access from BT that actually works.   We measured throughput at 5.5 mps, which beats the speed in almost any other lounge we’ve encountered.  For business travelers hoping to catch up on email and send off messages before being out of touch for 8 hours or more, it’s nice to know AA has recognized the need.

    Turning to food and beverage, a new wine bar in the center of the refreshment area offered 6 different vintages (3 white, 3 red) which were of excellent quality.   The self-serve beverage section contained a well-stocked collection of soft drinks, juices, and beer, as well as an open bar.   Replacing the non-existent food offerings at the old club was a typically British selection of fresh sandwiches, hot soup, cookies, and bar snacks.  The offerings at the new Admiral’s Club, while not quite up to the BA Galleries food bar, are better than the old First Class snack service, and you’ll find no complaints from me about the quality.

    Three just-installed flat screen TVs were not yet fully operational, but were well placed for viewing throughout the room.  Nearly 200 new arm chairs, with ample power connections (both 220 and 110!) will make it easy for all travelers to plug in and power up anywhere in the lounge.  Work areas, complimentary computer work stations, and the aforementioned wireless access make this lounge a very comfortable and functional entry into the lounge wars.

    American’s First Class Flagship Suite is scheduled to open later this Spring and we’ll be sure to let you know when it opens.

    Our last connection through Terminal One was during the Summer of 2010.   All connections to Ireland depart through T1, as well as operations for all Star Alliance carriers.    We didn’t find anything that compares to the T3 and T5 offerings on our trip, although we understand a new Star Alliance lounge has since opened.    We’ll check it out on our next trip and shall report back.   It’s our understanding the new lounge is comfortable, with a limited selection of food and drink – but Internet Access is not complimentary.  There are more than 10 shower rooms, though, to help customers on long-haul flights recover and refresh for onward travel.

    Finally, over in T4 – the Sky Team’s new home at Heathrow, the Alliance has taken over the old BA lounges, providing similar facilities for food and drink, showers and adequate seating areas.  While new carpeting and internet access have been added, the furniture is still a bit dated.

    Our Summit Management clients and blog readers are encouraged to submit updates as your travels take them through Heathrow.  We’ll be happy to pass on your impressions and experiences to other readers, as the world’s second busiest airport continues to reinvent itself.

    The Emirates Lounge – Bangkok

    January 24, 2010

    If the surroundings, food and wine on offer at the Emirates Lounge in Bangkok is any indication of the flight, we’re in for quite an adventure this evening.    Our A-380 leaves in about 45 minutes for Dubai.    This may be the best opportunity, dollar for dollar, to find an A-380 First Class Cabin on offer, but we’ve opted for business class as we have a long itinerary ahead including Rome, Helsinki, Stockholm, London and New York.

    The Moet et Chandon Imperial was an excellent precursor to the flight… as was the amazing Margaux.  To tell the truth, the buffet and hors d’oeuvre on display beat almost anything in any lounge I’ve experienced.   There are a few exceptions we can share with you, but more on that later…

    Goodbye Las Vegas, Hello Singapore!

    January 14, 2010

    So, after three hectic days in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics show, the verdict is – the show was TERRIFIC for our company, Broadq, and our new product, Qtv.    More about the show later, including a special “celebrity” photo from the booth next to ours.    But in the meantime, there was some “entertainment” too – one of the local vendors hired a rather unique “booth babe”  (see photo)

    CES Booth Babe

    The flight back from LAS to DFW featured a true firecracker of a flight attendant on American.   I would use her name but wouldn’t want to get her in trouble.  One of the reasons I fly American is that while they don’t always do a fantastic job, I feel you have a better chance of having a great flight.   Returning home at 11:00 PM, we spent most of Sunday getting the house ready for additional renovations.   A little packing, and an all-nighter followed by Monday morning flights from Austin to Los Angeles to San Francisco.

    Overnight was at the very nicely remodeled HYATT REGENCY FISHERMANS’ WHARF – I hotel I hadn’t stayed in since a meeting there 10 years ago.  The guest rooms were comfortably redone in contemporary hues – beds were comfortable and the bathroom still looked new.   Of particular interest was the happy hour at Knuckles Restaurant – with some of the best fried calimari I’ve ever had ($5 for a huge portion) – and $4 draft Anchor Steam.   Quite a bargain for one of America’s most expensive cities.  

    Dinner in San Francisco was at Il Cantuccio, a neighborhood hole in the wall in the still seedy Mission District (3228 16th Street) – the food was still fantastic, and reasonably priced for SF.   All home made pastas were around $15, great thin pizzas (try the Gorgonzola) – this is a place to go if you want to let people know that you “know” SF.  It is, however, a hole in the wall, so if you’re trying to impress, stick with old standards like Alioto’s, Scoma’s, or Fiore d’Italia…

    Yesterday morning, we packed up our bags and headed back to SFO to take JL 001 for Tokyo Narita.  JAL’s future is in doubt.  We found out why…   more in the next edition!

    Texas Longhorns Play for the National College Football Championship Tonight!

    January 7, 2010

    "Hookem Horns!"This entry will be brief – just a quick note in support of the Texas Longhorns, playing for the National Championship in the Rose Bowl at Pasedena, CA tonight.  Wish I was there.  But the CES show is only hours away from beginning.

    This Show is A Monster… and it starts in less than 18 Hours!

    January 7, 2010

    We’re setting up our booth this afternoon, and chaos reigns.   I am assured that by tomorrow, order will have returned, but as this point, I don’t see how!

    Just Checked into the Las Vegas Hilton

    January 6, 2010

    Las Vegas – how appropriate to start this year’s travels!

    I’m here in Vegas for the product launch of Q-TV, at the Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC).   I’m expecting the usual zoo – but so far, everything is pretty quiet.

    It’s been 12 years since I’ve set foot in the Las Vegas Hilton.    Same general marble look for the entryway – and this hotel – still huge by most standards,  (but not by Vegas Standards) is quiet before the storm.

    My room on the 27th floor of the East Tower is about as far as you can get from the desk.  It’s been nicely updated – Crisp Linens, Vegas colors scheme  (red and orange drapes and carpeting – but actually not loud), comfortable mattress,  a small closet with double mirrors, decent in-room safe and a nicely sized personal fridge (no minibar).  The bathroom was updated and has a smart marble vanity,  garden oval tub with decent water pressure.

    Compared to my last stay at the Luxor,  (which I want to love but don’t), this is a dramatic upgrade.

    For $60 (off peak rate before the show) – it’s a deal!   For $275 (show rate) – not so much – but still decent!

    Stay tuned for news of the setup.