Tuesday, February 28, 2012

United Airlines 777 Business Class Seat

I had to fly to White Plains, NY, for work last week. And had a full day to travel, so I picked the most interesting flight I could find.  I was able to book an international configuration 777 with the new lie flat beds in business.  My upgrade cleared (I wish I could book business directly) and I was flying 6A to Chicago. 
United Airlines 777 Business Class Flat Seat
United Airlines 777 Business Class Flat Seat
The United 777 business class seats are set up with five rows of 2x4x2 seating.  The middle seats don’t have a lot of privacy and the cabin felt a little crowded. 
United Airlines 777 Business Class Flat Seat
United Airlines 777 Business Class Flat Seat
United Airlines’ business class seat is one of the best in the air.  It is about six feet long is truly flat (parallel to the floor).  There is a good AVOD system with a great selection of movies, new and old.  I watched Wall-E on my trip and a bit of Toy Story 3.  There is no under seat storage with these seats, so I grabbed my Bose headphones and Economist and tossed my bag in the overhead bin.  The seat controls are easy to understand and there is a myriad of comfortable positions for the seat.  The window seat has a good feeling of privacy, but it is not impossible to have a conversation with your seatmate either. 
New United Airlines 777 Business Class Flat Bed Seat
United Airlines 777 Business Class Flat Seat
United does not have the best food in the air, usually their good meals can be described as edible.  Breakfast was an egg McMuffin and yogurt.  Not bad, but not filling or exciting either.  Continental has a much better breakfast spread and I hope the new United keeps what Continental serves.  The Bailey’s and coffee was ok, United switched coffees and I am not a fan of the new blend (United Club coffee is unpalatable).  Increasing the ratio of Bailey’s to coffee fixed the taste problem. 
United Airlines Business Class Breakfast
United Airlines Business Class Breakfast
The flight went quickly and the service ended early due to turbulence over Illinois and Wisconsin.  It was a pleasant flight staffed with a senior crew that was very professional and enhanced the experience. 
Rainy day at ORD
It was raining in Chicago and my E170 flight to HPN was canceled.  I lost my first class seat, had an extra three hours at ORD (I wasn’t the only one with an extended stay, there was not a single open seat in the F gates United Club), and was stuck on a CRJ.  Still, could be worse, I could have been in the office.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thoughts on Around the World Travel

I was discussing around the world travel with my friend Mary at Pies Etc. the other night and an interesting contrast came up.  Mary sees round the world travel as a month long journey to explore several continents, make 8-12 stops, and fulfill romantic travel dreams.  I see it as a way to follow in the footsteps of aviation pioneers.

Mary views RTW travel as one Atlantic crossing, one Pacific crossing, and many stops along the way.  Something like New York to Africa to Europe to India to Southern Asia to New Zealand to Polynesia, then back home.  Airline alliances sell tickets for these travels (Star Alliance, oneworld, Sky Team) that give you a certain number of segments and miles flown for a fixed price.  They can be a very good value, especially if you are going on some expensive flights.  The websites are also a fun way to play at work.  Airlines also offer RTW tickets with miles, but they offer far less.  United for example allows 5 stops (but unlimited segments) and 24,000 miles flown on their RTW ticket.  The pricing is also steep, 200,000 miles in coach, 300,000 in business, and 400,000 in first.  There are award seat limitations like a normal round trip.  Depending on your trip, it may be cheaper to assemble a collection of one way award tickets.  The ease, flight availability, and value provided from the Star Alliance RTW ticket makes paying cash look very tempting. 

My view of RTW travel is based on the International Air Sports Federation, FAI, the final authority on setting aviation records.  They define Round the World as a course beginning and ending in the same location, the course must be a minimum distance of 27,000 kilometers (16,778 miles), and the course must cross all meridians.  I can accomplish that in a few days using a few airline miles, 90,000 US Airways Dividend Miles for business class actually.  Mary decided she would not want to travel in my style and lost interest in my idea, but not before laughing after thinking of me as an aviation pioneer, wearing goggles flying over a corn field.

US Airways charges 90,000 miles to fly business class from North America to North Asia (Japan, China, Korea, and some -stan countries).  They will let you fly via the Atlantic on one leg and Pacific on the other.  You also get a free stopover at a Star Alliance hub.  This award will meet the FAI requirements, be a fun way to see two cities, and a chance to experience different business class products.

I’m thinking of Tokyo and Warsaw can be my stops.  I was booked to go to Tokyo last year, but my trip was to start the morning after the earthquake, so I took United’s refund offer (the ticket was only $700 round trip from Denver through ORD, unmatched since).  My second stop has to be a Star Alliance hub and I’d like it to be in Europe (Star’s Europe hubs are Ljubljana, Athens, Thessaloniki, Heraklion, Rhodes, Larnaca, Vienna, Helsinki, London Heathrow, Brussels, Zagreb, Warsaw, Frankfurt, Munich, Duesseldorf, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lisbon, Porto, Istanbul, Ankara).  I’ve already seen a few of the cities listed and want to go somewhere new.  Warsaw works well because LOT has quite a few flights into North America with outstanding business class availability.  Austrian Airlines has good availability from Japan and to North America, but I’ve already been to Vienna (It’s amazing and I recommend it to all).  Istanbul is tempting too with almost 100% business class availability from NRT to IST, but almost nothing onward to North America (United announced a new EWR-IST flight, but no business awards yet). 

I’m using Continental’s website to find availability and piece this trip together.  Once I find the flights, I’ll need to call up US Airways to book it.  I’ve heard that I should allot an hour for that call.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Travel Tip - How to Turn Off Your TV on the Plane

Personal TV's are becoming more and more common on airplanes, great news for most, but an annoyance for some.  Let me explain.  United / Continental has personal TVs in most of their 737 fleet and charge coach passengers $4 (flights less than 2 hours) or $6 (flights greater than 2 hours) for the service.  Some people who don't buy want to turn them off and sleep.  Most people do this by pushing and holding the OFF button, lower left in the picture (it also adjusts the brightness).  Some people on my last flight didn't know about that button and tried to cover the screen up with airsick bags, notebook paper, or safety cards.  Others were staring at a Lincoln car commercial run in a loop for three hours. There is an easier way.
In Flight DirecTV control on Continental 737

Friday, February 17, 2012

Routine Flying in 2012

I’d like to think that I frequently fly foreign carries to far away destinations, but over 95% of my flights are domestic hops.  Also, thanks to the glut of elite flyers trying for upgrades, I’ve sat in coach on over 90% of my flights this year.  This is routine flying.  The basic Denver to Chicago for work type flights that generate the miles needed for grand adventures. 
US Airways Jets at Boston Logan
So how do I do I fly 22,000 miles in coach in two months?  Business trips are the foundation.  Denver to Chicago, White Plains, Newark, and White Planes again help build miles at no cost to me.  Also I booked two weekend trips just for the miles.  I found some cheap fares (about 2c a redeemable mile) and booked the flights to build my mileage balance, for a little vacation, and get a head start on elite status. 
United 757 Night Landing at EWR
The United and Continental merger has also made upgrades much more difficult to obtain.  There is the same number of first class seats on each plane, but now an entire extra airline worth of customers trying to grab the seats.  It used to be easy to clear upgrades a few days out on bigger planes like 767s and 757s, but now they are clearing at the gate if at all.  It is also taking some of the fun out of flying; airline food is quite decent these days.  At least the lounges have plenty of space (thank you JP Morgan Palladium card).
US Airways Lounge in Charlotte 
So how do you make the best of a suboptimal situation?  Relax.  That is the most important key to traveling.  Calm down and go with the flow.  My next key is to grab a window seat.  I feel like they have more space and as long as I think that; they will (I also believe in the power of extra strength placebos).  Some good reading material helps, so does a pillow, blanket, and eye mask for overnight flights.  Stay hydrated; the air in planes is very dry and you should be actively counteracting that.  Lastly, try to enjoy the magic of flight.  100 years ago, a nonstop flight from coast to coast was just a dream.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

My Favorite Airline Fee and Other Spirit Airlines Thoughts

Spirit Airlines (the Ryanair of North America) has a business model around low fares plus fees for everything. I find this model interesting so I read through the Spirit Airlines fees table and found some interesting entries.  

Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations Fee - $2.00 per customer, each way.  This is my favorite airline fee.  The Department of Transportation (DOT) has been messing with Spirit's business model at almost every turn by adding new regulations in response to Spirit's actions.  The DOT is also adding requirements that eat into Spirit's profits, like the tarmac delay rule.  Regulations add costs, even if the DOT doesn't admit it, so Spirit is highlighting those costs to all passengers with this $2 fee.  It's a brilliant fee because it brings attention to all the problems the DOT rules create.  Other airlines have to pay these costs too, but roll it into the ticket price.  If all carriers broke out the DOT costs from fare costs, it could force the DOT to remove some (unnecessary) burdens on carriers.    

Charge for printing Boarding Passes at Kiosk (fee starts 30 June 2012) - $2.00 per boarding pass printed.  This is very Ryanair of Spirit, a complement to them.  They are removing more and more costs from their responsibility to the customer.  This keeps fares low and sells more seats.  Spirit has this fee to discourage the behavior, not just to make cash from fees.  Fewer kiosks means lower costs.

Carry-On Bag: At Booking / before check-in $20-$35, Airport Counter/Kiosk purchase $40, Gate $45.  This was the biggest fee in the news since Spirit started charging for the first checked bag, now a standard practice.  Spirit started charging for checked bags and everyone started carrying on.  This forced longer times on the ground to gate check all the bags that would not fit.  This time on the ground was expensive and Spirit found it could be avoided by charging more to carry on a bag than check one.  Problem solved and revenue increased, an elegant solution.  

I have never flown Spirit Airlines, and I don't have any plans to fly them in the future.  If they start service to Denver, I will give them a look, but that seems unlikely.  They are a fun airline to follow and are making a (economically) sustainable business model as an airline.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Aspirational Aspects of Flight

Flight should be more than moving from A to B in the most efficient manner possible.  Domestic airlines don't sell this in their advertising, but foreign carries are still promoting this aspect of travel.  Here is an example of Pluna Airlines in Uruguay.  Really gets you excited about flying on a CRJ.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Travel Tip - ITA Matrix Airfare Search

Booking a trip is sometimes the most difficult part of the journey.  Luckily, Google has the solution, not Google Flight Search. The best Google travel  product is ITA Software's matrix airfare search tool:  http://matrix.itasoftware.com/?showPricePerMile=true.  This tool has more options than anything else on the web.  I love the feature that allows you to search and airport within 2,000 miles of your selected airport (a great way to find cheap flights to Europe with only one search).  You can also hand enter any number of airport codes in the search box.  It can even sort fares by price per mile.  The month long search lets you check fares of a 30 day period with several different trip duration.  The one downside is you need to book somewhere else, sometimes a challenge to reproduce the routing online, but most United agents can do it (to avoid the $25 fee, use a paper voucher or a gift certificate) and United.com works 80% of the time.

Some advanced routing codes:  (these will work with any airline code)
UA,UA+   2 or more flights on United
AA  Single flight on American
AS,UA  First on Alaska, second on United
ITA Matrix Airfare Month Long Search Example
UPDATE 6/23/13
I usually use Expedia to buy flights found on ITA Matrix.  The trick is to just be specific with departure time and airline preference in the advanced search function.  If that fails, I use Hipmunk to book a fare rather Expedia or Travelocity.  Hipmunk doesn't 100% of the time either.  Sometimes the airlines just won't sell it to you.

When doing a mileage run (trip just for miles) search like the one pictured, be sure to uncheck the Allow Airport Changes field.  Also set the Length of Stay field to 0 so you don't need a hotel; a 0 length of stay will include overnight flights in the results.