When Good Days Go Bad…

February 17, 2009

A friend and I were traveling to Copenhagen and Amsterdam for President’s Day and on a 3-day trip to Europe, every minute on the ground or in the air matters.  Which is why it troubled me when things went wrong…

On the flight from Washington to Amsterdam last Thursday, I had dozed off when my friend woke me up, asking why we were going in circles.  Sure enough, the map showed us flying over the Chesapeake Bay, at about 9500 feet, around and around.  The monitor started showing the Amsterdam arrivals video and that we were 70 miles from our destination.

For awhile, the pilot turned Channel 9 off, then made the announcement that we were heading back to Washington-Dulles after we burned off some fuel.  Apparently the cabin would not pressurize and we could not fly above 10,000 feet.

Once things were settled, the captain turned Channel 9 back on, which was fascinating to hear the FAA towers and how they dealt with a diverted flight, and deferred to the captain, even in a non-emergency situation.  Kudos to the crew for letting us listen in as it was reassuring to hear the captain tell the ground that it was “not an emergency situation”.

The second we turned onto the taxiway, I got on my cell phone to my travel agent and to the 1K Desk. We were going to miss our connection to Copenhagen, and wanted to rebook.  Options were available on the late flights through London and Frankfurt.  We chose London because, the only available seats through Frankfurt were in First and they wouldn’t book us into them (understandable).

The service director understood our concerns and asked us to discreetly claim our bags to deplane–she did not want other passengers making the same requests, which I could understand.

We then headed to the Red Carpet Club to reticket onto the London flight, which is where things went wrong.  There, the agent told us we could not be separated from our bags and sent us back to the Amsterdam flight where we met a surprised Customer Service Director.  She was great to us and asked us what we preferred, which was flying through London since it got us to our destination three hours earlier.  She went into the computer to print our new boarding cards, only to discover that the Red Carpet agent has canceled the re-route through London.  So back onto the Amsterdam-bound plane we went.

The ground personnel at Schiphol were efficient, if not entirely helpful, and gave us a 15 Euro voucher for lunch. But we were re-booked onto a KLM flight, which meant that when my bags did not arrive in Copenhagen, the line of accountability fell apart.

The lesson here, I guess,  is to be prepared and be flexible, know your rights, and be assertive–but not too demanding–and eventually even irregular operations will end up with a decent resolution!


It’s A Deal Between LAX, SFO and JFK

February 11, 2009

My work will be taking me to New York over the next few months, as a project we sent out a proposal for in August was finally approved last week.

In the budget, we had set aside $2000 for travel between Los Angeles and New York, but thanks to the economy and competition along the route, we will be able to pay for three or four trips.

Right now, round trip airfare between LAX or SFO and JFK can be had for as little as $235, if you pick the right days and right flights.

That comes to a Cost-Per-Elite-Qualifying-Mile of less than 5 cents, which these days is quite a deal for domestic travel. Add a stop in San Francisco for $10 each way, and earn an extra 337 (or 500) miles, depending on your status!

With open seats up front, that means a good chance of flying United’s P.S. business class for ten hours for less than $300 and an upgrade instrument or two. Not a bad deal if you ask me!


Suite Dreaming on United

January 28, 2009

It took more than a year since they began converting United Airlines’ international fleet to the new business and first class seating, but on my last trip, I finally got to experience the new business lie-flat seats. I guess that’s not so bad of a record, since only 13 of their 21 767’s and 11 of 24 747’s have been converted–and none of the 49 777 planes which fly the LAX to London route.

My bottom line impression is that the seat is a great step up from the old-school, cradle-style business seats they had before. The cushioning makes the seat even more comfortable than Lufthansa’s rock-solid First Class product. The AVOD is a nice distraction, even if the content is lacking.

But there are a few caveats…

I am an average-sized fellow. Anyone with a waistline more than 36 inches might find it difficult fitting into the narrow, lie-flat seats.

Second, you can have the best hard-product in the skies but if the soft-product, such as food and flight attendants, are sub-par (as I had on my FRA-SFO return), then even the best experiences can be soured.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t hesitate to make an extra stop (or two) en route to try to get on the new product, and cannot wait until the full fleet gets converted.


Stamp Happy at the Border

January 26, 2009

When I had my first passport as a teenager studying abroad, I had to beg and plead border agents to put a stamp on my passport–as a ink-and-paper souvenir of my travels across the Continent.

In today’s post-9/11 environment, no such pleading is necessary. They’re going stamp-happy at the border. It got so bad that last year, I had to send my passport in to have them sew extra pages into it!

To understand what I am saying, consider my last trip. On my way from Los Angeles to London, I received FIVE stamps in my passport in just four days.

With a six-hour layover in Frankfurt, I decided to go into the City to kill some time, so they stamped my passport.

Upon returning, they asked when I had arrived in Frankfurt (that morning) and on what page they had stamped my passport (the Alaska page with Denali on it, which did not help the German border agent). She found the proper page and stamped away.

Upon arriving at London City Airport, I got another stamp-the traditional 6-month right to enter visa from the UK.

On the return, there was no way to transfer from the B gates to the A gates without passing through German Customs, so I went through the same routine in Frankfurt.

Luckily, my passport only has about three years left before it expires, and I have some twenty-one empty pages. At this rate, I probably will be applying for a new one before the space runs out again…


The Upgrade Waiting Game

January 13, 2009

The United Flyertalk Boards have been buzzing for months over the perceived difficulty of upgrading flights recently. At issue is the fact that United has fewer Business and First class seats on their newly-configured 767 and 747 planes, and don’t really know which planes will fly which routes until just before departure, so they are holding back on upgrading people until the last minute.

This can be frustrating for folks, especially in cases like mine, where the whole purpose of flying is to use my Systemwide Upgrades before they expire at the end of the month.

Last night, my upgrade to Business Class cleared on the return portion of the flight–from Frankfurt to San Francisco. That’s great news, but I am still in economy for the outbound SFO-FRA come Thursday. Currently, they’re still selling 9 business class seats and there are fourteen empty spots on the seat maps, so it will be a close call for me… Wish me luck!


The SWU Run: BUR-LCY

January 6, 2009

Each of the last three years I have found myself in January with two systemwide upgrades which are about to expire at the end of January. In the past, my friend David and I used this as an excuse to go to London.

Because of the calendar and other obligations, I am on my own for the “SWU Run” in 2009–but that gave me some flexibility as well.

Rather than take the 5500-mile non-stop from LAX to London Heathrow, I decided to try some creative routing.

Instead, I am flying Burbank to London City Airport–with stops in San Francisco and Frankfurt along the way.

For about $100 extra (mostly in taxes) and a six-hour layover in Frankfurt, I will earn an additional 2600 elite qualifying miles, 4200 redeemable miles and have the possibility of checking out United Airlines’ reconfigured 747 in Business class (maybe).

Even better, with the weak Gordon Brown Peso (GBP), London is less than half the cost of what it was last sumer!


Halfway to the Moon

January 5, 2009

According to my FlightMemory, I flew more than half-way to the moon in 2008.

If you are an obsessive flyer, then Flight Memory is a fun tool to play with. Enter your flights and it will track your data–from the most-flown routes to where you sat the most over the years.

Some things will surprise you. Since signing up two years ago, I learned that I have flown in and out of San Francisco’s SFO airport exactly as many times as I have flown through my home airport of LAX–59 takeoffs or landings in two years at each. Rounding out the top five are Washington Dulles, Frankfurt and Chicago O’Hare.