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badice.com ~ travel musings for the masses

I was fascinated by this story from Sam Knight. When Queen Elizabeth passes away it will be the end of an era and arguably the end of the British empire. A new monarch will ascend and all of the details of the transition are incredibly intricate.

Unlike the US presidency, say, monarchies allow huge passages of time – a century, in some cases – to become entwined with an individual. The second Elizabethan age is likely to be remembered as a reign of uninterrupted national decline, and even, if she lives long enough and Scotland departs the union, as one of disintegration. Life and politics at the end of her rule will be unrecognisable from their grandeur and innocence at its beginning. “We don’t blame her for it,” Philip Ziegler, the historian and royal biographer, told me. “We have declined with her, so to speak.”

In January I took a trip to Europe to meet up with some friends and tour the Airbus factory in Hamburg, Germany. Also on the agenda was a trip to Miniatur Wunderland, a model/RC world that has multiple regions, including an airport. Right around the time I was planning this trip was when United announced that their Newark-Hamburg flight would be changing to a seasonal schedule. The flight would disappear from the winter rotations two days before my departure.

My backup plan was to fly Portland-Chicago-Munich-Hamburg. For the return, we would be riding with a friend to Berlin and I would take Berlin-Newark-Chicago-Portland as my routing home. I put Chicago in on the return because it got me home a few hours earlier, though it turned out to almost be a really bad decision (more on that later).

United recently started rolling out their Polaris “soft product”, or their onboard service, and even more recently have had their plane with the new seats flying some domestic routes. I had the opportunity to try both the Global First version of the Polaris soft product as well as the business version.

The day before I was set to leave, Portland experienced a record snowfall, making the city come to a hault. Worried that there would be no way for me to get to the airport, I called United and asked if they could put me on the same flights a day later. After a brief hold I was confirmed in business class a day later. I would miss the Airbus tour with my friends, but at least I would get there. One little quirk was the fact I was rebooked not in R-class, the fare bucket reserved for GPU upgrades, but D, a full fare business class bucket, which allowed me to apply another upgrade certificate for United’s Global First product.

I woke up on the morning of my flight to find that the train I typically take to PDX was only running part of the route due to a derailment of another train. I rushed to get ready and get on the streetcar to the closest stop that would connect me to the airport. After a bit of waiting of sub-20 degree weather a train showed up, taking me to the transfer station for the airport. Lots of people looked confused as they were using two trains to go back and forth between the airport but because of that they were using a platform that isn’t well marked and rarely sees action.

Arriving at the airport about two hours after I left home, I had about an hour until my flight boarded so I printed out my boarding passes, because United’s printers at PDX still print on cardstock rather than heat paper, making this aviation geek very happy. I went through TSA PreCheck in a few minutes and was buying a cup of coffee just moments later. I walked up to my gate right as boarding was starting. No de-icing was needed but we did have a delay getting out of PDX for some reason. My original plan was to visit the new Polaris lounge in Chicago but that plan was quickly dashed with what turned out to be a tight connection.

Finally up in the air, I settled in for the four hour flight to Chicago O’Hare. The flight attendants were friendly and lunch service was started shortly after we reached our cruising altitude. I chose the beef option and I’ll let the picture do the talking. It was barely edible. I ended up having a few bites and avoiding the rest, figuring I would eat when I got into Chicago.

Saddest inflight lunch to date.

After the meal service I got a little bit of work done and read before we landed in Chicago. As we taxied to the gate I checked my connection and noted it was on time still, giving me 15 minutes to get to the gate. I made it off the plane, through O’Hare’s neon tunnel, and up to my next gate in about 10 minutes and realized there was no plane parked at our gate, even with a huge line of people already queued for boarding. Turns out we were going to take an hour delay in Chicago but United never posted it until 10 minutes after our scheduled departure. Guess I did have time for a visit to the Polaris lounge. Instead I chatted in the gate area with a friend who happened to be traveling on the same flight but was continuing on to Budapest.

We finally boarded and I made my way to seat 1K, a window seat in front of the pilot rest seat, where I found this.

Yep, a storage compartment was non-functioning. And that wasn’t the only “inoperative” sticker on the seat, another bin did not work in the storage area closest to the window. Disappointing but not a deal breaker.

The new Polaris inflight amenities were stacked on the seat and my first conundrum was figuring out where to put it all. I settled on the foot rest.

After settling into my seat a flight attendant presented the flight’s menu and an amenity kit and asked what I would like to drink.

I asked for a glass of champagne and it was presented a short time later with a chocolate on the side, which is a nice touch. The setup for the plastic champagne cup does seem like it could be easy to knock over with the slightest bump, so United may want to take a look at making it a little more stable on the base.

Since we were delayed quite a bit, I decided I would eat a regular dinner, figuring the entire service would take around two hours. The flight attendant came around to take orders and I decided to have the beef option, a braised short rib with grits and fava beans in a bordelaise sauce. It sounded interesting and slightly different than what United has previously offered in business class. I know, from what I’ve read, the Asian Fusion Chicken Soup is pretty good, but my goal was to see how previous entrees had been spruced up.

After takeoff the single flight attendant serving the first class cabin (five seats occupied with passengers, one by a pilot) came around to offer beverages and he seemed a little disappointed that I only wanted another glass of champagne and sparkling water. The addition of San Pellegrino to the Polaris menu is definitely a welcome change. A short time later the linens were set and a starter of black pepper tuna was offered. It was rather flavorless and the side of quinoa was a confusing addition.

Next up was the carrot ginger soup, which I passed on. I was not really in the mood for soup and was hoping by skipping it the service would speed up a little bit. It did not.

The salad course was next and it was full of fresh greens and carrots. A nice change from previous salads I had tried on United which tended to be less than fresh and in some cases, still frozen.

My main course was delivered shortly after my salad plate had been picked up and another round of wine and drinks was on offer. The short rib was cooked pretty well and the grits had decent flavor to them but the dish overall seemed bland. The fava beans were flavorless and the sauce on top of everything just did not seem to hold up to the altitude.

By this point we were almost three hours into the flight and realized that business class had been completely served while first class still had the cheese and dessert courses to go. I opted for the cheese course because after reading reports, I wanted to see just how much of a downgrade it was and wow, it was disappointing. On pre-merger United planes there was not enough space for the cheese serving dishes so the cheese service had always been lackluster. Served on a single plate with a single serving of crackers and maybe a piece of fruit, I frequently skipped it. On pre-merger Continental the cheese service was actually pretty good. There was usually a nice selection of cheeses, decent fruit options, and an ample serving of crackers. The Polaris service is definitely in the vain of the pre-merger United way of presenting the cheese course. Three types of cheese, none with enough flavor to really warrant a second bite, a sad pile of grapes, and a single package of crackers were put on the tray table. After a few bites I decided I was done.

I skipped dessert, hoping to at least get a few hours of sleep. I asked for one of the new gel pillows and hit the button to put the seat down into a lie-flat position. I really like the new, bigger pillow in tandem with the gel pillow. And the new duvet is a definite welcome addition. I ended up sleeping through breakfast and woke up feeling pretty good. Ironically, there was a blizzard hitting Munich as we approached and ended up holding for another 45 minutes before finally touching down.

My connection in Munich was tight but because the snow had closed the airport temporarily I walked through immigration and straight onto my connection to Hamburg. No time for a shower, but at least I wasn’t stuck.

Overall I think the soft product that United is offering onboard now is an improvement to what they used to have. The new diningware and glassware was a needed change, so I am glad they opted to go with something a little more modern and simple. Besides there being just a ton of stuff on the seat when you arrive, the bedding is a fantastic change. I value sleep the most on long flights so improving the pillows and blankets makes sleeping a little easier. On the ultra longhaul flights United is even offering pajamas now, so I’ll write an update when I get a chance to try those. Lastly is the food. I think it was a mixed bag. The service took way too long and I don’t know if that was because the flight attendants were new at it or if it is intended to take that long. It also seemed odd that the entire first class cabin was served by a single flight attendant. He seemed to do everything, between prepping the food and serving it, he seemed like he was simply trying to keep up. From now on I will opt to eat in the Polaris lounge or in the airport terminal rather than sitting through a 3+ hour meal service when I could be sleeping. Food quality was decent and I think the meal I was served out of Berlin on my flight home (which I will cover in part two) was better. Reading other reports, some people receive great meals while a lot of folks have similar experiences to mine, mediocre food with rather bland flavors. Rotation of menus is something United has promised though and that’s definitely a welcome change.

There is also the new seat, which is available on the 777-300ER that United will soon be flying between San Francisco and Hong Kong and Newark and Tel Aviv. That seat is all-aisle access and will definitely be a nice change for people traveling alone and has the potential to offer a more restful flight since no one will be climbing over you in the middle of the night.

Stay tuned for part two where I’ll talk about my business class experience on Berlin-Newark-Chicago-Portland.

Happy New Year!

I am not one to make New Year’s resolutions but as we enter 2017 I did want to share some goals I have for this year. Things that I hope to accomplish and hopes I want to strive for.

  • Take more photos. I was looking through my 2016 albums and realized that I did not take nearly enough photos, so I am challenging myself with a goal of taking at least one photo a day and posting it on my Flickr page. I posted the image for January 1 below.
  • Travel more. My travel in 2016 really fell off for a number of reasons but I would like to get back to seeing the world. A few of my destination goals in 2017 are the Balkans, Georgia, Namibia, Laos, Vietnam, and Japan.
  • Read more. I have let reading really fall by the wayside over the last few years but my goal in 2017 is to read 50 books. I will be tracking my progress using Goodreads’ challenge tracker.
  • Donate more. We have a few causes that we love helping and it is a hope and goal of mine in 2017 that we pursue those more closely both monetarily and with our time. I also want to be a source of encouragement for others to participate and contribute in charity and caring for those who are less fortunate.

So, those are my goals for 2017. I hope to post some of the photography work here, but definitely keep me honest via that Flickr page. Not seeing a new photo in a while? Send me a note on Twitter. What are your hopes and goals for 2017?

Virgin Atlantic is shifting their seasonal Chicago-London Heathrow flight to Los Angeles, giving them three flights a day between LAX and London.

Business Traveller, which reported the story, has some “interesting” insights into why Virgin Atlantic is shifting the flight.

Another, perhaps more important, reason is the possible yield (earnings per seat) and the fact that the low-cost carriers haven’t made as many inroads into the West Coast as they have with the East Coast market.

I am not really sure how they come to that conclusion. Carriers like Condor and Norwegian have inundated the west coast and focused heavily on the leisure markets. Because of this, transatlantic fares from places like San Francisco have fallen dramatically. British Airways is even trying to get in on the act by adding a flight to Oakland on one of their high density Boeing 777s.

The reality is that the transatlantic market is overall pretty weak right now and Virgin probably can’t get a lot of connecting traffic in Chicago. In Los Angeles they have their partnership with Delta, giving them great connections all over points west of the Rockies. Delta is also building a new terminal LAX and I’m sure that’s a big draw as well.

Personally, I’m not sure Virgin Atlantic will be successful with a third flight to Los Angeles but only time will tell.

Recently I waslooking for a ticket to Hamburg in late January and had a found a decent deal on United via Newark. Today I went back to book it and found that the non-stop Newark-Hamburg flight was no longer being offered. Turns out, United is seasonally cutting a few routes, including Houston-Munich and Newark-Hamburg. The cuts will run between January 8 and May 5, 2017. Confirmation of these cuts was made by the United Twitter team.

The transatlantic market must be much softer than the airlines are letting on. Both Newark-Hamburg and Houston-Munich were year round options for the last few years. Has the economy dipped so much so that they just aren’t selling as well? For me it is an inconvenience. I really wanted to fly the route this January but it looks like I will have to wait until summer to get that cool line.

If you are booked on one of these flights during the listed dates you will likely no longer see the affected segments in your reservation but the automatic rebooking engine should list a new option soon. If you are unhappy with what you are rebooked on, give United a call with options that you find acceptable.

Everyone knew the day when United would announce their plans for a no-frills economy class fare was coming. The big carriers are looking for ways to grab a little bit of revenue away from the ultra low-cost carriers like Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant. To do that, the airlines are removing benefits from certain fare classes. Delta has their version, with the same name even. American has discussed the same thing, and their fares are slated to roll out sometime in 2017. Scott Kirby, who used to work for American, now works for United and now, probably by coincidence, the day we knew was coming has arrived. United’s Basic Economy has been formally announced.

United Basic Economy

At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about these new fares. There were quite a number of articles that had been written and a lot of anger and gnashing of teeth was taking place. But then I started seeing a lot of conjecture that these new fares would mean higher fares for those who don’t buy Basic Economy. That these new fares would be all that’s available and now you’ll have to pay to bring a carry-on on the plane.

The Facts

You can read the full details of United’s Basic Economy on their site, but here are the important facts:

  • No Pre-reserved seats – Seats on these fares will be assigned at check-in
  • Group 5 Boarding – These fares will be assigned Group 5 for boarding, the last group in the boarding process. United Premiers, Star Golds, and MileagePlus cardholders are excluded from this policy.
  • No voluntary ticket changes – 24 hour/Same Day Change policy excluded
  • No Premier Qualifying Miles, Segments or Dollars earned, lifetime miles or contribution to the four-segment minimum – Redeemable miles will still be earned
  • No EconomyPlus or Premium Cabin upgrades
  • No combinability with regular economy fares or partner carriers (includes interline travel)
  • Carry-on bags are limited to a single personal item (purse, backpack, etc.) – United Premiers, Star Golds, and MileagePlus cardholders are excluded from this policy and can bring two carry-on bags.

Thoughts

Besides the one bag policy on these fares, which distinguishes United’s Basic Economy from Delta’s implementation, the one thing that really sticks out to me on the list above is the lack of combinability with partner carriers and lack of interlining. This means if you are searching for a fare that requires a partner connection, say San Francisco-Bangkok, which would require a connection on someone like ANA in Tokyo, you would never see these Basic Economy fares in your results.

The “personal item only” piece seems to be the most inflammatory part of these fares, second only to the screams that families wouldn’t be able to be seated next to each other (more on that later). The truth is, customers in Group 5 usually do not have anywhere for their carry-on suitcase anyway and have to end up checking them, possibly holding up boarding.

As far as the families getting seats together, Delta even spells this out in their Basic Economy details:

With Basic Economy, you will not receive a seat assignment until after check-in or at the gate. Passengers traveling together, including families, may not be seated together.

If you want your family to be seated together, you simply buy the more expensive fare to ensure that you can preselect seats. So, I do think this point is being blown out of proportion. Which brings us to the conjecture/prediction piece of this.

Delta and United at PDX
The reality of Delta’s basic economy fares is that they are not as prolific as people think. I have only come across them twice in my searches and their savings was rather small when compared to the regular fares, something like $75 on each search. The other piece of this is the assumption that United will raise the regular fares and make money on those from people who do not want to part with their luggage or seat assignments. Based on Delta’s fares, I don’t think that will happen at all. Regular fares will stay where they are and these discount fares will be used to pull a little revenue away from the low cost carriers. United already has these basic fares in their systems and they show up about as regularly as Delta’s, the difference now is that United won’t be offering benefits with these fares. Seems like a “fare” compromise.

I think a lot of the fear around these fares is the belief that all of the economy seats will be sold as these new Basic Economy fares. That is simply untrue. United cannot sell a full 737 of these fares and survive, even if every passenger wasn’t an elite member and had to pay to check a bag. What they will do is offer a few seats on specific routes where they want to grab some business away from the competition at these Basic Economy levels.

Summary

We will not know exactly how this implementation of no-frills economy will go until 2017 when United rolls them out. But the odds of this being the doomsday that some people are predicting does not line up with the reality we have been seeing with Delta’s implementation of the exact same thing. Sure, Delta’s basic economy allows carry-on bags, but they still do not offer these fares on every flight or even that many seats on the flights where they do sell it. There is also the likelihood that these fares will be excluded from corporate booking engines, just like Delta’s no-frills fares.

Take a deep breath. It is likely you will encounter these fares on at least a few of your searches but do not fear, it is improbable that United will jack up the regular fares. So if you want to bring a bag onboard, you will likely be able to do so with very little markup.

Both United and American Airlines opened automated security lines at Chicago’s O’Hare airport recently and they’re pretty cool.

O'Hare TSA Screening
From United’s press release:

The new lanes enable up to five customers to fill their individual bins simultaneously and move through the screening process quicker, even if TSA agents need to perform additional screening on a customer further up the queue. The lanes also utilize a parallel conveyor system that automatically returns empty bins to the front of the queue.

Both airlines claim that the new automated lanes will speed up the security process while still allowing a thorough search of bags.

The lanes themselves remind me a lot of the security lanes you see in Europe, where bins are provided and then moved through the line automatically, keeping people moving and filling the next available bin. Will be interesting to see how this goes at O’Hare and maybe we’ll see expansion to other airports soon.

Delta Airlines announced that they would be rolling out new uniforms for 60,000 frontline employees. The new uniforms are for check-in and gate agents, flight attendants, and below the wing employees such as cargo and ramp staff.

Delta Airlines New Uniforms 2

New Delta Uniforms 1

The uniforms have been described as “high class” and “elegant” by Delta and reporters. And yes, the uniforms are a very nice change, but the hype around them seems a little over the top. I think it gets to me because it simply seems like a distraction from the fact that travel on U.S. airlines in economy has become a rather bleak affair. It is an illusion of fancy in an industry that has become anything but; Basic economy fares and less legroom has become the norm. Yes, I know, fare prices are on the decline domestically, but that comes with the added expense of the ancillary fares, which airlines are attempting to increase.

I think the fancy new uniforms speak to a larger trend in modern consumerism. I don’t mean to go existential but it feels like we’re giving up what matters for what looks good, not just in airplane amenities but in everyday life. Maybe it is time to take a step back and realize that the substance of what we enjoy and cherish is more important than the window dressing.