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Posts tagged aviation

A couple of weeks ago I was on my way to Taipei and Hangzhou with Fozz. The goal was to fly United’s last flight between Hangzhou and San Francisco. To do that, we planned to spend a day in Taipei first then head to Hangzhou, where we could transit without visa for another full day before flying back to the US.


On Friday the 13th (very appropriate) I woke up at 7am to catch my Portland-San Francisco flight and saw we were delayed by 55 minutes. No big deal, I had almost two hours to connect. The Santa Rosa wildfires had caused issues the day before as I returned from Las Vegas via San Francisco as well and I figured everything would be delayed. When I got to the airport the delay was 1.5 hours and I decided to talk to one of the gate agents about my options. She stated that there was an EVA flight to Taipei that left at 5:50pm that I would still have plenty of time for so she “protected” me on it, leaving my original United flight in the record should I get to San Francisco in time to make that flight.

By the time I boarded the plane in Portland, our flight was 2.5 hours delayed and I knew there was no way I would make my original connection but I was confident in making the EVA flight and stayed on the plane. Landing in San Francisco was uneventful and as I chatted with Fozz on the phone, the plane to Taipei was still at the gate with the door open. I might just make it! But it wasn’t to be. I arrived at the gate only to be sternly told that they were not taking anymore passengers. As I was told this, another person who was connecting was allowed to board. The only thing I can figure is that they had spoken to her previously or she was a standby passenger.

I still was not stressed, as I had an EVA flight confirmed, so I went to look for an EVA agent who could get me a boarding pass. Unfortunately, the EVA gate did not yet have an agent present and there was no one at the transfer desk. I also learned that both EVA’s and Singapore’s lounges at SFO had recently closed to make room for United’s new Polaris lounge. This left me in a position where my only option was to exit security and go to EVA’s ticket counter.

The agents at the EVA counter were very friendly and politely told me that they had no ticket for me and that I would need to talk to United to have them send the ticket over again. 45 minutes later and I was speaking with a United ticket agent who told me that the Portland agent should not have reissued the ticket the way she did and that it had been rejected by EVA. Due to the fires everything was full the next day but during this time Fozz had texted me to say that his plane was returning to the gate. The thought popped into my head that I might just be able to get back on that flight…

An aside, I still do not know why the United ticket agent at SFO did not offer to reissue a coach ticket on EVA. The original ticket was coach that was upgraded via a GPU, so my expectation was that she would at least offer coach on EVA. Maybe EVA was sold out in the back cabin due to the fires and misconnects?

Anyway, I went back through security using my original SFO-Taipei boarding pass and met Fozz at the gate. We asked an agent to relist me for the flight and she told us she could only do it after they had boarded, so we waited.

To make a long story short, the offer was to put me in coach in a middle seat (rather than downgrade the passenger they had upgraded into my seat) or to perform a carry over/carry back, essentially a trip-in-vain. At this point I was super tired and decided to just head back to Portland. Fozz was in agreement and decided to trip-in-vain as well.


I eventually made it back to Portland at midnight after dealing with multiple agents to get the tickets properly notated and reissued. It was a mess getting home, but in my mind, was the right decision. The Taipei flight landed nearly six hours late and would have completely burned our time in the city as we would have spent most of that getting to the hotel and back to the airport. I was bummed to miss the last Hangzhou-San Francisco flight, but at least I got an interesting blog post out of it.

If you’d like to hear more, Fozz and I recorded a Dots, Lines and Destinations episode about it.

Another day, another incident on an airplane involving passengers and violence. This time it took place on an ANA flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles. Thankfully the plane had not left the gate yet and the passenger who instigated the fight was arrested and charged with assault. Some reports state that alcohol was a factor and while that doesn’t surprise me, there is something else going on. This is the fifth or so widely circulated incident of violence among or against airline passengers.

Some people want to blame the airlines for this. They’re an easy target and in some instances, they are absolutely to blame but the general trend of people simply resorting to violence in simple instances of misunderstanding is taking place more and more often lately.

I think it’s a mix of lack of patience, an unwillingness to forgive or admit fault, and a general feeling of frustration. Life is moving so fast that people forget that they aren’t the only ones with stress or difficult circumstances and are quick dole out their anger on others.

We need patience and understanding now more than ever. As I pointed out on a recent episode of Dots, Lines and Destinations, we need to be peacemakers rather than those who encourage this violent behavior.

From KHOU (autoplaying video):

Michael Hohl, the groom, said he and his fiancé, Amber Maxwell, were the last to board the plane.

According to Hohl, they noticed a man was spread across their row napping when they approached their seats, 24 B and C.

Not wanting to wake the man, Hohl said they decided to sit a three rows up in seats 21 B and C. He said they didn’t think it would matter because the flight was half full with multiple empty rows.

21 B and C are exit row seats on United planes and considered Economy Plus because of the extra legroom.

After sitting, Hohl said a flight attendant approached and asked if they were in their ticketed seats. The couple explained they weren’t and asked if they could get an upgrade, but instead they were told they needed to return to their assigned seats.

So then they tried to finagle their way into the seats by asking for the upgrade.

“I think customer service and the airlines has gone real downhill,” said Hohl. “The way United Airlines handled this was really absurd.”

So the couple could have simply asked the flight attendants to ask the man in their row to sit up (which he would have been required to do for takeoff anyway), but they opted to seat themselves in a better seat.

To sum it all up, this is a non-story.

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.

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.

Delta and United at PDX

Scott McCartney for the Wall Street Journal:

The big three U.S. airlines—American, Delta and United—match each other more closely than ever. The three were created from the merger of six large airlines over the past eight years and now each has the profits to spend upgrading its product. They’re all intent on not letting one rival gain a cost or product advantage.

[…]

Airlines say the similarities just mean they are all coming to the same conclusions about what customers are willing to pay for and what they aren’t. “The market dictates what your product will look like,’’ says Brian Znotins, United’s vice president of network.

Three mergers later and we are just now figuring out that the three remaining major U.S. carriers are basically copying each other. The “race to the bottom” language is appropriate at times but really the carriers are simply competing for the passengers who do not necessarily care who they fly. With the low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier offering a no-frills experience, the majors are happy to follow suit and charge for the privilege of more legroom or early boarding. The majority of passengers simply want the lowest fare available that fits their schedule, add to that analysts who want to see profits, and you have what is driving airline decisions.

Remember, they are reporting record profits, all while customer complaints increase. The result is a form of collusion by following. The airlines are not meeting in back rooms to decide what amenity should be cut next, instead they just wait for one to cut an amenity and then follow suit. The latest way of trying to compete with low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier is the basic economy fare. Delta, American, and United are all working to offer a fare that has zero perks, including no pre-reserved seat assignment and no mileage earning. These fares are not necessarily cheaper than fares of the past, but when you compare them to fares that do earn miles they appear cheaper.

This is not a trend that will be changing anytime soon. With new low cost airlines like Norwegian entering the U.S. longhaul market, the reduction of amenities on the three major airlines while charging for perks will continue. It will take a spike in oil prices along with a reduction in travel before anything changes.

According to U.S. Representative Walden’s website, the House has unanimously approved the Treating Small Airports with Fairness Act. The act name is kind of cheesy but essentially it would bring back TSA screening to small airports that lost service at the beginning of 2013 and has a commitment from an airline for service.

The TSA Fairness Act would require the TSA to restore screening services to any airport that lost service after January 1, 2013 and that has a guarantee from a commercial airline to resume service within one year. There are currently at least six airports nationwide that have commercial airlines seeking to resume flights after undergoing a temporary gap in service, but are being denied TSA security screening and personnel. Instead, the agency directed the airports to allow passengers to fly unscreened to their next destination, and undergo screening there.

Klamath Falls is one of the closest airports to Crater Lake so this change will make it easier for tourists to make it to that lovely attraction, not to mention the rest of southern Oregon. If the act passes in the Senate the airline that has already been tapped to operate the Portland-Klamath Falls service would be PenAir, who has already started a number of routes out of Portland and is partners with Alaska Airlines.

There is no date for when the Senate would vote on the legislation, but I will definitely be on the look out for its passing.

The New York Times posted an article titled, “Avoiding the Dreaded Middle Seat May Now Cost You” and it is a pretty accurate depiction of the landscape of commercial air travel. Most major U.S. airlines will soon have a “basic” economy fare that is essentially only the price for a seat on a plane between origin and destination. No other benefits. Want to check a bag? That’s $50. Want to select a seat? That’s $15-30 depending on the route. Want that seat to be an aisle? That’s another $10.

Recaro Slimline Seat 1
Some would argue that the unbundling of airfare into different components is good for the consumer because they can purchase just the items they want for the trip and save money. But that would imply that the different services airlines provide, seat selection, baggage handling, etc. are things that are completely unrelated, which is far from the truth. When you travel you need a seat and you might need to check a bag. Neither of these is a cost that is unaccounted for by the airlines. They are going to have to handle cargo/bags/mail whether you fly or not. A seat selection, in simple terms, does not cost the airline money. This is the illusion of unbundling. Yeah, if you and your family do not mind sitting in random middle seats around the plane, you will probably save a few dollars. But, if you don’t want your mother seated at the rear of the plane while you’re ten rows up, that’s going to cost you. This is the illusion of cost savings. Sure you might save $100 in airfare but as soon as you check a bag or select seats that cost savings dwindles and it is hard to tell where the equilibrium is between that “basic” economy fare and the regular fare that would have included the items you paid for. If you do not check bags, travel with family, or care where you sit, then unbundled fares are probably for you.

There is also the illusion that unbundling items from airfare will keep the airfare low. Well, that would go against the basic argument of unbundling, which is that the airfare and the ancillary items can act independently of each other. So, if the airlines decide that $60B in ancillary fees is not enough, they can adjust those prices, leaving airfare untouched. Or, they can manipulate airfare to fit a market and leave the ancillary fees alone. I am not against the airlines making money but it is disingenuous to paint the unbundled fares as “saving customers money” when the basic facts point to the scheme as being solely about revenue generation. And that’s fine, airlines are businesses, they are supposed to make money. Just don’t promote a revenue generation tool as mystical cost savings awesomeness, because for a lot of people, it means they will be sitting in a middle seat, delayed at LaGuardia.

As Jon Ostrower from the Wall Street Journal reports:

That means Alaska will have 349 aircraft at their disposal after all deliveries are made and the merger is completed. That is a huge increase for them and even with the retirement of 15 Bombardier Q400s by 2018, they will still have a very big fleet for the size of the operation they are running now.

Route growth has to be on the horizon then (no pun intended). With the Virgin America merger it is clear that Alaska will increase their presence in San Francisco. I would not be surprised to see them keep Virgin America’s transcontinental routes to JFK and Boston but I could also see them flying a number of west coast routes that are underserved by United, Delta, and American.

The big unknown is what happens to Alaska’s presence at Seattle. They have the planes for growth but Seattle is already overcrowded and I don’t know that Alaska has the gates to start a whole of new flights. I guess theortically they could park the E175s at the regional gates and have passengers walk outside to the planes, but even that area is a mess during the morning and evening rush hours.

This could also mean the end of the contract that Alaska has with SkyWest for operation of CRJ-700 and E175 regional jets to a number of destinations. SkyWest currently flies routes like Seattle-Milwaukee and Portland-Austin on E175 and Portland-Tuscon with CRJ-700s. To responsibly grow, Alaska may start operating those routes with their own planes and pilots via the Horizon Air subsidiary.

All of this to say, it is going to be interesting to see a rather niche carrier like Alaska navigate the waters of huge growth without overextending themselves in terms of passenger capacity and the physical limitations they will face at Seattle and Portland.