Leaving America(n)

The summer of 2016 is only halfway through and it’s already been a long, hot, miserable one with the airlines. From July 5 to July 19, between us Chris and I were on four American Airlines flights, with miserable results and all of them resulting in cancellations. One of the flights for Chris was cancelled due to “excessive air traffic” – and he was thereafter rescheduled on a non-direct flight to his destination. The first leg of the flight sat on the runway for hours and then got to the first stop late; the last connecting flight the night to the original destination, had left 5 minutes earlier. After not paying for overnight accommodations, American then re-booked Chris on a flight the following day not from Charlotte, NC to Washington DC, but from Charlotte, NC to Charleston, SC and then on to Washington DC. A fair amount of negotiating ensued with American and eventually Chris made it to DC, albeit the day after he should have been there.

I had worse luck with a flight out of Philadelphia, PA and a flight out of Birmingham, AL – both of which were cancelled due to “maintenance problems.” At least the one from Birmingham cancelled after two hours of delay so that more time wasn’t wasted waiting at the airport. The one from Philadelphia was a different story – over 5 hours of delay over claimed maintenance issues before the flight was cancelled at midnight. Not a high water moment for American.

The irony of this is that the pilots, flight attendants and gate personnel are pleasant and try to keep their cool, but it’s clear that they also wonder what is going on with American’s fleet. As one of them said, shrugging his shoulders when asked by the passengers what is happening, “This happens all the time and we don’t get any information either.” The other dichotomy is that the airlines are losing business – Q2 results released in July 2016 show that nearly every airline is short of earnings expectations and worried about losing passengers due to delays, equipment issues, and travel concerns overall about terrorism. Yet if the airlines wanted to make flying more friendly, they couldn’t seem to find a better way to do just the opposite.

So this may be the end of the line for us with American – bad weather is one thing to cause delays. Bad product and lack of care about what you provide in service within your control is another. We’re already loyal United fliers and have far fewer issues there (fingers crossed!); American is our back-up airline for travel to places where there are no other direct-route options and time is valuable. But rather than being re-routed to Charlotte (one of the true nadirs in airports in the US) and suffering there, we may start considering less expensive, albeit non-direct flights on Delta through Atlanta.

Don’t get me wrong – maintenance for safety reasons is important. But don’t be too sure that the announcement that an aircraft is “in maintenance” always means that the issue is a safety-related one. Did you ever notice you don’t often get an explanation beyond “maintenance”?  According to www.thepointsguy.com it could just be a coffeemaker issue, and American is the leading culprit on that front. The Points Guy: The Ridiculous Thing That’s Delaying Flights – If it’s come to that, we may as well give up and start staying home.

-Laura Flippin, Travel Blogger

United Global Services

In the world of frequent flier programs, the most coveted may surely be United’s mysterious and elite “Global Services” status. For those of you unacquainted with this magical creature, it really is the only way to travel. Far beyond mere 1K status (100,000 miles annually on United flights), it is something that frequent fliers speak of reverently when they talk about even the most grueling business travel.

How do you obtain entry to this prestigious program? The truth is that no one really knows. United Airlines does not disclose how it selects members, and there are no published criteria for how you get or retain this status. A while ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article that came about as close as any I’ve ever seen to describing some of the keys to the castle: “Inside United’s Secret Club for Top Fliers.” The WSJ suggested that flying at least 100,000 miles a year is a minimum, but that heavy spend with United – perhaps more than $50,000 – and on premium flights and in premium classes of service (Business First and Global First) are what count the most.

Whatever the allure, I can tell you unabashedly that I’m part of the cult. I track my miles and spend with United, I treasure them, I obsess about them, and I work to do whatever it is that meets the magic formula of Global Services. As 2015 draws to a close, I have a spate of international travel coming up and much of it happens to be on United (sorry UAL, but you’re not always the most convenient or price conscious choice for me or my business). And there may be a few personal trips in there as well to round out the year. It’s worth it – every bit. Delayed flight? United puts you on a new connection without your even calling them. Cancelled plane? You’ll be immediately re-booked on any airline they can find to get you where you need to go. Making a tight connection? No worries, you’ll be picked up and escorted to your gate where planes are even held from departure for you.

My own experience with Global Services demonstrates why the program resonates so much with so many loyalists. In January 2013, returning from a wonderful trip to New Zealand, we arrived in Australia for our connecting flight to the US, only to learn that it was cancelled due to mechanical issues. If you’ve ever looked at the size of a 747, you’ll appreciate that re-booking that many people isn’t easy. Many of the passengers on the flight who were in first class were being told the best that could be done was a re-booking in two days. If you were in economy, well, you might as well have just renounced citizenship and decided to move to Oz (no complaints there – Australia and New Zealand are great places for relocation). But with my Global Services status, I went to the counter and asked the United personnel what they could do. The result?  A re-booking on a flight leaving for the US within 2 hours of our originally scheduled United departure from Sydney. Who else on the flight got this treatment? No one except me and one other Global Services member. For that, I am eternally grateful.  Sydney’s a great place but not when you have to get home from a 16 day vacation.

No matter what I do, however, I suspect I’ll never top one of my colleagues, who recently spoke at a dinner honoring him for his years of commitment to human rights, justice and religious liberty on a world stage. He centered his remarks on 10 things he is grateful for – unsurprisingly; they included his family, his friends and colleagues, his good health, and his excellent golf game. But high on the list – not first but nowhere near last – he said it: “United Global Services” – and the crowd gasped, not with shock but with admiration. Some true believers out there, that’s for sure.

So the other day, when I said to Chris that I needed to make sure I got Global Services status for 2016, he looked at me with horror and concern about how I had let there be the slightest doubt of this. I promised I would do my best to stay in the club-without-membership-applications. To which Chris replied that failure was not an option. So United, if you’re out there, I’m traveling and I’m with you.  Just keep me in the club – I can’t go back now that I’ve seen the Promised Land . . .

The Good Life

Lots of things about business/first-class travel are overrated, including that no matter what cabin you are seated in, you are still sitting in a tin can for hours on hours, with recycled air and cramped surroundings. But business/first class travel can provide a bit more space – and for me, far more interesting is exploring the upper class lounges that the different airlines offer.

During a recent busy travel month, I had a chance to check out the business/first class lounge for (1) British Airways at Terminal 5 at Heathrow, (2) the Al Italia business class lounge in Rome, (3) the United first class lounge in Chicago O’Hare, (4) the United first class lounge in London Heathrow, and (5) the Cathay Pacific business “Bridge” lounge in Hong Kong. Before exploring any of these, I would have guessed that the Cathay Pacific lounge would have come up trumps over the rest, but that United’s first class lounge in Chicago (the airline’s home base) would have been a close second. In truth, however, my experience was completely different than expectations. A few thoughts below, in order of worst to best lounges:

Al Italia business class lounge in Rome – Chris and I enjoyed a long weekend in Rome, and while the city is notorious for being busy and chaotic (a distinction that was well founded, as we noted from our trip), we had hoped that the AI lounge would be a welcome respite before we headed home. Instead, it was a disappointment – cramped, dirty, and in need of some serious renovations, the place was pretty awful. One upside was that the wine flowed freely – nice prosecco, white and red – plus excellent coffee and beer. But a basic diet Coke or even a regular Coke? – nowhere to be found. AI apparently eschews soda – and vacuuming. And decent food – there were a few middling bowls of over-mayonnaised pasta and some pathetic sandwiches, but nothing to write home about. Plus the décor was something out of Austin Powers but with not much pizzazz and a fair amount of wear and tear. Not to mention the garish orange and green color scheme, punctuated by a dreary grey tinge.

British Airways business class lounge at London Heathrow – Terminal 5. I may be biased as someone who has felt that Terminal 5 has been overrated since it opened (see, e.g. Gordon Ramsay’s “Plane Food”), but BA’s upper class lounge is just, well, okay, to me.  It’s vast and huge, and filled with people. But nothing feels personalized and overall the food is British cafeteria-like. If that makes you shudder, you have the right impression. The lounge décor is nice, and there is plenty of space despite the enormous capacity of the venue. But the food is pretty atrocious, and leaves you wishing for a Pret-a-Manger.

United first class lounge in Chicago – I know, you’d expect it to be reflective of United’s flagship status at O’Hare, and it was nice and fine but nothing special.  The upsides are it is small – you don’t feel like you are fighting for a seat and an electrical plug as you do at many lounges – and very clean and new. It’s also hidden away in the C concourse area of Terminal 1; so hidden in fact that you have to hunt it down, but you also get the feeling that some people just give up looking for it, and so chances are you may have the place pretty much to yourself.  Indeed, there is NO sign or any indication of where it is. It’s tucked behind a customer service counter, and you need a map and breadcrumbs to find it. The food is decent; the alcohol and sodas are plentiful, and it’s very quiet too (a rarity in the airline lounge world). But all that just makes for a great business lounge, not a great first class lounge. There is no staff to take your order or offer you an a la carte menu. You’re on your own here, and while that’s fine, it just seems that United could do better (and indeed it does – read on).

Cathay Pacific business class lounge – a/k/a “The Bridge” – in Hong Kong – I confess, I may be a loyal United customer but I do love Cathay Pacific. There isn’t any comparison with US airlines when it comes to the service of those ex-US ones that do it well (Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, etc.). And Cathay Pacific’s upper class lounge in Hong Kong didn’t disappoint in general. It’s a lot like the BA upper class lounge in Terminal 5 at Heathrow – beautiful décor, and well appointed. Plenty of food and drink. But again it’s huge and there is no personalized service or attendance on you. More positively, though, the food – particularly the Asian cuisine – is pretty good – and a nice perk are miniature Haagen-Dazs ice creams at the bar (just ask – you’ll see other people getting them, and yeah, you’ll want one, too).

United first class lounge at London Heathrow-Terminal 2 – And the winner is . . . surprisingly United at LHR.  Maybe it’s because United is going all out since relocating to the newly-opened Queen’s Terminal (a/k/a Terminal 2) last year, and if that’s the case, fine with me!  The arrival lounge where you can get a shower and breakfast after taking the overnight flight from the US is great.  But the first class lounge for departures is pretty much the bomb.  Small, nicely decorated, and with staff that can’t wait to wait on you, plus food that rivals a lot of what you’ll eat even in nice London restaurants (take that Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay), this is a little gem I almost hope not too many people find out about. The real highlight is a small dining area, complete with fully laid tables, white tablecloths, wine glasses, a tower of wine, and a serving staff eager to please you with a wonderful a la carte, made to order menu. The regular food buffet is great, but go for the a la carte dining room.  I had the artichoke pasta ravioli, and it was so good I thought about hanging out for dinner and taking a later flight.  The wine selection is good, and you can enjoy it all with a nice selection of magazines and newspapers – Country Life, anyone? I don’t know what got into United or why this lounge is so great, but I can’t wait to go back . . . Now if United would just start flying the 787 to London too . . . Pictures below to whet your appetite.

Laura Flippin Picture 1Laura Flippin Picture 2

Laura Flippin Picture 3Laura Flippin Picture 4

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Laura Flippin Picture 7

– Laura Flippin

 

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