Aug 222018
 


Yesterday, I wrote a post about Air Canada’s new signature class, in which I compared the new business class offerings of the major North American carriers. Conclusion was that Air Canada has done a good job with their “Signature” launch, but beyond the lounge it was really hard to see any significant change to the in-flight offering.

On the two Air Canada trips I reviewed, I actually took United in one direction and Air Canada in the other. Not intentionally, it just worked out better that way…so it was a nice change to see how United’s Polaris implementation was progressing, and if it would finally live up to the hype. I say finally because, well, well over two years after launching the new Polaris seats only 20% or so of United’s longhaul fleet actually has them, but at least that’s finally speeding up slightly.

The other major, major failing on United’s part has been the launch of the Polaris lounges. I was at the Chicago lounge when it launched something like two years ago, and up until six months ago…they still had yet to open the second lounge, although there are finally four lounges open now. Who’s to say when Washington and LA (two other large international hubs) will see them, however. As a Washington-based traveler this actually impacts my purchasing decisions: if United’s Polaris lounge was actually open I’d be booking United metal out of Dulles much more often, whereas now I’m open to just about anything reasonable and convenient on Swiss, Lufthansa, and Air Canada.

Right, on with the review.

For the Trip where I took Air Canada from DC to Zurich via Toronto, I returned from Geneva to Washington Dulles nonstop on United. I had been doing some business in Bern, and generally either Zurich or Geneva are equidistant, and the Geneva flight was the quickest flight home at the lowest fare, so I went with it.

Two days before, United changed the seatmap to the Polaris configured 767 (I believe about 50% of 767-300s are now Polaris configured, so you have a 50-50 chance) and I hoped it would hold through departure time. When I saw the plane leave the US for Geneva, I knew I’d finally get to try out this product more than two years after its launch. With the amount I travel, that tells you just how long this has been in the works.

What’s nice about the 767-300s with Polaris seats is they’re in a 1-1-1 configuration, so everyone has an aisle seat. The best seats, by far, are the odd numbered window seats since the seat is by the window, and the “counter” part near the aisle, giving you far more privacy from the aisle as you can see:

My seat, 1L, to me was by far the best seat on the plane for a daytime flight. Nice and private from the aisle, but close enough to the front to get the crew’s attention:

Why oh why United, when you pay some marketing firm millions of dollars to design Polaris do you insist on using these cheap plastic cups for pre-departure beverages? I’m glad at least that you got rid of the ridiculous plastic Polaris “flutes” with a chocolate you tried out when you first launched Polaris, however. It really makes me wonder who were in the focus groups when you came up with this. Nothing says “un-premium” like a plastic glass of $8 a bottle sparkling wine….come on. First impressions matter, and this gives a terrible one. If you’re going to invest in an overhaul of the product, do it right!

The menu, however, looked promising…complete with the ubiquitous United “short ribs” that have been on just about ever menu in business class since 1995:

That’s more like it. A glass of perfectly drinkable wine (though nothing special) and some extremely salty mixed nuts:

The salad on offer was much better than United’s normal offerings, and bonus points for the parmesan and boiled egg. The smoked cold chicken appetizer was a bit odd and totally flavourless, but the farro and mustard on the side were actually the highlight of the appetizer. But seriously, parmesan and egg on a salad with mango dressing? Just bizarre.

Since nothing else sounded good, I went with the short rib, which was….well, about as good as it looked. The plating was absolutely awful, and looked like something out of a prison cafeteria.

Highlight of the meal by far was quite a nice cheese plate (ARE YOU LISTENING AIR CANADA?) and a delicious “sundae” with caramel. I haven’t seen the butterscotch topping in a while (which is actually my favourite) but this was a perfectly nice ending to the meal. Started off rocky, but at least they ended on a nice high note.

One thing United has done VERY well is the pre-landing snack. Grilled chicken with couscous and a nice fresh salad are a huge upgrade from the sad sandwiches of days gone by. Giving credit where credit is due, this is a huge upgrade, United….except for the mango dressing which was back for an encore *eyeroll*

Overall, loved the new seats, and they might be my favourite transatlantic seats now. There’s really not a bad seat in the plane, and as long as you get the plane, well, I can skip all the other stuff…but fail to understand why with passengers paying $6,000+ per ticket United won’t spend the extra $20 per passenger to make it an experience passengers WANT to fly.

So, notice that I said “as long as you get the plane” – well, two days before my flight down to Brazil a week later I did a same day change to get on the Dulles to Sao Paolo nonstop since it was listed as the exact same 767 which had brought me in from Geneva the day before! Since all I wanted on this flight was sleep, I was excited to have the new seats again, and life was grand!

…until five hours before departure when United e-mailed me there had been an aircraft swap, and “we’ve done our best to preserve your seating preference.

So, instead of a solo seat in a 1-1-1 config I was now in a window seat of a 2-1-2 config. Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows how I detest climbing over people or being climbed over, and when I called United I was basically told to “deal with it.” Not those exact words, but two agents in a row showed zero empathy, although the second one did offer to “see if I can get you a refund if you’re unhappy.”

Plan B was to raise it up through customer service channels I have access to as a very frequent United flier, and they were very happy to look into the problem, asking what they could do to resolve it. After very patiently listening and understanding my seating preference (hey, when you’re on back to back international trips and 6’4 it makes a difference getting kicked in the night and harming your sleep).

The agent was great, and came back with “can you get to DCA instead of Dulles in 30 minutes? I can get you out of DCA, via Chicago to Sao Paulo on a 777 in Polaris First. I was already packed, so done and done, and problem averted. MAJOR points to United for the service recovery on this one, although it is unfortunately not all people on paid business class tickets have access to this same level of service recovery. I don’t blame United for that, however, it’s just a reality of 2018 customer service – companies have pretty much gotten to a point where only the customers they recognize as their top 1% or more get their attention…it’s just reality. Long way of saying thanks United – I’ll definitely remember this going forward!  (…and because of this, in the last week I’ve booked four MORE business class tickets on United in the next two months)

So, onto DCA, where my flight was actually delayed 30 minutes by torrential rains, so I got my guilty snack of choice, United Club cheeze kubes:

I had about an hour in the Polaris Lounge in Chicago, which sadly has also suffered from the cost-cutting. I knew the Veuve Clicquot was too good to last, and alas, it is no more. I still had a nice glass of champagne though, because, hey, champagne.

Really friendly bartender who was familiar with someone of the older drinks that are no longer on the menu, and he was able to whip up a paper plane with mezcal as well:

I’ll gloss over the ugly, which was a 2.5 hour delay when our plane broke and they had to find another plane at midnight, but hey, the fact they were able to find another 777 at this hour which could be catered was pretty impressive. In the end we left at 130a instead of 10pm which ruined my first day’s afternoon meetings, but in the end it was better than a completely canceled trip I suppose, which was what would have happened if I had to go the next day.

The “first class” seats on the 777 are pretty old and tired, and basically nice business class seats, but hey, it was a nice recovery after my 767 swap, so making lemonade out of lemons:

Today’s menu – idk why they even put “first class” on the menu now, because it’s exactly the same meal as in business class. Other than the seat, there’s absolutely zero difference left between business and first on United. Very sad.

Thanks facebook filters, this is pretty much how the delayed flight made me feel:

Oh look, starting off with mixed nuts and a red wine, quelle surprise!

The nori-wrapped salmon was a unique starter, and the salad with seeds and strawberries was also a welcome change. Well done this time United!

So, the spicy chicken main. First of all: amazing flavour, nice and spicy, great different option for plane food. The downside, bit messy with splash potential for a plane, and my chicken was way undercooked and partly raw. I assume it’s just reheated on the plane, so this goes to the kitchen in chicago, but I was full enough I just sent it back largely untouched. You can see some of the red and raw areas in the chicken in this picture:

Oh sigh, you were doing so well with the cheese yesterday United. Perhaps it’s just US catering that’s bland and unimaginative?

Since there was once again no butterscotch or caramel today, the flight attendant insisted I try some cookie crumble…which was a nice change. Plus…they had cherries, which are absolutely my favourite part of any United sundae:

I was also ordered to try some of the mini deserts with some caramel on the side…I didn’t have a choice. I will admit, the mini apple pie with caramel sauce (to quote the FA: “the whole reason I’m not thin and beautiful”) was pretty delicious!

Breakfast? Well, let’s not talk about it. Bland omelette, but the sweet potatoes did have a nice seasoning to them. Fruit was pretty sad, dry and flavourless. Overall, much more of a miss than a hit.

So…overall thoughts on Polaris? The seats are great, no doubt, and when they have them on the whole fleet it’s a fantastic product. It’s sad, however, that United is majorly cutting back on the soft product, when it would cost so little to have a much more impressive product. It just gives the impression that they don’t care, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to sell a premium product. To me, it says, “we know a lot of you are upgrading, or using awards, or your employer is locked into a contract with us, so we just don’t have to try” and that’s terrible if you want your brand to resonate with your customers. But, maybe I’m wrong…maybe they don’t care about resonating, and are happy being “ok.”

So, final verdict? Air Canada, Delta, United? It’s pretty much a wash now. They all have good seating with all direct aisle access, although United is about two years away from getting there while ALL their competition has been there for over a year now. Food? Well, pretty much the same on all of them, though it does seem Delta and Air Canada do go a bit of the extra mile so you actually feel like there’s pride in their product!

Lots more flights coming up, so watch for more reviews soon!

Jul 142018
 


So, a bit of a background. First, as I’ve mentioned before, this trip came about because of an incredibly good business class fare from New York to Santiago, Chile. Two things that make that noteworthy: first, I had to find a way to get up to New York to start and end the trip. I debated trying to fly standby, but with a paid ticket on the line, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk…so bought a one way up to JFK on Delta, and home on American. Why? Because the timing worked best with a 2:30 to 3:30 layover in New York. Other options would have been too close to risk, or so long it was ridiculous. Easy enough.

Now, two years ago, when I finished going to every country, I always felt a bit bad about Mexico. I’d probably been to Mexico 5-10 times, but always daytrips to Tijuana or Nogales…although I once spent a three day weekend in Ensenada which is actually like 20 miles into Mexico, so I didn’t feel like I’d totally cheated. That said, I also didn’t feel like I’d “seen” Mexico.

So, I was looking forward to an overnight in Mexico on this trip to see a tiny bit more…but then a couple weeks after booking, I ended up with a five day trip to Mexico City for work, which gave me a couple of full days to explore the city. Then, a week before leaving on this trip…another last minute trip back to my client in Mexico City, meaning I would be flying BACK from Mexico City on a Wednesday…and then flying right back on this trip on Thursday. Yes, twice 24 hours apart. Life has a funny way sometimes of surprising us.

Right, so, not much to say. Off to National Airport, no real lines, and boarding right on time. I had decided to risk the upgrade for the short flight rather than pay Delta the extra $150, and I was surprised three days before when my first class upgrade came through. Nice little surprise…until I woke up the morning of the flight to see that Delta had downgraded me again…the usual DCA issue of Federal Air Marshalls taking your seat at the last minute…although they’ll never really admit that’s what happened. 10,000 miles later, Delta had done the right thing – I only hope the government is compensating them for all these clusterfucks…I’ve seen it happen at DCA way too many times.

Delta flight 5937 operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK)
Depart 11:00, Arrive: 12:29, flight time: 1:29
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N875RW, Manufactured 2007, Seat 6C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 50,201
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,570,476

Quick flight, no taxi/takeoff delays which is very unusual on a DCA-JFK flight, and soon we landed in JFK. I’ve never flown Delta through JFK before, so apparently I was destined for the complete experience. Landing and parking at Terminal 2, taking the “JFK Jitney” bus over to Terminal 4, and then walking pretty much to Connecticut to the rather remote Delta SkyClub.

I was rewarded with some hummus, grilled chicken breasts, and a glass of wine for my trouble. There was a rather large group of bros in the club who looked like they were heading on spring break, gorging on the chicken breasts like they’d been protein-deprived for months…I think people-watching might be one of my favourite parts of travel…

Of course, the Aeromexico flight was at the far end of Terminal 4 from the SkyClub, so I promptly left Connecticut, and undertook the rather long walk to New Jersey. Stopped at Peet’s Coffee on the way (ok, so maybe I don’t hate Terminal 4 quite so much now) and was greeted with a 100+ person long queue for priority boarding at the Aeromexico gate. I was beginning to get the impression that everyone must be “elite” in Mexico, but no big deal..there would be plenty of overhead space.

Unfortunately, Mexico had just lost to Brazil in the World Cup, and my flight was packed with fans coming off the Aeroflot flight from Moscow who were all in a rather dejected mood.

Aeromexico flight 409
New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 15:20, Arrive: 19:15, flight time: 4:55
Boeing 787-9, Registration N446AM, Manufactured 2018, Seat 2J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 52,292
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,572,567

First impression of the seats on the Aeromexico 787-9 was fantastic! Roomy, and quite private.

Impressed from the other side too – the walls are high enough you can’t see the people, and the way the seats are angled to the window you’re not looking at the person across the aisle either. Plus, the seats were nice and wide. What a fantastic product!

Welcome aboard bubbles…the flight attendants were unusually particular about putting the coasters down, and collecting them along with your glass. No, you can’t save one for a souvenir…

Once up in the air, lunch service promptly started. I’m pretty over the mixed nuts that seem to start off every international business class meal, and Aeromexico was definitely out to impress. Cheese as a starter pre-meal with my wine? Aeromexico, I think we’re going to get along just swimmingly!

I can’t remember the time I went with the pasta option for a main, and I regret doing it now. Bland, flavourless, and the quinoa salad was pretty terrible as well. This meal had so much potential…just a bit more bacon on the pasta, maybe a bit more cheese, and a little more cream to the sauce and it would have been wonderful. Unfortunate, because after the cheese starter I had such high hopes!

I know lots of people whine about “packaged deserts aren’t appropriate in business class” but give me some delicious ice cream any day to some dried out piece of cake. Simple is best when it comes to desert in the air!

Landed about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, no line at all for immigration, and soon I was in my taxi. It was absolutely pouring rain outside, but there was no traffic at all (how can that be at 7:30pm in Mexico City?!) and in less than 30 minutes I was at the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel.

On my previous trip when I had a weekend “downtown,” I chose the Le Meridien, which I found very disappointing. Not a great location with much going on around it (though very convenient for my Historical Center walking tour), and old rooms that loud rattly air conditioning. Add to that a very disappointing and shabby bar, and I wasn’t keen to try it again.

Either my Spanish is getting better, or the staff at the Sheraton wasn’t too keen to practice their English, so I think I managed my first every check-in completely in Spanish, complete with a discussion about all the platinum benefits they offer. Not bed!

Lobby had a giant soccer ball in it in honour of the World Cup…only sad that Mexico had just been eliminated.

Upgraded to a very, very nice suite, with a view of El Ángel right outside my window. Picture taken from my room:

Sleeping area was pretty generic Sheraton-standard, but ice cold air conditioning was very welcome!

Second room of the suite…you could have a party in this room it was so big!

…they must have known I was coming, because a couple of craft beers and some snacks were waiting for me in the room.

Went for a short walk to stretch my legs, and ended up at Fiebre de Malta which I had discovered on my previous trip. I didn’t need a whole lot to eat after the Aeromexico flight, but how can I resist some tacos?! When in Mexico…

Back to the Sheraton, I still wasn’t tired, so decided to have a Patron margarita and enjoy the World Cup decor in the lobby bar. MUCH nicer than the lobby bar at Le Meridien.

The margarita showed up, and was clearly made with fresh-squeezed lime and was delicious. This stay couldn’t have been more night and day compared with my stay at the Le Meridien, and there’s no doubt I would stay here again. I had such a nice stay that I think I need to return again for a 3-4 day weekend and explore the city a bit more in depth next time.

Off to bed, as I had a rather early flight the next morning onwards to Santiago…

Aug 142016
 

The best part about The Wing lounge was that I could watch the boarding gate while sipping champagne, and as soon as they announced boarding I could just stroll downstairs and to the front of the line. Nice view of our plane:

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There were a few agents milling around, and as soon as I told one “first class” she escorted me straight to the front of the line and the jetway.

Cathay Pacific flight 846
Hong Kong (HKG) to New York, John F Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 18:45, Arrive 22:40, Flight Time: 15:55
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration B-KPL, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,159
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,325,296

I was looking forward to an amazing flight this time, having gotten some tips from frequent Cathay fliers. My previous experience was Hong Kong to London, and while I thought it was a great flight, I didn’t think it was amazing. After 195 countries, I still have things to learn…and the reason I felt the service wasn’t “amazing” before is because part of their amazing service is not disturbing you if you don’t want to. However, use the call button, and they are more than happy to help. Today’s crew provided a warm welcome, and showed me to my seat:

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Welcome about glass of Krug was poured:

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Tuna amuse bouche while boarding was taking place and Krug was being enjoyed:

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Krug with a view:

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Today’s menu:

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Shortly after takeoff the sun was already setting, and more Krug was offered with mixed nuts. This is a small area for improvement, as almonds and cashews aren’t really an inspired choice. I think Lufthansa’s macadamia nuts may win in this category:

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Table was set, Tom Cruise was pouty, and caviar was served:

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Caviar close-up, complete with the mother of pearl spoon. It’s a toss-up who does the best caviar service, but Cathay is definitely one of the best!

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The cauliflower cream soup was pretty bland, and just had a few bites:

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Breaking all my rules had the salad with prawns, and ate them. I figure if anyone can serve non lethal shellfish on a plane it’s Cathay. It was good, but as with the soup rather bland.

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The pork chop was enormous, and the veg flavourful and quite tasty:

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Cheese course was solid, but I have to give the nod to Lufthansa here…if only for the variety of crackers and a few more cheese options:

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At this point, absolutely stuffed, I declined desert and had the bed made up. I didn’t want to sleep for too long so that I could hopefully fall asleep again shortly after landing at 1030p in New York. Still slept 6-7 hours, and woke up with about five hours left in flight. Now, about that dessert I skipped…time for tea and dessert with another movie:

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About two hours prior to landing seemed like a good time for breakfast. Nice fruit plate, croissants and muffins, and some fresh squeezed orange juice to start things off:

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I had heard rumours this was possible, and the flight attendant seemed a bit confused when I asked for it…but hello scrambled eggs topped with caviar, bacon, sausages, and mushrooms:

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…of course, caviar and scrambled eggs wouldn’t be complete without a glass of krug!

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Overall, an amazing Cathay experience – I couldn’t have asked for much more! Super friendly crew, very comfortable seat, and when I mentioned the cabin was slightly warm they were happy to turn it down a bit. I would have to say with this experience Cathay is right up there with Lufthansa, Singapore, and ANA as my favourite airlines in the world to fly in first!

No drama at all with immigration thanks to Global Entry, and hailing an Uber at JFK was also really easy. Short ride to the hotel for the night.

Change of plans meant I had to head straight to DC from New York instead of going on to Toronto as originally planned. This meant an overnight in New York, or taking a 1am regional train. It was an easy choice, and I stayed at the Sheraton Hong Kong….I mean Sheraton LaGuardia East…in beautiful downtown Flushing…named for being a bit of a toilet…

Uber to LaGuardia in the morning where I had breakfast in the AmEx Centurion Lounge first. Glass of Veuve Cliquot and some eggs benedict while doing some plane watching:

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I haven’t seen a plane this yellow since Hughes Air West in the 1980s!

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Proof I was back in ‘Murica….is it wrong I was hoping it would spontaneously combust?

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Caught the shuttle bus over to the old Marine Terminal for my next flight.

Delta flight 2713, Operated by Shuttle America
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive 13:22, Flight Time: 1:22
Embraer E-170, Registration N872RW, Manufactured 2006, Seat 5A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,373
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,325,510

Can’t say too much for being in coach, but hey, 40-50 minutes max flight time in economy comfort with a free firefly and orange juice and snack can’t be beat! Only downside was no Biscoff catered today:

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On approach to DCA…welcome home!

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Overall a fantastic trip, and couldn’t have asked for a better set of flights to end my penultimate country tour with. Now there’s only one more to go with Iceland coming up just over two weeks away!

Mar 032012
 

So, I told myself I would ignore this merger.  It was a bigger route network, more options, and in the end after the teething pains…it would be good!

…but then, I found an amazing fare for a trip I have planned in May, and had to get it booked before it went away.  That meant doing it before midnight when United does a giant database dump into SHARES – the Continental reservation system – and then it gets rebranded on the Interwebz as United.  So many things that can go wrong, but I choose to believe they’ve tested this to death and for those of us who already combined our United and Continental accounts online…it will hopefully be a no-brainer.  Of course…we’ll see in 90 minutes.

I have a few more tickets to book, but I’ve decided to hold off.  That may end up screwing me, or it may end up helping.  Time will tell…but after 109 countries visited I guess I’m used to a bit of risk.  Risk is a loaded term, especially in the US.  It’s taken to mean things that could go wrong…when in actuality, risk could also mean rewards.  That’s what I’m hoping we might see out of this.

On that note…how about you?  Did you go through the big Delta/Northwest merger?  Are you ready for the big United/Continental merger tonight?  Are you taking steps to protect yourself, or are you rolling the dice and hoping it all works out