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!

Aug 212018
 


Following in the trend of airlines giving their business class products fancy names (American kicked it off with “Flagship Business,” then came “Delta One,” followed shortly by United “Polaris Business,” and finally (just like with their five year behind the game WiFi installation) Air Canada got onboard with “Signature Class.”

What was different about “Signature Class?” Well, first, a little review.

American Airlines: When I started flying them 5-6 years ago, I was shocked to find they were still running 777s in a 2-3-2 configuration with seats that didn’t even go flat! Talk about a majorly updated program. Fortunately, they now have 1-2-1 pretty much across the fleet, although from what I can tell there’s been no major upgrade to the soft product.

Delta One: Delta was ahead of the game, already running 1-2-1 configurations on all its aircraft when Delta One was announced, and when they rolled out the A350 the game changer was “suites” with doors that closed – something no other North American airline has tried to emulate yet.

United: while marginally better than American’s non-180 degree flat 2-3-2 config for awhile, United has now fallen way, way behind with it’s atrocious 2-4-2 on some legacy planes, and 2-2-2 or 2-1-2 on the majority of the rest. Polaris soft product was a huge upgrade at first with better food and much better bedding, but the death by 1000 small cuts is already well underway with several of the soft product improvements yanked back. At least they are slowly (and I mean slower than a DC bureaucrat on a hot August day) rolling out a 1-2-1 product across the fleet, expected to be complete in 2089. I kid….maybe 2020. Next blog up will be a review of this hard product, which is actually pretty nice!

That brings us to Air Canada.

Their seats have been 1-1-1, or 1-2-1 for a while, and I found their food pretty good. Even their Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto was significantly nicer than anything their US competitors offered, so perhaps that explained why they were so late to the rebranding game. I was quite curious what the rebranding would mean in practical terms, and the answer turned out to be: practically nothing.

I recently flew Air Canada on two flights: Toronto to Zurich on a 777-300ER and then a couple weeks later Sao Paolo to Toronto on a 787 (Plus connecting flights to/from DCA, but those are hardly worth a mention). Both were really nice flights, but I seriously noticed absolutely nothing different from before. So, lets start with the over to Zurich.

Up first, was the short flight up to Toronto. The flight is about 80 minutes and our flight attendant today was from Newfoundland, and a real character. A bit over the top, but the passengers seemed to love him, and he was very friendly and hard-working. Air Canada even served a small snack on the flight (I can’t decide if I like the single choice pre-plated snacks better than the US’s snack baskets or not) but A for effort. Unfortunately, today’s option was cockroaches of the sea with a tiny dab of hummus, one olive, and one tomato. Strange…

…and there was no question of refills. We were pretty much told we were getting refills, because, well, “you can’t let the rest of the wine stay in the bottle all lonely.” Perfectly good rationale if you ask me.

The transit experience in Toronto is seamless now, and you can head straight from US arrivals to international departures without having to go through an immigration check. Quite slick.

The one thing I was pretty excited to check out was the new Air Canada Signature “Suite”, only open to business class passengers. No Star Gold or Maple Leaf Lounge passes accepted, only passengers flying in business class, and only revenue tickets. Nobody on upgrades or award tickets, or those flying Star Alliance partners – in this way, it’s much more exclusive for access than even United’s Polaris lounges. (We won’t talk about American, because their “Flagship First” lounges let in every Exec Platinum under the sun, and often feel one step removed from a elementary school playground.)

I wasn’t all that hungry, so skipped the seated dining area in favour of the buffet. Quite tasty, some nice local offerings, and the Montreal smoked meat sandwich was a great touch!

Service in the lounge was fantastic and attentive, with the staff doing a great job clearing plates and refilling drinks, even when it got completely packed as the evening departure bank approached. I was quite surprised how crowded the lounge got, and unfortunately it really wasn’t that peaceful. Good for Air Canada selling so much business class, but there was nothing “suite” like about the lounge. Same complaint I have about the Polaris lounges – they get super crowded. It makes me wonder how the previous lounges handled all these people before…or are more people coming early for the “lounge experience” now?

Boarding was a complete and utter mess. With several departures at the same time, all pretty much sold out in business class, the departures area was a nightmare. We were between flights to London and Brussels, all of which were completely sold out, and boarding was a chaotic mess. It wasn’t even clear where the queues were, but that said, once aboard things were much quieter.

Amenity kit was waiting for us…filled with everything you’d expect, but didn’t rise to the level of one I’d want to keep to reuse the bag for toiletries, electrical cords, etc:

Tonight’s menu:

…and drink list:

Pre-departure bubbly was offered – I often wonder why airlines pour the pre-departure glasses like 1/3 full. What is this, maybe 1/2 glass of champagne? It can’t be cost saving, because they’re much more generous after takeoff.

The usual wine for me, and typical mixed nuts from Air Canada. Perfectly acceptable, but nothing original here.

Unfortunately at this point the crew was seated for just under two hours, because we ended up fighting some pretty terrible turbulence until we were off the Newfoundland coast. It was still not even 9pm for me by body clock, so I opted to continue the meal, as did most of the passengers since the turbulence was so bad there was no way anyone was sleeping.

The salad was boring but fine, and definite points for the duck and edamame starter. Nice and unique, while being relatively light. Plus, I’ll never complain about garlic bread!

I went with the chicken biryani as a main, probably because I remember the amazing biryani that Etihad served me a couple years ago. This was pretty good, and a nice unique option in flight. Any time I can get something that sounds and is better than the “steak” I’m happy, so this one was a winner with me.

Unfortunately, any positive thoughts I had died here. One of the saddest cheese plates I’ve seen in a long time, on par with some of the bland and boring kraft stuff that United serves. Very, very disappointing…and the cheddar was rubbery, obviously having been portioned long ago. Extremely disappointing.

The lemon cheesecake, however, was pretty tasty and a nice way to finish things off.

I had indicated not to wake me for breakfast, but I woke about 40 minutes before landing, so the flight attendant brought me the breakfast I’d indicated on the card “in case I wake up.” I wasn’t really hungry, but wanted to post this pic for one reason:

Look at that fruit bowl! Probably one of the best ones I’ve ever seen on a plane…nice fresh blueberries, pineapple, fresh strawberries, watermelon, kiwifruit…well done Air Canada!

So, let’s fast forward a couple weeks. We’re in Sao Paolo now, headed up to Toronto on a 10+ hour flight on a 787. The only times I’ve managed to sleep 7+ hours were on a 787, and this was a nice long flight at the perfect time to sleep, so I was looking forward to seeing how that played out. I forgot to mention above, but both the 777 and 787 on Air Canada had individual air vents, which I think are crucial to keeping me a nice cool sleeping temperature.

Let’s start with the meal. Look, more mixed nuts and wine. Boring, but acceptable.

The starter tonight was smoked trout with cucumber, tomato, and onions. I really wanted to like it, but it was pretty bland and boring. Could have used something to add a bit more flavour, but points to Air Canada for a reasonable sized portion which is still not heavy. Remember when United tried to pass two prawns off as an appetizer?

For the main I requested the “Spinach and Minas cheese filled chicken breast, herb sauce, vegetable risotto” but they brought me the beef. “Oh, sorry, I got them mixed up and don’t have any more chicken. Is this ok?” Ugh, not cool. On the upside, the beef was actually cooked close to medium which shocked me, but overall an unmemorable dish.

Oh Air Canada, we really need to talk cheese. This was just about as bad as the previous flight: “Emmental, Camembert, Reino” – so the Reino was interesting, but again it looked very plastic and uninspired. Is it really too hard to make the cheese course better? I suppose that would require cutting it on the plane, but…

Ok, never mind, I can go to sleep happy now with a wonderful Neapolitan ice cream bowl! It’s amazing how such simple things can make you happy even when people think airplane food is supposed to be “fancy” – but give me comfort food any day!

After passing out for a great seven hours of sleep, I was still up in time for breakfast. Another great 787 sleep, except I slept so balled up I’m still dealing with a pinched nerve in my back a few weeks later. Can’t blame Air Canada for that, but it was a good night’s sleep!

After the fruit in the breakfast to Switzerland I had high expectations, but unfortunately it was a swing and a miss this time. The kiwifruit was rock hard, the melon had zero flavour, and the grapes were mushy. Bland omelette, and a even blander muffin. I guess Air Canada breakfast catering must be highly station-specific.

Two flights is a small sample size, but overall my thoughts on Air Canada were positive. Nice seats, air vents to keep things cool, and overall “good” food. I don’t think it’s gotten worst, but the US airlines have definitely stepped their game up a little in this department so Air Canada no longer stands above them. Overall, a solid experience, except for one thing: the 787 had no WiFi, which is still the case with the majority of Air Canada’s fleet. The 777 to Zurich did have it (as do all their 777s now) but the 787 and almost none of their other planes do – to me making it a deal-breaker for most work trips. The only reason it was ok on this route is I was headed home from back to back trips, and just wanted to sleep and not work – which in this case worked out well.

Will I fly Air Canada again? Yes, definitely, especially if the other options are 2-4-2 or 2-2-2 seating on United…and especially if the planes have WiFi. The food and service are pretty much a wash these days, but it was also nice to try Air Canada again after so much Lufthansa and United lately! Next up, let’s look at United Polaris…

Jul 302018
 


After our day wandering around Santiago, it was time to check out from the W and head to the airport. We were fortunate that the hotel agreed to a 5pm late checkout, meaning we could stay around most of the day before heading to the airport. A bonus nice touch, at the reception they were offering champagne not only to customers checking in, but also to those checking out. Nothing super high quality, but a classy touch!

Uber to the airport was much shorter than the two hour nightmare we endured in the opposite direction, and we approached the terminal just as a nice rose coloured sunset over the field was happening:

We had been able to check in with Aeromexico on the app, so headed straight through to immigration and security which had hardly any line and off to the Delta Skyclub to spend the hour or so before it would be time to board.

The Delta Skyclub, unfortunately, is one of the more dismal ones I’ve encountered. It’s in the basement at tarmac-level (ie, below boarding/jetbridge level) and was pretty small and cramped. Almost every seat was taken, and it only thinned out a slight bit in the time we were there. A glass of respectable Carmenere and some empanadas and nuts were marginal at best…but it wasn’t terrible either. Adequate, but nothing I’d ever go out of my way to spend time in.

Off to the gate, where a huge group of gate lice had formed, and people were clearly in a grumpy and agitated move. To the point I had one guy shove me out of the way because it was very important for him to board first. Um, dude, the priority boarding line was more of a scrum, and since we’re all in this together…I don’t think those five seconds you saved were worth being nasty to people. Very proud of the example you set for your kids. Heh!

Aeromexico flight 11
Santiago, Chile (SCL) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 21:20, Arrive: 05:10 next day, flight time: 8:50
Boeing 787-8, Registration N964AM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 65,134
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,585,409

Unfortunately, no plane swap this time like we had been lucky enough with on the way down. We still had the 787-8 as planned, and the less than desirable 2-2-2 seating. We were in the middle section, so it wasn’t bad, just not nearly as nice as the 1-2-1 configuration on the 787-9. Oh well, business class problems. Decent (very small) pour of welcome aboard champagne:

The 2x2x2 seating, being modelled by Phil during boarding. Not bad, but certainly not as nice as the 1x2x1 seating in the same plane!

Despite being a late flight, the crew was pretty slow to spring into action. The wait, however, was rewarded with cheese as a starter again. It’s going to be really hard to go back to United and their semi-warm nuts. I’m also super fussy on my fruit, but the strawberries were perfectly sweet and delicious, and the whole combo went nicely with a glass of cabernet.

I ordered the hockey puck as a main course…I mean grilled chicken…which would have been a terrible miss if not for three things: (1) lots of protein (2) the goat cheese sauce, and (3) the fact I was starving. The salad was also pretty terrible, and the lettuce tasted funny. The mozzarella, zucchini, and basic starter was just odd when there was already a salad on the tray, and a cheesy main course. Overall, a pretty disappointing meal.

To top that off, this just doesn’t look appetizing at all. I took one bite and skipped the rest.

According to the crew, there was no dessert, despite it being listed on the menu. I don’t think they were being lazy, I think it just genuinely wasn’t loaded at all. Oh well.

Got a few hours of pretty decent sleep, and soon we were descending into Mexico City where we would arrive nearly 45 minutes early. Mexico City is like the US in that international and domestic flights are mixed in the same terminal, so everyone has to go through immigration first. Fortunately, we had plenty of time and the lines at immigration weren’t bad, so it was a pretty painless transit experience.

First stop after we re-cleared security was, of course, Starbucks, where Juan Jose  slowly came back to life after a good strong coffee…and another helping of the delicious cheese sandwich I’ve become addicted to over the last month:

After Starbucks, we headed up to the American Express lounge to relax and wait for our flight as well as shower. When we arrived, I asked about a shower, and the agent informed us there was a two hour waitlist for the shower. Seeing there were less than five people in the lounge, I asked how this was possible. Apparently, the showers are shared between the Platinum and Centurion lounges, and Centurion members don’t get priority. With all the money AmEx has been sinking into making great lounges lately, it’s hugely disappointing that Centurion members often have to wait for a table in US lounges (or get the evil eye if they take one of the reserved tables) and now apparently they have to wait for showers too. What’s the additional benefit of the card then?!

Off to the gate, un-showered, where I was just in time for boarding. Said goodbye to Phil who was off to LA, and about five minutes later we started boarding. Unfortunately, about three weeks before my flight, Aeromexico had changed the aircraft from a 787 to a 737. Ugh. I mean, not the end of the world at all, but when you book a specific routing because of the aircraft, it’s disappointing when it changes.

Of the 16 people on the flight, I recognized at least 10 of them from the flight to Santiago. Either lots of people got in on this JFK to Santiago fare, or it just happened to be a super popular routing today.

Aeromexico flight 408
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 07:15, Arrive: 13:20, flight time: 5:05
Boeing 737-800, Registration XA-AMN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 67,225
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,587,500

Fortunately, this time, I got my first choice of meals and what was described by the crew as a tamale was reasonable. Since vacation was almost over, why not have a champagne breakfast. Reasonable breakfast, and probably the only reason it stood out was the chance to have a unique breakfast option. I feel like in the US it’s always the same nasty eggs or cereal, so the variety was very appreciated.

Also, the 787s had the terrible wifi where you paid like $20 and got 50MB, which you can go through in 10 minutes easily – quite a ripoff. On the 737 it was wifi by GoGo, and for like $15 I got unlimited for the whole flight. For a daytime flight, that’s almost enough to make me want to choose the 737 over the 787. Did I mention I’m WiFi addicted?

About an hour before landing, we were also offered a snack of mixed nuts. Unfortunately, it was mostly peanuts. 🙁

Landed at JFK right on time, and despite JFK tending to be a bit of a nightmare there was no wait at immigration for Global Entry, and I was out and looking for the SkyTrain soon.

SkyTrain was pretty easy to fine, and it whisked me off to Terminal 8 where American and their One World partners depart from. I was a little concerned about this connection if anything went wrong, but it didn’t and I was in the JFK Admirals Club with about an hour to kill. That was easy work with a glass of wine, and what I affectionately call the Admirals Club “tan snack”

Boarding for the flight to DC was right on time, and it was nice to have a 737 for such a short hop!

American flight 2773
New York, Kennedy (JFK) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:47, flight time: 1:47
Boeing 737-800, Registration N915NN, Manufactured 2013, Seat 4B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 67,438
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,587,713

Not just a 737, but the TWA heritage livery plane. As an aviation geek, I love the nostalgia of this. I wish more airlines would do it!

Nothing to say about this flight, it was almost 30 minutes early into DC (that happens when you have the rare short taxi at JFK and aren’t #30 in line for departure) and with that the trip was over all too soon. I wasn’t sad, however, knowing I had two more international trips coming up in under a month. I was actually starting to look forward to time at home more than time on planes!

That said, be on the lookout for more posts very soon!

May 292018
 


After a few more long and successful days of work and meetings, it was back to OR Tambo to finally head home after being away for three weeks. I had checked in online, so headed straight to security (which oddly enough had zero lines at all) and then through to passport control, which also had no lines. This means that less than 15 minutes after getting off the Gautrain, I was back in the South African Airways Lounge. Walking up to the counter to get a drink, the bartender quickly recognized me:

“My boss! Long time! Go sit down, I will bring you the usual at your usual place!” Yeah, so maybe I need to be spending less time in Johannesburg for the near future…

Apparently I looked thirsty, because I’d barely taken a sip when 10 minutes later he returned with another glass. Did I mention how I love the service in this lounge?

Off to the gate after a short bit, and my chariot was waiting for the ride to Frankfurt:

Boarding was the usual Johannesburg mess, with rather rude helpers roaming the boarding area demanding to see passports. Knowing the game, I loitered near the front of the queue, and when the boarding agent got flustered with the first few passengers another came right over and started a second line, and I think I might have been the first to board…

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:00, Arrive: 05:35 next day, flight time: 10:35
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYR, Manufactured 2015, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 42,315
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,562,377

I rather like the 2-2-2 configuration on the Lufthansa 747-8i, and no it’s not all aisle access, but the seats in the middle section have a ton of space. Sitting in the window seats is definitely cuddle class. Yuck. 2005 called, it wants its seats back.

Pre-departures were offered, and I accepted a glass of the (warm) sparking wine. It got two sips and that was it. Ugh.

As soon as the door closed I was praising myself for my cunning stalking of the seatmap, and one of the few empty seats in business class was next to me…until the flight attendants brought up a friend from coach and sat her next to me. Ugh. Lufthansa was not doing a good job this flight of living up to their regular high performance. To top if off, “friend” immediately removed her shoes and socks and put her bare feet up in the shared foot area. Ugh. I expect better than this from Lufthansa…

At least the menu looked interesting:

Glass of wine and some nuts to start. I’m so glad Lufthansa finally got rid of the packaged nuts. As a bonus, the flight attendant working my section recognized me from the elevator at the hotel in the morning, where we traded good mornings as I was headed down to Starbucks and he was headed down to the end. Staying in the crew hotel has its benefits…and I got great service the rest of the flight 😀

The duck and pineapple starter was really tasty, but way too small… Of course, United considers two skewered prawns an appetizer, so…

The salad and the main were served together, and both were quite tasty. The beef goulash was also a nice non-traditional choice and a welcome change from the usual chicken or beef madness.

Wow, a business class salad with more than three ingredients. One of the better business class salads I’ve seen in a long time!

Above average business class cheese plate (but sadly no fig spread), and a delicious chocolate cake to finish off the meal.

I wasn’t really that tired, and stayed awake pretty much the whole flight watching tv. Around the middle of the night, I also started to lose all feeling in my right hand. Thinking I had just leaned on it weirdly I got up to walk around a bit, and it didn’t get any better. I stood up and chatted with the flight attendants a bit, and let them know…but the numbness didn’t seem to be spreading so I wasn’t too concerned. This is probably also a good place to mention I’d been dealing with a few (what I thought were) mosquito bites for a few days that had gotten progressively itchier. Fortunately, it never got any worse, but this wasn’t a good sign. (When I got home, medical geniuses decided it must be “some sort of spider or something that bit you in the middle of the night” – wonderful. Fortunately a month later, numbness is finally gone.)

Now, having not died in the middle of the night – or forced a medical emergency landing in Niger (seriously, they probably would have kept going, because, let’s be honest…), it was finally time for breakfast. Despite being dark out, nearly two hours before landing (mind you, 3:30am – no time change) they turned on all the cabin lights and brought round breakfast.

The omelette came with super tasty grilled bacon (though almost tasted more like a pork cutlet) and some cheese and fruit. Overall a rather impressive breakfast!

We landed about 15 minutes early, no line at all at at immigration, so I decided a proper sleep would help, so I headed to my semi-regular haunt the airport Sheraton to get four solid hours of sleep. I had just under six hours between flights, and that was way too long to sit in the lounge, and I figured 3.5 to 4 hours in a bed would make me feel human for the flight home.

Crashed as soon as I hit the bed, got four solid hours, and was worth every cent. Off to immigration and security which had zero line, and I actually had time for 20 minutes in the lounge on the way to the gate. Could have slept more, but had no way to know there would be no lines. Right, on to the flight.

United flight 961
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 14:00, flight time: 8:40
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration N2331U, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 46,185
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,566,247

I’d booked this routing largely to finally try the new United Polaris seats, and decide if this was enough to finally give United a try. Well, they weren’t doing themselves any favours with terrible pre-departure sparkling wine in plastic cups:

‘MURICA sized seatbelts, perfect for someone with a 50-60 inch waist:

We taxied past the new Lufthansa livery…I don’t hate it as much as others do, but think it was a giant waste of branding budget.

The Polaris “wine flights” had gone away two days prior, but they still had the mini glasses, and the excellent flight attendant was more than happy to pour me all three to taste:

Above average salad (I’m always a sucker for a greek salad), and extremely sad appetizer. One sad wilted basil leaf, two slices of underripe tomato , a glop of gelatinous balsamic, and some mozzarella. The mozzarella was good at least…the rest was embarrassing.

I went with the short rib, knowing it would be essentially the same short rib from the last five years. It was, although very overcooked today.

At least dessert was awesome, partly because they had butterscotch for the rock hard ice cream today, and the macarons? Well, they were incredibly stale 🙁

Rather sad cheese plate, but because I’m a sucker for all the varieties they had, I’ll give that a pass!

At this point, the internet STILL wasn’t working, so finally the purser offered me compensation and an apology. The crew was absolutely fantastic on this flight, and really apologetic, but the frequency with which United has problems even on new planes is embarrassing. Nope, I’ll continue to book away from them whenever possible. To add insult to injury, the new compensation offers are laughable and insulting. As a 1K only $75 travel voucher or 3,500 miles? Just insulting for eight hours of missed work time.

Pre-arrival “deli plate” was not bad, and a nice lighter option. There was also a heavier-sounding option of a sandwich, but honestly this wasn’t bad. Though, the silly pre-packaged polaris chocolates are a sad excuse for a dessert.

We landed at Newark slightly early, and pulled into a gate in the B Terminal. It seems like United has been using the B Gates for international arrivals lately, and I assume this is to relieve overcrowding in the C Customs Hall? Anyone have more insight into this?

This was my first entry to the US since getting my Global Entry reinstated on appeal after a rogue agent revoked it, and I was curious to see how it would go. Couldn’t have gone better, nice and quick, and I was literally plane to landside in 10 minutes. Score!

Of course, this meant waiting for the airtrain to Terminal C, and then dealing with Terminal C security, which took 40 minutes even in the TSA PreCheck line. sEWaRk indeed – what a disgrace. Shame this airport and LaGuardia represent our great nation.

United flight 1743
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:19, flight time: 1:19
Boeing 737-700, Registration N54711, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 46,384
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,566,446

The Port Authority, however, appears to be making me into a national hero. Armed with my cell phone, eyes, and ears I shall protect America’s airports!

Oh wait, never mind, apparently that’s Jason’s job, and I’m just Mason.

With that, it was a super nice treat to get a 737 from Newark to Washington National. Back around 2005 this used to be the norm on this route for Continental, but ever since the merger it’s been an endless stream of ERJ-145s with the occasional ERJ-170 thrown in for good measure. So this was a pleasant treat, and a really nice way to end what was a really nice trip.!

Now, with that, I have no travel booked for 4.5 weeks…and I can’t imagine that will last so….stay tuned!!

May 262018
 


Woke up way too early, turned on the iPhone, and as usual the messages started coming in. Emails, text messages…and the notification from TripIt that my flight with Air Namibia from Windhoek to Harare was canceled. UGH. I was already unsettled about this part of the trip given Air Zimbabwe’s recent fleet problem of being reduced to one airworthy plane, but this was a whole new wrench in the works.

It looked like I might be able to fly to Johannesburg and then to Bulawayo, but of course Air Namibia and Air Zimbabwe took no responsibility, and this would be several hundred dollars out of pocket. Too tired to really focus on the impending problem, I did what any sane person would do, and headed around the corner from the Hilton to Slowtown Coffee.

Ok, in fairness I stopped by the Hilton Exec Lounge first, but the caffeine looked unpredictable, and the lounge was filled with loud americans touting their “status” so I made a hasty retreat. Slowtown definitely seemed to be THE place to be in Windhoek this morning:

Plus, a super tasty iced coffee and a pastel de nata and I was much more prepared to figure out what I was doing with the next few days:

I debated just spending another day checking out Namibia, but after four nights I didn’t think there was that much I was going to see, plus the cost of extending the car might get crazy. I decided to head to the airport, fly back to Johannesburg, and decide from there if I could salvage the trip at all.

Back to the airport, up to the Hertz counter, and guess what? Yes, their credit card terminal was down again, so “please write on this paper what you think you should pay for” and that was it. I basically wrote down the four days of rental plus taxes, and decided to see how things went. No one way drop off fee. None of the crazy insurance they tried to push on me in Walvis Bay. I had a feeling this was going to get bad, but at the same time I was pretty confident that American Express would have my back.

Security and immigration took maybe five minutes today, and the airport was a ghost town compared to a few days prior. How much of a ghost town? This is the ENTIRE departures hall:

Short stop in the generic business lounge, which actually had a reasonable variety of snacks and beverages, and a couple bottles of Savannah Dry Cider later, and it was time to board. Our flight today had a total of 60 people, so it would be nice and relaxed.

This time, no complaints about taking pictures, and was able to grab a good shot of our plane while boarding.

British Airways flight 6274 operated by Comair
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 14:55, Arrive 16:45, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-ZWJ, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,935
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,997

No pre-departure drink at all, but right after take off a glass of sparkling wine and a bag of nuts:

For such a short flight, meal service was still done in two parts, with the salad, cheese, and dessert coming first:

In case you’re curious exactly what it was:

Beef, chicken, or veg, and I went with the chicken. Unusual choice for me on a plane, but not only did I go with the chicken but I opted to stick with champagne. It was good – not great – but I was plenty happy with it. Slightly dry like I expect airplane chicken to be, but who knows…maybe I was feeling just a wee bit healthy?

Landed in Johannesburg almost 20 minutes early, got a bus gate, and it was time to head back to my hotel…and figure what if anything I was going to doing with the next three nights…since my journeys to Botswana and Zimbabwe looked to be at risk…

May 182018
 


After a nice rest, and waking up with Starbucks at Geneva Airport, it was time to find the SWISS First Lounge. I’d done some online searching, and people on Flyertalk generally seemed pretty unhappy with priority security at GVA as well as the lounge. I decided to leave myself about 90 minutes of lounge time to make my own assessment.

Premium security was pretty quick, and waited maybe five minutes in line. Super efficient. The lounge wasn’t very hard to find, and when I offered my F boarding pass from Frankfurt to Johannesburg the agent directed me through the magic door on the left to the F lounge. Now, maybe it’s not the biggest most impressive lounge in the world…but I had the entire place all to myself! How can you not like that?

I liked the decor – not at all crowded, but not a big fan of the chairs. Just found them a little awkward to sit in and the cushions a little too big and firm. I know, first world problems. Did I mention I had the whole place to myself for the entire 90 minutes?

Plus, the buffet had a really nice cheese setup!

Oh, and macarons! I didn’t try any of the other sweets, but one of the downsides of an empty lounge is you know the food isn’t turning over often and isn’t really the freshest.

The macarons weren’t the freshest, but didn’t stop me from sampling a few while I waited…

After a perfectly nice stay in the lounge (only complaint? it was too warm, but that’s just my personal pet peeve almost everywhere in Europe) it was off to the gates. Boarding was delayed about 15 minutes, but we had a great few of other planes and the mountains in the background while we waited. It’s really hard not to like Switzerland…

Boarding was a complete scrum, but despite boarding 15 minutes late we pushed back only five minutes late. Not too bad at all for a completely full flight…except for the other seat in my row! One empty seat on the plane, and it’s next to me once again. Definitely having some good luck on this trip so far.

Lufthansa flight 1223
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 1:15
Airbus A319, Registration D-AILL, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 29,921
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,549,983

Did I mention it was a gorgeous day and we had an amazing view of Lake Geneva, the mountains, and the airport as we did a 180 right after takeoff?

Yes, 55 minute flight and they served a rather substantial snack. As someone who loves sour cherries, and cheese…esp cheese with fig compote…it was definitely a great snack…and I had to try really hard not to ruin my appetite for the upcoming stop at the Lufthansa First Lounge and flight.

Landed right on time and…we ended up at a remote stand. I saw the driver next to the plane, and he didn’t have any names, but I hoped…and yup, he was there for me! I’ll never complain about a remote stand when I have my own driver!

Given the driver could only take me to the main airport and not the First Class Terminal (boo!) I opted for the B terminal, knowing that would also eventually guarantee me a ride to my plane which was departing from the Z gates. It would be a semi-short visit to the lounge today, so I headed straight to the dining room for some Schnitzel and champagne! Layovers are so trying when you get served a dinner like this…

…and I think Lufthansa must seriously be stalking one of my social media accounts. As I was eating, the lounge attendant came up to me and said “Herr Mayfield, I thought you might want a duck?” Haha, I’m not sure if I find it creepy or thoughtful….who am I kidding, definitely thoughtful!

After a quick shower, I settled in to watch a little tv until the flight…given the programming, a drink was definitely in order. With over 100+ different scotches/whiskeys to try, it’s going to require many more trips through Frankfurt to make a dent in Lufthansa’s offerings!

Off to the plane we go…Porsche tonight.

Rain or not, there’s always something magical pulling up next to the plane in a Porsche and walking aboard like you’re a VIP. No matter how many times I do it, it never gets old!

Only two passengers tonight, which was a bit strange as I’ve found this in the past to be one of the hardest routes for business to first upgrades. Chatted a bit with the other passenger, as well as the flight attendant serving first, and everyone agreed it was an unusually light load. Not going to complain, though!

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:05, Arrive 8:30 next day, Flight Time: 10:25
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYH, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,301
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,555,363

Let’s see, what’s for dinner tonight…I mean, not that I need dinner after the lounge

One thing I like about the length of the Johannesburg flight is it’s long enough to get a good sleep in…and

Like the transfer, it never gets old. Welcome aboard macadamia nuts, champagne, and a simple rose…

I’ll start off by apologizing for the dark pics…I find it much harder with the iPhone taking pictures in a dark cabin. Any tips are, of course, very welcome! Amuse bouche of salmon, creme, and some fig spread….wasn’t a huge fan.

Starters from left to right….the asian beef was super tasty, and just the right combo of flavours and textures. The goat cheese with bell pepper and olive was alright but nothing special. I generally avoid shellfish on planes (except maybe lobster!) but the scallop was surprisingly tasty, and perfectly cooked.

Sad was uninspired, and very surprisingly for Lufthansa several of the leaves were wilted and browning. Unusual for Lufthansa (and the crew) to miss something like this.

As the other passenger chose to sleep, the question wasn’t “do you want” caviar, but “how much do you want” – decided to start with a quarter of the tin, which was already a pretty generous portion!

…followed by another quarter of the tin. I may have a problem.

Very rarely do I do the fist option on planes, but when it’s monkfish I cant resist. I was cooked really well, and lighter than a beef dish would have been. Overall it was really tasty and a good choice.

Oh Lufthansa with your amazing cheese cart and sweet biscuits…there are not words enough to describe how fond of you I am!

Raspberry and yogurt cake with pistachio ice cream…not only was the presentation amazing, it tasted fantastic. Plus, I love pistachio ice cream, so it was extra amazing!

…and as is my custom with overnight Lufthansa first flights a couple of pralines and some Johnny Walker Blue to nod off.

Crew kept the cabin nice and cold at my request (after making sure the other passenger didn’t mind) and I crashed….hard. So hard that my request to not wake me up should I be sleeping had to be honoured, and I was woken up 15 minutes from landing after a solid 7+ hours of sleep. Probably one of the best in-flight sleeps I’ve every had, and a wonderful end to another great flight.

Now, time to hope the immigration line isn’t too long, and spend a couple of days resting and recovering before getting down to work!

May 162018
 


Soooo, off to Southern Africa again for work, this being the fourth trip in as many months. Despite it being a lot of travel, it’s good for the mileage balance, and each time has enabled me to explore slightly different ways of getting there. I know lots of people like the 1-stop flight on South African, but to me it’s just too long in a plane, and South African pulls way too many plane changes to risk getting the old seats.

My favourite route is pretty much via Europe with Lufthansa, but unfortunately this time the nonstop flight to Frankfurt was actually sold out when I went to book! Oh well, connecting in Europe it would be. There was space on the nonstop United flights, but I refuse to pay good money to sit in their absolutely horrid 2-4-2 configuration where you get to play twister with your seatmates to get to the aisle. No ma’am.

Yes, it was an upgradable fare, but there was no guarantee that would clear on United, so I went with the sure thing: a double connection in Europe where I could ensure the middle seat in United’s 2-1-2 configured 767s. Plus, there was a chance I would get “real” Polaris since there were now four of 24 or so planes configured. Unfortunately, no such luck. Right, on to the details you’re actually interested in.

Nobody in their right mind goes to the United Clubs at Dulles at mid afternoon international rush, heaving as they are with Chase credit card holders and more star alliance gold card holders than you can shake a stick at. Being familiar with the shuffle, I decided a stop by the Lufthansa Senator Lounge was in order first. Unfortunately, they’ve switched to serving terrible Prosecco, so I can’t imagine I’ll be going there much longer either. Disappointing.

Next off to Turkish Lounge almost right next door, but they were serving the same awful prosecco so I opted for a moderately ok glass of wine. What they lack for in booze they more than make up for in delicious baklava and turkish bread pudding. Don’t judge. I may have had more than one piece.

Next off to the famous Dulles “moon buggies” for a ride over to the D terminal, where my flight to Geneva was just getting ready to board. Somehow, there were no “gate lice” crowding the boarding lanes, and I was actually first in line just five minutes before boarding. Go figure. Just in time to hear a group of non-revs negotiating with their friend the gate agent and asking her “come on, can’t you move one person so we can sit together?” Ugh. Thankfully, the gate agent played by the rules.

United flight 974
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 17:35, Arrive 07:40 next day, Flight Time: 8:05
Boeing 767-300, Registration N677UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 29,635
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,549,697

Sitting IN my seat when I boarded, but fortunately I was able to move it on top of my monitor. Yup, guess we have no shortage of amenity kits today!

Welcome abord Château l’Oscar 2018 dans plastique.

Meal service started out with, you guessed it, mixed warm nuts and a glass of wine for me. I asked for a flight to try the wines, and was told “they didn’t load them.” Hrumph. Good thing I didn’t ask about the bloody mary cart…

Appetizer of smoked duck with dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, and mustard was almost good, but the duck just didn’t taste right. I give it an A for effort, but just didn’t quite get there. I don’t like that you don’t get to select your own bread anymore, but as the two they give you are my two favourite kinds, I forgive it. Oh, and the salad? One of the best I’ve had on United. Costs so little to improve it to this level I’m glad to see they’ve finally done it. Hopefully this is the new norm.

The five spice short rib and wasabi grits? Well, the short rib hasn’t changed in years, so that was predictable. I didn’t taste any wasabi in the grits, and the sauce on the short rib had absolutely no flavour. Disappointing. Some days this dish is actually pretty tasty home cooking, but not tonight unfortunately.

United gets a C on the cheese course this time. All I know for sure is it was “international” cheese. I’m going to guess a brie, blue, and what tasted like a poor imitation manchego. It’s better than the chedder and swiss they often try to pass off as international, however….

One ice cream sundae, hot fudge, no glass chips.

I was told I didn’t have the option to say no to breakfast, so it was brought to me. I intentionally didn’t sleep on the flight to stay on Washington time in an attempt to battle jetlag, and so far it was working well. Yes, I had a champagne breakfast, don’t judge me…I think it even shocked the crew. Pretty sure they’re not used to getting that request right before landing.

I had a 10 hour layover in Geneva before my connection to Frankfurt, and decided that’s when I would sleep. I tried a new website called www.dayuse.com which offered me a room at the Ibis Palexpo right next to the airport for a very reasonable rate.

Unfortunately, after immigration, I jumped on the shuttle to the WRONG Ibis, and ended up walking back to the correct one, about a 20 minute walk away. The walk was actually nice after being on a plane all night, and when I got there I was ready to crash. But, the room…like many European hotel rooms, was WAY too warm and of course there was no air conditioning since it was April, so I had the pleasure of sleeping in a 25C room. At least after a shower I was ready to completely peace out for five hours.

Overall impression of the hotel? The room was a small cube with barely enough room for the bed and a desk, but it was perfectly functional. This was supposedly the nicer of the two Ibis properties as well. That said, it was a bed, and it was functional for that. The lobby looked to be a bit of a refugee camp with people on long layovers, and lots of small children, but the room itself was quiet. If not for the heat, it would have been absolutely perfect….plus where else can you get a 79 franc room in Geneva for 10 hours?!

Checked out after a wonderful solid nap, well worth every penny, and back to the airport to enjoy the lounge a bit. But first, random snack at Starbucks. Not sure it’s a meal or what, but it was nearly $18…who said Geneva is expensive….

Overall lesson so far: this routing to South Africa works. Flight leaves DC too early to sleep for me, but gets to Geneva just in time that I want to sleep…and sleep came easily. The United 767 certainly isn’t cutting edge, but if you get one of the middle seats it’s not a bad product. Overall, I was happy with my choice, and it was time to head to Frankfurt now!

Apr 082018
 


Yeah, so it was Saturday morning. Woke up. I was having coffee, looking ahead to a completely boring day with zero plans. Sitting around on the couch sounded so, so nice. But it was Easter weekend…and there was really nothing at all going on…people were out of town…and before I’d finished my coffee I was bored. I had managed to resist the idea the day before on Friday (you know, when I could have actually gone there and spent the night) but I had a feeling today would be different.

30 minutes later, I’d grabbed a shower, threw a few things in a backpack, and was out the door. There was a flight to Detroit in 70 minutes, and from there on Delta I could pretty much head anywhere in the world. I’d always wanted to do a spur of the moment trip to somewhere – anywhere – and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So without any plans at all, off to Detroit I went.

Quick Uber to National Airport, check in, through CLEAR with no line, and I was at my gate. I might have even had 10 minutes to spare in the SkyClub, but I was already feeling a bit rushed so decided to head to the gate. Time to head to Detroit, and the great beyond!

Delta Airlines flight 6188, operated by GoJet
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 14:20, Flight Time: 1:35
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N669CA, Manufactured 2004, Seat 4B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 17,013
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,537,075

Boarded right on time (and yeah, I had 15 minutes to spare, I don’t know why I felt rushed) and ended up in seat 4B, which has more legroom than any other seat on the plane as you can see in the pic below. Given that Comfort Plus has free drinks just like first class on a short flight like this, this seat was actually probably BETTER than ended up in actual first.

Both 4C and 4D remained open, so I decided to move over to 4D right before takeoff. Still pretty much unlimited legroom, and DC is one of my favourite places for a window seat. I’m usually on the A-side so get great Pentagon shots on takeoff, but today it was the Jefferson Memorial and the US Capitol:

I’ve been trying to be nicer to my liver lately, so was content with a bag of snack mix and a diet coke. I should have had some Biscoff cookies, but the little Dorito things in the snack  mix are just soooo good!

Landed in Detroit about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and look what was right across from my gate:

I had a few vague ideas where Delta flew from Detroit. I knew about London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris in the evening, but was surprised to see there were actually THREE flights to Amsterdam, one to Rome I didn’t know about, and of course there was also Canada and the rest of the US as well.

Overwhelmed, I headed to the lounge for a snack to explore options. Meatballs, cheese, hummus, and a beer. Giving United’s famous “brown meal” a run for its money:

After looking at how full flights were, I settled on the second flight to Amsterdam. However, as the flight got closer, more and more people started snapping up the available seats, to the point where even if I did get a seat it would be a middle seat in the 1-2-1 configuration. Now, don’t get me wrong, those seats are way better than 2-4-2 on United where people have to climb over each other, but I was really hoping for a solo window seat since I didn’t plan to sleep.

Given the odds from Amsterdam were looking dicey, I took a look back at Paris…and wow…plenty of seats. Choice made, I bought the ticket, and of course was unable to check in online. Tried the counter in the SkyClub, and they couldn’t check me in either since we were only 50 minutes before departure. Time to run to the gate.

Met with the “how did you get through security if you’re not checked in” the gate agent made a production of reminding me she was doing me a favour by checking me in…and just like that it was time to go!

Unfortunately, I was having trouble refunding my Amsterdam ticket online…but did get the very last seat in business class. Fortunately, I could see online they did eventually unload me and I was able to refund it later. Off to Paris we go!

Delta Airlines flight 98
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Paris, France, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 18:11, Arrive 8:15 next day, Flight Time: 8:04
Airbus A330-300, Registration N803NW, Manufactured 2003, Seat 9A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 20,976
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,541,038

Pre-departure “champagne”  – I’m still not sure a $5 bottle of sparking wine is “worth it” in the calories department, but hey, it came in an actual glass and this spur of the moment trip was definitely something to celebrate! I tend to be someone who overthinks things, so being spontaneous is something to celebrate!

Mixed nuts to start off once we were in the air, and a glass of wine. These glasses always look like they shouldn’t be stable in turbulence, but I’ve never had a problem. Also, love that the mixed nuts include pistachios, pecans, and cashews – my three favourite nuts.

Appetizer tray. I know others don’t like business class service on a tray, but it doesn’t bother me. The salad was pretty underwhelming, but the appetizer was phenomenal. I don’t know how they came up with this combo, but “grilled apricots with whipped ricotta, truffle honey and crispy prosciutto” was absolutely amazing. I wanted more. Plus a pretzel roll and tomato/basil bisque soup was super tasty and good comfort food.

Another home run with the main course, pistachio crusted australian lamb rack. It’s pretty rare you get lamb chops on the bone on a plane, but they were also cooked medium (best you can expect on a plane) and the pistachio crust was amazing. This mean alone made me want to do more Delta transatlantics before it goes away!

Cheese and ice cream for dessert. Cheese was nothing special, but ice cream with a little hot fudge is always welcome.

I had decided I was going to stay away the whole flight to avoid jetlag, since we would be landing around 1am east coast time in the US. Given I often stay up that late on weekends anyways, it was definitely easy to stay awake…and allowed me to catch up on tv. I never watch tv at home, so I rely on downloads of the shows I like to my iPad to catch up. Good use of time in the air.

Small mid-flight snack with about three hours to go:

I decided I would have breakfast “for science” but the frittata of potato and gruyere was much better than expected and I ended up eating most of it. The tomato hollandaise was super tasty too. I suspect Delta must have gotten a sale on asparagus and tomatoes this month!

Oh, and since it was still technically midnight body clock time, a glass of champagne with breakfast was welcome. Now that’s a generous pour. The crew on this flight was friendly and fantastic.

Landed 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and up into the terminal where I managed to get a shot of my ride to Paris:

See, it was all fate that I ended up on a flight to Paris! Paris has been waiting for me!

During the flight I had done some searching, and fortunately managed to find a flight home that was wide open. Looked like I would have about three hours on the ground, and then it would be right back to Cincinnati. Found the Air France/Delta transfer desk a short walk from the plane, and they had no trouble checking me in to Cincinnati. We had arrived at the M gates of Terminal 2E, so I would have to head to the L gates if I wanted to use the Yotel lounge, and my flight would of course depart from the K gates.

So, good news first. After some confusion and asking around, managed to find out that the Yotel is actually outside security in the L gates, so I wouldn’t have to reclear security. One of the worst things about how Terminal 2E is designed at Charles de Gaulle is that it has three piers: K, L, and M, each with their own security. As far as I know, there’s no way to transfer between them without clearing security.

So, the Yotel was like 80 degrees, so I’m not sure the shower I took really helped all that much, but I suppose it was better than nothing? The lounge visit also came with 10 euro in food credit, which I used on two large bottles of Evian and a bottle of Orangina. Given how hot it was I think I sweat it all out immediately, but better than nothing. Stopped in a cafe in the terminal for a delicious pain au chocolate and espresso, because hey, when in Paris, and just like that it was time to head to my next flight!

Back on the inter-terminal train to the K gates, and managed to find security…where the line was nearly AN HOUR long. Even the fast track/premier line took almost 30 minutes. Once again, CDG demonstrating what an absolute pain it is as far as being user-friendly.

That said, I do love the retro-futuristic design of the K terminal:

Only had about 10 minutes to wait to board after all the checkin/inter-terminal shuffle, so it was a very nice and quick visit to Paris, but time to head home now!

Delta Airlines flight 229
Paris, France, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Cincinnati, Ohio/Kentucky (CVG)
Depart 10:35, Arrive 13:53, Flight Time: 9:18
Boeing 767-300, Registration N175DN, Manufactured 1990, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,132
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,545,194

Despite the flight being relatively light in business (maybe 2/3) the agent had assigned me a middle section seat towards the back. A polite request and I got 3A. The odd numbered window seats are my favourite because the large “console” part of the seat is next to the aisle, giving you a little more privacy. The downside is, when the seat is at all reclined it can be a bit tight to get out past the console. Bedding, amenity kit, headphones, water were waiting for me when I boarded. It was now about 3am eastern time, and sleep was beginning to sound amazing.

Bubbles…because…celebration…blah blah….

Cool takeoff right over Paris Le Bourget airport:

Yay, more pistachios!

After the amazing appetizer on the way over, this one was a bit more disappointing. I don’t “do” shrimp (aka cockroaches of the sea) but in exchange the salad was definitely and upgrade. Oh, and fresh baguette was just as good as having pretzel bread. The thai coconut soup, however, was outstanding and probably the best soup I’ve ever had on a plane:

Grilled beef tenderloin (a nice medium) and fregola sarda pasta. Definitely well above average for steak on a plane:

The cheese was also much better than the other direction, although I’d expect nothing less for a flight originating from Paris. Morbier, Cantal, and Pavé d’affinois with a bit of chutney. Oh, and of course I didn’t pass on the ice cream.

Having eaten, and now about 430a body time, I absolutely passed out for the next five hours and had a wonderful nap. Waking up about an hour before the pre-landing snack was served, a pretty good cuban sandwich:

Hello Cincinnati!

I should probably say that part of what had sold me on Paris was the hope I could take this route back. Back in 1988 the first time I ever flew Transatlantic was on a Delta L1011 from Cincinnati to London Gatwick. Back then, I remember Cincinnati airport being pretty busy, and certainly when I went back in the mid 1990s it was quite busy.

Now, however, it seemed like a bit of a ghost town. We hit immigration right after another flight from Cancun, and now it was time to put Global Entry to the test. This was the first time I would be entering the US since my Global Entry had supposedly been reinstated, so I looked forward to seeing if it was true. The only “evidence” I had was an email telling me that upon review they agreed they would reinstate it and…yup! Went perfectly.

Only one question from the agent when I turned in my receipt of “where are you coming from?”  “Paris.” “Just Paris?” “Yeah, just Paris.” “Welcome home.” Whew, no questions about how long I had been in Paris that would have required an awkward explanation.

To get back to the gates TSA was right in the arrivals area, but unfortunately no PreCheck, no CLEAR, so off come the shoes, out come the laptops, etc etc. Ugh. But the cool thing was, right after this it was an escalator up right to the departure gates. I could have probably even pulled off a 30 minute transit here if I needed to.

But, that done, I had time for Starbucks. Yay!

This airport has certainly seen busier times. View from the SkyClub:

Time to board the flight back to DCA. Gracias and Merci Delta for a fun trip!

4D once again, the same seat I had on the way to Detroit just…24 hours prior. Wow, this had really been a whirlwind.

Delta Airlines flight 6214 operated by GoJet
Cincinnati, Ohio/Kentucky (CVG) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive 17:28, Flight Time: 1:28
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N354CA, Manufactured 2002, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,544
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,545,606

Cool Kalitta Charters II 727 on taxi:

Lots of great plane spotting on the taxi with all the cargo that moves through Cincinnati, so that made having a window seat really worth it.

Quick hour flight to DCA, nothing special, no beverage service “due to the length of the flight” though water was available to anyone who requested it. The guy sitting next to me asked for a beer, but was told no. Kinda defeats the purpose of Comfort+ except the added legroom.

Overall, I felt really privileged to have been able to do something so crazy. Would I do it again? Most definitely – but it surprisingly took a bit more out of me than I thought it would. It was a great excuse to be lazy, catch up on tv watching, and just enjoy flying for the sake of it. Now, time to do it again soon!

Mar 112018
 


Unfortunately, it turned out that the Starbucks in the lobby of the Le Meridien didn’t open until 8am on Sundays, and with a 10a flight and unpredictable traffic I felt that would be cutting things too tight. Set the alarm for 715am, and was out the door at 745am, and really debated waiting 15 more minutes since Google maps was still showing a quick 22 minutes with no traffic to the airport.

However, when I got out the front door of the hotel, I was very glad I hadn’t waited. All the streets around the hotel were closed off for some kind of running race, and I had to walk several blocks to find an Uber. Fortunately, my Spanish has improved enough I could ask one of the helpful and plentiful police offers where the best place to walk to to get an Uber was, so I really only lost about 10 minutes.

Google Maps was, fortunately, correct, and I arrived at the airport around 830am. I had checked in online, had a mobile boarding pass on my phone and a gate number, so I headed for what looked to be a mercifully short security line. Looks were only mildly deceiving, and by 845am I was past security and right beyond was the most magical of sites…with prices 50% higher than in the city, of course.

United flights left from an area of about eight gates that seemed to be a bit of a Satellite Terminal, and apparently the United Club is in a totally different part of the airport? I’m not sure if this is always the case, but it seemed to be an incredibly nonsensical arrangement. Waited around in the seating area with other passengers, before spotting an Avianca Lounge right next to my gate. It was nothing special, but it was quiet and uncrowded, so made the last 15 minutes before boarding more comfortable.

I had debated switching to the nonstop flight to Dulles which left 15 minutes earlier, and the United app was letting me make the change for free under the 24 hour confirmed change waiver for elite members, but when the only seat left was 3F I decided to pass. Being stuck in a window seat for four hours is my idea of not fun, and I had the whole day, so decided to stick with my original routing.

Even more strange, this A319 had the usual 12 seats in first, but only 8 passengers booked…and no waitlist. This couldn’t be for real, could it? We would actually go out with empty seats up front? 2A and 2C were still open, so I switched myself to 2C in hopes that 2A would stay open, and sure enough it did! I can’t remember the last time I had an empty seat next to me in domestic/regional first/business!

United flight 1025
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 10:05, Arrive 12:23, Flight Time: 2:18
Airbus A319, Registration N821UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 15,417
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,535,479

Being my first time flying in Mexico, there were lots of new and fun airlines to see on taxi. Here’s Viva!

I loved this view right after takeoff of all the planes sitting around:

I was glad to be getting back a little early since I had a surprise hockey game that night, and was glad to see that United had taken that into account when ordering their napkins. I mean, I do qualify as a superhero, right?

This is also a good point to mention the crew. This was one of the most attentive and attention to detail crews I’ve ever seen on United, and he actually set up the four napkins as a “placemat” first before setting down the drinks and nuts. Yes, he even faced the logo on the can and the glass towards me intentionally. Definitely a first from United! Doesn’t make a difference, but reflective of someone who has pride in their job which always makes a customer service interaction much more pleasant!

There were two choices, and I don’t remember the other, but one was described as a pesto chicken with risotto. I don’t do chicken that often on planes, but they had me at risotto. It was definitely way mushier than risotto should be, but I have very low expectations for risotto on a plane, so overall the meal was definitely above average….and the cake was super tasty. The salad, however, was like far too many airplane salads and wilted and gross. I gave it a miss.

Nothing much to say about the flight. The cool thing was, the flight was SO short that I was able to use the Mobile Passport app right after the door was closed (and I was sure information had been transmitted by the airline to CBP) and had already been ok’d for immigration/customs by the app before even leaving the ground. That made the flight much less stressful after my recent experience in Boston.

Sure enough, immigration was a breeze in Houston, found my way out and upstairs to the E gates checkin area, where there was absolutely nobody in the security line. There was no CLEAR line (does anyone know where it is in Houston?) but with no line it didn’t matter. Went through the metal detector, and once again I got the beep for random screening. Either these are much more frequent lately, or I’ve just been winning the jackpot a lot.

Unfortunately, today, there was a problem. The residue swab on my bag came back positive for explosives, which meant we were going to have some fun. Out of my bag came everything remotely electronic for a hand examination, and a rescanning piece by piece. I also got the extra super-friendly patdown by an agent. I have to give this particular agent credit, because he was excellent in giving the explanation step by step of what he was going to do and explaining that I had the right to go to a private area for the screening.

I told him “I lost my shame long ago – go for it” and he laughed and continued very professional, and in a manner that was more, um, “friendly and familiar” than many dates I’ve been on. As he finished, he thanked me for my cooperation and told me I was good to go. I came up with “wait, all that and I don’t even get a Happy Valentine’s Day or a cigarette afterwards?” It was good for a laugh, and it was nice to see a TSA agent with not just a personality, but also not on a powertrip like so many of the ones I’ve come across.

Trekked over to the D gates, and of course, a glass of Veuve Clicquot in the American Express Centurion Lounge:

Only time for a quick stop and glass of champagne, and then the long trek back to the C Gates for my flight to DC, which fortunately was right on time. Group 1 was absolutely packed today, and the agent announced that “because we have over 40 1K members on our flight today, I appreciate your patience in only boarding when your group number is called.” Wow. According to the app there was only one upgrade, and it was the gentleman sitting next to me. He was a friendly guy, and mentioned he was Global Services on pretty much a full fare last minute economy ticket, and that three of his colleagues who were also Global Services were sitting in the back. That’s a Sunday flight back to DC for you!

United flight 589
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 14:38, Arrive 18:35, Flight Time: 2:57
Boeing 737-700, Registration N24702, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 16,607
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,536,669

Shortly after takeoff drinks and mixed nuts were offered as usual:

If I’d been impressed on the flight from Mexico City to Houston, this flight would turn out to be the exact opposite. This was billed as a “Cobb Salad” and was a disgusting pile of romaine lettuce, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, a hard boiled egg, and a bowl of some rather nasty looking chicken.

Giving credit where credit is due, the chocolate cake and pretzel roll were tasty as usual.

That ends a rather average trip with United. For some reason, mainly that I didn’t have much domestic travel, I found myself scrambling in late 2017 to make the minimum four segments with United to requalify for status, and now I’d done 7 flights in under three weeks! Overall, I’d say not much has changed. The experience is still wildly inconsistent, from the hard product, to the staff, to the meals. There are some that do really well and impress, most are just average, and a couple are significantly disappointing. I guess overall that’s domestic air travel these days in a cut-price environment with little real competition.

No travel likely in the next month (hooray!) so I’ll be writing a few think pieces for the blog, but get ready for a trip report in a few weeks back to Southern Africa, and likely to include South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, checking out new places in each country that I haven’t visited before.

Epilogue: two days after getting home, I woke up to an email from CBP, approximately six months after I filed an email appeal of my NEXUS/Global Entry revocation. The email was short and sweet: “A review of your membership by the CBP Ombudsman has been completed, resulting in the reinstatement of your Trusted Traveler membership.  Please contact the enrollment center if you have any future membership questions.”  WINNING!

Mar 082018
 


So, I had to go to Mexico City for work. To be honest, I was actually really looking forward to it because despite having been to every country, and living right next door, I cheated on Mexico. It was actually the third country I went to; my aunt lived in Tucson for years when I was a little kid, and we used to go and visit, and after me whining and begging several times I finally convinced the family to hop across the border to Nogales. Remember, this was the early 1980s, so the concept of needing a passport as an American was kinda crazy.

Then, fast forward to college, and a group of friends went to a friend’s beach house in Ensenada, Baja California. Had a few great days and actually a bit more of a local experience, but still kind of cheating. Then, on a trip to Orange County we made a day trip to Tijuana. Walked around, had great food at restaurants that were all locals, but again….still doesn’t quite count.

I won’t even mention the ill-advised trip to Cancun.

So, yeah, I’ve definitely been to Mexico, and have no issues with “counting” it, but I still felt like I really needed to have more of a Mexican experience. Between my little tastes, and having been to lots of other countries, I was pretty sure I had a really good idea what it was going to feel like, so I was curious to see if I was right.

I’ll split this report into three parts: the trip there, a short report on my six days in Mexico City (4.5 of which were work), and finally the trip home.

Quick cab to the airport, no line at CLEAR, and realized I had nearly an hour left to kill before boarding. I’m generally not the type to go gaga for airport lounges, but since I had the time decided to do something I never do: lounge hop.

Airport train to the B gates, and a short walk ahead was the wonderful Lufthansa Senator Lounge:

Strawberry raspberry nutella AND a completely empty lounge due to being between the ANA and evening flights? Yes PLEASE!

Artsy shot thanks to the empty lounge. Unfortunately at this hour the “champagne” is a rather crappy cava and the raspberry nutella scone didn’t taste like nutella at all. Major sad panda.

No time to waste with only an hour to waste to do all the lounges, so off to the Turkish lounge. On the way, I nearly lost my lunch:

Short walk later, I was at the Turkish lounge, which people seem to rave about:

Bad news: same crappy cava. Good news: delicious baklava and a relatively-empty lounge.

I still wonder where this mystery staircase in the lounge goes. Perhaps I should have explored:

Walk all the way down to the A gates, catch the train to the C gates, and time for a quick stop at the United Club. *hums* one of these things is not like the other…

Lest anyone thing I was a giant pig, I woke up, went for a run, and ate nothing before getting to the airport – so was really hungry!  …yes, and thirsty!

United flight 484
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 15:19, Flight Time: 3:34
Boeing 757-200, Registration N14118, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,891
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,533,953

According to the app there were over 40 people on the standby upgrade list, so was very happy that I’d managed the night before to do a free same day change onto this flight. Always nice to have lie-fat seats on a domestic flight even if just for the legroom. Having already had my palate wrecked in the United Club preflight, I opted for a pre-flight prosecco:

It was also Valentine’s Day, and I got an e-mail card from the CLEAR team at Dulles. Awkward.

Once in flight, out came the warm nuts. Glass of red wine? Consider it handled.

All these years I’d never had the famous burger, so decided to experiment. Honestly, it was decent. There are lots of amazing burger places in DC so my standards are pretty high, but given this was a plan it wasn’t bad at all…and came on a pretzel bun. With a pretzel rolls on the side. Uh…oh.

Points also for a very fresh salad, and reasonably tasty cheesecake.

Landed a bit ahead of schedule in Houston, and I realized I’ve somehow managed to avoid this airport for nearly five years. We landed at some newish C Gates which were really bright and airy – a nice change for Houston. Spotted this 787 on my way to the D Gates to try and find the Centurion Lounge:

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

Finally found the lounge, which like most AmEx lounges these days was heaving and about to burst at the seams. Had to wait in line behind a family of SIX to get in, so good to see that problem has been solved. Not.

Oh well, a glass of Veuve Clicquot made it a bit better:

On the way to find my plane at the E gates, I was informed the Polaris lounge was coming soon. Giggle. Snort. Hah. Moving right along…

How can this be….absolutely no gate lice on the flight to Mexico City?!

United flight 1092
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 17:44, Arrive 20:05, Flight Time: 2:21
Boeing 737-800, Registration N12216, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,654
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,534,716

Today’s load was a full 20 in business class (18 of which were upgrades according to the app) and a grand total of 24 people in economy. Wow, now that’s an empty 737! Pre-flight glass of Chateau L’Oscar to start:

The “meat and rice” – uhhh….at least it tasted better than it looked? Once again, a nice fresh salad.

Overall, it was a pretty typical domestic/regional first/business experience today. Food was maybe a slight bit better than I was expecting, and the international 757 to Houston was definitely a welcome bonus. Also, can’t neglect mentioning that both crews were excellent – friendly, efficient, and helpful. Definitely a real asset to United. Now, let’s get to the main event and check out Mexico City!!