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!

Jun 052018
 


Time for another throwback post, this time back to 2008 when I was alerted to a mistake fare that Lufthansa had published. The fare was meant to be for DC to Helsinki, but when publishing it in the list of permissible connecting cities they accidentally put the code for Johannesburg. This meant that for a “normal” sale business fare to Helsinki you could add in several more miles earned plus have the chance for a 12 hour stop in Johannesburg! Back in the younger days when I flew more just for the adventure this sounded like a wild deal. I was sold!

Of course, I had nearly 14 hours in Frankfurt on the way to Johannesburg, and that just wouldn’t do at all. At this point I was at only 63 countries visited, so I started looking if there was a sidetrip from Frankfurt that I could pull off within 14 hours. Noticing the frequent flights from Frankfurt to Zurich, I decided that pulling off Liechtenstein would be possible, so a quick booking and I was set to try it!

Fast forward to the flights were relatively uneventful, so few details. Fortunately I was into Frankfurt on time and had no trouble making my connecting on SWISS. Fortunately, since they were both on separate tickets it could have been trouble. This was also in the dates before inflight WiFi, so it’s not like I could just log on and cancel the SWISS ticket if we were going to be late.

Fortunately, no problems.

United flight ???
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart approx 17:30 Arrive: approx 7:00 next day, flight time: approx 8 hours
Boeing 767-300, Registration N657UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 6K

SWISS flight 1071
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 10:20, Arrive: 11:20, flight time: 1 hour
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPY, Manufactured 1996, Seat 10F

Landed right on time in Zurich, and I had exactly 7.5 hours between flights to go see Liechtenstein. Down to the train station in the airport, and a first class ticket to the Swiss town of Sargans purchased. It was just over an hour to Sargans, where upon arrival I bought a connecting bus ticket to take me the rest of the five miles or so into Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

First impressions, a bank with some very modernist architecture:

More walking, and I was really impressed by just how green everything was:

This was around the time it seemed like every city had to have statues that represented the city, painted a bunch of different ways. DC had its donkeys and elephants, Berlin had its bears, and apparently Liechtenstein has its….cows.

…again just how green it was. But brrr, it was mid-August and everyone was still in jackets.

Herzlich willkommen!

Small tourist train running around Vaduz:

After walking around for around three to four hours, I decided to walk back to Switzerland, you know, as one does. There haven’t been a whole lot of international borders I’ve crossed by walking!

Old wooden bridge between Vaduz and Switzerland:

Apparently, the local graffiti artists are less fond of Switzerland:

…and walking back into Liechtenstein one more time for good measure:

…and back into Switzerland. How many different border signs can I find!

…just one more, I swear!

Caught the bus on the Swiss side back to the train station, and back to the airport in plenty of time to relax in the lounge for a bit before flying back to Frankfurt. Very productive stopover!

SWISS flight 1076
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55, Arrive: 20:00, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPS, Manufactured 1997, Seat 36A

No need to clear immigration since at this time Switzerland wasn’t in an immigration union with the Schengen countries, so got to stay in the international area the whole time, and plenty of time for a stop by the lounge on the way to the plane. Best part of the flight down to Joburg? I was so exhaused from sleeping on the plane the night before and walking around all day that I passed out. Plus, this was the old 747-400 configuration with 4D, the solo seat in the nose that people used to call the “Captain’s Chair” because it was in the middle of the deck.

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:35 Arrive: 8:50 next day, flight time: 10:15
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

This was also in the days before the Gautrain, so I had to hope a shared bus taxi into the city, which dropped me right at Nelson Mandela Square. Looks just the same as it does now 10 years later! I had a great lunch Al Fresco while walking off the jetlag as much as possible before heading back to the airport to fly right back to Frankfurt!

Most awkward part about flying back to Frankfurt? It was the same plane I had come in on in the morning, and I had exactly the same seat heading back! Third straight night sleeping on a plane, and fortunately the seat was still form-fit to me so I quickly passed out and slept just about the entire way to Frankfurt. Three nights in a row on planes will do that!

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55 Arrive: 5:25 next day, flight time: 10:30
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

Lufthansa flight 3102
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 9:35 Arrive: 12:55, flight time: 2:20
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4C

Spent the first day in Helsinki walking off jetlag and playing tourist a bit, and then it was time to head to Estonia for a night. I’d never been on a helicopter before, so it seemed the way to go!

Loading the baggage….much easier than a plane!

Excited to be boarding my first helicopter. Back in 2005 Copterline had a crash on this route killing all 20+ aboard, but I wasn’t nervous for some reason….I’m not sure why, but…

Copterline flight 140
Helsinki, Finland (EFHE) to Tallinn, Estonia (EECL)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 17:20, flight time: 20 minutes
Augusta Westland 139 Helicopter, Registration OH-HCR, Manufactured ?, Seat 2A

Look at those views! We passed over the Tallink Ferry, which would be our ride back to Helsinki the next day:

After landing at Tallinn City Hall Heliport:

One last evening picture…back when it was cool to have holes in your jeans, I know…

Took the more direct route home, not via South Africa, and really did make the most of a five day weekend! Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, South Africa, Finland, Estonia…any trip where you have more countries than days is pretty successful!

Lufthansa flight 3103
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 13:40 Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 2:30
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2F

Great surprise….an operational upgrade at the gate to first class for the last segment back to DC. What a great way to end what was a fantastic trip!

United flight 933
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 19:44, flight time: 8:44
Boeing 777-200, Registration N768UA, Manufactured 1995, Seat 1A

Hopefully these throwback posts make an interesting read – I’d love to see how some of these places have changed with time – share your stories!

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!

Mar 222018
 


For those who might not be aware, the European Union (EU) has a regulation known as EU261 which mandates that airlines pay you cash compensation for flights to/from Europe that suffer lengthy delays or cancelations. Basically the compensation ranges from 250 to 600 euros, based on the length of the delay and length of the flight. Longer flights (generally intercontinental) receive the higher payments as do ones with longer delays or cancelation.

Sound too good to be true? It isn’t really. I’ve had it paid multiple times. However, airlines being corporations they do devote a significant amount of time/energy to legally trying to worm out of paying you. Some airlines, however, are great about this. I thought I would outline some of my more memorable experiences, and seek your feedback on yours.

Blah, blah, I’m not a lawyer, this isn’t legal advice, and my experiences might not match yours.

Brussels Airlines: My very first experience with EU261 was with Brussels airlines. I had arrived in Brussels on an overnight redeye flight on United, connecting onto a Brussels Airlines flight to Cotonou, Benin. After about an hour of delays, the dreaded “cancelled” popped up on the gate monitor. Brussels was kind enough to send those of us in business class back to the lounge, and showed up shortly with hotel and meal vouchers. 24 hour delay, flight would go the next day. When we got to the gate next day, there was a pre-filled letter for us to add some details, and that was it. They actually encouraged us to apply for, and although it took nearly three months they did pay, the required 600 euros for this delay. WELL DONE!  GRADE: A

American Airlines: Long story short, my Chicago to London flight arrived late leaving me only 30 minutes to connect to Accra, Ghana on British Airways. While we were in flight, American had decided FOR ME that this wasn’t enough time, and rebooked me…the next day…IN COACH. As soon as the agent told me this in the jetway upon deplaning I decided to run for the gate. I made it with 100+ people still to board, but they had given away my seat and the flight was full. BA would do nothing. Fought with the American transfer desk for an hour before giving up and going to the lounge where an amazing agent took care of me. American corporate, however, refuses to pay EU compensation, arguing that I “wasn’t late” because my flight was on time. After nearly two years of arguing the best I got was a crummy $100 voucher. I tried appealing it through multiple firms, and none of them could get American to pay. FAILING GRADE, and a large part of why I won’t fly American unless necessary. GRADE: F

United Airlines: London to Washington Dulles, 4pm flight canceled. They offered me coach (I had been booked in first) in a middle seat 15 hours later…easily qualifying for 600 euros. United claimed they were not obligated to pay since they offered me economy within 3 hours. (False, since must be in the same class). They quickly, however, offered a $400 voucher with little argument. Given it was pretty easy to get and I knew I could use it, I took it. GRADE: C

TAP Portugal: Praia, Cape Verde to Lisbon to London to Washington DC. Similar to American above, my TAP flight arrived in Lisbon late, with only 30 minutes to connect. I didn’t find out until boarding my connection to London that they’d already given away my seat and “the computer won’t let us put you back on it.” Similar to American, TAP refused to pay compensation because “we offered you another option” which was in business class and not first. Round and round and never got a penny of of them. Yes, legally the case is air tight, but I’m not exactly about to file a case in Portuguese court for under $500. I have a chain of over 200 emails on this one, and nothing will get them to pay. GRADE:  F

SATA Air Azores: my Azores to Boston flight was cancelled, and I was put on one two hours later – not enough to qualify for compensation. However, delivering me to Boston late caused me to miss my connection to DC and arrive DC nearly eight hours late. Instead of paying the required 400 euros, SATA decided (in a chain of over 200 emails) to play lets make a deal. First they offered me a 100 euro voucher. Then 200. Then a free one-way ticket in business class anywhere they fly. After rejecting all their offers the finally offered a “goodwill payment” of only 300 euros. I decided to cut my losses at 200 emails and take it. Of course, when it appeared in my account they shorted me nearly 10% on the exchange rate, but at this point it was enough. So, I got 75% of what I was entitled to with a lot of pain….GRADE:  D+

Lufthansa: DC to Munich and then Cairo. Arrived in Munich right on time, departed Munich with a 3 hour 15 minute delay. Arrived at the gate in Cairo precisely 3 hours an 2 minutes late…but Lufthansa was crafty and listed the official arrival time as only 2:58 delayed. It took them a month to answer my email, but when they did all they asked for was my address and promptly cut me a check for the full 400 euros with no questions asked. I assume it will actually arrive.  GRADE: A+

Have you applied for EU261 compensation? Did you get it? How easy was it?

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!!

Mar 072018
 


As I mentioned in the last post, the Mobile Passport app had refused to let me report in, leading me to wonder if it was just a systems error (perhaps due to the federal government shutdown that was underway?) or a sign of something more ominous.

Having never had to actually go through normal lines in over five years, thanks to Global Entry and Mobile Passport, I was completely unsure what to do when I arrived…so I followed the line for US Citizens. I know this is probably boring to a lot of people since it’s what most travels do every time they return to the country, but it was new to me.

Turns out you report in at a machine now that is very similar to Global Entry, but there’s no biometric scan. You still scan your passport, the machine takes your picture, and spits out a receipt that you then get in line to show to an agent. I guess what this does is automates some of the data entry the agent used to have to do, and makes a determination.

My receipt spit out line this, and it’s the same “X of Doom” that I’ve gotten at Global Entry before, so I knew I was in for hell. At this point I only had about forty minutes to connect to my next flight, so I was pretty sure I was screwed:

Took nearly 15 minutes to reach the front of the queue and get to an agent, and I was very fortunately to get a very pleasant and helpful agent. The usual questions. Asked what I’d been up to in Cairo, explained it was just one night on the way to Germany for vacation, which made total sense to him. But then: “unfortunately my friend, you’ve won the lottery today. Please wait here against the wall, and someone will be by shortly to escort you to secondary inspection.” Whee, the automated system had decided (most likely) that my one day in Cairo was a lil too sketchy for them, so I feared the same four hour interrogation I got last time I took this route. I was preparing for the worst…and knew my connecting flight was a lost cause.

“Shortly” turned out to be nearly 30 minutes, and finally a pleasant agent came to get me…with a train of eight other suspects behind her. Me, two teenagers who looked to be somali, a pair of women in abayas, a couple of young African men, an older Pakistani gentleman with a grey beard died orange, and what appeared to be a rastafarian. Clearly I’d gotten the “profiling” flag…..

First stop was to drop six people off for what appeared to be baggage inspection. That wasn’t to be my fate. Me, one of the Somali teens, and the older Pakistani guy were led to another area, and told to “have a seat over there.” I sat for what was probably 30-45 minutes, until what I have to admit was a very professional agent came out with all three of our passports. After a quick glance at them, he beckoned me over first. I guess the shady American was likely to be easier than the foreigners…

What seemed to be a very well rehearsed series of about a dozen questions, he took notes on the back of my receipt, then actually said sorry for the hassle…have a good day. I suspect what ever auto flag I tripped he decided “oh, just one of those crazy frequent flier kids flying weird routes for fun” and let me go.

Finally checked my phone, and yup, despite still being 10 minutes prior to departure United had rebooked on on a later flight from Boston-Newark-DCA…in coach. WTF. A quick check of ExpertFlyer confirmed F was available – although points to United for confirming me on what was the quickest routing. Quick call to United got me moved back up business what I had paid for (why they didn’t rebook me automatically was a mystery…since the same class was available) so no giant inconvenience. I would get home a bit over three hours later, via Newark instead of Chicago…and unfortunately miss my hockey game. Boo!

Boston might be one of the most awful airports to transit in, and the walk from the international terminal to United’s terminal took forever, and required a walk outside, walk through the JetBlue checkin area, then past this flying banana:

By the time I got to the United Club, I was a sweaty mess, and of course there were no showers. No worry, was able to relax, clean up, have some water, before setting off in search of what would be much-needed caffeine. One huge plus for Boston, the United terminal had not just a Starbucks, but also a Peet’s and a Dunkin‘! I love choice!

Off to the gate after a long wait, and it was time to fly to sEWaRk…

United Express flight 3622 operated by Republic Airlines
Boston, Massachusetts (BOS) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 17:29, Arrive 19:05, Flight Time: 1:36
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N733YX, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,502
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,564

Absolutely nothing to say about this flight. It was on time, there was a snack basket, crew was friendly and efficient and offered multiple refills…about all you can ask for for a short last minute regional flight.

Quick stop by the United Club for some water and a glass of whine, before boarding the last flight of the night, which I prayed would be on time.

United Express flight 3722 operated by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 20:30, Arrive 21:50, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N746YX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,701
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,763

On time, with wine and a refill…nothing more to say! Fortunately, considering all that had gone wrong, I really can’t complain much about getting home the same day. In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty mild drama!

Next up, a short post on my recent work trip to Mexico City!

Feb 262018
 


Woke up in the morning, and saw the first two trains of the day to Frankfurt had already been canceled. This was an ominous sign. The weather definitely seemed better today, but the worst of the wind was supposedly quite a distance south. Oh well, we’ll see what the day brings!

Walked to the U-Bahn to head over to Starbucks, and the sidewalks were completely clear this morning. Definitely a huge improvement over the day before. There didn’t seem to be much wind, so I was pretty hopeful that my train would go as planned today. In order to get to Frankfurt with plenty of time to rest and relax in the evening, I had booked myself on the 13:30 train to Frankfurt so I could sleep in a bit as well as have plenty of time to get dinner in Frankfurt.

After Starbucks, same routine as the day before. A bit like Groundhog Day – back to the Westin to pack up, walked to the U-Bahn thanks to the clear sidewalks, train to Hauptbanhof, get to the platform…just in time to see the train delayed by 5 minutes. Then 10 minutes. Then 15 minutes. Then 20 minutes. Then 25 minutes, and then a phrase popped up on the board which I unfortunately added to my German vocabulary on this trip: “Zug fällt aus” – train canceled. Here we go again.

Rebooked myself via the app on the 14:30 train, which was at least kind enough to cancel on me 10 minutes before departure. This was getting frustrating. Ok, one last chance, I’m going to book myself on the 15:30 train, which was conveniently already delayed 30 minutes:

It was cold in the station, so I retreated to where else – Starbucks – for a nice warm coffee. I don’t know who this Justin character is, but I seemed to get his coffee an awful lot in Germany.

At this point I was getting a little nervous about getting to Frankfurt and potentially missing my flight home the next day. A quick check of the United app showed that the 20:00 Hamburg to Frankfurt flight had cheap award seats, so I booked one as a backup plan. It was a direct shot on the U-Bahn to the airport, so I decided if I didnt make it on the 17:30 train I would hightail it to the airport and figure out how to eventually refund my train ticket.

Fortunately, as predicted and only about 15 minutes later than the predicted time, there was much rejoicing on the platform. Surprisingly, the train was only about half full despite the seat map being completely full. I think lots of people had made several sets of backup plans.

Eventually we left, which called for a celebratory beer. Who know it would be so hard to catch a train!

Other than that, it was pretty uneventful. We didn’t make up much time, and by the time I got to Frankfurt it was almost 20:00. I was tempted to stay in and call it a night, but then I remembered I could sleep the entire flight back the next day if I really wanted. So, off to Naïv for some beer and tasty flatbread!

Finished off with a nice heavy Imperial Stout as an Auf Wiedersehen to Germany!

All in all, things worked out fine. I was really looking forward to the full day I was supposed to have in Frankfurt to head down to the Technik Museum in Sinsheim to see the Tupolev and Concorde as well as the Technik Museum in Speyer to see the Space Shuttle Buran, but I guess that will have to wait for a future trip. At least it’s a relatively easy trip from Frankfurt.

Perhaps next time, I’ll do a different loop from Frankfurt for a week, taking in some of the south and east of the country, maybe including Hannover, Bremen Köln, Stuttgart, and Munich….food for thought.

But for now, it’s time for the flight home in Lufthansa First!

Feb 102018
 


One thing I like about flying to Europe out of DCA is that it requires a connection, which means any thoughts of going into the office are unrealistic. Got a bit of work done from home, had plenty of coffee, and despite sleeping in managed a very leisurely stroll to DCA to catch my initial flight to Chicago in order to get this thing started!

My favourite part of DCA is the old Continental President’s Club, which has become the United Club. The grand ceiling of the main room, and now that there’s the smaller “hidden” room in back it doesn’t feel quite so crowded. Of course, had to start the trip with a little “caviar” – United style:

Decided against all that corn and beans since I’d be spending the next 12+ hours on planes, I opted instead for some cheese cubes…and some pepper strips to get some vitamins:

I had noted on the seatmap that despite first class being full, economy was only booked to about 30 people – completely empty! I considered moving back and taking a whole row to have a little more space, but decided not to risk it with snacks and drinks.

United flight 1264
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 11:45, Arrive 12:56, Flight Time: 2:11
Airbus A319, Registration N892UA, Manufactured 2006, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 612
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,520,674

Interesting options in the snack basket today, so I opted for the fat free, gluten free, low sodium, low taste gummi bears knowing I would get much much better ones in a few days in Germany.

Beyond that, it was a typical, boring short domestic flight so I’ll skip right ahead to why I chose the flight with the 3.5 hour connection in Chicago: to give the Polaris Lounge one more try. This also had the benefit that if there were to be any winter weather surprises, I was leaving myself plenty of cushion before my international flight. No worries today, and we actually arrived Chicago a little bit early, so off from the B terminal to the C terminal to enjoy the Polaris Lounge.

First impression: the lounge was as empty as I’ve ever seen it, which always helps to make a more positive impression. It did fill up quite a bit by the time I left, but initially it was empty. Glass of Veuve Cliquot at the bar to start things off while I finished up a bit of work.

Headed over to the new dining area from there, which is much nicer and more “private” than the previous area. My only small complaint would be that the staff were more “midwest friendly” than refined, which maybe isn’t the best thing in a premium lounge. It isn’t a complaint, just a bit out of line with the experience they’re trying to project. Now, serious, not complaining….when they say things like “I just figured you would have finished your champagne by now so I brought you another!”

The seared tuna tataki was good, with a nice presentation…and the perfect light starter with a big Lufthansa meal coming up:

I had heard many good things about the Blue Door Kitchen Burger, so decided to order it – fried egg and all, and promised myself I’d only have a few bites to try it. It was pretty good, and ended up finishing a bit over half before heading back to the bar to do some pre-flight work so I could hopefully relax and enjoy the vacation a bit more!

Nice chat about the “paper plane” cocktail with the lounge manager, who’s actually been sitting at the bar just about every time I visit the lounge doing some paperwork.

After a nice visit, back through the psychedelic tunnel to the B gates to find my Lufthansa flight. Overall impression of the Polaris Lounge? Blows away anything else in the United States with the possible exception of the JFK American Flagship Lounge. It will be very interesting when (and if) United finishes more Polaris Lounges if they manage to replicate this very high standard.

Long line to board when I went to the gate, and the business class line was super long as well, so I just walked up to the counter, mentioned to the gate agent that I was in first, and was invited to board immediately so I didn’t have to stand in line. Very nice touch by the gate crew.

Lufthansa flight 431
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 16:20, Arrive 7:40 next day, Flight Time: 8:20
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 4,956
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,525,018

My seat was already set up when I boarded, and champagne and nuts made a very quick appearance. I was the only person in first today, and I had a very “old school” crew who did everything by the book and provided a first class experience that was over the top from a service perspective…without being awkward and “too much.” I’m seriously curious what kind of “notes” Lufthansa keeps on their passengers. Despite never having flown with this crew before, they knew several personal touches that they never would have without someone having told them (or read this blog maybe.)

Immediately after posting the above pic to Instagram and Twitter, Lufthansa (always on top of their social media game) was quick to reply:

I sort of find it comical that Lufthansa social media knows me well enough that they dare reply with Beyoncé memes. As I was the only one in first today, the crew had already made up the seat across from me as a bed for when I was ready for it later inflight. The gate agents did upgrade someone from business at the last minute, but I heard them telling the crew “he will just sleep and doesn’t need any service. We just want him to have a private bed.” I don’t know who he was that he got this treatment, but to the crew’s credit I never would have known he was there.

I forget what the amuse bouche was, but I remember it was tasty…

Since I wanted to try and convince myself to be sleepy, I told the crew they could turn the cabin lights dark from the start of the flight so the other guy could sleep. Apologies on the slightly dark pictures because of it. Tonight was an “all the caviar you want” flight, so I just asked for a medium portion. I was more in a sampling mood, and the main course sounded excellent…

Next up were appetizers and salad: herb shrimp with fennel salad and tomato oregano dressing, buffalo style chicken, celery with gorgonzola mousseline and farro salad, and chilled ratatouille parcel with balsamic glaze. Overall, mostly a miss unfortunately. The buffalo chicken was tasty, but the rest “tried too hard” and just wasn’t great.

Finished maybe half the appetizers, which were followed by an amazing bowl of lobster bisque. I think this was intended to be a main course, but with no other passengers, the crew insisted:

Next up, far and away the best airline main course I’ve ever had. Grilled beef filet (a perfect medium) and lobster claw served with mac and cheese. The mac and cheese was just a little spicy, the asparagus was perfectly cooked, and the whole thing was a home run!

Last but not least, a helping of cheese. I was stuffed by this point, but couldn’t turn the cheese down. Good selection:

After clearing the table, the flight attendant serving first offered “can I get you a Johnny Walker Blue, one ice cube as a night cap?” Again, no idea how he would have known that unless he reads this blog or Lufthansa keeps records on their first class episodes.

One quick check of email before calling it a night, and facebook suggested the following filter for a goofy selfie. I think they know what I was up to….

Slept nearly five hours, woke up just in time for some tea and freshening up before landing, and it was time to enjoy some time in the First Class Terminal before my connecting flights.

Jun 112017
 

There was something refreshing about being able to head out at 10p on a Sunday for a work trip instead of leaving on a Friday or Saturday and losing an entire weekend. I was actually able to enjoy my weekend, and only head out to the airport around 7pm to catch my flight to Frankfurt. Only one small problem: I was on a J fare, and while my United upgrade to first cleared at the time of booking, Lufthansa was still holding me on the waitlist to Almaty despite first only being booked to three of eight seats. It looked like I wouldn’t find out my fate until I got to Frankfurt. That said, Frankfurt to Almaty (via Astana) was a daytime flight, and with a 2-2-2 configuration in business it was questionable if it was even worth the upgrade.

This was my first time flying United out of Dulles in about six months, and it was rather pathetic to see how United has completely given up on their first product. Premium check-in is tucked away, and there’s no separate check-in for first anymore. Even worse, the agent I spoke to didn’t know there was a difference! “We just have Polaris class now.” Sigh, it just gets worse and worse. It’s to the point I’ve already more than doubled my premier qualifying dollars, have hit the miles, but still don’t have my required four segments on United. Sigh. They still have the best frequent flier program in Star Alliance, however.

Fast forward to the terminal, and my first task was to find some new headphones. I had left mine somewhere on a recent trip, and had forgotten to order new ones, and by the time I realized it it was mid-day Saturday and I didn’t know anywhere good in my ‘hood to buy them. So Dulles it would be.

After getting to the C terminal on the walk to the Global First lounge, I came across one of those Best Buy vending machines I’ve seen the past couple years. I was intrigued by the novelty, and picked up some wired Beats earbuds from the machine. A few weeks later, and I have to say: they’re really good quality and I’m thrilled with my purchase!

Got to the Global First lounge, which was absolutely packed. It’s my understanding they pretty much let all Global Services members in business class in now, and it was the most crowded I’ve ever seen it. High quality self-service bubbles as always, but what passes for cheese these days is absolutely pathetic. The quality of this club is now firmly below the Chicago Polaris lounge. Next time, I’ll actually go to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B Terminal.

Wait for the flight was uneventful, and soon it was time to board.

United flight 932
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 22:00, Arrive 12:10 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration N219UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 45,736
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,422,613

Shockingly, United First had been booked to eight of eight a full two weeks before this flight. Either they gave away lots of upgrades and awards well in advance, or they actually managed to sell some first fares. Either way, in years of flying United I’ve never seen first sold out on a Europe route before the day of flight.

Nothing says first class like welcome aboard sparking wine in a plastic bottle served in a plastic flute. I know some people actually consider this aspect of “Polaris” charming, but to me it’s charming in the same way that a Costco hotdog is better than cooking a hotdog at home. You can put cheap lipstick on a pig, but this says “no class” way more than “first class.”

Best part of Polaris: the gel cooling pillow. This proactive crew passed them out to the eight passengers in first, and were soon heard telling the passengers behind us in business there were none left. United corporate may be failing to protect United First, but this crew was spot on.

Soon after takeoff the ramekin of warm nuts arrived, complete with a skewered olive, mozzarella, and tomato. I guess its better than just nuts?

“Seared tuna, kale salad with apple and red quinoa, wasabi paste” – while the tuna looked appetizing it was absolutely flavourless, and the wasabi paste looked more like a baby turd. While better than some of United’s previous attempts at a business appetizer (like the single skewered prawn I got once) it still fell way short.

Carrot ginger bisque soup. Giving credit where credit is due, this was perfectly seasoned and actually delicious.

Salad of cabbage, bok choy, carrot, mango. Just…no. Who needs that much raw cabbage in flight. Nothing says first class like cheap shredded cabbage. Since they’re in this picture, I will note, I love the golf ball salt and pepper shakers in Polaris. Also in this picture which I hate: first class service ON A TRAY.

“Seared short rib” with barbecue sauce, basmati rice, carrot, sugar snap peas. I showed this to a friend who agreed the radioactive red colour of the short rib was rather terrifying. Fortunately, it tasted much better than it looked. I normally hate fattier cuts of beef, but something about United’s short rib gets me every time.

Sigh. What United calls a cheese plate. I might have been impressed if not for what you will see later in this post…

Remember when United served ice cream sundaes? Sure, it’s extremely simple, but sometimes it’s nice to have something simple that reminds you of being a kid. Unfortunately, the fancy new Polaris ice cream sundae dishes seem to have a habit of shattering and putting glass shards in peoples’ mouths, so United has replaced the ice cream sundae with cheap mango sorbet in a cardboard container. Gross.

The mini apple pie and chocolate/nut bar were fairly tasty, to be fair.

Nothing more to say about this flight. I chose the flight for three reasons, and United delivered on all three: the late 10pm departure time, a nice cool cabin for sleeping, and generous pours of red wine which enabled nearly six hours of uninterrupted sleep on the way to Frankfurt. Sleep was so good, actually, that I was out cold until 10 minutes before landing. I had ensured the crew 10 minutes would be enough to bring me to life, and they kindly obliged. I feel the need to mention again this crew was fantastic, and it’s sad United didn’t give them more to work with and be proud of.

On the taxi in Frankfurt, an Uzbekistan 767 which I am very excited to be booked on in a couple of weeks:

Upon landing, I pulled up my reservation on Lufthansa’s app, and something had changed. The waitlisted segment had gone away and it looked like it was confirmed it first, but it was really hard to tell. So, I just headed to the first class lounge, and pretended that all was right. The agent was puzzled, and gave me the “but you are booked in business class.” I told them the app told me the upgrade was confirmed, and when they checked a bit more “yes, the gate JUST processed it. Please come in and enjoy.”

Quick shower, where of course I picked up another Saunaente before enjoying a double espresso and glass of bubbles for “breakfast.”

Fortunately for me, my flight today would be departing from a bus gate, meaning I got a ride to the plane. They may have waited until the very last minute to confirm me, but I was going to get the full Lufthansa First service today. Let’s see how it compares to the Untied flight I just came off of.

Lufthansa flight 646
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE)
Depart 13:20, Arrive 22:55, Flight Time: 5:35
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 48,422
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,299

Wow…champagne…and it’s with classy nuts, not in a plastic flute, and I get a rose. I love the little classy touches on Lufthansa.

My ride to the plane…one of the things I love about Lufthansa.

Beef tartar amuse bouche. A bit risqué for an inflight meal, but super tasty with a little creme fraiche.

It may not be the highest quality caviar, but there is something simply elegant about Lufthansa’s caviar service which I love. Plus, they always give me an extra generous helping.

Lufthansa does an appetizer trio, and I admit that usually at least one of the appetizers is a little funky. Today was veal with turnip salad and wild garlic sour cream (super tasty), pomegranate couscous with feta and cashew nuts (also tasty), and the odd prawn cocktail. Odd because it was a single prawn with a creamy sauce that I understand is a german thing. Regardless, compare this (with caviar) with the tuna nightmare United served me, and you can do the maths.

Salad…it’s hard to be too fabulous with salad, and this was just ok. Mixed leaf lettuce with sauteed mushrooms, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds.

Now, I admit I don’t normally think of this as a main course, but when it is Spargelsaison in Germany you can’t pass on the white asparagus entree. I’ve had this a few times now, and I won’t lie – I’ll book trips in May just to have it again. The hollandaise sauce is the perfect accompaniment and the side of smoked turkey breast and cecina de vacuno added just enough protein to make it worth it.

See the United cheese plate above. See the entire Lufthansa cheese CART below. I don’t think anyone does a cheese course like Lufthansa does.

The only reason the plate below is small is because I was stuffed. A couple of the cheeses were wonderful and I would have liked more for sure.

a bit unusual, but delicious: melon strawberry gazpacho with sour cream ice cream. It was so good I asked for more later in the flight, but alas it had all been eaten.

To finish it off, a delicious double espresso with chocolate.

After a few hours of working, I was offered a mezze plate and pretzel before landing in Astana for our brief stopover. Accompanied with another double espresso and some Johnny Walker Blue of course.

Since there was no more gazpacho, it was insisted that I have the tahiti vanilla ice cream with warm cherries. I love cherries, and these were nice and sour and perfectly delicious. Two for two with the desserts tonight. Sure beats pre-packaged mango sorbet!

When we landed in Astana, 90% of the passengers got off. This was quite in contrast to my last time on this flight maybe six months ago when almost everyone was going to Almaty. Today, it would be just me in first class, three people in business class, and according to the crew maybe 40 in economy.

Lufthansa flight 646
Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE) to Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 01:30 next day, Flight Time: 1:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 49,013
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,890

I was offered a snack of some sad sandwiches on the segment, but opted to just relax and have a couple of Johnny Walker Blues before landing. Watched some more tv, and before I knew it another fabulous flight in Lufthansa First was unfortunately over. Now, time to get to Kazakhstan and get to work!