web Musings of The Global Traveller

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reader question - Tahiti

Melissa asks for information on Tahiti.

"We’re off to Bora Bora & Moorea for 10 days – we’re lucky enough to be able to stay in the OWB at both Hilton’s but, not into posh places to eat within the hotels. We’re more into eating where locals go – will have a car in Moorea and will venture around the island, however, got any recommendations for Bora Bora. Also, just how light should we pack? Any info you can throw our way is greatly appreciated!"

Congrats on securing some nice rooms over the water. I can't help you with current suggestions for local eateries, however on the baggage front I have this info.

Air Tahiti, which operates the inter-island flights, has a baggage allowance of 10kg checked (or 20kg if you buy the more expensive fares) and 3kg cabin. Excess baggage is around US$5 per kilo for the round trip if pre-paid.

Can any reader (perhaps Tahiti expert Gary Leff of View from the Wing) help Melissa with more information and advice?

How to get to | Afghanistan

This is part of a series of blog entries on how to get to countries and places. Here is a link to the index. I plan to eventually cover every country and some other places. If you have a request for a particular country or place please use the email me link at top right, or leave a comment.


Source: USAID

There are buses to Afghanistan from Mashhad in Iran. Taxis operate to the border on both sides with Pakistan (the border itself is sometimes closed) and also Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Airlines flying to Kabul include:
  • Star Alliance - none
  • Oneworld - none
  • Sky Team - none
  • Other selected - Ariana Afghan Airlines, Kam Air, Pamir, Safi, Indian, Pakistan

TIP Delhi and Dubai have the most flight options to Afghanistan.

TIP Border rules and travel options can change quickly due to safety and political concerns. Allow sufficient flexibility in your plans to cope with last minute changes.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Not Up in the Air

I haven't yet seen Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as the mileage-obsessed frequent flyer. This delay is not due to lack of interest. Rather I was expecting to see it on the inflight entertainment of one of my flights - I could watch Up in the Air while being up in the air. However, checking the online listings of movies for my upcoming flights I see it isn't included.

Looks like I'll have to go to the movie theatre to see it after all. With over 100 longhaul and mediumhaul flights a year on airlines with fantastic in flight entertainment I normally get to see all the movies I'm interested in while airborne. I think I last saw a movie in a theatre about 4 years ago.

Friday, January 29, 2010

My travel week

Despite now having endured 4 weeks without a single flight, this past week was a good one for travel stuff.

Attend the media launch for Air New Zealand's new longhaul product - skycouch and space seats being the major innovations. See my posts on high level summary, detail of the new longhaul seats, and some implications of the changes.

Have a second look at the Air New Zealand new longhaul product - invited as one of their top frequent flyers.

First hotel stay for the year - initial step for requalifying.

Article for Indietravelpodcast on flight security rule changes.

Book some tickets for travel later in the year.

Prep for the upcoming move of Musings of The Global Traveller to Boarding Area. I hope you'll like the new location and fresh new look.

Work on a new series of posts answering frequent flyer questions.

Count down the days until my next trip. I can't wait - the travel sirens dominate my dreams.

How to get to | Palau

This is part of a series of blog entries on how to get to countries and places. Here is a link to the index. I plan to eventually cover every country and some other places. If you have a request for a particular country or place please use the email me link at top right, or leave a comment.


Source: Peter R Binter

Options to get to the Palau island state are very limited. Continental flies to Koror from Guam and Manila. There are sometimes charter flights from Taiwan and South Korea.

TIP - air fares are high. Star Alliance awards and around the world fares provide affordable alternatives to regular fares, but have limited availability - book as far ahead as possible.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Flying or booking on JetBlue on 29-30 January?

The Wandering Aramean reports significant disruption for JetBlue flyers this weekend due to major reservation system upgrade. This will also affect anyone wanting to make or change a booking. The disruption is expected to start Friday afternoon and finish (hopefully) on Saturday.

Allow lots more time to check in for flights and expect flight delays.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Air New Zealand new longhaul product - some implications

I've already posted some information on Air New Zealand's new longhaul product. This post will cover some of the implications.

Effect on Air NZ

Firstly, I think Air NZ is to be congratulated. They are trying something new to improve the comfort of longhaul non-premium flyers. By differentiating the products they have also acknowledged that not all travellers are alike, and by offering passengers more choice they hope to be more successful. More people attracted to fly Air NZ and more revenue from skycouch and premium economy, means it should be a success. Since they own the intellectual property for the new skycouch (and possibly also the new premium economy seat?) there is also potential for licensing revenue if other airlines decide to take up the same seating.

There are some downsides. The seats cost more and are heavier (thus require more fuel to carry). Instead of managing inventory in 3 separate cabins they have a more complicated job to manage 4 types of seats, with the skycouch being able to be sold as a couch or as normal seats depending on loads. Since it is tricky to predict how well this will sell, and because Air NZ is a fairly conservative airline (despite the apparent contradiction with this revolution), initially the number of skycouch seats is low. This will probably be increased later (as premium economy has been).

There will be a period where Air NZ will have multiple longhaul product offerings which provide vastly different comfort levels.

  • Business class - improved business premier on 777-300ER, original business premier on 777-200ER (until refit) and 747-400, old business class (non-lie flat) on 767. This is not much different from the current status.
  • Premium economy class - new space seats on 777-300ER with high degree of comfort, economy seat with slightly more width and significantly more legroom on 747-400 and the less comfortable version on 777-200ER (until refit), no premium economy on 767 however space+ economy seats are available to elite status frequent flyers and passengers on full fare and provide more legroom than economy. A wide range of product & comfort levels.
  • Skycouch - available only on 777-300ER and refitted 777-200ER.
  • Economy class - 34" pitch & 18" width on 747-400, 32" pitch & 18" width on 777-200ER (until refit), 33" pitch & 17" width on 777-300ER, 35" pitch & 17.5" width in space+ on 767 and 32" pitch & 17.5" pitch for the rest of economy on 767. While 1" doesn't sound like much, every little bit counts for passengers who are tall &/or big, particularly on long flights.

Air NZ will need to work out how to handle customer expectations. Some of this is common sense - not promoting the new product on a route until every flight has the new longhaul product. They also need to consider how to deal with aircraft substitutions. Just as today a flyer who has booked premium economy and chosen a flight operated by 747-400 will be disappointed to end up flying on a 777-200ER, someone who picks 777-300ER for the new premium economy or skycouch seating and gets an inferior option will also be disappointed. A cautious approach is likely, and this means savvy travellers can take advantage (more on this below).

Effect on flyers

Buried in the detail of all the positive news are some negative effects. Economy class will be 3-4-3 across which means a narrower seat. The legroom will also be slightly less than on the 747-400 aircraft which will soon be retired, although I don't see that as problematic given the 777-200ER already has less legroom.

The configuration has more middle seats. Since 22 middle seats are reserved for skycouch customers, the chances of an empty adjacent middle seat elsewhere in the cabin is reduced. The chances of being seated in a middle seat are increased with 44 window and aisle seats taken up with the skycouch. Available window seats in particular, and to a lesser extent aisle seats, are further back in the cabin which may be important to some frequent flyers used to getting seats in the first rows of economy.

Getting a row of economy seats to yourself (the budget skycouch) will be very unlikely on most routes since Air New Zealand's load factors are typically high. This is good for the airline, since those wanting more space are encouraged to pay for it upfront (by skycouch supplement or by upgrading to premium economy) instead of taking a gamble.

For those flying alone, the skycouch is not a good option. For a similar price (ie around 2.5 times fare) they can buy premium economy and get better comfort in seat mode, better food and drink, and more frequent flyer miles. The only advantages skycouch has over premium economy for a single flyer is the couch is flat whereas premium economy only has 9" of recline, and skycouch gives more personal space.

In premium economy, the outer space seats are intended for single flyers with the inner space seats best placed for couples. I doubt there will be any restrictions on selecting your seat based on how many passengers there are in a booking.

The number of premium economy seats are higher than the current configurations. Whether the greater number of seats being sold at much higher fares than economy is enough to offset the greater space per premium economy seat is not yet known. However, despite Air NZ's claims the premium economy fares will not rise with the introduction of the new seat I expect the fares will be higher within a few months, at least once enough aircraft are available to guarantee the new product on a given route. I hope I'm wrong on this, but when premium economy was first introduced Air NZ made strong claims about relative pricing (only 20% above economy fares) which were quickly ignored as fares climbed.

The ratio of the number of premium economy to economy seats is much higher with 777-300ER than the other aircraft. 1 premium economy per 4.5 economy seats (assuming all skycouches are sold) on 777-300ER vs 1 per 6.7 on 777-200ER and 1 per 7.5 on 747-400.

The ratio of the number of business to premium economy seats for 777-3o0ER is in between the other configurations. 1 business per 0.9 premium economy on 777-300ER vs 1 per 0.7 on 777-200ER and 1 per 1.2 on 747-400.

These ratios are of interest to frequent flyers, particularly for those wanting an upgrade. The upshot is there is a higher proportion of premium seats.

How to get to | Panama

This is part of a series of blog entries on how to get to countries and places. Here is a link to the index. I plan to eventually cover every country and some other places. If you have a request for a particular country or place please use the email me link at top right, or leave a comment.


Source: Stan Shebs

Visitors to Panama arrive by cruise ship, by bus from Costa Rica or by air. There is no land transport across the Darien Gap to Colombia. Airlines flying to Panama City include:
  • Star Alliance - Continental
  • Oneworld - American, Iberia, Mexicana
  • Sky Team - Delta, KLM
  • Other selected - COPA, TACA, Avianca

TIP Double check tickets to Panama City are to the Panamanian city (airport code PTY) not the one in Florida (airport code PFN).

TIP Fares from southern hubs in USA are relatively low. Look out for sales by COPA - other airlines often match.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Air New Zealand new longhaul product - the details

After the brief summary yesterday this post will have lots more details of Air New Zealand's revolutionary new longhaul product, which I had the pleasure of attending their launch at Hangar 9 and seeing and trying out the cabin mockup for myself.


For the past three years a small team at Air New Zealand, iconic design firm IDEO and several New Zealand design companies have been plotting a step change in comfort for longhaul flights. They profiled different customer types based on characters from The Simpsons. Frequent flyers are represented by Monty Burns, because we know what we want and have high expectations!

A number of innovative designs have been considered and rejected - bunk beds are currently impractical and staggered seating gives a sense of "crowded isolation". Having flown Emirates A380 in business class with it's staggered seats and experienced the penned in feeling, I'd agree that an economy version would be awful.

Prototypes of the short-list concepts were created and tested by actors. Apparently they can be better trusted not to blab secrets than staff or regular flyers. The products they have settled on are described below and give greatly improved comfort, more flexibility for dealing differently with different types of flyers, and potential for Air NZ to enhance their revenues (more on this later).

Economy class & the sky couch

There are 2 different economy class seats - the regular one, and the sky couch version.

Sky couch is a new variant on the old trick of lying down on an empty row of seats. A large leg rest folds up to add 50% to the length of the seat. 3 seats together thus make a flat couch (arm rests go all the way up) which can fit 2 smallish adults or one adult and a couple of small kids.

Blankets and pillows will be provided. For those who are big or tall the sky couch will be uncomfortable.

While pricing details have not yet been finalised, Air NZ indicated that couples can book the sky couch for a fare of about 50% for the third seat, and families of three can pay a NZ$200 surcharge to get the sky couch. While in theory this sounds good for a parent with two small kids, they aren't buying any extra space, so I am unsure how many will stump up just to get a little bed for their children. For couples, the 50% fee for an empty seat sounds good, but potentially this could be 50% of full fare and not 50% of the discounted airfare most travellers pay. One thing is certain - the cost will be much more than the NZ$75 fee Air NZ currently charges to reserve an empty seat (subject to availability).

Initially there will be 22 sky couches, taking the outside blocks of seats in the first 11 rows of economy. When Air NZ introduced premium economy they took a similarly cautious approach and have since expanded the cabin. I expect the same will happen with sky couches and more will be added later.

The regular economy seat is not much different from the current Air NZ economy seats. Slightly narrower at 17" so they can squeeze in 3-4-3 layout, pitch is similar at 33" and recline is 6". A pillow sits over the winged headrest. Unlike the current seats the arm rests fully fold up.

All the economy seats have personal screens 2" larger than the current model. Due to the larger screen the tray table has a double fold down design (which is convenient for snacks and drinks).

Premium economy class enhanced - new space seat

Enhanced has a negative meaning for some, but the new Air New Zealand premium economy is a genuine improvement. It aligns the seating with the food, beverage and service offering in making the cabin business lite rather than economy extra. Seating switches from 3-3-3 to 2-2-2. Hooray. I see it as a great response to criticism of their current seats (especially in 777-200ER aircraft) as well as a counter to Qantas' premium economy seat which is much more comfortable than the current Air NZ equivalent.

The picture shows an inner pair of premium economy seats, which Air NZ calls space seats. The seats have a shell with much more personal space than any other premium economy seat I've tried. Like the new Cathay Pacific economy seat, the seat slides forward in the shell to provide 9" of recline.

The inner space seats are ideal for a couple. The scallop design means you can sit in the standard alignment, angled out towards the aisle or slide around with back against the shell to face in towards your partner or travelling companion.

The woman's feet are on an adjustable armrest. This can be lowered as shown to make a curved bench seat, higher in armrest mode and higher still to make a little table. In table mode the couple can turn to face each other, although if long legged the space underneath the table is a little small. Note this is additional to the regular table, which means you do not need to put away your laptop or papers while dining.

There are also outer space seats, which are more suited to individual travellers. The basic seat is the same except they are both angled slightly towards the window. The shell then provides a (very small) modicum of privacy by virtue of the small offset within each seat.

All the space seats have one armrest which is fixed and another which adjusts. They all have reading lights as well as big screens. Instead of a normal footrest there is a footwell in the back of the seat in front, with a bean bag to put your feet on for personalised adjustment.

Business class largely unchanged

Business premier is already a world-leader and so only minor changes will be made here. A slightly bigger screen, better padding in the seat and mattress.

Other product changes

All seats will have in seat power supply and USB ports. They've also copied from Virgin America the option to order food and drink through the IFE to make it more efficient and less disruptive to nearby passengers.

New ovens will be installed in the galley so that food is cooked instead of being reheated. Air NZ claims this will allow lighter, healthier food to be provided; although I'm not sure the example burger shown yesterday fits that bill.

The new colour schemes were announced. As hinted with the recent release of new pink uniforms, the colour scheme is similar to Virgin America's one, with dark purple ink and chalk colours predominating.

When can I fly it?

In December this year the first 77W aircraft will arrive with the new product, and will initially fly Auckland to Sydney and also Auckland to Los Angeles as NZ6 (NZ5 in the reverse direction). Over a period of about 4 or 5 months next year the current fleet of 777-200ER will be refitted. The 747 and 767 aircraft will not be refitted with the new product. When it (eventually) arrives, the 787 will have the new product. So, for the next few years Air NZ will have multiple longhaul products which means they need careful management of expectations and their flyers will need to be savvy to avoid disappointment.

Other thoughts

This post is rather long so I'll save my thoughts on revenue generation, effects on frequent flyers and other consequences of Air New Zealand's revolutionary new longhaul product for another post.

You can read Cranky Flier's take on the new product here.

All pictures supplied by Air NZ.

Changes to flight security rules

This week I did a guest article on IndieTravelPodcast about increased security hassles in the aftermath of the underpants bomber.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Air New Zealand new longhaul product

I'll post more information later when I have time. Here is a very brief summary.

Regular economy seat - minor changes.

Sky couch economy seat - 3 seats sold as a pair with a mini bed. A new twist on the old standby of using an empty row to lie down.

Space seat premium economy - a business lite product with two variants. One for couples with more access to each other, and one for single travellers with slightly more privacy. Unlike the existing premium economy seating is 2-2-2.

Premier business seat - minor changes.

There will also be changes to IFE, amenities and food.

Some further information and pictures in the Flyer Talk new Air NZ longhaul discussion.

How to get to | Peru

This is part of a series of blog entries on how to get to countries and places. Here is a link to the index. I plan to eventually cover every country and some other places. If you have a request for a particular country or place please use the email me link at top right, or leave a comment.


Source: Allard Schmidt

A number of airlines fly to Lima, Peru, including:
  • Star Alliance - Air Canada, Continental
  • Oneworld - American, Iberia, LAN
  • Sky Team - Aeromexico, Air Europa, Delta, KLM
  • Selected other - most Central and South American airlines
TIP With relatively high fares, Peru is a good option for including on an award, round the world ticket or Oneworld South America pass.

TIP Check connections via Central America and Colombia for cheaper fares.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Air NZ new longhaul product

To coincide with the arrival later this year of new 777-300 aircraft, Air NZ will be introducing new longhaul seating. The new product is being unveiled on Tuesday (NZ time). Eventually the new seats will be available on the 777-300 and 787, and will also be refitted to the 777-200 aircraft.

Since Air NZ has some very long routes, including the flagship Auckland to London and Auckland to London route which takes between 24 and 27 hours, I'm expecting seating which has been designed with passenger comfort in mind. Given the hype Air NZ is building (eg NZ Herald and again with some tantalising hints), I'm expecting something amazing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Non-contract alliance lounges

Elite frequent flyers look for lounges operated by alliance airlines to maximise the benefits. Elite status passengers can be flying any alliance airline to gain admittance to the appropriate airline operated lounge subject to lounge access rules and access to the portion of the terminal, whereas contract lounges are only available to those flying the specific airline(s) which has contracted for access.

Despite flying to 700 destinations in 142 countries (as at December 2009), Oneworld has about 300 non-contract lounges in only 133 destinations. I've visited 63 of these lounges, in 19 different countries.

It is similar with Star Alliance - they have 1077 destinations in 175 countries (as at December 2009) but only 350 non-contract lounges in 165 destinations. I've visited 109 of these lounges, in 35 countries.

Despite the gaps (some of which do have contract lounges available to elite and premium passengers), the global coverage of airline lounges is rather good. This is invaluable to people who are always on the move, although I wish more lounges have my two "necessities" - showers and internet computers.

Star Alliance Gold Plus

The majority of Star Alliance frequent flyer programs (FFPs), including all the main ones, have more than one elite status level that is Star Alliance Gold. Oneworld has 3 elite status tiers across the alliance (although some programs do not have every alliance tier represented), so I'm not sure why Star Alliance couldn't also introduce an extra tier with additional benefits over Star Alliance Gold.

Star Alliance Gold Plus

(AC) Aeroplan - Air Canada Super Elite
(NZ) Airpoints - Gold Elite
(OZ) Asiana Club - Platinum
(US) Dividend Miles - Platinum Preferred
(MS) EgyptAir Plus - Platinum
(SQ) KrisFlyer - PPS Solitaire, PPS
(NH) Mileage Club - Diamond
(UA) Mileage Plus - Premier Executive 1K
(LH) Miles and More - HON Circle
(TK) Miles and Smiles - Elite Plus
(CO) OnePass - Platinum Elite
(CA) Phoenix Miles - Platinum
(SA) Voyager - Platinum

Programs with only one Star Alliance Gold status

(FM) Crane Club
(BD) Diamond Club
(SK) Eurobonus
(TG) Royal Orchid Plus
(JK) Spanair Plus
(TP) Victoria

Friday, January 22, 2010

Lifetime elite airline status

As part of a review of my frequent flyer strategy for the year ahead I have been thinking about lifetime elite status. If one year of elite frequent flyer status is good then a lifetime is better - travel can be focussed on purposes other than requalification of elite status.

As the term suggests, lifetime elite status gives status benefits for the rest of your life, or the life of the frequent flyer program, whichever ends first. In respect of alliance benefits there is an additional caveat that the host airline remains in the airline alliance.

In 2007 I achieved lifetime Oneworld Sapphire status through Qantas Frequent Flyer. I was also well on the way towards lifetime Star Alliance gold status through Singapore Airlines before they pulled the plug by grandfathering existing lifetime PPS Solitaire members and stopping any new qualification of the status. Since then I haven't paid too much attention to lifetime statuses, since most of the programs I use either do not have lifetime elite status, or have a long time period qualification (in one case decades for me).

The last couple of years my travel patterns have changed markedly, and as I continue to seek out more difficult to reach places they will keep changing for the foreseeable future. Thus, removing the requalification hassle will be welcome. I haven't yet finalised my approach but in the meantime, here are some lifetime elite airline statuses that are available together with their requirements.

Lifetime status earned by a period of time with high status

Air France/KLM - 10 years platinum for lifetime platinum (Sky Team elite+)
bmi - 10 years gold for lifetime gold (Star Alliance gold)

Lifetime status earned by a period of time with high status and minimum status mileage

Lufthansa - 10 years senator/HON circle at or above age 60, and 1 million status miles for lifetime senator (Star Alliance gold)
SAS - 10 years gold at or above age 60 for lifetime gold (Star Alliance gold)
South African - 6 years of platinum earned by flying 100,000 miles per year on South African or by the requisite tier points (only South African flights count) for lifetime platinum (Star Alliance gold)

Lifetime status earned by lifetime status mileage (restricted)

Air China - 1 million status miles on Air China for lifetime platinum (Star Alliance gold)
Alaska - 1 million status miles on Alaska and Horizon for lifetime gold
Asiana - 1000 flights on Asiana for lifetime platinum (Star Alliance gold)
EgyptAir - 1 million status miles on EgyptAir for lifetime platinum (Star Alliance gold)
Philippine - 1 million status miles on Philippine for million miler
United - 1 million status miles on United for lifetime premier executive (Star Alliance gold)
United - 2 million status miles on United for lifetime premier executive (Star Alliance gold) and lifetime Red Carpet Club membership
United - 3 million status miles on United for lifetime 1K (Star Alliance gold)

Lifetime status earned by lifetime status mileage (unrestricted)

Asiana - 1 million status miles for lifetime platinum (Star Alliance gold)
Continental - 1 million status miles for lifetime silver (Star Alliance silver)
Continental - 2 million status miles for lifetime gold (Star Alliance gold)
Continental - 4 million status miles for lifetime platinum (Star Alliance gold)
Delta - 1 million status miles for lifetime silver (Sky Team elite)
Delta - 2 million status miles for lifetime gold (Sky Team elite)
Delta - 4 million status miles for lifetime platinum (Sky Team elite+)
Korean - 500,000 status miles for morning calm premium club (Sky Team elite+)
Korean - 1 million status miles for million miler club (Sky Team elite+)
Qantas - 7,000 status credits for lifetime silver (Oneworld ruby)
Qantas - 14,000 status credits for lifetime gold (Oneworld sapphire)

Lifetime status earned by lifetime mileage (any source)

American - 1 million miles for lifetime gold (Oneworld ruby)
American - 2 million miles for lifetime platinum (Oneworld sapphire)


Sky Team appears to be the easiest to earn lifetime top tier status. For me that isn't much help as I very rarely fly Sky Team airlines.

Star Alliance has a number of options for lifetime top alliance tier status. Easiest would have been bmi, if you've already had bmi gold status. The expected merge into Lufthansa Miles & More within the next year scuppers hopes of lifetime status for most people. For someone starting now Asiana may be easiest except for those who predominantly fly United.

Oneworld has no lifetime top tier status. Lifetime middle tier status is most easily earnt with American since all mileage counts.

In all cases lifetime status requires a significant commitment and a lot of flying (except for American). So an important consideration is whether or not the lifetime status benefit will still be available for long enough to earn it, and whether the requirements may go up significantly in the meantime.

Something for me to think about.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lack of travel

Just a few weeks into the year (which for me started on another continent), and less than a week since my last (land-based) trip, and I'm already getting itchy feet waiting for my next trip. I've resisted the temptation to book some last minute flights, so far. If Qantas was still flying domestically in NZ I probably would have booked something cheap by now, but I can't bring myself to do it on Jetstar.

Perhaps a little road trip is in order?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Number one tip for making travel easier – pack light

I was recently asked how to make travel easier. The best thing travellers can do is to pack light.

Almost everything you might need on a trip is available at the destination if required. Travelling with light luggage has 5 key advantages.

  1. Avoid luggage fees.
  2. Flying without checked bags means no time waiting around baggage claim, and no risk of lost bags.
  3. Greater flexibility during irregular operations (when things go wrong) as well as opportunities for (well compensated) voluntary denied boarding if there is no checked luggage.
  4. Easier travel. A light bag can easily be carried up or down a hill, or over cobblestones if required (eg if the road outside your accommodation is closed).
  5. More room for shopping.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More changes at bmi and Diamond Club

bmi has announced some changes to UK and Ireland product and to their frequent flyer program Diamond Club (a favourite among many on Flyer Talk for the ease of getting elite status and the generous redemption rates).

From 27 January 2010, business class on UK domestic and Ireland flights will be replaced with Flexible Economy. The main changes here are that business class mileage will not be earned unless crediting to Diamond Club (and then only while they have special earning rate), seating is no longer 3-2, higher rate of APD tax will no longer apply (because there will no longer be a separate business cabin), and heavily discounted business class fares are gone.

Passengers who have business class tickets should not only get the extra APD refunded (as advised in the bmi notice), but also 30% refund of the fare as compensation for the downgrade under EU regulation 261/2004.

Also on UK domestic and Ireland flights the free meal for passengers with bmi elite status is gone. This was a prime differentiation with Aer Lingus on the Dublin to London route for example, and so the removal is rather unpopular.

The other change announced was that Blue Plus status will be removed. As this status provided few benefits other than the free meal which is now removed, this makes sense. The Wandering Aramean thinks the closure of Diamond Club will not be long in coming.

Update on possible (probable?) British Airways strike in March

Talks between a cabin crew union and management at BA have so far failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion and yesterday the union advised the re-vote for strike will be proceeding (BBC). The first strike attempt for 12 days at Christmas failed due to a court ruling that the vote was improperly conducted.

This time the union will take more care, and their rhetoric suggests there is a high chance it will go ahead. The earliest possible strike date is about 2nd March with the latest possible strike commencement date of 29th March, just in time for Easter break.

Time to start looking at alternatives.

Monday, January 18, 2010

US Passenger Bill of Rights

When the US Passenger Bill of Rights (PBOR) were published last month I posted a brief mention but did not explain how they benefit flyers and how they have some limitations.

Overall approach

The US rights (link to full text here) are less comprehensive than the corresponding EU rights (EU regulation 261/2004) in that certain standards are left up to airlines to define and publish as policies. Ie the rule is there must be a policy and it must be published, but airlines are free to set their own standards in some respects.

That is not good for consumers. We already have variability in airline contract of carriage which also must be published, but such a miniscule proportion of flyers read them that there really is no competition between airlines to provide terms that are great for their customers.

Onboard on the ground time limited to 3 hours

There are some parts of the PBOR which are relatively set. Airlines cannot keep passengers onboard on the ground for more than 3 hours for domestic flights, or more than a time of their choosing (which must be published) for international flights. There are exemptions where the airport agrees that immediate disembarkation will be highly disruptive to airport operations. This clause is open to interpretation - it could be that airlines routinely are exempt due to inconvenience, or perhaps not.

At congested airports, in poor weather, and in unusual circumstances a rigourous enforcement of the time limit may result in more crowded terminals (boarding delayed if a risk of exceeding the 3 hours), more flight cancellations and reduced flights more generally. I'm not sure this is necessarily good for travellers.

Publish contingency plans

The PBOR has a requirement for airlines to publish contingency plans for every airport they fly to including any diversion airports, and to be accountable to passengers for following those contingency plans.

This seems to me to be a complete waste of time. Either the contingency plans published will be specific and then result in messy litigation afterwards when they are not followed properly, or they will be written as vague as possible to ensure the airline has sufficient flexibility to deal with varying circumstances and thus the airline can never be held accountable for errors in dealing with irregular operations. I much prefer the European approach which sets out what airlines must do at a minimum, for passengers affected by cancellations and delays. The question of how that is achieved is left to each airline to resolve.

Publish on-time performance

Every flight bookable on the airline website must include reference or a link to information on on-time performance of that flight. The PBOR sets out the required stats which includes cancellations as well as significant delays. The Department of Trade (DOT) will monitor flights which have excessively bad on-time performance and take punitive action against the airline (after 4 months with 50+% of flights 30+ minutes late arriving).

It is pleasing to see that DOT recognise that arrival time is more important than departure time. However, these requirements are likely to see even more schedule padding than already exists. While this makes valid connections easier to be made, it does have the disadvantages of making some connections which are currently legal (ie more than minimum connection times) illegal and thus reduces options for travellers.

How much benefit for flyers?

As with the EU regulation 261/2004, how well the US Passenger Bill of Rights works in practice will depend on interpretation by airlines and by the regulator, as well as the regulator's enforcement (or lack of) of the rules. In the EU the general impression is initially the regulations were not well enforced (airlines routinely using safety and circumstances out of their control exemptions) but it seems to have improved slightly over the past year or so. However, still many airlines do not meet the requirements - for example in the recent weather disruptions there are reports several airlines did not provide their customers with information on their minimum rights nor did they provide those automatically.

So, it probably is up to all the travelling public to be aware of our rights and demand airlines provide them when they are supposed to. Hopefully DOT will publish a handy leaflet which we can carry, much as EU has.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Another terminal evacuated due to entry through the wrong door

For the second time in two weeks an airport terminal at a major airport has been evacuated due to someone walking through the wrong door. This time it was New York's JFK terminal 8 that has been evacuated after a passenger went through a staff door (which shouldn't be possible if it is a secure area airside). Earlier this year it was Newark terminal C that was evacuated when a TSA agent failed to stop someone entering through an exit door.

In both cases many flights were disrupted across USA and around the world.

These incidents are good news for would-be suicide bombers. No need to die for their cause when chaos can be caused by something as simple as going the wrong way inside a terminal.

The year has hardly begun but already it is shaping up to be a bad one for TSA and also for the many travellers inconvenienced by ineptitude and poor security systems and processes.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

9 hours onboard to go nowhere

I'm not referring to a flight returning to origin but one that didn't even leave.

The information from flightstats on British Airways flight BA227 to Atlanta makes for sorry reading. Scheduled departure time from London Heathrow was 2:05pm. My comments are enclosed in [ and ].

At 1:10pm, arrival time updated from 6:31pm to 6:29pm.
[An hour before departure the flight is on time.]

At 1:40pm, departure time updated from 2:05pm to 2:30pm (with corresponding adjustment to arrival time).
[A minor delay, perhaps due to use of a remote stand.]

At 2:35pm, departure time updated from 2:30pm to 2:45 pm.
[Another minor delay.]

At 3:05pm, departure time updated from 2:45pm to 3:00pm.
[The update has occurred a bit late but BA confident delay is not serious.]

At 10:54pm, flight status changed by London Heathrow airport to cancelled.
[Oops. 9 hours after boarding the airport records the cancellation of the flight instead of the airline.]

At 11:10pm, departure time recorded by BA as 6:52pm.
[End of flightstats record.]

The last record clearly is inconsistent with the previous one. Departure time being recorded many hours after the supposed time of departure is suspicious. It indicates the aircraft pushed back but didn't actually depart.

A passenger account on Flyer Talk is consistent with this, and reports that they were onboard for about 9 hours before the flight was cancelled.

Under EU regulation 261/2004 passengers are entitled to care under Article 8, Article 9(1)(a), 9(1)(b), 9(1)(c) and 9(2), and Article 7. Out of hours crew is not a valid exemption to Article 7 under the extraordinary circumstances waiver, but maintenance might be. The other Articles have no such exemptions and so must apply. Article 7 provides 600 euros compensation. Article 8 provides right for passengers to choose between refund of fare or relevant portion of fare (plus flight to return to origin for those who are in the middle of their tickets), or a re-routing under comparable conditions (ie same class of travel) at earliest opportunity. Article 9 requires free meals for the waiting time, hotel accommodation, transfer to and from accommodation, and 2 phone calls/faxes/emails.

Under the new USA passenger bill of rights, passengers would almost certainly have been returned to the terminal around 4:30pm or 6 hours earlier than they actually were.

Friday, January 15, 2010

TSA disowns problem of children prevented from flying

Today's TSA blog post is on the topic of recent media attention (eg NY Times) - children getting extra security attention because they match a name on the watchlist.

The TSA post says correctly the children are not on the watchlist but are caught due to having similar names, but then goes on to say SecureFlight will solve all once it is fully in place. (SecureFlight it has been partially rolled out.)

This completely misses the point. As I posted back in mid 2008, the watchlist catches many innocent people - with several million false matches. Since then the lists have gotten bigger - eg this Congressional Report in the wake of the Dec 25 underpants bomb attempt cites 540,000 names, apparently as at August 2008 (with a subset on the no fly list). A list with half a million names equates to tens of millions of false matches. Needless to say, this crude method of having a huge trawl-net of names to watch out for is completely ineffective as a means of security.

By devoting more resources to SecureFlight in an attempt to reduce the impact of false positive matches, TSA is in my view worsening security. The money could be much better spent on other true security initiatives. Indeed culling the watchlist would save a fortune too.

Around the world in 80 words

RTW fare plus side tickets. Very nice sales due to travel downturn.

New (to me) places, new faces, new airlines.

Old friends, returning places, familiar airlines.

All cabins from everyday economy to the luxury of first class.

Lots of flights. Local buses. Lots of walking.

A quasi-divided city (not Berlin).

Broad plains, high altitude mega-city, sea-side community, Mediterranean hillsides, urban overdose.

Inconvenience – new travel rules, computer breakdown.

Crazy fun. Bring on the next trip.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The downside of tight flight connections and complex itineraries

I do have a crazy schedule - flitting here and there across the globe, sometimes spending several nights in a row in the air as I try to get the most of my limited time available.

Small things have the potential to create significant disruption to my travel itineraries. I try to allow for contingencies as best I can, but there are limitations. There is no point in an overabundance of caution because that certainly means missing out on lots of fun & interesting stuff - the cost of the "insurance" is too high. Nor can every contingency be allowed for - no one anticipates being caught up in New Zealand's first and only hijacking attempt, or on another trip being stranded in Invercargill. So I attempt to achieve a balance - having somewhat risky itineraries (risky in the sense of having tight connections and complicated sequences of flights across multiple tickets) but also have worked out there are somewhat acceptable options available to me if things go wrong.

The easiest way to deal with this I have found is to be prepared and to be prepared to change.

In my recent trip I was very lucky. Things went relatively smoothly but it could have easily ended up missing out on half of it.

First, the British Airways strike was called off. If it had gone ahead I would potentially have been stranded in Spain, United Kingdom or Cyprus. While that isn't bad in itself (more time to enjoy those places) it would mean ditching a significant portion of the next part of the trip (ie not going to Cyprus or missing my southeast Asia legs) and also time wasted on rebooking flights and accommodation across multiple airlines, hotels and countries spread halfway around the world.

Second, through sheer luck I avoided the travel chaos in Europe (and particularly to London Heathrow) caused by the snow and cold this winter. Indeed I travelled through Europe without even carrying a heavy coat.

Thirdly, I managed to limit disruption caused by immigration computer failure to an inconvenienced transit instead of being stranded for days.

I have an upcoming trip I'm currently in discussions with the airline about. A cancelled British Airways flight means my booked itinerary is now impossible - the alternative later flight arrives too late to take the connecting flight, the alternative earlier flight means a risky 60 minute connection at London Heathrow (BA to BA but still high risk) which I'm not prepared to accept and there are no other airlines that fly the route within my time window. Due to the complexity of my itinerary and incredibly tight timeframes this one flight change will affect anywhere from 3 to 7 or more flights, across 3 continents. Some of the places I'm visiting only have 1 flight a day so coming up with a new routing is proving challenging. However, there are options open to me and I can choose the best one for my needs.

Despite these travel inconveniences I won't change my hectic approach to travel because compromise means missing out on great experiences, sights and learnings. I still have many to meet, and much to see and do. That means I'll keep on going full paced with no regrets.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thoughts on 2010

The blog

Firstly, prompted by Gary Leff's valid complaint about the recent lack of posts, I apologise to my readers. I haven't posted much in the last few weeks due to a crazy schedule, but this will change ... soon.

I'm working on a plan for 2010. Yes it is a bit late for new year resolutions, but I think this will be worth it. It isn't ready yet but I like how it is shaping up - there is something for everyone I hope. I also haven't forgotten that I have some unanswered questions and unfinished informational and advice series. These will be addressed.

As ever, I'm happy to accept any relevant questions by email, at Quick Questions, or by comment on a relevant post.

Travel news and developments

2009 saw lots of change, and even though 2010 has barely begun there has already been lots happening. Security rules change almost daily. Strike threats. A major airline about to be bankrupt (Japan Airlines). Consolidation of Chinese airlines. Frequent stay program changes (Hilton HHonors devaluation from 15 January). This rapid change will continue.

Meanwhile, the release of the movie Up in the Air late last year (or early 2010 depending on market) has been accompanied by more media attention on frequent flyers and frequent flyer programs (eg this piece today from WSJ). As a result there is a lot of information and advice becoming more widely available to the general public. Readers of this blog have already had access to this information, whether on Flyer Talk or in the tips and advice previously posted here and on other Boarding Area blogs.

Whenever there is change there is opportunity as well as downsides to manage. Having good quality information is as important for savvy travellers today as ever. This will be another great year.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Expect longer delays at New York JFK March to July

Those who've flown to or from New York JFK airport know all about lengthy delays which are legendary amongst frequent flyers. Yesterday came news of at least 4 months of even longer delays as the biggest runway will get rebuilt.

Cranky Flier spells out what is happening and what it means. The upshot is hope weather conditions are right whenever you fly through JFK, and if possible try to avoid it for the spring and early summer period. After a couple of years of mainly avoiding New York and USA in general it looks like I picked a bad time to use New York as a base for some of my (northern hemisphere) spring & summer trips.

Chris Guillebeau, non-conformist?

I've been reading Chris Guillebeau's blog, The Art of Non-Conformity since it was launched. Like me, Chris is an avid traveller, but he also has a hip outlook on life and as he strives to meet his own writing and business goals also gives back by assisting others to achieve theirs. Really you should read his blog (and when his first book is published later this year read that too).

Anyway, after conversing online for some time finally our paths crossed and we met. Many of the people I've pointed to Chris' blog have commented that his style is very affable, and so he is in real life. He talks and acts just like he writes.

I had a very pleasant evening with Chris and others who'd come together to meet him. One of the many things we discussed was how thankful we were to be living now with the many opportunities we have that others in different places and times do/did not.

That's gotten me thinking. There is a mindset shared by many people I've met all over the world that is independent, open and outward looking. To some people this can be scary, and perhaps this is where Chris' approach is non-conformist. I'm somewhat saddened by this line of thought, because to me this is normal.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

British Airways - possible strike in March

A British Airways cabin crew strike at Christmas was cancelled by court injunction. The union has announced a revote starting 22 January (source The Guardian), which indicates a possible strike in March. Given the length of voting period required and minimum notice periods, the earliest possible strike date is about 26 or 27 February.

At this stage the revote seems likely to again pass, with a very high vote in favour of strike the first time around and union leaders agitating over working conditions during the extreme snow event currently being experienced in Europe.

In the meantime, BA travellers hope talks between management and unions reach a solution that doesn't disrupt travel plans.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

TSA PR & blog gone awol

The past couple of weeks have had lots of security incidents and news, and yet curiously the TSA blog has been largely silent with their last posting well over a week ago.

Surely a period when we have had the following incidents (and more) is a time for more information and PR in order to reassure the travelling public, and not a time to shut up?

  • Underpants bomber failed attempt.
  • Temporary new security rules (last hour of flight remain in seat with no IFE and no items in your lap).
  • Another suspected terrorist (the next day) spent "too long" in the lavatory because he had food poisoning and not because he was concocting a bomb.
  • Botched attempt to find source of documents on the new security rules by subpoena'ing 2 bloggers (Chris Elliott and Steven Frischling) who published the widely disseminated documents.
  • Apparently permanent new security rules (pat down and bag search for all passengers flying from other countries to USA).
  • Newark terminal shut-down where security failed to spot someone bypassing security by entering an exit door until hours later.
  • Honey being mistaken for an explosives device shutting down a Californian airport.

It has been a bad couple of weeks for TSA. I'm shocked at the lack of care in the incidents, but also at the lack of appropriate treatment in communicating well with travellers.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Backup plan for flight misconnections - part two

Several days ago I posted some ideas about having a backup plan in case of flight misconnections, using my own potential misconnect as an example. At the time I wrote it I was comfortable the risk was both low and could be mitigated easily.

In the event there was a circumstance which I hadn't factored in, because it is so unusual. In transferring between these two flights I had to clear immigration and customs, go landside to check in for my onward flight, and go back through security to board. Unfortunately for me, at midnight 1 January the immigration computers went down. My flight landed after midnight and I joined a queue of at least 1500 people.

With the computers down processing was incredibly slow and it looked like it might take 6 hours to clear immigration. This would mean not only would I miss my flight, but by the time I'd arrive at the check in counters the staff would have all gone (the last flight for many hours on that airline having long departed) and so the backup options of rebooking would also be difficult to apply.

When I realised this I found someone official looking and enlisted their assistance. I was polite, clearly explained the situation, and left it to him to find a solution. I picked the right person and the right time to ask because he assisted me to jump the queue - passing several hundreds of travelers ahead of me. If he hadn't been able to help I would have tried other people - even to the extent of going backwards up the queue to find a police officer if necessary. It was a close call - by the time I cleared immigration and customs and reached check in it was only 15 minutes before departure - but I made it.

If I hadn't asked but instead had just waited patiently in the queue until it was my turn, I definitely would have missed the flights that were my original backup plan. I might not have been able to fly on the next flight options over 12 hours later (these were full although my frequent flyer status would have put me at the top of the queue in case of no shows), and I certainly would have missed other onward flights on my itineray, requiring further rebooking of flights.

What are the lessons I learned?

1) Be prepared. By having all the facts about onward flights I knew what my options were and were not. Even while it was tense waiting in line I knew if I was still okay or not. Knowing is better than not knowing.

2) Being aware of time limitations. I knew when the check in staff would be finishing up, so could wait patiently while there was still time but act differently when I needed to.

3) Enlisting help. Instead of just accepting a misconnection I enlisted others to help me out.

It is not the first time I've been in this situation, and I doubt it will be the last time. By being prepared I was able to be proactive instead of reactive, which lead to a much better outcome for me.