Friday, 13 December 2013

A Means to An End: A Review of 3 Different Airlines

USA Trip 2013:  Blog Post #2

“Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning. ” 

 J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Virgin America Main Cabin Select
 Besides the fact that you're heading somewhere new and exciting, there’s little to like about travelling in a plane.  Air travel is uncomfortable, boring, and, for what you get, pretty darn expensive.  

The day I booked our flights to Orlando I skipped around the house like a gleeful child.   The day after I had booked our flights, I fought off buyer’s remorse over how much money I had just spent. 

Orlando itself need not be an expensive destination.  But unfortunately, there is just no cheap or quick way of getting there.  For the price of three people sitting in uncomfortable plane seats and airport lounges for close to 48 hours, I instead could have driven less than an hour up the road to my favourite Auckland hotel and checked in for a full week of spa treatments and five star meals. 

But with an attitude like that one would never leave the country.  I have not looked back on a single travel experience and regretted it due to the money spent and I wasn’t about to start now.  The buyer’s remorse was fleeting and I quickly moved on from my unsolicited economic comparisons, to researching ways of making the long flights more comfortable.

For this trip I made 3 separate flight bookings and we flew with 3 different airlines.  Auckland to LAX return was with Air New Zealand, the LAX to Orlando leg was with Virgin America, and the Orlando to LAX leg with American Airlines.  For those interested in travelling with any of these airlines, I’ve outlined our experience below. 

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand is the only airline I have frequent flyer points with, so I guess if I had to say I was loyal to one airline it would have to be this one.  But at the end of the day, I go where the bargains are.  If another airline is offering the same (or similar) product for less money, that is where I’ll take my business.  The frequent Flyer points being offered by different airlines these days are rarely better than the overall savings you can make by being flexible with your airline choices.  In fact, Air New Zealand Airpoints are downright lousy.  Combined return flights to the USA and Fiji didn’t even incur enough airpoints for a return trip to Wellington! 

Airpoints aside, Air New Zealand does offer a product I am happy with. Of the 20 + different airlines I have flown with around the world, Air New Zealand features in my top three alongside Emirates and Virgin Atlantic.  The main reasons being is that Air New Zealand’s online entertainment system is good and they cater well to families with young children.  On a 12 hour + trip, on-demand movies and comfortable children are an absolute must. 

It’s also worth noting, that Air New Zealand is the only airline leaving Auckland airport that flies direct to the States.  While I hate layovers, I think that a well-organised stopover can be worth it’s weight in gold.  I have flown to LAX with Air Tahiti before just so I could spend a few days en route sipping cocktails under a palm tree.  Next year I am going to try out Hawaiian Airlines for a similar reason.  But due to time constraints on this most recent trip, a stopover just wasn’t possible.  In such cases, the preferred (but usually most expensive) airline is almost always going to be the one that flies direct. 

Most of Air New Zealand’s flights to LAX are on their 777-300s.  Air New Zealand revolutionized the airplane industry a few years back when they introduced these planes (and more importantly, the seating on them) to their fleet.  While their premium economy ‘Spaceseats’ were new to the airline industry, most of the hype has been around their economy ‘Skycouch’.   The potential to lie down and sleep in cramped, uncomfortable economy came as joy to people’s ears.  But can you really lie down?  In the tradition of good travel research, I decided to book a Skycouch for the return leg home and find out. 

On the way to LAX, my family and I travelled in bog-standard economy.  As an airpoints member I am able to put in ‘One-up’ bids to be upgraded.  Basically this means that you tell Air New Zealand how much you are willing to pay to be upgraded, and then they decide if you are offering enough.  About 2 weeks prior to travel, I put in a cheeky bid to be upgraded to the premium economy Spaceseats, but ‘cheeky’ is exactly what it was and my request was unsurprisingly declined. 

The good, the bad, and the ugly of our economy experience was as follows:

The good.  The online entertainment system had plenty to watch, the staff were friendly and helpful, the food was perfectly palatable, and online amentities (aka the bathrooms) were kept clean.

The bad.  As is standard with most airlines these days, legroom was limited.  It was not really any better or any worse than most economy seats I’ve travelled in, but us tall people are at a real disadvantage when we fly.   Also, I’m not sure if I was just having a bad day, or the air was uncharacteristically dry, but my eyes were really sore and bloodshot by the end of the flight.  I recommend packing a small bottle of eye drops into an airline approved clear ziplock bag, and taking it on the plane with you. 

The Ugly.  What were Air New Zealand thinking when they decided to pack 10 seats to a row (configuration 3,4,3) on these 777-300s??!   Actually, I know exactly what they were thinking.  They were thinking with their wallets.  The unfortunate side-effect is aisles made only for very skinny people.  They are so narrow that even the staff struggle to wheel their specially made trolleys down them without bumping into people’s shoulders and ankles.  From where I was sitting, I could have easily reached across the aisle and pat my neighbour on the shoulder.  I also could have woken a lot of sleeping passengers on my walk to the bathroom, had I not turned sideways to avoid banging into their protruding heads and shoulders.   

On the journey home we booked a Skycouch for the three of us.  I was under no illusion that the 3 of us would struggle to use our three seats like a bed.  However, I thought that if we could at least angle my son in a way that allowed him to sleep during the red eye flight, it would be worth the $200 upgrade price (per couch, not per person) for sanity reasons alone.

For groups of 3 children or 2 small adults, the Skycouch should provide all the space you need.  But for our group of 3, the best we could hope for was sitting with our legs raised and curled up.   As a person who normally sits on my couch at home with my shoes off and my feet tucked up next to me, my first thought was that the Skycouch was pretty cool.  That was until about 2 hours into the flight when meals had been served and cleared and the passengers in front of me decided to recline their seats.  At that stage the space in front of me almost halved and the only comfortable option was to drop the leg rest back down. 

I would have felt completely cheated had I not also been able to set the leg rest to an angle of about 60 degrees.  Having your feet slightly raised makes for a comfortable change from the economy alternative of having your feet planted flatly on the floor.  

My son, Oskar, did sleep most of the flight, and perhaps that was due to the combination of having his legs stretched out across his leg rest, and having his mother’s lap as a pillow.  I instead think it was because it was so far past his bedtime that he was too exhausted to do anything but sleep.

So would I book a skycouch again?  Maybe, maybe not.    I thought the price we paid for this upgrade was fair.  But any more than this and I’d pass. 

Virgin America

This was well and truly the best flight of the four.  However, this statement needs to come with the preface that we upgraded to Main Cabin Select (a product similar to Premium Economy). 

If, like me, you take heed of airline reviews, you will notice that Virgin America is generally considered one of the better (if not the best) airlines to cater to U.S. domestic market.  This is largely due to the entertainment system, which is similar to that on popular international aircrafts.  Many other US airlines are more comparable to a flying bus (see American Airlines review below). 

Virgin America has only a small number of Main Cabin Select seats on their plane including the bulkhead seats and exit rows.  They come with a nice selection of added extras such as food and drink on demand, priority boarding, one free checked bag, and tons of extra legroom.  We had the bulkhead seats and, for the first time ever in my history of flying economy, I was able to get from my window seat to the aisle without the passengers alongside me having to get out of their seat or pull up their legs. 

When I booked our seats, it was just a few days after the flight had opened for booking. I pretty much had my choice of any seat on the plane.  At the time the upgrade to Main Cabin Select was marginal and, in my opinion, an absolute bargain.  Interestingly, just an hour after making the booking, I did a quick check to see if the price of Main Cabin Select Seats had changed (Yes, I’m a nerd.  I do some strange things in the pursuit of research).  The price had skyrocketed to one I never would have been able to justify.  

The moral of this story?  Book when you see a price you’re happy with.  It could take just one other person to book one of these seats and price could get pushed out of your reach.

American Airlines

It’s only fair to begin this somewhat negative review with a confession that this flight was never going to be one I would enjoy.  After 3 of the best weeks of our lives, we were awash with the ‘end of holiday blues’.   The last thing we felt like was a long, tiring, flight home.

Virgin America have one direct flight to and from Orlando per day.  Unfortunately their return flight was not at a time that suited.  American Airlines, meanwhile, had a perfectly timed flight at a price we were happy to pay. 

While there was nothing overly bad about this flying experience (service was cordial and the flight was on time), our flight was impersonal and boring.

Wherever AA could ‘Nickel and Dime’ you, they did.  Food, baggage, extra legroom.  Even headphones cost extra.  Paying for headphones was a particular peeve of mine since the movie was on one of those undesirable shared screens that hang from the ceiling.  I realize that AA are one of many world-wide airlines that have introduced these extra charges, however in the process of giving everything a cost you start to feel more and more like an economic statistic than a valued customer.  Whatever happened to good old-fashioned service and the occasional freebie?

A few months before our trip, I got word of AA’s new Main Cabin Extra seats.  I priced up the upgrade and ummed and ahhed for many days over whether the upgrade price was worth only two added extras (extra legroom and priority boarding).  In the end I decided to go for it, and once I saw the cramped conditions the other economy passengers were in, I’m pleased I had.  But I do think the price they charge for this upgrade is over the top.  As a result I would probably try another airline before using AA again. 

With regards to priority boarding, I had it for both of our US domestic flights, and it is a much bigger benefit than most New Zealanders would ever realise.  Unlike many airlines around the world, US domestic airlines have a size limit on carry-on, but not a weight limit.  In order to avoid the hefty check-in baggage costs that most domestic airlines implement, customers purchase the largest carry on bag allowed, and then squeeze it full with enough items to see them through their whole holiday.   The extremely annoying outcome of this is that there is not really the overhead space inside planes to accommodate all these bags. 

 When boarding is announced, many passengers desperate to find space above them for their precious items, throw calm and common courtesy to the wind and charge their way towards the front of the boarding queue.  As well as this, the planes take a very long time to board as passengers try to squeeze their microwave-sized suitcases into spaces only big enough for a tissue box. 

The airlines have seen their passenger’s frustration and have responded by adding yet another optional charge: priority boarding.   Out of principle, I felt a bit bad paying for this option.  However I do have to admit, it did make the whole boarding process much more relaxing.   

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