DL/CZ: CLT-ATL-LAX-CAN-KUL 23 Feb 2013 by Bruce

International Arrivals and China Immigration Hallway at Guangzhou, China airport

International Arrivals and China Immigration Hallway at Guangzhou, China airport

On Thursday, I was given the go ahead to travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and to be in the office on Tuesday. The customer specified that the travel budget including hotel was $4000. This left me rather short – searches on Delta, Air France and KLM were running over $5000. But a mixed itinerary brought it down to $2500: CLT-ATL-LAX on Delta, LAX-CAN-KUL on China Southern (CZ), KUL-PVG-JFK on China Eastern (MU) and JFK-CLT on Delta. Cheaper flights on Emirates or other carriers that are neither SkyTeam or  Star Alliance were closer to $2000. [It’s worth noting that I was having trouble finding this itinerary on my own, so I hired a Travel Messiah (TM) who was tremendously helpful.]

Friday afternoon, I was unable to check in on delta.com and nor was the TM. A call to Delta was similarly unhelpful – I was told that due to the number of segments, I had to check in at the airport. I was also unable to change my seat assignments for the CZ segments.

I arrived CLT on Saturday at 12:00, dropping my car at the Business Valet ($10/day instead of $7/day for long term lot). At the Delta ticket counter, the ticket agent (TA) had a few challenges getting me checked in, but managed to figure it out. A bag tag with four segments was printed and a Priority tag attached. My passport was reviewed. Four boarding passes (BPs) were printed as well, including an upgrade for the first short segment.

Boarding for CLT-ATL was called at 13:15 and I took seat 3D in F on this 737. Pre-departure drinks were offered and I took advantage of a gin and tonic. In the air, another drink service and the snack basket which had peanuts, pretzels and Biscoffs. Each passenger in F was thanked for their business by the flight attendant (FA). With my Gold status and an international itinerary, I was able to access the Delta Sky Club in ATL where I grabbed some snacks and power.

No upgrade on ATL-LAX, I had 10G on a 767. Bulkhead row. One drink service cart with buy-on-board was offered. Gogo In-flight Internet was not operational, several satellite channels on the in-flight entertainment (IFE) were not working and there was no power at the seat. I did not hear an apology or announcement. The flight had significant turbulence almost the entire time. Arrival at LAX was still 10 minutes early.

I was warned that the walk to the international terminal was a headache, but it’s really not so bad. From T4, you walk past T5 (American) to the terminal. It took a while to find the ticket counter for CZ, but there was no one waiting in the Sky Priority lane when I arrived. My BPs were reprinted and I was able to slightly change my seat assignment from 79D (the last row, aisle) to 74A. I was also given a VIP Pass for the lounge.

The CZ lounge was pretty decent with sandwiches, serve yourself drinks and free wireless. A shower was also available. I stayed for about an hour before heading to the flight.

At the gate, several rope lines were set up for passengers based on seat and deck. No status other than business and first had separate queues. Boarding for the 22:00 departure commenced at 20:30. Yes, 90 minutes to board the plane and we pushed back on time. From there, a 30-minute taxi around the airport and past runway 7R to take off on 25L. I could see a wingtip escort car for most of the taxi and while it’s hard to judge distances, I am sure that we missed one light post and one hangar by less than six feet.

The upper deck on this CZ A380 configuration is 2-4-2 with storage bins between the window seat and the window. A pillow, an amenity kit (toothpaste, eye mask, etc.) and a thick blanket was on the seat. There was a 7-inch IFE in the seatback with no power outlet. While the extra storage was nice, it meant that there was nothing to lean against. And with all but five or six of the seats taken, there was no opportunity to switch to an open row. 79D would have been an AWFUL seat – it’s the last row and not only has limited recline, it is immediately next to the galley and lavatory area so there is constant foot traffic.

Until this flight, my longest had been 11 hours on AMS-IAH. LAX-CAN is 15 hours. Extreme! With my Bose QC15s, it was at least quiet but I was still not able to sleep. After pushback, they dimmed the lights for a half hour. And then turned them back up for dinner service, leaving the lights on for about two hours. Then the lights were dimmed until two hours prior to arrival.

Two meal services (Dinner: tuna salad appetizer, steamed cod with white rice and sliced fruit. Breakfast: quiche with tater tots and a slice of ham, a croissant and sliced fruit) and a few water services, but mostly the FAs were hiding. Since I couldn’t sleep, I watched three or four movies, a few sitcoms and tried to read. An hour before departure, it was time for final cleanup and seatbacks restored to upright. A few videos describing the China immigration and transit process were shown and then a 10-minute “flight exercises” video. And then 40 minutes of… nothing. Boring as hell.

China immigration was pleasant and quick as I was a transit passenger. A quick review of my passport and onward boarding pass, I got a stamp and was directed to the China Southern lounge in Guangzhou where I entered at about 05:30 AM. There were a couple of cold snacks that looked stale and a self-service fridge of drinks. Hot food started to arrive at around 06:30 which included meat buns, some sort of chicken in sauce and beef with wheat noodles. Aside from the time anachronism, it was pretty good. I left the lounge at 07:45 and made my way to the KUL departure gate.

The gate is a “commuter airline” set up with a large common area that smelled of cigarette smoke and eight gates. Boarding announcement in Chinese only, but I got the gist of it and had my “Economy Plus” boarding pass ready. A standing-room only bus took us to the hard stand where we made our way up the stairs into the three-class 737.

I saw no one in first class and of the 24 seats in Economy Plus, only three were occupied. A pillow and blanket were waiting and then the FA distributed small water bottles to us and then closed the curtains between the three sections. I had all three seats to myself and on the four-hour flight, I managed to sleep for an hour or so. Meal service was a chicken in sauce concoction with white rice and some sliced fruit. I wanted a drink at this point, and while the FA said they had gin, she did not have tonic. I stuck with water.

We arrived KUL on time. Baggage claim took about 15 minutes, but my Priority tagged suitcase was one of the first out for the Guangzhou flight. Immigration and Customs were extremely quick, even for foreign passport holders – ten minutes in queue and no visa is required for stays less than 90 days. Images of index fingerprints were taken.

Summary: From leaving home at 11:30 AM ET on Saturday to arriving at the hotel at 14:00 Malaysia time (13 hours ahead) on Monday (I lost Sunday crossing the International Date Line) makes for a very long trip, especially when you can’t sleep on the plane. Delta: Only a B due to the very high fare they offered and the broken IFE. China Southern: A- for nice lounges and on-board meals plus I appreciated the E+ upgrade.

Effective 1 March 2013, Delta has changed redemption for most economy fare classes on most partner airlines. Even though I’m flying 21309 miles, I will only earn 16709 MQM’s. Some fare classes earn zero! Serious bummer.

I’m sorry for the extended length of the TR, but this is the first time that I have ever flown a four-segment/three-country itinerary! The return on Wednesday, March 6 will be KUL-PVG-JFK-CLT and I will write upon my return.

Total Trip Cost: $ 2,529.40
Actual Airfare: $ 1,933.00
Actual Miles Flown: 21309 (http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=CLT-ATL-LAX-CAN-KUL-PVG-JFK-CLT&MS=wls&MP=r&DU=mi)
Yield: $ 0.091 per mile (0.116 per MQM)
Taxes & Fees: $ 596.40, 23.58% of ticket price

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DL/UA head-to-head: CLT-MSP-SAN 6 Jan and SAN-IAD-CLT 18 Jan

Heading back to San Diego for the final weeks of engagement with this customer, the flight options were limited. I wanted a late Sunday morning departure, but the best I could do was 8:15 connecting through MSP. It’s the latest option until a 4:30 PM departure that arrives close to 10:00 PM and that’s just no good. So here we are.

I still haven’t hit my Gold challenge officially – Delta only started counting when they finished processing the request, not when I actually made the request. In between, there were two full CLT-ATL-SAN round trips, so I’m hoping that this trip manages to finish that off or get them to pull back the start date.

06:30 arrival at the airport, the shuttle bus from long term parking dropped me at the ticketing area at 06:45. A long line for Delta economy ticket agents, but I only waited a minute before getting an open kiosk in front of the Sky Priority lanes. The agent quickly tagged my two bags (it’s a two-week trip) and put yellow priority tags on them. I backed over to the B security checkpoint and there were about 35 economy passengers waiting but zero in the Preferred / Elite line. A quick “opt out” pat down and I was on my way. As usual, it was almost completely useless.

I stopped in the B concourse US lounge with my United Club card for a bagel (no toaster?), oatmeal and coffee. Lounge was busy but fully stocked. No bar tender on duty, as usual for US in the morning.

Gate A8 is one of the former Northwest gates, as this flight was headed to MSP. I’ve been headed to ATL almost every time I’ve been on Delta lately, so I don’t know if this is intentionally still splitting the two former carriers or what. UA still splits – A2 and A4 go to Chicago and Washington (and two AC to YYZ) where A10 and A11 seem to go to Houston and Newark.

The flight was called a bit late (7:55 for 8:15 departure) for preboards (no takers), F and then “Zone 1”. It should have been “Sky Priority” but I didn’t correct the gate agent. On board, I perched in 4A on this ERJ-170 even though my seat was 4B to avoid getting smacked by rollaboards and handbags. Row 4 is the first in Y and where the middle aisle realigns. I was 3 of 4 for 2 upgrades, so I didn’t get it today. On the plus side, my seatmate didn’t show up. Economy Comfort seat with great legroom. We pushed back, were first for departure and were wheels up at 8:24.

F had a hot breakfast, Y had a single pass with a full can and choice of pretzels, peanuts or Biscoffs. The FA’s did not deploy the curtain to separate the two classes. I signed on to gogo using a borrowed account and surfed. Excellent, but not worth $10.

At MSP, it was a long walk from the arriving gate F5 to departing gate G20. No trains and few slidewalks, it took me 20 minutes at a medium pace. Coffee and a muffin from a one-off coffee shop while I waited and watched the kettles head to MCO and MIA.

Another flight where I failed to upgrade (9 of 16 for 8) that was similarly uneventful. We arrived in SAN 25 minutes early.

Before I knew it, two weeks in SAN was coming to an end. We had a change of plans and my flight to AVP was cancelled. By Thursday afternoon, all of the Delta flights for Friday night out of SAN were sold out or extremely expensive. So over to United.com I went, where I found an exit row to IAD available.

Friday evening, I arrived at Terminal 1 at 8:00. SAN still has the backscatter machines and I did my usual opt-out. I mentioned to the TSO that she shouldn’t even be *near* the machines and she said that she’s pregnant. Yep, that makes sense.

United has a club in Terminal 1 for the United fliers to Washington and Chicago, but the former Continental flights are still in Terminal 2 where there is no club. One airline, eh?

It took me a bit to find the lounge as it’s behind you as you step off the escalator. But there it was, with all the usual United amenities – Milanos, snack mix and self-serve coffee plus the usual wrapped cheese. Free beer available at the small bar were Bud Light, Heineken and the local Karl Strauss Brewery’s Amber. I had the Amber and sat for an hour with my laptop on their free wifi.

Over at the gate at 9:40 for the 10:20 departure, I could tell it was going to be slow. 35 teenagers on a school trip to Washington for the inauguration. All with rollaboards and backpacks and all in Zone 4 or 5. I boarded with Zone 2 (I was 8 of 22 for 2 seats). Seat 21A on this A320 is the second of the two exit rows. Excellent legroom in an Economy Plus seat with the tray table in the armrest. 35 minutes of watching the junior kettles and their bags come on and then be removed later, we pushed back 20 minutes late. Light out and a dark beverage/BOB service, the movie Pitch Perfect was on the overhead IFE. No gogo and no inseat power, I worked on my laptop until the battery died and then I had the only overhead light on the whole aircraft with my book for the rest of the flight.

We ended up 20 minutes early into IAD, which was very quiet and very dark at 6AM. I found the D concourse club for a bagel and some juice before heading to the gate.

At the gate is where the trip started to go a little sideways. The gate agent made an announcement that we were delayed because the aircraft was too cold to board and we would have to wait until it warmed up. Fifteen minutes later, the same again. At 8:27, the overhead board reported our 8:17 departure was pushed to 8:29. Finally at 8:50, we boarded the aircraft. I had been upgraded (yay!) to seat 1A on this Embraer 170, so I got to experience the cold Washington weather even though the flight attendant drew the curtain over the door.

The captain made an announcement that we were delayed a few more minutes because the host on the APU starter had cracked due to the cold and we were waiting for a replacement. In the meanwhile, the FA did a pre-departure drink service. Finally, the jetbridge retracted, the door closed and we pushed back at 9:10 for a short taxi to the penalty box. We were informed that due to the late departure, we had missed our landing slot at Charlotte and would be here for 15 minutes to wait. Fifteen minutes later, the second engine started, we taxied to the runway and were off. Another drink service in F, trash pick up and then descent into Charlotte.

Gate A4, so a short walk to the baggage claim which amazingly started only 5 minutes later. That very rarely happens! One of my bags was the second to appear. The second bag was much further back. Both had “Priority” tags on them. Out to the shuttle bus area and even better, a bus to long term 2 was already waiting. That also very rarely happens!

Both carriers provide similar service in the back of the cabin with Economy Comfort or Economy Plus seating. Drinks and a snack. Delta’s wireless internet might be a selling point for those who are willing to pay for it but it’s not enough to cause me to make the switch. The gate agents in SAN should have done a better job with the rollaboards – I’ve heard Delta gate agents make multiple announcements to courtesy check bags but I did not heard that from United.

Summary: Comfortable and safe travel, no real complaints. I’d like to see better passenger handling by United in San Diego. Both carriers did a fine job. A- for Delta and B+ for United.

With as many flights as Delta has from CLT to ATL, MSP, DTW, MEM, JFK and even SLC, they should consider a small Sky Club here.

Delta versus United: A new Delta frequent flyer’s perspective by Bruce

I have flown fourteen segments on Delta in the last four weeks since I requested that they match my United Gold elite status to Delta’s Gold Medallion. In that time, I have experienced Delta in economy as a non-elite flyer (the status match request took three weeks to be processed) and in the first class cabin (50% upgrades so far). I have also seen how they handle irregular operations.

First of all, economy is about the same on Delta as on every other carrier: zone 4 or 5 boarding, no room in the overhead bins by the time you’re on the plane, small seat pitch, and your checked bags are not the first onto the carousel. That said, Delta’s aircraft (at least the Boeing 757/767, Airbus 319 and MD-88’s) are clean and functional. Longer flights have a beverage service with a choice of peanuts, Biscoff cookies or pretzels. On seven of my eight forty-minute flights between Charlotte and Atlanta, we did not have a beverage service “due to the short duration” and on the eighth, the flight attendants passed out mini bottles of Dasani.

Once my status match was processed, I was upgraded on two of my four segments. On the others, I have received Sky Priority boarding, which is ahead of Zone 1, and when I checked bags, they were yellow Priority tagged and were in the first few to arrive on the carousel.

On one of my trips, there was a ground traffic problem that caused our push-back to be delayed by 45 minutes. During that time, the Captain made announcements every 10 minutes with the status and he apologized for the delay. Arriving late in Atlanta, I missed my connection, which was the last flight to San Diego. Delta gave me a hotel voucher (the agent allowed me select the hotel), $22 in food vouchers, and a small amenity kit of personal care items. I understand that non-elite travelers receive a bit less.

For the replacement flight, Delta booked me in first class (I might have been upgraded, not sure). First class is top notch. On the long Atlanta to San Diego segment, we were served a full breakfast –cheese omelet with sausages and potatoes, a bowl of fruit, a toasted bagel and decent coffee. On a Charlotte-Detroit flight segment in first class, I was offered a pre-departure beverage (I chose a gin & tonic, which came with a squeezed lime), another one in flight (I was offered a third) and the snack basket.

Almost all of my flights had in-flight entertainment. In economy, the movies and TV shows are not free – usually a dollar for a half-hour show or $4 for a full length movie. When I got bored with my book, I watched the free satellite stations  – CNN, ESPN, TNT – and the broadcast networks.

Where is Delta better than United?

Delta’s flights have WiFi, which for many is a big deal but has not been for me. My work does not require that level of connectivity and I can’t justify $15 to surf for entertainment (though Delta’s website is free and they have also had free access to eBay). There are satellite stations on the in-flight TVs. Delta Sky Clubs have better snacks and drinks than United. I am truly sick of the three choices of wrapped cheese and the Walker’s shortbread cookies. (US Airways is an alliance partner of United and their snacks are awful!)

Where is United better than Delta?

I have had a few bumps with Delta’s app for Android where it gets confused with viewing my itineraries. United’s app has more features: you can actually book a flight on it and do basic searches for award bookings. Delta’s app has also gotten stuck a couple of times on loading itineraries and never completing the request. Both have flight status searches, airport maps, and searches for clubs. Searching for flights by schedule and by price is easier on United.com. Delta has hidden the price when I searched by schedule. Channel 9 allows you to listen to in-flight communications with ground control. Delta does not offer this.

So for now, I’m a happy Delta flyer. I would much rather connect in Houston or even Chicago rather than Atlanta. I find Atlanta a difficult airport to change concourses. I found that I needed at least 45 minutes, especially if you’re not in the front of the aircraft. However, Atlanta’s One Flew South restaurant is excellent if you have the time.