LHR-IAH-XNA 30 Sep to 1 Oct 2011 on Continental by Bruce

At the end of 22 months of European adventures, this is the return of a trip purchased in August. At booking, I was immediately able to choose exit row seats. I checked the seat assignments and schedule a couple of times over the last few weeks – there was no issue.

CO flight 5 is scheduled for an 11:40 departure. That morning, I received Trip Alerts from Continental at midnight, 06:00, 08:30, 09:40 and 11:25 with notifications that the flight was running late due to a delayed inbound aircraft. Rather than sit in an empty apartment, I chose to stick to my schedule and arrived Heathrow at 09:30.

Quick interview to enter the line for a counter agent (“Did you pack these bags yourself?,” etc.). Check-in was normal and the counter agent helpfully assisted with checking my first three suitcases at no charge, thanks to my Gold status. The fourth and fifth suitcases were each $200. All were well under weight but quite full (almost all of it clothing), so an attempt to compress down and leave an empty suitcase would have been fruitless.

Continental’s presence in Terminal 4 dates back to the SkyTeam days and they have an agreement with the SkyTeam lounge (operated by Etihad Airlines). It’s a large lounge on two levels with a capacity for maybe 250 people. Nicely laid out, it’s usually rather quiet. The standard European features – self-service booze, beers, wine and sodas plus coffee machines. Free wi-fi. Hot and cold breakfast items include yogurt, cereal, scrambled eggs, pancakes, baked beans (yep, Brits eat these at breakfast), chicken sausages and bacon. I ate, caught up on some emails and even managed to snooze for an hour in one of the sleep rooms. At 11:30, the lunch items come out and it’s sliced ham and beef pastrami, slivers of cheese and bread rolls.

Boarding started at 13:00 with F. 50 F seats on this 777, so that took a bit. I did see two people turned away. Then elites. As the BP’s are scanned, a brief passport check. A currency interview and random screening (I was not selected) on the jet bridge. I learned that the reason for the delay was a thunderstorm in Houston the previous day – the 777 was diverted to MSY for two hours, starting a chain of lateness that would last for another day.

I took my seat, 16A on this 777-200. The first row in Y, there is a solid bulkhead and the tray tables/video monitors are in the armrests. After boarding completed, we sat in the plane for another 90 minutes while they cleared a mechanical issue: one of the Y toilets was broken. They were unable to fix it, so they sealed it off and we pushed back. Since it happened in the UK, this would be a ‘loo out of order.’

Service in the air was standard and boring – chicken or beef for dinner (served and cleared before we’d even left Ireland air space), no charge for the first drink (I had one of three Heinekens), a few water services, ice cream, pre-arrival sandwich and landing. We arrived at 19:05 (over three hours late) and so I missed my connection.

Immigration was somewhat slow. I don’t understand why people can’t wait in the roped lines and then direct just two or three people in front of each desk. Instead, they line up 8 people deep at each of the desks, which is the most inefficient method possible. The officer, however, was friendly and pleasant. Since my last arrival in the US, I’ve been to England, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands which earned a couple of extra (harmless) questions.

All five of my checked bags were waiting on the carousel with priority tags. I loaded up a trolley and was amazed to clear Customs with this massive stack of stuff and got barely an acknowledgement from the CBP officer as she glanced at my entry form.

At the counter for rebooking, I was first in the elite line where there were 10 people waiting in the economy line. I tried to ignore their evil looks as the counter agent printed out hotel (Hilton Garden Inn) and meal vouchers ($12 dinner, $6 breakfast) because there was a portion of the delay caused by the mechanical. I had missed the last flight of the day, so I was booked on the 10:00 AM and even managed to get 12A. I was thoroughly pleasant and had the agent laughing a couple of times. She said that there had been a couple of very upset people earlier. Before giving over my suitcases, I pulled an outfit for the next day and my dopp kit.

Rather than go straight to the hotel, I used the boarding pass from my missed connection to enter the secure zone (quick security) and went to the Terminal E President’s Club for a beer, some wifi and a short rest.

The hotel was not noteworthy and I was back at the airport at 08:30. At security, I took an opt-out that was professional and 85% thorough. The TSO managed to discover my cheap flip-phone I had forgotten in my pocket that the magnetometer had missed! Up to the Terminal B President’s Club which is now the United Club. All new signage had been replaced overnight. They’d even renamed the wi-fi access point. Same breakfast food items as usual (mini-yogurts, small muffins, bagels and cream cheese).

The flight to XNA was unremarkable – it boarded on time (military personnel called first, then elites). I sat in 12A on this ERJ-145, we pushed back on time, there was a full can drink service, we landed on time, and my five suitcases were almost the only stuff to come on to the carousel. It filled the trunk and back seat of my daughter’s car.

Summary: Irregular operations were handled smoothly and I have no complaints. In flight service was good with a power socket at my seat (that fit both US and UK plugs, maybe others too). The IFE was flawless (Hanna, Fast Five, Source Code and A Fish Called Wanda). It was consistently consistent and completely boring, which is exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Despite sitting in coach, Continental for this trip deserves an A+. The only thing that would have improved my experience would have been an op-up.

Total Trip Cost: $617.05
Actual Airfare: $344.50
Actual Miles Flown: 5272
Yield: $ 0.065 per mile
Taxes & Fees: $272.55, 44.17% of ticket price
Generated by the VanMetric Airfare Info Generator, version 0.11.

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CO: XNA-IAH-LHR 30 Dec 2010 by Bruce

My daughter dropped me off at XNA a little late – 2:45 for a 3:35 departure. That’s not usually a worry at this large regional airport which continues to grow. They’re adding another above-ground concourse and several more gates with jetbridges here for AA. AA is the only carrier flying other than regional jets here, with a single MD-80 service to DFW. XNA still doesn’t have the millimeter wave scanners, just magnetometers. After my two laptops went in separate bins and I went through without alerting, I was randomly selected for a palm swipe. No worries there.

Boarding was on time and I had managed to upgrade to 12A (exit row) on this ERJ-145 when I checked in via the CO iPhone app. I’d guess 70% full. We pushed back on time, were the only plane moving so we were wheels-up two minutes later. Beverage service was a full can. Descent into IAH was very bumpy with a few stomach-jumping drops and two crying babies through a very firm cloud layer.

Between the gate and the President’s Club, I read from the screens that LHR was delayed. Once I could get online, pda.continental.com informed me that the inbound was 90 minutes late, so I made myself comfortable in the club and waited it out. Standard club offerings – wrapped cheese, crackers, cheese spread, etc. I had a couple of the draft Heinekens while web surfing. There were several announcements made about the delay on the overhead and then we were informed that boarding would start soon.

Our 18:35 departure was delayed to 21:00. At the gate, the usual gate fleas and boarding was done with the boarding pass scanner/gate things. I didn’t see anyone turned back. When boarding the delayed flight, everyone was issued a “Customer Care Kit” which contained a Continental Currency drink coupon and “Travel Discount Coupon” for a 10% discount off a future flight. F, then Elites. I was in 17A, the second row in the back on this 777. We pushed back at 21:16 and were first in line for departure a few minutes later. In-flight entertainment was decent and I managed to find two car-crash/shoot up movies I was interested in watching in between meal services. An amazingly cramped seat, more so after last week’s upgraded AMS-ORD and my wife’s Christmas meals. It’s been a good few months since I wasn’t in a bulkhead or exit row for a transatlantic flight and my legs complained the whole way. It was very confining and I was not able to get comfortable enough to sleep. Seven hours in, I had to disturb my seatmates to visit the lav.

We landed LHR runway 9 left, three hours 18 minutes late and had a long taxi around the western perimeter of the airport until we got to our gate at the south end of T4. We were held just short of the gate because the automated docking system was broken and a gate marshal had to be called over. Ten minutes later, we drove in the remaining 100 feet and parked. No issues at immigration. This was my first time using my new UK passport. The queue for non-EU citizens looked to be at least an hour, but as a local I had no queue. There was an automated scanner/video camera barricade thing, so I didn’t even have to interact with a Border Agent.

Summary: The same as every other transatlantic CO flight I’ve been on (this was my 11th), seating, food, in-flight entertainment, on-board staff, all good. Grade: B+. Other than the delayed inbound from London that caused a delayed outbound from Houston, a very consistent experience from CO.

Ticket purchased 11 days in advance:
Total Trip Cost: $ 948.20
Actual Airfare: $ 497.00
Actual Miles Flown: 10544 (XNA-IAH-LHR-IAH-XNA)
Yield: $ 0.047 per mile
Taxes & Fees: $ 451.20, 47.58% of ticket price

I’m really hoping that post-merger, the new United brings Economy Plus seating to the CO fleet. It’s also sad that 14 seats in F went empty on this flight.

Continental 66 CLE-LHR 16 August 2009 BusinessFirst by J. Augusta

I’m way behind on my trip write-ups and may skip a few but I did want to mention my flight from Cleveland back to London last Sunday. As you may know, Cleveland-LHR is a seasonal flight and is CLE’s only transatlantic flight (since CDG was canceled after last year) and I must say these guys really take pride in this one flight.

On arrival at the airport I did not see their BusinessFirst special counter at the end of the check-in area so I went to the regular EliteAccess line to print my boarding pass. Once the agent went to check my bags and saw I was flying in BusinessFirst on the direct flight to London she went out of her way to be friendly even telling me to make sure I say hello to the concierge (calling her by name) who would be hanging out in the President’s Club until the flight. Security was a bit slow but wasn’t too bad and before long I was through security at the C terminal at CLE. CLE is a bit of a disaster area right now as they rebuild the shopping areas, and as a result there’s not much of anything open except a few random restaurants and basically no shops. I decided I would spend my time in the President’s Club while waiting to board. Upon arrival the agent at the door again mentioned to make sure I stop by to say hello to the concierge. So I walked in, had a beer, and then strolled over to say hello. The concierge was quite friendly, offered to provide any assistance I may need, checked my boarding pass/passport and wished me a good flight. I went to the bar for a few more beverages and before long we were boarding the full flight to LHR.

Boarding was in the middle door, so I made a quick left turn to reach my seat, 1A (someone had grabbed 1B before I could get to it!) I was greeted by name by the flight attendants working the section and offered a drink. I settled down with a glass of champagne and paged through a few magazines while waiting to board. The International Service Manager then stopped by with the amenity kits and menus and also introduced himself. Flight time was also scheduled to be about 45 minutes shorter than on the books, so we were due for a nice early arrival into LHR. I ordered the steak as it was the best of the options (I think I’ve been through their meal rotations several times over the past 2 1/2 years of flying them!) Before long we were heading out for the short taxi and early departure.

Once in the air the cabin crew wasted no time preparing dinner service. Warm nuts and drinks were offered (Bordeaux for me) followed by the standard app cart (veggie wonton pocket type thing, crab cake, and some soup) with loads of bread, and then the salad. My steak was served soon after the salad and was cooked a bit on the well side but still edible. I think she came around with bread and wine refills every 5 minutes, it was great service! Dessert was standard cheese cart and ice cream. I went for the ice cream and had some peppermint tea before trying to grab some shut eye. Overall the dinner service was very efficient- taking less than 2 hours from take-off. This is one of my pet peeves with night flights as often times the dinner service almost takes 3 hours so this was a welcome relief.

I had decided to watch Wolverine so I finished that film and tried (unsuccessfully) to get some sleep. The recliner seats are great for day flights but I find the foot rest doesn’t quite go up enough to allow me to sleep well. I did have my eyes shut for a few hours, but I wouldn’t call it sleep. The crew waited until about 1 hr prior to landing to serve breakfast which I think was very welcome by the entire plane. This is typically another pet peeve as often times they start with ~2 hours left of flying time (if you add in the 3-hour meal, that means there’s only about 2 hours between meals!) I had a cinnamon roll and some coffee. We only had to circle a few times over south London before finally landing at LHR 45 min early. On landing we also disembarked from the middle doors. And for the first time ever on a CO flight, the flight attendants actually let BusinessElite out first thanking us all personally on our way out. Immigration had quite the queue, but I used the IRIS (eye-scanning machines) to skip the queue and proceed to wait 35 minutes for my bags. That’s another downside with the 757s- -they don’t use the bins for the bags so they take longer to unload. I met my driver right at the time my flight was scheduled to land so it was not a big deal as I still got in early.

Overall this was one of my favorite flights in a long time. It’s obvious the CLE station takes great pride in this seasonal flight and it showed. Everyone from the check-in agent to the club agent to the concierge to the gate agents to the CLE based crew were amazingly friendly. The best part came 2 days ago when I received in the mail a handwritten letter from the concierge thanking me for flying. In about 16 round trips on CO this is the first time I got a letter. Needless to say I was very impressed. We all know that it’s the little things that set airlines apart and in this instance CO came through with several of them.

The Frequent Flyer’s Quagmire by VPP

The Frequent Flyer’s Quagmire
Exactly what do you, as a frequent flyer, give up when “status” trumps all else?

I wish, after reading various frequent flyer blogs, I had a quarter for every time I’d read about someone going on a “mileage run” otherwise known as taking needless trips, needless stops, and generally going out of their way in search of frequent flyer miles, “Elite Qualifying Points,” or some other reason to just spend time frivolously, padding the frequent flyer account. For that matter, I wish I had the time I personally wasted doing “mileage runs.” I, too, am guilty of flying from Providence, RI, to Miami, FL, via Houston. In my past life as an employee of the pharmaceutical industry, I did it. I will say I saw a “mileage run” posted the other day that basically took someone from Miami up to Boston, through Chicago and Seattle on their way to Santa Barbara. And I’ve known at least one person who went to Anchorage and one to Milan, Italy, and their stay was less than four hours. The one person who flew to MXP reported being hassled because no one could quite comprehend why he had just landed and was ready to head back to the States. I wouldn’t necessarily have hassled the person from a security or drug running standpoint. Instead, I would have wondered (and hassled) “Why would you waste your most precious commodity you own, time, on something so silly?”

So, there are two questions that come to my mind. First is, “Exactly where are a person’s values when they spend time like this?” and the second is, “When we buy air transportation, exactly what are we buying?”

The first question, for me, is easy.

I know in my life, there are many things replaceable and at least one thing that is not. I can get cars, clothing, money, houses, books back…etc. One thing I know I can’t get back is TIME. Time is finite. The number of heartbeats a person has, the amount of time to enjoy the company of a loved one, of a friend, is finite. It’s not replaceable. It comes and passes but one time. This alone leads me to the conclusion the concept of a “mileage run” is silly. The fact I would miss time with my wife, with loved ones, with my friends, doing something I want to do, is enough to quash the short sighted idea of a “mileage run.” At least one that involves multiple time zones and airplanes.

And for what reason do frequent flyers do those “mileage runs?” For that all mighty “status” that gives them the ability to get that first class seat, or the emergency exit row seat, or the bonus frequent flyer miles. All the while, two things happen. The first, and perhaps saddest, that person loses valuable time. Time that is irreplaceable. Time that they can never get back.

The second, and perhaps, in a strange twist, they surrender and accept a transportation product that is not just imperfect, but often flawed. The “mileage run” flies in the face (if you’ll pardon the pun) of what a person is actually buying: transportation! When I read these blogs and stories, I invariably ask, time and time again, “Are these people buying frequent flyer miles or are they buying transportation?” I dare say, frequent flyer crazies have lost sight of the reason to spend money with an airline!

Southwest Airlines (WN) exploited this and exposed airlines first in the 1990s when their “legacy” cousins had silly and stupid pricing policies, supported by a lack of competition as well as a public that was all too happy to purchase a subpar product, in the name of “status and frequent flyer miles.” WN took their legacy cousins to the hoop, simplified the product, made the value proposition of the product quantifiable, and actually thumbed their collective noses at the big boys. I for one am glad. I love the airline, but that’s not what this piece is about.

With nothing other than a GREAT positioning, WN made their place in aviation known and felt: ”You are buying a seat, a means of getting from point A to point B” and then they over-delivered. Suddenly, they are first in domestic passengers emplaned, and getting bigger and better. And those legacy cousins of WN who don’t understand or believe that “international travel is in their sights,” I would warn you not to be naïve.

And then there are other carriers, carriers like Midwest Airlines (YX) and Icelandair (FI) who, with a very small and very limited reach offer a product, often vastly superior, to their Goliath-like cousins. For less money than nearly any competitor, a person can fly FI from BOS/JFK/YYZ to many points in Northern and Western Europe. In the case of YX, from MKE or MCI, a person can get to a number of places and for the same price, if not a lesser price. My trips on FI and YX include a much more personalized service: better food, better drinks, better seats, better everything. Let’s face it, these little guys MUST work harder to provide a better value proposition, since they can’t compete with “global networks” and frequent flyer alliances. They understand, at the core of their existence, a very good, if not excellent product, must exist. Therefore, they are selling a transportation product, not frequent flyer miles.

And with WN? Oh my goodness, a person can purchase and have a better product in many ways. In fact, I believe the boarding process WN has is the best in aviation. The seat pitch, when you must fly coach, is very good. And let’s not forget, as opposed to a “Barbie Jet” or a God-forsaken CRJ (otherwise known as “Satan’s Chariot”) you get a REAL airplane with space, a friendly and fun crew, and perhaps most importantly, none of those insane $150 change fees.

Yet, my brothers and sisters out there, when offered the choice, opt to fly their Goliath carrier in search of that added segment, or those bonus miles, in hopes of getting that first class seat. And I for one, do NOT get it. It’s almost like they say, “I know it’s more segments, harder to get there, a lesser product, but I’m buying frequent flyer miles, not transportation!” Think about it, for goodness sake.

Now to be sure, I appreciate loyalty. I am a loyal and loving fan of Continental Airlines and I do try to fly them. And I’m loyal to Southwest Airlines and to Icelandair. So I understand loyalty. And I understand “status.” I happen to be a Platinum member of Continental’s One Pass program. I fly enough, I’m elite on DL and US as well, and this year, there’s a good chance I’ll make, in addition, WN’s “A-List” as well as FI’s “Saga Silver” program. So I get that.

And, to take it one step further, “status” does enter into my mind when purchasing. But it doesn’t cloud my vision. Is making Platinum on CO something that I want to do? You bet it is, but will I fly from PVD to FLL via ANC to do it? No way.

Here is a brief list of things travelers, customers, and employers lose as a result of this idea that status trumps all things in air travel.

TIME– The ultimate loss. The traveler him or herself loses valuable time. The employer does too as well. I wonder what an employer would think of their employee flying from BOS to MIA via DEN? Think it’s absurd? Think again. It happens. I read about people doing this type of crazy thing ALL the time. Again, I feel worse for the traveler, him or herself who places this silly value above their time. And I feel for the family and friends as well.

PRODUCT QUALITY – Here’s the thing I’m certain travelers DO NOT realize: “When you put ‘status’ and frequent flyer points as your reason to buy, you surrender, to an airline, the demand for a high quality product. What you are essentially saying is, “I’ll take the points over the actual product.” And folks, WHAT are we buying here? A seat? Air travel? Or frequent flyer points?

MONEY – OK, so if you need to fly SEA-LAX and can do it for roughly the same price via MCI that you do direct, see the rationale above, and remember, “Time is money.” I really wonder, “Is it really less expensive?” I also wonder, “How many people spend more money (and time) flying their “favorite” airline to get the points or be upgraded when they can save both time and money and fly another airline? How many times does a traveler pick an airline that is charging $20 more for the points as opposed to the time of the service? I would be frightened to know that stat. (The airlines, of course, bank on it.)

Truth is, I could go on, but I think you get the point. The “price you pay” for “status” and frequent flyer points is very, very high. Can we put a price on a commodity such as “time” that is irreplaceable? I think not. And is it really a good deal to surrender product quality in the name of “points?” Apparently, for some it is, I would argue, “NO WAY!” And finally, if you lose time and product quality, are you really saving money? I think not.

Are there times when a “mileage run” can make sense? Certainly. For example, if I were within 2,000 miles of getting to CO Platinum, it were December, and I had no more trips planned, might I try to go see my mother in Kansas City and thereby generate the 2,000 EQMs? Certainly. Provided the timing and price made sense. I will assure any reader, I’ve skipped flying my favorite airlines and flown carriers I’m a “nothing” on in order to save time and money. And I’ve skipped my normal carriers, like CO or WN domestically, to fly a carrier I love, like YX. In fact, as I type this I’m on an YX flight from SFO-MCI. Might be my only YX flight this year and I’m sacrificing a couple thousand points and segments I would have received flying CO through IAH, or UA through DEN. But I’m saving my time and frankly, getting a vastly superior product. I can’t put a price tag on my time and being in a clean, comfortable “Signature Seat” makes my time that much more enjoyable, even with the knowledge I very well could miss Platinum on CO.

Finally, because of how I value time and money, I will say, “status,” while important to me, is actually down the list in my reasons I buy air travel. As time is my first and most important commodity, I’m not afraid to “put my money where my mouth is” and buy first class service or fares that are instantly upgradeable, thereby not being at the mercy of those hard to snag “unlimited, complimentary upgrades.” In fact, when I travel more than four hours on an airplane, for the most part, I won’t accept sitting in coach, because without some space, I can’t work. Therefore, I pay the price. And because of that, “status” suddenly becomes less valuable. But in my world, “time” is the one commodity that is priceless. And “product quality,” or the “value proposition” offered is not far behind.

In summary, I find it strange, almost bizarrely troubling how frequent flyers place values on their priorities. It always makes me pause and want badly to really understand how that “extra segment” or that “extra 10-hour trip from CLT-MXP via DCA & PHL” is more important than time with loved ones.

But in the ultimate twist, it really makes me struggle to understand why travelers will accept a subpar product, and endorse it, in search of the almighty segment or frequent flyer status.