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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LCY-GVA-PRG-ZRH-LHR 21 June-23 June 2011 on Swiss by Bruce

My team’s quarterly meeting was in Prague this week. Several direct British Airways flights from LHR, but I wanted Star Alliance miles and I also wanted to arrive into PRG before noon so that I could catch a 14:00 walking tour. The only option was a 06:50 departure from LCY (London City) on LX (Swiss). Because it takes me 2+ hours to get to the other side of London, I spent the night at a Travelodge near the airport and was able to walk over and arrive at 06:15 for the 06:50 departure. Security was magnetomers only. Swiss-like timeliness – boarding was organized. No jet bridge, we walked 20 yards to the Avro RJ100. I had 8F with no middle seat passenger. Surprisingly quiet, despite being right next to the engines. Good legroom. The seats on the right side seemed to be installed too far to the left. There was a three inch gap between the arm rest and the wall which made for really comfy leg and shoulder room.

In flight service was a pre-wrapped muffin and a drink tray with water, coffee, wine and Coke or Diet Coke. We landed 10 minutes early under sunny skies and were shuttled from the aircraft to the terminal in a bus. Swiss immigration took 10 minutes, followed by a long walk to the other part of the terminal. I made a quick stop for souvenirs and then a bus to the plane. It turned out to be the exact same aircraft and the same crew. And my same seat!

We pushed back on time and were wheels up a few minutes later. In-flight service was a cheese sandwich (not individually wrapped) with same limited drinks. After cleanup, the crew passed through the aircraft with a chocolate basket. Swiss Air-labeled chocolate bars. I greedily took two and saved one for the Mrs. We landed in Prague 15 minutes early. There was no immigration and I was out to the taxi stand a few minutes later.

For the return, I went with the electronic boarding pass option. I arrived PRG at 13:45 for 14:50 departure. Very quick security took only two minutes with six baggage scanners open and three magnetometers. The combined SkyTeam/Star Alliance lounge was open with salads sandwiches and and other nibbles. Self-serve beer, wine and a soda fountain. At the gate, boarding did not start until 14:35 (it was scheduled for 14:20). Very un-Swiss! Worse, it was a gate rush. They did let a special assist passenger go first at least.

The aircraft was a Fokker 100 operated by Contact Air with Star Alliance livery. Doors closed at 14:45, ten minutes of waiting and then wheels up at 14:56. Very nice legroom and super great recline – 5 inches back. I slept the entire one hour flight. Zurich was an apron stand with shuttle bus.

I found the Swiss Lounge at Zurich even though I only had five minutes. They had drinks but no food with a voucher for only one hour of free wi-fi. I stole a bottle of beer but had to toss it at the security line because I wasn’t going to guzzle it and also I didn’t have an opener. Magnetometer that I did not alert. (Which was odd, because I found my camera battery in my jeans pocket later.)

The gate area was a zoo. Very crowded. Boarding passes were scanned and that led into a corral that in turn went to a shuttle bus that went to the apron. We climbed up a flight of stairs onto an Airbus 320 that soon became completely full. Extremely small seat, 9A. Absolutely no legroom and a tight fit with a middle seat passenger. 90 minutes I could handle, but more than that would have been very uncomfortable and cramp-inducing. Again with the sandwich service and a plastic cup of soda followed by the chocolate basket.

One completely new feature on this aircraft. After the safety video, the screens remained down with a live view from a camera that must have been mounted on the landing gear doors. We could see out the front of the plane as we taxied and then a look down at the ground after takeoff. At altitude, this switched to a boring slideshow of Swiss Air offerings and such, changing back to the ground over London and then Heathrow runway. Me likey!

Summary: Good service and three out of the four seats were very comfortable only to be completely lost on the final leg. I do understand using the shuttle bus instead of a jet bridge to maximize airport space, but it doesn’t respect elites very nicely. Boarding could use some Swiss efficiency. Decent lounges. Final score: B.

Total Trip Cost: $ 308.82
Actual Airfare: $ 110.40
Actual Miles Flown: 1727
Yield: $ 0.064 per mile
Taxes & Fees: $ 198.42, 64.25% of ticket price

LHR-ORD-XNA-ORD-LHR on United and Virgin Atlantic Upper Class 13 May to 16 May 2011 by Bruce

Fri., May 13
UA949 dep LHR 12:20 arr ORD 15:18
UA6063 dep ORD 18:00 arr XNA 19:43

Mon., May 16
UA5927 dep XNA 10:21 arr ORD 12:02
VS40 dep ORD 18:00 arr LHR 08:00 (+1 day)

This trip was outside my usual rotation (my daughter’s Master’s degree graduation ceremony), so I paid for the tickets instead of my employer. Rather than spend $1200+, I opted to use miles. CO’s super-saver was 55,000 miles for the RT in Y but they also offered some partner fares. Since Tuesday was a work day, I chose the VS seat in Upper Class for an additional 25,000 miles, totaling 80,000 miles (plus taxes and fees).

The UA 767-200 LHR-ORD (2-3-2) in Premium Economy did not have power outlets in the seats and the IFE was 8 channels on a rotation. Four-inch screens were mounted in the seat back area. Channel 9 had a loud whine that made it impossible to enjoy. I watched movies on my iPhone instead and plugged it into my laptop to recharge until that too was drained. For dinner, I chose the cheese ravioli.

The departure from ORD to XNA was delayed by a half hour due to a late inbound, but it was communicated well at the gate. The ERJ-145 XNA-ORD was completely full and 12A is still a great seat. Beverage service only. Otherwise, the three of the United flights were boring and without any memorable or noteworthy comment. The Red Carpet Clubs I visited in Chicago were also unremarkable other than being very busy.

For the return, the only itinerary that lined up with the Virgin Atlantic flight gave me a six-hour layover in Chicago. I spent it at the SAS Business Lounge in Terminal 5. ORD terminal changes are outside security, so I rescanned. All four security lines led to full body scanners (the one where you stand between two blue boxes) and I politely said “I’m not going through that!” The TSO was polite, thorough and complete – he briefly brushed up against ‘resistance’. I then spotted that there is no food in T5 and decided not to leave because I would have to be rescanned.

Terminal 5 does have lounges – Star Alliance (and Virgin Atlantic) are in the SAS Business Lounge. Self-serve alcohol and beer (Carlsberg Export, Sam Adams and Miller Lite) with sliced bread, smoked cheese and sliced turkey plus sliced red and green peppers and pickles. I made a couple of sandwiches. Free wifi worked well. Plenty of chairs and power outlets (as well as three Mac desktops), so what was left of my layover passed quickly.

And then the fun begins! Boarding for the 18:00 PM departure started at 16:45. They called Upper Class and I was prepared so I was the first passenger to board. A left turn and down to seat 3K on this A340. Upper Class is an angled seat (with personal IFE) that converts to a 180-degree lie flat bed. Three seats across with two on the left separated from the one on the right by a three-foot wall. Extremely polite (and very attractive) flight attendant offered me a pre-departure champagne that I allowed to be refilled once. On reaching altitude, I asked her to help me convert the seat (including the “mattress” and duvet from the overhead bin). I slept for about four hours (through dinner) and woke at 5AM. It was still too soon for breakfast, so I sat at the bar (yes, there’s a three-seat bar!), drinking sparkling water and chatting with the flight attendant for a bit before heading back to my seat. I chose the “Full English” breakfast (scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms and tomato, served with a toasted croissant) with two cups of excellent coffee.

If I wasn’t planning on going to work immediately after arriving, I might have chosen to partake more of the champagne or tasted the “guest” vodka and mixed drinks. The amenity kit included a shoe bag, eye mask, ear plugs, flight socks, toothbrush and toothpaste. I was also offered a sleep suit (like a track suit) but declined.

Great smooth landing at Heathrow and Economy passengers were held so that the Upper Class passengers were allowed to deplane first. The usual mile-long hike to border security. The non-EU citizens queue was backed up and looked like at least an hour. The EU citizen line moved faster and only took 15 minutes. I had no checked baggage (in fact, I traveled with only my backpack) so I was on to the Heathrow Express train to Paddington moments later.

Summary: United’s flights were comfortable and unremarkable. The seat in Economy Plus was good, but there was no power outlet. Food was good and there were sufficient drink and water services during the long flight, full can on the regional jets. Grade: B. The Virgin Atlantic flight was top notch. Absolutely excellent, but possibly influenced by Upper Class service and a superior flight attendant. I can’t imagine paying three times or more than the regular fare for Upper Class but two times in miles was quite reasonable. Grade: A+ with extra credit.

Notes: Seat Guru’s review of the VS configuration is correct. You want to sit in the middle of the section, away from the bar (chatty passengers and clinking glasses) and away from the lavatories. I’d also recommend the right side seats with one across as there is less foot traffic compared to the left side which has two across.

Total Trip Cost: $ 173.20 and 80,000 miles
Actual Airfare: $ 0.00
Actual Miles Flown: 8949
Yield: $ 0.019 per mile
Taxes & Fees: $ 173.20, 100.00% of ticket price

London-Heathrow to Basel, Switzerland on BMI 27 April to 1 May 2011 by Bruce

A huge thank you to my frequent traveler friend, Bruce, for contributing great trip reports from abroad!

Wed., April 27
BD161 dep LHR 07:15 arr BSL 09:50

Sun., May 1
BD168 dep BSL 20:30 arr LHR 21:05

A holiday was declared for the royal wedding, so I decided to take advantage of the long weekend. When BMI sent me an email offering fare sales, Basel was a good choice because a) it was cheap, b) there was a Marriott where I could use points, c) the Swiss have a culture of speaking English, and d) there was much to see in a city and country I’d never visited.

BMI’s purchase process is simple enough and I booked for an early Wednesday departure and a late Sunday return to maximize my time in Switzerland. My alarm woke me up at 04:15 and I was on the way, arriving at Heathrow at 05:45 for the 07:15 departure. Security was simple and I did not alert on the magnetometer. I did see a full-body imager off to the side that was not being used. (In the UK, if you’re selected you can either refuse or not fly. No pat-down option.)

BMI has two lounges in Terminal 1 – “The London Room” for domestic and Ireland destinations and “The Great British Lounge” for international departures. I was in the former for Dublin in January, this time I was in the latter. It’s a very large lounge with lots of seating and power outlets at every chair and table. Not much for food, a couple of pastries and a big cauldron of porridge available with golden syrup. Coffee was good. And as at most of the European lounges I’ve visited, self-serve alcohol and fridges full of assorted mixers. A great view of 9L, right at the taxiway where the aircraft finish decelerating and head to the gates. I kept hoping for a 380, but the 330s, 340s and 747s kept me entertained. I still think BA’s livery is top notch and the planes are always bright white with no peeling paint. *cough* US *cough*

I headed over to the gate at 06:30, where passports were checked again against photos and boarding was called for special assist and elites. It was a gate rush though 47 passengers left a lot of room on this A319 with a capacity of 130. I had 6A with the row to myself. Legroom was fair-to-good and seat width was reasonable. We pushed back at 07:20 and were wheels up at 07:27.

In flight, a sandwich (mushroom and cheese ciabatta) and a small cup of soda. I was pleased to see that Voyager (the BMI flight magazine) had a full article on Basel, so I took it with me for reference. We landed ten minutes early. Swiss immigration was easy as an EU citizen and I was off to explore the city. As with most of Europe, BSL has excellent public transport and Bus 50 goes into town for CHF4.00 (about $5). Basel is wonderful and five days was sufficient, including a day trip to Zurich for lunch with a colleague.

For the return, my tired and sore feet brought me to the airport at 17:30 for the 20:30 departure. BMI does not have their own counters or kiosks at BSL, they partner with LX. Swiss has a “Gold” Star Alliance line, so I was able to skip the queue of 20 people to get my boarding pass. Security was slow and could use some efficiency. The elite line was marked for F customers only. It took about 40 minutes for me to clear the magnetometers, as the security officers were “helping” and checking BP’s/passports on the land-side, which slowed the queue.

The Swiss Lounge was near my gate. Quite possibly the best designed lounge I have visited. Panoramic 360-degree view of the entire airfield and enough space for 200+ on three levels. Showers, quiet areas, computers, telephone cubicles and I was given a voucher to access the wi-fi. The self-service food, spirits and beer were okay.

I headed to the gate at 19:45 and cleared border control without issue. Boarding was again a gate rush despite directions in German, French and English. We pushed back five minutes late but landed 15 minutes early. In flight, a veggie sandwich and a cup of soda or juice. We disembarked onto a jetbridge and then were loaded onto a bus for the 10 minute drive to UK immigration. I had not checked my rollaboard in either direction, so there was no wait for luggage.

Summary: A great yield as BMI has low prices to introduce flights to this new destination. Excellent lounges. Comfortable seating, even in Y. The flight attendants and gate agents were friendly and otherwise unremarkable. On-time departures and arrivals. I’m pleased that there is still a free snack on board. Grade: A-. The only demerits were the boarding process (carrier controllable) and the bus to the international arrivals area (not carrier controllable). BMI is an excellent Star Alliance partner and I would be happy to fly them again.

Total Trip Cost: $ 139.20
Actual Airfare: $ 56.64
Actual Miles Flown: 896
Yield: $ 0.063 per mile
Taxes & Fees: $ 82.56, 59.31% of ticket price

Notes
– Even though the gate agents at both airports gave instructions in English and German (and French at Basel), the flight attendant safety instruction was only in English.
– UK taxes and fees are Out. Of. Control. £12 UK air passenger duty, £9.60 UK security and noise charge, £23.60 UK passenger service charge. I don’t see how BMI can make a profit (or even break even) on £35.40 for a 900-mile roundtrip.
– BSL (Basel EuroAirport) is in France and is operated jointly by the French and Swiss with separate border control depending on which way you’re headed.

LHR-DUB-LHR on British Midlands International (BMI), 24-27 Jan 2011 by Bruce

My coach dropped me off at Terminal 1 at 9:40 for this 11:20 departure. I had an electronic boarding pass on my iPhone and security was very easy. Shoes on, laptop and belt in the bin, I was through in less than five minutes. I did not alert the magnetometer and was not randomly selected. 

My first time in Terminal 1 with time to spare, I spent 45 minutes in the BMI lounge. While there are plenty of signs, it is down a couple of hallways and through the area where ID is checked for international departures. The usual self-service bar with fridges full of canned beers and sodas and bottled spirits. A few light snacks. Lots of seating with very few power outlets. I ended up unplugging a lamp so I could charge up. Free wi-fi.

A boarding announcement was made in the lounge at 10:30. A medium-length walk but boarding was already well underway when I arrived. Down a flight of stairs and sardined onto a coach out to the apron. We then boarded through the rear door of this A319. Overheads were very full but I was able to jam my rollaboard in and take seat 6F. Standard legroom, I’m glad it was a short flight though we were held behind a QF 747 for 20 minutes that had already made it onto the runway ahead of us. The Captain made an announcement that it was to due to a departure route clearance that needed to be straightened out.

100% full. No IFE with a single food and beverage service on this one hour flight. Nothing is free. Soft drinks and a few snack options between £1 and £2, beer/wine/spirits for £3.50. They accept cash and cards – £ and €. I read the in flight magazine “Voyager” and enjoyed an interview with Anne Hathaway. No crossword puzzle. The flight attendants wear these really cute hats during boarding and disembarkation. I couldn’t work up enough courage to ask for a picture, but I found one online.

Immigration in the Republic of Ireland was very simple – a quick glance at my UK passport (a fellow member of the EU) and I was in. Customs was even easier. Taxi stand right out front.

For the return, the website didn’t give me an electronic option and I didn’t have a printer. I printed the boarding pass at a kiosk in Terminal 2. Security was similarly easy, though I was a little thrown off when I was asked if I had an umbrella. The security officer opened it fully to check for I-don’t-know-what before collapsing it and returning it to my rollaboard’s pocket.

The Star Alliance and Sky Team lounges are across the hall from each other, well sign-posted. The “Anna Livia Lounge” was very crowded with simultaneous departures to LHR and FRA. I managed to snag a workstation seat as the place went from being wall-to-wall to deserted within 10 minutes. The same options as the BMI lounge, with peanuts, a tray of brownies and self-service liquor and canned beers/soft drinks. Again, free wi-fi.

I left the lounge early and wandered the airside of the terminal for an hour, picking up some postcards and other trinkets. There are a lot of shopping and food options here.

At gate 303, I took a seat and waited for the boarding call. The gates that use US Customs personnel for US flights are nearby, but unoccupied at this late hour.

General boarding call, but I was prepared and therefore second down the jetbridge. The gate agent was the first person so far to examine my passport. No one in security had done so. Odd.

Seat 15A was the best I could do for this A320. Standard economy seat that was exactly the same as the outbound. My middle seat was one of the only open seats on the aircraft and remained unoccupied for the short and on-time flight.

Arrivals in the UK was easy with no Immigration or Customs check.

Total Trip Cost: $ 156.32
Actual Airfare: $ 68.80
Actual Miles Flown: 559
Yield: $ 0.123 per mile
Taxes & Fees: $ 87.52, 55.99% of ticket price

Summary: No seat assignments until checkin, 23 hours prior to departure. Even with Star Alliance Gold. Nothing free onboard. On time flights that were reasonably priced. Grade: B+.

PS. I don’t like Guinness in the UK or the US. Too dark, too bitter. But the Guinness in Dublin is completely different and I was able to enjoy four or five of them.

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.

UA: LHR-IAD-DEN-XNA. Nope, it’s LGW-AMS-ORD-XNA! 24-Dec-2010

Contributed by my friend Bruce!

I bought the ticket with UA, so I’m putting this in the UA trip reports, even though the majority of the headache belongs with BA (British Airways) and BAA (British Airport Authority). It’s a long trip report because of that headache. I booked this ticket in October.

My typical practice is that as I get closer to the departure – even weeks or days in advance – I check the seat arrangements to try to snag a better seat. So imagine my surprise when on Monday, 48 hours prior to departure, I was unable to see my seat assignment. A call to UA determined the cause – the flight had been canceled due to weather. (Weather? It snowed the day before yesterday and hasn’t snowed since. They can’t clear the runways in two days? Apparently not and there are some inquiries going on. For starters, the chief of Heathrow isn’t getting his 2010 bonus.) The agent took about 40 minutes to rebook me on an alternative itinerary, but the soonest option she could find was two days later. Most of the 40 minutes was spent trying to reach someone at BA to get me to an airport where I could pick up an alternate UA flight. Instead of 22-Dec LHR-IAD-DEN-XNA, it’s now 24-Dec LHR-AMS-ORD-XNA, an arrival delay of around about 40 hours. And I continued trying to select better seats on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Thursday morning, I went to the UA website to check in. It referred me to BA’s site to check in for that segment. The BA site said “please call” so I did. The agent said that in order to free up possible seats to handle the backlog, a process had canceled all seats that did not have a valid ticket. Uh, what? BA428 is now fully booked with a wait list. There’s a later flight, but I would misconnect for AMS-ORD. He said he would keep trying to get me on 428. I offered Gatwick and he was able to book me on BA8111 at 06:20 and said I was all set.

After we disconnected, I went back to the website to try to check-in. The website still says “please call” so again, I did. This second agent gave me a new PNR and said I could check in with that. I tried, it accepted my passport info. And then it says again, “please call” so again I did. This time, the agent says that that they still don’t have a UA ticket number and I should call UA. Another long call and they added the ticket number to the BA record. That generated an automated email from BA with the update. I went back to BA.com, still unable to check-in. Another 45 minute phone call – “you need to check in at the airport.”

It’s now 2pm. Rather than wait until morning and risk a last minute problem, I decided the best option was to just go to the airport. Now. A 90-minute train to Gatwick, a 5-minute shuttle from the South to the North terminal, an uncooperative kiosk and finally a very nice ticket agent with the thickest Irish brogue tried to get my boarding pass. She made a quick call, hit a few buttons on her computer, checked my passport and Shazam! A BP for my flight the next day. All of that adventure and I’m not even on the plane yet! It took four calls totaling 3 or more hours plus a visit to the airport.

I spent the night at the nearby Marriott Courtyard and woke to my alarm at 3:30, catching the 4:03 shuttle (£2.50) to the airport. Security was a breeze, no “random selection” this time. A few of the screeners were decked in holiday gear, so I complimented the BP checking guy on his Santa hat and the supervisor for his battery-powered light string that he had draped over himself.

The BP says “Club Europe” and I tried to access the club, but it wasn’t open at 04:30. Instead, I got a coffee at Caffe Nero.

Gatwick, like some airports, does not offer free wi-fi. Annoying. They also don’t post gates until 20 minutes before boarding, so everyone’s waiting and wandering in the main concourse. At 5:40 (for 6:20 scheduled boarding), off we go. My BP was again compared to my ID here to enter gate area. Boarding was a general call and gate rush, but I was prepared and was therefore 2nd on board. My seat was 9F on the 737-436. About 85% of the seats were filled though only 2 of 12 in F. I saw the flight attendant collect coats there and it seemed like all the luggage made it on board.

At the time the doors were due to close, the First Officer says that we’re still waiting on four passengers who hadn’t arrived yet and they had checked luggage. We waited until 10 minutes past departure before they arrived out of breath and hustled back to one of the last rows in the plane. Push back, taxi and we were wheels up at 6:48. Beverage service with awful coffee and a ham sandwich with a small tub of orange juice. Rubbish pick up. No IFE. We landed AMS about 25 minutes late.

I’ve been to Amsterdam Schiphol a couple of times now, but only to start or end a journey and never to transfer. It seemed to me rather neatly divided up and segregated by alliance. BA and OneWorld in terminal 1, Air France and Delta in the center areas and Continental/United with the Star Alliance folks in the third terminal. Let me tell you, it’s a major long walk from one end of the terminal to the other! I walked past a Santa Claus shouting “Ho-Ho-Ho” and giving gifts to kids. Finally at the “Transfer 9” desk, the agent prints me a new boarding pass, puts it in a Gold envelope and says that I’ve been upgraded, the lounge is number 43 and have a Merry Christmas! Hoo-ah!

At the Servisair contract lounge, I learned that my President’s Club membership wouldn’t have gotten me into the club, but my Business BP did. The typical European spread (though not as much as MUC). Self service spirits and mixers, puff pastries and some sweet things. For the holidays, AMS is offering free wi-fi, for 30 minutes twice. Nice touch. This was good, because even the club doesn’t offer free wi-fi.

With all the walking back and forth, I only have a half hour in the club before I head to my flight. Security at the gate area, where my luggage was xrayed. AMS has the millimeter wave scanners, but it’s still okay to opt-out as I saw one woman do it. So I stepped up and did the same. Oddly, the screeners were not wearing latex gloves. The patdown (after passing through the regular magnetometer) was somewhat thorough but not excessive. I did not feel violated at the guy did not “meet resistance” though the rest of my body was checked. I am confident that it would have been possible to get through security with “stuff” without going to extremes.

Into the gate area, they boarded F and Business before elites. I was on board with my luggage stowed and my first glass of sparkling wine in hand while the rest of the aircraft was boarding. When the doors closed, four business seats were unfilled. I was in 9H but 9G was empty. These two on the 767 is a rear-facing seat with a full 180 degree recline. I had no problem stretching all the way out, but I simply couldn’t sleep. Instead, about 50 on-demand movies, plus TV and other entertainment. (I think they were on a loop in coach.) I watched Takers, Expendables, Killers, some 30 Rock and finally I plugged in my laptop and cleaned up some mail that would sync later. The power outlet was US-only and I had to pull down my suitcase from the overhead to get my US power plug!

Food and service were excellent. Top notch. Full can with a large lime wedge and a bowl of warm nuts that was refilled twice. Salad (I chose the balsamic vinaigrette over the peppercorn), “sliced Bresaola beef, Milano salami, bocconcini and cucumber salad” to start. For the main, I chose the filet. Extremely tender and easy to cut with the knife and fork. Lyonnaise potatoes and glazed carrots. Yummy. I cleaned my plate. For dessert, the cheese plate was okay. Throughout, the flight attendant kept refilling my wine glass – a delicious rich 2007 Côtes du Rhône. I probably had most of the bottle. When I was sufficiently stuffed and rather drunk, I stopped the wine but the flight attendants continued refilling my water glass to a rather obsessive degree.

Landing at ORD was on time, into light snow/sleet. No trouble at immigration with an officer who seemed quite bored and only asked the rote questions before stamping my passport. No checked luggage, I took the AirTrain to F and found a closet-sized RCC. I used the free wi-fi pass for my iPhone, drank half a Bud Light (ick!) and ate some veggies and cubed cheese before heading to my gate.

RJ boarding without a jetbridge, we had to cross 100 yards of apron in the driving snow. Thankfully, I hadn’t packed my coat because the boarding door and the galley service door stayed open for a good 20 minutes. Freezing! A normal ERJ-145, up, across and down for an hour or so. Brief beverage service with a half can and we landed at XNA eight minutes late with dry ground and cold wind. A brief wait for the gate checked bags and hooray, home for Christmas!

Summary: I’m extremely displeased with Heathrow airport. They handled this snow extremely poorly and someone needs to be canned. They get an F minus and I’m glad that Gatwick gets credit for transporting me properly on this trip. I’m also very unhappy with BA’s handling of my ticketing situation. They get a C-. UA also acted poorly as I did not get a notification of my cancellation and they did not handle the BA segment correctly. If I had not taken action, I might not have gotten out in time to get home for Christmas Eve. I would also give them a C, but they score some extra credit for the unexpected upgrade and therefore finish with a B+.

XNA-DEN-IAD-LHR on United 8-Nov 2010 by Bruce

The purchase process was okay, but it could be improved. I don’t like having to click on each itinerary to see the price. I think US actually does this better. I was looking to maximize EQMs so I spent a few dollars more for a slight zig-zag itinerary, picking up an extra few over my usual XNA-IAH-LHR route. As expected, United.com allows you to enter your OnePass number but I had to call in to get Economy Plus seats without the upcharge. With only a week until departure, seats were poor and I ended up in a middle seat for the DEN-IAD leg.

I arrived at XNA at 8:20 am for the 9:35 am departure. I had to see gate agent so that he could check my passport as the machine wouldn’t print a boarding pass. I wonder how this might have worked if I’d printed the boarding pass at home?

CRJ-200 from XNA to DEN. No seat on this piece of crap is any good, but 1A was particularly bad – a bulkhead with no cutout and the tray table in the armrest. We pushed back at 9:25 am, 10 minutes early. Drink service was cash only for beer and wine.

About 15 minutes into the flight, the plane made an unexpected ‘jig’ to the right which spilled my drink. Captain came on after and said it was a “mountain wave” which seemed particularly odd as we were over eastern Kansas. About as flat as it gets.

At Denver, I popped into the Red Carpet Club East. Nothing special, only cereal and milk at 9:30 am. I think the CO Presidents Clubs have better food options, even if they never change the choices. The club was right next to my IAD flight, so a short walk. Boarding was called on time and started with Zone 1. Since I was 33rd for the upgrade, I figured I was out of luck. Even still, the overhead bins were full from 1 to 12 so mine went over 13. When boarding was complete for a full aircraft, all bins were full and at least 10 passengers had to gate check. Our IFE on this 757 was overhead TV screens, showing an episode of The Office and then a strange movie, Flipped. I watched it anyway and then did the Channel 9 thing, which always interests me.

We arrived at IAD on time but taxi’ed for ten minutes. There was just enough time for me to hike from C to D, pop into the RCC to try my wi-fi (unsuccessfully!) and then arrive at the gate where 1K was being called. Then Zone 1 and I was on board.

A decent sized plane this time, a 777. I landed 20J, the aisle of the first bulkhead with excellent legroom. I could see into Business class which had cocoon seating, some of which was reversed. I’m not sure if I would like sitting backwards.

We pushed back on time and I tuned myself into the flip-out IFE. Only 6 movies available on the “free” options, which was disappointing. I still found two movies I hadn’t seen before – Salt and Inception – before an hour and a half of Channel 9. It was really interesting to hear the different carriers and their obvious accents. AF sounding very French and LH sounding German of course, but compared to those, I could really hear the Texas in the CO Captain and the Southern drawl from DL.

There was no food on the CRJ, just pretzels. The domestic flight was BOB – the Apple and Cheese plate was okay. On the International flight, I had chosen the kosher meal as I’ve heard those are usually fresher than the regular meals. It was Chicken and pasta, and compared to the small chicken breast my neighbor had, a good choice. Salad and a big chocolate brownie. For breakfast, the kosher meal was a well frozen bagel with cream cheese that had separated and a cup of OJ that was a single block of ice. A complimentary serving of wine was offered, which I accepted. Redwood Creek’s 2009 Cabernet. Decent, considering the plastic cup.

We landed on time in cold and wet London, where I almost get through Immigration! The Border Agent noticed that I’ve been coming over here for a year on my 6-month visa, but I fortunately had the letter from the Passport Agency with my appointment for my UK passport, as I am now a dual citizen. Whew!

Summary: B+. UA does a decent job and I don’t see a whole lot of difference between the domestic or the International flights compared to CO. The food was decent on the plane, though the President’s Club in Houston had better food choices than the Red Carpet Club East in Denver. The IFE is better on the CO International flights. I’d fly them again, I suppose.

Note: My UA tickets were “S” class, and I was pleased to see an unexpected 25% bonus EQMs in my OnePass account.

Total Trip Cost: $ 957.20
Actual Airfare: $ 781.20
Actual Miles Flown: 5745
Yield: $ 0.136 per mile (Decent, considering they were only 7 days out)
Taxes & Fees: $ 176.00, 18.39% of ticket price

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.

Virgin Atlantic VS 04 JFK-LHR Upper Class April 13 by J. Augusta

After my live trip report from TPA-JFK I headed to baggage claim to grab my bag (I actually requested Delta to not check my bag through to LHR as I wanted it to get tagged as an “Upper Class” bag on VS and thus faster delivery), which took about 20 minutes. I then headed to the AirTran to T4 to check in for my VS flight.

T4 was relatively empty at 3:30pm with only a few flights leaving (including a NW flight to Amsterdam) at this time- way too early for the body to adjust to a time change if you ask me. Check-in was a breeze, and my bag was specially tagged and a lounge invitation was presented. I headed to the Virgin Clubhouse to spend the next hour or so which was relatively empty 3 hours prior to the flight. The lounge at JFK is pre-security which is a bit of a pain, but is still fairly nice. It’s in the upper section of T4 which means it has an open ceiling and also a view of the main section of T4. Since I had mostly skipped lunch (thanks to the mayo ridden sandwich served by DL) I settled down and ordered some food from the VS lounge- along with a martini (or 2). I went with the cream of chicken soup (awesome) and a tilapia dish served with basmati rice and candied carrots. The food was excellent- although was slow to arrive thanks to my server messing up my order. People around me, however, had no issues. Around 5:00 I headed down to explore duty free and kill some time before the 5:25 boarding. Nothing looked good so I just headed to the gate.

T4 has a security lane for Upper Class and Business Class passengers so I made it through in about 2 minutes with plenty of time to buy a few bottles of water and walk around checking out the gates (to see if there was anyone headed anywhere more interesting). A Swiss flight was leaving, as well a KLM flight to AMS, and a DL flight to LHR. Other than that the terminal was quite empty. Boarding was prompt at 5:25 and I headed to the plane.

The plane was placed in service in January, 2006 (Thanks to the lettering on the plane itself proclaiming its service date as well as its name- which I forget) so it’s one of Virgin’s newest A346s. Upon boarding I made my right hand turn to settle into my seat for the next 6:30. For those who have never been on a 346 these things are MASSIVE. Looking down the plane one can barely see the back of this thing. I must say I find it much more impressive (and roomy) than any 777 I’ve been on. I settled into seat 5k, on the right side of the plane and ironically the same seat I’ve had for every prior VS flight I’ve had. It’s a great seat (not that I can compare it to anything). VS seats are 1-1-1 with the middle seat facing the left side for the first 8 rows and the right side for the remaining rows. This meant I had no one to stare at me in my herringbone shaped pod for the entire flight. Since I left the lounge early I was one of the first to board. I was immediately offered a sleep suit which I accepted and changed into. On my return to my seat I was offered a glass of champagne which I sort of spilled onto my suite thanks to the poorly designed drink holders. After a quick cleanup it was as if nothing happened and, slightly embarrassed, I accepted another glass of champagne.

The plane continued to fill up and I sat around, sipped my champagne, and enjoyed the boarding process. As with many other European airlines (including BA), VS tends to, IMO, “cheat” this flight out of a proper meal. They sell it as a sleep flight (even though it’s leaving at 6:25) and thus offer only a limited menu. Today’s offerings were an express salad with Caesar dressing served with Shrimp, or a Flat Iron Steak or Vegetable “pasty” (British food!) as the hot options. There was no choice in starter, and dessert was cheese or cheesecake by request only. Orders were taken while on the ground, and I went for the steak without dessert. Keep in mind one can eat a full meal in the clubhouse so I may be a bit unfair here, but the options on the plane are a bit limited.

We pushed back on time and had a relatively short queue (for JFK at least) before heading out 31R (at least I think that’s what our pilot said). One thing about the A346s- these things take up the entire runway when fully loaded! Once in the air the captain waited about 15 minutes before turning the seat belt sign off (most European airlines tend to be more lenient with the seat belt sign than their American counterparts) at which time the FAs came around to make people’s seats into beds and begin meal service. They also fired up VPORT the entertainment system. The only complaint about VPORT is the fact that they show literally about 20 minutes of adverts before the system is accessible. I felt like I was in a movie theater being forced to watch 30 minutes of previews- which is never fun knowing what you paid for the right to be there!

My meal arrived about 10 minutes later (25 minutes in the air) with my salad (with Caesar dressing on the side), 3 rolls, and a main course all on the tray. Given the short flight I suppose I like the speed of this service (compared to the 2-3 hour Continental and Delta ordeal) so I’m a bit torn about the reduced menu. The meal was so-so, it was edible but not the best thing I’ve ever had by any means. I tried washing down the steak with a glass of their French red on offer, but the wine wasn’t drinkable so I left the wine and stuck with water. I ended the service with peppermint tea and had my bed made up. On VS the seats actually flip forward to create a flat bed. They then add a mattress cover and a duvet to create a mini-casket/bed type effect. This is the first time I actually used the bed and I was very impressed. It’s a bit firm but is REALLY nice to be able to lay down at 180 degrees. I tried finishing my movie (some Dean Cook comedy that was really bad) but ended up dozing off- I slept off and on for the next few hours which checking in on the flight progress on the interactive map from time to time. I didn’t get any real sleep (as I mentioned I have trouble with this) but at least was comfortable while dozing, and the cabin was nice and dark without much foot traffic (at least it wasn’t noticeable).

About 1:30 prior to landing breakfast was offered (one could pre-order before sleep if they liked)- options were fruit, cereal, bacon or sausage rolls, bread, and cake. I went with a croissant and some fruit which I washed down with some OJ and peppermint tea. I went to the bathroom to change out of my sleep suit and enjoyed the remainder of my flight watching the sky map.

For about the first time ever we had a very short approach and landed at LHR around 6:30- about 5 minutes early. We taxied for the next 15 minutes or so before parking at a gate at T3. The walk from the gate to customs took about 15 minutes, and I’m a fast walker. Upon arrival the general queue was madness- most likely the product of the Singapore A380 landing just shortly before us. Luckily we were given fast track and I walked to find a completely open section. I was through customs in about 2 minutes, walked down headed to the bathroom, and made my way to baggage claim which, at this point the bags were already coming off the belt (only about 20 minutes post-landing). Amazingly my bag was among the first 20 or so, so I grabbed it and headed through customs. All told this took about 20 minutes to deplane, go through immigration, grab bag, and go through customs. I headed to the trains to take the Heathrow Express into Paddington. I had to wait about 5 minutes for a train and then after the quick 15 minute ride I found myself in central London. I headed for the taxi stand and took a 20 minute taxi ride back to my place in Clapham. All said and done I was home almost exactly 1 hour after we arrived at the gate- and that includes walking to immigration, clearing immigration, waiting for baggage, exiting customs, walking to the train station, taking a train into London, waiting for a taxi, and riding to my place. That is record time in my book and a HUGE benefit to me as I was able to take a few hours nap before calling into my first meeting. They do have an arrivals lounge, but I decided to get home for sleep instead of checking out the lounge.

Overall VS has some great advantages. OK the food isn’t as good and the selection isn’t that great, but since one can eat in the clubhouse (which does have a nice menu) this isn’t a big deal. Service was much better on this flight, the flat beds were excellent, and the baggage delivery was nothing short of amazing. I go back and forth on my opinions of US and EU airlines and I think it’s down to the experience one wants. If you want a seamless flight, a quick meal, and a comfortable bed then you cannot beat Virgin. If you don’t sleep, enjoy the 3 hour meal and want constant, excellent service then you can’t beat the US carriers. It’s a personal preference, but a great experience nonetheless.