Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Put your baby in a bag on the floor, don't stand up, you can't sit together, and no food for you: United International Business Class

On the flight to Israel, we had the privilege of enjoying Lufthansa Business Class. On the return, we took Swiss from Tel Aviv to Zurich, and United to Denver via Washington Dulles.

On Lufthansa, two flight attendants assembled a bassinet for our infant daughter, complete with fresh linens. On Swiss, a single flight attendant struggle to install a bassinet, and then asked us to use a blanket as linen. On United, we were given a heavy plastic sleeping bag to put our baby in, and told to put the bag on the floor!

United also has this bizarre habit of turning the "fasten seat belt" sign on for most of the flight. The moment the slightest amount of turbulence occurs, the light goes on, and stays on for up to an hour! The fight attendants make announcements that passengers should return to their seats for their own safety, however they themselves continue to roam about the cabin. Trash is collected, meals are served, and hot coffee is poured, all while it is too dangerous for passengers to leave their seats. It is as if they believe the laws of physics don't apply to themselves. We finally got up the nerve to ask a flight attendant why it is too dangerous for passengers to stand up, yet safe enough for the flight attendants. Frankly, I considered that we might be arrested for merely asking such a question. The flight attendant explained that they have to be up and about because that is their job.

There you have it. Either United is lying to their passengers about the danger of turbulence in order to allow the flight attendance a little elbow room while they server the meal, or they have a complete disregard for the safety of their crew, or both.

Upon arriving at Washington Dulles from Zurich, we noticed that our connecting flight to Denver had been cancelled. We proceeded to the gate of the next flight to Denver. We were told at the gate that the flight was already overbooked, and were referred to the customer service desk. While waiting in line at the customer service desk, I telephoned United and was told the following lies:

1. Flight 903 had been canceled due to weather.

2. We were not entitled to any vouchers for meals or lodging.

3. We would be denied entry to the Red Carpet Club as we were using a Frequent Flier Award Ticket. When I politely requested to be accommodated on an earlier flight or to be given hotel vouchers, I was repeatedly reminded that I was flying with an award ticket.

When we finally reached the “customer service” desk, four computers staffed by only a single person, we were told that we would have to wait a further 24 hours for the same flight to Denver the next day. Furthermore, the customer service desk actually claimed that they didn’t have the ability to print any vouchers for us there, and referred us to another service desk with an even longer line.

It was only after I was able to access the Red Carpet Club that a United representative admitted that the flight was canceled due to mechanical reasons. We were then ticketed for the same flight the next day and given vouchers for hotel, dinner and breakfast. Of course, the vouchers were for $10 each for dinner, an amount smaller than the least expensive item on the hotel's menu. The agent was unable to give us seats together, but assured us the staff at the gate would be able to resolve this matter.

The staff at the gate, asked us to speak with the staff on board. The staff at the entrance to the aircraft asked me to speak to the staff in the cabin. The staff in the cabin actually told us to ask around ourselves to see if anyone would switch seats with us! It was only the generosity of a fellow passenger that allowed me to sit with my wife and assist with the care of our infant child.

The pattern was clear, United personnel would only tell us to speak to someone else or refuse to assist us.

We understand that mechanical problems can occur, however United should have:

1. Been honest with us about the nature of the cancellation

2. Rebooked us on the next available flight automatically, or at least provide adequately staffed customer service counters with the ability to print out vouchers, especially at it’s Dulles hub.

3. Made some attempt to seat us together, rather than have us beg our fellow passengers.

Our final insult came shortly after takeoff, when a flight attendant singled out my wife to tell her that she could not have the lasagna she ordered. My wife, who is breast feeding our child, explained that this meal would be vital to her ability to feed our child, and that the salad would not be sufficient. I asked the flight attendant to at least ask some other passengers if they would prefer the salad, yet the flight attendant refused to do so and told us that “We have 100k travelers on board, and not enough meals.” Incredulously, I asked the flight attendant if 100k travelers take priority over a nursing mother, and was told point blank, “Yes, they do.”

Ironically, I was actually given the lasagna, presumably only because I was sitting in a seat assigned to someone else. Thankfully, United's consistent incompetence sometimes works in your favor.

In United’s marketing and description of it’s business class product, I have yet to see an asterisk denoting that travelers ticketed with award seats are not entitled to be treated like other international business class passengers, let alone with a minimum of service and decency. It’s service stands in stark contrast to the excellent experience we had in business class on United’s partners Lufthansa and Swiss.

It is outrageous that United personnel repeatedly went out it’s way to remind us that we were ticketed in business class with a mileage award, and are otherwise third class passengers.

From now on I will avoid United at all costs. Even if they are less expensive than other carriers, and that is a big if, I refuse to pay them to insult us.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Jew in Germany

When we found out that we would have a ten hour layover in Frankfurt, we were faced with the choice of waiting it out in the Sheraton at the airport, or utilizing the time to see Frankfurt. We ultimately chose to see the city, and I found myself confronted by a range of emotions.

One day, visiting Germany for the first time may be a non-event for a Jewish person, but that time has not yet arrived. When the subject came up over Passover, several people in my family had a story to share about their gut reaction to finding themselves in Germany or even in a German speaking region of Europe. My brother in law recalled waking up on an overnight train in a German speaking city and thinking that he was in a movie. He realized that these scenes never end well for the Jewish people on the train.
My thoughts turned to a movie I once saw where the Jewish character admits that every time they see an elderly person in Germany, they can only wonder if the person was (is?) a Nazi. In high school, I was friends with a German exchange student. Since he was born 25 years after the end of the second world war, I didn’t give a second thought to his politics. In retrospect, I wonder what his parents and grandparents did during the war.
With all of this historical baggage on my mind, we exited customs and entered modern Germany. The gentleman who stamped our passport asked us nicely what our final destination was. When we told him we were en-route to Tel Aviv, he immediately asked us why we did not go during Passover. I was amazed that he was either Jewish or just very friendly to us. My next impression was how diverse the city is. We struck up a conversation with an Israeli couple on the train, had lunch next to an Indian-American family, and saw Germans of every color and ethnicity we might expect to see in New York or L.A.
It was a nice day, and we saw plenty of families with young children, hardly an image that recalls the Nazis. Then there were the German women, many of which were young, friendly, cute, and blond. It was hard to hold a grudge against their smiles.
In the end, I found Frankfurt to be a very cosmopolitan, international city. It was pleasant, if not especially charming, but somewhere along the way, it’s historical baggage was temporarily lost in transit.
As we touched down at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I was once again both a witness and participant in the emotional release that occurs when a plane load of Jews returns to their homeland and applause breaks out. Some passengers even start to cry. It was at that moment that I realized that no one cheers when a plane lands in Frankfurt.

In Business Class

For over a year, my wife and I have been planning this trip to Israel. The cost of travel being what it is, in addition to other financial circumstances, necessitated the use of frequent flier miles to “purchase” this trip. In 2000, I utilized frequent flier miles to travel to Israel as part of a group with the United Jewish Communities. My best recollection is that I just called the airline a few months before my travel and gave them my itinerary, and a ticket was issued. Utilizing frequent flier miles today is a frustrating challenge at best, and is virtually impossible most of the time. These days, your only chance is to try to book eleven months in advance, at the earliest moment the seats become available.

The plan to utilize frequent flier mileage was hatched last spring when I had accumulated a modest amount of miles from some business travel. We then took advantage of numerous airline promotions, opened credit cards and bank accounts with mileage bonuses, and even begged for some miles as compensation for airline screw ups. In the end, we actually had not just the miles for two tickets to Israel, we had enough for business class.

Booking eleven months in advance, we were only able to get seats departing on Sunday night (May 4th) rather than Friday night, so we lost 2 days of our trip before we even started. We ticketed the trip three months before our daughter was even born, and we were told at that time that we would just have to pay taxes for her. When she was born and we called to have her ticketed, we were told that we would actually have to pay over $800 dollars to ticket her as a “lap child” with no seat!. United’s policy, it turns out, is to charge parents an additional %10 of the highest possible price for the seat in the class that the parents are ticket in. Needless to say, I was not happy at the fee, and for being completed misquoted. To make a long story short, I made some pretty serious threats of negative publicity in an EECB to United, and they essentially waived the fee.

Fortunately, we scored seats on Lufthansa, a United partner with a fantastic reputation for service and punctuality. Oddly, the nonstop flight from Denver to Frankfurt arrives and hour after the flight to Tel Aviv, and ten hours before the next flight.

We decided to turn lemons in to lemonade by using that time to explore Frankfurt, which I plan discussing in another posting.

On the return, our friendly United supervisor who was in charge of placating us after the EECB, lifted some capacity controls and we ended up with Tel Aviv – Zurich on Swiss, followed by Zurich – Washington Dulles – Denver on United.

As for the Lufthansa business class, I approached the experience with mixed feelings. On one hand, I was excited to experience international business class, especially with the added challenge of traveling with our 8 month old baby. On the other hand, given the difficulty of booking this trip, and the general trend of making FF mileage more useless, I knew that we probably weren’t going to be traveling business class again soon, especially the next time when we will need three tickets.

I also did some research and found a lot of opinions that Lufthansa business class wasn’t all that great. The consensus at was that the seats lie flat, but only at an uncomfortable angle, and the food is good, but not great.

Frankly, I have concluded that those who find Lufthansa business class lacking must be a bunch of spoiled brats. The much criticized seats are actually a cross between a barcalounger and a dental chair, while the food was comparable to what I would expect from mid to high end restaurant. The staff is was so attentive to our needs in comparison to economy class, that my wife and I concluded that flying in coach is essentially paying people to treat you poorly.

The whole experience of business class has caused us to put travel in a new perspective. When flying economy, we always have to be on guard to avoid getting screwed. Pack light and hope that their scale doesn’t come up with a different amount than yours and you are asked to pay a hefty surcharge. Show up two hours early and wait in line forever, thinking about what to do if you can’t check in before the cutoff. Board as early as possible, so you have room for your carry ons. Take as much food as you can get away with so you are not dependent on a miniature, semi-edible “dinner”. The result is that you set yourself up for a negative experience. In business class, none of these issues concern you, and you end up having a positive relationship with everyone you meet.

Right now I am pondering several questions:

  1. How will we ever be able to enjoy this experience in the future? I think the double mileage awards will be the only thing remotely available, but I don’t see how we will ever accumulate enough for three double priced awards before our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah around 2020. My best theory is that we might pay for coach next time, but use miles to be upgraded.
  2. Is it possible to have a positive experience with something less than a business class ticket that costs four times the price of coach? The only valid criticism that I read of Lufthansa’s seats is that they aren’t very wide. The business class on the A340 that we flew is six across, as opposed to eight across in coach, but it is really the massive center console that takes up so much room that the seat only feels a couple inches wider than coach. A better design could yield seven across with the same amount of width, while a nice recline would provide adequate comfort while taking up much less room than the lie flat seats.. Perhaps I just described Delta’s “Business Elite”. Personally, I think that Delta is charging business class prices for what is essentially a premium economy seat. Delta must think so to as they are slowly replacing that product with a lie flat bed.
  3. Perhaps more of the aircraft should be business class. I always thought it was strange that airlines charged four times as much for a seat that takes about twice the space. The food and service are good, but they don’t come close to accounting for the other %50 of the extra price. More business class seats at a lower price, or more premium economy seats are probably where the industry needs to go. . It is also hard to believe that airlines make much profit off of economy anyways. It would be nice if international economy became just a small section at the back utilized only by poor college students and little people.
  4. Perhaps Lufthansa provides excellent service in their economy class, but I know most airlines do not. The disparity of service between economy and business is so great, I often wonder if airlines purposely downgrade economy in order to sell business class seats with massive profit margins. Polite and efficient service doesn’t cost extra, and ultimately adds to the bottom line. While larger seats will always cost more, as they should, I still cling to the quaint notion that all passengers on an international flight are all valued customers who have purchased a service for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. I am continuously perplexed and outraged that when I am not treated by the airlines at least as good as I am at a restaurant or a hotel treats me when spending a tenth as much.
  5. As efficient as Lufthansa is, they do have a way to go in some areas. Even in business class, our check in took over twenty minutes. There has got to be a better way. As I mentioned, the flight from Denver to Frankfurt is terribly timed to connect to Tel Aviv, and I wonder how many other city pairs have such poor connections. The business class lounge at Frankfurt had free food, soda, beer, wine, and even scotch, yet they wanted to charge us for wireless internet.

I guess I am now officially one of the spoiled business class travelers, which made our experience home on United even more disappointing, but I will save that for a future post.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Husband of the Year

I just read an article in today's paper about an old building that is being renovated in downtown Denver. At the end of the article it is mentioned that the construction manager came across an old box of "Zebra pelts as well as hides from donkeys, squirrels, ponies, and of course, cows."

"They were disgusting," said the construction manager "They were all dried up and shriveled. It was certainly nothing I would wear. My wife didn't even want them."

It's for you honey, and it's disgusting!