Tuesday, May 20, 2008

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 flyertalk.com 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.

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