Friday, June 16, 2006

More Flagship Lounge success

I was trying to remember the last time I missed a flight, whether just by arriving too late at the airport or having a connecting flight arrive too late. I couldn't remember one at all. And of all the flights I've done over the years, if I had to miss one then this was the one to do it with. My schedule had enough slack in it to cope with the delay, and actually it was quite nice to sleep in a hotel that night rather than on an aircraft.

Came back the next morning to check-in. I hadn't bothered with breakfast at the hotel, as I planned to have some in the Flagship Lounge prior to departure. Then I realised with horror that technically I wouldn't have access, since my arriving international flight was on the previous day (stupid rule, but there you go). My Qantas Club membership would get me into the Admirals Club, but they didn't serve breakfast there. The lounge dragons at LAX have a reputation for being strict with the rules, and for denying access if there was any way to do so. I went in and told them my story, putting my in-bound First Class boarding pass and my Executive Platinum frequent flyer card on the desk as I did so. She said she remembered that the London flight was badly delayed and she was apologetic. I took a laid-back "well, these things happen" approach, and I think she was so impressed that I didn't rant and rave about the airline that she thanked me for my attitude and handed me a swipe card for the Flagship Lounge.

Due to the stringent requirements to get into the Flagship Lounge, it was fairly empty at that time of the morning, but I'm told that in the evenings when the Qantas flights are departing it can get really crowded.

So I made it into Washington - 12 hours or so later than expected, but otherwise no worse for wear.

After going like clockwork for so long, time for it to go a little pear-shaped

After boarding the aircraft in London the airbridge was removed in preparation for departure. Then the delays started. Apparently the weather enroute was a problem, and they were waiting to see if it cleared. Then they tried rerouting us. Then we needed a takeoff slot. Eventually, more than two hours late, we left.

My ample connection in LA was looking a little shaky as we made our final approach, but as we taxied towards the stand it looked like I would be OK (but not have time for a lounge visit). Then the final act of the farce began. We would be parking at Terminal 4 (the American Airlines terminal from where my Washington flight would depart) but would be clearing customs and immigration at the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) next door. This would mean a long walk in underground tunnels. Oddly, sometimes Qantas will park at TBIT and clear customs and immigration at T4. Then they showed on the TV screens which gates various connections would leave from. The Washington flight was leaving from 48A - the furthest gate from security. And then the plane stopped. One of the pilots announced that although our gate was empty, the adjacent one had a 747 in it, so there was no room for us until the 747 was towed away. Eventually we moved again until we were nearly at the gate, but then we stopped again. Pilot came back on saying that we had to be towed to the gate, so there would be a delay while the engines were shut down and the towing vehicle was attached.

When we finally arrived I was first off the aircraft. I reached immigration (eventually) to find only a short line. After the formalities I went to wait for my suitcase. In LA they generally use two luggage carousels for large international flights - one for priority luggage (First and Business class and any other priority gained via frequent flyer status) and the other for the rest. Then they announced that one of the two carousels to be used had developed a fault, so all luggage would come out on the one carousel. That was the final straw, because it then meant a long wait for the bags to come out.

Knowing it was almost certainly in vain, I went to the luggage transfer area, but they wouldn't accept the bag because it was too close to the departure time. My only hope would be for a delay in the flight, so I fought my way out of TBIT and across to T4. The flight was delayed, but not by enough. By the time I arrived at the check-in desks it was 10 minutes too late to check in.

The agent was very helpful and we discussed a couple of options. Finally I was put on the flight the next morning and American Airlines paid for a room for me at the Crowne Plaza LAX.

All the way to the pointy end

Arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 and checked in. Went through the "Fast Track" security, but as they were only using one x-ray machine it still took a while. The departure area was really crowded. Seemed to be largely a holiday crowd rather than a business one. If there's one place you really need lounge access, LHR T3 is it.

Fought my way through the crowd and finally made it to the American Airlines Flagship Lounge (their First Class lounge). Registered with the desk and was about to go into the lounge when I thought I may as well try for an upgrade. When I qualified for Executive Platinum I was given a bunch of systemwide upgrades. I had planned to use one on the London-Los Angeles flight to upgrade from Business to First, but for some reason if the tickets are issued by Cathay Pacific then the American Airlines system won't process the upgrade. I didn't even know whether it was possible to do it at the airport, but I figured I would never know unless I tried. Anyway, about 20 minutes later I was handed my new boarding pass for seat 4A. Woohoo!

I felt a little sorry for the person at the desk dealing with my upgrade. Apparently it was her first day back at work in three months, and all the procedures had changed in the intervening time.

Had a look in the lounge, but found it to be small, lacking in food, and with a poor drinks selection. No Champagne!

I had heard good things about the Cathay Pacific lounge, so I left the Flagship Lounge to find it. On my way out the people on the desk were still chatting about my upgrade. I think I severely stressed the poor woman. Finally arrived at the Cathay Pacific lounge and was warmly greeted at the desk. I was informed that I would need to keep an eye on the departures board since they don't call American Airlines flights in that lounge. Went into the First Class side, and found it empty. There was a variety of dim sum on offer, and a menu from which noodles could be ordered (free). There was also a cheese board and other snacks. The drinks on offer included amongst other things a Champagne (non-vintage Moet), a Premier Cru Chablis, a Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux, and two types of XO Cognac. What a contrast from the AA lounge!

As boarding time approached I went back to the Flagship Lounge (I was still the only person in the Cathay Pacific First Class lounge). Now as well as being small and poorly stocked it was also crowded. Seems like not many people realise they can use the Cathay lounge as well as the American one.

They were using the second door of the aircraft for boarding, so I had the unusual pleasure of turning left on entry to the aircraft to get to my seat. Up at the pointy end at last.

English Breakfast - sort of

On the flight back to London from Dubai they served breakfast. Menu said scrambled eggs, veal sausage, tomato, chicken, ... . Chicken? In an English Breakfast? Then it dawned on me - chicken, no bacon, veal (not pork) sausage. Ah, of course, no pig products.

Also explains the absence of the famous British Airways bacon sandwich prior to landing. For the record, the chicken was tasty, and probably healthier than bacon anyway.

Make mine an orange juice

So I'm sitting in the British Airways lounge at Dubai airport. There is no separate First lounge, but I'll cope with sitting amongst the less privileged. Anyway, I'm reading a copy of the "Gulf News" newspaper, while sipping on a Jack Daniels and Coke.

Actually, it's Pepsi. Don't know why there isn't Coke, but since it's mixed I guess it doesn't matter. And yes, it has an old-fashioned detaching ring-pull, and interestingly it has only English on the can although it states that it was "filled" in the United Arab Emirates - all of the other soft drinks in the fridge have both English and Arabic script on them.

Where was I? Oh yes, the newspaper. I'm sitting here with the aforementioned beverage and I've just read about a man in Fujairah (no idea where that is, but the byline said Abu Dhabi) who was sentenced to 80 lashes for "consuming alcohol". Think I might put the JD down and go back to Orange Juice.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Top Deck on a 747

The boarding call was finally made and I was allowed to leave the lounge. A long queue had formed for boarding, but the First/Business queue was virtually empty so I was on board in no time.

Then it was upstairs and into the secluded Business cabin. Even once boarding had been completed there were many vacant seats. I found this a little surprising since upper deck is usually favoured by those in Business Class. I have no idea how many were in the lower deck Business cabin, but I'm assuming it would also have had many empty seats. The bonus was that it meant I would not have to climb over anyone to access the aisle. Even with all the space in Business Class, if your neighbour is lying down you have to climb over his or her legs to get to the aisle. I had a rear-facing seat, which surprisingly does not feel at all odd. To give you some idea of the space, I had three windows to myself.

Soon after takeoff dinner was served and at its conclusion I gratefully changed my seat into a bed and fell asleep. I'm not sure how long I got, but I think it was close to a six-hour stretch - not bad for sleeping on a plane.

The unadvertised benefits of being in Business Class can still surprise me. We were the first aircraft to arrive in Terminal 1 on that day, and I reached the immigration area to discover it empty! I've been anything up to an hour in the queue in the past, and getting a head-start on the 300 Economy Class passengers made a real difference. Of course some of that benefit evaporated thanks to the usual Heathrow delay in delivering the luggage, but once the carousel started mine was one of the first bags out, thanks to the "First Class" tag on it (a benefit of top-tier oneworld status).

Although reasonably well sign-posted, BA make you work for it to get to the Arrivals Lounge. From the immigration exit it is up one level in the lift, then right across to the other end of the terminal, then down a long corridor, past the premium check-in area, and finally into the lounge. Maybe they reason that if you make it you must really, really want to be there.

I went for a shower in the lounge and discovered that they have a free valet service. While you are having your shower they will iron your clothes for you. It's a great idea, and meant that I emerged soon after in a clean, freshly-ironed suit, ready for the day. In case you are wondering, there is a small closet in the door of the shower room. You hang your clothes to be ironed in there, lock the closet door and push a button which alerts the desk that your crushed clothes are ready to be uncrushed. The valet then opens the closet from the other side and takes the clothes away. Soon after the clothes are returned, and when you are ready you unlock the closet to discover that the ironing fairies have visited. Then it was time for the full English breakfast on offer (free of course). I relaxed for a while, and then decided to take advantage of a complimentary back massage in the Molton Brown spa. I'd been lugging my carry-on bag around for three days, so it was good to have some of the muscles loosened.

Another random incident: Just after sitting down in the lounge after the massage, "Anita from the Royal Suite" from the TV documentary series "Airport" walked in with someone who sounded like they are a BA big knob. They grabbed some coffee and then sat down at one of the tables for a meeting. OK, so she's not Madonna-famous, but it was still fun to see someone from TV. In fact I found it more interesting than seeing actors because in this case I was seeing her doing part of a job that I'd seen her do many times on "Airport". On the other hand when you see an actor, you generally don't know them as themselves, only in the context of the roles they play.

Finally the driver arrived, and it was time to leave the airport and head off to work. Thanks to the comfort of the flight and lounges I was actually able to achieve things during the day, which was a refreshing change from my normal arrival days.

Random Incident

I just go told off for trying to leave the lounge too early. It was about 40 minutes before scheduled departure, so I thought I would go down to the gate, knowing that Business Class could board anytime once boarding commenced. Apparently this was the wrong thing to do.
This was the conversation between the Lounge Dragon and me:
LD: Not boarding yet.
Me: What?
LD: You on BA 26?
Me: Yes.
LD: You can wait until boarding call.

So I dutifully went back to my seat to wait for the official call.

It's not all beer and skittles being a top tier.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Round The World commences

Finally starting to get some frequent flyer points ...

I said previously that I was hoping for a light load out of Colombo - I didn't figure on only 5 of the approximately 50 Business Class seats being occupied. The Flight Attendants were virtually begging us to ask for something so they had something to do. I think we had one FA each! The numbers picked up a bit in Bangkok, but there were still enough free seats for everyone to rearrange themselves so that no-one had a neighbour.

On arrival back in Hong Kong I picked up my suitcase from left luggage and took the train into Kowloon. There they have a place where you can check-in for your flights. The reason for doing it there rather than at the airport was that the British Airways counters at the airport do not open until a couple of hours before their late night flights. By going into town I could get rid of my suitcase and pick up my boarding pass, which would allow me to go through to the lounges whenever I wanted. I was also looking forward to wandering around Kowloon again - it's been over seven years since I was there last. Unfortunately the weather was unkind to me and I had to cut the visit short. So here I am back at Hong Kong airport, waiting to board the BA flight to Heathrow. It will be my first time seated in the upper deck of a 747, and I know the lie-flat bed will be a big change from the limited-recline last-row nightmare the other day. It's time for all the scheming to pay off.

Clarification about the Coke can

I said in my previous post that the Coke cans at Colombo airport had mostly Sri Lankan script on them. Well, I was wrong. Most of it was actually Arabic, with only some Sri Lankan - I realised my mistake when I got a bottle of water which stated that it was made in the United Arab Emirates, and I compared the script. I had thought the script was a little too up-and-down and not "round" enough when I first saw the Coke can, but just leapt to the conclusion that because I was in Sri Lanka it must have been Sri Lankan.

Sometimes I wish I knew more about languages, but you can't know everything I suppose.

I'll be happy once I have the tickets

Boarded the aircraft in Hong Kong to find that there was someone in the seat next to me, but that there were a number of spare seats in the cabin. As soon as the doors closed my neighbour moved to the spare row directly behind us. Flight was uneventful, but the senior Flight Attendant must have seen my oneworld status printed on the manifest because she made a point of coming over and saying, "I know you fly very often, and I have asked my staff to take care of you, but if there is anything you need in the mean time, let me know." It was nice in a way, but I felt like a bit of a fraud - I really don't fly very often at all, and only got my top-tier status by working the system. Still, it was nice of her to make the effort.

The aircraft arrived in Colombo and we disembarked (well, I disembarked - I'm sure the Americans on board deplaned). Of course I had no idea where I was going, but I dutifully followed the signs to the transit area. By the way, all of the signs were in English only - no Sri Lankan script to be seen, which I found a bit odd. Random fact - the Coke can has mostly Sri Lankan writing with some English, but the main reason to mention it is that it had an old-fashioned ring-pull - the type where the tab comes away completely from the can. Honestly didn't think I'd ever see one of those again.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the transit area. Asked the information desk where to go and she pointed to the immigration desks. No I don't want to go there, I want to stay in transit. So she pointed towards vaguely the other way. The only other occupied desk was the Sri Lankan Airways transfer desk, so lacking other options I tried asking there. It took a while to get them to understand my story (well, it is a little odd), but eventually they phoned Cathay Pacific. While the conversation proceeded (in Sri Lankan, so I couldn't tell how it was going) I realised that a lot rested on the outcome of the call. Dealing with a third party is always a concern, because if he had said, "they don't have a ticket for you" I would be stuck. At least if you are dealing directly with the person who is meant to have the tickets you can talk alternatives with them. After what seemed like a really long time, he said "take a seat - someone will bring the ticket down in 5 or 10 minutes." So I went and sat in the small seating area in uncomfortable plastic seats amongst about 20 men - some of whom were sleeping and others who took turns to go to the Sri Lankan Airlines desk and completely fail to achieve whatever it was they were trying to achieve. I started to feel like the guy stuck in transit in Charles de Gaulle airport for the past 20 years (made famous in "The Terminal" starring Tom Hanks).

Half an hour of the 5 or 10 minutes passed, so I went back to the Sri Lankan desk. After a couple of phone calls he said that they were just bringing it down now. Sure enough, almost 15 minutes later the man from Cathay Pacific turned up with my tickets. He also brought a credit card machine (the old-fashioned manual type - not one connected to a phone line). In went the Amex card, and then I took possession of the long-awaited tickets. They've given me a window seat again, but I'm hoping for a light load so that I'm not boxed in - I think I'll spend most of the flight asleep. It's now 5:45 am Canberra time and we have a little over an hour until departure.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The adventure is under way

When I checked in at Canberra airport the check-in agent printed the boarding passes and then said "and your bag is checked through all the way to Colombo". When I told her that I only wanted it to go as far as Hong Kong she was very confused, but changed it for me. I tried to explain, but even as I was saying it, it didn't sound like it made much sense. It makes sense in my universe, so please just humour me.

I don't think airlines like people on award tickets. My first flight was on Qantas between Canberra and Sydney on a 737-400, and they put me in row 20, which is 3 or 4 rows from the back. Not really a problem - it's a very short flight and the light load meant that I had a spare seat next to me.

I was more concerned when I was allocated 68K for the 10-hour Cathay Pacific from Sydney to Hong Kong. I had no idea about the seat numbering on the A330 aircraft, but 68 didn't sound like it was anywhere near the front. Once in the Qantas First Class lounge in Sydney I logged on to the Cathay Pacific website and discovered that this seat was a window, near the back of the aircraft. I dislike being in a window seat on long haul flights because I like being able to access the aisle without disturbing anyone.

I realise that award tickets can't expect royal treatment, but I would have thought that having top tier status in the oneworld alliance should have given me some chance of an OK seat.

Incidentally, ever since Qantas spent lots of money building new First and Business lounges in Sydney Terminal 1 (the International terminal), I had only ever been able to use the Business lounge. I like it a lot, but I always wanted to see what the First lounge was like. Qualifying for top tier oneworld status this year meant that I would be able to use the First lounges, but wouldn't you know it - Qantas decided to renovate the First lounge band it is closed until next year. Worse, the temporary First lounge is in the space which until a few years ago was the Business lounge, which I had visited on a number of occasions! Bloody typical!

The Sydney airport terminals (both the domestic terminal 3 and the international terminal 1) were like ghost towns on this Saturday evening. There seemed to be almost no-one around. which led me to speculate that perhaps the flight to Hong Kong was lightly loaded and I would have a spare seat next to me. The fact that one week prior to the flight there were still award seats available reinforced this idea. The Qantas staff at the lounge were unable to help me with seating questions, so I had to wait until the Cathay Pacific staff were at the gate. Somewhat more than an hour prior to the scheduled departure I went to the gate to fix the seating problem, only to be told that the flight was completely full. I was amazed. They told me that there was one aisle seat which they could move me to - in the centre block of the very last row. I wasn't happy, but took it anyway.

I boarded to find that the last row had very limited recline - not good for a 10-hour flight. The only good thing was that this row only had 3 seats in the centre block, and when a gay couple took the other two seats I knew that at least I would not have anyone trying to climb over me to access the aisle.

The flight was really quite unpleasant. Naturally the person in front used all of her recline, so my limited recline highlighted the lack of space. I also found that the Cathay Pacific seats were significantly less comfortable than those on either Qantas or British Airways. I managed a few hours sleep, but awoke many times with pains in various places.

On arrival in Hong Kong I cleared immigration and collected my suitcase. I then went the left luggage to get rid of my suitcase and wandered around the landside area for a while, deciding whether to go into Hong Kong or stay at the airport. I really wasn't feeling at all well from lack of sleep, so I decided to stay put - I can always go into Hong Kong when I return tomorrow.

Back through immigration and then the long trek to Gate 65 to the Cathay Pacific Pier Lounge. This airport is so big that there is a train to get you to the higher numbered gates. Then it was into the First Class part of the Pier Lounge and into one of their "Day Rooms", which are small private rooms with a lounge chair and TV. I watched some TV and then relaxed and slept for a while. Once I had recovered I stayed in the lounge for a while and had a meal - I suppose it was brunch.

Time for more relaxing and then I left the lounge to go to the other, bigger lounge called The Wing. This time rather than taking the train, I walked (with the help of travelators) - I must say it's a really long way. Finally made it into the Wing and relaxed some more, checked my e-mail and phoned a friend (but didn't take 50-50). I then had lunch in the Haven - basically a buffet with lots of nice food, from sushi to noodles to pasta to smoked salmon, to Hagen Daaz ice-cream and chocolates from the Peninsula Hotel. I then went to have a shower in "The Cabanas". They were even better than the Pier's Day Rooms - They had a separate shower and bath, and a separate area with a chaise longue and a flat lounge which I chose to call a bed. They provided a bathrobe and slippers, and I proceeded to have an afternoon nap there.

My flight to Colombo has a seat allocation of 19K. I logged onto Cathay Pacific's website again and found that on the 777-300 this is the second-last row of Business Class seats, and of course it's a damn window. It's a bulkhead though, so I won't bother changing it.

Now I'm just using up the remaining time relaxing and waiting for the flight. I'll go and have some more food soon, and then I'll be ready for the first Business Class leg of the journey. Whether my tickets will be waiting for me in Colombo, only time will tell.