Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My PREM+ seat 12F AMS/JFK.
PREM+ is the OpenSkies ECONOMY cabin!


The Future Of International Business Class Has Arrived

British Airways has launched a new 2-class airline called OpenSkies that flies from New York JFK Airport to Paris Orly Airport and, starting last week, from JFK to Amsterdam. Last week I flew as the guest of OpenSkies on their inaugural flight from JFK to Amsterdam and then back to New York the next day.

Regular readers know I don’t pull any punches when it comes to criticism, and I won’t here, despite getting a free ride. The OpenSkies service experience had some bumps and wrinkles that I will discuss, but overall I was extremely pleased and satisfied.

In brief, I think OpenSkies has broken the code on what international business travelers want and need between the USA and Europe, and they offer it at a price that will satisfy even the strictest and stingiest corporate travel departments. It is in fact an extraordinary value in the OpenSkies rear cabin, called PREM+, which I describe and laud below.

I intend to write about the experience in detail over several blog entries, but I wanted to get on record quickly here with highlights of my two OpenSkies flights Wednesday, 15-Oct-08, JFK/AMS, and Thursday, 16-Oct-08 AMS/JFK.

OpenSkies is wholly-owned by BA, but it flies on its own certificated authority and operates as its own profit center. It flies 757 aircraft with just 64 seats on board configured in two classes of service. One class of service, the one up front (BIZ), is a familiar business class offering, but the back cabin (PREM+) defies conventional description and is, in my opinion, a revolution that could lure business class passengers away from other carriers’ economy AND business classes.

I arrived JFK Terminal 7 (British Airways terminal) very early at 1:45 PM for my 8:05 PM departure after driving in from Pennsylvania. I was happily surprised to be directed to the old Concorde/First Class check-in area (nice digs) to wait, but I was told that no OpenSkies staff would be on hand until 2:30-3:00 PM.

OpenSkies staff opened up early, and I checked in quickly and was given an invitation to the BA Terraces Business Class Lounge.

I was through security and in the Terraces Lounge by 3:00 PM. There I familiarized myself with the myriad of services, including pre-flight full meals (a good option), a very well-supplied, self-service bar, and even an in-lounge spa. Free wireless made my wait pass quickly as I worked at my laptop for several hours.

Boarding began about 7:30 PM, and the door was closed and the plane ready for pushback well before our 8:05 PM departure time. I was walking around the cabin when we began to move from the gate, and I was glad not to have anyone scolding me for it. I returned to my bulkhead seat in the very first row.

BIZ Means Business!

The front cabin, called BIZ, consists of 24 standard British Airways business class lie-flat seats in a 2-2 configuration. You know, the ones that are staggered like sardines in a can, so that the window seats face backward while the aisle seats face forward.

BIZ is quite comfortable, and the service is highly attentive and personalized—and in the opinion of at least one BA regular, far more personalized than in BA 747 and 777 Business. Here’s how the OpenSkies website describes the BIZ cabin:

- 24 seats that convert into 6-foot long, 180° flatbeds
- 73" of legroom
- A seat width of 20"
- One attendant per twelve customers ensures individualised service
- A universal power plug-in for your computer and personal electronics
- Personal entertainment system with over 50 hours of audio and video
- A la carte meals and wine service inspired by top chefs

All true, and all good on my flight, except the meal’s main course. “Inspired by top chefs” I don’t doubt, but by the time my rack of lamb and my seatmate’s wild mushroom risotto landed on our tray tables, both were dry and tasteless. Execution squelched inspiration somewhere along the value chain from the top chefs' kitchens to the 757 galley.

(In fairness to the OpenSkies offering, the main meals were as well done as any other airline’s in business class or even in first class. Let’s face it: Cooked, hot meals at 37,000 feet are nigh impossible to get right. Even on Singapore Airlines I usually fill up on cold appetizers like caviar and smoked salmon, and then I order a non-cooked entrée or skip it altogether.)

Wines on our OpenSkies flight, on the other hand, were delicious. I especially liked the Charles Heidsieck non-vintage brut Champagne. Unlike now-defunct EOS, OpenSkies served all wines in proper glasses (real glass, not EOS’s déclassé plastic), a civilized touch that did not go unnoticed (identical glassware was also used in the back cabin).

BIZ bed-seats were indeed lie-flat, as anyone exposed to the now familiar BA business class seat will appreciate. The seat design is well-known to have compromised storage space and width for length and lie-flatness, and it’s not for everyone. I asked for a window seat, which is difficult to get in to and out of on any airplane utilizing these seats, in order to test the comfort.

An aisle seat would have been far preferable, as getting up and down from the aisle doesn’t disturb one’s neighbor. Unless one has been trained as a ballet dancer in nimble leaps and graceful prances, the BIZ window seats are impossible to access and exit from without considerable cooperation from one’s next-row-back aisle neighbor.

This has nothing whatever to do with OpenSkies, of course. It is just the nature of the BA business class seat design, which I have never myself liked. Nonetheless, I slept well for a short spell over the Atlantic in seat 1F, and the BA seats on OpenSkies’ 757 were less uncomfortable than those I’ve encountered on BA widebody airplanes.

OpenSkies management has hinted that it might replace the BA seats in the BIZ cabin at some future date with a next generation design, and I would personally welcome that change if and when it comes to pass. Until then I will specify aisle seats on future BIZ class OpenSkies flights.

I enjoyed the self-contained entertainment unit, distributed by on-board staff after takeoff and collected prior to landing, and I successfully tried out the universal powerplug for my laptop, too.

The real difference, and benefit, in OpenSkies BIZ class, compared to most legacy airlines business class, is its small, intimate cabin (just 20 seats) and the highly attentive service. Harkening back to the more refined and almost forgotten era of trans-Atlantic flying in the 1960s and 1970s, OpenSkies BIZ service has the warm feel of the original British Airways first class cabins aboard its first jet generation 707s.

And all this for as little as $3532 round trip (plus tax) JFK/AMS—a bargain compared to legacy carrier business fares.

Another important OpenSkies BIZ class benefit is complimentary access to BA lounges at both ends.

I’ll say more about the BIZ cabin and service on board in a future post, but for now I want to cover the most exciting new concept in international air service I’ve encountered in decades:

OpenSkies Back Cabin – Business Class Masquerading As Economy

“Sensational” is not a word I use often to describe anything, let alone any airline‘s products and services. I didn’t even use it in my post about flying four First Class segments on Emirates, which might be the best airline flying these days. But I think OpenSkies’ new PREM+ Class is sensational, and I’m telling everyone I know about it.

My first thought on walking back to the PREM+ cabin was: This can’t be economy! There are just 40 seats back there, and they are in a 2-2 configuration just like in the BIZ class front cabin. The PREM+ class of service makes OpenSkies my top choice to Europe now that I’ve experienced it and know what it costs.

It’s all about the seat and the space. There is simply no antecedent to the OpenSkies PREM+ cabin, nothing to compare it to within the familiar international economy range of service. It’s best described like this:

PREM+ is a last generation international business class seat—which basically means it is not a new generation lie-flat seat—with lots of privacy and comfort. The seat and foot rest recline and stretch out so you can easily rest and sleep in comfort. In fact the seats are an inch wider than the BIZ class seats, though they seem even wider than that. Here’s how the OpenSkies website describes the PREM+ cabin and seats:

- More legroom for your comfort
- A seat width of 20.6"
- 40 seats
- A universal power plug-in for computer and personal electronics
- Personal entertainment system with over 50 hours of audio and video

In my opinion there is very little difference in comfort between the front (BIZ) and back (PREM+) cabins. Importantly, however, there is a VAST difference in privacy: The 40 PREM+ seats provide a greater sense of space and privacy than the pricier BIZ cabin seats.

That’s because PREM+ seats are spaced out front-to-back with lots of pitch to enable the seats to recline to their full extent (not lie-flat, but at a steep, comfortable angle for resting and sleeping nonetheless), whereas the BIZ seats are laid out in the sardines-in-a-can alternating head-to-toe configuration which can't help but give customers seated therein a cramped, claustrophobic feeling. Thus the PREM+ seats, requiring as they do a lot of room between each row to recline, and being laid out side-by-side in the traditional forward-facing configuration, feel very spacious and private.

It’s ironic that the cheaper PREM+ back cabin would be my hands-down preference even if the fares of both classes were equal. The overall PREM+ seat space, privacy, and comfort give PREM+ the edge.

Even better, PREM+ is priced at about the same level as most airlines’ full fare economy, or even a little less if you watch for sales: JFK/AMS in PREM+ is currently selling for US$998–US$3700 round trip (plus tax). That’s why I contend that PREM+ will attract a lot of custom once the word gets around of its comfort and value-for-money. I would not be surprised to see the PREM+ cabin selling out on every flight.

See for yourself what the PREM+ cabin looks like in the two pictures I took last week which appear at the top of this post. I'll bet you thought that was the BIZ cabin when you first saw the photos. Nope, it's PREM+, the so-called economy class on OpenSkies.

Keep in mind that my seat as pictured is NOT fully reclined. I slept better and longer on the AMS/JFK flight in this PREM+ seat than I did in the fancier, more expensive BIZ seat going eastbound over the pond.

A bit more about my PREM+ observations en route home:

The wine selections were identical to the BIZ cabin, and all the ones I tried were good to very good. The PREM+ meals did not reach for the same heights as in BIZ and thus did not have as far to fall. They were forgettable, though the smoked salmon appetizer was scrumptious, and the mid-flight tiny ham-and-cheese sandwiches were very tasty (I had two). The PREM+ cabin crew was every bit as attentive and friendly as the one in BIZ, and I wanted for nothing the entire flight.

I eschewed the self-contained entertainment unit proffered to me after takeoff in favor of working at my laptop and napping. I was pleased to find the individual powerplug at my seat worked perfectly.

Unhappily, the BIZ class benefit of complimentary BA Lounge access is not at present extended to PREM+ passengers. However, I was told lounge privileges for PREM+ are under consideration, so this might become an option or simply be embedded into the PREM+ fare structures. I hope so. International lounge access is part of the seamless business class travel experience and a necessity these days for business travelers going overseas.

Both classes of OpenSkies fliers can earn BA Executive Club points if they are enrolled, a considerable perk given the value of the BA program. Oneworld partners cannot earn miles in their own programs such as AAdvantage.

There’s a lot more I could write about the OpenSkies experience, and I will in future posts. For now, though, I wanted readers to know that I highly recommend OpenSkies in both classes, but I am especially enthusiastic about the PREM+ class of seats in the back cabin. Try it, and you’ll be hooked, like I now am.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Road Trip Times Two

What’s better than driving 400 miles from Raleigh, NC to York, PA (instead of flying)? Well, driving another 200 miles from York, PA to JFK Airport, New York the very next morning (instead of flying). That’s what I did this week to get to JFK to board the inaugural OpenSkies flight to Amsterdam. (I had, and have, business in York, PA early and late in the week which necessitated the detour.)

Truth be told, I’d like to have taken the train, but one wasn’t available to or from York, Pennsylvania. Here are some highlights and short impressions of the trip:

Excellent time made Raleigh to York (10:15 AM – 4:15 PM), just 6 hours including stops for gas, food and bio-breaks. Not bad when considering the task of circumnavigating the greater Washington metro area.

Gas was cheaper and cheaper per gallon going north: $3.60 in NC to $3.20 in Virginia to $2.95 in York. Go figure. The lingering effects on refinery capacity of Hurricane what’s-its-name that hit Galveston? Sure made for a cheap trip.

Today gas prices went up again to $3+ per gallon in NJ and NY en route to JFK.

As usual, the worst part of both trips was the crawl and snarl around Washington and Baltimore. Why is this so bad now? It was far worse than northern New Jersey and getting through 3 NYC boroughs to park at JFK.

The weather was beautiful, sunny and bright, which enhanced my appreciation of the bucolic countryside in PA and western NJ. The fall foliage in those environs was as pretty as the autumnal landscapes of Vermont and New Hampshire last weekend.

Only one rock hit the windshield and left no mark in 600 miles. That’s remarkable.

In summary, I maintain after a half dozen road trips under my belt to avoid flying in the past two years that driving on its worst day is still far better than flying. And far cheaper, as long as gas prices remain where they are now.

Bottom line: I'll be doing more road trips in lieu of flying.

Please! Somebody Take the Dull Out of Dulles!

Since 1993, when I abandoned United and gave up my vaunted but much depreciated (even then) 1K status, I don’t believe I’ve flown more than 4-5 UA segments, and then only because other airlines’ flight cancellations forced me onto UA. None of those force majeure flights had taken me through Washington Dulles Airport. In fact I had not flown through Dulles since, well, ummm, let’s see, hmmm, not long after it opened? That must have been in the 1960s or early 70s! My recollections are of the beautiful sweeping terminal.

This happened because I took my family up to visit an old friend in Grantham, New Hampshire last weekend (Oct 10-12) to join the “leaf peepers” gawking at the gorgeous upper New England fall foliage, and we flew on United, which connected through Dulles. Why fly my nemesis after all these years? Simple: United was far and away the cheapest at about $112 round trip each (purchased about 5 months back).

And the flights were 75% RJs, which made them just like everybody else. The one mainline flight was a short 38 minutes from Raleigh (RDU) to IAD, and I knew I could stomach that.

I was surprised to find most UA personnel in late 2008 on the ground and in the air to seem, well, humbled from my last data point fifteen years ago. And the flights were no better or worse than anybody else’s these days, dumbed down and cheapened as they all have been to minimalist service standards, and mostly late (3 out of 4 of our flights on the RDU/MHT itinerary).

I have little more to say about the United experience except to praise the nice gate agents in Manchester. They were genuinely kind and helpful, like real people. (I have no idea how they got hired by any airline, let alone United.) What really surprised me about this trip was the dilapidated and threadbare appearance of the Dulles International Airport concourses.

Heck, airlines at Dulles don’t even much use the beautiful original swoosh-design terminal that took the world by storm when it opened and promised to transform the airport experience. Instead, the makeshift midfield concourses “B” and “C/D” (the latter two are run together) take the brunt of today’s flights.

The architecture, if one can stretch to call it that, was thrown together. The flat utilitarian structures have the appearance of temporary double-wide construction trailers laid out end-to-end in a long line.

Dull. Ugly. In stark contrast to the grace and beauty of the original terminal, the Dulles midfield makeshifts are reminiscent of the pinnacle of Soviet architecture in the Brezhnev era. Gazing over from “C” to “B” to see the South African Airways flight at its gate, I wondered what the First class passengers who has paid over $10,000 for their tickets thought of their miserable leave-point surroundings.

Maybe in our new economic reality Dulles accurately reflects the new hard times of America. But I hope not. We are better than this airport gives the impression that we Americans are, and I’m ashamed of it.

RDU Passport Makes Parking Easier

Raleigh-Durham (RDU), my home airport, has initiated a new program for folks like me who use their close-in parking decks (still a reasonable $10/day). It’s a keycard like one would use to get in and out of a place of business, and they call it the RDU Passport.

Once you apply online for the Passport, giving them two credit cards and all your other particulars, an in-person visit to the RDU Parking office is required to validate the thing. But aside from that relatively tiny nuisance, it’s a joy to have. Here’s how it works to save me time:

On entering the parking deck, I simply wave the card at a card reader, and it knows who I am and notes the day and time. The gate opens (no ticket needed), and I park.

On leaving the parking deck there is a special RDU Passport lane at which I again wave the card, and the time and date of my departure are noted. The gate then opens.

Later I receive an email receipt that shows how much I was charged with details for T&E reporting.

I highly recommend it if you travel in and out of RDU and use the main parking decks.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

OpenSkies to AMS Impresses Already, and the Inaugural Flight Isn't Until October 15th

You probably know about British Airways starting a brand new airline called OpenSkies with flights scheduled between JFK and Paris (Orly) and between JFK and Amsterdam (Schiphol). I was flattered and delighted when BA recently invited me to be their guest on the inaugural eastbound flight to AMS on October 15th, and I soon received an email with my booking information.

Frankly I didn't know much about OpenSkies until they contacted me. For instance, I was surprised to learn that they are offering not one but two types of business class seating, and no coach cabin at all.

The best cabin--up front naturally--is called BIZ, and the back of the plane is filled with PREM+ seats.

BIZ seats look suspiciously like most airlines' international first class. Here's how they describe it on their website:

  • 24 seats that convert into 6-foot long, 180° flatbeds
  • 73" of legroom
  • A seat width of 20"
  • One attendant per twelve customers ensures individualised service
  • A universal power plug-in for your computer
    and personal electronics
  • Personal entertainment system with over
    50 hours of audio and video
  • A la carte meals and wine service
    inspired by top chefs
I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty darn good to me, and I am flying New York to Amsterdam in one of those comfy BIZ seats.

The PREM+ cabin doesn't sound bad, either:

  • More legroom for your comfort
  • A seat width of 20.6"
  • 40 seats
  • A universal power plug-in for computer and personal electronics
  • Personal entertainment system with over 50 hours of audio and video
OK, I don't like the ambiguous weasel words, "More legroom for your comfort" (what the blazes does THAT mean?), and I have to wonder why the PREM+ seats are 20.6" wide while the premier BIZ seats are merely 20" wide. I'll be flying back to JFK in the rear cabin, and I guess I'll know more after spending 8 hours experiencing it.

BA is using 757 aircraft, much like eos flew before its demise, as well as some other all-business flights to Europe.

When my electronic booking notification arrived in my email inbox, I promptly went to the OpenSkies website to see about changing the seats I'd been assigned. I wanted a bulkhead window seat going over and a bulkhead aisle returning.

Imagine my consternation when I was unable to change seats. No matter how hard I tried, the seats I highlighted would not work. Finally I discovered that in the OpenSkies system one must first select the passenger whose seats you want to change, even if you are the sole passenger on the booking. After doing so, I was able to get the seats I preferred.

This was a minor nit, but no other airline website I've ever used required this of a single passenger, and, furthermore, the solution is not intuitive. Truth is, I had to be told finally by someone how to do it. I wonder how many OpenSkies passengers so far have given up trying to change their seats because they couldn't figure it out on their own.

Curious about fares, I checked the website for several dates between JFK and AMS and found the 3 fare levels in each class of service to be easy to understand and pretty reasonable. The top anytime, unrestricted round trip fares (before tax) are $6400 (BIZ) and $3700 (PREM+)--not bad for last minute, walk-up fares. The lowest fares round trip (again before taxes are added) are $3532 (BIZ) and $998 (PREM+)--tremendous bargains for business class comfort.

I hope I like the service because my family and I will be using OpenSkies to Amsterdam if the lowest fare levels survive.

Since I will be flying over on the 15th, and returning on the 16th just 4 hours after landing, I will need a lounge and a place to shower and change clothes at Schiphol Airport. But will OpenSkies have showers available at their AMS lounge, I wondered. I scoured the OpenSkies website looking everywhere for a description of their lounge facilities at both JFK and AMS. Alas, to no avail. I couldn't find even a reference to what JFK terminal OpenSkies is using.

Of course I assumed it would be the British Airways terminal at JFK, Terminal 7, but the website is silent on where one should go upon arriving JFK for one's OpenSkies flight.

Naturally I decided to phone them up to answer all my questions, and once again I gave the website a good going-over to find an 800 number. It took some time for me to click down into various options to locate their numbers. Under "Travel Tips & Info" on the Home page, I noticed on the left margin some further options which included "Customer Relations."

(Correction: Since first composing this post, it's been called to my attention by a reader more alert than I was that the telephone numbers I was looking for can also be found under "Contact Us" on the OpenSkies website.)

While this didn't sound to me like an avenue to 800 booking numbers, I hadn't located the information I needed elsewhere, so clicked on it.

And there, finally, were the numbers I needed, which I repeat here so you don't have to go through what I did to find them:

Contact Us

We understand there may be a need to contact us occasionally. Please review the following department points of contact:

Reservations and Booking Assistance - OpenSkies Concierge

Tel 0800 91 21 28
Open 24/7

Tel 0800 0 22 77 93
Open 24/7

Tel 1 866 581-3596
Open 24/7

Online 24 hours a day

Executive Club Membership

Call +33 (0) 826 826 747
Monday-Friday 9am -6pm

Call +31(0)203469391
Monday-Friday 9am -6pm

Call 1 800 452 1201
Monday-Friday 9am -6pm


To book a group travelling together of 10 or more passengers please contact us for a group travel quote by calling the OpenSkies Concierge desk at the numbers above and ask for the groups department.


Eligible fares may be canceled and refunded through the self managed area at Manage my Booking. Not all fares are eligible for a refund. If you believe you may be entitled to a refund please call our OpenSkies Concierge desk or write to us at the address below.

Tel 0800 91 21 28
Open 24/7

Tel 0800 0 22 77 93
Open 24/7

Call 1 800 452 1201
Open 24/7

Administrative Offices

Indigo House
Mulberry Business Park
Fishponds Road
WokinghamBerkshire RG41 2GY

Please indicate in writing to us the name of the person or department.

Lost Luggage

Tel 0800 91 21 28
Open 24/7

Tel 0800 0 22 77 93
Open 24/7

Tel 1 866 581-3596
Open 24/7


Customer Relations - OpenSkies Concierge

Tel 0800 91 21 28
Open 24/7

Tel 0800 0 22 77 93
Open 24/7

Tel 1 866 581-3596
Open 24/7


Ask a question?

Can't find the answer to your question? Please send us an email to and we will reply to you as quickly as possible.

Ah ha! Finally, the number I needed! I phoned the 866 number shown above and asked about the JFK and AMS lounges, and which JFK terminal OpenSkies uses.

The first gentlemen I spoke with sounded far away and with a distinctly foreign accent (I assumed India, but forgot to ask). He was extremely kind and polite, and certainly knew about JFK Terminal 7 as the departure point. However, he knew very little about OpenSkies lounges in either JFK and AMS other than the fact that they existed. After being on hold for some time while he inquired and researched about shower facilities at the Amsterdam lounge, he came back with no firm answer.

So telephoned again the next day and at a different hour, and this time I spoke with two ladies who sounded very British. They could not answer my question about accessibility to shower facilities in the Schiphol OpenSkies lounge, and asked to call back.

One hour later my cell phone buzzed, and I received my answer: no showers in the OpenSkies Amsterdam lounge. However, they hastened to add, public showers are available free of charge at Schiphol, so long as one brings one's own towel and soap.

And, I was told, the airport hotel provides a room with showers for a mere 15 Euros. The downside to using the hotel, though, is that it is outside security. My return flight, departing just four hours after my arrival, means that I don't have to clear Customs & Immigration at AMS, nor do I want to subject myself to re-entering security once outside. Thus I plan to pack my own towel and soap and use the free public showers inside security.

That's what I have learned about OpenSkies during the preflight period: so far, mostly good. Their website is spiffy, up-to-date, and user-friendly, with the few small nits I discussed. The real people at OpenSkies whom I spoke with to obtain planning information for my trip were very nice and tried hard to answer my questions. Overall, I am impressed, and looking forward to my flights next week.

I don't think of myself as a curmudgeon, but I admit that I am a difficult customer for any airline to impress and please in premium cabins. I've flown in so many, so often. Naturally I will be writing about every aspect of my experience flying OpenSkies next week, so look for it here by late Thursday night, October 16th.

Frankly, I can hardly wait. It sure appears that OpenSkies did their homework and is likely to get most things right. I hope my optimism proves to be fact.