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.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

OpenSkies Experience, Continued

Last week I wrote enthusiastic first impressions of my recent flights JFK/AMS and AMS/JFK on OpenSkies, the new British Airways subsidiary flying now between New York and both Paris (Orly) and Amsterdam (Schiphol). This week I intended to go into some depth about the experience, but my fellow travel writer, David Rowell, who flew with me across to Amsterdam, covered just about everything one could ever want to know about OpenSkies in three columns totaling 10,000 words!

I agree with much of David's opinions regarding the experience. Rather than reprise much of what he wrote, I point interested readers to David's in-depth columns. They are self-explanatory and can be found at these URLs:

http://www.thetravelinsider.info/airlines/openskies.htm

http://www.thetravelinsider.info/airlines/openskiesbizclass.htm

http://www.thetravelinsider.info/airlines/openskiespremplusclass.htm

Did you read all ten thousand words? Are you back now?

I hope so. Just let me say that while generally I agree with much of David's narrative descriptions and critiques, there are issues he covers that I'd like to enhance or contrast to my own experience on OpenSkies:

Service in General (to borrow David's phrase)

David Rowell rightly points out that he and I were traveling with a small group of travel writers and accompanied by VP-Distribution and eCommerce, Chris Vukelich, effectively the number two OpenSkies executive after Managing Director, Dale Moss (we also met with Dale in a Schiphol VIP conference room upon arrival in Amsterdam).

Which is to say, we were hardly flying incognito on the OpenSkies inaugural New York to Amsterdam flight. It could not have been lost on the cabin staff that they should be providing their best service.

As David mentioned, the JFK/AMS plane wasn't full, and in fact was very lightly loaded. I agree with him that under these circumstances the experience should have been, in his words, "the absolute best that one would ever encounter."

Yet the service was not perfect. It was good, even very good, but it had some rough edges.

1. No one took David's jacket.

They did take my coat in BIZ outbound, but I had to forcibly give it to the male FA and ask that he hang it. Once asked, he did so nicely.

On the return in PREM+ no less than three FAs asked for my coat within five minutes of boarding. Interesting to me, they took it forward and hung it in the BIZ cabin. They also brought it to me just after landing at JFK. (I wonder if they would have done that on a full flight; I was the sole passenger occupying the rear 20 seat compartment).

But why was the jacket service inconsistent? Even on domestic first class legs in the USA, it's routine for cabin staff to take and hang jackets upon arrival on board. Certainly in a $3600 international business class compartment I would expect that service for every passenger. The fact that they missed anybody is unacceptable.

2. David was not offered Champagne on boarding.

In contrast, I was twice offered a glass of Champagne before the door closed in BIZ outbound. Weirdly, David was sitting in the bulkhead row just across from me. How could they have missed him?

I was also offered Champagne in PREM+ on the return. But again, the PREM+ cabin had about 5-6 passengers for its 40 seats, and it's impossible to know whether the 2 FAs in the back would have been able to serve all 40 had the cabin been full.

Overall, I repeat what I asked above: How could anyone in either cabin have been missed being offered boarding Champagne? This has long been SOP on international flights in business and first.

3. No one brought David an amenity kit.

Though I had to ask twice—the second time insistently—I did get the tiny and modest OpenSkies amenity kit in BIZ outbound, but not until the door was about to close.

I wanted the booties especially, but also used the ear plugs and eyeshades. They served me well.

But why wasn't the kit offered to everyone right away? It's one of the first things people want to do: Take off shoes and put on the booties to be comfortable.

On the return in PREM+ I was offered the little kit (sufficient for my needs) almost as soon as I sat down on boarding. Once again, however, I wonder if it would come so promptly on a full flight.

4. David didn't think the food was particularly good.

I apparently liked it less even than David Rowell, as I pointed out in last week's post. I was surprised that some people praised the cuisine, but then "one man's meat," and all that.

As I said last week, I’ve learned not to expect much from even Emirates or Singapore in First Class. Usually cold plates of uncooked food taste best at altitude. That was true with the smoked salmon in PREM+ (the appetizer) on my return.

David also mentioned not being offered dessert. He didn't miss anything, but he certainly should have been asked.

5. The entertainment units failed to inspire David, and he didn't like the flight attendants collecting them so early before landing (55 minutes prior).

I agree with David on all counts here, including how much I missed the moving map. (I remember being miffed on EOS for the same reason.) Self-contained entertainment units are necessarily devoid of a live connection to computer-driven moving maps, but some airlines using such units broadcast the moving map on the airplane's bulkhead or flip-down screens. OpenSkies had no such built-in system.

I, too, was infuriated at the FAs for taking the entertainment units well in advance of reaching the respective destinations on both flights. It would seem they’ve been trained to get them while the aircraft is still well out over international waters!

The units I tried outbound were faulty. A similar (but larger) unit I rented on Amtrak two years ago worked better (and had better movies). I wasn’t much impressed with the one on OpenSkies. My first unit didn’t work well (skipped, hung), so they replaced it. Second one worked well for a few hours, then glitched out. I didn’t even bother to take one when offered homebound.

6. David had the misfortune to be prohibited from wrapping a blanket around his legs for "safety reasons" during takeoff.

I guess the cabin staff failed to notice that I had a blanket around my legs during takeoff.

Anyway, why would they care? On the thousands of flights I've experienced during four decades of getting on airplanes, no one has ever stopped me from using a blanket during takeoff.

7. OpenSkies doesn't interline bags, and this caused David grief.

Since I am obsessive about not checking bags, their policy is not a problem for me. However, a large percentage of fliers do check their bags, and I can understand why this would be a big negative for them. You have to collect your bag off the luggage carousel after each flight and then re-check it, a big waste of time.

Nonetheless, interlined bags are the ones most frequently lost or mishandled (delayed), one reason I don't like to check mine, ever.

CONCLUSIONS

Overall, and despite my carping above about some service failures, there are more OpenSkies positives than negatives in my view. Here are the two positives I will especially remember:

  • OpenSkies flies 757 airplanes with only 64 seats on board, and this makes them quick and easy to get on and off (think: Southwest-quick).
  • PREM+, the so-called premium economy, is extremely comfortable--more comfortable than BIZ, in my opinion. As long as PREM+ fares remain as low as they now are, it's a great bargain. I highly recommend booking and flying OpenSkies PREM+ to or from Amsterdam or Paris.

And one negative:

  • I agree with David Rowell's comments on OpenSkies BIZ class: "[It}is no better than other business classes on other airlines, and massively inferior to some airlines (albeit airlines that don't operate non-stop services on the two routes served by EC)."
I sincerely hope that OpenSkies is successful—meaning profitable! I believe, as I said last week, that their PREM+ cabin is the future of overseas business travel. If you try OpenSkies PREM+, you'll see why I feel so strongly about it.

8 Comments:

Blogger John C said...

Thanks for the update on your Open Skies experience. I traveled last week to Amsterdam with 14 other souls (I was in biz) and offer some additional concerns (none of which were serious in my mind, just annoying):

1. Upon checkin they told us they would be boarding early because they had to bus us to the plane (they jetway was under repair). They called us for boarding one hour ahead of time!

2. When we arrived at the gate for boarding, the startled gate agents sent us back to the lounge. We ended up boarding fifteen minutes before departure.

3. When it was time to board, they loaded five of us into a large van. The van then sat at the end of the jetway with all the doors open for five very windy and cold minutes while we waited for the rest of the passengers. The one door that was closed was the driver door as she was cold (as if the rest of us were not freezing).

4. The BA lounge at T7 at JFK offers the same selection of dried fruit, chips, and cheese and crackers offered at the United Red Carpet Club; I was surprised to find the same offerings in both the first class and business class lounges.

5. The people staffing the lounges, with the exception of the receptionists, did not speak English.

6. The first class lounge does not have a place to set empty containers or dirty plates, so people would just leave them on their tables. About half of the tables were covered in trash when I entered.

7. No hot towels at any point during the flight (although I saw them move them around the galley several times). I didn't really care about not receiving one before dinner, but it would have been nice to receive one upon waking up.

8. During dinner, I was never offered wine, although other folks were (maybe I look like a troubling lush).

9. The "this is not a menu" implied there would be several courses, yet all three courses were served on one tray.

10. The fish was quite delicious, but the flight attendant told me point blank to stay away from the risotto.

11. The mini-snack bar they set up was quite well stocked. I personally appreciated the grapes. It also contained the basket of amenities, so I could get an extra toothbrush after dropping mine on the bathroom floor.

12. At breakfast, the junior flight attendant burned the croissants to a crisp, which they then had to throw away.

13. Prior to departing, I called their concierge service to find out if I could take a shower at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I waited on hold for about eight minutes while the concierge researched my question. She came back with a partially correct answer, telling me I could go to a specific hotel within the airport. It turns out there are two such hotels, as well as one set of bathrooms that contain public showers.

14. I was told by the same concierge that I would need 3 hours to transfer from an OpenSkies flight to a KLM flight, as I would have to exit the secure area, clear customs, and then go back through both in order to print my boarding pass. As it turned out, 100 yards from the jetway was a bank of machines for printing out connecting boarding passes. I was able to get to my connecting gate in less than ten minutes. That included one minute at customs, less than a minute at security, and the rest of the time was walking.

15. Due to the light loads, they've canceled my return flight. I have the option of going home a day early, a day late, or traveling on BA in their business class on my original travel date. I asked about an upgrade to first since the cancellation was their fault; the 1-800 person was most apologetic, but apparently the management has said NO WAY to that request before, so he would not even make the attempt to ask again. Several days later, they offered a $500 OpenSkies discount coupon for future travel to apologize for the inconvenience. I wonder what they'll be offering as it gets closer to the original flight date.

16. The reason for the cancelation, according to their email message, was the sudden switch to "winter schedules." My outbound flight was on week three of the launch of the flight to Amsterdam...

17. The main flight attendant, who was really attendant, helpful, and friendly, was a former Eos employee. The new flight attendant was a brand new hire and was very green. The third flight attendant in biz was a former BA flight attendant. He was lazy, unhelpful, and sloppy.

18. To back up your and David's comments - my first two entertainment units did not work (sadly, I had to chase down the green flight attendant to get each one replaced as he was so quick to move on to the next guest); the lie flat beds are comfortable, but very narrow (and they really aren't flat due to the head rest); the breakfast was pretty standard; even though there were only six people in biz and two of them did not eat, it took almost an hour before we were served dinner. After staring at the empty tray for a good fifteen minutes, I finally returned it myself (the helpful flight attendant was the chef, the green flight attendant kept walking up and down the aisles, ala Pam Ann, and the lazy flight attendant would come over, chat, ask about how I liked the dinner, and then spin around just as I would lift my tray to offer it to him - he must have been a ballet dancer in an earlier life).

Bottom line - not perfect, but a decent offering, and certainly much more civilized than a flight on United in business class. However, it paled in comparison to a flight on Lufthansa in first or business class.

Cheers!

John

11/07/2008 2:07 AM  
Blogger Che Grovera said...

So besides the lack if interlining -- which can be a MAJOR hassle -- you didn't have any serious complaints?

That list of nits you compiled smacks of the Princess and the Pea; they are all valid observations but can't possibly contribute to the value proposition of anyone but the most hypersensitive prima donna. Your companion wasn't offered Champagne? Oh, the horror! The entertainment unit "failed to inspire"? Please. I understand completely that an entertainment unit should be easy-to-use, functional and the content should be compelling, as well as that purchase decisions can hinge upon such seeming trifles. Even so, turning to an airplane entertainment unit for "inspiration" bespeaks a lack of imagination...perhaps OpenSkies cabins aren't properly pressurized resulting in oxygen/inspiration deprivation? Just a thought.

I guess I'm just surprised that someone who is willing to drive from Raleigh to DC and hop the rails the way you do would display such delicate sensibilities when evaluating any level of airline service. This is not to say that the airline should be given a free pass for its service inconsistency, but a little perspective might have been in order.

11/07/2008 9:06 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Che,

Thank you for your direct challenges and opinions! I enjoyed reading your comments, and I take your points.

When a 7 hour ride costs over $3,000, yes, I am a bit like the Princess and the Pea. When you're paying a king's ransom for a few hours, you should get what the airline said you would. They set their own service standards, not me. I am pointing out how they didn't execute properly to their standards, not what I wish they had offered.

Boarding Champange, taking your coat, and giving you an amenity kit? Damn right they ought to offer those basics to everyone, without exception! A poor entertainment unit in 2008? No excuse if you want to play in the game they brought their ball to.

You mentioned that I should have a little perspective, but it sounds like you are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt when you are paying OpenSkies thousands of dollars to fulfill a service offering they themselves defined. Sorry, no way.

I am grumpy about it, too, because I was spoiled back in the 1970s when flying up front, and even in the back, was a much more civilized experience, with better service all round. I know what gracious service can be, and it doesn't have to be very expensive. It requires thoughtfulness and a dedication to make every service element count for every passenger.

Despite my nits, I appreciate your well-articulated comments. Thank you very much.

To answer your first question last, no, I had no serious complaints about flying OpenSkies, but I think the PREM+ cabin is a much better vallue, and (for me at least) is more comfortable than BIZ.

11/07/2008 10:19 AM  
Blogger alice, uptown said...

You had every reason to expect that a known group of travel writers would be provided every amenity and service with a smile -- what part of entourage did the previous comment-leaver fail to perceive?

If you folks didn't get the best service, is there any hope for mere mortals?

How did OS miss the amenities kit? Even in coach, I've never had a flight where the kit wasn't already on the seat, waiting for the passenger to arrive.

What I really want to know is, did OS *supply* the blanket?

11/07/2008 10:28 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

john c,

Thank you very much for your comments. Seems your experience in many ways echoed mine in that the service was erratic in many small but telling ways.

Since, overall, I really liked PREM+, I was discouraged to read of your more recent experience. So many fundamentals not working, and then the cancellation of your flight, which could have caused you considerable inconvenience. It doesn't bode well for the success of OpenSkies.

I agree OpenSkies BIZ is better than UA but pales in comparison to Luthansa. To me, however, the real magic is in the value of the PREM+ cabin. If it can't provide a consistently good front cabin service, perhaps EC should rip out the BIZ section altogether and fly all-PREM+ aircraft.

11/07/2008 10:49 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

alice, uptown,

Thank you for your comments.

OpenSkies did provide the blankets. I don't recall whether I had to fish one out of the overhead in BIZ on the outbound flight to Amsterdam, but I know I grabbed one right away and put it over my legs well before pushback.

On the return flight to JFK in PREM+ blankets were already laid out on every seat. Since the back cabin was empty except for me, I used two to keep me warm as I napped.

11/07/2008 11:18 AM  
Blogger MrRobs said...

I recently flew Orly to JFK in Prem. I was delighted to be offered an upgrade onboard. The French purser was also the head of onboard PR and said that all BA exec club members get an instant upgrade to Biz once onboard provided their BA club number is on the list. About four of us got this upgrade. I'm a very infrequent BA flier and certainly not gold or high status so this is a great deal for those of us who only travel a few times a year.

I thought the seat was really comfortable. I got the food from Prem as they didn't have enough Biz food for me but I was compenstated with a bottle of champagne to take home with me!

My advice is to pay for Prem, book with your BA number and get the instant upgrade.

11/13/2008 12:41 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

mrrobs,

Can you please contact me directly? Please email to waallen3@gmail.com, with thanks.

Reason is, I have been in contact with OpenSkies, and I have information about the automatic upgrade for BA Executive Club members that you discussed. Apparently, it is not an official policy.

I'd like to put you in touch with one of the airline's managers to discuss it.

Thanks very much.

Will

11/17/2008 1:57 PM  

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