Sunday, September 7, 2014

New Type of Reviews

Hotels - get ready to be reviewed!
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

so far, most of my posts on the blog have been about planes and destinations but I am going to expand that today.  while travelling to these places and experiencing the areas, I have also gotten to stay at some great (and not so great) hotels throughout the world.  Some of them were true to their reviews online, some of them were not so I decided to write my own reviews and publish them here. Hope ya'll like them 

you can also check out the reviews at on TripAdvisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/members/0504Traveller
Twitter: twitter.com/0504Traveller

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Trip Report: Kenya Airways, Dar Es Salaam to Seychelles via Nairobi (January 2014)

A Trip Report: Kenya Airways
Dar Es Salaam to Seychelles via Nairobi
comment below and let me know your thoughts :) 

There are many airlines to choose from while travelling to and within Africa, but most passengers stick to the top three: South African, Ethiopian, and Kenyan.  Out of these three, Kenyan Airways is the smallest but seems to be the one that is strategically growing very fast.  While all three airlines are part of alliances - South African and Ethiopian are part of Star Alliance while Kenyan is part of SkyTeam - only Kenyan seems to be using the alliances to expand its reach across the world.  While South African and Ethiopian are adding new destinations and routes, Kenyan is looking through partnerships and alliances to grow their network.  They connect with Delta and KLM through their SkyTeam alliance, and recently they announced a partnership with Etihad to increase the connections to the Middle East.  The increase in partnerships means Kenya Airways can focus on becoming a better African airline, which some people will like; but it will also mean that its reach is limited and this some people may not like.  I write this all to say is that we flew from the U.S. to Tanzania and then was looking to fly from Tanzania to the Seychelles (my flight to Tanzania was in December 2013 and to the Seychelles was January 2014).  Instead of choosing one airline, we choose 2 different African airlines because 1) I wanted to experience both airlines but also 2) what I had mentioned above in that an airline can either be a great regional carrier or a great international carrier, but its hard to be both.  

We flew from the U.S. to Tanzania on Ethiopian Airlines (a great flight which I reviewed in an earlier post) and we choose Ethiopian because it had the best connections and timings from the U.S. to Africa; the reason for this is that Ethiopian flies non-stop from America to Africa.  Kenya Airways does not fly to the U.S. but instead partners with its SkyTeam partner to connect from the U.S. to Africa; however, there are many stops and the timings are very inconvenient so that is why we did not fly with them.  When we were looking at flying intra-Africa, from Tanzania to the Seychelles, we choose Kenya Airways because they had a good service with good timings and connections (and lots of options); Ethiopian was priced competitively with Kenyan but the timings and connections were bad.  Kenya Airways bills itself as the 'Pride of Africa' and after experiencing the service, they are doing Africa well.

Booking:  Based in the U.S., it was hard booking an intra-African flight on Kenya Airways.  While the website is very nice, it is a little clunky and not as fast or as modern as other sites (such as Ethiopian).  Also, for some reason the Kenya Airways site would not take my American credit card; when I inquired about this they informed me that I could put the reservation on hold and pay for the ticket in a ticket-office within 24 hours - very convenient if you are within Africa, not so convenient when you are in America.  Because of all these reasons, I booked my flight through a travel website.  While Kenya Airways has many flights from DAR to NBO (Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International Airport), they only have one flight from NBO to SEZ (Seychelles International Airport in Victoria).  Depending on which flight you choose out of DAR, you can either have a very long or very short connection in NBO to the next flight. 

After I had booked my flight on the travel site, I contacted the airline to ensure the reservation and the details were correct.  As I previously did not know that Kenyan flew many flights from DAR to NBO, I was unaware that the 11-hour layover I had in Kenya was unwarranted; in fact it was the airline itself that informed me of this.  (I will come to that part later on under 'service').  Because all this happened within 4 hours, I was able to cancel my original booking and rebook myself on the flights with the shorter connection:

KQ489 departing DAR @ 5:10am and arriving NBO @ 6:30am (using Embraer 190)
KQ450 departing NBO @ 9:05am and arriving SEZ @ 13:15/1:15pm (using Boeing 737-800)

Service:  Kenya Airways has excellent service, both prior to an on-board the flight.  After I had booked my ticket through the travel website, I contacted the airline to ensure the reservation was confirmed and the details were correct.  I had contacted the airline via email and within 2 hours I had a detailed response from a Kenyan Airways representative.  The quickness and the detailed level of response was very impressive.  The travel website had originally booked me on a 11-hour layover in NBO but the Kenya Airways representative informed me that other Kenya Airways flights were available with shorter connection times and they had plenty of availability.  I was able to cancel my original booking and book the shorter connection times.  I later emailed the airline about seat assignments and emailed one week prior to my flight to confirm my booking, and each time the responses were quick and detailed.  A great customer service touch.  On board, the great customer service continued.


On-board:  The first flight was KQ489 which was an early morning 1hr 20min flight on a Embraer 190.  The plane was already parked at the gate when we arrived and boarding commenced for an on-time departure.  Once on-board, the aircraft looked new and clean.  There were leather seats (with a nice seat pitch) and each seat had a personal TV screen -- on an Embraer! 


Note: only one side of the plane's PTV's had been turned on; I was sitting on the turned off side so I asked the FA to turn it on, and they said due to the short flying time they could not -- luckily there were empty seats around me on the working side so I switched over



Even though it was a short flying time, the FA's still served breakfast along with coffee, tea, and juices.  The breakfast was simple with fruit and a croissant (in a box-type presentation), but it was a nice touch for the early morning flight and the FA's were very cheerful and smiled throughout the early morning flight.  We landed on-time at NBO and parked at the terminal and deplaned; those with connections were told to take the stairs up to the terminal while passengers staying in Kenya were asked to board a bus to take them to the luggage and customs.

Our next flight was 3hr 10min flight - KQ450 - on a Boeing 737-800.  This plane looked nice from the outside, but unfortunately it looked old and used from the inside.  I know that Kenya Airways was in the process of upgrading their fleet, and I don't think this plane had received its upgrade.  The seat pitch was tight, the seats were not leather but were cloth and seemed worn out, and there were no personal screens (how can a 1hr flight on an Embraer be so nice while a 3hr flight on a Boeing 737 be so bad --- i have experienced this on other airlines and it shocks me every time!)  The plane did have video screens running down the main aisle, but nothing was shown on it except for the flight path.  


On this flight, we were served lunch about 20 minutes after we took off and the lunch was decent.  Drinks, tea, and coffee were served as well, but after the trays were cleared there wasn't really that much to do for the remaining 2+hours (water was served drink refills were available upon request).  The seat pitch was very tight and the seats were uncomfortable so it also made sleeping uncomfortable as well.  We landed at SEZ on time at 13:15 and proceeded to deplane and walk to the terminal (Kenya Airways operates one flight from NBO to SEZ and only flies 4-times a week - Tues, Thurs, Sat, Sun - so this plane has one hour to deplane, clean, and reload passengers before it returns back to NBO).


Transit:  Note: most of the planes at NBO are parked at stands and are not connected to jet-bridgets.  Only the European-bound flights seemed to be using the jet-bridges while everyone else deplaned using the stairs and took the stairs up to the terminal.  When we were to board, we took those same stairs back down to the plane.  There is not a lot to do in NBO.  There are many gates and a lot of passengers, but the terminal seems very narrow.  While it never felt claustrophobic, it certainly did not feel spacious (note: this was the time when a terminal at NBO had caught fire so all the flights had to be put into a single terminal so everything was a bit more cramped than usual, but never chaotic).  In this terminal, there was free wi-fi and while it wasn't the greatest speed it was free and did provide enough strength to send a basic email.  The terminal resembled a long hallway - with coffee shops/restaurants on either end.  note: the duty free shops accepted international currency and sold coke/sprite/diet coke at cheaper prices than the restaurant!  When you walked from one end to the other, on one side was the runway and the gates along with some duty-free shops, and on the terminal side were the restrooms and connections for passengers coming in from the outside. (note: the restrooms were small/tiny and did feel claustrophobic, especially when a plane came in and all the passengers went to the restroom at the same time!)   The duty-free shops were small and basic, but provided local souvenirs that you could purchase.  Other than that, there was nothing much to do but wait (if I had a longer wait time, I think I would've become very board very quickly!)  After a while, they called our flight and we proceeded to the boarding area (through another security check) and waited for our flight.   This is where a bit of confusion took place.

Once you enter security, you can either proceed to the right or left depending on what gate you departing out of; however there was no clear direction as to where passengers should be sitting or going so those who should have sat on the right were sitting on the left and vice versa.  This meant that different flights were being called on the announcement and then airline representatives were going through the gates announcing the correct flights they were boarding (it happened many times that they called 'boarding' but failed to mention which flight was boarding until you got down the stairs and they checked the boarding passes, which meant fighting the other crowds who were coming down to go back up to sit in the waiting area --- i'm sure it had to do with the terminal fire and the chaos surrounding that, but it was still a mess.)  Finally, our flight was called and we proceeded down the stairs to the runway and then walked to our waiting plane.


Overall:  In the end, it was a nice and pleasant journey on Kenya Airways.  I got to experience both the new and old Kenya Airways, and while I prefer the new airplane, both had good customer service and attentive and smiling FA's - and to me that is what matters most.  Yes, new planes with fancy gadgets is very nice (and makes the time go by so much quicker) but I would much rather have good, quality customer service on the ground and in the sky and that is what Kenya Airways has.  I am not sure if Kenya Airways will start operating to the U.S. - their Dreamliner 787 is coming into service shortly so service to the U.S. may be in the near future - and I am not sure it is the right move for them as they are the smaller of the African 3 (South African, Ethiopian, and Kenya).  If they do expand, hopefully they will be able to maintain their good customer service both on ground and in the sky.

Monday, August 18, 2014

NOLA to DC: does USAirways need to worry about the 'Southwest effect'?

Flying from MSY to DCA: Southwest vs. USAirways
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I am based in New Orleans (and proud to call the city home!) and New Orleans has many great qualities and attributes, however one thing New Orleans did not use to have were many direct flights.  Usually, if you wanted to take a direct flight to a certain destination there was only one option and usually that was via the airline's hub, which meant that particular airline had the monopoly over that flight timings and prices.  This is how flying from New Orleans (MSY) to Washington Reagan (DCA) used to be as USAirways was the only airline that flew direct, that is until Southwest arrived.  With Southwest's takeover of AirTran, it got landing rights into DCA which allowed it to operate direct flights and one of the cities to get direct flights from DCA on Southwest was New Orleans.  This would be great, another option to fly direct --- but is Southwest better?  Did the competition bring down fares?  Is the flight experience any different between the two carriers?  Let's find out.  

SWA Boeing 737
Background:  USAirways has been flying between MSY and DCA for a while, but initially the flight options were limited.  When USAirways adopted a somewhat 'hybrid LCC model', they transferred some of their services to USAirways Express and those services included the flights from MSY to DCA.  Initially, USAirways Express (operated by Republic Airlines dba USAirways Express) kept the same schedule and but then gradually increased the flight options.  Southwest, on the other hand, is a new competitor as it acquired the landing slots at DCA (which are restricted) through its acquisition of AirTran.  Southwest also gained a landing slots through the American-USAirways merger (they had to give up slots to get approval for the merger) and started flights from MSY to DCA on August 10th. It started with 2 non-stops (flights via connections have been available on Southwest since January 2014).  

USAirways Express Embraer
The Plane: For the route, USAirways Express uses an Embraer 175 while Southwest uses a Boeing 737-700.  The Embraer is a small plane and is layed out in a 2-2 fashion while the Boeing 737 is a bigger plane but is layed out in a 3-3 option.  The good thing about this is that you know exactly what kind of plane you are getting, what the seating layout is, and what amenities are available.  There are no surprises!
NOTE: The flight time from MSY to DCA ranges from 2hours to 2hrs 40minutes.  Southwest flew the route in 2 hours (from takeoff to landing) while USAirways flew the route in 2hrs30minutes.  I am not sure if it is because Southwest uses bigger planes so can get there faster or if they are going faster speeds.  On the return, both airlines had the same flight time of 2hour 30minutes.

Price: This is usually the first thing customers look at in terms of flights and usually competition brings down fares. Normally, USAirways charges between $230-$320 or higher for a roundtrip fare (depending on how in advance you purchase).  Despite the addition of the Southwest flights, the fares have remained the same (and I have not seen any sales for these fares).  Southwest's fares have been going up and down like a yo-yo.  When the flights were first available on their website, the non-stops were pricing at $240 for a roundtrip fare (connections were slightly higher).  Later, when Southwest started their promotions of the new flights the roundtrip flights dropped down to $186 (for the non-stop).  
NOTE: if you book the higher fare on Southwest and then the fare drops, if they can verify the lower fare they will provide you a credit for the difference.  

One of SWA's new flights to DCA - from MSY
Flight Options: As I stated earlier, initially the flight options on USAirways were limited but in the last 5 years they have increased gradually.  USAirways Express now offers 5 daily non-stop flights from MSY to DCA, with the earliest flight at 5:45am and the latest flight at 6:35pm (very convenient and work-friendly schedules).  More flight options are available via connections (through Charlotte or now Miami and Dallas).  Southwest currently offers only 2 non-stop flights - one at 7:40am and the other at 2:55pm (which is being pushed back to 3pm).  There are additional flight options via connections (through Houston, Atlanta, or Nashville; they used to have connections via St. Louis but no longer).

Services:  Southwest has pioneered the LCC (low-cost carrier) model so you know you are not going to get a lot with your ticket.  USAirways is a hybrid in that USAirways operates as a 'reduced' full-service airline while USAirways Express operates more like a LCC.  On both airlines, you basically pay for your seat and a drink and that is about it.  For USAirways, you can pre-select your seat (regular economy is free while additional room and exit row cost $25) while Southwest has an 'open seating' policy where you can choose your seat based on what's available when you board.  Southwest does provide 2 free bags (a nice bonus) while USAirways does charge for checked bags (starting at $25).  Southwest also provides a 'no change fee' policy if you need to change your flight (you just pay the difference in fare) while USAirways does charge a change fee (along with the difference in fare).  While on board, both provide soft drinks and water for free.  USAirways Express does provide a free small pretzel pack and does have a (limited) selection of food to buy on board.  Southwest provides free peanuts/pretzels as well as a 'veggie wheat thins' snack pack; it does not provide any food to buy on board

Entertainment:  USAirways Express does not provide any entertainment while on board.  They do offer paid wifi or a free airline magazine.  Southwest also provides paid wifi or a free airline magazine, and now they have started a promotion with Dish Network to offer live TV via a downloaded app to your smartphone or table (which you do prior to your flight).  The live TV, as well as selected TV shows, are only available on wifi-enabled planes (which most but not all planes are) and only if the wifi works (which sometimes it does not).  When it does work, it is a great past-time and is very fast (and is comparable to Jetblue's tv options).

using the app: 24 hours prior to your flight, you receive an email indicating whether your flight is wifi-enabled, and if it is you are prompted to dowload the app.  When you get on board, select 'Southwest wifi' and then open the app.  You can select the free tv or paid wifi.  After watching a short DISH Network commercial and entering your email, the browser launches and you can watch up to 19 channels and 75 tv episodes.  

Overall: In the end which is better?  That really depends on what you are looking for and what is important to you.  USAirways' flight schedules are more convenient and have more options so they are more flexible with your schedule.  However, USAirways charges for bags while Southwest does not and if you are checking in two bags, that's is an extra $60 on USAirways while on Southwest it would be no charge.  Both airlines are pricing the flights equally so it really depends on the extras and your preference as to which one you choose.  Whichever one you do choose...happy and safe travels!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Trip Report: Malaysia Airlines, Sydney to Jakarta via Kuala Lumpur (Oct 2013)

Malaysia Airlines - Sydney to Jakarta via Kuala Lumpur
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Note: this trip occurred in October 2013, before the disappearance of MH370 and the tragedy of MH17.  My thoughts and wishes go out to the families of those flights 

Malaysia Airlines is a small but important player in the aviation market, but it has struggled.  From its base at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, it competes with low-cost carrier Air Asia - so Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has to figure out whether it wants to be a full-service airline, a LCC, or a hybrid of both.  I believe Malaysia Airlines has found a balance - medium service availability with a lower costs- but not sure how profitable that balance will be maintained. 

In terms of the Asia-Pacific market, Malaysia Airlines is one of the more affordable full-service airlines if you consider Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and Cathay its competition.  While I may not put Malaysia Airlines in that same category, it is these airlines that Malaysia is competing with - and winning with a lower airfare.  

I was flying from Australia to Jakarta and looked around to find an inexpensive alternative.  There are many LCCs flying from Australia, but they fly to Bali (where I did not want to go) and the other airlines seemed very costly.  It came down to a choice between Malaysia Airlines (via KUL) or direct on Garuda Indonesia (with its upgraded service, I now consider as competition to Malaysia Airlines).   I choose Malaysian based on their past experience and dedication to service...I was not wrong in my choice.

I had booked my trip through an online site as they were offering a better price than the Malaysia Airlines site.  Even then, I could go online and choose my seats and update my information - this is something I appreciate as not all airlines allow this and this is something extremely customer-friendly and focused. 

I was booked on MH134 which departs Brisbane (BNE) at 11:20pm and arrives at Kuala Lumpur (KUL) at 5:50am.  I was already in BNE from an earlier flight so when boarding opened up 9:00pm, I was ready and in-line.  Check-in was easy and efficient, and MAS is very generous in allowing one bag up to 30kg per passenger.  After going through security and immigration I proceeded to the gate and waited for the boarding to commence.  The plane was already at the gate, as MH134 is the return flight with the originating flight arriving into BNE at 7L50pm.  Boarding commenced around 10:50pm and all passengers boarded the plane.

The interior:  The plane looked relatively brand new and was a very modern and updated Airbus A333, with 250 seats and a seat pitch of 34 and width of 17 - it was very nice and spacious and suitable for the 8hr 30min flight.  The seats itself were slim and comfortable enough for the duration of the flight.  Seat amenities included a game controller, AC power and USB connecting ports, a foot rest, and as well as an IFE.  Each seatback included an IFE and the IFE was touchscreen as well as worked with the remote.  

The IFE on Malaysian was very nice and up to date.  They had a lot of new and interesting movies to choose from, along with TV shows, music, games, and features on the company.  In my opinion, Emirates provides the best IFE so they are the standard to which I compare other airlines to --- and in that regard Malaysia does not stack up; however, when comparing them to other carriers such as Etihad or Qantas then I believe Malaysian wins.  Their IFE's were more up-to-date, had a wider selection, and had a more interesting selection than some of the other 'bigger carriers' and for that they get high marks.

The food: Since this was an evening flight, about an hour after we took off the airline started its dinner service.  The food on Malaysian is good, with nice portions and decent flavor.  After dinner, drinks, tea and coffee were served, the lights were dimmed so passengers could rest as the flight continued.  During this period, the FA's came around multiple times to provide water to the passengers.  About an hour or so prior to decent into KUL, a small snack plus drinks were served.  The snack was all that appetizing and was very small but a nice gesture from Malaysian.


the model planes at KUL
Transition: We were scheduled to land at KUL at 5:50am and we landed on time and taxied to our gate.   In our flight, the passengers were split down the middle with half connecting to other flights and half spending time in Malaysia.  KUL has a main terminal and a satellite terminal (and from what I can detect, most wide-body planes use the satellite terminal and short-body planes use the main terminal).  The two terminals are connected by a train (which was an improvement as in 2007 there were only buses and no trains) - those with connections got off at the main terminal while those collecting bags had one more stop.  The main terminal at KUL is very large and has some great plane-viewing windows.  There is a lot of duty-free available and some food options, although the food options were some-what limited.  There is free-wifi in the airport, but the service and reception was spotty and depended on where you were.  Since it was about 6am and I had been travelling all day, I was tired so I went to my gate where they had nice big couch/benches on which you could lay out and rest (I saw a lot of people sleeping on them.)  On the couches near my gate, the wifi was not good but if I moved two or three gates down the wifi service improved.   I was connecting in KUL to my next flight to Jakarta, which was scheduled to leave at 7:50am - which means that gate to gate I had about 2 hours transit (less if you consider taxi time, transfer to gates, and security and boarding for my next flight).  The connection time did not seem tight, but rather perfect for the early morning.

the seats on Malaysia (Boeing 737)
Connections: My next flight was MH713 on a Boeing 737 and is one of the many daily flights Malaysian has to Jakarta.  Our scheduled departure time was 7:50am and we boarded on time and even though the flight was generally full, I had the entire row to myself (very nice).  There were many FA's on board serving the passengers, and all of them were friendly and had a smile on their face.  The flight time to Jakarta is 2hr 15mins and it was overall a comfortable seat.  Even though the plane looked older, inside it had been refurbished and updated with leather seats.  Each seat also had its own IFE, which was a nice addition.  The options were not as wide as what was available on longer flights, but still had enough of a wide selection to easily pass the flight time and it was a nice addition on this short flight.  Shortly after take-off drinks and meals were served.  Since it was early in the morning, breakfast was served and there was a choice of either western or Malay/Indonesian.  'When in Rome, do as the Romans' as the saying goes so as I was going to Indonesia I chose the Indonesian options.  The food was generally quite good and the best part was that because people have different spice preferences, the spices were presented in a separate container which you could add to your liking (a nice touch).  The meals were cleared, drinks along with tea and coffee were offered, and the passengers were left to enjoy the remaining portion of the flight.  We were scheduled to land at 8:50am and we landed on time and had a short taxi to the gate.  Immigration and visa on arrival were cleared easily and then I proceeded to the luggage area --- this is where I did have some problems.  


CGK - where you get your luggage
Apparently only one of my bags made it onto the Jakarta flight while in transit in Malaysia.  I am not sure how only one bag shows up and the other does not, but that is what happened - and it seemed to happen to a lot of people who had regular (i.e. less than 3 hours) transit times in KUL.  There was a group of 7 of us who did not get some or all of their luggage when we landed.  When we went to the claims office, we were told that the luggage was still in KUL and had already been put on the next flight to Jakarta - which was scheduled to land in 3 hours.  Not receiving my luggage has happened before, but normally when my luggage does arrive the airline will transport it directly to where I am staying and I do not need to wait at the airport.  I assumed this would happen this time as well so I provided the address of where I was staying --- a hotel near downtown and from the airport to downtown is about 30-45 minutes without traffic -- however I was told that it would just be easier if I waited at the airport for my luggage and then just took it with me.  I asked that, instead of me waiting 3 hours in the arrivals hall (prior to clearing customs and exiting) if they could just send my bags -- they said 'it would just be easier to wait'; so I waited.

Luggage Hall @ CGK
Jakarta Airport:  The arrivals hall (where you get your luggage) at CGK or Soekarno-Hatta International Airport has some facilities for passengers - but not a lot.  There were no food options available in this section, but there was a technology store available where you could purchase SIMs.  Since I needed to do this anyway, I took the opportunity to get the SIM here - NOTE: I always get a cheap, pre-paid SIM wherever I go as its easier if I need to make any local calls, and I can give the number out to friends and family who can use calling cards to call me.  Most countries also have it to where you can use the SIM to check your mail so that is also convenient.  After waiting for 3 hours, the next flight from KUL eventually landed and I received my luggage.


CGK main area
I returned about 4 days -- my flight from Jakarta was very early in the morning at 4:40am so I spent the previous evening on the other side of the airport.  On this side - the Departure side - there are plenty of luggage carts available.  They also have many food options available as well, but these are not open all night.  Almost all of the businesses closed around midnight - including restaurants and kiosks.  There is a pay lounge which had AC and was quieter, but the food did not look all that appetizing (you basically paid for quiet, less people, and some AC).  What was lacking were power points - I found one on the far side of the terminal next to the administrative offices - and places to sit/lounge.  The area prior to going through security and checking in is not very big, yet there are tons of people.  They have about 8 wood benches/loungers there in which you could spread out, if you like sleeping on wood and want to fight for your space; it was not a comfortable place to rest.  My flight was scheduled to take off at 4:40am and we departed on time and landed in KUL at 7:40am.  Again, I had 2 hours to transit as my next flight departed at 9:45am (this is a daily flight Malaysia has from Brisbane that departs KUL at 9:45am, arrives into Brisbane at 7:50pm and departs at 11:20pm back to KUL).                                   

Conclusion: Overall, despite my luggage incident, I enjoyed my experience with Malaysia Airlines.  They provided nice, clean airlines with decent leg space, good amenities, decent food, an easy to use and navigate site, and on board it was a great service that got me to my destination without spending a lot of money -- and that is where I see the problem for Malaysia. They are trying to be a full-service airline - to compete with Qantas, Singapore, and Cathay - at reduced fares to compete with the LCC's - Air Asia, Scoot, Tiger, and Cebu.  Malaysia needs to figure out who they want to be -- as I stated earlier the majority of the passengers of my flight were transit passengers as Malaysia provide a good service at a decent price; but the question is for how long can they have this 'hybrid' model of full-service and discounted prices.  

Would I fly Malaysia again? Definitely!
How does their service compare? Not as good as Singapore or Cathay (and both SIN and HKG are better airports) but I thought this was better than Virgin Australia or Qantas or Air Asia

How do their fares compare?  They are more economical than Singapore, Cathay, Qantas, and Virgin Australia but not as cheap as AirAsia -- however they fly more places and KUL is nicer than KLIA!

Happy flying! 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Trip Report: Etihad Airways, New York to Abu Dhabi (March 2014)

Etihad Airways - New York to Abu Dhabi (March 2014)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Etihad Airways is one of the big three Middle Eastern airlines (along with Qatar and Emirates) yet it has not expanded in the same manner as the other two.  Instead of adding routes and airplanes, Etihad has decided to buy stakes in other airlines and use the other airlines planes, routes, and services to increase their own service.  These airlines are termed 'equity partners' and right now Etihad has 6 - Aer Lingus, Virgin Australia, Jet Airways, air berlin, air serbia, and air seychelles (alitalia will be its 7th).  Etihad originally had one daily flight from JFK - it left late in the evening - but wanted to expand that and did so through their 'equity partner' Jet Airways.  Through this partnership, Etihad started a second daily JFK to AUH flight which leaves JFK at 12:30pm and arrives into AUH at 9:20am (12hrs 45min flight time).  The flight is operated is by Etihad using Jet Airways aircraft (that is what they say).  I recently flew from New York (JFK) to Abu Dhabi (AUH) with an Etihad equity partner - and the overall view is if Etihad has these types of 'partners/friends' then maybe I will just stay away.

I was connecting in JFK to Etihad so I did not have go through the check-in procedures, I just needed to collect my boarding pass and pass through security to my gate.  When we arrived at the gate, the plane was already there and even though it says 'Jet Airways', underneath the pilot's window it states 'operated by Etihad Airlines.  The partnership extended to the crew - as half of the crew were wearing Etihad uniforms while the other half were wearing Jet Airways uniforms.   We were on EY 102 which departs JFK at 12:30pm.  Apparently we were not a very full flight because they were not that many people at the boarding gate, and boarding commenced around 11:45am.  

Note: As we were boarding the plane, an Etihad crew person pulled me out of line and told me that our hand baggage was too big and either we needed to check it in or remove items.  The cost to check in the bag, I was told, was $175 for a 7kg bag.   I explained to the staff that the bag was well within the weight and that it had fit on an Embraer and other flights and it will fit, and they can come with me on board to see.  If it did not fit without any fuss, we could discuss it then. I was told ‘no that is not going to happen and unless you pay the $175 and check it in you will not board and you will miss your flight’.  It sounded like an extortion or threat of money - that if I wanted to make my flight I would have to pay money.  When everyone had boarded and they were about to close the flight, that is when we were allowed to board with our luggage – with a parting note saying ‘we are going to let you go this time, but in the future that will not happen’ (another very rude comment).  While on board, our hand luggage fit in the overhead compartment without any issues and closed without any fuss.  When we deplaned, there were many people who had bigger and heavier bags than I did
                            
As we were boarded the plane, there were more signs that we boarded a Jet Airways vs an Etihad plane.  The look of the seats, the comfort (or lack there of), and the red color all brightly indicated we were not on an Etihad plane.  The only Etihad-part of the plane were the pillows and blanket on each seat (a nice touch) and the entertainment system (which I will get to in a bit).  As I had suspected earlier, the plane was only 40% full (I was told by a FA that 2 weeks prior both sectors were full but in the last 2 weeks the JFK to AUH sector had been running about this load). Etihad using a Boeing 777-300ER in a 3-4-3 configuration which makes the plane seem very cramped and tight.  As the plane was virtually empty, almost everyone could move to an empty row so I moved to an empty 4-seat row which were right next to the first set of economy toilets.

Note: After 30 minutes after take-off –with only 5 people using the restroom – the restroom became inoperable.  We informed the crew that something was wrong with the restroom and got a nod in response.  Some FA's went to investigate but did not make a mention nor put out a sign, which meant people still believed the bathroom was operational.  It was up to passengers like myself and others to warn other fellow passengers that this washroom was inoperable and to find another. The bathroom situation became worse as the soap ran out in 3 of the other bathrooms.  When this was mentioned to the crew, the response was ‘yes…go to another one’ and that was it.  No apologies and not trying to resolve the situation – which is critical considering how many germs are on planes and thus hand washing is important to minimize sickness and the spreading of germs.

The crew did come by occasionally to check on passengers, but I have been on other long-haul flights and the crew on other airlines came by more frequently (Qantas staff does a good job of this, as well as Emirates).  The crew did leave out water and drinks to have in the galley but that was about it.  

As we took off, the crew started their service which included handing out headsets, amenity kits, and menus.  The crew first started with a drink service and then commenced serving lunch.  Etihad's food leaves a lot to be desired.  On this flight, there was a choice of Western or Indian (South Indian) options --- both of which looked unappetizing. (I took many Etihad flights and none of the food on any of the flights was good or edible -- they ranged from passable to plain not worth it!).  After the food, coffee and tea were served -- on certain flights, Etihad has hot chocolate listed on the menu so I asked for it many times but almost never got it (75% failure rate in terms of hot chocolate delivery).  When it does come, it is good though (and a nice touch!)
After the meal service, they dimmed the lights to relax and enjoy the entertainment system.  Since I had 4 seats, I was able to stretch out comfortably and browse through the entertainment system. Unlike other airlines (ex. Emirates and Oman Air), Etihad does not turn on their entertainment system until after the initial climb after take-off and turns it off as soon as they start their initial decent (if you are on a short flight - leave little time to enjoy the system).  Overall, the entertainment system is alright.  There are some selections of new and old movies but its definitely not a good system.  There isn't enough entertainment to keep you entertained for almost 13 hours (especially if, like me, you do not sleep on planes).  They have television programs as well, but only one or two episodes vs many episodes or entire seasons other airlines have.   


in-screen entertainment
About 3 hours into our decent, the lights came on and breakfast was served.  Again, the choice was either Western (egg) or Indian (South Indian) and neither were very good.  The croissant that was given with the egg was cold.  After the meal and coffee were served and trays cleared, the cabin was prepped for landing and this is when Etihad turned off their entertainment system.

Note: As we were descending into Abu Dhabi, we encountered a very violent and dusty sand storm which basically was pushing our airplane from side to side and we dropped altitude a couple of times - never a warning or communication from the cockpit.  Thankfully we landed safely

We actually landed early, around 8:30am instead of the scheduled 9:20am.  The taxi to the gate took a while, but clearing immigration was quick (most passengers were transferring to other flight) and our luggage came relatively quickly as well.  

Note: On Etihad.com, for those passengers travelling to the U.S. can pay $50 for an increase from 50 to 70lbs (from 23kg to 32kg).  I wanted to avail myself of this option so I called the number while I was in Abu Dhabi.  When I called and explained what I wanted to do, they had no idea what I was talking about.  I explained I found the information from their website but they still had no idea what I was talking about.  They said I should go to a in-store travel center and they could better assist me.  I went to two Etihad centers in two different Abu Dhabi malls and neither had a clue as to what I was talking about.  Both of them said ‘we do not know, call the number and they will help you’.  Each was trying to pass me off to the other.  Finally, I went to the Etihad Travel Center in Dubai and sat there for 1 hour waiting for someone (as everyone was on their break!) and then the next 1 hour showing them where on the Etihad site I found this and finally purchasing the extra luggage (the staff there also had no idea).  The entire process was painful and completely ridiculous, as the information was posted and found on Etihad’s website yet no staff was aware and no staff seemed like they wanted to help.

I returned on the Jet Airways/Etihad (EY103) operated flight almost 1.5 months after my departure.  I checked into Etihad T3 and was told to go through security and proceed to the gate, only to find out that the gate was actually in T1 (and was only told of that by the staff inside T3 and not at the check-in counter).  T3 is Etihad's new terminal and is spacious while T1 is the old terminal where most international flights depart from.  This terminal is small and extremely crowded and chaotic.  The terminal does have free wifi (a plus point) but food options are limited.
The economy cabin - with a view of business class

We waited until our gate was announced and we proceeded to the gate.  The scene at the gate was chaotic, claustrophobic, and just plain horrendous.   Over 300 people were crammed into a space designed for maybe 100 and people are pushing and shoving and the staff are not doing anything to control the crowd, but rather they are making more announcements to bring more people into the crowded area.  It was a complete mess and horror.

Once on-board, this flight seemed a complete Jet Airways flight and not 'an Etihad flight operated by Jet Airways'.  The crew were all Jet Airways, all the announcements were made in Hindi like Jet Airways, and everything else resembled Jet Airways – the only thing that seemed like Etihad was the entertainment system.  This plane had a 3-3-3 layout which would make the seemed more roomier, but the seats were very cramped (I flew on Ethiopian 3-3-3 layout and their plane seemed more spacious and comfortable).

The service was better on the return with the Jet Airways crew as they were more attentive than the Etihad crew.  The flight departed Abu Dhabi at 1:45am and we were served dinner pretty quickly; however, we were served the EXACT same food from AUH to JFK as we were served a 1.5 months prior from JFK to AUH (and it will still unedible).  After the drinks, meal, and coffee service, the lights were turned down so people could rest for the 14hr10min flight.  The Jet Airways crew did periodically come by with water and did leave out water and other drinks for people to avail themselves in the galley.  

We were scheduled to land at JFK at 7:55am so about 2 hours prior to landing we were given breakfast (again the same breakfast we were given when landing into AUH 1.5 months prior -- and still unedible!).  The plane was prepared for landing and we landed at JFK at 7:30am.  After a relatively short-taxi (for JFK) we arrived at the gate and deplaned and went to immigration --- NOTE: there is U.S. pre-clearance in Abu Dhabi but that is only available for the 'Etihad' operated flights - EY 101 as it departs in the morning when the pre-clearance is open.  Our flight took off at 1am so no pre-clearance for EY103.  In spite of not having U.S. pre-clearance, immigration went rather quickly.  What took a very long time was the baggage -- we waited almost 1hr15 min for our luggage.  For those passengers with tight connections, this meant either running to barely make their connection or missing it entirely!
Jet Airways - operated by Etihad

In the end, it was not a pleasant experience flying with Etihad (we had two other bookings on Etihad for a total of 4 additional flights and each had equally bad service).  Customer service is something that should not be lost while trying to expand an airline, and I believe Etihad is in danger of that – and if it would like to compete with other airlines in the region, then it should really focus on customer service.  Other airlines have expanded - either increasing themselves or through partnerships - but have tried to keep their customer service and that's why people choose them again.  Etihad has not kept its commitment to customer service, and that is when I recently booked travel I choose a competing Middle Eastern airline which has kept its customer service.  Hopefully, the standards of customer service will improve and passengers like myself will not have to avoid flying with Etihad (because while in –flight, we talked to fellow passengers who had similar stories of the lack of customer service!)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Trip Report: Qantas, Brisbane to Los Angeles (October 2013)

Trip Report: Qantas, Brisbane to Los Angeles
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Qantas Airlines is the national carrier of Australia and flies to many major cities within Australia, and connects Australia to many parts of the world - and is now connecting to more of the world with its partnership with Emirates.  There is a lot of competition in Australia, as Qantas not only competes with Virgin Australia but also with many Asia-Pacific airlines for its market.  Qantas is a full-service airline, meaning your ticket price includes baggage and meals and IFE; given all this, their prices tend to be a bit higher.  They have started a LCC brand called JetStar (on which you can use your Qantas miles, but cannot earn Qantas miles) which flies to many vacation destinations and other locations which may be more budget-friendly.  I have flown Qantas a couple of times, both domestically and internationally.  Internationally I have flown from the U.S. - both LAX and DFW - to Brisbane (I had the opportunity to fly on the longest flight in the world - on Qantas from Dallas (DFW) to Sydney via Brisbane).   Domestically, I have flown on Qantas from Sydney to Brisbane and on JetStar from Melbourne to Sydney.  This experience relays my most recent experience, from Brisbane to LAX in October 2013.

My experience on Qantas was my return flight - I had flown on Qantas from LAX to BNE in August and was now returning home.  Work arranged this flight, but when I did arrange my own flight for the holidays, I found that Qantas (in partnership with American) was cheaper in terms of flights from the U.S. as they would have sales from Dallas or LAX (versus Virgin Australia and Delta).  

TIP: If you want to use your miles and you are a member of AA miles, you can use those miles for the Qantas flight - they are the same flights and you use less miles.

Overall, Qantas is a nice airline but they are starting to show their age and they need to upgrade in order to keep up with the competition.  The perfect example of this is the airplane used from BNE to LAX (which was also used to and from Dallas).  Qantas still uses the B747 - which are nice airplanes but are older planes and they show their age in terms of comfort-ability and noise.  Qantas have upgraded the seats and each seat comes with a personal IFE, a USB charger, and a decent legroom, but the B747 cannot compete with the comfort of an A380 or some B777 - especially on the 16hr flight time from DFW to BNE or the 13hr flight time from LAX to BNE.  For extra legroom, Qantas has installed Premium Economy which provides additional legroom as well as other benefits.  You can also purchase bulkhead seats or exit row seats which also provide additional legroom

The flight from Brisbane departs is scheduled to depart at 10:35am so that means one needs to be at the airport by about 8am to check-in.  The flight goes from BNE to LAX and then continues on to JFK (although Qantas cannot sell seats from LAX to JFK so only those who boarded in BNE can continue on).  There were lots of check-in counters available so check-in went smoothly - passengers to and from the U.S. are allowed 2 bags of 23kg each but be wary of hand carry because the airport authority are very strict about only 7kg hand baggage allowance!

Seats: This flight was not very full - in fact we were only 40% occupied - so many people had the entire row to themselves.  At the time of booking, if you want to select a seat assignment it is going to cost you.  You can select it for free 24-hours prior to your flight when you check-in online, or you can pre-pay to select your seat or pay a little more and select an exit row seat or a bulkhead seat.  I am tall and so due to the length of the flight - I paid 25AUD to get a bulkhead seat with extra legroom.  The price can range though from 25 to 75AUD (other airlines have also started to charge such as Singapore Airlines).

Boarding: Because it was a light load, the boarding was quick and efficient and we took off on time (when I flew in July on a full-flight to LAX, we were late boarding by 1.5 hours - with very little explanation by the crew as for the reason for the delay - and then when we got on board we sat at the gate for another 1 hour making us not 2.5 hours behind schedule - essentially making the majority of passengers miss their tight connections!)


On Board: As you board, on your seat is a pillow (pretty big by airline standards) and a blanket.  An amenity kit is passed out which provides socks, eyeshades, and toothbrush/toothpaste.  We left at 10:35am so after we reached our cruising altitude, menus were passed out and a lunch service started.  Drinks were served prior and during lunch.  Tea and coffee were served afterwards, and a special treat, hot chocolate (either mint or regular) with marshmallows were served.  This was a special treat as the hot chocolate were served from cadbury pitchers and they were delicious (a nice touch for Qantas).  

After the trays were cleared, an overnight packet were served which included a bottle of water, an apple, and a protein bar - this to help keep you refreshed through the long journey. Additionally, in the back of the plane Qantas keeps a stock of fruits - apples mostly - and small snacks such as mini cookies (which were good) and biscuit/crackers.  There were also dispensers where you can access water.

After the meal service was completed, the lights were shut off to make the plane dark so that you can get some rest.  Even though most passengers were sleeping, flight attendants would pass through the aisles (using mini flashlights to see) to pass out apples, water, mini pizzas, and other light refreshments.  As I said, Qantas is a full-service airline and they keep you well-fed.

IFE: In addition to eating, Qantas has 'Q' - its IFE.  In terms of availability, Q is not bad.  I expected little more selection from Qantas, especially in terms of movies and tv shows.  There were some, but selected episodes - it is definitely not up to par with Emirates selection - but still a decent selection.  I would say this is something Qantas needs to improve on, as its competitors (Singapore, Emirates, Malaysia) have better choices.

As the cabin is dark, you can either watch movies or sleep until about 2 hours prior to landing.  Since we would land at 6:40am US time, Qantas served us breakfast - either hot or cold.  Hot consisted of omelet with potatoes and sausage while cold was cereal and milk.  Both were served with fresh fruit (decent), a warm croissant (very tasty), and your choice of beverage - along with tea or coffee.  After the meals were done, trays were cleared and preparations were made to land.

My flight was from Brisbane to Los Angeles, and then connecting to Washington Dulles.  QF15 goes from BNE to LAX and lands at 6:40am - in time for the early morning connecting flights to other cities.  I had 2.5 hours to get my bags, go through customs, immigration, rebook my bags to my domestic flight and then transfer to the American terminal.  When Qantas was on time (which this was) this was just enough time to do everything that I needed to do.  When Qantas was late once (by over 2.5 hours) I missed my connection entirely (almost everyone did).  Even in Australia, Qantas provides very tight connections with marginal room for error (and their on-time performance is good but definitely not great!  And when we were delayed, there was very little communication about the delays).
Overall: Qantas is a very nice full-service airline but it is definitely showing its age in terms of its fleet.  Qantas recently said that it is switching from the 747 to the A380 on the Dallas to Brisbane flight - which is a welcome change.  Qantas would need to keep this innovation up to continue to be relevant - especially in the growing Asia Pacific market where other legacy carriers have the same full-service with modern aircraft competing against newer LCC's with modern aircraft.   Qantas is a decent airline, but I am not sure I would go out of my way to choose it - but maybe with the partnership with Emirates, Qantas will retain its legacy status!  

Monday, June 23, 2014

Planes! (part 2)

plane spotting 
at MED (http://www.tibahairports.com/en-EN/Pages/Main.aspx) 
at MSY (http://www.flymsy.com/) 
at BUF (http://www.buffaloairport.com/)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)



Mahan Air - Iran @ MED

Saudia @ MED

Air Arabia & Saudia @ MED

USAirways Express @ MSY
SWA Boeing @ MSY



Wifi on SWA (I flew on 4 planes and wifi never worked)
hot chocolate luv from SWA (not bad either!)



2 Deltas - an airbus and crj - @ BUF



SWA and American @ BUF

Delta @ BUF

Southwest LUV @ BUF