Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Upcoming Reviews -- August/September 2016

I just booked my next trip so look out for the following airline and hotel reviews in September 2016:
  1. United Airlines (domestic)
  2. Lufthansa (long-haul)
  3. South African Airways (long-haul)
  4. South African LCC - FlyMango and Kulula.com
  5. Hotels in South Africa - Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban Sou
Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Trip Report: Shaheen Air International, Karachi to Lahore (April 2016)

A Trip Report: Shaheen Air International, domestic 
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

We were travelling domestically in Pakistan, and decided to try Shaheen Air International (SAI).   Shaheen Air has had an interesting history – it started in the early 90’s but then had to restructure in early 2000’s when the government said it owed a lot of money.  Airlines in Pakistan have not been known for their service or on-time record.  There are three major carriers in the Pakistan market: 1) PIA – Pakistan International Airlines – is the national carrier and has been the dominant carrier in the market.  They also have the most planes and staff; 2) airblue which is a private airline that started in the early 2000s.  They had initially gone through a tremendous growth spurt, but were unable to maintain the growth and thus have scaled back; and finally 3) Shaheen Air which has had a troubled past but after the restructuring seems to be investing a lot in its fleet and expanding their services.  Given their new direction, we decided to try Shaheen Air.

We had booked our ticket through Shaheen’s website.  Both the website and app are very user-friendly, easy to navigate, and it was easy to book a ticket.  We were travelling from Karachi to Lahore and as Shaheen is still a growing airline, they do not have as many flight options as PIA (although more than airblue).  They operate this service twice a day, once in the afternoon and then once in the evening.  We decided to choose the evening flight – both options were the same price so the evening flight gave us more time in Karachi.  Even though we were able to book and receive a confirmation on the website, the payment could not be made online so we had 3 days to go to a Shaheen Air office or a travel agent to pay for the ticket and confirm the booking.  This was a bit of a pain.  Shaheen Air is a full service airline, which meant that the ticket includes free luggage allowance, free hand-carry, and a free meal.  You are not able to pre-book your seat, either through the website, travel agency, nor through the call center; seat assignment are only received at check-in. 

Given that we were going to receive our seat assignment upon check-in, we decided to get to the airport early.  The flight was scheduled to depart Karachi at 7:00pm and arrive Lahore at 8:45pm, for a flight time of 1hr 30mins.  We arrived at the airport around 4:30pm, and check-in opened at 5pm.  Check-in was quick and efficient, and we received our boarding passes with seat assignments.  We then proceeded through an empty security check and had plenty time to enjoy Butler’s CafĂ© in the Karachi Airport.  We went to the gate area around 6pm and between 6pm and 6:45pm, three Shaheen Air planes landed and deplaned passengers.  Our plane was the last to arrive, and once passengers deplaned it took a while before the next crew boarded the plane to get it ready for the next flight.  The flight crew seemed to be asking the ground crew when they could board, but the ground staff did not seem to be in a hurry so it took a while.  Boarding finally started around 6:45, and Shaheen has two boarding groups.  The first group to board are passengers seated in the back of the plane, while the second group are passengers seated in the front of the plane.  As we were near the front of the plane, we boarded in the second group.

The A320 plane from the outside looked nice with a nice paint job.  On-board, the look of the plane was very nice in a 3-3 layout in seat covers that kept the interior plane looking modern and fresh.  The seat itself was decent – more comfortable than PIA or Etihad, but not as comfortable as other airlines.  The seat pitch was also decent, not too much legroom but my knees were not hitting the seat in front of me.  It was a fine for our short duration.  The plane itself did not look new, and closer inspection of the wear and tear on the seats proved this theory.  The panels above the seat also looked a bit older; however, this plane looked better maintained versus the PIA plane which had brought us to Karachi.  Entering and sitting on the plane reminded me of flying with Southwest – the planes are kept up decent enough given the high utilization and the wear and tear that comes with this.   As we boarded the plane late, we took of late as well.  The doors did not close until 7:15/7:20p and we did not take off until 7:30/7:40pm.  On-time departures are not something that Pakistani airlines are known for.

Despite the late start, the service on board was fantastic.   Glasses of water were passed out during boarding and the attendants greeted each passenger with a warm smile.  Again, given the short duration I did not expect much from the flight but as soon as cruising altitude was reached the service began.  As this was an evening flight, complimentary dinner plus complimentary water, soft drinks, and juice were provided.  The complimentary meal included chicken biryani with yogurt and dessert, and the portion was extremely generous (the portion was generous in itself, but also extremely generous given the short duration of the flight).   Once dinner was served, the attendants came through with complimentary tea and coffee.  The service was a lot, especially given the short duration, and more than I have experienced with other airlines (such as Etihad). 

As the coffee and tea were being served, we had already started our descent into Lahore.  I am not sure if it was the amount of service provided for the short duration, or the fact that we experienced some turbulence and this may have affected the service, but towards the end the attendants were a bit frantic in trying to clear the trays and the clear up the plane prior to landing.  At one point, I seriously thought we were going to land with the trays in our laps but the attendants cleared the plane and get in ready just in time to land.  As we left late, we also landed late as well – about 30 minutes behind schedule (no time was made up in flight).

In terms of in-flight entertainment, there was none.  There are not PTVs in the back of the seats and none drop from the overhead ceiling.  There are also no magazines to read; however, the airline did pass our newspaper as passengers were boarding.  The newspapers, available in English and Urdu, were the only form of in-flight entertainment.  Given the short duration of the flight it was fine, but I understand that Shaheen has no entertainment on any of their flights – and they fly to destinations across the Middle East, China, and now the U.K.; that’s a lot of time without any entertainment.

When we booked our flight with Shaheen, we were a bit hesitant.  Both Pakistani aviation, plus Shaheen’s own troubled history, did not provide us with a lot of confidence in the flight.  Despite our reservations, we had a really pleasant experience on board Shaheen.  This flight changed our mind about flying with Shaheen and we would not hesitate them to fly them short-haul or medium-haul.  Given the lack of PTV’s, I am going to wait to fly them long-haul.   Shaheen’s motto is ‘Change is in the Air’ and you can definitely feel the change at Shaheen.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Trip Report: Gulf Air, Kuwait to Abu Dhabi via Bahrain (March 2016)

A Trip Report: Gulf Air (March 2016)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Gulf Air is the national airline of the gulf nation of Bahrain, and is the dominant carrier at Bahrain International Airport.  Gulf Air used to be a consortium of all the Gulf countries (hence the name) and used to have bases all around the Gulf – including Oman, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain.  Over the years, various countries pulled out of the consortium to start their own airlines and that left Bahrain to nominate Gulf Air as its national airline.  With the transitions, Gulf Air has ebbed and flowed but now they have seem to have gotten through the transition and are a good path forward.   

I had originally flown Gulf Air in the mid 1990’s when it was still a consortium, and we flew into Abu Dhabi and then out of Bahrain.  It was really interesting and the service was pretty good.  As Gulf Air went through its transition, I had heard it had an effect on its service.  Given that they were on the other side of the transition, they were focusing on improving services and their fleet so I wanted to give them another try.

We were flying from Kuwait to Abu Dhabi via Bahrain.  We had booked our ticket through a travel website, but then went to Gulf Air’s website to manage our booking and choose seats.  Gulf Air’s website is very user-friendly and easy to navigate.  When booking the ticket, we had a couple of options of our flight.   We could take a morning flight and connect easily to Abu Dhabi, take an afternoon flight and connect easily to Abu Dhabi, or take a morning flight and have a long layover in Bahrain and take the evening flight to Abu Dhabi.  We decided to take the third option as this would allow us to visit Manama for the day, and there was no price difference between the options.

Our first flight was scheduled to depart Kuwait at 11:35am and arrive Bahrain at 12:40pm, while the second flight was scheduled to depart Bahrain at 8:40pm and arrive Abu Dhabi at 10:50pm.  Both flight times were about one hour so they were short flights.   Gulf Air is a full-service airline so we were able to confirm our seat assignments prior to our flight, and our ticket included checked luggage as well as a free meal.  We were able to check-in for our flights 24-hours prior to our departure, and the Gulf Air app was very helpful in checking in and managing flights.  Given the short distances, I did not expect a meal to be served (I expected only drinks).  

We arrived at Kuwait International and check-in was a bit slow but immigration was quick so we had plenty of time to explore the airport.  We went to our gate and the plane arrived on schedule.  The waiting area looked generally full, so I thought it was a full flight but once boarding finished on the Airbus A321 there were a lot of empty seats (the plane was about 50-60% full).  The exterior of the plane looked nice and updated, and the inside of the plane also looked nice and updated.   The seats were also updated, but they were not very comfortable.  While fine for the short-duration, I am not sure how comfortable they would be for the long-haul.  The seat pitch was decent, but a bit tight.  It would be ok for the short-haul but not sure how comfortable for the long-haul.  There was a PTV on each seat, but there was no USB port (only a headphone jack).   The PTV was immediately available, and the selection was pretty good for the short-haul but not as extensive as I thought it would be. 

We took off generally on time, and as soon as we reached cruising altitude the service started.  Given the short duration, I did not expect much but we were served drinks plus a light snack.  The snack was a sandwich, and it was pretty large given the short duration of the flight.  It was a nice perk.  The service onboard was polite and professional, but not warm nor friendly.  As soon as the drinks session ended, it was time to land.  We deplaned via jetbridge and proceeded to go and explore Manama. 

Our flight from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi was scheduled to take off at 8:40pm, but we arrived at the airport very early.  There was a lot of people already waiting in the airport, and it was a bit hectic with lots of people transiting and waiting (there seemed to be a lot of people who looked like they were waiting for a long transit – the immigration officer said this is happening since they raised the fee of the visas).  We decided to pay for the lounge, and it was a great idea because the lounge was fantastic.  The lounge was located on the top level and it had a buffet of various food items, drinks, newspapers, a shower, clean restrooms, and free wifi.  I would definitely recommend the lounge.

About an hour prior to boarding we decided to head to our gate.  Our gate was located on the bottom level, as we would have to take a bus to our plane.   The boarding announcement was a bit chaotic and once we boarded the bus there was a long wait until it actually departed for the plane.  Once we got to the plane, it was not very well-lit so it was a bit dark.  We boarded the Airbus A320 (extended range) for our flight to Abu Dhabi.  After we had boarded and settled into our seat, we sat for a while apparently waiting for the remaining passengers – we waited approximately 20-25 minutes for those passengers and thus we were delayed in our departure (the second bus contained the remaining half of the passengers).    As soon as the passengers boarded, the doors closed and we push-backed for take-off.

The ride from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi was very similar to our first ride – the seats were decent but not too comfortable, the seat pitch was a bit tight but decent, the entertainment system was the same, and the service was also the same - polite and professional but not friendly.  The service on board was also the same, as drinks and the sandwich were served.  Again, the flight time was only 1 hour so as soon as the service finished we were descending into Abu Dhabi.  We landed and proceeded to the jetbridge at Abu Dhabi International.
Overall, it was a decent flying experience with Gulf Air.  Given the short distance, they provided a decent seat with decent service.  Positives included the seat-back PTV, substantial snack, and partner with various airlines to earn miles.  Negatives included the lack of seat comfort, the lack of the USB port, and the customer-service.  Given the right circumstances – price and flight time – I would choose Gulf Air again for short-haul; however, based on this experience I am not sure I would choose them for long-haul travel.

Friday, June 3, 2016

A Trip Report: Kuwait Airways, Abu Dhabi to Kuwait (March 2016)

A Trip Report: Kuwait Airways (March 2016)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Kuwait Airways is the national airline of Kuwait.  As Kuwait has gone through ups and downs, so has the airline.  In the late 80’s, Kuwait Airways as going through an expansion and was increasing airplane and routes.  The invasion of Kuwait in 1990 put a halt to that expansion, and since then Kuwait Airways has been slowly trying to rebuild itself.  The airline recently announced a major expansion with new aircraft orders and upgraded airport facilities. 

It had been almost 20 years since I had flown Kuwait Airways – I flew it back in 1994 from New York to Kuwait via London.  Since the war had just finished, there was a lot of security surrounding the plane and the boarding process and we had to go around Iraq thus adding about 3 hours to our flight time.  The service was decent at that time, but from my understanding there had not been major upgrades since that time.  In April 2016, we were flying from Abu Dhabi to Kuwait and we chose to fly Kuwait Airways because 1) they were starting to invest in their fleet and service so I wanted to check out the improved Kuwait Airways and 2) the only direct flights were operated by either Etihad or Kuwait and I prefer not to fly with Etihad.

Even though we were flying roundtrip, I did not book both sectors on Kuwait Airways.  I booked the outbound on Kuwait Airways, but the return I booked on Gulf Air.  I did this for 2 reasons – 1) I wanted to try a different airline on the return, and 2) Kuwait Airways operates Kuwait – Muscat – Abu Dhabi – Kuwait so to get back to Abu Dhabi from Kuwait I would have to stop in Muscat (and I have already been there).  As I was combining two airlines into one ticket, I booked my ticket through a travel website.  Kuwait Airways is a full service airline so seat assignments, checked baggage, soft drinks, on-board entertainment, and carry-ons are all complimentary.   After I booked my travel, I went to Kuwait Airways website to manage my booking, pre-select my seat, and specify my meal option.   Their website is generally user-friendly, but sometimes it had some issues so I would switch between the website and the app on my phone in terms of managing my booking.  Through the website and app, I was able to check-in but could not receive my boarding pass so I did that at the airport.

Kuwait Airways flies out of Terminal 1 at Abu Dhabi International.  Check-in was smooth and we checked our bags and received our boarding passes.  We proceeded through immigration (there were not many people in the terminal) and waited for our flight.  The flight is scheduled to depart Abu Dhabi at 5:10pm and arrive Kuwait at 5:50pm, with a flight time of 1hr45mins.  Terminal 1 is the older terminal at Abu Dhabi and has small boarding gates (not the best terminal in the world) so we decided to wait in the general waiting area before proceeding to our gate.  The only good thing about Abu Dhabi International is that they have free, and fast, wifi available (strong enough to skype or stream youtube videos).  Around 4pm we proceeded to our gate, but the plane had not arrived.  The plane arrived around 4:30pm, and by that time all the passengers had come to the boarding area.  The plane had picked up passengers in Muscat, and was now picking up passengers in Abu Dhabi so maybe that’s why it was a light load in Abu Dhabi (they do not have rights to transport passengers from Muscat to Abu Dhabi).  Considering it was a light load, we all boarded at the same time and were seated rather quickly in the plane.

The plane was an Airbus A320 and was in a 3-3 layout.  You could not tell the age of the plane from the outside, but inside the plane did not look new.   We passed through Business Class on our way to Economy, and the Business Class were the older seats that did not lie flat.  Even though the plane looked older, the seats were comfortable and provided a decent ride for the short flight.  Each seat had a pillow on it, and the seat pitch was pretty good – not too tight but generous enough.  The seatback pocket contained the airline magazine, duty free magazine, air sickness bag, as well as headphones.  The in-flight entertainment had definitely been upgraded as there were new PTV’s available on every seat, and each PTV came with a headphone jack and a USB port.  The PTVs were available right away so the passengers could immediately start to watch their videos.  The selection was pretty good and there was enough choice to keep you entertained for any short to medium haul flights.

The plane departed Abu Dhabi generally on time, and once cruising altitude was reached the service started.  Considering the short duration of the flight, the service on the flight was very generous.  A box meal/snack was provided which contained a sandwich, fruit, chocolate, and water.  Given it was only an hour flight, it was a generous serving.   I had ordered a special meal, so that was also accommodating with the special snack pack.  Complimentary soft drinks and juices were served with the snack pack, and later on both tea and coffee were served.  The attendants came by the aisle multiple times during the short flight to offer tea and coffee.  Throughout the short duration of the flight, the attendants were constantly in the aisle.  It was great customer service provided by Kuwait Airways.

As soon as the trays were cleared, it was time to land in Kuwait.  We landed in Kuwait on time and deplaned on the tarmac and took a bus to the terminal.   The immigration and baggage are at Kuwait International definitely needs an upgrade as it looks very old, and can become very cramped very easily.  The baggage claim is on the ground floor, while the floor above is the departure gates.  The terminal upstairs is a mixture of old and new, as there are older sections with not as many services as well as newer sections with more restaurant and other options (the newer gates are a far walk from the older section, and it seems that the airport is going through some additional construction).

Overall, it was a short and pleasant flight with Kuwait Airways.  They provided good customer service and a good experience, especially for this short-haul flight, and the PTVs were modern and had a decent selection.  I would definitely consider taking Kuwait Airways for a short to medium haul flights – given the seat comfort and the age of the plane I am not sure I would take Kuwait Airways long-haul currently.  They are modernizing their fleet with new aircraft, so with the new aircraft and the current service, I would definitely take Kuwait Airways long-haul.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Trip Report: Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) , Lahore to Karachi (April 2016)

A Trip Report: Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) 
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

For a long time, the aviation sector in Pakistan was dominated by the government-owned national airline – Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).  About 10-15 years ago, the sector opened up and now there are private airlines with the biggest being Shaheen Air International (SAI) and airblue.  Each airline serves both the domestic Pakistani market as well as international flights.  Flying with a Pakistan-based airline is a bit of a gamble, as they are not known for their on-time performance or for their customer service.  

It has been a long time since I had flown with PIA – in fact more than 20 years.  PIA had originally been a good airline, with decent service and a decent on-board product.  As time went by their service, on-time arrival and departure, and customer service went down.  This did not instill a lot of confidence in the airline, thus why we stayed away.  We decided to give them a try on a quick domestic flight before deciding on whether to fly them internationally.   We were flying from Lahore to Karachi.  Each airline serves this route with varying frequency – PIA has the biggest frequency while airblue has the least frequency.  Their prices vary as well, with SAI and airblue relatively the same price and PIA prices depending on flight time and availability.  All of the airlines are full-service, meaning that standard with the ticket are allocated seats, checked baggage, hand-carry baggage, and meal + drinks on board.  The difference between the airlines are service on the ground, their service on-board, their safety record, as well as their on-time performance – none of the airlines have a reputation which excels at any of these though.  For our flight, we decided to try PIA from Lahore to Karachi and then SAI from Karachi to Lahore (I had previously tried airblue for an international flight).   This is my review of Pakistan International Airlines from Lahore to Karachi in April 2016.

Since PIA has been around for a while, and they are the national airline, they have a lot of resources so they are able to provide more options in terms of flight times.  I went online to reserve my ticket, and noticed that they had a lot of flight options throughout the day.  The flights were operated by various aircrafts and ranged in prices.  We had initially booked the evening flight online which was operated by an Airbus A320, but due to technical reasons we could not confirm our flight.  We were instructed to go to a travel agency or PIA office for payment and ticket confirmation.  When we went to the office, we changed to the morning flight to allow us more time in Karachi, it was less expensive, and it was a chance to experience PIA’s Boeing 777.  Why a Boeing 777 is being used on a 1hr45 minute flight is a good question – some reasons given were the high demand on the route while other reasons were that this plane needed a technical check and that takes place in Karachi.  Whatever the reason, we booked a morning flight which was scheduled to depart Lahore at 11am and arrive into Karachi at 12:45pm. 

PIA is a full service airline, so when we booked our ticket we were able to select our seats.  Our ticket included checked baggage, a meal/light snack (depending on the timing of the flight), as well as carry-on.  PIA does not offer web check-in so we had to go to the airport to deposit our bags and collect our boarding passes.  We arrived to the airport early – even though they recommend 2 hours, most passengers go to the airport an hour before the scheduled departure.  PIA is not known for its on-time departures and even though boarding time was scheduled for 10:30am, we did not start boarding until almost 10:50am.  The operating plane was a Boing 777 that was in retro PIA livery and from the outside, the plane looked very nice.

Boarding finally started and we made our way to the plane.  On the jet bridge, before entering the plane, there was a stack of newspaper available for the passengers.  The newspapers available were a wide variety of local and international, and available in both English and Urdu.  When we entered the plane, we could immediately tell that 1) this plane did not originally belong to PIA and 2) PIA seemed to have only updated the outside and did very little to nothing on the inside.  The plane had belonged to Vietnam Airlines and PIA had not changed the interior.  The seats were in the Vietnam Airlines color scheme and patterns;  the PTV had either the Vietnam Airlines logo or something written in Vietnamese displayed; the information on the back of the tray tables was written in Vietnamese and English; and finally there was Christmas music playing on the speakers.  The only modifications to the plane PIA had made was the outside paint job, and they put PIA seat flaps on each seat. 

The plane was in a 3-3-3 layout and was divided into Business Class, Economy Plus, and three sections of economy – the entire plane was completely full.  The seats themselves were decent and comfortable enough for the short flight, but definitely not comfortable for long-haul sector.  The seat pitch was average, not too tight but not too generous and decent enough for the short flight.  The PTVs were very old, had small screens, and did not work.  Half the screens continued to show the Vietnam Airlines logo, while the others displayed the flight map.  Even when the safety video was screened, only the videos on the walls displayed the video instead of displaying on each PTV.     

The service on the plane was good given the short sector.   We were in the economy and as we reached cruising altitude, the attendants served a snack.  The snack consisted of half a sandwich and dessert.  While not a lot, it was enough for the short sector.  Complimentary soft drinks and juice were also distributed along with the meal.  After the meal, both tea and coffee were offered – in fact tea and coffee were offered several times.   A good aspect was the service on the plane, as the flight attendants were constantly in the aisles passing out food or drinks, collecting the waste, and answering passenger questions regarding PIA’s frequent flyer program.

Announcements were made in both English and Urdu and some interesting items that happened during the flight – when the flight attendant was welcoming the passengers and talking about the plane, she mentioned something I had not heard before.  She said ‘this is your national airline, so please take care of it’.  That is something I have not heard before, and I was not sure if it was something new as a PR or part of their turnaround (PIA is going through transition and had recently been through strikes by their worker.  The second interesting thing was the Captain’s announcement – when the Captain came on to talk about the flight, he sounded like a newscaster reading out the news.  He also spoke for a while, as he spoke for a good length in English and then translated everything in Urdu. 

We landed in Karachi a bit behind schedule and taxied to our gate and deplaned.  Overall, it was an interesting experience with PIA.  I had a lot of hesitation when booking my travel with PIA – they are not known for an on-time departure, for their on-board service, nor for having updated planes.  I experienced some of that (not an updated plane) but was overall generally pleased with the service on the plane.  The service and the experience were decent and good enough for the short-haul domestic sector, but I don’t think I would choose PIA for long-haul.  From what I have heard others who have travelled internationally on PIA, my experience on the short-haul is similar to the international sector – with decent service but older planes and non-working PTVs.  PIA has some potential, but definitely needs some work.  Their motto is ‘Great People to Fly With’ and while it was not a great experience, it was better than I expected.