Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Trip Report: Emirates Airlines, economy + business

A Trip Report: Emirates Airlines, economy + business
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Emirates Airlines was one of the first Gulf-3 airlines to have a worldwide presence.  Through their Dubai-hub, they connect to all 6-inhabited continents.  They have grown rapidly in the last couple of years, and I have flown them at the beginning of their rise and more recently.  I wanted to see if, through their increased routes and passengers, if they still kept the same commitment to great levels of service and experience.

I had flown Emirates numerous times, both in economy and business. I had originally flown Emirates when they only connected to London, and would connect to Emirates via London and Dubai.  When Emirates introduced flights from America direct to Dubai, I also flew them in both business and economy; and when Emirates introduced the A380 to America, I flew on these flights in both Business and Economy.  My most recent experience was flying Emirates from Houston to South Asia in economy on the outbound and business on the return.  Houston to Dubai was flown on the A380 (both sectors), while Dubai to South Asia was flown on Boeing 777-300 (both sectors).  Each airplane and each sector had a different feel, with some positives and some negatives on both sectors.

Our first sector was on the Airbus A380 from Houston to Dubai (as of July 1, 2016, Emirates downgraded this flight to the Boeing 777), and we were flying in economy on this sector.  This flight-time for this flight is over 15h, which means that is a lot of time to experience every aspect of Emirates service.  Through both the Emirates website and the app, I was able to manage my reservation in choosing my own seat, add meal requests, pay for excess baggage (there is a small discount if you pre-pay for excess baggage) and check-in online.  The flight was scheduled to take off at 7pm and check-in opened up at 3pm.  Emirates has a lot of staff, and most agents are familiar with Emirates policy so that helps speed up the check-in process (some other airlines’ staff are not as knowledgeable).  We went up to the gate and the plane was already there, having come from Dubai earlier in the day.  We started boarding a little later than usual, around 5:45/6pm.  I am not sure the reason for the delay, given everyone was ready, but the boarding was a bit chaotic and somewhat unorganized.  We were in Group 3 but were the last to board, behind group 4 and 5.  One reason for the delayed boarding may have been the light passenger load – apparently Emirates had been running lighter loads on this sector so that is why they were downgrading the plane to the 777. 

We boarded and once on board you could immediately feel the difference of the A380.  The bigger plane allows for more space so you don’t feel as combined.  The seats are laid out in a 3-4-3 formation, and both the seat comfort and seat pitch are greater on the A380 as compared to the B777.  I am a tall person, and this seat is comfortable to sit on for the long duration of the flight.  This flight was even better because due to the light passenger load, we were able to spread out throughout the plane so I had all three seats to myself.  Each seat contains a pillow and blanket, individual PTVs, USB port, headphone jack, tray table, and controller.  The seat-back pocket has the in-flight magazine, the duty free magazine, headsets, and an air sickness bag.  As we started boarding late, our pushback was also delayed; however, most passengers did not notice the delay as they were preoccupied with the IFE system.  The IFE system is available as soon as you sit down (unlike other airlines which start the system after their reach cruising altitude) so most passengers were scrolling through the vast options and were not paying attention to the delay.  The doors closed and we pushed back from the gate.  As we were pushing back, the cabin crew handed out menus for the flight. 

The catering for the flight consisted of meal after departure, a light snack in the middle of the flight, another meal prior to arrival, as well as a mixture of light snacks and water available throughout the flight.  As we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew came round with the drinks cart and then came around with the meal cart.  The meals on Emirates have been rated very highly for both their quantity and quality.  Over their years I have flown with them, their meal quality and quantity have dropped somewhat but they are still better than most airlines in both categories.  After the meal service, coffee and tea were offered along with water.  By this time, it was almost 9/10p local time so the lights were turned down so people could rest.  Throughout the flight, Emirates crew were coming through the cabin with water or to check on passengers (this is also something I have not seen as much on other flights).  Emirates crew also distributed light snacks, such as fruit, throughout the flight and in the middle of the flight a snack was distribute (to those passengers who were awake).  Approximately 3-hour prior to landing the lights were turned on as the final meal was being served.  This meal with lighter in terms of portion and heaviness, and that is a good thing as by this time most passengers are not as hungry as when they first boarded the plane.

We were supposed to land in Dubai in 7:05pm, but due to delayed departure and also congestion in Dubai we landed later than expected.  As most passengers were connecting on to other flights, and most had at least 2 hours or more transfer time, the delayed arrival did not affect most passengers.  We taxied to the gate, deplaned, and had 2 hours in Dubai Airport before our next flight departed.

Our next flight was from Dubai to South Asia, and some of these flights are operated by A380 while most are operated by a Boeing 777-300 (due to heavy traffic load between Dubai and South Asia).  Our flight was operated by a 777-300ER and as you entered the plane you could immediately tell the difference.  The 777-300ER is a plane designed for long-range travel, is smaller than the A380 so the seat pitch is tighter and the seat width is smaller.  This makes for a more compact travel experience, and it is not as comfortable.  Our flight was for 3-hours, but I have flown the 777-300ER long-haul as well.  The seats and comfort are fine for the first half of the flight, but in the second half you feel the tightness and the comfortability.  As this plane was completely full, there was not a lot of room so that made the seat feel even tighter.  Due to the large passenger load, we departed late from Dubai.  As this flight is 3-hours, and only one meal + drinks service is offered, the cabin crew took their time to serve the meal.  It was almost an hour into the flight before the drinks were served followed by the meal.  There were a lot of cabin crew on this flight, and some of them seemed relaxed while others seemed rush (I guess too many passengers for the short flight).  Coffee and tea were offered after the meal service, and again personal PTV’s were available for passengers to enjoy.  The service across Emirates planes is the same, good and professional.  The only difference amongst the planes is the seat pitch and seat comfort.  We landed later than scheduled, taxied to the gate, and deplaned in South Asia.

We had booked economy on the outbound and business on the return.  Emirates allows 2 bags of 50lbs (23kg) each per passenger as well as a hand carry in economy.  You can pre-book extra luggage and a discounted rate online 3 days prior to your flight.  Business class has a greater luggage allowance, Emirates uses the upper deck of the A380 for their lie-flat business seats, and you have access to the nice lounge in Dubai Airport.

Since we were spending a day in Dubai, we had booked a later morning flight from South Asia to Dubai – Emirates has two flights a day, either early in the morning around 3am or later in the morning around 9am.  We choose the later flight to allow us more rest but also because we had scheduled a day layover in Dubai.  Emirates business class allows 2 bags of 32kg each plus 2 carryon – which is very generous – plus the same discounts on extra luggage pre-booked.   
 Our first sector from South Asia to Dubai was on the 777-300ER.  The Business Class layout is 2-3-2, which was fine for our short flight duration of 3 hours; however, if you had a longer flight and you were stuck in the middle that would make it very inconvenient to reach over someone to get out into the aisle.  The layout of the Business Class was also a bit odd – there was no first class so there were 10 rows of business class seats, and then a separation and then 2 more rows of business class seats.  These last two rows were right next to the door in which passengers enter the plane, so it was a bit of an odd layout.  I have flown business class before on Emirates, and the service was impeccable.  This time the service wasn’t as great as it had been in the past – it was still good and attentive but there was definitely a noticeable drop.  The seat pitch was extremely good, as there was a lot of leg room for the seat to lay flat.  The personal PTV was huge, and looked like a computer monitor rather than a PTV.  The seat width was also nice, but from my previous flights the seats have gotten a bit narrower so there is not as much space as there used to be.  Again, we left late and so we landed late in Dubai.  We deplaned and went to the Chauffer service.  In certain markets, Emirates provides Chauffer service for Business and First class passengers and this can be pre-booked online.  The chauffer service was very nice and convenient for airport pick-up and drop-off.

The next morning, the Emirates service was early to pick us up from our hotel and drop us off at the airport. In Dubai, Emirates has a dedicated terminal exclusively for Business and First class passengers with their own check-in desks, immigration, and security checks.  It is extremely convenient as there are less passengers so you it is a quick process (although you do have to walk a far distance from the entrance of the terminal to the security area).  After you clear immigration and security, you take an elevator upstairs – this is a negative aspect as the elevator drops you off in the middle of the Dubai Airport.  From there, you have to walk a bit to take a set of escalators which will take you to another floor that has the first and business class lounge; why couldn’t the elevator just take you straight to the business class lounge? 

The business class lounge in Dubai is very large in terms of size and available amenities, and it also extremely crowded.  This is one the negative side-effects of their expansion is that their airport services have not kept up with the increased demand.  Almost every food station had a long line, there were too few staff to assist with the numerous passengers, each bathroom had a huge line and wait, and there was a lack of tables.  Emirates is adding more flights and more capacity each day, and Dubai Airports is getting busier so they need to do something to deal with the increased number of passengers – otherwise it will have an impact on the passenger’s experience.

Another negative is that you cannot access your gate from the Business Class lounge – you have to check the timings and the gate number on the screens and remind yourself to leave enough time to walk back down to the main level, find your gate and walk there in time for your boarding process (and it is usually a far walk). 

Our next flight was on the A380, and Emirates just built a brand new terminal for the A380 that has bridges to access the upper and lower decks.  In spite of this, we boarded our flight on the lower deck and then had to take the front stairs up, walk through the first class to access the business class – it was again very odd that this was done this way given the new terminal.  The business class on the A380 is laid out in a 1-2-1 fashion – which provides every seat with aisle access and this is a convenient perk.  Emirates recently reconfigured the business class seats, and in my opinion made them less desirable.  They took out the massage feature (apparently there were too many glitches) and made the seat tighter.  The seat is designed like a pod.  

When you enter your seat in business class, the cabin-crew greet you as there are two cabin-crew for every 4 seats.  These are supposed to be your personal cabin crew attendants, and apparently they are the only ones who are able to handle any request you may have.  When we asked other attendants for items, they responded by saying they would inform our cabin crew to come and inquire; you then had to repeat the request to your cabin crew.  This type of service was not there previously, and while I understand Emirates wants to provide individualized-service the cabin crew are working in a team so they should respond as a team and not individually (and not in a non-customer-friendly way).

As you enter the pod, there is a mini bar next to your head which contains water and soft drinks (they are prefilled but can be modified to fit your preference).  The mini-bar is protected by a silver bar which can be lifted up to access your drinks – but sometimes it gets stuck so it is not designed well; however, it is nice to have these options next to you as to not keep asking the cabin crew for drinks (the cabin crew also come and refill the bar with water as they pass by).  Next to the bar are the USB ports – there are two, which is convenient but the holder for your device needs to be updated.  The seat itself is comfortable and contains a nice pillow and blanket.  The seat does move and can be adjusted to lie flat or to any angle you desire.  Next to your seat is a space for magazines, reading material, or other things.  While this space is nice, as it provides privacy to your things, it also takes up valuable seat space and that can be felt.  While the IFE is touchscreen, there is also a remote in case the touch-screen freezes (which it sometimes does).  The tray table is also located on this side and folds out (a bit too close to the seat so not leaving a lot of room).  In front is the huge PTV, and below that is a cubby space.  This space needs to be cleared for take-off and landing (which is inconvenient for passengers) and this is where your feet will go when the seat lies flat (if you are tall enough).

You can modify the seats to whatever angle you are comfortable with, and the seats lie flat to about the size of a single bed.  After the meals had been picked up, Emirates crew usually came around and asked if you would like a turn down service.  Emirates crew would lay the seat flat, add the padding, and essentially make-up the bed for you. This time, however, none of that happened.  We had to request the bedding, and when it did come it was just handed to us and we had to make the bed ourselves.  This is something that the passenger is not supposed to do and it shows that Emirates service has diminished somewhat.  The seats were comfortable enough but the seat comfort and seat width had both been diminished.  It was comfortable enough for the long duration of the flight, but it was not as comfortable as it once was.

Our flight departed at 8:25am and scheduled to arrive into Houston at 3:45pm.  Emirates had recently modified their scheduled to have the flight leaving earlier from Dubai to give it a bigger turnaround window in Houston.  There were multiple meals served on-board, starting with breakfast.  As soon as we sat down, we were given a menu and asked to select a breakfast option.  When we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew came by to open the tray tables and lay down the silverware on white cloths.  Warm nuts and a drink were served first, followed by the breakfast choice.  The food was decent, but both the quality and quantity of the food had diminished.  Throughout the flights, passengers were welcome to hang out in the ‘bar/lounge’ at the end of the plane.  Here there was a bar with drinks available, hors d'oeuvres, as well as bench/couches available for you to hang out or talk to your fellow passengers.  This is a nice area, and there is more sunlight here so on longer flights the sunlight really helps. 

While small snacks are available in the lounge, there are larger, heavier snacks available to be ordered.  Previously, the cabin crew proactively asked the passengers if they wanted a heavier snack and worked with the passenger to modify the snack based on the flight time or health of the passenger.  On this flight, we were not asked for heavier snacks and when we ordered a larger snack, first the crew suggested that snacks were available in the back and then it took a long time.  This was not the type of service I was expecting from Emirates, and I was a bit disappointed.

Prior to landing another meal was served.  Again, this meal was decent but was lower in quality and quantity then what I expected from Emirates (still better than some other airlines).  We landed and taxied to the gate, and at Houston they had a separate bridge for both the upper and lower cabins of the A380.

Overall, my experience with Emirates left me a bit disappointed.  They are still a good airline, with great in-flight entertainment, the airline that operates the most A380’s and those provide a lot of room, and an airline that offers free wifi to all of its passengers – the basic package is free and is good for short communication and basic email; a bigger package is available for purchase.  This offer is available to all passengers and is a great bonus in my opinion.  My most recent experience, however, shows that Emirates may be struggling to keep their commitment to service as they rapidly expand.  The economy class experience was good, but the business class felt more like premium economy versus business class.  I have talked to others who flew Emirates in the past and more recently, and they also notice a drop in service.  Their service and their planes are still one of the best in the world, but they are no longer the best or the planes.  I have had equally good service on Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, and Qantas – so Emirates has lost a bit of that competitive edge in my opinion.  I would still take Emirates in the future, they are no longer a guaranteed choice.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Trip Report: Southwest Airlines, domestic

A Trip Report: Southwest Airlines, domestic
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Southwest Airlines started out as a local airline in Texas, providing inexpensive fares to people to move across the big state.  They were the pioneers of the low-cost model as they use one-type of plane, make multiple stops, fly to a mix of primary and secondary airports, and have basic on-board service.  As Southwest has grown from a local to a national airline (and now international with the absorption of AirTran), some of their services had to adapt to fit their new model.  They are still committed to their low-cost model and providing good services at a low-cost, and this is why I continue to fly with them.  I have flown with Southwest many times, a lot on short-haul and some on medium-haul, and there are some aspects which are great and some which are not as great. 

My most recent experience with Southwest was on their short-haul flight from New Orleans to Atlanta, and return.  This route, and the Atlanta hub, is something Southwest inherited from their takeover of AirTran and puts Southwest in direct competition with Delta.  On this route, Southwest and Delta compare evenly in terms of ticket price.  In terms of other services, Southwest fares better on some aspects and Delta on others.

Delta has more flight options throughout the day and you can earn miles that can be redeemed through any SkyTeam partner; however, the Delta ticket only covers your seat as you have to pay for ancillary fares (checked baggage, selecting a seat).  Southwest does not have as many flights, especially direct flights, but the ticket prices includes 2 free bags + 2 carry-ons; no change fees (you just pay the fare difference, if there is one, or you receive a credit for a future flight); price adjustment if there is a sale and the price drops lower; and access to free live TV through their on-board wifi.  Delta charges a heavy change fee of $200 plus any fare difference, and sometimes the change fee is higher than the ticket price itself.  Delta also flies a variety of planes on this route, from MD-80s to Airbus A320s to Boeing 737s and to some this is a positive while to others this is a negative (because you never know what you are going to get).  As part of their low-cost model, Southwest only flies Boeing 737s, either 700 or 800, so you know what you are going to get.  Both offer complimentary drinks and usually a small snack (peanuts/pretzels on Southwest – on longer flights they also offer chips and crackers – and Biscoff cookies on Delta), and Delta has started to introduce free TV on their planes either through PTV’s or through their app.  Because of the sale fares, the additional complimentary aspects that are included in your ticket, and the low cost I have tended to travel on Southwest for this route.  

I have travelled this route many times, and the experience has been consistent.  The airline offers low prices, basic services, and good customer service.  What varies are the fares and the planes, in terms of seat comfort and seat pitch, as well as the flight timings.  I usually take the last non-stop out of New Orleans and the flight time keeps fluctuating; it hovers between 6:30 and 7:30p but changes frequently within that hour.  For this flight, my flight was scheduled to take off at 6:55pm.  With Southwest’s model, their planes operate a number of different routes so while this does provide more access, it also means more delays as if one sector is delayed then all the sectors are delayed.  On this date, our incoming flight from Dallas (Love Field) was delayed so our flight to Atlanta was delayed.  The plane landed around our original scheduled departure time, and we were asked to line up.  Southwest does not assign seats - at check-in you are assigned a Group letter and a number and you board accordingly. Once on board you can choose any open seat.  While this concept allows you to choose your seat, it is a pain to stand in line and wait and then get on board and wait again as passengers play musical chairs and assess the best seat.

Southwest does board quickly and have quick turnaround times (another aspect of their LCC model) so we pushed back from the gate at 7:35pm.  The plane on this sector was a Boeing 737-700 and was an older plane.  Southwest usually operates these planes on their short-haul sector, as the seat comfort is low and the seat pitch is tight.  The seats are fine for the short-haul but after a while they can become very uncomfortable.  Once we reach cruising altitude, the cabin crew came by to take your drink order and hand out pretzels/peanuts.  Southwest provides complimentary drinks and you can access TV through your personal device using Southwest wifi.  The flight was relatively uneventful and as soon as the drinks were passed out we were starting our decent into Atlanta.

The return flight was equally uneventful and was similar to the first leg except for one difference – the plane.  The return flight was operated by a Boeing 737-800 and it was a newer plane.  This plane had a better seat comfort and a better seat pitch.  This type of plane Southwest usually reserves for their long-haul, but the plane had come from Los Angeles to Atlanta and was now flying Atlanta to New Orleans.  The newer plane also had the Boeing Skyline interior and had a nicer, cleaner look.  Again, after the drinks were passed out it we were starting our decent into New Orleans.

Overall, Southwest Airlines provides a good, consistent customer service; usually low fares which include complimentary services; and good overall experience.  Another good thing about Southwest is given their expansion, they have not lost sight of their core beliefs which made their model successful and this will continue to make them successful in the future.    There are tradeoffs when flying with Southwest, but if you are willing to take the gamble you will have a pleasant flying experience.