Archive for March, 2011
What do you know about Helsinki? I know a little bit about it, I did a mileage run there in 2008. And I know that it is the home of Rovio, the company that created the very addictive and incredibly popular Angry Birds game. (Admit it, you own Angry Birds and have held your smartphone under the desk, playing the game, during an incredibly dull business meeting! :-)) I learned some more about Helsinki when I read the February 15 issue of American Way, the monthly magazine from American Airlines.
Every month American Way features an article by Gerard J. Arpey, the Chairman & CEO, of American Airlines. His articles are usually positive and upbeat, highlighting a new service that American is offering, or information about a new member of the oneworld alliance. If AA is offering service to a new destination, the article will mention museums, restaurants, etc. Of course, keeping with the positive tone, he does not write about an increase in fees for carry-on luggage or labor strife with the unions.
Arpey’s column in the February 15, 2011 American Way is called Over the Top and talks about American’s new nonstop service from Chicago to Helsinki, Finland. The article does not focus on Helsinki’s restaurants or museums. Instead he brought up several points that I was not aware of that I found to be quite interesting.
I know that Helsinki-Vantaa Airport is the headquarters of Finnair, a member of the oneworld alliance. Arpey added something I did not know. “Many people don’t realize that Helsinki’s northern location — more specifically, its proximity to the North Pole — makes it a great connecting point from North America to India and much of Asia.” He’s right, I did not realize that. It’s something that does not make sense when looking at a flat map of the world, but makes total sense when you look at a globe that accurately reflects our round planet.
He goes on to say “Even those of us who rely on geography in our careers need to be reminded occasionally that our planet is indeed round — and thus the shortest distance between some points we’re used to seeing on two-dimensional maps is not left to right or right to left but rather up and down. In fact, one of Finnair’s many points of pride is the fact that way back in 1983, it introduced the first nonstop service from Europe to Japan, flying north over the polar-ice-cap region and then down the Bering Strait to Tokyo.” Another interesting fact; I would have guessed that a larger airline, maybe JAL or British Airways or Lufthansa would have been the first to offer service on that route; Finnair did not occur to me.
Arpey goes on to explain that the end of the Cold War has made it easier for airlines to offer over-the-pole service. “For most of our history, we were not allowed to fly over what was then the Soviet Union. But the end of the Cold War and the subsequent liberalization of various aviation agreements have increased our access to Russian airspace. Today we frequently fly through the polar region, most often when flying from Chicago to Shanghai, from Chicago to Beijing and from Delhi to Chicago.”
That makes sense. But I did not realize that over-the-pole routes only work well in one direction. “We are more likely to take a polar route flying from North America to Asia than on the return trip back to North America. That may seem odd to some, since the number of miles between two points obviously doesn’t change. But wind makes a big difference, and while there is relatively little wind over the Arctic Ocean, there is often a strong tailwind blowing from Asia toward North America, making a more southerly route on the return trip more advantageous.”
Here is a trivia question: does an airplane actually fly over the North Pole when taking a polar route? The answer surprised me. “By the way, because of the limitations of older navigation systems, none of the polar routes we fly crosses exactly over the North Pole. At the Pole, an airplane’s compass changes from a due-north heading to due south, and that change of course could potentially lead to problems with earlier-generation autopilot systems. Fortunately, that is not an issue with the latest generation of long-haul aircraft, such as the Boeing 777s we fly, whose source of navigation is the extremely precise Global Positioning System (GPS). Nonetheless, to make polar flying equally effortless for both the new generation and the previous generations of aircraft, none of the approved civil polar routes comes closer than about 60 nautical miles from the Pole.”
Whoever wrote this article (I suspect someone puts these together for Mr. Arpey to review and approve) deserves to be commended. He or she broke the mold and wrote an article unlike any other I had seen in American Way. I found this article to be much more interesting than most of Arpey’s article, and hope you did too!
It can be exciting to be an airline gate agent. You work for an airline, you have a job that is never dull, you get a discounted price when you fly, and you meet a lot of people. But sometimes a gate agent has the difficult task of telling a passenger that their flight is sold out and there is no room for them; that can’t be fun to do. I had the chance to watch some outstanding American Airlines gate agents make the best of that bad situation this past weekend.
I had to make a quick trip to Dallas on Saturday. I had tickets for a 6:35 a.m. flight from Austin, and a 2:55 p.m. flight back from DFW.
Saturday was the first day of Spring Break and Austin-Bergstrom International was a madhouse when I arrived. I can honestly say I had never seen it so crowded when I arrived early that morning. Austin is home to the University of Texas at Austin and it looked like all 50,000 of their students were trying to fly out of town that morning.
I made my way through the mob to the peace and quiet of the Admirals Club. While sipping my coffee I watched CNN and the horrific videos of the earthquake/tsunami that struck Japan a day earlier. As I got up from my seat I looked at the sofa behind me and saw three Japanese businessmen, their eyes glued to the set, speaking softly with one another. All I could do was bow my head to them as a sign of my sorrow.
Eventually it was time to board my flight. The terminal was still crowded, but not as crowded as earlier. Since I had some time to spare later in the day I spoke to the gate agent and asked if the flight was overbooked; if so I’d volunteer to be bumped to a later flight. She looked at her computer for a moment, smiled and thanked me and said that would not be necessary. I boarded the plane and made the quick flight to DFW.
Once there I took care of my business in less time than I thought it would take and got back to the airport with a few hours to spare. I went to the Admirals Club and used their computer to visit AA.com to see if my return flight was overbooked. The seating chart showed that the flight was full, so I decided to volunteer for the bump on the way back. After a while I grew tired of sitting in the Club and went to Terminal D to walk around and grab a bite to eat.
When I got there I heard the announcement that a flight to Miami was boarding — the gate agent said that the flight was overbooked and they were looking for people who were willing to fly to Miami the following morning. If they were willing to do that American Airlines would put them up in a hotel overnight, pay for their food and transportation, and give them a $500 credit voucher. A few people thought that was a good deal and took her up on the offer.
Ten minutes later I heard an announcement about a flight to Belize. It too was overbooked and they were looking for volunteers who were willing to catch a flight through Miami the next morning, arriving in Belize at 11 a.m. They’d get the same deal (hotel, food, etc.) as the Miami passengers, but they’d get an $800 voucher. There were no takers.
I stood near the gate and chatted with the gate agents, they told me stories of passengers in the past getting bumped to a later flight who then volunteered to be bumped again from that second flight and earned an even bigger voucher from the airline.
As we got closer to boarding time the agent started to make the announcement every 5-10 minutes; they needed five volunteers. Just as the agent said “and we’ll give you an $800 voucher,” a couple walked up to the counter; when they heard the announcement I saw the look in their eyes. Cha-ching!
They confirmed that they would each get a voucher for $800 and when the agent said yes, the man quickly dialed their friend in Belize and said, “Keep the beer on ice, we’ll be there tomorrow!” They were very happy to do this and as the man said to me, “We can fly overseas for $800!” The agent told them that if she had to raise the amount to get other volunteers, she would give them that higher amount too.
Now the agent needed three more volunteers. After getting no response she increased the amount of the voucher to $900, but still got no volunteers. Soon after that they had to begin the boarding process. When it was done there were three people who had hoped to be on that flight but would miss it. I felt very sorry for them, and for the gate agents who had to handle this delicate situation.
There was a husband and wife. They had been up since 3 a.m., got to the St. Louis airport in time for a 6 a.m. flight to DFW and then a connection to an early flight to Belize. Unfortunately, something happened and American was not able to get a pilot for the 6 a.m. flight and it had to be canceled. The couple was re-booked for a later flight to DFW and then this later flight to Belize. The problem was this flight was overbooked so they did not have reservations, they were stand-by.
These poor people had gotten up in the middle of the night, looking forward to their tropical vacation in Belize. Instead their first flight was canceled and now, through no fault of their own, the gate agent had to tell them that they would not be able to fly out on this one either, but the airline could fly them the next day. As you can imagine, they were not the least bit happy to get this news.
The wife was particularly upset, frequently saying “your airline messed up our trip and you have to take care of us!” All the gate agent could do was quietly nod his head and do his best to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, the couple was tired, cranky, and felt like they had been mistreated by American Airlines. They eventually stormed off, saying that they would never fly American again.
I can’t say that I blame them. If I expected to spend a Saturday night in Belize, and then found out I would have to spend it at a hotel in Grapevine, Texas, and lose a day of my vacation, I would have been pretty upset too. I felt sorry for them and for the agent who had to handle this awkward situation.
There was one other passenger they could not book. This lady, who looked like she was in her mid-twenties, explained that she had bought her ticket on short notice when she received word of the death of a relative and had to go to Belize for the funeral. Since she had bought the ticket so late she too was stand-by, and with no one else volunteering to get bumped, she did not have a seat.
The supervisor explained the situation to her as well as he could, that she would fly out the next day. Since this was an involuntary bump she had the choice of a check for $575 that she could spend on anything she wanted, or a $750 flight voucher. (And no, I don’t know why she was not offered the $900 the other people received.) The supervisor was very polite to her, explained what he had done to try to get her on the plane, and made her the offer.
With the death of a relative and all that entailed, the lady was already stressed out. The offer from the supervisor pushed her over the line and she just broke down crying. She tried to talk to him, but by now she was sobbing and could barely speak. When she finally regained her composure she called her family in Belize and, while speaking with them started to cry again. We all felt sorry for her, it was uncomfortable to watch.
She eventually calmed down and the supervisor was able to get her on the flight the next morning. I not only felt sorry for her, I felt sorry for him too. This was a tough situation and he did the best he could to make it right for the passengers.
By now it was getting late and I had to go to terminal C for my flight. I shook hands with the supervisor and wished him well. He and the gate agents had done all they could to help those passengers and it was obvious that they wanted to help and felt bad that they could not do more. American is lucky to have such fine people on their staff.
Me and my bump
I got to my gate and volunteered to be bumped. The agent thanked me, said she could put me on a flight two hours later, and wrote on my boarding pass that I would receive a $300 voucher. Three hundred dollars isn’t bad for two hours! I called my wife, told her I would be late getting home, and added that I would also try for a bump on the later flight. Flights to Austin were overbooked as thousands of people came to town for the South By SouthWest festival.
When it was time to board my flight the agent told me they had enough no-shows that they would not need to bump me. I took the flight back to Austin and was home by 4 p.m.
I had made it to DFW and back without any difficulties and would get some miles added to my AAdvantage Account. I had a new found appreciation for the work the gate agents do and vowed to greet them with a smile the next time I fly. I hope you’ll smile at them too, they sometimes have a thankless job. As you board your next flight greet them with a smile and a “How are you today?” and remember that it’s not easy being a gate agent.
One of the reasons I do mileage runs, in fact the biggest reason I do them, is to earn miles to pay for international travel. My wife and I have used our miles to pay for some long distance trips (Hawaii, Europe, Hong Kong/Thailand) and some closer to home (the Bahamas). Last month Mrs. HappyFlier told me that she had always wanted to visit Rome, Italy, and asked if we had enough miles to pay for that. With more than 150,000 miles in my AAdvantage account I knew we could do it and told her I would take care of it. I expected this to be an easy task, unfortunately it turned out to be a bigger challenge than I expected.
I went to AA.com and saw that American Airlines offers several different ways to use miles for a trip to Europe.
- Economy MileSAAver off peak: 20,000 miles one way coach
- Economy MileSAAver: 30,000 miles one way coach
- Business/First MileSAAver: 50,000 miles one way in business or first class depending on the configuration of the aircraft
- Economy AAnytime: 60,000 miles one way coach
- First Class MileSAAver Peak: 62,500 miles one way first class
- Business/First AAnytime: 100,000 miles one way in business or first class depending on the configuration of the aircraft
- First AAnytime: 125,000 miles first class
I did not have enough miles in the account to pay for the last four categories, so those were eliminated.
I knew we’d have enough to do a Business/First MileSAAver for 50K one way, and Economy MileSAAver off peak coach for 20K for the other part of the trip. I checked AA.com for availability in the 50K category and found that there was not a single day with that option available until December! I was looking at a trip in August/September/October, but even the eight months until October was not enough time to book that category.
So, my next option was to go coach, not my preference, but it was all I could do. The first thing I did was look for a 20K ticket: that was not available until very late in October. We wanted to go sooner so I looked at the 30K trips and found availability for almost every day in September. But there was a catch.
The itinerary for the 30K tickets to Rome was acceptable, flying to either O’Hare or JFK to connect to the Rome flight. The problem was on the return trip. We’d fly back to either O’Hare or JFK, but then have to spend the night at a hotel and get the connecting flight to Austin the next day. That, my friends, was not acceptable. We wanted to fly straight home without a one-day delay. I looked further and saw that I could do that in September but would have to pay 60K for the return trip. Again, not acceptable.
So, I kept looking and finally found a trip to Rome and back in October for 30K each way. We’ll fly from Austin to JFK where we will have the only bad part of the trip, a six- hour layover. Looks like we’ll put the Admirals Club to good use that day! Then we’ll fly to Rome arriving at 10:55 the next morning.
Our return flight leaves Rome at 11:30 a.m. and arrives at O’Hare at 3:10 p.m. We’ll clear customs and be on a 7:40 p.m. flight to Austin, arriving at 10:20 p.m. That is a bit later than I would like, but still much much better than spending the night in an airport hotel. I booked this itinerary, using 120,000 miles (30K each way for each of us).
So, I had reserved my trip, but wondered about some of the categories that were not available to me; when were they available? Seats become available for award booking 330 days in advance. For some routes you better make the reservation that first day or you are out of luck. (A few years ago I booked a business class trip to Hong Kong and Bangkok; I literally called just a few seconds after midnight once the trip became available. Even though I was so prompt I was not able to get my first choice, it was already gone.) For some other routes it is not as important. Which category is Austin-Rome in?
I went to AA.com and looked at flights for next year. From January 1, 2012 to February 4 the Business/First MileSAAver fare (50,000 miles) was only available on two dates. The First Class MileSAAver Peak fare (62,500 miles) wasn’t available on any dates! What about the Economy MileSAAver fare (30,000 miles in coach)? No luck there either, not available on any dates. The Economy MileSAAver off peak (20,000 miles in coach) was available until January 19; if I traveled after that the best rate I could get was 60,000 miles each way in coach, double what I am spending on our trip!
One hundred twenty thousand miles for a coach trip to Europe is absurd! How absurd is it? A few years ago we took the trip to Hong Kong and Bangkok. We flew First Class on American from Austin to Los Angeles. Then we flew Business Class on Cathay Pacific from Los Angeles to Hong Kong; we sat upstairs in a 747, had seats that went almost flat for us to sleep in and had several gourmet meals. Suffice to say this is better than anything we’ll get from American in coach. After a few days in Hong Kong we flew Cathay business class (again on a 747) to Bangkok. Before boarding that flight we had access to Cathay’s spectacular Business Class lounge in Hong Kong which, among other things, featured a wide variety of food including chefs who would prepare the meals from scratch. This is much better than anything than I have ever seen in an Admirals Club. Our return trip was on Japan Airlines Business Class from Bangkok to Tokyo, again with great seats and gourmet meals, then JAL from Tokyo to Chicago with more of the same great service. We flew American First Class from Chicago to Austin and after our treatment on Cathay and JAL we felt like we were on a WalMart loading dock. In all, we flew half-way around the world surrounded by luxury in the air and a the airports. How many miles did I use for that trip? One hundred twenty-five thousand miles, only 5,000 miles more than AA would charge for a coach flight to Europe! As I said, this makes the price for the ticket to Europe seem absurd!
I look at those 50K business and 20K coach fares and wonder — were they ever available? I’m was looking at an itinerary more than 300 days out and still could not find these lower rates. Have they already been booked, or are they not being offered? I just don’t know.
I understand that there are fewer planes in the air, and that fewer seats area available for award travel on each flight, but I did not realize that it would be this difficult to spend my miles.