Category Archives: Airline Inflight Reviews

Experiencing The First Nonstop Flight From San Francisco to Xi’an

By: Rohan Anand / Published: May 16, 2016

United Airlines is no stranger to China, and with demand for Chinese tourism travel to the U.S. at soaring levels, the carrier is creating an even bigger footprint abroad by expanding to secondary Chinese markets. On May 8, 2016, United celebrated history by operating the first transpacific route to Xi’an, located in the Shaanxi province in Northwest China, from the airline’s San Francisco gateway hub.

There was a palpable energy flowing through the international pier at San Francisco airport (SFO). On the departures level at Gate G-94, the waiting area teemed with soothing classical Chinese music, the scent of delicious beef skewers and colorful art displays adorning the walls and ceilings. A hop down a flight of stairs towards the jet way gave further clues into what was abuzz.

On this particular day, United was gearing up to launch the inaugural service from its trans Pacific gateway hub to Xi’an, one of the oldest cities in China, on-board a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. Even though the airline is well-known abroad, especially in China, this celebration was unique. United Flight # 853 would become the first scheduled trans Pacific flight ever to land in Xi’an Xianyang International airport.

Following an elegantly-decorated sign, emboldened in vivid red colors with gray silhouettes of the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China from 210 to 209 B.C.E., I took the escalators down to the departures level, enamored by the incredible effort put forth in showcasing the cultural heritage of Xi’an. SFO airport is already renowned for its cutting-edge facilities in the International Terminal, and the plethora of stunning artwork that beautifies the building from floor to ceiling. Today, it resembled a museum more than an airport, with relics of Chinese heritage in the form of colorful posters, tapestries, low-hanging lanterns and two men dressed as the Terracotta Warriors, impeccably adhering to character.

Welcome sign at gate G-94 with escalators leading down to departures level for flight 853 on May 8, 2016. (Credits: Author)

Welcome sign at gate G-94 with escalators leading down to departures level for flight 853 on May 8, 2016. (Credits: Author)

Artwork and life-size cutouts of the Terracotta warriors of Xi'an. (Credits: Author)

Artwork and life-size cutouts of the Terracotta warriors of Xi’an. (Credits: Author)

Crew of UA 853 takes a photo with the terracotta warriors. (Credits: Author)

Crew of UA 853 takes a photo with the terracotta warriors. (Credits: Author)

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beautiful lanterns suspended from the ceiling. Bravo, Ed Pivik!

Xi’an will be United’s second link to interior mainland China, following the successful launch of the Chicago-based carrier’s service to Chengdu in 2014. The city of Xi’an is home to a population of nearly 14 million residents, inclusive of the entire metropolitan area, and has served as a leading anchor for the economic rival of interior China since the 1990s. Although United intends to serve Xi’an on a seasonal basis initially, with service running thrice weekly through October 27, 2016, the carrier aims to tap into the growing wealth of the Chinese middle class, as well as foreign students traveling to the U.S., to play a role in shaping the success of the flight. United will also launch service to another secondary Chinese city, Hangzhou, approximately 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, on July 13, 2016.

Close to the jet bridge, I was greeted by Ed Pivik, Sales and Events Manager for United, and also the mastermind who brings special events like this to life. Mr. Pivik was hardly breaking a sweat in midst of the hustle and bustle of the gate area, but then again, with several inaugural flights lined up at SFO this year, he must be a pro at this stuff already. He mentioned to me that Chengdu was doing “extremely well” for United, and while Xi’an is more a leisure-oriented market for United than some of its other Asian routes, there is plenty of untapped demand to potentially fill-up the front of the cabin with Chinese citizens having a massive appetite for travel abroad.

Still two hours out from scheduled push-back time, the area was starting to fill up as airline and airport personnel trickled in, smiling and laughing as they snapped photographs of the two men dressed as the Terracotta warriors. Xi’an is famous for its collection of statue sculptures depicting the soldiers and horsemen of Qin Emperor. The statues were discovered in 1974 by Chinese farmers roughly 1 mile east of Qin Emperors tomb. Occasionally, a makeup artist would scurry over and apply a touch-up of face paint and mascara to the two men. One maintained a rigid facial expression, poised and graceful, while the other would point to smartphones and cameras with a curious facial expression, eliciting chuckles from small children and adults alike.

Near the podium, Mr. Pivik greeted and welcomed a crew of smart-looking executives, representing a multitude of stakeholders who worked tirelessly to coordinate the planning and execution of this new route. They were joined by the United Airlines flight and cabin crew members who were scheduled to work the inaugural trip that afternoon. Hugs were exchanged, smiles beamed, cameras flashed and laughter roared.

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The live “terracotta warriors” were a huge hit!

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Passengers helped themselves to delicious Chinese treats at the gate area while waiting for the inaugural flight and listening to the opening remarks

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My best attempt at creating modern Chinese AvGeek artwork

In February 2016, United celebrated 30 years of serving the Chinese market, having purchased Pan Am’s Tokyo hub, and its corresponding routes to Beijing and Shanghai from Tokyo, back in the mid 1980’s. Initially, travelers between the U.S. and China had to make a stop over in Japan before continuing onto either country in both directions, but an Air Services Agreement signed in 1999 permitted a restricted number of U.S. and Chinese carriers to operate nonstop service between the two countries. United launched nonstop service from San Francisco to Shanghai in April 2000, which remains, to date, the oldest-operated nonstop flight from the U.S. to China on an American carrier.

In fact, the early success of United’s San Francisco – Shanghai flight became a paradigm for continued growth in China, as well as the Asia – Pacific region as a whole. Over the years, United built up additional routes from its San Francisco, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles and Washington Dulles hubs to Shanghai and Beijing, and once it consummated its merger with Continental Airlines in 2010, it gained nonstop access between New York and Beijing and Shanghai via Continental’s Newark hub.

Post-merger with Continental, United was quick to take advantage of the shift in tourism trends within the Republic of China, as it evolved from a closed to an open environment for inbound and outbound travelers. Combined with the enhanced economics of next-generation aircraft, namely Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, United began to look beyond congested airports in Beijing and Shanghai and onward to secondary markets with upwards of 10 million inhabitants. Faster visa processing times and the relative prosperity of China’s middle class made it clear that there was a high concentration of pent-up demand in other Chinese cities, and the 787 Dreamliner was perfectly suited to launch, “long, thin routes” to markets like Xi’an, Chengdu and Hangzhou that can be viably served 3-4 times per week from the U.S.

United hasn’t been alone in growing its presence between the U.S. and China: both American and Chinese carriers alike have pounced on liberalized route authorities to add seats, frequencies and new routes in the past five years. In 2012, there were 21 daily trans Pacific flights between U.S. and Chinese airports. By the end of 2016, that number will have doubled to 42 daily round trips. The operating efficiency of the 787, moreover, has made many routes possible, such as San Jose to Beijing, Boston to Shanghai and Seattle to Shenzhen

United leapfrogs its primary domestic competitors, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, in terms of its market share between the U.S. and China. The carrier offers 73 weekly flights from six U.S. gateways – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark, Chicago O’Hare, Washington Dulles and Guam – to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi’an and soon Hangzhou, come July 2016. It also boasts an advantageous partnership with Air China, the largest Chinese carrier serving the U.S. on a seat and frequency basis, as both are members of Star Alliance. Comparatively, Delta offers 41 weekly flights from Tokyo Narita, Detroit, Seattle and Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai, while American offers 35 weekly flights from Dallas/Ft. Worth, Chicago O’Hare and Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai.

Today’s inaugural flight included a special press conference with several keynote speakers, representing United Airlines, the City of San Francisco, San Francisco International Airport and San Francisco’s General Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. As passengers excitedly snapped photos with the Terracotta Warriors, munched on sumptuous noodles, sipped on iced Pomegranate and Green Tea and enjoyed fortune cookies with a tagline, “welcome Xi’an to United’s network,” few seats in the gate area were occupied as everyone wanted to get a piece of the action.

Around 12:15 pm local time, Mr. Pivik, running the entire operation like clockwork, announced that the inaugural program was scheduled to begin, and passengers congregated around a small stage and podium to listen to the keynote speakers before the official ribbon cutting.  Today’s “master of ceremonies,” was Mr. Mike Hanna, Vice President of United’s San Francisco hub.

An affable, energetic man with a booming voice that captivated the audience, Mr. Hanna delivered a warm welcome to all guests and thanked them for their patronage to join United on its inaugural flight to Xi’an. He remarked that this was United’s second inaugural service to a new foreign market from SFO this year, following an earlier launch of nonstop service to Tel Aviv, Israel on March 30. He also mentioned that this was also the second inaugural service that United was celebrating this week, as the airline launched nonstop flights to Nashville on May 3.

“For those of you who want to enjoy some country music,” he added, which was received with a several chuckles from a predominantly Chinese group of passengers.

Mr. Hanna remarked that while this is the second iteration in a string of new services from SFO on United to various global points, with Singapore starting June 1, 2016, Auckland on July 1, 2016 and Hangzhou, China on July 13, 2016, he underscored that the Xi’an service remains a top priority for United given the massive importance of Chinese tourism in the United States and vice versa. Cities like Xi’an, previously without direct links to the North American continent, will now be able to draw larger tourism crowds given the enhanced connectivity to San Francisco and beyond via United’s gateway hub at SFO.

Mr. Hanna then introduced Marcel Fuchs, Vice President of Atlantic and Pacific Sales at United, another dynamic personality who stirred up the crowd with his energy. Mr. Fuchs introduced the four Captains who would be flying the inaugural flight to Xi’an, including the Chief Pilot of United’s San Francisco pilot base. He drew parallels to the launch of United’s nonstop flight to Chengdu in 2014, and the significance of focusing on growth in China beyond Shanghai and Beijing. Consistent with that trend, United is creating more channels for customers by adding Xi’an and Hangzhou to its route network, and continuing the tradition of serving, “the beautiful country and people of China.”

But beyond tourism, Mr. Fuchs mentioned that there are other reasons to connect the U.S. to Xi’an: it is critical for developing business, trade, leisure and student exchange ties between the U.S. and China. United States President Barack Obama and the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, have declared 2016 as, “the year of China – U.S. tourism,” with more than 3 million Chinese tourists expected to arrive on U.S. shores by year end.

Finally, Mr. Fuchs noted that this flight would be operated in conjunction with Air China, a valued Star Alliance customer, and how the route connected Silicon Valley with Xi’an’s geographical location at the Eastern end of the Silk Road.

Next to join the team on the stage was Luo Linquan, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco, who greeted the crowd by wishing everyone a, “Happy Mother’s Day,” speaking in Mandarin. His smile was beaming from ear to ear. For Consul General Luo, this was an extremely happy day for the future of U.S. relations with China, and having the privilege to join in the celebrations of the inaugural flight was a big pleasure for him.

Consul General Luo mentioned that in 2015, more than 4.75 million tourists traveled between the U.S. and China, including 2.1 million U.S. tourists visiting China, and 2.7 million Chinese tourists visiting the U.S. Breaking down this figure, this equates to roughly 30,000 people flying each day between the two countries. Reiterating Mr. Fuch’s remarks about 2016 being, “the year of tourism” for China, he expects that number to exceed 5 million visitors, in total, by year end, facilitated, of course, by United’s growth in mainland China. He even alluded to how his sisters have started visiting the U.S. in recent years for extended stays, enjoying the, “beauty of San Francisco,” and feeling at home with nearly 1 million people of Chinese descent living in the Bay Area.

From a commercial perspective, the number of flights between the San Francisco and China is growing at an astonishing speed. In 2013, the number stood at 5 daily departures to Beijing and Shanghai, whereas in 2016, that number will have more than doubled with new links to Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan, Xi’an and Hangzhou added to SFO’s route map. Three of these (Chengdu, Xi’an and Hangzhou) will be flown on United, while China Southern operates the services to Wuhan and Guangzhou.

After Consul General Luo spoke, it was time for Mark Chandler, Director of San Francisco Mayor’s Office of International Trade and Commerce, to take the stage.

“This is a great day – not just because it’s Mother’s Day, but because we’re flying to Xi’an for the first time,” Mr. Chandler remarked. “[United], you really are helping the city by creating great economic channels, and we’re seeing that development every day. I’ve been to Xi’an, and not only are the Terracotta warriors one of the largest bucket list items, but there are also hundreds of incredibly historic artifacts and places to go, and the food is incredible, particularly Xi’an noodles.”

 The final speaker for the media event prior to the ribbon cutting was Ivar Satero, SFO Chief Operating Officer and soon-to-be new Airport Director.

“The success of this flight is so important to the partnership of SFO and United, all over the world,” he mentioned. “United also commits and promises incredible economic benefits to the Bay Area. At SFO, we pride ourselves on serving the world, and being the U.S. airport with more flights to mainland China than any other U.S. airport, with 73 flights to China per week (over 10 per day), this flight will contribute to the 35% year-over-year growth to China.”

He also touted that SFO airport was also the first U.S. airport to create a dedicated Chinese website, with www.flysfo.cn launched in 2014. In addition, he mentioned the exciting 10-year capital development program in the pipeline to make significant improvements to SFO airport, including United’s Terminal 3 (used to house domestic operations), its international terminal and a new luxury Grand Hyatt hotel to be built on-site with 350 rooms.

“It’s a pleasure to be a part of this celebration,” he added.

Following the speeches, the speakers, as well as Mr. Pivik and several of the United crew members, lined up to take a photo before the official ribbon cutting. Mr. Hanna made the closing remarks thanking the crew, the ground operations personnel, the airport staff, gate agents, terracotta warriors, media and fellow speakers.

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Luo Linquan, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco, speaks at the podium adjacent to Mike Hanna, Vice President of United’s San Francisco hub

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Ribbon-cutting ceremony with United crew on the inaugural as well as speakers for the media event

Then, the official boarding process began.

Following visa checks prior to entering the jetway, guests on the inaugural received a gift compliments of United, including a business card holder along with a thank-you note.

On-board, I settled into my seat and was warmly greeted by the lovely crew serving the BusinessFirst cabin that afternoon, including Gavin, in-flight service manager, and Noreen, who would be my serving my row throughout most of the flight.

We had a long taxi out to the runway, and while we encountered a bit of a hold-up prior to take off given the heavy inbound traffic into SFO at that hour, the views of the parallel landings onto SFO’s runways were stunning.

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Seat 3K in BusinessFirst on United’s 787 Dreamliner

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from left to right: gift handed to all enplaning passengers, amenity kit and menu for UA 853

Once airborne, passengers relaxed into their seats for the 12+ hour flight. Our routing would take us directly west of the California coast for a few hundred miles, before heading up Northwest to meet up with the Alaskan coastline, over Siberia, Mongolia and then straight into Xi’an.

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Crossing the Pacific Ocean

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Crossing north to the Alaskan coastline

Lunch service commenced approximately one hour into the flight. The menu for today’s flight included 5 courses for the main meal, a mid-flight snack (both a hot option as well as self-serve bar) and a hot breakfast prior to arrival.

Menu: Inaugural service from SFO to XIY

To Begin

  • Prosciutto melon with garnishes
  • Fresh seasonal greens with tomatoes, kalamata olives, parmesan cheese and croutons with a choice of ranch or italian dressing

Main

  • Tenderloin of beef: asiago broth, brown butter gnocchi and green asparagus, OR
  • Kung pao chicken: chile sauce, bell pepper, Chinese broccoli with mushrooms and steamed rice OR
  • Newburg-style seafood: fillet of turbot and shrimp with creamy lobster sauce, green lentils and mixed vegetables, OR
  • Stir-fry noodles: beef in oyster sauce, dim sum and bell pepper.

To Finish

  • International Cheese Selection, including grapes and crackers served with Port
  • Gelato with your choice of toppings

Mid-Flight Snack

  • Chinese-style soup, with noodles, won ton, shrimp, scallops, vegetables and mushrooms in a savory broth

Prior to arrival

  • Pepper Jack cheese omelet with black beans, corn, roasted pepper with red skin and sweet potatoes, chicken sausage and corn and black bean medley
  • Congee: traditional Chinese-style rice porridge with chicken, corn and mushrooms
  • Cereal and Banana with milk

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Landing in Xi’an was smooth, with stunning views of the city and surrounding farmlands. Taxi to the gate was short, and after we disembarked, special guests, media, the crew and Mr. Fuchs (who came on the inaugural) headed down to the tarmac to take photos by the Dreamliner aircraft. The plane looked radiant in the late afternoon Chinese sun, and just as it had been in the departures area at SFO roughly 14 hours before, the ground staff at Xianyang airport greeting us was beaming with pride upon receiving the inaugural flight.

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Waking up somewhere over Siberia…

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descent into Xi’an

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UA Flight Crew – 853 in Xi’an

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United had sent out a team of personnel to Xi’an in advance to accommodate passengers and help train the staff for the inaugural services. Some came from world headquarters, while others were station agents based out of some of United’s other Asian cities, such as Shanghai and Tokyo. The incredibly hospitable staff at Xi’an handed out gifts and posed for selfies as the refreshing breeze blew in our faces.

The highlight of the trip was rolling out the big red and blue banners that proudly said, “Celebration of United Airlines’ Xi’an to San Francisco Inaugural Flight,” as well as, “HNA Aviation Technic Welcome United Airlines First Flight to Xi’an, China.”

It was a journey of a lifetime. You felt part of a team, on both sides of the ocean, from two completely separate worlds. Knowing that the final delivery on United’s inaugural flight to Xi’an was met with that level of energy and positivism, I have no doubt that United’s mission to expand its strategic footprint in China will be a resounding success.

Special thanks to Mary Clark, United Airlines Media Relations.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article, as well as any of Rohan’s published articles on Airways, are strictly his and do not reflect opinions of his employer in any capacity.


0a2a71aRohan believes there is fate behind his #AvGeek fervor: on the day he was born, his grandmother had to fly on the supersonic Concorde from London to New York in order to arrive in time for his birth. The rest is all history. He has been blogging since 2010, and his content covers a broad spectrum of topics related to the global airline and air transport industry, including travel tools and technology, evaluations of airline mergers, acquisitions and restructurings, network and commercial strategies, loyalty programs and in-flight product reviews.


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From Russia (and Italy) with Amor: Interjet’s Experience with the Superjet SSJ 100 and Trip Report

Story and Photos (unless otherwise indicated) by: Chris Sloan / Published: March 4, 2016

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Avialeasing’s AN-12s are a common sight at Opa-locka Airport. (Photo Credits: Maarten Visser via Commons)

As happens with many AvGeeks, Russian-built aircraft have long held a certain fascination with me. It wasn’t that long ago, from my home-base in Miami, that Aeroflot’s IL-62s could be seen and heard shrieking across South Florida skies. Nearby Opa-locka Airport is home to several Russian freighters, namely AN-12s and a handful of AN-2s were flown here to a self-imposed exile by fleeing pilots from Cuba.

Cubana was the first operator of the wide-body Ilyushin Il-96 outside of Russia. Cubana also recently just ordered 3 IL-96-400s to supplement its fleet of 3 IL-96-300s. CU operates these on their Intercontinental routes to Europe such as Moscow, Paris, Madrid and London.They seat 18 in First Class "Tropical Class" and 244 in Economy.

Cubana was the first operator of the wide-body Ilyushin Il-96 outside of Russia, and plans are to expand the fleet up to six with three ex Aeroflot aircraft to come. The aircraft seat 18 in Business “Tropical Class” and 244 in Economy.

And talking about Cuba… following a few recent trips to the island (although not onboard Eastern Block aircraft) my curiosity was rekindled. Cubana retired its Yak 42s and IL62s a few years ago. The carrier is currently operating four Il-96-300s dedicated to its long-haul network, four TU-204s (two of them freighters) mainly deployed to high demand routes such as Caracas in Venezuela, as well as the AN-158.  Along with the Il-96, Cubana happens to be the sole operator of these types on this side of the world. With all this Soviet Metal housed nearby, it is frustrating that I have missed my window to fly many of “the classics”.

Cubana has 4 Tupolev Tu-204s in their fleet. The Boeing 757 look-alike Tu-204s were first delivered in 2007; 2 in passenger and 2 in cargo configuration. The passenger versions seat 12 in First and 212 economy.

Cubana has four Tupolev Tu-204s in their fleet. The Boeing 757 look-alike Tu-204s were first delivered in 2007; 2 in passenger and 2 in cargo configuration. The passenger versions seat 12 in First and 212 economy.

RELATED: Flying Behind Cuba’s Coconut Curtain

TRIP REPORT: Flying The New Eastern Airlines to Cuba

To satiate this affliction and with the urging of some adventurous friends, I have made a positive though admittedly anxious step in booking a Merlin Tours trip to the DPPK later in the year, to sample flying things built in the former “USSairR”.  In the meantime as a sort of airborne appetizer, I decided to embark on my first Russian onboard flying encounter.

The SSJ 100 in its house livery colors. (Photo Credits: SuperJet International)

The SSJ 100 in its house livery colors. (Photo Credits: SuperJet International)

My indoctrination into Russian airliners would be served in the form of the fascinatingly curious Russian / Italian regional aircraft that is known by various names: The Sukhoi Superjet, SSJ 100, SuperJet International 100/95, Sukhoi 100, or any combination thereof. It has been sometimes derisively been nicknamed the “Embraerski”, “CSerieski”, or “ERJski” though the aircraft is hardly a facsimile of those. It is truly its own unique beast – an aircraft designed to appeal equally to Eastern and Western operators, and more specifically globally compete directly and favorably with the incumbents Embraer and Bombardier as well as new players on the scene like Mitsubishi.

RELATED: Battle of the Regionals and Future Prospects – CSeries vs ERJ vs MRJ vs SSJ 

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Western suppliers provide most of the components used in the manufacture of the SSJ-100 (Image Credits: SuperJet International)

The SSJ 100 is truly the first Russian aircraft built to be seriously marketed to airlines in the West and furthermore, being a partnership with a western company – Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi. Sukhoi, a company known more for military then civil aircraft, chose to equip the aircraft with a broad compliment of Western technology and design from companies such a B/E Aerospace, Honeywell, Thales, Goodrich, with even Boeing serving as a consultant in the early days.

INTERJET SSJ-100 ON RAMP AT MIAMI 2015-9This East-meets-West arrangement extends to the SSJ’s bespoke engines as well. The PowerJet SaM 146 are a joint venture between NPO Saturn of Russia and SNECMA of France. Though not “full on” Russian in the classic Tupolev, Antonov, Ilyushin, or Yakovlev sense, the bulk of the Superjet was designed in the East and the assembly line is located in the facilities of Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Association (KnAAPO) in the Russian Far East, while the completion center is located in Venice, Italy, where the passenger cabin and internal fittings are installed. With eager anticipation, I considered this an excellent first foray into Russian airliners.

Fortunately, one of the three flights the SSJ-100 operates on a regular basis into the United States is to Miami, my home airport (the others being Houston and San Antonio). With minimal muss or fuss, I could make a day trip out of it – flying from Miami to Cancun and back throwing in a little beach and exploration time to boot. And as a bonus, tick off another airline, the well regarded Mexican LCC Interjet.

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The first Interjet’s SSJ-100 rolls out of the Manufacturer’s Completion Center in Venice. (Photo Credits: SuperJet International)

Interjet is currently the sole Western carrier operating the SSJ-100, though Dublin-based CityJet is due to commence in 2016. Belgian carrier VLM cancelled their order recently however. I had heard many good things about Interjet being known flatteringly as the jetBlue of Mexico so I was eager to put all these confluence of contrails to the test.

RELATED: CityJet to Take Delivery of 15 Superjet SSJ100

RELATED: Sukhoi’s Superjet Searches for More Western Sales

RELATED: Interjet – A Brief History and Flight Review

A Long Way to Go From Russia to Mexico

Before we delve into the actual flight, a little refresher into the Interjet / SSJ back-story. The SSJ had a rather troubled development period and eventual Entry Into Service (EIS). Compounding this was skepticism of any Russian-built aircraft being truly ready to take on the “Best of the West”. Even with the backing of the Russian government, which considers it the most important civil aircraft program, the Superjet was one of only a few new civil non-amphibious jet airliner developed in the post-Soviet Russian era.

The TU-204 and AN-148 were developed post-1991 but have never been taken or marketed seriously in the West. With the historically poor reputation of Russian built aircraft came enhanced scrutiny and hurdles to clear, particularly in perception.

Early on, through a combination of bad luck and bizarre circumstances, the SSJ program did itself no favors. Following the first flight of the prototype in May 2008, it would take nearly three years for the aircraft to enter commercial service. The flight test program and production challenges as has become the norm with clean sheet airliners (shades of the CSeries), resulted in delaying first deliveries from a way too optimistic late 2008 by nearly 3 years with the first Sukhoi SSJ entering service on April 21, 2011 between Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport and Zvarnots International Airport for launch customer Armavia. The Armenian airline’s discontent with its 2 SSJ’s quickly mounted and by August 2012, the pair were returned to Superjet. The airline’s rocky finances resulted in it ceasing operations in the following year – hardly an auspicious beginning with a prestigious operator.

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CGI Image of Armavia’s SSJ-100. The defunct carrier was the launch operator. (Image Credits: SuperJet International)

The plot worsened when Aeroflot claimed its first six Superjet 100s were only operating 3.9 hours per day on average instead of the standard fleet utilization of 8 to 9 hours due to breakdowns, technical failures, and delayed parts deliveries.  Aeroflot not only pursued Superjet for compensation but would later swap the first 10 of its SSJ fleet for upgraded models, beginning in 2014.

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SSJ-100 in Aeroflot colors. (Photo Credits: SuperJet International)

As if the first two customers failed to ignite any confidence, a swift succession of accidents contributed to further damage the aircraft’s reputation, even if not the fault of the plane itself. On May 9, 2012 an SSJ-100 on a demonstration flight with 37 passengers and 8 Russian crew members crashed after hitting a mountain south of Jakarta, Indonesia, killing everyone aboard. The accident report found that the aircraft’s collision avoidance system was functioning properly, but was ignored by the chief test pilot, who was at the controls at the moment of the crash.

Pilot error was again a major factor in an accident just over a year later when on  July 21, 2013, an SSJ prototype landed gear-up at Keflavik International Airport, Iceland. During the testing of the automatic landing system, the landing gear did not deploy. Fortuitously, no one aboard was seriously injured and the aircraft was repaired and flew again by the end of December of that year.

RELATED: Sukhoi’s Superjet Searches for More Western Sales

Enter Interjet

INTERJET SSJ-100 ON RAMP AT MIAMI 2015-6In 2011, rapidly-growing Interjet then only six years old and exclusively an Airbus A320 operator, made history when it became the first western operator to place an order for the SSJ, or indeed any new Russian-built airliner. In a statement to AirwaysNews, “Interjet opted for Superjet 100 because it was the aircraft that was best suited to our business model as one of our objectives was to reinforce connectivity in medium-density routes.”  No doubt, very favorable pricing and support played a significant role in compelling a frontline western carrier take such a bold risk. The eyes of the aviation world indeed would be fixed on Interjet and a smooth entry into service of the SSJ in a true make it or break it story. If the aircraft succeeded with Interjet then the SSJ had a fighting chance. But if the first two years of the Sukhoi’s teething pains rough service entry were repeated anew with Interjet then it would be DOA at least as far as western sales were concerned.

RELATED: Interjet – A Brief History and Inflight Review

Interjet, with a very high fleet utilization rate and excellent reputation had to be concerned behind all the festive atmosphere which accompanied the first delivery in July 2013 at the Paris Air Show and then the reveal to employees and media at the airline’s Toluca, Mexico base. To its credit, Interjet didn’t show any concern publicly as is often the case where disagreements between customers and manufacturers are played out in the press. In fact, in a vote of confidence the airline’s first SSJ was registered XA-JLG. The initials J.L.G. belonging to the CEO of the privately held company Jose Luis Garza Alvarez. XA-JLG, the 23rd Superjet off the line, first flew nearly a year before in September 2012.

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Jose Luis Garza (Left) and Nazario Cauceglia (Right) in the delivery ceremony of Interjet’s First SSJ-100 at the 2013 Paris Air Show. (Photo Credits: Roberto Leiro)

Photo by: Jason Rabinowitz / @AirlineFlyer

Interjet SSJ100 Delivery Ceremony in Mexico. (Photo Credits: Jason Rabinowitz)

RELATED: Interjet Receives It’s First Sukhoi Superjet SSJ 100 in Paris

RELATED: Interjet Celebrates Arrival of It’s First SSJ 100 in Mexico

After two months of familiarization flights, it was crunch time as Interjet inaugurated operations of the SSJ on September 18, 2013 with two aircraft. XA-JLG, the aircraft I flew, took the honors of the first flight (3150) with a 7:37am departure from Mexico City on an hour sortie to Torreon, Mexico. To the pleasant surprise of many and relief on the part of Superjet International, Interjet reported a resounding operational success with the SSJ.

INTERJET SSJ-100 ON RAMP AT MIAMI 2015-12A report documented by aviation consultancy AirInsight.com on the first anniversary of the EIS was similarly glowing “On September 18, 2013 the first SSJ100 entered into service with the Mexican airline. Up to the anniversary date, Interjet’s fleet logged over than 12,000 flight hours and 11,400 cycles. The maximum utilization in one day was over 11 flight hours.  Since EIS Interjet’s SSJ100  fleet confirmed outstanding results in terms of performance in the typical high-altitude environment of Mexico.  According to the airline’s operational reliability report, the SSJ100 reports technical dispatch reliability at an average 99%. Over the year of operations, the SSJ100 fleet has not logged any cancellations due to technical reasons. The fleet time leader is the first delivered SSJ100 (MSN 95023), which logged more than 2400 FH and 2300 FC starting from the EIS in September 18, 2013.”

After much anticipation, Interjet quietly bought the SSJ to U.S. soil. On September 12, 2014 the LCC opened the Monterrey, Mexico to San Antonio, Texas, just the type of short-haul, pioneering mission the airplane was intended for.

Since then, Interjet has gone on to take delivery of 18 of its 30 aircraft on order with likely intentions to purchase more. According to an airline spokesperson, the airline is extremely pleased with the SSJ: “We have found it to have operational reliability. The plane’s operating efficiency has enabled us to open new routes, increase flight frequencies during the high season and optimize our network of routes and their costs during the low season.”

When asked about the passenger experienced and if any passengers even noticed they were flying on such a unique aircraft, Interjet responded “Our passengers have remarked that the aircraft’s highlights are its cabin width, generous carry-on luggage compartments and entertainment system.”

When we spoke to flight SSJ fight crew, they remarked that the platform was even more user friendly and intuitive then fleet sister aircraft Airbus A320’s. The spacious cockpit, very responsive side-stick controllers with feedback, large screened avionics displays, agile performance, and stable flying characteristics especially during weather were cited as the positives. The only negative I was able to gather, but one which I echo, was the somewhat higher level of cabin noise over the Airbus A320 and other competitive aircraft.

INTERJET SSJ-100 FLIGHT DECK 2015-3

INTERJET ROUTE MAP 2015-1As of December 31, 2015, Interjet Superjets are currently flying from Mexico City to Aguascalientes, Campeche, La Paz, León (in the Bajío region), Manzanillo, Mazatlán, Minatitlán, Palenque, Reynosa, San Luis Potosí, Torreón, Tuxtla Gutiérrez and Tampico.  They are also operating from Toluca to Monterrey, Acapulco, Zihuatanejo and San José del Cabo.  Internationally, they are flying from Cancún to Miami and Havana, from Monterrey to Havana, and Houston and San Antonio to Monterrey. Las Vegas is reportedly next to be added.

SuperJet Trip Report: Interjet Flight 4967 Miami to Cancun

With a light pre-Christmas workload back at the office on the spur of the moment, I decided to sample Interjet and the SSJ-100 myself. Fearing limited availability during the holiday season on the 1 MIA-CUN-MIA round-trip per day, I was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of availability. The website was user-friendly and simple to navigate so no problem there. I paid $454 including taxes with 7 days notice. This was a bit more expensive then the other player on the route, American Airlines. But, befitting “The jetBlue of Mexico”, Interjet includes amenities in the single, base fare regardless of status: 2 pieces of luggage weighing up to 55 pound apiece, 34″ of legroom at every seat, and some other niceties we will mention later.

INTERJET SSJ-100 ON RAMP AT MIAMI 2015-4Of note, the airline’s MIA-CUN passenger mix is much more Mexican VFR (Visiting Friends and Relatives) or connecting international traffic from other carriers. The airline code-shares with American in some markets though not in this route, but is not currently a part of any alliance. Interjet is a small player at Miami having begun service in 2013 but the 5 daily flights, including Mexico City in direct competition with American and AeroMexico run at a high load factor with the service being a major factor.

INTERJET SSJ-100 TRIP MIAMI FIDS 2015-1I was not checking luggage but did wish to pre-board to photograph the cabin and then had prior arrangements to photograph the ramp as well. The mobile app and lack of kiosks were irrelevant to me as I had to present a passport anyway. I therefore arrived at the deserted check-in counter at 7:00am for my 8:15am departure.  Was I late or had the flight been cancelled? Turns out most of the passengers had already checked in and were at the gate, as most checked luggage and this being an international flight were asked to arrive up to 2 hours early. Check-in was effortless, aided by reminder emails leading up to the day of departure reminding me of my itinerary. And surprise! A reminder that if i needed to change my flight, it would only cost $25 – talk about customer friendly!

I arrived at the gate at Concourse F, which instantly bought back nostalgia when this was the domain of Pan Am and then United’s Latin American hub operations. After a quick photo session on the ramp and cabin, I participated in the very orderly boarding process. With a no over-selling policy, free checked luggage, and only 80 of the 93 seats occupied, the boarding process was smooth. Boarding was accomplished in 5 zones from front to back.

INTERJET SSJ-100 BULKHEAD LOGO 2015-1First impressions were very favorable. The Italian designed Pininfarina designed cabin oozed elegance with its Interjet by “Pininfarina branding”, grey leather seating, capacious overhead bins, soft lighting, wide cabin (the same 10 foot width of an MD-80 or CSeries), and tall 6 foot ceilings certainly set the stage for a nice, albeit short flight. If you blinked, you could be forgiven for thinking you were on a jetBlue aircraft though the 3-2 seating and drop down IFE’s in lieu of setback LiveTV would be a gentle reminder that this wasn’t a B6 flight.

INTERJET SSJ-100 CABIN 2015-1

INTERJET SSJ-100 CABIN 2015-6

INTERJET SSJ-100 CABIN 2015-2

Our two flight attendants provided gracious smiles and assistance to those needing help with securing their luggage. I settled into my padded, not slimline seat 1A on the bulkhead which has the same 34″ legroom and 18.3″ wide seat throughout. The aircraft can seat up to 108 passengers in a dense seat pitch of 30″ configuration or 98 passengers in a more typical 32″ cabin. Interjet, in its passenger friendly version opted to go with just 98 seats. One wonders if INTERJET SSJ-100 GRIMY CABIN 2015-16like jetBlue, if and when Interjet goes public, will they eventually mimic jetBlue and indeed the industry in offering a more stripped down fare with tighter seat pitch and less baggage allowance? I noticed the seats, arm rests, and cabin panels were a bit worn, surprising considering this aircraft – the first delivered to the airline – had only been in service for a little over 2 years. I didn’t notice much in the way of grime and the plane was pretty clean, so one has to wonder if the materials are up to par?

With our full compliment of passengers on board, we pushed back 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The drop-down IFE screens displayed a well produced bi-lingual safety video, but then switched to the moving map display. I was a bit dismayed that Interjet’s well known cockpit camera wasn’t activated on this aircraft.

INTERJET SSJ-100 WING IN FLIGHT 2015-1Four minutes ahead of schedule, we were lined up on MIA’s runway 8L and ready to roll. As the throttles spooled up the PowerJet SaM 146’s somewhere near their maximum 16,000 pound take-off thrust, came a sudden reminder that this was a Russian aircraft – The SSJ’s noise level was noticeably more noisy then other current generation aircraft. As an AvGeek, I found this cacophony seductive. This impression of the take-off roll volume would be only somewhat attenuated in the cruise. In a brief 23 seconds, we were airborne and shorty thereafter beginning a gradual turn to the Southeast towards the Florida Keys. 5 minutes into the climb, the seatbelt sign was extinguished. And by 23 minutes we had reached our cruising altitude of 34,000 feet at a speed of 510mph / 443 kts.

Before the service began, this gave me a chance to check-out the lavatories. Why the lavs? Both the forward and aft lavs on the SSJ are cavernous, especially for an aircraft of its size. The aft lav boasts a big pink placard indicating its Women’s Only “Exclusivo Mujeres” which is as far as I know, unique to Interjet. I suppose this is great if you’re a woman, but men have to walk all the way up to the front of the cabin should they wish to use the facilities, which showed its challenges during the service and longer lines forming at the front of the cabin. I applaud the innovation and marketing creativity, but am not sure this is as passenger friendly in practice as it sounds.

Inflight entertainment is an areas where Interjet fell short of expectations – even on a short flight. The drop down screens display rather innocuous programming punctuated by the occasional moving map. On these flights, the programming was a Mexican version of a show called “Just for Laughs” which didn’t really require any understanding of Spanish. What was annoying was that audio for the show was pumped obtrusively through the entire cabin – there are no headphone jacks on the SSJ so the only way to escape it was to wear your own. The inflight magazine was entirely in Spanish, but the quality of content, photography, and paper stock was very premium. Still, the glorious scenery of the Florida Keys, Straits of Florida, Cuba, and the Yucatan Peninsula through the amply sized windows of the SSJ more then satisfied.

INTERJET SSJ-100 IFE MOVING MAP SCREEN 2015-2An abbreviated, but welcome catering service arrived 40 minutes into the flight. With less than 90 minutes,  the granola bars or potato chips were appreciated. But what really surprised is free alcohol even on morning flights. For those so inclined, a full liquor and beer bar service sans wine was offered at no charge. The cabin crew were generous – handing over full bottles of soft drinks without having to ask.

After an altogether too short 30 minutes at cruise, we began our descent into Cancun which afforded us a low altitude tour of the City, surrounding jungle, spectacular coral waters, and the beautiful Isle of Mujeres. We touched down at 9:32am local time, after a smooth uneventful 1 hour and 19 minutes in the air.

Just after deplaning via airstrips at Cancun’s Terminal 2, my iPhone alert buzzed indicating a newly received email. The first e-mail I received? Not surprisingly, a thank you note from Interjet and a request for a short survey. Now that’s a first – that fast.

INTERJET SSJ-100 DEBOARD VIA AIRSTAIRS IN CANCUN 2015-1In summary, Interjet provides an upgraded single-class economy service not that far removed in concept from jetBlue of the last decade. Missing are the LiveTV, in-flight connectivity, a broader catering offering, and a premium Mint Cabin. In a number of subtle features, Interjet reveals surprises and amenities that its inspiring carrier does not offer. The SSJ-100 platform itself, apart from being a bit loud, was very smooth felt similar to an Embraer E-Jet but with design touches that surprised and delighted. None of the quirkiness associated with classic or even more modern Russian aircraft was present.

Both Interjet and the Superjet deserve high marks. Only 10 years old, Interjet has become a major player in Mexico and Central America with distinguishing service and operational service. The plucky Mexican airline and well conceived Russian aircraft seem to have entered into a very positive marriage. As the SSJ approaches its 100th delivery, Interjet’s indisputable success with the Superjet could spur on more orders from the west and the east as well. The path won’t be easy according to industry analyst Robert W. Mann, Jr “Given the small narrowbody competition and their global support structure, any new program will find it difficult to compete, whether that is the SSJ, MRJ, even the Series.” Nevertheless, competitors in the crowded 90-110 seat market segment should not write-off this unlikely but potent Russian-Italian competitor.

As for me, my true Russian flying experience will just have to wait until that trip to the DPRK, that is assuming things calm down on the Korean Peninsula.

Disclosure: The author paid for his own trip, but as always the opinions are the author’s alone.


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Chris Sloan is founder of AirwaysNews.com and a veteran reporter and aviation expert with a keen historical bent and an extensive collection of aviation memorabilia and photos. In early February 2003, he created Airchive.com. Contact him at chris.sloan@airwaysnews.com


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EXCLUSIVE: Onboard the Inaugural Airbus A320neo Low-Key Lufthansa Launch

Story, Photos and Videos by: Andreas Spaeth / Published: January 25, 2016

The Airbus A320neo has officially entered commercial airline service today. The extremely low-key non-event caught almost all passengers of Lufthansa flight 100 by surprise this morning when they flew from Lufthansa’s main base Frankfurt to its second German hub in Munich.

The aircraft, registered D-AINA (MSN 6801) was handed over and delivered, also on short notice, last week from the Airbus factory in Hamburg-Finkenwerder after problems were discovered on the acceptance flight, that had to be rectified by Airbus. Originally the delivery to Lufthansa had been planned for December 22, then pushed to the week between Christmas and New Years. When that didn’t happen, Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier  said  at the Annual Airbus Press Conference on January 12th that the delivery would happen “within 2 weeks”.  After delivery took place last week, the first flight was set for Sunday January 24 from Frankfurt to Hamburg, but postponed on short notice due to “valve problems” in one engine, according to a Lufthansa spokeswoman.

RELATED: Updated: Lufthansa’s First Airbus A320neo Entry-Into-Service Delayed

RELATED: Airbus A320neo: Delivered!

Everything about the aircraft that is supposedly the new bread-and-butter plane of Airbus and many airlines in the decades to come is low key, even on the outside it’s just ordinarily announced as “Airbus A320-200” with no mention of the neo branding. At least this is a fact with the launch customer, which Lufthansa became somehow accidentally, after Qatar Airways refused the role it was initially supposed to play. This was due to minor early operational shortcomings of the new Pratt & Whitney PW1100G Geared Turbo Fan engines, which affected turn-around times when the engine was started cold.

REPORT: Airbus to Swap A320neo Deliveries, Lufthansa Becomes Launch Operator

Lufthansa stepped in as launch customer despite these foibles as it has its own maintenance division Lufthansa Technik close by in Hamburg, able to support and mature the engine while the aircraft is already in line service. Original launch customer Qatar couldn’t and wasn’t willing to do the same, Lufthansa officials privately acknowledge. These much bigger engines, supposed to save at least 15% of fuel consumption and being much more silent, are at the core of the of the A320neo’s mission. Standing besides the PW1100G engines, measuring 81 inches (2.06 meters) in fan diameter versus just 56.7 inches (1.44 meters) with an A320ceo (current engine option), the difference becomes obvious.

Almost 6,900 A320s have been built since production started in 1986, and Airbus’ order books are bursting with further nearly 4,500 orders of around 80 customers for the A320neo family. So the commercial premiere of the A320neo is quite significant for the airline, the manufacturer and the traveling public. Nothing of this was showing today at Frankfurt airport. There was no ceremony, no signage or speeches acknowledging the event. The only reference to this world premiere was the Captain’s announcement over the PA. An official delivery and handover ceremony is planned for the second aircraft, taking place on February 12 at Airbus Hamburg-Finkenwerder factory.

Entering Lufthansa’s A320neo is  déjà vu at first, as initially nothing out of the ordinary meets the eye and the cabin is equipped with the same Recaro slim line seats as the rest of the Airbus narrowbody fleet. Fact is that the A320neo in Lufthansa’s new configuration carries 180 passengers, twelve additional seats in two seat rows more than the current A320s of the carrier, which physically have the same fuselage dimensions. Swiss meanwhile, already flies the A320 with 186 seats even. It’s clear that these legacy carriers want to copy the high density of the LCC’s while still maintaining some attributes of full-service carriers. Lufthansa for example still serves free soft drinks and a small snack to Economy passengers even of the lowest fare classes. And seat-wise, the full service German carrier still offers a slight recline and leather seats.

But never has the distinction between premium seats in Business Class and others in Economy been as clear as in the new Lufthansa A320neo cabin. Lufthansa claims it has gained space by rearranging toilets and galleys, but it has also squeezed seat pitch considerably aft of about the first third of the cabin. This author did his own measurements today: On a current Lufthansa A320, there are 11.8 inches (30cm) of space between the back of the seat in front and the edge of the next seat. The space to sit on, measured from the edge to the beginning of the backrest, is 16.92 inches (43 cm). Compare this to Economy seats in the new A320neo: Here the foot- and leg space measures just 11.22 inches (28.5 cm), the seat itself offers only 16.1 inches (41 cm). The recline especially of the window seats on the premiere aircraft was not well-oiled yet and a bit hard to apply, other seats were easier to recline, although the actual recline is minimal. Official seat pitch in Lufthansa’s Economy cabin on the A320neo is 29.1 inches (74 cm).

But in all fairness it has to be said that for the author, measuring 5 feet, 10 inches (1.88m in length) and often flying equally LCCs and otherwise long haul Business Class, the space was adequate for a short flight like from Frankfurt to Munich, taking 35 minutes in the air. Subjectively, it felt more comfortable than seating on easyJet. Big difference in Business Class: In the first about six rows, with a guaranteed free middle seat, the leg space measures a lofty 14.17 inches (36 cm), while the seat itself from edge to back offers 16.53 cm (42 cm) of space, so even in Business Class one centimeter less than before. Officially the seat pitch in Business is 31.8 inches (81 cm).

In the back of the aircraft, the last row has no windows, while there is now only one lavatory, which has been squeezed in front of the rear bulkhead wall, taking half of the fuselage diameter, with the other half taken by a now much smaller galley. On take-off, the A320neo is audibly quieter than earlier models. In flight however, seated in seat 23A behind the wings, it was fairly noisy and vibrations could be felt.

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The captain of the flight commented later: “We didn’t want to incur a delay right on the first flight, so we flew faster than normal, that’s what caused the extra noise.” Lufthansa group has 116 neo-type aircraft on order, 45 of them are for the larger A321neos. 60 of all A320neo family aircraft for Lufthansa will be equipped with the PW1100G engines. The first aircraft will mostly fly from the main base Frankfurt to both Munich and Hamburg.

This is a big week for the narrow body middle of the market segment. Boeing’s 737 MAX is scheduled for its first flight on Friday January 29th. We will be running an A320neo vs 737 Max 2 part analysis beginning later this week.


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In-flight Review: Around Brazil Aboard TAM Airlines

Story and Media by: Luis Linares / Published January 15, 2016

Between work and leisure, I have had several opportunities to sample domestic air travel in Brazil in the three months since I moved here. I already reported on GOL Airlines, and this time I tried TAM Airlines on six different segments. TAM has been part of the larger LATAM Group since the approval of its meger with LAN Airlines three years ago and is an established legacy carrier here in Brazil. Let’s take to the skies with TAM and experience its service.

RELATED: AirwaysNews High Flyer Interview: LATAM’s Pablo Chiozza

I have a very vague recollection of my first time on TAM back in 2001 because it took place during a very tragic week. My travel then was from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo; Sao Paulo to Rio; Rio to Sao Paulo; and Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires. The date and I landed in Rio was September 10. 2001. The next day, like many U.S. tourists abroad, I was in shock and trying to figure out how and when I would get back home in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks that put airlines in chaos.

JJ A320 PVH - LFL

TAM Airlines Airbus A320-200 at Porto Velho Airport

Brasilia to Porto Velho

Fourteen years later, I was back on TAM, this time for a business trip. My office paid full fare for a roundtrip between Brazil’s capital Brasilia and the the port city of Porto Velho in the heart of the Amazon. As Platinum member of American’s frequent flyer program, I was looking forward to seeing what the additional perks would be for Oneworld alliance elite members.

Once my trip was booked, I went to TAM’s website and mobile app to see what my options were, as far was managing the trip was concerned. The results were a bit disappointing. Seat selection and the option to enter my American Airlines number were not available until 72 hours before departure, which is also the window for the start of online check-in.

The next disappointment came during actual seat selection. TAM has been advertising a scheme virtually identical to the economy plus (Y+) products being offered by other airlines around the world, where passengers up front get more room. However, this is a gradual transition, and my aircraft turned out to be one of the older A320s in a single-class configuration with 30 inches of pitch in each row. TAM’s “Assento Conforto” is the new Y+ option and offers an additional two inches of pitch, which seems stingy compared to other competitors.

I still was able to select seat 3A for the 2h46m flight to Porto Velho’s Governador Jorde Teixeira de Oliveira International Airport (SBPV/PVH). I arrived at Brasilia’s Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport (BSB/SBBR) an hour before the scheduled 10:55 departure. I only had hand luggage, and security was a breeze. At the gate, TAM has lines for four boarding groups: first, elderly (over 60 years-old), people with children two and under, and any others needing extra time to board; second, TAM and Oneworld elite members; third, rows 16 to 29; and fourth, rows 1 to 15.

I began to line up at my row about 25 minutes before departure. After 40 minutes, I was still there. The gate agent did not explain the delay, but once boarding started, things moved quickly and efficiently. The staff never gave an explanation for the delay, and we pushed back 28 minutes late.

TAM snack box - LFL

TAM’s snack box service

The flight crew taxied to RWY 11R and waited another 10 minutes for other departures and landings before rolling. Once airborne, the cabin crew began food and beverage service. They offered complementary beverages and a snack box consisting of cheese and crackers and a chocolate cake. On this older Airbus there was neither overhead screens nor seatback screens for IFE.

The rest of the flight was uneventful. With the unexplained delay, the pilots managed to make up some time and we landed 19 minutes behind schedule. PVH typically sees 10 commercial take-offs and landings per day consisting of flights operated by TAM, GOL, and Azul. We quickly deplaned with stairs in the forward and rear doors. I personally enjoy this old-school experience of getting to walk on the ramp, as well as take some pictures of the aircraft.

Porto Velho to Brasilia

After some work and an overnight stay, it was time to head to PVH for a scheduled 12:34 flight back to BSB. I arrived an hour early, and there was only a few people in line at security, which was a flash. The waiting area is at ramp level and provides a good view of the parking stands and has a snack bar, where I got a light lunch. Our plane was not there, and, again, the ground staff did not bother to mention there was a delay.

The inbound flight was the same one I took the day before. Once the plane landed and deboarded its passengers, we were called to board using front and rear stairs, which helps speed up the process. By push back time, we were 20 minutes behind schedule. The flight again had a snack box service consisting of the cheese, crackers and cake.

TAM old seat - LFL TAM new seat - LFL

A slight improvement in legroom by moving the seatback pocket from the leg level (L) to the top of the tray (R)

This flight took place on a newer A320, which had the “Assento Conforto” Y+ configuration upfront, but since that section was full, I chose a very empty row 28 of the 29 rows available. With no one seated in my row, I had a very comfortable ride. Also, this new aircraft had slimline seats. One redesign feature was moving the seatback pocket from leg level to the on top of the tray table. This opens up a couple of inches of legroom.

Just when it appeared we had made up most of the delay, the aircraft entered a holding pattern. There was no announcement explaining it, but just by looking out the window, I could see a massive thunderstorm right on top of BSB. After about 15 minutes the crew got its landing clearance, and by the time we got the gate, the flight was officially 34 minutes late.

Brasilia to Rio de Janeiro (connecting in Sao Paulo)

Only a few days after my roundtrip from BSB to PVH came Thanksgiving weekend. Two months earlier, I went on Expedia and Iooked into the option of spending the holiday in Rio de Janeiro with my family. With a very favorable exchange rate, each roundtrup ticket was a great bargain at $95 USD per person. There are direct flights from BSB to Rio’s domestic Santos Dumont Airport (SBRJ/SDU) or Galeao International Airport (SBFL/GIG). One of the catches of the $95 fares was connecting in Sao Paulo’s domestic airport Congonhas (SBSP/CGH) since direct service was about twice as much the price.

I was more than happy to pay $380 USD for a family of four to enjoy four days in Rio. Flights from BSB to CGH range from 75 to 90 minutes and from CGH to SDU 35 to 45 minutes. On both the outbound and return legs our connecting time in CGH averaged an ample 90 minutes.

We arrived at BSB early on Thanksgiving morning. Since this is not a holiday in Brazil, it was a typical weekday morning rush at the airport in terms of the number of flights leaving and arriving BSB. I walked by the TAM counter and saw a priority line for TAM and Oneworld elite members but bypassed it since we only had carry-on bags.

Security was also quick, and we got to the gate just as boarding began. With the morning rush, we taxied for about 20 minutes before getting take-off clearance. Thinking of my PVH trip from earlier that week, I told my children that we would get the snack box on our flight, However, the snack service on this flight featured what looked like a prepackaged bread roll. I bit into it and it had a filling consisting of chopped ham at room temperature. My kids also took and bite and gave me that “do I have to eat this?” look, and I agreed with them, so we would have to wait to grab a better snack during our connection in CGH.

Stair boarding at CGH - LFL

Ladies first: my daughters boarding via stairs at CGH

The crew on this flight was very friendly with my kids, as well as the other small children aboard. They had a tray with candy and offered it to them. This older A320 had no IFE, but the flight was quick, and we were soon relaxing in CGH enjoying a light breakfast and planespotting. We then boarded a bus to the airplane since it was parked in a remote stand.

RELATED: TAM Service Academy: Learning How To Serve Dinner and More

The next segment is probably one my favorite flights, and it was the third time I was doing it. The reason I enjoy it is because of the usually very scenic approach to Rio de Janeiro. In addition, SDU resembles an aircraft carrier, given the short runways, the longest being 4,340 ft (1,320 m) surrounded by water. The weather cooperated, and the experience did not disappoint and never gets old.

The approach offers a view of the major landmarks, and the aircraft overflies the airport and finishes with a turning descent to line up with the runway. With full flaps and maximum autobrake, deceleration is very quick and leaves little room to spare. Take-offs require a higher flap setting and weight restrictions, especially on very hot days, and an immediate left bank to avoid the famous Sugarloaf Mountain.

Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia (connecting in Sao Paulo)

After enjoying some amazing sights and weather, including photographing SDU from Sugarloaf Mountain, we arrived at SDU at 11:00 on Sunday, well ahead of our 13:17 departure time. Security was quick, and we sat down for some lunch. I also took some time to take more aircraft pictures.

SDU - LFL

An AvGeek planespotting experience you can’t miss – SDU short field performance action as seen from Sugar Loaf Mountain!

The great weather made for a spectacular view of Rio after take off. The captain estimated 40 minutes to CGH. However, 25 minutes into the flight, I felt the familiar racing track feel of a holding pattern. The captain explained that torrential rains closed CGH, site of the TAM 3054 tragedy in 2007, when that A320 was unable to brake on a very wet and short runway and crashed into a building killing all 187 aboard and 12 working at the building.

The captain added that he was waiting for guidance as to whether to wait for a slot to land at Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport (SBGR/GRU) or return to SDU. GRU implemented more spacing for arriving flights because of the heavy rains and low visibility. We had plenty of fuel for the preplanned alternates, and GRU has long runways to handle heavy aircraft servicing international destinations..

This flight was on a new A319, which had LATAM’s new IFE. This IFE requires a mobile Apple or Android mobile device that can download and install the LATAM Entertainment app. Once aboard, passengers just have to turn-on WiFi and connect to the LATAM Entertainment signal. This IFE includes movies, TV shows, and a moving map display.

TAM has power outlets in its newer planes below the armrest, but I noticed that they were not working in any of my flights. Fortunately, my phone was fully charged and I was able to try their new IFE out. The variety will keep all members of a family entertained. This A319 also displayed the moving map on its overhead screens.

TAM power outlet - LFL LATAM Entertainment - LFL

Power outlet location (L) and the LATAM Entertainment app (R)

The captain finally informed us that he had clearance to land at GRU and the cabin crew advised connecting passengers to see an agent for rebooking. Since we were not supposed to land at GRU that afternoon, we parked remotely and were bused to baggage claim. We went straight to the counter and took advantage of the Oneworld elite line to start to work on modifying our itinerary.

When we got called, the agent redirected us to a sales and rebooking office. When we got to that office, they redirected us to a rebooking and connections counter by baggage claim. Feeling like hot potatoes and bit annoyed having to walk a lot with small kids, we finally encountered a knowledgeable member of the ground staff. The next direct flight from GRU to BSB would not be until after 22:00, but she found a departure out of CGH in the next couple of hours.

We had to take a courtesy bus from GRU to CGH (23 miles / 37 kilometers). Fortunately it was Sunday, and we did not have to deal with Sao Paulo’s infamous traffic jams. It took 40 minutes to get to CGH, which was open for operations after the heavy storms passed.

Our flight departed at 19:11. The A320 was about 60% full, and we took advantage of all the empty rows in the back of the airplane. The inflight snack was another one of those rolls stuffed with room temperature sandwich meat, this time turkey, but we knew better than to eat the less than desirable meal. With the rebooking, we arrived in BSB about three and a half hours later than originally scheduled.

JJ A320 BSB

Back in BSB and until next time TAM!

The Bottom Line On TAM

As mentioned at the end of my review of GOL, many visitors have experienced and will continue to experience Brazilian domestic services in light of important sporting events like the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. TAM, GOL, Avianca Brazil, and Azul are the main travel options for domestic flights. Oneworld customers benefit from flying TAM, SkyTeam customers from using GOL, and Star Alliance passengers can take advantage of Avianca and Azul to get their respective frequent flyer credit.

So far I have only experienced TAM and GOL. As a long-time Oneworld passenger, I will get the most frequent flyer benefits from TAM, which offers very frequent and reliable services. Even with the deeply discounted fare from BSB to SDU, I got full mileage credit as an elite member of Oneworld.  Ground staff could do a much better job informing passengers about delays and knowing where to direct those of us who need rebooking. Cabin crews also seemed a bit disengaged, but were pretty good when it came to making kids feel welcome.

TAM Stuffed roll - LFL

A meal to be avoided: TAM’s roll stuffed with sandwich meat

TAM’s extra room up front, which requires elite status or an additional fee, could be a bit roomier. Otherwise, this supposed perk is not much different than its standard economy seating. It is nice to see TAM starting to install an IFE option on its aircraft. Passengers can watch a single program or moving map on the overhead screens, but the best option is to connect to the LATAM Entertainment signal and use the app to get a nice range of complimentary entertainment.

Finally, having free meals aboard is rare these days, but the rolls stuffed with sandwich meat live very little to be desired. The snack box offered on the longer flights was by far much better. In the near future I hope to fly Avianca and Azul to see how they measure up to my experiences so far with TAM and GOL.

RELATED: In-flight Review: Rio de Janeiro to JFK in TAM’s Espaço +

RELATED: In-Flight: JFK to Rio de Janeiro in TAM’s New Business Class


t_6_dsc249036125Luis Linares is an AirwaysNews.com correspondent. Born in New York City and raised in Colombia, Luis was exposed to commercial aviation from a very early age and served in the U.S. Air Force for twenty years. He is fluent in Spanish and Brazilian-Portuguese and has almost two million miles of domestic and international travel under his belt.  Follow him on Twitter @LUISFERLINARES, or e-mail him at Luis.Linares@airwaysnews.com


Editor’s note: Our readers now have access to our weekly eNewsletter, which includes a recap of our top stories of the week, along with the subscriber-only exclusive Weekend Reads column and Photo of the Week from our extensive archives. The newsletter comes out every Friday night. Stay in the know; click here to subscribe today!

Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

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High Flyer Interview: Hawaiian Airlines SVP Avi Mannis

By Benét J. Wilson / Published: January 14, 2016

Avi Mannis. Image courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

Avi Mannis. Image courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

Avi Mannis has held the position of senior vice president of marketing at Hawaiian Airlines since July 2014. In that position, he is responsible for the airline’s brand, product, advertising and promotions, direct marketing and direct sales and service channels.

Mannis previously served as vice president of marketing from 2011 to 2014, and vice president of revenue management and schedule planning from 2008 to 2011. He joined Hawaiian Airlines in July 2007 as senior director of transformation. Before coming to Hawaiian Airlines, he worked at the Boston Consulting Group in New York City and Paris, and at Christie’s Auction House in New York City.

Mannis spoke to AirwaysNews.com on topics including changes in the airline’s fleet, Hawaiian’s partnerships versus alliances, the importance of the Japanese market and potential future routes.

Hawaiian Airlines Fleet Questions

AirwaysNews: You chose to go with the Airbus A330-800neo as your long-range aircraft after originally ordering the A350. What does the A330-800neo have that the airline found so attractive?

Avi Mannis: We are currently operating the A330-200 as our long-haul aircraft. It was a great opportunity to have an aircraft with the same basic fuselage, but with better performance that we can use on flights to Asia and the South Pacific. Having a similar aircraft with more range and better fuel economy made a lot of sense to us.

A Hawaiian Airlines airbus A330-800neo. Image courtesy of Airbus

A Hawaiian Airlines airbus A330-800neo. Image courtesy of Airbus

AN: Will these replace existing A330-200s or are they expansion aircraft?

AM: The A330s in our fleet are relatively young, so the A330-800neos are expansion aircraft in the 2019-2020 timeframe. We’re growing at a more modest pace, but we see opportunities to expand our business in the future.

Hawaiian Airlines new business cabin for its A330 aircraft, featuring 180-degree lie-flat seating. Image courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines new business cabin for its A330 aircraft, featuring 180-degree lie-flat seating. Image courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

AN: In October, you unveiled a new business class cabin with lie-flat seats. Why did you decide to move forward with this initiative?

AM: It’s something we looked at for quite a lot time. Because our focus is on Hawaii and leisure travel, we had a nice recliner product that was competitive with our Asian competitors, who also had recliners. But we saw that things were changing.  Some of our competitors were putting lie-flat products in their cabins.  

Another thing that helped us make the decision is that as we take on Airbus A321neos to fly to the West Coast, we can use our A330s to Asia and on flights greater than eight hours and we could get a significant premium for a lie-flat product. We had the opportunity to design this product for our needs to make it different from our competitors. We’re working with Italy’s Optimares and the design consultancy PaulWylde to design the seat. We’ll be the first airline to use this seat.  One advantage of working with a smaller manufacturer is that they can tailor more aspects of the finished design. We collaborated to bring this seat to life.

AN: You’ve also ordered the A321neo to replace your existing fleet of Boeing 767s. Why was this aircraft so appealing?

AM: The A321neo is going to be a really good aircraft for the mission we’re serving. It has a smaller capacity than our existing fleet. It will have 189 seats as we configure it, which is 100 less than A330. It’s well suited for West Coast to Hawaii markets because it’s fuel efficient and cost effective to run.

Slimline seats on Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 717. Image: Courtesy of Hawaiian

Slimline seats on Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 717. Image: Courtesy of Hawaiian

AN: Hawaiian also has 18 Boeing 717s. Where are you on the schedule to retrofit them to a single configuration?

AM: We finished that. The last of the aircraft were finished at the end [of November]. It was important for us to have a common configuration.

 

AN: What are your plans for adding 717s in the future?

AM: We are always interested in opportunities for more 717s, which is a unique aircraft.  For a long time, we’ve been the biggest fan of this aircraft, which is incredibly well suited for what we do — high-density flights 10 times a day across the islands.  But there aren’t a lot of opportunities to buy them because they’re not made anymore.

We believe the 717s are the right aircraft for the neighbor island mission – the right size, durable and reliable for the 160 daily flights. While we think we have a right-sized fleet, the market for 717s is relatively illiquid and when aircraft come on the market, we are always keen to see if the terms make sense for us.

A Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 717. By Timo Breidenstein, via Wikimedia Commons

A Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 717. By Timo Breidenstein, via Wikimedia Commons

AN: When will HA’s Boeing 767s be completely retired from the fleet?

AM: We currently have eight 767s that are a mixture of owned and leased. For the owned aircraft, we have planned retirement dates over the next several years and those that are leased are contractually [obligated] through 2021.

Partnerships and Routes

AN: Hawaiian has airline partnerships with ANA, American, China Airlines, Korean Air, JetBlue, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia. Why did you choose the partnership route, and why with these particular carriers?

AN: We have really good partnership.  Some of it is the nature of the very specific network we’ve built.  We work with everyone on our partnerships to help carriers who serve Hawaii to move guests between the islands. In some of our long-haul markets, we have partnerships built on what is the best fit for our network, brand and culture. Relationships with carriers like ANA and JetBlue are ones that make sense to us on our network.

AN: What are your thoughts about joining one of the big three airline alliances?

AM: I don’t think we’ve ever ruled it out.  We do look at it from time to time.  But it’s something that comes with costs on technology and systems.  It’s something you have to believe brings benefits that outweigh the costs, but we haven’t reached that point yet. We’re unique because we’re a destination market airline.

AN: Japan is the largest source of international visitors to Hawaii. What have you done to take and maintain your share of that business?

AM: We’re grown our share of that business aggressively in the past few years. We’ve celebrated our fifth year in Japan. We serve Haneda, Narita (starting in July 2016), Osaka-Kansai and Sapporo. Japan has special relationship with Hawaii, with repeat visitors who came back year after year.  They have an affinity for our culture.  

Image courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

Image courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

AN: Looking at domestic markets, the investor day presentation showed cities including Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and Toronto as potential growth markets. What does Hawaiian find so appealing about these particular markets, and what’s the timeline for getting into the growth markets?

AM: We look at major markets with significant traffic, or potential traffic, to Hawaii and inadequate non-stop air service to serve that demand. We have a long list of potential markets and retain a high degree of flexibility with respect to the timing with which we pursue them, as market conditions evolve. We try to make sure that we have a balanced portfolio of mature and developing markets to drive both a growing and profitable business. Over the next several years, we are expecting moderate growth in the low to mid-single digit range.

Our brand promises them a Hawaiian experience from the time they board plane, and that resonates with Japanese visitors.  We’ve done really well competing against airlines like JAL and ANA, so we see great promise in that market.

AN: How has the ongoing recession in Japan and the falling yen affected loads on the airline?

AM: It’s an interesting thing about leisure travel. It is remarkably robust through economic cycles. People really persist in taking a vacation. It’s one of the value parts of their lives and they don’t fluctuate away from it. The currency issue does affect revenue. But in terms of actual demand, we think it is quite robust, and we’re doing quite well in that market. Our decision to fly to Narita shows our bullishness on the Japanese market.

AN: Hawaiian’s Investor Day presentation mentioned places like Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Melbourne and Hong Kong on the international side as growth opportunities. What makes these cities so appealing to Hawaiian and what data did you use to determine these particular markets?

AM: At any given point, we have a long list of cities we are looking at for our long-term growth plans. We have growth aircraft being delivered in the next decade.  We see Hawaii as a very attractive destinations for visitors in Asia and the South Pacific region. Markets like China and Korea have a great deal of growth potential. We see the ascendence of Asia as a new source of visitors to Hawaii. It will unfold over a long period of time and have flexibility in our fleet plan to accommodate it.  

Slide courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

Slide courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

AN: What are some of the more appealing U.S. markets — especially secondary routes — could you look at to serve with the A321neo?

AM: The A321neos start to arrive in the second half of 2017 and we’ll have deliveries for the next three years. They will serve the West Coast to Hawaii and not much further. It frees up our A330 to fly on other routes.  We looked at all indicators, like changes in traffic and growth in visitors to Hawaii. Where we think we’ll have opportunities to stimulate traffic and be flexible when we launch to take advantage of favorable market conditions.

Passenger Experience

AN: Besides the new business class and adding more Extra Comfort seats, what are some of the other initiatives that Hawaiian has done to improve the passenger experience?

AM: The level of hospitality that we provide to our guests is an important differentiator. When people travel on vacation or special occasions, we like to be able to offer things like serving meals or a complimentary glass of wine in the main cabin. It’s an experience that is elevated in ways that our guests like.  We just launched our guest chef program in our premium cabin, which highlights the culinary talent in Hawaii.  

We’ll continue to invest in the little things.  We want to make every aspect of our experience to be evocative of Hawaii.  As a brand, we can be about one thing. We don’t have to be everything to everyone.  We also recently launched a new amenity kit that evokes Hawaii. We’re always looking at how we keep improving and refining the guest experience in all cabins to better reflect our brand.

AN: What are your plans and goals for the airline in 2016?

AM: There was a time period between 2008 and 2013, where our company went through rapid growth. We’re now in a period where we’ve been very focused on growing more slowly and master the business we have, figure out how to sell our product effectively in new markets, build our brand in Asian markets and build up our products for our customers. This is the year where we will be very focused on continuing to refine what we do as an airline and get ready for the next exciting phase in our network.

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Inflight Review: Economy Class on American’s Refurbished Boeing 767

By Luis Linares / Published August 14, 2015 / Photos by author

American Airlines is in the process of upgrading the cabins on their youngest Boeing 767-300ERs, which fly to destinations in South American and Europe.  The main attraction is a new business class cabin.  But what is the new interior like for economy passengers?  Join me for a three-hour hop on economy class aboard one of these upgraded 767s from Miami International Airport (MIA) to El Dorado International Airport (BOG) in Bogota, Colombia.

RELATED: American Airlines Unveils New 767-300 Cabin

AA 763 MIA American Airlines Boeing 767-300ER at Miami International Airport

I’ve been flying the MIA-BOG route on American for more than 20 years on American Airlines. American has operated this service using the Airbus A300, Boeing 757 and Boeing 767.  Since the retirement of the A300 in 2009, the 757 and 767 have been flying between both cities.  When I booked a vacation to Bogota with my family, I opted for the flights aboard the redesigned 767 cabin.

Check-in

I currently have Platinum status (the middle of the two elite tiers) in the American Airlines AAdvantage frequent flier program, which means I can check in at the business class counter.  The process was quickly handled by a very friendly agent, who joked with my children.  I also applied for a TSA PreCheck status to avoid long security lines, which meant we were quickly inside the secure area.

Before boarding

Elite status also allows me to use the Admirals Club before my flight.  American has two clubs at MIA, one near gate D30 and the other by D15.  Despite having Gate 25 as a departure gate, I opted fo the one by D15 since it has a playroom that offers TV, video games, lemonade, apples and cookies for the little ones.  This was a hit last year with mine, and it did the job again this year.

Boarding

We proceeded to the gate 45 minutes before departure and boarded immediately after the business class passengers since this is another privilege of elite status.  We had row 13, which is the second row of the economy section.  Platinum status allows travelers to choose American’s Main Cabin Extra seats free of charge at the time of booking, and these offer 35 inches of legroom, compared to the standard 31.  In addition, rows 12 and 13 are located between two partitions, which create a very cozy feel.

Economy rows 12 - 13 No seatback IFE

The first two rows of economy seem like their own section, but where is the integrated IFE?

This flight was probably half full.  I asked the boarding agents to see if my family and I could get upgraded with miles since I was particularly interested in the new business class product, but she replied that they needed more lead time for such a request on an international flight for security reasons.  I did take an opportunity to explore the upgraded business class cabin for a few minutes.  Having flown on the older version, this new arrangement is definitely a step up.  Seats now recline to a full 180 degrees, and every business customer has direct isle access.

EXTRA:  In-flight Review: American Airlines Business Class to and from Bogota

AA 767 J window seat AA 767 J seats

The upgraded business class section

The business class seats are 30 inches wide with 60 inches of pitch, and they are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuation.  It is a tight space compared to other international premium cabins, but it is still a major improvement.  Despite the fact that American received some brand-new 767-300ERs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the refurbished cabin does not include integrated inflight entertainment (IFE) screens.  Passengers in business get complimentary use of Samsung tablets and Bose headsets for IFE.  Furthermore, these 767s do not have the international Wi-Fi option American introduced with the 777-300ER in 2013 and which also comes with the new 787s and is being installed on the 777-200ER fleet.

In the economy section, the seats were reupholstered, but there were no seatback IFE screens, just older overhead screens offering single programming and a moving map display before and after the block of programs.  The armrests also had remote controls designed for older IFE screens, but their only function was to control the volume of what was playing on the overhead screens, as well as a few audio channels.

Old socket

Bring an adapter if you want to enjoy your PED, especially on longer flights

I saw the lack of IFE as a minor inconvenience, since I usually have my tablet and phone with me.  However, the power ports are the old round socket, which is common in many cars.  This means people wishing to charge their personal electronic devices (PEDs) will need an adapter.

A very nice flight attendant told me he had a few USB adapters, available on a first-come-first-served basis, which I could use for the duration of the flight.  Typical flight time from MIA to BOG is just over three hours, which should be no problem for someone using a fully charged PED.  Since many of these 767s fly across the Atlantic or to the South America’s “southern cone,” any passenger wishing for an IFE experience on these six- to eight-hour flights will definitely want to bring an adapter.

The Flight

We pushed back at our 9:50 a.m. scheduled departure time.  With many simultaneous departures, we waited 20 minutes behind other aircraft and were eventually airborne.  Our flight path took us over Cuba, Jamaica, and two hours later, we crossed the Colombian coast over the city of Cartagena.

One of the services I had not seen in a while on a medium-haul flight was a complementary meal.  Lunch options were either macaroni or chicken, both accompanied by salad, bread, and dessert, along with a beverage of our choice.  In the main cabin, alcoholic beverages are not complimentary.  The food was actually good, which was a pleasant surprise.  We also came prepared with games and coloring books for my children to enjoy, so the lack of IFE was not noticeable to them.

Loaner adapter and lunch Crafts

A loaner adapter plus lunch, and my girls came up with their own IFE by making bracelets

With 20 minutes to go, initial descent started.  BOG is located at 8,360 ft (2,550 m) above sea level, which means some passengers will feel some symptoms, such as headache, increased heartbeat or upset stomach.  Based on my frequent travel there, I recommend plenty of hydration every day and rest the first full day there.  The pilots made up for lost time at MIA, and we touched down on time.

Arrival

We deplaned and proceeded to immigration.  One of the nice courtesies in every passport control line I have experienced in Colombia when traveling with my family is that agents always open up a separate lane for people with small children.  This meant we were quickly at baggage claim, where our bags were already waiting since they had “priority” tags, another perk from elite status.  The customs line was quick, and soon we met our driver and were ready to enjoy our vacation.

Bottom line

American’s MIA-BOG service is usually staffed by very friendly and attentive bilingual BOG-based crews.  This flight was no exception.  They go out of their way especially for kids to make sure they are enjoying the flight.  Moreover, it is refreshing to get a full meal on a relatively short fight.  Given what the competition has to offer from the U.S. to Europe and Latin America on similar aircraft, American’s product is behind other mainline carriers, despite the recent cabin retrofit.

AA 767 at BOG

Leaving our ride in Bogota

American is refurbishing 29 of its 58 767-300ERs into the new cabin configuration, while the rest will retire this year. Many of the remaining 767s were delivered in the late 1990s to the early 2000s, yet American chose not to bring the IFE standard up to the level of its newer Airbus A319s and A321s, and Boeing 737s and 777s.

EXTRA: In-flight Review: Economy Class on American Airlines Airbus A319

For travelers, who enjoy integrated IFE, this could be a disappointment.  Even passengers who bring their own PEDs will have to remember to bring an adapter for the old-fashioned sockets beneath the seats.  Finally, having extra perks like elite status, TSA PreCheck, or Global Entry will make the time at the airport of a hassle, especially for economy passengers.

DISCLAIMER:  We paid for our tickets, and opinions are our own.


t_6_dsc249036125Luis Linares is an AirwaysNews.com correspondent. Born in New York City and raised in Colombia, Luis was exposed to commercial aviation from a very early age and served in the U.S. Air Force for twenty years. He is fluent in Spanish and Brazilian-Portuguese and has almost two million miles of domestic and international travel under his belt.  Follow him on Twitter @LUISFERLINARES, or e-mail him at Luis.Linares@airwaysnews.com


Editor’s note: Our readers now have access to our weekly eNewsletter, which includes a recap of our top stories of the week, along with the subscriber-only exclusive Weekend Reads column and Photo of the Week from our extensive archives. The newsletter comes out every Friday night. Stay in the know; click here to subscribe today!

Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

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Meeting New LAN Airlines’ 787-9 Dreamliner

By: Enrique Perrella / Published 28 July, 2015

From its modest origins in the late 1920s, the Linea Aerea Nacional de Chile (LAN) has pieced together a powerful mosaic across the South American continent through national investments in a handful of strategically positioned airlines, imparting in each a common philosophy of service excellence and financial discipline.

With their home base on a sliver of geographically inhospitable land (only a scant 2.6% of which is arable) sandwiched between 2,700 miles of southwestern Pacific Ocean coastline and the Andes mountain range, Chile’s Cueto family (led by brothers Enrique and Ignacio) created the LATAM Airlines Group, which in the year to date ended in June, transported 53.8 million passengers.

The airline counts with a large and diverse fleet of more than 295 aircraft, and employs over 53,000 workers with an on-line network stretching from Australia and New Zealand through the Americas to Europe. The high standards of service both LAN and TAM offer, were recently awarded among the top three best airlines in Latin America, according to Skytrax.

In early February, the Chilean carrier took delivery of its first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, intended to replace its aging Airbus A340-300 fleet, which were retired two months later after 15 years of reliable long-haul service.

LAN’s books, today, include an order for 32 Boeing 787s, while its Brazilian partner TAM include an order for 27 Airbus A350 XWBs, with deliveries set to start in the fourth quarter of 2015. According to Jim Proulx, who handles international media relations for Boeing, “The LATAM Group has long been a strong customer for Boeing airplanes in its wide-body fleet, including the 767 and 777. He also notes that, “As the first Latin American operator, LATAM is a key South American customer for the 787, having already taken delivery fifteen 787s in building to a fleet of 32.”

On the other hand, Raymond Kollau, founder of Trend Analysis—an European-based publication which follows trends and innovations in the airline industry—notes that product and service innovations have been less of a priority at LAN and TAM, as both airlines have been concentrating on integrating parts of their operations following the merger. “As one of the early airlines to receive the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, LAN has been able to offer some of its passengers the experience of flying its latest generation aircraft,” he said. “The IFE systems on LAN’s 787s are especially noteworthy. For example, passengers can read destination guides on their high definition screens and play a game of poker against other passengers on board.”

In a continued effort to improve its service and become the number-one airline in the Americas, LAN announced in December 2014, that on July 20, 2015, its new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner would operate daily, nonstop service from New York (JFK) to Santiago (SCL), departing daily at 20:00 and arriving in Santiago at 06:20 the following day.

Pablo Chiozza, Senior VP, USA, Canada and the Caribbean at LATAM Airlines Group, said in a statement, “The Boeing 787-9 is one of the first aircraft to feature the new unified cabin design.” He then added, “Travelers will experience the vibrancy and warmth of the region the moment they step on board. The 787-9 Dreamliner is a testament to our dedication to minimizing our environmental footprint and providing the best experience for all our passengers.”

To showcase its newest wide-body aircraft and unified cabin, LAN invited Airways to experience its flagship service from JFK to SCL on its inaugural scheduled service with the Boeing 787-9 and test the new product which will be customary in all long-haul aircraft once both carriers are merged into one single image and corporate identity at the end of 2015.

Inaugural Flight: JFK

LAN’s flight 533 to SCL was scheduled to depart (SDT) at 20:00. Four hours before, we arrived at JFK’s Terminal 8, home to American Airlines (AA) and its Oneworld partners.

SQ_ - 1Check-in was easily accomplished thanks to the gentle TAM and LAN staff behind the counters, who greeted us for being part of the media group that would cover the event. Passing through TSA was also a quick task thanks to the priority access granted to all Oneworld premium cabin passengers. In less than 10 minutes, we reached AA’s Admirals Club, where we had to check-in handing a coupon given by our carrier.

Boarding

SQ_ - 2At 19:00, we approached gate 16 where pre-boarding started. We managed to make our way into the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner first, allowing us to picture the insides of the aircraft as the wonderful Chilean crew posed inside their brand-new jet. The aircraft’s interiors, beautifully colored in the airline’s blue, red and gray, craft an inviting ambiance that evokes a spacious feeling that’s second to none.

Making our way through the economy cabin, we noted a big difference between the 787-9 and its smaller version, the 787-8. Its stretched fuselage, high overhead bins, tall windows, and mood lightning come together as a comfortable hard product for long-haul flights.

The Cabin Interior

LAN’s Boeing 787-9 fleet is fitted to carry a total of 313 passengers in a two-class configuration. Developed by the international design/consulting firm PriestmanGoode, the elegant and modern design is noted as soon as one enters the aircraft through the L2 door. Stunning wooden floors and super ample galleys strike as a first excellent impression. Upon walking inside, the impressive mood lightning gives a futuristic sense that old generation airliners could never dream to emit.

Up front, the new LATAM Airlines Group unified Premium Business Class is configured in a 2-2-2 layout, totaling 30 comfortable seats. According to the airline, this Business Class will be standardized in both LAN and TAM long-haul products once both carriers are completely merged as one corporate image later this year. “Every element was carefully selected and designed to include the best elements of the countries in the region to create a world-class project,” claims Jerome Cadier, the Group’s Marketing Vice-President. “With these objectives in mind, the rich wood textures of the Amazon are present in several elements throughout the cabin, including part of the floor and details on the seats. The fabric, textures, colors, and patterns are reminiscent of the beautiful landscapes of our region. Even the iconic beaches of Ipanema were a source of inspiration for the cabins,” he notes. In fact, a nice combination of gray, red, white and the many colors that come off the mood lightning, create an ambiance that’s futuristic and elegant.

SQ_ - 7Each Business Class seat has 75 inches of leg pitch and 23 inches of width, capable of converting into full-flat beds. Passengers can enjoy movies, TV shows, a moving map, and many other entertainment features through a large 15.4-inch touch screen, also manageable with a remote control.

Moving down to Economy Class, 283 red and blue seats are configured in a 3-3-3 layout, boasting a 32-inch leg pitch, and a nine-inch individual touch screen on each seat, loaded with over 40 films, 120 channels, 20 games, USB ports and iPod eXport connections for passengers to enjoy their own media.

Pre-Flight

SQ_ - 19As passengers settle into their seats and we get situated in the Premium Business Class, Charles, our Flight Attendant (FA), introduced himself both in Spanish and perfect English. He immediately offered Champagne or the airline’s signature drink, Pisco Sour, as a pre-flight drink. After ordering the famous South American cocktail, Charles came back informing that JFK’s catering service forgot to load its main ingredients, for which Champagne ended up being our choice. Served at a perfect temperature, the French drink arrived along with a small plate of assorted nuts.

Minutes later, a team of FAs passed through the aisle with the airline’s spectacular amenity kits, furnished by Ferragamo. Amenity kits are often the Achilles’ heels for many premium carriers. In fact, Singapore (SQ) and ANA (NH) don’t even offer one. LAN, however, does have one of incredible quality, almost good as Alitalia (AZ)—an airline known for its superb kits.

SQ_ - 20Five minutes behind scheduled departure, the Captain announced our flight would be slightly delayed because the jet bridge couldn’t detach from the Dreamliner due to a technical malfunction. About 15 minutes after the announcement, we finally pushed back and the two Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines began spinning into life. A strong and pleasant roar was felt inside the cabin, and in less than five minutes, our 787-9 began taxiing to the runway. The cabin was dimmed into a spectacular deep blue color while the airline’s safety briefing video was shown on the screens.

At 20:42, we lined up with the runway and performed a spectacular takeoff, complemented by the thunderous roar of the two Trent 1000 engines and the Dreamliner’s noticeable wingflex.

Main Service

SQ_ - 22

After climbing through a stunning sunset, our crew began prepping the cabin for service. Warm towels were distributed as Charles jokingly observed that he’d better rush so that passengers don’t fall asleep before serving dinner.

The first components of the main service arrived: A small plate with two types of cheese and Jaramillo compote, accompanied with greens salad and olive oil vinaigrette. Our choice of a Dried Tomato Cream Soup was the main component. The quality of the cheese plate was indisputable, pairing greatly with the sweet compote. The greens salad, fresh and abundant, worked perfectly before tasting the flavorful soup.

As the main service continued, it took the crew over thirty minutes to clear our empty plates, and an additional fifteen to bring the main course (entrée). It seemed as if they were rushing, though our impression was that it was slightly disorganized.

SQ_ - 26

A round piece of beef, slightly overdone, arrived to our table. A side of overcooked veggies (asparagus and beans) unsuccessfully tried to pair with the dried beef, making it a somewhat disappointing dish. The meat was tough and dry, and the veggies overly cooked, gaining a gooey texture, which was quite unpleasant.

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As soon as the tray was cleared, our “Italian Cheesecake” quickly made its way to our table, lying on top of succulent fruit marmalade. I often do not care much for dessert, but I must say this was quite exceptional. We ordered a glass of Chilean dessert wine, though unfortunately wasn’t boarded either.

After main service ended, we were handed a Breakfast Menu, which had to be filled up before going to sleep. Before collecting them, Charles came by our seats, kindly handed our covers and pillows, and wished us a good night’s sleep.

Overnight on the Dreamliner

The full-flat bed configuration on the Boeing 787-9 is what the combined LAN and TAM carrier will offer once the merger is complete. The seat, albeit slightly narrow for long-haul flights, is very comfortable for resting and enjoying the airline’s excellent in-flight entertainment (IFE). The only flaw we were able to find, however, was that the bed’s length could be bothersome to tall passengers. At 5’10” (1.82m), my feet touched the wall of the seat when trying to sleep at full length. However, the comfort provided by the excellent pillow and cover, plus the low altitude cabin of the Boeing 787-9 allows for excellent resting.

Six hours after falling asleep, we were kindly awakened by Charles, who had our breakfast tray ready to be served. With 70 minutes left of flying time, we enjoyed a great pre-ordered breakfast of Special K Cereal with milk, fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, and sautéed mushrooms. Butter and Apricot jam, as well as a choice of warm bread and a hot cup of coffee with milk were also served.

Breakfast was light, refreshing, and just what was needed after a nine-hour flight on the same time zone. Thanks to the fact that Santiago is just one hour ahead of New York, jetlag was not something to worry about.

As we approached foggy Santiago, the Captain announced we’d be landing ten minutes ahead of schedule. At this time of the year (July), winter reins the southern hemisphere, with sunshine coming up as late as 08:30 and sunset at 18:40. As a result, we touched down in a pitch dark SCL with a cold temperature of 32 degrees (0°C).

A conclusion to a great flight

LAN’s newest Dreamliner proved to be more than a comfortable aircraft, capable of transporting its passengers in the utmost comfort, including a superb cabin atmosphere, which helps battle the associated stress of spending many hours inside a pressurized cabin.

This South American airline not only delivers a world-class product with its polite and punctual crewmembers on board the industry’s best airliners (soon to be improved with the arrival of the Airbus A350), but also continues to grow to become a leading carrier, which will practically own a majority stake of Latin America’s commercial aviation market share.

On this flight from JFK to SCL, all crew performed impeccably. A few flaws in service and small attention to detail could be the two imperfections we could notice; however, for an airline that is in constant growth in a region where countries are facing economic and social crises, LAN does exceed the expectations and nothing remains ahead but a successful future.


t_8_epawnEnrique Perrella is the Publisher and Editor in Chief of Airways Magazine. An Aviation Enthusiast, Commercial Pilot, Writer and Traveler with a Bachelors and Masters Degree in Aviation Business Administration. Enrique joined Airways in March 2014 as his group took over the reigns of the publication after 20 years under the tenure of John Wegg, founder and former Editor in Chief. Contact him at enrique@airwaysmag.com.


Editor‘s noteOur readers now have access to our weekly eNewsletter, which includes a recap of our top stories of the week, along with the subscriber-only exclusive Weekend Reads column and Photo of the Week from our extensive archives. The newsletter comes out every Saturday morning. Stay in the know; click here to subscribe today!

Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

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Virgin Atlantic Goes For Gold In Economy and With Dreamliners

By Ramsey Qubein / Published June 30, 2015

Virgin Atlantic has built a reputation for a re-imagined, surely sexy, flying experience. Nevertheless, much of its marketing relies on its premium business class product. And, what with its inflight bar, flat-bed seating, pajamas on overnight flights, attractive uniforms, and an image that hinges on its fly boy founder Richard Branson, it is certainly well deserved.

However, the majority of the airline’s passengers do not enjoy many of those features, although there is no doubt their interest in choosing Virgin can be traced to this dependable, hip image. What is unique, however, is the lengths that the carrier is going to improve its economy class cabin.

New to Virgin Atlantic is its intense joint venture partnership with Delta Air Lines across the Atlantic which gives the airline shared access to the U.S. carrier’s revenue opportunity and route network. Cross fleeting was quick to follow the announcement with Delta taking over routes from Virgin Atlantic on flights from LAX and Philadelphia. Virgin has reciprocated with its operation of flights from Atlanta and Detroit.

RELATED: Virgin Atlantic Welcomes the 787-9 in Atlanta

RELATED: With Delta, Is Virgin Atlantic Getting its Mojo Back?

We have seen both United and Delta proudly announce investments in their economy class meals on international flights. Delta has even reintroduced amenity kits, and all three legacy U.S. carriers have reverted to offering free wine and beer in economy class to stay in line with their respective joint venture partners. Coinciding with the launch of the carrier’s new fleet of Dreamliners, Virgin Atlantic has undertaken a revamp of its inflight offering in the economy cabin. The change is timely given the joint venture with Delta.

RELATED: Maturity and Growth in the Delta-Virgin Atlantic Partnership

With the Dreamliner, Virgin Atlantic is already seeing many of its customers specifically book their travel on flights operated by the new aircraft. Airways joined the airline for the launch of its JFK Dreamliner flight. Numerous passengers planned their travel to fly on the 787 instead of the numerous 747-400 flights also operating that day.

Back-of-the-bus catering gets an upgrade

Stock pictures of Virgin Atlantic 787-9 aircraft Birthday Girl.Virgin is going one step further to put the fun back into flying for economy passengers. This revamp is not only for passengers on board the airline’s new Dreamliner, but also all passengers in its economy cabin. The joint venture with Delta is sure to have played a role in the harmonizing of products between the two carriers, and passengers are the immediate beneficiaries of small, but notable upgrades on board.

Upon boarding, all passengers (like on partner Delta and competitor Swiss International) receive a full-sized bottle of water. “Following extensive surveys of passengers, it became clear that flyers wanted more control about staying hydrated at their own pace,” says Head of Customer Experience Debbie Hulme.

Complimentary cocktails, beer and wine are now offered in a pre-lunch or dinner cocktail service, and again during and after the meal service. In a more customer friendly move (thanks to those passenger surveys), the airline is switching from pouring glasses of wine or mixing cocktails on the cart to offering splits of wine and minis of cocktails to passengers. New features of the economy class dining service include hot towels prior to the meal and a cheese and cracker course served as part of the main tray service.

“The simple and inexpensive act of offering a hot towel before a meal in economy class goes a long way in making passengers feel special and cared for,” says Chris McGinnis, founder of TravelSkills.com. “I’m surprised more airlines don’t do this.”

After-dinner chocolates will accompany the coffee and tea service following dinner. Pre-arrival meals on daytime flights will include a new selection of gourmet wraps. These little extras are part of what add to the Virgin experience.

Premium Economy gets a boost too. The Dreamliner aircraft are the first to be equipped with the new Wonder Wall concept featuring a small refrigerator and full buffet of snacks and drinks. It is located in the front cabin and is designed as a compact social space, similar to the concept of the Upper Class Bar (albeit with a bartender) for guests to commune or snack at their leisure.

Bring your selfie stick

To take advantage of the selfie craze, Virgin is launching a new campaign dubbed the ultimate #SkyhighSelfie on its new Dreamliner 787 aircraft, offering customers the opportunity to check in on Facebook and share their photos from 35,000 feet.

Developed in conjunction with Jiffybots, its app will allow customers to check in free of charge on Facebook and share their location and photos with their friends and followers during the flight via the aircraft’s Wi-Fi connection.

Designated #SkyhighSelfie spots in the cabin will offer passengers the chance to take the perfect selfie onboard and share their experience. Each of the airline’s Dreamliners will have a unique backdrop with the aircraft’s name so that passengers can “collect” various aircraft selfies. Virgin has 21 of the aircraft on order with routes to Boston, Newark, New York JFK, and Washington Dulles already featuring the new plane.

The first selfie spot went live on Birthday Girl April 1 allowing customers to take their picture with the iconic Virgin Atlantic Flying Lady carrying her celebratory champagne coupe. Also, a discussion forum will allow travelers to connect to other passengers on board and share their experiences. Both access to the discussion forum and selfie upload will be accessible via the wifi signal.

 

Surprise and delight

In an effort to move beyond the staid experience, the airline has also launched several surprise and delight events including one over Christmas that certainly had passengers talking. Travelers aboard flight 11 from London to Boston were treated to a special visit and gift from Santa Claus himself as the plane flew over the Arctic.

“We wanted to offer something extra special for the families flying with us this Christmas and who better to spread the Christmas cheer than Santa himself?,” says Hulme.

Santa dropped into the aircraft while passing by during one of his “reindeer training flights.” The experience began at boarding when all 264 customers were gifted an early Christmas present from Microsoft of a Windows tablet so they could log on to NORAD Track Santa and enjoy a live chat as he took his sleigh for a spin over the Atlantic

“Passengers tracked his movements from their Windows tablets and were able to live chat with him before sharing their Santa selfies using the on board Wi-Fi,” Hulme adds.

When the aircraft was over Greenland, Santa radioed the Virgin Atlantic pilots flying the aircraft asking permission to land on the plane for some refreshments and to give his reindeers a rest.

Passengers were then amazed to watch the sleigh land on the aircraft through glass panels in the roof before he accessed the plane through a special Santa hatch.

Santa then walked down the aisles of the plane, delighting children and taking selfies with surprised passengers.

Christmas continued for those on the plane with Microsoft prizes of Xboxes and Windows devices from Dell, Lenovo & Microsoft being won in competitions during the flight.

This type of creativity is reserved typically for premium cabin customers, and to see an airline exhibit such an effort for economy shows creative push that moves in the right direction for the industry as a whole. Certainly, other carriers will be hard pressed to match such an offer, but to see Virgin kick start a movement in the “back of the bus” is a refreshing start in the aviation industry.

“It will be interesting to see if Virgin can recreate part of the allure it has brought to the front of the plane in Upper Class,” adds McGinnis. “Virgin has a tremendously strong brand, and the investments that some airlines are making in economy these days are definitely a step in the right direction.”

Editor’s Note: What are the benefits of subscribing to our weekly newsletter? You’ll get a summary of our top stories of the week, along with our exclusive Weekend Reads column and a Photo of the Week from the extensive AirwaysNews archives. The newsletter comes out every Saturday morning. Subscribe today!

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Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

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ANALYSIS: JetBlue Crescendoes In Boston With New Mint Offering

By: Vinay Bhaskara / Published June 26, 2015

A JetBlue ERJ-190 at Boston Logan Image Credit: Chris Sloan/Airchive

A JetBlue ERJ-190 at Boston Logan
Image Credit: Chris Sloan/Airchive

Earlier this week, JetBlue announced a major expansion of its second largest hub at Boston, headlined by the debut of its ultra-premium Mint product on routes to Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), and Barbados. The expansion will also see JetBlue add frequency to 13 additional destinations and add new twice daily nonstop service to Nashville, and will push JetBlue’s operation in Boston (BOS) to nearly 140 peak day departures in Summer 2016.

The new Mint service in Boston will launch with three daily flights to San Francisco in March 2016. Barbados will join the same month with Saturday-only service the same month, mirroring a recent addition to Barbados and Aruba from JetBlue’s largest hub at New York JFK. Los Angeles will follow in Fall 2016, once again with up to three flights per day.

JetBlue’s Mint product has been expected at Boston since the day the product was announced, almost two years prior. While New York to SFO and LAX are much larger markets, Boston is far less competitive. And given JetBlue’s strength amongst high-yielding business travelers, their Boston Mint experiment should have a strong chance of success. Between the two markets, San Francisco has the stronger fundamentals. Not only is San Francisco is a larger overall market, with origin and destination (O&D) demand of 1,730 passengers per day each way (PDEW), versus 1,504 for Los Angeles, but it also has higher average fares, at $312.41 one-way versus $276.64 to Los Angeles. The advantage is only magnified in premium cabins, where the average one way fare is $65-70 higher for San Francisco, also the larger market (at 478 PDEW versus 429 PDEW for LAX).

Now obviously the average one-way premium fares in the ~$300 range at LAX and in the ~$340 range at SFO are far beneath the cheapest one-way fare for JetBlue’s Mint ($599 nonrefundable). While that $599 is a premium cabin discount in the JFK-LAX/SFO markets, it represents a substantial raise over the current market equilibrium, to say nothing of costlier fares with some degree of flexibility. JetBlue will have to target the upper quartile of current premium cabin flyers but filling 48 Mint seats daily (or 36-40 of the 48) is not an impossible task. Particularly in the BOS-SFO market, JetBlue can draw on its point-of-sale strength with business travelers in Boston, and the naturally high yielding business traffic in the tech industry.

LAX will be a harder market to crack. The business ties between Boston and LAX are broad of course, but there is no single industry tie that drives high yield business traffic like technology does for BOS-SFO. Moreover, on BOS-LAX, JetBlue will have to contend with competition from United, who is introducing its premium service p.s. Boeing 757-200 aircraft onto one of two daily flights from Boston this summer. JetBlue will have the edge in overall product (catering, ground services, etc.) but United will at least be competitive on in-flight product, which will challenge JetBlue’s market penetration in premium cabins.

For the moment, it is unlikely that JetBlue’s move will spark a flood of competition like that seen on NYC-LAX/SFO. But if JetBlue is able to convert a significant portion of premium cabin traffic with Mint, it is not inconceivable that United would move to protect its San Francisco hub with internationally configured 757-200s. Delta too has plenty of flexibility with internationally configured aircraft to defend LAX, and even American (despite its premium-heavy configuration and dedicated subfleet) could be pressured into adding BOS-SFO as the pressure ratchets up in Los Angeles. But the most likely scenario is for JetBlue to only be joined by United, if anyone.

Boston is now a powerhouse

The underlying story of JetBlue’s move is the resounding strength of its Boston hub. Nashville will become the carrier’s 60th destination from Boston and additional frequency to Orlando, Ft, Lauderdale, Tampa, San Juan, Raleigh/Durham, New York (JFK), Cleveland, Barbados, Aruba, Cancun, Turks and Caicos, Punta Cana, St. Maarten, and Liberia, Costa Rica from next summer will only re-iterate JetBlue’s market dominance. Already, JetBlue’s Boston operation is impressive, as indicated by the table below (which covers JetBlue’s operation for the week of June 29 – July 5).

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The 888 weekly flights (~126 per day) peak at 131 daily departures on Thursdays, but what is most impressive is JetBlue’s frequency to key business destinations. JetBlue offers 14 or more weekly departures (2 flights per day) to 28 different destinations, and this frequency has been a critical source of its strength with Boston based business travelers.

In the long run, Boston may well end up being JetBlue’s largest hub (given New York JFK’s slot constraints – JFK is at ~170 daily departures today) and the Mint introduction is likely a precursor to JetBlue’s launching a trans-Atlantic gateway at Boston. On the domestic side, there aren’t too many markets that have the premium cabin demand and stage length to justify Mint service from JetBlue, so near-term Mint expansion (before the A321neo) will likely consist of additional frequencies. The one exception to that might be Seattle, which has some of the same technology links that drive business traffic to San Francisco, as well as premium cabin O&D demand 2/3 the size of Los Angeles with similar one-way fares.

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All fare data courtesy of masflight.

Contact the author at vinay.bhaskara@airwaysnews.com

 

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Op-Ed: Is Delta’s Comfort + A Third Class?

By Jack Harty / Published May 6, 2015

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New Comfort + stitching

Delta Air Lines has been upgrading all of its on-board products over the last year. From Delta Studio to new seat covers to upgraded snack basket offerings in first, Delta has made many, many changes to differentiate the flying experience based on what fare the customer buys and where they sit.

In March, Delta officially re-branded its extra leg room seats, formally known as Economy Comfort, to Comfort +. The re-brand was not as simple as a name change and new seat cover put on the seat; it came with additional perks–besides extra legroom–for those who sit in the seat. However, some will argue that the perks are to help lessen the pain when higher Medallions are not getting upgraded as often as in the past as the airline wants to sell more seats up front than upgrade. 

Some of the perks that come with Comfort + include:

  • Customers can take advantage of Sky Priority Boarding instead of boarding in Zone 1
  • There is dedicated overhead bin space for Comfort + customers
  • Extra leg room
  • Free wine, spirits, and regional craft beers
  • Snacks on all flights with a premium snack basket being offered on flights over 900 miles
  • Complimentary access to everything on Delta Studio

For passengers seated in Comfort + on transcon flights between JFK and LAX or SFO, they get all of the perks above as well as:

  • Luvo sandwich wrap and frozen Greek yogurt bar
  • A complimentary pillow and blanket, and block out sights and sounds with an eye mask and earplugs

Diamond and Platinum Medallions can select these seats for free at the time of booking, but since the changes, Gold Medallions now have to wait until 72 hours out to select seats for free. Silver Medallions will continue to wait until the time of check-in to select these seats for free. For all others, it comes at a cost to sit here, unless you are lucky and have no seat assignment and there are no other seats available right before your flight is to depart.

These seats come at a price, and it varies from flight to flight; primarily, it based on flight time, distance, number of Comfort + seats, the market, and sometimes seat location (some seats have lots of space when compared to others). For example, the seats can be $39 between Atlanta and Daytona Beach, but on a longer flight and with the same equipment on a flight such as Atlanta to Houston, the seat can be yours for $25.

When compared to other extra leg room seats on other U.S. airlines, the amenities appear to be slightly better as other U.S. carriers don’t offer free alcoholic drinks in these extra leg room seats nor is there a special snack basket on long domestic flights. Plus, it is nice to be able to browse Delta Studio and not worry about having to pay a few dollars to watch that movie you have been hoping to catch.

Taking Comfort + For a Test Flight

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Old Economy Comfort seat covers

I had the opportunity to try the new product on a recent flight to Detroit on-board a 757-300 for $49 extra. Since only middle seats in regular economy seats were open, it was also a good excuse to get the seat to guarantee a window seat.

This aircraft still had seat covers that said Economy Comfort with the old seat covers, but Delta has been putting on the new seat covers on plenty of MD88 and MD90 aircraft; these seat covers are just like the new First Class ones, but they say Comfort +. 

It was nice to board with Sky Priority, since I didn’t have elite status at the time. Once on-board, I stowed my luggage in the overhead compartments. For the most part, there was space in the overhead bins so the flight attendants did not really have to police the overhead bins over the Comfort + seats. I did notice a sign in the overhead bin that said this space was reserved for passengers in Economy Comfort seats; some MD88 aircraft are starting to get the new signs.IMG_6915

So far, it was just like an ordinary flight.

Once in the air, the flight attendants came through the cabin and offered the usual beverages, and we were offered complimentary alcoholic beverages, although it was not mentioned in the post-departire flight announcement which seems to be a hit or a mess.

The flight attendants also offered all passengers the snack basket which had bananas, Biscoff cookies, peanuts, pretzels, Gold Fish, and a few other options. It was nice to have a few options, and we were able to pick a few snacks which was also a plus (no pun intended). I opted to go with the Biscoffs; what’s a Delta flight without them?!IMG_6916

All too soon, we landed in Detroit, and that was the end to my Comfort + experience. It was like any ordinary flight if a passenger was seated in Economy Comfort before the changes, minus the complimentary alcoholic beverages and snack basket. Honestly the only minus was that the flight attendants did not come through with the snack basket again during the flight, but I do not think they are required to.

There are definitely some perks to seating in Comfort +, but it felt just like any other Delta economy experience which is hard to say that it is its own class.

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Contact the editor at jack.harty@airwaysnews.com.

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First Southwest Airlines International Flight Lands in Houston

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Flight 2207 on the gate screen at Aruba Airport.

By Jack Harty / Published March 9, 2015

HOUSTON, Texas – On Saturday, Southwest Airlines Flight 2207 did not just mark Southwest’s first flight between Aruba and Houston; it also marked the carrier’s first international arrival into Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport. Now Houston is one of a handful of cities in the U.S. to have two international airports.

Back in 1971, Southwest Airlines started flying between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio with three Boeing 737s, and over the years, the airline rapidly expanded its reach from coast to coast. Up until it acquired AirTran Airways in September 2010, Southwest only flew within the continental U.S., but since AirTran flew to a dozen cities outside the U.S., this meant that Southwest would too.

EXTRA: AirwaysNews High Flyer Interview: Perry Miller of Houston Hobby Airport

A Southwest Airlines jet parked at a Houston Hobby Airport gate. Image: Courtesy of Southwest

A Southwest Airlines jet parked at a Houston Hobby Airport gate. Image: Courtesy of Southwest

Now that Southwest would have international access thanks to its AirTran acquisition, Southwest started looking into starting international flights in and out of Houston, but the airline would have to win over the city’s approval to build an international terminal at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport where has build up a large presence.

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The entrance into William P. Hobby Airport.

To try to get the city of Houston on-board, Southwest launched the “Free Hobby” campaign in 2012, which almost sparked a war in Houston. Many in northern Houston were concerned that this would cause significant changes to United’s presence at Intercontinental Airport, but for those in south Huston, they would be able to fly out of an airport closer to their home.

Over the next few months, the city council, along with city leaders, held many debates about building an international terminal at Hobby Airport before it would go the city would make a final decision. Plus, United was very vocal about preventing Hobby from becoming an international airport.IMG_6478

Ultimately, Southwest won approval from the city of Houston to build the international terminal. The new $156 million, five-gate international concourse is still under construction. The new facility will increase capacity for all airport functions and add a Federal Inspections Services (FIS) facility to streamline U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) screening and baggage processing for arriving international passengers.

An airport spokesperson says that opening day is expected sometime mid-October. He also explained that Southwest will get preferred treatment at four of the five gates, and the airport is actively looking to add another international airline at Hobby once the new terminal opens.IMG_6335

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U.S. Customers and Border Protection Pre-clearance area at Aruba Airport.

Southwest has big plans for international expansion in Houston, and back in December, the carrier announced it filed applications with the U.S. Department of Transportation to start flights to six international destinations this fall once the new international concourse opens.

Pending government approval, Southwest plans to launch new international flights from Houston to Cancun, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and San Jose del Cabo in Mexico. Plus, Southwest also plans to launch flights to Belize City, Belize and San Jose, Costa Rica from Houston.

“This is an exciting first step in achieving our goal of establishing regional international air service at Hobby Airport,” said Houston Aviation Director Mario C. Diaz.  “We are making dramatic progress on the new international concourse building and have a definitive route map now available from the team at Southwest Airlines. The importance of strong connectivity with Latin America and the Caribbean cannot be overstated in Houston and these flights will undoubtedly strengthen those business and cultural ties.”

Now Taking Off: Aruba-Houston

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I Heart Aruba is a popular sign near The Renaissance Hotel in Aruba that many enjoy taking pictures with.

Although the new five gate international terminal at Hobby is expected to open in Fall 2015, U.S. CBP pre-clearance–which provide U.S. border inspection in certain foreign countries including Aruba–helps make it possible for Southwest to start Saturday-only international flights in and out of Houston sooner to Aruba. With pre-clearance, customers are able to deplane in Houston without further CBP inspections into the domestic terminal, quickly claim baggage and depart the airport, or make seamless connections to more than 40 destinations Southwest serves from Hobby.IMG_6457

“CBP’s Pre-clearance program allows us to deliver early on the promise we made Houstonians to couple our low fares and high-value Customer Service with Heart to places outside the U.S.,” said Teresa Laraba, Southwest’s senior vice president of customers. “This is just the beginning of a very big 2015 for our Houston employees and customers with an additional six destinations across three countries coming online at Hobby later this year.”

The First Flight

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The gate area was all decorated at Aruba Airport.

Many passengers were expecting 2207 to be an ordinary Southwest flight, but upon arriving at the gate, they would soon find out that they were about to join Southwest on a special occasion.

Several members of the media and Southwest employees arrived at the airport several hours early in order to attend a small ceremony with airline, airport, and city officials before the inaugural flight to Houston. Airport employees started decorating the gate area with hundreds of balloons the night before, and a catering company set up a table offering complimentary drinks and snacks. Near the podium, there was a cake in the shape of the island and had a Southwest plane (in cake form) on top of it.

IMG_6386As passengers started arriving at the gate, many were curious to know why there were reporters and balloons at their gate. They soon learned that they would be on the first international flight into Houston Hobby.

About two hours before departure, a small ceremony was held at the departure gate. Both Southwest, the Aruba Tourism group, and the airport exchanged gifts. The CEO of Aruba Tourism explained that she was very happy that Aruba has played an important role in Southwest’s international expansion (it was the first first international city a Southwest plane departed to on July 1 as well as the first international destinations for Houston). All parities made it clear that this new link with Houston (even though it is seasonal), will help reach deeper into the United States.

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Original Houston-based flight attendants who have more than 90 years combined of flying for Southwest Airlines.

About 40 minutes before departure, boarding began, and within 20 minutes, everybody was seated and ready to go. Before the door was closed, the Houston-based flight attendants—who have more than 90 years of experience combined —posed in the jetway with Aruba’s flag right before departure, and we were off.

At 1:30 p.m. local, we began a quick take off roll and started our trek to Houston. The flight was pretty uneventful. There were some special announcements—including free drinks—throughout the flight, but most were enjoying their last nap while still being on vacation.

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Off in the distance, downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center can be seen.

Prior to initial descent, Dan Landson, a senior communications specialist at Southwest, asked a few trivia questions about Southwest Airlines and handed out a few prizes to the inaugural passengers.

After a quick descent, Southwest Flight 2207 became the first commercial international flight to land at Houston Hobby in 41 years and Southwest’s first international flight. As the aircraft approached the gate, a traditional water cannon salute was provided by the Houston Hobby fire department.

Dozens of Southwest employees greeted and cheered as passengers disembarked from the flight, and there was even another cake waiting. Minutes later, Southwest employees were back hard at work turning the aircraft from Aruba around to head to north Texas.IMG_6528

Related: Southwest Has Left The Country

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Contact the author at jack.harty@airwaysnews.com

Contact the editor at benet.wilson@airwaysnews.com

Disclosure: Southwest Airlines and the Aruba Tourism Group provided round trip tickets and hotel accommodations to AirwaysNews to cover this story.  Our opinions remain our own.

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American Airlines Reveals Initial 787 Flights, Configuration, and Cabin Photos

By Benét J. Wilson / Published February 11, 2015

UPDATED: February 14, 2015 at 2:20 AM ET

An American Airlines 787  exterior. Image: Courtesy of American Airlines

An American Airlines 787 exterior. Image: Courtesy of American Airlines

American Airlines’ three initial routes for its new Boeing 787 fleet will be out of its Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport hub to Chicago O’Hare, along with Beijing and Buenos Aires.

The 787 will launch between DFW and O’Hare on May 7. It will then start international flights from DFW to Beijing on June 2 and Buenos Aires on June 4. The 787-8 launch happens to coincide with the one-year anniversary of American retiring the Boeing 767-200 from its fleet.

EXTRA: American Airlines To Retire 767-200s on May 7, 2014

First Flights

The inaugural American Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight will be AA2320. The flight will depart Dallas/Ft. Worth at 7:10 AM CT on Thursday, May 7. The flight is currently scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 9:36 AM CT. The aircraft will then return back to DFW as AA2320; it will depart ORD at 12:10 PM CT, and it will arrive at DFW at 2:57 PM CT. American will also operate one round trip evening flight with the 787 between the two cities.

More Details

Howard Mann is a new vice president at Alexandria, Virginia-based Campbell-Hill Aviation Group. “It’s not a surprise that the first route is a hub to hub one, mainly for crew training. This is pretty standard,” he said.

It hasn’t been announced, but it’s a guess that the 787 pilot base will be at  DFW, said Mann. “In terms of routes, American has done a lot of expansion from DFW to Asia, including Beijing starting in May with a Boeing 777-200ER,” he said. “If bookings on that route should slow down, the 787 is a good option for American. The 787 also allows American to show off its newest aircraft for business travelers and corporate accounts.”

Looking at Buenos Aires, that route potentially has a lot of passengers, but not quite at the capacity of a 777-200, said Mann. “While Argentina’s economy isn’t doing well, but it’s still important to serve the country from the DFW hub.”

EXTRA: The Eagle Rises Again: Onboard American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER Inaugural Flight

American Airlines has also revealed what 787 cabin will look like, calling it a state-of-the-art onboard travel experience. The 787, in a two-class configuration, will feature 28 fully lie-flat business class seats in the popular 1-2-1 configuration, which the carrier calls “a huge selling point.” The seat, custom designed by American’s Onboard Products team and manufactured by Zodiac, features forward and rear-facing direct-aisle access for every customer. It also includes satellite Wi-Fi capability provided by Panasonic.

The business class cabin onboard American Airlines' 787. Image: Courtesy of American Airlines

The business class cabin onboard American Airlines’ 787. Image: Courtesy of American Airlines

In the passenger experience area, business class  also features inflight entertainment selections on a 15.4-inch HD Panasonic touchscreen monitor, with Bose QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones and ear buds. Each seat has universal AC power outlets and a USB jack. The carrier’s 787-8s will also feature a walk-up bar stocked with snacks and refreshments.

EXTRA: AirwaysNews High Flyer Interview: American Airlines CEO Doug Parker

Economy class will have 48 Main Cabin Extra seats in a 3-3-3 configuration with up to six inches of extra legroom, along with 150 main cabin seats in the same 3-3-3 configuration. Seat will have a 9-inch HD Panasonic touchscreen monitor with assorted movies, TV programs, games and audio selections. Each seat is also equipped with universal AC power outlets and a USB jack.

The Main Cabin onboard American Airlines' 787. Image: Courtesy of American Airlines

The Main Cabin onboard American Airlines’ 787. Image: Courtesy of American Airlines

Jason Rabinowitz is the data research manager for Routehappy and an industry observer on the airline passenger experience. He noted that business class on American’s 787s is very similar to what was done on its refurbished 777s.

“It has the 1-2-1 configuration with the forward and backward seats. It’s interesting, because not a lot of airlines are doing this configuration,” said Rabinowitz. “I’m not saying that this is a bad approach, because people seem to like it. American’s business class looks fantastic and is pretty standard for its new fleet.”

Economy on the 787 will have the 3-3-3 configuration, which isn’t a surprise, said Rabinowitz. “It’s cramped, with the standard international pitch, and there will be people who recommend not flying on aircraft with the 3-3-3 configuration,” he said. “While all the other amenities are nice, the seat width will be problematic for some, which has become the industry norm for the 787.”

EXTRA: American Airlines’ 2015 Fleet Plan

The 787 will be a flagship aircraft for American, similar to its role in the United Airlines fleet, said Mann. “Looking at United, it used the 787 to open routes like San Francisco-Chengdu and Denver-Tokyo. It also used the 787 to right-size routes like Houston-Lagos, and also on flagship routes like Houston-London Heathrow,” he said.

EXTRA: Airbus A350 Visits American at Dallas/Ft Worth Airport

American Airlines has placed firm orders for 42 Boeing 787s, with rights to acquire an additional 58. Although there is no definitive delivery schedule at this point, a spokesman said it expects to take delivery of 12 787-8s this year, three in each quarter. It doesn’t have a set date on other route announcements, he added. The carrier will also receive its first of 22 Airbus A350s in 2017, as part of an order it inherited from US Airways.

Cover Image: Courtesy of JDL Multimedia

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Q&A with Thomas Lee, a Passenger Aboard the First Commercial Boeing 747 Flight

By Jay Haapala / Published January 27, 2015

Thomas Lee in his office at Zodiac Aerospace. Image Courtesy of Dan Krauss

Thomas Lee in his office at Zodiac Aerospace. Image Courtesy of Dan Krauss

Thomas Lee has been involved in the aviation industry for more than 30 years. He was a founder of Aero-design Technology, Inc., which introduced inflight trash compactor technology to commercial airlines. He currently serves as director of marketing and innovation for Zodiac Aerospace, a global aerospace cabin interior company based in Paris, France.

As we celebrate the 45th anniversary of the first-ever commercial flight of the Boeing 747 on January 22, 1970; AirwaysNews spoke with Lee, who at the age of 17, was onboard the Pan Am World Airways flight, New York to London. Lee’s father was the equivalent of a frequent flyer, even though the mileage programs had not been invented yet. As a frequent flyer globally on Pan Am, the entire Lee family was invited to be aboard this historic flight. Lee has flown the inaugural flights of the 747-8, 787, and A380. At the time of the interview, he was flying on Qatar Airways’ first Airbus A350 flight.

Pan Am inaugurated the world's first Boeing 747 service in January, 1970 at the Pan Am WorldPort.

Pan Am inaugurated the world’s first Boeing 747 service in January, 1970 at the Pan Am WorldPort. Image Courtesy of AirwaysNews

Thomas Lee's flight certificate for the inaugural Boeing 747 flight aboard Pan Am. Image Courtesy of Thomas Lee

The Clipper Victor’s flight certificate. Image Courtesy of Thomas Lee

AirwaysNews: Did you have any personal fears that the flight would be unsuccessful?

Thomas Lee: No, as a 17 year old, one is typically fearless. This is why most military personnel are age 17 to 22.

AN: Did any problems occur on the first commercial flight?

TL: Yes, during the take-off, we experienced a flameout in engine number four and had an aborted takeoff. This created a significant problem. This aircraft would need an engine replacement and could not fly. Fortunately, for Pan Am, a second 747 had been delivered by Boeing the day before and was in the hangar. However, this second aircraft had not undergone any preparation for flight. Pan Am had to waste a lot of time while preparing the second aircraft, known as “Clipper Victor,” for the inaugural flight to London.

They arranged five huge buses to take all the passengers from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK), to an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. We were there for over five hours having a party while the second plane was being readied. When we were driven back to JFK Airport, 30 people decided it was too dangerous to fly this first commercial 747 flight and did not board the aircraft and make the flight.

The Clipper Victor in London. Image Courtesy of Thomas Lee

The Clipper Victor in London. Image Courtesy of Thomas Lee

AN: Describe your experience on the first commercial 747 flight. Where you invited to be on it?

TL:  I was only 17 years old at the time of my flight on the Pan American Clipper Victor, [so] I obviously viewed the experience through a different set of perspectives. This was a transcendent moment, full of anticipation and excitement. As a teenager, climbing the winding stairs of the 747 to the upstairs piano bar and lounge, provided a sense of adventure that was almost surreal for an airplane experience. Even in what were relatively confined spaces, the uniformed attendants, the cordial bartender and the musician tinkling the piano keys created a bigger than life experience.

The Piano Bar aboard the Clipper Victor. Image Courtesy of Thomas Lee

The Piano Bar aboard the Clipper Victor. Image Courtesy of Thomas Lee

AN: What was the most memorable part of the flight for you?

TL: Clipper Victor flight was filled with passenger ,including families and businesspeople in newly tailored suits, dapper hats, dresses and fine jewelry. During the 747 inaugural flight, passengers could walk freely into the cockpit and chat with the flight crew. In this current age of increasing volatility and tightened security, those particular areas are [now] understandably off limits.

AN: What was the atmosphere like onboard the aircraft?

TL: In 1970, I was a curious youth with an exhilarating sense of one eavesdropping on a uniquely breathtaking formal event. Rather than studying the textures of the padded cloth seats or analyzing the patterns on the glistening silverware, my observations were of a more general nature. The most vivid memories were of an extraordinarily large craft with an enchanting stairway ascending upward to a virtual Land of Oz. That, and a one-of-a-kind galley buffet necessitated when some of the catering equipment could not be transferred to the replacement aircraft after the original take-off malfunction.

The buffet on Lee's Boeing 747 flight. Image Courtesy of Thomas Lee

The buffet on Lee’s Boeing 747 flight. Image Courtesy of Thomas Lee

AN: Tell us about the flight.

TL: The sensation upon entering the B747 was similar to the awe one might feel when first viewing the Grand Canyon. Keep in mind that this was the first wide-body, twin-aisle aircraft. So the step change from the much smaller, single-aisle aircraft was enormous. When we finally took off, the aircraft was lumbering along straining to slowly lift off and climb up to altitude.

As they could not transfer all the catering equipment when the second aircraft had to be prepared, they created a once-in-a-lifetime catering event. The passengers lined up in the aisles. A buffet was set up in the galley and we each filled our own plates and then went back to our seats to eat.

AN: Is there anything that you wish to say about the first flight?

TL: Clipper Victor was not only the inaugural 747 (first commercial flight) in history. Seven years later, it was the same exact 747 aircraft that was struck by the KLM 747 at Tenerife Airport, resulting in the worst aviation accident in history.

Thomas Lee carries a plaque with his first flight certificates on any inaugural. He is pictured on the inaugural of the 787 back in October 2011. Image by: Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

Thomas Lee carries a plaque with his first flight certificates on any inaugural. He is pictured on the inaugural of the 787 back in October 2011. Jon Ostrower, then with FlightGlobal (to the right) photo bombs the picture.
Image by: Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

Cover image courtesy of AirwaysNews.

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On-Board the Inaugural Qatar Airways A350 Flight

By Guest Contributor / Published January 17, 2015

Editor’s note: Below is a trip report submitted by Gino Bertuccio. Bertuccio, a Miami businessman, has traveled the world on major airline inaugurals for the Airbus A380, the Boeing 787, the 747-8, and was the first passenger to fly “The Residence” on Etihad’s first A380.IMG_0431

Below is a trip report and photos from the inaugural Qatar Airways passenger A350 flight from Doha to Frankfurt by Mr. Bertuccio.

I must say that I didn’t expect Qatar Airways to have any celebrations for their inaugural Airbus A350 XWB flight, based on previous experiences. However, I must admit that they have left me very impressed after the inaugural A350 flight.IMG_0429

I arrived at the Hamad International Airport First and Business Class Terminal around 5:35 AM on January 15 for the inaugural flight which was headed to Frankfurt, Germany.

As soon as I entered the terminal, a gracious lady approached me saying: “Good morning, Mr. Bertuccio and Welcome. This way please.” She quickly escorted me to the first class check-in area, but I was shocked that she knew who I was. So, I asked her how she knew who I was, and she explained that she saw my video and interview from the inaugural Etihad A380 flight.IMG_0435

The check-in and passport control process was very quick, and within ten minutes of checking-in, I arrived in the business class lounge where I met up with several “First to Fly” club members. Also in the lounge, I was contacted by a Qatar Airways Media Staff to do an interview for their social media channels.

Around 6:40 AM, a Qatar Special Services staff member escorted my to gate A3 which was the same gate as Qatar’s inaugural A380 flight.

EXTRA: Mr. Bertuccio’s Trip Report From Qatar’s Inaugural A380 Flight

Upon arriving at the gate, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Qatar had a huge gate celebration set up with soft live Arabic music, and all of the passengers were offered drinks, sweets, and a bag that contained a certificate commemorating the first flight as well as an Airbus A350 model. Meanwhile, all of the passengers seemed very happy as they enjoyed their drinks, took many photos, and checked out their gift bag.IMG_0447

At 7:15 AM, boarding started me. Along with myself and several others “First to Fly Club” flyers were invited to board, after we took a big group photo in front of a big Qatar sign.

Meanwhile CNN’s Richard Quest was boarding the aircraft, and when saw us, he pulled out his microphone, and we all got interviewed.

As we entered the aircraft, we were greeted by several flight attendants who welcomed us and showed us where our seats were. I quickly noticed the really wide cabin and the flat ceilings which gave me a sensation of a lot of space that I had never experienced on an aircraft before. Plus, the overhead bins were spacious as they could accommodate all carry-on luggage passengers brought on-board. Even though there are no center overhead bins in the business class cabin, it was not an issue for anybody.

EXTRA: First Passenger of Etihad’s A380 “The Residences” Gino Bertuccio’s Trip Report 

The new Qatar Airways business class seat, also already installed onboard the 787, was very comfortable in the 1-2-1 configuration. The new seats offered a generous storage area, easy to operate seat controls, and an IFE console that was easy to reach and operate. The 17” screen offers excellent resolution. A pillow, blanket, duvet, pajamas, and a very nice leather amenity bag with some Armani products inside where at every seat.

The flight attendants served welcome drinks, dates, and Arabic Coffee, IMG_0463and at 7:40 AM, Mr. Al Baker, Qatar’s CEO, came aboard with his staff along with Mr. Fabrice Bregier, Airbus’ CEO, and at 7:50 AM the doors were closed; at 8:12 AM we took off.

As soon as seat belt sign was turned off, flight attendants started coming through the cabin distributing menus , a wine list , a letter from the captain, and a beautiful pen made with the same composite materials that make up a large part of the A350. The flight attendants also asked us what we would like to drink as well as what we would like for breakfast. I decided to partake in the fruit, cereal, and Arabic Breakfast.

It was not easy for the flight attendant to conduct the cabin service because everybody was up socializing and exploring the aircraft so the service was a bit slow. IMG_0470

The atmosphere of the cabin was very friendly and cheerful. At the bar, a few of us conversed with Al Baker about aspects of the airline: HIA expansion, A350 pilot training, and Qatar’s in-flight product versus its competitors. In person, Baker is famously very clear, direct, and determined in what he wants and how he want it for the best interests of the airline.

Due to turbulence in route the seat belt sign was temporarily illuminated and unfortunately, we had to return to our seats for probably 20 minutes.

EXTRA: Gino Bertuccio on the Final Singapore Airlines Airbus A340-500 Flight

IMG_0504When it was turned off again, I was surprised when  a flight attendant came to my seat with a glass of champagne and a chocolate cake that said: “Welcome On Board our A350 Mr. Gino Bertuccio.”  The cake was especially prepared for me , and I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know whom I have to thank for this amazing gesture , but to whomever was  responsible they have my gratitude.

At 11:25 AM, we started our descent into Frankfurt, and we touched down on runway 07L (the newest runway) at 12: 05 PM and arrived at the gate approximately 15 minutes later.IMG_0510

My Take: I have taken a number of Qatar inaugurals and while the service is always excellent, they didn’t commemorate even launches like the A380 with any especially noteworthy gate events or details onboard even at the A380 launch. In the launch of the world’s first Airbus A350, Qatar went all out. They really put on a show down to every last detail. Sometimes the service was a bit slow, but since it was the first flight, not everybody was familiar with the galley, so chalk that up to familiarization.

The new business class seats are very comfortable and offer generous space and better than many other business class seats (especially in comparison to their own A330 old business class seats).  In my opinion, saying that it tops other airline’s first class seat may be a bit too much of a boast. In comparison with any US airline or other smaller airlines, Qatar’s business class seat wins, but is is not comparable with other major European or Asian carriers first class seats.IMG_0505

Overall, it was a fantastic flight and a great experience! Unfortunately, it was the last inaugural flight for an all-new wide-body passenger aircraft (not a derivative)  for the next decade.

EXTRA: Qatar Airways Takes Delivery of World’s First Airbus A350 XWB

EXTRA: On-Board Qatar’s A350 XWB Media Flight

EXTRA: On-Board Qatar’s A350 Delivery Flight

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Contact: benet.wilson@airwaysnews.com

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AirTran Flies Final Flight: Onboard the Last Flights

By Benjamin Bearup, Chris Sloan, and Jack Harty  / Published December 29, 2014

ATLANTA, GA – After retracing the same route that ValuJet inaugurated service on in 1993, the final AirTran Airways flight blocked in at Tampa International Airport at 11:39 PM ET Sunday night. The completion of AirTran flight 1 signified the successful completion of integrating AirTran into Southwest as well as the end of the iconic AirTran brand.

The Origins of AirTran

AirTran dates back to 1993 when ValuJet commenced operations. It’s inaugural flight took place on October 26, 1993 between Atlanta and Tampa via Jacksonville. To commemorate the final AirTran flight, Southwest planned to retrace the inaugural route, but AirTran opted to fly directly to Tampa.valujet9409cover_23614

Initially, very few took ValuJet seriously; it had a cartoon character “Critter” painted on the fuselage of the old DC-9s it acquired from Delta, and its orange and yellow all coach seats were not really appealing. Plus, ValuJet decided to compete with Delta – who had dominated the Atlanta market since 1941 – in Atlanta.

EXTRA: A History of Air Tran

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A AirTran 717 pushes back from the gate in Atlanta on December 28, 2014. Photo by Jack Harty / AirwaysNews

ValuJet would win over the hearts of many, but it hit a major bump in 1996 when ValuJet flight 592 caught fire while departing Miami and crashed into the Everglades. Unfortunately, the crash killed all 110 people on-board. Weeks before the crash, the FAA launched an investigation to look into why ValuJet had more than 114 emergency landings in 17 months; after the crash, the FAA grounded the airline for four months, citing safety concerns.

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A AirTran 717 taxing to the gate in Baltimore. Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

ValuJet was in the middle of a PR crisis, even after it made sure to promote that safety was its number one priority. About a year later, ValuJet announced that it would acquire AirTran Corporation which was the holding company of Mesaba (one of the former Northwest Airlink operators) and new owner of Conquest Sun Airlines. ValuJet also announced that it would change its name to AirTran Airways, and it would go through a restructuring to turn the airline around. The inaugural AirTran flight was once again Atlanta to Tampa.

EXTRA: Vintage AirTran and ValuJet Timetables and Schedules

EXTRA: AirTran Douglas DC-9-30 Cabin, Cockpit, and Flight Decks during Scrapping

Over the next few years, AirTran won the hearts of many, particularly in Atlanta. It introduced the first 717 as well as a Business Class product to for business travelers. It also became the first U.S. airline to have an entire fleet of aircraft equipped with GoGo in-flight WiFi and XM Radio.

EXTRA: Inside AirTran’s 717s

Meanwhile, the airline continued to grow; it ordered more than 100 737-700s to reach new destinations further west and built hubs in Baltimore and Milwaukee.

The Southwest Merger

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Photo by JDL Multimedia

About four years ago, Southwest Airlines announced plans to buy AirTran Airways. One year later, it became official. AirTran would be merged into Southwest. About eight months after the marriage became official, Southwest received its single operating certificate in record time.

When the merger plans were announced in 2010, nobody was really sure this would work. AirTran and Southwest were different in many ways; AirTran offered two class service, operated with a hub/spoke system, and operated two aircraft types, but Southwest offered one class service, operated more point to point, and had a single aircraft type.

During the farewell ceremony in Atlanta, Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest Airlines, recapped what the AirTran merger did for Southwest. He remarked that “Everybody knows that it helped us finish out our domestic route network expansion and gave us access to key cities and airports such as Atlanta and Washington Reagan. It also helped us boost our position in key markets like Milwaukee, Orlando, and Baltimore. But, without a doubt, the most important thing that the AirTran merger has done for Southwest Airlines is the addition of you – the AirTran people.”atlanta-hartsfield-jackson-international-airport-aerials-of-concourses-c-d-2009_12073

In May, Southwest Airlines announced that it would phase out all AirTran flying by the end of the year (which was the goal since day one of the merger process). December 28 would be the final day of AirTran operations.

The Final Day of Operations

AirTran Airways operated close to 90 flights on December 28 to more than a dozen destinations. Although 90 is far from its peak of 750 daily flights, many tried to catch one final AirTran flight to say goodbye one more time.B59wgTJIIAAIIyq

Senior correspondent, Jack Harty, spent a few hours sitting at some of the AirTran gates on Sunday. Overall, there was not a lot of fanfare until the last AirTran flight; although, some stopped to take pictures when an AirTran aircraft taxied by, and many employees also took photos as they finished working their final AirTran flights which caused several passengers to question what was going on.

The Farewell Begins in Milwaukee

Early Sunday morning, we flew up to Milwaukee to start the AirTran farewell tour. This part of the celebration provided an up close look at Southwest’s growth in Milwaukee since integrating AirTran’s operations.

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AirTran and Southwest employees in Milwaukee on December 28, 2014. Photo by Benjamin Bearup / AirwaysNews

When entering the C concourse in MKE that morning, it became obvious that Southwest and former AirTran employees truly love the company they work for and the history it has with the city. The love and passion for the company could be felt when they described what it meant to see the four years of hard work that went into merging the two carriers be finally completed. Although some were sad, most saw this day as the next step in Southwest’s history, and one that would make the carrier more “simple” and “easier to manage”.

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AirTran 717 Sign in Milwaukee on December 28, 2014. Photo by Benjamin Bearup / AirwaysNews

AirTran named Milwaukee a hub in April 2010. At the time, Milwaukee would be AirTran’s third hub city, after Atlanta and Orlando. AirTran quickly grew to serve over twenty destinations with over 60 daily flights. When the airline was purchased by Southwest in 2010, it became clear that big changes were coming to Milwaukee.

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AirTran farewell party in Milwaukee on December 28, 2014. Photo by Benjamin Bearup / AirwaysNews

Over the course of four years, Southwest took over and preserved most of the routes formerly served by AirTran. “AirTran Airways laid a really solid foundation for Southwest to grow upon in Milwaukee,” said Dan Landson, a Southwest Airlines Spokesperson. “The brand was iconic in the city and region and we’re really looking forward to moving forward as one brand with one Customer Experience, and most importantly to be the airline of choice for Milwaukee travelers.”

As the final flight out of Milwaukee approached, the gate the flight would leave from began to receive a special makeover featuring that featured a banner and dozens of balloons. Employees were also sporting their best AirTran attire from the late 90s to the mid 2000s.

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An empty 717 cabin during the AirTran farewell party in Milwaukee on December 28, 2014. Photo by Benjamin Bearup / AirwaysNews

Around the same time, a special aircraft arrived; it was a former AirTran 737-700 that had recently been reconfigured and repainted in the new Southwest Heart Livery. It seemed like a symbolic “changing of the guard” in the former AirTran hub.

Several minutes later, N717JL-an AirTran 717-arrived from Atlanta. This would be our ride to Atlanta to continue the farewell celebration, but before we departed, a pre-depature party was held with two large cakes, pizza, drinks, and historic AirTran memorabilia. After a fun but short 20 minute celebration, the aircraft was ready for boarding. Several longtime and devoted AirTran employees and several members of the media were onboard the flight to Atlanta.

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AirTran farewell cake in Milwaukee on December 28, 2014. Photo by Benjamin Bearup / AirwaysNews

As the flight prepared for departure, dozens of Southwest and AirTran employees waved farewell from the ramp as the plane pushed back. After a short taxi, Airtran flight 351 was off to Atlanta, and a piece of Milwaukee and AirTran’s aviation history came to a close.

After completing most of the uneventful two hour flight, the flight attendants acknowledged the significance of the flight and asked for all passengers to participate in a group photo that eventually became a large selfie at 34,000 feet. AirTran souvenirs were passed out and before we knew it, we were on final into Atlanta. Shortly before landing the captain of N717JL thanked the passengers for their loyalty after all these years. Upon landing and arriving at our gate we were given forewarning that we would be welcomed by a large party to celebrate the final flight for AirTran Airways.

 

The Final Flight: AirTran 1 ATL-TPA

Pre-Departure Party

About an hour before flight 351 was set to arrive from Milwaukee, the party started at gate C3 in Atlanta. There were balloons, a DJ, and a lot of dancing at the gate. Just off the boarding area, a cake in the shape of a AirTran aircraft took center stage. 500-600 AirTran and Southwest employees sharing memories and a lot of laughs in what turned into a very lively party, the kind of which Southwest was famous for. The theme for the event was “One Family. One Love” commemorating the intergration finally coming to fruition.

A little more than an hour before boarding, a few executives made some remarks.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly mostly spoke on what it meant to see the integration be finally complete and that he was happy to have the AirTran folks part of Southwest. Comparing this event to a commencement, Kelly remarked “It’s the end of something that was great, but now, it’s the start of something even better. This is a testimony to the soul of the people of AirTran.”

Bob Jordan, Southwest’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, was also present at the event and on the final flight. As President, AirTran Airways since the merger began he played a significant roll in the integration. Jordan took over when Bob Fornaro stepped down as CEO of AirTran, when Southwest officially purchased AirTran in 2011. During his speech, he went over some key dates of the merger and expressed how happy he was to see the two airlines come together. His remarks were warmly received by the crowds “we didn’t want this to be like any other airline merger. We wanted this to be special and just like Southwest treats its employees.” He emphasized that “this was a party”. Any outstanding differences between the Southwest and AirTran teams, weren’t on show tonight. 

Then, he announced that he was going to stray away from his script. Jordan took a moment to recognize Fornaro for his leadership and passing on the torch. Fornaro, who was present at the event and on the final flight, received a big round of applause and several cheers. Many AirTran employees were very happy to see him again, mobbing him with requests for selfies. Next, Jordan expressed that “Tonight is bittersweet for AirTran employees, but many new things will come as a result of this merger. We know that you all truly loved your company and built something special. Now we are one family.”

To conclude the gate events in Atlanta, Kelly and Jordan signed a commemorative certificate signifying the final AirTran flight.

Boarding

Boarding was a bit chaotic. Boarding began as soon as the remarks were over, and since there were more than 800 listed on standby for the flight, the gate area was absolutely mobbed which caused some confusion on where boarding was taking place. The 1980s it song “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds accompanied the boarding.

Kelly took the tickets for the final flight, and champagne was served to celebrate the end of an era, but the beginning of a new one. A 717 model was passed around to have the final AirTran passengers sign it, and at each seat, there was some fun AirTran memorabilia for every passenger.

The captain of the final flight was AirTran’s Director of flight operations – Floy Ponder – who has 19 years of experience. One of his favorite memories was the 2010 ice storm in Atlanta that shut down the airport. The first officer would be Janin Hutcheson who has been with the company since ValuJet and helped recruit many captains at AirTran. Like the remaining 717 flight crews, they are going on to training on the Southwest 737 fleet.

After our initial article ran, Helen Souders emailed us a fun fact about a special jumpseater in the cockpit on AirTran flight 1:

One man was there for it all, my father, Captain John E. Souders. He was in the cockpit last night. He is a decorated Marine aviator, Vietnam veteran (fighter pilot), retired Eastern Airlines Captain, and the first pilot ValuJet hired. He flew the inaugural flight in 1993. He served as their Chief Pilot and VP of Flight Operations. He stayed on after age 65 as a Check Airman with AirTran. He turned 71 two weeks ago. It is fitting that he ends his career as the Captain they chose to be on their first flight and their last! We are so proud of him and I believe this t human story ties it all together as AirTran says goodbye and a great man retires from the skies.

EXTRA: Five memorable AirTran commercials

Pushback

After boarding was complete, a large gathering of employees and a few members of the media took place on the ramp. Many employees posed for pictures one final time before the aircraft departed for Tampa.

While standing on the ramp, emotions were high as more than a hundred Southwest and AirTran employees posed for pictures and waved farewell to the AirTran 717 that once ruled concourses C and D in Atlanta.

As large groups employees took pictures with N717JL, firetrucks lined up to give Citrus one final wash before heading off to Tampa, and as the aircraft pushed back, everybody quickly followed N717JL toward the end of the gate to watch the salute it rightly deserved. AirTran 1 made an on-time departure.

Extra: Employees say farewell to AirTran

The Final Flight 1 to Tampa

At 10:30 PM EST, AirTran flight 1 began its quick 35 second took off roll to thunderous applause.

Once in-flight, the party continued with a lot of socializing and enjoying the AirTran service one last time. With 117 passengers on board consisting of current and former staff, it was a full house. With many having flown in from around the system to be on the last flight. Owing to the demand, a number of staffers actually purchased their seats just as they went on sale months ago. The three Flight attendants, cloaked in AirTran sashes, managed to pull off two services inflight even as the partying passengers crowded the aisle. They had a little help from others fellow employees to complete the service on this very short flight. Cocktails were on the house and there was even a champagne service onboard, not something normally seen on a AirTran or Southwest flight. During approach into Tampa, there was a quick toast to AirTran.

During final descent, the captain said “I can’t say see you on another AirTran flight but hopefully on another Southwest flight.” When the fasten seatbelt sign came on, passengers chanted for a go around, but unfortunately, they did not get their wish. It being near midnight, few would have seen it.

Extra: Final AirTran 717 Ferry Flights

Arrival

At 11:36 PM EST, AirTran flight 1 touched down in Tampa to a roar of applause. Three minutes later, it blocked into the gate. Unlike most flights, no one wanted to deplane.

Upon exiting the aircraft, there was a large party going on in the terminal – with “Let it Go” from the movie “Frozen” playing in the background. If anything this party, sponsored by the Tampa Airport Authority was even more lively then Atlanta with even more dancing and a DJ. Many AirTran employees drove to Tampa to celebrate and say farewell to AirTran. It was very emotional as there were lots of hugs and some tears, but many are excited for the bright future ahead. Citrus and the Critter may be gone, but they are anything but forgotten.

Extra: AirTran & ValueJet Timetables and Route Maps

Extra: A History of Air Tran

Extra: Employees say farewell to AirTran

Extra: Final AirTran 717 Ferry Flights

Extra: Vintage AirTran and ValuJet Timetables and Schedules

Listen to AirTran final flight 1 ATC departure from ATL and final arrival in TPA

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Disclosure: Southwest Airlines provided round trip tickets and hotel accommodations to AirwaysNews to cover the final AirTran flights.  Our opinions remain our own.

Benjamin Bearup contributed to this story from the final Milwaukee/Atlanta flight. Chris Sloan contributed to this story from the final AirTran Airways flight, and Jack Harty contributed to this story from Atlanta as well as the introduction and history.

You can contact jack.harty@airwaysnews.com.

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AirlineReporter.com: Taking the Inaugural Bangkok A380 Flight on Qatar

This story was originally published by David Parker Brown on AirlineReporter.com.

The more that I fly the Airbus A380, the more I like the aircraft — as a passenger, but I am not so sure as an AvGeek. It is so smooth during take-off and landing, one might not even realize that they happened. Turbulence is mostly absorbed by the jumbo jet, making the flight smooth. The windows and walls are so thick, the aircraft stays quiet and passengers are removed from the flying experience.DPB 1

As an AvGeek, these are some of the reasons why I am not a huge fan of the A380. I want to feel the take-off, I enjoy a little turbulence, and I want to stay connected to the entire flight experience. But this doesn’t mean I cannot enjoy an A380 flight, especially when it is on a Qatar Airways aircraft with an impressive on-board product.

One of the biggest disappointments I had regarding the flight was not being able to get an exterior shot of the A380. And believe it or not, that was partially due to both Bangkok and Doha airports being designed where photos are hard to get, and also because of the King of Thailand.DPB 2

Now, I want to be respectful of the King, even while being in America. In Thailand they have something called lèse majesté, where one cannot talk bad about the King. If you do, you get to go to jail. It sort of puts a damper on your travel experience.

You see, the day of the inaugural, December 5th, also happened to be the King’s birthday. It was cool to see all the decorations around Thailand, but one of the rules is that no one can try and upstage the King’s celebration. Included in this was not being able to celebrate an inaugural flight. This meant no balloons, no cupcakes, nothing more than a few signs around the airport that let anyone know that this was a special flight.DPB 4

Originally, I was set to get tarmac access to get photos of the A380, but that also was considered too much “celebrating” and was cancelled. So, indirectly because of the King of Thailand, I have no exterior photos of the A380 I flew on. At least there was enough eye-candy on the inside to keep me entertained.

Did the King interrupt anymore of David’s trip in the inaugural Bangkok Qatar A380 flight, and how was the flight on-board the Qatar A380? Continue reading “Taking the Inaugural Bangkok A380 Flight on Qatar” on AirlineReporter.com to find out.

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Meet Etihad’s First Residence Passenger

By Jack Harty / Published December 24, 2014

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Photo courtesy of Airbus

In three days, Etihad Airways will fly its inaugural Airbus A380 flight between Abu Dhabi and London Heathrow. It’s a flight for Etihad’s history books as it signifies the introduction of many brand new products that are all focused on improving the travel experience.

When announcing its seating plans for the A380, Etihad created a lot of buzz around the travel industry as the A380 would offer a very unique and exclusive product. Meet The Residence by Etihad™; it is a three-room private cabin that has a Living Room, a Double Bedroom, an Ensuite Shower Room, and its own on-call butler.

EXTRA: Etihad Airways Unveils New Uniforms, First 787, and First A380

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Mr. Bertuccio on-board the inaugural A380 flight.

Earlier this week, Etihad revealed the identity of the person who purchased the very first Residence ticket on the inaugural flight to London this Saturday.

Meet Miami-based businessman and aviation enthusiast Mr. Gino Bertuccio. He will be the first person ever to experience the world’s only private multi-room cabin on a commercial passenger aircraft.

Mr. Bertuccio who runs Ligi Import Corp said: “I have followed Etihad Airways and I have always admired the products the airline has launched. There are going to be many firsts on this inaugural flight – new amenities, services and other innovations to try. I am excited to experience them all, though I am particularly fascinated by the butler concept.”

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Sloan and Bertuccio on-board ANA’s Inaugural 787 flight

It’s clear that Mr. Bertuccio is truly passionate about aviation and is a connoisseur with a strong expertise in air travel; he has traveled on 22 inaugural and final flights, since his first inaugural flight 25 years ago, and he is an avid collector of airline memorabilia and model airplanes (with nearly 2000 in his collection). He also has albums filled with boarding passes, certificates and photos from past flights.

On the inaugural Airbus A380 flight in October 2007, AirwaysNews’ Editor and Chief, Chris Sloan, had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bertuccio where he learned about the “First to Fly Club.” It’s a small group of people who have made it their goal to fly on the first scheduled flight of significant airline services. Sloan and Bertuccio also had the opportunity to meet during the ANA 787 inaugural flight.

EXTRA: Mr. Bertuccio’s Trip Report From Qatar’s Inaugural A380 Flight

For Mr. Bertuccio, he likes to chase all of the A380 inaugurals as a member of the “First to Fly Club.” In a video interview that Etihad put together, Mr. Bertuccio explained that “being on inaugurals for an aviation enthusiast is about being part of the aviation history; it’s like a new adventure.

Peter Baumgartner, Etihad Airways’ Chief Commercial Officer, said: “We are delighted to welcome Mr. Bertuccio on board The Residence by Etihad. On December 27, he will become part of aviation history as the first member of an elite group of Etihad Airways guests to enjoy the world’s most luxurious and exclusive hospitality and service experience in the air.”

“For the first time in my flying experience, I really don’t know what to expect but I do know that flying in the Residence by Etihad will be a truly unique adventure, the top of luxury. I have huge expectations. My only wish is that the flight was longer,” said Mr. Bertuccio.

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Contact the author at Jack.Harty@AirwaysNews.com.

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In-Flight Review: Qatar’s A350 Delivery Flight to Doha

By Chris Sloan from Doha, Qatar  / Published December 23, 2014

Editor’s Note: A year ago, Airbus delivered the 1st A350 XWB to Qatar Airways. Since then, the A350 fleet has been delivered to four operators and spent more than 16,000 hours in the air. Here is our coverage of the first delivery ever of the Airbus A350 XWB to its launch customer, Qatar Airways.


 

Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

Qatar’s A350 XWB quietly sits at the gate waiting to head home to Doha. (Photo: Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews)

At 09:28 PM LT on Tuesday, December 23, Qatar’s first A350 XWB landed in Doha –under the cover of darkness– with approximately 70 Qatar employees, VIPs and members of the media from Toulouse, France. A day earlier, Airbus handed over the first A350 XWB to Qatar Airways, and shortly after taking delivery of the aircraft, the airline flew several executives and more than a hundred members of the media on a short demonstration flight over the Mediterranean.

EXTRA: Qatar Airways Takes Delivery of World’s First Airbus A350 XWB

EXTRA: On-Board Qatar’s A350 XWB Media Flight

After the big delivery ceremony Monday, it was time for the delivery flight to Doha which would be operated just like a normal scheduled commercial flight, but there would be fewer people on-board.

Business Class was full while approximately ten passengers–who were all employees of Qatar–would have the two economy cabins to themselves. 

As much as I anticipated experiencing the Airbus A350 XWB in a true commercial flight, I was equally curious to put Qatar’s renowned SkyTrax 5 star rated Business Class marketed and self-proclaimed as “World’s Best Business Class” to the test. Some of the burning questions I had included: Would it live up to all the hype and marketing expectations? Is it truly a First Class product at a Business Class price? Is the Airbus A350 XWB cabin truly an “eXtra Wide Body” experience?

Checking-In

Upon arrival, it was business as usual; we went through the standard and typical check-in, customs, and security screenings just like any other flight, but there were not lines.

Once arriving at the gate, the media had an opportunity to walk around the A350 while it was getting ready for its six hour journey to Doha, and there was even an opportunity to do a little shopping at the Airbus store.

Time to Board

Although it was just like a normal flight, there were no lines which made boarding very easy. We boarded through the L2 door which has a bar in the middle of the cabin. It is complete with a signature middle light on the roof with an Arabic frame around the light. As with many 787 operators, this provides an entry like a hotel and enhances the boarding processes.

Champagne, towels, newspapers, and magazines were offered before departure, and I quickly headed to my seat.

At every seat, there was a hardcover commemorative A350 delivery menu which stated “ahead of the curve” which is a homage to the A350’s curved wingtip. There was also a dye cut out matting in the shape of the A350 cockpit window, and inside, it listed the dining menu and the extensive wine list. Additionally, the phrase “You will never forget your first time on a Qatar A350” emblazoned the wine menu.

Almost immediately upon boarding the A350, one notices the high flat sculptured ceilings and flat vertical side walls which are a signature of the A350 eXtraWideBody.

The panoramic windows are also noticeably larger then any Airbus product before. Although they are not as large as the 787, they allow a great deal of natural light into the cabin. The windows in Business Class utilize a pleasing dual shade electromechanical feature while Economy’s are conventional manual shades. Airbus made a point of going with a simpler system then the 787’s dimming feature.

The LED mood lighting also stands out, but they did not come on until the meal service was concluded.

Once it was time for pushback, Toulouse ground crew and executives turned out in mass to wish us Bon voyage. There were also plane spotters adjacent to the runway waiting to photograph our departure. The captain announced “welcome aboard the first A350 flight” making it one of just a few times that people would be aware they were on a very “special flight.”

Take Off

Qatar also took delivery of its fourth Airbus A380 on Monday, December 22, and it flew the aircraft back to Doha simultaneously with the A350. Below are some pictures of the two aircraft beginning their journey home to Doha from Toulouse.

At 1:22 PM, we began a very quiet 42 second take off roll, and at 1:50 PM we reached FL400 over the Swiss Alps, picking up a little light chop from mountain wave. The A350’s gust suppression system handled the wave with aplomb and we were avoided a breathtaking view in the process.

After take off, the flight attendants wasted no time in starting their service as we were offered a comfort bag complete with pajamas ten minutes.

Qatar’s A350 Business Class Cabin

Qatar’s A350 XWB Business Cabin is in a two-cabin configuration with 36 Business Class seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, featuring 80” fully flat beds and 17” HD in-flight entertainment screens. These very comfortable seats convert to a lie-flat bed. For privacy, the middle two seats boast a powered divider. Each Business Class cabin is separated by the semi-circular bar unit.

There is a flat screen Thales IFE in front of the seat with the seat controls just to the left. The remote control, electrical power for European and US standards and USB ports are all to the left. There is storage space in cubbies at the right armrest where noise canceling headphones are stored along with a bottle of water and to the left under the table. Another cubby is to the left just under the lacquered wood pull out table. Behind the seat to the right is a storage shelf. This hard product is similar to Qatar’s A380, 777, and 787s.

In Business Class, Qatar opted for power electromechanical window shades which scroll down in two screens to soften light and make opaque.

The windows in Business Class are very large. Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

The windows in Business Class are very large. Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

In economy, convention manual window shades are used. This is a much simpler system the the 787 electronically dimmer systems Airbus claims.

As on other Qatar aircraft, there is framed art work in this case the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.

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The PSU. Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

I was seated in 8A which affords excellent views of the A350’s signature swooping wingtip. I was able to store my bags in the overhead compartments which were very roomy. Plus, the compartments don’t swing down to interfere with service.

The Passenger Service Unit (PSU) has an LCD screen overhead which indicates WiFi, Phone Switch Off, and No Smoking. This was a first for me to see such a screen.

There is a fold out tray table in a lacquered wood finish, and one major benefit of the tray table is that it allows one to enter and exit the seat with the tray table in the down position.

The male amenity kit. Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

The male amenity kit. Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

An amenity kit by Giorgio Amani was already at the seat. Inside, it had pillows and douvet.

There are separate amenity kits for men and women. The male kit has cologne, moisturizer, tooth brush, and shaving cream, and all of the kits have the Qatar eyeshades.

 

Qatar’s A350 Economy Cabin

Economy Class has 247 seats split between two cabin. Each seat is 18-inches wide, in a 3-3-3 configuration, and has up to a 32-inch pitch. Each individual seat will feature a 10.6” in-flight entertainment screen. The extra width of the A350 cabin and flat sidewalls especially shine through in the rear two Y cabins.

Currently, Qatar does not offer a premium economy product.

The Lavatory

The lavatories are masterpieces in their own right. They are bathed in red colored light with a rose and a backlit mirror. There are touch sensitive controls to adjust water temperature. An elegant textured finish on the sink with an understated dark wood floor which are also in the galleys makes this room a show stopper. Plus, the lavatories have a sweet aromatic orange smell which is very pleasing. I could have stayed in here the whole flight, but I digress.

The In-Flight Meal

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Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

Qatar is famed for its wine list. There were 9 vintages of wine and champagne on offer, Graham’s Tawny Port from 1969, and a full complement of spirits. In fact the airline controls alcohol  distribution in the dry country of Qatar. Sauvignon Blanc Craggy Range 2012 was the perfect and rather frequent accompaniment for my palette.

The appetizers included: Classic Arabic mezzo; Smoked mackerel with green bean salad . My delicious choice was a melding of delicious textures and spices. Three types of breads were also in the dish. The dish had an exquisite presentation which almost prevented me from eating it as it was too gorgeous.

FOOD 1

Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

For the main course, there was the choice between: Tandoori paneer with mussalam sauce, Braised lamb shank with dried fruit couscous, and Marinated chicken beast with lentils. I went with the chicken and was not disappointed. The combination of lentils and walnuts – plus the juiciest chicken I have ever had in flight – translated into a dining experience that would be the envy of many at a gourmet restaurant. This airline is indeed a foodie paradise.

FOOD 3

Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

After the main course, there was a cheese plate with cheeses, grapes, and chutney.  For desert, there was the choice between: a selection of seasoned fruits, ice cream, and Lauduree Ispahan which is a rise flavored soft macaron biscuit, rose petals cream, raspberries and lychees. Again, the presentation on this desert compelled me to want to frame it rather then consume it. The Lauduree Ispahan tasted as good as it looked.

FOOD 4

Photo by Chris Sloan / AirwaysNews

For light options during the flight, there was a selection of hot pastries and a grilled steak sandwich with balsamic onions and mustard mayonnaise on offer.

During the Flight

HE Al Baker, Qatar’s President and CEO, made several passes throughout aircraft personally inspecting the service and asking passengers if everything was OK service wise. Clearly as he walked around the cabin, he was inspecting every detail to make sure it was perfect. Crew and staff refer to him as “Chief”.CEO

The inflight the buffet / bar area became a common gathering point for conversation. It was unmanned, but it was stocked with Krug champagne, snacks, fresh fruit, and Godiva chocolates.  The two-piece unit itself is used for storing galley carts.

The A350 was of course very smooth and quiet. It’s easily possible to have a whisper like conversation on-board, and this trait came in handy as many people were sleeping during the flight. The A350 also has a sense of roominess which is what really gives the aircraft its edge. As mentioned before, the wide fuselage is a particular advantage in economy where Airbus is able to put to good effect the 18″ seat in a 3-3-3 configuration. Even with a 32″ pitch one can tell the difference especially at the window owing to the flat sidewalls. The wide-body cabin falls just short of the 777 diameter which is intentional to deter airlines from offering the dreaded ten abreast seating.

As our flight was a medium haul–six hours and twelve minutes from take off to touchdown–it wasn’t easy to detect the effect of the increased humidity and reduced pressurization levels. But  like is often the case, even with the jet lag I did notice that I felt more refreshed upon arrival. The air smelled very fresh and clean owing to the XWB’s zonal filtration system.

But as unique and special as the A350 XWB is, from a passenger experience, it is almost a secondary player to Qatar’s apex level of service. The plane itself doesn’t wow like an A380 with marketing gimmicks, but it certainly delights. Think of it this way, a Broadway play can have an amazing set and theater venue, but it is the story and actors that keep the audiences raving. In this case, Qatar is the story and the A350 is the set.

The On-Air WiFi was inoperative but that was a good thing as it left us with time to do old fashioned things like take in a movie, hang out at the bar, and convivially chat with other guests on the flight.

During the flight, I played with the IFE–dubbed Oryx  Thales TopSeries– and the remote control– dubbed TPMU Touch Passenger Media Unit — which control everything from IFE to window shades to lighting. Some basic functions on the IFE are controlled on screen, but most features are accessed by the remote control which is very useful when in recline position.

The IFE was one of my few complaints in that its not intuitive as to what is controlled on the screen and what’s controlled on the remote. The exhaustive list of entertainment options are time consuming, and at times, frustrating to scroll through on the remote’s small LCD screen. Qatar’s inflight entertainment catalog is a comprehensive, but fairly typical offering of movies, games, TV shows, and music in multiple languages, and there is of course the tail cam view with moving interactive map. Where the A380 has three cameras, the A350 settles for one camera but I am not complaining.

Following meal service, the cabin crew offered bedding turndown service. This service and pajamas are typically offered on ultra-long haul and night flights but Qatar wanted to demonstrate this to the press. Matters, duvet, and blanket were thoughtfully laid out by cabin crew. Unlike many carriers where the cabin crew then disappear to their bunks or the gallery, Qatar’s well coordinated inflight team continued to attend to us offering snacks, beverages, and conversation. It was evident that they were very proud of their airline.

About 25 minutes before arrival, the mood lighting transitioned to a soft, calming aqua, and just before landing, we were each personally thanked by the very hospitable crew for flying Qatar Airways and that they were looking forward to seeing us soon. Indeed, I hope I will see them all soon again as I did not want this flight to end. Luckily, I had six hours and twelve minutes to enjoy flying on Qatar’s A350.

Upon arrival into Doha Hamad International Airport, we were carried on individual golf carts through the gorgeous – but mammoth – new airport by a concierge to be escorted to retrieve our luggage by a bellman. The concierge and bellman escort you all the way to ground transportation. This is a VIP service available on request. After a long journey into a newly discovered destination late in the evening, this is a very welcome perk.

Conclusion

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Chris Sloan on-board the A350 Delivery Flight

Qatar’s A350 Business product lives up to its billing as a First Class product at a Business Class price. The hard product, soft product, and very attentive, gracious, and multi-cultural service makes this a stand out regardless of competition. Apart from a few announcements and the presence of the airline’s CEO, this felt just like any other Qatar flight, and I think that was the point.

At this level of service in Business, I can only imagine to what levels Qatar’s A380 First Class service ascends to. Certainly the historic and special nature of the A350 delivery flight was a highlight. What I didn’t expect was that Qatar’s everyday level of service would actually eclipse the aircraft as the star of the show. Without a doubt, this was the highest level of service I have ever experienced. When an airline makes such an audacious claim as “World’s Best Business Class”, they had better deliver and Qatar did.

EXTRA: Photos from the Delivery Event

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Qatar Airways provided accommodations and flights to and from Doha. Our opinions remain our own.

Cover photo and latest photos courtesy of Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / JDL Multimedia.

Contact jack.harty@airwaysnews.com

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