Category Archives: Airline Passenger Experience

Meeting Jean Imbert, Creator of the new “À la Carte” Menu for Air France

By: Seth Miller / Published: April 22, 2016

Air France passengers looking for an upgraded dining experience on board were granted their wish earlier this month as the company kicked off its “À la Carte” service for long-haul flights departing from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The offering—a pre-order upcharge from the regular economy or premium economy meals—is the result of the collaboration between the airline and chef Jean Imbert, a recent Top Chef winner and rising star in the world of French cuisine.

Jean Imbert (Credits: Top Chef)

Jean Imbert (Credits: Top Chef)

The last week, Imbert took to the skies with the Air France, offering a surprise service on a flight from Paris to New York City, after which he sat down with Airways to talk about the process of getting the meals on to aircraft and some of the challenges he faces in building the offering.

A premium dining option in the economy cabin is relatively uncommon on airlines today. In building its offering, Air France did not want to simply extend the business class meal further through the cabin. Imbert explained that part of the reasoning for the difference is related to the service timing, noting that “in business class, you have more time for the service, but this is not the case.” Indeed, the service comes along with the other economy dining options just like a dietary special meal. Still, Imbert explained that the meal design process is relatively similar to the premium cabin meals.

To design the food is quite the same as we do in business, because we create the best product that we can with the price that they give us. We have to know that in flight, salty [flavor] is very difficult to taste, and crispy [texture] is not possible. I like this because it is just like Top Chef: The more difficult it gets, the more you have to think.

And here was plenty of thinking, planning and effort that went in. Imbert worked with Air France and Servair (the company responsible for Air France’s catering at CDG) for eighteen months, preparing for the launch of the service.

Le marché de Jean Imbert. (Credits: Air France)

Le marché de Jean Imbert. (Credits: Air France)

He is keen to offer great food and to protect his personal brand, especially as it is a paid premium option for passengers, “My name is on the plate so I want to make sure that again and again and again that it is the same. I don’t want to look on Twitter and see ‘I ate Jean Imbert and it is no good.'” The first iteration of the menu includes an organic quinoa salad with a poached egg, a warm stew main course and a fruit fondant dessert inspired by the dish he made in the Top Chef finale to secure victory.

He is also very aware of the unique circumstances surrounding Air France’s willingness to partner with such a young chef for its in-flight dining menus. He is not a Michelin three-star chef, and knows that the draw for passengers may be different, as is the approach to the food. “We both like nice food, but it is a different way of thinking” is how he describes it. And given the target market—economy class passengers versus premium travelers—this different approach hold strong potential for success.


IMGP2946Seth Miller is an AirwaysNews.com contributor specialized in Loyalty Marketing, Connectivity and Passenger Experience and will drop everything if he gets an opportunity to go flying. Bit by the travel bug 30 years ago, Seth flies ~200,000 miles annually. Follow him on twitter at @WandrMe, or his site at The Wandering Aramean blog.


Editor’s note: Keep up with AirwaysNews by subscribing to our weekly eNewsletter. Every Saturday morning, subscribers get a recap of our top stories of the week, the subscriber-only exclusive Weekend Reads column wrapping up interesting industry stories and a Photo of the Week from the amazing AirwaysNews archives. Click here to subscribe today!

Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

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JetBlue to Expand the ‘Mint’ Experience

By: Staff / Published: April 12, 2016

JetBlue announced today an expansion of its popular ‘Mint’ Premium service on on many of its routes, or as the carrier said, a “Monumintal Expansion”.

The New Service. Courtesy of JetBlue

The carrier stated that eleven routes will now have the ‘Mint’ expansion, including Seattle, San Diego, Fort Lauderdale and Las Vegas as new cities for the service, which is offered exclusively on the carrier’s Airbus A321 aircraft.

FLIGHT REVIEW: JetBlue Mint “Suite” Inaugural

ANALYSIS: The Economics of JetBlue Mint

“Mint helped traditional business class travelers realize there is a better way,” said JetBlue President and CEO Robin Hayes in a statement. “Our plan has long called for strategic growth of Mint on these valuable transcontinental routes, and now is the right time for us to capture this opportunity to bring much needed competition where customers are facing dwindling choices.”

The company has 13 planes outfitted for Mint now and four more coming this year. It expects to take delivery of nine more Mint airplanes in 2017 and more the year after. Airbus and its partners need a six-month window in order to swap any A321 orders from the all-economy cabin that the airline had been taking to the upgraded Mint interior.

The following domestic routes that will see the upgrade are:

  • Seattle to Boston
  • Seattle to New York JFK
  • San Diego to Boston
  • San Diego to New York JFK
  • Los Angeles to Boston
  • Las Vegas to New York JFK
  • San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale
  • Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale

JetBlue’s announcement comes two weeks after it expanded ‘Mint’ to flights in the Caribbean, making it the only airline to feature lie-flat service on its regular flights there.

RELATED: JetBlue to Add ‘Mint’ Service to More Routes from New York and Boston

It also comes just days after losing out a bid battle to take over Virgin America. Alaska Airlines agreed to pay $2.6 billion in cash for the San Francisco-based carrier.

RELATED: It’s Official: Alaska Airlines, Virgin America to Merge

During the last decade, the U.S. airline industry has experienced an era of consolidation that has made it more competitive, and we are about to see now how airline no longer bid for their competitors but for customer retention and loyalty.


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!

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Southwest Invests in Los Angeles, Modernizes Terminal

By: Alex McIntyre and Mike Slattery / Published: April 11, 2016

2016 marks the 45th anniversary of low-cost-carrier Southwest Airlines. As the company has grown and matured, and in order to maintain its competitiveness, it has needed to modernize some of its dated facilities. This is true at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where the airline is currently undertaking a $508 million renovation project. Recently, Airways was invited to go behind the scenes in LAX and take a close look at the status of the project.

Southwest began operations at LAX in 1982, making the airport one of its earlier destinations, and thus one in need of a refresh. In 2014, the airline broke ground on its Terminal 1 Modernization Program, completing its first phase last February. Upon its completion in 2018, the project will bring enhancements to both passengers and airport operations.

Customer Experience

Southwest’s Terminal 1 modernization is primarily targeted at improving the customer experience for local and connecting passengers. For origin-and-destination (O&D) customers, the project includes a new 12-lane security checkpoint, a fully automated checked-baggage inspection system, a refurbished baggage claim area, and the relocation of terminal accesses to minimize traffic congestion.

Customers will also benefit from new and expanded terminal dining facilities, refreshed gate lounges, and improvements to the building facade. (Credits: Author)

Customers will also benefit from new and expanded terminal dining facilities, refreshed gate lounges, and improvements to the building facade. (Credits: Author)

Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said in a phone interview that the project aims to “align our facility to reflect customer service.” The airline’s brand hinges on providing customers a warm sense of hospitality and legendary customer service. He believes the renovations will help Southwest deliver on what customers expect, and will represent upgrades that they will enjoy.

Phase 1 brings customers new self-check kiosks already available at other Southwest stations. The check-in area itself also features significantly more natural light than the old facility, which gives it an airy and warm feel. According to Toni Wilson, Southwest’s station manager at LAX, customer reception to the refreshed check-in area and kiosks has been overwhelmingly positive. Los Angeles travelers live in an environment of  “long waits,” she said, so many travelers are pleased with how quickly they can navigate the process.

New Southwest Check-in area at LAX. (Credits: Author)

New Southwest Check-in area at LAX. (Credits: Author)

Todd Osborne, project manager with Odemco design management, walked us through the entire project. “The design of the automated kiosks really took some work,” he noted. “The folks in Dallas set up a test center where they tried kiosks grouped in a circle, a comma – all sorts of shapes. What they found is that when they were evenly and widely spaced, as they are here, that people wouldn’t queue up behind them. They would just go and find the next one.”

There are currently 13 kiosks open at LAX, with space to add 14 more which will reduce passenger congestion even further. (Credits: Author)

There are currently 13 kiosks open at LAX, with space to add 14 more which will reduce passenger congestion even further. (Credits: Author)

“So the idea is that we can slot in extra kiosks as needed,” noted Osborne, “if this becomes more popular and that (pointing over to the traditional full-service line) becomes less popular.” We wondered if, with all this automation, customers may spend considerably less time face-to-face with Southwest employees between the arrival at the airport and boarding their flight.

“Yes, we are very aware that there may be fewer touch-points for our customers along the way,” noted Wilson, “which is why we must customize what they want to make their journey seamless. In some cases, the operations [gate] agents may be their first point-of-contact, which poses a challenge, so it’s a bit of a balancing act. We want to tailor things to make things easy for our customers while keeping the culture of customer care right at the forefront of our operations.”

Southwest spent considerable time designing the concourse areas, especially the gates, which are typically the most congested areas once through security. The airline took advantage of the space by adding a section to the concourse on both sides, making it 50 feet wider than before, which will have expanded open seating, vastly upgraded restrooms, concession programs, and new boarding bridges.

Upgraded gate area at LAX. (Credits: Author)

Upgraded gate area at LAX. (Credits: Author)

The new seating is especially good. The airline worked with the seating manufacturer to design the armrests with a sturdy cup holder that is both futuristic and functional. Every seat has a power outlet. There will actually be a mix of seating at every gate: traditional row seating along the perimeter, tall bar-like tables with power ports for laptops and mobile device charging, and cluster seating.

New gate area seating. (Credits: Author)

New gate area seating with cup holders at the armrests and power outlets. (Credits: Author)

Osborne noted “One thing we really wanted to do is to give customers an immediate sense of how big, yet accessible, the facility is. So as you pass through security, you’ll come up these escalators and have an open and clear view of the planes and airfield.” Osborne believes that by being able to see just how close the farthest plane is, passengers will begin to slow down and get a chance to enjoy the concessions rather than having to rush to the gate some distance away.

The baggage claim area has also been cleverly designed, with plenty of space between carousels and, eventually, rotating art pieces that will be displayed along the perimeter walls. Osborne notes that “because the passenger experience is really about moving and waiting, the artwork will give arriving passengers a different sensory experience in the baggage area.”

New baggage area. (Credits: Author)

New baggage area. (Credits: Author)

Operations

The renovations also mark an operational upgrade for Southwest. The construction includes several initiatives designed to increase the airline’s efficiency at LAX. Southwest recently opened a Command Center, which is similar to dispatch but on an individual airport level. This allows the airline to oversee all of its flights from one central location and, with members from multiple teams seated in the same room, communicate quickly when situations arise. While under construction, the Command Center is housed in a temporary room, but will eventually find a permanent home with operations, ramp, and customer service all under a single roof.

Southwest's temporary Control Center at LAX. (Credits: Author)

Southwest’s temporary Control Center at LAX. (Credits: Author)

Despite the current makeshift situation, Southwest has already witnessed dramatic operational improvements. “February was one of our best months,” Wilson stated, noting that the turnaround comes despite working in temporary quarters. Southwest finally landed at the top system-wide in on-time arrivals during February, which signifies a large rebound from the airline’s woes about a year ago.

LAX Terminal 1 passenger boarding bridges. (Credits: Author)

LAX Terminal 1 passenger boarding bridges. (Credits: Author)

Also, renovations will help Southwest to optimize the utilization of its gates. Currently, these are not suited to handle larger 737 aircraft. For example, one of the 15 gates in service is designed to serve the 737-300 without winglets. Wilson pointed out that the current construction plans include the replacement of passenger boarding bridges, as well as modernized aircraft parking pavement and hydrant fueling systems. While the project will leave Terminal 1 with only 13 gates, Southwest will be able to slot aircraft at all of those 13 simultaneously if needed. With 125 daily departures at peak season, this would represent among the highest utilization of any airport in Southwest’s network.

A Competitive Landscape

Southwest’s modernization plan comes in the face of some fierce competition in the Los Angeles market. All four of the nation’s largest carriers – American, Delta, Southwest, and United – hold a large stake at LAX. Virgin America maintains a hub at the airport, while ultra-low-cost carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines also offer flights. In short, LAX stands out from most other airports, which are dominated by one particular hub-and-spoke airline.

Only about ten to fifteen percent of Southwest’s traffic at LAX is connecting, well below its system average. This highlights the strong local demand for travel in the Los Angeles market. For a short period during the construction, Southwest even eliminated connecting itineraries altogether from LAX, yet still enjoyed extremely high load factors just based on O&D traffic, according to Wilson.

The airline’s modernization of Terminal 1 can be seen as a competitive move against its rivals, at least on the customer experience side of the equation. American, Delta, and United also are engaged with terminal refreshes at the facility, which Southwest’s project counters boldly.

These projects benefit LAX consumers and add value to their travel experiences. For that, we have good old competition to thank, to which Southwest has responded strongly.

But LAX, while highly important for Southwest, marks just one piece of its overall strategy in the broader Los Angeles market. It is just one of four airports in the region to which the airline offers service – soon to be five with daily Long Beach flights to Oakland on the horizon.

Southwest's "Missouri One" parked at LAX's Gate 11A. (Credits: Author)

Southwest’s “Missouri One” parked at LAX’s Gate 11A. (Credits: Author)

Hawkins also believes that Southwest offers a unique product that appeals strongly to many customers, despite the rigid competition. “We can’t be all things to all people,” he recognized. But Southwest remains the only carrier to “allow two bags to fly free and has no change fees, which to a subset of consumers are the most important things.”

Southwest also features unmatched service within California, connecting cities within the Golden State better than any of its rivals. “We aim to connect our Customers to what matters to them most,” he said. According to Hawkins, Southwest operates “160 flights per day just within California” and offers “19 unique city pair combinations,” which is six times more than the next largest carrier within the state. It is also more than double all other carriers combined. This has helped Southwest carve out its own nice as California’s own intrastate carrier.

Historically, Southwest made its name as a more short-haul focus airline than its competitors. Hawkins said he considers Los Angeles as just the “most modern iteration” of Southwest’s short haul routes.

In California, Southwest has taken a page from its own playbook of the past.

Investments in Los Angeles

Current works at LAX. (Credits: Author)

Current works at LAX. (Credits: Author)

Despite the competitive battle unfolding in Los Angeles, Southwest continues to play hardball and expand in the market. Its Terminal 1 Modernization Program signifies a major investment in the region. At a groundbreaking ceremony, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti said that the project would bring “1,500 construction jobs” to the area.

Southwest too is hiring aggressively at LAX, according to Wilson. “We have probably hired in the last 12 months 150 people here at LAX,” said Mitchell. “We also transport more freight than any other airport in our system, about 3.5 million pounds per month, so we can’t expect to have an on-time departure here with the same staff as we have in Burbank, because it’s literally much heavier here.”

The terminal renovations are just the beginning for Southwest in Los Angeles. The airline has recently added service to all four airports it presently serves in the region, including Ontario where it introduced the first new service of any carrier since 2010.

Southwest also has its eyes on international waters, with LAX as a future gateway for traffic aboard. The airline is about to launch service to its first international destination from LAX: Liberia, Costa Rica. International flying plays heavily into Southwest’s long-term plans, with the company considering bulking up its international operation via common use gates in Terminal 2.

Many other carriers already exploit Los Angeles’ prime geographical position for international flights, and Southwest hopes to join the fray soon in a significant way. Southwest intends to unveil more plans soon, after the Mexican senate approves legislation permitting additional flights to the country, expected by the end of April.

The airline is also actively exploring potential partnerships to maximize the number of destinations it can offer customers. They say the stars shine brighter in Los Angeles. And with its terminal modernization plan progressing nicely, Southwest Airlines is just about ready for its closeup.


Photo May 25, 0 53 04Alex McIntyre joined AirwaysNews.com to more heavily pursue his relentless passion for the airline industry. He lives in Dallas, Texas, growing up in the shadows of two major airlines’ headquarters and in a vibrant aviation-minded city. Alex studies accounting at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, Georgia.


Slatteryphoto1Mike Slattery, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, is both a College Professor and AvGeek. Originally from South Africa, Mike’s work takes him all over the globe to landscapes as diverse as the cloud forests of Costa Rica to saving rhinos in the game reserves of southern Africa. At last count, he had flown more than 1.3 million miles, equivalent to being in the air 112 days or 54 times around the Earth. He lives with his family in Fort Worth, Texas.


 

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What’s next? A Look at the Future Through Aircraft Interiors Expo 2016

By: Seth Miller / Published: April 8, 2016

What does the future of commercial aviation look like? Based on the products showing in this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo 2016 which wrapped up on Thursday, cabin products are taking small, evolutionary steps rather than major, revolutionary ones. While this may be disappointing to those looking for disruption in the market, it does mean that the odds are higher of actually seeing such a product delivered and flying. Given the volume of vapor-ware exhibited on a regular basis this is good news for travelers, who actually want to fly with the new products rather than see them on the show floor, even if it is not especially inspiring overall.

Seating

There are a plethora of new seats on offer for economy class passengers, or at least for the airlines who carry them. And unlike prior years, two new entrants showed up to the party with deals in hand. Mirus will be launching its new economy class seat with Air Asia with an announcement to retrofit the carriers 300+ plane fleet, a huge win for an upstart supplier.

The Mirus seat is, like most others from new vendors, relatively simple in design while promising higher reliability and durability, something Air Asia is desperate for, according to CEO Tony Fernandes, who made a trip to the show floor to help announce the deal. Fewer total parts will help to reduce maintenance costs long-term on the seats.

EnCore also made a big splash at the show, announcing a deal with Boeing to provides seats as a manufacturer-supplied equipment option. The seats were on display at the show and, well, they’re an economy class seat. There are some interesting tweaks made such as an integrated water bottle holder option which mounts below the seat pan rather than taking away knee space or the “snack” tray with a phone/tablet rest built in to help distract passengers during the flight.

 

The LIFT seat by EnCore is an option for airlines to buy direct from Boeing. (Credits: EnCore)

The LIFT seat by EnCore is an option for airlines to buy direct from Boeing. (Credits: EnCore)

RELATED: Boeing Selects New 737 Seat Supplier

Other, more revolutionary products were also on display, such as the Rebel Aero S:Two model, an update from the company’s premier at last year’s show and one of the winners at this year’s Crystal Cabin Awards. There was also a concept piece on display of a 3-D printed seat, assembled from 12 individual components produced through the technology. Interesting stuff but unclear what the timeline is for expecting to see these on a commercial airplane.

Slightly wonky, with a side of safety: The Rebel S:Two seat won a Crystal Cabin award at the 2016 show. (Credits: Rebel)

Slightly wonky, with a side of safety: The Rebel S:Two seat won a Crystal Cabin award at the 2016 show. (Credits: Rebel)

In-flight entertainment

Entertainment systems are often the most “off-the-wall” at the show and this year did not disappoint, though vendors also displayed products ready to ship today rather than concept pieces. Airlines and passengers shopping for a new solution to install immediately had the Lumexis FTTS v4 solution on display, offering a full-featured AVOD kit with an upgraded processor and a new UI design which leverages Android Lollipop to provide a spectacularly fast, responsive interface for passengers.

Lumexis-FTTS-is-now-approved-for-the-current-and-next-737-models

flydubai is one of the customers of the early-generation Lumexis FTTS IFE. (Credits: flydubai)

In the “maybe someday” category Thales had its Digital Sky kit on the show floor, offering a seat-back which is essentially all screen. 21.3 inches of display sits on the seat-back in front of you, set to distract passengers one way or another throughout a flight.

Thales Digital Sky IFE offers 21.3-inch screens. (Credits: Thales)

Thales Digital Sky IFE offers 21.3-inch screens. (Credits: Thales)

Overhead bins

As the squeeze is felt more and more in seating the true challenge for passengers may be in overhead bin capacity. More seats on board combined with higher load factors means more bags trying to fit and the inevitable “gate lice” phenomenon at boarding as passengers fight to get on the plane and stow their bags.

The new Airspace by Airbus cabin brand was showcased during Aircraft Interiors Expo 2016. (Credits: Airbus)

The new Airspace by Airbus cabin brand was showcased during Aircraft Interiors Expo 2016. (Credits: Airbus)

Prior AIX events have shown us developments on this front and the 2016 show continued the tradition as Airbus showed a mockup of its Airspace by Airbus cabin, including a new bin design, at the show. The airframer promises a 66% increase in the number of bags which can be stored in the bins on board with the product which will make its debut with TAP Air Portugal on the A330neo in 2017.


IMGP2946Seth Miller is an AirwaysNews.com contributor specialized in Loyalty Marketing, Connectivity and Passenger Experience and will drop everything if he gets an opportunity to go flying. Bit by the travel bug 30 years ago, Seth flies ~200,000 miles annually. Follow him on twitter at @WandrMe, or his site at The Wandering Aramean blog.


Editor’s note: Keep up with AirwaysNews by subscribing to our weekly eNewsletter. Every Saturday morning, subscribers get a recap of our top stories of the week, the subscriber-only exclusive Weekend Reads column wrapping up interesting industry stories and a Photo of the Week from the amazing AirwaysNews archives. Click here to subscribe today!

Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

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Boeing Selects New 737 Seat Supplier

By: Staff / Published: April 7, 2016

California-based firm LIFT by EnCore announced the launch of its new Tourist Class Seating for both the Boeing 737 Next Generation and its forthcoming MAX variant.

In a press statement, the company announced that the new slimline seat will also be available as a retrofit choice, and that it is the first seat specifically designed to complement the Boeing Sky Interior cabin.LA64286“We welcomed the opportunity to partner with Boeing to deliver a seat that perfectly complements the Boeing Sky Interior while setting the industry standard for comfort and reliability,” said Tom McFarland, owner and chief executive officer of the EnCore group of companies.

“This collaboration will allow airlines and leasing companies to build on the success of the Boeing Sky Interior in a whole new way. It also means our customers will be able to better serve their customers and differentiate themselves in the marketplace” said Alan Wittman, director, Seat Integration Team, Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

As plane production ramped up in the recent years, suppliers have been unable to cope on delivering seats on time, causing delays at both Boeing and Airbus. Particularly, French firm Zodiac Aerospace missed deadlines and caused delays to several deliveries.

The new seat comes to compete with other slimline models produced by companies such as Recaro, Zodiac Aerospace and B/E Aerospace, among others.

Currently in the design and certification phase, the new Tourist Class Seating will be available for airline engagements and is targeted for delivery in mid-2017.


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!

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JetBlue to Add ‘Mint’ Service to More Routes from New York and Boston

By: Staff / Published: April 1, 2016

JetBlue is set to expand its ‘Mint’ premium service to more destinations from New York and Boston, focusing mainly on the carrier’s Caribbean routes to St. Lucia and St. Maarten from New York,and to Aruba, Barbados and Los Angeles from Boston, to start on October 20.

RELATED: JetBlue to Bring Mint to the Islands for Winter 2015-2016

“Mint’s curated offering and personalized service continues to win over customers who have grown weary of legacy carriers’ tired premium offering,” said Marty St. George, executive vice president commercial and planning, JetBlue.

FLIGHT REVIEW: JetBlue Mint “Suite” Inaugural

The ‘Mint’ premium product debuted in 2014 with the introduction of JetBlue’s Airbus A321 to the fleet, thus giving passengers lie-flat seating, upgraded food options and amenity kits. “Even better, these Airbus A321s with Mint offer a redesigned core cabin with enhanced entertainment features and more comfortable seating for every customer onboard.” St. George said.

ANALYSIS: The Economics of JetBlue Mint

Currently, JetBlue offers its ‘Mint’ service on flights from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as from Boston to San Francisco. In the Caribbean, the service is offered year-round from New York to Barbados and seasonally from New York to Aruba and from Boston to Barbados. According to JetBlue, it is the only U.S. carrier offering lie-flat seating on routes from the United States to the Caribbean.

JetBlue will again offer seasonal round-trip Mint flights between New York and Aruba’s Queen Beatrix International Airport (AUA). This service was first introduced in fall 2015 and will operate again this year following a successful first season. On peak holiday travel dates, JetBlue will operate one round-trip daily.


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 Saturday morning. Stay in the know; click here to subscribe today!

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Airbus Unveils ‘Airspace’ Cabin Design

By: Staff / Published: March 23, 2016

Airbus has launched its latest cabin concept branded “Airspace,” which will debut on the forthcoming A330neo aircraft.

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According to the manufacturer, the novel concept has been developed around four key elements: Comfort, Ambience, Services and Design, intended to offer “a sophisticated, flexible canvas as a back-drop to enhance the airlines’ own brands.”

The enhanced passenger cabin features larger overhead storage bins, wider seats (18 inches in economy class) and aisles, besides an unobstructed under-seat foot space. Airbus assures that the new ‘Airspace’ cabins will “stimulate a unique and leading passenger experience.”

800x600_1458581267_A330neo_Airspace_by_Airbus_Entrance_area_Customized_pattern

Inspired by the cabin of the A350XWB, the new features to be included in the ‘Airspace’ cabin include LED technology lighting, a stylized cabin with “clean, straight lines and shapes, clear surfaces and also an unique, customizable welcome area.” Airbus said that these aspects “result in an aesthetically-pleasing design combined with not just a ‘feeling’ of space, but real space – which is fulfilled in the brand new cabin for the A330neo.”

Dr. Kiran Rao, Airbus’ Executive Vice President of Strategy and Marketing said “With the great passenger feedback on the A350 XWB, and our application of A350 cabin technology and features to the A330neo, we are proud to embrace our cabin design principles through our new brand.”

“Such signature details and iconic elements will add to passengers’ enjoyment of flight, while offering a flexible canvas to which the airlines can project their own brand,” Rao concluded.


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Gogo to Expand Connectivity Deal with Air Canada

By: Staff / Published: March 21, 2016

Gogo and Air Canada announced today an extension of its current connectivity partnership to include the carrier’s international fleet, starting this fall with the Boeing 777-300ERs.

RELATED: Air Canada Premieres Its First Boeing 787-8

To date, Air Canada is the only Canadian carrier to offer customers in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity across its entire fleet of narrow-body aircraft in North America.

“Air Canada is pleased to announce it will offer customers the ability to stay connected whenever and wherever they fly by extending in-flight, North American connectivity to its wide-body aircraft flying overseas using satellite technology,” said Benjamin Smith, President, Passenger Airlines at Air Canada.

Under the agreement, Air Canada will begin installing Gogo will provide 2Ku satellite technology on its wide-body fleet. Gogo expects the system to be able to deliver a 70 Mbps downlink to each aircraft once available, and substantially more once newer generation satellites come online.

RELATED: The Need for Speed: A Review of GoGo’s New 2Ku In-Flight Wi-Fi

RELATED: Gogo Reaches Significant In-Flight Connectivity Milestone

RELATED: Gogo Goes for New Heights and Speed

“This system design will enable Air Canada to continue to deliver industry leading connectivity to its passengers for the foreseeable future” said Gogo’s president and CEO, Michael Small. “The performance of Gogo’s 2Ku technology is unmatched in global aviation today and is built on the concept of an open system with the ability to leverage dozens of Ku-band satellites in orbit” he said.


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 Saturday morning. Stay in the know; click here to subscribe today!

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Onboard TAM’s Inaugural Long-Haul Airbus A350 XWB Flight to the Americas

Story and Photos (unless otherwise indicated) by: Chris Sloan / Published: March 20, 2016

Then President Lula (center with flag of Brazil), Brazilian footballer Pelé (hugging) and then-governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro Sérgio Cabral (right) when, in 2009, Rio was announced as host for the 2016 Olympics. Image Courtesy: WikiCommons

Then President Lula (center with flag of Brazil), Brazilian footballer Pelé (hugging) and then-governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro Sérgio Cabral (right) when, in 2009, Rio was announced as host for the 2016 Olympics.
Image Courtesy: WikiCommons

Over the last decade, Brazil has experienced an unprecedented period of “Boom and Bust.” In the earlier part of the decade, the country experienced an unbridled economic expansion driven by the global run-up in the demand for its commodities. Economic prosperity and the international spotlight followed – peaking perhaps with all the global acclaim it achieved from pulling off a successful 2014 World Cup in Rio De Janeiro. During these heady times, the country’s pride was amplified even further by becoming the first South American Country to be awarded the prestigious Summer Olympics. After years of economic and political stability, Brazil was considered a modern day miracle, but these good times were not destined to last.

Beginning with the abrupt slowdown in international GDP growth, and particularly the commodities fueled boom; Brazil’s fortunes began to wane in mid 2014. The past decade’s virtuous cycle was replaced by a vicious cycle of rampant government corruption, spiraling inflation, draconian austerity measures, and a rapidly contracting economy.

TAM: Powering Through Trying Times

TAM Airlines, itself is considered a miracle. The airline, only dating back to the 1970s has ascended from being a niche carrier as recently as 15 years ago into the nation’s flag carrier and one renowned for high levels of customer service, operational excellence, and profitability. In the latter, TAM has certainly not been immune from the effects of the global and in particular Latin American downturn. Its sibling airline LAN, who it merged with to create LATAM Airlines Group back in 2012, has been affected as well – but not as severely.

RELATED: LATAM is Born: The New Brand for LAN, TAM Airlines and Affiliates Announced Today

The new LATAM logo, first introduced in August 2015, was another step in the merger of LAN and TAM which began in 2010 and was formalized in 2012.

The new LATAM logo, first introduced in August 2015, was another step in the merger of LAN and TAM which began in 2010 and was formalized in 2012.

The combined LATAM Airlines group continues to hold its own. With capacity cuts domestically in Brazil, currency devaluation leading to lower labor costs, and low fuel prices, LATAM still eked out a 5% operating margin in 2015. The group continues to make significant strides in most areas of its business as it pushes towards the PSS cutover to Sabre and ultimate LAN/TAM customer-facing merger next year. The company has continued momentum, confronting powerful, foreboding headwinds – many of those out of its control due to the travails of the withering Latin American economic conditions.

Brazilians posses an undeniable upbeat spirit, passion and unabashed pride, even in the most difficult of times and their airline is no exception. This was borne out when TAM made history on December 18, 2015 becoming the first operator in the Americas and only fourth in the world to take delivery of the Airbus A350 XWB.

RELATED: TAM Takes Delivery of Its First Airbus A350 XWB

RELATED: The First Airbus A350 for TAM Takes to the Skies

TAM proudly had its first A350, PR-XTA (MSN 024) emblazoned with a special commemorative seal on both sides underneath the cockpit windows, which reads “The Americas’ First A350 XWB”, in Portuguese and English. TAM’s aircraft was only the 14th A350 delivered out of 17 in the world thus far as of March 18, 2016. TAM joined the ranks of prestigious customers Qatar, Vietnam, and Finnair in operating the A350 while beating such luminary airlines such as Singapore and Cathay Pacific, which are the next A350 operators up to bat.

Image courtesy: Miami Dade Department of Aviation

Image courtesy: Miami Dade Department of Aviation

Image Courtesy: Airbus

TAM’s first A350 undergoes final assembly in Toulouse. Image Courtesy: Airbus

The A350’s manufacturer is not without its woes, as well. Though experiencing nowhere near the production problems of the A380 or the Boeing 787, Airbus has nevertheless been hampered by slow A350 final assembly and delivery rates. At the end of March, Airbus had a total of 775 firm orders for the A350 XWB, mostly for the -900 variant. The A350 production rate, which has been projected to reach five aircraft per month and 60 per year in 2016, and then ramping up to 10 aircraft per month by the end of 2018 looks optimistic indeed given the limited deliveries of three aircraft as of this writing; so far in 2016.

BRINGING THE BIG BRAND NEW ‘BUS TO BRAZIL

The story of TAM and the A350 stretches back nearly 10 years in the making when the airline ordered 27 A350-900s for delivery over the years 2015-21. Since the initial order, 12 have been up-gauged to the stretch A350-1000s. The A350s were ordered as part of a wide-body fleet renewal program, which would also see the addition of Boeing 777-300ERs while the 767-300ERs and Airbus A330-200s will be exiting the fleet over time.

The TAM and Airbus celebrate the delivery of TAM's first A350XWB in Toulouse on December 18, 2016. Image Courtesy: Airbus

The TAM and Airbus celebrate the delivery of TAM’s first A350XWB in Toulouse on December 18, 2015.
Image Courtesy: Airbus

TAM’s ramp-up of the A350’s entry-into-service began in earnest two years ago, touching nearly ever aspect of the company with 21 people on the lead team from maintenance, information technology, customer service, cabin crews, marketing, network planning, etc. According to Gregori Daminelli, the A350’s project manager in a briefing with Airways, things ramped up into hyper-drive 9 months before when training for mechanics began with Airbus in Toulouse and pilots began ground school and simulators in Toulouse only 3 months before entry-into-service. Daminelli says this has paid dividends: “We have 12 pilots qualified on the aircraft and 20 more qualified on sims. They have come over from the A330-200s, but we didn’t want to move them over too soon until we actually had A350s for them to fly.” The airline is evaluating what form further in-house pilot training will take. Daminelli confirms that pilots will transition from other aircraft types as well.

One member of the flight crew we spoke to exclaimed if the “A330 is a Mercedes, then the A350 is a Bentley. Why would you want to go back?” He particularly cited the A350s evolved fly by wire system, the 6 Thales 15” landscape flat panel display screens as part of the Honeywell Avionics suite, and additional power as an upgrade over the A330s they are used to. The quick qualification conversion from the A330 is appreciated by pilots, network planners, and accountants alike.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB FLIGHT DECK DAY 2016-4

As for lessons learned, Daminelli considers the A350 EIS as a textbook of best practices for future LATAM projects. “Being one of the launch customers forced us to work even more closer with the airliner manufacturer. We joined (both) engineer teams to refine the last details. We have 4,000 distinctive part numbers from 50 manufacturers to register for our supply chain system. It’s a challenge to synchronize global supply chain to have materials on time to make delivery. We didn’t rely solely on Airbus.”

TAM's first Airbus A350 XWB rolls-out of pain, sans the Rolls-Royce Trent engines, on September 16, 2015 in Toulouse.

TAM’s first Airbus A350 XWB rolls-out of pain, sans the Rolls-Royce Trent engines, on September 16, 2015 in Toulouse.

ENTRY INTO SERVICE

TAM's Airbus A350 receives a water cannon salute in Manaus, Brazil on occasion of its first scheduled flight on January 25, 2016.

TAM’s Airbus A350 receives a water cannon salute in Manaus, Brazil on occasion of its first scheduled flight on January 25, 2016.

The moment of truth arrived on January 25, 2016, when TAM initiated domestic familiarization flights operating between São Paulo/Guarulhos and Manaus. In a sea of bleak news for the country, this historic event attracted positive attention from around Brazil and indeed the aviation world. Daminelli relayed that thus far “The A350 has been operating at a 97.7% dispatch reliability. This is within expectations and is similar in fact to what LAN experienced when it introduced the 787 into service.”

All this was a prelude for what was to come on March 17-18, 2016, when TAM launched its first long-haul routes that the A350 XWB was conceived for: between São Paulo Guarulhos and Miami. TAM became only the 2nd airline to regularly operate these, for now, rare birds to the United States. Qatar Airways launched A350 U.S. service to Philadelphia in January. TAM bestowed the honor upon Miami of being only the third gateway for the A350 XWB after Philadelphia and Boston.

TAM's first Airbus A350 XWB arrives just after sunrise into Miami on March 16, 2016 to a water cannon salute. Image Courtesy: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

TAM’s first Airbus A350 XWB arrives just after sunrise into Miami on March 16, 2016 to a water cannon salute.
Image Courtesy: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

TAM’S BIG PLANS

With a cabin layout for 348 seats, the Airbus A350-900 is not a direct replacement for the Boeing 767-300s and Airbus A330-200s, it slots in neatly in terms of capacity between those smaller gauge aircraft and the higher capacity 777-300ERs. The larger gauge A359s are not intended to at first open “pioneer” long-thin routes such as the coming São Paulo – Johannesburg service. Instead, it will overlay existing intercontinental services to North American and Europe supplanting A330s, 767s and 777s on routes to Miami, then expanding to Madrid (from May 2016) and Orlando (from July 2016).

TAM, who just took delivery of its second A350 on March 18, 2016 – coincidentally the morning we arrived, expects five more delivered this year for a total of seven on strength by the end of the year. Miami, which began as a 3X per week A350 service will upgrade daily by April. Other new destinations and additional frequencies will be added as more aircraft come on-line.

As for whether, the new LATAM will cross-utilize the TAM’s A350s and LAN’s 787-9s between the Santiago and São Paulo bases? That remains an open question. But for now, Daminelli confirms that Guarulhos will remain the focus base for all A350s flying. Nor will the A350 be deployed to Rio de Janeiro Galeão Airport, to provide additional lift during the Summer Olympics.

The virtues of the Airbus A350 XWB are well known to the industry and our readers: reduced greenhouse gas emissions, 25% reduced operating costs including fuel burn, ultra-efficient Rolls Royce Trent XWB84 twin engines, the use of advanced fuselage materials reducing weight, lower cabin altitude, refreshed cabin air every 3 minutes, 25% larger windows then its Airbus predecessors, and a capacious wider cabin than that of its direct competitor – the 787. The flatter vertical sidewalls and high flat ceilings certainly support the manufacturer’s “eXtra Wide Body” claims.

TAM is also using the arrival of the A350 to usher in new branding and passenger experience features to the carrier. From the first A350 forward, TAM is introducing the LATAM harmonized Priestmangoode designed Premium Business Class cabin – first introduced by LAN on its 787-9s. The fourth A350, arriving in June will see the introduction of TAM’s new Economy Plus type product which will feature a lengthened but undisclosed seat pitch, beyond the 31” in standard Economy.

RELATED: LAN, TAM Airlines Announce Passenger Experience Upgrades

RELATED: Meeting New LAN Airlines’ 787-9 Dreamliner

The new LATAM unified Premium Business Cabin, first introduced in August 2015 on LAN's 787-9. Image by: Enrique Perella

The new LATAM unified Premium Business Cabin, first introduced in August 2015 on LAN’s 787-9.
Image by: Enrique Perella

The fourth aircraft was at one time supposed to be one of the first, if not the first TAM aircraft to be adorned in the new LATAM livery, but this is now in question. The A350 is also rumored to be TAM’s first platform for Wi-Fi inter-connectivity but the airline isn’t confirming this yet.

Clearly, the story is just beginning and Daminelli and his team is reveling in it, but are aware of the significance: “Being part of the future is very meaningful and motivating. The decisions we make now will have effects for 20 years.”

Airways was invited to participate in TAM’s long-haul inaugural A350 flight from the U.S. – MIA-GRU scheduled for March 17, 2016. Would the introduction of TAM’s newest flagship mirror the up and down fortunes of its home country?

TRIP REPORT: TAM’S INAUGURAL A350 LONG-HAUL FLIGHT

March 17th, 2016 is a day typically associated with St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish, and drinking green beer. For those covering TAM’s A350, the plan was we would be toasting the launch of the first long-haul flight from the U.S. of the America’s first operator of the Airbus A350 – not with a pint Guinness but instead a Capirinha.

TAM MIAMI GATE FIDS 2016-2At first, things started off well enough. TAM’s Special Services at Miami International Airport provided a seamless, quick check-in and escort to the LATAM Lounge and then on to the gate for an 11:10pm local time departure of JJ9611. The event was decidedly uneventful from the start. Absent were the banners, cakes, VIP’s, and crowds normally associated with such events. Also, absent at the gate was TAM’s Airbus A350 XWB. We would discover later that TAM’s low-key approach had perhaps unintentionally been the prudent one.

TAM's Airbus A350XWB if finally towed from its daytime layover stand at Miami International Airport.

TAM’s Airbus A350XWB if finally towed from its daytime layover stand at Miami International Airport.

Under the watchful and excited eyes of photographers and media, TAM’s first A350, PR-XTA had arrived into Miami to much adulation just before sunrise on March 17th to a water cannon salute. Like much of the long-haul fleet that arrives from deep Latin America in the morning, TAM’s glistening new A350 sat on a remote stand across from Miami’s J Concourse for nearly 12 hours awaiting its return mission home. Any wonder why fleet utilization for aircraft operating to deep South America?

TAM's first Airbus A350 XWB becomes Miami's first A350 flight into Miami on March 17, 2016. Image Courtesy: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

TAM’s first Airbus A350 XWB becomes Miami’s first A350 flight into Miami on March 17, 2016.
Image Courtesy: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

BRAZIL OR BUST: AN INAUGURAL UP IN THE AIR OR GROUNDED?

With boarding to commence in just 30 minutes, the airplane was finally towed from its layover perch around to gate J-11. Though the flight information data screens (FIDS), indicated an on-time departure everyone came to the realization that this wasn’t going to be the case. The light 96-passenger load, consisting of paying passengers, TAM evaluation teams, and 12 crew would ensure a quick boarding process. No one expressed any concern or apprehension of an impending delay. The two TAM pilots and Airbus check pilot, along with the balance of the TAM team were not showing any concern, but rather enthusiasm and excitement in spite of the late hour.

The excited expressions on the TAM's crew's faces belie any concern that the inaugural would be delayed.

The excited expressions on the TAM’s crew’s faces belie any concern that the inaugural would be delayed.

As the clock ticked beyond the departure time, we noticed ground operations personnel in yellow vests seated in both seats of the cockpit. Though the FIDS still indicated an on-time departure, clearly something was amiss. The flight crew boarded, while the cabin crew remained at the threshold of the jet-bridge. It dawned on us quickly that there would be a delay and that’s in fact what happened when the departure was pushed back 1 hour and 20 minutes to 12:30AM local time.

Behind the glass, Airbus and TAM personnel were feverishly working to clear the error message that nearly scrubbed the airline's A350 XWB U.S. inaugural.

Behind the glass, Airbus and TAM personnel were feverishly working to clear the error message that nearly scrubbed the airline’s A350 XWB U.S. inaugural.

These kinds of delays aren’t unheard of, and if anyone was worried they were keeping it to themselves – passengers included. The clock ticked forward to 12:30am, then 1:00am when the departure time was updated to 2:00am local time. Given the flight duration and flight crew duty time-out, 2:00am would be a pivotal moment where the decision would be made on whether to scrub or move forward with the flight. With TAM’s next flight at 10:30AM the next morning, the passengers didn’t seem upset at all if they had to be rebooked – it was still a scene of absolute calm and serenity.

However, we as journalists and the bloggers who had flown in to cover this event, were becoming increasingly antsy that this inaugural would be delayed until well into the next day or worse. With just a few minutes left on the clock, the decision point had arrived. Would we fly or would we cancel? Thankfully, word came down that we would indeed be flying the original flight albeit delayed. The mystery problem had indeed been solved.

To their credit, TAM's flight are remained optimistic that the A350 would be ready to go before they timed out.

To their credit, TAM’s flight are remained optimistic that the A350 would be ready to go before they timed out.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB FLIGHT DECK 2016-1So what was this mystery malady? It turned out to be an error message for a faulty air bleed valve. This had become apparent only when the aircraft was powered up after sitting all day, and is in fact a known issue. The valve was functioning according to specifications. The error message turned out to be a false warning. Better safe than sorry, the error had to be cleared by Airbus personnel. According to the Airbus check Captain, this is not an unknown error message but does “take somewhat time to clear, despite it being a straightforward process.”

Nobody loves a middle of the night departure, much less a nearly 4-hour delay, but it was of little matter to us. We were relieved just to be on our way even though our time on the ground in São Paulo would be less then 24 hours before the return to America. Boarding began shortly thereafter with crew and passengers as positive and enthusiastic as ever.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB WELCOME ABOARD-1There is something special about smartly presented, smiling cabin crew, the hint of cabin awash in inviting LED lighting, and that new aircraft smell that never gets old. This occasion would be no different. Understanding the importance of first impressions, TAM sets a stage of hospitality with what they call a “Welcome Panel” in the L2 galley inscribed with the word “Welcome” embossed on a plaque in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB WELCOME ABOARD-2The wood laminate flooring, inspired by the Amazonian Rain Forests, provided a nice natural effect. The LED mood lighting for boarding was set to a time appropriate blue and magenta hue. Brazilian bossa nova music provide the musical backdrop to the process. The IFE screens during boarding were even coordinated with graphic images evocative of the Amazonian rain forest as well.

We took a few minutes to inspect the two cabins of the TAM A350’s 318 seat economy class. Unlike the derided 787 when configured with 9 abreast 17” seating, the 18” width seats of the A350 is where the “eXtra Wide Body” really lives up to its marketing mantra. The economy seats arranged at a 31” pitch were comfortable enough, and certainly not the Slimline seats some long-haul airlines have adopted. The use of straighter horizontal and vertical surfaces is the catalyst that makes the A350 cabin appear less like a tube then any other airliner flying today. This is especially welcome in the denser rear cabins.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB ECONOMY CABIN NIGHT 2016-3

TAM’s use of elegant finishes, inspired by Latin America, and lighting extends from the front to the “back of the ‘Bus” giving all passengers a sense of calm dignity. With the load factor as light as it was, nearly everyone had multiple seats at their disposal if they so desired. The low passenger load magnified the sense of space, if not a bit artificially, though no one was complaining.

A VERY LATE, EARLY DEPARTURE

With pushback quickly approaching, I took my seat in the new harmonized LATAM Priestmangoode designed Premium Business cabin. The designer’s touch is seen here with understated muted grey fabrics highlighted with red accents and tasteful use of wood textures on the tray table surfaces, floor laminates, and seat dividers.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB BUSINESS CABIN NIGHT 2016-19

Arranged in five rows of six seats in a 2-2-2 configuration, this 30 seat cabin seemingly runs counter to the new 1-2-1 Business Class international standard. Sure, there’s the issue of no direct aisle access for those sitting by the window but every airline and market is different. TAM wasn’t able to justify the real estate taken up by the short-lived 1-2-1 First Class cabin on its 777 fleet that lasted less then a year. The 180-degree flat bed seats, generous pitch, and ottoman which double as a storage cubby and visitor seat comes close to, but not quite compensating for the lack of direct aisle access. From this measure, the TAM’s A350 Premium Business Class is a massive improvement, however on the 2-3-2 Business Configuration of the 777s.

Opting for higher seat capacity and personal space for individual passengers, TAM decided not to consume floor space with common areas and stand up bars – A flourish that fellow OneWorld member and Latin America competitor American is using on its refurbished 777 fleet.

A gracious TAM Flight Attendant was more then happy to improvise the reviewer's special cocktail request.

A gracious TAM Flight Attendant was more then happy to improvise the reviewer’s special cocktail request.

Speaking of bar service, what would a trip be without Brazil’s national cocktail of choice, a Caipirinha? TAM didn’t stock the sugar cane hard liquor, cachaça, which is the foundation ingredient of this beloved beverage. Undeterred, the TAM mixologists whipped up a tasty Caipiroshka, which replaces the cachaça with vodka. Drinks were followed up with the cabin crew presenting us stylish Salvatore Ferragamo amenity kits, natch.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB BUSINESS CABIN NIGHT 2016-18 AMMENITY KITAt 2:55AM under the cloak of darkness it was finally time to push back for our planned 4,243 mile sortie. With a planned 7 hours, 26 minutes flight duration and the middle of the night departure time, we were all sorely in need of sleep. And yet, we still had a flight review to do!

Our crew sincerely and profusely apologized for the protracted delay as we began our seemingly interminable taxi out to MIA’s Runway 12 lining up for a south-easterly departure from the airport’s South Complex. There was nary a mention of the occasion except on the public address system when the purser announced “We are proud to offer you the most advanced aircraft in the Americas.”

The Rolls-Royce Trent 84XWB power plants volume are almost imperceptible on take-off and in the cruise. This image was taken moments after take-off from MIA Runway 12.

The Rolls-Royce Trent 84XWB power plants volume are almost imperceptible on take-off and in the cruise. This image was taken moments after take-off from MIA Runway 12.

Finally, at 3:10AM local time after a ground tour of Miami International, the mighty Rolls Royce Trent’s were spooled up as we fled terra firma bound for Brazil. Provisioned with 48 tons of fuel and at 198 tons, the crew was able to do a derated take off thrust. Our lightly loaded A350 rotated at 136 knots and leapt into the air after an eerily quiet 91 decibel roll lasting just over 30 seconds. Within 22 minutes, we were already in the cruise at 41,000 feet and a ground speed of 643 mph. The serene cabin of the A350 measured just 84 decibel in the cruise, and was very welcome at this late hour.

TAM serves a multi-course meal consisting of soup, salad, main course, and desert but I opted to partake in the express option where everything except desert is served at once, thus ensuring maximum sleep. A choice of Mahi-Mahi and Orzo Risotto, Roasted Red Snapper with Gnocchi, and a Grilled Steak were offered. Of course, I chose the contrail culinary litmus test of the steak. If there was one significant disappointment with the flight, it was this arid piece of beef. I ordered steak and leather was served. In fairness, given the delay the steak had been flash frozen and consequently dehydrated for nearly 4 hours longer then expected. The sides of rustic mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables were very satisfying though. The extensive wine list, led by a pairing of a Chilean Malbec, placated our culinary desires extensively. I passed on the desert selection fresh fruit, flan, or ice cream being in dire need of sleep.

Similar to a fine hotel, the attentive TAM cabin crew passed out an extensive breakfast menu to select from a voluminous choice of breakfast options if we so choose, 90 minutes before arrival.

TAM’s Panasonic eX3 in-flight entertainment system with its 18” screens was absolutely stuffed with a robust catalogue of music, movies, TV series, games, an interactive moving map, and fuselage belly camera, but alas I was too tired to partake. The 2 USB charges and AC power ports worked the night keeping our devices charged. A short coming of the IFE is that TAM has reverted to old school 3 prong headphone jacks which require a converter to utilize your own noise-cancelling headsets. TAM’s provided headphones are a relic of the 1990s.

Our in-flight entertainment would be our own dreams, accompanied by the soothing, sonorous sounds of the taciturn Trent’s through the night. With expediency, the blue and magenta LED lighting was extinguished into nearly complete darkness.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB BUSINESS CABIN NIGHT 2016-24 SLEEPThe attentive cabin crew transformed our seats into full lie-flat beds with the placement of a full mattress, pillow resulting in a full turn-down service. This alone was a decided improvement over the previous TAM angled-flat hard product present in the long-haul fleet. Pretty much the entire plane submerged into slumber mode for the next five hours. The cabin crew elected to retreat to the galley and let us be for the duration of the night. Some of them were able to get some well deserved sleep in the crew rest at the rear of the cabin as well.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB CREW REST 2016-1The overnight hours were occupied by just occasional light chop and the taciturn Trents. However, when I did awake in the middle of the night I was surprised at how dry the cabin felt in comparison to other A350s and 787s, I had flown. As I later found out, TAM for some unbeknown reason had decided not to order the cabin humidification option which was a surprise. This is a signature feature of both aircraft and was something I thought it was a standard equipment. However, the 6,000’ cabin pressurization delivered as billed, rendering us more relaxed and later alert then previous generation hard product. The extremely late early morning departure had manifested itself in a cadre of passengers who did what you would expect them to do: sleep in, well past the Amazonian sunrise.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB BUSINESS CABIN NIGHT 2016-20Bom Dia, São Paulo!

At exactly 90 minutes before our arrival, I was awakened with a gentle tap on the shoulder by a smiling flight attendant. The morning ritual had begun with a cabin bathed in warm, orange LED lighting.

The clinking of a breakfast service in progress stirred us awake. I had pre-ordered a fluffy omelet accompanied by potatoes, fresh fruit medley, and a muffin. Breakfast is an art form and the eggs were the best we’d ever experienced in the air.

TAM AIRBUS A350 XWB BUSINESS CABIN BREAKFAST 2016-1With window shades finally opening at first tentatively to not disturb those still dozing, our in-flight entertainment became the mesmerizing A350 raked wings and the dazzling scenery below.

Our flight was nearing its end as the Rolls Royce Trent’s spooled back, followed by speedbrake deployment, and 10 degrees of flaps. We began our very gradual initial descent into the metropolis that is São Paulo. Despite the number of times we have visited, the sheer vastness of the city never ceases to amaze. It’s epic scale is on par with super cities like Tokyo and Mexico City.

At 11:35AM São Paulo time (one hour ahead of U.S. Eastern Daylight Time), after 7 hours, 26 minutes and 4,298 miles aloft, TAM’s inaugural Airbus A350 long-haul flight gently touched own on its home soil at Guarulhos … settled on to the runway is actually a more apt description.

TAM AIRLINES AIRBUS A350 ARRIVES AT GRU WINGAs the bogeys greased the asphalt, there was no applause. No hazzahs. But, despite being over 3 hours late, there was clearly appreciation from the passengers of a flight done right. The “Magic Red Carpet” did not disappoint as it welcomed its flagship, the Airbus A350 XWB into the fleet. Obrigado and Parabéns, TAM!

TAM's first Airbus A350 XWB rests back home at São Paulo–Guarulhos International Airport, after completing its first round-trip long-haul flight.

TAM’s first Airbus A350 XWB rests back home at São Paulo–Guarulhos International Airport, after completing its first round-trip long-haul flight.

TAM Airways paid for our airfare, lodging, and transportation. As always, our opinions are our own.

RELATED: Onboard the Qatar Airways A350 XWB Delivery Flight

RELATED: Onboard the Singapore Airlines A350 XWB Delivery Flight

RELATED: Onboard the Finnair Airbus A350 XWB Delivery Flight 


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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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The Need for Speed: A Review of GoGo’s New 2Ku In-Flight Wi-Fi

By: Contributor / Published: March 18, 2016

When it comes to Wi-Fi, speed is everything. And for those wanting to go online whilst in the air, it’s been anything but speedy of late. So much so that American Airlines sued GoGo, its in-flight Wi-Fi provider, because of slow connectivity, arguing that competitors such as ViaSat, which powers Wi-Fi on United, among others, is significantly faster than GoGo’s service. However, it looks as though slow speeds at 30,000 ft are about to change, thanks to GoGo’s new 2Ku satellite-based Wi-Fi system. AirwaysNews was onboard the company’s 737 Airborne Test Lab at SXSW this week to see just how fast this new service is.

RELATED: Gogo, American Spar Over In-Flight Connectivity Solutions

IMG_0045

Ready, set, download!

The GoGo testbed flight departed Austin-Bergstrom International at 11:38 local time with several of the company’s engineers and executives onboard, along with about a dozen media armed with every sort of device, from smartphones and tablets to laptops. The plan was to spend about an hour in the air simply experiencing the functionality of the 2Ku system. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, and within about five minutes of being airborne, 51 separate devices were connected to the internet, according to the GoGo reps onboard. I noticed many were watching one of two live television channels (I opted for Bloomberg Television but also switched across to Russian ice hockey on ONE World Sports, and why not!) whilst others surfed the internet and watched movies on YouTube and Netflix.

IMG_0057The 2Ku satellite technology was developed in-house, and as Scott Carmichael, GoGo’s Manager of Social Media and Online Communities, told me, it brings together a variety of things that are very important to airlines. “First of all,” noted Carmichael, “it saves on fuel because, as you can see on the plane, the dome that covers our antennas and that adds to the top of the airplane, is very low, only about five to six inches versus fourteen inches.”

IMG_0054However, the real emphasis is on speed with in-flight Wi-Fi, and according to Carmichael, the 2Ku technology provides a huge amount of extra speed.

RELATED: Gogo Reaches Significant In-Flight Connectivity Milestone

Exactly how much extra speed did we (and will passengers themselves be able to) enjoy?

GoGo’s Ku band satellite, which they currently use on Delta’s international fleet, gets up to 12 megabits per second (Mbps). That’s about the most that one can get out of any Ku band antenna, according to Carmichael. On this particular flight, the modem was configured to handle 25 Mbps and was a vast improvement compared to the former 3 Mbps from GoGo’s early air-to-ground system. Currently, the antennas used on the Boeing 737 Test Lab can deliver a combined 70 Mbps of downstream bandwidth.

IMG_0058As Steve Nolan, VP of Public Relations and Communications at GoGo, explained, the modem, as with one’s own home system, is the first so-called “choke-point” for incoming data, and the same is true for in-flight Wi-Fi. “So if there is a bottleneck, it’s going to be coming from the limitations of the modem,” said Nolan.

With 2Ku, users will initially be limited to 25 Mbps downloads with uploads being capped at .5 Mbps. This, Nolan explained, was designed to make live outbound video streaming virtually impossible. And even though 25 Mbps is a vast improvement over the tortoise-like speeds of air-to-ground service, GoGo is also testing a new satellite modem with proprietary features that integrates with 2Ku that will, ultimately, be capable of delivering up to 400 Mbps to an aircraft. These antennas will be able to do that by linking into newer, upcoming lower-orbit geosynchronous satellites, such as those being launched in 2018 by OneWeb. At this time, low-latency broadband will become a reality at 30,000 ft.

Onboard the GoGo 737, the 25 Mbps modem handled the demands from all 51 devices seamlessly. On my iPad, SpeedSmart consistently recorded download speeds of anywhere between 8.5 to 15.5 Mbps, with uploads averaging .45 Mbps, really good by any standards. None of the journalists I spoke with reported any issues with the system.

There are several factors that impact Wi-Fi speed, including the capacity of the satellites in use, how many planes are flying in and actually using a particular sector, and, of course, the capability of the modem itself. The fact that the 2Ku antennas are significantly bigger, which makes it easier to pick up multiple channels, is what is ultimately putting the demand on the modem to deliver more speed. Another major advantage of 2Ku is that coverage extends internationally, and GoGo have already completed the first transcontinental test flight, with continual connectivity on a flight from Canada to Germany.

According to Carmichael, what GoGo have done with 2Ku is make it compatible with existing Ku-band systems, which is significant given the excess capacity with current high-orbit satellites. But by 2018 or 2019, with satellites much closer to Earth and a lot more of them, users will be able to experience spectacular speeds. As Steve Nolan told me toward the end of the flight, what GoGo wants is for people to simply be able to do what they want to do. If that is the metric by which 2Ku is to be judged, I’d say – mission accomplished.


Slatteryphoto1Mike Slattery, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, is both a College Professor and AvGeek. Originally from South Africa, Mike’s work takes him all over the globe to landscapes as diverse as the cloud forests of Costa Rica to saving rhinos in the game reserves of southern Africa. At last count, he had flown more than 1.3 million miles, equivalent to being in the air 112 days or 54 times around the Earth. He lives with his family in Fort Worth, Texas.


Editor’s noteWhat 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. Click here to subscribe today!

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Etihad Business Class: Is It Really “Flying Reimagined?”

By; Michael Slattery / Published: March 18, 2016

It seems everyone is focused on rankings these days. Whether it is who the #1 team in college football, or which restaurant ranks tops in a particular city (thank you, TripAdvisor), ratings, rankings, and awards hold sway. They also spark considerable debate and, in the highly competitive aviation landscape, awards get people’s attention.

For some, the Passenger Choice Awards, created by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), which invites air-travelers from around the world to rate their recent inflight experiences via an online survey, are influential because they are determined by actual passenger feedback. For example, Emirates was quick to announce wins in seven APEX categories this year on their Facebook page, including Best Airline for Overall Passenger Experience. Likewise, Etihad Airways was “delighted”, according to its Chief Commercial Officer, when it was awarded Best Airline – Business Class at the 2015 TTG Travel Awards in Bangkok. The airline really markets itself as having redefined luxury air travel, touting the new Business Studios on its fleet of A380s and B787 Dreamliners in particular as setting a new benchmark for business class travel worldwide. But for many, the Skytrax World Airline Awards remain the most prestigious, often being described as “the Oscars of the aviation industry.”

At the 2015 Skytrax awards, which were held in June as part of the Paris Air Show, the so-called “Big Three” Gulf carriers (G3) all placed in the top 10 in the important World’s Best Business Class category: Qatar (#2), Etihad (#5), and Emirates (#8). Parenthetically, Qatar took home the World’s Best Airline award for the third time in the last five years and Etihad won for World’s Best First Class. It seems the gulf carriers have, quite literally, drawn a line in the sand when it comes to the passenger experience, especially when it comes to attracting highly coveted first and business class passengers.

So when my travel plans called for a trip to South Africa this past summer, I scoured the websites of the G3 carriers for an affordable business class fare from LHR to JNB. I looked at Qatar and Etihad first, as I was already scheduled on an Emirates flight from DFW to DXB (see my report here) and wanted to be able to earn miles as an American Airlines AAdvantage member. As luck would have it, Etihad had a Business Saver fare for $3,048 and I jumped on it. What particularly intrigued me was that the routing included three different business class configurations: the new Business Studio on the A380, the traditional Pearl Business Class on an A340-600 and, for the AUH-JNB legs, a Jet Airways leased and configured A330-200, but staffed and catered by Etihad. I saw this as a golden opportunity to assess something that I know business class travelers truly value, namely product consistency. So, how did they do? Did I feel like I was really “Flying Reimagined?”

Things that were really, really good

The Business Studio on the A380, for starters. Etihad calls these seats “the embodiment of style, simplicity and functionality” and I would have to agree. As I was traveling with my wife, we chose seats 10E and 10F which are adjacent to one another and offer ease of conversation. (A partition can be raised for more privacy) In hindsight, this was a mistake, not because I didn’t want to talk to my wife (she is just flat-out fun to be around) but because the seat, once fully reclined, really hems in your legs. As I am a side-sleeper, I found it difficult to bring my knees up toward my chest; I just couldn’t get them past the shell that encased the footrest of the seat in front of me. This problem would have been solved in any other of the seats, whether we had chosen the alternate front/rear facing seats along the windows or the two seats, both rear facing, on the outside of ours.

E20

The Etihad Business Studio on the A380 (courtesy of Etihad).

Nevertheless, the seats themselves are sleek with direct aisle access for everyone onboard, several convenient storage spaces, a semi-circular console for putting drinks, gadgets, or any other personal belongings on, and some rather tasteful mood lighting throughout the cabin. When it’s time to sleep, the seat converts into a comfortable, fully-flat bed of “up to 80.5-inches” according to Etihad, though I suspect our center seats were a tad shorter as I am 6′ 5″ and could not quite get fully stretched. The seat also has a pneumatic comfort system which allows you to adjust the firmness and an excellent in-seat massage system. I found it easy and intuitive to customize the seat in the Business Studio, whether for reading, dining, or sleep. The 18-inch touch screen TV is one of the best I have encountered in the air, although the noise-cancelling headsets were somewhat below par. Overall then, the Business Studio environment exudes modernity and comfort and gives one quite a different “feel” than the burled walnut veneer and gold-trimmed seats on Emirates!

The food and inflight service on all four segments was superb, bar one over-cooked beef filet out of Johannesburg. Other than that, I really couldn’t find fault with the service. The flight attendants were courteous and attentive, not quite as “bubbly” as the Emirates crew I encountered on the A380 flight earlier in the year, but professional, well-groomed, and very, very helpful. Like the Business Studio itself, the crew had an air of understated elegance about them. I noticed that the purser overseeing each leg personally came over to welcome us onboard and made it clear that the staff were just a button away.

E18

The Etihad menu.

To give you a sense of the food and beverage experience, I’ll use the LHR-AUH leg as an example. The menu (shown here) is clean and uncomplicated and, like Emirates and Qatar, offers à la carte dining anytime, as well as a selection of lighter snacks available throughout the flight. I opted for the traditional Arabic mezze to start followed by the pan-seared lamb chop which was served with steamed seasonal vegetables, baked potatoes, and mint jus. This was simply fantastic! I followed that up with a cheese board and, finally, an orange bread and butter pudding that was delicious. Feeling a little dehydrated after the previous night’s flight from DFW to LHR, I stayed away from wine on this leg but the selection looked good: Champagne Jacquart, three whites, three reds, and a Sèmillon dessert wine. The list of aperitifs, spirits, beers and liqueurs was extensive. I also really liked the flatware which has a pummeled, textured look and feel, as do the small bread boards that accompanied every course. The rolls and crackers are served in small, silver bowls. Overall, the entire service is elegant and sophisticated.

Things that just missed the mark

E10

The business class seats on Etihad’s A330 (leased from Jet Airways).

While the seat and surrounding environment in the A380 was terrific, I didn’t feel the same way about A340 and A330. On the A340 it was Etihad’s standard Pearl Business Class seat which I found narrow and restrictive, with almost no open surfaces on which to put anything. Again, we had adjacent seats (7D and 7E) which offered a little more privacy than those along the aisle, but the seat in flat-bed mode was even shorter than the A380 and the TV screen was small and outdated. (I should note that the seat itself was well-cushioned and comfortable.)

On the A330, things got a little tricky. As noted above, the food and service was superb and all Etihad. However, when I made the reservation, I realized (after checking with SeatGuru.com) that the A330 configuration was Jet Airways’ older, forward-facing herringbone layout, similar to Virgin Atlantic’s first generation Upper Class. As we had chosen 3D and 3K, I called Etihad to ensure that we were actually sitting together and not separated by the partition along the back of row D, which SeatGuru appeared to indicate was the case. I was told that the seats were absolutely side-by-side which, in fact, they weren’t.

E7

The only real space to put anything on the A330 herringbone seat.

The seats were three across in a 1-1-1 layout, with rows A and D facing each other (pretty good when travelling with someone) and row K, the row I was in, facing inward toward the partition. On the bright side, it gave the row more privacy but I was totally cut off from any conversation with my wife, a little annoying to say the least. What did frustrate me, however, was the lack of space to put anything on (I could just about balance my glass of water and the bowl of nuts on the arm rest) and the fact that there was no way to look out of the window. I know these seats get mixed reviews: some people love them, others hate them. They have even been referred to as “coffins.” I actually found them more comfortable than the A340 seats and there was plenty of room to stretch out once flat, especially after stuffing my pillow between the headrest the extra area close to the window. Nevertheless, the seats on the A340 and A330 simply didn’t compare to the Business Studio on the A380.

Two other things that just missed the mark were the amenity kits and the boarding procedure for the Johannesburg flight at AUH. I know business travelers don’t generally pay much attention to the amenity kits but they do leave an impression, and here Emirates is simply streets ahead of Etihad. The kit itself provides all the basics but is underwhelming and on par to what we received on a Qantas Premium Economy flight three years ago. The boarding at AUH, on the other hand, was a bit of a shambles. The plane was parked offsite and we were told that buses would provide a shuttle with business class passengers taken in a sleek black bus and economy passengers on regular Etihad buses. When boarding was announced, everyone rushed for the buses in a bit of a mad dash, which wasn’t a huge deal, but then the buses idled for twenty minutes at the terminal with the doors open in 110+ degree temperatures. By the time we finally departed for the plane people were visibly disgruntled, annoyed, and sweaty. It just wasn’t quite as seamless as it should have been.

Finally, let me touch on the bar/lounge on the A380. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure whether to put this in the “really, really good” category or here in the “just missed the mark” section, but I settled on the latter and the reason is simple: I am still not sure what the lounge actually is.

Like Emirates and Qatar, Etihad has set aside a section of the upper deck as a premium lounge, in this case located between the business and first class cabins and shared by both. It is aptly called The Lobby and takes a page right out of the world of luxury hotels. Simply put, it’s a gorgeous space with a circular leather sofa with six seats, a marquetry table and a 32 inch TV screen on which passengers can watch live TV channels. Like the Business Studio and the rest of Etihad’s decor, it’s sleek and modern yet pays homage to the carrier’s Arabian heritage. The design is inspired by the concept of the Majlis, a term that is used to refer to a private place where guests are received and entertained. However, as I was the only one to use the space on the 7-hour flight there wasn’t a lot of entertaining going on! There is a drink display and the lighting is spectacular, but it is clearly not a bar, certainly not in the same vein as the Emirates onboard bar. Now that’s a social space where one is constantly entertained. So I left The Lobby not really knowing what I was supposed to do there, besides have a coffee and read a magazine, which I did. A great space but entirely under-utilized.

And one surprisingly problematic experience

Overall, I would have to say that my experience on Etihad was very, very good. The food and service were consistently top-notch, quite outstanding, actually. Indeed, had the entire experience been in the Business Studio I would have certainly struggled to find anything to gripe about. Except this…

Luggage. No, not missing luggage (though the business and first class passengers’ luggage was sent to the wrong terminal in AUH after our London leg and we waited an hour and thirty minutes for it to show up) but, rather, the Etihad crew luggage. As we waited at the carousel for our missing bags to arrive, Etihad flight attendants were, quite literally, clambering over one another and fellow passengers to retrieve their bags as they came rolling down the chute, flight after flight, suitcase after suitcase. Surely there is a better way to do this? A dedicated carousel for premium passengers or, better yet, a separate drop-off point for the crew would be my suggestion. Frankly, anything would have been better than the rugby scrum that unfolded in front of me.

So, would I fly Etihad’s Business Class again as it was on my dime? If it was on the A380 (or the Dreamliner, where Business Studios are also installed) then absolutely I would. The environment, the food and the attentive, yet understated, service trumped all the other issues that, in some cases, just missed the mark. I wouldn’t say what I experienced sets a new benchmark for business class travel worldwide, but it certainly is a terrific product.


Slatteryphoto1Mike Slattery, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, is both a College Professor and AvGeek. Originally from South Africa, Mike’s work takes him all over the globe to landscapes as diverse as the cloud forests of Costa Rica to saving rhinos in the game reserves of southern Africa. At last count, he had flown more than 1.3 million miles, equivalent to being in the air 112 days or 54 times around the Earth. He lives with his family in Fort Worth, Texas.


Editor’s noteWhat 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. Click here to subscribe today!

Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

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Taking a Mile-Highatus: Virgin America’s First Service from San Francisco to Denver

Story and Photos by: Paul Thompson / Published: March 17, 2016

Virgin America inaugurated service from its San Francisco hub on Tuesday, to its 24th destination – Denver, Colorado. With typical Virgin fanfare before, during and after the flight, it was attended by Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson, Virgin America CEO David Cush, Denver’s Mayor, Michael Hancock, and Hollywood actor Josh Duhamel.

Prior to the flight, an upbeat celebration was held at the departure gate, 54B. Some of Virgin America’s flight attendants posed for photos, greeted passengers, and passed out winter hats embroidered with the logo of the airline. Refreshments were served, including champagne mimosas and Jameson Irish Whiskey.

SFO-21

At a press conference held at the gate, Mayor Hancock said, “Virgin America is ideally suited to serve the Denver area. This entrepreneurial airline puts an emphasis on providing premium service and high tech amenities that are perfect for Denver’s growing number of startup employees and business travelers.” Throughout the day, we heard the theme of connecting the Silicon Valley to the Silicon Mountain, the new link between to high-tech cities.

Virgin America CEO David Cush spoke following Hancock. He said the new route connects two of America’s most important tech-focused cities, and added that Denver had been its highest demand new city from customers, prior to being announced. The airline is offering three flights a day, each way from SFO to DEN. It will have plenty of competition from Denver’s incumbent airlines as well. Frontier and Southwest also offer three each way, and United logs up to fourteen each way on weekdays.

Sir Richard Branson was on hand for the celebration, doing what he does best – making PR reps nervous as he goes off-script. Though he’s a minority shareholder in Virgin America, his role makes him somewhat of a King to David Cush, the Prime Minister. It’s obvious that Branson receives the fandom and adoration, while it is Cush who runs the show. The crowd received Branson with loud applause as he took the podium. He joked that he was given talking points, but had stuck the note cards in his back pocket. Branson noted that he has been at every single city inauguration for Virgin America. Branson shared that Denver is one of his favorite places to have fun, saying, “We’re going to a state that has sensible, liberal, rational policies where we can all have a lot of fun and not be dragged off by the police.” He’s known for skiing in Colorado regularly and also said, “If I lived in America, I would live in Denver.”

Upon takeoff, passengers cheered and clapped as we took to the sky amidst a stunning sunrise over the Bay Area. Branson briefly took the microphone of the PA system, welcome everyone aboard and said, “Although we’re going to the Mile High City, this flight is only two hours, so it may not be enough time to join the Mile High Club” bringing laughs from throughout the cabin. The front of the cabin was where all of the media and airline staff sat, and paying passengers were in the back, though they were of course included in the celebration. As interviewers and photographers jockeyed up and down the narrow aisle of the A320, flight attendants did their best to keep the party going by offering a cheese plate or a protein plate snack pack, along with cranberry and champagne cocktails.

During the flight, AirwaysNews was given some on-on one time with CEO David Cush. When asked about their relatively new service to Hawaii and future plans, Cush said, “Hawaii’s doing just fine, I think the early loads were a little lighter than we wanted them to be, but that happens when you start a new route. They’ve since picked up quite a bit, the ticket values are very good, and financially it’s doing everything we expected, and it’s been profitable since day one.” In terms of growing in Hawaii, he said that Kona and Lihue will likely be seen “in the not too far future.” VX already flies from SFO to Honolulu and Kahului and has already announced service from LAX to those two cities.

SFO-4

When I inquired about any possibility of taking Virgin America to long-haul international flights, outside of codeshares, he replied, “It’s really not we’re focused on. Our production model is around a single fleet type, which gives us high productivity and high utilization, keeps our costs low, and allows us to spend on our onboard product. We don’t want to increase that complexity in our organization. I think Hawaii’s far enough for us.” As far as other fleet plans, Cush said the A321neo will enter service in April, 2017.

I was able to ask a question that came in from Twitter during the flight, about whether VX would fly from San Jose, California (the true Silicon Valley) to Denver. Cush said “I think we’ll stick with San Francisco… We found that it cannibalized our San Francisco routes, it was not a good move for us.” He did praised San Jose’s ability to attract international service from the likes of ANA and Air China.

Virgin America is also rolling out a new version of its seatback IFE product, called “Red” which undergoing beta testing but was installed on our aircraft. Cush told me, “It is capacitive touch screen, so you can do all of the things you can do with your iPad. The amount of free content we have on there is quite remarkable. Probably the most cutting edge thing we have is the high-speed wifi.” The aircraft used for the inaugural flight, is one of only five in Virgin America’s fleet with VisSat wifi installed. Two other planes are currently having it installed as well. Virgin America is one of several airlines now to have spilt wifi solutions among its fleet, having Gogo on most of its fleet. During the flight, the wifi worked spotlessly, and I was able to browse the web, make posts on social media sites, use a chat app, and even stream video from Netflix. When logging in to the wifi service, I encountered a splash screen letting me know the wifi was still in beta testing, but was also free for the flight. As a first-time Virgin America flyer, I found it challenging during the 2-hour flight to partake on all of the celebration, while also experiencing the flight as a normal passenger would by testing out all of the entertainment options, along with the FlightPath 2D moving map.

Demonstrating the power of their new wifi, Virginia America partnered with LinkedIn to host a live-steamed discussion from cruising altitude, on the topic of entrepreneurship. Participants included Sir Richard Branson, Mayor Hancock, and LinkedIn VP of Global Customer Products Ryan Roslansky.

SFO-5

Upon landing on one of Denver’s most remote runways (due to the strong westerly wind), a few passengers let out a “woo hoo!” but it was less celebratory than expected. Then after a lengthy taxi to the gate, we made our way to our gate on Concourse A, where the DIA Fire Department was waiting to give our plane a traditional water arch spray down. We paused for a moment while photos were taken from the ramp, then the high arch of water began to flow over our plane. The pilots throttled up once again to taxi into the gate, where arrival celebrations were held. Branson, Cush and Hancock made more remarks, though similar to what was said at SFO. Mayor Hancock did add a remark about how Colorado was known for its excellent craft beers, and presented Branson and Cush with large beer containers, known as growlers.

Along with Virgin America’s new flights, they also opened a new call center on Tuesday in Denver, staffed with almost 100 employees. Denver International Airport is seeing huge growth, and marked its busiest year ever in 2015, with 54 million passengers. A lot of that growth has been fueled by United and Southwest’s growth, and of course low air fares. The next big milestone for Denver will be the return of Lufthansa’s Denver to Munich route, which will run five days a week, using the Airbus A330. Lufthansa ran the route with an A340 from 2007 to 2008 but dropped it because of the economic downturn, low demand, and the less efficient fuel burn of the plane itself.

Disclaimer: Virgin America paid the ticket for the author’s trip. Views expressed are his own.


IMG_7483Paul Thompson is a freelance aviation and travel writer, with over 14 years of experience in the airline industry. In his free time, he enjoys leisure travel, photography, and enjoying local craft beers wherever he goes. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife and two daughters. He may be reached on Twitter at @FlyingPhotog.


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!

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Atlanta Reveals ATLNext, $6 Billion Capital Plan for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

By: Benét J. Wilson / Published: March 11, 2016

ATL Atrium

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport General Manager Miguel Southwell gives remarks at the capital plan event. Image: Courtesy of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

Plans for a $6 billion, 20-year capital improvement program at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport – dubbed the ATLNext program – were unveiled yesterday at a major event hosted by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Hartsfield General Manager Miguel Southwell.

RELATED: Atlanta Airport Targets International Service With New Program

The city released renderings and animations of the improvements planned for the Domestic Terminal’s atrium and exterior. It also unveiled plans to build a sixth runway, new cargo structures, a new $500 million, 400-room hotel with a travel plaza and a new Concourse G.

During his remarks at the event, hosted by CNN reporter Richard Quest, Hartsfield-Jackson’s Southwell listed six priorities for the airport’s long-term growth: Safety and Security, Financial Viability, Economic Generation, Environmental Stewardship, Employees and Customer Service. He also emphasized a push for new air service to China, India and other fast-growing economies around the world, along with a restoration of service to Israel.

An artist's rendering of the planned atrium in the domestic terminal. Image: Courtesy of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

An artist’s rendering of the planned atrium in the domestic terminal. Image: Courtesy of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

RELATED: Spend 24 Hours at The World’s Busiest Airport, ATL

“We have had tremendous growth over the last year, and with our new capital plan, the next 20 years are only going to be more impressive,” Southwell said. “Not only will these projects be transformational for the Airport, but they will enable the needed expansion to accommodate the growing demand we have at Hartsfield-Jackson.”

An artist's rendering of the airport's new ticket counter. Image: Courtesy of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

An artist’s rendering of the airport’s new ticket counter. Image: Courtesy of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

Other projects under ATLNext include:

  • Terminal modernization, now-2018, $393 million;
  • Concourse T extension, 2016-2021, $200 million;
  • Plane Train people-mover turnback relocation, 2016-2027, $307 million;
  • Concourse G, 2016-2023, $983 million; and
  • Concourse D gate area expansion, 2019-2025, $50 million.

The airport is also expanding the ATL West parking deck next to the Georgia International Convention Center at a cost of $150 million, along with upgrades to the Park-Ride Lot, the South and North garage teardowns and replacements.

The airport capital plan was among the events covered at the inaugural State of the Airport luncheon, with nearly 1,000 people in attendance.


BW}Benét J. Wilson is an experienced freelance aviation / travel writer. She has been in the business for more than 20 years, having her works published in several printed and digital publications including USA Today, Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine and AIN. Wilson is the Air Travel Expert for About.com and is working on her private pilot’s certificate.


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. Click here to subscribe today!

Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

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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

UK12005_AN12_Avialeasing_(5577461802)

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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First Trip Report: Onboard the Singapore Airlines Airbus A350 Delivery Flight

Story and Photos by: Andreas Spaeth / Published: March 3, 2016

The Airbus A350 has only reached delivery stage for about 14 months, but since the first aircraft went to Qatar Airways just before Christmas 2014, new deliveries to new customers start to get a bit of a routine at Airbus.

DSC_0050After Qatar Airways, Vietnam Airlines, Finnair and TAM, Singapore Airlines (SIA) joined the exclusive club of A350 operators this week.DSC_0020

When aircraft number 16, MSN 026, A350-941 registered 9V-SMA, was handed over to Singapore Airlines (SIA) on Wednesday, the buzz was considerably less than before. Even more so in comparison to the last milestone delivery for SIA in Toulouse, the first-ever Airbus A380 in the fall of 2007. With the first A350 for the Asian quality carrier, it was almost a low-key event for Airbus and SIA standards.DSC_0179Adding to that was that Airbus’ top brass was in China at the time, breaking ground for a new A330 completion center in Tianjn. So Didier Evrard , EVP Programmes at Airbus and former Head of the A350 Programme, was the master of ceremonies on the manufacturer’s side back in Toulouse. “Having SIA as a customer is the strongest possible endorsement of the A350”, remarked Evrard during the handover ceremony.DSC_0069

For SIA, the A350 is a truly new dimension. “In the last five years, we had very little expansion on long haul, we didn’t have the right aircraft with the right efficiency to expand in a commercially viable manner”, said SIA-CEO Goh Choon Phong in talking to AirwaysNews.

“The A350 is a game changer for us because it is this particular aircraft offering us the right size, efficiency and cabin to add more capacity on long haul.” In fact, the A350 will open up a new route for SIA, from Singapore to Düsseldorf, Germany, in July this year. “That would have been difficult to serve for us without the A350”, adds Goh.

The A350s 253 seats (42 in Business Class, 24 in Premium Economy and 187 in Economy) are just about the perfect size to establish new routes off the trunk routes or add more frequencies with extra flights to existing destinations. The first long-haul route for the new aircraft in the SIA fleet will be the service to Amsterdam from May 9th, replacing a Boeing 777-300ER.DSC_0039

SIA is so far the biggest customer for the A350-900 with 67 firm orders for the base version. Interestingly, the airline will deploy the type on any kind of route – from regional runs within Asia to long haul to ultra long haul. SIA is the launch customer for a new version, the A350-900ULR. “Strategically, the ULR is very important to us, as the US is such an important market and we plan to re-establish non-stop service in 2018 from Singapore to New York, Los Angeles and one more city we will announce later”, says Goh.

SIA had pulled the 18-hour-plus non-stop services from Changi Airport to Newark and the slightly shorter LAX-service in 2013, with fuel prices so high and the utilized four-engine A340-500s so inefficient that it was no longer viable. So the A350-900 will be part of the SIA fleet in three different versions, besides the current 253-seat base version for long-haul. “It’s obvious the ULR will have less seats than regular A350s, and then we will have the regional version with more seats, we still have flexibility to adjust the number of each version we need according to demand.” Interestingly, as Airbus’s A350 spokesman Arnaud de la Croix pointed out in Toulouse, the ULR model can be reconfigured back to the base 900-version, in restricting some fuel tank capacity. Unlike other ULR aircraft, the A350-900ULR variant does not physically contain bigger or more fuel tanks, the ULR just makes maximum use of the existing capacity.

But this is still kind of far off in the future, the current priority is to introduce the A350 into SIA’s fleet. Here, it will replace up to 29 Boeing 777-200ERs and 32 A330-300s, all of the latter are leased. “We currently have about 40 pilot trained to fly the A350, all converting from the A330 due to the common type rating”, explains SIA’s A350 chief pilot Paul Ho to AirwaysNews.

“By year-end, when we will have eleven A350s delivered, we plan to have about 100 pilots to fly them.” Singapore being Singapore, a city state with famously strict rules, the Civil Aviation Authority had to pre-authorize guests on the delivery flight to even visit the cockpit, and even then, photos of the cockpit in flight were not allowed.DSC_0037

There were about 70 passengers on flight SQ8895 from Toulouse to Singapore, a small media contingent, staff on duty and employees who won the trip as a prize in an internal raffle. After checking-in at the Airbus Delivery Center, each passenger and crew member had to stand on a scale to be weighed together with all personal luggage. Interestingly, several male fliers observed, including the pilot, brought it to 106 kilograms each.

The aircraft’s luxurious Business Class cabin, in 1-2-1 configuration, but forcing passengers to sleep diagonally when in full-flat mode, was almost fully occupied. The product is similar to that in the latest Boeing 777-300ERs, with some small enhancements. SIA plans to totally revamp its First and Business Class offerings with delivery of five new A380s from the second half of 2017. The CEO wouldn’t say if the airline would keep the diagonal seating, which fairly many passengers dislike.

The new Premium Economy Class has proven to be a success for SIA, while reducing the number of Economy seats, effectively leaving the cheapest segment of the market more to the Gulf carriers. “We respond to what our customers tell us”, comments the CEO. SIA’s Premium Economy, with seats supplied by the same German manufacturer ZIM that equips Lufthansa, is quite luxurious in appearance and boasts 38 inches of pitch and inflight service including French champagne. Catering on the delivery flight however included bubbly in plastic cups for everybody, as well as two meal choices supplied by Airbus. Nothing to write home about, but well presented. Apparently SIA did not want to make as much fuss as for example Qatar Airways does on delivery flights with guests, which includes a specially printed menu and an even higher class catering than what the Gulf carrier already offers on regular flights in Premium classes, often including caviar for all on board.

The route flight SQ8895 took from France to Southeast Asia was quite southerly, avoiding Iraq, for example, but not Egypt. After it got dark, most passengers used the various options of the Krisworld IFE offerings or simply slept. Once a French breakfast with croissants had been cleared, the delivery landed exactly 12 hours and 13 minutes after take-off at its new home base in Changi Airport.

DSC_0306A cheery reception event attended by Singapore’s minister of transport rounded out the premiere of the next-generation Airbus to one of the manufacturer’s most faithful customers since the early days of the Airbus A300 in the late 1970s. Before scheduled long-haul services to Amsterdam start, passengers can experience the new aircraft on short-haul legs between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and Jakarta, flown to enable newly trained A350-pilots to accumulate enough cycles.


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New York Says Hallo! to Swiss’ Boeing 777-300ER

By: Eric Dunetz / Published: February 22, 2016

The newest Flagship of SWISS Airlines has arrived to New York, the first revenue transatlantic flight of the airliner.

The aircraft touched down at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport at 16:01 local time (21:01 GMT), operating flight LX14 from Zurich. Interestingly, the first triple seven of the airline wears a special “Faces of Swiss” scheme, in which are depicted the faces of the employees of the airline.

RELATED: Swiss Receives a New Flagship: The Boeing 777-300ER

To celebrate this first flight Patrick Heyman, Swiss Senior Director for the Americas, was on hand to greet passengers and crew with a little help from a Traditional Swiss Alphorn performance.IMG_0228
“This is a milestone in the history of SWISS and we are proud to share this accomplishment with local authorities, Terminal 4’s staff and our passengers. With the new Boeing 777-300ER, we will be setting new benchmarks in terms of its customers’ in flight comfort and overall air travel experience.”

Also on hand was President and CEO of JFK International Air Terminal Gert-Jan de Graaff who praised the new arrival. “As a gateway to New York City and the United States, JFK’s Terminal 4 is proud to host this inaugural flight with SWISS’ newest flagship – the Boeing 777-300ER – in order to match the demands of an ever- growing traveling public.”

AirwaysNews was able to go onboard the aircraft for a very brief tour while it was serviced for its departure back to Zurich. The Swiss 777 has 340 seats arranged in a three-class layout, which includes eight seats in first class, 62 in Business Class and 270 in Economy.

First Class Seats offer a private suite, which includes a 32-inch screen (one of the largest in the industry). It also offers electrically-adjustable window blinds and a personal wardrobe for passengers.


The Business Class cabin was upgraded and refined based on customer feedback. The new product offers optimum privacy and freedom of movement, while the seat cushion’s firmness can be individually regulated. The seat may be converted in a 2m-long full-flat bed.

IMG_0014-2Passengers in Economy Class will be able to make use of a self-service kiosk, offering selected drinks and snacks. All nine Swiss 777s will also feature wireless internet via a broadband connection, enabling travelers to keep connected during flight.

RELATED: Swiss Aims to Impress with New 777 Seats and Cabins

These triple seven flights to New York will only be temporary. The service will operate until March 25th, when it will return to Airbus A330 flight. Intended to replace the Airbus A340-300 from the fleet, Swiss will deploy the 777s to its longest routes. In the case of the United States, it will serve Los Angeles (daily from June 10th) and San Francisco (3 times a week from August 30th).


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American Airlines Unveils New Flagship Services for Premium Passengers

By: Seth Miller / Published: February 17, 2016

Premium cabin travel is about more than just the product on the aircraft and American Airlines is taking a significant step forward for its long-haul customers, announcing today an overhaul of its Flagship Lounge offering across all of its international gateway hub airports. The upgraded service rolling out through 2017 includes remodeling, expansion of existing facilities and construction of new spaces. The company will also open two new Admirals Club lounges in addition to the Flagship Lounge upgrades.

Flagship Service

The existing Flagship lounges in Chicago, New York-JFK and Los Angeles are set for upgrades and renovations starting this spring. They will be joined by new facilities in Dallas, Miami and Philadelphia in the coming year. The upgraded spaces will feature new furnishings and expanded space, important to allow for the significant increase in passengers who will have access.

Rendering of the new Flagship lounge experience from American Airlines

Rendering of the new Flagship lounge experience from American Airlines

With more expansive spaces dedicated to each Flagship Lounge, all trans-Pacific, trans-Atlantic, deep South America and Airbus 321T transcontinental customers booked in First Class and Business Class will have access to Flagship services beginning in 2017. These Flagship lounges will continue to offer complimentary premium beverage options as well as hot and cold buffet dining.

Flagship Dining

Building on the success of the recently introduced flagship dining in the DFW hub late last year, American will expand that offering to JFK, Los Angeles and Miami through 2017. The new dining experience will feature full-service tableside dining with seasonal menus developed by a local executive chefs at each location.

Rendering of the Flagship Dining experience coming soon to four of American Airlines' hub airports

Rendering of the Flagship Dining experience coming soon to four of American Airlines’ hub airports

Access to the Flagship Dining facility will remain limited to first class passengers traveling on AA’s three-cabin aircraft, including transcon service. American is the only US-based carrier to offer able service pre-flight dining in the lounge for long-haul travelers.

Admirals Club Expansion

The Admirals Club lounge network will be expanded and renovated in the coming months. Orlando and Houston will see new lounge facilities added while more than 15 locations will see updates and renovations in the coming years. These new lounges will be styled similarly to the recently remodeled facilities in Sao Paulo in Brazil and Phoenix Terminal A.

Company rendering of the new Orlando Admirals Club design

Company rendering of the new Orlando Admirals Club design

These upgrades are part of what is now a $3 billion commitment from the carrier to improve the passenger experience throughout the travel life cycle. Previously, the company focused on +$2 billion worth of upgrades, mostly on-board its fleet with new aircraft, new seats and new products rolling out. The price point has increased with the new lounge offerings but the goal remains clear: As American Airlines is able to generate significant profits, some of that money will be reinvested in improving travel experience, at least for premium cabin customers. Whether that’s better than cutting fares is going to vary on a customer-by-customer basis.


IMGP2946Seth Miller is an AirwaysNews.com contributor specialized in Loyalty Marketing, Connectivity and Passenger Experience and will drop everything if he gets an opportunity to go flying. Bit by the travel bug 30 years ago, Seth flies ~200,000 miles annually. Follow him on twitter at @WandrMe, or his site at The Wandering Aramean blog.


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Southwest Airlines Steps Up Its Social Media Game During Jonas Snowstorm

By: Benét J. Wilson / Published: February 03, 2016

Rob Hahn

Rob Hahn, ‎Assistant Manager Social Care at Southwest Airlines.

The Jonas snowstorm turned out to be a major milestone for the social care team at Southwest Airlines: mere days before the news of what turned into a major blizzard came out, the carrier had just switched the team over to 24/7 operations just as it was preparing to cancel around 1,800 flights between January 21 and January 25.

The social care team is made up of 35 employees, including the leadership, said Rob Hahn, who oversees the carrier’s effort in this area. “On January 17, we went to operating the team 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was perfect timing and a great test for the team,” said Hahn. “We were able to have customer response times of less than 15 minutes, and we saw a lot of kudos online for the quick help.”WN Twitter advisory jpg

The media buzz on the storm started on January 17, said Hahn. “We saw coverage on The Weather Channel, and we also had our own meteorological team looking at how the storm would impact operations,” he said. “On Tuesday, we started hearing from customers about making travel accommodation changes. By Wednesday, we put out an advisory and things started moving.”

Of course, this isn’t Southwest’s first time with an event like this. “Our network operations team have been through this so many times, they’ve turned it into a science. You don’t want to pull trigger too soon and cancel flights, because that won’t sit well with our customers,” said Hahn.

LGA BWI jpgThe social care team went to another level to get information out to affected passengers, said Hahn. “We hosted a live Periscope and did live video on Facebook with operations control highlights showing people what we were doing to prepare for the storm,” he said. “We weren’t just putting out travel advisories, but showing customers what was going on behind the scenes. We also posted regularly on Facebook and Twitter.”

As the storm continued, Hahn said, the photos started going out. “During the storm, we shared photos of Baltimore-Washington and LaGuardia airports on our Instagram feed,” he said. “We wanted customers to see what we were dealing with.”

BWI Instagram jpgThe social care team was ready for an onslaught, but that never really happened, said Hahn. “We didn’t have to pull that trigger because we were able to handle the volume.”

The main thing is to have open communications, said Hahn. “Our network operations center has representation from all departments during crisis meetings, and our care team as a seat at that table,” he said. “So we get all our information in real time. And that’s how we can get out travel advisories and get information out for accommodations.”

Hahn had nothing but praise for how his social care team stepped up during the snowstorm. “It’s funny. When we have a major event, it’s one of those times you see how dedicated the team is. They will step up to help customers,” he said. “It was prime time to show what we could do, especially since we had just launched 24/7 operations.”

HOU instagram jpgThe big lesson learned from this event was the importance of early communications, said Hahn. “We knew it was going to impact us and putting out travel advisories on Wednesday helped,” he said. “Using social media as a tool, going into 24-hour operations and doing things like the live Periscope was amazing. Our instagram post from BWI was our most liked photo ever.”


BW}Benét J. Wilson is an experienced freelance aviation / travel writer. She has been in the business for more than 20 years, having her works published in several printed and digital publications including USA Today,  Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine and AIN. Wilson is the Air Travel Expert for About.com and is working on her private pilot’s certificate.


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Contact the editor at roberto.leiro@airwaysnews.com

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