Friday, November 28, 2014

Cattle to Coddle Class; Tips from JetBlue, Turkish and Others

My friend enjoyed first class treatment on Thai
I don't often sit outside of the economy cabin when I fly and neither do most of my friends. So when I or someone I know gets an upgraded experience it is fun to compare what the various airlines consider a lux experience.

An acquaintance told me that he cashed in all his mileage points for a first class seat from somewhere in Asia to San Francisco. His journey required him to fly one leg on Thai Airways and change in Bangkok to United.

He could not stop raving about his experience on Thai; how comfortable was the seat, how delicious the food, how accommodating the flight attendants. On and on and on.

At Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, he switched to Chicago-based United where, when he entered the first class cabin the flight attendant pointed to his backpack and greeted him saying, "That's not going to fit in the overhead bin." 

Having just removed it from the Thai Airways bin he replied, "I think it will." 

"Suit  yourself," she said. 

Not all first class experiences are equal and sometimes the airlines that you think should get it right, get it terribly wrong, as in the story above. Other times, a great flight comes from an unexpected carrier, such as the new Mint service on JetBlue.

All employees pitch in to clean at JetBlue
Remember, JetBlue began 15 years ago as a quasi low-cost carrier, that is, discounted fares with benefits, like live TV and leather seats. It also distinguished itself with an innovative way of keeping turn times down. All employees from non-rev passengers to the pilots, tidy the plane on arrival. This is a refreshing personality characteristic as far as I'm concerned and I hope now that ALPA represents the airline's pilots that doesn't change, but I digress.

Mint is the airline's first foray into coddle class and it is offered only between New York and San Francisco or Los Angeles. For $599, travelers get a first class experience, and by that I mean, I don't know what else they could to do to enhance the six-hour journey.
Mint cabin Photo from JetBlue

The spacious lie-flat seats are either two abreast or, holy smokes!, a single suite. Each passenger gets a 15-inch video screen, wifi, amenity kit, priority everything, two free checked bags and scrumptious meals that kick off with a per-departure cocktail. On my flight, the cabin attendants were energetic and agreeable, reinforcing the airline's deserved reputation for friendliness.
Lie flat in Mint. Photo courtest JetBlue

Greta Mettauer, a technology executive from Los Angeles who is six feet tall, pays to fly premium on long flights. Comparing her trip on Mint to American Airlines trans continental first class, she told me JetBlue's seat with 6' 8" of sleeping length was more comfortable. She paid $1284 for her round trip ticket LA to Boston on American and $1198 LA to New York on JetBlue, but had to then buy an onward ticket to Boston upping the JetBlue price beyond the cost of flying there on American. Even so, Greta told me she would change planes in New York rather than fly American's first class direct to Boston. 

When customers vote with their own dollars, an airline knows it is doing something right. Mint service is often sold out, spokesman Anders Lindstrom told me.

Everyone is welcome in the Porter lounge
Tiny Porter Airlines, based in Toronto at the adorable Billy Bishop in-town airport, is another air travel treat. There are no "premium seats" on Porter's Bombardier Q400 turboprops. All passengers traveling to any of the airline's 20 North American destinations wait to board the plane in a comfortable lounge stocked with food and drink. On board, beer, wine, snacks and wifi are all included in the ticket price. 

In October, I flew from Singapore (Lordy, I love that airport!) to Istanbul, a 9 hour flight made to seem considerably shorter because I was flying in business class. Yep, I sleep better when I can lie down, who doesn't? But most carriers offer that. The touches that separate Turkish Airlines from other airlines bragging about their "product" are tiny. 

Turkey's signature tulip, adorns the lav
A fresh flower arrangement in each bathroom is a cheery find you won't see on a Qatar Airways airplane. Low-light luminaria placed on the armrests of each seat create a warm, non-sleep-disturbing glow and goes a long way to reducing the risk of bruised shins when moving around the cabin in the dark. Etihad isn't offering that yet. 

On my recent visit to Sydney, Qantas invited me to see to their  Center of Service Excellence, where before I actually entered the heart of the building, I was treated to a 10 minute video about the struggling airline's aspirational goals for treating its passengers better.  The Qantas video was jaw-dropping no doubt about it, as was the state-of-the-art training and meeting center. 

Meanwhile in the business class lounge the following day, I found wet towels piled on the floor in the bathroom and dirty dishes and food residue remained on tables long after the flyers had departed. 

The luminaria at my seat on TK 67
Chasing the well-heeled traveler is practically every airline's goal these days as I reported for The New York Times, though follow through remains challenging for a number of them.  

The innovative carriers are focusing on the clever detail, the small but unexpected treat which like those Turkish luminaries, can warm up the passenger experience just as well, if not better, than high wattage promises that dim in the delivery.

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