At PT, we are serious about our reader’s voice being heard, so we agreed to allow Bill Kizorek full access to our website and newsletter while he did his seven-day AA challenge flying Oneworld partners American Airlines, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and British Airways. Reporting from Phoenix, Dallas, London, Barcelona, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, and Honolulu, he will spend only three nights in a real bed, and four nights on flatbed seats, logging more time in airports and aboard planes than not.
Bill will be sharing his observations and assessments. His comments will disclose far more than the mundane details of airline food and seats to reveal the full experience, including upgrade policies, jet lag, and notes on the sights, sounds, and people he encounters.
All Commentary by Bill Kizorek:
Why am I doing this? At first glance, it seems to be a case of “plane insanity,” but there is a method to the madness. Like anyone else, I want to get as much as I can for my time and money. With five AA flights under my belt before starting this journey—four in first and one in coach—I came away with some immediate impressions. The wine glasses and nut bowls on AA are twice as big as those on UA. The food service on AA, across the board, was superior in terms of variety, amount, taste, and preparation.
The wines on neither AA nor UA domestic flights will win international acclaim. But I sat next to the VP of a major wine distributor on one AA flight, and he said, “Hey, this is a pretty passable red.” One thing AA and UA had in common: Either they both buy cashews that are sent to them in thirds, or they are destroying the nuts somewhere along the line. A cashew nut that looks like a cashew nut seems to be a rare commodity. The beer selection on AA was better, with Sam Adams lager, Dos Equis, and a light beer offered on every flight.
All airlines have older planes, but I was being dazzled by the aircraft interiors on AA. My Seattle-to-Phoenix flight was on a newly retrofitted 737 that was sparkling inside, with 12" HD screens on the seat backs, and lighting so sexy that it could have been a cocktail lounge.
As far as the staffing, it is with reluctance that I share that AA has, thus far, exposed me to employees who seem happier that I am onboard, put a little more effort into their appearance, and imbue me with the feeling that they like their jobs.
Boarding my Dallas-to-London flight was extremely efficient, and when I got to the plane I was impressed by the comfort of the seat, the lighting, and the warm welcome. Examination of the AV system indicated that my remote was broken. Although I was offered an iPad, I instead grappled with the touch screen controls on the older-style screen. I have to confess that the UA audiovisual interface was superior in ease of navigation, screen clarity, and content.
There was one other peculiarity. Sitting next to me was a fellow Executive Platinum Elite flier. By the time the flight attendant got to him, he said he was out of both meat dinner entrées and could only offer the fish or gnocchi. My fellow passenger was unhappy, but chose the fish. However, two minutes later, the attendant on my side asked if I wanted the beef. My neighbor asked my flight attendant if he could have one and she said, “of course.” Neither of us dreamed that when flight attendants take meal orders they each have their own “stock” of food. I later quizzed the meatless attendant who apologized, saying he should have consulted his colleague. For the next hour or so, my seatmate kept repeating, “Where’s da beef?”
Because of AA’s stellar record on five previous domestic flights, I expected a consistent follow-through on this more lavish flight. I was treated to one of those big bowls of nuts; this time, pistachios and almonds (unbroken) accompanied the crushed cashews. I guess those cashews are just going to be crushed no matter where they are served. As meal service began, I got my first glimpse of the story of the Korean Air executive who was so upset at the nut service she made the flight attendant kneel down and apologize. (Thank you American for handing out the Monday New York Times on board!). I read that there was such a ruckus on the plane along with this employee abuse that the plane returned to the gate and the Korean Air executive has now been arrested. Since this nutty incident has come to my attention, I promise, going forward, to stop whining about cashews.
As the lights go down and everyone gets their beef dishes, I observe that all the TV screens are lit up and every single one is showing some violent movie: fire, explosions, shootings, and lots of machine guns. Since I was having trouble figuring out my TV, I just read the paper and could only eat about a half of the portion, even though the filet mignon was perfectly done.
I had to send back my ice cream that was called something like “cookies and crumbles” and was too sweet for me. Maybe my bloodstream was already in glucose shock and warning me after the excellent champagne and pinot gris wine. After I returned it, the attendant brought me strawberry cheesecake, a plate of grapes and cheeses, and an AA-sized glass of port.
Nobody was ordering from duty-free, so I felt sorry for the attending cart girl. I asked for the duty-free magazine as I wanted a memento of the flight and wanted her to have at least one sale. Paging through the book, on Martin Luther King Day, I noticed that there didn’t seem to be many African Americans featured in the duty-free ads—maybe none. The male models were mostly white males between the ages of 29 and 31 with perfectly messed hair, symmetrical features, and two days growth of facial hair. Except for a page with someone who looked a lot like Julia Roberts, the female duty-free models were all white with pouty lips and aged between 23 and 24. Eventually, I bought the coolest Cross pen that wrote in black, red, and pencil lead, and had an iPad stylus.
I then remembered that two of the next three nights I’d be sleeping in airplanes, so I chewed up half an Ambien, put on my eye mask, and slept for a while. During an intermission in my sleep, I grabbed a beer, a bag of kettle-cooked potato chips, a bag of unbroken salt-and-pepper cashews, another bottle of beer, and then crashed again.
Heading east, the sun pops up fast. Even though it was about 2:30 a.m. in Dallas, I was ready to touch down on the sunny runways of Heathrow. Jet lag would start becoming a factor to deal with for the next six days. I promised that I would be buttoned-down and careful about my possessions. Even though the sun was bright as we taxied to the gate, part of me remained aware that for my body clock it was really 3:00 a.m.
Heathrow was okay. The British Airways club lounge in Terminal 3 was festooned with a variety of different tables and chairs. I could tell I was a little edgy by my response to a guy who sat right next to me (with so many empty chairs around), opened a bag of potato chips, and slowly and methodically chewed each one. After the seventh chip, I nearly lunged for my Bose noise cancellation headphones.
More agitating was that their Internet was not working and the publisher of Premier Traveler was expecting my dispatch. Four times I went to the front desk and each time the dazed-looking receptionist apologized. After two hours of this, the shift changed: I walked up to an alert Indian male desk person who said, “Sorry our Internet is not working, sir. Why don’t you just walk down a few hundred yards and use the Cathay Pacific Lounge?” My demeanor when traveling is to remain calm. However, I could have bopped the previous desk person for not making the same suggestion two hours earlier.
I now found myself in the luxury of the Cathay Pacific First Class lounge with all the expected amenities, and more importantly, Internet and helpful staff. Although they were U.K.-based staffers, I was already getting the kind of treatment that I associate with Asian hospitality. Because I had to run off to the Barcelona flight, the Cathay lounge attendant packaged up two bunches of red grapes for me to carry onboard.
My next three flights were on British Airways: back and forth to Barcelona and then on to Singapore. In a period of 32 hours, I would have landed in England, gone to Spain, returned to England, and then boarded my flatbed seat to Asia.
I love so many things about the British, but had been involved in the most incredulous exchange of messages with them over their decision to remove 300,000 frequent flier miles from my BA account. I know the editor of Premier Traveler will grapple with this entry, so I want to be fair to BA. I messed up by not reading the rules about account activity and I am sure that BA was legally entitled to take my miles away. They then graciously put them back into my account, and I took care to protect them by getting a British Airways credit card. Later on, they took all my miles away again. It was madness for me. It apparently came down to another rule that you must not only have a credit card with an airline affinity, but also use that card. So I respect that BA runs a “tight ship,” but in the U.S. we are used to airlines that show sensitivity toward their customers and sometimes go overboard to make customers feel wanted. BA won the five-year war; I just wish they had communicated to me more effectively the reasons my miles were confiscated. Having now written this, I pray I am not put on a BA “no fly” list.
Moving on. So yesterday, I get in the taxi at Barcelona airport and say “Mercer Hotel” to the driver. He replies, “Si señor,” pulls up 500 feet, and tells me he needs the address. I don’t have it in my hand and he, with his cell phone in the car, a GPS on the dashboard, and a taxi radio next to him, starts paging through a catalogue with 500 hotels, not listed alphabetically but by photo. I take out my iPad to get the confirmation but then realize it’s on my computer back at home. I give him five euros as an acceptance of blame for my own lack of preparation and get out of the taxi to get another one; hopefully with a driver who will confirm more specifically that “Si señor” means he actually knows the location of the hotel. By the time I realize my iPad is in the back seat of the first cab, it is already three miles out of the airport.
As soon as I get to the hotel, I call the guy who gets me out of jams around the world: John Powers. Within five minutes, after opening the Find My iPhone app, he tells me exactly where I am in Spain, and that my iPad is off the radar. He then launches the “Lost” feature on the iPad and deposits on it a message, en Español, that Bill Kizorek is at the Mercer Hotel and will give a reward for the iPad’s return. He then sets the alarm off on the iPad to make sure that wherever it is, it’s making plenty of noise. No dice. Either the taxi driver is now trying to figure out how to load his family photos on it, or whoever got in the taxi after me snatched it. Whatever.
My hotel’s desk attendant recommended local restaurant L’Academia. I took her advice and upon arriving, ordered the L’Academia salad, the “small sirloin,” and a glass of Tramp wine. The wine was so well-balanced that I examined the composition. Tuna was scattered across the top of the greens and the salad was so filling I almost skipped the steak. That steak was surreal in its texture and taste and will be my next meal when I return to Barcelona some day.
At a nearby table sat Judith and Pipo. I hadn’t met them before, but Pipo graciously stepped over and poured me wine from his bottle. As I had just ordered another red (in the course of my duties as a travel writer) but had not yet finished the Tramp wine, I ended up with three glasses of wine on my table. I shared my steak and ended up going out to a bar with Judith, fashion designer for the clothing line Mango, and Pipo, owner of the Metric Market, one of Barcelona’s trendiest new places to eat all sorts of fusion food. My new friends swept away my feelings of self-pity and stupidity over losing my iPad.
After arriving at the Hotel Mercer, I had a choice to make: sleep or see Barcelona. I slept. By morning, I had just enough time to have the taxi divert from the airport route to show me the magnificent Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. I gawked at it in awe, took the requisite tourist photo, and then made a beeline for the Barcelona airport. Aside from a bit of window-shopping, my official touring of significant places took about eight minutes.
Barcelona airport was again ghostly quiet. The BA flight back to Heathrow was flawless except for the moment when Tony the flight attendant thought I was videotaping people on the plane, when really I was just taking some “selfies” for this report. Tony was as good a flight attendant as exists. The seats in First Class had very little legroom, but as in U.S. First Class, I am getting accustomed to it.
So 24 hours later, I end up back at the First Class Cathay Pacific lounge in Terminal 3. A little slice of heaven: gourmet hot dishes, London Pride beer, and sliced beets. I am attended to by Charicel, of Philippine heritage, and Tina, from the Goa region of India. Both serve me at my table and Tina speaks proudly of Goa: “There are three seasons,” she tells me, “summer, winter, and monsoon. It rains from May to July. There are 50 small beaches and one major waterfall.” Thank you Tina.
One revelation: As I was checking into the lounge, I was ready, this time, to be sent to the Business Class section. When I asked why I was allowed to go into the First Class section again, I learned that my Executive Platinum level on AA allowed me to go to ALL First Class lounges on Oneworld, all over the world! So it is here that I end the first segment of my adventure. Soon I will board an all-night flight to Singapore on British Airways.