FLYING HIGH; THOMAS COOK ADDS BOSTON AND LOS ANGELES FLIGHTS FROM MANCHESTER

Having started flights from Manchester to both New York and Miami during 2015, Thomas Cook has now announced a brace of new American landfalls for 2016.

Starting in May 2016, the airline will fly recently refurbished A330s on twice weekly flights to both Boston and Los Angeles.

In addition to the normal economy seats, a special, supplemental ‘Premium Service’ offers a range of enhanced facilities and in flight goodies. Among these are:

* Advance seat registration

* Priority check in

* 32 kilogram luggage allowance

* Seats with a pitch of 35″

* James Martin created menus

* Free drinks

* Upgraded in flight entertainment, with touch screens on the back of seats

The new Los Angeles flights will be particularly welcome to northern based travellers. Hitherto, we have had to fly via Heathrow or one of the major continental hubs, or from Manchester with a change at US airports such as Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Exact dates and prices will be advised as and when they become available. As ever, stay tuned.

LA's beaches are on the inflight menu for Thomas Cook from May, 2016

LA’s beaches are on the inflight menu for Thomas Cook from May, 2016

FLYING MALAYSIAN AIRLINES; WOULD YOU?

Soaring above the Alps

Soaring above the Alps

Today’s Daily Mirror has pondered the question of whether readers would fly on Malaysian Airlines.

Quite obviously, it’s a question that the paper is posing in light of the two terrible tragedies that the legacy Asian carrier has suffered since January this year. Both were heart breaking events for everybody concerned; passengers, crew and relatives of the victims, plus prospective travellers who have, in consequence, seemingly abandoned the airline in droves.

Indeed, all reports are that the airline is in deep financial trouble, with its finances in free fall. Massive, radical surgery seems necessary simply to give Malaysian Airlines even a fighting chance of staying aloft. Time alone will tell how successful- or otherwise- those efforts ultimately are.

But, to get back to the question posed by the Mirror, my simple answer is ‘yes’.

I would have no problem in flying Malaysian Airlines any time, anywhere.

Because the simple truth is that no international travel is ever one hundred per cent guaranteed safe. The world that we live in since the catastrophic events of 9/11 has altered the way that we travel forever. It has become a far more anxiety laden, hassle intensive experience than in the illusory, carefree days before those fanatical lunatics slammed into the Word Trade Centre.

Yet, for all the horror of those events, and the terrible events of this year, the fact remains that air travel as a whole is still the safest means of mass transportation across the globe. Indeed, it is the only one. There is no other game in town.

There is far more real chance of me being knocked down by a car outside my own front door than there is of me being a casualty of any plane accident, anywhere, ever. Fact.

And, on another level- a different plane, as it were- if you give up on doing what you want to do, give up traveling to see the things and the people that you really need to see- well, then, you die inside, anyway. Do that, and the bad guys win without expending any further effort. No thanks; I don’t think so.

So yes, if Malaysian Airlines was the carrier that best suited my flight plans, then for sure I would go. The airline has a stellar reputation for in flight hospitality and service that few, if any, of its western counterparts can quite match.

Yes, the recent disasters are disturbing and scary. Just like modern life in general as a whole. But that to me is no excuse to turn off the lights and pull up the drawbridge.

In the immortal words of the song; ‘Trains and boats and planes are passing by..’.

Don’t let life pass you by, though. Get out there.

 

 

FLIGHT REVIEW; KLM FROM DURHAM TEES VALLEY TO COLOGNE

KLM Amsterdam

KLM Amsterdam

Though overall a relatively short journey, this one could so easily have gone wrong. Flying from Durham Tees Valley to Cologne via Amsterdam Schipol, allowed me only forty minutes’ transit between the two flights. And yes, I was a bit concerned about my luggage.

It’s incredibly sad to watch the continual downward spiral of Durham Tees Valley, a spiffy little airport that deserves so much better. It has sensational ease of access, and is truly human in scale. I arrived at four in the morning and, for a long time, my only company was the tumbleweed flitting through the lounge. And, while check in and processing was friendly and efficient, I was still charged the infamous, £6 fee to depart from the airport-something I’ve never encountered anywhere before. Really? I mean, I know Middlesbrough is no photogenic beauty, but charging people to leave it is not an ultimate winner, guys.

The flights; both of these were on the seventy seat, Fokker 70 planes that KLM use on their city hopper routes. At DTV,  we simply walked out onto the tarmac and up the short, retractable flight of steps. It really was as easy as that.

Inside, the Fokker 70 has two abreast seating on the left hand side, and three abreast on the right. Seating in trim KLM blue had plenty of room, was spotlessly clean, and featured tables in the armrest, with magazines and flight info in a pocket built into the back of the seat in front. We received a welcome greeting from our pilot, pushed back on time, and were airborne within minutes.

I had seat 5F on the way out, an aisle seat that gave me more than enough leg room (disclaimer- I am 5′ 6″ height) and, though I did not use the recline, the short flight out to Schipol was supremely comfortable. Smart and efficient cabin staff brought around cold drinks and a snack that consisted of a small oatmeal bar. But after all, this was a one hour, forty minute flight and, all things considered, it passed quickly and pleasantly.

We arrived on our stand at Schipol ten minutes early- a bit of a relief, if I’m honest- and debarked onto a bus for the short ride to the terminal. The transit for my onward flight to Cologne was painless- I was actually at the gate twenty minutes early.

Part of this is down to simple, intelligent design and execution. Though Schipol is a huge airport, it is far and away the most user friendly of any major airline hub on the continent. There were no problems whatsoever here; this airport is almost a joy to use.

KLM livery is distinctive, and immediately recognisable

KLM livery is distinctive, and immediately recognisable

The second flight- also on a similarly configured Fokker 70-also embarked via a short bus ride and a set of in built, exterior steps. Other than that, it was a repeat of the short flight that preceded it- even down to the cranberry oatmeal bar and water service.  Again- and as always with KLM- the staff were smart, crisp and efficient, and the plane was spotlessly clean.  For my money, the Fokker 70 is unbeatable as a short haul product.

Touchdown was smooth and on time, and our bus transfer to the terminal at Cologne was flawless. Customs and immigration was a breeze and- typical German efficiency- luggage was on the belt by the time I came through. Total time from landing to exit? A gratifying ten minutes. The baggage arrival was a huge plus, too.

Recommended? Absolutely. Well done, KLM. A pleasure, as per usual. Thank you for your service.

FLIGHT REVIEW- EGYPTAIR HEATHROW TO LUXOR 17/3/2014

Fly Egyptair to Luxor. They know the way

Fly Egyptair to Luxor. They know the way

I was not much looking forward to this journey to begin with, but bit the bullet as the means to an end for getting to and from a brilliant cruise on the Nile. Why so?

Well, it’s a six hour flight, and Egyptair is a ‘dry’ airline. A couple of drinks takes some of the edge off such a long flight under normal circumstances.

Secondly, the airline uses the Boeing 737-800 on what is a moderately long haul route. For reasons that I honestly cannot adequately validate, I have never been a fan of the 737.

Having made those disclaimers, here’s the skinny on how things actually panned out.

Check in was easy, friendly and competently handled at Heathrow Terminal Three. Embarkation was brisk and efficient,via an air bridge, and staggered via groups of rows.

Once on board, the 737-800 featured two sets of economy seating, three abreast, separated by a central aisle just aft of the attractive looking business class seats. Overhead storage was more than adequate, even on what looked like a very busy flight.

The plane was clean, quite smart, with seats upholstered in sky blue, picked out in white detailing. I had managed to score an exit seat at the window, 20A, which gave me more than ample legroom (Though I’m 5’6″ in height). Push back was some ten minutes late, and we got a much appreciated welcome aboard from the flight deck, first in Egyptian, then in English.

Soaring above the Alps

Soaring above the Alps

Once airborne, in flight service began, courtesy of a very attentive and genuinely warm flight crew. Water, soft drinks, tea and coffee all around. Though the cold drinks were served in white plastic cups, these are no more or less worse than the see through plastic equivalents of other airlines. And at least Egyptair provide their economy passengers with proper drinks napkins, which is more than BA has done for quite some time.

Tables were provided in the side of the armrest, rather than the plastic, fold down ones on the seat backs in front preferred by so many carriers these days. No problems here, either.

In flight entertainment came in the form of two films, played on drop down, overhead screens. Headphones were provided free of charge at the start of the service. The first film was some nonsense with Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Vinnie Jones. The second, a whimsical little affair called Escape From Planet Earth, was actually quite funny.

Meal service offered a pleasant surprise; a choice of two hot main courses, either chicken or beef. The beef, basted in paprika sauce, was surprisingly succulent and tender. I followed it with a zesty lemon and coconut tart, and a bread roll that was absolutely delicious. This service was delivered with another round of non alcoholic drinks.

Tables were cleared quickly and efficiently, just in time to settle down for the second feature. Toilets on this flight were spotlessly clean, fully stocked, and complete with two bottles of hand cleansing soap.

It was especially delightful looking out of the window, as we swept across the snow shrouded Alps at dusk. I was more than comfortable in my seat for the whole flight though, to be fair, I did not try the seat recline.

By the time we came in to land at Luxor, I was feeling far more relaxed and good humoured than I had expected. Landing cards had been distributed early in the flight, giving us ample time to fill them in; a pretty simple procedure.

Sky and snow....

Sky and snow….

Landing was smooth and painless, as was disembarkation. Strangely, there are no air bridges at Luxor for the national airline, which did surprise me.

Still, debarkation was a breeze, onto a pair of coaches awaiting us at the bottom of the steps. And the sensation of stepping out into the warm, welcoming night air of Luxor was such a tonic in itself. Despite our slight delay on take off, we arrived on the stand at Luxor a few minutes early.

That formerly ghastly airport has changed out of all recognition, and massively for the better. A visa (£12) was obtained, baggage collected and customs cleared, all within twenty minutes. With Discover Egypt reps awaiting us in the arrivals hall, transfers were seamless.

Conclusion? I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality, warmth and efficiency offered on this six hour, Egyptair flight. This was an impression reinforced one week later, when I flew back on the same route.

Recommended? Absolutely. Well done, Egyptair. It was a pleasure to fly with you.

MAKING A DRAMA OUT OF A CRISIS- MANAGING BAD NEWS

Royal Caribbean engineered a master class in damage limitation

Royal Caribbean engineered a master class in damage limitation

We’ve seen it time and time again in the travel trade; an incident regarding an airline or a cruise line begins to register on the public consciousness; the company concerned goes into damage limitation mode, trying to ride the coat tails of a story that is already spreading like an atomic mushroom cloud, thanks to the internet. That is the stage where it can either be brought back onto an even keel, or go spectacularly wrong. In the last year, we’ve seen classic examples of both.

The focus of most brands is damage limitation, and that’s fair enough as far as it goes. It’s how you go about it that can determine just how strongly- or otherwise- a company rebounds from something that, all too often, cannot be helped.

A case in point is the current, tragic Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 that came down last week, with over 220 people aboard. Here, the owners really are caught between a rock and a hard place; they have no concrete news to share (or at least none that has been declared fit for public consumption); the result is a nebulous void that has been filled to overflowing with every kind of poisonous quackery imaginable.

The sheer, ghastly impact of all of this on the relatives of those on board is unthinkable. And yet, time and time again, those same relatives are seen to reiterate the same, general theme; anger at Malaysian Airlines, and the constantly repeated mantra that they are not being told the truth.

And nothing is more damaging to any travel brand in a crisis; the perception- right or wrong- that they are not being up front. In the absence of news, perception assumes a life of its own. Rumours feed it. And so, too, does silence from the owners. To use an unfortunate pun, it’s a perfect storm.

Don't want this to be the perception of your brand? Get pro-active....

Don’t want this to be the perception of your brand? Get pro-active….

For example, look at the ongoing, shabby farce that continues to surround the stalled QE2 regeneration project at Dubai. When they have actually deigned to communicate with the wider travel community, the owners have told one half truth after another, as well as making a whole raft of vague, woolly promises that have never materialised. Departure dates have come and gone with the regularity of planes at Dubai International.

The result? A complete and utter disconnect from the mainstream, to such an extent that nobody now believes a word that comes out of the owners’ mouths. The Dubai ownership of QE2 has squandered a huge amount of goodwill- and potential support- in their alleged efforts to revitalise the ship, and invest in her future. And, while the ‘gentlemen’ concerned are certainly awash with money, losing that kind of goodwill is not something that any savvy operator can afford. Once gone, it cannot be bought back.

Does it have to be like that? Nope. Consider the recent incident at Azamara Club Cruises, where the line’s Azamara Journey had a propeller blade problem that resulted in the premature end of one cruise, and an unscheduled dry docking for repairs. It could have gone horribly pear shaped.

Instead, all passengers on board were immediately told what had happened, as well as those scheduled to embark for the follow on cruise. Azamara CEO, Larry Pimentel, flew to meet the ship on arrival, and personally spoke to all those affected guests. The company provided compensation that satisfied all injured parties and- much more to the point- Pimentel did one crucially important thing.

He communicated. 

Pimentel got pro-active, via social media such as Twitter, and sent frequent, on time updates across the internet. Not only that but, as repairs progressed, he sent out photographs of the work in progress.

Head in the clouds?

Head in the clouds?

In so doing, he took the sting out of the story, and turned it right around. While seemingly obvious- and absolutely the right thing to do- this was an absolute master class in how to get it right, and the company deserves huge kudos for it’s initiative. It bought Azamara a priceless return in credibility and trustworthiness; one which will certainly work to the line’s advantage in the long term.

In a similar vein, when Royal Caribbean had a fire last year on Grandeur Of The Seas, the line adopted exactly the same tactic; tweeting updates on social media and Facebook, and dispatching CEO Adam Goldstein to meet the ship and her passengers in Nassau. All passengers were well compensated and, where necessary, put up in hotels and flown home, all at company expense.

And, crucially, all of this information was out in the public domain in real time; as it happened. Royal Caribbean ran with the narrative, pre-empting a tidal wave of potential, adverse press headlines and on line speculation.

Again, this was an object lesson in how to get it right. If only they could bottle and sell some of that savvy to the status conscious paladins of Dubai.

When heading toward the edge of a cliff, best not to floor the speed pedal...

When heading toward the edge of a cliff, best not to floor the speed pedal…

The bottom line? Get pro-active. When potentially brand damaging stories begin to break, don’t just pull down the shutters, and hope that it will all just blow by. It won’t. You can’t grab the reins when you’re sitting in a bunker.

Because, when all is said and done, nothing amplifies the most scurrilous and unfounded rumour quite like official silence from the top. It creates a perception- right or wrong- that you are either aloof, disengaged, in denial or, worst of all, downright callous and/or incompetent.

That’s brand suicide.

FLYING THE ATLANTIC; A FEW THINGS WORTH KNOWING

Flying can't always be a joy ride.....

Flying can’t always be a joy ride…..

For those who need to fly across the Atlantic on either business, pleasure or, indeed, both, 2014 is not going to be a cheap date on the face of it. George Osborne’s blinkered refusal to reduce the stratospheric level of Air Passenger Duty (APD), edged gradually upwards by his predecessors in office, is hurting the transatlantic trade massively. Fares have simply never been higher.

However, to coin an unfortunate phrase, there are developments in the wind, both actual and potential, that could make life just a little easier for the transatlantic traveller. Here’s just a few of them.

Obviously inspired by the example of the late Baron Von Richtofen, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary is considering extending the reach of his own, personal flying circus all the way across the Atlantic by 2019. O’Leary is proposing flight tickets for around £10, sans taxes and baggage charges, natch.

There is no word yet on whether Ryanair proposes to charge for on board oxygen, or if the passengers will be required to have a whip round to pay for the privilege of a pilot. Renowned as the worst inflight experience since Toothless Matilda first mounted a broomstick, Ryanair is certainly an acquired taste. As, of course, is cannibalism.

More studied, and with genuinely good in flight hospitality, fellow Irish product,  Aer Lingus offers a much more convenient alternative to America. Flying from several UK regional airports to hubs in Dublin and Shannon allows passengers to complete customs and immigration in Ireland, before boarding their transatlantic flight.

Thus, you arrive in America as the equivalent of a domestic passenger, neatly sidestepping the lethargic, lumbering hell of those serpentine lines on arrival. And, even better, it allows passengers give the disjointed hell that is Heathrow a neat swerve.  Seems to me to be something of a win win situation, and one I will be checking out for myself later this year.

Combining budget flights with brisk, Scandinavian efficiency, Norwegian Air begins summer flights in July from London Gatwick to New York, Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles. With fares from just £150 one way- inclusive of taxes- the hugely successful, hitherto largely short haul airline is throwing down a real gauntlet to the established legacy carriers.

In fact, the airline has been offering transatlantic flights from Sweden for some time now. And, while the airline will be a predominantly budget operation, it is safe to say that it will be more inclusive than anything Baron O’Leary might be contemplating putting on offer.

As always, stay tuned.

FLIGHT REVIEW: AMERICAN AIRLINES AA38 MIAMI TO LONDON

Plane type: Boeing 777

Class: Economy

Date taken: 9th February 2014

Flying can't always be a joy ride.....

Flying can’t always be a joy ride…..

I was looking forward to this return flight on AA like a hole in the head. On two occasions in the past, the airline has managed to misplace my luggage in transit. It’s reputation as a long haul carrier is somewhat lower than an insect’s dangly bits. And, to cap it all, I was flying from Miami, an airport synonymous with all the warmth and efficiency of a Dalek convention.

All in all, the omens were not good. Which made what followed a very pleasant surprise.

I arrived hours early at MIA and, unlike at many European airports, I was able to check in my luggage way in advance, leaving me free to head off to South Beach for a Sunday brunch, blissfully unburdened of all my travelling tat. And the AA staff- both in the lines and at the check in desk- could not have been more courteous, pleasant or helpful.

Needless to say, the security line was a forty five minute nightmare, but this is nothing to do with any airline. And, in all fairness, this time I found the TSA people on duty to be pleasant, efficient, and determined to make the process as painless as possible. Credit where credit is due here.

Embarkation was on time, prompt, and once again enabled by a personable gate staff. The welcome on board was pleasant, and not at all like some of the more brusque previous encounters with AA personnel.

This 777 had seating in a 2/5/2 configuration in economy, and the plane seemed to be in pretty good shape. I had pre booked  seat 41B, an aisle seat on the left hand ‘2’ side.  While the seat was a little hard, it had more than enough legroom for someone of my frame (5′ 6″). The recline was also more generous than anything I’ve experienced for some while, and I soon settled into it.

This flight encountered the most severe and sustained turbulence that I can ever recall in its early stages, lasting a full two and a half hours. Throughout all this, the staff on board were the height of care, concern, and professionalism. I was truly impressed with them, and their bearing in what was a far from comfortable or easy environment.

Drink runs were somehow made during this maelstrom; American Airlines now offers free beer and wine in economy, as well as soft drinks, plus tea and coffee. The fact that my wine was almost jolted into the ceiling says a lot about just how rough this portion of the flight was.

Food of a sort followed, with the usual choice of either chicken or pasta as a main course. The chicken was partly concealed in some kind of simmering, bubbling gloop that looked more than a little sinister, but that chicken itself was actually quite tasty. The carrots that came with this were crunchy, in a teeth clenching sort of way.

The bread roll that accompanied this was hard enough to hole a pocket battleship at twenty miles. It must have been easier cutting through the Siegfried Line than it was to wrestle with this brute. But this, in all fairness, is typical of most international airlines across all classes. We should just remain forever grateful that the late Adolf Hitler never got his hands on a stash of the damned things.

Being tired beyond any reason, I did not avail myself of the seat back entertainment, but there was certainly no shortage of films, television channels or music entertainment on offer. as well as games that could be played. And, once the turbulence abated, the plane settled down with lights out for the night and, to my surprise, I grabbed a good four hours’ sleep.

This cost me a light continental breakfast, but it was a worthwhile trade off to arrive at an unfeasibly sunny Heathrow a few minutes early. Disembarkation was quick and easy and, once again, the crew carried through what needed to be done with quiet, pleasant efficiency. And, to make it even better, both my luggage and myself enjoyed a highly emotional reunion.

I cannot commend the crew of this flight highly enough. We were kept constantly updated from the cockpit about the flight situation at all times. That, combined with the pleasant, ‘can do’ attitude I encountered at all levels across the American Airlines ground staff at Miami, has gone a long, long way to restoring my faith in an airline that I was previously very reluctant to touch at all. And yes, I would consider using them in the future, at least as a long haul option. Pleasantly surprised and impressed all round.

TAKING FLIGHT; THE GREAT ESCAPE

Exchanging this....

Exchanging this….

As I write this, rain is thumping in vengeful torrents against my living room windows, just as it has done for around two hours. The wind is howling and shrieking like a Justin Bieber wannabe. Outside, the sky is grimmer than a gargoyle’s jockstrap. And yet here I sit, grinning like a proverbial village idiot. Oh, yes.

For the great escape is on. Ssshhhh…..

In a scant five days, I’ll be exchanging this grotfest for the warm, sunny skies of Miami and the Caribbean. Thanks to the lovely folk at Carnival Cruises, I’ll be pottering sedately around a quarter of sun splashed, Caribbean idylls. Hopefully, the only ice to be encountered will be in my lunch time margarita. Peachy, non?

This contrast between grim ‘now’ and glorious ‘next’ had the unexpected effect of making me ponder just how truly miraculous long distance air travel still is.  If all goes to plan, I’ll be touching down in balmy Miami just nine hours and forty minutes after departing from the unalloyed joy that is Heathrow. That thought alone warms me on some deep, inner level.

I’m on British Airways for my flight out; that airline usually does a fine job of getting me to where I need to be. In fact, I have used this same flight quite often. Coming back, I am at the tender mercies of American Airlines. And I don’t even want to think about that.

We all know the minuses of air travel, especially if you turn right at the cabin doorway. And the airport experience is never a joyride, no matter what class you fly. And yet, the sheer adrenaline surge of such an escape seems nothing short of miraculous right at this moment. The negatives can be dismissed with a casual shrug- for now at least.

They can be dismissed because the journey itself is a means to an end- a progression from dismal to delightful days. A bridge to the sun, if you will.

For this.....

For this…..

After all, if God had meant me to spend winter in such conditions as we’ve got right now, then he would hardly have put two airports within thirty miles of my front door now, would he?  That’s my rationale, and I’m clinging to it like a banker, hanging on to his last bonus cheque.

The idea of being able to get back to somewhere at once warm, welcoming and familiar, fills me with a kind of subtle, wonderful warmth. Oh, the joys of shedding four layers of clothing. To feel the warmth of the sun again.

In a sense, the journey has already begun. Anticipation is always the most sublime of appetizers out there. It won’t be long now.

And- my word- it just stopped raining. Quite literally.

UPGRADING YOUR FLIGHT- VALUE FOR MONEY?

Inflight BA lunch served in Club Europe, the business class for European flights

Inflight BA lunch served in Club Europe, the business class for European flights

It’s a fact of life that the great volume of air travellers turn right at the cabin door, turning their backs on the ordered luxe of First and Business Class for the enforced intimacy of the Economy Cabin. And oh, how many of us have looked in jealous admiration at those serene, spacious acres of perceived calm as we trudge towards the netherworld of chicken or pasta, twenty film channels, and lockers overflowing with a tsunami of strange shaped carry ons, all overlaid with a soundtrack of inflight safety videos and screaming kids. Little wonder then, that those who can afford it are tempted to consider paying for an upgrade.

Sure, Club/Business and even First Class will give you far more space to play and relax in, with vastly upgraded food and drink service. Fillet steaks and fine wines, served up on snowy white table cloths, Bose headphones and a seat that often converts to a fully flat bed are just some of the perks. There’s designer toiletries and, often as not, even an in-flight sleeper suit. But the real advantages are often in the pre and post flight experiences.

Those wanting to sleep on overnight flights can often dine quite well- and for free- in the exclusive departure lounges accessed with one of those magical, upper class tickets. There’s a dedicated Fast Track through security, as well as separate check in desks, and an enhanced luggage allowance. If time and privacy are of the essence, these can be real deal breakers in deciding whether to splash out on an upgrade.

The downside is that you are not going to get there any faster than the huddled masses in steerage, and there is no guarantee that you will escape from screaming kids, though a better class of headphone will certainly drown them out. And many will simply decide that the difference in price to upgrade from Economy to Business is simply not worth the while.

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

The most expensive upgrades are usually on the Transatlantic routes where the demand is greatest, typically to and from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Here, the premiums are relatively highest in direct proportion to the actual flight time. By contrast, flights out to the Far East tend to be better value in the upgrade stakes, with cheaper prices and longer flight times. This is an option that clearly gives you the most bang for the proverbial buck.

If you can only go to the expense of upgrading on one leg, I would personally make it the outward one. It’s an auspicious way to start that trip of a lifetime, and worth doing at least once for the sheer excellent exclusivity of the whole gig. If travelling to America, you’re pretty certain to be flying in daylight hours as well, whereas the flight home tends to be overnight, and so not as conducive to enjoying the whole range of extras on offer.

That is a statement that obviously applies to leisure travellers. Business travellers, sybarites and the simply filthy rich will fly Business and/or First Class routinely, no matter when or where.

The nice seats are up front

The nice seats are up front

There is also a kind of netherland offered by some airlines, known as Premium Economy. These seats usually have five or six inches more leg space than in Economy, and they are also wider, so offering more than a modicum of ease and space, if not excessive luxury. The throwback here is that the food and drink service is the same as offered in the (relatively) cheap seats at the back, but the premium is a lot less than that charged for Club, Business or First Class.

If you’re part of an airline loyalty programme, you can often use accumulated miles to upgrade your ticket; a sweet little treat that is really the cream on the cake. And, after all, what else are you hanging on to all those miles for, if not to treat yourself?

Upgrading is ultimately a value call. If you think the price point offers good value in terms of convenience, comfort and exclusivity, then it’s a no brainer. It can make the difference between a good trip and a truly great one.

And, while spatial largesse and upgraded service are a common factor of all left hand turns at the plane doorway, it is also true to say that not all Business Classes are created equal. Mind you, prices for upgrades can vary widely as well. The best thing to do is check the individual airline websites in advance, to get an overall idea of the product. You could also check some inflight passenger reviews online to gain a picture of sorts of what’s on offer.

There’s no question that upgrading puts the fun back into flying. The real question is, whether you think the expense of moving up a level, or even two, can be justified. And, at the end of the day, that’s a value call that only you can truly make. Enjoy.

TWO BECOME ONE; AMERICAN AIRLINES AND US AIRWAYS TIE THE KNOT

Up in the clouds? Is the AA/USAir merger pie in the sky?

Up in the clouds? Is the AA/USAir merger pie in the sky?

So, after long months of ‘will they. won’t they’ musings and no shortage of subtle, subversive wooing, the merger of American Airlines and US Airways is finally a done deal. Some think it not so much a marriage as a shotgun wedding; both of these gargantuan airlines have filed for bankruptcy in the past. But what does it mean for commercial air travel and, principally, for the average passenger? Here’s my take on what I think will transpire.

I’m talking mainly in a transatlantic sense here, rather than a domestic one. Other, more knowledgeable experts on the airline industry have a far shrewder grasp of that scenario that I do. And my comments are, invariably, flavoured by my previous experiences of both these carriers as independent entities.

There’s bound to be consolidation on the transatlantic routes. At present, US Airways operates direct services from Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow to American hubs in Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina, with connections across the US and the rest of the world from there. It has traditionally flown A330’s on this route, operating in a two class- business and economy- configuration.

American Airlines, by contrast, has always majored out of Heathrow, with some subsidiary services from Gatwick and Manchester, It uses hubs in Raleigh, Dallas Fort Worth and New York’s JFK. In the main, it flies the Boeing 777 in three classes- first, business and economy- and sometimes older 767’s on the Manchester-New York route.

There is bound to be some culling of services here, and I’m guessing the casualties will be the AA services out of Manchester and Gatwick. That said, the airline will want to remain fully competitive with the new Delta/Virgin tie in that gives them access to the affiliated KLM/Air France network.

Of course, American Airlines is part of the Oneworld Alliance, a strategic tie in that sees the American giant locked into codeshare agreements with both British Airways and Iberia.  Word is that all US Airways passenger benefits, such as elite status and air miles, will be transferable to the new conglomerate. Let’s hope so.

What’s interesting here is the fact that BA in particular operates as a four class airline. Will the former US Airways fleet be upgraded with premium economy products, or even a first class? Not necessarily, because direct rival Virgin offers no dedicated first class, something that has always marked it apart from British Airways in particular.

In terms of style and service, I think there will be very little change in terms of what is on offer, with a uniform standard of product offer rolled out across both airlines. Pricewise, anyone expecting to see any benefits is probably deluding themselves. Consolidation will bring more advantages to shareholders than to potential travellers.

This in large part in the UK is down to the catastrophic level of APD (Air Passenger Duty), a series of prohibitive, government prescribed taxes that have rocketed skywards since around 2007. Transatlantic airline ticket prices are anything between forty and sixty per cent higher now than they were then. The shotgun marriage of the two airlines is intended to try and negate the worst effects of this, together with the rising cost- and potentially uncertain availability- of aviation fuel in the future.

This set of circumstances is not unique to the AA/USAir marriage of convenience, of course. All of the airlines are up against it, and consolidation is seemingly the only way forward. With the market volatile and uncertain, there seems little material prospect of an improving level of service- especially across the grey ranks of economy style cabin seating- any time soon.

No matter what shape and direction this lumbering new bird takes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that both airline and passengers alike are stuck between a rock and a hard place, at least for the foreseeable future.