Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Royal Brunei Airlines withdraws from New Zealand - expect fares to rise

Royal Brunei Airlines has for some years now offered a perfectly acceptable two class service between Auckland and the Brunei capital Bandar Seri Begawan.  From there, connections were possible to and from London Heathrow via Dubai.

Royal Brunei upgraded it service in recent years, dropping the stop in Brisbane and replacing its rather dated Boeing 767s with secondhand Boeing 777-200ERs obtained from Singapore Airlines.  That has meant up to 34" seat pitch in economy class with on demand in flight entertainment, and for business class the angled lie flat "Spacebed" that Singapore Airlines is phasing out.

Still, Royal Brunei was often the cheapest, particularly in business class, with fares regularly below £3000 (NZ$6100).  In other words, you could often get a fare in Royal Brunei in business class between Auckland and London that was similar to premium economy on Air NZ, and so could enjoy an angled lie flat seat and lounge access on Royal Brunei, when Air NZ was merely offering a slightly bigger recline and more legroom.

So with Royal Brunei pulling out after October (this also affects flights to Brisbane and Perth), it will be a loss for value seeking premium travellers between New Zealand and Europe.  

The main disadvantages Royal Brunei faced were:
- Timetables meant that the transit time at Bandar sometimes extended to over 13 hours between connecting flights.  Even with a tour of Bandar, no traveller will want to do this more than once.
- Departure times from Auckland were sometimes 0205 (yes AM), again hardly conducive to travellers.
- Royal Brunei is a "dry" airline.  For premium leisure travellers perhaps a 28-40 hour trip across the world without a glass of wine isn't that appealing;
- Royal Brunei is not part of any of the big three alliances, so did not get feeder traffic readily, neither did most of those with frequent flyer accounts in New Zealand (or heading to New Zealand) gain anything by flying Royal Brunei.

No doubt the dropping of these routes makes economic sense.  Quite how long Royal Brunei could maintain having such a heavily discounted route (especially when point to point traffic to Bandar is not high) has long been an issue.

Meanwhile, remaining airlines carrying passengers to and from New Zealand will breathe a small sigh of relief, as the airline that kept pressure on fares, especially premium fares between London and Auckland, exits the market.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Heathrow terminal changes afoot

With Terminal 1 now the home of half of the Star Alliance airlines (and a handful of others such as El Al), Terminal 2 is now being cleared out of the last remaining airlines before it gets demolished.

The OneWorld airlines that were there left for Terminal 3 some months ago, and the Star Alliance airlines did the same to Terminal 1. What is left are the bigger Skyteam airlines (Air France, Aeroflot and Alitalia, along with others), and a significant number of small independent European and Middle East/Central Asia and North African airlines.

They are all to go to Terminal 4 which had been undergoing significant refurbishment since BA all but moved out after the solving of the debacle at Terminal 5. BA and Qantas have just shifted their Australia, Bangkok, Singapore operations to Terminal 3 (now the home for One World airlines), so there is significant spare capacity at Terminal 4 to absorb all of the remaining Terminal 2 flights, plus Korean Air (which being Skyteam is joining its fellow airlines).

Terminal 4 will then be the first terminal where all airlines for one alliance are under one roof. All Skyteam airlines will operate from Terminal 4, plus all of the independent airlines currently in Terminal 2, and a handful of others that were already there (Continental recently shifted from Skyteam to Star Alliance but shows no sign of moving).

However, the moves have not stopped. Simultaneously, independent airlines at Terminal 3 are moving to Terminal 4 as well. Etihad, Jet, Malaysian and Gulf are the latest, with more to come. This will greatly relieve Terminal 3 which has had many airlines move to it in recent months, with only some Star Alliance carriers having moved out over a year ago to Terminal 1.

At the conclusion of all this shifting the general rule of thumb will be this.

Most BA flights will be in Terminal 5, but most operated as codeshares will be in Terminal 3.
All other OneWorld airlines will be in Terminal 3
All Skyteam airlines will be in Terminal 4
Star Alliance airlines are evenly split between Terminal 1 and Terminal 3.
Virgin Atlantic remains in Terminal 3
Other non-aligned airlines will primarily be in Terminal 4, with a handful in Terminals 1 and 3.

Terminal 2 is to be demolished to make way for a new Terminal 2, which will accommodate the remaining Star Alliance airlines from Terminal 3, and eventually all Star Alliance airlines.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Worst hotel in London? The Cromwell Crown

So says the Sunday Times. Avoid like the plague, as it looks like a filth encrusted dump.

Comments on Trip Advisor include:

Don't stay here even if you get paid for it!!
Awful that's it
Hell on earth is a compliment

The hotel website is here.

If ever a business could do with going under in a recession, it is this.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

BA First


Now, I have flown first class before, but to be fair most often it was with Air New Zealand, before it phased out First Class in favour of upgraded Business Class to Business Premier, with seats (if not catering) superior to the old First Class. I've also flown on United Airlines, but really US carriers don't count. BA's First Class, known just as First, is head and shoulders above all of them (although I haven't yet experienced Singapore Airlines Suites).
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Now the seat isn't new, but it is comfortable and easily adjustable. The pods are arranged facing away from each other offering privacy, and every seat has aisle access. However, when fully reclined these seats are seriously comfortable. Supportive and soft, with blanket, duvet and pillow, but then you don't need to do it, for that is what First is about - staff that look after you.
The personal service is excellent, not in your face, but civilised, helpful, friendly and professional. Besides the introduction, and being demonstrated the seat, the rather dated entertainment system (think the small screens on old Air NZ business class, 16 simultaneous video channels, plus films on tape) and the rather ample menu offerings, the impression was given that nothing was a problem, and it really wasn't. My flight was 7.5 hours long leaving the Middle East at a very late hour, and I was offered a dinner menu and told "have any combination", so I selected the soup, salad and lobster shepherds' pie. The service was presented as in a 5 star restaurant, with cutlery and crockery impeccably presented. I chose one wine, rejected it and selected another. The lobster shepherds' pie was delicious, and for some reason all the food seemed fresh, from the warm bread rolls to the salad. In the morning, breakfast was served as fruit and cereal, I was advised against the sausages, but the scrambled eggs were perfectly cooked. In short, the food was prepared for me, not part of a bulk run of a course for multiple passengers. On top of that I received a pair of BA First pjs, basically a cotton tshirt and track pants to sleep in, and an Anya Hindmarsh amenity kit. Certainly classy. Certainly better than Club World (which itself is one of the better business classes).
However, it was the transfer at Heathrow that added an extra point to it all. I went from Terminal 4 to Terminal 5 in half an hour, including the bus transfer and security. Terminal 5 itself is impressive compared to other Heathrow terminals. Easy to navigate, spacious and far more open than the others. However, for the passenger arriving off First and transferring to a single class domestic flight, the delight is in the lounges. I went to the First lounge and was advised I could use the Concorde Room as it is quieter (ONLY First passengers can use the Concorde Room, as top tier BA frequent flyers could also use the First lounge). So I was shown into a place of tranquility.
What a delight, a large lounge with a terrace outside the lounge area in the main terminal to look out through the glass to the airport, staff to serve you at your sofa, lounge chair or the like offering you any drink you wish, and a full menu - with a sit down restaurant also available. Elegantly luxuriously, not a lounge you need to hunt around for a private place, more one where you decide where you wish to sit - a vast change from any business class lounge. See images here and here for a taste of it.
Toilets were separate bathrooms, not a shared facility, and of course one could use the Elemis Spa for a massage, and the less than wonderful shower rooms.
The question for me is whether First is worth it, compared to Club World. It certainly is a cut above, the lounges, the service and the seats are noticeably better, despite seeming dated at first impression. BA First Class is unquestionably better, than any business class I have ever flown. It perhaps is only behind in terms of its entertainment system, but that I understand is to be addressed. With the Concorde Room at Terminal 5, the right to Arrivals lounges at some airports, excellent service, very comfortable seating and some of the best airline food I have ever had, BA First lives up to what it is - the question I have is whether Singapore Airlines likely better on board product can make up for the first class facilities at Terminal 5.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Virgin trains 1st class - don't believe the hype

I have many times caught the train between London and Manchester in First Class. Virgin Trains touts it as the fast, comfortable and environmentally friendly alternative to driving and flying. It is all of those, but just.

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Virgin's great achievement was to introduce new trains on the route a few years ago, the swish looking Pendolino tilt trains manage 125mph (200km/h) operating speed, although they could go faster if the tracks permitted it. The fare in first class varies a lot, from £40 to £180 one way. At peak times you'll pay no less than £135 each way, so it's quite something - and remember the taxpayer is subsidising the Virgin Trains franchise to the tune of around £80 million this year, so beardie does well from passengers and the taxpayer. So what do you get for your money?

Clearly the benefit of going by rail is twofold. First, without security checks, you can board the train up to 2 minutes before it departs assuming you already have your tickets (which depending on how soon you booked may have to be printed out at the station). The convenience and ease of switching trains (which run half hourly) beats flying anytime, although you have to pay at least £110 one way for an open ticket, £180 in first class. The second benefit is that it is a relaxing way to travel, once you are on board you can enjoy a good two and a bit hours of working, reading or relaxing, with every table having 2 power points (no good if four are at a table though), and the train swift and quiet enough to enable concentration. However, the quiet coach isn't free from insipid announcements (3 in a row as you leave, and typically loud if you are close to a speaker), and none of the seats recline.

London's Euston station is the newest and the most functionally plain of the London rail terminals. Virgin trains offers a First Class lounge, but don't get too excited. It is not far different than a US airline domestic lounge. There is a big TV, a bar (with an adequate selection of alcohol but at 7.30am it's juice, water, tea and coffee for most) and some seating, although not very much. There only snacks are potato crisps and nuts, hardly first class.

However, when you finally board your train it doesn't look too bad. Three abreast seating, almost all at tables. You're offered a free copy of the Times and a menu for breakfast. The seats are wide enough and adequately comfortable for the 2 hr 10-25min trip (depending on stops). However as most seats are at tables you do face worrying about whether you'll be joined by a stranger or two or three (as in one instance). The inspired decision by Virgin Trains to make 3.5 carriages first class (compared to 4 second class) usually means there is space to spread out, and the quiet coach is helpful (although there is often someone who forgets and uses a mobile phone).

Then the breakfast service starts. Breakfast is very welcome catching a train at 0735, and starts with coffee and tea being brought to every seat. Hot chocolate is available but has to be asked for. This is followed by orders taken for breakfast. The selection includes a full hot breakfast (sausages, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, tomato, hash brown), bacon toasted sandwich, scrambled eggs and salmon, or a fruit plate. Now the full breakfast drips with fat, the sausages are mediocre and sometimes burnt, and the bacon also mediocre. The bacon toasted sandwich is literally bacon between slices of toast - a child could get it right, but not Virgin Trains. The scrambled eggs and salmon is usually ok. Ask for hot breakfast with scrambled eggs and you may get a yes, or a "we don't do that" (when you wonder if scrambled eggs are done with salmon...). However, wait there is more. Out comes the juice, not freshly squeezed or even pressed juice, but from concentrate and only orange and grapefruit. Tomato juice was dropped a month ago. You can get cereals too, but these aren't made obvious - just cornflakes, weetabix and crunchy nut, muesli and fruit n fibre were dropped a month ago as well.

Oh and there is toast and croissants, but the toast might be cold, of course. You'll only have marmalade as well.

Coffee and tea are brought around again, but you wont get juice again. That's it, the service is over for around 2 hours. However, it gets even better on the return train.

You see after breakfast time, it is the "all day snack" menu. You get a choice of a sandwich, a wrap type option and a hot option - but you're only allowed one, and it's a small plate. Yes you'll get to have some wine, beer or spirits, but it is a snack. On a similar length flight in business class around Europe you'd get a full meal, but not on Virgin Trains no (not unless you travel London to Manchester direction ONLY in the evenings and only for about three trains). Hmmm, so first class is a bit hit and miss.
The staff are the hit and miss though. Sometimes there is decent service, other times grumpy and don't seem the slightest bit happy to serve, or wont even try. I once was on a train that broke down, and we were all ordered to get off at the next station where the following train would pick us up. In first class every seat was taken, but the entire service ended - this is despite having twice the crew. The reason given by the nearly useless guard was "we don't have enough for everyone", even though the food and drink from the other train could have been loaded, even though the train could have been full anyway had there been high demand from full open ticket passengers. None of the crew felt they should've shifted the supplies, and so paying a full first class fare meant quite simply you got a crowded seat.
Of course had Beardie been on board I am sure they would have done differently, offering to lick his boots at the same time. In conclusion, Virgin Trains has got it good - it charges near the fully flexible airfare for first class at up to £180 a trip, it gets equal to another 10% on top of that in subsidy from the British taxpayer, the security nightmare at airports (and Terminal 5's recent rocky start) have all made flying less competitive and by and large it is a relaxing way to travel. However, the effort to make it special is rather lame - the breakfast is best described as adequate, ranging from reasonable salmon and scrambled eggs, to burnt fatty second class full breakfast, a joke of a toasted sandwich and poor quality juice and cereal selections, with cold to luke warm toast. The staff can be excellent through to the abysmal.
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London to Manchester should be one of the premier rail services in the UK, it competes with National Express at the cheap end, and flying BA and BMI at the expensive end. Without check in luggage, flying may be marginally faster, but the train is definitely the option of least stress and most convenience. So why is it really just quite mediocre? I'm going to try flying - on both of the airlines next time, and let you know what BA and BMI offer.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

TAP Air Portugal - mediocrity in flying


Flying airlines in Europe is rarely a great experience. You can be grateful if you get there, your luggage turns up and it is within 20 minutes of the scheduled arrival time. So I don’t expect much. I’ve flown on quite a few airlines in Europe, some in business, some in economy, but my latest venture has been on TAP Air Portugal. It is an experience that is a good reminder of how much mediocrity can be built in air travel, and it isn’t one of the dreaded Low Cost Carriers.

The flight from Heathrow to Lisbon is meant to be about 2.5 hours. I’ll leave aside the horrors of Heathrow Terminal 2 which are BAA’s responsibility. The claustrophobic checkin, dire arrivals area, dated décor, security without “fast track” and overcrowded two tier departures lounge will all not be missed when Terminal 2 is closed and razed by the end of the year. At least travellers to Europe on non British airlines can be glad of that. For now the only thing of interest at Terminal 2 is to briefly note the 1960s era architecture as you look upwards, and contemplate the bizarre corridors and layout of it all. If BA can recover from the incompetence of Terminal 5 it would truly give the airlines flying from Terminal 2 a run for their money, for now though at least you know flying to and from Terminal 2 should mean your luggage arrives.

TAP’s handling at Heathrow is undertaken by a living (barely) lesson on how not to run an airline - Alitalia. Alitalia is a shadow of the self seen in 1960s films, it is a union crippled national joke. It is a lazy, inefficient, uninterested airline, and its staff at Heathrow largely live up to that reputation.

Having arrived just over two hours in advance of the flight, the resentful check-in attendant said “well the flight will be checked in when it appears on the display ok?”. How dare I ask. Should’ve gone BA I wondered. 3 minutes later Princess Alitalia decided to open check-in. Fortunately, as the queue had suddenly appeared with a hoard of teenagers, I found the Star Alliance Gold checkin, hidden away past a row of pillars – so instead of tolerating 20 in front, there was 1, and Mr Alitalia was actually polite, so off goes my luggage.

Well that’s Alitalia. Following the hell of Terminal 2 security and some meandering through the terminal itself, I lead myself to TAP’s next proxy at Heathrow – Lufthansa. Alitalia actually has not a bad lounge at Terminal 2, but Lufthansa operates the lounge for Star Alliance carriers there. I’m no stranger to the Lufthansa lounge, so I expected little. OK, it’s a place to sit, but the staff at the front desk clearly are in the “you’re not flying Lufthansa you schwein” school. When asked about the (late) TAP flight she simply parroted what was on the board – unwilling to find out more, but willing to make you feel small for asking a stupid question. Those who claim continental Europe achieves wondrous standards for transport service have clearly flown little with European airlines.

The Lufthansa lounge at Heathrow is only worth visiting because Terminal 2 itself is so dire. I don’t know what is most notable, whether it is the claustrophobia from cramming too much ugly furniture into a small space, the vile Lufthansa green and gold décor on the furnishings (including the arrangement whereby the chairs beside the window face inwards, so we are all happily facing each other in lines – so efficient ja!) or the paucity of anything edible that isn’t about saturated fat and sugar in vast quantities. We don’t all want to become Sergeant Schultz do we now?

It is small, so when a couple of Lufthansa flights are delayed, finding a seat that isn’t beside Frau Drowninparfum or Herr Ciggystinken becomes tricky. When you have sat down and have a few hours to spare, what do you get offered? Bearing in mind this lounge is entirely for international flights, you get biscuits, nuts, chips, mini croissants stuffed with bland cheese and ham, but at least there were crème eggs – handily located high enough so that brats can’t steal them. Lufthansa and its partners advertise flying long haul from Heathrow, via European airports – nothing about this lounge should inspire any premium travellers, it is almost as if the lounge is grudgingly provided.

So the boarding time is reached, except the departure board says nothing. Then it says “will board 3”. Now given all the other flights on the departure board say either “delayed until xxxx” or “boarding gate xxx” or “go to gate xxx”, this cryptic comment means nothing. One of the lessons you learn at Heathrow is that “go to gate x” is essentially for the lumpen proletariat who rarely fly, because they need ages to navigate through the airport, find the gate and be organised. It reduces the risk that the late, stupid or naïve will hold things up.

Of course, if you follow that instruction, you’ll easily spend over half an hour sitting in a holding pen with backpackers, elderly people and families with children doing nothing useful. That’s why the right time to go to the gate is when it says “boarding” and given the lounge was 2 minutes from the gate ut made sense. However, Alitalia (doing the ground handling) couldn’t provide decent information at all.

The plane was late, it parked outside the lounge in fact, so I waited until I could see luggage being loaded to meander down to the gate where the Alitalia staff couldn’t answer when boarding would commence. No information. However we could all sit in the holding pen like good little inconveniences. Then the TAP man came from the plane and made some incomprehensible announcement. When asked again when boarding would commence, Alitalia staff (who got roasted by a couple of frustrated passengers) said they didn’t know and clearly didn’t care. They were very Berlusconi. When asked why information wasn’t provided, they apologised for the lateness – Alitalia = ears closed, not listening, not caring. It’s more important to look frustrated, pretty and be inert.

So then families with children board. This is supposed to make life easier, except that children in their early teens turn up and get let on board- premium passengers don’t. Hey, who cares about those who keep the airline afloat – but finally I get allowed to board.

Although being an Airbus A320, TAP has different seats depending on your luck. The outbound flight had cheap dire seating with what felt like an iron rod where lumbar support should be, and cushions of about two-three inches thickness with very little padding. This is in economy class mind you, although business class outbound also had 6 abreast seating – but with the middle seat blocked out. That’s what you get for double the price, a bit of width and presumably better food, or presumably edible food rather than the creation of a retarded village idiot.

The flight itself is reasonable without event. A half interesting inflight magazine and the inflight video (the ubiquitous European gag show which needs no audio) were mild distractions from the ergonomic hell of the seats. However the food was undoubtedly the worst I’ve had on a flight for many years.

We were all thrown ham and pineapple rolls – inexplicably heated in infrared ovens. Now the idea of a roll filled with something tasty is acceptable for economy class flying in Europe. BA dishes out prepackaged sandwiches that are tolerable, and plenty of airlines dish out nothing in economy class for free (KLM, BMI, SAS, Aer Lingus) which frankly I’d prefer instead of getting it so so wrong.

The result was a startling contrast between hard crust and soggy chyme, with hot drying pineapple and stringy fatty ham. A starving dog would have sniffed and given up. The saving grace is the small fruit salad which was edible, but that’s it. Yes some juice, wine and coffee are all available, give credit for the drinks trolley, but TAP food is scum class extraordinaire.

Arrival at Lisbon is another experience, and naturally the airline that has Lisbon as its hub doesn’t park at the terminal, it parks a good half mile away and buses everyone to the terminal. Even after that it takes 15 minutes of waiting for the luggage (although priority luggage works) and that’s it. Lisbon airport is quite pleasant, so the departure was rather stress free.

TAP check in was a breeze at Lisbon with no queue at all, and security itself had a short queue. However I was rather perplexed as to why nobody bothered when I walked through the scanner and it went off. The terminal airside is relatively spacious and pleasant, but TAP’s lounge is itself a pleasant haven. With free internet terminals, a range of cold snacks (including delicious warm custard tarts), and large selection of drinks, there is adequate comfortable seating and a couple of large screen TVs to allow for time to chill before the flight. The main let down is no bathroom, but at least TAP has done something good – even the front desk staff were helpful (as most Portuguese are).

Then it all gets let down. Boarding is a nightmare, with another bussing experience but not enough buses available at once. So for 10 minutes we spend queuing back along a stairwell waiting for a bus. Finally on board everything was much the same as before, except the seats were soft leather and tolerable this time. At the Heathrow the luggage came relatively quickly (for Heathrow).

Overall TAP is a mediocre European airline. I’d avoid it long haul economy class like the plague, and really it was tolerable partly due to having Star Alliance Gold lounge access. The main lesson though is to eat before the flight, pay to do so, you’ll regret it otherwise.
(Photo courtesy: Airlinemeals.net)

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