Saturday, August 31, 2013

Beef or chicken?

Since the end of July I have flown across the Atlantic six times in as many weeks, a frequency the particularly cheerless border officer vetting me at Newark Airport on Monday considered "unusual". Indeed so unusual that his frantic clacking away at a computer keyboard induced a lone bead of guilt sweat to run down my spine.

There are, I'm sure, plenty of business people who fly between Europe and North America on an even more regular basis than my six-week burst of suspended animation seven miles high. Like the late Sir David Frost, who used to commute between London and New York by Concorde every week. He was even once listed in the Guinness Book of Records for having logged more miles between London and New York than planes actually flying the route, all in the duty of interviewing presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, princes and princesses.

The purpose of my frequent flying hasn't been anywhere near as grand, though just as noble (friend's wedding), necessary (holiday) and required (business trip). And each flight has provided plenty of time to reflect on the commercial aviation experience.

It is, if you think about it, a bizarre affair. Strapped into a flying toothpaste tube for several hours, force-fed sub-average food and made to watch television while squeezed into a seat next to a complete stranger. "Feel free to move about the cabin" is a complete misnomer, because you never do, bringing the flying experience closer to be locked in a prison cell for 23 hours a day, your meals pushed through a slit on a tray, and only an hour to walk around the yard for exercise.

That is, of course, if you're not one of those lucky bastards who can just strap in, fall asleep and not stir until touchdown at the other end. Flying proves the point that it is better to arrive than to travel. It's a means to an end, and enduring it depends largely on factors completely out of your control.

The routes between Europe and the US are amongst the most competitive in the world, but with airlines locked in a constant struggle to deliver profitability amid rising fuel prices, while having to deal with the passenger expectation that air travel is an affordable luxury for all, it's inevitable that conflicts arise somewhere in the midst of this equation.

Thus, on realising that I'd be making three trans-Atlantic journeys over the course of July and August, I thought it would be interesting to compare services, especially as I was flying with three of the world's largest carriers, Air France, British Airways and United. The outcome was, perhaps, surprising.

By no other virtue other than it actually offered the best value for money, I managed to fly with all three airlines in their so-called "premium economy" cabins, but this is where you notice the most obvious differences: for an extra $100 or so, United give you a seat with a bit more legroom, but that's about it. Air France and BA, however, give you a bigger seat altogether, more legroom and a more capacious cabin area, along with business class-style amenities like priority boarding and 'convenience' kits (those little zipped bags containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, eyeshade and a pen).

While it is tempting to say that based on these material perks, one airline might rate better than another, the consideration of one airline over another is complicated by the twin variables of cabin staff and the plane you've been lumbered with. And here I encountered the unexpected.

Because, let's face it, France isn't known for its customer service. And I mean that, as a current resident, with all due respect. A Parisian café isn't so much a place to relax and have a cup of coffee, as a duelling contest between you and the waiter to see who cracks first - he to serve you, or you to get up and walk out due to his indifference.

My Air France experience over the last two years of using the airline more couldn't be any more different: keen prices, a modern fleet and attentive, friendly, even conversational flight attendants. On my flights to and from Atlanta, their new Premium Economy seats were of the equivalent standard of business class seats a few years ago (i.e. before they started becoming Transformers) and, for an airborne insomniac like me, perfectly suited to several hours' non-stop flying in each direction.

British Airways, however, was a game of two halves, and here comes one of the issues of choosing airline tickets based on service expectation: from London to Chicago, for example, I flew on one of BA's Boeing 777s, but coming back from Los Angeles I was on one of their ageing Boeing 747s.

The contrast was noticeable - different seating (even though both were in their 'World Traveller Plus' premium economy cabins), with less comfort on the return journey and older in-flight entertainment systems. With every airline now recognising that in-seat power for laptops or tablets is a must-have, older fleets like BA's are struggling to keep up.

Their cabin crews are also a breed apart. Although as attentive as their French cousins, they have an annoying tendency to apply the patronising English school marm approach to getting things done.

Laptops and headphones aren't just asked to be switched off for take off and landing, they are asked, in that only-the-English manner to be "popped" away: "could you pop that bag under the seat for me", "could you pop your seat back to the upright position for me", "could you pop your tray table away for me"...

When you've heard more or less the same instruction working its way down the aisle three or four times per row, it starts to popping grate.

I have little against BA, though, and fly with them quite frequently. But I have noticed their standards of customer service become progressively worse over the last few years. This week, I discovered that a flight from London to Paris had been cancelled, but I couldn't rebook via the website, I had to call a service line. When I did I was told that they were experiencing a high volume of calls, and that I should use their website to make any changes to my booking. As I couldn't do this via their website, I stayed on the line to speak to someone...until I was disconnected, which happened repeatedly before I found a way round the problem and got to speak to someone.

This didn't improve an opinion of BA that was already dismal after my arrival in Chicago, where I was informed that my main piece of luggage had failed to turn up. OK, so it happens, and this time it was my turn. More than 20 years of mostly lost bag-free happiness more than outweighs one incident. But it was, though, the way it was handled that did the damage.

At Chicago, on arrival, there was just a single excruciatingly condescending baggage agent to deal with a line of tired and stressed travellers (who had also just endured an endless queue to clear customs and immigration). For our trouble, we were 'compensated' with an 'Emergency Kit', comprising a toothbrush, toothpaste and a one-size fits-all (i.e. won't) British Airways T-shirt. None of which really compensated for the loss of three weeks' worth of underwear and a much needed change of outerwear.

Sent on my way with a badly photocopied standard letter of instruction on how to 'track' my bag, I was told that it would be on the next flight out the next day, and I should check online to see whether it had landed or not. So, the next day was a write off: luckily I was in Chicago, which meant that I could at least easily buy replacement clothes to tide me over. However, I had no idea when I would be repatriated with my luggage, and how much new clothing would be enough.

As instructed, I looked online to see whether the 2pm flight from London had landed, but there was no record of my bag being on it. So I called the local helpline - as instructed - only to be put through to a call centre in the UK who had no idea where my bag was and couldn't help beyond advising me that when the bag did arrive, it would be "up to 24 hours" before it was delivered to me. Which meant I could go at least 48 hours without it, ruining a second day's holiday.

Eventually my bag was delivered to my hotel (several hours after the plane it was on landed at O'Hare, which was only a 35-minute drive from my hotel). I know these things happen from time-to-time, and many other people have similar experiences, so I shouldn't be stamping my feet like a prima donna with a First World problem. But if this is what it's like for a one-off aberration, I shudder to think what some of British Airways' more tsunami-like baggage and snow disasters must have been for their passengers.

BA and Air France are, to be fair, regarded by regular flyers as amongst the world's better airlines, although the Asian and emerging Middle Eastern services have long since taken over the older flag carriers for opulence and luxury but also good quality in their overall offerings. And at least they are all still hands above most of the larger American airlines. Like United.

For the country that has perfected customer service at any cost, with the "have a nice day!" ethos in restaurants, bars and valet parking services rewarded by well deserved tips, American airlines as a whole have a terrible reputation when it comes to the in-flight experience. Most complaints revolve around the flight attendants of US carriers who, by comparison with those of other nationalities, have a tendency to crankiness and even downright hostility towards their fare-paying charges.

Flying out to Newark from Paris on Monday with United, my section of the cabin was entrusted to the charm-free qualities of an attendant who, if this had been a situation comedy, would have been one of those Central Casting-supplied New Yorkers whose throaty tenor sounds like they chain-smoke and start from a position of contempt towards passengers before warming up slightly.

Thus, our lady with the embarrassingly over-Botoxed face and 40-a-day habit went through the motions of asking "beef or chicken?" to the lunch lasagne question, just about managing to canvass two out of every three passengers in the process. This has nothing to do with arguments about sexism and the outdated notion of "trolly dollys". Young, old, male, female - I don't care who or what a flight attendant is, just as long as they remember that we're the ticket-buying customer and haven't turned up on board just to inconvenience their otherwise hectic day in the air.

Such was Botox Babs' lack of attentiveness that no matter what service was being carried out - water, landing cards, snack collection - she managed to miss out at least one person in a row every time. At least BA's school marms are thorough.

United's unsmiling Babs (possibly because the Botox had rendered it impossible to smile) may, though, have been doing us a favour in missing people out on the food delivery. The outbound lasagne was no more than minced beef sandwiched in between layers of pasta with some sort of cheese sauce over the top (though, to give credit, the return journey beef medallion/rice combo wasn't bad), but the whole thing was let down by the 'breakfast' prior to arrival in London, consisting of a stodgy microwave-heated croissant so bad I actually thought it was a plastic fake.

The United Airlines Economy Plus seat offers little more comfort than a standard economy seat, with the exception of paying a premium for more legroom, which makes some difference.

But, again, the aircraft makes the biggest difference of all: to Newark, United's Boeing 767 was comfortably configured with a 2-3-2 seat arrangement, my window seat being only one away from the aisle. All round, a very relaxed journey.

Not so the return leg: crammed into a Boeing 777, with a 3-3-3 configuration, everyone crammed together for six hours with a level of intimacy you would probably only accept after marriage vows have been exchanged. Same airline, same ticket, same price - different experience.

On the upside, United have a good inflight entertainment service, with a vast selection of old and new films and TV shows. Here is where the airlines are starting to achieve a parity of quality.

For many years, the only airline flying across the Atlantic to offer individual TV screens and games was Virgin Atlantic, and it took a criminally long time for the others to catch up. Even relatively recently, some American carriers were still running long-haul flights using planes with single film screens just serving each cabin.

Today, with the relative simplicity of digital technology, plus competition from passengers bringing their own films and music on board via their laptops and iPods, the services offered are generally good, though I have to tip my hat to United for their selection of classic movies, like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, which I hadn't seen in decades, and had forgotten how utterly cool it was.

Since July 17 I have ingested a total of six small packets of savoury snacks (mini pretzels, cheese-flavoured fish, etc, etc, etc), ordered at least a dozen plastic glasses of ice graced by a showering of Diet Coke, and have been asked "beef or chicken?" more times than anyone is entitled to in the course of a month and a half.

I have also watched a remarkable number of 30 Rock and House episodes, seen Robert Downey Jr. mug his way through all three Iron Man films and, thanks to the iPad and inflight USB power, consumed two-and-a-half seasons of Breaking Bad without leaving my seat.

I have queued, in total, for almost four hours to be admitted to the United States on three occasions, and have lost only the one piece of luggage in the process, which I imagine is a good rate of return. And the airline that made the difference? Surprisingly, Air France.

Yes, I know I have, on occasion, called it 'Air Chance' (alarmingly because of the odds of actually arriving at the destination alive), but for an airline seemingly in constant financial crisis, they maintain a very good standard of service in all the classes I've experienced, with good facilities, good aircraft and, most of all, pleasant and efficient staff.

Airline pilots, in that "I've just goosed a stewardess" casual confidence of theirs, do have a habit of making smooth comments towards the end of a flight such as "I know you had a choice of airlines today, so we thank you for choosing us." Actually, what they should be saying is: "if you're going to be imprisoned for seven hours in a flying metal can, you may as well do so with this airline." And in the case of the French, I would actually agree.

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