Epilogue

Nearly eight months to the day after I contacted Lufthansa to request a refund of the ticket for my sabbatical in Australia, they finally managed to actually pay back the money that they owed me to my credit card.

I have to admit that I was not expecting ever to see the money I paid for that ticket again. Of course, I’m not complaining that I finally got the money back. But if I were Lufthansa, I think I’d be somewhat alarmed by the fact that their customers don’t even trust them enough anymore to refund money that rightfully belongs to them.

IATA, the airlines and airports have put a lot of time and effort in recent weeks into demonstrating that the risk of infection with the COVID19 virus aboard an airliner is minimal. And I’m willing to believe that’s probably even true. Some people are indeed reluctant to fly for health reasons. Others are likely very frustrated by the uncertainty of planning a trip due to the seemingly constantly chaning travel restrictions and entry requirements from one country to another. But I suspect that a large proporition of former customers are simply no longer willing to trust the airlines with their money. And frankly, I don’t blame them.

So instead of trying to prove to customers just how effective a HEPA filter on an aircraft can be, perhaps now would be a better time for airlines to show that they can be reliable and dependable partners that actually do put the customer first for a change.

KLM Cityhopper, Embraer 190 – Economy Class: Amsterdam to Basel

Introduction

I spend two whole days in the Netherlands. And I must say, the change of scenery did me good. Back home the monotony of working from home seems to make my days just fly by. Which isn’t bad either, but it leaves you with a sense of everything being rushed, even when it’s not.

In Amsterdam I stayed at the CitizenM South, which I think is in a great location. It’s close to the the railway and metro station at Amsterdam Zuid and the tram line number 5, which takes you all the way into the city centre, stops just outside the hotel.

The staff at the hotel were really great, and did a brilliant job of trying to put visitors at ease and make them feel comfortable. Occupancy was only at 10%.

Amsterdam was very quiet and subdued. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it looking so calm and deserted. Of course, it probably didn’t help that the weather was atrocious during my visit…

Getting to the Airport

Trains between Amsterdam Zuid and Schiphol airport run frequently. The journey takes six minutes. The use of face masks is mandatory on public transport in the Netherlands right now.

The central plaza at Schiphol airport is very quiet. The place is usually crawling with clueless tourists trying to figure out how to purchase a ticket and which train to take. But not any more.

Only very few shops are open. It’s difficult to say though, if the closed ones are just opening later because of the reduced number of visitors to the airport, or if they are closed indefinitely.

Check-in

Check-in is surprisingly busy. The queue for security is quite long, and there is no longer a dedicated lane for SkyPriority passengers. Although I’m not sure if this may be due to the obvious construction that is going on.

I think the security check experience at Amsterdam really highlights the catch 22 the airlines and airports are facing right now: I would say most people in the queue were wearing face masks, but otherwise ignored the round markings on the floor indicating a distance of 1.5 metres. And in a way, I don’t blame them. Most of them looked like holiday makers that were probably relieved to finally get out and about and excited to travel again.

But that’s not the point and not so important. Ultimately, everyone must choose for themself if they want to play their part in bringing the situation under control or not. But Amsterdam, like many other hubs in Frankfurt, London or Paris, was built soley for the one purpose of operating a high performance hub, with many flights feeding a lot of passenger into their long haul networks. But right now, that seems rather difficult to reconcile with social distancing measures. First, because the airlines are all operating on a reduced schedule. This means that layovers at the transfer airports tend to be quite a bit longer than usual – which is precicely what the authorities are trying to prevent: a lot of people in a confined space for any length of time. And second, because Amsterdam Schiphol is probably already too small if the authorities were serious about properly implementing all the recommended social distanting measures – despite the diminshed network and the lower passenger volumes. As long as passenger numbers are down, the issue is manageable. But at airports arond the globe, the moment will come where the crowds will be too big to be kept under control.

The KLM Crown Lounge

The Crown lounge is open. It’s changed a lot since my last visit. The back part, which used to overlook the check-in area, is gone. Instead, the lounge has expanded sideways and now also covers an area which, I believe, was previously occupied by the Swissport lounge.

There is no longer a buffet in the lounge, and instead passengers have to queue at the bar to place their orders with one of the lounge attendants. Within the lounge, most people keep their masks on, perhaps only removing them to have a drink. As far as I can tell, there is hardly and food on offer.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight is from B02, which is a bus gate. Passengers are more or less evenly distributed across the two busses. The load is roughly 70 passengers.

The gate agents are very meticulous and stop anybody who tries to pass the gate without a mask. There’s a school class of mainly hormonal teenage boys. So as you can imagine, the gate agents have their work cut out before the last bus is finally allowed to leave for the aircraft…

The Cabin

There are two rows of Business Class, but only two seats on row 1 are occupied. I am on 3F, the first Economy Plus row. The whole row behind me is empty and there’s only one other passenger on 3A. So we’re good.

There’s a bit of a delay because of a technical issue that needs looking into, and for a moment I dread that next the pilot will have to inform us that we’ve missed out slots But then I chuckle to myself as it dawns on me that, very likely, it’ll be a few years before Amsterdam is restricted for slots again…

Eventually, we taxi out with a delay of about 15 minutes. As we turn on to the runway, I catch a glimpe of the new A pier, which is gradually nearing completion. Although I think it will still be a while before it is in it’s final configuration. Right now, there is still a categing facility between the A and the B pier, which will have to go sooner or later.

The Meal

The service is more or less the same as on the outbound: a small box with a cheese sandwich, a cookie and a tub of water. In addition, the crew distribute an information sheet by the Swiss federal government as well as a contact form for every passenger to complete in case anybody on the flight develops symptoms later on. The forms are collected by the ground agent upon disembarking.

Arrival

The flight time is one hour, most of which I Spend looking out the window. I’ve missed the view from the wing so, so much…

The weather in Basel is much better than in Amsterdam. We make our approach from the south, which means we come in right over the swimming pool where I usually do my laps. Which is convenient, because the place looks deserted from above. So I guess that answers what I’ll be doing this afternoon…

We land, and literally ten minutes later I’m already sitting in the bus on my way home.

Conclusion

So, this brings to a close my report on the new normal of air travel. I think it is likely that it will be at least another five to six years before the airline industry fully makes a recovery. Until then, I fear a lot of jobs will be lost and many airlines will pass on into history as yet another casualty of the pandemic. Especially the coming winter will not be easy.

For the airlines that survive though, I think it is important right now that they work on their reputation management. For the time being, people may not be travelling because of the uncertainties of travelling abroad. But sooner or later, the restrictions will ease. When that happens, it would serve the airlines well to have regained the trust and confidence of their customers, many of which have been rather badly treated by the airlines in recent months.

I appreciate that refunding all the unsued tickets all at once would probably have more or less grounded all airlines within days. Fair enough. But this voucher business the airlines are currently offering instead of a proper refund is, for the most part, a scam. Treating your customers badly has never been a good idea. Treating them like idiots only adds insult to injury.

KLM Cityhopper, Embraer 190 – Economy Class: Basel to Amsterdam

Introduction

125 days ago, I returned to Basel from giving a course in Luxembourg. The week after, I was scheduled to make one last trip to Luxembourg before heading off to Australia on sabbatical for six months. While in Australia, I should have made a side trip to Bangkok, and then another to Ulan Baatar via Singapore and Hong Kong. But then the world shut down – slowly, gradually and irrevocably.

And my world slowed to a pleasant, leisurely pace. I was fully expecting to miss the flying. I was also fully expecting to well and truly get on everybody’s nerves once the withdrawal symptoms kicked in. If the effort it took to get me off the pacifier when I was four years old was anything to go by, I was convinced this was not going to be pretty…

But 125 days later, my watch has left a pale mark on my bronzed wrist from all the cycling and swimming I’ve managed to do. My PhD is on track and in the peaceful tranquility of my own home I have been so much more productive than I ever could have been in an office full of people.

And now today, I am taking my first flight. I’m curious to see how much aviation has changed in just 125 days.

Getting to the airport

I leave my flat at 10:25 to catch the bus line 50 to the airport. The 10:33 service runs nonstop to the airport, although I’m not quite sure what the point is, because it’s not really any faster than the regular service.

Since Monday, 06 July 2020 it is a mandatory requirement to wear face masks on all public transport in Switzerland. So today is the first time I’m using public transport and therefore, also the first time I’ve had to use a face mask. I don’t want to argue about the merits or disadvantages of wearing one of these things. But… first, I think my face is too big for a standard issue face mask. If I pull it up to properly cover my nose, then my chin keeps slipping out the bottom and the mask rides up to uncover my mouth. If I pull it down, my nose is uncovered… And second, the mask is a bit of a nuisance if, like me, you have varifocals, because it pushes the glasses higher up on your nose. And as a result, you end up looking into the distance through that part of the lens which is actually intended for short distances. And my breath is making the glasses fog up too. So basically, in the sum of all things I kind of feel like something out of Gorillas in the Mist… but cross-eyed.

Sixteen minutes later we arrive at the departures level of the airport, and the other four passengers and I disembark.

There’s a sign at the entrance to the terminal, advising passengers that wearing a face mask is mandatory inside.

Check-in

I’ve checked in online. As a Platinum member with Air France KLM I can select any seat on the aircraft free of charge. Originally I was seated on row 7, which was the first row in the Economy Class cabin. A few days before departure though, KLM does the inventory for its flights, which means that they usually open up seats further up front once the final position of the cabin divider is decided. And so I move forward to row 2 at check-in.

Check-in is eerily quiet. It looks as though everyone just left abruptly and forgot to switch off the lights.

Airside

I don’t think I’ve ever been through security at Basel airport this quickly. There are hardly any passengers, and even with just the one line open, the staff still have plenty of time to check every passengers very carefully and still manage to have a enough time to chatter and gossip.

I think I always understood that magnitude of recent events and their impact on the aviation industry. But today is the first time I have the opportunity to witness the devastation up close. It’s really quite upsetting.

The beautiful Swissport lounge is closed.

Boarding

The only place with signs of life is gate 1, from where the flight to Amsterdam will be departing. I count a total of 77 passengers, which isn’t a bad seat load factor for an Embraer 190 with a capacity of about 90 seats. Although having said that, KLM is currently operating just the one flight to Basel, where previously they had four.

Boarding is by seat rows from the back of the plane and takes a lot longer to ensure there are no queues in the air bridge or in the cabin. KLM strictly enforces the use of face masks on its flights, and it is stated at the time of booking and in the confirmation e-mail that passengers without a mask will not be admitted to the flight.

The Crew

There are two cabin crew, one female and one male. I think it’s quite obvious they’re making an effort to appear as though this flight is business as usual, and I think they deserve a lot of credit for trying to do a good job in seriously adverse conditions. But I’m not sure it’s working. Because the atmosphere on board is subdued. Passengers are wary and tense, as though they’d much rather be somewhere else.

The Cabin

There is one row of Business Class on today’s flight, and the forward toilet is reserved for the crew only. All passengers are required to use the toilet in the rear of the aircraft.

The Meal

The flight time is one hour. As this is a lunchtime service, every passenger in Economy is given a small box with a packaged half of a cheese sandwich, a biscuit and some water. In addition to that, there is a separate drinks service from the trolley.

While I applaud KLM for their effort to maintain a standard level of service in these strange times, I think on such a short flight they might as well do away with the service for the time being. Either that, or they should provide disinfectant wipes to passengers. From what I can tell, not that many passengers actually touch the food.

I stash mine away to eat when I get to the hotel.

Arrival

We land in Amsterdam on time. There’s definitely a lot more traffic here than there was in Basel, but it’s still a far cry from what it used to be like not so long ago. What’s more, there are aircraft parked everywhere. And obviously they’re there for long term storage. It’s really quite sad to see.

At least since my last visit the construction of the new A pier at Amsterdam has progressed quite a lot, although I still don’t quite get what the final layout of the building will be.

Our flight pulls up to a stand at the B pier. The weather in Amsterdam is atrocious. It’s raining and much cooler than Basel.

There aren’t many passengers in the terminal, and most of the shops appear to be closed. Half the luggage belts in the arrivals hall are turned off permanently.

Conclusion

I must say, this flight today has been quite an eye opener. As I previously mentioned, I was already aware of the disastrous consequences the events of the last few months have had on the airline industry. But seeing the devastation up close from the passenger’s perspective is sobering and really quite depressing.

It is difficult to assess the current situation without coming across as being overly pessimistic. But right now, things are really not looking very good for the airline industry – despite the significant rescue packages some of them have received from their governments and the slow resumption of flights. It is common wisdom in the industry that the airlines earn most of their money during the peak summer months. What they don’t manage to earn during that period, they will not be able to recover in the slower winter season.

Air France, La Première – Boeing B 777-300ER: Dubai to Paris CDG

Introduction

The course with Flydubai was really good fun. The course participants were eager and keen to learn, which always makes my job a lot easier. I’ll be back in Dubai for another course with Emirates in three weeks’ time. But now it’s time to start on the journey back home. I have three classes I’m teaching at the university on Monday.

Air France currently operates two daily services to Paris out of Dubai. There is the daytime service which leaves at exactly noon. And then there is the night time service which leaves at 01h35, roughly around the same time as all the other European carriers. To be honest, I would have preferred the daytime service. However, that flight is operated by an Airbus A 330-200 which still has the old Business Class configuration and has no First Class. The night time service is operated by a Boeing B 777-300ER in the new configuration.

Getting to the Airport

On this trip I stayed at the Sofitel Downtown near Burj Khalifa and the Mall of Dubai. I leave the hotel on Friday evening at 22h30. Being the weekend here in the UAE, traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road is unusually quiet and calm. As a result, the journey to the airport only takes twenty minutes to complete by car.

To get to the airport, you can either take a taxi from the hotel for AED50 or a Lexus limo for AED70 or the metro for AED20. The metro obviously takes a bit longer because it stops a few times on the way. But there is a metro stop about two minutes away from the hotel, with trains running from there directly to the airport.

Check-in

Air France serves Terminal 1 in Dubai. It’s a bit unfortunate that the check-in rows for the various airlines are not marked outside the terminal. As a result, drivers tend to just pull up to the first vacant spot on the side of the road and offload you there.

Air France and KLM check in on row 1, which is at the far end of the terminal. As far as I can tell, the whole of check-in row 1 is dedicated to Air France and KLM and their flights to Paris and Amsterdam respectively.

There is one check-in counter for La Première passengers, which is cordoned off. There is a DNATA representative standing by the entrance to the SkyPriority counters. I approach him to ask if this is also the queue for First Class. He asks my name and he’s obviously been expecting me, because he immediately escorts me to the La Première counter and calls for a ground agent to escort me from check-in to the First Class lounge.

As soon as my suitcase is labelled, the check-in agent wishes me a pleasant flight and sends me on my way. The ground agent collects my passport and boarding pass holder and off we go. We take the normal entrance to immigration, but once we’re past the checkpoint, she guides me to the diplomatic passports section and then from there to a separate, dedicated security screening area. The process is very swift and efficient and just like that I’m through immigration and security in no time.

The Lounge

Air France arrives and departs on the D concourse, which is where pretty much all other airlines except Emirates operate from. The shuttle to the D concourse takes only a few minutes to make the journey.

In Dubai Air France uses the Ahlan lounge for its La Première passengers. The lounge is quite large, but rather oddly shaped around the mezzanine level of the airside area. There is a separate dining area and a large buffet with a lovely smell of Indian food coming from it.

Other than that, the lounge has showers but no area where passengers can have a lie down and sleep. The wifi access code is available at reception.

The ground agent leaves me at reception and tells me she’ll be back to take me to the aircraft at 12h50.

Boarding

At exactly 12h50, the ground agent appears in the lounge to inform me that it’s time to leave. We go downstairs and from there board a golf buggy to take us to gate D18. It’s actually not that far, but given that my back is still painful, despite the painkillers, I’m definitely not complaining.

Rather embarrassingly, it turns out they’ve been waiting at the gate for me to arrive so they can start boarding. The ground agent escorts me past the long queues and no sooner has my boarding pass been scanned, one of the gate agents announces that the flight is now ready for boarding. As it turns out, I am the only passenger in La Première this evening.

The entrance to the L1 airbridge is cordoned off. A security watchman opens it for us when he sees us approaching and then immediately closes it again once we’re through.

As on my previous experience with Air France in Paris, the ground agent steps aboard ahead of me and then introduces me to the flight attendant who has been expecting me at the door. She then wishes me a pleasant flight and leaves.

The Cabin

The flight attendant introduces himself to me with a genuine, friendly smile. He takes my backpack off me and escorts me to my seat on 1A. He stows away my jacket in my own personal cabinet and then leaves me to settle in.

As I’m the only passenger in La Première tonight, he suggests making up 1D for me as a bed after take-off, so then I can switch depending on what I feel like doing.

The Air France cabin really is a class act. It’s not just that it looks nice, it’s also nicely finished and has been well thought through.

And I have to say, it is very cool to know I’ll have this gorgeous cabin all to myself tonight!

The Crew

In short succession the maître de and then the captain come to introduce themselves and wish me a pleasant flight. They all stay and chat a while, but without prying or being nosy. In short, they go out of their way to make me feel at home and to make sure I’m comfortable.

The Service

While we’re still on the ground, the male cabin crew in charge of the La Première cabin brings me the vanity kit, the pyjamas, the menu and some fresh orange juice with a ramekin of nuts. The slippers and a pair of socks, as well as a thick pillow are already at my seat when I arrive.

I change in to my pjs while we’re still on the ground in Dubai. The flight time is announced as six hours and fifty minutes.

The Meal

Given that it’s already approaching two in the morning by the time the crew are released to start their service, I inform the flight attendant that I’d rather sleep straight away, but that he should wake me with enough time for breakfast. He makes up the bed for me and brings me a small bottle of Evian and a box of chocolates. And then I go off to sleep.

Around 80 minutes out of Paris, the flight attendant gently wakes me up to inform me that it’s time for breakfast. By the time I draw the curtains to get up, he’s already set the table on 1A for breakfast. There is a choice of two hot meals. I go with the banana pancakes and the apricot and strawberry compote.

A lot has been said in many of the travel forums about the horrific instant coffee Air France serves in La Première. My suggestion is to go with the espresso instead of the coffee, because the former is made with a proper coffee machine and tastes much, much better.

The meal consists of:

a selection of breads and pastries, served with butter and jam

natural yoghurt

fresh fruit

banana pancakes

The pancakes are lovely and the accompanying compote is sweet with a hint of vanilla. Catering is something I think they do really well on Air France, even in Business Class.

Arrival

The weather in Paris is cold and misty. In fact, the visibility is down to 200 metres, which is why we end up doing an automatic landing. Eventually, the aircraft comes to a stop at one of the gates on the M satellite of Terminal 2E. When the doors open, there’s already an Air France ground agent expecting me. The crew bid me farewell and hand me over to the ground crew.

We take the stairs down one floor and then step outside, where a BMW is waiting to take me to the main terminal building. Once we get there, we take a separate, dedicated counter for immigration and then head downstairs to the baggage reclaim area.

The ground agent retrieves my suitcase and then escorts me out to arrivals. It’s nice to be back in Europe!

I shall be spending Saturday here in Paris, as I still have an appointment with royalty that I haven’t seen twenty years.

Conclusion

On my way to the airport in Dubai, I was wondering if Air France would be able to live up to my expectations from my previous, exceptional La Première experience to Singapore in January. As it turns out, they certainly could. Once more, the service is flawless and opulent and the crew go out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Singapore Airlines, First Class Suites – Airbus A 380: Sydney to Singapore

Singapore_Airlines_Logo.svg

Introduction

I was going to start by saying that I’m on my way home. But given that I’ll only be home for something like 24 hours, let’s just say that, sadly, it’s time for me to leave Sydney and head back to Europe. I’ve enjoyed being here! Fortunately, I know I’ll be back next year and then I’ll be able to spend a bit more time here. Otherwise, I think I’d be seriously depressed at the prospect of returning to the cold, snowy weather!

Getting to the Airport

One last time, I make the journey on the ferry from Manly to Circular Quay. And what a lovely day it’s turned out to be for it. At Circular Quay I change to the train, which pulls into the station just as I reach the platform. The only difference is that today I will be going one stop further, to the international terminal.

Check-in

Singapore Airlines checks in on row K, which is the last row of check-in counters, farthest away from the escalators that bring you up to the departures concourse. There is a separate line with two counters for Suites passengers. When I arrive, both counters are already occupied, so I’m swiftly ushered to one of the Business Class counters instead.

From check-in, you have to make the schlepp all the way back to row C, which is where the entrance to the fast track is located. Although in this case, I might as well not have bothered, because the e-gate reader cannot read my biometric passport. As a result, I have to walk all the way back in the direction from where I came, because that’s where the staffed immigration counters are located. And then once I’m through immigration, I’m ushered all the way back again in the direction of the e-gates, because that’s where they’ve just opened a new queue for security that the queue manager wants to me to join.

With that done, I’m finally airside and head straight for the Singapore Airlines Kris Lounge near gate 61, from where my flight will be leaving. And that’s quite a schlepp too.

The Silver Kris Lounge

Singapore Airlines operates its own lounges here in Sydney, and there is a dedicated First Class lounge. It’s a fairly big lounge, and I even manage to grab a seat by the windows overlooking the apron. Cool!

Once I’m seated, the waiter brings me a refreshing hot towel and the à la carte menu. There’s also a buffet with warm dishes to choose from.

The lavatories seem to be a bit of a problem at Sydney airport, in that they’re not exactly the cleanest. And those in the lounge are no different…

Boarding

Boarding starts at 11h45. Suite passengers queue with the Business Class passengers for the upper deck.

All in all, I find the Singapore Airlines Suites experience on the ground somewhat underwhelming, especially if you compare it to Air France (sorry, I can’t help it…). In fact, it feels a lot more like Business Class than First Class, but maybe that’s just me.

The Cabin

Currently, SQ 232 is the flight out of Sydney that is operates in the new First Class configuration. The key feature of the Suite is that there is a separate bed, in addition to the seat.

At a glance, the Suite looks very nice. There is a lot of storage space and the video screen is enormous. There are a few things which seem a bit strange though, such as the fake orchids in every Suite. I think either they should go for real orchids or nothing at all.

Another thing that strikes me, is that during the meal service, when the seat is turned towards the table, you’re facing the aisle, which means that during the whole meal service you and the person sitting in the Suite opposite are looking at each other. I suppose you could keep the door to your suite closed while you eat, but that just seems strange. You also can’t recline your seat when it’s in the forward facing position.

And finally, it should also be noted that the Suite is not really that private, because the dividers don’t reach that far up. I’m 184 cm tall, and could look over the top.

The Singapore Airlines Suite reminds me of what Etihad has installed on its A 380s. But I prefer Singapore Airlines’ solution, because despite the things I mentioned above, this still is a very nice product. What’s more, with all the available space it feels more like an actual room than a seat.

Oh yes, and the loos are huge…!

B&O earphones, the amenity kit and the menu are already at my seat when I arrive. There are also socks and slippers, which are stored in the large closet of each Suite. Once I’m seated, the crew come to welcome me on board and bring me, in short sequence, a glass of Perrier with lemon, a refreshing towel and the pyjamas. The lead flight attendant in the red kebaya introduces herself to me and explains how everything in the Suite works.

The Crew

The crew seem friendly enough. They’re chatty and engage easily with the passengers. There’s not a hint of the robotic behaviour the Singapore Airlines crews are sometimes criticised for. I think what it is, is that the whole service comes across like a highly optimised process. As a result, it doesn’t exactly feel very exclusive.

As I already mentioned, while we’re still on the ground the crew offer refreshments and I ask for a glass of sparkling water with lemon.

Once we’re airborne, another crew member comes to take my order for lunch and asks me at what phase of the flight I’d like to eat. Given that it’s already gone lunch time, I tell her I’d prefer to eat straight away.

A short while later, she returns with the Singapore Sling I ordered (I mean, what else…?) and a small bowl of warm nuts.

The Meal

The meal service on this flight is efficient and timed at a pleasant pace. Clearly, the crew want to make sure passengers have enough time to rest. About one hour after our departure from Sydney, the table is set for the meal. There is no amuse bouche to start, but there are so many courses that it’s probably better this way.

The First Course

Seared Salmon with pickled kohlrabi and an edamame and wasabi purée. The salmon is good, but the rest of the dish is a bit bland. I think maybe the food is still too cold, because I can hardly make out any of the other tastes.

The Soup

Sweetcorn and shellfish soup with herb oil. Now this is a very flavourful soup with a hint of saffron. It tastes like summer on the Mediterranean.

The Salad

Honey roasted beet salad with feta cheese. The salad is also very good, with the feta complementing the beets nicely.

The Main Course

Pan roasted grouper with salsa verde. I chose this dish despite the fact that it’s served with fennel, which I can’t stand. I just don’t much feel like meat. The taste is good, it’s a nice piece of fish and they’ve managed to keep it moist. But again, I can’t really make out the taste of the salsa verde.

Dessert

Chocolate marquise with caramelised pecans. The dessert is okay. It’s your standard creamy chocolate airplane dessert.

The Cheese

Shadow of Blue, Mafra cloth bound Cheddar, Woombye triple Brie, Savourine goat’s cheese. The cheese is served with fruit bread and crackers. It’s a good cheese selection and I particularly like the Shadow of blue.

To drink I stick with the Perrier. I also have a glass of the 2004 Krug.

After the meal, I request for the bed to be made up for me and then I lie down to read.

Amenities

The amenity kit is by Lalique and looks rather nice. The only thing though, is that its content is utterly and completely useless. There is a small bar of soap, lip balm, body lotion… and a scented candle?

Things like tooth brushes or shaving kits are available in the toilets. Earplugs and eye shades are on request to the crew.

The slippers and pyjama that are provided are also by Lalique. I am given an XL for both the slippers and the pjs, which are just a bit too big for me but still comfortable.

The Second Service

For the second service, there is a choice of either an Angus beef burger or a selection of dim sum. Seeing as I’m not much of a carnivore anyway, I decide to go with the dim sum. The dish is served with a small bowl of a suitably spicy red sauce and something which I think the flight attendant said was a sort of mashed celery cake. Whatever it is, I like it.

Arrival

After a flight time of seven hours and twenty minutes the flight draws to an end. I must admit, even though I still think the A 380 is ugly as sin, it’s always an experience.

After we land, we slowly trundle along until eventually we arrive on our parking stand at Changi’s Terminal 3.

Conclusion

In the sum of all things, I enjoyed the flight. But I think a lot of that also has to do with the A 380. As for Singapore Airlines, I like the new First Class cabin because it’s spacious and roomy, although perhaps not very private. The service was okay, I guess, but nothing more. And the food was rather bland.

Air France, La Première – Boeing B 777-300ER: Paris CDG to Singapore

Date: January 2019
Origin: Paris Charles de Gaulle, Terminal 2E
Destination: Singapore Changi, Terminal 1
Seat: 1A – window on the port side
Flight time: 12 hours 10 minutes

Transfer in Paris Roissy

The driver takes me to Terminal 2E, which is where the First Class lounge is located. He explains that afterwards, he’ll also be escorting me to the aircraft when the time comes.

Along the way, the driver chats pleasantly about this and that. Funnily enough, his curiosity gets the better of him and he cannot help but ask how my experience so far compares to the First Class product of other carriers.

The Lounge

Once we arrive at the terminal, he takes my passport and boarding pass and tells me he’ll return them once the police have checked them. After that, he leads me upstairs and gives me a brief explanation of where everything is in the lounge.

There are a few passengers in the lounge, but I would not go so far as to say it’s crowded. Quite the contrary. The lounge is large and the way it is laid out, there is plenty of room for passengers to disperse.

The lounge is well equipped with everything the travel-weary passenger may seek or desire to relax and revive from the labours of modern air travel. There are large showers with toiletries, a dedicated dining area, a relaxation area and a small spa.

But apart from all that, the lounge is very elegantly appointed and both the facility and the staff have a lot of style about them. The lounge is not flashy, but it’s definitely comfortable.

Boarding

Around forty minutes before departure, my driver comes to pick me up and drive me to the waiting aircraft. Theoretically, I could have walked. But to be honest, I figured that if we took the car, that might give me a better chance of taking a picture of the aircraft carrying me to Singapore tonight.

The Cabin

As I step aboard the plane, the driver welcomes me aboard and introduces me to the First Class flight attendant, who is already expecting me. The driver then bids me good bye and wishes me a pleasant journey.

I then make the right turn into the cabin and I’m really speechless. Of course, I’d already seen pictures of the new First Class cabin, but seeing it for real is something else. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into the design of Air France’s First Class cabin, both in terms of the comfort and functionality of the seat, but also with regard to branding.

The little seahorse, Air France’s trademark, is omnipresent in the cabin. You will find it on the lamp, pillows, pyjamas, slippers, etc.

But I think what surprises me the most, is the mint condition of the cabin. Either this is a fairly new aircraft, or Air France just takes excellent care of its fleet.

In the take-off and landing position, the seat doesn’t offer much privacy. However, there is a screen that can be raised around the back and side of the seat. In addition, there are curtains that can be drawn and which provide a lot of privacy and darkness.

The seat has an ottoman, which could also be used for a second passenger to join for the meal, for example. Below the ottoman is enough storage space for a large laptop bag, the slippers and a blanket.

In the sum of all thing, I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience the First Class product of quite a few of the world’s leading airlines. But the Air France hardware is definitely my new favourite.

The Crew

The First Class cabin is served by a very charming and very professional middle-aged lady. I really cannot express how good she is at her job. I know it probably sounds like a horrible stereotype to say this, but she’s just so very French in the best possible way. Her manners are impeccable and her attention to detail is flawless. For example, it strikes me during the meal service that whenever she brings a new dish, she always makes sure the seahorse logo on the crockery is the right way up. I know this may sound like a small and unimportant thing, but I still think it’s a nice feature that enhances the First Class experience.

The Service

While we’re still on the ground, the crew bring me my pyjamas and a vanity kit and check to make sure I’m comfortably settled in my seat for the next twelve hours. With that out of the way, I am offered and subsequently brought a glass of the Krug Champagne and a small ramekin of mixed nuts and dried fruit. The menus are not handed out until after take-off.

Amenities

The amenity kit contains the usual collection of mostly useless items. There is no toothbrush or toothpaste in the kit, but these are available in the lavatory, where there is also mouthwash.

The pyjamas come in a nice felt folder. They have a nice, comfortable cut. The cabin crew will ask you what size you would prefer. I’m 184 cm tall and the size L fits me perfectly.

Slippers are also provided and can be found in the drawer underneath the ottoman.

The Meal

The meal service is definitely one of the highlights of the Air France First Class experience. The table is set up nicely, with a choice of either balsamic olive oil or tomato infused olive oil and a choice of both salted and unsalted butter. Throughout the meal, the crew replenish the bread and drinks. For each dish, a new set of cutlery is provided.

And I must say, in terms of the quantity and quality of the food, it’s excellent.

Amuse Bouche

Caviar with a crêpe and sturgeon cream.

Soup

Cream of chicory soup.

Salad

Made to order – it contains chicory, mushrooms, smoked haddock and beets.

First course

Pan-fried scallops with potato rose and a balsamic vinaigrette.

Main Course

Chicken breast glazed in a rare pepper and citrus honey, with caramelised pineapple and mango and vegetable sticks.

The Cheese

Beaufort, Pérail and Langres.

Dessert

Blueberry tarte by Lenôtre, served with two scoops of gingerbread sorbet.

I stick to Perrier with the meal, and for dessert I have a mint tea, which is served with a box Michel Cluizel chocolates.

The meal is excellent, and with every new dish that she brings out, the flight attendant makes a point of explaining to me what I’m eating and what the dish includes. By the time the service finishes, I’m totally full and completely and utterly impressed. I think, if I compare this service to the Garuda First Class experience for example, the Air France service just seems a lot more polished. Furthermore, because all the dishes have a very European or French touch, the crew just come across as being very authentic in their explanations of what the food is.

The Second Service

I actually manage to get about five hours of sleep. When I wake up, we’re still about three hours out of Singapore. As soon as the flight attendant notices I’m awake, she comes to ask me if there’s anything I need. So I request a cup of coffee and ask her to remove the bedclothes while I change back into my clothes.

About two hours out of Singapore, I decide it’s time for breakfast, which the flight attendant thinks is a brilliant idea.

The breakfast is quite extensive, and all the dishes are brought more or less at once, instead of having them served as different courses. My breakfast consists of

coffee and orange juice

fruit: a small bowl of grapefruit and orange

yoghurt served with granola

a selection of pastries and bread: I have a small bun and a brioche, served with butter and jam

hot dish: I go with the scrambled eggs with mushrooms and a mushroom sauce

Everything tastes excellent and the presentation of the hot meal, which is served with the lid still on the dish, is just so elegant.

Once the meal is over, the flight attendant clears my table and we have a nice little chat about flying and travelling until it’s time for her to start preparing the First Class cabin for landing.

Arrival

We land at 16h30 local time, five minutes ahead of schedule. It’s either just been raining or it’s just really very humid outside because the ground is wet.

Air France serves Terminal 1 at Singapore Changi airport. The doors open, and there’s already a young lady expecting me to guide me through immigration. The flight attendant bids me good bye and hands me over to the ground crew. And with that, my La Première experience comes to an end.

Epilogue

To get into town, I will be taking the MRT. The MRT departs from Terminal 2, so I first need to take the Skytrain from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2. The Skytrain is a complimentary service.

Purchasing a ticket for the MRT is not as straightforward as one might assume in Singapore. A single ticket into town will cost you SGD2.80. However, you can only purchase a single ticket if you buy it at the machine and only if you pay in cash. If you’re not paying in cash, you need to go to the counter, but there you can’t only purchase a single ticket. So instead, I buy a two-days card for SGD10 plus SGD16. The SGD10 are a deposit that is refunded when you bring the card back…

Only the green line runs into town from the airport. At the second stop, which is Tanah Merah, passengers alight and connect to another green line train heading into the city from the opposite platform.

Conclusion

This experience with Air France’s La Première has impressed me. First of all, I think the overall quality of the product is very high and also very consistent. From the car they sent to pick me up in Winterthur, to the very elegant experience in the lounge in Paris and the beautifully appointed cabin and amenities aboard the aircraft, clearly a lot of thought has gone into the design of the product. Not only of the cabin and seat, but also of the ancillary products.

I think Air France’s interpretation of the First Class seat with the curtain is brilliant – because it offers a level of privacy that most other carriers simply cannot match. Even with Garuda for example, where you have a fully enclosed suite, you are not completely concealed from view because the doors of the suite do not reach all the way to the ceiling.

I also just love the branding of the First Class product with the little seahorse, which is omnipresent in the lounge and in the cabin and promotes this sense of consistency of the experience and in the product.

And finally, there is the professionalism of the staff, who have all clearly been trained well for their roles working with the First Class product. The maître de on the flight from Zürich to Paris went out of her way to provide as much of a First Class experience, even on a short sector of 50 minutes. Then the driver, who managed to make pleasant conversation but without being either tedious or prying and who had excellent manners.

And finally, last but certainly not least, there is the fabulous, splendid and simply formidable flight attendant working the First Class cabin. I think she did a really outstanding job. I know I already mentioned this above, but her attention to detail and the fact that she made sure the seahorse logo was always the right way up says everything about her work ethics and the service standard she delivered.

It’s difficult to say from memory which First Class product I’ve enjoyed the most over the years. One thing’s for sure though, of the four European carriers that still offer a First Class product, to my mind Air France’s is definitely the best one.

Garuda Indonesia, First Class – Boeing B 777-300: Jakarta to London

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Introduction

Three days before my flight back to London, I receive an e-mail from the Garuda First Class concierge asking me a) what I had in mind for the complimentary pick-up, b) if I had any specific dietary requirements they should know about and c) what size pyjama I take. That more or less sets the tone for my flight back home and the end of what has been a truly relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable vacation…

Getting to the Airport

I leave the FM7 Hotel at 09h30. This morning the traffic is much thicker and for some unearthly reason we find ourselves taking backroads through some small village. The journey to the airport takes twenty minutes to complete.

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Before we depart from the hotel, the driver hands me a refreshing towel and a bottle of still water.

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Check-in

We pull up to Terminal 3, where I am already being expected by the First Class ground crew. I step out of the car and a young lady greets me by name. She welcomes me to the flight, while a young man takes my luggage out of the booth. The young lady then escorts me to the dedicated First Class check-in area and invites me to take a seat while she checks me in and tags my suitcase.

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Once that’s done, she accompanies me through security and immigration. There is a dedicated lane for First Class passengers for security and behind that, we head straight for the counter for holders of diplomatic passports – which of course speeds things up considerably…

The Garuda First Class Lounge

And then form there we head for the First Class lounge on the mezzanine level. The place is deserted when I arrive. The lounge is a nice size, although it seems a bit large now, given that currently Garuda’s flight to London is the only with a First Class service and even that only operates three times a week.

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I take a seat in the lounge and am brought yet another refreshing towel, followed by some still water, a plate of fresh fruit and the menu for the lounge. There is no buffet in the First Class lounge, so food can only be ordered from the staff. I go with the Gnocchi Neapolitana, which is very good.

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Boarding

At around 11h45 the gate agent comes to inform me that the flight is now in the final stages of boarding. It’s time to leave. At the lounge’s reception area all the staff are lined up to say goodbye and wish me a pleasant trip.

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We breeze through the boarding gate and take the left aisle down to the airbridge for First Class passengers only. Here too there are ground staff in the First Class uniform wishing me a pleasant flight. I step on board. The ground attendant hands me over to the purser – who also greets me by name – then says goodbye and wishes me a safe journey. One of the First Class cabin crew then shows me to my seat on 2K.

The Cabin

Garuda’s First Class cabin is really quite amazing. Every seat is enclosed in a sort of mini-suite, with sliding doors that can be closed for more privacy. Apart from that, the cabin and seat have a very elegant appearance and are kept in rich, dark colours.

There is plenty of storage space, including a closet with two hangers that is wide enough for me to hang my clothes in once I change into the pyjamas.

The seat is very comfortable and the sliding doors certainly give the you the feeling of being in your own suite. It’s not just that the sliding doors will give you more privacy. I also think you are disturbed a lot less when you rest because you really don’t notice at all when somebody passes by your seat.

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The Crew

As I already mentioned, the crew are expecting me at the door as I step on board. By the way, the curtain to Business is closed during boarding, which is just a minor detail but something I really like.

Amenities

There are a whole lot of goodies expecting me at my seat:

  1. the food and drinks menus for the flight,
  2. noise cancelling earphones,
  3. a vanity kit,
  4. two pillows,
  5. a set of stationary with a pen,
  6. the pyjamas.
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As soon as I take my seat, one of the cabin crew comes to offer me a welcome drink. A few moments later she returns with a scented hot towel, a glass of the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé and a small ramekin of warm macadamia nuts.

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The flight time is announced at 14 hours and 15 minutes. Brilliant! All the more time to enjoy Garuda’s First Class service!

The crew on this flight are truly excellent. They’re personable, charming and very friendly. They make passengers feel at ease in a way that seems very natural.

The amenity kit is of no particular brand. It contains:

  1. a brush,
  2. earplugs,
  3. lip balm,
  4. eyeshades,
  5. a dental set,
  6. two Payot branded creams.

What strikes me about the vanity kit is that the content is of less good quality than the one I was given in Business Class on the Melbourne to Jakarta leg of this trip. The toothbrush for example, is rather small and more like a kid’s tooth brush (although adult size toothbrushes are available in the lavatory).

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The pyjama is black and not of any particular brand. It’s comfortable enough but be warned, the cut is rather tight. I’m wearing an XL and the pants still make me look like a primo ballerino…

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In contrast, the slippers are excellent. They’re solid and very comfortable. There’s a bit of an awkward moment when the cabin crew bring me the slippers, because they insist on helping you take off your shoes and kneel before you to do so, which is something most Europeans are probably not so used to.

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The Meal

Orders for the meal are taken before we push back.

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The Caviar Service

The meal service begins with the caviar service, which is served with warm blinis, crème fraîche and shrimp crackers. And more of the champagne.

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The First Course

For the first course, I go with the chicken musakhan roll, served with a beetroot relish and garlic sauce. I have no idea what the brown powder dusted on the rolls is, but it’s certainly fragrant, with a subtle hint of citrus.

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The Soup

Next comes the pumpkin soup with enoki mushroom and crème fraîche. The soup is served with toasted bread. Perhaps the soup might have been a tad warmer. But other than that, it’s a very hearty soup with a strong underlying flavour of celery.

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The Main Course

For the main course I have the grilled beef sirloin. This is served with a thyme jus, asparagus, mushrooms and grilled cherry tomatoes. It should also have had a potato soufflé, which I request to have swapped for the truffle ravioli, which are excellent. The meat is good too, it’s cooked just right and has a nice charcoal flavour.

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The Cheese

And then I have the cheese board and crackers. There is no information about what cheese it is – I’m guessing some sort of camembert, a cheddar and maybe a Roquefort.

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Dessert

And then, for dessert I have the chocolate lava with vanilla ice cream and fresh fruit. The lava also could have spent some more time in the oven. But other than that, you can’t really go wrong with anything that contains warm melted chocolate, can you?

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And just in case I’m still hungry, the cabin attendant brings me two shortbread biscuits with the cappuccino. And that concludes the meal service. And I feel totally gorged!

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After the meal, one of the flight attendants makes up my bed for me to sleep. The duvet I’m given is amazingly fluffy and the pillows are nice and comfortable. There’s also a thick mattress on the seat for greater comfort. With the doors closed, the suite feels very intimate and cosy.

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The Inflight Snack

At some point during the flight I wake up and ask for a noodle soup and a drink. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever had a decanted Diet Coke!

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And then I go off to sleep again.

The Second Service

I awake about two hours out of London. Just in time for the second meal service. There is a whole list of items to choose from, the second service consists of a starter, a main course and a dessert.

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The First Course

To start I have the cream of asparagus with a dumpling and fresh asparagus. This dish is excellent. The soup has a velvety texture and the different flavours are very finely balanced.

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The Main Course

For the main course I go with the seabass in a turmeric pickle sauce and potato croquettes, baby pak choy and vegetables. When I order the fish, I notice a slight hesitation from the flight attendant, and I can’t help but feel that she’s trying to dissuade me from having it. Once I tuck in, I realise why: because what I thought were green beans are in fact small and really vicious green chillies that nearly blow the top of my head off! My friend, the valiant M. always says he doesn’t get how I can eat very spicy food and enjoy it, but this is too much even for me! Other than that though, the fish is moist and the sauce is flavourful and tangy.

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The Fruit

For dessert I have the plate of fruit, which includes two slices of Guava and manages to quench the fire burning in my mouth!

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And then to conclude, I have mint tea, served with two sticks of Valrhona chocolate.

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I really must say, the quality and quantity of the food served in Garuda’s First Class is quite impressive. The tableware is attractive and the presentation of the dishes shows a lot of attention to detail. My other friend, the tall, blond M. has a stomach that is a bottomless pit. I really don’t know where the guy puts it all. But I’m sure he would have had a whale of a time on this flight!

Arrival

By the time the second service ends, we’re already nearing the top of descent. It’s just gone eight in the evening and traffic in Heathrow is calm. As the flight draws to an end, one of the cabin crew takes my vanity kit, slippers and pyjamas and places them in a Garuda First Class branded bag for me to take with me.

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We land in an easterly direction without even having to hold, and then very slowly taxi to our gate at Terminal 3. When eventually we reach our stand, only the airbridge for the L2 door is attached because the police are there to meet our flight. Apparently they’re looking for one particular passenger. Once he is removed from the flight, we’re free to disembark. It’s really quite embarrassing how the cabin crew request all the Business Class passengers to step aside to allow me and the other three First Class passengers to disembark first.

There is a representative from Garuda holding a sign up with my name as I step off the plane. He welcomes me to London and then escorts me through immigration, assists me with my bag and takes me through customs. Once we’re landside again, he gives me instructions on how to get to Terminal 5, where I’ll be spending the night, before sending me on my way.

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Conclusion

I’m wondering where Garuda is going with its First Class product right now. Personally, I think this was one of the best First Class experiences I’ve had in a long time that was truly deserving of the term first class. The hard product is excellent and the crews on the ground and in the air obviously made an enormous effort to provide passengers with a service that is refined and polished. But it just seems like an awful lot of effort for just the one route with a service that doesn’t even operate daily to Heathrow.

But apart from that, I think Garuda Indonesia offers a good and solid product, both in Business Class and in First. Admittedly, I do think they could significantly improve the experience on the ground for passengers not travelling in First. I understand that the two domestic flights I did were delayed due to the severe weather that the airline has no influence over, and perhaps it goes without saying in Indonesia that all you can do in such cases is to sit and wait for it to pass. Even so, I think it wouldn’t hurt Garuda to communicate more proactively in cases of irregularity – and with that I don’t mean having a gate agent yelling at the top of her voice in Bahasia only.

I sincerely wish Garuda the best of luck for the future. And I hope their new CEO will succeed in maintaining the high standard of service and professionalism that I experienced and enjoyed on all my flights with the airline so far.

Would I choose Garuda again? Definitely!

Etihad Airways, First Class – Airbus A 380: Abu Dhabi to London Heathrow

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Date: 17 April 2017
Departure: 07:50
Arrival: 12:30
Flight time: 7 hours 20 minutes
Seat: 2H, aisle seat

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Introduction

It’s just gone five in the morning as I exit the Plaza Premium airport hotel in terminal 1 and make my way over to terminal 3 and the elusive Etihad First Class lounge and spa. I’m rather looking forward to this part of the trip after having already heard so many good things about the lounge and about Etihad’s First Class product aboard the mighty A 380.

Currently the A 380 is deployed on routes to London, Mumbai, Melbourne, Sydney and New York. During the high season, in the summer, Paris will also be added to the list of A 380 destinations.

The Etihad Airways First Class Lounge

The entrance to the lounge is located right next to the Fendi shop in terminal 3 and looks quite unpretentious in fact. The lounge dragon at the entrance welcomes me to the lounge and as the doors close to take me up to the second floor, I see her making a call upstairs to advise them that I’m on my way. And indeed, the moment I step out of the lift I’m greeted by a young woman who welcomes me to the lounge and shows me around.

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The lounge has a small gym (no weights though), a spa with a massage salon and a barber and hairdresser. Every First Class passenger is entitled to one complimentary treatment at the spa or at the barber’s. The largest part of the lounge is made up of the dining area. There is also a relaxation room with loungers, although the room has this brightly lit wall that keeps changing colours and hence makes you wonder just how relaxing it really is.

The staff seem a bit disoriented, quite as though they’re not really prepared to deal with customers. When I enter the lounge I take a seat at one of the tables near the window. A waiter comes to take my order. But then a few minutes later another waiter appears wanting to take my order. So I tell her that my order has already been taken. And so she saunters off. A short while later, yet another waiter appears – guess why – to take my order for breakfast. It’s no big deal really but it’s hardly First Class either. But the food is good!

Just before six in the morning I head over to the barber’s reception to request an appointment for a shave. Only the young lady informs me that the next slot will not be until 07h00 in the morning, which seems a bit tight given that my flight should start boarding at 07h10.

All in all, I think the First Class lounge in Abu Dhabi is okay, but to be honest I don’t think it’s anything special. It looks a lot like the dining room in a hotel. So as far as First Class lounges are concerned at least, Qatar Airways certainly has the upper hand.

Boarding

Abu Dhabi airport is completely overcrowded, so getting from the lounge to the departure gate takes a while because there’s simply no getting through all the passengers making their way to and from their flights. A new terminal is under construction, but it looks like it might take a while before that opens for business.

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A separate call is made for First and Business Class passengers to board first.

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The Cabin

As far as the First Class cabin and seat are concerned, Etihad wins hands down. No questions asked. Seriously, this is really quite an amazing set up they’ve got here. First of all, unlike that god awful and tacky Emirates First Class cabin with its fake gold trimmings, this cabin is much more elegant and very beautifully finished. It’s also a lot more lavish and private than the Qatar Airways First Class seat.

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They’ve obviously put a lot of thought into the design of the cabin and the seat: every apartment comes with its own little vanity mirror and a mini bar that you can have stocked specifically to your wishes. And there’s plenty of storage space.

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The bed is separate from the seat and takes up the whole length of the apartment. It is long enough for me to stretch out comfortably. My only criticism is that the bed seems fairly narrow. Actually, I don’t think it’s any narrower than other First Class seats, but whereas in other seats you are confined on three sides, on this seat there is no support at all on one side, and as a result I am constantly aware of the edge of the bed and trying to avoid rolling off.

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And then there’s the shower, which works really well and is also much nicer than the one Emirates has. I must say you feel a lot less grimy traveling when you have a shower to use on board. Every passenger gets five minutes of water, after which the supply automatically stops. However, during the shower you can interrupt the flow of water any time, so that the five minutes are more than enough to lather up and rinse down. For the shower passengers are provided with nice fluffy towels, conditioner, shower gel and shampoo.

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The Crew

The crew on this flight seem friendly enough and once I am seated they all come to introduce themselves. The young lady in charge of my cabin is Brazilian. She give me a tour of the features of the apartment, in case I’m not familiar with them.

As a welcome drink I have a glass of still water with ice and lemon, which is served with a bowl of dates, a hot towel and a welcome note from Etihad Airways signed by the inflight service manager.

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Amenities

Next, the chef comes to introduce himself and hands me the drinks and food menu. He also asks me if I’d like to book a slot for the shower.

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Before take-off another crew member drops in and brings me a large bag containing my slippers and the pyjamas.

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The vanity kit is stored inside the vanity mirror and includes:

  1. cleansing wipes,
  2. moisturizing hand cream,
  3. pulse point oil,
  4. pillow mist,
  5. facial cream,
  6. lip balm,
  7. eyeshades,
  8. toothbrush and Colgate toothpaste,
  9. shaving kit,
  10. earplugs,
  11. socks.
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What strikes me as slightly inconsistent is that the vanity kit and the pyjamas are of no name brands. I don’t mind and they’re in good quality. But given that Etihad has really gone for a high end finish for the rest of its First Class product, it just seems slightly unusual that they didn’t do the same for the vanity kits and pjs.

The Meal

There are plenty of options for the meal. On the one hand, there is a full breakfast service right after take-off. In addition, there is also a menu with a wide selection of dishes that passengers can combine as they wish.

I skip the breakfast service because I’m feeling tired. So I have a nap instead. When I awake, we’re just under four hours out of London and I’m feeling hungry. So I call for the chef to discuss the food options.

First, the table is laid out for the meal. The cutlery and chinaware are elegant. I am also given a small ramekin with butter and another empty one for olive oil. One of the crew comes by with the breadbasket.

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The First Course

For a starter I have the chef’s salad, which consists of fresh, crisp salad, fresh spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes and smoked salmon and is served with a light balsamic vinaigrette. The salmon is obviously of very good quality, light in colour and with a very subtle taste that is complemented nicely by the champagne.

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The Main Course

Next, I have the wagyu sirloin, served with creamy mashed potato and green beans. I have a sauce Hollondaise with the meat, which is light and goes very well with the meet. The beans are served with a hint of lemon zest, giving them a refreshing twist.

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The Cheese

And then comes the cheese course, which is served with jelly, slices of fresh apple and grapes and crackers. The presentation of the dish is nice. For the cheese dish I turn down a third glass of champagne and instead have a glass of the sauternes, which is excellent.

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Dessert

And then to conclude the meal, I have a slice of rich and tasty carrot cake with a cappuccino.

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After the meal I am handed another hot towel.

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Overall I think the quality of the meal is very good. The meat was cooked just the way I requested and the ingredients are obviously of good quality.

Arrival

Eventually we start our descent, the crew come to say goodbye and the young lady from Brazil hands me her business card in case I have any comment to make on the flight.

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Conclusion

So what’s the verdict? As far as the First Class product is concerned, I think Etihad Airways really nails the inflight experience. The cabin and the seat are not only very elegant and attractive, they also make for a very pleasant journey at a level of comfort and privacy that Qatar Airways and Emirates can’t match. However, overall there are certain inconsistencies in their product. The First Class experience on the ground, for example, is really lacking. Especially given that Abu Dhabi is quite a maze and very busy, an escort to and from the lounge would have been a nice idea. Also, while the lounge is okay, it’s definitely nowhere near as grand and impressive as Qatar Airways’ First Class lounge in Doha.

Based on my experience yesterday evening on the flight from Colombo to Abu Dhabi though, I think I would say that Qatar Airways has the superior Business Class product, followed by Emirates in second place and Etihad in third.

Cathay Pacific, First Class – Boeing 777-300: Frankfurt to Hong Kong

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Date: 20 December 2016
Departure: 13:00
Arrival: 06:24
Flight time: 10 hours, 30 minutes
Seat: 1K, window on the starboard side

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Introduction

I awake just before seven in the morning. I open the curtains to take a look outside. It was late when I arrived yesterday evening, so I could not really see anything much. It is a lovely day today, but immediately I am taken aback by just how incredibly ugly Frankfurt airport is. Apart from the fact that the whole facility was designed with everything but the passenger’s convenience in mind, the buildings are quite simply ugly, badly maintained and dilapidated. Paris Charles de Gaulle may not be up there in the top ten of the world’s most convenient airports either, but at least that place has style.

Getting to the Airport

Mode: Shuttle bus
Journey time:
Five to seven minutes, depending on traffic.
Price:
Complimentary shuttle, provided by Fraport.
Frequency: Every five minutes.

I am staying at the Hilton Frankfurt airport, which is perched above the long distance railway station. To access Terminal 2, take the escalator down from the hotel lobby. At the bottom turn left into the covered footbridge that connects the station to Terminal 1. There are a few cafes on the footbridge. When I arrived yesterday evening, they had already closed and there were mice running around all over the bar and tables. So you may want to get your coffee somewhere else unless you fancy a mouse poo macchiato…

At the end of the footbridge, turn left and take the stairs down to the ground floor. The stop for the shuttle bus to Terminal 2 is on your right.

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Check-in

Terminal: 2, sector E
Airport check-in: Check-in counters are open from 09:30 to 12:10. There is:

  1. one counter for First Class passengers,
  2. one counter for Business Class passengers,
  3. one counter for Premium Economy passengers, and
  4. three for standard Economy Class passengers.

Web check-in: Online check-in open 48 hours before departure.
Self-service check-in:
There are red self-service check-in machines available and Cathay Pacific staff are on hand in case something should go wrong.

I have already checked in using the Cathay Pacific app, but I decide to pass by the First Class check-in desk anyway. The lady there is very friendly and chatty. She reissues my boarding pass in paper, together with an invitation to the lounge in Frankfurt, a small map of Terminal 2 for me to find my way around, as well as an invitation to the arrivals lounge in Hong Kong.

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The Cathay Pacific Lounge

Location: Before the security checkpoint for gates E2 to E9.
Type of Lounge:
Cathay Pacific First and Business Class lounge.
Access:
By invitation. The entrance is right opposite the security checkpoint.
Toilets:
Available in the lounge.
Showers:
There are three showers in the lounge that appear to be permanently attended.
Food & Beverages: There is a selection of hot and cold snacks. When I arrive at the lounge just after ten, they are just clearing away the breakfast dishes and replacing them with the lunchtime snacks. There is no noodle bar in this lounge, but noodle soups can be ordered from the staff.

To add a bit of seasonal atmosphere, there is also a plate with Christstollen and next to that a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream.

Connectivity: Complimentary wifi is available, no password required.
Newspapers & Magazines:
There is a good selection of international magazines and newspapers.

The lounge is fairly large. There is no dedicated First Class section. Other than that, there are dedicated workspaces if you need a bit of privacy as well as computer workstations.

Boarding

There is a priority lane for security. Boarding is first for families with children and then for First and Business Class passengers. There are two airbridges, First and Business Class passengers use the L1.

The Cabin

Configuration: 1 + 1 + 1.
The seat feels very private, despite the fact that it is not a suite type seat. First of all, the window seats are all angled to face towards the window, so you do not have to look at the other passengers. In addition, the shell of the seat is quite high and deep.
Pitch: 81 inches
Width: 36 inches
AC Power:
110 V AC power port available at every seat
Audio and Video: On demand, touch screen enabled., Bose earphones

I cannot really say anything much about the inflight entertainment, because I did not use it.

Connectivity: Cathay Pacific does not provide wifi on the B777-300ER.
Toilets: There are two toilets for the First Class cabin, although one is in fact the crew toilet, which is used when the actual First Class toilet is occupied. The cosmetics in the toilet are by Aesop, the same as in the vanity kit. The actual First Class toilet is large enough for a grown man to be able to change comfortably enough. It also has a proper sink and the faucet is turned on and off manually, instead of automatically.

The cabin is very elegant and spacious. This is partly due to the fact that there are no overhead bins and there are only three seats abreast. Even so, there is more than enough storage space and every passenger has their own small closet, with enough space for a jacket, trousers and shirt.

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The Crew

As I step aboard the plane, I am greeted by a chirpy young lady. She shows me to my seat on 1K and hangs my jacket for me. She introduces herself and in short sequence three other members of the crew stop to say hello, welcome me aboard and introduce themselves. The purser tells me we will have a fairly quick flight today at only ten hours and thirty minutes. Once I am settled, I am brought, in short sequence, my pyjamas, a vanity kit, earphones, the menu and a welcome drink and an amuse bouche.

Amenities

The pyjamas are very comfortable, but they are cut very wide. I am a fairly big guy. But I was given an L and it was still quite big on me.

The vanity kit is by Australian brand Aesop, and there are different kits for men and women. It contains:

  1. mouthwash,
  2. toothbrush,
  3. Colgate toothpaste,
  4. a comb,
  5. earplugs,
  6. a cloth to clean spectacles with.

The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: Orange juice.
Towel before the meal:
Hot towel served on the ground.
Pre-meal drink:
Cathay Delight, it is one of the airline’s non-alcoholic signature drinks – made with kiwi, mint and coconut milk.
Choice: There is a selection of Western and Chinese dishes that can be mixed. There is also a vegetarian option
Delivery:
À la carte service.
Type of meal:
Lunch
Beverages:

  1. Krug with the caviar,
  2. Evian,
  3. Earl Grey tea with dessert.

Breadbasket: A selection of rolls and garlic bread.
Hot towel after the meal:
Yes, not scented.

Okay, so… Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa you can definitely go home. Qatar, if you don’t mind, I’ll just put you on the back burner for the time being. Because I think I have a new favourite First Class airline. And yes, the meal is definitely what tips the scale. It is quite simply outstanding. First of all, unlike many other airlines, Cathay Pacific will actually give you a whole tin of caviar and not just a sad, small spoon full like Lufthansa does. But apart from that, the size of the portions is very good and the tastes and flavours are simply amazing, especially considering that we are at 37’000 feet! The Chinese main course is fragrant and spicy.

But without a doubt, the undisputed highlight of the meal is the dessert. Oh. My. God. This is divine. It is soft, warm and gooey on the inside, but firm on the outside (yeah okay, so I write a bit of food porn too. Is that going to be a problem…?). This soufflé is so good, it really needs a weapons licence.

Amuse Bouche

Seared tuna on sweet potato mash, served chilled and with a cracker.

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The Caviar Service

Caviar and Champagne with trimmings.

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The Soup

Minted pea and Edamame soup.

The Entrée

Poached Maine lobster with baby corn, asparagus, capers, dried tomatoes and romaine salad, with a French dressing.

The Main Course

Braised Cod, ginger, scallion, mushroom and oyster sauce, steamed jasmine rice, stir-fried pak choy and carrot.

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The Cheese

Gorgonzola, Taleggio, Manchego, and Caciotta with crackers, bread, grapes and dried fruit.

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Dessert

Chocolate soufflé with chocolate sauce and dulce de leche ice cream.

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Inflight Snack

Surprisingly, four hours out of Hong Kong I am feeling hungry again. I order the wonton noodle soup, which is served with a glass of still water and a Coke Zero. Even for just a snack, the crew set the table properly, with a napkin and tablecloth. The soup is nice and warm and has this smoky taste. The wontons are delicious.

The Second Service

Hot towel before the meal: No.
Pre-meal drink:
Mixed berries smoothie.
Choice:
There are two Western (one sweet and one savoury) dishes and one Chinese hot dish to choose from for breakfast.
Delivery:
À la carte service.
Type of meal:
Breakfast.
First course:
Fresh seasonal fruit.
Main course:
Banana pancake with Mascarpone and maple syrup.
Breadbasket:
A selection of bread, buns or fresh toast, served with butter, honey and jam.
Hot towel after the meal:
Yes, lightly scented.

The breakfast service starts about ninety minutes out of Hong Kong. The plate of fruit is simple enough and serves its purpose perfectly. But then comes the main dish and my jaw literally drops – it is huge! There are three banana pancakes on the plate that are plump and fluffy. They are sweet and syrupy from the maple syrup drizzled over them and in the middle of the plate there is a huge, inviting dollop of mascarpone cream. Divine! Throughout the breakfast service the crew come to check that I have everything I need and top up my drinks. The meal concludes with a hot towel. By this time we only have another fifty minutes to go to Hong Kong.

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Arrival

We land at 06:25, nearly thirty minutes ahead of schedule. The airport is only just coming to life. I disembark the aircraft and head downstairs to catch the automated people mover to bring me to the head of the terminal. The queues at immigration are already starting to form but are still fairly modest by Hong Kong’s standards.

In Hong Kong I will be staying at the Novotel Citygate, which I chose because I will only be here the one night and my next flight will already be leaving at 9 o’clock in the morning.

Conclusion

Well, what can I say and where to begin? As far as I am concerned, Cathay Pacific really clinched the spot as the best First Class experience I have ever had, coming in ahead of Qatar Airways and Asiana Airlines. I am sure if you want to look at the details of the flight there are probably areas that might be improved, but the overall package is really quite overwhelming. The crew are incredibly friendly, chatty and attentive but without being obtrusive. The hardware is great too. The seat is comfortable and provides a lot of space and privacy, giving the entire cabin a very cosy and exclusive feel. But without a doubt the food is really the selling point here for me. Apart from the fact that you certainly do not go hungry on Cathay Pacific, the quality of the dishes and the composition of the meal are outstanding. I shall have to do this again!

MINT by Jetblue, First Class – Airbus A 321: San Francisco to Boston

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Date: 18 August 2016
Departure: 12:55
Arrival: 21:30
Flight time: 5 hours and 10 minutes
Seat: 3C, aisle on the port side

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Introduction

I first visited San Francisco in 2008. I was on a round the world trip and arrived from Tokyo. It must have been some time around January. I remember the weather was awful, cold and wet. I did not manage to see the Golden Gate Bridge that time, because it was shrouded in dense fog all the time I was there. And it’s been bugging me ever since!

But this time, finally, after eight years I finally get to see and cross the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Granted, the weather is not much better this time round, but at least I can still see the city in the distance.

So now that has been taken care of and I can finally strike another item of the bucket list, I figure I might as well move on…

Getting to the Airport

Transport: Car rental.
Journey time: 55 minutes on local roads or 35 minutes on the highway.
Driving in the US really is rather cool. They have these enormous roads with four or six lanes in each direction. What is even more impressive though, is that despite the wide roads they still seem to have way too many cars on the road.

From the car rental drop off station it takes about five minutes to the terminal complex using the fully automated AirTrain. The views from the AirTrain are excellent by the way!

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Check-in

Location: International Terminal A, row 10.
Facilities: Web check-in, App check-in, self-service check-in or check-in at the counter.
Counters: There are two counters for JetBlue Mosaic and Mint customers and three counters for Economy Class passengers.

Airside

Alas, JetBlue does not operate a lounge at SFO and does not use any contractor lounge either. But that is really quite okay. Complimentary wifi is available in the terminal building and the view from gate A3A, from where my flight will be boarding, is simply excellent. I even get to witness a Virgin America A 320 executing a rejected take-off due to conflicting traffic on the crossing arriving runway.

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Boarding

Mint passengers are invited to board after passengers with special needs.

Something tells me this flight is going to be just brilliant, if the first impression I get from the gate agent is anything to go by. The guy obviously takes his job seriously and makes a point of keeping passengers informed about the entire boarding process. He also strictly enforces the boarding sequence.

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The Cabin

Configuration: 2 + 2 and 1 + 1.
Seat: Jetblue operates the A 321 in two configurations. The aircraft used in transcontinental services are branded as MINT by Jetblue. The aircraft have a seating capacity of 158, with 16 seats in Business Class. Rows 1, 3 and 5 are in a 2 + 2 configuration, while rows 2 and 4 are in a 1 + 1 configuration. The seats on the even numbered rows are referred to as the Business Suites. They have slightly greater pitch and more privacy, including a rather superfluous and useless sliding door. The suites are available on a first come first served basis.
Pitch: 60 inches.
Length as a bed: 80 inches.
Width: 22 inches.
Facilities:

  1. There are two 110 volt power ports and USB ports at each seat.
  2. Complimentary wifi is available on board and there are various price plans should you require more capacity.

Audio and Video:

  1. 15 inch LCD screen.
  2. There are more than 100 online radio programmes.
  3. There are 100 television programmes and a selection of films on flights longer than two hours.
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Seatmap courtesy of seatguru.com

The Crew

I reach my seat and there is a card welcoming me on board that has been signed by the two cabin crew working the forward cabin. In addition, the crew make a point of stopping at every seat to welcome every passenger on board individually. They explain the features of the seat, what the service is going to be like and then take orders for a welcome drink before handing every passenger the menu for the flight.

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I think what impresses me most about the crew is that they genuinely seem to enjoy their job and their interaction with the passengers seems authentic.

After take-off the crew distribute earphone and vanity kits, which are really nice, even if they do not really contain anything you might need during the flight. However, toothbrushes and toothpaste are available on request.

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The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: Honey infused limeade and fresh mint.
Towel before the meal: Hot towel, not scented.
Pre-meal drink:
Another honey infused limeade, served with artichoke and avocado dip and taro chips.
Choice:
Passengers are invited to choose three dishes from a selection five, which includes two cold and three hot dishes.
Delivery:
Individual tray service.
Type of meal:
Late lunch.
Meal:

  1. Herby lentil salad with baby romaine, haricots verts, avocado, toasted pecans and pomegranate molasses vinaigrette.
  2. Lobster risotto with crimini mushrooms, Swiss cheese and herb breadcrumbs.
  3. Turkey chilli with avocado, cherry tomatoes and cotija cheese.
  4. Seasonal fruit salad.
  5. Organic blue marble ice cream.
  6. Tea or coffee.

I think it is safe to say that this must be one of the best airline meals I have ever had. Firstly, all the dishes are still hot when the tray arrives. But apart from that, the quality and the taste of the food is excellent. The chilli is nice and spicy and the lobster risotto is just lovely. The dessert at the end is good too.

Throughout the flight the crew pass through the cabin, making sure all passengers have everything they need. In addition, there is a self-service bar at the rear of the First Class cabin, which is stocked with soft drinks and a selection of snacks – things like crisps or Pretzels.

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Arrival

Eventually we start our descent into Boston. The crew make another round with hot towels for passengers to freshen up. After that, the purser comes through the cabin with a selection of cookies and personally thanks ever passenger for flying JetBlue. He even makes a point of addressing every passenger by name!

Conclusion

I think this flight on JetBlue was absolutely bloody brilliant! These guys are really giving the likes of Virgin America or American Airlines a good run for their money. And in fact, although this service was ‘only’ a regular domestic First Class service, I think it is way better than the American Airlines experience I had from New York to Los Angeles.

Of course, there are certain shortcomings, such as the lack of a dedicated lounge on the ground in San Francisco. And perhaps the tray the meal is served on is not quite so fancy. But I think what this flight really shows is that it really is the crew that makes the experience. And today’s crew – Derek and Margaret – were just excellent and demonstrated some great hospitality! I like.