Let’s take a trip way back to February 2013. Right around the time that the American and US Airways merger was announced, I headed out to Florida for a media day with Farelogix. If you had told me then that just over five years later, the company would be acquired by Sabre, I would have asked if the swampy Florida heat had made you delusional. Yet here we stand today with Sabre having decided to buy Farelogix for $360 million. I spoke with Farelogix CEO Jim Davidson to learn more about how this all happened, and what it means for the future.
Farelogix has long built tools to help airlines merchandise their offerings in a way that Global Distribution Systems (GDSs) never did. (You can see some examples from this media day post.) If we go back a few years, the airlines were mad at the high rates they were paying GDSs, especially since in return they were getting sub-par functionality. GDSs were ripe for disruption. Airlines liked what Farelogix could do, and that had to make the GDSs nervous.
See, the GDSs were built in a world where price and schedule were all that mattered. And that price was all-inclusive. As airlines moved to an ancillary model, the GDSs didn’t bother trying to keep up. Instead they stuck to their guns and tried to use their market power to stymie innovation. Sabre was a leader in that effort.
Back in 2013, you wouldn’t be corrected if you said Sabre and Farelogix were enemies. Sabre may have wanted Farelogix gone, but Farelogix didn’t feel the same way about the GDSs. As far as Farelogix was concerned, it was up to the GDSs to decide if they wanted to take part in that vision or not. As Jim explained it…
My vision is the airline is creating the offer, controlling the offer, deciding where they want to send the offer. I believe that’s very consistent with the direction the industry is going in.
If Sabre wanted to become a part of that process, then great. If not, well, Sabre would find itself left out. The success of Farelogix didn’t require the GDSs to die. It just required the GDSs to change, and that was undoubtedly a more difficult ask.
With the adoption of IATA’s NDC standard, Farelogix and others were well-positioned to push the issue, because, again, it’s what the airlines wanted. Before NDC, airlines were setting up direct connections with travel sellers to improve retailing and merchandising opportunities, but there was no standard. They created these unique, one-to-one relationships that made it hard to get everyone on the same page. With NDC, a standard emerged that allowed everyone to develop toward the goal together.
The GDSs should have seen this as an opportunity. They easily could have realized that even with direct connections, there was a need to aggregate and operate a platform for bookings. Instead, they spent far too much time fighting the new direction, and they risked becoming irrelevant in the long run. Amadeus and Travelport cracked first, but Sabre held firm for way too long.
Change accelerated once Sean Menke took the reins at Sabre at the end of 2016. Sean had an airline background, and he knew Sabre would have to change for it to have a long-term future. Actually turning the old battleship wasn’t easy, but this acquisition certainly points to a successful change of course.
Jim says that the relationship started to thaw with Sabre about a year and a half ago. Sabre had begun trying to work more closely with its airline partners to help sell travel the way they actually wanted to sell it. That sounds obvious, but within Sabre it was a radical thought.
So it was that Sabre and Farelogix started working together to help an airline integrate its Farelogix tools. Jim says ” [we] found ourselves engaged in a lot of tech discussions on how to deliver.” And these discussions were friendly because they had a joint goal of pleasing the airline partner.
After some time, Jim says they both “realized there were limitations as two companies. You can only go so far.” Discussions about how much closer they could collaborate accelerated, but Jim remained concerned.
[There was] a lot of questioning on my part on how they saw the future of NDC, how they saw the future of the airline controlling their offer.
But the more Jim heard Sean talk about his vision for Sabre as a retailing platform, one that was more airline-centric, he started to believe that Sabre was serious.
At the same time, he realized Farelogix had a daunting task ahead of itself in trying to scale. Most of its customers were in the US, but it was growing. He knew the company could scale globally if needed, but it wouldn’t be easy. Once he felt that Farelogix and Sabre were on the same page, he knew that an acquisition could solve that problem.
Sabre has people and data centers around the world. It knows how to provide local support, and it deals with some of the challenges like data privacy that vex every company that handles sensitive data. This was a way for Farelogix to be able to scale quickly and relatively easily.
In the last month, things accelerated quickly, and the deal was done around 2:30 in the morning with an announcement just a few hours later.
Farelogix will be a standalone subsidiary (for now) under the Sabre Airline Solutions group. That’s the right place for it, because that’s the group that is supposed to be building things that the airlines want. Jim will continue to run it, though now he’ll have a much greater arsenal behind him.
This should be viewed as good news by just about everyone. It should mean that Sabre has accepted its place as an aggregator of airline content, an enabler of airline merchandising. Instead of controlling the relationships between airlines and suppliers, Sabre can facilitate them. Farelogix has been trying to do that for years, and now it has a very unlikely owner with the resources to push this much further, much faster.
Aruba Airlines A319 A4-AAE lands at Oranjestad Queen Beatrix International Airport – Click photo to enlarge
Greetings from Aruba! Visiting the “one happy island” (as they market it) has been on my to-do list since Southwest started service here a few years back via integration of AirTran’s ops into their own. As luck would have it, my newly minted AvGeek wife was amenable to a honeymoon visit. SXM, the AvGeek Mecca, would have been our first choice, but that island is still in repair mode from extensive damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma in September 2017.
PlaneSpotting in Aruba: Hotel private island south of Oranjestad Queen Beatrix International Airport – Image: Flightradar24.com
While researching PlaneSpotting in Aruba, I was delighted to learn that two local hotels share a private island which runs alongside Aruba’s airport – Oranjestad Queen Beatrix International Airport. While no #MahoBeach, this would certainly fit the bill for running away from the already cold (and falling) Kansas City temps to enjoy some tropical weather, and allowing us to check out some planes. Bonus points for wild iguanas, pelicans, and an occasional flamingo as well.
The island is only accessible via 10-minute boat ride, and is exclusive to guests of one of two Renaissance properties in Aruba. As a sort of deterrent to outsiders, the boat captains ask each passenger for their keycard and insert it into what is almost certainly a phony offline card reader. In any case, should you plan to visit, stay at one of the two properties or call ahead to make other arrangements. We heard twice that non-customers can purchase a day pass to the island depending on availability. Being that this was our honeymoon and I recently achieved lifetime Marriott platinum status, it seemed appropriate to stay at one of the upscale properties.
We spent most of the day on the island, hopping in and out of the ocean between active and inactive arrival periods. For any other relationship or honeymoon, this wouldn’t be tolerated, but thankfully my AvGeek wife was fully on board with my desire to strike a balance between unwinding while on Caribbean vacation and maintaining a healthy dose of plane spotting in Aruba. Click through to see the day’s catch…
Ok, not a plane, but still pretty darn cool, right? Points for it being something that can fly?
PlaneSpotting in Aruba: The Fun Stuff
PlaneSpotting in Aruba: The Everyday American Carriers
Planes and airlines most domestic (U.S.) plane spotters can see at any given airport. What makes PlaneSpotting in Aruba special is that these aren’t the dominant carriers. Bonus points for the occasional boat in the frame as well.
PlaneSpotting in Aruba: Conclusion
Our trip to Aruba provided for a great honeymoon with the added perk of convenient and diverse PlaneSpotting. It takes a good bit of effort to find a balance, but keeping an eye on your favorite flight tracker (we use FlightRadar24 mostly) is sure to help. Happy spotting!
A Green Iguana spots the PlaneSpotter, because after all, this is a story about Aruba
Tickets now on sale for Alaska Airlines flights out of Paine Field – Seattle PI After long battles commercial air service is finally coming to Paine Field north of Seattle. Alaska put its flights on sale for travel beginning Feb 11. This in itself is midly-interesting news, but wait, did Alaska say it would have 18 flights a day? It didn’t have enough gate space at the already-full airport to do that. So what gives?
Southwest quietly announced in its new schedule release that it has pulled out of Paine entirely and the gate space has gone to Alaska. (Anyone else want to know what Southwest got in return?) That means Alaska will have the lion’s share of flights with United still expected to fill out the rest. Alaska is going big here. I mean, four daily flights to LA? On the one hand, Alaska keeps Delta out and if this works as planned, it’ll be a big leg up for Alaska in the battle for Seattle. But if it doesn’t work out, then it’ll just be a big money pit.
Via cancels 50 percent of flights – Parkersburg News and Sentinel Seems like things aren’t going so well for Via Air. We’ve heard this story before, I’m afraid. Finding a reliable, stable operator on these small routes is a challenge.
American Elevates Corporate Customers During Disruptions – FlightGlobal I was critical of American for rolling out a change to how it reaccommodates passengers recently. (They won’t put non-elites on non-partner airlines.) Now, apparently, they’ve realized this policy sucks… but they’re only fixing it for corporate customers who aren’t elites. There’s something about this change that makes it feel even worse.
Two for the road
After Years of False Starts, California Pacific Airlines Takes Flight – Los Angeles Times You have to give it to Ted Vallas, the nearly century-old founder of California Pacific. He did not give up. And now, after many false starts, California Pacific is airborne. As if it wasn’t a long enough road, the airline had to contend with a mechanical issue on its first flight. Ouch. Now we can start playing another game. How long will it keep flying? Carlsbad isn’t a bad place for an airline, but I still don’t have high expectations that this will work out.
What Ever Happened to Berlin’s Deserted ‘Ghost’ Airport? – BBC Capital Remember the Berlin airport that was supposed to open several years ago? Yeah, it still hasn’t happened. I like to post periodic reminders every so often. It’s fun to highlight the ineptitude. There are little bits in here I hadn’t heard before. For example, in 2013, there was a computer glitch that wouldn’t allow them to turn off the lights… for months. What a mess.
There was a big acquisition announced this week north of the 60th parallel when Icelandair said it would pick up its rival WOW Air for very little compensation. If the price is any indication, WOW was in dire straits, and its owner Skuli Mogensen may have been lucky to get anything at all. This is a great deal for Icelandair, though fans of unsustainably-low fares won’t be happy.
The deal itself shows just how remarkably little WOW is worth. In an all-stock transaction, Icelandair will take over WOW Air by giving 272 million shares of its own stock. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not. Icelandair has 5 billion shares outstanding, so this is less than six percent of the combined company. Each share was worth less than a dollar at last check. In fact, even after the post-acquisition surge, an Icelandair share was only around 11 Icelandic krónur… or 90 US cents.
This means when the deal was announced, Icelandair would have provided stock worth about $18 million. With the market’s favorable reaction, that value is up to shy of $25 million. But that is overstating things. This nugget was from a Bloomberg article:
Wow’s equity will account for about 3.5 percent of Icelandair, a figure that could fluctuate between 4.8 percent and zero depending on conditions that weren’t detailed. A subordinated loan will be converted to about 1.8 percent of the equity in the buyer, the remainder of the purchase price.
Holy cow, so let’s pretend the value of the stock is worth $25 million when it can be sold (always a big “if”). A third of that goes to convert a loan. That means WOW’s owner (Skuli Mogensen) will keep about $17m. But even that seemingly paltry sum is dependent upon “conditions that weren’t detailed.” Presumably those are performance-based conditions, so a failing WOW might earn Skuli nothing at all. That’s incredible when you think about WOW’s size.
In 2017, Icelandair’s annual revenue was around 148.5 billion Icelandic krónur or $1.23 billion using today’s exchange rate. Meanwhile, WOW pulled in $486 million in revenue last year and expected to be at $659 million this year and $826 million the year after. If you think about it as a company that was expecting to be about half the size of Icelandair in short order, for the owner to pull in less than 4 percent of the combined company in stock if he’s lucky says one thing… that business was in deep, deep trouble.
And that is no surprise. WOW had been in something of an arms race with Icelandair to see who could make the most questionable route-planning decisions. Was it both of them deciding to go into DFW (along with American)? Or maybe it was a competing effort to go into Cleveland. It could also be the general overcapacity that hurt both airlines. There are a lot of places to look, but these guys were both desperately trying to out-run each other.
The results for both airlines have been bad, though we know a lot more about Icelandair because it’s publicly traded. In the peak third quarter, Icelandair made a 14 percent operating margin. That may sound good, but there are two things to consider. First, last year it did about 10 points better. Second, it needs to make a ton of money in the summer to offset the winter months. This result doesn’t mean Icelandair was on death’s door, but it wasn’t doing well enough. WOW was probably doing worse.
Iceland has been a hot market, but it is cooling. (It had to at some point.) And it still has a crushing amount of capacity filling every corner of the Keflavik airport. That’s not just thanks to WOW and Icelandair but also other airlines ramping up on both sides of the Atlantic.
Both airlines relied heavily not just on local traffic but also on flowing people between North America and Europe. That’s been a rough place for low-cost carriers as they continue to beat each other with fares that are far too low outside of the peak summer months. WOW’s demise shouldn’t surprise anyone.
I should be clear about one thing. This may not technically be the demise of WOW. Icelandair says it’ll run both carriers as standalones for now, but this is certainly the death of the high-flying, fast-growing disruptor role that WOW liked to play. I have to assume that next steps will involve slashing capacity on both sides and rationalizing the networks. If things get dire, Icelandair can just kill off WOW entirely.
The future for Icelandair is strong regardless of its current performance. It’s an arm of the government of Iceland and it isn’t going anywhere. But WOW was causing a lot of trouble for the airline. With that resolved, Icelandair can go back to running a more rational, profitable airline.
It’s been well over a year since Etihad pulled the plug on its failed Alitalia experiment. That left Alitalia — officially known here as the worst airline ever — without a lifeline as it hemorrhaged what precious cash it had left. The airline was living on borrowed time with cash infusions from the state, and there were big plans to sell it off to the highest bidder. That process has taken far longer than anyone hoped, but we’re now one step closer thanks to real bids that have come in, including a surprising one, reportedly, from Delta.
Last April, I expressed an interest in buying Alitalia for a penny, as long as you all agreed to absorb the debt. There were 32 others who were interested as well, but those have mostly fallen by the wayside. Since that time, the sale was put on hold as Italy struggled to build a coalition government to rule. Then the state started talking more about further nationalizing the airline. Delays kept piling up.
While this silliness has been going on, every other airline in the country has been eating Alitalia’s lunch. In 2017, Ryanair was the biggest airline in Italy with more than 36 million passengers (up 11 percent). Meanwhile Alitalia shrunk 5 percent down to just shy of 22 million passengers. That was followed by easyJet with more than 16 million passengers (like Ryanair, up 11 percent).
As you can imagine, this means Alitalia’s short-haul business is evaporating. Probably its best strength right now is its dominant position at close-in Linate airport in Milan, but that’s a fortress position that could easily be replaced if another airline had the chance to come in.
The long-haul isn’t much better. Air Italy — backed by Qatar because that airline apparently likes the Etihad “lose a ton of money” strategy — has reoriented away from its niche leisure long-haul market to become an airline that wants to sit on top of Alitalia with flights like Milan to New York. Other airlines are starting to dig deeper into Italy too, such as American announcing it would fly from Philly to Bologna next year.
So what is Alitalia’s purpose? It doesn’t have one, but the government mistakenly thinks it needs to exist because of national pride and… well, no other reason. With that backdrop, it’s no surprise that of the original 32 bidders, only 3 remain. (I should note my offer to pay a penny as long as the debt is wiped down still stands, but it isn’t counted in these numbers.)
Let’s start with the government. It has decided to use the state rail company to push forward a plan. There was some talk previously about synergy between planes and trains, but that’s just another scheme cooked up by politicians who don’t understand the airline industry. This route would undoubtedly end in another bankruptcy. It’s just a matter of how long it takes.
Then there’s easyJet. Looking at those numbers above, you can understand why easyJet might be interested. It looks at Alitalia the way it looked at airberlin. It could pick at the carcass and build up its Italian operation, creating a great base of operations at Linate. This acquisition would also make a much more formidable competitor to Ryanair. The long-haul piece of the business probably doesn’t really interest easyJet.
Lastly there’s Delta. Delta is a well-run company, so it should be running away screaming. But Delta does love its equity stakes. This is different in that most airlines in which Delta invests are at least solvent with a chance of future success. Something tells me that Delta made about the same offer I did. I would be surprised if anything happened with Delta here at all.
Of course, there could be a collaboration where Delta and easyJet agree to split pieces and focus on the parts they want. But then there’s that national pride issue again. I just don’t see the government being willing to do the right thing here.
Were I a betting man, I’d put my money on the rail company. Why? Because it makes no sense and wouldn’t help the airline survive in the long run. That being said, it would be the biggest win for national pride. In the meantime, Ryanair and easyJet will continue to gobble up the short-haul traffic while Air Italy will fight Alitalia to see who can lose more money as they bash each other’s heads in. Words cannot express how much I love following this airline.
I’ve linked to stories about the trouble with Mexico City’s new airport project a couple of times previously, but now it’s getting ugly enough that it warrants having its own post. Mexico City is desperately in need of new airport capacity, and help was on the way. But those plans are now in serious jeopardy, and a very poor plan has been proposed in its place. I imagine we should know for sure in the next couple of months which way this will go.
Mexico City’s airport problems go back for years. The current airport is in the city, hemmed in on all sides. It was built to handle 32 million passengers, but it now handles nearly 50 percent more than that. Slots are highly restricted, and there are two terminals that are on opposite sides of the airport from each other. That makes connections difficult. Considering that the broader metro area has more than 20 million people and is the largest metro area in the western hemisphere, a solution has to come about. This is a city that deserves a big airport.
After several false starts, a plan was settled upon. Mexico City would build a giant new airport that would replace the current one entirely. Money has poured into this project, and architectural designs were grand, to say the least. With a $13 billion+ price tag, this airport was incredibly expensive and there was substantial opposition.
The new airport itself is built near Texcoco in what is today an empty area, or was an empty area as you can see in the photo above. Why was it empty? Well, dust off those history books and you’ll remember that Mexico City was once a city on a lake. Centuries ago, efforts began to dry up the lakes and prevent catastrophic floods. As efforts went forward, pockets of water remained, but they continued to shrink. The area where the new airport is being built happens to be on top of one of one of the last lake remnants. It’s only in the last couple of decades that it has dried up.
You’d think by this point that project would have been settled, but no. In Mexico’s most recent presidential election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador rode the anti-airport sentiment to victory. He promised he would halt construction and look elsewhere for airport capacity.
Shortly after being elected, it seems he realized this was a bad idea. To avoid the political fallout however, he decided to put it to a vote. Let the Mexican people decide if they want the new airport or not, and then the president-elect could deflect all blame regardless of the outcome.
The vote was held last week, and it was a farce. A referendum along these lines isn’t something that’s part of Mexican politics. The implementation was sloppy, to say the least. It was suggested that polling places were stacked in locations that were known to have people in favor of scrapping the project. There were also reports of people voting multiple times. Very few Mexicans actually voted, but the result from that small sample was a mandate to stop the project from moving forward.
What would this mean if it happens? The new president says he wants to build up Toluca, far out to the west, and add runways to a military base, Santa Lucía, in the north for commercial service. Along with the current airport, this would create more capacity, albeit in a three airport system. That’s not a feasible option, and it will instead split local traffic, depriving the creation of a strong hub at a single large airport. It also wouldn’t save the area around Texcoco from development. So much of the infrastructure has already been laid down that it will just be a hugely expensive white elephant. We haven’t even talked about the financial ramifications from halting a project with a lot of debt on it.
All hope is not lost. After all, López Obrador hasn’t even taken office yet. That happens December 1. Until then, the outgoing president has vowed to keep building as planned. When the new president takes over, he will undoubtedly have to deal with all sorts of lawsuits before any new plan could be put into place.
Unless López Obrador has a change of heart, Mexico City will continue to suffer from a lack of airport capacity for years to come. The presented solutions, whenever they can be implemented, won’t solve the issues at hand.
The 411 on Preferred Seating Fees & Basic Economy Fares – Miles to Go podcast I sat down for a long chat with Ed, and we discussed everything from preferred seating fees (and how I hate them) to basic economy and hidden city ticketing. Listen in if you have some time to spare.
JetBlue Founder Reveals Details on His New Tech-Focused International Airline – Skift There’s a lot in here that makes me scratch my head. Moxy will have no routes where it competes with others? Uh, right, if you don’t count nearby airports. And somehow Azul in Brazil is going to be a huge feed opportunity? It’s something, but it’s not going to make this thing fly. It will, however, add complexity, yet Neeleman thinks he needs no phone number for the airline because you can do everything online. There’s just a lot of ego in here, but we know David likes to talk and that won’t necessarily be the final outcome.
Two for the road
Ethiopian pushes Togo as a gateway to America – Wandering Aramean Here’s another head-scratcher. You’ll be able to fly from LA to Lome in Togo. That marks the first African destination from LA and makes LAX one of the only airports with nonstop flights to six continents. Sure, Ethiopian has a partner in Togo that can connect people all over, but is this really a route that’ll work? I say no.
Pilot ‘Sully’ Sullenberger: ‘This is not the America I know and love’ – The Hill Ok, this has nothing to do with airlines except that the guy giving the message used to fly for one. But we are only 4 days away from the US midterm elections, so this seemed like a good opportunity to remind everyone to vote. My ballot has already been mailed in. You? VOTE. VOTE. VOTE. VOTE. VOTE. VOTE. VOTE. VOTE. That is all. Oh wait… VOTE.
After covering Virgin Atlantic’s flight powered by recaptured carbon biofuel, Geoff Fischer had to get back home to Seattle. He was lucky enough to be flown home in Upper Class (aka Business Class), and here’s his report.
Disclosure: Virgin Atlantic paid for Geoff’s travel.
Having flown British Airways a number of times, I was looking forward to this return flight to finally try the competition and see if Virgin Atlantic lives up to its hype.
Virgin was one of the pioneers of a premium cabin product better than traditional business class, but priced lower than first class. Their “Upper Class” is also meant to be fun, in a Sir Richard Branson, British jet-set way. While they no longer have an onboard masseuse, they differentiate by providing chauffeur service to and from the airport; upscale Clubhouse lounges with spa facilities and copious food and drink; an onboard bar; and, at London/Heathrow, a private check-in and security area called the Wing.
In my time at Heathrow and in the air on a two year-old Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, Virgin definitely lived up to its reputation of fun and different. Although I had some qualms with the seat itself (more on that below), my overall experience was great.
Of course it had better be great when the retail price tag can be $5,000 each way or more. There will be some who may prefer a more conventional onboard product, such as couples flying together or business travelers trying to sleep who find themselves seated near the bar. But I’ve never had an easier or more pleasant time getting to and through Heathrow, and was thoroughly impressed with the friendliness and attentiveness of the flight attendants, the condition of the airplane and the quality of the onboard food.
A few days before departure I called to arrange the car service. I chose a 6:30am pickup for my 9:25am flight to maximize time at the Clubhouse before boarding. My driver was outside the hotel in a Mercedes sedan at 6:20, and with only moderate traffic we arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 just after 7.
Instead of dropping me off at the normal entrance, the driver made a left turn and went up a ramp to the Upper Class Wing. At a barrier he rang a call button and announced me by name and flight number. After verification, the arm went up and we proceeded to the ornate driveway where a staff member was waiting for us.
She led me inside to a check-in desk and I had my boarding pass in two minutes. It was just a few steps to the dedicated security channel, where there was only one person in front of me. I was through security seven minutes after stepping out of the car. The only other airport arrival I’ve had as effortless was at the Lufthansa First Class terminal in Frankfurt. And this was better, because Lufthansa doesn’t provide car service to get you there.
After security, it’s a bit of a hike through the massive Duty Free store and out to the lounges but well worth it. I was welcomed at the door to the Clubhouse and told to sit anywhere and that a server would be by to take my food and drink orders. I mentioned that I was eager to book a massage, and so the agent walked me over to the spa. Seeing the lounge fairly busy, I was expecting to be told there were no time slots available. But I was given a choice of four times and settled on 8:15 so that I could eat and explore first.
Although there were probably a hundred passengers using the lounge, I had no problem finding a quiet area with a bunch of open tables where I sat down for breakfast.
A server came by quickly, and within ten minutes I was enjoying a latte, a mimosa and eggs with smoked salmon and toast – one of the many entree options on their made-to-order breakfast menu. There’s also a large self-service buffet spread.
Off to a solid start, I took a walk around the sprawling facility and found several areas that I wished I had more time to enjoy, including the game room with a beautiful pool table, and the roof deck, with good airport views even on a drizzly London morning. I also wished it was later in the day because the bar had an extensive craft cocktail and beer menu that I didn’t get to sample.
The elegant decor impressed in both form and function, and it lived up to the promise of being a “clubhouse” – someplace you’d actually want to hang out. There was a small army of staff circulating constantly, and it had all the features and amenities you’d expect: a work area, a play area for children, magazines and papers, clean restrooms, etc.
My brief experience at the spa was the only aspect that was underwhelming. They offer a few basic complimentary services but charge for most, including massages, facials and haircuts. I wouldn’t spend 16 GBP again after an uninspired 15 minute chair massage. Nevertheless, I headed off to my gate feeling that Virgin has a clear leg up on BA across the end-to-end airport experience for departing premium cabin passengers.
Boarding was underway when I approached. There was no wait in the premium lane, and being spared a random secondary security screening, I headed down the jet bridge…
October 5, 2018 Virgin Atlantic 105 Lv London/Heathrow 925a Arr Seattle 1105a London/Heathrow (LHR): Gate 13, Runway 27L, Depart 7m Early Seattle (SEA): Runway 16R, Gate S9, Arrive 6m Early Boeing 787-9, G-VDIA “Lucy in the Sky”, 80% Full Seat 1K, Upper Class Flight Time 9h12m
Just inside the boarding door, the bar was set up with newspapers and welcome drinks. I made the all-important left turn and headed up to seat 1K. My first impression was that the cabin looked to be in great shape (as it should on such a young airplane). The mood lighting was definitely in effect.
The seats are in a 1-1-1 herringbone layout angled toward the aisle. The biggest upside of this is that every seat has direct aisle access. There are several downsides including that your back is to the window, there are no seats for couples to sit together, and that everyone’s feet stick out exposed into the aisle.
I definitely prefer the 1-2-1 business class seat design and forward-facing layout that Japanese carrier ANA uses on their 789. But it’s a much closer call that comes down to personal preferences with the 2-3-2 alternating forward and backward layout that British Airways uses on their 789s and the similar 2-4-2 configuration on the 777s and 747s that BA flies on the London-Seattle route.
It was weird at first walking the gauntlet of feet, but I got over it by the second or third time. (Seats on the A side are more private. 50% fewer feet to walk by!)
Waiting at the seat were a menu and an attractive amenity kit designed by the Canadian company Herschel, containing standard items (though no mouthwash) and skin products by Rituals. The pillow and bedding are stowed behind the seatback, which is good because there is zero storage space other than a small nook under the ottoman. The legroom was ample and I appreciated the high privacy divider between me and 2K, but the seat definitely felt narrow because of it. On the plus side, there were individual air dampers, which seem to be getting rarer on new aircraft these days.
As I settled in, a flight attendant came by to welcome me, hang my jacket and offer a pre-departure beverage. It felt a little awkward at first with my feet extending out almost into the forward galley, but it was nice to not be staring at another passenger. With the lavatories at mid-cabin, the only foot traffic coming past was the flight attendants. (It is likely less serene for passengers at the back of the cabin.)
We pushed back a few minutes early and being merely fourth in line for takeoff, the quiet and powerful Rolls Royce engines soon had us in the air. The flight time was announced as nine hours flat, and the seatbelt sign was off 15 minutes after wheels-up.
The flight attendants sprang into action to prepare service for the entirely full 31-seat cabin, with three attendants each working one side of an aisle, and a fourth in the galley. I interacted with all four at different times during the flight, and one or two from other cabins, and all were friendly, attentive and eager to help. It certainly made my flight more enjoyable, and if it holds true day in and day out, it gives Virgin a big advantage over a lot of other legacy carriers.
Service began with drinks and a small bowl of crisps (no hot towel offered). While waiting for lunch to begin, I asked for the sleep suit (which they automatically provide on night flights, but can be requested on day flights too). I changed in the refreshingly spacious and clean lavatory, which gets bonus points for the hand sensors on the toilet flush and sink. The one other thing missing that every airplane bathroom should have is a foot pedal so that you don’t have to touch the waste-bin lid to open it.
Drink refills were offered and our lunch orders taken. The menu listed a choice of two appetizers or soup to start, followed by a choice of four entrees. For both white and red wines there were three options categorized as “Classic”, “Familiar” and “Discover”, which I thought was a nice touch.
Just over an hour out of London the first course was served. The tray table was large and sturdy, and the presentation was classy. The tomato basil soup and multigrain roll were both very good. I started with the French Chardonnay and it was ok.
For my entree I went out on a limb. I VERY rarely order seafood on planes. But while the beef, chicken and pasta options all sounded fine, the Thai spice-rubbed cod with chilis and mango cucumber salad just sounded good. And to my surprise, it was cooked perfectly (skin crispy, moist inside) and the spice level was pleasantly hot. It paired well with the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
Dessert was a choice of apple tart or chocolate pistachio amazingness, so not a tough choice for me. The flight attendant insisted I try the French Syrah as an accompaniment, and I allowed my arm to be twisted. It was indulgent and a great finish to the meal.
I had been worried when I first saw on the menu that there was no salad and only a choice of soup or appetizer, but the portion sizes were fine and the food was very good.
It was soon time for a nap, and a flight attendant made my bed which involved me standing up so that she could flip the seat cushion over and then roll out the mattress pad and duvet. The bed and pillow were quite comfortable. As you can see from the image, the bed ends up being comma-shaped. Being a side sleeper, I wasn’t bothered by the need to curl a bit, and I enjoyed not having my feet constrained in a tight footwell, as you do in other seat designs. But some might find this uncomfortable and might want more storage options than the small drink shelf on one side and ledge on the other.
I woke up after an hour and saw a lot of passengers looking out the windows. We had taken an unusually northern routing up over central Greenland and on this clear sunny day there were incredible views out both sides of the plane. It was hard to believe that we were really at 38,000 feet given how close the snow-covered mountains looked. For quite a while, passengers and crew alike traded places to gawk and take pictures.
A couple of people were hanging out at the bar, some talking and one guy just working on his laptop. I wandered over and ended up staying for over an hour. It’s not as fancy as the bar on Emirates A380s, as it spills into the adjoining space and does not have a full-time bartender (flight attendants walk by every once in a while and serve on request). But I had great impromptu conversations that wouldn’t have happened without the social space and were more interesting to me than watching movies in my cocoon. Passengers nearby seemed to be sleeping fine, but I would suggest avoiding the last row or two, particularly on overnight flights.
I asked the guy on his laptop how the WiFi was, since I had decided not to shell out $5.95 for 40 megabytes of data or $21.99 for 150 MB. He said it was average by international standards; it worked ok at some times, and then was slow or unavailable other times.
About three hours before arrival, I started to feel hungry again and ordered the burger from the Extra Bites section of the menu. The flight attendant said it would take 20 minutes to cook and she would bring it out to me. I also asked for an espresso, and she apologized saying that only their A340s have espresso machines. Disappointingly, the only coffee option was the same flavorless instant brew I had struggled to finish on the eastbound flight.
The burger arrived and it hit the spot. The pickle and red cabbage slaw were appreciated touches. The one thing that would have made it even better would have been fries instead of the potato chips… but I realize that could be hard to do well on a plane.
I did some work and tried to enjoy the last two hours of the flight, before it was time to go back to reality. I had a cup of tea and a finger sandwich when they came around with the formal second meal service. Hot towels were offered after tea, and then it was time to change clothes and prepare for landing.
We got put into a holding pattern just past Vancouver thanks to runway construction limiting arrival capacity, but we still docked six minutes early at the South satellite building. Global Entry worked like a charm, and after a quick subway ride back to the main terminal, I met my driver who was holding a sign with my name at arrivals. Not having to deal with the mess of trying to get a Lyft or Uber out of SEA-TAC was a welcome change, and the SUV ride home was a fitting end to a great Upper Class experience.