Saturday, February 12, 2011

First Class Flights; the best use of frequent flyer points

First of all, I have to admit to being completely spoiled. Spoilt too, I suspect, but that is another story. I have been fortunate to be able to travel in First Class for several long-haul flights and despite the acerbic emails that I may get for these comments, I feel it a public service to offer a glimpse behind the curtain.

Firstly, no pun intended, it has to be accepted that there are people to whom money carries fewer responsibilities than the rest of us; there are also folks who travel from continent to continent on multimillion dollar business for whom peace and quiet trump the huge price of the ticket. It is, it has to be said, a step down from the private jets that whizz the truly rich and famous around the world, but it is a pretty nice way to fly.

First Class travel starts well; no congress with the mass of folks checking in for the myriad of long-haul flights; a discreet desk in the corner of the terminal, or in the case of Lufthansa in Frankfurt, a terminal of one’s own to complete the mundane formalities in a minute or two. Oddly, it is at that point that airlines seem to divide into two categories; those that are playing lip service to their most valuable clients, and those who actually value them.

United has possibly the best seats in First Class, but the worst customer interaction. Their staff are usually acceptable, but their menu, security by-pass systems and lounges all rank poorly. Lufthansa now (2015) have wonderful seats, and their ground facilities are extraordinary; Swiss seem to manage both. In a few weeks I will be able to add Thai to my comparison, and am looking forward to experiencing their renowned lounge in Bangkok.

For most, waiting a the airport is uncomfortable and dull; First Class passengers, on the other hand, are happy to check in a few hours early. In Frankfurt the Lufthansa lounge has a magnificent bar and a first-class restaurant within the facility, naturally with no bill in sight. On-site spa treatments, and when it is finally time to go, a private passport control and a late-model Porsche to whisk you to the waiting aircraft. In Bangkok, I gather, Thai First Class passengers are entitled to a complimentary one-hour massage in their spa, in addition to one of the finest restaurants in Bangkok available for their pleasure.

In Paris, it is said that that the operators of the Air France First Class lounge, a Michelin-starred place if ever there was one, are paid a flat €500 per passenger; one can only imagine the service that is on offer.

All this before one even boards the plane. Once on board, seats are huge and discreet. My personal favourite is actually Turkish Airlines who offer each passenger their own cabin that can be open to the masses or closed into a private cabin. Sadly they don’t fly to Winnipeg or Toulouse.

Once on board, service ranges from extraordinary, Johnnie Walker Blue is the Lufthansa house scotch, to the mundane; United’s catering does not match the promise of their wonderful seats, and in fact would be comparable to most airline's business class offerings. Swiss offer a splendid seven course meal with a selection of marvellous wines to compliment every course. And when consumption is complete and one’s eyes start to wane, the seats turn into beds.

Some, United’s are the best example, are simply magnificent, self-contained suites that offer comfort and privacy. Others, and Swiss is the best for this attention, place a mattress over one’s absolutely flat seat and a duvet above to complete a fine bed. And, of course they include pajamas.
So, refreshed, but not overly so, one arrives and can then head to a special arrivals lounge, complete with a shower and breakfast. At this point, one usually has to mix with business class passengers, but sated with the flight’s pampering, food and wine, compromises can be made.

All in all, it is a pretty nice way to travel.

Friday, February 11, 2011

London Again!

I am, I really do recognise, extremely fortunate to live a life that can keep me in touch with folks in Europe as well as North America. I am well aware that but for a few very fortunate bounces of the ball my life could be significantly different. I am also aware that a couple of bad bounces will have my life spinning off on a completely different tangent.
For now, however, I live a rather pleasant life; made possible, I have to add, by my colleagues at home in Winnipeg who vacillate between wanting me there for “input” and wanting me gone for “peace”. We find a balance, and I am grateful for their forbearance; for their part, I think, they are grateful for my absence, but nevertheless, they are terrific, and allow me to take advantage of considerable freedom.
One of the benefits of regular travel is the ability to get to know restaurants; another in my case is to get to know a restaurant reviewer with whom I go exploring each time I get to London. This time we went to a small restaurant in Swiss Cottage, a well known area of inner North London. Well known, I think, because zillions of cars pass by every day; it is close to really nice places; close to some grubby but alive and fun places, but Swiss Cottage itself is pretty dire. 1970s communal apartments, land blocks raised for traffic extensions, dull little “villas” in a place that feels as if it is on a road to somewhere else.
However, The Chateaubriand was our target that night, and more disappointed we could not have been; it was, tired, disenfranchised, sad and really on its last legs. Not only was there no Chateaubriand, apparently too expensive for his crowd, there wasn’t even a steak.
Now I can understand not stocking a cut that costs £45 for two (although Joseph and I thought this reasonable) when you only sell four or five a year, which is what they apparently do. However, with such a name, it is not unreasonable to expect some meat; other than a Vienna Schnitzel. Never mind; the good news was that having finished dinner in a record seventy minutes, we headed to my New Favourite Pub Of All Time, the Holly Bush in Hampstead; it is truly special, convivial in a singular sort of way and old.
The Holly Bush is the sort of place that two or three times in its existence resisted modernisation. Firstly in the 1890s and then again, and with some fortitude, I think, in the 1970s. It remains a Victorian drinking place, with contemporary Aussie bar staff it has to be said. But then again, my Canadian daughter is in Australia serving alcohol to Australians at the moment, so the world is truly upside down.
Why do Australians head north to pour beer and Canadians head south? It is not exactly an exchange of skills; but then I digress. Beer is being poured equally enthusiastically everywhere.
But Tuesday night in the Holly Bush was marvellous. Why I have never been there before I can’t explain, but I hadn’t, and I will again. It is a marvellous place, full of the past conjured together perfectly with the refreshment requirements of the present. And no, we did not get over refreshed, simply content. And a gentle contentedness aligned with the company of a good friend, the evening passed. We only wondered why we didn’t meet there at seven instead of the barren wastes of Swiss Cottage.

Tbilisi; An Interesting Week

Tbilisi is always interesting, and my all-too-brief stay there last week once more conjured up some surprises and ideas. It always does, and suffice it to say that were I to decamp and move to Georgia, a thought that has crossed my mind more than once, I would collapse under the deluge of potential.

Georgia is, you see, a remarkable country. In many ways similar to many post-Soviet lands, it has a vibrancy and excitement that I have not seen in others. The exceptions, of course, are the Baltics, Poland and possibly the Czech Republic, but they have had the EU to assist and boost. No, Georgia has had less structural support; it has, of course, had significant financial support from both the US and from the EU, but nevertheless there is a fascinating evolution going on. Young Georgians, and by that I mean those under about thirty-five in mind or body are so competent and alive; they leave the young whippersnappers that Deloitte and other “Global Consultancies” send to Georgia to help them mend their ways and reach the future.

So the Big Idea now was to run charter flights to Tbilisi for three and four-day escapes. A great idea, and one that warmed the cockles of a tour operator’s heart; there is good accommodation in Tbilisi, sufficient rooms for this kind of operation and a local nightlife that would sell. The idea was mooted in December during my previous visit, and I and a couple of others have been doing a little sleuthing since then.

The key, of course, to a successful tour operation is to be able to buy each component for a significant discount; the hotel rooms must be reasonable and the cost of the aircraft acceptable. It is, whichever way you slice it, a significant risk to charter twenty flights on spec. An operation to Georgia must logically be operated by an airline with the rights to fly on the route, and also an aircraft available with the minimum of deadheading; operating an empty flight to come an pick up the passengers.

The first quote, from a Georgian carrier was for €32,000 per rotation, which seemed pricey to us. Following a series of meetings in London our second quote came from a rather obscure South African airline, of whom I had never heard before Monday. Their offer was US$19,500 per rotation, a significant discount to the original benchmark.

The third meeting was the best; I am yet to get a price, but am assured that it will arrive by Friday (tomorrow at this point).

And so it will come to pass; we will offer holidays in Tbilisi to the denizens of Baghdad; oddly, we now think that 50% of our market will be Iraqis, rather than a complete market of ex-patriots. The market remains to be seen, as do a number of other issues. Georgian visas for Iraqis for example, and the roughly $500,000 financial commitment, but the project seems very sound.

Interesting too, which is important; I have a fairly short attention span. Concentrated and sharp it may be, but it is short.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Creature of Habit

It is very easy to become a creature of habit; travelling as I do, I find myself almost searching for patterns, looking for flakes of continuity in an otherwise fairly random life. I am staying currently in the Courtyard Marriott in Tbilisi, my third visit, and other than the murder, I like the security and comfort of knowing and being known.

The murder was odd, though. A few days before I arrived, a young(ish) French IT specialist, only three days in the country, was brutally stabbed in room 412. I pass this room each time I head from my room to the elevator; they have tacked two elderly bed covers over the door, covering the police tape (I peeked behind them), which jar against the otherwise perfect symmetry of a hotel corridor. It makes one wonder about that night in January, hints of spurned lovers, on-line attractions and perhaps expectations that went beyond those spoken. I also wonder when they will clean the room, and who will, presumably unwittingly, be its next paying guest.

So full of these wonders, and my penchant for habit taking me to one of two local restaurants for lunch or dinner when alone, I have been in Tbilisi for three days now; successful ones I think, as the couple of major business ideas I am pursuing seem to be edging forward nicely. Nicely to the point that today I had nothing else to do and decided to head to Batumi, the rapidly-growing resort on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.

Twice weekly Airzena (the Georgian national airline) operate a schedule that allows one to head to the coast for seven hours, and still be back in Tbilisi in time for dinner. The fare, at $75 return, is terrific, so I headed to the airport armed with camera and notepad ready for a day at the seaside.

We boarded the plane on time and the 50 seat aircraft had about 30 passengers on board with two flight crew; used to United Airlines' spartan offering on the same aircraft, this seemed almost excessive. However, after about 30 minutes, they came around and announced that because of snow, rain and fog at the seaside, the flight would be delayed.

So I abandoned ship; as the aircraft was to continue from Batumi to Kiev and stop on its way back, the return to Tbilisi would be significantly late, and I have a dinner engagement; add to that, while beaches in snow and howling winds do have rather macabre attractions, being late for dinner trumped them. So back through security, a complicated refund process and fortunately one lone taxi around to take me back to town.

And now, I think to my favourite little haunt for a bowl of their marvellous mushroom soup while I ponder the afternoon.