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Behind the scenes at Cathay Pacific HQ: 10 cool things revealed

Entry to Cathay Pacific's sprawling HQ in Hong Kong (Chris McGinnis)

Entry to Cathay Pacific’s sprawling HQ in Hong Kong (Chris McGinnis)

Nothing is more fun than going behind the curtain at an airline, airport or hotel, to see how things really work. Luckily, travel writers get to do just that every now and then.

Recently Cathay Pacific invited me to tour the airline’s operations in Hong Kong along with a group of journalists from all over the world. That day, we saw Cathay’s flight operations, catering and cargo facilities and had an opportunity to talk with key executives, all at the airline’s headquarters.

Gazing from the windows of our group’s bus, I could see why the HQ megaplex is dubbed “Cathay City.” The large complex of many modern glass-and-steel office buildings is indeed a city unto itself. Cathay-logoed busses circulate everywhere and empty employees at office buildings’ front doors. In the center of it all in a small, grassy park, there’s a life-sized replica of Cathay’s second aircraft,  affectionately called Niki, positioned as if in perpetual take-off.

I learned a lot and saw some unusual sights. (Think: a giant “wok” of stir-fried rice big enough to serve 300, or a five-foot-long toy car wrapped in plastic for shipping.) And I experienced many “so that’s why” moments.

Here are 10 cool things I learned during my visit to Cathay City in Hong Kong.

1. A bit of history surprised me, given Cathay Pacific’s dominance in Asia and home base in Hong Kong. An American and an Australian, both ex-air force pilots, founded the airline following World War II. Even now, fewer than 20 percent of CX pilots are Hong Kong Chinese and the executives I met were mostly Brits. Cathay Pacific is the world’s 19th largest airline by operating revenue.

Cathay's super secret inflight testing lab-- who knows what lies beneath the sheets? (Photo: Nancy Branka)

Cathay’s super secret inflight testing lab– who knows what lies beneath the sheets? (Photo: Nancy Branka)

2. Shhh! We toured Cathay’s super-secret cabin lab, a mockup of an aircraft interior where new designs of everything from wall panels, seats, and carpet are tested. But most of what was in the lab had been covered with white bed sheets so our inquiring eyes couldn’t spot—and broadcast–the next big thing. When a new seat product is under development, everyone from frequent fliers to the Chairman tests it with overnight stays. (Seeing our looks of envy, our guide told us, “It’s not as much fun as you might think.”) My SFO-HKG-SFO flights were on Boeing 747s, outfitted with a walled business class seat in a 1-2-1 configuration. I call it the “introvert seat” because each seat’s high walls shield you from even making eye contact with another human. Others (extroverts, I suppose) describe it as “coffin-like.” In any case, I found the privacy to work even better than Ambien and slept like a baby. Cathay is in the process of replacing the 747 with the 777 to San Francisco, so passengers enjoy new seats with a little less privacy but more features.

3. Physiologically, we lose 30 percent of our capacity to taste at high altitude. Some airlines I’ve talked to bump up spices and salt to compensate. Cathay’s strategy is to avoid compensating with salt: Its effects on blood pressure aren’t diminished at altitude, they say, and frequent fliers in particular could experience health issues with over-salted meals, even if they tasted “normal.”

Omelets are made by hand in Cathay's massive, sterile kitchens (Photo: Nancy Branka)

Omelets are made by hand in Cathay’s massive, sterile kitchens (Photo: Nancy Branka)

4. All food created in an airline catering operation must be cooked, then cooled, then reheated onboard. Tricky. Some items, like beef, are initially cooked to medium rare, to allow for onboard heating. On my return flight I enjoyed an omelet that I may very well have watched being made (by hand) the day prior during our kitchen tour. At the time, I wondered why the eggs looked runny. Onboard, having been reheated, the omelet was the perfect consistency.

6. Every item offloaded from a plane that will be reused on a future flight must be sanitized. That means meal carts, headphones, soap bottles, on and on. These go through their cleaning in the inbound area of catering operations. For example, every emptied meal cart is run through the cart washer, cleaned with thermal sanitation, dried here and then returned for reuse. Makes sense: Your meal is only as sanitary as the cart from which it is served.

 Specially designed seatback nooks for mobile devices (Photo: Nancy Branka)

Specially designed seatback nooks for mobile devices (Photo: Nancy Branka)

5. Rapidly changing consumer technology can hamstring airlines, as they try and keep up. We sat in a cabin mockup of short-haul business class seats already in service. A niche is molded into the seatback to hold a phone. Nice touch. Trouble is, the niche was designed for iPhone-size smartphones. Now, many phones are larger and will not fit in the indentation. (You’re just going to have to rest your Samsung Galaxy S5 on your tray table.) Also, the seatback monitors were built with a dock for the iPhone. Then, Apple changed the pin-size of its dock connector. A good idea instantly became obsolete. 

Brand new Cathay Pacific 747-8 freighter and B777-300 at Boeing factory in Seattle (Chris McGinnis)

Brand new Cathay Pacific 747-8 freighter and B777-300 at Boeing factory in Seattle (Chris McGinnis)

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7. Cargo flies two ways: in the belly of passenger planes and in freighters (usually 747s). Since 2011, cargo demand has been weak, while supply of space has increased as airlines have expanded, especially internationally. That’s bad news for the cargo business. But I learned it’s just one more reason airlines love the 777 (besides its fuel efficiency): the 777 belly holds 20 tons of cargo, while the 747 (passenger version) holds only half that (10-12 tons). More and more of the cargo business has moved to bellies, to reduce costs. An indication of the lackluster cargo climate: Cathay Pacific currently has four freighters parked in the Arizona desert.

Everyone entering the kitchen must use a roller to remove errant hairs (Photo: Nancy Branka)

Everyone entering the kitchen must use a roller to remove errant hairs (Photo: Nancy Branka)

8. Ever found a hair in your airline meal? I didn’t think so. The standards of hygiene in airline catering are, by necessity, excessive. As visitors, not only were we required to wear a white coat, shower cap, and additional cap, but prior to entering the kitchen we used a roller to remove any stray hairs from the white coat and went through two rounds of hand washing and sanitizing. And we did not even get close to any food.

9. Cathay operates complete kitchens for kosher and halal meals, and each is separate from the general catering kitchen. Kosher meals are made according to Jewish guidelines based on the Old Testament. Halal meals are made according to Muslim guidelines based on the Koran. It was explained to us that regulations for halal meals are even more detailed than for kosher. The staffers who work in these kitchens must be trained by societies specializing in kosher and halal food preparation respectively. I did not order either of these meal types and would see no need to unless your religious beliefs required it, but I have no doubt they are excellent, as I saw the care with which they were made.

Cathay's secret weapon: Crystal! (Photo: Nancy Branka)

Cathay’s secret weapon: Crystal! (Photo: Nancy Branka)

10. Ever wonder how some airlines master superior soft service from flight attendants while others don’t? Well, I met one of Cathay Pacific’s secret weapons: Crystal. She is an inflight service manager, an über flight attendant who oversees the entire cabin crew on a flight. With us, she simulated a meeting she would lead with her crew before boarding. In the meeting, she consciously raises or lowers the energy level of the group. She also quizzes the crew on how certain safety situations are to be handled. But all with kindness and a smile. Listening to her felt a little like eavesdropping on a happy-flight-attendant cult. She must have used the airline’s tagline, “service straight from the heart,” a dozen times and clearly works hard to evoke this from her flight attendants. Sounds a little fakey, I know, but it sounded sincere enough that it hooked me. Crystal said if she died and came back for another life, she hoped she could work at Cathay Pacific again. You cringe. But the thing is, I believed her. By the way, lest you blame labor unions for U.S. legacy carriers’ inability to provide “service straight from the heart,” the CX flight crew union is said to be one of the most aggressive in Hong Kong.

--By TICKET contributor Nancy Branka

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Feast your eyes on United’s new London lounges

United's big bright new Club at London Heathrow Terminal 2. CLICK ON PHOTO FOR SLIDESHOW

United’s big bright new Club at London Heathrow Terminal 2. CLICK ON PHOTO FOR SLIDESHOW

United Airlines invited a small group of media folks (including your TICKET editor!) to London Heathrow Airport this week for a preview of its two brand new lounges for premium customers – a United Global First Lounge and a United Club in  the airport’s new Terminal 2, The Queen’s Terminal. See slideshow

United will be the first airline to operate from Terminal 2 when it opens on June 4, finally bringing its 17 daily Heathrow flights – currently split between Terminals 1 and 4 – “under one roof.”  Later this year, the operations of United’s 22 Star Alliance partners at Heathrow will progressively move to Terminal 2, the alliance’s new home at the airport.

The airport is moving airlines in slowly at T2– it does not want a repeat of the fiasco that occurred when British Airways moved into the massive Terminal 5 overnight.

Conversation nook in United Club along with vintage photos (Chris McGinnis)

Conversation nook in United Club along with vintage photos (Chris McGinnis)

Together, the two lounges occupy 22,000 square feet of space near United’s gates in Terminal 2’s T2B satellite concourse. Both feature floor-to-ceiling windows with views of runways, modern décor and walls adorned with vintage black and white photos from United’s archives. Like T5, the Queen’s Terminal is comprised of a main terminal (T2A) and a satellite (T2B) connected by an underground walkway.

Warm canapes from the elaborate United Club buffet (Chris McGinnis)

Warm canapes from the elaborate United Club buffet (Chris McGinnis)

Both the Club and the Lounge will offer elaborate meals (unlike anything you’ll see stateside), plenty of high end booze, wine and, of course speedy, free Wi-Fi.  It remains to be seen whether the quality and quantity of the spread laid out for the media will be the ongoing standard.

Nearly every seat in the joint is within a foot or two of a power outlet. And there are seven private “phone booths” set up with desks and glass doors for private conversations.  See slideshow

Global First Lounge

The United Global First Lounge is for United or Star Alliance customers traveling in first class. The centerpiece of the lounge is an oversized Big Ben-style clock in the tea lounge section.  Other features include a buffet area, an intimate dining room, private phone booths and a quiet zone with loungers and privacy drapes.

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United Club

The United Club is for United Club members, those traveling in business class and Star Alliance Gold members. It’s the first Club outside the U.S. to feature the new United Club design concept– which you’ll see spread throughout United Clubs over the next year as part of a $50 million upgrade.

The Club has a big bright and open layout with seating over 280 guests.  Against a backdrop of runways is a 25-seat full service bar, two buffet areas, a TV lounge and seven private phone booths. See slideshow

There are eight well-appointed and spacious shower suites

There are eight well-appointed and spacious shower suites

There are eight spacious shower suites with complimentary toiletries and valet service– put your suit in the valet door while showering, and an attendant will press it and have it ready by the time you dry off.

United operates 17 flights per day from Heathrow to six US cities: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York/Newark, San Francisco and Washington, D.C./Dulles. See slideshow

How does United’s new look compare to Delta or other airport lounges you’ve visited lately? Please leave your comments below!

Chris McGinnis

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Faster arrivals at ATL + Meal vouchers vanishing + Delta’s new planes + Southwest devaluation + Delta-Alaska divorce

Arrival kiosks like these at Delta's new T4 at JFK are coming to Atlanta. Nice! (Photo: Delta)

Arrival kiosks like these at Delta’s new T4 at JFK are coming to Atlanta. Nice! (Photo: Delta)

ATL GETS IMMIGRATION KIOSKS…Following in the footsteps of JFK’s terminals one and four, Chicago O’Hare, Houston, and Seattle-Tacoma, Atlanta is finally getting automated immigration kiosks that speed up the arrivals process for international passengers. Those with Global Entry may be a bit miffed, however, that everyone is getting a speedier option for entering the United States as it only takes a swipe of your passport and a few screen clicks to print out a ticket. Travelers then present that ticket to an immigration officer before heading through customs and save almost half the time versus waiting in a traditional line. Still, it is not quite as fast (or exclusive) as Global Entry, but it is better than before. The system also means you no longer need to complete an immigration card/customs declaration card on arrival.

DELTA OVERWATER WI-FI ROLLOUT. FINALLY! This week Delta launched new satellite based Gogo wi-fi service on three B747s flying to Tokyo from Atlanta and Los Angeles-LAX. Delta says that the service should be on all its 16 747s by mid 2014, and its entire international fleet by the end of 2015. Rates start at $15 per hour and $25 per flight. Speaking of Gogo wifi, the onboard internet provider announced this week it will join forces with Samsung to offer a full year (up to 36 flights) of Gogo Inflight Internet access with the purchase of a new Samsung tablet. Accessing the free sessions is easy:  just launch your browser on any Gogo equipped flight and you will automatically be directed to a special landing page that will grant Internet access.

United's new 737-800s will be used on the ATL-SFO nonstop route (Photo: RedLegsFan21 / Flickr)

United’s newish 737-800s will be used on the ATL-SFO nonstop route (Photo: RedLegsFan21 / Flickr)

NEW UNITED NONSTOPS TO SFO. Starting April 1, United will use 737-800s to revive its nonstop service on ATL-SFO, a market already well served well by Delta, Southwest and AirTran. Outbound flights depart ATL at 6:55 am and 5:24 pm. Returns depart SFO at 8:54 am and 3:33 pm. A quick look at fares is showing the lowest coach roundtrips at $390. What do you think about United? Is it a good alternative to Delta? Please leave your comments below. 

DELTA-ALASKA AIR DIVORCE. The breakup between Delta and Alaska Airlines is becoming long and ugly. Earlier this month, Delta basically declared war on Alaska when a top executive stated its intentions to make Seattle, Alaska’s base of operations,  a Delta hub. This week both carriers announced that some of the reciprocal benefits their elite customers have enjoyed, such as waived baggage fees, access to priority security lines, discounts on premium economy,  are getting yanked starting May 1. Delta changes here. Alaska’s here. The best news here is for Seattle residents, who are getting wooed with bonus mile offers, status matches, free Uber rides to the airport and more as both carriers battle for their business.

DELTA MEAL VOUCHERS FADING…Been delayed on a Delta flight recently? Whether it is a mechanical issue, weather or total cancelation, don’t expect Delta to print out meal vouchers anymore. Instead, some gate agents have told The TICKET that it’s more likely that a cart will be rolled out with pretzels, snacks, water, and soda to tide you over. Five hour delay? Same cart. Agents stated that it is up to the station manager if they want to order in additional food for lengthy delays. Meal vouchers are printed at agent discretion, but apparently the new policy is that they are no longer part of irregular operations. Do you think airlines should provide vouchers to passengers when the delay is a mechanical and lasts several hours… is cart service at the gate okay by you? Leave your comments below. 

NEW RESTAURANTS AT DETROIT…Travelers passing through Delta’s Detroit hub will soon have new dining options when the airport completes a makeover of its food outlets. New choices will include PF Chang’s China Bistro, Chick-Fil-A, Gordon Biersch, Bruegger’s Bagels, Pinkberry, and Longhorn Steakhouse among others. What’s your favorite place to nosh at DTW or other Delta hubs?

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Could the Airbus A350 be Delta's next big plane? (Photo: Airbus)

Could the Airbus A350 be Delta’s next big plane? (Photo: Airbus)

DELTA PLANS REPLACEMENT FOR 747/767 PLANES…Delta is evaluating what aircraft type will replace the Boeing 747 and 767 planes (two of the oldest models in its fleet) in the coming years. According to AviationWeek, Delta has ruled out the Boeing 777X (an extended version of the current 777) although the B777-300 is being considered. Delta is also studying the Airbus A350-900/1000 model and the Dreamliner (B787). Delta already holds orders for the Dreamliner, which were placed by Northwest, and then deferred by Delta. Additional Airbus A330 aircraft are also in the running. Read this regarding the gradual disappearance of the “Queen of the Skies” at SFO. Will you miss Delta’s jumbo jet when the 747 retires? 

SFO-TOKYO ENDS. Delta will end its San Francisco-Tokyo nonstop flight, effective March 30. Delta spokesperson Anthony Black confirmed the move to The TICKET:  ”We are ending service between SFO and NRT with the last westbound service effective Friday, March 28, 2014, and final eastbound service effective Sunday, March 30, 2014. Delta is suspending its nonstop service due to an unstable revenue environment caused by yen devaluation.”

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UBER NOT EVERYWHERE. A growing number of TICKET readers are big on the new generation of ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft. (If not, sign up here and get $20 off your first ride!) While calling up an Uber car in San Francisco or New York is almost second nature, you might be surprised to learn such services are NOT available in: Austin, Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans, Portland, St. Louis. Low cost UberX is no longer available for rides to or from LAX, although its black cars are still permitted.

SOUTHWEST.COM ALLOWS INTERNATIONAL BOOKINGS…This has been the case for a couple of months, but few have noticed it. You can now book international travel on Southwest’s website. The flights, mostly to the Caribbean, are AirTran routes, but can now be booked directly through the Southwest portal. Ironically, not all destinations can be used as the origination points. It seems that only a few cities work consistently including Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, Orlando, or Pittsburgh. If traveling from another city, a separate booking must be made, but the two can be combined upon check-in for the purpose of checking bags all the way through (although they will remain separate bookings).

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CREDIT CARDS DESPERATE TO GIVE YOU $400. Last week  Time Magazine ran a story about how banks are battling for the biz of folks with good jobs, good credit and high spending. Sounds like the typical TICKET reader to me! The  best card with the biggest bonuses for business travelers: Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard. Why don’t you take the banks up on their offer? You’ll get $400 in award travel, and you’ll help out The TICKET when (and only when) you order up a new card from our links. So just do it!

SOUTHWEST DEVALUATION. So it’s not just Delta….If you’ve been hoarding your Southwest Rapid Rewards points, you might want to consider redeeming them before March 31. Wanna Get Away reward flight bookings made on or after March 31, 2014 will require 70 points per dollar, an increase from the 60 points per dollar that is currently required.

DELTA BOOSTS LAX AGAIN. Beginning this summer, Delta will add twice-daily nonstop service from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas aboard Boeing 717 and 737 planes. New daily service to Boise, Idaho will be added via Delta Connection, and a daily international link to San Salvador, El Salvador makes a comeback to the Delta network from LAX with 737 service each day. These moves in addition to a recent declaration that it intends to make Seattle a hub show Delta’s serious about building up its west coast presence.

DELTA PARTNERS WITH LINKEDIN. Delta has linked up with LinkedIn to offer business travelers the opportunity to fly with industry influencers on specific flights. Travelers that are intrigued with flying with a bigwig in their specific industry submit an application at Deltainnovationclass.com. Then, Delta will select and pair applicants with industry leaders. These pairings will be chosen throughout the year, and the winners will have the chance to fly side by side with their role model or industry icon giving them the chance to share ideas or discuss business topics along the way. Would you be up for some mentoring on a flight? If so, who would you most like to sit next to? 

Rooms like this one at the swank Cosmopolitan Las Vegas bump up from Marriott Rewards Tier 8 to Tier 9. (Photo: Cosmopolitan)

Rooms like this one at the swank Cosmopolitan Las Vegas bump up from Marriott Rewards Tier 8 to Tier 9. (Photo: Cosmopolitan) 

MARRIOTT REWARDS DOWNGRADES. It’s getting downright tiring to write about loyalty program downgrades. But I’ll carry on! Marriott has increased the number of points needed for free nights at a slew of properties around the world. Most of the properties that you’d really want to stay at are increasing from Category 8  to the newly created Category 9. Here’s the list. Read it and weep.

MUSICAL GATES AT DCA. If you fly Southwest, Virgin America or JetBlue into Washington Reagan National Airport, you need to read this about their plan to swap terminals. Virgin and JetBlue will move into more modern digs in Terminal B/C.  Southwest will expand at the older Terminal A, which is slated for a major re-do to be completed in late 2015.

Fabulous new "grand lodge" interiors at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe (Photo: Hyatt)
Fabulous new “grand lodge” interiors at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe (Photo: Hyatt)

WORTH CHECKING INTO. Last week I was able to snag a super nice room at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe for just $100 per night by bidding low on Priceline. (Probably has something to do with the lack of snow there!) Having stayed there about five years ago, I was surprised at the REALLY nice full re-do of the 398-room high rise lakeside property in Incline Village, NV. The style is “grand lodge” and there’s lots of stone, leather and timber. The renovation project wrapped up this past December, with each room getting a $45K makeover… the total tab was about $25 million and it shows! Check it out! Overall, I’ve been impressed with Hyatt re-dos all over the world… have you noticed?

Chris McGinnis & Ramsey Qubein

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SkyMiles + Award chart + SkyPoints + New lavs + Sky Club snacks + Amex fees up

IT’S THE MONEY, HONEY. As we’ve expected for several years, Delta will move to a revenue-based SkyMiles program in 2015. Starting in January, it will reward us for our status and for the amount of money we spend instead of the number of miles we fly. That makes perfect business sense, but it’s painful for those who’ve spent the last 30 or so years with miles in mind. The best news for Atlanta-based business travelers is that the new program is weighted in favor of those who pay a lot to fly short distances. While we love our nonstop lifestyle in ATL, it always felt like the cards were stacked against us when it came to earning segments, or paying Delta $800 to fly to Nashville and only earning a handful of points. (See figure) The new program should help even that out. The new program is bad news for those who’d earn scads of miles (and status) by taking multiple $400 round trips to the West Coast, or $500 roundtrips to Europe in the dead of winter. Earning miles and maintaining status is going to get much tougher for this crowd. What about you? Does a revenue-based program make you happy or sad? Please leave your comments below!

This is the type of trip where a Gold SkyMiles member's going to actually feel good about flying to Nashville

This is the type of trip where a Gold SkyMiles member’s going to actually feel good about flying to Nashville

DELTA RELEASES AWARD CHART. Delta’s biggest public relations mistake in the rollout of the new rules for 2015 was that it only offered us half the equation. Initially, Delta only told us how much we’d earn… but it did not tell us how much we’d pay for award travel. Irritatingly, Delta said it would release a new award chart – but not until this fall. After a thorough lashing on that point, it released the chart last week. Much to everyone’s surprise, the chart is not much different than before. Instead of three tiers, there are now five. And the best news is that Delta is finally going to offer one-way awards starting at 12,500 miles.  It still remains to be seen how easy it’s going to be to get a round trip for 25K or a one-way award for 12.5K. Our guess is that the true lowest tier is will be Tier 2, with lowest domestic round trips at 35K (coach) and 65K (first) and Europe at 75K (coach) 160K (Biz).

SKYPOINTS? I think it’s only a matter of time until SkyMiles is re-christened “SkyPoints” or “SkyRewards” since the new plan has little to do with mileage. And it looks like someone at Delta is already thinking along those lines…. Enter “SkyPoints” or “SkyRewards” in Google and up pops….a Delta SkyMiles ad at the top of the list! According to WhoIs, The URL www.skypoints.com is now held by a company called “Worldwide Media” in Deerfield Beach, FL…which is asking for bids.

The good folks at airlineguys.com snapped this pic of the new 737-900 bathroom

The good folks at airlineguys.com snapped this pic of the new 737-900 bathroom and posted it on Twitter

NARROW LAVS ON 737-900 PLANES…Have you traveled on one of the new Boeing 737-900 aircraft recently? (We’ve seen them on the ATL-SFO run lately…) Delta and Boeing worked together with B/E Aerospace to design a thinner bathroom to allow for six more seats in the economy cabin. If you thought the bathrooms could not get any smaller than they already have, well think again. The designers removed the counter space to increase the room around the toilet. While it may seem narrower around the sink area, it is not so tight that an average-sized person will feel uncomfortable. No word yet on how plus-sized folks feel about them. Let us know your thoughts if you try it out!

ENHANCED SKY CLUB SNACKS—ARE YOU A FAN? Delta recently piloted enhanced snacks in several lounges, including larger bagels, fresh sliced fruit, and a pancake machine at breakfast; sandwiches, soups, and wraps at lunch; and antipasti, desserts, and warm appetizers later in the day. It’s also surveying members to determine which items are most popular. While the snacks are certainly a welcome change, customer opinion appears to be mixed. One TICKET reader wrote in that “at lunch in the Detroit central a club, one tray of miniature wraps and a hot pot of soup were the only different items available. Both had a line 15 people deep, and by the time the last person approached the buffet, the supplies were already exhausted.” What do you think about Sky Club’s enhanced offerings? Enough to make you fee better about the recent price increase? Please leave your comments below.

NEW ATLANTA-SPOKANE TRANSCON THIS SUMMER…Delta will fly a weekly flight between Atlanta and Spokane, Washington (located on the eastern side of the state) for the summer season with an Airbus A320 aircraft. It will be a daytime flight in both directions and give northwest travelers easier access with one-stop connections to the southeastern and eastern U.S. and several Caribbean/Mexican markets.

GARUDA INDONESIA. While it might feel a little spooky to consider flying Southeast Asian carriers as long as that Malaysian Airlines 777 is missing, SkyTeam added Garuda Indonesia Airlines as its 20th partner this month.  This adds its hub at Jakarta as another Asian hub for the alliance as well as 40 exotic new destinations.

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 4.24.55 PM

The outstanding new SkyTeam Lounge in Istanbul. Click on photo for full 360 degree tour!

NEW SKYTEAM LOUNGE TO OPEN IN DUBAI…SkyTeam is boosting its own branded lounge network (operated jointly with airlines at a specific airport). London Heathrow was the first, and recently a SkyTeam lounge opened in Istanbul. Plans to open a lounge in Dubai are in place with a projected opening date of early 2015. SkyTeam lounges are open to premium cabin travelers and SkyTeam Elite Plus members (Gold, Platinum, and Diamond Medallion) on international itineraries.

TWO ATLANTA AIRPORT BARS GO HIGH-TECH…If you like the plethora of stationary iPads at Delta’s La Guardia terminal, this should warm your cockles: Service at the new Samuel Adams Atlanta and Dos Equis Explorer Lounge in Concourse B at ATL will be notably more swift thanks to new iPad ordering systems. They allow customers to place orders directly via the tabletop electronics rather than through a staffer, which should significantly reduce wait times. Drinks and menu items can be requested via the system, which also directly accepts credit card payments. A wireless paging system summons a server for special requests. While waiting on their food, diners can play games or check the weather via the iPad device.

Chris McGinnis & Ramsey Qubein

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Back on the SkyMiles merry-go-round

Delta 757-200 in St Maartin (Photo: Matt Hintsa / Flickr)

Delta 757-200 in St Maarten (Photo: Matt Hintsa / Flickr)

I’ve watched Delta make “historic” or “major” changes to its SkyMiles program since long before it was called SkyMiles. It’s funny how the same scenario plays out time after time when Delta (or any other major airline) makes changes to loyalty programs. (Link to Delta’s changes which go into effect next year.)

Here’s the playbook:

For months, or even years, Delta tempts us with leaks and rumors about “upcoming changes” which keep its best customers on pins and needles, and an army of pundits pondering.

When it comes time to announce the change, Delta shares the news exclusively and under strict embargo with a handful of its friends in major media outlets. Those media typically don’t trash the changes, but only report on them.

For editorializing, Delta’s media friends go to a handful of pundits who come out either for or against the changes.  Many times these pundits or consultants are also in on the embargo, which makes you wonder who is buttering their bread?

Then, boom! At the anointed hour the embargo is lifted, the pre-arranged stories hit the web, TV or newspapers and hysteria mounts! Reactions to these stories in blogs and social media run along the lines of… “Oh my GAWD! Delta is gutting the program! This is historic! How can Delta do this to us! A massive devaluation! How dare Delta offend its very best customers? This spells the end of frequent flyer programs as we know them! Let’s launch a petition or a website to convince Delta to reverse its decision! I’ll never fly Delta again!”

On the other side of the story, you hear, “Delta is a business and can do whatever it wants with SkyMiles…What’s wrong with paying attention to the 20% of flyers who produce 80% of revenue? …This change will actually benefit frequent flyers in the long run. …You can always switch to another carrier until it makes the same moves.” Delta executives state, “Our best customers asked us to do this. We even conducted focus groups!”

Eventually, other airlines mimic Delta’s moves and their customers rise up in protest.

Then the hysteria dies down and we all get back to work. Of course, we still grumble about the changes with fellow travelers on blog comment trails, at cocktail parties or across airplane aisles, but we accept them as inevitable and move on.

After what appear to be such mammoth changes, we assume for a while that the airlines just can’t cut back or restructure the programs any more…until they do. And then the cycle repeats itself again. And again and again.

What’s your take on Delta’s moves this week? The TICKET’s Facebook page is full of good comments, so take a read and leave your thoughts below… or on Facebook.

PS: Can anyone remember what Delta’s program was called before it became SkyMiles in in 1995? Leave your guesses below…

Chris McGinnis  

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Sexy new bikini-clad safety video: thumbs up or down?

air new zealand safety video

Christie Brinkley has a cameo in Air New Zealand’s new bikinis & beefcake safety video

Air New Zealand and Sports Illustrated teamed up to produce this brand new, bright and sexy bikini-clad flight safety video. We thought this might be a nice diversion on an icy day in Atlanta!

This of course comes on the heels of Virgin America’s  Glee-like attempt to grab our attention last October. And Delta’s recently popular 80′s themed pre-flight safety video.

What do you think about themed inflight safety videos? Cool and fun…or irritating?

Please leave your comments below.

Chris McGinnis  

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Delta’s big hair + New biz class seat + Sky Club experiments + High value customers + Eastern Airlines?

A younger version of Deltalina (click to view video)

A younger version of Deltalina (click to view video)

DELTA’S BIG HAIR MOMENT…Have you seen the new 1980′s themed safety video airing aboard Delta flights? Now that the holiday-themed demo has been put away for the season, travelers have a new video to capture their attention. Highlights include a cameo by a younger Deltalina finger wagging the no-smoking gesture and plenty of big hair, leggings, and boom boxes hailing from decades ago. The video was shot on board a 777 aircraft in Detroit and took nearly 20 hours to produce. It includes the new update regarding FAA-approved mobile devices available for use at any time on board while in airplane mode. The idea for the 80s theme came from Delta’s first safety video ever, which launched during the 1980s on board its flights. It was, no doubt, a bit less humorous and entertaining back then. The YouTube version of the video has gone viral in the socialmediasphere–  already amassing 1.3 million views.

FinlandiaSKY CLUB AMENITIES GET AN UPGRADE…Taking some of the sting out of recent membership price increase and limits on guests, Delta Sky Clubs are experimenting with new upgrades. (Check out TICKET reader reaction to the changes here on our Facebook page.)In test market clubs between mid-February and April, a variety of new snacks and services will be offered along with surveys for members to complete. The most popular amenities based on this feedback will be implemented nationwide once the test is complete. The complimentary new items being tested include sandwiches, antipasto items, hot soups, evening desserts, smoothies, and larger breakfast bagels. Manicures, shoeshines, and massage chairs will also be available on a complimentary basis. Due to customer feedback, the well vodka is switching to the Finlandia brand. The test markets include the F and A-17 clubs in Atlanta, the A-38 club in Detroit, the D club at LaGuardia, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, and Seattle/Tacoma among others. 

INTERNATIONAL LOUNGE ACCESS GETS PARTIAL AXE…Not all Delta-related lounge news is positive though. Delta quietly pared down the list of overseas lounges that SkyTeam Elite Plus members can access when traveling in cities without a Delta club. Previously, numerous third-party lounges permitted access for SkyTeam Elite Plus members flying in economy from cities like Athens, Barcelona, Brussels, Nice, Quito, Stockholm, and Zurich. The term “third-party lounge” is being renamed “business lounge” meaning that only business class travelers will have access. Delta had to pay the lounges for access by its SkyTeam Elite Plus flyers traveling in economy, and this change is certainly a cost-cutting measure that comes at the expense of SkyTeam benefits for Elite Plus flyers. The change is effective on May 1, and it is best to check the drop-down menu on Delta.com to verify if you will have lounge access. Sky Club members have a separate list of clubs that they can access, and SkyTeam Elite Plus members can still access SkyTeam-branded or SkyTeam airline lounges no matter what class of service they are flying.

Air France's new biz class seat coming to its B777s starting this June

Air France’s new biz class seat coming to its B777s starting this June

AIR FRANCE UNVEILS NEW FLAT BED BUSINESS SEAT…Air France has finally joined the lie-flat crowd with a mod new business class seat that transitions to a completely flat bed in a cocoon shell with a new 16-inch video screen. Replacing those irritating angled lie flat seats is going to take about two years, so don’t expect to see them in Atlanta any time soon. First up for the new seats are Air France’s 44 Boeing 777s. After that, its Airbus A330s and A380s will get the new seats. However, Air France’s 747s (which fly to Atlanta during summer months) won’t get the new seats since the jumbos are being phased out of its fleet. Here’s an in-depth look at the new seat from our mates at Australian Business Traveler.

ARE YOU A DELTA HVC?  It’s not just miles that can get you extra special treatment at the airport from Delta… it’s also cold hard cash. According to a new report from Ideaworks, “high value customers” or HVC’s aren’t necessarily frequent travelers. Instead they possess enough disposable income to buy super-elite perks from airlines (like airport escorts, private security screening or Porsche rides across the airport ramp). According to IdeaWorks, Delta’s program is called “VIP Select Service” and is available at ATL, LAX, JFK and SFO. Fees for such services vary, but start at $125 for one passenger. Interested? The report includes this email address for queries: VIPselect@Delta.com

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DELTA POSTS ENORMOUS PROFIT… Delta President Ed Bastian attributes Delta’s recent spate of fat quarterly profits to reduced flying by airlines, which allows more profitable fares and fuller airplanes. If you note happier employees this month, it’s because Delta provides a profit sharing check when the airline does well. This is Delta’s fourth year of posting profits, which is no doubt one of the reasons that industry magazine Air Transport World recently named Delta Air Lines the “Airline of the Year” for 2012.

AMERICAN DROPS ATL-LAGUARDIA NONSTOPS…As part of the American-US Airways merger, AA has realigned its flying schedule from the New York market launching service to dozens of new airports across the country. However, to do so, it had to drop other routes, which includes its regional jet flying from Atlanta to LaGuardia. The new American can only operate a fixed number of departures from the airport due to the limited slots it holds at LGA. This leaves Delta and AirTran/Southwest as the only carriers in the busy ATL-LGA market.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 9.28.48 PMDEAL ON MOBILE OFFICE SPACE. Regus, the outfit that rents office space to business travelers and mobile workers in over 1,800 locations around the world, is offering a nice deal via Amazon Local. The $20 Mobile Worker Pack deal offers two hours usage of of a professional meeting room for up to four people, plus five visits to a Regus Business Lounge, refreshments, and access to administrative support. Retail value for this pack is $260, so The TICKET just saved you $240! Check it out here. 

MORE ROCKETMILES. Remember when The TICKET wrote about Rocketmiles when it launched last year? Rocketmiles is a hotel booking website that offers travelers gigantic frequent flyer mile bonuses (7,000 – 15,000 in many cases) for staying at its carefully curated list of upscale hotels. Well, it seems the business is working because Rocketmiles just secured $6.5 million more in funding from Silicon Valley VCs. Not bad! When you check out the site Rocketmiles from this link, both you and The TICKET earn 1,000 bonus miles, so check it out and help us out!

ATLANTA AIRPORT CONSIDERING FREE WIFI…The airport authority is seeking approval for a wireless infrastructure upgrade that could pave the way for free wi-fi airport-wide. A new system would need to support the high number of travelers that would no doubt take advantage of it. Projections are that nearly 15,000 people could log on at one time; the current pay system that was installed in 2005 can only handle 4,000 users simultaneously. The upgrade could cost as much as $6 million and may be in place as early as this spring. You may remember that plans were in place to offer free wi-fi by last fall, but the bidding process among potential providers was riddled with hiccups that delayed the overall process.

Eastern Airlines back in the day!

Eastern Airlines back in the day!

UNLIKELY BUT TRUE. An outfit in Florida has filed papers to resuscitate the Eastern Airlines brand. While there’s a LOT more to cranking up a new airline than filing papers, it’s interesting to see Atlanta’s one-time #2 carrier back in the news. A press release states, “Eastern Air Lines Group, Inc. was formed to re-launch Eastern Air Lines as a passenger airline using the Airbus A320 aircraft from its main base of operations at Miami International Airport (“MIA”).  Eastern’s headquarters is located in Building 5A at MIA. Eastern Air Lines Group, Inc. is not affiliated with the former Eastern Air Lines, which operated from 1928 to 1991 as one of the largest U.S. domestic air carriers.” Follow Eastern on Twitter.

LAGUARDIA AIRPORT GETS OVERALL IMPROVEMENTS…New York state will begin a $3.6 billion upgrade project for La Guardia that includes a new central terminal building with fancier food and shopping outlets and free wireless Internet. Delta does not operate from the central terminal building, and its terminals C and D are not as dilapidated as the rest of the airport facility. However, Southwest and AirTran do use the older central terminal. Common complaints include few escalators, limited full-service restaurants, low ceilings, and poor maintenance upkeep. Construction on the new facility, once plans are approved, could begin by the end of the year. 

WHAT’S IN YOUR WALLET? With all the changes (and devaluations) coming to our cherished frequent flyer programs, it’s a good idea to starting focusing on other ways to earn free trips—such as credit card programs. Over the last year, the new Barclaycard World Arrivals card has shot to the top of a lot of comparison charts when it comes to rewards cards. That’s because it offers a value of $2 for every $100 spent, special bonuses for travel-related points redemptions, no irritating foreign transaction fees…and a nice 40,000 point sign-up bonus (that’s one free $400 ticket with no blackout dates).  The $89 annual fee is waived for the first year. When you get a Barclaycard World Arrivals card via links in The TICKET, we earn a small commission… so come on and help us out if you are in the market for a new card! Thanks. More info here.

Chris McGinnis  & Ramsey Qubein

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Southwest Air faces Blackfish backlash

A Southwest Airlines painted in the Shamu livery. Grin or grimace? (Photo: Midland Airport)

A Southwest Airlines painted in the Shamu livery. Does it make you grin or grimace? (Photo: Midland Airport)

By now you’ve likely seen or heard about “Blackfish,” the controversial documentary movie about how the capture and treatment of SeaWorld’s Orca whales results in poor health, boredom, and in some cases, whales attacking their handlers.  The film has resulted in a growing outcry in support of the whales and against the mighty SeaWorld franchise, which operates popular parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando. It’s now in the running to be nominated for for “Best Documentary” by the Academy Awards this week.

Defending itself in a statement last summer, the company said that the film is,  “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.” Despite the brouhaha, SeaWorld claimed this week that its attendance numbers set records in Q4 2013.

(SeeBlackfish  movie trailer here, it recently aired on CNN and is now available on NetFlix.)

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Amid the controversy, many of the smiles generated by the sight of Southwest’s “Shamu” themed jets (which you’ve likely seen diving into ATL) may have turned to grimaces. Last week protesters lined up in front of Southwest HQ in Dallas demanding an end to the carrier’s relationship with SeaWorld. Last week, Southwest made the following statement on its blog.

Over the past few weeks we’ve observed a number of Customers and community members reach out to Southwest Airlines regarding our partnership with SeaWorld.  We want our Customers to know that we’ve heard your concerns and we do not take them lightly.  I felt it was necessary to share our position on the partnership and hopefully address any concerns. We have a longstanding relationship with SeaWorld that is based on travel and bringing families together. We are engaged with SeaWorld related to the recent concerns being raised.   We are in a listening and education mode with the goal of upholding our commitments as a good corporate citizen.  As a responsible member of the community, we support several organizations and events that are devoted to maintaining the natural world. At this time, our partnership with SeaWorld will continue.

What’s even more interesting than the blog post are the comments it’s engendered, some of which request that Southwest perform its own investigation into SeaWorld’s practices and reconsider the partnership. Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Hudson Crossing echoed those comments, telling The BAT, “Southwest is doing exactly what it should do: listening and learning. Southwest can’t, and shouldn’t, make any decision without objective facts . . . I believe it would be beneficial for it to obtain independent, objective insight into SeaWorld’s treatment of the various animals in its care. ”

According to Blackfish, whales with flaccid dorsal fins are rarely seen in the wild, but nearly alway present on captives (Photo: Dogwoof Films)

According to Blackfish, whales with flaccid dorsal fins are rarely seen in the wild, but the bent fins are nearly always present on captives (Photo: Dogwoof Films)

Hmmm. When I see the words “at this time” in a corporate statement it makes me think that Southwest is probably considering backing out of this relationship, but can’t get out of its contracts fast enough. What do you think? Have you seen Blackfish? Does Southwest’s partnership with SeaWorld affect your airline decision? Please leave your comments below.

Chris McGinnis  

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