The travel adviser: From dreamliners to dreamy service

In the aviation industry, success can be counted on by focusing on the three P’s: Pricing, People and Product.

November 13, 2016 00:32
A United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner lands at San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco,

A United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner lands at San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco, California, February 15, 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Jade has several definitions: from a hard, typically green stone to a bad-tempered woman. Trust me when I tell you that Jade, manning the desk at the United Airlines lounge at San Francisco Airport, was neither green nor bad tempered. In fact, an Angel of Mercy is how I’d describe her. It was 8:25 pm on a blustery fall day when I hobbled into the lounge after eight hours of pure horror trying to somehow, some way, make the United flight which departed on time at 8:00 pm on a nonstop route to Tel Aviv.

In the aviation industry, success can be counted on by focusing on the three P’s: Pricing, People and Product.

An airline can try to succeed by offering low-cost fares, and there’s no argument that those niche players, such as Spirit Air in the US, have a large following and rack up considerable profit.

Other airlines, like Southwest, put a greater emphasis on their people, both with intensive training and excellent compensation packages, and consumers often remark how friendly they are.

Product is a more subjective component. Yes, flyers want a modern aircraft, but between Boeing and Airbus, the choices range in the thousands. Passengers want comfortable seats, connectivity, and entertainment options, even on their own devices. They want larger restrooms, palatable food, and polite flight attendants. Create such a winning product, and you’ll have clients requesting your airline first. Frequent flier programs are an asset, airport facilities an advantage, but it’s what happens on the plane that most determines the overall experience.

United Airlines in Tel Aviv, led by their veteran managing director Avi Friedman, was generous in inviting me to enjoy the business class service of their Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which flies daily between San Francisco and Tel Aviv. Inaugurated just a few months earlier, its rapid success surprised many at United Airlines, who underestimated the potential for a non-stop flight to the Bay Area. The only other airline that flies nonstop to California is El Al’s flight to Los Angeles, and that monopoly had been shattered by UA. This is the route the Dreamliner was built for – flying between Silicon Wadi and Silicon Valley requires a brand new airline, with the best technology available.

Flying the Dreamliner in both economy and Premium economy class has garnered excellent reviews, but I wanted to experience the business class to compare it with alternative options that the discerning consumer can choose from. Turkish Air, especially, has proved quite popular with the business elite, with its short stop in Istanbul. British Airways as well was an easy airline to market, with its sterling reputation for business class. But the ability to fly 14½ hours and avoid switching planes along the way is why the UA route achieved such great success. It’s also why I so quickly accepted their generous offer.

Flying without luggage meant that I bypassed their check-in counter and went directly to their lounge at Ben-Gurion Airport. Delete that – they have no lounge of their own. Like every other airline except El Al, the business lounge used by them is called the Dan Lounge.

Resplendent in boxy chairs, the lounge is shaped like a railway car, and is chock full with business passengers from dozens of airlines, as well as credit card holders utilizing points to gain entry into this not so exclusive club. Sending out a few emails was sufficient, and after a quick nosh of the paltry offerings, I made my way to the departure gate.

Once I arrived at my seat, I found a nice blanket and pillow, along with a high-quality leather amenity kit from luxury brand Cowshed. This is a new upgrade for United’s premium cabins, and much nicer than the previous offerings. The flight attendant, glancing down at her list, greeted me by name, asking about my meal choice, and inquired if there was anything I needed.

It’s a gorgeous plane, high ceilings, and special windows. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner has windows that are unique to the industry. The electrified windows work via a current running through a gel which is between two thin panes of glass. They are designed to tint at the push of a button — either by the passenger sitting in the window seat, or the flight attendant’s control panel.

Dinner was really nice. It was at least five courses, if you don’t count the ramekin of warm mixed nuts served to start. It ended with an ice cream sundae, served from a cart with a variety of toppings and dressings, which was made to order. I was impressed with that personal touch. A selection of five wines was offered at each pass, with recommendations depending on the course.

The in-flight entertainment mode was easy to use, with a huge library of movies, TV shows and music.

The headphones were nothing special though, with other airlines offering top quality sets.

The seat was awesome. It lies fully flat, as do all United business and international first class seats. I changed into some sweat pants (not United’s – they still don’t offer them), curled up under the thick blanket provided, and got six solid hours of sleep. At the end of the day, THAT is the single biggest reason why business travelers fly business class (or, why their companies pay). United’s BusinessFirst product is perfectly conducive to that. And so after licking off my sundae, to sleep I went.

There were more meals throughout my trip, but between sleep, a bit of work and some reading, time passed quickly. After another tasty breakfast, we arrived on time to SFO, only to be told that as much as we enjoyed our journey, United asked that we wait a few minutes as the US Customs only opens at 6:00 a.m. We disembarked from the plane, entered US passport control, and saw the sunrise over the city.

I continued down to LA for a few days, and was ready to return to San Francisco for my 8:00 p.m. flight to Tel Aviv when a text message popped up on my phone at 1:30 p.m.: “UA flight #640 from LAX to SFO has been canceled – please click on the link for alternative flights or contact UA directly.”

Believe it or now, I was quite calm – the ability to see how UA dealt with this challenge could only be educational for me, having walked hundreds, nay thousands, of passengers through similar experiences.

The link proved worthless, showing me there were no flights for 24 hours. I quickly phoned UA and requested that she put me on another flight from LA to San Francisco, as I saw that American Airlines and Delta were still operating flights. She politely said it could not be done, and that I had to fly UA the next day. When I pointed out to her that I believed the UA flight was sold out the next day from SFO to Tel Aviv, she wisely chose to transfer the call to her supervisor.

Speaking to Peter McIntosh out of Honolulu, he informed me that due to the thunderstorms in Los Angeles, all flights had been canceled. When I pointed out that I was glancing out on a beautiful Southern California sunny day, I opined that whomever gave him that information was “full of s..t.”

Using profanity was not the wisest thing to do. He got apoplectic, and informed me that he was recording the phone call and that I could not address him in such a manner. Keeping my voice calm, I apologized for any insult and simultaneously started texting United Airlines in Israel. Writing furiously, I asked to be put on the American Airlines flight, and in under a minute, the consummate professional at UA made the change and reissued my ticket.

Politely asking Peter to refresh my reservation was met by another onslaught, informing me not to tell him how to do his job. With great patience I repeated my request, and when he saw it had been reissued, he was in shock. The phone was silent for nearly 30 seconds, and when sound emerged from the speaker, his tone had changed from pure aggression to one of a gentle, benevolent timbre: “I’m so sorry Mr. Feldman for any misunderstanding. I can see that someone at United Airlines has taken care of you. Can I send you the ticket, order you a special meal?” I simply wished him thanks and to have a good day.

Racing to LAX, I turned in my rental car and approached the AA counter, only to be told that their flight was going to be delayed 90 minutes because of the fog in San Francisco. She offered to move me to Delta, only to discover their flight was also delayed.

Boarding the plane, I knew the odds of making the UA flight would be slim unless it was also delayed leaving San Francisco. Racing to the UA terminal, I made my way to the gate only to find a security guard who told me the flight took off 15 minutes ago.

Knowing that I needed the assistance of someone far wiser than me, I went to the United Airlines lounge and was met there by my soon to be green goddess Jade. It was the end of a holiday weekend, and there were no later flights that night on any airline to Europe, let alone the Middle East. All flights the next two days on United were completely sold out, but in looking at the UA computer, I noticed a large discrepancy between the reservation system and the seat map. For some peculiar reason, while the nonstop flight to San Francisco had zero seats available, a look at the seat map showed there were nine open seats. I told Jade, who said that perhaps the ticketed clients had simply not reserved seats. Chuckling, I told her that I had never met a person flying business class who did not request – demand! – a seat to be assigned. A slight smile crept over her face as she called her supervisor with my theory. Two minutes later, she printed out a boarding pass.

United Airlines took full responsibility for the delay, and arranged an airport hotel as well as a $40 meal voucher, and away I went.

The return flight was uneventful, the Israeli-speaking flight attendant was warm and cheerful, and all went smoothly.

Do I recommend United Airlines? Of course. Their prices are fair, their product excellent, and for the most part their people – those overworked, underpaid people – are striving to do their very best. Is it the best product out there? No. And United itself is the first to admit that while their product is very good today, as they start to unroll their brand new Polaris business first class, my Dreamline experience will fade into memory. They’re hoping that the Polaris brand will bring United Airlines into the top tier of business class flights. Time will tell.

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.

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