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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why Alaska Airlines is My New Favorite Carrier

Source: VNAFlyer
You may have noticed that, while this blog is about the airline industry in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, I write quite a bit about Alaska Airlines (AS).

Truth be told, being based in the United States, American Airlines (AA) is my carrier of choice, so much so that I reached 2 Million Miler status and earned lifetime Platinum (PLT) status.

However, AA has very limited routes along the west coast, so relies instead on their deep codesharing and frequent flyer partnership with AS.  Splitting my time between Los Angeles and Seattle and flying AS has given me the chance to truly appreciate the level of service AS provides.

What started as an incidental exposure on a few codeshare flights led me to request a status match with AS, which was gladly granted.  By virtue of my AA PLT status, AS matched me to their mid-tier equivalent MVP Gold (MVPG) status, which normally requires 40,000 miles flown on AS only, or 50,000 miles flown on AS and its partners.

I have to say that I've been very happy flying AS.  Don't get me wrong, I quite enjoy flying AA and the benefits as an elite there. However, AS has definitely won me over with its customer-friendly policies for everyone, and generous benefits for elites. The AA+AS partnership is a fantastic one-two knockout punch.

Alaska's partner airlines chart.
Being a regional carrier that uses only variants of the Boeing 737 (B737) in its mainline operations, Alaska's shortcoming is the lack of long-haul international flights; however, it makes up for that by forging partnerships with several international airlines across alliances, a novel but effective approach for the independent carrier.

In fact, one can earn both redeemable miles (for award flights) and elite-qualifying miles (for elite status) towards AS's Mileage Plan (MP) program on no less than 5 Oneworld airlines (AA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN, and Qantas) and 5 Skyteam airlines (AeroMexico, Air France, Delta, KLM, and Korean Air), along with Middle East powerhouse Emirates and South Pacific carrier Fiji Airways.

As an mid-tier elite, I've been 100% successful on being upgraded into first class (6 of 6), and have also taken advantage of their Same Day Flight Change, where elites can switch to a different flight on the day of departure for no charge, so long as there is a seat available. Even for non-elites, the cost is only $25, which is very reasonable and doesn't require a passenger to sweat it out at the gate, since once the change is confirmed and the passenger is reticketed onto the new flight.

Other things like power at almost every seat, streaming entertainment, a liberal Price Guarantee, and their 20-minute Baggage Service Guarantee puts Alaska towards the front of the pack for domestic US flying.

I really am a fan of AS, especially in light of recent heavy competition from Delta (DL) moving into AS's home hub, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), as their own new hub and gateway to Asia (and yes, you did just read that AS and DL are supposed to be partners). Alaska has been lauded by experts for its ability to hold its own against one of the world's largest airlines in what's been popularly referred to as "The Battle in Seattle."

Since I'm now flying AS so much, I've decided to start a companion blog, ASFlyer, so that I can put in my AS-specific posts there.  In fact, I went into more detail in my first post on ASFlyer, "Why I Love Alaska Airlines, and Why You Should Too."

Follow ASFlyer for most information and updates on Alaska Airlines... the little airline that could.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Trip Report: The Adventures of Checking in at Sea-Tac

I started writing this report starting in the middle of my trip, when I met up with my VNA flight

Other chapters:
Alaska 737-800 at SEA
We are scheduled to depart on an Alaska Airlines (AS) at 7:55pm from Seattle (SEA) to Los Angeles (LAX), where we will spend the night before flying out the next morning to Shanghai-Pudong (PVG) on American Airlines (AA).

We planned on this overnight layover intentionally, so we could visit family and pick up some things to bring back to Vietnam.  Since we were staying in Los Angeles for under 24 hours, it wasn't considered a stopover and therefore didn't increase the cost of the tickets by breaking up our itinerary into two separate fares.

In my past experiences, what typically would happen was that our flight down to LAX would be treated as a normal domestic flight, and our bags would be checked to LAX, since we were spending the night there.

Domestic check-in time for AS is 40 minutes with or without checked baggage, and we arrive a bit early at the counter (70 minutes before departure) so we don't have to rush. By virtue of our Platinum status with AA, we have access to AS's first class check-in, as well as priority boarding, so we are in no particular rush.

So we plan accordingly, packing as if we were going to grab our bags in LAX and spend a night in Los Angeles. Things were not to be, however, when we stroll up to the counter, happily stating that we are checking in 4 pieces for the flight to LAX.

The agent takes our drivers licenses, taps a few keys, and asks, "Are you flying to Shanghai?" I tell her that we are, and she continues to tap at a feverish pace. After a couple of minutes, she asks for our passports, which strikes me as odd because we are flying a domestic flight, but I dig them out of my backpack and hand them over.

The agent takes them and walks to the back office. Though I'm not in panic mode, I do start feeling a growing concern that something was amiss. Is there a problem with our booking? Is one of the flights canceled ore rescheduled? Is the TSA after us? (That last one was more funny than concerning.)

After a few minutes, the agent comes back and loudly declares, "You were supposed to be here sooner!"  I politely point out to her that we're well before the cutoff time, and she's essentially ignoring us, not to be rude, but to type as fast as she can and asking us about our trip to Shanghai and onwards.

As best as I can put together, the system is treating us as international passengers and demanding all the foreign travel formalities. Obviously, this agent has has handled international check-ins before but not as experienced as those from legacy carriers, which leads us to our next hurdle:

"Where are your visas?"
Interlude: While China requires a visa to visit as a tourist with a US passport, at certain airports including Shanghai there is a "Transit Without Visa" (TWOV) program available, as long as we are flying onto a 3rd country (in our case, Vietnam) and staying no more than 72 hours (23 hours for us). 
Also, Vietnam requires visa for US passport holders to have a visa before entering. However, a visa waiver program was instituted for certain visitors who had a Vietnamese heritage. upon which Vietnam would issue a "certificate of waiver exemption" that looked like a visa adhered to a passport page and essentially acted like a visa.
Airlines use a system called TIMATIC that explains the travel documentation requirements for all possible combinations of departing city, connections, and final destinations. 
I tell the agent that we don't have visas, and explain the above as to why we didn't. I know she referenced TIMATIC to know in general that we needed visas, but I still show her my printout of the TIMATIC results, which I had in case there was a problem in CHINA... I didn't figure I would need them in Seattle!

The agent accepted the fact that we qualified for China's TWOV program, but did not accept that our "Certificates of Visa Exemption" were valid for entry into Vietnam, as it was not a visa per se. She runs to the back office again, and after a few minutes comes out.

She finally finishes checking us in, saying that she is using our places of birth as evidence of our entry (which is fine for my wife... but I was born in the US, so I have no idea how that would work). In any case, we get the boarding passes printed, all the while the agent keeps grumbling how we should have been here earlier, and I have to keep pointing out that a) we should have been checking in as a domestic itinerary, and b) we were still there before the international check in time of 60 minutes. I also wanted to point out her lack of understanding the TIMATIC results, but at that point we just let her be.

Now it's on to checked luggage... which of course is tagged all the way to PVG and not LAX, where we had intended to unload some things and redistribute. More typing, more grumbling, and a compromise, but she's able to short-check 2 of our our bags to LAX (the ones we REALLY needed), and the other 2 go all the way to PVG.

At this point, I realize that AS doesn't provide priority tags for the bags, which would be important in PVG if we wanted a chance to have our bags be one of the first to come out from a full B777. I sprint down to the AA counter, which luckily was only about 100 yards away, give my 15-second elevator pitch as to why I needed their priority tags, and sprint back to the AS counter. Having never tagged a bag as priority before, I actually have to show the agent how to put the priority tags onto the luggage tags (fast forward: our bags are some of the first out at PVG, thanks to the priority tags).

We finally have boarding passes in hand and get into security 45 minutes before our departure. Thankfully we have TSA Pre-Check, so we're through in less than 5 minutes, but without enough time to check out Alaska's Board Room lounge, we just head out to the gate, and we start boarding within 5 minutes of our getting there.

So much for our relaxing pace to start our trip!

After the scrum at check-in, we have a quick, uneventful flight down to LAX. Our AA Platinum (PLT) elite status allows us to board with AS's elites, as well as select preferred seats at the time of booking. Normally, non-status passengers can only select non-preferred seats towards the rear of the plane, but can pick any seat when they check in 24 hours ahead of time, including exit row seats.

On this flight, we are sitting in Row 17, which is the 2nd exit row with ample legroom and full recline (whereas Row 16 has limited recline). Interestingly, the tray tables on AS's exit rows are NOT in the armrests, but on the seatback instead, meaning that these seats have the same width.

On descent into LAX, making the turn over downtown
Los Angeles. For reference, the purple light is Staples Center.
Alaska is also unique in offering a baggage delivery service guarantee: If your bags don't arrive to baggage claim within 20 minutes of the aircraft door opening, AS will give you a certificate good for $25 off your next flight with AS, or 2,500 AS Mileage Plan miles. I've gotten into the habit of starting my phones stopwatch just to remind me if I should ask for a certificate. You don't even have to wait at baggage claim... you can talk to any airport agent, or contact AS within 2 hours of arrival via phone or even through Twitter @AlaskaAir.

Alas, AS again proves its efficiency and our bags come out in just 11 minutes, and we're on our way away from LAX.

Maximize the Layovers on Your Itinerary

It's always worth checking out if you can stay in your connection city on a stopover for a few days, especially if it's a city you enjoy or have never been to before. Even if a stopover isn't allowed, sometime's a longer connection time ("layover") is permitted.

Use layovers to visit places like Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Tokyo.
Being based in the US, I primarily fly American Airlines (AA), especially to get to an Asia gateway airport on my way to Vietnam.

I've found that on most AA international fares, or fares that include an international segment, so long as you are scheduled to be in your connecting city for less than 24 hours, it's not considered a stopover and therefore doesn't increase the price of your ticket by breaking your ticket up into two separate tickets (if stopovers aren't allowed). This "trick" works on many other airlines as well.

Typically on a purely domestic itinerary, AA generally requires you to take a connecting flight within 4 hours of your arrival at the connection city.

What I've found to be great this use of this layover rule is that it's scalable.. that is to say, the layover rule applies to all your connection points made en route, including any connections in the US. You can spend up to 23 hours, 59 minutes after your schedule arrival in each city, and it may cost exactly the same base fare (there are some variances in taxes and fees).

To illustrate: Let's say you are starting in Dallas (DFW) and in Tokyo-Narita (NRT) on your way to Saigon. A typical sample itinerary may look something like this:
Click to enlarge. Image source: ITASoftware
A standard roundtrip, same-day connections at each connection city, nothing out of the ordinary, prices out at US$873.

Now, what if you wanted to visit, say, Los Angeles for whatever reason (you've never been, you want to grab dinner with friends, you miss your family, etc.).  This is what happens when I price the itinerary with an overnight layover at LAX Airport:
Click to enlarge. Image source: ITASoftware
Notice that I'm scheduled to spend about 21 hours overnight in Los Angeles starting in the late afternoon, giving me enough time, e.g., to pickup my rental car, head to the beach for a couple of hours, grab dinner, grab plenty of sleep, go for a run along another beach, and grab breakfast, all before heading back to LAX to hop on my flight to NRT.

All this for the fare price of $890, or a mere $17 increase from the original boring itinerary, which is just the difference in taxes and airport fees.

If you're lucky, AA may even check your luggage (two free for all, by default) all the way to SGN, so you don't have to deal with it on your long layovers.

This is what happens if I decide to spend a few extra hours in Tokyo before heading to Saigon:
Click to enlarge. Image source: ITASoftware
Instead of a 1.5 hour connection in Tokyo, I now have 9 hours to visit, and it only added US$12 to the previous total. Granted, there's a change in airport, but 9 hours is a lot of time to be able to explore the city before heading to Haneda Airport (HND), which is situated much closer to the central city areas.

Finally, if you wanted to go all crazy on both the outbound and return legs, this is what you can do:
Click to enlarge. Image source: ITASoftware
As you can see here, on the way home back to DFW, I added a 23h05m layover in San Diego and a 23h19 layover in Chicago, all for a mere $51 increase from the original boring itinerary! Scalable...

Obviously, this type of trip isn't for everyone. I personally like taking the opportunity to get a taste of the cities I visit, even if just for a little bit. I figure, if I'm going to fly hours to get to some city, why not leave the airport for a little bit?

There are a few caveats to be aware of:
  • Your fare type (shown as "Q" in the examples above) must be available on all your flight segments.
  • Individual fare rules dictate layover maximum, number of connections, etc.
  • Remember to keep it at 23 hours, 59 minutes or under. If you hit 24 hours, your connection becomes a stopover, which may trigger a stopover fee or break the fare into two separate (and usually more expensive) fares.
  • You'll actually have to price and ticket this itinerary, either by manipulating or another travel site, using the "multi-city search" feature, or by having an AA agent (phone or airport) ticket what you want. Having an AA agent involved incurs a fee ($35 right now per passenger, but it's going up to $45 soon).
  • This layover trick exist on other airlines as well, though your experience may vary.
If you know the rules, you can fully maximize your trip potential without adding much cost. It's a great way to experience new cities, or revisit favorite ones.

Let me know if you have any success with your long layovers!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

40-Minute VietJet Air Flight Delayed for Over 10 Hours

VietJet Air Passengers getting off
their plane that went out of service for
10 hours. Image source: Thanh Nien
VietJet Air's (VJ's) nasty reputation for being chronically late has reared its ugly head again.

Passengers at Phu Quoc Airport (PQC) for hoping for an uneventful short flight to Saigon (SGN) were subject to rolling delays amounting to 10 hours that apparently included the aircraft itself repeatedly going around in circles from paddock (there currently are no jet bridges attached to the terminals, so boarding is by bus and airstairs) to taxiways back to its parking spot.

From personal experience, the flight time from PQC to SGN should take about 40 minutes, or about an hour from gate to gate.

A mechanical issue was reported to be the problem, and I don't fault anyone for playing it safe, but this severity of this delay was compounded by several variables:

  • The mechanical fault itself;
  • PQC is essentially a remote outstation on an island, with no aircraft maintenance services present. Even if VJ wanted to borrow VNA's tools and equipment, they couldn't (not that VNA would want to lend them the tools);
  • VJ only has 3 flights a day from SGN, where the part was coming from;
  • VNA only has 4-5 flights a day, many on small prop planes, so it would have been tough to get passengers reaccommodated (again, only if VNA was a willing participant);
  • There are limited services at PQC, and I'm not sure if VJ handed out vouchers that could be used at the couple of eateries there (with my most major delay with VNA, they passed out meals out of a galley cart).
  • VJ fully utilizes its small fleet, so no other aircraft would be available as a replacement, especially at an outstation.
Mechanical issues are inevitable, but it's how airlines handle the irregular operations (IRROPS) that make or break the passengers' experience.

One more interesting tidbit: It looks like there was a decree requiring airlines to refund passengers their airfare if their flight was delayed by more than 5 hours. We'll see how VJ handles this (I wouldn't be surprised if this "refund" came in the form of a voucher for future use on the airline).

Sounds like VJ gets a D- on this occurrence (and not a full-blown F, since apparently they did try to feed the passengers).

Update: VNA's First 787 in Final Assembly

Apparently Vietnam Airlines' (VNA's) first Dreamliner has entered the beginning stages of final assembly at the Boeing factory in Everett, WA. 

Final assembly means that most of the smaller components that can be installed have been installed, and all that's left is to join the large body sections such as the flight deck, fuselage, wings, engines, and landing gear. This process can take a month or more to complete.

VNA is due to receive the 787-9 (B789) in late May, with the first scheduled long-haul flight scheduled for Hanoi (HAN) to London-Heathrow (LHR) on June 29. It will be painted in VNA's updated livery that has already appeared on a number of Boeing 777-200s (B772) after repainting, and on the new Airbus A350-900 (A359) that emerged from the paintshop in Toulouse recently.

(H/T: All Things 787)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

5,000 Bonus AA Miles After First Stay Through Rocketmiles

Last week, I wrote about Rocketmiles' hotel booking site, and how they were enticing frequent flyers with a standard 1,000-mile bonus, with 3,000 bonus miles to some airlines, for booking and completing their first stay through the site, no minimum stay length required.

Alaska Airlines flyers were treated to a 5,000 miles signup bonus.

Today, Rocketmiles comes out with a 5,000 mile offer for American Airlines flyers. Just book before April 15, 11:59pm CT.

To ensure that you receive the bonus:

  • Sign up for a Rocketmiles account by clicking on this link, which leads you to the AA bonus signup page (even though a pop-up window will indicate a 1,000-mile bonus; ignore that).
  • The tricky part: Go back to that same link to the AA-specific page to search and make your first reservation. 
    • I've been told by Rocketmiles that if the booking is completed on a different page, the bonus will not be applied. 
    • Also, the bonus is null and void if someone cancels their first booking to make another one.
Follow the steps above and you should be able to get a one-night hotel stay for ~$100+ and 5,000 miles... not a bad return!

Disclosure: The links above will give me a small referral credit, for which I would be truly appreciative.

The full terms and conditions:
To be eligible for this promotion, the hotel reservation must be booked via the Rocketmiles mobile app with promo code "AA5000" OR using this promotional link by 11:59PM CT on April 15, 2015. Limited to first time customers and subject to investigation post-purchase. Limit one per customer. Limit one per stay. Promotional offer cannot be applied to existing bookings or retroactively applied to bookings not made using the link above. This promotional offer cannot be combined with any other offers, including a sign-up from referral bonus. Rocketmiles reserves the right to retract a bonus at any time if it detects technical errors, cancel/rebooking activity (defined by identical search criteria), or any deceptive behavior attempted to circumvent the limits expressed above, including multiple accounts. Please allow 2 weeks for bonus points to post in a qualifying member's account after hotel stay is completed and the qualifying member has met the stated conditions. If Rocketmiles is not contacted directly with a refund request until after miles/points have already been posted, any approved refund amount may be reduced by up to the full retail value of the reward. Rewards that cannot be posted due to incorrect or incomplete information may become ineligible after 12 months and no customer response to our e-mail outreach. See for full terms, or call Rocketmiles concierges at 1-855-355-7625 with questions of eligibility or for any other assistance. Please contact your loyalty program directly for information about redeeming miles/points, or for questions about earning miles/points for past flights. American Airlines reserves the right to change the AAdvantage® program and its terms and conditions at any time without notice, and to end the AAdvantage® program with six months notice. Any such changes may affect your ability to use the awards or mileage credits that you have accumulated. Unless specified, AAdvantage® miles earned through this promotion/offer do not count toward elite-status qualification or AAdvantage Million MilerSM status. American Airlines is not responsible for products or services offered by other participating companies. For complete details about the AAdvantage® program, visit American Airlines, AAdvantage, the Flight Symbol logo and AAdvantage Million Miler are trademarks of American Airlines, Inc.

Were you successful in earning the bonus? Let me know below! 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Vietnam Airlines Confirms New Cabin Uniforms; But a Different 787 Business Seat?

Vietnam Airlines (VNA) has confirmed the introduction of new uniforms for cabin and flight crew members:

VNAFlyer previously posted an Instagram photo of the purported uniforms captured on the computer screen of an unknown person.

The traditional Vietnamese ao dai is preserved, though now uniform colors are based on the cabin being served: blue for economy, and gold for business. The new uniforms can already be seen on some international routes.

What's most striking to me actually isn't the flight attendants posing in their uniforms. It's that they were photoshopped onto a background of a 787 cabin, and the seats shown are decidedly different than the ones that were "officially released" by VNA:

Honestly, the doctored photo with the FAs could be more accurate, as they show an interior color palette that more closely resembles their current cabin, as well as the rendering for the A350 cabin:

I will follow up with what I find out...