Booking flights you do get used to schedule changes coming through, especially if you book a long way ahead, but usually it’s a shift of a few hours in the time of departure or arrival. I’ve just had one for our upcoming Canadian trip where Air Canada have shifted our flight by an entire day – apparently they’re not keen on flying from Edmonton to London on a Thursday any more… Will have to investigate, but we’ll either have to extend the car rental, or opt for a different routing on the way home.
First off, a bit of good news to all of our friends who have got one of my moans over about the past week about the complications of trying to book our next trip to Canada – you’ll be pleased to hear that we’ve now actually booked a trip, so no more moans – well at least not about this! 😀
The problem has been trying to find a reasonably priced flight that fitted in with when we wanted to go. Now there are two competing airlines flying the London to Calgary route I foolishly assumed that it might make the fares more competitive – no such luck, Air Canada were doing their usual mickey take on prices, and the new competition, British Airways were coming back with fares of over Â£2000 return for both of us to go over on the dates we wanted. I then moved onto Canadian Affair, who are usually pretty good, but they are still running their winter schedule when we were looking, and the only options they had were some seats on a Monarch flight, which whilst it is cheap is a 29â€œ seat pitch which whilst it is fine for Beth would be torture for me, or a couple of their once a week Air Transat flights that would have significantly cut the length of the trip.
Anyway, the breakthrough came when I tried looking up flights into Edmonton rather than Calgary. In the past it’s not really ever been an option – certainly the only times I’ve flown into Edmonton it has involved a plane change at Calgary, and a trip on the little turbo-prop service that shuttles backwards and forwards between the two cities. However now, alongside the twice daily service to Calgary, Air Canada have added a daily service into Edmonton – and significantly at a rather cheaper cost than the equivalent trip into Calgary.
At this point the vagaries of how airlines actually work out their flight costs really starts to get confusing. Looking at the seating plans for the Edmonton flights, they don’t look any less full than those into Calgary – the journey to Edmonton is marginally shorter granted, but in the grand scheme of things not by much, but the cost of the tickets we were being offered was noticeably less than what was being offered into Calgary. Actually if you really want to confuse yourself, try coming up with a reason why it’s cheaper to fly to Toronto and then on to Calgary than take the direct flight – longer flying time, more fuel used, but still cheaper.
Having got some idea of the costs I then tried to put together the best deal – and discovered that since their take-over by Air Transat, Canadian Affair are really not keen on booking flights with Air Canada – and that was after we’d been through the usual routine over my insisting that we needed to book the car rental with Hertz. (For the reasons why, check out this post about car rental companies and their definitions of â€?off-road drivingâ€œ.) Thankfully I’ve now discovered that Opodo, unlike Expedia and Travelocity do have a deal with Hertz so I can build a reasonable package with them without too much trouble.
The one final oddity when we were booking on Opodo was down to the BMI codeshare on the flight – as usual the same physical flight was listed twice at different prices – however even more odd, the BMI version of the flight had only four seats left, whilst the Air Canada version had availability marked as â€?goodâ€œ – indeed if you look at the flight using the Air Canada reservation system online the flight is only about half full. I’m guessing that there are only a limited number of codeshare seats available – although as it’s all going through the same booking system I can’t imagine it’s too difficult to allow any of the seats on the plane to be sold through any of the codeshare partners.
Anyway all of that aside, after a bit of comparing, we’ve eventually opted to fly in and out of Edmonton on Air Canada for this trip. Even including the cost of the car rental and a hotel for the first night we are there it still worked out cheaper than flying into Calgary!
If you look carefully in the travel section of yesterdays Sunday Times, you’ll see what can happen if you grumble about something on your blog – in this case the spectacularly misnamed ‘Fast Bag Drop’ at Heathrow. The target of the article is the British Airways operation, however the Air Canada equivalent at the airport is no better.
Steve Bleach, the reporter in question sent me an e-mail last week. He’d had a pretty hellish attempt at dropping off the bags on his last transatlantic flight (at least we didn’t have to keep children entertained in the queue when we had to wait), and decided to write an item about it in the paper, and thought he’d have a search online and see if anyone else had problems. He’d come across a number of postings, including ours. Basically I called him back, and we shared ‘Fast Bag Drop’ chaos stories, part of which is quoted in the paper. Certainly from that article it seems that the situation is no better at Gatwick.
Anyway, things are no better when you get to the other end either – check out this clip of the sight that greeted a passenger trying to collect his luggage in Las Vegas…
I did my trip to the US on United Airlines, who you may well know were trading under protective bankruptcy until February this year. Not surprisingly they seemed pretty keen to get feedback from their customers over the service – giving out a survey to all the passengers on two of the four flights I was on. Unfortunately they were the two outgoing flights, and my experiences on the way back probably were worth talking about too. So in the spirit of giving feedback my impressions with United…
As I detailed last week we had an interesting time booking the flight thanks to confusion between our US and UK offices, which resulted in a number of phone calls to the United UK call centre – which wasn’t overly helpful in it’s advice. The changes actually made checking in a bit more difficult as the computerised check-in machines refused to allow me to check in and directed me to queue up. The suggestion on the United UK Website that there is an express hand baggage only check-in at the rear of island F at terminal 3 proved to be out of date. Going over I was in a regular economy seat, on a comparatively quiet flight. I had a free seat next to me (and Nick Higham, the BBC media correspondent in the next seat), however I also had someone who wanted to sleep directly in front, so with the 31 inch seat pitch, things were a bit cramped. The plane had seat back screens for entertainment, but unlike some airlines they weren’t adjustable – an issue especially with the person in front of me as with her seat fully reclined, the viewing angle on the LCD screen was such that you couldn’t really see that much.
Compared to our main transatlantic carrier, Air Canada (most often we’re heading for Calgary) the food was a definite improvement. Like many carriers both United and Air Canada offer a hot meal towards the start of the flight, and a snack service towards the end. In the case of Air Canada it is a micro-waved pizza, and to be honest whenever it comes out it usually makes me want to heave. By comparison United produce a little packed lunch type snack, with a filled roll, a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar or biscuit, which from my point of view is a lot more appealing.
Aside from the viewing angle issue, the entertainment was pretty good, with a multi-channel tape based system. The downside is that the system loops round when the cabin crew spot the tape has finished – and only when the longest channel has finished – so on the way out with one film about an hour longer than all the others there was a bit of waiting around. Assuming that the cabin crew rewind the tape promptly, there is time for three movies on the transatlantic flights, and in terms of the selection there was a good choice of new movies across the nine video channels. Certainly I saw six movies that I wanted to see, and there were more listed that I didn’t get to. The main improvement I’d make is to go for a digital video on demand system, as aside from the looping issue with the tape system, the tape was starting to show signs of wear with tracking issues with the picture and sound on some channels. Take a look at this overview of the systems available for examples of airlines that do this.
On the way back I flew in an Economy Plus seat. On the planes used for the transatlantic flights about half the economy cabin was devoted to Economy Plus seats, which were identical to the economy seats, but with four inches extra seat pitch. At check-in in Atlanta, the self-service check-in offered me the option of upgrading to Economy Plus, which I turned down. However I had not previously been allocated a seat, so when the machine produced my boarding card it put me in an Economy Plus seat anyway. Since the flight back was absolutely full, and I had been seated in the middle of a row, the extra legroom was welcome, however in general I wouldn’t pay the extra for the small amount of extra space. Certainly, if you look at some of the prices you pay a lot more for the extra few inches, and compare that Thomas Cook Airlines offer 35 inches of seat pitch as standard to all economy passengers on their flights to Eastern Canada you can see there is quite some variation.
On the ground organisation was generally okay. Washington Dulles airport was particularly chaotic in the United area at the end of concourse A, with multiple flights going from the same gate, and passengers being directed to the correct plane across the tarmac, and a general lack of space at the gates on concourse C. However the building work at the airport seems to imply that these issues are being addressed. The only bit of wrong information came at Atlanta where when I checked in my boarding card listed my departure gate as T15, whilst the information boards displayed the departure gate as T14. When I got to the gate area, the plane actually left from T13, and right up until departure ground staff were having problems with people coming to the wrong gates.
In terms of whether I’d fly United again, probably yes, as they are part of the Star Alliance so I can collect frequent flyer miles for our trips to Canada with them. Having said that, it is the attraction of the frequent flyer miles, rather than anything particularly stand-out about the airline that prompts the yes. In terms of changes that would make me want to fly United in preference to another airline, chief among them would be making all the economy seats economy plus. A look at the Seat Guru comparison page shows that with their 31 inch pitch United are towards the bottom of the pile in terms of space – going for 34 or 35 inches across all economy seats would make a big difference and put them towards the top.
So this morning we took Beth’s parents up to Heathrow to catch their plane back to Canada. We’d experienced the crazy design of the new Terminal 3 Short Stay car park picking up Beth’s parents last week, but even at the fairly early hour of the morning we were there today, with most of the traffic apparently heading for the other terminals, we still hit problems.
If you haven’t experienced it as yet, it really is crazy. The old short stay car park has been closed, and they have build a new multi-storey car park directly behind the old car park, with a new bridge across to terminal 3. However unlike the previous car park, the new car park has the entrance and exit ramps at the back, on the opposite side of the car park from the terminal access. Coupled with the layout of the parking spaces the new car park forces all the pick-up and drop-off traffic to have to go all the way across the car park and back to do get to the pick-up point, more than that, for the majority of parking spaces, all the traffic also has to go past the pick-up and drop-off point both on the way in and the way out. As a result, most of the time there is a queue of stopped cars around the parking level, tailing back from the pick-up and drop-off point. In the old car park the pick-up and drop-off point was not only much larger, but also didn’t block the flow of traffic around the car park because it was positioned near to the entry and exit ramps. Fundamentally I think that whoever designed the car park really hasn’t thought about the way people use the car park. As to how to solve it, since moving the ramps really isn’t an option, the best choice seems to be to reverse the direction of the middle aisle of the level, which then gives much more access to people who want to park, but don’t want to go over to the pick up point.
Anyway, after the joy of the car park, this morning we also had fun and games with the Air Canada check in. Like many airlines they are actively encouraging passengers to make use of the web and self-service check-ins, which Beth’s parents did. In theory, what should happen is that they turn up at the airport, drop off their checked baggage, and head off for departures. According to the Air Canada web site, baggage can be dropped off up to four hours before departure – however it seems not at Heathrow for an early morning flight. We thought we’d get up promptly and have breakfast at the airport, however when we arrived, although the normal check-in desks were open (and with a massive queue), and the self-service check-in desks were active, there was nobody on any of the baggage drop off desks. A chat to the check-in representative on the first class desk revealed that the baggage drop-off desks didn’t actually open until 6am (bear in mind that it was ten-past six already at this point), and by the time someone actually appeared and opened the desks it was nearly 6:30am, and the queue of people waiting to drop off their baggage was getting decidedly long. The other amusing twist is that even though Beth’s parents had used the online check-in, and printed out boarding passes, the person on the desk printed out new boarding cards for them – and did this for everybody else – because apparently they have had trouble with reading the bar code that is printed on the web check-in boarding cards. It really makes me wonder what the advantage of the web check-in is if they still have to print boarding cards, and you still have to queue drop off the baggage…