The generosity of StarMegaDo knows no bounds

Yes, we drank champagne from 5am to 11pm. Yes, we chartered our own plane and had crazy amounts of fun (including a pillow fight on board). Yes, we had amazing experiences, including a couple “first time ever” events.

But along the way we also did something pretty amazing. The 190-ish participants from StarMegaDo 2010 managed to raise roughly $12,000 for charity during the couple days we were all together. The numbers are simply amazing.

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Some of the money – roughly $5,000 – was raised through a silent auction to score seats in the Lufthansa simulator during the stop in Phoenix. The rest was raised primarily through the charity raffle that operated throughout the event. A tremendous thanks goes out to the folks managing the raffle tickets, most notably Sharon, for the incredible results returned. As we returned to the plane in Phoenix we had roughly $5,700 in raffle funds in hand. At some point in the next hour they managed to raise over $1,000 more. Truly amazing.

Marty was also helpful in his efforts, offering to drive folks to the airport from the Sheraton in a rental car, providing an extra 30 minutes of much needed sleep on the morning of the flight, in exchange for a $10 donation to the charity efforts. And thanks to the generosity of Randy Petersen, the costs of the rental car were covered meaning that al $140 raised went straight to charity.

IMGP7051Speaking of Randy, his was the last purchase made in-flight of raffle tickets. He purchased one for every single person on the plane, including every member of the crew. Our last drawing of the day was for an iPad. As you can imagine, everyone was quite excited at the opportunity to win this one. The moment of truth came and the ticket number was announced. Everyone got quiet. Helpers were running up and down the aisle, repeating the number and hoping to find a winner.

Eventually two of the flight attendants noticed that their tickets were one above and one below the winning numbers – the winner was a member of the crew. Another announcement was made for all the crew to double-check their tickets as we were pretty sure one of them was the winner. And then we heard the call from the guy in the left seat up front. “Yeah, I got that,” was all he said and then a huge round of applause erupted on the plane. Yes, we had to wait until the end of the flight to deliver the prize, but it was well worth it.

The money raised will go to support several different charities, including HelpAlliance, the Lufthansa corporate charity, Continental’s WeCare Employee Fund, a Kiva.org account and the Jason Dahl Foundation. Thank you to everyone who donated and congratulations to all the raffle winners.

The Pillow Fight Seen ‘Round The World

Here’s how a viral video starts: First, a few FlyerTalkers upload footage to YouTube of the pillow fight that broke out on our PHX-PAE leg last week. In order to protect the dignity of the FAs and keep the whole incident our private joke, the video is rendered invisible to the general public. Then I go ahead and post it to Facebook anyway (along with many others), where the editor of BroBible sees it. He reposts it, and then it immediately starts trending on Digg. (His plan all along, he later confesses.) At first, a few U.K. newspapers notice it, then the Phoenix ABC affiliate, and then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And before you know it, it’s on the Today Show. Amazing. And speaking on behalf of my fellow journalists, it’s not that we don’t know this was a privately chartered flight; it’s that we just don’t care. Next stop: NBC Nightly News.

Click here to view the embedded video.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/40090995#40090995

(The first version of the video was removed from YouTube; this is another copy from another participant on the flight. -Ed.)

A birthday in the sky

Nothing quite like a birthday party with 190 friends hurtling through the air in a metal tube at 500 miles/hour 36,000 feet above the ground. One of the StarMegaDo participants got to experience that (for the second consecutive year) on Friday as he was serenaded on the PA system, given a set of Junior Flight Attendant wings and otherwise feted.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Lots of fun!

Going flying at Lufthansa’s Airline Training Center Arizona

As an airline customer based in the United States I’m mostly used to the way that American carriers source their pilots. Most are former military or have paid a huge sum of money to fund their own private training and then hope to make it through the long days of work at regional carriers before making it into the big birds. Lufthansa’s approach to pilot recruitment and training is quite different. They subscribe to the Ab-Initio training plan, where each pilot is brought in completely green and trained from the ground up in the Lufthansa way.

As part of StarMegaDo 2010 a group of about 30 of us were invited to visit the Airline Training Center, Arizona (ATCA) where aspiring pilots are given their initial in-flight training experiences. We got to meet with the students and the folks who run the program. Oh, and we all got to actually experience the flight training through flights in the same simulators that the pilots learn in.

IMGP6918IMGP6919We were welcomed to the facility by Matthias Kippenberg, the President and CEO of ATCA. A pilot who was trained in the same facility more than 30 years ago, who flew the 727, 737 and 747 for various private groups as well as Lufthansa, Matthias has been leading the training group in Arizona for 3 years now. Mr. Kippenberg oversees the training of approximately 240 pilots annually, helping to continue feeding the tremendous demand that the parent company has for additional pilots.

After a brief introduction outside the facility we were escorted onto the flight line (“Badges, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges”) to see one of the Bonanza aircraft that the aspiring Lufthansa pilots start their training in.

We got to climb in the plane and get a feel for what it is like inside, including the fact that they planes are not air conditioned which can be a bit warm in the summer months.

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Following the walk-through on the flight line we got to see the maintenance facilities and then, the highlight of the day, actually flying in the simulators.

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Click here to view the embedded video.

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Click here to view the embedded video.

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IMGP7013After the flying we headed over to the cafeteria for a delicious lunch and a Q&A wrap-up with the student pilots and training coordinators. Along the way we happened upon this celebratory scene walking the grounds of the facility. The pilot being carried had just completed his first solo flight and his class-mates were helping to celebrate the event. There is a tradition in the flight world that says following the first successful solo flight one cannot have their feet touch the ground until they have been in the water first. As such, the next stop of this caravan of friends was the swimming pool facility on the property. I’m sure he doesn’t mind getting wet for this one.

The food was top-notch (and we were thanked by many of the students for showing up as it meant they get the upgraded catering for the day). Here’s dessert, ice cream in chocolate. Hard to complain at all.

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It is worth noting here that the 20 folks who got to participate in the flight simulator portion of the event were chosen not by luck and not randomly. They were chosen by their generosity. All told, we raised over $5,000 in charitable contributions to Help Alliance, the Lufthansa corporate charity. Simply amazing.

Pillow fights are more fun at 36,000 feet!

I don’t know who started it or why. But someone did, so as we started our descent into Paine Field on Friday a full-fledged pillow fight broke out. Suddenly the cabin was filled with pillows (and a blanket or two) flying back and forth. Quite entertaining to watch and participate in:

Click here to view the embedded video.

Goodbye, Adieu, Auf Wiedersehen…

Twenty-hour hours after departing Paine Field, it’s safe to say Star Mega DO2 is over. The charter has returned to Houston; the FlyerTalk moderators are in Seattle, and everyone else is scattering to the winds. (I finally had a chance this week to earn some miles on Delta. Yes, I’m that guy.)

On behalf of the official blogger-in-residence, I’d like to thank Tommy, Oliver and Reb for having me, Seth for writing the funny posts while I wrote the boring ones, everyone who came along for the journey, and all of our sponsors (especially Starwood, which prepared an awesome meal for 200 exhausted, euphoric fliers). I’ll see you all at the next Frequent Traveler Awards, if not before, and let the countdown to Star Mega DO3 begin… now.

CO Flight 1905 Arriving at Paine Field

Matt Cawby at the Paine Field blog has granted us permission to repost his photos of our arrival at PAE Friday, which we have gratefully done:

Inside ZA003: Another first for StarMegaDo

When I saw the original itinerary for today’s festivities I thought that landing at Paine Field in Everett, Washington was going to be the highlight of the day. It is an airport that doesn’t see commercial airline service and flying in on a jet is quite rare unless you’re a Boeing test pilot. As we were panicking trying to find the driver of the luggage delivery company (that’s a whole ‘nother story) I was also chatting with one of the Boeing organizers and she let me in on an additional detail of the itinerary: We were going to be inside one of the 787 Dreamliner test aircraft.

Boeing has taken a few 787s on tour over the past few months but they don’t really let just anyone on board to look around. Indeed, several of our tour guides today noted that they had never been inside one either. Still, somehow we managed to convince them that it was a good idea for us to get inside. And they were incredibly gracious in allowing us to do so.

We bounded up the stairs and into the cabin and, in that moment, became part of the record books. We were the first non-industry folks to be inside the plane. With our near 200 participants touring the aircraft we also significantly increased the total number of people who have toured it in general. We didn’t have full run of the aircraft like we did on the A380 in Frankfurt, mostly because it is still a test aircraft and still mostly being used for making sure that things are really working as expected so that the planes can be delivered. It wasn’t even fully fitted with an interior.

It did have enough bits installed, however, to make our walk-through truly memorable. We got to poke our heads into the cockpit. It is all glass and huge digital screens rather than traditional instruments. Quite a change from the Bonanza I was sitting in earlier in the day during my Phoenix visit. The whole main console is LCD screens and the electronic flight deck is integrated into the cockpit rather than in huge binders. The cockpit is also rather spacious, with a couple jump-seats and standing room for another person or two.

The crew rest area – installed into the space above the passenger cabin – was surprisingly large. I suppose had they cut it to three beds from two it would have been incredibly cramped. Instead they appeared quite spacious and comfortable.

The overhead bins are apparently spec’d to hold four bags each at 12”x16”x25”. That’s HUGE. It didn’t look to me like the 25” dimension was real but I didn’t have a tape measure handy and they wouldn’t let me crawl up in one to check it out (the guy running that part actually noted that he’d been warned about me and overhead bins when I asked about that).

Perhaps most significant was that the aircraft was fitted with a few rows of economy class seating in a 3-3-3 configuration. There has been much concern in the frequent flyer community as most airlines announced their intentions to go 9-abreast on the 787 rather than the 8-abreast that Boeing originally claimed the aircraft was designed for. Sitting in the seats today I was pleasantly surprised by just how comfortable the cabin felt. I know that there’s a lot more to it than just seat width, but things might not be quite as dire as feared.

And that was it. The visit was short – only about 15-20 minutes – but incredibly fun and truly an amazing experience. And yet another first for StarMegaDo.

No photos (from us) because of corporate security policies but their folks took a few of our group that I hope to post soon.

Breakfast with Doug Parker

“I really don’t know what to say to you,” Doug Parker began. “The part I don’t know how to describe is why you’re doing what you’re doing.” The 150+ FlyerTalkers felt the same way as they struggled to understand Parker’s Darwinian philosophy about the future of the American airline industry — an oligopoly featuring permanently higher fares and restrained capacity, in which baggage fees and a la carte pricing annually deliver $400-$500 million in pure profit. “If we didn’t have it, we’d be right back where we were before,” he said, “barely breaking even or worse.”

Parker isn’t the most popular airline CEO in the FlyerTalk canon, but U.S. Airways warmly welcomed the Mega DOers to the Desert Botanical Garden, where they nibbled at a breakfast spread and drank cappuccinos (to counteract the champagne) before Parker addressed them. During final descent into PHX, we’d been scolded on the PA to “be respectful of our hosts — his name is Doug, not ‘Dougie.’” But the audience was quiet and polite — or maybe just depressed after listening to Parker’s worldview.

As amiably as could be, Parker laid out his bleak vision of the airline industry in which six carriers — United, Delta, American, U.S. Airways, Southwest and JetBlue — co-exist in a profitable equilibrium, one in which seat capacity is rigidly controlled to restore a measure of pricing, and consolidation continues to strip more seats out of the sky. The four things that could “screw up” this equilibrium are “loss of capacity discipline, and I don’t think that’s going to happen;” labor relations (“We can’t give it all back”); new entrants such Virgin America (“all we’d do is spend a lot of money fighting them off”) and government pressure to curb carbon emissions, leading to new taxes on aviation. Higher oil prices are less an issue than simply a fact of life, with costs being passed along to the customer.

As cynical as his formula is, it appears to be working. For the first time since industry deregulation in 1978, the airline industry is countercyclical, posting record profits while the broader economy is depressed. “Our third quarter results were the best in our company’s history,” he said. “What was required because of crisis is what’s got us making money.”

Predictably, the Mega DOers weren’t exactly stirred by this call to arms. A lengthy Q&A period followed, featuring questions about when the airline will finally solve its labor issues, ending the “East/West” split (he was non-committal), international expansion (don’t expect much anytime soon) and its role in the alliance. One attendee told the story of a flight last October in which she was told to “sit down and shut up” by a fight attendant during a medical emergency, and has been flying Continental ever since (from CLT to PHX, no less). Parker pleaded with her to reconsider — “You’re probably waiting three hours at Houston,” he said. “An hour and ten minutes,” she replied — before finally resorting to “in terms of running the airline, we’re doing better than they are.”

But the most anticipated question came from Art Pushkin, the former U.S. Airways elite who founded what was effectively a resistance group (FFOCUS, a.k.a the “Cockroaches”) before defecting to Continental and taking a hundred elites with him. By his own calculations, he has cost U.S. Airways at least $1 million since. His question: why are you alienating Chairmen by charging them for premium coach seats. Parker’s answer, in a nutshell: we’re selling some of them, but not all of them — and you have to get there first. “The goal is not to take them away from Chairmen and sell them to someone else — or to Chairmen. The room began to stir when Park insisted other airlines are doing the same thing — they’re not — and then countered with “I know they’re going to do the same thing we are.” Maybe, maybe not. But no one present wanted to imagine a race to the bottom.

Then he left, and we had an hour to kill chasing butterflies.

MegaGoodies

In a really close race, the ballots have been counted and the winner of the 2010 Star Mega Do 2 swag bag recognition award goes to US Airways — everything in the bag, including the bag itself was useable. I mean, when is the last time you took home a real cactus from a mileage run? Point made!

No badge, but …

OK, you’ve heard rumors of us being dragged out of bed against our will to make the 5 a.m. buses to the terminal. You’ve heard of the champagne-fueled sendoff and of course rumors of us partying in the aisles of CO charter flight #1905 and emptying even more champagne bottles before landing in PHX at 7:45 a.m. Well, that’s all true. There is no denying that we are having a ball. With US Airways Chairman Doug Parker speaking to us all — very straight, very forward and highly entertaining — I realized we have no badge for this event, but we did get this very, very nice gift. US Airways has been an extremely generous host and we could not have been treated better.

787 Dreamliner tour — awesome

Like a 4 year old Christmas surprise, we got notice we are actually inside a 787 Dreamliner. The FlyerTalk crowd at SMD2 went absolute wild. Christmas comes early this year …

Pillow Fight

Here’s the action onboard the flight: a FlyerTalk pillow fight at 33,000 feet. At the end, some 150 pillows from coach were headed to first class.

We take, we give

One of the highlights of the Star Mega Do 2 is the charity raffle that took place on the leg between PHX-SEA. Among the many prizes were model aircrafts, first class amenity kits, Bose headsets, several Five Guys hamburger gift certificates and an iPad.
The GREAT news is that nearly $7,000 was raised for various charities that this SMD2 will donate to by the sales of raffle tickets onboard.
Very cool.
Among the winners? The Captain of the plane won the iPad.
We take a lot from the industry (miles, points and upgrades), but we also give back.

Cockpit? So yesterday!

Overheard in the lobby: “I had five wakeup calls and never heard any of them. It was the noise in the hallway of everyone leaving that woke me up.” Gee, were we that loud?

Charter flight #1 – Houston to Phoenix

StarMegaDo 2010 kicked off at the ungodly early hour of 5am today with the first round of transfers to the airport from the hotel. By 6am the last group was climbing on the shuttle buses and we’d put away a half case of Veuve in celebration of the crazy that we are. The folks unlucky enough to be on the earliest buses were rewarded with the opportunity to visit the flagship Continental Presidents Club in Terminal E while the rest of us barely cleared security in time to get to the plane on time.

IMGP6876Boarding was somewhat chaotic – you’d think a group of 200 frequent flyers would be better at getting their bags in the overheads – but we pushed back on time and cruised west from Houston at 36000 feet through cloudless blue skies. It was a beautiful day for flying. Oh, and we did have the oldest unaccompanied minor ever to fly on Continental with us as well. In case you’re curious, he is a big baby, but also a great guy.

IMGP6879The in-flight service was truly special. One of the flight attendants is an avid participant in the FlyerTalk community and managed to trade to pick up the trip at the last minute. The entire in-flight crew was phenomenal, pouring bottle after bottle of Monopole (and whatever other drinks were ordered) and serving up a hot meal for us as well.

IMGP6891The service was more than I’ve had on just about any flight in the past couple years. I mentioned that to one of the flight attendants and she noted “we haven’t worked this hard on a two hour flight since the MD-80s.” Yeah, that was a long time ago. Still, they were working with smiles on their face and having a blast traveling with us

IMGP6887Wheels down in Phoenix was right on time. We deplaned into buses where most of the group headed to a reception with US Airways while a smaller group headed west to Goodyear Field to visit Airline Training Center Arizona, the Lufthansa flight training facility where all of their pilots learn to fly.

So we’re mostly working on very little sleep and quite a bit of Champagne. Doesn’t seem like all that bad a deal to me at all.

SMD 2010 Trip Report: IAH-PHX

“This is your plane,” our purser, “Luke Skywaiter” announced at the beginning of the flight, and 180+ FlyerTalkers took full possession shortly into the flight. Our charter this year is a four-class plane — First, Tommy, Randy, and Coach — and it quickly became apparent that Randy Class was the place to be. Maybe it was the exit rows (the preferred habitat of Randy Petersen), maybe it was the t-shirt (in hot pink, reading “Come sit with me”) or maybe it was the freebies (the industry trade magazines, the rolleyes buttons, the hundred dollar bills — “I love my Benjamins,” Randy said, making a cash fan) but it was probably the champagne. Perfectly positioned in the middle of the plane, they were able to intercept any bottles coming or going. Asked how they were doing, one seat mate replied “Drunk, I think, or we’re getting there.”

In contrast to the inaugural Star Mega Do, where the perks in First Class made it the place to be, this morning’s First and Tommy Class (i.e. coach with the middle seat blocked and a Veuve Cliquot flight first thing in the morning) were more sedate, populated with sleepers and readers. This left coach to be the other hotspot, where Capt. Denny, Scott O’Leary and other industry guests gamely endured the world’s largest aerial cocktail party.

The silliness spilled over to the crew. When they weren’t busy refilling glasses, they were fighting on the PA:

“It’s not my fault pterodactyls died and you had to start flying on airplanes.”

“Hey, I’m only ten years older than you!”

On a more sober note, the charity raffle had raised $3,207 midway through the flight, well on its way to the target of $5,000.

Now that we’re on the ground in PHX, it’s time to visit US Airways (and for a fortunate few, Lufthansa’s training center). Art Pushkin and USIrritated are cracking their knuckles…

The Presidents Club Pub Crawl

Before we get too deep into today’s charter activities, a quick story: Faced with four hours to kill following the CO presentation Thursday afternoon, 15 of us decided on a pub crawl… through the Presidents Clubs. Exploiting the PC’s unique ability to issue gate passes for members and up to two guests, the group started at Terminal E and progressed through the alphabet in reverse, visiting Terminal C South, C North, B, and A in a state of increasing inebriation. Three of us — Scott, Marty and myself — snuck out to the KLM lounge for a bit, bringing the total group tally to six. By the time we caught up them again, the Clubs had begun calling ahead to warn of our group’s approach. “They’re coming,” the receptionist at C South informed her counterpart at C North. “All they want is a few pictures.”

“And drinks!”

At each stop, there were photos. First, it was a group shot outside the Club in Terminal E; then one in front of the counter at Terminal C South. By C North, we were behind the counter. In B, we were in the front of the bar. Finally, by the time we reached the Club in Terminal A — by which time the first (annual?) Presidents Club Margarita Contest was nearing its conclusion — we were behind the bar. (Photos below). As for the contest results:

1. Dina at Terminal B. The secret of her success? Adding a splash of amaretto to the mix.

2. Keri at Terminal A

3. Charles at Terminal C South

4. Veronica at Terminal E

5. Unknown at Terminal C North. “Definitely the strongest, though,” the judges ruled. “His goal was to get alcohol into you as quickly as possible.”

He succeeded.

Here… We… Go!

It’s 6:15 AM, and most of the Mega DO is eating breakfast in the Terminal E President’s Club before their 7 AM departure to PHX aboard CO 1905. There’s not much to say about last night’s first Frequent Traveler Awards that hasn’t already been said on FlyerTalk or at the awards site itself, other than that it was an unqualified success and that the after-party ran a little bit late for a 5 AM (in coach), 5:30 (in Randy, Tommy, and “Marty” class) or 5:45 AM (in first) wakeup call.

Check in throughout the day for coverage of the ride in each class, along with reports from US Airways in Phoenix and the Boeing assembly line at Paine Field. The last day of SMD 2010 will no doubt be the longest!

Baggage Fees?

OK, count this post in the “Got Ya!” file. Along the way, this mileage run gathers a lot of booty and just coming out of Germany I’m heading for baggageville. OK, no self-respecting member of FlyerTalk should ever have to pay a bag fee given the troves of advice on how to earn elite and bypass the piggy bank of flyers that forms to your right. So, here’s just a sampling of my “take home” pay just so far:

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