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:

Badges? We do need $#@^&*% badges.

OK, for those of you out there counting, we’re up to four badges so far. For movie buffs, you’ll remember this line from the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre where Humphrey Bogart says, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!” or the condensed version of the same line in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles movie.

As it turns out, we really do need badges!


Cockpit? So yesterday!

Remember the day when getting your picture in the cockpit was the “must have”? FlyerTalkers have moved on .. the new “must have” is your picture with an open engine. This is clearly the most popular moment of this early day–as witnessed here.

Being bussed. A FlyerTalk thing.

With the day beginning for SMD2, members find themselves being bussed to the days first event. Eyes are bright and the talk is … wonderful.

Deep In The Heart of Texas

It should have been no surprise that the Continental branch of the UAL/CO family (or “Legacy Continental,” as they’ve taken to calling themselves) would roll out the red carpet for us. Upon entering a hangar at IAH, we found a battery of executives waiting for us — the first public appearance of the joint management team since the merger was finalized barely 30 dayss ago. SVP of sales Dave Hilfman, chief revenue officer Jim Compton, and Mileage President Jeff Foland spoke briefly to the assembled “high-rollers,” (Hilfman’s words), and, as promised, didn’t an excellent job bobbing and weaving away from our specific questions about the fate of Economy Plus, settling on which classes of service to keep, and whether the top tier of the combined loyalty program will be set at 75K or 100K. “We know the number,” Foland told me, but he wasn’t saying. “We’ll be announcing it shortly.” There will be two programs through the end of 2011, with a new one (name TBD) to kick in in 2012. Foland said he didn’t foresee any major sticking points in “harmonizing” the two programs.

After a lunch consisting of sliders, chips, and of course, chocolate sundaes, Scott O’Leary hosted a trivia contest with 10,000 bonus miles on the line. The questions (all slam dunks, let’s face it):

1. Name 8 of the 10 combined UAL and CO hubs (won by mrpalert)

2. Name 10 Star Alliance carriers (won by ChrisW, who was booed off the stage when he kept going and named Korean by mistake)

3. Name 4 ways to enter both the Red Carpet and President’s Clubs (won by SEACarl)

4. Name 4 Star Gold benefits (won by Bernard)

5. Name 8 of the of the 10 published and semi-published tiers of UAL and CO elites.

6. Name 10 countries served by both UAL and CO

7. Name 10 aircraft types operated by both


The Gang’s All Here

Finally, three-and-a-half days into the DO, we’re at full strength, some 180-strong. We’re boarding buses at the moment en route to meeting the new United Airlines managment team, and rumor has it there’s a pool party on tap for the afternoon. Tonight, of course, is the first Frequent Traveler Awards, which are sold out. This year’s Mega DO is finally Mega again.

Checking In With Captain Denny

While many Mega DOers spent their first night in Houston eating BBQ and the FT Awards brain trust thrashed through their final preparations, I had a chance to catch up with Captain Denny Flanagan, who’s in town to present a special award during Thursday night’s ceremony. Capt. Denny is, of course, the revered UAL 757 pilot most famous for “FlyerTalk 1,” and unlike a great many of his colleagues appears to have never doubted FlyerTalk as a force for good. “They really make a difference for the flying public,” he told me. “They’re spokespersons and investigative reporters. Do you know what a PAC is? They’re kind of like a FAC — a flying action committee.”

He’s still averaging six of his trademark dinner DOs per year, and still bringing his co-pilot and fellow pilots, “just to let them have an experience with the customer,” he said, “to hear their praise and their complaints.”

FlyerTalkers: Putting the “Social” in Social Media

Seeing as we’ve just touched down in Houston, it’s only fitting to recall that the first airline-sponsored DO was held just five years ago, when Dean Burri (a.k.a cigarman) made a bet with then-Continental CEO Larry Kellner that FlyerTalkers wanted more face time with airline executives and won handily when 300 FTers landed on Kellner’s doorstep. Since then, a growing number of airlines have gotten in on the act — including the second SMD and a large Delta DO the other weekend — followed by hotel chains like Hyatt (which hosted a DO at its Andaz West Hollywood property) and Starwood — one of SMD2′s sponsors.

What changed in the interim? What led airlines to drop their view that FTers were “just a bunch of hot-air whiners,” as Randy Petersen puts it, and actually some of their best customers? Why the explosion in sponsored DOs over the last 12-18 months? (As Southwest has discovered with the AirTran customer leading the charge to save business class aboard that carrier). Obviously, there are many reasons, but one of them has to be the belated realization that they needed a “social media strategy,” and that FlyerTalk itself was their social media strategy.

Lufthansa’s head of social media marketing, Torsten Wingenter, seemed to validate this theory during one of the workshops on social media at Lufthansa’s headquarters Tuesday night. In describing the evolution of the Miles & More program from offering basic awards in the 1990s to creating status benefits and then the exclusivity of HON Circle, he outlined a “Miles & More 2.0″  built around social media. “Our customer changed,” he told the group, “and the question is: ‘should we change as a company?’” Later, he described the airlines’ reluctance succinctly: “Airlines are all about control, because it’s necessary for flight. And social media is to some extent out of control… The customer wants to talk to us at eye-level, not through our traditional channels.”

Enter the Mega DOers, who last year ripped the first iteration of a Miles & More-meets-Foursquare app to shreds. This year’s workshops were calmer, as they talked more broadly about the successes and misses of other airlines online. (The gold standard in America: JetBlue, whose “All You Can Jet” promotion originally started as a tweet. That led to the revelation Lufthansa was considering some form of GroupOn-style group-buying, with implementation as-yet unknown.

The Lufthansa workshops included one devoted to a new ground services app enabling passengers to troubleshoot itineraries with one touch and deal with problems in the air. Another focused on “special moments,” i.e. one-off gifts or onboard experiences designed to reintroduce a measure of surprise and luxury to the comfortable monotony of premium cabins. A few of the 70 or so ideas bandied about included luxury good giveaways (a la the La Prairie products in the amenity kits of Swiss), special country-themed meals, “movie nights” with new releases and popcorn, and so on.

At dinner afterward, Lufthansa and Star executives once again hailed the Mega DOers as knowing more about their product than they do, and in case they didn’t the Lufthansa Group’s other airlines — Swiss, Austrian, Brussels, and bmi — stood by offering cheese, chocolate and goodies to guests. It was the most social media of all.

Ordering “Animal Style” on Lufthansa

Ordering off the secret menu aboard LH 440.

The fast food chain In-and-Out Burger is justly famous for its (open) secret menu, never published but known to all. “Animal fries,” for instance, are slathered in melted cheese, dressing, and grilled onions. Lufthansa boasts its own secret menu, Tommy had insisted on the flight from JFK to FRA, “these hot dogs — an excellent German wurst.” He was disappointed to learn they were only available on flights bound to America, as U.S. Customs forces LH to toss the sausages out before the flight home.

Before picnicking upstairs on the FRA-IAH leg, he tried again, as did I. It turns they’re not so much off-the-menu as off the children’s menu, as I learned when the flight attendant who laughed at the request. But she gamely served me some — the pair of hot dogs, rolls, and mustard packet pictured seen here. They weren’t so much a fine wurst as perfectly serviceable hot dogs eaten awkwardly between the bread. Tommy took greater satisfaction in his. “It’s Animal Style, only in business class!”

Field trip in First Class

I’m pretty sure that the first class service on today’s LH440 from Frankfurt to Houston was not typical. With eight people hanging out in two of the seats upstairs at one point it was much more reminiscent of a field trip than a flight. Even with the extra bodies up there is was a quite fun and pleasant experience.

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As we sat around sharing travel stories and canapés it was an opportunity to truly enjoy some of the best that air travel has to offer. At triple the normal capacity seated in the first class beds, it was still quite a bit more comfortable than my assigned seat in the economy cabin. And the food and beverage choices were definitely a few steps above.

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There was plenty of champagne to be had, as well as a few bottles of Baileys consumed, several beers and a glass or two of Johnnie Walker Blue, and that was just during the bit of the flight that I was invited up to visit.

The food spread was quite impressive, too. From finger sandwiches to fresh fruit to a quite impressive caviar presentation, everything I saw was top notch.

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Oh, and some fun with the amenity kits, too:

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It really did seem much more like summer camp or a field trip than a 10 hour flight across the Atlantic.

Mega DOers Finish First

When I wrapped up last year’s Star Mega DO by (quite legally) crashing the Lufthansa First Class Terminal along with a small gaggle of FlyerTalkers, I figured it was literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But here we are a year later, and I’ve been back not once, but twice in a span of less than 12 hours. As mentioned in a previous post, Lufthansa took the unprecedented step of busing the entire roster of this year’s Mega DO to the FCT for a nightcap after dinner — the first and only time in its history that non-HONs and non-ticketed first class passengers have ever been allowed inside. This was especially impressive considering the terminal is technically airside, which meant stationing personnel at every exit to keep the entire terminal in lockdown.

So what did you miss? First, the basics: the FCT is a standalone building, built at a cost of $43 million. The best-known feature is the fleet of Porches, BMWs and Mercedes downstairs waiting to whisk you to your flight. (This morning, I settled for a Mercedes van; Randy hitched a ride in a Porsche. “I can cross that off my frequent traveler bucket list,” he said.) Equally famous in FT circles are the rubber duckies in the bathtub, which had been removed for the evening to keep people like me (and Will Steele) from making off with them.

I’ll leave it to others to debate which airline has the best lounges, or which is the single best lounge in the world, but the FCT has to be in the uppermost tier with the Virgin Clubhouse at LHR and the Wing and the Pier at HKG. (If anyone would like to argue why their favorite is better, I’d love to see it in the comments.) One myth that was shattered for me was the fact that the pastries — which years ago on a quick press tour I’d been told were flown in fresh on the first flight from Vienna each morning — were more or less baked locally, with only a handful of delicacies being flown in from Austria. (Why shouldn’t the FCT be hand-stocked with air-freighted delicacies?)

On Tuesday night, the restaurant was closed and the bar (which prides itself on its single malt selection, delighting Tommy) was limited to a small selection of scotches, cognac and grappa, but a small expedition the next morning (thanks to our HON chaperones) sampled breakfast, toasted with Tattinger, and did the things “air warriors” do in these situations: enjoyed our good fortune.

Star Alliance Crowdsources Itself

This week’s joyride is billed as the “Star Alliance Mega DO,” but as in real life, we’re spending a lot of time with Star’s member airlines and very little with Star Alliance itself. That changed a bit for the FlyerTalkers selected to participate in a workshop Tuesday afternoon at Star Alliance’s headquarters, and, members willing, may be about to change for the average flyer.

As USA Today’s Ben Mutzbaugh covered yesterday, Star executives asked Mega DOers for feedback on a conceptual iPhone app and an alliance-wide service kiosk with which a stranded traveler might pick up a phone, swap a credit card, and instantly be connected to a reservation agent with the full itinerary already in front of them. It sounded useful, but the story behind the kiosk is more interesting than the results.

At the Lufthansa dinner, I spoke with Jeremy Drury, Star’s director of alliance innovation services, who sat in on the sessions Tuesday. He explained Star was “used to working with our members’ boards; as of this year, we’re working with our members’ employees.” In a nutshell, Star is seeking to crowdsource ideas across the 400,000-strong combined workforce of its members. “We want to connect a United idea to a Japanese customer service rep,” as Drury put it.

Out of 190 ideas in the original harvest, eight or nine so far have made the cut. The kiosk is the outcome of a suggestion that began life unpromisingly as increasing the “cross-fertilization of reservation agents.” It ended up a kiosk connecting travelers to whichever Star reservation agents happen to be awake and under-utilized at that hour. “We wanted to take the kiosk out of the kiosk and put a person inside instead,” Drury said.

But more intriguing is seeing Star Alliance executives scheming to unlock the creativity of its members, and to put their ideas to work across all 27 airlines, presumably with a Star Alliance logo on the kiosk or app instead of an airline’s. Industry pundits — especially the analyst Mike Boyd — have predicted that the big three alliances may one day supersede airline brands just as the name carriers superseded the regional affiliates that comprise a good percentage of their lift.

That day may yet come, but for now “I’d like 10,000-20,000 employees talking to each other, and we’re not there yet,” Drury said. When I asked how quickly Star will move to implement these suggestions once they’ve been vetted by customers, he just shook his head. There are no timetables for anything, because “there are 27 carriers, and they all need to be convinced. And if you’d like my job, you can have it,” he joked. Still, it’s interesting to see Star Alliance taking the lead when it comes to innovation.

Meanwhile, on Swiss…

You may recall that while the majority of Mega DO participants flew Lufthansa JFK-FRA, a handful opted to transit via ZRH, VIE (and in one case, GVA) on LX and OS. How were their flights? I have yet to meet either of the pair who opted for OS, but I do have a pair of trip reports from LX. After dropping $2,800 on a refundable gate pass to enter Lufthansa Senator Lounge at JFK, Pat hopped the AirTrain from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4. Upon entering the Swiss lounge (which is land-side), he was greeted by the head of U.S. PR, who took him on a tour of the first class lounge and then helped clear an entire lane of security for him to pass through. The flight to ZRH in business class was outfitted with fully lie-flat beds, and upon arrival he was taken to lunch by the head of operations, which blew Pat away. After lunch, he was driven to his plane. “I have to call about my miles because they never scanned my ticket!” he says.

Meanwhile, Marty booked himself on JFK-GVA-FRA and apparently fell through the cracks, as Swiss was unaware of his presence. So what is it like when they don’t roll out the red carpet? “The Swiss flight was great… in the air,” said Marty, obviously hesitating. “The lounge was better than advertised, and the service was fantastic. But there was a slight delay in Geneva, and when I got here, they had decided to send my luggage on to Rome. So I was an hour late at baggage claim while retrieved my luggage from the Rome flight, and by then the Welcome lounge was closed.” The lesson, as always: being on the official roster of a Star Mega DO makes every flight better.

The Seat Guru

There are a few new faces on the second go-round of Star Mega DO, and one happens to belong to Matt Daimler, a.k.a Phatteus, who founded Seatguru.com nearly a decade ago. “It started in 2001 as one plane, with one map,” he says, and wasn’t much more than a hobby until revenue Google AdSense began turning it into a real business circa 2004. He sold the site to Expedia in 2007 (today his card says “Founder” and his role is effectively an evangelist) and his current wish is to see Seatguru’s maps incorporated into the most popular iPhone apps like Flight Tracker.

He still tells the story of learning how fare classes work. While traveling with a friend circa 1996, their flight was canceled and the airline was forced to rebook them on another carrier, issuing paper vouchers to do so. Seeing a “Y” written on the voucher, Matt’s friend asked what it meant. Informed “Y” meant coach and an “F” was required to be rebooked in first, his friend decided to fix that. Using a pen, he doctored the “Y” into an “F.” And it worked.

First Class all the way in Frankfurt

IMGP6784The Lufthansa First Class Terminal holds a certain mystique. A dedicated building for the most coveted passengers. Getting inside is generally not a trivial task.

Unless you’re a StarMegaDo participant, that is.

For the first time ever the lounge was opened up after hours to host a private event for customers and we had a blast. For about an hour we mingled, sampled a collection of the fine beverages on offer and enjoyed the luxuries that the lounge offers. A few lucky folks even managed to score one of the coveted rubber ducks from the bath suites.

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Rest for the weary

As we exit dinner and head for the evening surprise, many FlyerTalkers grab a moments rest—don’t laugh, we were all jealous violist found this spot.

Getting the Rubdown at Dinner

OK, this is a mileage run, right? Well, looking at this picture tells you it is not your standard mileage run. Answer me this. When is the last time on a mileage run that you had a massage on the turn around? I never have, but here we are at the Lufthansa/Star Alliance dinner and there’s three masseuse on duty giving massages to all the guests. You think the line is long at the elite check-in at SFO? Well, this place was packed all night long for the weary—day one was not going out without a few pleasant surprises.

Day One: I’m exhausted

When you look around the room here at the SMD2 dinner hosted by Lufthansa and the Star Alliance, you get a giddy sense of excitement from the newbies on this mileage run and a sense of calm satisfaction from day one events. Here’s why:

Off the plane from NYC, many members piled into the Senator Lounge in FRA for a quick snack before heading to the hotel. For some it was “bier.” Others it was the first pretzel of the day and for others it could be the bacon. Trust me, bacon is a big hit with this group. So, immediate cravings satisfied, it’s off to the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport Hotel.

With a few short hours of R&R, some more than others if you passed the Lounge experience at the airport and even less if you were among the many who had to check in with work and family to make connections, it was soon apparent that this group would face its longest day.

So, en masse, the group winds its way down to waiting busses headed for the A-380 Hall which after security gave most of the members their first up-close touch and feel of this magnificently large aircraft. And we’re not just talking going inside—we’re talking kicking the tires type of tour. Arranged into three groups with knowledgeable guides, we poured on the pictures with photos in front of the spinning turbine engines being especially popular. Now, for those of us that enjoyed walking or more specifically ducking our heads underneath this A-380, we learned that the weigh of the aircraft directly above us was about 610,200 pounds and a upon take-off it could weigh as much as 1,235,000 pounds fully loaded. Not sure we would have lingered as long as we did knowing that.

So, inside we went, and visited everything in the plane. Where the pilots sleep: check. Where the crew rest area is downstairs (and I do mean downstairs): check. First class bathrooms: check. Lay down in the comfy duvets of the fist class sleeper bed: check. Cockpit tour and the question was finally answered—pilots when hooked up to the system could actually log on the Web and access flyertalk.com: check.

After the A-380 “Do” we head by bus to the LAC (Lufthansa Aviation Center) where we hear from various departments and they really did enjoy the feedback. My group was especially vocal about the topic of mobile boarding passes and what that future looks like. Great to know that this airline, Lufthansa, listens because there were notes being taken both ways.

Now, on to dinner and then a very special private party—one in a location that is one of the truly last bastions of frequent flyer nirvana on my bucket list. Let’s get on to the dinner.

I’m Falling Behind…

…on sleep and on keeping current with these posts. That’s what happens when your whirlwind evening includes workshops with Lufthansa and Star Alliance (more at USA Today on that one), dinner at Lufthansa headquarters with 76 Mega DOers and executives from across Star and the Lufthansa Group, and a nightcap (one of many) at the First Class Terminal — the first (and certainly the last) time it has ever been opened to non-HON, non-first class passengers. A truly amazing, exclusive experience. Seth will hopefully toss a few photos of the latter on the Web this morning, but more detailed posts on Tuesday night’s activities will have to wait until we’ve touched down in Houston. In the meantime, I have Tattinger Rosé to drink over breakfast at the First Class Terminal. See you on the other side.

FlyerTalkers can see for miles and miles …

Always looking for the best views, these FlyerTalkers sought out the best place to look nose-to-nose with the A-380 that we so luckily toured.

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