Celebrating the generosity of StarMegaDo

One of the larger components of StarMegaDo has always been a focus on charity. The even operates on a break-even budget and any surplus has always been donated to charities associated with the airlines and other programs we work with. In addition, we hold a charity raffle on-board the charter flights, selling tickets and giving away awesome airline-related prizes (and an iPad this year because every raffle should have one, apparently).

imageToday I was fortunate to participate in one of the more enjoyable aspects of my role as an organizer. High up in the Empire State Building in New York City we are meeting with Lufthansa to present them with a donation to support Help Alliance, the primary charity affiliated with the group. This year the various events associated with StarMegaDo raised over $12,000 through several different channels and events. Of that, we are quite honored to be able to present $5,000 to the Help Alliance group.

Attending the event are Tommy Danielsen, the head of StarMegaDo, Martin Riecken, Lufthansa’s Director of Corporate Communications for the Americas and Seth Miller, Director of Communications for StarMegaDo.

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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.

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!”

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.

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.

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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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.

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.

Today in the Sky flies with StarMegaDo | USATODAY.com #smd2010

Today in the Sky schedule update

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By Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY

I’m traveling this week with the “Star Mega Do,” a FlyerTalk-affiliated gathering that includes some of the most dedicated frequent-flier enthusiasts from across the globe. In this particular case, the trip is focused on the Star Alliance carriers.

Today I’m coming to you from Frankfurt, where I’ll be meeting with both Lufthansa and Star Alliance officials later today.

On Wednesday, the group changes location to Houston, where I’ll be on hand to cover the first annual Frequent Traveler Awards ceremony on Thursday. Also while I’m in Houston, I hope to get time with some of United’s executives for an update of what’s going on at United and Continental.

continued: Today in the Sky schedule update – USATODAY.com.

A tour of München in Frankfurt

StarMegaDo is an amazing experience at many levels. This afternoon IMGP6609we experienced that by being in two places at the same time. We were standing on the ground in Frankfurt and then walked up the stairs and suddenly found ourselves in München.

In this case München is the name of D-AIMB, one of the Airbus A380s that Lufthansa has in service. And they had it available for all of us to tour this afternoon to kick off the Frankfurt portion of StarMegaDo 2010. I’ve seen the A380s a few times and I still have trouble processing just how absolutely HUGE the airplane is. That means, among other things, that it makes for a great tour because of all the different sections, cabins and features.

The first class lavatory on the A380 is actually larger than the bathroom in my apartment. That was a rather depressing and shocking discovery though I also realize that the rent I’m paying is quite a bit less than buying F seats every night. On the plus side (I suppose),

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I have the advantage that at least my feet actually reach the cushion/ottoman.

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We spent time in the cockpit:

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We spent time in Coach:

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And we spent time in the crew rest bunks, too:

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Did I mention that the A380 is HUGE???

 

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Seriously beautiful plane.

Meeting “Munchen”

This afternoon, Star Mega DOs 1 & 2 came full circle with a visit to the “Munchen,” a.k.a D-AIMB, the Lufthansa Airbus A380 we last saw a year ago on the assembly line in Toulouse. (And if that wasn’t enough, we caught a glimpse of last year’s charter, the Condor 757 D-ABON, as we were leaving the hangar area). Lufthansa’s second A380 (of three so far, with the fourth set to follow shortly) the Munchen had arrived from NRT earlier this morning and was being prepped for its NRT return flight the following day.

Splitting into small groups upon arrival, FlyerTalkers literally kicked the tires (rated to 235 mph and costing $16,000 a piece) and stroked the fuselage and found the orange waterspouts where the water you washed your hands with exits the aircraft. Our tour guide, a retired 747 captain named Ulrich Fuchs (who led tours of that plane a year ago) explained how the landing gear folds up in upon itself and told the story of the stowaway found frozen on one of his runs between FRA and Accra, Ghana. “Boeing likes to boast the 747 is made of 6 million parts,” Fuchs said at one point. “Well, 3 million of those are rivets. The A380 has 6.5 million parts, but you hardly see any rivets.”

On board, the Mega DOers politely milled about in Economy for awhile (“Look around,” Tommy said, “This is your first and last time on the lower deck!”) before being led upstairs to the new First Class. Designed in a typically restrained Teutonic style in grays and blacks, most of the amenities on display were expected (lie-flat beds, pajamas, humidifiers, his-and-hers kits by Porsche Design) and a few surprises (instead of overhead bins, personal lockers; instead of showers, bathrooms with full sinks, leather benches, and cabinets stocked with razors, toothpaste, and makeup remover).

We skipped business class considering many of us flew in the same product the night before, but the Lufthansa execs on board were quick to defend the absence of a refresh. When LH was finalizing its A380 layout in 2004 in expectation of a 2007 rollout, the nearly-flat beds were still in the top tier. But the endless series of supposedly minor delays hamstrung their ability to rethink the product in time. (Although the first row of seats in business class can be made full lie-flat if you know which levers to manually push. Ask your purser; she’ll know how.)


How Not To Visit A Lufthansa A380

(Instructions from our tour guide during the bus ride to the A380 hangar.)

“Don’t bring anything onboard the A380 you would bring on a plane…like guns or bombs or anything.”

“Do not use the bathrooms onboard the A380. I know the A380 bathrooms are spectacular, but they are only for looking today.”

“Do not take anything off the A380s. Leave the seats there, and when we’re sitting down… well we shouldn’t sit down. If you sit down, leave your seat as if you have never been there.”

Shower, breakfast and a beer at the Lufthansa Welcome Lounge

As we boarded the flight out of JFK last night we were treated to a bit of good and bad news. The flight time would be only 6:20 across to Frankfurt. Less sleep, but an early arrival so more lounge time once we did arrive. Win some, lose some.

IMG_0452The flight was reasonably pleasant and included a couple attempts (mostly unsuccessful) by Tommy to convince folks on board that Fernet Branca is not the devil’s elixir. I am decidedly in the not convinced camp but that didn’t stop me from joining the group in a toast or two.  IMG_0455

Upon arrival we headed down to the Welcome Lounge in Frankfurt airport. With a few dozen showers and a pretty nice breakfast spread, the lounge is a great place to finish up a flight and to start your day in Frankfurt. Keeping with my personal time-honored tradition for fighting jetlag, I poured myself a beer from the tap and headed down to the shower room for a refreshing soak.IMG_0472

Back upstairs for another beer, some bacon & eggs and a fresh pretzel and I’m ready to go out and have a great StarMegaDo day!

Click here to view the embedded video.

Arrival

At its best, air travel is time travel — as anyone who’s arrived someplace before their stated departure time could attest. That wasn’t quite the case on LH 405 from JFK to FRA this morning, but thanks to a serendipitous combination of tailwinds, a short taxi at JFK, and a clear path to the gate at FRA, we arrived a full 75 minutes early. There’s nothing quite like breakfasting in the Lufthansa Welcome Lounge on sausages and Lowenbrau Oktoberfest half an hour before you ever planned on arriving. (The sole snafu of the morning: the discovery that the Welcome Lounge was sealed behind a blast door unable to be opened from the inside — as faint German voices informed us from the other side. Someone’s trolley had bumped into the emergency button, sealing them inside.)

Checked in, refreshed, and as caught up on sleep as we’re ever going to be on this trip, we adjourn until 13:45 for our date with the A380.


Outward Bound

The Lufthansa lounge at JFK is a bit like heaven — it gets better as you ascend. Business class passengers are confined to the ground floor, with Star Gold members reside up a flight and First Class passengers sip single malts up top. The trio of Swiss passengers in our group were sentenced to Purgatory (i.e. the Swiss lounge in Terminal 4), prompting Pat to drop $2,800 for a gate pass (i.e. a fully refundable walkup ticket) to sneak in.

Early arrivals for tonight’s flight to Frankfurt were offered a tour of the higher levels — the rest of us snuck up every now and then for some tikka chicken masala and a cocktail. After several hours of sipping champagne, our hosts hailed our return nearly a year to the day and explained why Lufthansa was the launch customers for the Boeing 747-8i — which we will visit on the assembly in Everett near the end of the DO — because LH’s chairmen are historically engineers, and there’s nothing an engineer loves more than power. “We told Boeing years ago if you extend, renew, refurbish it, we will buy it,” and it did.

After welcoming remarks, Tommy took to the mike to “guarantee to we’re doing things in Frankfurt we didn’t do last year.”

“Sleep?!” came the hopeful reply.

“No, not sleeping!”

OK, listen up

Here’s a pic of just some of those who will be flying tonight. Lovely sendoff from the Lufthansa lounge. Can you identify anyone who appears to have an addiction problem in this picture? Miles — they can be addictive.

Who’s on First: Your bags will get to Houston before you do.

We all love the stories of common sense … as told through the eyes of the airlines. Today while checking in for the start of SMD2, I checked in at the Lufthansa First Class counter … compliments of the Star Alliance Gold-level membership. All is going well, only a single person in front of me vs. the estimated 34 people that would have been in front of me in the “other” check-in line. Passport and all details are fine and I’ve got a nice seat in biz class. The pleasant lady takes my bag to put the luggage locator on it and pauses for a second and says sort of off-handed, “Seems like a long way to go to get to Houston.” I am assuming she saw that on my return I was going to Houston, but replied, “Just a quick overnight and right back, miles, miles, miles.” She smiled and then replies, “So you have some overnight things with you?” To which I replied, “No, this bag is just my reading material and computer.” She pauses again and says, “Why wouldn’t you want your luggage in Frankfurt?” I reply, “Well, I do.” Then the lady pulls off the luggage locator tag and shows it to me. Because of the short turn around, the system actually printed my luggage to go to FRA and then on to IAH with no stop in FRA. Such is the bane of the mileage runner, luggage wants to go faster or slower than we want to.

So, a few clicks in the override mode of the system and now we have luggage and Randy all going, and stopping in the same place.

Yabba Dabba (Star Mega) Do Two!

Well, it’s mileage run time as only the members of FlyerTalk see it. In just a few days flyers take off from NYC headed to Germany and a meeting with many of the CEOs of the Star Alliance airlines on the first leg of a week full of miles, points, camaraderie and conversation. Lufthansa is the carrier of choice on this first leg and what that means is that the biz class cabin turns into a bunk room that only a guy like me can appreciate.

Join me as I count down to Star MegaDo2—or code-name SMD2 as we like to call it.

NOTE: If you’ve got the time, take a look at last years first Star MegaDo.

Well, it’s mileage run time as only the members of FlyerTalk see it. In just a few days flyers take off from NYC headed to Germany and a meeting with many of the CEOs of the Star Alliance airlines on the first leg of a week full of miles, points, camaraderie and conversation. Lufthansa is the carrier of choice on this first leg and what that means is that the biz class cabin turns into a bunk room that only a guy like me can appreciate.

Join me as I count down to Star MegaDo2—or code-name SMD2 as we like to call it.

NOTE: If you’ve got the time, take a look at last years first Star MegaDo.

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