“Seat Plus” – Virgin Atlantic’s way of marketing the idea of an “Extra Seat”

A little known fact is that you can buy an extra seat from the airline when travelling. This is commonly used by musicians who don’t wish to check valuable musical instruments into the hold, and more recently to accommodate bariatric passengers who can’t fit in a single seat.

Those in the know also book extra seats to make long haul journeys in economy a little more bearable – we all know the wave of relief when the announcement says “boarding complete” and you’ve got an open seat next to you.

But, the airlines have tended to not like you doing it unless you really have a need. Depending on the airline, the extra seat can be cheaper than the seat you’ll actually be sat in (no meals, no extra bag entitlement, etc.), so it loses them some revenue.

Virgin Atlantic have decided to market the idea of extra seat, but it’s not quite the same concept. In this case, they are only bookable from 72 hours in advance – i.e. when Virgin know the plane is or isn’t going to go with empty seats, and they can be as cheap as £99 per flight.

In theory, it sounds like a good idea – by paying a fee, you can be certain you’ll have a bit more space, and Virgin get a little bit of money for that seat which would otherwise have gone empty.

I’ve not flown Virgin now for over two years, and that means I don’t have any status in their frequent flyer scheme anymore (I was Gold for about 8-10 years). Giving away “Seat Plus” to a Flying Club Gold member would be a fantastic perk, wouldn’t it? Don’t know if they are planning on doing it though.

First Impressions from “new” Lufthansa “Pier A” at Frankfurt

Connecting through Frankfurt, Lufthansa’s major hub, can sometimes be a fraught experience. Given that the Germans generally have a reputation for efficiency and good design, this may come as a surprise to the unseasoned traveller.

It’s something of a lottery. If you’re connecting between two flights arriving on the same gate area, then it’s easy. If not, then it’s game over. Don’t pack your running shoes – keep them handy in your hand baggage. Continue reading “First Impressions from “new” Lufthansa “Pier A” at Frankfurt”

Now for the real “Up In The Air”

If you happened to be bored on a plane sometime in 2010, there’s a high likelihood you’ll have seen the film Up In The Air, and some of you may even relate to it. I remember that United Airlines even had the film doctored to remove much of the obvious product placement for competitor American Airlines from the film!

Air New Zealand 747-400, ZK-SUI by robertjamesstarling, on Flickr
Now, there's a nice plane. Still prefer it to the 777.

At the time, I was doing between 75k and 100k miles in flight each year, and while I wasn’t living the somewhat empty, itinerant existance of George Clooney’s character, I was almost certainly doing more travelling than most so-called “Traveller families” were travelling in the UK.

It meant that I could certainly relate to the film, the lead character’s pursuit of miles and elite status, and the benefits of choosing the correct airport security lane. I expect a lot of people reading this post (“Hi, Internet meeting circuit!”) can also relate to this.

I still never got down to living entirely out of a single roll-aboard case for more than a few days at a time though.

An independent film maker, Gabriel Leigh, has decided to make a feature-length documentary about the real frequent flyers, the people who really are “Up In The Air”, all the time, and often for no apparent reason. The film maker is appealing for backing on Kickstarter to raise the money to make the project.

Of course, the real irony would be if he can manage to fly to all the places he needs to when making the film using redeemed miles, rather than paying for a ticket!

Here’s a 20 minute taster of when he initially explored the phenomenon of the FlyerTalker and mileage runner.

One thing which really struck me about this short video was the chap in Tokyo, when he compared the airport to a city and a city to the airport. Everyone just going about their business, speaking their own language, doing their own stuff, in their own world, rarely interacting?

While it’s a true comparison for the mega-airports like Schiphol, DFW, Frankfurt and Heathrow, do we want our cities, our homes, our environments in which we live every day to become as impersonal as an airport? I don’t doubt for a moment that it is happening, but can’t help feeling I think that would be a sad state of affairs in the evolution of the city in the long term.

Bit windy out! Using social media for good…

Unless you’ve been living below ground for the last 24 hours, those of you in the UK can’t have helped notice it’s a bit windy out.

This sort of severe weather inevitably brings disruption, but I’ve been heartened to see a number of organisations using social media to spread the word quickly.

The social media folks @VirginTrains, Amy & Ste, have been doing a great job of relaying information out via Twitter, especially regarding heavily disrupted services into Scotland. Behind the scenes Virgin has been leading the UK rail industry on a project to improve the flow of information to passengers during disruption, and from what I’ve seen today, it seems to be working really well.

They are clearly providing a bi-directional conduit for information – they are getting their info from regular incident update calls (which should happen every 20 minutes, apparently), and direct from their route control, which means the information is very fresh, rather than out of date, which has classically been the normal complaint if you were to phone National Rail Enquiries.

What is missing is a copy of the Twitter feed on the Virgin Trains website – there’s currently no realtime information about the state of their service today provided on their website, no banner saying, “It is windy. Stuff is broken. Please check before you travel.” It is relatively trivial to embed an “alert bar” and/or a Twitter feed into a webpage, and would help those who happen to not use Twitter.

Also worthy mentions to @HeathrowAirport and @LondonCityAir(port) who have been using The Force for good today, providing regular updates about issues with travel to LHR due to a fallen tree on the Piccadilly Line, and to LCY due to an earlier meltdown on the DLR and the high winds making landing and taking off a challenge for the pilots on the smaller planes which fly to London City.

The main thing I think the LCY Twitter folks could do better right now is actually give more info about what is/isn’t cancelled – rather than “contact your airline” which sort of smacks of “not our problem”, even if that’s not the sentiment.

Ah well, wind has picked up again and the sideways rain has returned. I’ll see if I can spy an ark coming down the street.

Virgin Atlantic launches “all new” Economy service

I saw that Virgin Atlantic have today launched a new Economy inflight service – their “best ever”, so they say. There is a shiny video online.


Call me a sceptic that belongs in an episode of “Grumpy Old Men“, but I can’t really see much from the promotional video that makes me think “Wow”:

  • The branding and packaging has changed – all part of marketing the product to the customer
  • It still features that kiddies’ tea party sized “mini-loaf” of bread that I remember from my first VS flight years ago
  • It still contains some classic Virgin touches like mid-flight ice-cream, now served from a cutesy usherette tray
  • The coffee/tea cups seem smaller than before, but serving dessert with coffee/tea seems a good move, having eaten my dessert and then waited ages for coffee.
  • The menu cards have returned (Virgin took them away early in the 2000’s as a cost-cutting measure)
  • Is the new lightweight tray, with it’s little indentations, meant to remind you of being at primary school?
  • Along with the new space-saving and lighter tray, there seems to be a reduction in some pre-packaged optional items, which is a plus – ever thought about how many packets of unasked for sugar airlines throw away each year?
  • But, they still use those woeful “Dairystix” pre-packed milk tubes – a triumph of packaging design that allows you to spill weird-tasting milk over your neighbour or, if you’re really unlucky, yourself. What about a milk jug?
  • It looks like afternoon tea-type second services are making a comeback, having been heavily pared back in the last decade.
  • But the vtravelled blog article says that “on shorter flights, you will get a light meal like high-tea” – does that mean no main meal at all on some sectors?
  • We don’t get to see what’s inside the shiny new packages – is it still the same iffy food that was always there before?

It’s good to see Virgin reinstating some elements of the service which were taken away in cuts of the last decade, and the weight-saving and waste-reducing features deserve applauding, but “all new” and “best ever” seems to be on the verge of overstating things. If they really meant to show how good this new service was, perhaps they wouldn’t be afraid to show us what we could expect inside the boxes.

Unless it really is yet another watery, drippy, lasagne, (or the ever dreary, ever present anaemic sausage and cement mash) in which case I wouldn’t blame them at all.


About an hour or two after publishing this blog post, I got the following email from Virgin Atlantic…

We’d like your feedback

Dear Customer,

In an effort to better understand our customers and improve our services at Virgin Atlantic, we are seeking to gain feedback about our customers’ use of social networking sites, particularly Facebook and Twitter.

To help us obtain this feedback, please click on the link below and fill in this survey.

So, someone or something is watching, somewhere 🙂

A comfy Economy seat? Surely not!

Okay, did that get your attention?

I’m currently in Vienna for a meeting, and to get here, rather than trek from home to Heathrow (about 75-90 mins) for a direct flight, I went LCY-ZRH-VIE on Swiss, given I only live 20 minutes on public transport from London City.

The flight from Zurich to Vienna was on a fairly new looking A320, which had a new style of seat that I hadn’t come across before. Like the last Swiss short-haul “space saver” seats, they were made by Recaro, still gave the impression of plenty of room, but definitely addressed one of the niggles on the older seat, which was the crap seat-back storage net.

One thing I noticed very quickly was how firm and thin-looking the seat bottom cushioning was, but at the same time, that it was quite comfortable.

I then realised that underneath the leather covering, it was a mesh-type “suspension” seat, like you might expect to find in an office or work chair, rather than the traditional foam padding. It was only a short flight, but I found it much more comfortable and supportive than a foam cushion. With a normal foam cushion, once it’s compressed, that’s it, it somewhat ceases to be supportive. The mesh doesn’t give way like this, and provided comfortable support behind the knees as well.

Not sure about what it’s like on a longer flight, but I know people who spend hours sat in Aeron chairs, so maybe I’ll ask them. Or does anyone know if Swiss have tried these new seat bottom cushions on their longhaul fleet?

Of course, it probably also weighs less than the equivalent foam padding.

All rather clever really.

How to reset a broken culture?

I’d recently read “Rework“, the book that 37signals’ founders wrote about what they learned along the way while growing their business, and why they think the mould about setting up a small business (or growing into a larger business) shouldn’t just be broken, but thrown away too.

It made me think about the things I’ve done right – being myself, being open and honest, feeling my customers’ pain, and the things I’ve done wrong – being overkeen to delegate, defer, insist, be grouchy, and allow myself be pushed into creating policy to deal with a corner case instead of dealing with it properly, falling into the various terrible management traps that lie in wait, trying to catch you out when you least expect it.

One recurring theme throughout the book, though in many different shapes and sizes, is the simple and old-fashioned adage of “treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself”, and that’s something I really identified with. It’s something we should live our life by more often.

Continue reading “How to reset a broken culture?”

Paging Air New Zealand, please report to the naughty corner.

A lot of folks who know me will know that I’ve held Air New Zealand in high regard for several years, that I really rated their inflight product and service, and would choose to fly Air NZ from Heathrow over to LA over other airlines such as BA or Virgin, as well as use them for flying to NZ itself.

I was particularly a big fan of their Pacific Premium Economy product – loads of leg room, and an inflight service which was deserving of the title “Premium” – offering Business class meals and fine NZ wines. I thought it represented very good value for money, and made the Virgin Premium Economy product, and especially the BA World Traveller Plus product look positively economy by comparison.

On a recent trip down to New Zealand (my third in as many years) in January, for the NZNOG meeting in Wellington, I was able to experience Air New Zealand’s new long-haul Premium Economy product on their much hyped new Boeing 777-300 aircraft on one of it’s first long haul flights.

Sadly, while the product was innovative, I was not impressed. I felt underwhelmed and disappointed with the experience, compared to that I would have received on the older plane. What’s worse is that it wasn’t all teething troubles. Sure, there were some teething troubles. But many were what I see as basic issues with the new product.

I found the new “SpaceSeat” anything but spacious – it felt confining, with the TV screen mere inches from your face, and at a weird angle compared to the seatback (and therefore your body), so you have to turn your neck or sit sort of twisted into a side-saddle position to try and be comfortable and watch a film at the same time.

The “seat pocket” as provided was a joke – it was made of a solid material (rather than an elasticated netting), and wasn’t even big enough to fit a book in.

The area of the aircraft I was sat in felt incredibly hot, stuffy and uncomfortable. Despite the crew setting a cooler temperature, where I was sat, it never seemed to cool down or get any sort of noticeable airflow.

I’m not normally a claustrophobic person, but I can only describe what I felt as being “freaked out” by the environment created by the cabin – from the stuffy air to the TV in your face, to the lack of space – and this was in a window seat!

I thought the personal space on the new product rather inferior to that you get on Air NZ’s 747-400 planes.

The fact is, Air NZ have, for some reason, crammed the rows of seats very tightly. I would probably be inclined to pay a little more if a row or so of seats was pulled out and spread between the other seats. Just to get that TV a bit further away from my face.

The inflight service was of a reduced quality compared to the old service, at least as far as I was concerned. It was very slow, due to the fiddly nature of the service, and because of the seat being angled away from the aisle, so tight up to the back of the seat in front, it wasn’t really possible to have any sort of interaction with the crew member serving you from the aisle, as this would involve being able to turn your head through much greater than 90 degrees.

This meant that it was much more difficult to experience the “soft side” of the service of the great Air NZ crews, as you couldn’t easily make eye-contact with them. They just became this sort of disembodied arm and hand pushing food and drinks in front of you. It also took over two (and more like three) hours to serve the main meal.

This seems to fly in the face of what Air NZ were aiming for, which was a more personal service!

It’s fair to say that on the older aircraft, Air NZ didn’t have the best PE seat in the sky, but I think they had the best Premium Economy soft product, in terms of the food and level of service. Air NZ seem to have gutted that great soft product, in order to provide what they percieve as a “better seat”.

There are other comedy errors, such as the location of the Premium Economy galley (over the wing) meant that it couldn’t have a hot water tap. If passengers ordered coffee or tea, it had to be brought from the other galleys – meaning staff walking through the cabin with jugs/flasks of hot water from the other galleys – not made easy because the aisles have been made narrower!

The changes don’t just affect the Premium Economy product, either. The quid-pro-quo of the “Economy Skycouch” product is that the Economy cabin is seated 10-across, which doesn’t sound bad, until you realise this is on a Boeing 777, which most other airlines, including Air NZ themselves on their 777-200s, only seat 9-across.

The aisles are noticeably narrower – more folk in the aisles will notice they get bumped – as are the seats themselves. A friend travelled in the back on the 777-300 and found it unbearably uncomfortable, having to sit with their shoulders “tucked in”. I can understand this on a 20-minute commute to Central London, but not on a 13 hour flight from LA to NZ.

The seat pitch (the space between the seats) in Economy has also been cranked down from 34″ on the 747-400 to 31-32″ on the 777-300. Air NZ have gone from one of the best Economy products in the sky to one of the most unbearably cramped in one fell swoop. Feels like a step backwards, and it’s not just me. There’s plenty of discussion about it on that perennial thorn-in-the-side of airlines, Flyertalk.

When the product was launched, it was accompanied by a lot of fanfare about the months of painstaking research that has gone on behind the scenes. If there has been all this research, how can the product be full of what I (as a 100K mile per year traveller) regard as such schoolboy errors.

Also interesting to observe is that there has been what I percieve to be an astroturfing campaign about how great the new products are via their social media outlets such as their Twitter account, yet nothing about the nightmares that I know for a fact they have been having with the new service. Oh, and what is it with that dreadful muppet character, Rico? How is that related to (what should be) high quality air travel?

So, not really enjoying this flight much, I contacted Air NZ to offer my feedback on the flight.

Sadly, after waiting about 6 to 8 weeks, all I got was a dreadful, bland, canned reply which basically indicated a “head in the sand” approach, that there couldn’t really be anything seriously wrong with their wonderful new product, could there, and these were all flukes which would be fixed next time I flew. Like I believed that.

They may as well have just said “You are free to take your business elsewhere”. Well, sadly, that’s what I’ve done on my next trip to California.

On 1st April, the last 747-400 operated NZ1 will leave Heathrow, and the next day London gets the “downgrade” to 777-300 service. The regulars won’t know what’s hit them.

Update – Thursday 31st March 2011

So, a few folks thought I was just having a rant here. Perhaps because it sounded a bit ranty, or I wasn’t explicit about something I wanted to get across:

What’s really disappointed me here is that an organisation which seemed to be switched on yet still be able treat it’s customers with good old-fashioned respect, and in the past seemed to have a great grasp of what people wanted, could have gone off the rails quite so spectacularly with a string of apparently shallow and unpopular moves.

SQ: Hey, folks in social housing, why not fly Business Class on our A380?

I have to wonder who is doing SQ’s media buying for billboard space, and what they might be smoking.

Why? Because at least four billboards in quick succession along the same road carried large ads suggesting one should try out SQ’s A380 Business Class product. So what? It’s some sort of blanket advertising campaign.

But, these billboards are along a road passing through an area which is characterised by social housing along one side, and light industrial units along the other. The average passerby is hardly the target market for round trips to Singapore at £3.5k a pop, right?

Being situated on the way to Belmarsh Prison (once dubbed the “British version of Guantanamo Bay”, and where the UK sends it’s really quite dangerous criminals), it’s not like it’s a through route for high rollers either. The folks passing by in these vehicles with blacked out windows aren’t likely to be leaving the country any time soon, unless they depart handcuffed to a police escort.

So, I’ll ask the question again. What is the media buyer responsible for these ads thinking?

I guess it got me thinking. I might fly SQ Biz to SIN, especially if someone else is paying. Maybe that’s the trick?

I am the market Nokia lost

Remember when more than 50% of mobile phones in people’s hands said “Nokia” on them? When 50% of those phones had that iconic/irritating/annoying signature ring tone – often because folks hadn’t worked out how to get them off the default – long a prelude to yells of “Hello! I’m on a train/in a restaurant/in a library“.

Well, this week, a memo from the new Nokia CEO, Stephen Elop, has been doing the rounds online, which sums up the ferocious drubbing the once dominant Finnish company had in the handset market, at the hands of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android OS, and how it is now poised on the telecoms equivalent of a blazing oil platform.

I am part of the market that Nokia lost, maybe even forgot. I have a drawer which could be called “my life as a mobile phone user”, littered with old Nokia handsets, many of them iconic in their own right… the 2110, 6110, 6150, 6210, 6310i (probably one of the best handsets Nokia ever made), 6600, and three Communicators, the 9210i, 9500 and E90.

Why did I stop using Nokia?

Well, the last Nokia handset I tried was the N97, and since then I’ve been an iPhone convert.

While those around me used swishy iPhones, my previous loyalty to Nokia was rewarded with a slow and clunky UI, a terrible keyboard, and the appallingly bad software to run on your (Windows only) PC for backing up and synchronisation.

Nokia couldn’t even focus on keeping up with the needs of it’s previously loyal and high-yielding power users, for whom migrating handsets was always a pain, never mind the fickle throwaway consumer market.

Is it any wonder folks have deserted Nokia?

They have made themselves look like the British Leyland of the mobile phone world.

On a complete sidebar – any guesses on which airline will start up a HEL-SFO service first? There have got to be yield management folk looking at this in the wake of this news!

Update: 11 Feb 2011, 0855

As the pundits predicted, Nokia have announced they have aligned themselves with Microsoft, and their Windows mobile platform.