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Etihad Airways: New York to Abu Dhabi

16 Jan

Flight: EY 101

Route: JFK – AUH

Class of Service: FIRST

Aircraft: B777-300ER (77W)

There’s much fanfare around the ME3, the gulf carriers of the UAE and Qatar, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. And if you’ve flown any of them, you likely know firsthand what all the fuss is about. Even the most hard-to-impress can likely contend with the fact that compared to US domestic carriers, the difference is quite clear, putting things mildly.

I first flew Etihad 6 years ago when I first ventured out to the UAE. Then, it was, by and large, still a fledgling carrier hardly noticeable in the shadows of big brother, Emirates. And with good reason, it’d only been in operation for 7 years and still forming a distinct identity for itself. That withstanding, I enjoyed the trip then and could immediately notice this was a company big on enhancing the customer experience and attempting to make a difference in the industry. Etihad has grown up quite a bit since, expanding its footprint in many more markets and growing its fleet substantially (including its revolutionary Residence and individual Apartments featured on its A380), firmly establishing Abu Dhabi as a hub for connections to the Far East and beyond. It was time for me to check things out again.

I booked my ticket using AAdvantage miles in First (90K one-way) on my outbound journey, on EY 101 currently operated by the carrier’s 77W (777-300ER) aircraft . While I personally think the triple seven is one of the most beautiful and elegant commercial jets to grace the skies, I’d hoped I’d had the opportunity to book the trip instead on Etihad’s A380 aircraft which, as aforementioned, has much roomier First Class Apartments and of course the groundbreaking Residence, plus onboard bar/lounge and showers for First Guests. Alas, partner mileage redemptions for these apartments have become quite scarce and so I didn’t have much of a choice but to stick with the 777. First Class Suites are available on the airlines’ other aircraft, B777, B787, A340 and A330 And as I detail below, these suites are still some of the best in the industry.

Etihad’s branding team deserve major applause for successfully executing what I believe to be one of the most consistent customer or ‘Guest’ (using Etihad’s designated preferred nomenclature for referring to their customers) experiences out there. From the ground to the skies, it’s quite a remarkable thing. Even the musical theme that plays onboard is a clever soundtrack reminiscent of a movie score and is something that sticks with you for sometime–even after your journey’s over.

Checking in: Etihad is based in Terminal 4 at JFK. It’s largely serviced by Delta but several other airlines, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore, Swiss, to name a few, also call it home. It’s one of the newer and more modern of the terminals at Kennedy. In fact it’s my favorite there. As to be expected, there’s a dedicated check-in counter for premium, First and Business Class, Guests. It was quick and efficient though if I’m allowed to nitpick a little, I found nothing terribly overly special about it, especially eyeing Emirate’s an isle over. Still the representative was courteous and after I was through, directed me to the lounge which is situated just to the left after clearing security.

The lounge was very smart looking, featuring the airlines’ rebranded color scheme and geometric patterns, which I happen to find very attractive. This theme is consistent throughout — seen on other items, including pillows in premium cabins and most noticeably aircraft tails. The bar menu features strategically designed cocktails, wine, beer and soft drinks (including a selection of mocktails). And dining consists of a la carte table service or Guests may choose to select options from the buffet. Wanting to get the full experience of the onboard service, I skipped having a meal and settled instead on a cocktail and a small serving of mixed nuts.

Before too long, the host at the lounge came to alert me, just right before a general announcement was made, that boarding was about to commence at the specified gate, if I’d like to proceed over. Walking up to our plane, I was warmly greeted and immediately handed over to the Flight Attendant that would be looking after me for the duration of the flight (regrettably I do not recall her name now — she was fantastic). She then walked me over to my suite; one of only 8 in First. Next came a welcome drink, Bollinger La Grande Année champagne, dates, a hot towelette and personal welcome note from Leanne, the Cabin Manager. Not at all a bad way to commence a 13 hr journey.

Shortly thereafter, the onboard Chef, exclusive to First Guests, walked over, introduced himself and inquired after what my palate may be inclining towards after we takeoff. It’s a dine on-demand sort of process, so I could order whenever I wanted but he did take the time to walk me through the menu and inquired if I had any questions. For an aperitif, I ordered the Martini Bianco, which was served in a proper martini glass and came with mixed nuts and olives. It was delicious. Next came my appetizer; I settled on the Arabic Mezze: hummus, baba ghanoush and tabouleh. Right after I was presented with a palate cleanser which was described to me though alas I can’t quite recall what it was; it’s pictured below. For my dinner, my choice was Fish. It was most delectable, as good as anything one would have on the ground and served on fine china. Compliments to the Chef indeed. At this point I was sufficiently full though easily gave in to dessert: an apple crumble of sorts which wasn’t terribly exciting but nice and simple enough.

It was now time to turn in. I’d started to nod off almost immediately after dinner while I was indulging in a movie on the 23″ TV featured in the suite. I grabbed my bag of goodies presented to me by the flight attendant after I’d boarded (which included pajamas, slippers and an amenity kit with luxury toiletries) and headed to the restroom to change. Immediately the Flight Attendant came by to inquire if I was ready for my bed to be made and I said yes. In my pajamas and ready for bed, I came back to an elegantly executed turn-down service. The bed was made including a mattress for extra padding and a lovely ‘sweet dreams’ note attached.

I was able to sleep very comfortably for a good 6-7 hrs. A slight complaint, however, would be I felt the cabin temperature was a bit too warm so I felt like almost disrobing at one point but thankfully things did eventually cool down. The noise-canceling headset I also felt a little too tight around the ears (for me). I woke up about a couple hrs before our touchdown in Abu Dhabi and just as I went to use the restroom, our Chef approached me to inquire if I was ready for some breakfast and what I fancied. I started out with fresh fruit and then proceeded on to a simple English breakfast of sorts. All very delicious.

Before too long, alas, we commenced our descent into Abu Dhabi. It was such a brilliant journey that I almost didn’t want it to end. Waiting planeside after touchdown, a distance from the terminal (as we didn’t disembark via jet-bridge), were a couple luxury Audi cars on standby to ferry First guests to the terminal. A nice treat to cap off a most remarkable flight.

Key Takeaways: In my estimation, Etihad offers one of the most luxurious and innovative ways to fly, especially in First, though the attention to the customer experience is palpable throughout all classes of service. The carrier has succeeded in keeping a consistent theme from the ground to the skies which enhances the overall experience. Note also, if you’re transiting to-or-from Dubai, you can book Etihad’s complimentary coach service.

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Pimp My Flight

19 May

It’s been interesting to read about, and experience some of the transformations going on in the world of commercial aviation lately. It’s really exciting times because it means a better overall flying experience for the consumer–especially those of us stateside who’ve gritted our teeth through subpar service for so long. I’ve had some truly cringe-worthy experiences flying cattle, I mean, coach class; those truly unfortunate times coveted seats upfront was just not an option. And, it’s been sometimes embarrassing when a gentleman or lady, seated next to me, clearly a foreigner not used to how we here have gotten used to roughing it, request an alcoholic beverage when those proverbial carts come rolling down the isle, only to find themselves in a complete state of bewilderment moments later when the Flight Attendant declares: That will be $7, please.

Times appear to be changing though. It seems the folks over at our familiar carriers, those we’ve taken to affectionately (or not) referring to as ‘legacy’ carriers’ are trying to spruce things up–a certain bounce seems to be pep in their steps. American’s going through a systemic fleet renewal (a long overdue overhaul) with the introduction of the stretched 777-300ER, including luxuries like power ports (at every seat) International Wi-Fi, walk-up bar for premium customers, and one of the better In-flight Entertainment systems out there. Delta’s sprucing up its planes and has announced orders for the latest version 737-900 and Airbus variants to be delivered in the next couple years. And, United is going through it’s own retrofitting process as well and is the only US carrier to have the 787 Dreamliner airborne.

Premium cabins are also seeing a transformation, too; not that these customers have had much to gripe about, to be fair. The meals have remained and the open bar, never threatened. However, more perks are being rolled out. 180 degree lie-flats have become commonplace, even domestically on coast to coast NY to LA/SF flights, with even the likes of jetBlue jumping in the game. I suppose defeats the whole notion of being a discount operator. Still, it’s a high revenue generating route so one cannot be overtly critical of their desire to want a piece of the pie. American offers the only 3-class service on these routes (the first class cabin is a replica more or less of what you’ll find in International Business in their new cabins). United’s PS service is an all new retrofitted two-class configuration.

Though by some accounts we’re still lagging behind some international carriers, we seem to be making some great progress. We’ll be watching and sharing our thoughts as these developments continue to unfold. Have some thoughts? Do share–would be great to hear about other experiences.

Between Business and Economy, A New Class Emerges

11 Apr

It’s commonly referred to as Premium Economy or Economy Plus/Comfort or Main Cabin Extra (locally) though it’s not entirely a new phenomenon. In some form it’s been around for years albeit limited to a number of airlines and serving as an additional revenue generating offering especially for airlines with just two-class configurations.

These days though, just about every major player’s onboard (pardon the pun). It’s growing increasingly popular and really beginning to carve its niche as a third or, indeed, fourth class, targeting a specific demographic – the leisure traveler who can afford to do a bit of splurging for just a bit more comfort and finesse. Though, perhaps, one may take the cynic route with the view that the situation in coach has just gotten so horrendous that it’s likely the only more decent way to fly as opposed to having to shell out the cash or premium miles for that business class seat.

It’s a bit of a wild west however in terms of these class of seats. There doesn’t appear to be too much consistency with the offering though I believe we’re starting to see some themes emerge as airlines become more competitive. Sadly however, domestic carriers still lag a bit here. In fact there isn’t really such a thing as Premium Economy this side of the Atlantic yet (with the exception of Air Canada on select jets). Most of the players here have decided to stick with simply bolstering the pitch of seats at the forward section of their Economy classes.

United has Economy Plus, Delta, Economy Comfort and American, Main Cabin Extra. All offering these seats at an extra cost to your average traveler. American is taking the lead however in creating a completely separate Main Cabin Extra cabin and the best pitch of the 3 carriers, 36″, on its new 777-300ER jet (retrofitted B772s arriving in the next few months will feature these seats, too). The best I’ve seen on Delta and United is 35″ in a similar class. The perks ends there though, no addnl. frills, with the exception of Delta that offers free alcoholic beverages on coast to coast flights – a nice touch and point of differentiation.
With rising competition however and the general state of the aviation industry on a healthier projection, I anticipate things will continue to progress in the right direction.

The brighter spot lies with Asian and some European carriers. On average we tend to see seat pitch at 38″ and wider widths. A couple clear standouts though are both Japan Airlines and Air New Zealand at an impressive pitch of 42″ offering exceptional cabin comfort.
The perks go on: Pre take-off champaign, better catering (British Airways touts Business Class meals), larger screens for In-flight Entertainment and Priority Boarding, etc., including, in a few cases, lounge access.

All these come with a premium though (up to $300 one way depending on the route) and at some point, one may wonder is it truly worth it? Curious to learn about experiences others may have. It’s a trend I’ll continue to follow.

Lan Airlines US

Japan Airlines (JAL) – A Pleasure In The Skies

11 Apr

Flight Review:
Route: JFK –> NRT
Flight #: JAL 005
Jet: B777-300ER – New JAL Sky Suite.
Class: Economy

This was my very first flight on Japan Airlines and I must say I was quite impressed indeed. I’ll start with the very minute and work my way to what I consider the more significant details.

Firstly, check in was smooth and easy at JFK. Being an AA (American Airlines) Platinum Elite member (Sapphire leveling on Oneworld carriers) it means an extension of preferred benefits network wide. What JAL does differently though is that it immediately includes Priority Boarding status and lounge access on your ticket which I found helpful and convenient. A bit of a slight negative in my praise, if ever so little, is that the lounge at JFK has seen better days and could use some sprucing up.

That aside, on to the actual flight experience. Without a doubt, I must say this was one of the most pleasurable flight experiences I’ve had in a long time having flown so far (14 hrs straight) and in economy class. JAL has done something clever which is really assess the flying experience for ALL passengers, including those in coach, which I’m afraid tends to be an afterthought–even if so–on other carriers, especially domestic ones. What’s impressive about what JAL’s done is design a standard economy seat with comfort and practicality foremost. With a pitch of 34″, this has got to be one of the most generous legrooms in coach period. For comparison, that’s just 1″ shy of (or in some cases equal to) an Economy Plus/Comfort seat which costs extra on United/Delta.
JAL takes Premium Economy to the next level with a whopping 42″ and a whole slew of other amenities (beats all others I know of in the same class — Cathay Pacific and British Airways offer 38″ in similar classes for comparison).

Meal service was also a big plus. Two full meals and a midflight snack were served. The initial meal after takeoff comprised of two different types of appetizers, fruit salad, slaw salad and your choice of entrée. Very scrumptious. The meal on my return journey, on a different airline, Cathay Pacific (which seems to be making more of a play for premium vs. coach customers these days) was a scant offering by comparison.

Meal Service - JAL 005 - JFK to NRT

Meal Service – JAL 005 – JFK to NRT

Inflight entertainment was fairly good though lacking a little in the variety of English language TV shows. Movies were excellent — several recently released Oscar nominated flicks were on feature. Also really enjoyed the cabin crew; they were all very gracious and accommodating.

Overall, a very pleasurable experience. Keep up the good work.

Another Braxton Star in the Making: Love and War Delights

7 Sep

ImageImageBaby Braxton, aka Tamar Braxton, the youngest of the Braxton quintet, debuted her long awaited sophomore effort, Love and War, this week. Braxton’s first outing, her last full length studio recording, was 2000’s Tamar which garnered lukewarm audience reception. One might say the then tepid commercial performance was to be expected as big sis, Toni, was at the time a resident at the top of the Pop and R&B charts.

It’s a different tune this time around however. Fans of WE tv‘s smash hit, Braxton Family Values, got introduced to the saucy Tamar who emerged as the show’s breakout star and since developed a following of fans affectionately known as tamartians. The frenzy prompted the network’s spinoff hit show featuring Tamar and hubby, heavyweight Producer and Lady Gaga Manager,  Vincent Herbert in the series, Tamar and Vince.

Love and War is a carefully curated R&B record who’s delivery is apropos in an era that has (thankfully) seen a recent resurgence in that genre. The set features powerhouse ballad and title track, Love and War, leadoff track and summer smash, The One, plus drop-it-to-da-flo, twerk worthy, Hot Sugar.

No longer in the shadow of her super star sister, it is palpable Braxton has a point to prove on this album. She shows formidable vocal prowess on most of the cuts and shines on slower tempo tracks, Stay and Fight, All The Way Home, Pieces and White Candle.

Love and War sizzles from track to track. There are no filler songs to skip and it flows quite nicely. Careful though, it’s mildly addicting. I’ve had it on heavy rotation and can’t quite seem to be able to tear myself away from it. Give it a spin. It’s brilliant.COM

8 Spruce St – New York by Gehry

27 Sep

Comments on 8 Spruce St – New York by Gehry, featuring Jose B from the Brooklyn Bridge

This Phone Deserves Some Street Cred, Too

7 Aug

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In a world where Android (Google) and iPhone (Apple) reign supreme and RIM (BlackBerry) still having traction (albeit to a lesser extent due to market shrinkage–thanks to user migration to the aforementioned platforms), the mobile operating system ranked a distant 4th (in the US, according to Nielsen – March 2011), Windows Phone 7 (WP7) gets little to no airtime.
Sure, I think one can argue that Microsoft finds itself in this position largely due to its own doing. The evidence is plentiful; from lack of innovation (in the early days) to failed attempt after attempt (hello, KIN?) to make up lost ground and stay relevant, to huge missed opportunities because of lack of clever Marketing (those uninspiring TV commercials promoting the launch of WP7 still make me cringe), the list goes on.But brave souls (yours truly included) who’ve chosen to give Windows Phone a whirl are finding that the platform isn’t at all the Window Mobile of yesterday year. In fact, a lot of us are quickly realizing that not only is it a completely revamped OS which has a ton to offer (and more to come this Fall with the next iteration codenamed ‘Mango’), but also, fun to actually ‘spend time’ with.
One of my favorite aspects of the device (besides the very fluid metro-style UI) is what Microsoft refers to as Live Tiles. These can be viewed as dynamic mosaic style squares that make the interface a little more interesting rather than staring at a whole bunch of static apps on the home screen. For example, this is evident in the ‘People’ hub which is one of the first sections you see when you power on the phone. With a single touch, aggregated updates from social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn, Windows Live — with Twitter to follow suit in the Fall) are displayed in a single instance. App developers are also taking advantage of this feature and instituting their own dynamic tiles, which makes the UI a little more aesthetically pleasing. See examples (in slideshow) Groupon, USA Today, AP, BBC, MTV News, The Weather Channel, to name a few.
On the note of apps, Microsoft takes a beating in the press for not being any close to Android or iOS, in terms of sheer volume. But, to be fair, how many apps does one use at any given time? Apple touts something astronomical like over 350K and Google, 200K+, no doubt dizzying numbers but I think folks are a little too hung up on this. At recent count, MS is nearing 30K (puny by comparison to be sure) but I feel Marketplace now has some pretty relevant apps that aforementioned figures have seized to impress me. I like the ‘quality’ over ‘quality’ approach.
So far, some of my favorite apps include:
– News: USA Today, NBC Nightly News, France24, Mosiac by Tribune (aggregated news from LA Times, Chicago Tribune, etc), AP Mobile, BBC Radio and NPR Listener (honorable mention: NY Times)
– Travel: Kayak, American Airlines, British Airways and XE Currency, Clever Translate (honorable mention: Travelocity, TripAdvisor)
– Social/Lifestyle: Foursquare, 4th & Mayor, Open Table, Yelp, Epicurious, IM+ (honorable mention: Facebook)
– Movies: Flixter, Fandango, MSN Movies
The user experience has also improved drastically. I find the innovative UI to be so much fun and seamless to navigate. In addition to the ‘People’ hub, I love WP7’s multimedia experience via the ‘Music + Videos’ hub, featuring Microsoft’s Zune software. Videos and audio play crisply with access to a plethora of content in Marketplace (most content also transfers over when downloaded from the iTunes store). This hub features a dynamic tile that displays images of the latest material you just listened to as well.
And so while Microsoft might not necessarily get the highest marks for ‘cool’ factor, with these WP7 features (and much more to come in the Fall), this phone does deserve some street cred, too.

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