In May of this year, I described how non-rev travel can look like. One may get upgraded or bumped and one has to live with uncertainty until one really holds a boarding pass in one's own hands. A fellow a.netter, Flpuck6, raised the question of whether these unpleasant aspects of non-rev travel spoil the fun of traveling. I don't have a simple answer, but with this trip report I will try and report on the aspects of traveling long-haul as a non-rev passenger and what the term "flexibility" means. Before getting into medias res, I'd like to clarify that with the company I work for non-rev travel means we have to pay a percentage of the highest fare and we pay taxes. Although non-rev travel doesn't mean traveling for free, it still means traveling cheaply.
The purpose of my trip was to take opportunity of the fact that a former classmate of mine had been doing an internship in Beijing until the end of July. Since I hadn't visited during my previous term break back in May, this was my last chance to go and enjoy her company. Due to my term at university ending only in mid-July and project work beginning in calendar week 31, I wasn't so flexible with my travel dates. Thus, my preferred departure date was 07/13. Starting my journey in Vienna I had three options: LH via Frankfurt or Munich, OS directly from Vienna, or SK via Copenhagen. With each day closer to my intended departure date, LH's flights either via FRA or via MUC looked worse. Therefore, I focused on OS, which looked fine until all of a sudden the flight was overbooked – two days prior to my departure. At that point, I considered SK and after some phone calls, it turned out that this flight had still empty seats. The idea of having to stay overnight in Copenhagen in case SK wouldn't accept me didn't sound too appealing. Hence, I still focused OS out of Vienna. On 07/13, I once again called SK and got the info that SK 995 still had numerous available seats. Therefore, I made a quick decision to fly via Copenhagen.
After this lengthy introduction, you can see that gathering information and being flexible is the key to successful non-rev travel. The challenge can be best summarized with the following: One has to try to make an informed decision with little precise information available. If you will, in answering to Flpuck6's question, this makes non-rev travel tiresome. Especially when you have to plan ahead, such as booking a hotel, last-minute changes in one's travel arrangements can be annoying.
Vienna – Copenhagen
Since I was in the office on 07/13 anyway (preparatory work for my project and getting last information for my flights), I just left earlier than intended to catch my flight to CPH. In order to underline my stinginess I will repeat that I took the S-Bahn, which costs me a mere EUR 1.50, instead of the CAT. I arrived shortly after 16:00 and proceeded to the check-in. Out of stinginess I bought the feeder segment VIE - CPH in Economy Class. Well, I really see no advantage to sit in Business Class for such a short trip. Anyway, check-in was quick and thanks to a light load, I already got an assigned seat. My luggage was checked through to PEK on SK 995, and off I went to gate C58.
VIE – CPH
July 13, 2006
A320-200 / OE-LBO
17:35 – 19:25 scheduled
take off: 18:18 (rwy. 29)
touch down: 19:42 (rwy. 04R)
Photo © Andreas Müller - Spotterteam Graz
Photo © Snorre - VIP Vienna International Planespotters
I didn't have so much time left and walked straight to the gate. Upon arriving there, I saw that the flight had a 10-minute delay. At first, I didn't mind because I am always grateful for ways to keep transit time short. I passed the security check into the gate waiting area and waited and waited and waited. 17:35 came and went, and we were told that boarding would commence shortly. Indeed, at 17:45 we began boarding only to wait some more inside the airplane due to ATC slot restrictions. All of a sudden, my connection time had been reduced from 1.5 hours to 1 hour, and I began to be a bit worried. However, I assumed that due to the light load on the flight I would be able to disembark quickly in CPH. Finally, we began moving – at a snail's pace. Take-off was unimpressive, and I found my seat behind the engine to be loud. Service on this flight consisted of OS' Bistro Service (for pay) or coffee/tea, water, and a chocolate bar (for free). To my surprise, several people shelled out EUR 7.00+ for a sandwich and a soft drink. Scandinavians must be rich or hungry (or both).
All in all the flight was uneventful. On approach, we did several circles off the Danish coast, apparently to lose height and speed. The entire approach was over water, and it was quite different from what I usually see. We touched down, taxied a bit, and stood on the taxiway and stood and stood. After what seemed like an eternity, the captain told us that our gate was still occupied. Well, if you are under time pressure, you just become itchier in these situations. Of course, there is no point in losing one's temper. I took a deep breath and relaxed. There was nothing I could do. We arrived at the gate at 19:55 and disembarking was quick.
Since I had now less than an hour to reach my gate for SK 995, which was on the other side of CPH airport, and still had to go through passport control, I walked very fast. From what I saw and remember, CPH airport looks stylish and nice. Lots of natural light and the wooden floor gave it a nice and warm touch. As I zoomed in on the C area, I saw a long line. Oh no, passport control. Yes, and only one counter was open. First, I thought of cutting short, which would be totally against my nature, but the line moved considerably. Moreover, a second officer arrived and operated another counter. Hence, I was through in no time. I was impressed to say the least. The officers had smile for everybody and people were very organized and disciplined. Scandinavian efficiency I guess.
Copenhagen – Beijing
After passport control, I continued walking quickly to gate C29. What was this long line in front of the gate about I wondered? Although I had listed myself on SK 995, I had no stand-by boarding pass and hence the SK staff had no clear indication that I wanted to get on the flight. Fortunately, the long line was for those already in possession of a boarding pass to get into the waiting area. I went to the podium and introduced myself to the gate agent. After some typing, this good looking blonde woman told me to sit down and wait. I sat down next to an elderly woman by the podium. We exchanged smiles and signaled each other that we were rivals for remaining seats. Many people needed personal attention from the gate agents, but everything was done in a friendly, professional manner. After the last revenue passenger had boarded, the women next to me and I were called and we got our boarding passes. Before heading down the jet bridge, I sent a text message to my friend in Beijing to let her know with which flight I'd be arriving.
CPH – PEK
July 13, 2006
20:55 – 11:50+1 scheduled
take off: 21:30 (rwy. 04L)
touch down: 11:55+1 (rwy. ??)
Since I had purchased a Business Class stand-by ticket on SK and since there was space available, I got a seat in Business Class. Hence, as soon as I entered the aircraft's cabin, I turned left, and there it was: SK's Business Class cabin. I was pleasantly surprised about the bright and colors of the cabin walls. The flight attendants (all female in Business Class) were neither the youngest nor the oldest but attractive and friendly. One of them immediately took my jacket and asked me to put my bag in the overhead bin. A pre-departure drink was served, which was water for me. Business Class was half-empty and the small section behind the galley was completely empty (the flight attendants rested there during the flight as it looked like). After some time on the ground (don't know the reason), we were pushed back and began our rather long taxi to runway 04L. The A340-300's take-off was sluggish and long, but sure enough, we left ground and climbed.
My positive impression of SK's Business Class grew the longer I looked around. The light beige color of the walls made the cabin look bright and spacious, and the wood-colored panel in the seat's armrest gave a warm tone. All in all, a well-designed cabin interior. Scandinavian design! The amenity kit was a full kit unlike the plastic bag you get on LH, and the blanket was a nice duet. Another nice touch was the water bottle in the seat's integrated bottle holder. It's really small stuff, I know, but details make the difference at the end of the day. Service began soon after we had reached cruise level, and in general, I found the quality of the food to be good. We started with munchies consisting of little well seasoned sausages (cold), capers, and marinated green peppers. The appetizer was a tick too cold and the salad had no vinaigrette. Another strange feature was that the cheese plate was already on the tray before the main dish was served (usually, cheese is served before dessert). Furthermore, only one bread round was made. I had the chicken for main course and I found the serving to be generous and tasty. My only criticism regarding the service is that everything was rushed. Oh, the in-flight entertainment system needed several reboots before working. By the time it did work, dinner service was over and I went to sleep, only to wake up when breakfast was about to be served.
Soon after breakfast, we began our descent to PEK, and due to the haze, I saw nothing. As we landed the construction site for the new terminal(s) came into view. "Wow," is all I can say. Well, and who landed behind us as we pulled into our gate? OE-LAZ which I saw parked in VIE when I left for CPH. The best part about PEK is that from opening of the aircraft's doors to going through immigration, to getting my luggage, no more than 30 minutes passed. The only challenge was finding my pick-up party and fighting off some hawkers trying to sell me a "cheap taxi ride."
Thanks to friends, who speak Mandarin, my stay in Beijing was very enjoyable. I could eat real (i.e., non-McDonalds) food and roam around the city freely. Wherever I wanted to go, I would get into a cab, call a friend, hand the phone to the taxi driver, an explanation with my desired destination was given to the driver, and off I went. A very comfortable system. No, dear reader, don't fret about my phone bill. I followed instructions and got a local SIM card. If you want to visit the Great Wall, I suggest you go to Mutianyu. It's a less crowded section of the Wall but not as long as other sections. On a hot day, however, it's long enough.
Here are some photos I took while in Beijing and at Mutianyu.
Beijing – Munich
Unfortunately, all good things have to end, and it was time for me to fly back home. Since I was non-reving, I had to be flexible and leave a day earlier than I had initially planned. The weather reflected my mood as it was raining. At Beijing Airport, one has to go through customs prior to entering the check-in area. A bit confusing and it raised the question whether there are any different rules for non-revers. However, I couldn't ask anyone and simply followed the flock. The trickiest part was finding check-in area V, which is hidden behind the other check-in islands. Probably some readers will frown as there are several threads complaining about airline staff's travel privileges, but I flew First Class. Company rules allow me to buy a stand-by ticket for First Class, and I wanted to experience First Class. The flight was lightly booked, and therefore, I got a seat assignment right away. Next, I queued at the emigration desk. When it was my turn, I stepped forward and gave the officer my passport and boarding pass. The guy started cracking jokes to his colleague, and I have no idea what was so funny. Either my passport photo is so funny or the fact that I flew First Class caused him to be envious. Well, I won't find out and I don't really want to.
PEK – MUC
July 18, 2006
A340-300 / D – AIGY
13:00 – 17:30 scheduled
take off: 13:36 (rwy. 36R)
touch down: 17:18 (rwy. 08L)
Photo © Mario Aurich
Photo © Florian Negele
Overall, PEK is a clean airport but a bit sterile; it lacks atmosphere. There is a duty free section, but I was not interested in buying anything and proceeded to the gate. A Chinese man working on behalf of LH did the boarding announcements, but whatever he said was barely understandable. Judging by the few people in the waiting area my information on the light load looked about right. Boarding commenced and I waited around for the "masses" to go ahead. If I am confined to a metal tube for 9+ hours, I have no desire to rush on board. Finally, I did get up, boarded, and received a warm welcome by the flight attendants. A Spanish couple and I inhabited the 8-seat First Class cabin. I will say that LH's First Class seat is clearly not the latest generation but good nevertheless, and service was very nice and attentive. Maybe one wants to argue that attentive service is a must in First, but I still mention it because I believe the two flight attendants did more than what the book said. All in all, I felt pampered. Had I asked them to rub my back, they would have probably done it.
We pushed back from the gate a little delayed and had the usual slow A340-300 style take-off. Once we had reached our cruising altitude, the food service began. My recurring criticism of LH's airline food is that it lacks creativity, innovation, and that it tastes blend. The flight attendants and I had reached the unspoken understanding that the two revenue passengers were served before me and hence had the first choice. During a snack round it looked like they had run out of a choice we all wanted, and I was asked to choose something else. No problem, of course. In the end, there was enough for all of us.
I decided not to sleep on this flight in order not to mess up my Circadian rhythm once back in Munich and watched many movies on the AVOD. Although, the screen could be bigger, I still enjoyed the movies and realized that I hadn't missed much by not seeing the movies in the theater. I also got my beloved Cup Noodles. Time flew by, and before I knew it, we were on approach to MUC. Touchdown was very smooth. Once we had reached our parking position, I gathered all my belongings and said my good-bys to the flight attendants. I am repeating myself by saying that they really made my stay memorable.
Immigration at MUC was painless, and I got my bag and went to the hotel. If the dear reader has been paying attention for so far, he/she will wonder why I stayed in Munich and didn't continue to Vienna. Since one of my thesis mentors lives in Munich and I had meetings with him the following two days, I stayed in Munich. I will spare you details of my thesis, but the basic structure and some ideas for the thesis already exist. Besides tackling bureaucracy now, I have to overcome my procrastination.
Munich – Vienna
On Thursday, it was time to fly home after my second meeting with my thesis mentor. Knowing that I'd arrive at the airport just in time in the afternoon, I already "checked in" in the morning. Of course, I didn't get a seat assignment yet, but at least I didn't have to drag my suitcase with me and deal with the crowds wanting to check-in later in the afternoon. After the meeting, I arrived at the airport without much time to waste, headed straight through security, and went to the gate.
MUC – VIE
July 20, 2006
CRJ200 / OE – LCF
17:50 – 18:50 scheduled
take off: 18:59 (rwy. 08R)
touch down: 19:34 (rwy. 11)
Photo © Andreas Müller - Spotterteam Graz
Photo © Peter Unmuth-VAP
The gate agent told me to hang around, as it was a bit too early for her to give me a seat assignment yet. Maybe ten minutes later she called me, and I had my seat. A 15-minute delay was announced and eventually we were allowed to go to the bus. We sat in the aircraft for another 40 minutes, which resulted in a one hour delayed departure. The reason given for the delay was ATC restrictions in Vienna. Since I flew Economy on this short flight, there is nothing worthwhile to report on the service. However, we had a nice approach over the Western part of Vienna with great views of the city glistening under a golden evening sun, which compensated for the delay in my view.
With this, I conclude my rather lengthy trip report. I hope it made the dear reader's time pass and you enjoyed it.
Questions , suggestions , praise , etc. are highly welcomed.
[Edited 2006-08-21 14:06:51]