Qantas First Class

13 03 2014

Back story: Last year while we were driving to Perth Airport for me to catch my first flight on my annual trek to the US I got a text message from Qantas telling me that my Frequent Flyer points upgrade from Business Class to First Class had been approved for the long flight the following day from Melbourne to Los Angeles. I was SO excited! So excited that I Tweeted about it, Facebooked it, etc. Others online were equally as excited for me, and one friend, who has travelled First Class on Qantas to the US told me about the First Class lounge at the airport and its spa treatments for passengers prior to take-off. I was very much looking forward to what might be my one and only First Class experience. However, it was not to be. When I got to the check-in counter, the upgrade no longer applied (there are no guarantees, even with a text message displayed to the counter staff). With my tail between my legs, I had to announce to the world that I wouldn’t taste this rarified atmosphere.

Massive A380 being taken somewhere

Massive A380 being taken somewhere

This year: Ever the optimist, when I booked my flights to the US last June for this Feb/March, I also put in a points upgrade request. And every few weeks I’d check if it was through. Then as the departure date got closer, I’d check online more often, including even more often at the T-80 point. There was a glimmer of hope the night before my flight from Sydney to Los Angeles when I saw that I was waitlisted for First for that leg, but by the next morning that had disappeared from screen. And it didn’t happen. Again.

Coming back home, I checked online until I got back to LAX, then checked with the check-in counter as I knew there was still one First Class sear available (thanks to http://www.flightstats.com). The check-in guy said that it hadn’t been allocated yet, and I’d only know if I had it if they called me in the lounge or if I beeped when putting my boarding pass through at the gate (i.e. the very last minute!). He did say that anyone who was a Gold, Platinum, or Platinum Plus Frequent Flyer would have priority over me (a lowly Silver!).

There were no lounge announcements calling my name, so imagine how surprised I was when I handed in my boarding pass to get on my flight from LAX to SYD and the system beeped! I had to go over to the counter where I asked the girl if I’d got my upgrade — and I had! I think she was as excited for me as I was 😉

My flight was on the A380, so instead of going upstairs for Business and Premium Economy, I was downstairs at the pointy end. I was going to make the most of it, as it’s likely the one and only time I’ll fly First Class. (For my American readers, what you call ‘First Class’ on your domestic routes is no more than ‘Premium Economy’ on Qantas international routes. Qantas has two further steps up from Premium Economy — a true Business Class with lay-flat beds, and First Class of course, with all the associated pampering and treatment you get with both. There is no comparison between ‘First Class’ on a US domestic airline and ‘First Class’ in international on an A380 or 747.)

So, what was it like? I’ll list the good, the indifferent, and the bad (no, just kidding, there’s NO bad… except if you’re paying, in which case the bad is the cost!). And at the end are some photos I took — I didn’t want to seem all agog that I was in First, so I tried to take the photos surreptitiously and without a flash, therefore I couldn’t get any overall shots of the First Class cabin — you know, like from standing on my chair! 😉

The good

  • There are only 14 seats (sorry, ‘suites’) in First Class on the A380. Each ‘suite’ is a self-contained unit separated from fellow passengers. Each suite has access to the aisle, and those along the sides also have two windows. There’s a spare seat in each suite in case you have a partner with you and want to share a meal together. You don’t sit together on the flight, but you can sit together to chat or have a meal.
  • The suites have half-size ‘walls’ so you’re fairly private in your little cocoon.
  • There are two to three staff just for these 14 passengers, so you are treated VERY well. However, this is Qantas so they are typically down to earth flight attendants, which was refreshing — I thought they might be a bit hoity toity.
  • There are two toilets for 14 passengers, so there’s never a wait. And the toilets seem to be cleaned by the staff after every use as I didn’t notice any drops of water left in or around the sink.
  • The PJs are roomier than those in Business Class and are dark grey, instead of the Business Class light grey ‘prison garb’.
  • The seats are MUCH roomier than in Business. They are wider for starters, they swivel to face the spare seat/TV, the arms go down when the bed is made up for sleeping, and there’s a full control panel of all the seat functions (and other functions such as lights). The seats also have in-built massage components.
  • The staff make up your bed when you are ready. And it’s as close to a real bed as you’ll get in an aircraft. There’s a thick woollen padded mattress thing, covered with a fitted white sheet and more padding, a top white sheet/doona, and white pillows (with the Qantas kangaroo embroidered on them!)
  • I could sleep! This is really big for me, as even in the Business Class lay-flat beds I have trouble sleeping (even with drugs). One issue I have is the constant drone/hum/vibration of the aircraft, even though the A380 is much quieter than the 747. I just can’t get over that constant noise/vibration even with ear plugs in and noise-cancelling headphones on. The other issue is that I’m a front-facing sleeper — I sleep on my belly in the ‘coma’ position that first aiders put someone into. So a lay-flat bed with arms in not good for me as I can’t sleep in my normal position. If you’re someone who sleeps on your back or even your side, you should have no trouble sleeping on a lay-flat bed. So with the wider seat (bed base), the woollen ‘mattress’ and the fact that the seat arms were out of the way, I could sleep on my belly… and thus I slept! I didn’t sleep for long — about 3 hours with about another 3 hours of cat napping, but I did sleep. That’s a huge achievement for me on a long-haul flight.
  • It’s a really little thing, but there was a very handy little hook on which you could hang your headphones when you needed to get up. Too often, headphones get sat on, fall off the centre console, or fall on the floor when you have to go to the bathroom and you have to rummage around in the dark to find them again.

The indifferent

  • The toilet facilities seemed to be no bigger or much different from those in Business Class. I sort of expected them to be a little more capacious, although I didn’t expect a shower (no, there wasn’t one). The main difference is that the toilet has a window! And no you can’t see in from the outside when you’re pulled up at the gate — I asked!
  • The food and drinks weren’t much different to that served in Business Class. Yes, there was a welcoming glass of champagne and some dip and fancy crackers on getting to your suite, but you get the champagne option in Business too. While the food and drink options may have been a step up from Business (and the steak sandwich and the lamb rack were EXCELLENT), the food and drink offerings in Business aren’t anything to sneeze at.
  • The toiletries bag didn’t have much in it and was very little different to that you get in Business Class. I didn’t recognise the cosmetics brand, but then I’m not big on fancy cosmetics, so I’m sure it was expensive. While the bag looked like it was leather, I think it was fake leather.
  • The entertainment offerings were the same as in Business Class and were exactly the same as on the flight over, even though I travelled in a different month. It used to be that Qantas changed the entertainment offerings each month, but from what one of the flight attendants told me, she thinks it’s now every two months (part of cost cutting, I suspect). So the movies, TV shows, etc. on the PVR were the same as the previous month, the same as Business Class (and I suspect the same as Economy and Premium Economy too as all seats have a PVR). Aside: The movies I watched on my four flights were all light and mostly fluffy: Enough Said, The Butler, About Time, We’re the Millers, Last Vegas.
  • In-seat power/USB connections were the same as Business Class, though it was a little easier to get to. I think on the A380 many Economy/Premium Economy seats also have in-seat power, so that’s not the differentiator it used to be a few years ago.
  • There’s no special treatment for First Class passengers when you get off the aircraft. Yes, you get an Express pass for the immigration lines, but you get that as a Business passenger too. The bags didn’t seem to come off any earlier than Business bags, though I couldn’t say if they came off earlier than the Economy bags. There are no ‘private’ lines for First Class — you’re all treated the same at immigration, baggage claim, and customs.

The bad

Well, there’s the cost. First Class is NOT cheap. In fact, it’s VERY expensive. Even on points it’s expensive, as it ‘cost’ me 45,000 points to upgrade from my Business Class fare to First for a single, albeit long, leg. But as I have close to 700,000 points, I figured that blowing 45,000 on a once-in-a-lifetime experience was probably worth it.

Bottom line: Would I do it again?

Yes, but on points only. I wouldn’t pay for a First Class ticket (unless I had unlimited funds from a REALLY BIG Lotto win, as as I rarely play Lotto, that’s not going to happen!). The differences between Business and First aren’t enough, in my opinion, to justify the massive increase in cost. But that sleep was good! 😉

DSC_0373

Part of the First Class cabin — the backs of two ‘suites’ you see here are those in the middle of the cabin.

IMAG1880_Champers

IMAG1882

The BIG seat, facing the front — it swivels about 45 degrees towards the window and the TV screen/spare seat in front. Note the sash seatbelt too — you get a lap/sash arrangement like in a car.

DSC_0372

From the seat looking to the spare seat and the TV. There are places (such as small drawers) on the left to put your stuff, including a ledge for things like pillows. Hand luggage can go above or under the spare seat.

DSC_0374

Slightly different angle showing the spare seat (has the pillow on it), TV, and back of the suite in front, which is where the small trays are for drinks etc.

IMAG1876

_SteakSandwich

The oh-so-yummy steak sandwich

IMAG1887

IMAG1889_LambRack

The superbly cooked lamb cutlets on a pearl barley mix

_dessert

And then there’s dessert! A chocolate something or other with cherries, and very nice

IMAG1879

The ledge has a place for your water bottle (or bottle of Champers?) and other bits and pieces. The tray table (double size to accommodate another person) folds out from the angled bit, and like Inspector Gadget, opens out to be nearly as big as a small card table.

IMAG1883

See that funny angled thing at the base of the window, with the green light arrows on it? That’s the manual control for the window shades, but I used the automated control on the touch panel instead.

IMAG1885

And this is the window shades down — they (yes, there are two of them) are inside the window panes and you can’t touch them.

IMAG1886

Kicking back in my PJs!

IMAG1891

Good morning, sunshine!

IMAG1892

These last photos are from the Skycam on the top of the A380’s tail fin. I started taking photos of the video stream as we saw Australia and started coming in to land, right until we were taxiing to our gate. Pretty cool! (Nothing special about this for First Class, as the Skycam option is available to everyone on the entertainment system.)

IMAG1893

IMAG1894

IMAG1895

IMAG1896

IMAG1897

IMAG1898

IMAG1899

IMAG1902

IMAG1903

IMAG1905

IMAG1906





2014 US trip: Last days in California

13 03 2014

After I left Asilomar at Pacific Grove, I spent the night in Monterey, then, because it was stormy, I headed to Bakersfield and then on the Palm Springs on the Sunday. My conference started on the Monday, so having Sunday to drive for just a few hours, pop into the outlet mall near Palm Springs for a few things, check in, unpack, catch up with a few friends I spotted in the lobby when checking in to the conference hotel, was nice and relaxing.

IMAG1821

Some of my impressions from the second week (the conference notes are on my other blog, so I won’t repeat them here) include:

  • Californian radio is pretty awful, especially when you’re on a long drive and don’t have your own music to listen to. No doubt Australian radio is as bad or worse, but as I have my own car and my own music in that car, I never have to listen to it! In California, searching the radio stations takes you through a vast array of mariachi-type music, Bible-thumping preachers or ‘uplifting’ gospel songs, (c)rap music, heavy rock, a little bit of classical, maybe some country (I like country!), or perhaps some classic rock or ‘yacht rock’. Latino and evangelistic stations seem to dominate the airwaves.
  • Californian traffic is fast and furious. Well, not so much furious, but it is fast. You have to keep up with the traffic more so than obey the speed limit, otherwise you’ll get squashed between trucks. US drivers are polite and let you in, though some (mostly on LA freeways) weave in and out of lanes for no apparent betterment in position. There’s also a lot of tailgating — not malicious ‘get out of my way’ tailgating, but just driving too close to other cars for the conditions. That’s a bit scary. And when it rains, as it did for the first time in months while I was there, the drivers going over the passes on the I5 north of LA didn’t slow down from their 70+ mph speed while going down steep hills in heavy cloud and slick rain — I white-knuckled it through that section, wondering if a truck or car in front of me would slip in the conditions and go out of control, causing a pile-up. Leave some space between you and the next vehicle… don’t see it as an opportunity to slip in and fill it as the other driver might be deliberately trying to stay a safe distance from the car/truck in front.
  • Palm Springs was hot (85-90F) at the time I was there (early March). I’d hate to be there in summer. There were LOTS of people in and by the pool at the hotel, some of whom were getting very burnt as they’d likely flown in from a snowy state and were wearing no sun protection. The nights were balmy and cooler than the days, but definitely not cold. The hot climate plants were growing well — e.g. the palms of course, bougainvillea, cacti, aloes, etc.
  • The Palm Springs VillageFest markets (held every Thursday night in the main street) are pretty awesome and very big! Fresh produce, gourmet foods, arts and crafts, buskers, street food, and thousands of people all behaving well. The restaurants are all very busy on the night. If you go and you like BBQ beef, do yourself a favour and spend $8 on a Tri-tip BBQ brisket in a toasted bun from the CVBBQ food stall. Delicious!
  • The TSA rules on taking off your shoes might work better if someone actually checked the area for potentially dangerous things that can poke into your bare feet! I was at LAX going through the TSA screening area, and had got to the other side ready to grab my shoes and bags when a small and very sharp screw pierced my heel. It hurt like hell! I squealed a bit, hobbled around, and another passenger asked if I was OK. I pulled the embedded screw out of my bare heel pad and hopped over to the TSA agent and handed the screw to him…. and got absolutely NO response. Not even a question asking me if I was OK.

 

IMAG1824