Monday, July 21, 2014

Oneworld, Three Days Part I: The One Where I Crossed an Ocean For a Drink With a Lampshade...

777-300ER, parked at T3 in LHR
It occurs to me, as I book the first flight of the 2014 mileage season, that I have some considerable (daunting, even) catching up to do around here.  As I’ve written, 2013 closed with some epic mileage runs and lasting memories.  Despite some close calls with bad weather and serious jetlag, all went well.  However, I’ve neglected my trip reports, badly.  So, while I (probably futilely) sit and wait for AA to match the UA and DL fare deal to Hong Kong for this fall again, I’ll do my best to remedy that. Bear with me though, as 38,000 miles across 4 continents is going to take more than one chapter.  Some information may overlap with other entries already posted, but I’ll do my best.  

In the interest of keeping things relevant, I'll note that this run is likely to be available this year again for somewhere around the 5cpm range.  Recently, it was available on BA metal out of LAX, and I'd expect the AA metal version to come up in the fall.  Also interesting, for those willing to go a few more CPM in the name of comfort, is a WT+ fare in the low $2000 all in on BA planes that is upgradable on Avios to Club World.  I've seen these fares for scattered dates throughout the fall and winter.  This trip in their lie-flat a380 cabin would be a wonderfully comfortable 22k mileage run!

So, here we go....

They say when writing to ‘begin at the beginning, go on until you get to the end, and then stop.’  Let’s call the beginning of this story my arrival at LAX to start the journey, as all the plotting, agonizing, and rationalizing has already been posted here before.  See? and See?  

Though this flight was transatlantic, it was operated by American on the new 777-300ER and so departed from LAX Terminal 4, rather than the newly renovated Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT, if you’re the acronym-loving type).  

As an EXP/ Oneworld Emerald, even flying economy I had access to the American Airlines Flagship Lounge, which is co-located with the Admiral’s Club.  This trip was my first time in the FL side of the T4 AC.  It’s significantly smaller than the main side, but also has much better offerings: Open (self serve) bar with decent choices in both beer/wine and the harder stuff (yes 3 white tequilas, as previously highlighted), buffet sufficient enough to make a light meal- chicken, salad, rice, pasta, small desserts, etc., and bottled drinks and water (great to grab and take with you for the flight).  The lounge does have access to showers, but they’re shared with the AC, and in my opinion, the view is somewhat lacking in comparison to the AC side.  In particular, this evening I crossed back over to get some great shots of the sunset to the West.  

The food.

The Drinks
Now, a note about the plane.  It’s my favorite plane of all the planes.  The 777-300ER is American’s new long-haul aircraft, and is geared well toward the current trends in bookings.  It comes with 4 classes of service- First, Business, Main Cabin Extra, and Economy.  Now, I’ll qualify my love letter here with the admission that if I wasn’t EXP or PLT with American, this might not be my favorite plane of all the planes.  The main cabin seats are tight- 10 across in a 3-4-3 configuration, which, even on this widebody jet is cramped.  Honestly, if I didn't have status to get a Main Cabin Extra seat, I'd probably fly a codeshare on a different carrier.  Main Cabin Extra is 9 across in a 3-3-3 configuration with some extra legroom, making it a decent choice.  It also has a whopping 52 business class seats with all-aisle access and fully flat beds, making it the best business class product in the fleet, and just 8 First class open suites up front.

10 Across in 'Sardine Class'
For the 12 hour outbound LAX-LHR, I had seat 18F, which is a MCE aisle seat.  I’m not all that tall, so I found the legroom to be sufficient.  Though, they could take a lesson from the Qantas a380 product and put in a footrest.  The seat width also would have been fine, but the person who boarded late and took the middle seat next to me took up a bit more space, and I found myself on multiple occasions during the flight a little more up close and personal with her...and her coat,….than I would have liked.  On the positive side, each seat has personal screens with a decent amount of IFE, enough to get through dinner and put you to sleep.  As for seat-tips, go for row 16, which has even more legroom due to being an exit/bulkhead row.  The only downside here is the lack of under-seat storage.  

Speaking of dinner, mine was a standard chicken-something meal.  Not terrible, but not memorable either.  A note on MCE service- they do serve you first in that cabin (in my case, just in time to get knocked around by some decent chop while trying to not spill my airplane wine), but there was no printed menu or upgraded choices like is offered in BA WT+ or QF premium economy.  You’re just basically getting a bigger seat, closer to the pointy end of the plane.      

Now, let me back up for a moment here and give a nod to the amazing group I ended up traveling with for this weekend.  Since this trip was such a monster deal, and simply netted so friggin' many miles, quite a few mileage runners signed up, so we decided to meet up along the way.  We started all over the US- 4 of us from LAX, and others from JFK, DFW, IAH, etc.  Due to the number of AA and BA flights that run on this routing, we weren’t all on the same exact flights, but kept meeting up with more and more of us at various points until we were all in one place finally in JNB.  It made the trip even better to be traveling with this group.  I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet such a diverse, interesting and capable group of people on such a unique basis.  If you get the chance, don’t pass it up.   

The flight passed as well as any 12 hour flight does, no big complaints.  We taxiied to Heathrow’s Terminal 3, where American’s gates are located.  It then takes a hike, a bus, a train, and another hike to make the transfer and get to the (much anticipated) T5 Galleries First lounge.  It might have been the low travel season, a well-timed bus arrival, and definitely having access to the fast track lanes for customs/security as a OW Emerald, but it actually only took about 30 minutes point to point. 

The lounge itself is well worth planning a layover for.  There are actually 3 premium lounges in T5- Business class “Terraces” (Paid J cabin ticket holders, OW Sapphire), First Class “Galleries” (F cabin tickets, OW Emerald) and the Concorde Room (First class international...various high rollers…the Queen, probably...).  All have access to shower facilities, food, and drink.  

Once you complete the trek from T3 and find the lounges in the first place, watch out for the lounge dragons on the way in.  They do strictly enforce the entrance and one guest only policies.  I’ve gotten away with several guests at some ACs state-side, “this is my Mother...Sister...Brother in Law...BFF...etc.” Don’t even try it here, they scan your boarding pass and note who’s with you. Once you get by them, though, you’re next greeted by a couple of horses with lampshades on their heads.  They’ve apparently been hanging around the 5 or so self-serve bars a little too long, but I just flew across the Atlantic for no reason, so I’m not about to judge.

My new friend.  I will call him AArnold.
This lounge is one of those reasons your clothes always shrink a size by the end of a trip.  There’s food everywhere, including a complimentary made to order menu, and an entire section of the dessert bar dedicated just to scones.  

Yes, you heard me- just scones. 

As if that wasn’t enough, a walk through, on your way to, say, check out the open-air terrace that overlooks a row of a380s, you’ll also find a couple gold-rimmed champagne bars full of Taittinger on ice. 

Make that 2 sizes of clothes-shrinkage.  

Okay, okay, clothes shrinkage, and if you’re doing really well, inspiration to take a selfie with one of those lampshade horses on the way out.

Self-Serve Bar(s) Note- The ginger ale is addictive.
My brave new traveling friends and I took over some prime real estate in this frequent flyer promised land, and spent some time getting to know each other a little better.  Oh, one thing this lounge could use more of is power outlets.  But, never fear, mileage runners come prepared.  Yes, we did also have a contingency plan for evacuating the room quietly if having a power strip, plugged into another power strip, plugged into a converter, with about 6 devices on it were to blow out the lounge fuses.  Spoiler alert- no electrical circuits were harmed in the making of this mileage run.  

Voltage abuse

All too soon though, we were showered, (well) fed, (over) indulged, and ready to board the next 11 hour flight from LHR-JNB.  At this point, I have a vague (there was also 18yr scotch at the bar) memory of the group of us realizing we missed the start of pre-boarding (the horror), somewhat inelegantly charging through a duty-free shop as a shortcut to the gate, and plunging through the several hundred passengers waiting, to reach the priority lane and ensure our all-important overhead space rights.  Maybe not my smoothest airport moment, but I’ve done worse.  A lot worse. But, that’s a story for another post…

Up next: The trials of a second redeye 11 hour flight in economy, navigating Jo’burg, and lions...lots and lots of lions.


No, I will not make a 'long face' joke...I won't....

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