I just returned from my week in Barcelona, and the trip was quite enjoyable. However it was also a very interesting lesson in contrasts. Different carriers provide a very different experience.
Before I continue, let me be clear: I don't like to waste money, or throw it around frivolously. But I hold value as much more imporant than economy in my travel decisions — especially with regard to carriers.
During the volcano debacle this summer, I remember thinking to myself about what an excellent opportunity it would be for people to see which airlines hold customer experience in high regard, and which do not value their customers.
I was scheduled to fly at that time, and fortunately my flight was serviced without any delays the day after the airspace over Europe reopened. But I remember spending a lot of time watching the news and Googling for updates, anxious to see if my flight would be delayed, and naturally, reading stories of the difficulties others were having. The most significant impressions made on me during that time were: 1) Lufthansa and KLM actively worked to help people, 2) all the news about British carriers was bad news, and 3) American carriers are pathetic.
I've chosen to be a loyal customer of Lufthansa for my international travel, and I've been very satisfied with the choice. Lufthansa is a member of Star Alliance, but I've even chosen to use Lufthansa's rewards program, rather than that associated with Star Allance.
When I was booking my trip to Barcelona, the return trip was cheaper if I chose the return flight on United Airlines, even though I was booking it through the Lufthansa web site. After trying a few permutations of dates, I gave in and booked the cheaper flight. It was enlightening!
Shortly after we'd taken off, I heard that scary announcement: "is there a doctor on board?" One of the passengers had a very bad allergic reaction to something. The cabin crew tried to make her comfortable. There was indeed a doctor on board and he seemed concerned enough about her situation that the crew didn't want to have her stuck over the ocean and we ended up making an emergency stop in Canada.
My first thoughts were about how well the crew handled the emergency situation and cared for this poor woman, but soon enough, my thoughts shifted to my own growing situation: my flight out was scheduled to land in Dusseldorf and then connect to Spain two hours later. Emergency stops also mean bureaucratic questioning of the flight crew by the authorities, along with refueling and getting a new flight plan... to say nothing of the time spent by medical crews to remove an ailing passenger. Needless to say, I could tell after the engines were restarted 90 minutes later that I would miss my connection to Barcelona.
But to my surprise, 30 minutes before landing in Dusseldorf, the pilot announced that everyone onboard who had missed their connection was already rebooked and thanked everyone for their patience. Every detail for every passenger was already taken care of. When I went to the Lufthansa service desk, they printed me a new boarding pass in minutes, and gave me some money to eat lunch before my flight.
The return flight on United Airlines was really just a hodge-podge of connections from other Star Alliance carriers. By contrast, no one's seat was booked. Every single passenger scheduled to fill this 777 had to wait in line while the representatives at the desk figured out seating in the computer, passenger by passenger.
Everyone was already frustrated and unhappy before they ever got to the plane. Then we sat at the gate for almost 2 hours, with almost no communication from the flight crew about the cause of our delay. After an hour, though, the stewardess did bring us water.
We departed Munich late, and landed in Chicago late, and the last part of the pilot's welcome message was, "well, at least we're in one piece." No thanks for the patience, and not a word about connecting flights, but a quip to trivialize our discomfort. I don't know about you, but when I fly, I take it for granted that I will arrive in one piece. That's not a bonus, and it's not a phrase that a pilot should ever say.
The "in-flight entertainment" on Lufthansa provides movies, television shows, music, and airport information, all easily accessed and controlled on demand, by touchscreen monitors. You can pause, stop, rewind, go to the restroom, come back, and continue. Or change your mind and start something else.
The "in-flight entertainment" offered by United has a handful of movies and tv shows that all start playing at once, on different channels. You pick one thing and watch it... that is, if you can figure out what you're picking from. There is no pause. There is no way to start a new movie. At the end, after everything is done playing, the stewardess rewinds the tape (seriously? movies on tape in 2010?) and it all starts over again. Good luck!
Lufthansa gives you a clean, warm, wet cloth to clean your hands and face before eating, United just gives you a sandwich in a plastic bag. Lufthansa's meals come with real stainless steel utensils, United gives plastic. Lufthansa offers several fruit juices and vegetable juices, United has orange juice and bloody mary mix.
Also, in case you didn't already know this, United Airlines has a policy of overbooking their flights. For every flight, they sell 5 more tickets than the number of seats! This makes it quite common that people will get bumped or asked to wait until the next day to fly.
These are just some of the details that I noticed, and it says nothing of the horrible experiences people have on budget airlines. When a flight connection is missed, I want the experience I had on Lufthansa, rather than being blatantly ignored by Easyjet. And when someone's health is at risk, I want the confidence of the experience I witnessed last week.
Also, the rewards I earn from Lufthansa's Miles and More program add up to free flights, which I simply wouldn't get if I was pinching pennies trying to find the cheapest flight every time. Or, I can use those miles for first-class upgrades if I feel like traveling in style.
With a budget carrier, all you get is a numeric bit of data that satisfies some internal economical contest. There are no points for being the cheapest traveler on earth. You don't win a prize. And if anything should work out in an unexpected way, you stand to lose a lot.
After this week, I won't even take the discounted offering from my preferred carrier if it means connecting with an inferier flight. To me, it's worth a few extra dollars (or euros or whatever) to be comfortable and happy.
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