Category Archives: Airlines

Airlines

How I’m dealing with the Qatar travel blockade

Everyone by now should be aware of what’s going on in Qatar and the broader region. I’m going to stay far, far away from any political commentary and talk about what this blog vertically integrated e-commerce media conglomerate is focused on- the travel implications.

As you may remember, I need to get from DAR to DOH for my RTW trip. I had identified that it was cheaper to fly DAR-DOH-DXB instead of directly from DAR-DOH.

DAR-DOH direct- $2.6K
DAR-DOH-DXB, $811!

At first I was thinking of throwing away my DOH-DXB ticket, but then realised that DOH-DXB was booked as First Class, as that’s the level above Economy on inter-gulf flights. That was fantastic, as it meant I would get a chance to review the Al Safwa First Class lounge in Doha. It also meant that I got to spend my weekend in Dubai instead of Doha.

Image result for qatar airways first class lounge

As you can guess, the current flight restrictions have wrecked that plan, with Qatar Airways banned from flying over or landing in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt.

I quickly worked out an alternate routing from DOH-DXB that involved transiting in Muscat and taking MCT-DXB via Oman Air. My understanding is that Qatar is working to rebook affected flyers to DXB/AUH via KWI or MCT. With this in mind I called up QR to see if they’d rebook my proposed routing for me.

Now, Qatar Airways’ official policy regarding the current situation is that rebookings for flights affected by this disruption can be done within 72 hours of flight departure. I say “official”, because it seems from what I’m reading online that this is a classic case of YMMV. But this is also a classic case of the benefits of HUCA (hang up, call again).

Case in point- I called up the Doha office at the 72 hour mark and got a CSO who insisted on rebooking me on DAR-MCT-DXB, entirely on Oman Air. This made no sense at all to me- wouldn’t QR rather keep the revenue they were earning on my DAR-DOH-MCT legs at least? Why would they want to do the whole flight on a different carrier? But she insisted there was nothing else she could do, and to top it all off the flight she proposed left from DAR one day later than I originally intended. I hung up.

I called again and got a CSO who was perfectly ok with the routing I proposed, but said that they were not able to book this for me until 24 hours before departure. 72 hours is already cutting it way close but 24? I asked about the 72 hour policy and he said that where rebooking was happening via other Middle East airlines, the policy was 24 hours as they’d seen airlines like Etihad/Emirates cancelling bookings that were done by Qatar.

I called again (a day later) and got an extremely cheerful CSO who listened to my proposed flights, said “no problem sir” and after a 5 minute hold told me it was done. I got the e-ticket shortly after hanging up. The whole call took less than my wait time.

My revised itinerary looks like this:

DAR-DOH Depart 1630 Arrive 2345
DOH-MCT Depart 0730 Arrive 1010
MCT-DXB Depart 1425 Arrive 1540

Why would I do such a long layover in Doha? Counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s so I can get a better rest. I could easily have connected to a QR flight that departed DOH just after midnight, done a 5 hour layover in MCT (at 330am no less) and reached Dubai around 9am, but that would leave me knackered (plus, a 5 hour layover in MCT is no joke).

My new arrangement allows me to spend the night not in a transit hotel, but in the QR First Class lounge. That’s right, one of the cool features of the Al Safwa lounge is that it has sleeping rooms. Not darkened areas with recliner seats, but proper, hotel-style private rooms with beds and an attached bathroom.

Image result for qatar airways first class lounge bed

My reading of this FT thread tells me that –

  • No reservations for the rooms are allowed, they’re allocated on a first come first serve basis
  • Rooms are only available if you have >4 hours till your flight leaves
  • A maximum of 6 hours use is allowed, beyond which QAR 450 is payable for another 6 hours
  • Only bottled water is allowed in the sleeping rooms.

All of which suits me just fine. The only beverage I’d take to bed is champagne, and now that it’s Ramadan the QR lounges in Doha are dry anyway…

So assuming I make it to the lounge around midnight, I can do a 6 hour stay and wake up to grab breakfast, take photos and then head on over to catch my flight to MCT. And I save one night of hotel expenses.

The other interesting development, aviation-wise, is that QR is now operating a different kind of A320 on the DAR-DOH route. Qatar used to operate the version that had your standard regional business class recliner seats, which aren’t great for a flight that’s decidedly medium-haul.

Image result for a320 qatar airways business class
photo credit: airlines and me

But because of the blockade, QR1348 now needs to take a longer route from DAR-DOH, adding about 90 minutes to a flight blocked at 5h 50 mins. You can see the diverted route here:

I don’t know if it’s an aircraft range issue or just QR wanting to redeploy narrowbody aircraft it can’t use on intra-gulf routes anymore, but the A320 on this route has been switched to the version that has full flat seats in business class.

Image result for a320 qatar airways first class
photo credit: one mile at a time
photo credit: bangalore aviation

This is the same aircraft that normally plys intra-gulf roots and which premium cabin is sold as first class, but because of the current restrictions is getting redeployed elsewhere (sidenote: it does seem like such a waste of resources that QR would normally deploy a flat-bed seat aircraft on routes that are 2 hours or less)

Image result for oman air b737 business class
oman air business class

I’m not thrilled about a 4 hour layover in Muscat, but at least I’ll get to review the Oman Air lounge in Muscat and try their 737 regional business class. Hopefully their lounge is decent enough to get some solid work done.

It’s amazing if you sit back and think about our supposedly connected world. By denying Qatar air links and passage with its neighbours, what should have been a no-nonsense 1h flight between DOH and DXB stretches to almost 5 hours including transit. And involves flying in the “wrong” direction between each destination.

No one has any idea how long this will last, but it’s sure to have an impact on your travels if you’re heading to the region anytime soon. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and we’ll see a restoration of something approaching normality soon.

In the meantime, if you’ve got a QR itinerary that’s been affected by what’s going on, it’s good to call up customer service with alternative routes already in mind. And if the first CSO tells you no, don’t take that for a final answer. Keep trying until you find a CSO who can accommodate you.

Krisflyer offering 50% off Silkair award tickets for limited time

Krisflyer has recently started offering a spate of discounted award redemptions for tickets on Singapore Airlines and Silk Air. Here are the ones we’ve had in recent memory

May 2015: 50% off SQ and MI economy awards
Feb 2016: 30% off SQ and MI economy awards
July 2016: 50% off MI economy awards
October 2016: 50% off MI economy awards
November 2016:  30% off SQ premium economy and economy awards 

Well, another promotion is back, this time for Silkair business and economy class saver awards.

Click here to see the full details.

You can get 50% off the miles required when you book from now till 11 July 2017, and travel between 1 July and 31 October 2017. There are 53 different Silkair destinations up for redemption this time round, including popular ones like Koh Samui.

Note that you will only enjoy the 50% if your award tickets before 11 July 2017. That is, if you remain on the waitlist as of 11 July 2017 and your waitlist subsequently clears, you will pay the regular price, notwithstanding the fact that you got on the waitlist before 11 July 2017.

Also note that this is a “genuine” 50% discount, unlike the past few promotions where the headline would read “50% discount” but in practice it’s be 35%, because you’d enjoy a 15% discount when you redeemed your Krisflyer miles online anyway.  Now that the 15% online redemption discount doesn’t apply anymore, your savings are really 50%. Whether you see that as half full or half empty, well…

I’ve never flown Silkair’s business class product before so enjoy these two artistically washed out photos from Silkair’s website

Image result for silkair business class

Image result for silkair business class

It might be tricky finding economy saver space that’s immediately confirmable on the dates you want, but there seems to be better business saver space on most routes. And at 50% off, why not? It’ll give you a chance to experience the Silver Kris lounges in T2 and T3, if nothing else (Silkair operates from T2 but you can take the skytrain across and get access to the T3 lounge).

The good, the bad and the uncertain of SQ’s PPS Club shakeup

I’m not a PPS member, but I aspire to one day rise above my lowly KF Elite Gold status and be ushered away from the leper colony that is the Krisflyer Gold lounge into the promised land of the Silverkris lounge. Hey, it’s good to have dreams.

Image result for silverkris lounge
do not want
Image result for silverkris lounge
want

Well, that value proposition may have changed a bit in light of the enhancements that SQ just announced to its PPS Club. Yeah, they called it “enhancements”, but to be fair, there’s actually some good stuff in here, and some stuff that they should have done a long time ago.

These changes affect all tiers of the PPS program, including regular PPS members, Solitaire members and Solitaire Life members (if you have to ask, you don’t qualify).Image result for pps club

Let’s walk through the changes and what they mean for you. In the analysis below, you can assume that any benefit which applies to PPS members applies to Solitaire PPS members too.

New Benefits for PPS Members

SQ has added some new benefits for PPS members. I know, right?

Non-expiry of miles

The details: Krisflyer miles remain valid so long as you continue to be a PPS member (versus the regular 3 year expiry period). This applies to all miles you earn, be it from flights, credit cards, car rentals, Kaligo etc. The only exception is miles you might win from lucky draws and SQ-sponsored competitions that come with a fixed expiry period.

If you fail to requalify for PPS club membership, your 3 year timer starts from the qualification date of your new tier (be it Gold, Silver or Base Krisflyer) regardless of when the miles were originally earned.

So if you were a PPS member for 5 years and this year fail to requalify, all the miles you have in your account as of today will be given a 3 year lease on life.

Note that if you’re a Solitaire PPS member, the non-expiry only applies to miles you earn and not the miles your supplementary cardholder earns.

My thoughts: Non-expiry of miles is a good perk to have, although I’m of the opinion that you really shouldn’t be holding miles so long that expiry dates become an issue. The philosophy of miles earning should always be earn and burn, because you never know when a devaluation could happen.

That said, I get that if you’re a PPS member you probably earned it through a busy travel schedule, and might not have time to take vacations. So this would be a welcome change, although I’d still urge people to not think of miles as an investment to hold.

Priority redemption of saver awards

The details: Scarce. Very tellingly, the FAQs SQ has provided cover all the other new benefits but remain mum about priority saver awards.

My thoughts: When I read this I got a bit confused because I was under the impression that PPS members already had priority when it came to awards. Then I realised what  was thinking about was the awards waitlist, where your position is prioritised based on your status.

In any case, I have many questions about this new benefit- do PPS members get priority to saver awards for all cabin classes? (it would be a dick move if this were only for economy).

And what exactly does priority mean? Will PPS members will be able to see saver award space at, say, the 12 month mark whereas everyone else can only access it from the 9 month mark? Or will they split saver awards into two further sub buckets, with a larger percentage of that set aside for PPS members? Can SQ’s notoriously bad website even handle a technical requirement like this (sounds simple, but SQ’s website will never cease to amaze you)?

Even if you’re not a PPS member this is going to affect you because it has implications for your award redemptions. I mean, it’s a great benefit to have, even if SQ’s post devaluation saver rates are somewhat inferior to Cathay’s. But we need more details from SQ before we can consider the implications fully.

Complimentary Preferred Seating in PY and Y

The details: A PPS Club member travelling in economy or premium economy class on SQ/MI will be able to access complimentary preferred seats. This benefit does not apply to the PPS Club members travelling companions, even if they’re travelling in the same booking as the PPS Club member.

Preferred seats are the ones with extra legroom due to the presence of the exit row.

Or, perhaps more helpfully-

Image result for sq exit row seat

As a reminder, preferred seats usually cost between US$20 and US$100 per segment, depending on your destination.

My thoughts: This is a long overdue benefit. It seems petty to ask PPS members who are spending upwards of $25K with you each year to shell out an additional $100 for a seat with more legroom. SQ has always insisted the preferred seats were “never meant to be revenue generating, but rather a way for passengers to express a preference for a particular seat”. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t you give them to your most loyal customers?

One thing they haven’t explained in the FAQ is whether these preferred seats will be made available to PPS members at the time of booking, or only upon check in if they’re still available (as is the practice for some airlines that offer this benefit like United, albeit to lower tier elites), but I’m going to assume that this will be done at the time of booking.

Priority Immigration

The details: PPS members will now receive priority fast track immigration and security regardless of their travel class at airports where this is available. You can find the current list of airports here.

Solitaire PPS members can claim a reimbursement when they apply for an APEC Business Travel Card, which costs S$100 for Singaporeans. This benefit does not apply to Solitaire PPS supplementary cardholders. Fast track immigration clearance

My thoughts: Priority immigration can really be a life saver at certain airports like Jakarta, Delhi and Bombay (occasionally Bangkok), and having access to fast track security screening could be the difference between making and missing a flight in places like JFK and LAX.

Image result for fast track immigration

I’m glad to see SQ extending this benefit to all PPS members regardless of travel class, because one of the classic gripes of PPS members was that SQ cares about you when you’re in their premium cabins, but once you’re not? GLHF. It presumably costs SQ a bit more to offer this (in most airports, airlines are charged based on the number of passengers they send through priority immigration/security), but it’s a valuable business perk.

The reimbursement of APEC Business Travel Card application fees reminds me a bit of what the US airlines do with Global Entry fees. Again, this is a good perk and all of you, regardless of your current station in life, should be applying for an APEC Business Travel Card because it will save you a lot of time when travelling.

Introduction of PPS Rewards

Apart from the new benefits, SQ is also introducing something called PPS Rewards which encourages people to continue flying with SQ after they make the requalification mark for PPS.

You can find the full T&C for PPS Rewards here, but I’m going to take you through the highlights and potential issues I see with each benefit. Remember, you need $25,000 to requalify for PPS membership

At the $30,000 mark- 2x double Krisflyer miles vouchers

The details: When you hit this mark, you get 2 vouchers that let you earn twice the miles for a single flight segment (meaning that if you’re flying SIN-FRA-JFK you have to pick either SIN-FRA or FRA-JFK to earn double miles).

This benefit can only be used by the principal PPS club member, and only on flights operated by SQ/MI. You obviously don’t earn any miles on award bookings .

My thoughts: This is a rather sad benefit to be offering. It’s better than nothing, but I think loyal PPS members will be disappointed at the paucity.

SQ’s current longest segment is the non-stop flight on SQ32 between Singapore and SFO, which clocks in at about 8,440 miles. Using your double miles voucher on that would net you an additional 8,440 Krisflyer miles.

I don’t know how much SQ values miles internally, but assuming it’s about 1 cent (because that’s the value they’ll give you when you exercise that horrible pay with miles option) then congrats, you’re getting S$84 from SQ. At most. Wheeeee.

At the $40,000 mark- 50,000 Krisflyer miles redemption discount

The details: PPS members who hit this mark will receive a discount voucher that lets them redeem an award booking/ upgrade for 50,000 fewer miles.

This voucher may be used for the PPS member him/herself or his/her redemption nominees. If you subsequently cancel a booking, you’ll get the discount voucher back in your Krisflyer account, as long as it’s still valid (12 month validity)

My thoughts: Definitely a lot better than that miserable $30,000 mark “reward”. I like that this can be used by both the PPS club member and his/her redemption nominees.

Interestingly enough, my reading of the T&C is that this 50,000 discount voucher can be used for all Krisflyer awards. That is, not just SQ, but Star Alliance, Vistara, Virgin Atlantic etc. At least I didn’t see anything that excluded those.

This is important because post the SQ award chart devaluation, some destinations are actually cheaper to get to via Star Alliance partner carriers than SQ.

As a reminder, a return business class ticket to Europe on SQ costs 170,000 miles, so 50,000 is about a 30% discount.

At the $60,000 mark-2x standby one-cabin upgrade vouchers

The details: At the $60,000 mark, PPS members get 2 standby upgrade vouchers that can be submitted at least 48 hours before their flight for a one-cabin upgrade to a commercial booking on SQ/MI.

This can be used by either the PPS club member or their redemption nominee, but only if your original booking is in the following fare buckets

  • Economy: B, E, Y
  • Premium Economy: P, T, S
  • Business: C, D, J, U,Z

One standby upgrade can be used for one flight segment only, so in our SIN-FRA-JFK example you’d have to pick one leg.

My thoughts: This is the moneyshot. This is what PPS members have been waiting for for the longest time. This is the fabled SQ upgrade, the thing that “simply doesn’t happen”.

And yet, I see problems.

(1) Only certain fare classes are eligible for these upgrades.

As you can see, B,E and Y ticket classes are full fare economy, which are the priciest. You won’t be able to upgrade super saver or sweet deals SQ tickets.

And furthermore, remember that these upgrades are one cabin only. Frankly, I can’t see too many people buying full fare economy just for the opportunity to upgrade to premium economy class, given that the comfort upgrade isn’t substantial.

Image result for sq premium economy

(2) You’d have to buy a premium economy class ticket to access the business class cabin.

Given how expensive SQ’s premium economy product is, are people (even well-heeled PPS members) really going to shell out their own money to buy a premium economy ticket on their leisure travels just so they can get a business class upgrade?

Look at the pricing for SQ’s premium economy to London- it’s S$4.5K round trip (you could get a sweet deals ticket for about S$1.1K)

Business class is S$8.5K round trip.

S$4.5K is a substantial amount of money to pay for any flight, even if you conceptualise it as a ~50% discount on a business class ticket.

I think this benefit may be more useful for PPS members who are travelling on company money in business class and want to try out first class.

I certainly wouldn’t want to pay $4.5K of my own money for the possibility of an upgrade. And speaking of which, how do these upgrades work anyway?

(3)  Do upgrades come from the revenue bucket, or the award bucket?  If they come from the award bucket, is it the standard or the saver bucket?

This is a crucial question. The T&C say that upgrades are not guaranteed upon application of the PPS Reward, and are subject to seat availability upon check in at the airport.

But what does seat availability mean? In an ideal world, this would mean commercial space availability. That is, so long as the first class cabin is not full, a PPS member flying in business class will get the upgrade. Given SQ’s track record, I have doubts about this.

But then does it mean there needs to be award space available? If so, this benefit becomes much less valuable because we all know that certain popular routes have little to no award space available.

If SQ goes with the latter option, I do hope they mean standard or saver award space, because if these upgrades can only happen when there is saver award space available, well, then…

It also remains to be seen what happens when SQ’s new A380 cabin products are launched. Will upgrades to these cabins be allowed? SQ brands its suites as “a class above first”- will they then allow business class passengers to upgrade to first on flights where a Suites cabin is offered?

We’ll know all this soon enough, I suppose.

(4) Why only upgrade one segment as opposed to one flight?

I see no reason why the policy needs to be a one segment upgrade only. This makes the benefit much less useful on long haul, one-stop flights (I’m thinking flights to the USA, although with the arrival of the A350 long range versions hopefully those will become non-stop). And how does that work for luggage allowances? If I’m flying in PY on one leg and J on the other, do I get the J allowance throughout? Wouldn’t it be logistically simpler to upgrade the whole flight?

At the $75,000 and $100,000 mark- 1x advance one-cabin upgrade voucher

The details: At the $75K and $100K marks, PPS members will get 1x one-cabin upgrade voucher that can be used in advance. That is, if there is availability in the next higher cabin at the time you buy the ticket, you’ll get upgraded (as opposed to at check in).

My thoughts: See above. The usefulness of this all hinges on whether the upgrades pull from award space or commercial space.

Changes in qualification requirements for Solitaire PPS members

This, I suppose, is the other shoe. SQ is making it easier to qualify for Solitaire PPS but harder to retain it, at least for new members. Fortunately, all Solitaire PPS members who qualify for the scheme by 31 May 2018 will stay on the existing scheme.

It used to be that you’d need to accumulate S$250K over 5 consecutive years, but now you “just” need to accumulate S$50K over one year to get Solitaire.

However, you used to have to accumulate S$25K to renew your Solitaire PPS status, but from 1 June 2018 that will be S$50K. Do note that if you’re already a Solitaire PPS member as of 1 June 2018 you will continue to remain on the old membership structure of S$25K requalification.

The other big change if you’re on the new structure is that your PPS reserve value (the accumulated value you can use to requalify for PPS in future years if you do not make the amount in that particular year) will only be valid for 3 years instead of 6. That’s a bummer for people who are approaching retirement and intend to use their Solitaire benefits while the travel the world- 3 years is a lot shorter than 6 (said Captain Obvious).

Conclusion

These changes will be welcomed by most PPS members, as it brings the program in line with what other major airlines offer their top tier flyers. I do think there were other easy wins that SQ could have given out, like complimentary onboard Wifi access, but hey, gotta take what they give.

As a non-PPS member, I will be more interested to see what the priority access to saver awards means for the rest of us.