Howdy! This week I’m writing about two recent destinations. We’re going to start off with my El Al flight to Tel Aviv and then I’ll tell you about last week’s daytrip to Dallas, for a tour of Southwest Airlines’ headquarters for some exciting news about low-cost flying. This week, Marcela Swenson continues her journey through Thailand and Ben Brown (our USC intern), takes us on a real adventure in Interlaken, Switzerland. BTW: For real-time action, you can always follow me on Twitter (@JohnnyJet) or friend me on Facebook.
SOUTHWEST MEDIA DAY
This past week, I was invited to attend Southwest Airlines’ annual media day at their Dallas headquarters. Media Day is a great chance for airlines to open up their operations and invite journalists (and their readers) in for a peek around. Unfortunately, not many airlines do it – in fact, the only other airline I know that does it is US Airways and I’ve attended theirs for the past couple of years.
LAX-DALLAS VIA EL PASO
Full FTC disclosure: Southwest bought my ticket from Los Angeles (LAX) to Dallas’ Love Field (DAL). Love Field only has 20 gates and is much smaller than DFW (American Airlines’ hub), which is 16 miles west. FYI: Love Field is only seven miles from downtown Dallas.
Because of the Wright Amendment (read about it here), I had to stop going to and leaving DAL. On the way there, I stopped in El Paso (ELP); flight time was one hour and 30 minutes. FYI: The Wright Amendment ends in 2014.
I didn’t have to get off the plane because it was a direct flight. NOTE: A direct flight is completely different than a nonstop flight. Direct means you stop but don’t change planes. Nonstop means you don’t stop.
The flight to El Paso was half empty but to Dallas, it was packed — the same was true on the way home but I flew via San Antonio (SAT). TIP: If you’re flying Southwest on a direct flight, try and make your first flight of the day the short one (like my 280-mile hop from DAL to SAT) so you can switch seats after everyone deplanes and score the coveted exit row; Southwest doesn’t assign seats. FYI: On both my stops, about half the passengers got off so chances are, you’ll get a better seat.
ELP to DAL was one hour and 10 minutes. DAL to SAT was 45 minutes and SAT-LAX was three hours even.
AIRPORT TO HOTEL
Southwest put writers and vendors up at the 248-guestroom Embassy Suites, which was about a 10-minute drive from the airport; the hotel has a free shuttle). TIP: Be the last person to put your bags on the shuttle so you can be the first one out and first in line for check-in.
The Embassy Suites was renovated in 2007 and was comfortable. On the entrance side, all rooms overlook an eight-story garden atrium and inside, they have a mini refrigerator, microwave, flat screen TV, large working desk and wireless Internet access. The Wi-Fi is $9.95 a day or you can use the free DSL line in the business center. I used my Sprint wireless card, which can be rented short-term from RovAir.com.
When I checked in, the hotel clerk quoted me a $200 cleaning fee if I smoked in the room – that’s a first, but I liked the stern warning since I’m not a smoker. Hotel amenities that I liked include: the glass elevators, fitness center, indoor pool, coin laundry ($1) and free daily cooked-to-order breakfast. FYI: The location is just seven miles away from downtown Dallas.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
The water pipes are loud so if one of your neighbors (next door or even above) is running the water, it’s annoyingly loud. Also, after seeing the “Forget Something?” sign, I called down at midnight to get some toothpaste, which I always seem to forget. The phone kept ringing and ringing. However, when I tried in the morning at 6am, they picked up right away and someone dropped off two packets, two minutes later. Embassy Suites Dallas – Love Field, 3880 West Northwest Highway, Dallas, Texas; Tel: (214) 357-4500.
MATTITO’S TEX MEX
That night, the group (about 10 journalists and 40 vendors) boarded a bus and drove to Mattito’s Tex-Mex, about 15 minutes away. There, Southwest Airlines had a welcome dinner with members of their senior management committee. I ran into some old friends like Tom Parsons from Bestfares.com and met new ones, like Rick Seaney from FareCompare.com.
The food was really good and we all participated in a guacamole-making contest – lucky for my team (LUV Hurts), we had Tom Parsons, who’s a fine chef and who did the brunt of our work. His secret ingredient was corn oil (he usually uses olive oil), jalapeños and Pico de Gallo, which he grabbed from the kitchen to spruce it up really nicely. Mattito’s Tex-Mex, 3011 Routh Street; Dallas, Tel: (214) 526-8181.
THE GREEN PLANE
The 737-700 with tail number WN222 has been in service for four years but as we quickly learned from Southwest CEO Gary Kelly at the brief press conference, it’s been refurbished and renamed The Green Plane. That’s right — Southwest is leading the aviation industry in environmental stewardship by going green. Well, at least with one test plane.
Southwest is working with a number of eco-friendly vendors on a variety of initiatives that all revolve around recycled products in the cabin and fuel-saving measures. From the outside, you can’t tell the difference except for the “green” logo near the nose. The inside doesn’t really look any different either except for the “green” stickers on the overhead compartments and the information cards in the seatbacks both outlining Southwest’s eco-friendly strategy.
So, what’s Southwest doing? They have 100% recycled carpet by InterfaceFLOR Carpet that reduces labor and material costs because it is installed in sections, thus eliminating the need for total replacement of areas such as aisles, where Southwest currently uses one single piece of carpet. At the end of its service life, the carpet is returned to InterfaceFLOR and completely re-manufactured into new carpet; the process is completely carbon neutral.
They also have new synthetic leather seat covers that offer more than twice the durability and are lighter, saving almost two pounds per seat. That alone is projected to save $20,000 in fuel a year per plane.
New, smaller life vest pouches offer a weight savings of one pound per passenger.
NEW COFFEE CUPS
Southwest is replacing their Styrofoam coffee cups with ‘green’ cups with built-in sleeves so you don’t burn yourself.
One of the most important steps they are taking is outfitting their planes with satellite-based navigation to replace the outdated radar, which will reduce flight times, congestion and save millions of dollars in fuel costs and reduce CO2 emissions. Southwest has committed $175 million to this initiative and is pressuring the government to start rolling it out. This should be of interest to all travelers, not only for its impact on the environment but for an overall improved customer experience.
Click here for more information on the Green Plane.
TOUR OF HEADQUARTERS
The Green Plane wasn’t the only news they shared with us. Afterwards, we left the hangar and went into their main headquarters, which was a real trip. These guys are the opposite of most conservative corporate airlines and you got the sense the moment you walked through the front door: spooky Halloween decorations below the model Southwest planes hanging from above, greeted us.
The hallways are decorated with photos, memorabilia, past advertising, and employee or customer collages from their 38-year history. They even have a hallway filled with mannequins outfitted in past employee uniforms. Now this place would make for a good haunted house with these lifelike mannequins. I also checked out their Univeristy, café (they serve breakfast and lunch) and employee store, where I bought a cool hat for $15.
FACTS ABOUT SOUTHWEST
Here are some facts I learned about Southwest Airlines (SWA):
-SWA has been around since 1971
-They fly only Boeing 737s (they have 455)
-They have nearly 9.5 percent of the U.S. market share
-They are the nation’s largest carrier in terms of domestic passengers enplaned
-Southwest currently serves 67 cities in 34 states; Milwaukee will be their 68th city on November 1
-They currently operate more than 3,200 flights a day and have nearly 35,000 employees
-SWA is 65% hedged for 2010 in the $75-$85 range
SOUTHWEST QUOTE OF DAY
“If you don’t change, you will die.” – Herb Keller, co-founder of Southwest
NO BAG FEES
Before more announcements were made, we had some Texas BBQ for lunch. I was sitting at a table just about to devour my food when lo and behold, Gary Kelly (CEO of Southwest) said, “You mind if I join you?” Who’s going to turn Gary down? I’ve met him before at NBTA but didn’t really get to chat with him like I did here. I learned all about his life growing up in Texas. The one thing that may interest you is this: He said Southwest Airlines will NOT charge a bag fee next year. Not even for a second bag, which he sort of alluded to at NBTA.
Other big news of the day: Southwest will begin service at a brand-new international airport being built near Panama City, Florida next May. This is huge news for that part of northwest Florida since it’s been plagued by high fares and a lack of full-sized airline service. But come May 2010, travelers will be able to explore its sugar-white-sand beaches more easily and more cheaply.
FYI: They didn’t announce specific service plans (they will in December) but the reason they chose it was easy. They partnered up with a corporate partner, St. Joe Corporation, for the first time. (Here are the details of their deal.) The St. Joe’s Corporation is the largest landowner in the state of Florida, owning over 600,000 acres of prime Florida Panhandle woodlands and beaches. They also develop award-winning resorts like the Watercolor Inn, which my brother reviewed a couple of years ago and absolutely loved.
SOUTHWEST TO INCREASE ST. LOUIS
Gary (we’re on a first name basis now) also announced during a live webcast for their Facebook fans, that Southwest intends to pick up American Airlines’ slack in St. Louis. Southwest Airlines will be adding nine new daily flights to six new destinations (Nashville, Raleigh/Durham, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle and San Diego) from Lambert International Airport. The new flights are expected to begin by May 2010 and will be open for sale in December. By next May, they plan to be operating 83 weekday departures from St. Louis. For the specifics, click here.
DENVER GETS SOME LOVE TOO
St. Louis wasn’t the only city getting love from Southwest Airlines; they announced they will continue their growth in Denver by adding 13 new daily flights and six new nonstop destinations next year. The service will begin on March 14, 2010 but they’ve already started selling tickets now for as low as $79 one-way. The cities are Hartford, Boise, Ontario, Detroit, Washington Dulles and Oklahoma City. For the new service beginning in May, click here.
When I was first invited to visit Israel, I admit I had many preconceived notions, fears and questions – perhaps many of the same ones that first-time visitors to Israel would have. But my first question was: What’s it like to fly El Al? If you’re interested, here’s a play-by-play:
El Al is known for having the tightest security of any airline in the world. I’d heard about all kinds of precautions that they take; some turned out to be true, some false. To be honest, I had mixed emotions when I found out I was going to be flying El Al. Part of me wanted to experience it while the other half of me was filled with trepidation. Well, let’s see, shall we?
NO FREE UPGRADES
I’d heard so many conflicting trip reports I didn’t know who to believe so I went straight to a reliable source – the airline’s PR team. The first thing I learned from them is that I didn’t need to show up at the airport four hours in advance as I’d heard; two hours was sufficient. I also learned that El Al doesn’t upgrade anyone for free — except maybe the Pope.
FACTS ABOUT EL AL
El Al is Israel’s national airline and this year they’re celebrating 60 years of service. El AL offers the most nonstop flights between New York (JFK/Newark) and Israel as well as the only nonstop service from Los Angeles. Worldwide, they fly to more than 40 destinations. The airline has annual revenues of about $1.93 billion and carries more than 1.8 million passengers annually.
I had a choice to fly from either Los Angeles (15 hours nonstop on a new 777), from New York on a refurbished 747 or from Toronto on a dated 767-200. Of course, of the three, the 767 would be my last choice but I still chose it since Natalie was coming with me and she’s based out of Canada.
When Natalie and I rolled up to Terminal 3 at Pearson International Airport, I couldn’t help but notice the armed gunmen in the far corners; it’s the same at LAX and JFK during check-in for El Al. Gulp. All passengers get vetted before they even get to the airport. We had to submit scans of our passports so the moment we arrived, the security agent knew exactly who we were and why we were going to Israel. He was super friendly and put us at ease while he asked us questions like: Who packed your bags, where did you pack them, have they been in your possession the whole time, did anyone give you anything to bring to Israel … ?
Next stop was the counter to check-in where we were greeted by friendly agents – one was Italian, the other Serbian. Both were very accommodating and were eager to help find us the best possible seats on the plane. The good news was the flight was fairly open and the agents knew exactly where the babies were seated … so we chose seats far away from them! FYI: Economy seating on the 767 is configured 2-3-2. We chose the middle row since the agent we were dealing with kindly blocked the middle seat in between us to give us extra room.
Next stop was Canadian security. It’s the same as in America except they don’t make everyone take off their shoes (just certain types) unless you are traveling to America. My sneakers stayed on and that was it security-wise. FYI: There were no uniformed guards on the plane but I heard there were two or three air marshals, which is normal for them.
Terminal 3 was deserted but Natalie and I scored passes to the KLM business class lounge, which El Al rents for their premium passengers. The lounge was cheerful and quiet since it was almost empty. A friendly Dutch agent showed us the free snacks (soup cups, Tim Horton’s pastries and muffins), fruit and drinks, including Heineken beer on tap. They also had free Wi-Fi.
TORONTO TO TEL AVIV
Toronto to Tel Aviv is 5,770 miles and takes 10 hours and 44 minutes. The 1:30pm flight was a little late in boarding but we pushed back ahead of schedule at 1:25pm and took off at 1:42pm. The seatbelt sign went off eight minutes later and the flight attendants broke out the drink cart a few minutes after that. I had a lemon mint drink and some Hebrew crackers for an aperitif and they were both darn good.
EL AL FLIGHT ATTENDANTS
The crew spoke in Hebrew first, then English. They were mostly young, pretty, friendly women who are hired on five-year contracts, which typically don’t get renewed. I learned this when I sat in one of the jump seats in the back galley and chatted them up for a while.
I had no idea what kind of food El Al would be serving so I pre-ordered us one of the many options on their website (for free). It turned out that like every other airline, they offered beef or chicken. I had chicken with rice and string beans while Natalie had the Asian vegetarian meal. NOTE: All meals came with a Kosher certificate. TIP: Like most airlines, those who pre-order special meals get their meals first; ours came out 10 minutes earlier than the rest. We were served at 2:30pm, less than an hour after takeoff.
Unlike El Al’s 777 and 747 (so I’ve been told) there were no power ports in economy or individual screens. However, they did come around with entertainment systems for rent for $15 a pop or you could watch the entertainment being played on the overhead monitors with news, shows and movies (they showed four movies), just like the old days.
FYI: All the seats had thick blankets that were wrapped in plastic and smelled of detergent, which is a great sign that they’re clean.
The flight crew works their tails off. They came down the aisles with bottled water every hour and they also cleaned the bathrooms regularly. Throughout the flight, they had snacks and sandwiches (tuna fish or veggie) set up in the back galley.
I don’t sleep well on planes unless I’m lying completely flat so I let Natalie stretch out over the three seats and I sat across the aisle in one of the two vacant seats and stared out the window, all the while shaking my head in disbelief that I was on my way to Israel. It was almost unfathomable. At one point, I saw some familiar coastline and I asked the flight attendant where we were. She didn’t know so she called the pilot. It turned out it was the South of France, which I was lucky enough to have bounced around the year before – too cool.
Two hours before landing, the crew came around with hot towels and served breakfast. We didn’t order any special breakfast meal but since we had put in an initial request, our breakfast reflected what we’d chosen for dinner and we got ours first again. I had eggs, a bagel, cheese and fruit while Natalie had Asian veggies, potatoes, fruit, salad and a bagel.
Overall, I was really impressed with El Al’s service and it was a dream flight for us. Why? There happened to be a number of empty seats, allowing us to spread out and be more comfortable and the flight crew were really gracious. If El Al’s slogan: “It’s not just an airline — It’s Israel” is anything like Israel, I’m really going to like this place.
One of my big questions was: Should I get a passport stamp or not? I heard some countries (like Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria) won’t grant you entry if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. I decided to get one because if an entire country can be that narrow-minded, then maybe I don’t want to spend my money in their country. However, if you don’t want to get your passport stamped, the flight attendants will give you a form to fill out. Otherwise you don’t need to fill out any entry cards, which is really nice. Also, I’ve heard that if you do have an Israeli stamp, you can get a second passport.
TEL AVIV AIRPORT
It was exciting when we landed in Tel Aviv. First of all, all the passengers clapped, which I love, because air travel truly is a miracle and more people should appreciate it. Secondly, the Ben Gurion International Airport is really styling! It just had a complete renovation and you could tell. I didn’t mind the long walk to passport control since they had huge glass windows and sloping sidewalks; one for arrivals and the other for departures. I couldn’t help notice that the people who were departing weren’t smiling which is always a good sign that they’re sad to leave. I think it’s safe to say: I’m going to love Israel!
FYI: It didn’t take more than five minutes to get processed.
Next week: Jerusalem! Stay tuned.