Saturday, January 15, 2005

Flying to HEL and back

Thanks to all of you who responded with sympathy to my diatribes against United Airlines and the (spit, cough, gag) Tokyu Hotel Chain. I was a tad surprised at the near universality of the responses. Only one soul agreed with my decision to extend my loyalty to United. One person said she’d rather take her broom. Another suggested Singapore. Dwight, my trusty companion through those 24 hours of hell would rather, I think, I had left that carcass of a travel experience buried in the ground.

Friend Dave offered a recommendation for Singapore. Lovely airline, I agree. Trouble is it means flying via L.A., leaving at 10:30 a.m. and arriving at 6 p.m. (as opposed to United’s leaving at 1 p.m. and arriving at 3 p.m.) and paying a whole lot more.

Not quite true. If you go through instead of the Singapore website, you can get a flight for about the same. There’s still that flying backwards bit to L.A., however.

Just to see what might happen if my loyalty were to waver, I checked with the other carriers between SFO and NRT. JAL is a serious contender at $964, and so is Northwest for fifty bucks more – nearly identical flight schedules as United, but I don’t get the frequent flyer miles and giving up United would mean giving up my credit card, with all the hassle that would involve.

Then things began to get weird. For example, I found I could pay yet another fifty bucks to fly Continental, but the small print informs me it’s not really a Continental plane but a Northwest plane. I should pay $100 more for Continental to print the ticket instead of Northwest?

I could fly ANA, but their flight is actually a United plane, and I’d pay more and not get the miles there either. And not get the bonus miles. And not get the seats with five extra inches!

Then there’s Asiana, of course. I could pay even more and fly to Tokyo with a 4 1/2 hour layover in Seoul, a total of 18 hours and 10 minutes en route.

Hell, once you start thinking about L.A. and Seoul, the possibilities are limitless! I could fly British Airways, for example. Now there’s a classy airline. Only $863 to Copenhagen and 13 hours and 20 minutes in the air. There’s an overnight stay till the morning flight (7:20 a.m.) to Tokyo, an additional $988 cost and an additional 18 hours and 50 minutes in the air, but there is the bright side. You've avoided L.A.

The runway length at Helsinki Airport is only 11,286 feet, as opposed to 11,811 at Copenhagen, but if I were to risk the loss of those 525 feet, I could use Helsinki instead. Their airport code is HEL, and while I no longer have heavy luggage like I once did when I used to carry bottles of olive oil back to Tokyo, checking my baggage to HEL gives me pause – never mind the shorter runway. Price is considerably higher, a total of $2231 via Helsinki as opposed to only $1851 via Copenhagen. I’d use Alitalia, but they want $3272 for the Copenhagen Narita leg alone.

Isn’t it curious that British Airways posts a fare online of only $1851.00 SFO to Tokyo via Copenhagen and Japan Airlines told me over the phone they wanted $2038.00! Now JAL doesn’t sell tickets online like everybody else, so their prices are a trade secret. You’ve got to phone and persuade them you really need to know. I gave the nice lady on the other end of the line the BA flight via Copenhagen information and she broke down and confessed I could get a cheaper JAL ticket if I were willing to phone their San Francisco office and talk to them directly. “You mean JAL in Tokyo can’t even tell me the price of the tickets their company sells in their SFO office?” “That’s right, sir.”

I knew that.

It’s an 800 number, which you can’t use without paying extra from overseas. I pay 2.5 cents a minute for my calls to the States, so it would add probably no more than thirty cents to the cost of the ticket, but it’s the damn principle of the thing!

Meanwhile, I sit by the phone and wait for United to call and tell me I am an important person to them. “We know you have other flight options,” they always announce as the plane lands at SFO, “and we want to thank you for flying the friendly skies with us today.”

Put your money where your mouth is, United. If you have any left after taping up that oil leak and paying off your bankruptcy lawyers.

And to think I’m about to retire and won’t get to do this anymore…

January 15, 2005