Let me start by making clear how grateful and privileged I am to have the opportunity to fly home in business class next month. Everything else that follows in this post is just an exploration of my thought process whether to fly in business class and, once I decided to, decided which airline and routing to fly. (And I’m going to go into serious aviation nerd mode, which maybe only Matt will appreciate fully. Sorry in advance!)
I am not yet at a point in my life where buying transcontinental business class tickets is an affordable option. This is my first time buying a business class ticket out of pocket and I made the decision to do so using the following rationale and rationalizations.
Safety. While I know that air quality in an airplane is very high, I am still concerned about being in close quarters for up to a dozen hours with other people. Traveling in business class would put me in a less densely packed cabin and, with some airlines offering more cubicle-like seats, hopefully a greater degree of protection from fellow passengers.
Yes, I do realize that international flights have very light loads, but that doesn’t mean the flights I will travel on will have light loads. And, as I saw since booking, the airlines have rejiggered their schedules to consolidate passengers onto fewer flights. (When I booked, United was selling tickets for six flights from Tokyo Narita to their US hubs. Four weeks before departure, it is down to two flights and my booking has been changed two times.)
Benefit of solo travel. Unfortunately, Tawn will not join me on this flight. Since there is only one of us flying, the budgetary impact is half and it feels a bit easier to justify spending a bit more.
Random rationalizations. We haven’t flown in nearly a year and a half. I haven’t been back to see my family in even longer. I turned fifty last year and had wanted to treat myself to a business class flight. Airfares are a good bit lower than they historically have been so now is a good time to splurge. See? There are plenty of rationalizations to supplement my rationale!
“So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”Benjamin Franklin
Once I decided to fly business class, I searched for options using the following criteria:
Star Alliance. If I was going to be shelling money out of my own pocket for this experience, I want to make sure I earn miles. My mileage program of choice is with Aegean Airlines, a member of Star Alliance. This means that, given the limited number of airlines flying into Bangkok at this time, my choices were All-Nippon Airways + United (they operate a joint venture across the Pacific), EVA Air, Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Turkish, or Lufthansa Group (Lufthansa, Austrian, and Swiss).
Single ticket to my destination. I prefer to book directly through the airline’s website rather than through a third party. This way, if I have problems, the airline has the greatest incentive to fix them. EVA, Asiana and Singapore could only book me to their US destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. I would have to book the connecting leg to Kansas City myself. This was an unacceptable complication during this pandemic, when schedules and circumstances can change with little notice.
Flying in a cubicle-like business class. Some airlines use more open (and older) business class seating arrangements where the seats are in pairs arranged 2-2-2 with aisles in between. I actually quite like this way of flying, especially when traveling with Tawn. But in this pandemic era, I want to be in more individual, “cubicle” style seats where I don’t have to see, interact with, or step over a seat mate when getting into and out of my seat. Lufthansa, Turkish, and United operate some or all of their fleet with a 2-2-2 layout (or, in the case of Turkish on some planes, a 2-3-2 arrangement as pictured above!)
Maximizing flying time. This may seem crazy, but if I’m going to pay for the business class experience, I want to get the most time I can to enjoy it. And this isn’t just a value-for-money proposition but also a sleep proposition. If you are flying a shorter flight like Tokyo to Seattle (just about 8 hours) you won’t have as much time to rest as you would on a flight like Hong Kong to Chicago (about 11 hours). With lie-flat seats a norm in business class, I want to opportunity to get at least six solid hours of sleep, to help minimize jet lag. This means I wanted flights across the ocean at least 10 hours long.
Price. Despite my rationalizations, budget was still a consideration. There was more than a US$1,000 difference between the least expensive business class fares offered by the different airlines and the prices varied quite a bit between day, exact routing, and even when I searched. Most tickets were coming in around US$3,500 – $4,000, which was feeling a bit rich for my wallet. Finally, I found one that met my criteria for only US$2,098.
After several weeks of comparing options, I settled on a ticket purchased from United Airlines, which includes multiple segments flown by All-Nippon Airways. United and ANA are joint-venture partners on their entire trans-Pacific flying plus many connecting routes. This “metal-neutral” arrangement means they are able to coordinate all aspects of flying, pricing, and selling and share the costs and revenues as if they were a single airline for those routes.
I liked this itinerary because it would feature United’s new Polaris business class seat from Tokyo to Newark and All Nippon’s slightly older business class seat from Chicago to Tokyo, which both are well reviewed and offer nice private cubicles. Additionally, the long trans-Pacific legs in both directions meant time to enjoy the meal service and entertainment, while also getting a solid six-plus hours of sleep in. I was also excited to fly through Tokyo Haneda on the return, an airport I have never visited.
Unfortunately, it turns out I forgot an important criterion when booking my flights:
Approval by Thai authorities. To enter Thailand now, you need the local Thai embassy to issue a COE (certificate of entry) and this includes flying only on currently approved inbound flights. All-Nippon was selling the flight from Tokyo Haneda to Bangkok but it was not yet on the Thai government’s list of approved flights. Sticking with this booking would mean taking the risk that Thai authorities would approve the flight at a later date. And, if they didn’t, I would have to change the schedule, with the chance of a penalty fee or fare increase. After the Thai embassy initially rejected my COE application, I contacted United to make a change in the return schedule. Thankfully, there was no cost to do this.
The recurring LAX change
United actively reviews and optimizes its schedule, sending regular emails notifying you of changes to your booking. Some of these are minor – a flight departs a few minutes earlier or later, or the flight now has a different number and is operated by a different United Express carrier.
But as the departure date grew closer, United started paring back its trans-Pacific flights. This is not a surprise as demand for international travel has remained much lower than for United States domestic travel, which has rebounded in the past few weeks as vaccination rates increase and infection rates plummet.
My first notification was that I had been rerouted through Los Angeles on my outbound trip, connecting to Kansas City by overflying to Chicago and then backtracking. This was not okay because it didn’t meet two of my criteria: the flight to Los Angeles comes in well shy of 10 hours and it is flown by aircraft with United’s older business class configuration, which features 2-2-2 seating. If I was going to fly, I was going to try out the new product.
Thankfully, a call to United reservations fixed that. With no charge, they put me on the Tokyo to Houston flight, a nice 12 hour, 10 minute flight on a Boeing 777-200 featuring the new Polaris business class. Plus, they could connect me from Houston to Kansas City nonstop.
A few weeks later, I received a second notification. The Houston flight was now cancelled and I was again routed through Los Angeles, although this time connecting to Kansas City through Denver instead of through Chicago. Los Angeles again?!
At this point, I thought that maybe I would have to accept my fate and just fly into Los Angeles. It is a nice enough airport. The United Club has an outdoor terrace with a view of the airplanes. But I wasn’t happy about not flying their new business class product. I went to the United website to see what other flights they were operating from Tokyo.
After a bit of research I realized that the flight to San Francisco was operated with the new business class product. Even though the flight is about a half-hour shorter than Los Angeles, I figured I would trade off a bit of eating or entertainment time, to enjoy the new Polaris product. Another call to United reservations fixed the booking.
So, three weeks before departure, this is what my itinerary looks like. We shall see whether United changes it again. Looking at the number of seats already selected for the flight to San Francisco, it looks like business class may be at least one-third full, so unlikely they will cancel that flight. What I find especially interesting, is that there hasn’t been any changes to the return booking. This makes me think that All Nippon is more disciplined (or less agile) in their approach to scheduling.
I’m excited about this itinerary. It will be a treat (and a privilege) to be able to try the business class products, to pamper myself a bit, and to hopefully be a bit more protected from the risk of falling ill while flying. I end up arriving two hours earlier into Kansas City, which I know will be appreciated by whoever picks me up from the airport! The chance to fly through San Francisco is a treat, too. It’s my hometown airport for the first 30+ years of my life, I haven’t been there in a few years. My only regret is that there isn’t enough time to visit anyone!
Thanks for indulging me as I gush about the experience. I realize it is nerdier than about 99.99% of the population will appreciate. But I’m looking forward to the trip and really am enjoying the planning aspect as much (maybe more) than the actual travel aspect.