Published in June 2016 issue
Flying long haul has always been fascinating to me. I remember I used to marvel at the thought of the amount of fuel, power and strength an airplane needs to fly for over 10 hours.
I have been fortunate enough to fly plenty of semi-long segments between America and Europe, and a few occasional hops to Asia.
But one thing I had always wanted to do was to fly around the world (RTW) along its longitudinal axis. Finally, the opportunity presented itself with a mix of work-related events and some days off on vacation with my father.
By Enrique Perrella
Seven: The Magic Number
Tokyo, Singapore, and London were my target cities within a seven-day period. Because I’m based in Miami—where direct connectivity to Asia is nonexistent—my choices were a Little more challenging. But building the itinerary is part of the fun.
My most basic options were simply to round trip across Europe with numerous carriers. But I found that crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic with the usual Air France (AF), Lufthansa (LH) or British Airways (BA) would have been lengthy and rather repetitive.
As I explored further—my budget being limited to $7,000, and knowing I’d have to factor in jet lag on such a long trip—I began searching for less expensive one-way tickets in either Premium or Business Class in SkyTeam carriers; my preferred frequent flyer program (FFP) being Delta’s (DL) SkyMiles.
It took seven days of fare searching and itinerary checking, but I came up with seven segments:
Leg One: On to Detroit
The first two segments of this trip were to be somewhat special. I had been trying to fly the DL Boeing 747-400 (744), before the airline retires them all, for a very long time, but the pricing and timing had never been right. This time, I managed to book a DeltaOne ticket (Business Class) on the aircraft’s magnificent upper deck for $2,300. With Economy Class and Comfort+ (Premium Economy) priced between $1,100 and $2,000, the choice was obvious.
My father and I arrived at FLL an hour before our scheduled departure time (SDT) of 08:00. We had used the iPhone app to check in the day before, so all we had to do was drop our luggage at the dedicated SkyPriority section at Terminal2. Having randomly been given TSA Pre-check, we breezed through security in less than three minutes.
After coffee and a quick bite at DL’s SkyClub, we heard the boarding call at 07:30 and entered the brand-new 737-900(ER), fitted with new, dragreducing Split Scimitar winglets. The first leg of our RTW trip began with an on-time departure.
This quick flight to DTW lasted two hours 46 minutes. Breakfast was a choice of burrito or a granola cereal with yogurt and milk. The inflight entertainment system (IFE) was top-notch.
Landing in DTW was uneventful, even though temperatures were below freezing, there was a major warning for wind chill, and the whole área was covered in snow.
Leg Two: Over to Narita
The stunning Detroit airport boasts a modern infrastructure that is second to none in the US. Its long terminal features high ceilings and an indoor train for getting around the building. Since our connection was rather short, we hopped on and reached our assigned gate quickly.
Boarding was called at precisely 11:20, 40 minutes before SDT. We made our way through the first jetway and walked through the jumbo’s L1 door to the stairs in the rear of Business Class. We climbed with excitement and arrived at the secluded upper deck of this marvelous airliner, where a 1-1 seating layout allows for máximum privacy and comfort.
When we reached our seats, a senior Flight Attendant (FA) welcomed us with Champagne and orange juice and immediately asked us for our meal choices. We hadn’t yet looked at the menu, but she insisted, so we rapidly glanced at the options. The menu offered two main choices: a ‘Western’ or a ‘Japanese’ Selection.
We asked her for a suggestion. She said, “I don’t eat Japanese.” OK, so we’d ‘go West’. That meant a choice of pan-seared ribeye filet, a duo of chicken, an Alaskan halibut, or a General Tso’s pork. We both asked for a recommendation and all we got was, “I have no idea. I like chicken. I’d go for that one.” So, with that tepid introduction, I chose the beef, and my father the chicken.
Our personal space was comfortable. It came with a hard-case Tumi amenity kit, a pair of slippers, and a large pillow made by the hotel brand Westin.
At 12:15, our heavy airliner pushed back and the Captain announced that, because of the strong snowfall that had hit DTW, we had to taxi to the de-icing stand. It took almost 35 minutes for the crew to remove the snow that had accumulated on both wings.
At 13:00, the 747 rolled down the runway to become airborne on our way to northwestern Canada, northern Alaska, and then the Asian continent.
Half-hour after departure, the crew came around with the usual hot towels, the beverage cart, and the appetizer: a beef tenderloin with jumbo lump crab, tomato relish, and smoked tomato mousse, accompanied by bread sticks. The dish was tasty, but seemed to have been cooked a long time before. The brea sticks, instead of being crispy, had a bland and mushy texture. The starters followed, a delicious spinach salad with roasted pears and spiced pecans with a maple vinaigrette dressing, and a spicy stout-beer onion soup. The salad was great, the soup was not. The FA arrived with a nice basket of bread. I chose a pretzel-type, which was thrown onto my plate and fell onto my tray. I noticed that the FA didn’t care much about being gentle.
Then came the main course: a beautifully presented piece of beef, resting on a wooden board, adorned with some cedar roasted vegetables. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been asked how I wanted the beef cooked, so it arrived completely overdone; so much that it was quite hard to cut. The veggies, on the other hand, were succulent. For the main course, I decided to switch drinks for one of the red wines, none of which passed tasting, so I ended up with some sparkling water.
After the disappointing main course, I asked for another piece of bread, which also ‘flew’ onto the plate and landed upside down on the tray. Minutes later, the dessert cart arrived with sundaes. I went for the cheeses, which came with a fantastic fig compote and crackers. This and the pear salad were the highlights of the main service.
With more than 11 hours of flying time left, I decided to relax and enjoy the 80-by-20.5in Zodiac Aerospace seat, fitted with a 15.4in IFE screen with over 1,000 entertainment options. All of the 48 DeltaOne seats on the Boeing 747-400, arrayed in an angled herringbone layout, were equipped with a 110- volt power outlet, a USB port, and a personal LED Reading light. Noise canceling headphones were also provided, and the comfortable seat allowed for plenty of different positions to enjoy. The only flaw I could find was that the narrow-ended design gave little space for leg movement. Overall, the quality was superb.
After enjoying a couple of movies, I closed my eyes and managed to rest for almost six hours. I woke up hungry and asked our FA if she could bring something to eat. Her response was: “You could go and see what snacks we have in the back.” Not the politest of answers.
About an hour before landing, the last meal service began: a Japanese curry dish or a French quiche. I went for the latter and was again disappointed. It seemed reheated and sloppy. We then approached NRT without incident and, despite the 40-minute delay, our 747 touched down right on time. Our entire flight had been quite pleasant, if the quality of service had not. Both the FAs and meals had been poor—not what one would have expected for the amount of money paid. However, as a DL frequent flyer, I know that this lapse had been unusual. Too bad it was on this long flight to Tokyo.
Leg Three: Redeye to Singapore
After spending 36 hours in beautiful Tokyo, it was time for our second long-haul leg to Singapore. During our fare search, we had found a fantastic promotion on flights leaving out of HND with SQ: Business Class, red-eye for $1,300. With a full working day in Singapore the following day, this was perfect. DL charged a substantially higher fare for a Boeing 767 ride at an inconvenient time. So we switched to Star Alliance and one of the world’s best airlines.
Upon arriving at HND more than five hours before SDT, we decided to walk the stunning terminal, with its modern glass and metal architecture lit in incandescent blue colors. Check-in began at 19:30. Serviced by Star partner ANA (NH) staff, the process was quick and pleasant. We went through security and passport control via the priority lane, then went up to the ANA Business Class lounge for some dinner and unlimited Asahi beer through the automatic draft machines.
Boarding was called at 23:15 and we entered our long-awaited Boeing 777-300. This aircraft type had originally been tailored for the Asian market, where wide-bodies are often used on short/medium-haul routes in high-density configurations. I must confess this had been a deciding factor when building my itinerary, as these aircraft are very few and SQ has begun retiring and even scrapping them.
The aircraft was in excellent shape, with a Business Class configuration of 2-2-2. Each seat offering 60in of leg pitch and 24.5in of width, and each outfitted with a 15.4in LCD monitor equipped with the award-winning KrisWorld entertainment system.
Boarding was incredibly quick. Pushback was one minute ahead of schedule and we were on our way to Singapore. When the aircraft became airborne, I noticed that the Rolls-Royce Trent 892 engines were noisier than on any other 777 variant I had flown. Also, the wing slats were not retracted until we had reached 16,500ft, which made me wonder whether the Pilots had forgotten to go through their after-takeoff checklist.
Minutes after reaching our cruising altitude, gorgeous FAs in SQ’s distinctive Sarong Kebaya uniforms welcomed us with hot towels and a drink. The inflight service began. But, tired from a long day of work in Tokyo, we reclined our seats and immediately fell asleep, snug in super high-quality covers and pillows. The only flaw was that the leg rest was too low.
The flight lasted six hours 54 minutes. The crew woke us as we began descending into a nocturnal Singapore and we landed at precisely 05:20. As son as we touched down, all the aircraft’s windows fogged up because of the high humidity and temperature outside. At that time of the morning, it was 29ºC (84°F) and 80% humidity—quite typical for a country so close to the Equator.
Our bags were waiting for us at the claim area, and immigration/customs were a breeze. We were getting into a taxi only 18 minutes after the plane had parked at the gate. Too bad we didn’t get a chance to test the famous SQ in-flight service— we had needed the sleep—but we couldn’t have been happier with the outcome of this flight.
Leg Four: Triple Seven to Jakarta
After two magnificent days in Singapore, it was time for our longest trek: Asia to Europe. We had found an ultra-cheap fare on both AF and GA to fly from SIN to LHR via Jakarta and Amsterdam. A little inconvenient for those who prefer direct flights but, for us, it was perfect. Our first leg took us from SIN to CGK on an AF Boeing 777-328(ER)—a Business Class ticket for only $150—followed by a flight on the same aircraft type with GA, at the incredible one-way rate of $1,600. The catch in this itinerary was that it would stop back in SIN before heading to AMS. Booking directly from SIN, however, would have cost $2,900.
Upon arriving at Changi’s Terminal 1, we used the automated AF kiosks to check in and dropped off our bags at the counter, where the agent took some minutes to send them sent straight to London. That done, we walked through passport control without passing through the typical security screening. We entered the old terminal and went straight to the dnata Lounge until boarding time.
A thorough security screening awaited us at the gate. Boarding followed and we entered the spotless, brand-new triple-seven Business Class cabin for the quick one-hour flight to CGK. As usual with the French, some cold Champagne was served and our flight departed on time. The lightly loaded aircraft climbed rapidly to 41,000ft and the polite FAs served a quick snack: a salmon sandwich, and a couple bites of cheese, mushrooms, and olives. Fruit and dessert followed, with coffee and tea. It was a very neat snack, and soon we arrived in Jakarta, where a GA agent greeted us at the aircraft’s gate holding a sign with our names.
The agent took us to a sketchy waiting área and asked for our passports and boarding passes. Then she walked away. Forty minutes went by. No sign of her. No explanation. Four nervous French passengers bound for Sydney were noticeably alarmed. Finally, she came back, our new boarding passes in hand. It was an uneasy moment in a desolate airport.
After that wait, we climbed to the upper floor of the terminal, where stores and lounges are located. Jakarta’s airport is very neat, with local architectural touches, most evident in the roof ’s design. We walked to the end of the concourse and entered the GA First Class Lounge. As we walked in, not a single chair was available. We had to stand for 20 minutes until the lounge staff opened a wall to reveal an adjacent section with more places to sit. Though Indonesian food and drinks were available, we decided not to eat.
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Leg Five: Long-Haul to Amsterdam
At 20:00, we arrived at the gate and noticed a couple of hundred boxes being handed out to passengers. Apparently, there was a 30-minute delay and GA was providing snacks as an apology.
Boarding began 45 minutes later. We entered the beautiful cabin, two FAs greeting us with the typical Indonesian salute. This aircraft features eight First Class suites, 42 flat-bed Executive Class seats and 268 Economy Class ones. The Executive Class section features a staggered 1-2-1 layout— similar to Etihad (EY) and Alitalia (AZ)—with the excellent EADS Sogerma Solstys seats. The front bulkhead of the cabin displays a SkyTrax frame with the title, ‘Thanks for flying with the best crew for two consecutive years’.
Executive Class passengers were welcomed with drinks of choice. We asked for Champagne, so the FA ran back to the galley and returned with a tray with two tall glasses and the bottle, serving it in front of us—very unusual!
Our light airliner took off and, 15 minutes later, the main dinner service began: a choice of Indonesian fried rice, beef stirred noodles, and penne pasta with tomatoes. I picked the noodles and was surprised at how fresh and neatly served they were. Garlic bread, butter, and a small bowl of fresh fruit rounded up a light meal of incredible quality.
We landed in SIN for a quick refueling at 23:30 local time. As we deplaned, staff handed a SIN$30 voucher to every Business Class passenger and asked us to be back at the gate by 00:30. I took advantage of the airport’s free WiFi to send some lastminute emails, while my father shopped with the two vouchers we had been given. Soon we were back on board with a different crew and a set of fresh pillows, covers, and L’Occitane amenity kits.
New welcome drinks were distributed. I chose the signature Garuda drink called Martebe—a mixture of markisa (passion fruit) and terong belanda (tamarillo)—and wasn’t disappointed. Minutes later, our 777 took off after powerfully rolling down the runway for almost 63 seconds. Our flight plan would take us from Singapore to India, over Mumbai, crossing the ocean to the Dubai area, continuing towards Iran, Turkey, and reaching Europe through Bucharest’s airspace. Total flight time: 12 hours 54 minutes.
It was time to settle in and rest. The super-comfortable seat, along with one of the best covers I have ever tried, converted into a perfectly comfortable full-flat bed. I managed to sleep for eight full hours, waking up as we reached Turkish airspace just in time for breakfast.
The always smiling FAs offered three choices: coconut rice and marinated fried chicken; French toast; or some Corn Flakes cereal and freshly cooked eggs, made to order. I chose the Western option and asked for an omelet, which was soft and moist, surprising for an airplane-cooked dish.
Two hours later, we began descending towards the Schiphol area. It was very enjoyable to see the sunlight trying to catch us from behind as our triple-seven surfed the skies at 980kph (600mph). By the time we reached the Netherlands, the skies began lighting up; we had flown almost 13 hours in pitch dark.
Landing was another great experience, as the Netherland’s below-sea-level terrain was covered in a thick layer of fog and our Captain informed us that our 777 would be landing on its own—that is, performing an auto landing procedure. And, what a landing! Probably one of the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. So, in the words of our Airways columnist and Boeing 747 Captain, Alan Carter, “well done Mr. Boeing!”
This marked the end of a perfect flight, served by a perfect crew, which had always addressed me by my last name and had repeatedly come back to make sure we were satisfied. The SkyTrax rating was indeed honored in this long trek from Southeast Asia.
Leg Six: KLM Bliss
Transiting in Schiphol is always pleasant. After a rather long walk from our arriving gate, we arrived at the KLM Crown Lounge in the upper deck of the F pier. There, we freshened up and ate a second breakfast to start fighting our biological clocks. After spending almost two hours there, we walked to the non-Schengen D Pier and boarded our Boeing 737-700.
Fog conditions had slightly improved, though all operations in the area were delayed because of traffic separation procedures. However, we pushed back only 20 minutes behind schedule and departed on our way to LHR on a quick 42-minute flight. Inflight service consisted of a quick snack—sandwiches and potato salad—all on KLM’s signature trays and china.
Approaching London, with the skies clear and visibility unlimited, was one of the best moments of the trip. We were fortunate to hold for five minutes on top of London City Airport (LCY) at 6,000ft, taking in incredible views of one of the world’s most fantastic cities. Landing was uneventful and we reached the Heathrow Express train to downtown less than 30 minutes after deplaning.
Leg Seven: A Virgin Dreamliner to Miami
We were very excited about the last leg of this round-world trip in terms of innovation and technology. Virgin Atlantic offered a superb $1,800 Upper Class fare from LHR to MIA on its brand-new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. And, thanks to VS now being 49% owned by DL, we would accrue full mileage on this Westbound transatlantic crossing.
After we’d had a couple of meetings in London’s Piccadilly Circus area, our private VS Upper Class chauffeur arrived at our hotel. He drove us straight into LHR’s VS private check-in facilities, which also offer passengers private security screening and access to one of the world’s best airline lounges, the Virgin Clubhouse or, as Virgin calls it, ‘the Clubhouse of all Clubhouses’.
And indeed it is. VS staff dressed in red welcomed us into an ultra-modern building adorned with a gorgeous chandelier and a scale Dreamliner model. Our boarding passes had been already printed before our arrival and we were invited to go through security and straight into the Clubhouse.
As we stepped inside the lounge, we were astonished by its design and décor. A large bar and restaurant area was filled with travelers enjoying signature eggs benedict, while others relaxed at the separate entertainment areas which featured ultra-large TV screens, computers, large sofas and chaises longues. There was a large pool table and a spa offering massages, facials and even haircuts. On the upper deck were a viewing terrace and a more secluded living room. Too much to see in such little time.
After a quick complimentary massage, a tasty egg benedict, and a visit to the viewing terrace, it was time to board our Dreamliner. We reached gate 13 where Miss Moneypenny—the seventh out of nine Boeing 787-9s that VS has received thus far—awaited us for our 10-hour hop across the Atlantic. Boarding was quick and efficient.
Upon entering the stunning aircraft through its L2 door, we were greeted by two FAs standing in front of the most impressive stand-up bar and the aircraft’s awe-inspiring blue mood lighting.
We turned left and reached our 7A/8A seats, configured in a herringbone layout. Each private Upper Class suite converts into a 79.5-inch flat bed, offering top-notch IFE through the Panasonic Vera Touch 2, 11.1-inch screens. VS says its on-demand entertainment features about 60 movies, 70 hours of TV, 285 music albums, a seat chat function for sending messages to other passengers, and a flight map. Not forgetting, last but not least, that WiFi connectivity is also available for the duration of the journey for £14.99 ($22).
It was rush hour at LHR. I was able to count at least 23 aircraft departing ahead of us, which delayed us by at least 30 minutes. Our Dreamliner then elegantly became airborne and climbed to 38,000ft. Inflight service began with beverages and a snack of barbeque potato chips. Then came a succulent spinach soup and a main course of beef tenderloin on top of a sweet potato mash and veggies. Warm bread was distributed numerous times, and wine glasses refilled constantly. Service was on the spot, with very courteous FAs and stunning plate presentation. We were very pleased.
After the delicious meal had ended, I enjoyed the top-notch IFE and various movie offerings. Choosing not to test the WiFi, I disconnected from the outer world to enjoy Virgin’s superb Dreamliner experience. With six hours of flying time left, I asked one of the FAs for the turndown service. I stepped away to the lavatories and, when I came back, my flat bed was fully set up with two covers, a large pillow, and the cabin’s mood lighting set for sleeping. The Dreamliner’s capability to switch ambiance is quite stunning.
Settled into my seat, I managed to sleep for five hours. I found the flat bed to be very comfortable, though a little narrow, which could be somewhat challenging for passengers of a certain size. The cabin’s ambiance and environmental settings were second to none. The humidity levels and pressurization standards allowed for a comfortable journey, which was especially noticeable when compared with older technologies such as the 747’s and even the 777’s.
About 50 minutes before landing, we were served pre-arrival sandwiches and beverages. The routine landing in MIA marked the end of our first roundworld trip and of one of the flights I have enjoyed the most. Well done, Virgin Atlantic.
A round-world wrap-up
To cross all 24 time zones in seven days is an experience that is both unique and exciting. Going westbound allows one to quite adequately digest jetlag because one goes against the earth’s natural rotation and the body understands what’s being done to it with more ease. This trip was special thanks to the exotic mix of cultures that not only affected our perception of each airline we flew on, but also accentuated the end overall experience.
First, we witnessed an aged and tired service by both Delta’s 26-year-old 747 and its senior, ex-Northwest FAs, who are probably ready for retirement. The inflight service left much to be desired, with meals and service far below Delta’s standards.
Then we reached Japan and enjoyed a short stay in one of the world’s most technologically advanced and clean cities. Haneda was stunning. Singapore Airlines’ performance was unmatched. Two days in Singapore allowed us to grasp the marvels of a rising city-state, which sets the example every day in order and financial wealth.
Third, we flew on Air France’s 777-300(ER) to Jakarta—a wonderful thing, riding on a long-haul wide-body for just an hour—to meet Garuda Indonesia, a five-star airline stuck in a country that’s not viewed as being safe and forthcoming. This carrier provided the best inflight service I have ever had, with super-attentive, smiling, courteous FAs and on-time performance on both legs.
Lastly, we ‘lost our Virginity’ to Miss Moneypenny—our first flight with Virgin Atlantic—and were much impressed with both the Dreamliner and the service, which was modern, convenient, and spot-on punctual.
Ratings? Virgin takes first place for its amazing brand-new product and check-in facilities; Garuda follows, thanks to its great in-flight service, but poor check-in procedures; third, Singapore Airlines, with its regional Boeing 777-300 and sharp and spectacular crew, always serving with a smile and a professional attitude. Then, in fourth place, Air France and its impeccable new Business Class product, which was more tan perfect for our one-hour flight; but the crew was just average— not disappointing but not impressive. In fifth place, KLM’s modest, convenient, and reliable 45-minute service. And in last place, Delta. Its crew’s unappealing service and its poor catering product weighted heavily on our ranking scale.
The aftermath of this trip involved two full days resting at home, getting back in our time zone, and many stories to tell. Everyone should try a trip like this. Take it from me: circumnavigating the world will put a smile on your face. Even if jetlag battles against it!