Friday, June 15, 2007

Austrian Airlines - Business Class - Kurt Waldheim's Pride

Austrian Airlines - Service To Make Kurt Waldheim Proud

Business Class – New York – Vienna – Mumbai

John F. Kennedy Airport
Bldg 56 Terminal 1
Jamaica NY 11430


I started writing this post several months ago. The long overdue death of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim reminded me to finish my tribute to Austrian Airlines Business Class. Kurt Waldheim, you may remember, was the Nazi sympathizer and soldier who hid his past to become UN Secretary General in the 70s. Even after his past as a Nazi soldier was revealed in the 1980s, a willing Austria elected this spectacle of a man to be its President. Austrians apparently had little desire to be told that a Nazi should not be the leader of a modern country.

My earliest memory of business class travel was with my parents when I was a child. I remember that we were traveling to San Francisco to attend a conference a training seminar in Sausalito. At the time, my dad was the President of Das Consulting, Inc., an engineering software company that developed structural engineering software to analyze buildings, bridges and structures of all types. How my father – the man whose inability to program a VCR still baffles me – theorized, calculated, programmed and developed a complex mathematically based computer program that saves engineers hundreds of hours in their quest to develop and design bolder and safer structures remains, to this day, a mystery. My bewilderment notwithstanding, I digress.

My memory of my family’s United Airlines business class experience, though over twenty years ago, reminds me of what the promise of aviation – and that of refined air travel once was. Justin Shull, a dear friend of mine, now himself a pilot for Continental Airlines Express, told me a few years ago that bringing the romanticism of air travel back to the industry was one of his long term career goals. While any romanticism of air travel has left the world of economy or coach class travel quite some time ago, at least in the United States and much of Europe, I held hope that long haul carriers would justify the significant premium that business class travel bears over coach by providing an atmosphere that was welcoming and enticing.

Alas, my hopes of finding that atmosphere on Austrian Airlines were dashed each time I flew the airline over the past few months. I originally decided to fly Austrian because it is part of the Star Alliance, a network of airlines associated with United Airlines and Lufthansa. I had recently switched to the Star Alliance because the hundreds of thousands of Northwest/KLM miles I still have in my account are virtually useless. If you plan to travel on the miles you earn on Northwest and KLM, be prepared to book one year in advance, and even then, be prepared to pay for your flight. Better not to have miles than to not be able to use the ones you earn, I think. My dad has had much better luck redeeming miles on United (Star Alliance), so I decided to make the switch myself. Austrian’s business class to India from the US, was available for around $4,000, a decent price compared to other options at the time. My first flight on Austrian was actually operated by Lauda, an aging affiliate airline which is part of the Austrian family. The seats on my first flight, from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, were cramped and old. Proving that even lackluster airlines have some standouts, my first flight on Austrian was actually bearable because of the decent service. Alas, subsequent flights would not be so commendable.

To be honest, it is not that the equipment that Austrian runs between New York and Mumbai is awful. With the exception of the Lauda operated flight (which I was led to believe was an exception), the airline uses mostly reconfigured Boeing 767 planes for the New York – Vienna – Mumbai route. The seats come in two varieties: some are the Austrian “pod” design seats that have a partial cocoon encompassing each seat and good seat adjustment controls and decent room around each seat, while the older design is a more standard seat.

The food, too, was decent. The fare on the New York to Vienna route was European, with an excellent assortment of breads, fruits and cheeses. Being Austrian, an extensive list of coffees is also available on each flight. The flight from Vienna to Mumbai had some Indian fare, which was unspectacular but decent.

The downfall for Austrian, in my opinion, is the service. Service can best be described as arrogant. Hospitality – with the exception of the Lauda flight – was hard to find, and especially hard to find if you weren’t white. On my last flight with Austrian, from Vienna to New York, I remember recalling how bad I was treated compared to other white passengers near me. Alas, a smile and a drink offering to a European passenger in the seat in front of me because a scowl and stern statement when the flight attendant came to me. Those who were not rude were actively indifferent to my needs. I noticed the same treatment being afforded the other person of color a few rows from me.

While I can’t say that Austrian is the worst in any single category, the level of service – and in particular, the disparity in service based on one’s background or race – makes it an unworthy carrier for my travel dollar. Kurt Waldheim would have been proud.