Barnett on Business Travel



March 14, 2002 -- Unless your blood is mostly Irish, Americans rarely think of Aer Lingus as a gateway airline to Europe--and the government-owned carrier doesn't promote its charms very creatively or much beyond Boston and New York.

Yet travelers hungry for low fares and high standards of hospitable service should think about booking an Aer Lingus flight soon and not because St. Patrick's Day is March. 17.

First, a spate of bargain-basement prices end March 31. Until then, a midweek coach seat to Shannon is $298 roundtrip from New York and Boston, $398 from Chicago and $498 from Los Angeles. Book at the Aer Lingus Website and save $10 more. Add $10 each way for Dublin, which is curious, since Ireland's most famous city is the first stop before Shannon. These same fares are good from October 16 to December 16.

Second, Aer Lingus is going through a massive shake-up. Like any government-operated enterprise, the airline became bloated and bureaucratic, then offered employees early retirement packages. About 2,000 staffers recently took the money and ran.

The big question is whether the airline will nip, tuck and trim any of its extraordinary passenger comforts and niceties. A spokeswoman insists it won't slice past the fat into the meat, but the blade is still carving.

If that happens, it would be a shame. As a result of September 11 and the general economic nosedive that preceded it, Aer Lingus pulled flights out of Newark and Baltimore/Washington, but left its ground and in-flight service levels intact. On a recent trip from Los Angeles to Shannon, I found the flight nearly flawless door-to-door even though the 265-seat Airbus 330 wide-body jet was a virtual sellout.

The ticket counter at LAX opened promptly at 2 p.m., as advertised, and five agents kept the line moving. Two agents were handling passengers flying Premier class, which is Aer Lingus' business class. (First class was eliminated eight years ago). I was efficiently processed by a welcoming agent direct from Belfast who answered questions patiently and with a smile. Security clearance and screening was organized, smooth and took nine minutes.

A Premier Class ticket admits you to a quiet VIP lounge shared by Aer Lingus and the other carriers in the Oneworld Alliance. Surprisingly, it is poorly equipped for business travelers. Only one phone has a dataport with free local dialup for Internet access. There's a fax machine, but no workstations. The bar is self-serve and free and there is a small buffet of finger sandwiches, fruit and veggies. But it is staffed with people eager to help.

(In New York, Aer Lingus' own new Premier Golden Circle club has a library, showers and an Internet café. At Dublin Airport, the Premier Lounge is for intra-Europe flights, but the membership-only Golden Circle clubroom next door, which is considerably more plush and has seven wired workstations, is open to transatlantic business-class passengers. Don't wait in the wrong lounge.)

On board, Aer Lingus is, again no surprise, two different worlds. The 236 economy seats on the A330 are configured 2x4x2 with a pitch I guesstimate to be about 32 inches tight. Laptopping is tough to impossible if the person in front of you is reclining. Food is chicken or beef and basic. This is pack-em-in class, but the price is right.

Premier on Aer Lingus could pass for first class without the flat beds. And it is a noticeably better business class than most of its rivals on the North Atlantic routes. Seating is 2x2x2 with a 52-inch pitch. And while there's nothing remarkable about that, it's the cabin staffing, food service, 10-inch individual, flip-up video monitor and the little details that soothe and smooth the 9.5-hour Los Angeles to Dublin flight. (The return trip against headwinds is nearly an 11-hour haul.)

Dining is leisurely, more of a restaurant experience than a robo-served airplane meal. The menu is six pages long with plenty of choices and a sophisticated international cuisine. Eleven wines hail from French, California and Italian vineyards and are not the cheaper vintages more and more airlines are pouring these days to shave food costs.

The meal began with pre-appetizer prawns, starter crab cakes and Italian sausages drenched in pesto. There were four entrees. The filet of beef with port wine sauce was served medium rare, a treat and a feat for mass-cooked food. It was accompanied by a novel side dish: whipped potatoes studded with nuggets of prawns. The cheese dish was skimpy, but the dessert selection was vast and creative--from peach cobbler pie to chocolate mocha cake on a base layer of gingerbread.

One oddity: On the outbound flight, I was told I couldn't delay my meal for several hours while I worked aloft, an in-flight courtesy virtually all other carriers offer in their premium classes. However, on the return flight, the hauntingly beautiful Jacqueline handled the same request with a gentle, "Not a problem, sir."

Aer Lingus Premier Class "cutlery" may be plastic owing to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, but the glassware is Waterford crystal. Favored phrases of Irish authors and poets are embroidered on the Irish linen tablecloth and adorn the Wedgwood china cups. Bowler's coffee, Ireland roasted, was robust. The only real in-flight annoyances: Aer Lingus bans CD and DVD players--portable or laptop units--even after takeoff, claiming they interfere with the navigation system. There are no at-seat power ports, either, so bring at least three fully charged laptop batteries if you plan to be productive.

Such luxuries don't come cheap. Premier Class is $4,850 roundtrip from the East Coast and $6,600 from Los Angeles, which is on a par with most other business-class fares. (American Airlines Advantage members can use frequent-flyer miles for an Aer Lingus ticket.) But there are also some nifty extras here. You get chauffeured limousine pick up and delivery--or a Hertz rental car for three days, free of charge. And since Ireland is the only country in Europe with immigration pre-clearance before takeoff, you save time at your Irish destination.

While pre-clearing immigration is a time-saver, the Aer Lingus central reservation phone number (800-474-7424) could use some additional staff. Wait times for a reservations agent are longer than normal and several times I was told to call back.

Aer Lingus' not-so-secret weapon against its competitors is its personable, all Irish cabin crews. The 11 unionized flight attendants--I talked to them all--were friendly, eager to please and had lots of nice things to say about their employer.

The Aer Lingus attendants aren't short on in-flight charm, either. When I couldn't sleep at 2 a.m. somewhere over the Atlantic, cabin manager Gabrielle and steward Niall coached me on how to pub crawl the Irish way.

"Never say 'top o' the morning' or 'begorrah' to an Irishman," advised Gabrielle. "Or if your name is Kennedy, don't think every Kennedy in Ireland is a long-lost cousin by asking, 'Do you know the Kennedys in County Cork? I think we're related.'"

Copyright © 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.