Every so often, there’s an award given for an airline’s wine portfolio. It’s that time again, this time for Global Traveler’s competition. I generally dismiss these awards… and yet I pay attention. Hear me out.
For starters, let’s look at the rules:
To participate in the Global Traveler competition, airlines throughout the world that have long-haul international business-class service were invited to submit two white wines, two red wines and one Champagne or other sparkling wine currently on their international business-class wine lists, as well as the wine lists themselves. The same rules apply to the North American category for airlines that have first-class or, if not, business-class service.
The wines were coded by number and divided into flights, or categories, according to their type — for example, all German Riesling were served together, as were all California Cabernet Sauvignon — and poured in coded glasses. Judges knew only the type of wine, its place of origin and, when appropriate, the vintage. If judges felt a wine was flawed, a reserve bottle was served. The tasting was monitored by GT’s staff and professional assistants.
So, here’s why I think the awards are a load of hooey:
- Unrepresentative wines: Good luck drinking these on board
As indicated, airlines could submit only two reds, two whites, and one sparkler. But those wines just had to fly at some point in recent memory. They didn’t necessarily need to be in the regular rotation. I understand putting your best foot forward, but if you throw a couple big hitters into the pool, it’s an easy way to game the competition.
Bottom line: Are these wines truly a representative sample?
- Unrepresentative conditions: Wines at 36,000 feet taste different at 100 feet
The palate is practically numb at higher altitudes. (It’s among the reasons why airline food tastes so bland.) For wine tasting, that means you lose a lot of the nuance in a wine when you’re above the clouds. And what tastes good — and matches your meal — at one altitude will likely taste very different when you’re back on the ground. The tasting conditions of the competition aren’t the same as the consumer’s.
- Unrepresentative airlines: Not every airline is in the mix
While this latest competition included a selection of international carriers, some major players aren’t even in the competition. Singapore Airlines, anyone? Virgin Atlantic? Air New Zealand? Qantas? It’s as if you held the Olympics and only invited 20 athletes. Why weren’t more airlines included? Were there fees to enter? Regardless, a wider sample would be more illustrative.
- Nitpicking: Tasting methodology
Why is the year of a given wine necessarily revealed to judges in a blind tasting? Nitpicky, I know, but why introduce vintage bias into the sample? (Ok, I’ll stop…)
So on the one hand, these announcements and awards are not really helpful to the traveler. (Especially not the coach traveler, who will be lucky to get a mini-bottle of Chilean plonk.) But yet… I read these things. And I think that it matters when an airline wins or performs well in these awards.
It’s not a fair competition, no, but if an airline regularly and consistently appears in these rankings, then it indicates something about their philosophy. Qatar Airways, for example, has been at or near the top more than once. That signals that, at a minimum, they are paying attention to their image among prospective wine-drinking customers. Wine has been central to several airlines’ marketing plans over the years. (See for example this mocking takedown of Lufthansa’s wine-centric marketing on DrVino.com.)
The competition may be flawed, but winning it regularly signals a commitment to wanting to be viewed as a wine-lover’s airline. Which signals a commitment to a quality experience, even if you don’t drink wine.
Will anyone choose an airline solely for the wine list, or for winning this sort of competition? Highly unlikely. But wine is part of the quality profile of an airline.
Wanting to excel in that area is something I can support, especially in this race-to-the-bottom age of travel. I just wish the competition were more representative of reality.
Upgraded: Wine you can bring onboard a flight
It’s not the original intent of winemakers, and I’m sure the airline industry doesn’t advocate this, but 50ml wine sample bottles may soon be put into regular production. 50ml? 50ml is certainly below the TSA’s 100ml cutoff…
Downgraded: Continental exit row seats
Starting March 17, exit row seats will cost you extra money, unless you’re a Continental OnePass elite member. (United elites get it for free eventually, too, but not yet.) No big surprise, given the industry as a whole. But as David Jonas argues, this is actually a meaningful shift by Continental, whose management had been more resistant than other airlines’ leadership to charge fees for things that were previously free.
Downgraded: Luggage scanning at Denver
For a few days, thousands of checked bags were not scanned by TSA at Denver. No further comment.
Upgraded: All-you-can-drive toll payments for Bay Area rental cars
If you’re renting a car in the Bay Area from Dollar or Thrifty, you’ll be able to buy a “Pass 24″ add-on for $9.95 per day or $39.95 per week (5-7 days) that includes unlimited use of all tolls in the region. The service is run by Rent-a-Toll. I guess it’s a deal if you’re crossing a lot of bridges. Just be sure to use the FasTrak lanes.
Downgraded: Teamwork, Wine, and Cost-Savings on British Airways
Management vs. labor (or labour, if you will) on British Airways is getting nastier. Take this quote, for example: “No-one is doing anything to help save costs any more. Whereas we used to keep unfinished bottles of wine in first-class to save money, now they’re routinely poured down the sink.” Pouring good wine down the sink? That’s a sin!
Downgraded: Traveling Value, Thanks to Fees
Delta upped its checked baggage fee again. $8 more for the first bag (now $23), and $7 for the second bag (now $32). And that’s if you pay your fees online. If you wait until you show up at the airport, add another $2 ($25 total) for the first bag and another $3 ($35 total) for the second. What I don’t understand is this: The policy is effective today, January 12, for anyone who purchased tickets on or after January 5. But the policy was only announced on the 11th. How is this legal, especially in light of the DOT “crackdown” on post-purchase changes to the contract of carriage? I smell a rat.
Upgraded: Travel for People with Nut Allergies
Travelers with nut allergies may soon find a nut-free-zone on Canadian airlines. Complaints filed against Air Canada yielded the ruling, which requires the airline to create a buffer zone within 30 days of the early-January ruling. What other cordoned-off areas will we see on planes now?…
Downgraded: The One-Way Ticket Myth
Mythbusting on the details: Umar Abdulmutallab, the crotch bomber, did not travel to Detroit on Christmas Day on a one-way ticket, despite nearly every major news organization’s reports to the contrary. He might have set off a thousand other warning flags if the data mining and information sharing within the US security community were up to full speed, but a one-way ticket was not one of those flags.
Upgraded: Jokes about TSA drug use
Jimmy Fallon: “Four TSA workers at LAX were videotaped snorting drugs. It was the first time people had ever seen lines go that fast at the airport.” Hey-ohhhh…
Upgraded: The importance of champagne to Singapore Airlines
“Singapore Airlines Ltd. cut Chief Executive Officer Chew Choon Seng’s salary by 20 percent and parked planes in response to a global travel slump. It didn’t touch the S$11 million (US$8 million) it spends annually on wine and Dom Perignon champagne for first-class passengers.” Fewer planes, but constant wine budget? Say no more.
Upgraded: Clarity on what’s legal in seatback pockets
Remember the semi-secret FAA rule that banned personal items in airline seatback pockets? Last week, Henry Harteveldt tweeted that the FAA had clarified its policy. The entire policy is printed here. The short version: You can keep up to three pounds of stuff in the pocket, presumably including the SkyMall magazine, etc.
Upgraded: United Airlines
It takes a trip to the bottom to warrant an improvement, it seems. United, having peered into the abyss, has announced that they’ll be revamping their aircraft interiors (say goodbye to the “tequila sunrise” decor!) and airport lounges.
Downgraded: Aer Lingus’ Irish-ness
Ireland’s Aer Lingus has applied for an operating license in the UK, which, if granted, would enable the company to relocate its official base of operations to Britain. The reason: A labor dispute with Irish pilots and flight attendants, who are resisting a pay cut. Expect strikes if this goes through.
Upgraded: Crash landing with skill and aplomb
Bad news: A crash landing. Good news: No fatalities. Crash landings are no one’s idea of a good time, but when a Boeing 777 loses all power mid-air on final approach, and the plane crash-lands at London’s Heathrow, with no fatalities, that’s some fine aviating. Still way too early to know what happened, but hats off to the pilots for bringing a powerless hunk of metal to the ground without any lives lost. We can all be thankful for that.
Upgraded: Wine on US Airways
US Airways is rolling out new wine on board. The choice: Beringer. I guess it’s better than the private-labeled Chilean plonk they were pouring. (Thanks to Dr. Vino, unsurprisingly.)
Downgraded: Your tax dollars
You may have caught this a couple weeks ago, but there’s been an interesting discussion of the federal government’s “Essential Air Service” program. Bottom line: It’s not that essential, and it’s doubtful that communities are really benefiting much from this. See both Cranky and Evan Sparks for thoughtful critiques. Evan suggests that, if you’re going to subsidize air travel at all, you consider the Small Community Air Service Development program instead. “Huh?” you say? Go read the posts.
Upgraded: Air taxi and microjet life chances
The microjet concept, which I’ve been skeptical of (no bathrooms on board!), was on the rocks. Now, Eclipse Aviation, one of the leaders in this lagging field, got an infusion of fresh capital. We’ll have the microjet / very-light-jet (VLJ) concept to kick around for a few more years, it seems.
Upgraded: Merger odds
Sigh. It’s confirmed: Delta is in talks with United and Northwest, to discuss a possible merger. I continue to root against these mergers, as they’ll raise prices, create mayhem, and improve nothing except the CEO’s paycheck.
(Photo credit: Fair use is made here of a reduced-size crop from a larger unattributed image on bbc.co.uk.)
Regular readers know how frustrated I have been with inconsistent liquid-ban enforcement and the subsequent confusion over duty free purchases that ensues, like the finger-pointing contradiction-fest I experienced in Munich a while back. Travelers changing planes on multi-leg international flights (say, flying from New York to Frankfurt and on to Johannesburg) were especially hard-hit, with several different layers of regulation hitting them and their liquid cargo.
For the traveler with liquids in tow, two items may be of interest.
First, the European Commission adopted new rules for travelers changing planes in the EU member states, plus Switzerland, Norway, or Iceland. If the airport where you purchased your duty-free liquor adheres to “the two ICAO state letters (1 December 2006 and 30 March 2007), which set standards for tamper evident bags and security levels for supply chains to airport retailing,” then your precious cargo will not be confiscated by European airport personnel or law enforcement authorities. This effectively means that the European Commission now recognizes the security procedures of other airports as acceptable and adequate.
Of course, the problem is, how do you know that your departure airport fits the bill? And it may take some time before the new rules filter down to the people who enforce these rules on the ground. Still: A step forward for common sense.
Second, a reminder from Upgrade: Travel Better contributor Tyler Colman on the rules regarding duty-free limits on wine (or other alcohol, for that matter.) Very often, airport and airline staff unfortunately tell passengers about the “limits” on liquor, when in fact they’re referring only to the duty-free limits. As if the duty free limit is all you’re allowed to carry into the country. Not so!
If you’re flying back to the United States, you can carry in several cases of wine if you like, assuming 1) that you check it as baggage, packed nicely in a padded wine box, 2) that you have receipts indicating the purchase price of the wine, and 3) that you declare the wine to the customs agents when you arrive, and on your declaration form. You can bring plenty back from your travels, if you are willing to pay the taxes, but you only get very limited amounts duty-free. And how much are those taxes? 3%. THREE! That’s nothing! And travelers report that customs agents can’t be bothered to fill out the paperwork on such small amounts, so you might get off with a duty-free case or two.
Of course, carrying that much back means you’re dragging boxes through airports and possibly paying the airline an excess baggage charge. But don’t let anyone tell you you can’t take it with you.
Reader Steve writes in to point out that I glossed over an important point in Dr. Vino’s post: The rules on how much alcohol you can bring into the country are also set by the state where you land. A snippet from Steve’s e-mail, with a story of zealous liquor enforcement, below:
Your posting on booze coming back into the US is true, but incomplete.
While it is true that the Feds place no restriction on the amount of alcohol you can bring in some states do (or at least used to). So if your first port of entry is NY and NY State only allows two bottle (which used to be the case) then you can be forced to throw everything out beyond that.
That is exactly what happened to me, however it was almost 20 years ago and it is likely (though not certain) that the rules have changed. But since states are still firmly in control of these laws if you intend on bringing in more than the federal limit it would be prudent to call the ABC of the state you will be clearing customs in and ask what the regulations are.