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Montreal to Palm Springs

Montreal to Palm Springs
via Cathay Pacific First Class
March 2012

It doesn't take much for me to lust for another CX flight, and with all my regular trips to the east coast, I've been trying to work in either the JFK-YVR or YVR-JFK CX nonstop without it costing an arm and a leg. Well, yesterday was the perfect storm. I was in Montreal for the day to visit my ailing dad, while Mrs. SFO had flown to Palm Springs for a few days with some girl friends. Since she was not scheduled to return until Friday afternoon, I figured that I had just been given a Hall Pass, or at least the travel version. And until my AA JFK-SFO HOLD upgrade cleared, I was plotting to see if I could get to CMB and then back to SFO by Friday PM. BTW, it is not possible.

At 10:45AM yesterday, I had just landed in YUL on my AA Eagle flight from JFK, and saw a text sent 4 hours earlier from Mrs. SFO saying that her knee had given out again and she was in the ER in PSP. This was the same knee that she injured before our Australia trip, was scheduled for surgery last week, but postponed to next week so she could play in PSP. But I digress. By the time I talked to her, she was back at the hotel but now had to keep her knee immobile and generally restrict her movement, hopefully poolside. I had planned to say in YUL overnight and return to SFO this morning. Change of plans. Now the challenge was (1) to get to PSP as soon as possible to pick her up and bring her back to SFO all by tomorrow night, (2) do it in First or as much as possible and (3) not pay an arm and a leg.

Since AC was out of the question with my AC Elite expiring last month, late afternoon out of season westbound options x-YUL are few and far between. With most Thursday flights now showing F0 to F2 at best, upgrade chances were slim to none, and last minute fares were ridiculous. Then it hit me. Cathay to YVR. EF showed F3 with BA.com showing 2 F awards seats @ 37,500 avios miles and $32. Book it Danno. Now to JFK. AA's 5:25P YUL-JFK was too early for comfort, so for 4,500 avios miles I booked the 6:35P YUL-LGA Eagle flight. From Vancouver, OMG WestJet has a 8:25A PSP nonstop! With a last minute price of only C$320. Booked. And finally from PSP-SFO, was able to book two F seats on VX's 6:50PM PSP-SFO. With a plan in place and lots of connect time at each airport, time to see how my body would react to two consecutive nights of red-eyes. But the thought of CX First was all the adrenaline this CX junkie needed.

I bid adieu to mom, dad and my sister at 4:20P and headed into the typically horrendous Montreal rush hour traffic. Despite bumper-to-bumper traffic most of the way on the 20, I pulled into the Avis return lane at 4:55P, waited for my receipt and arrived at the AA counter at 5:05P. With NEXUS, I jumped ahead of the handful of other pax in the mostly deserted security and CBP pre-clearance facility and by 5:15P was at the AA gate where boarding for the 5:25P YUL-JFK was nearly complete. For a smaller AA outstation, I have always found the YUL staff to be outstanding and today was no exception. Friendly and accommodating AAgent gladly changed my ticket from the later LGA flight, even asking if I had a seat preference.

AA 4444
5:25P-7:10P (sked)
5:35P-7:25P (actual)
March 21, 2012

Our 57 minute flight turned into nearly 90 minutes as the spectacularly warm sunny day became overcast just south of Albany and in NYC, low clouds and heavy fog apparently never burned off all day. From near 80 degrees in Montreal to mid-50's in NYC. Wow. After long trek from 31-D to the AirTrain for the one stop over to T-7, I was at the CX First Class check in counter by 8PM.

Cathay Pacific Check-in

I had no time for seat selection earlier but noticed that 2A and 2K were the only two unassigned seats, so no worries. Pleasant CX check in agent told me that I had been assigned 2D. When I asked about moving to 2A or 2K, he checked the computer and gave me the usual CX song and dance about 2AK being reserved for pax with bassinets. Sure, two of those are going to walk up in the next hour and plunk down $4K for the one way to YVR or $10K+ to HKG. Figuring perhaps status might mean something, I gave him my EXP card and asked if he could try again, promising to move if two bassinets showed up. He called someone above his pay grade and got the OK to release either seat for a OW Emerald, although he first joked that they had refused to release. Just kidding.

BA Terraces First Class Lounge and Pre-Flight Dining

OK, I've been spoiled by some really nice lounges but this one is not one of them. Especially when I have 2.5 hours to kill. This place needs a major makeover, although there is probably not much incentive for BA since all their F pax are in the (presumably much nicer) Concorde Room.

The Pre-Flight Dining room is a great idea, considering the number of late BA departures. Nice looking selection of options. The curry chicken and seafood were both very good and took the edge off my hunger pangs before my real dinner coming in a few hours.

Back from the dining room, my flight is now showing a 30 minute delay, due to either (1) additional security check on the plane or (2) the fog. Both excuses were given separately over the PA by the lounge dragons. The dragons did however a very good job of informing pax about boarding and delays. At about T-55, I'd had enough of this place and decided to head to the gate to get to 2A as soon as boarding commenced.

Special Note: I apologize for the subpar quality of the pics in this report. I had not planned on doing TR so I left the big dog Canon at home.
All the pics here are either from my old Lumix or my pre-4S iphone.

CX 889
11:00P-1:55A (sked)
12:35A- 2:55A (actual)
March 21, 2012
Booked 4/6
Seat 2A

OK, I'll just come out and say it. One of the best flights I have ever had on any airline at any time!

Boarding was typical JFK chaos with the usual array of gate lice, but once on board, it was 7 hours of seamless and flawless service, and the most blissful travel experience one could ever hope for. What set this one apart was being wonderfully pampered while still at the gate, being the only F pax on board for more than a hour as we waited for inbound connecting pax. Perhaps it was the entire bottle of Krug that I polished off before push-back. Take that macabus! Sometimes you just really click with the cabin crew. Well lead First FA Carrie and I just clicked, especially when I started taking cabin pics and she found out that I was a CX "regular" and had just been to Hong Kong and flown CX from SFO. Others with more SQ/CX flight experience have remarked about the differences between the SQ and CX FAs, with SQ being more robotic and CX more personable. I finally get it.

The first of many glasses of Krug.

And the second, or third, or fourth...

And the usual tour of the best First cabin in the skies...

Although boarding commenced at 11:00P, the doors were not closed until almost 12:30A. Apparently, the last 30 minutes of the delay was due to CX holding the flight for two F pax inbound from MCO.
Finally discovered the live camera which was pretty cool.

Wheels up into the heavy blanket of low lying fog...

Shortly after take-off, and I do mean shortly, Stephanie and Carrie were in action. First and most important order of business, close the curtain to keep out those J pax. 

While the JFK-YVR segment features a somewhat abbreviated Supper menu without the caviar, it was more than adequate and again puts the NA airlines to shame. While we were waiting at the gate, Carrie and I had reviewed tonight's menu and the wine list (yes, the '04 Lynch-Bages is preferable to the '07) and I had already made my choices.

New York - Vancouver

Smoked Salmon carpaccio with avocado creme fraiche timbale and capers
Truffle potato soup
Caesar salad with marinated prawns

Main Courses
Grilled USDA prime beef tenderloin with creme de cassis onion marmalade, mashed potatoes, baby carrots, asparagus and artichoke
Rigatoni with gorgonzola cheese sauce and mixed vegetables

Chinese Favourites
Double boiled duck with winter melon soup
Cold plate - vegetarian duck
Stir-fried lobster with scallion and ginger, steamed jasmine rice, kailan with black mushroom and carrot flower

Cheese and Dessert
Cambozola, St. Paulin, Goat Cheese, Yellow Cheddar
Raspberry yoghurt cake with raspberry coulis

Tea and Coffee

Wontons in noodle soup
Ice cream

The wine list was exactly the same as our SFO-HKG list from last month.

Krug Grande Cuvee Champagne

2007 Estancia Reserve Monterey Chardonnay
2008 Vincent Girardin Puligny-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes

2010 Sauvion Deliction Chinon
2009 Finca Origen Gran Reserva Malbec
2004 Chateau Lynch Bages Grand Cru Classe Pauillac

Ramos Pinto Quinta da Ervamoira 10 Year Tawny

With meticulous item by item placement of each table item, my 1AM dinner began. The Smoked Salmon carpaccio with avocado creme fraiche timbale and capers was sensational.

Carrie already knew my wine sequence preferences and had already presented and poured my first glass of the wonderful 2008 Girardin Puligny-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes. I recall having 3 glasses of this, but quite frankly and as you will read later, it could have been more.

As I usually do on CX, I went for the Chinese menu tonight starting with the nice Double Boiled duck with winter melon soup, even better with chili sauce.

The Cold plate - vegetarian duck stumped me. Vegetarian duck? No idea whether it was really duck as it seemed more like mushrooms (which I love in pastry). Didn't really matter actually as I slathered more chili sauce on it and devoured it, and another glass of the Puligny.

OMG, the stir fry lobster with scallion and ginger was fabulous. Another glass of the Puligny, and for fun, a glass of the 2010 Dilection, which I had enjoyed from SFO-HKG.

Kailan with black mushroom and carrot flower were lovely. And another glass of Puligny.

One of the wonderful things about First on the CX 777 is that you can't see or generally even hear anyone else. I know that the fool in 1A passed on supper and went to sleep right after take-off. Not sure about 2D and 2K, but at this point, I'm thinking that Carrie and Stephanie are wondering just how much this guy in 2A can drink and eat.

I believe this qualifies as a double cheese portion, accompanied by a glass of Ramos Pinto port.

Mr. SFO, do you still have room for dessert? Silly girl. Bring it on, and perhaps another glass of Puligny??? We're getting to the best part of Money Ball, for the 6th time in the last month.

Pralines? Why not?

No idea what time it was but I'm guessing around 2:15AM-2:30AM EST, I head to the lav and tell Carrie that it's bedtime. I changed into my PJ tops and returned a couple minutes later to a beautifully turned down bed. Apparently I passed out soon after lying down as the next thing I remember is the captain announcing that we were 25 minutes to landing in YVR. Wow, I guess alcohol is indeed a substitute for Ambien. Or at least two bottles worth are. macabus, how you could have consumed 8 bottles of Dom in 27 hours is beyond me. My hero indeed!

A quick trip to the lav to freshen up (more like try to wake up), brush teeth and change, and I was back with Carrie offering me juice, coffee, tea, etc.. Sadly, we touched down at 3AM just a little over 5 hours after take-off. Thanks to the wonderful Carrie and Stephanie and CX for another memorable CX experience. 

From Cathay First to homeless at YVR

With thank yous all around to this wonderful CX crew, I sadly deplane a little after 3AM, or some 5 hours until my connecting flight. While most international airports have a walled secured area to funnel pax to C&I, YVR is interesting in that you are high above the departure area in glass walled walkways. Down below, is the departure gate for the continuation of CX889 with a posted 3:50A departure. OMG, who would want to depart any airport at 4AM or even the scheduled 3AM? Easy C&I tonight even without NEXUS. But I love using NEXUS since I get to bypass C&I agents and just hand in my NEXUS receipt as I exit.

As some of you know, there are SFO777 hotels and there are Mrs. SFO777 hotels. On business, MRs or flying solo, I'm basically a cheapskate on the ground. I had booked a $56 room at the Travelodge on hotwire, figuring we'd arrive around 2AM. But now just after 3AM and with the departure level check-in area looking reasonably safe and the no-armrest chairs plentiful, I'm thinking why not? No need to hassle with getting a shuttle/taxi there and back a couple of hours later. I set my iphone alarm for 5AM, and secured my backpack around my arm and dozed off and on for a couple of hours.

Just after 5AM, I noticed activity at the WS counter with a 1/2 dozen WS staffers gathering around one of their counters. I gathered up everything and headed over to try the kiosk for my BP. Tried the WS kiosk at YUL yesterday and at YVR a couple hours ago and got a "we can't find your reservation" message, but maybe once the counter is open, the kiosks might also be open. Nope, still no record of my locator. I wasn't too concerned since WS.com had my record and I was able to select a seat but couldn't complete OLCI. The WS staffers were actually having a training meeting and one of the managers asked if i wouldn't mind waiting a couple of minutes. No problem, I've got plenty of time. Sure enough, a couple minutes later, I was welcomed up to the counter by one of the service managers and some of friendliest domestic airline employees I'd encountered in a long time. In the course of our conversation over the next couple of minutes, I mentioned that this was my first WS flight and I had connected from JFK, with the latter drawing incredulous looks and comments. More pleasant chit-chat including some AC bashing, all quite fun. The CS manager gave me his business card and a $10 WS voucher as an apology for waiting while they were finishing their meeting. Wow. Color (or colour) me impressed. If these are typical WS employees, AC is in a world of trouble.

Next, I headed first to security and then CBP pre-clearance. I used the NEXUS lane but it didn't seem to be any shorter than the regular lane. But in pre-clearance, never was NEXUS such a wise $100 investment as today. There must have been at least 300 people snaking their way thru the regular C&I line. The NEXUS/Global Entry lane featured two Global Entry kiosks and two NEXUS kiosks, neither of which we working. OK, never experienced all NEXUS machines down. I looked at the straight shot unoccupied lane bypassing all 300 waiting pax, and figure effit, I'm not waiting behind 300 people, I've got NEXUS. Not my problem that the machines are down. Turned out to be a good call as I walked right up the agent who had just stamped the prior pax. He looked at my NEXUS card but no NEXUS receipt and asked "Nexus machines down?" as if it was the norm. Seemed like it was an early day all around as he insisted that my 2 hours in Canada connecting from JFK to PSP did not qualify as being "in transit". Not sure why not, but I let it pass and wished him a pleasant day. That's the one good thing about YYZ and pre-clearance: NEXUS members don't have to answer stupid questions. Like entering Canada, you just bypass the booths and hand in your receipt at the exit.

At about 5:30 I was in the trans-border concourse, which seemed more like a disjointed aging shopping centre... lots of little shops with a few airline gates off to the side. Take out the airplanes and it was a little reminiscent of like a (slightly) upscale Moroccan souk. Just before the "food court" of pretty weak offerings was the old AS Boardroom reborn as a member of the Plaza Premium Lounge group, to which Amex Platinum cardholders had free access. Pleasant but dated lounge that looks exactly the same as 3 years ago when we visited it as the old Boardroom. The only noticeable difference was the addition of hot breakfast, institutional scrambled eggs and sausages. Interesting is that even though it is no longer the AS Boardroom, it still sort of functions as one, no doubt with some deal between AS and Plaza Premium.

WS 1722
8:25A-11:12A (sked)
8:35A-11:30A (actual)
March 22, 2012
Seat 7C

WestJet is Canada's answer to Southwest. But IMO, it is much better.
To start with, WS has assigned seating. Assigned seating means no cattle call, no seat saving and blocking.

At around T-40, the same CSM I had met earlier at CI walked up to gate podium. I went up to see if anyone had filled the B seat. He verified no and told me not to worry, he'd block the seat for me and have a great flight.

After a couple of wheel chair boards, boarding started with families with children, those needing a little extra time and exit row pax. After that, we were all welcome to board. New (looking) 738 with leather seats and a nice (at least for Y) 34" pitch throughout. FAs were WN-like pleasant and it was clear that they both share the same joke writers. Each seat has a personal TV with a moving map, a few pay per view movies and a variety of live Canadian TV channels (even on flights over the US), although there were way many commercials interrupting everything.

Complimentary soft drinks and light snack items (Bit & Bites and Cookies) and a very nice BOB menu, which features standard items and specialty items by departing city (like Montreal smoked meat x-YUL).

All in all a pleasant flight, although if the middle seat were occupied, I probably wouldn't feel the same. I hate Y especially nearly 3 hours but this one was reasonably painless and the time flew by as I worked on this TR most of the flight. If I were AC, I'd be worried about WS.

What a zoo PSP is in late morning as multiple flights land and disgorge sun seekers, apparently mostly non-FFers. They were 30 deep in the regular snake at the AVIS counter, but not a soul in the Preferred Lane.

A little after noon, I was at the Miramonte to rescue my princess, and to shower and freshen up. After a great lunch and a few hours poolside, we packed up and headed to PSP, which now resembled a ghost town compared to this morning. Only one other pax in security.

VX 30
6:50P-8:10P (sked and actual)
March 22, 2012
Seats 1DF

The purple mood lighting of the VX cabin is very attractive and the VX First Class seat is one of the nicest narrow body seats in the domestic skies with 55" pitch. The cabin is completely separate from the main cabin. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of the VX First cabin as with most A319/A320s is that the galley in a part of the First Class cabin, with fully exposed catering carts and containers. Here are some photos from an earlier flight.

Full PDB. After take-off, our FA took drink orders and offered a snack plate. Nice idea, but how about warm nuts in a ramekin (like AA), pretzels or even the DL-esque snack basket.

I'm trying to like VX but I just don't know. Yeah, the seats are nice but the remote control for the IFE in right in the middle of the arm rest, making it really uncomfortable. Their FF program is a joke. No premium phone line. Phone reps are terrible. And then there is the VX clientele. Every damn VX flight I've been on in the past year featured at least two obnoxious 30-something guys in First (apparently their first time) thinking it's a bar with the need to shout and laugh annoyingly at the other's stupid jokes. This was a full Bose/ipod/volume up flight.