I’m so excited (and I just can’t hide it)!!
I have never been on an inaugural anything much less an inaugural flight on a brand new aircraft! But I finally got my butt booked on one and I’m so excited about it! As you guys know, inaugural flights come in all different types and sizes. Some inaugural flights celebrate a new route for a carrier and other inaugural flights celebrate a new aircraft for a carrier. The ones that get me most excited are the inaugural flights with new aircraft. I’m just an airplane geek and I love new aircraft. Flying around the world is cool but flying around the world in a new aircraft that I have never been on before really gets me excited. And to be able to do it before anyone else?? That would be an amazing experience and an even greater joy knowing that I will be part of that airline and aircraft’s history.
I’m sure most of you do this but I keep track of all the different aircraft and configurations that I have flown and I make it a point to try out new aircraft from different carriers whenever I can. I got a few A380s, 787s, 747s and 777-300ERs under my belt but the jet I have yet to fly is the brand new Airbus A350 XWB. And it is real high on my list.
But I’m a day late and a buck short because I already missed the first delivery and inaugural flight of the A350 for Qatar Airways. So what am I supposed to do now? Well, get on number two, of course.
Looking at Airbus’ delivery schedule, I saw that Vietnam Airlines is slated to be the next recipient of the A350. They will be the second carrier (after Qatar Airways) to receive the A350 and will the first Asian carrier to operate it. And because I’m actually of Vietnamese descent, getting on the inaugural flight will be special for me knowing that I will be part of Vietnam’s aviation history. I immediately knew I had to make this happen and started looking at ways to get on this first flight.
But wait. What? Vietnam Airlines who??
Exactly. Vietnam Airlines is a relatively small, full-service carrier and most of you have probably never even heard of them. That’s pretty understandable considering they currently don’t have any flights to North America. But in due time, hopefully that will all change and Vietnam Airlines will be a household name among the likes of Thai Airways or dare I say, even Singapore Airlines. Lol. Just kidding. Let’s not get too carried away.
Vietnam Airlines (VN) is the national flag carrier for Vietnam (Socialist Republic of Vietnam) and has been a member of the SkyTeam alliance since 2010. From its Hanoi (HAN) and Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) hubs, Vietnam Airlines flies to 52 destinations in 17 different countries. Vietnam Airlines does not have any direct flights to Africa, the Middle East or the Americas. However, they are currently going through a major overhaul and expansion project as they plan to become the second largest, full-service carrier in Southeast Asia (after Singapore Airlines) by 2020.
Whether or not they will achieve this great feat is unknown but I can say they will become more well-known and recognizable within the next few years and hopefully, will be seen as a major player in the Southeast Asian aviation market. Remember how obscure Turkish Airlines was a few years ago? Now, look at them. They have expanded like crazy and been ranked as one of Europe’s best airlines year after year. And what’s to say Vietnam Airlines can’t do the same?
As part of their overhaul and improvement project, Vietnam Airlines plans to improve their on-board product and services, replace aging aircraft with newer, more technologically advanced ones (787-9 Dreamliners and A350 XWBs) and add new long-haul routes to their network, including flights to the United States and other parts of Europe. They plan on replacing their entire wide-body fleet by 2018 and when fully operational, will have the youngest and newest fleet of any carrier in the region.
The Vietnamese government is also building a brand new, 6 billion dollar Airport for Vietnam Airlines near Ho Chi Minh (SGN) to help handle and improve passenger and cargo flow through the region. Slated to be operational by 2020, the new airport and operational hub for Vietnam Airlines will eventually be capable of handling approximately 80 – 100 million passengers and 5 million tons of cargo per year. If their goals are reached, the new airport will overtake Thailand as the dominant gateway to the Greater-Mekong region.
The first and foremost problem that I see Vietnam struggling with at the moment is their lack of CAT-1 status from the FAA. Because of that, Vietnam Airlines is not allowed to operate any commercial services to the United States. And without that rating and the lack of access to Southern California’s 1.2 million Vietnamese-American customers, Vietnam Airlines will never fully realize their dream. If they can improve their CAT-2 status, Vietnam Airlines will commence long-haul flights to the United States, starting with Boeing 787-9 service to Los Angeles by 2016.
And having a young, wide-body fleet of all Boeing 787-9s and Airbus A350s is a smart move for them.
The Airbus A350 XWB (extra wide-body) was designed by Airbus to be the A330 and A340 successor and replacement model and direct competitor to Boeing’s 777 and 787 Dreamliner. Also made from composite materials (carbon-fiber reinforced polymer), the A350 is a long range, twin-engine, wide-body aircraft capable of carrying between 276 and 369 passengers in a typical two-class configuration. Vietnam Airlines currently offers three cabins of service: business, deluxe economy and economy. Vietnam Airlines does not offer a first class cabin nor do they have any plans to design one.
Vietnam Airlines will configure their A350s in a three class layout: business, deluxe economy and economy. Business class will be configured with the forward-facing, staggered Sogerma Solstys seats. These truly lie-flat, all direct-aisle access seats are the “factory recommended” seats by Airbus and are the same seats used by other airlines such as Emirates, Korean Air and Thai Airways.
Behind business class, there will be a small deluxe economy cabin and the rest of the plane will be comprised of 18 inch-wide, economy class seats in a 3 x 3 x 3 layout. Unfortunately, for deluxe economy passengers on the A350, their seats will be identical to the economy class seats in the back but with a few extra inches of added legroom (think United’s Economy Plus). The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners will see a true premium cabin with wider seats and better recline.
Vietnam Airlines will receive their first Airbus A350 sometime in June 2015 and will begin domestic service from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City for crew training and orientation. The A350 will then be put on the Hanoi – Paris route for the inaugural service (VN19) scheduled for September 30, 2015 at 11:55 PM.
And I’m gonna be on it!
Want to join me? Here’s how:
Vietnam Airlines is a SkyTeam partner and their flights can be redeemed using Delta SkyMiles. Because Delta recently removed their award chart, I have no idea how much awards are supposed to cost anymore. However, I jumped on Delta’s website and found a one-way, business class ticket for 80,000 miles on Vietnam Airlines’ inaugural flight. Comparing that to United’s current award chart, United charges 85,000 miles for a one way, business class, partner award from South Asia to Europe. Delta’s award seat was not cheap but was a savings of 5,000 miles. I’m no dummy and I booked it right away for $26.50 in taxes and fees.
But here’s the problem with these stupid inaugural flights. . . you have to find a way to position yourself to the origin city to begin the flight and then find a way home from the destination city.
Wanting to spend a few days in Hanoi and explore the Northern countryside, I decided to plan a few days in Hanoi before continuing onto Paris. Checking out Delta’s website again, I found space on Korean Air and Vietnam Airlines from Los Angeles to Hanoi for 40,000 miles in economy class. Business class awards were available for 70,000 miles. In comparison, United charges 80,000 for a one way, business class, partner award. Again, redeeming on Delta saved me 10,000 miles over United.
Having never flown on Korean Air before, I decided to book that flight in business class also for $33.40 in taxes and fees. It was another 30,000 miles but for 20 hours of travel from Los Angeles to Hanoi, that was an easy pill for me to swallow.
Now, to get back to Los Angeles from Paris, I could only find economy award space at the saver level. Delta wanted 42,500 miles and United wanted 30,000. I took the United option for $81.40.
So after it was all said and done, I spent a total of 180,000 miles and $313.30 (I’ll explain the math in a bit) just to fly this inaugural flight. Some would call it crazy but I think the majority of you reading this blog would probably agree that it will be worth it.
But in addition to the inaugural flight, I’ll get to experience Korean Air’s A380 business class (and that on-board bar) from Los Angeles to Seoul, Vietnam’s Airlines old business class on an Airbus A330 from Seoul to Hanoi and United’s Boeing 777-200 economy class (Yay!) from Paris to Chicago. And in case you guys were paying attention, this will be an around the world trip, as I’m heading west the entire way from/to Los Angeles.
One final note, I get a lot of questions about how I’m able to rack up so many miles to book these trips all the time. And to be honest, it sure isn’t from flying. I mean, I do a ton of mileage runs on Delta (used to) but I have always credited those miles to Alaska Airlines, as I value Alaska Airlines miles more than Delta SkyMiles. But ever since they restructured their earnings, cheap Delta fares only earn 50% when credited to Alaska Airlines now so I stopped flying Delta.
So how did I get all my Delta SkyMiles?
I got all those Delta SkyMiles by transfering them from my American Express Membership Rewards account. Now, this isn’t a credit card post and there are NO credit card links on here. But if you were wondering, that’s how I did it. Membership Rewards points transfer to Delta at a 1:1 rate and cost 60 cents per 1000 miles. So for me to transfer 150,000 Membership Rewards points to Delta, it cost me $99.00. They call it some B.S. “Airline Offset Excise Fee” but it’s only levied when transferring points to Delta or Virgin America.
As for the 30,000 United miles, I just had those left over from my MileagePlus account. But if I needed to, I could have transferred those from Chase Ultimate Rewards. UR points transfer to United at a 1:1 rate and do not incur that ridiculous Airline Offset Excise Fee.
In the end, 180,000 miles and $313.30 ($214.30 + $99.00) in taxes and fees is a lot but I’m sure the entire experience will be incredibly worth it for me. What do you guys think? Want to join me on this crazy trip?