I recently had the pleasure of travelling with a friend on Lufthansa business/first class from Wroclaw to Montreal connecting via Frankfurt and Chicago. This is Nick Guadagnolo’s first time travelling on Lufthansa’s first class, and this trip report provides substantial detail about his experience. Nick is based in the Toronto area and enjoys travelling “the long way home”.
I recently had the opportunity to fly home from Europe in Lufthansa First Class. The routing involved intra-European business class, a transatlantic Lufthansa First Class flight, and a short haul North American business class product. What’s more, it was all to be flown with a friend.
To partake in this adventure, however, I needed to abandon a direct segment to Toronto on a paid ticket in Air Canada’s Premium Rouge. Since Lufthansa First Class can be a difficult ticket to book on points, sometimes you need to make sacrifices. Oh well, life is hard.
Check-In and Security
Our travel adventure started in Poland’s Copernicus Airport Wroclaw. We approached the empty check-in line for Lufthansa First Class, Business Class, and Star Alliance Gold members to drop our bags and collect our boarding passes. At this juncture – that is, the very first step of our trip – we encountered what in my view is a serious customer service failure.
One of the benefits of flying in First Class on Lufthansa or being an HON Circle member (achieved by flying 600,000 HON Circle miles in 2 consecutive years) is that your checked bags are actually handled with priority. That is to say that the checked bags of First Class passengers come out ahead of the hoards of bags with standard Star Alliance priority tags. Lufthansa theoretically accomplishes this by labelling such bags with an HON Circle priority tag, which is essentially the standard priority tag with an additional bit that says “HON”.
It would seem, however, that our check-in agent missed that day in basic training. She insisted on using the standard orange priority tag instead of the HON Circle tags despite them being in plain view on her desk for us to see. As she explained, the tag she used would make no difference. It was only after my travel companion asserted our entitlement that the check-in agent reluctantly, if not begrudgingly, agreed to properly tag our bags. More on this later.
After check-in, we moved to security. We used the Fast Track line simply because the physical queue was shorter and closer in proximity to us; the regular security lane was empty. This was another odd experience. My travel companion was asked to step on some sort of foot pressure machine that neither of us had ever seen before, and I was instructed to remove the semi-transparent shirt I was wearing over my t-shirt. There was nothing fast about the process, but whatever works.
Wroclaw Airport Airside and Lounge
After security, we proceeded up a small set of stairs to the second level of the passenger terminal, which entails a single corridor with gates on one side and a variety of shops on the other. The space was nice enough, but did feel a bit cramped at times because it is not particularly wide.
We proceeded to the Executive Lounge, located on the far end of the terminal from where you exit security. While only a contract lounge and on the somewhat smaller side, the Executive Lounge had modern décor and a decent selection of food, including pâté, salads, finger sandwiches, and adorable airplane-shaped cookies. There was also a selection of alcohol. We weren’t too interested in these offerings in light of the First Class Lounge and in-flight service to come, but did manage to make use of the juicer, which was a nice touch. Overall, the Executive Lounge was a great way to spend an hour in advance of our flight.
Some Notes on Wroclaw Airport
Wroclaw Airport has a small, but surprisingly well-appointed passenger terminal. At just over five years old, it is used primarily by LOT, Ryanair, and Lufthansa AG, whose airlines appear to be making greater use of the airport. Notably, Lufthansa recently increased its service between Frankfurt and Wroclaw and Swiss is launching a three-times-weekly service to Zurich in October 2017.
Also of note are the premium services that the airport offers to its passengers. While a suite of premium services are available for purchase, the two most important ones for us and perhaps most travellers – fast track through security and lounge access – are standard for Star Alliance Gold members flying on LOT and Lufthansa and passengers departing in those airlines’ respective premium cabins. Germanwings passengers have somewhat different entitlements reflective of that airline’s low-cost status. Interestingly, Star Alliance Silver members are entitled to a discount on the purchase price of the premium services mentioned above, so Silver Status is actually worth something (and that something is 20 New Polish Zloty!).
Given the airport’s size, whether any of these additional services are of value will depend on each traveller’s proclivities. I wouldn’t go out of pocket for these services, but would be happy to use them if they are included in my ticket or I am otherwise entitled to.
Lufthansa Intra-Europe Business Class, Embraer 190, Wroclaw to Frankfurt
Our flight from Wroclaw to Frankfurt was, thankfully, completely uneventful. Service was prompt, efficient, and polite – perfect for the approximately 90 minutes of travel time. Business Class was laid out in a 2-2 configuration, with every other seat blocked off. As the only two passengers in business class on the flight, it felt much more spacious than it was. As we departed in the early afternoon, a sandwich, fruit, and some chocolate was served.
We touched down and taxied to a remote stand, where I was happy to see a black Porsche Cayenne parked next to the stairway. As we exited the aircraft and approached the car, an attendant appeared and greeted us, holding a sign with our names on it. Sure enough this was our courtesy transport across the apron to the terminal, and we readily hopped in for the ride. Either because of regulation or concern for our Snapchatting requirements, the attendant drove at a noticeably slow pace. In any event, we managed to get excellent views of several planes.
The downside to Lufthansa’s transfer service is that unlike say, Air France La Premiere, it is not a seamless service where you are accompanied from airplane to lounge to airplane. We asked if the attendant could accompany us to the First Class Lounge. While we were politely told that he could not, we were told that we were being dropped off a mere five minute walk from the First Class Lounge in the B section of the airport, just on the other side of passport control. That’s fair enough, and while I cannot fault him for what happened next, I can blame Lufthansa for not holding my hand a bit tighter as I traversed Frankfurt Airport. Left to my own devices, I marched my travel companion and I past the obvious passport control and down a convoluted path into the A section of the airport, where 20 minutes later we a) could not find the right First Class Lounge and b) were suddenly in danger of misconnecting. My bad.
Luckily, we managed to find a First Class Lounge. We climbed up a set of stairs and were greeted by a lounge attendant who helpfully advised us not to spend much, or any, time there as passport control would take a horrendous amount of time and we would not likely make it to our airplane by loitering in our current location. While our request for assistance to where we needed to get to was denied, we didn’t lose track of our main objective and made sure to ask for two rubber ducks, which the attendant happily obliged.
Rubber ducks in hand, we exited the First Class Lounge and made our way to the nearest passport control line, which must have had well over a hundred people in it. The situation at this point was dire. While I have run through my share of airports and was prepared to do a four minute mile to make the flight, my travel companion had the dreaded 4 Ss on his boarding pass, meaning that he was due for additional security screening and likely would not have made it on board if we were to stay in our current line.
Thinking quickly, he left to seek assistance from a nearby Lufthansa ground agent while I held our place in the queue. He returned within a minute and beckoned me to follow him, as he had been directed by the very helpful staff member that there was another, quieter, passport control area hidden away a floor above us and a bit closer to our gate. That was certainly a pro-tip if there ever was one.
Heeding that advice, less than ten minutes later we were through passport control and were headed towards security. Once there, my companion and I agreed that I would book it to the gate instead of waiting for his additional screening to finish. After what can only be described as a mad dash, I discovered that the flight was delayed and pre-boarding had not even been called.
My travel companion managed to find his way to the gate quickly after I did. Apparently his additional screening was rather pointless – he was first escorted down a hallway and then escorted back before being sent on his way, without really being screened.
So we had an adventure in Frankfurt Airport, defined by questions of what could have been had I not gotten us lost, and why Lufthansa let me screw up our short time in FRA to the extent that I did. Alas, all’s well that ends well, as we soon boarded what was certainly one of the best flights either of us had ever had.
Lufthansa First Class, Boeing 747-8, Frankfurt to Chicago
Boarding commenced with the usual call for passengers requiring special assistance and those travelling with children, followed by the complete free-for-all that is boarding First, Business and Star Alliance Gold passengers on a jumbo jet. Thankfully I had positioned us very near the front of the line, and we were on board in no time.
As we made our way to the plane, we were warmly greeted and shown to our seats on the first floor of the aircraft, 2K and 3K. The cabin only has overhead bins along the (felted!) walls, and while my backpack could have fit, I opted to stow it in one of the lockers available to each First Class passenger. A glass of 2003 Pommery Cuvée Louise champagne and macadamia nuts were served promptly.
We had a pleasant conversation with the two attendants who would be working in First Class during the flight. Although they initially advised us that the cabin would be nearly full, it was not long before we were informed that the other passengers would not be making the flight, meaning that we had the cabin to ourselves.
His and hers Jil Sander amenities kits, featuring La Prairie products and the usual bevy of in-flight necessities, were brought out for the both of us. We were then asked which size pyjamas we wanted. Unsure of the sizing between medium and large, I asked the attendant for his thoughts and he smartly recommended large for both in-flight comfort and future wear, as the pyjamas might shrink in the wash. Lufthansa First Class provides separate tops and bottoms, so individuals with mismatched sizing can likely be accommodated. While a little drab and scrub-like, the Van Laack pyjamas were rather comfortable. More champagne was poured and we settled on 1A and 1K for takeoff.
At this point, we knew that we were in for an excellent flight. It is hard to say whether the 1:1 attendant to passenger ratio, our brief discussion about airline/travel forums and blogs, or us revealing that I was new to both Lufthansa and first class that tipped the scales, but the service was above and beyond the level that I expected. My travel companion, who has flown more than a few sectors in Lufthansa First Class, can vouch that this crew really was something special. Kudos to the crew of LH 432.
The Meal Service
We began the meal service with an amuse bouche of mango and salmon, and followed that with a wine tasting. We initially tried the whites, which were delicious.
Soon after, a cart was brought out for the caviar service. As a newbie to caviar, I requested a small portion lest any go to waste, with the standard accoutrements, sans onion. After discovering that I did, in fact, like what Lufthansa was serving, my travel companion was kind enough to ask if I could finish the tin – as far as we could tell, this request was granted as a plate with no less than a heap of caviar was brought out for me. I should also note that the caviar was served with what looked to be a mother of pearl spoon, and of course, vodka was poured and enjoyed.
After the caviar was cleared, a cart was brought out containing the appetizer selection. As is apparently standard practice, I was given all three in addition to a salad, of which I had two. The appetizers, which included a prawn cocktail, couscous with feta, and veal involini, were all quite tasty.
A sorbet was brought out as a palette cleanser, and additional champagne was poured. By additional, I mean that I received another glass of champagne and some of the bottle was also poured into the sorbet.
We then continued with the wine tasting, this time trying the reds, which by then had aerated sufficiently. These, too, were delicious.
Our mains were then brought out. Unfortunately, I was too preoccupied with everything else in the cabin, so when it came to order I faked my way through and relied on the crew’s recommendation. This gamble ended up being a profitable one, as what came out was a rather oily, but nonetheless delicious combination of the asparagus and sole entrées. Not having read the menu beforehand, I was further ingratiated towards the crew after the flight when I saw what they managed to do.
For dessert, I had a fantastic cheese plate, a rhubarb dish, and a melon gazpacho. After all that, a plate of five pralines was brought out.
After a few hours of lounging in the bulkhead, which managed to get rather hot, I decided to move back to 3K to continue binging on the First Class offerings. However, the most I could keep down was the antipasto plate and a delicious cappuccino. The crew, for their part, frequently encouraged additional consumption – I almost felt like I was letting them down by not eating more.
Arriving at Chicago O’Hare, or More of Lufthansa’s Helpful Ground Staff
While a weather pattern on route threatened to delay our onward connection to Toronto Pearson, the captain of LH 432 managed to work around it and we landed in Chicago well within O’Hare’s minimum connection time. If all went according to plan, we would make our flight home, but without visiting the Polaris Lounge.
Alas, a vehicle was parked in our 747-8’s spot, so the plane sat on the apron, immobile, for what seemed like an eternity. The wait got to be so long that we misconnected. Oh well, stuff happens. And when stuff happens when you’re flying in First Class, stuff isn’t the worst. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.
The vehicle occupying our spot was eventually moved, and the jet bridge connected to the aircraft. However, it connected to door 2L, so we didn’t get to deplane first. Instead, we waited for what seemed like all of the Business Class cabin and even some economy passengers to exit the aircraft before we had an opportunity to do so.
As we made it onto the jet bridge, my travel companion and I saw two attendants, one of whom was holding a Lufthansa placard with both our names on it. We approached the Lufthansa staff, identified ourselves and asked what assistance could be given because of the delay. These people did a first class job of wasting our time, as we were curtly instructed to retrieve our bags and go to the United counter for rebooking, and then to the Lufthansa counter for hotel vouchers, which is what everyone with a missed connection was being told to do.
Instead of raising a fuss on the jet bridge, we proceeded to the arrivals hall to find someone who could help us. Luckily almost all the Business Class passengers who deplaned before us had found their way to our flight’s baggage carousel, so that wasn’t difficult to find. They were also crowding around a single attendant, so deplaning after everyone else effectively killed two birds with one stone. With no one else seemingly available to help out, we joined in on the crowding, too.
Despite the commotion, we managed to ask what assistance was available to First Class passengers. While the attendant claimed that her manifest had no record of any First Class passengers on the flight, we produced our boarding passes and that was enough to set her in motion – she basically disregarded everyone else and whisked my travel companion to her desk to assist him with a somewhat complex rebooking.
In the meanwhile, I was charged with waiting for our bags. Interestingly, my companion’s checked bag was the first one out, while mine seemed to be a hundred or so down the line. The HON Circle tag on my bag was damp and crumpled. While I am not sure where or when that happened, or why our bags were separated, the benefits of a visible and intact tag were obvious. Take that, Wroclaw agent.
Once outside of the arrivals hall, I proceeded to the United Counter to be rebooked as it looked like my travel companion was still being helped. While the priority line was cordoned off, I had no patience left after waiting for my bag and walked into the queue. When asked by a United staff member if they could help me – in a manner to suggest that they, in fact, did not want to help me – I stated that I was a First Class passenger on LH 432 and needed assistance.
Without fanfare, I was directed to the counter and served by one of the most helpful United agents I’ve ever interacted with. A passenger a few feet away from me at the counter seemed to take issue with my priority treatment. When she tried to question the United agent who was assisting me about why she wasn’t receiving the same prompt level of service, she was quickly shut down: “Ma’am, it’s because he is a First Class passenger.” While I am not a fan of flaunting my status or cabin class during irregular operations (Altitude 50K doesn’t count for much), I will say that this felt good.
The United agent directed me to the Lufthansa desk to sort out my hotel for the night while she worked on rebooking me in business to Toronto the next day. While it was a bit annoying to not have a one-stop solution to the misconnection, it was only a few feet away and my travel companion was still being assisted, so it wasn’t an issue to simply join him while everything was being sorted out.
After about 10 minutes, the United agent walked over to me with a voucher for a boarding pass and kindly instructed me to redeem it in the morning at the Air Canada check-in counter. Within a few minutes of that, my companion and I were on our way to the Westin, hotel and food vouchers in hand, where we overnighted without issue.
Chicago O’Hare, Take Two
The next morning, I took an early shuttle to Chicago O’Hare Terminal 2, checked in with Air Canada, cleared security, and started meandering through the airport to United’s somewhat new Polaris Lounge. After clearing security next to the Air Canada check in, one needs to walk over to Terminal 1 Concourse B, then take the connector tunnel to Concourse C. The Polaris Lounge is to the left of the customer service desk as you leave the tunnel.
Unlike the United Club, access to the Polaris Lounge is granted to those flying in either United Polaris First or Polaris Business Class or international First or Business Class on a Star Alliance partner, rather than one’s airline status. My puddle hop over to Toronto in Air Canada’s North American Business Class therefore qualified me to enter and enjoy the lounge, which opened at 7:15 a.m.
There isn’t much to say about this lounge visit, aside from that I am very much a fan of the Polaris concept and wish United all the best with it, recent execution issues notwithstanding. I was seated quickly and within no time had thrown back a couple of glasses of Moët et Chandon Rosé and a small, but nice, serving of eggs benedict. I was joined by my travel companion a bit later and enjoyed a boozy breakfast with him. My time in the Polaris Lounge flew by, and before long it was time to head to the gate and fly home.
I am loathe to give this trip an overall rating, as averaging each component wouldn’t really do the highs and lows justice. On the one hand, I really can’t praise the flight crew enough, and the agent who helped us out in Chicago stands out as a superstar. However, the agent in Wroclaw had nothing short of a coachable moment when dealing with us and the transfer service at Frankfurt could be more competitive.
Having said that, I look forward to my next flight in Lufthansa First.
[Authored by Nick Guadagnolo, July 2017]