This past week I had the pleasure of once again going on the Star Alliance Mega DO. For those of you not familiar with Mega DO’s, they are basically where a bunch of Frequent Flyers meet and fly around on Planes to visit Airports and Airlines.
Not only do you get to meet and hang out with a bunch of fellow flying enthusiasts but you also get access to a lot of the behind the scene things that you would never normally see.
If you have never been on a Mega DO, I highly suggest doing at least one. It is expensive (the domestic portion was about $1,500 after the Hotels) but as you will see, it is definitely worth it.
The Star Alliance Mega DO typically happens in the Fall / Winter and the One World Mega DO 2 is tentatively scheduled for sometime in the Spring.
From the rumors I heard from people on this DO, the plan for the One World Mega DO 2 is Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW) to Tokyo (NRT) and Hong Kong (HKG). Sound fairly interesting since there has never been an Asian DO.
The Domestic portion of the SMD4 started in San Francisco. I am dumb and miscalculated the date that it actually started on, so I flew in from LA on Monday evening, when the program actually started on Tuesday evening.
Anyways my Cousin goes to Berkley, so I went and saw her and we went to Chez Panisse, which is a restaurant I have always wanted to go eat at. It was delicious!
I ended up spending $30 and staying in a Hostel for the night. Needless to say it was quite humorous going from staying in a Suite at the Andaz West Hollywood the previous night, and then bunking with 4 strangers in a Hostel the following night.
Hyatt Reception – Hyatt Regency SFO
Tuesday evening, I met up with the rest of the SMD4 group at the Hyatt Regency SFO where Hyatt was holding their reception. It was basically an opportunity for Hyatt to push their brand and talk about new innovations and features to their Gold Passport program.
I will say that at every reception I have been to, Hyatt always blows it out of the water. In this case, they probably had 10 food stations, each which represented a different food region of California. So you had cuisine from Napa, San Francisco, LA, etc and not to mention a full open bar for 4 hours!
Hyatt showcased some innovative new ideas they are testing. For example at Hyatt Regency SFO, if you fly into SFO and take the free Airport Shuttle to the Hotel, Hyatt actually has Representatives on the shuttle who can check you in on the ride and give you a key card. Once you arrive at the Hotel, you can go straight to your room. Pretty awesome!
As for the actual hotel, I was so tired I forgot to take pictures, but it was fairly nice Hyatt.
One thing I will say is that Hyatt has always gone above and beyond when sponsoring these Mega DOs. Last year they gave everyone on the Mega DO Hyatt’s Top Tier Diamond Status for 1 year. This year they shortened it down to 4 months, but it is still amazing because again, it is their Top Tier Status!
I never really considered Hyatt as my primary Hotel Chain before the Mega DO, but after seeing their commitment to Mega DO Participants and the fact that you can transfer Ultimate Rewards Points to their Gold Passport program, I am definitely starting to lean more towards them.
Another cool thing is that when we departed Wednesday morning for our flight from SFO, United / Hyatt actually had sent us all of Boarding Passes and Luggage Tags, so we “checked in” at the Hotel and not at the Airport.
Let me just say if Airlines & Hotels really want to make a difference in their Customer Experience, this would be it. Being able to check-in to the Hotel on the Airport Shuttle, and then being able to check-in to your flight / check your bags on the Shuttle to the Airport, would make traveling so much more enjoyable!
So as I had hinted on the Blog that the Mega DO was going to be a “dream” come true, at the Chicago Seminars a little bird had told me that the Mega DO was going to be on the 787 Dreamliner. For those of you not familiar, it is United’s brand spanking new Plane and has only been in service for less than 1 month. United only has 2 of them in operation currently but 50 are on the way.
At the Hyatt Reception in San Francisco on Tuesday night, Tommy777 the MegaDO organizer, confirmed the rumors and said we were tentatively flying the Dreamliner but it wasn’t 100% until the plane landed Wednesday morning.
I’ve never flown on the Dreamliner so I was fairly excited, even though I was in Economy.
Well Wednesday morning, our 787 landed at SFO and we became the first North American group to charter the Plane!
I will save my entire review of the 787 for December, since I am going to be flying it from Chicago – Houston in Business Class as part of my India Trip. However for now I will say that as a whole, it is an awesome Plane.
Not only is the Plane brand new, but Boeing and United have actually taken Customers into account when building the Plane.
So every seat on the Plane has In-Flight Entertainment screens in the back of the headrests, as well as iPhone chargers and power outlets under the seats. Additionally, the luggage bins are HUGE and can fit carry-ons on their side instead of laying on their back!
As you can see from the photos, the cabin ceiling is also very high, so it makes it feel much more roomy.
Even though we were in Economy, United wanted to show off their in-flight cuisine, so we all got Business Class meals which were pretty good.
After lunch, drink service continued, so the back of the Plane pretty much became a flying Bar.
United Reception – IAH
Upon arrival in Houston, we knew there was going to be a BBQ but had no idea it was going to be like this.
Our 787 pulled up to the hanger, and we were allowed to de-board onto the tarmac and then basically play around with the plane which was amazing. The heat off of the tires was still radiating when I took this photo.
In my opinion, this is the real perk of the Mega DO. You get to do stuff like this that no one gets to do.
As for the Reception, I honestly felt like I was a Presidential Candidate getting off of the Plane and going to a rally in a hanger.
There was a Country Band, BBQ, Beer. What more could you ask for?
I’m not a huge meat eater, but I was so impressed by the BBQ that I went for seconds.
Anyways, the entire United Reception at IAH Airport was an amazing way to end our first flight on the 787.
Hyatt Regency Houston
If there was one universal complaint about the Mega DO, it was the location of the Hotels. Our Wednesday night United Reception at IAH ended at around 10PM and then it was an hour bus ride into Downtown Houston to stay at the Hyatt Regency Houston.
Normally this would be fine, but our flight the next morning from IAH was at 7:30AM, so we would be getting up at 4:30AM…
I think everyone on the Mega DO would have been far more happier had we just stayed at a Hyatt near the Airport and gotten a few more hours of sleep!
Regardless, again I forgot to take pictures of the Hotel Room, but the Hyatt Regency Houston was fairly nice.
Getting up at 4:30AM was not fun but I had a nice nap on the way to Chicago on the “Dream”liner.
After taking our 787 from Houston to Chicago on Thursday morning, the real fun began.
I never really plan ahead, so although I knew we were doing some tours of O’Hare and United’s Headquarters, I didn’t really know what to expect.
On the International Leg of last year’s Mega DO, we got a tour of Munich Airport which was pretty cool. We also got to enter Lufthansa’s Maintenance Hangers in Munich and play around, so the bar was set pretty high but this year United blew it out of the water.
Our entire SMD4 group got split into 3 groups. The Operations Tour went Downtown to United’s Headquarters, Catering Tour got a tour of the Catering Operations, and then the Airport Tour got a tour of the Airport.
I was part of the Airport Tour, although after we met up with everyone at night, it sounded like all 3 of the tours were amazing.
As part of the Airport Tour, 2 of us were each paired with a Gate Agent who showed us around the Gate and what they do. It is pretty amazing how crappy their computer systems are. Everything has to be done by typing in codes and commands, like MS-DOS for those of you that remember that. So when you have a simple question and the Gate Agent is typing away furiously for 10 minutes, there is a reason for that.
It seemed that United really wanted for us to get the full experience during our tour, so we were allowed to make flight announcements, drive the jet bridge, etc.
After our tour with the Gate Agent, we went down to the Tarmac with the Ground Crew and they explained what they did. We got a ride in the Push Back Cart, etc.
I will say that from talking with the Ground Crew, it seems they are really doing everything they can to get flights out on time while being safe. I give them much credit for being outside during Chicago Winters helping unload the Planes and turning them around for the next flight in such a short amount of time.
After the Ground Crew tour, we went to another Hanger where the real fun was.
So I think the major complaint from the last few Mega DOs is that United took us for granted. It is a Star Alliance Mega DO and 95% of flyers on the trip are Elites with United, so unlike Hyatt or any of the other sponsors, the Mega DO wasn’t really an opportunity to get some new business. For example, when AA did their One World DO, they knew a lot of participants were United Elites, so they offered to match them to AA Elite Status. Well finally this year, United pulled out all the stops and gave us the show we have been waiting for.
Inside the hanger, they had a 757 parked, so after lunch they had us do a Plane Pull which was fun. It didn’t take as many people as I thought it would to move the Plane.
After that, they did 2 trivia questions to determine who could go into the 757 and pull the Emergency Slide. Yours truly got one of the questions right so I got to go up. The other guy and myself were both going to pull the lever, but for the sake of FFU, I said he could do it and I would film it for you guys. The other guy in the video below is the United Maintenance Man.
To replace this Emergency Slide costs about $30,000, so it was an expensive stunt.
Also fun fact is that 24 times this year on United Planes, someone has accidentally deployed the slide. I have no idea how that happens since as you can see, it isn’t very easy to deploy. And no we didn’t get to slide down afterwards unfortunately!
After that we went outside of the Hanger, where United had brought all their Maintenance toys for us to play with. Not only were we allowed to get up close and see them, but we also could drive them and actually use them!
So I moved some luggage via the cargo mover, drove the baggage carts, drove the conveyor belt truck, etc.
My favorite toy though had to be the De-Icer truck. According to the operator, the truck below costs $1,000,000 and the de-icing fluid they use costs $9 a gallon! So if there is a heavy snow storm, it can cost up to $5,000 to de-ice a plane.
We were permitted to actually go into the cabin and spray water at the ground, which was pretty amazing, especially since we were some 50 feet in the air. It was basically like playing a video game.
Overall, the entire day was pretty spectacular and I am 100% surprised they let us do some of the stuff. In talking with the United Crews that were showing us their toys, they said they had never heard of anyone else being able to do this, including their families.
It is going to be pretty cool next time I fly, knowing that I have gotten to do all the jobs that the Ground Crew is doing.
United Corporate Headquarters
Friday was the final day of the Mega DO and we went to downtown Chicago to visit United’s Corporate Headquarters in Willis Tower (formally Sears Tower).
There were 2 sessions set up, one on Social Media / IT and another on Operations. I only saw the Operations presentation but it was pretty interesting. They took any and all questions from the audience, including why certain Airports are hubs, why the lounges are so bad, why they picked to fly this route over that route. Really fascinating stuff.
After the presentation, we headed upstairs to the 99th floor, which is actually the Willis Tower Sky Deck. There were some pretty amazing views.
After lunch, United CEO Jeff Smisek took the stage. Needless to say, there certainly is a love hate relationship with Jeff for the majority of MegaDOers. I suspect most of them love United, but hate Jeff.
Regardless he took it all in stride and had a hilarious introduction where he basically just did the introduction he does on the Airplane Video. He answered 10 or so questions that were pre-screened, and then took 3 questions from the audience. All in all, he spoke for about 30 minutes. The general premise that I got from it was that he knows United has problems and is working on fixing them. He wasn’t specific on how he plans on fixing them though…
The Domestic Leg of this year’s Mega DO was exponentially better than last year’s Domestic Leg. Outside of getting to fly the 787, the reason for this was because United actually put in some effort and gave us unprecedented access to United Staff and Airport Operations.
The one thing I really took away from this year’s Mega DO is what a monster operation it is to run an Airline.
If there is 1 storm, or 1 flight that doesn’t take off on time, it has a ripple effect across the entire company. Although I always complain when there are delays or flight cancellations, the reality is that a majority of the time it is outside of the control of the Airlines. As Jeff Smisek repeatedly pointed out during his speech, Airlines don’t make money if the Plane is on the ground!
It will be interesting to see what the Mega DO organizer’s have up their sleeves for SMD5, because they really raised the bar for this one.
If you are interested in more photos from SMD4, I have added an entire SMD4 album to Facebook.
Also if you want a more realisitc account of the SMD4, MilePoint.tv has posted video recaps for everyday. I’d highly suggest checking them out.