For you early birds determined to wait out those peak summer prices, Air Berlin has lowered fares for late summer/fall/winter travel to Europe. You'll find some especially good deals to Poland out of Chicago and New York. Sale fares are valid from August 16 through December 13, and again from January 13 through March 29.
I don’t play video games, and probably I never will now that I’ve landed an Airbus A380 at airports all over the world in a flight simulator. Because really, what video game could ever compare with manning the joystick in a multi-million dollar sim?
I knew that my first flight “sim” experience would be exciting, which is why I flew all the way to London’s Heathrow Airport and the British Airways training center, but it wasn’t prepared for how thrilling it would be. BA will be launching its A380 service between Los Angeles and London and London and Hong Kong later this year, and I was one of the lucky few to grab a slot for a couple of hours in their new A380 sims.
For those of you who have never taken the controls of a sim, these sophisticated machines are enclosed cockpits resting on moveable mechanical legs that, as the name implies, simulate flight and are used for flight crew training purposes. The controls, video displays, seats and other features are identical to a real cockpit, and the windows are actually video screens that can be programmed to show airport terminals, taxiways, runways, topographical features, and weather conditions. The sim pods tilt, lurch and even rumble to recreate real-life take off and flight conditions, and speakers broadcast sounds (jet and wind noise, landing gear and flap movement, even the sound and movement of the tires bumping along the taxiway.).
Under the guidance of an experienced BA captain, I took my sheepskin-upholstered seat and got a tour of the controls. At my left hand was a joystick; at my right the four levers that controlled the mighty jet’s engines; at my feet, pedals used to slow down or brake the plane on the ground. Other controls worked the flaps and landing gear and switched the auto pilot off and on. I was surprised to see that this plane has no “steering wheel.” The joystick controls all directional movement on the ground.
After watching a typical take off and landing performed by my instructor, it was my turn. Where would I like to go? Tokyo? Manhattan? Hong Kong? I released the brakes, and we were “towed” out to the taxi way. It was now my job to slowly position the aircraft for take off. After giving the engines a bit of thrust I placed my left hand on the joystick, which is used to steer the plane while on the ground, and was surprised at how sensitive it was. Only minute movements are necessary, and had this been an actual take off someone on the ground would have assumed I was inebriated as I swerved back and forth. The simulator’s speakers broadcast engine noises and the simulator pod rumbled a bit as we passed over “imperfections” in the taxiway. Once at the head of the runway, I applied the brakes and then placed my right hand on the four throttle levers, pushing them forward in unison. And away we flew. As we ascended, the simulator tilted and banked. (In fact, the motion was so real that after a few such take offs one member of our party became a bit airsick.)
Outside the “windows” we could see a computer-generated view of greater London. The computer was programmed for a bright sunny day, but with a quick adjustment the “weather” could be switched to turbulent, cloudy, or rainy. And yes, simulated windshield wipers switched on when the rain started “pelting” our craft.
In minutes, we were descending into Hong Kong, my first port of call. I didn’t crash the plane, thankfully, but it was exactly a smooth landing. I was more successful upon subsequent landings at New York’s JFK and LAX.
One thing I learned was that there’s no such thing as a completely automated take off or landing, even when using the autopilot. Planes do not actually take off and land by themselves, much less position themselves for take off, or bring themselves to the gate.
Does this all sound like fun? That doesn’t begin to describe it. I was giddy, as in joyfully elated. The two hours passed in a flash and all too soon we were back on the ground, literally and figuratively, in London. I’d do it again and again, given the chance.
The British Airways Flight Training website describes the airline’s flight simulator experiences as “the thrill of a lifetime” and that’s no exaggeration. Currently, simulator flights are available in Boeing 737-400, Boeing 757-200, and Boeing 767-300 aircraft (training on the Airbus A380 and other models in the fleet may become available in the future). A one-hour “flight” costs £399 (about $465) or £1197 (about $1800) for a three-hour flight. Gift certificates are available as well. I can’t think of a better present for anyone who ever dreamed of being a pilot. Or for the video game geek on your holiday shopping list. Or for anyone, for that matter.
Fly from DC to Johannesburg for $802 round-trip, including all taxes, on KLM/Air France. We found seats available for travel departing Washington on February 2, and returning from Johannesburg on February 9, as seen below.
Other dates available for travel next winter, from January through March, with fares ranging from $802 to $807. For booking info, see our Fare Details.
Similarly low fares departing from other US citites too, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Here's the latest batch of weekly Flight Deals from Alaska Airlines. Travel dates vary by route, so check our fare details for more info. Seats are limited and may not be available on all flights or all days. Some markets may not operate daily service.
For years now, profitable foreign-based airlines have offered newer, more luxurious aircraft than their poorer U.S.-based competitors. British Airways has had sophisticated entertainment systems in all classes and lie flat seats in their premium cabins for years now. But if you flew on American, Delta, or United, it was probably in an aging 757 or 767, maybe with one of those 1980’s-era T.V. monitors hanging from the ceiling. Lie flat seats? Good luck.
But finally, the remaining legacy U.S. airlines are stepping up their game to compete with foreign-based carriers. And it can’t come too soon. We have suffered long enough with those embarrassing, elderly planes. Now that they’ve merged and capacity-cut they’re buying new planes, refurbishing older models from top to bottom, and adding amenities that used to be found only on British Airways, Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and other aviation icons.
While we wait for the 787’s to fly again, you can experience this new world of air travel on American Airlines’ new Boeing 777-300ER, and on some of United’s refurbished Boeing 757-200’s flying between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco, which have been retrofitted with fully lie-flat beds in the front cabin.
Delta, too, has reconfigured many of its trans-continental 767’s and 757’s with lie-flat business class seats and in-seat video in economy class, but again, these aren’t new planes, just new interiors.
Oddly, it’s beleaguered American Airlines, still in bankruptcy court, that is actually adding completely new planes. American is also taking delivery of new Airbus A321 models (first deliveries in November) to replace those aging 767’s on transcontinental routes, with fully lie-flat seats in business and first, part of 460 new planes the airline has on order. Economy class cabins will have in-seat touch-screen monitors.
But the really cool ride is on the 777-300ER, which currently flies or will fly soon from New York and Dallas to London, New York and Dallas to Sao Paulo, and Los Angeles to London. And lest you think that the goodies are confined to business and first class only, a ride on AA’s 777-300ER (for extended range) will dispel that quickly. All cabins have new in flight entertainment and WiFi. But not just any entertainment or WiFi. The programming is amazingly extensive and hip (I spent my entire flight flipping channels and watching new releases and Hollywood classics), and the WiFi works domestically as well as internationally.
I flew in business class from New York to London and back, a route that I normally fly on British Airways. How did AA compare to its OneWorld alliance partner?
Food: better on AA. This was a surprise. In addition to meals served at seat, the crew lays out a buffet of delightful edibles (sandwiches, canapés, puddings, fruit) in the walk-up kitchen in business class.
Cabin décor: AA. Not that BA is shabby, far from it, but the lighting, colors, fabrics and other design elements are just a bit more pleasing on AA. The cabin has touches of wood that makes it look a bit like a cabin cruiser, plus red and blue mood lighting.
Cabin service: about the same.
Business class seats: a toss up. AA wins for no climbing over your neighbor (full aisle access for all seats), but the AA seats are not quite as cushy as BA’s recently upgraded Club World seats (IMHO).
Premium class lounges: hands down, BA.
In flight entertainment: AA blows all other airlines away (I know, sounds hard to believe), even before you add the Bose noise-cancelling headphones and the international Internet. It’s not just the quantity of selections, it’s the quality. Lots of clever, unexpected choices in both audio and video.
But watch out, U.S. airlines. Don’t think for a minute that the foreign competition will be resting on its laurels. We hear that Singapore Airlines has some new cabin enhancements up its corporate sleeve, and we doubt that British Airways will stand still either when it introduces Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 service later this year.