THE IDEA

There’s plenty of furries who travel to large conventions from various major population centers such as Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco Bay, Boston, and Atlanta.

With these common patterns, and given my own frequent travel of late, I wanted to see if one could take a large group of furries on an existing airline, effectively getting the whole flight to us. I recall doing a field trip from Sacramento to Washington, DC  back in 2010, so I knew it was feasible. I talked to a few friends about the idea. Provided the price was right,  it could work.

Thus the test was born: Book a round trip book flight between San Francisco – known for a sizeable, unified, and well organized furry community – and Chicago O’Hare, for Midwest Furfest, which was destined to be the world’s largest furry convention.

POKING THE AIRLINES

April 25, 2017
I wanted to go with Virgin America from the start seeing as its overall vibe, service, and marketing matched near perfectly with the furry audience. Given its merger and eventual digestion by Alaska Airlines later in the year, I gave the latter a call and, surprisingly enough, was told to call Virgin directly lest I wanna send everyone to Seattle first. This would be the first of many constant reminders about how mergers technically aren’t a day-done deal. That being said, I would end up having to deal said merger affecting this issue later in the year.

$385.70 was the price quote for 30 people, refundable with 1 checked bag, with a $100 deposit due a week after booking.This was pricey, and no furry would go for anything that high. I checked with American and got $430 nonrefundable no bags. Not ideal. Southwest wasn’t considered due to their usage of a significantly farther Midway, Delta isn’t direct from SFO, and Dr Dao was still dragging along in our minds regarding United.

I decided to wait until after Biggest Little FurCon in June to inquire again.

June 6, 2017

I called again. $315 round trip with $96 of such due within a week. Given that with the timing, and eventual loss of seats if I waited any longer, this will work for now.

EARLY BLUNDER

As I didn’t know how many would actually  The group booking was set to 15 people under the impression that, per my reading of the contract, the price wouldn’t change (as pricing was based on availability and the flight seating was pretty much wide open). I figured it was time to spread word. I asked a few local friends to help spread the word and then proceeded to post about this online, taking an old art piece I did a couple years back, which has since become the mascot for FurFlight.

Within several days we got upwards of 70 furries interested. However, there was a slight caveat in that something seemed off about the pricing. The furs who spread the word assumed that the per-person price was fixed at $315, and that it’ll go down if we add more people, eventually being borderline free if we fill the plane. Given that the average furry looks for a discount at anything that isn’t art or party, it’s little wonder we got a huge influx  of interested parties in the specially-made chat group. Something didn’t seem right, and a firend of mine looked at the payments and also found a mismatch.

We called Virgin individually and found out the misconception was indeed right – the price would increase drastically – up to $600 a person – the more seats we took, not the opposite. Which, in hindsight makes sense given how airline pricing works, but this misunderstanding can make it look like the Airline screwed us over. The discussion of the group turned into something out of Lord of the Flies with many people suggesting alternatives, like chartering our own plane (too expensive), to buying our own tickets at the same time (which would be impossible due to the aforementioned link).

One fur took it upon himself to do a group inquiry on Southwest (which I avoided due to being in Midway, and going on a what’s effectively a flying bus wouldn’t be anything special), and suggesting we all Uber to the Convention. He rallied up for everyone and begged me to let him take over. I had to tell him not to step in while a couple friends and I were deciding what to do, and for him to keep quiet or do his own thing separately.

Not wanting to lose control and have an ambitious idea collapse by furry committee, I refunded those who paid the deposit and cancelled the initial quote. Using the fare buckets system, I would wait over the weekend of June 10 for the inventory to reset.  Ideally, we could book for 50 passengers and get something close to original price.

We did lose a significant amount of interested folks, down to about half, and the scramble after the price mishap didn’t look good for first impressions, and I was concerned that it’d be hard to recover from this. Hopefully, the rebooking would go smoothly.

REBOOKING AND FINALIZING

June 13, 2017

50 passengers from SFO to O’hare and back departing midday 11/30 and returning midday 12/04. To our surprise we got the original price of $315.70.

Now, the main challenge is to get enough people for the $90/person deposit within one week. I announced the price to those remaining on the chat group. Some left after the cost proved too high, some opted out to use their remaining Virgin Points. Cue aggressive marketing to get the remaining 30. Advertising in all the local and convention chat groups, constant twitter posts urging with a newly created account.

 We managed to get enough to make the deposit with seats to spare. At this point, it was smooth sailing until the remainder of payment on September 29, 60 days before the flight. I knew that it would be tricky to find anyone to commit so far in advance as most would usually begin looking at flights around that 60 day mark. I was grateful that the fare was fully refundable until that deadline, allowing for those that needed to drop out to be replaced without any issue. Now that the flight was locked in, it was time to focus on the fun stuff. I wrote a code of conduct with assistance from several Convention execs, and began making mass emails to inform the group on flight details. The remainder of the summer was, for the most part, largely silent

GETTING UPGRADED

A promo encouraging furries to upgrade to First Class. Hashtag was changed to #MWFurFlight shortly after to prevent confusion with non-furry flight groups.

I heard requests from a few furries if they could upgrade to first class. The contract didn’t allow for any upgrades to take place (effectively, we were all in economy), and even then, Virgin’s own First Class upgrade policy is perplexing and restrictive. Anyone who wanted to get an upgrade had to leave the block and book a seat themselves at market price.

As this would be daunting to the average furry, I managed to work out a deal with some help (to be explained in the costs page):

Ontop of the $315 paid, you can pay an extra $150 for Main Cabin Select (which is an extra legroom section by the exit row with free food and booze), or $310 for First Class. It worked. We got half the first class cabin furrified, and Main Cabin Select/Exit row was a quarter filled. This also allowed more furries to fill the existing block since we had 9 extra seats. Plus, due to demand, I requested 6 additional seats for the group at a marginally higher cost.

SUITING UP AND RIDING ALONG

July 30, 2017 – Approaching Fursuiting and Security

There were talks about furries planning to suit at the airport and mentioning that they had no issue doing so. I was wary as were a few others. Given that this would involve large numbers, I approached SFO, O’Hare, and Virgin about this and the best plan of action for dealing with 60+ adults in animal costumes.

The email I sent went as follows:

Dear SFO/Virgin America/O’Hare,

I have arranged a reservation on November 30 and December 4 for a group of 50 costumed performers for a weekend performance event. Due to how fragile these costumes can be, many in the group may wear pieces of them as a carry-on/personal item. As shown in the attachments, these costumes can obscure the face. We’re aware that this is a potential security concern, and are aware that this may cause additional TSA screening. For the comfort, safety, and convenience of other passengers and those in our group, what are your recommendations for mitigating potential issues?

Virgin initially gave a canned response (complimenting on our suits being adorable), saying  that heads would need to be off during boarding and take off for safety reasons, but otherwise mentioned concern for the comfort of suiters on a 5 hour flight.

O’hare never responded, even after several follow-ups.

SFO gave me an interesting response: the day I sent the email I immediately got a call from SFO’s security contractor that more/less mentioned what I knew already (no fursuiting in the security screening zone, for obvious reasons). I clarified that we (representing the group) were aware of this and I was asking about after security screening.

This lead me to getting approached by a representative from SFPD who would escort our group through security and allow us to change after, being walked to the gate area. He would get in touch with the airport and airline to make sure everyone was on the same page. Apparently SFO loved the idea and was more than happy to work with us.

I didn’t know the process until the day before, and I didn’t even know whether or not this was truly greenlit until just before Thanksgiving. But, all went well, and SFO wants us back again.

Likewise, our Virgin representative informed the crew and HQ a week prior, with enthusiasm; the ground and flight crew (as Alaska) also want us back next year.

Due to the lack of response from O’hare and equal difficulties with Virgin getting in touch with them, the suiting was officially sanctioned only on the outbound flight with us officially instructed to remove heads upon arrival at O’hare. This did lead to some complaints from furs going back one way, feeling like they got the short end of the stick. There is only so much you can do to inform external parties, and I didn’t want any of us arrested/put on a no-fly list for being a fluffy animal.

October 16, 2017 – The Exclusive Shuttle

Based on advice from a con exec about the hotel shuttle pick-up center in O’hare being… less than pleasant, I went out of my way to request a charter bus that would pick us up from the baggage claim area (as opposed to the centralized pickup area, which required a lengthy walk). For an additional $25, one could skip the furry crowd and go directly to their hotels (Hyatt, Hilton Branded Hotels, and Crowne Plaza) without a walk or a wait.

In theory, this was perfect, but in practice ended up chaotic due to a series of missteps. I had requested a quote expecting all 71 passengers to opt-in. Due to miswording on my end, many thought it was an opt-in and not an “all must pay”, and only 36 paid, so I had to reduce the two 40-seat buses to one van and one 30-seater. I did take care to make sure there was enough room for action packers (big, bulky boxes that contain fursuits), and gave an estimate for about half the paying passengers would have one.

While I did prepare a list to verify those who had indeed paid, when I printed I realized I had the wrong list entirely and couldn’t verify. We ended up with 90% of the passengers having large bags, causing a few to be placed in the aisles, and we had more people onboard than actually paid. The van was relegated to a Hyatt run leaving several people behind as it went on an unplanned loop. This logistics failure lead to a violation of contract which caused the return service to be terminated, leaving all of us taking either the crowded hotel shuttle or an Uber back.

In short, the shuttle was a good idea that became a nightmare in reality.

FINAL CHECKS

November 24, 2017

Is everything ready? Do we have everyone onboard? Everything paid? Anybody unaware of last information?

It seemed the closer the flight got the more questions I got asked. As a frequent flier, I had forgotten that not many people know about maximum carry-on baggage size, weight limits, what can be brought through security or what they have to remove in security. Information wasn’t the strongest point of the trip at all for a variety of reasons. Much of this will be covered in the Herding Cats page.

I contacted SFPD one last time to confirm the main process for fursuiting, and I contacted Virgin to know what the check-in and boarding process would be, and informed the group accordingly.

The Friday before the flight, I did one last audit of the passenger list. Turns out we were missing one passenger. Thankfully there was one last spot on both flights, albeit at a substantially high cost. We managed to get him onboard regardless in the nick of time.

While everything seemed set, in the week towards the flight I was a nervous wreck. So many things could possibly go wrong. What if someone walks into the check-in in suit (which actually almost happened)? What if everyone comes in late? What if people join the mile high club and get extremely drunk in flight? What if our reservations get lost in the merger? What if someone who looks up our flight online contacts Virgin to force a cancellation? What if someone walks to the airport and opens fire on us before we got to security (which is partly why I was so hesitant on posting specific info on flight and terminal locations publicly)? This was unprecedented and was the first time I was doing anything of this scale. If it fails or something went wrong, the consequences could be drastic. This may have contributed to me suffering a massive headache during the con itself which drastically inhibited my own enjoyment of the event.

Obviously, almost everything worked as planned and as a success, but at the time, and during a lot of the planning stages, everything was unwritten.

LESSONS FOR THE FUTURE

This was a huge learning experience for me and those involved (those of which have been thanked personally). I was, pardon the pun, a virgin to organizing anything of this scale, and I am glad that things worked well for the most part. That being said, there’s a lot of takeaways to this inaugural endeavor, and given that we will be working with a (more or less) different airline with a potentially different approach to group planning, some things may end up having to be redone from scratch. Nevertheless, here are some things to work on:

  1. Get additional help. While I did receive advice from convention execs and aviation experts as well as help in the spreadsheet department, this was mostly a one-man band. I did everything from coordinating with airlines and airports, to informing and guiding furries through the airport and shuttle. I guess it was me being a control freak and wanting everything to go right as planned for the first go, but next time I will definitely need to have passenger-facing assistants and guides to give out proper information, hand holding, and chauffeur lead at the airport. This will be especially vital if I want to expand this to other regions.

    I will also need someone else in charge of finances as I don’t trust myself with numbers.
  2. Better seating arrangements. This was outside my control and likewise Virgin’s. The seats  were tricky to truly allocate due to a fleet switch in July (A320 to a shorter and slightly broken A319). This caused a scatter of seats from the entire back half to the back half and some of the front. This was further aggravated by the additional six seats being what was available (more/less filling in the gaps in the block), with some non-furries being scattered within. Again, this was outside our control, but it did cause for awkward moments when boarding – we went with our own seating order in the block (as the auto-assignment had couples separated across the plane), which wasn’t entirely accurate and caused mild confusion. On the flight back, I decided to go with the original assignments and switch in the air. This made boarding fast but the satisfaction went down (combined with a lack of functioning IFE or WiFi). Given how most furries take Southwest, the concept of assigned seats is a major elephant in the room.

    The main reason for the odd seating assignments was because Virgin essentially took the names list and the computer autofilled to the first available seat. The additional 6 seats (and the missing passenger) ontop of the 50 were placed on their own reservation code, so we had up to four confirmation codes for one round trip. Since some furs had their partners sign up significantly later, this lead to them being separated on the different reservations, making it near impossible to rejoin officially. I have no idea how Alaska does their group seating, but I want to make sure we know the seating block upon booking, ensuring that couples/friends sign up together, and any extensions will have to be made clear to the public as a separate seating section altogether.
  3. No discounted upgrades. This will be explained in the cost section. Alaska may allow free Elite upgrades to Premium and First Class, but that is to be determined.
  4. Improve, outsource, or axe the shuttle. I’ve heard mixed suggestions about the shuttle, ranging from do an opt-in, limited supply party bus to the hotels (an idea which I adore), have a wristband or separate ticket/barcode to verify paid passengers, to outright not doing it again. If I were to do the shuttle again, I am going to outsource to its own team who will take care of the passenger opt-in, payment, and on-site verification.
  5. Add a Wednesday flight. I got this requested to no end and will work with Alaska and respective airports to make this work smoothly. This is also why I would need additional help, as I would need a representative and guides for both Wednesday and Thursday.
  6. Do not offer one ways. At least officially. This was a logistical pain to deal with and added confusion to the information.

I do have some pie-in-the-sky ideas that, while very unlikely to be implemented, would be nice to have:

  1. Custom entertainment. I actually did approach Virgin to try and add furry movies and musicians to their RED seatback entertainment system. This didn’t work because of licensing and the system itself – any content added to RED won’t be isolated to one plane on one flight and will be added to every single plane in the system as well as Alaska’s streaming service. Pretty much, it wouldn’t be ideal for average Joe flying from Juneau to Philadelphia and finding the only choices are Bojack Horseman, Zootopia, and Pepper Coyote.

    Theoretically, with Alaska offering Windows-powered tablets to passengers on flights over 2 hours, it wouldn’t be far fetched for them to offer tablets with curated content exclusively to the group, and leave the tablets as a special room/exhibit at Furfest. Extra fun for us, extra PR for them. Of course, this means the loss of the nightclub vibe that Virgin had.
  2. Better, discounted Wifi – this is already being done with most of their planes getting satellite WiFi by late next year. I’m hoping that we don’t overload this, but I would like to see some kind of discount or group pass (I tried and failed with GoGo, though I’m sure this is a hardware limitation… and I guess profit too)

There is quite a few more, but it’s slipping my mind and I’ll likely add on retroactively.

 

If you made it this far, congratulations. You deserve a cookie.

For those of you who flew on this, thank you for your support, and I look forward to seeing you next year.

Cheers!

 – Mike