Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Farewell, MAXjet. We barely knew you.

Until December 24, MAXjet Airways was one of just four airlines that operated Business Class-only flights from the U.S. to Europe. By most regards, it did a good job of balancing reasonable prices with excellent service. But on Christmas Eve, high fuel prices, dwindling corporate travel budgets, and scarce credit in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis came together to push MAXjet into bankruptcy.

Of course, many industry analysts have been saying for months that the industry is overcrowded. United and Delta have been in talks about a possible merger. German carrier Lufthansa just bought a 19% stake in JetBlue Airways. Even ultra-discount carrier Skybus--modeled on no-frills European carrier RyanAir--just posted a $16 million quarterly loss, and its business model could hardly be more different from MAXjet.

None of that helps MAXjet's passengers, some of whom had already started their trips when the bankruptcy was announced. But Continental has announced that it will honor MAXjet tickets, and the airline has also made arrangements with Eos to accommodate its passengers on its flights from London to New York. It's a Festivus miracle.

MAXjet may have been special, but it wasn't unique. There are three other carriers that provide Business Class service to Europe: Eos and Silverjet(1) to London, and L'Avion to Paris. Eos CEO Jack Williams, incidentally, says that the airline's "passenger numbers are at record highs and load factors are consistently strong." Maybe the collapse of MAXjet is nothing more than the logical outcome of too many airlines competing in a highly profitable but necessarily limited market--since even at $1500, most people going to Europe can't afford a seat on one of these premium-only carriers.

As for Skybus, the idea of pricing airline tickets to compete with Greyhound isn't new: Independence Air tried it a few years ago. But then, pricing is one thing, while actually providing service comparable to Greyhound is something else entirely. The Columbus-based carrier that lives up to its name may yet surprise us.

(1) Silverjet also flies to Dubai.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dealing with Lost Luggage

I don't know what happened.

I arrived at Stuttgart Airport two hours early. I was among the first people to check in for the Air France flight. More than 90 minutes passed between my arrival in Paris and departure on the Continental flight bound for America. My bag was marked with one of those special yellow "Priority" tags that identifies a customer with elite status, and Air France and Continental are SkyTeam partners with established interline baggage procedures.

In short, I did everything right. Nonetheless, when the conveyor belt stopped at Newark-Liberty International Airport, I was one of a dozen passengers whose bags had not made it onto our flight out of Charles de Gaulle--and every one of us had connected from an earlier destination.

I'll get them back, I'm sure. When I arrive in D.C., I'll file a claim, and they'll be tracked down. In a day, or two, or maybe three, the bags will probably be delivered. But until then, I'll be without the bulk of my dress clothes, half of my tailor-made dress shirts, my best cuff links, my dress shoes, and more than half a dozen bottles of wine that I bought as Christmas presents. The clothing is particularly problematic since tonight is my company Holiday Party (a semi-formal event).

Could I have avoided it? Yes, it theory: I could have chosen an itinerary that kept all of my flights with one carrier. When you have a connection from one airline to another, no matter how you've arranged it, the odds go up that your bags won't make the transfer. It's one of the little secrets the airlines try to keep hidden, especially among their codeshare partners.

But doing that would have meant bypassing SkyTeam. That, in turn, would have cost me the 5700 miles I'll earn for the itinerary, miles that will lock in my top-tier Platinum status with Continental and its affiliates for 2008. What's worth more: avoiding a few days' wait for luggage, or enjoying priority upgrades on domestic and international flights? When you travel more than 200,000 miles a year like I do, it's not really a question.

Baggage gets lost some times. Even between flights with the same carrier, not everything always makes the transfer. Short of staying home, there's really not much you can do about it.
Know what you packed, be prepared to estimate the fair market value in case it does need to be replaced, and try to keep calm. It will work out eventually.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Assigned Seats: The New Business Class

In the 1980s(1), airlines faced with an overwhelming number of business travelers who were forbidden to buy expensive First Class tickets but tired of flying Coach came up with a new concept: Business Class. For about half the price of a First Class fare, a Business Class seat offered longer legroom, wider seats, tastier food, and more personalized service than Coach. It was a huge success--at least for a few years, when companies went through their next round of cost-cutting.

Today, most business travelers travel in the class of service created for them only when they're able to broker an upgrade from a Coach fare. Aware of the strict "bottom line"-centric price controls increasingly in place at American companies, U.S. low-cost carriers like Southwest have seen an opportunity to jump into the fray with a new take on business travel. For an extra $10 to $30 per ticket, road warriors booking Southwest's Business Select fares earn the right to board first--a coveted privilege on an airline that has no reserved seating.

Not to be outdone by its sky-borne counterpart, commercial bus carrier Greyhound announced its own initiative. Like Business Select, Priority Boarding offers passengers advance boarding but goes a step further by allowing them to actually reserve specific seats online--and it costs just $5 to boot, handily undercutting Southwest's fee.

Now, to be fair, Southwest's Business Select provides a few other benefits. Passengers earn additional credit in the airline's Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program, and each booking comes with a coupon for a complimentary alcoholic beverage that you pointedly won't be offered on Greyhound. But then again, when you as a business traveller are faced with the reality that the amenities you'll get on your flight are only a slight step ahead of taking the bus, you'll probably need that drink.

Happy travels.

(1) Strictly speaking, the first Business Class seating was introduced by Australia's then-national carrier Qantas in 1979. However, it was during the 1980s that the offering was first offered by U.S. airlines.