Tuesday, December 16, 2008

United passengers can use Continental's Presidents Club... in Las Vegas, anyway.

Yesterday, United Airlines announced that members of it Red Carpet Club traveling out of McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas would be granted access to Continental's Presidents Club when flying the same day with either airline.

In addition to Club members, United International First and International Business passengers--but not United passengers flying in Domestic First or Business Class--also get access to the Presidents Club.

This announcement foreshadows the anticipated transition of Continental from SkyTeam to the Star Alliance in early 2009. Presumably, once that move takes effect, there will be full reciprocity between the Presidents and Red Carpet Clubs.

Pushing for High-Speed Rail

In the wake of yesterday's announcement that President-elect Barack Obama and his Vice President-elect Joe Biden will travel to Washington, D.C. by train for the inauguration, America is taking a new look at what is literally an old problem: our rail infrastructure is obsolete.

Setting aside for the moment the technological limitations of the Acela design, which at a top speed of 150 mph is far slower than high-speed models already in use in Europe and Japan that reach speeds in excess of 220 mph, the real hurdle is the track. Designed for use by steam engines in the late 1800s and early twentieth century, even Amtrak's flagship Northeast Corridor holdings from Washington to Boston allow the Acela to reach its top speed for less than 20 miles. The tracks are too curvy, the tunnels too unstable, the infrastructure too weak. It's not a matter of repair; the tracks need to be replaced.

Truth be told, we've known that for more than a decade. For much of that time, however, any talk of rail development was overshadowed by the political ambitions of an administration determined to erradicate rather than enhance the National Passenger Rail Corporation (Amtrak). Americans also preferred their cars, with their cheap gasoline, and the political implications of calling for an infrastructure investment that were as questionable as the tracks such calls intended to replace.

Fast-forward to December 2008. Bush is leaving; Obama is coming in, bringing with him a Vice President who spent much of his decades-long Senate career commuting daily by rail from his home in Delaware. The economy is in ruins, and infrastructure investment is the order of the day. For Democrats, calls of a New Deal-style program offer hope for Keynesian stimulus. Their support for rail investment is practically a given.

Republicans, meanwhile, see an opportunity to reintegrate private-sector backing at a time when the very concept of a private sector is in question. This unexpected turn of events is why we now see Representative John L. Mica (R-Fla) not only supporting but championing a project whose projected cost of $18 to $40 billion--one that "is asking private companies and state entities to help the federal government design, construct, finance, operate and maintain high-speed rail service."

And we should all cheer!

The fact is, rail service is not and should not be a partisan issue. As with healthcare, there are many ways to provide rail service effectively. Europe's train systems are Government-sponsored; BritRail and Japan Railways are privately operated with Government backing. Either model is fine. What is not fine is a model that doesn't work.

It's time that we stop arguing over whether we need rail--we do--and get down to the business of making it work. That's not ideology. It's smart sense.

Monday, December 15, 2008

United "blocking" award seats on partner airlines?

Have you heard? Star Alliance members have offered cross-carrier award ticketing for more than a year, but United Airlines has been blocking access to partner airlines' seats. As the Washington Times put it:
The filters United has been using for a couple of years deny members of its Mileage Plus program access to thousands of seats, which are available to participants in the loyalty schemes of all other 23 alliance partners, including Air Canada, US Airways and Germany's Lufthansa.

The reason is cost: United pays money whenever one of its Mileage Plus members redeems miles for an award seat on one of the airline's partner carriers. But United didn't tell its customers that it was using these filters. And now that they are known, the Times says that they're still in place.

United continues to offer (in my opinion) good service overall for the value. Given this latest revelation, though, and with U.S. Airways charging $2 for soft drinks in coach, Star Alliance loyalists may want to consider shifting their business to Continental when that airline comes onboard in 2009.

Then again, I'm always advocating flying with Continental. Missteps like this one from United (an airline with which I still hold 1K status) just help me explain my enthusiasm.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Now THAT is "going green."

Continental Airlines has confirmed that it will conduct the first test of a biofuel-powered commercial aircraft on January 7, 2009.

The Boeing 737-800 is a two-engine aircraft. For the test, "the fuel used in one of the two engines will be a blend of 50 percent traditional jet fuel and 50 percent biofuel from algae and jatropha, while the other will have just jet fuel."

Gasoline-electric hybrids are already available on the roads, and a new generation of plug-in hybrids is right around the corner. Could Continental's test flight mark the start of a new path for air travel as well--one that will catapult us away from fossil fuels?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Delta objects to Continental's joining Star Alliance

Delta Air Lines has issued an objection to Continental's plans to leave SkyTeam (of which Delta is also part) in favor of joining the Star Alliance.

In a moment of self-interest that could be classified as absurdity, Delta--which became the world's largest carrier after its namesake got final approval last month to merge with Northwest Airlines--asserted that the change of affiliation would "diminish competition" and "allow Continental and its partners to dominate routes to key markets in China and Brazil."

Along the way, Delta overlooked its own "dominance" of many routes across the United States, as well as its antitrust immunity in pricing and scheduling cooperatively with Air France/KLM.

What should we make of this? A Continental statement issued in response put it well: "It looks like another attempt by the world's largest airline to prevent others from competing with it."

Seriously, how can this argument make sense? Delta doesn't object to the immunity that Continental enjoys as a SkyTeam airline; suddenly it becomes a problem when that immunity shifts to a new alliance?


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hotel Room Coffee

We've all experienced the disappointment of hotel room coffee. I don't mean instant coffee, the sort that they have in hotel rooms in most countries other than America. I'm talking about coffee that you brew yourself in the in-room percolator.

I'm not a coffee aficionado. I don't grind my own coffee beans freshly before brewing, don't own a French press, and don't see why anyone pays $5 for a latte. So when I say that hotel room coffee often doesn't measure up to my standards, understand that my standards are quite reasonable.

Yet hotel room coffee often does fail to meet those standards. Why?

Now, thanks to WikiHow, I've learned the answer--and what can be done to make hotel coffee taste better!

Here's the "scoop:" coffee will taste lousy if it is either brewed too long (six minutes is the ideal) or if it isn't brewed hot enough. How can you cope? Try these ideas:
  • Run water through the pot first to heat it, then pour the hot water back in to brew the coffee.
  • Add a few grains of salt to the ground coffee before brewing to decrease bitterness.
  • Let the coffee brew for just six minutes, then use what's done and toss the rest.
  • Use a ceramic or hard plastic mug, not styrofoam; ideally, bring your own.

For those staying in low-budget hotels, WikiHow also offers this less-than-encouraging tip: "If the coffee pot has a dark, reddish-orange stain, it might've been used to brew ethamphetamine, and the resulting coffee could be hazardous to your health. If there's a chemical smell in the room, that's another red flag."

Yikes. Let's hope that doesn't apply to your particular trip. But happy brewing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Best Travel Gifts of 2008

As we approach Thanksgiving and the semi-official kickoff of the Christmas shopping season, two things are pretty clear:
  1. Retailers are desperate for sales, as evidenced by them trying to start Christmas shopping season right after Halloween; and

  2. Consumers are basically tired of buying everything put in front of them, so retailers are just going to have to accept their losses this year.
There are some things worth having this year, though, especially if you are (or are shopping for) someone who travels a lot. Since I'm an avid traveler myself, here are my picks for the best travel gifts of 2008 (along with handy links to find them on Amazon):
  • 1000 Places to See Before You Die - A Traveler's Life List, as well as its counterpart covering destinations across the U.S.A. and Canada, both by Patricia Schultz ($13.57 for the original, $13.57 for the sequel);
  • An ultra-slim umbrella, because it rains all over the world but lugging a big umbrella around with you is only popular in a few places ($20.00);
  • Kensington's 33117 all-in-one international plug adapter, so you can plug things into the wall in any country you visit ($22.36);
  • The Kensington K33197 120W compact travel laptop power adapter, which comes with connectors for just about every laptop on the market and supports car, wall, and airplane Empower-style power outlets so you can charge your laptop anywhere ($125.99);
  • ViaTek's Mini Dynamo LED crank flashlight, which generates a light bright enough to read or walk by after just a few seconds of winding and lasts indefinitely ($12.99); and

  • A SteriPEN Adventurer ultraviolet water purifier, which uses standard AA batteries to kill 99.9% of all microbes, bacteria, and even viruses in water, so you can purify and drink water anywhere in the world ($79.95).
Happy shopping, and happy travels!

Maglev: The future of rail?

Conde Nast Portfolio has a great interactive feature on magnetic levitation (maglev) train technology. China's Shanghai line delivers speeds of 270 miles per hour, nearly twice that of France's TGV and more than three times the speed of Amtrak's Acela.

On such a train, the trip from Washington, D.C. to Boston, which currently takes about eight hours, would be done in around two and a half.

Is this the way of the future for rail in America?

Zagat names the best airlines: Continental, Southwest, Virgin America

The results of the Zagat 2008 Airline Survey are in!

Among large domestic carriers, Continental is the hands-down winner. The Houston-based airline took first place for domestic premium seating among large airlines and best value for the money on international flights.

What really made Continental stand out, though, is that it placed in the top five for every category where it was eligible to compete (i.e. everything except mid-sized or international airlines).

For low-cost carriers, Southwest Airlines continued to impress in terms of value, Web site design, and its frequent flyer program. Southwest also took first place for on-time arrivals--Continental came in second--and led the way on luggage, an easy win since Southwest has not adopted the now-widespread industry practice of charging fees for checked baggage.

Making a splash its first time around, newcomer Virgin America won accolades for best premium seating for a mid-sized airline as well as coming in second place to Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines for best economy class.

Going international and want to fly with a foreign airline? You can't go wrong with Singapore Airlines, which took first place among international carriers for premium and economy seating and came in second to Virgin Atlantic for best in-flight entertainment.

As for airlines to avoid, everyone has his or her own preference, but consider this: alone among large domestic airlines, U.S. Airways did not place in the top five in any category measured. There are a lot of reasons for that, but charging $2 for soda probably didn't do much to help.

Say hello to St. Louis' new Gateway Transportation Center

It's taken about twenty years, but St. Louis has finally celebrated the opening of its Gateway Transportation Center. In addition to Amtrak service (on the Texas Eagle route), the Center--located at 430 S. 15th St.--offers connecting MetroLink rail and Metro Bus service and as well as Greyhound bus service.

Among the amenities of the $26 million Center, passengers will find free wireless Internet access and a food court with deli sandwiches. There's also a Metropolitan Lounge for Amtrak First Class (sleeper car) passengers(1).

There is no overnight parking at the Center as of yet, but St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green claims that, "It's being worked on as we speak."

Hopefully, St. Louis residents will see that oversight corrected sometime before 2028. In the meantime, hats off to this project finally getting done.
(1) On account of the Continental-Amtrak partnership, Continental Presidents Club members (but not American Express Platinum cardholders or members of partner airline clubs) have complimentary access to Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge and ClubAcela facilities systemwide in any class of travel.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Delta buying Alaska Airlines? Unlikely.

The news that "the new Delta" will announce a new marketing alliance with Alaska Airlines on Monday has generated some buzz and speculation that Alaska will eventually be acquired by Delta. That's unlikely, for several reasons.

First and foremost, regulators would not allow such an acquisition. Delta is already now the world's largest airline, and it's not going to get any bigger.

Secondly, it wouldn't make sense for Delta. It will be years before the company's namesake and Northwest-branded components actually integrate their operations, systems, and programs to the point that another acquisition would be anything but a disaster.

Finally, it wouldn't make sense for Alaska Airlines. America's smallest legacy carrier is first and foremost focused on Seattle-based trips to and from the state whose name it bears, and it has consistently chosen bilateral partnerships with other airlines to ensure that it maintains this dominance. (That is why, even though Alaska is not a member of any of the three major air alliances, it has mileage-earning reciprocity with four of its six legacy counterparts; only United and U.S. Airways do not offer reciprocal earning with Alaska.)

So, don't make too much of the new marketing alliance. Marketing is marketing, operations are operations, and there's a pretty broad gulf between the two.

Friday, November 14, 2008

SkyTeam now offering cross-airline mileage upgrades

When you come down to it, miles are only good for two things: free tickets and upgrades. Free tickets have their place. When you're a frequent flyer, though, you may value a larger seat and a tasty meal higher than yet another trip on a plane. Some would cite being confirmed for a Business Class upgrade when you're anticipating a full-day flight to Australia as one of the great joys of travel.

That's why the recent announcement by SkyTeam that it will now offer mileage upgrades across member airlines is such a big deal. Up until now, a Continental OnePass member (for example) could get premier check-in and baggage privileges checking in with Air France, but he or she couldn't use OnePass miles to upgrade on that Air France flight. Now, that same passenger can request an upgrade. Here's how it works:
  1. Purchase a regular full-fare Coach ticket on any of the ten primary SkyTeam airlines.
  2. Three days before traveling, call to verify that Business Class seats are available and provide mileage account information.
  3. The host airline will verify and deduct mileage and confirm the upgrade.
As exciting as this is, Star Alliance has had upgrade awards across member airlines for more than a year now. SkyTeam is playing catch-up rather than breaking new ground.

Limiting eligibility to full-fare (Class Y) economy tickets is also a bit of a gimmick, since these generally cost at least as much as the deepest-discounted Business Class fares. Many business travelers--and especially government travelers--are forbidden to book premium-class tickets even when they're apparently cheaper, and those are the people whom this will benefit. It's rare for leisure travelers to book full-fare tickets, especially internationally.

Even so, this latest change opens up new possibilities for SkyTeam passengers, and in that regard, it's a rare expansion of benefits at a time that most things are contracting. For that reason alone, it's worth a nod of appreciation.

What's in store for Amtrak?

During most of his time in the U.S. Senate, Vice President-elect Joe Biden commuted daily by train between his Delaware home and the national capital. He's been talking for much of that time about the need for expanded investment in the national passenger rail system.

While we're still waiting to see what priorities will manifest in the upcoming Obama administration, many people see one of the winners in any scenario to be Amtrak. Former Amtrak board member Michael Dukakis is quoted in a Bloomberg article as saying that the Obama administration may be the most "train-friendly administration in history."

What might this mean for Amtrak? Here are two things that you can expect:
  • Better maintenance. The Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 includes Amtrak's first five-year reauthorization in nearly a decade, allowing the company to better plan for and schedule both preventative and restorative maintenance. Everything from the tracks to the stations as well as the train cars themselves are in need of maintenance too-long "deferred." That will probably come to an end next year.
  • New services. In addition to maintenance, the Railroad Safety Improvement Act also calls for studying the development of true high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor--trains that could reach speeds comparable to the 300+mph of France's AGV and tracks that can handle those speeds. (Amtrak's Acela, by comparison, barely manages 85mph for most of its D.C.-Boston route because the tracks are unsuited to even its top speed of 150mph.)

In the last election, California voters also gave their approval to state funding for high-speed rail on the West Coast. Details haven't been worked out yet, and to what extend the California High-Speed Rail Project would operate as part of Amtrak California (the state's partnership with Amtrak) remains unclear. The intent, however, is to "procure extensively-proven high-speed train technology from Europe or Asia" to link Los Angeles to San Francisco at an initial cost of $45 billion. That's a bold initiative, and one that is long overdue.

Alaska and Delta form a "marketing alliance"

According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines will announce a new "marketing alliance" on Monday.

Practically, what does this mean? Relatively little; Alaska already has codeshare agreements with both Delta and Northwest. As the most unique of America's seven legacy airlines, Alaska is also unlikely to be affected competitively by the new and larger post-merger Delta.

If you're planning to fly Alaska Airlines, though, do take advantage of its broad reciprocal agreements. Continental, American, Delta, and Northwest frequent flyers can all earn miles in their home programs on Alaska Airlines flights; check your particular program for details.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

AirTran joins the crowd with a new checked-bag fee

AirTran today became the latest airline to impose a $15 fee on passengers for checking one piece of luggage. The new fee accompanies fees already in place for a second bag ($25) and any additional bags ($50 each). Business-class and A+ Elite passengers are exempt from all such fees.

AirTran's announcement brings the Atlanta-based low-cost carrier into line with a trend that has swept across the industry in recent months as airlines look for ways to bolster revenue in tough economic times. In particular, AirTran's decision comes shortly after rival Delta--also Atlanta-based and poised to become the world's largest airline when it merges with Northwest in early 2009--announced that it would add the first-bag fee.

Sure, it's disappointing, because we know that--like the elimination of meals in 2004--these fees are here to stay. But as Continental CEO Larry Kellner observed in a recent interview, it makes sense for airlines to oppose fees only when their actions get them additional passengers. As long as passengers tolerate fees and continue to fly with airlines that impose them, other airlines will follow suit and add fees.

In other words, we bring this on ourselves.

NeON: Next-gen bus to Buffalo, Syracuse, and Toronto

For several months now, next-generation bus carriers BoltBus and MegaBus have been making a big splash across the Northeast.

With roomy seats, more legroom, and power outlets, these reliable and professionally operated services have sprinted past the Chinatown buses of days past. Throw in their free Wi-Fi and ticket prices reliably at or below $25 for DC-NYC round-trips, and you get a serious challenger even to Amtrak's Acela service.

Now, Greyhound is taking things to the next level. With the introduction of its new NeON, Greyhound(1)--which also operates BoltBus--now offers daily next-gen service between Manhattan, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Toronto.

Sure, the NYC-Toronto trip takes all day. It's a long way. But let's do a comparison!
  • Amtrak's Maple Leaf service (also daily, Penn Station to Toronto) leaves at 7:15 a.m. and arrives in Toronto at 7:47 p.m., and a one-way trip costs around $96.
  • The NeON leaves Penn Station (34th and 8th) at 8:45 a.m. and arrives in Toronto at 6:50 p.m.--two hours earlier than the Maple Leaf--and a one-way trip costs as little as $45 with a three-day advance purchase.

In days past, one would've gladly paid more than double the fare to avoid traveling by bus. factor in the comfy seats, power outlets, onboard video, and Wi-Fi--which again, Amtrak doesn't offer--and you've got a serious alternative.

I'm excited. For millions of Americans with the desire but not the cash to travel, suddenly, Canada is within reach. (Learn more at www.neonbus.com.)

(1) Strictly speaking, NeON is a joint operation between Greyhound Lines, Inc., Adirondack Transit Lines, Inc., and Passengerbus Corp., Inc.

Friday, November 7, 2008

United is... no wait, is NOT... raising its baggage fee.

United had big plans. The legacy airline was going to double its fee for a second checked bag to a whopping $50. But don't worry: the plan is being shelved.

What happened? Well, I'm sure that someone brought a projection to United's management showing how much revenue could be raised from boosting the fee. Then, a few weeks later, someone else decided to adjust that revenue to account for the people who would just fly with another airline.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

United reinstates minimum mileage, adds upgrade fees

As Continental prepares to leave SkyTeam in favor of joining the Star Alliance, United Airlines--a Star Alliance founding member--is making changes of its own to bring its policies into closer alignment with its anticipated ally.

One of these changes, reinstating the 500-mile mileage minimum for elite members of its frequent flyer program, makes United the latest carrier to reverse a trend that it actually brought to the industry a few months back. (Ironically, it was Continental that first broke this trend, when a majority of its own OnePass elite members expressed anger at the policy.)

United has also decided to change its international upgrades, adopting one of the few policies that Continental has that arguably makes passengers worse rather than better off. When the changes take effect for 2009, every fare code will be eligible for overseas upgrades, and mileage requirements will drop. The catch? Passengers requesting mileage upgrades will have to pay cash upgrade fees in addition to miles, with the amount based on the fare class. For the most deeply discounted fare classes, fees may be as high as $500 one-way.

There's no word yet whether the new upgrade model will affect the workings of United Systemwide upgrades, which are unique to that airline.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Delta Looms Large

On Wednesday, antitrust regulators signed off on the proposed merger between Delta and Northwest Airlines. Although integration will proceed slowly as ticketing systems, employees, and corporate cultures differ, "the new Delta" will ultimately become the world's largest airline.

As part of the consolidation, Delta is also expected to:
  • Remain with SkyTeam;
  • Charge extra for exit row seating as well as some "preferred" window and aisle seats, adopting a practice already in place at Northwest; and
  • Neither scale back any of its airport hubs nor lay off any of its front-line employees--promises made to the Department of Transportation to get approval for the merger.

As I explained some time ago, the acquisition of Northwest will also return Continental Airlines to full autonomy. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Continental CEO Larry Kellner mapped out a few strategies that Continental sees as keeping it successful in the new market. Among them, Continental plans to:

  • Continue serving complimentary meals at mealtime, the only U.S. carrier to do so; and
  • Join United and U.S. Airways as a member of the Star Alliance in early 2009, pending regulator approval.

In the interview, Kellner was also asked why Continental--with its strong customer-first focus--decided to impose a $15 checked baggage fee after resisting the move for so long. Kellner's response? People weren't willing to change airlines over the fee, so Continental wasn't seeing any reward for not charging it.

Passengers, take note: If you aren't willing to show preference to an airline that doesn't charge a fee, airlines won't resist fee increases.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

American copies Continental, Continental copies Delta...

It's a game of catch-up these days for the airlines. Like the other legacy carriers, American used to offer a minimum of 500 miles in its frequent flyer program. As of yesterday, that minimum is history for rank-and-file passengers. Like Continental, though, American has opted to keep the 500-mile minimum for members of its AAdvantage program who hold elite status.

Continental, meanwhile, has adopted new carry-on baggage size limits, scaling back from 51" to 45". The change brings Continental into alignment with the limits already in place with its Skyteam domestic partners, Delta and Northwest. It also comes at a time when virtually all airlines have implemented charges for checked baggage, which has led to a surge in popularity for carry-ons.

Speaking of baggage, Continental also announced a new policy to waive first-bag fees for passengers who carry its branded Chase credit or debit cards; these passengers join OnePass elite members and passengers flying First Class in being exempt from the first-bag fees.)

By the way, those who pay attention will notice that oil is now well below $70 per barrel, down from more than $140 just a few months ago. You might see a bit of a price drop, but don't count on it: all of the airlines have slashed capacity, and at least in the short term, fewer flights means that prices can stay relatively high for the seats that remain. There's also the matter of fuel hedging, which helps when prices are rising but hurts when they start to fall.

But it's not all supply and demand. Those fuel surcharges that airlines imposed when prices were high will also be staying around, and the reason is simply "because they can." As I cautioned some weeks ago, once a cut is made or a new fee is introduced, it's bound to stay beyond its time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

USA Rail Pass? Um, yeah... we know.

To give you an idea of how little attention Amtrak gets from the mainstream media, the Associated Press today reported that the USA Rail Pass is now available to U.S. residents, whereas it was previously open only to travelers coming from outside of America.

Thanks for the tip, AP... but we covered that in this blog back in July. Sheesh!

Monday, October 20, 2008

A new day for Amtrak

Last Thursday, President Bush signed the Rail Safety Improvement Act into law. The Amtrak reauthorization bill provides a framework for funding that, while requiring annual votes to actually provide, gives the National Passenger Rail Corporation the means to engage in mid-term capital planning that has been impossible since the last such bill expired six years ago.

It also marks the end of a campaign by the Bush administration to dismantle and privatize the passenger rail infrastructure across the United States, a plan that would almost certainly seen service vanish entirely from most parts of the country as happened when a similar plan was enacted in Mexico nearly two decades ago.

This is, then, a new day for Amtrak, which is seeing record ridership amidst surging fuel prices and a population of people increasingly more interested in how they spend their time than how much time they save. To twenty-first century Americans, the rush from place to place is slowly giving way to an ability to be "always on" by way of 3G cellular connectivity to voice and data networks. In such a world, traveling by rail--where one can both enjoy the scenery and use a laptop immediately after sitting down, without having to wait for the captain to say that it's okay or turning it off in preparation for landing--is more appealing than a decade ago.

Will this new romance with rail continue? It depends. Amtrak is underfunded and understaffed, but the people it does have are also often undertrained and less enthusiastic than their counterparts in other developed nations. The easiest and most striking difference is versus VIA Rail Canada, Amtrak's equivalent to the north, and Amtrak President Alex Kummant would do well to look to them for advice on how to build a world-class rail service. As for the first-class service offered on Acela, it's not bad, but it could be better. For that, Mr. Kummant might consult with Amtrak's partner in the skies, Continental Airlines, whose BusinessFirst service regularly wins awards from experts and passengers alike.

Amtrak's time is long overdue. Now, it has what it needs to demonstrate that those of us who kept the faith through the dark times were right, and that it can be what we need it to be. Let's hope that we aren't disappointed.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Virgin America focuses on luxury choices

Times are tough for the airlines. Oil has plummetted from nearly $150 per barrel to less than $100, and usually, that would be good news. But with the economy unraveling in what many consider the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, airlines are now facing a challenge from the other side of the equation: fewer people flying, for business or pleasure.

A drop in passenger bookings isn't good news under any circumstances, but the stakes are particularly high for relative-newcomer Virgin America. Launched in (year), Virgin America styles itself as the ultra-hip airline with a younger staff, next-generation amenities, and innovative service (like letting you order a drink when you want one, rather than waiting for the drink cart to pass by). It's been an effective combination that has earned Virgin America plenty of kudos--but with a smaller route map and fewer established customers, how will this feisty company weather the current economic downturn?

The answer, at least in part, seems to be luxury. Hoping to lure passengers not only from rival low-cost carriers like Southwest but also from legacy carriers like United and Delta, Virgin recently introduced Main Cabin Select. Similar at first glance to United's Economy Plus seating, Main Cabin Select gives you the same style of seat as regular Coach but with more legroom and deeper seat pitch.

Whereas that's all that you get with United, though, Virgin America has taken it several steps further, offering an impressive list of amenities:
  • Priority check-in at the First Class counter;
  • No change/cancel fee associated with Main Cabin Select;
  • Pillows, blankets, headsets and water at every seat;
  • Complimentary food, snacks, and beverages; and
  • Unlimited use of the RED™ entertainment system, including premium movies and other features.

In effect, Main Cabin Select has become a mini-First Class. On the one hand, that's a little surprising, since Virgin America already has First Class seating. But in today's extremely challenging market, Virgin America needs every trick it can muster to compete with larger, more established carriers. If Main Cabin Select does what it's meant to do, then it's a great idea.

Oh, and there's also good news for those of you who are frequent flyers with Virgin America already: at long last, Virgin America has gotten its mileage redemption system in place so that you can use your hard-earned Elevate miles for free travel.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

AirTran adds Cancun for 2009

AirTran Airways announced yesterday that it will add service to Cancun in early 2009. There are already plenty of ways to get to Mexico's premier party spot, but the news is noteworthy because this route will be the Atlanta-based airline's first route to a destination outside of the United States.

One daily round-trip will be offered out of AirTran's Atlanta hub beginning February 25, 2009, with a second daily round-trip added to and from Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) on March 7.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Sun still shines for Sun Country

With all of the bankruptcy announcements in the news these days, one could hardly be faulted for not noticing that discount airline Sun Country has joined the list of companies seeking protection from creditors.

More than half a dozen airlines have gone bankrupt this year. Historic Aloha, trendy all-business class carriers MAXjet, Eos, and SilverJet, and several regional carriers have vanished from the scene forever. Even Denver-based Frontier, which is still operating, is under bankruptcy reorganization.

But in each of those cases, the reason for the failure can be traced to high fuel prices caused by peak oil prices of nearly $150 per barrel. Sun Country is different; its decision to seek court protection stems from its founder--who was until just a few days ago also its chairman and CEO--being arrested on Federal charges ranging from mail and wire fraud to money laundering and obstructing justice.

A tiny airline that competes with much-larger Northwest Airlines and the many direct flights that carrier offers from its Minneapolis hub, Sun Country has nonetheless attracted a following for its combination of low prices and good service, as well as a selection of Minnesota-made foods that can be purchased onboard.

Sun Country's new CEO, Stan Gadek, says that he does not expect the bankruptcy filing to impact operations and that all flight schedules remain in place.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Helicopter ride, anyone?

You're probably already aware of Continental's partnership with U.S. Helicopter, which provides flights from Continental's Terminal C at Newark-Liberty International Airport to the Midtown and Wall Street heliports in Manhattan. At 8 minutes, it's a time saver that trumps the bus, the NJ Transit line, or even that $70+ cab ride. But if you're like me, you've always opted to go with one of those other options because, well, aren't helicopter rides expensive?

Yes, they are--or at least, they were until now! Continental is offering one heck of a special: buy Coach-class tickets for travel for any day through October 31, and you can add that one-way helicopter segment for just $45 (instead of the usual fare starting at $179). Oh, and if you happen to be flying full-fare Coach (Class Y) or First Class? Those lucky folks can get their one-way helicopter trip for free.

Now, a caveat: to qualify for the $45 rate, you need to be traveling on a Class H Coach fare, which may be (but isn't always) more expensive than the cheapest available fare. Also, there's no mention in the special of a discount offer to the airport from one of the Manhattan heliports. But $45 really is a good deal, so if you've been looking to take a helicopter ride, this is your chance.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Cruises come (back) to Baltimore

Years ago, cruise lines virtually abandoned Baltimore. It was more efficient, they argued, to route passengers to a few major terminals than to maintain operations at half a dozen smaller ports, the same strategy used by the legacy airlines during the days of regulation in building hub-and-spoke flight routes.

Today, the hub-centric airlines find themselves competing with a wave of low-cost carriers whose advantage comes in part from a greater focus on direct flights. Similarly, cruise lines are rethinking their own "hub mentality" in light of a trend that they call "homeporting:" passengers, it seems, are more likely to take a cruise when they can drive to the port rather than flying.

"Next year, more than 60 cruises are scheduled to depart Baltimore - about double the offerings this year." One particularly impressive itinerary? Celebrity's repositioning cruise from San Diego to Baltimore via the Panama Canal, with stops in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Columbia. Prices start as low as $1499 for the 17-day voyage.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Continental goes back to the 500-mile minimum

On September 5, we saw Continental make a number of changes to its OnePass program, one of which was eliminating the 500-mile minimum that it had offered for any flight regardless of length. This change brought Continental into alignment with its soon-to-be domestic partner in Star Alliance, United Airlines.

As I said at the time, I was disappointed to see that change. Yes, the airlines are struggling with high oil prices; that's why I didn't grumble more about baggage fees. I also understand that there is a serious risk of "mileage inflation" when airlines start handing out miles for everything without any regard for whether passengers can redeem those miles given available capacity. But we're talking about a difference of maybe 150 miles per flight, which is hardly going to devalue the whole mileage pool. It felt cheap.

Well, a lot of other people agreed--including, it seems, Continental's Managing Director of Customer Experience. Scott O'Leary announced on FlyerTalk.com that, "Elite members will continue to earn the 500-mile minimum for both base miles and Elite qualification miles (EQMs) for flights operated by Continental and our partners," amending the planned change to one that applies to non-Elite passengers only.

No news yet as to whether United or perennial cheapskate U.S. Airways will take similar action.

Friday, September 12, 2008

AirTran extends complimentary Elite upgrades to all fare codes

AirTran has its ups and downs. Back in August, I marveled at how that airline--which seemed as disorganized as anything could possibly be--had been given the top spot among all U.S. airlines (as opposed to top among the legacy carriers, a distinction held by Continental). I also discussed how AirTran's Business Class offered roomy and comfortable seats but failed to provide the level of service that usually accompanies the term "business class."

Based on the six flights that I took with AirTran that month, including three segments on which I sat in Business Class and three flown in Coach, I was prepared to write off AirTran as a personal travel preference. Yesterday, though, the company surprised me with a new policy: effective immediately, AirTran A+ Elite members will get complimentary upgrades at the gate when space is available regardless of the fare code that they've booked. (Until now, complimentary upgrades were limited to full- and mid-fare Coach tickets, corresponding to AirTran's Y, B, and M classes.)

Now, Continental offers complimentary upgrades to OnePass elite members, and my Platinum status makes it pretty rare for me to end up in Coach except by choice (as is the case whenever I use miles to scoop up a Coach reward ticket for my fiancee). Most of the legacy carriers also offer the other benefits that AirTran gives to its A+ Elites, including dedicated Elite reservation and check-in lines, and even AirTran's reciprocal status agreement with Frontier (which gives A+ Elites the same privileges as EarlyReturns Summit members on Frontier flights) is comparable to the alliance status that one would find among oneworld, Star Alliance, or SkyTeam airlines.

In other words, AirTran isn't doing anything new for the industry. But AirTran is breaking new ground by doing these things as a low-cost carrier; rivals like JetBlue, SouthWest, and Virgin America have nothing comparable to these amenities.

At a time when the legacy carriers are cutting back--particularly when even my favorite airline Continental has decided to add a checked baggage fee for the first piece of luggage--it is a refreshing surprise to AirTran actually expanding its amenities. I was prepared to discount the discount carrier on future trips, but given this latest development, I'll keep AirTran in mind whenever my first choice isn't feasible.

Other business travelers may want to do the same.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Oil drops, fuel charge stays the same

For some time, I have been pointing out the various reductions in service, increased fees, and other changes that U.S. airlines have been making. $25 for checking a second bag led the way. $15 for checking a first bag followed. U.S. Airways charges $2 for soda on domestic flights. A large number of airlines have added fees to redeem frequent flyer miles for tickets. And so on.

In each case, I have cautioned you as passengers that you should not take these changes lightly. Yes, fuel prices are up since 2006; yes, the airlines have been struggling with those prices. Emergency measures make sense.

But I cautioned you precisely because fee increases and cuts in service are not emergencies when made by the airlines. If people tolerate changes without complaint--and specifically, without making their disapproval known by changing airlines--then when things get better, the money saved during those tough times will not go to provide restored services; it will go to pad profits.

Maybe you didn't believe me. Even though you saw domestic meal service suspended as an "emergency" measure in 2004 and never resumed even during the 2006 boom when everyone who had $10 was starting an airline, maybe you figured this was different.

It wasn't. It isn't.

CNN reports today that, "Most carriers have imposed several increases in their fuel surcharges -- they range up to $170 per round trip in the United States and more for international flights -- on top of fare hikes." And, "although oil prices have dropped over the past few weeks, U.S. airlines have no immediate plans to reduce fuel surcharges that they tack on to the price of a ticket."

Why not? Michelle Aguayo-Shannon, a spokeswoman for Northwest Airlines Corp, says "We're happy fuel prices have come down, but they're still not in a manageable area."

I have always opposed fuel surcharges. They are deceptive by nature; how can an airline claim that the fare--ostensibly the cost that it charges to take me from Point A to Point B--has a particular cost, but then I need to pay an additional fee to cover fuel? Isn't fuel a requirement of the basic travel arrangement? If fuel is expensive, raise the fare.

But they don't because, by keeping their extra fuel costs under the heading of "surcharge," the airlines that use this deceptive practice can continue to advertise low "fares" that are meaningless.

So don't expect to see this fuel surcharge go away. As fuel prices drop, airlines will shuffle more and more of their fuel cost into these hidden fees. They'll keep the baggage fees, too. Yesterday's amenities become tomorrow's bonuses. Once a service disappears, it's gone.

Monday, September 8, 2008

UAL does not declare bankruptcy

Rumors can be dangerous.

A rumor circulated among investors this morning that UAL Corporation, parent of United Airlines, was going to file for bankruptcy. Shares (NASDAQ: UAUA) that had been trading around $12 all morning suddenly plunged to $8, through $7, past $3, and all the way down to 1 cent before trading was halted.

Trouble is, it seems that UAL Corporation did not and was not about to declare bankruptcy. The confusion originated from a four-year old article mistakenly posted as if it were current news.


Friday, September 5, 2008

Continental makes disappointing changes

Readers of my blog will be familiar with my high opinion of Continental Airlines, which I consider to be the best of the U.S. legacy carriers and probably the best domestic airline overall. Even a good airline can disappoint, though, and Continental disappointed me today by announcing some changes.

To be clear, Continental is lagging rather than leading on these changes. Each was adopted by one or more other airlines weeks ago. Here they are:
  1. You'll now pay a $15 fee for your first checked bag. OnePass elite members, anyone flying in First or BusinessFirst class, and military personnel are exempt, but plenty of people will get hit with this fee. The second-bag fee of $25 remains unchanged.

  2. You'll no longer get a minimum of 500 OnePass miles on a flight. Up until today, Continental awarded at least 500 miles in its OnePass frequent flyer program for every flight segment taken. The amount now drops to the actual mileage flown.

    This is a change that United Airlines made more than a month ago, and it probably doesn't affect many people. But that begs the question: why make it? A passenger who flew 380 miles every day would pocket an extra few thousand miles a month. This change may not affect you, but it feels cheap. I don't like it.

  3. Bonus miles for elites are being reduced. It used to be that OnePass elite bonus mileage rates were 125%, 100%, and 50% for Platinum, Gold, and Silver respectively. Continental is changing things so that Silver members get a 25% bonus and setting Platinum bonus mileage to match Gold at 100%.

    I loosely grasp the logic of the first change, i.e. combatting inflation. Dropping every rate might have made sense too. But matching Gold and Platinum earning rates? Platinum elite members give Continental more of their money each year; don't they deserve more bonus miles as a benefit?
Making these changes now might illustrate how bad things are for the airline industry that even service-conscious Continental felt the need to change with the times. But as every other change in the industry has demonstrated, these things only get worse and not better; benefits cut and fees imposed today in bad times will not benefits restored or fees retracted in good times.

Continental is truly unique in striving to maintain a level of service that was once universal on airplanes: meals, blankets, pillows, etc. I hope that we are not witnessing the decline of the last great U.S. domestic airline.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

United reverses course on meals

After introducing the new policy last week that, United Airlines reversed course today: the airline will not charge Coach passengers for meals on its transatlantic flights. Graham Atkinson, United's Chief Customer Officer, put it this way:
“The response from you and many of our corporate and Mileage Plus elite customers, even before we launched the test, told us what we would have undoubtedly learned had we proceeded - you value our hot meal service in economy class for international flights.”
Up to a point, I applaud the change of course by United. Mostly, though, I remain astonished that United ever thought of this idea. As I observed last Monday, no U.S. carrier charges for meals on its international flights, and with good reason: these are the most profitable (and sometimes the only profitable) routes that they fly. It caught me off guard that United--the only airline that has a "Chief Customer Officer," whose job is ostensibly to put customer issues first--would choose this issue to be a trendsetter.

The United Chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association apparently agrees. On the day of the original announcement, the Chapter asserted that "the real reason for the meal charges was to enable the airline to further reduce flight attendant staffing, which would make onboard service noticeably worse."

Captain Steve Wallach, the Chapter's chairman, took advantage of the reversal to reiterate his low opinion of United CEO Glenn Tilton, calling the airline, "a misguided ship under Mr. Tilton's direction."

Monday, September 1, 2008

GrandLuxe, no more.

GrandLuxe, the luxury passenger rail service formerly known as American Orient Express and renowned for its restored vintage rail cars and first class service, reportedly ceased operations effective August 29th. The collapse of America's largest private rail service follows more than half a dozen airline bankruptcies so far this year.

Ironically, the news also comes alongside news of continued record ridership on Amtrak routes around the country. But in truth, GrandLuxe--which relaunched its service in conjunction with a new Amtrak partnership in 2006--is nothing like the National Passenger Rail Corporation. Amtrak is a de facto public sector entity financed by the U.S. governmvent; GrandLuxe operated solely on private money. And while Amtrak fares have ticked up a bit oer recent months as fuel prices have risen and its capacity has filled, even its most expensive accommodations were in a different league from GrandLuxe, which sought to provide a level of luxury that Americans had not seen on trains for more than half a century.

When I read the news about GrandLuxe, I lamented its loss both because it offered interesting and rare itineraries such as travel through Mexico's Copper Canyon and because I had never gotten to travel on any of its routes. But there, too, there is a message: I am an avid traveler who makes space in my budget for trips worldwide, yet a GrandLuxe trip nonetheless would have remained out of my price range for at least another decade.

In company's announcement, it was unclear whether GrandLuxe passengers who had already paid for upcoming trips would receive refunds.

As for luxury rail options left to us in the United States, enthusiasts may be interested in looking at Train Tours Unlimited (covered in my last post) and the new GoldStar service on the impressive Alaska Railroad. You'll be pleased to know that even if their services can't quite compare to GrandLuxe, they do both outdo Amtrak, and their prices will be easier on your wallets.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Trains Unlimited brings back the classic Dome Car!

The California Zephyr debuted in 1949, providing overnight First Class rail service between Emeryvilla, CA and Chicago, IL. The route was absorbed into Amtrak service beginning in 1970, but the stainless steel dome cars that made the trip so memorable (right) are no longer included in Amtrak's fleet(1), having been replaced on SuperLiner trains with Sightseer Lounge cars (below).

A few days ago, though, the L.A. Times brought to the public eye an opportunity that most people (including me) didn't realize existed: several of the Silver-series dome cars from the original Zephyr route have been refurbished by rail enthusiasts and are now used as private rail cars. Not only that, but the company that uses these cars--Trains Unlimited Tours, Inc., which has been in business for 24 years--offers a dozen or more train tours each year, providing their own onboard First Class service (Coach and sleeper accommodations available) completely seperate from Amtrak's staff and passengers.

Looking to do something special for Valentine's Day 2009? It happens to be the Saturday of Presidents Day weekend; put the three days to use on the Valentine Snowflake Express from Emeryville, CA to Reno, NV. First Class accommodations in a Pullman sleeper car, with meals and beverages included, runs $649 per person.

(1) Amtrak still maintains a single dome car, but it is not used on the Zephyr route.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Flying United to Europe? Bring cash for food.

United Airlines has decided to stop serving complimentary meals to Coach passengers flying between America and Europe. Having seen U.S. Airways successfully start charging for sodas and snacks, perhaps I should not be surprised.

But I am! It's unbelievable.

Despite rampant cost-cutting, overseas flights have remained sacrosanct from this sort of service erosion for more than a decade, and with good reason: overseas routes are more profitable, and the sorts of people who fly internationally are typically among the best customers airlines have, the ones who will use their preferred carrier for domestic trips as well.

Now United wants customers to pay for food. Haven't they noticed that foreign airlines already provide infinitely better service and accommodations than America's legacy carriers?

Since Government employees and contractors are obligated to travel on U.S. carriers whenever possible, maybe United is counting on their customers to stay loyal by law. If so, they're off-base: a United-numbered codeshare flight with Lufthansa meets the requirement, and you can bet that I'd be opting to that over a United flight where I'd be expected to buy my dinner.

Actually, I'm a United 1K frequent flyer--their top tier--and I will be opting for other arrangements. I don't think that this is a smart move at all.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Coffee that Never Came

I had another flight with AirTran yesterday. It was a rebooking of the flight canceled on Friday, so I was in Business Class (having paid for my $49 upgrade previously).

True to typical AirTran form, four of the twelve seats in Business Class were occupied by children, but they were well behaved. Accordingly, their presence didn't draw my attention except to note that, indeed, not all children feel the need to scream and run around on airplanes, and not all parents think that such behavior is "cute."

On this trip, my annoyance came down to a cup of coffee.

Aside from a roomier seat, the trademarks of AirTran Business Class accommodations are free drinks and an assortment of snacks. I got my Bacardi & Diet Coke without incident, albeit surprised that the airline carries no lemons or limes and that I was instead offered me a packet of lemon juice. When the attendant came back to collect trash, though, he asked if we wanted anything else, and I asked for coffee. He said that some was brewing and he'd bring it to me.

Twenty minutes later, they announced that we'd begun our descent. No coffee.

I could have yelled for an attendant, of course--the "call" button wasn't working--and not getting coffee is hardly the end of the world. It's also not necessarily a reason to avoid AirTran. But I put the example on the table for readers so they can be clear on one point: AirTran offers "Big-Seat-in-Front-of-Plane" but not real "Business Class;" the service just isn't there.

Friday, August 15, 2008

What's the deal with AirTran?

AirTran Airways won the top spot for airline quality in 2008. I've flown with AirTran on a total of five segments over the last few weeks, going through their check-in and arrival processes in Milwaukee and at D.C. Reagan-National, and I have to say... why?

There's nothing wrong with AirTran, you understand. True, every flight that I've had with them has been delayed leaving and delayed arriving, but we're talking about 10-20 minutes, not hours. I can live with that.

But what's with the awards for customer service?

Checking in at Reagan, I--being an Elite member, also flying Business Class--saw a sign for "Business Class/Elite" check-in and stood in that line. I do this on every airline for which I hold elite status (which is most), and it's never hard.

AirTran made it hard. An employee came up and asked me if I was flying Business Class. I said, "Yes, and I'm also an Elite member."

So she looks at me and says, "You already purchased your Business Class ticket?"

And I blink, because AirTran charges just $49 for a one-way Business Class upgrade, available to Elite members 24 hours in advance online. It's not like I'm standing in International First for a flight to Tokyo, where the $12,500 price tag might raise eyebrows for a 28-year old.

So I nod, and she goes away.

But then, when the next counter spot opens up, the agent waves to the next person from the standard line. So, my Elite status has (after a bit of hassle) permitted me to stand in an Elite line, but it doesn't actually get me anything, huh?

Fortunately, I'm quite capable of stepping up on my own, so I did when the next counter opened. Check in went smoothly, and after a stop off at Northwest's World Club--my Continental President's Club membership lets me use World Clubs even when I'm not flying with SkyTeam--I made it to the gate.

Flight delay. Okay, fine. But then the plane arrives, and they start boarding. Who goes first? Nope, not the Elite members, not the people who paid more for Business Class. It's everyone who has "special needs," including parents with toddlers, the elderly, and everyone else. Not to be mean, but that was almost the whole plane. There were only a few of us left when he started with "Zone 1" boarding.

And onboard service? Nothing special, not even in Business Class. Yes, I did get a drink for free, and a choice of snacks reserved for Business Class flyers that was strikingly similar to the usual selection on JetBlue (i.e. Sun Chips, cookies, etc.), but $49 Business Class has a real downside: half of the seats were filled with young children, whose parents decided to splurge so they could inflict them on the other passengers.

Now, before you start judging me as insensitive here, I don't mind kids simply because they're small human beings. I wouldn't have cared at all if they'd stayed reasonably quiet; maybe a bit louder than the adult passengers even would have been fine. But screaming kids? And parents who sit there with their noise-canceling headphones on and ignore them?

Not okay. Not at all.

I opted to save the $49 for each of my remaining flights and flew Coach--if Business Class is fileld with screaming kids, why bother?--and had an overall fine time with my free soda and pretzels, which reminded me that AirTran is certainly way better than cost-cutting customer disaster U.S. Airways.

But #1 for customer service? No, I didn't see it. Not on any of my flights. AirTran is fine for what it is, i.e. a low-cost carrier perfect for parents to take their kids on vacation. For business travel, I'll stick with Continental.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Destination: Milwaukee

Wisconsin, USA

Okay, so my reasons for going were pretty flimsy:
  1. I'd never been;
  2. AirTran had a fare special; and
  3. That fare special coincided with another special that would earn me triple A+ Rewards points to maintain my Elite status.
Once I got there, though, I was surprised: Milwaukee is quite a town. . Yes, the city comes from an industrial origin, and about half of the buildings there are old brickwork factories, warehouses, and breweries from the early 1900s. But those brickwork buildings restored on the outside now house offices and luxury condos, and the mingle freely with modern skyscrapers that give the whole place an upbeat feel. Milwaukee is probably the most successful example of urban revitalization that I've seen.

Not only that, but there's a lot to do. If the only major brewer still in town (aside from the baseball team that crushed the Nationals 6-0 on Saturday evening) is Miller, there are a lot of microbreweries, like the Water Street Brewery where I had a local Weiss and enjoyed a hot bacon salad while witnessing the aforementioned Brewers-Nats slaughter. You'll also want to make time for dinner at Mader's Restaurant, widely regarded as being among the best German restaurants in America.

The next morning, I had coffee from a roaster in the Milwaukee Public Market--light brew with skim, my preferred way to drink the stuff whatever purists say about bold flavor--and wandered the surrounding area of the Historic Third Ward. I didn't make it down to Henry Maier Festival Park, but something is going on there every weekend during the summer; this time, it was Arab Fest. Definitely don't miss the Milwaukee Art Museum, which includes the lakefront Quadracci Pavilion designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

You might remember that Harley-Davidson comes from Milwaukee, and you'd be correct. Tours don't go through their operational plant these days, but the Harley-Davidson Museum is within easy distance of downtown. Miller's brewery also offers tours and free samples, which you'll learn are cold-filtered rather than heat-pasteurized like most other beers.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Airborne Wi-Fi, Take Two

The first attempt to add Internet access as a service on commercial airlines dates back to the turn of the century. Boeing's Connexion system, which used a satellite uplink to reach the Internet and onboard Wi-Fi for passenger connectivity, worked as advertised. But Connexion was only picked up a handful of carriers--none of them in the United States--and was discontinued in 2006 "due to lack of demand."

Now, a new wave of interest looks to bring online connectivity back to airlines, and this time, U.S. carriers have signed on for the ride. Delta is planning to have it up and running on select flights within days and promises fleet-wide services by next year. American, Southwest, Virgin America, and Jetblue have also made committments, albeit less ambitious ones.

What makes the new services, which come from various independent providers, better than their predecessor? For one thing, advances in technology make the equipment weigh about one fifth what the Connexion setup did; for another, it can be installed in a few days instead of a few weeks.

Most of all, though, it's a matter of cost to the passenger. Connexion service on a Lufthansa flight (one of the few carriers that did offer it) was more than $25.00. Delta's setting a target price of $9.95 for flights three hours or less in length, and $12.95 for longer flights. That's not much more than hotspot access in your local Starbucks.

Which begs the question: since we already have Internet-based phone service, does anyone really believe that onboard Internet use won't lead to onboard phone use?

Paying for pillows and blankets - does it matter?

For years, JetBlue Airways has provided free pillows and blankets to its passengers. That era ended yesterday, and passengers who would like a pillow and blanket will be invited to purchase these items for $7.00.

JetBlue isn't breaking new ground here. American Airlines only offers pillows on international flights. Delta reserves them for First Class passengers. United typically has enough onboard for one out of every three seats.

Per usual, only Continental Airlines is actually holding the line in defense of what was once a standard service.

Now, before we all start talking about record fuel prices, which I concede are a problem for the airline industry, please remember that cuts in domestic airline service didn't start this year. We've been seeing reductions in service quality for decades--and most of it just went to pad bottom-line profits and fatten executive pay packages.

Consider this. In December, I took a flight from Stuttgart to Prague. It was about a 90-minute flight, which the attendant found to be barely enough time to provide beverage service, hand out sandwiches, collect trash, and get ready for landing. That's right: we got sandwiches. It's typical on foreign carriers to serve meals.

And you know what? It used to be typical in America. But as a culture, we don't really value service.

Americans are routinely baited into a line that goes something like this: "We'll eliminate XYZ, and in exchange, you'll pay less." We all go crazy for the idea, the service gets cut, the price gets cut. But next month, the price goes back up, we hear some line about cost and labor and taxes and oil and whatever else, and we're paying what we always paid but getting less.

That's how the airlines work. They use price as a justification to cut service, use cost as a justification to raise price, and when costs fall, add the extra profit to executive pay. And we just explain it away, throw up our hands and say, what can we do?

JetBlue is a good airline. Its people are friendly, its planes are comfy and usually clean, and the new pillows and blankets it's selling are a lot nicer than the free ones it used to hand out. So, no insult to JetBlue; I don't fly with them often simply because their frequent flyer program doesn't do me as much good as some others, but I like JetBlue. I can understand why someone would choose to fly with JetBlue despite this latest fee.

Just be careful. Every cost-slashing, service-slashing, disgruntled legacy carrier around today was a premium-quality, top-notch airline twenty years ago. The problem with fees and cost cutting measures is that they take on a life of their own.

Let's hope that JetBlue really is adding a service with these new blankets and pillows.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Delta has a new three-tier award system.

Delta flyers, rejoice! To hear the airline tell it, the decision to go from a double-tier system to the new three-tier system that allows you to redeem miles for travel is a dream come true.

Under the old redemption plan, flyers could either redeem 25,000 miles on a virtually empty plane (i.e. very limited availability for these tickets) or 50,000 miles for miles of a largely full plane. The new plan, which I'm sure everyone has clamored for, changes those tiers to 25K, 40K, and the new 60K level, which comes into play depending on when and where the flight is booked.

Much celebrated is Delta's promise that this new, highest tier will again allow you to book the "last seat" on a plane, meaning that there are no capacity restrictions for this level of redemption.

But if I sound overwhelmed, it's with good reason: several other airlines, including United and Continental, allow you to book that last seat at 50,000 miles. And forget about a free ticket; Delta decided in July to put in place a "fuel surcharge" for award tickets, which runs $25 for domestic flights or $50 for international travel.

Whatever Delta's propoganda department wants to put out, this change has nothing to do with giving customers options. Delta has been handing out miles like candy, and there aren't enough seats to go around.

At least you won't be paying $2 for water with the U.S. Airways crowd. But then, that fee may or may not get collected anyway.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Airline alliances: A game of musical chairs

More than a month ago, Continental Airlines announced that it would leave SkyTeam in favor of joining the Star Alliance. Everyone covered that announcement, but no one dug into why.

USA Today's David Grossman finally breaks it down for us:
  • Continental's Newark hub competes with Delta's Kennedy hub for transatlantic flights to Europe, whereas Star Alliance has no significant transatlantic presence in New York.

  • Continental couldn't make any big moves without approval from Northwest Airlines, which on account of a previous investment owns a "golden share" in the company and can veto any motion made by Continental's Board of Directors.

  • Once Northwest is acquired or merges with another airline, Continental can buy that golden share back for $100.
In other words, Continental has seen the value in leaving SkyTeam for a long time now, but it couldn't act on that desire until Delta and Northwest announced their merger.

What will this shakeup do to the industry? Well, as Grossman observes, Continental brings immediate value to the Star Alliance by adding a New York hub to the route maps. Continental also has a strong presence in Central and South America, which meshes nicely with United's strong Pacific presence.

At the short end of the deal is perennial loser U.S. Airways. With hubs in Charlotte and Philadelphia, my least-favorite airline has always been a bit pinched by United's hub in Washington D.C. Throwing Newark onto the stack makes U.S. Airways even less desirable.

Of course, U.S. Airways could make its own move, the most likely course of which would be to join American Airlines as a member of oneworld. There's been no word from CEO Doug Parker -- but now that alliances are in motion, does he want to risk being the only one standing when the music stops?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why do I like Continental?

You might have noticed that whenever I talk about airlines, I tend to single out Continental as being better than its legacy-carrier counterparts.

So, lest you think that this bias is unfairly slanted, let me provide you with a recent excerpt that illustrates why I feel the way that I do:

Dennis Tierney, alliances director with US Airways, said the airline had been forced to keep prices relatively low to maintain load factors but in-flight services would start to disappear from domestic flights.

"Fuel is the story," he said "We are trying every means necessary to cut costs."

But Mark Erwin, senior vice-president of Continental Airlines, said services would be the last thing to disappear on his airline.

"Continental believes in delivering a higher level of service," he said "One of the reasons we receive such high marks from the consumer is that we focus on blankets and pillows and in-flight entertainment and meals at meal times and priority offerings for our elite customers.

"We believe you have to invest in the consumer to keep them."

The section that I quoted contrasts Continental with what is certainly my least-favorite domestic airline, U.S. Airways. But the article includes comments from other airlines as well, including United -- which last year added the position of Chief Customer Officer to its executive staff specifically to focus on service. And yet, Continental is the airline that is holding the line here. While its competitors add first-bag fees, booking fees, and even charge coach passengers for soda or peanuts, Continental continues to serve meals and provide blankets. That makes Continental special.

Let's be clear: Continental isn't our only good domestic carrier. Alaska Airlines is also outstanding among the lineup of legacy carriers. And most of the low-cost airlines are excellent, including JetBlue, Virgin America, AirTran, and Southwest. The thing is, none of these have the scope that Continental and its "big six" counterparts do, being able to take you around the country or around the world. That makes Continental really special.

And special things deserve recognition. That's why I give them so much credit here.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Secrets of the BoltBus

On May 19, I introduced you to BoltBus, a next-generation bus service that offers service between New York City and destinations in D.C., Philadelphia, and Boston. On June 10, I mentioned BoltBus again as a possible workaround for people looking to travel between NYC and Boston when Amtrak service (my usual preferred route for that trip) was interrupted by the Thames River bridge replacement project.

Well, both of those recommendations were accurate and heartfelt, but they were based on second-hand information. This past weekend, I got the opportunity to do some first-hand research. The BoltBus is every bit as great as I was told; I've also got a few details to add:
  • About half of the seats have power outlets, most of them towards the front of the bus. Look on the back of the seat to see if there's a double outlet there.

  • I mentioned earlier that the BoltBus coach configuration has one fewer row of seats, with the extra space used to give everyone more leg room. It really makes a difference... the leather seats are almost as spacious as Amtrak and I found them more comfortable overall.

  • WiFi is provided as promised, but it's about as reliable as you'd expect from a bus: it isn't always booted properly when the bus starts, and the uplink loses signal from time to time.

  • The bus stops in Philadelphia and New York are literally right next to the train stations. In D.C., the stop is right in front of Metro Center (on the Orange Line), which for most people is more convenient than being at Union Station anyway.
Am I going to start using BoltBus as my exclusive means of traveling to and from New York? I think that I am, at least for non-business trips. A BoltBus ticket for Independence Day weekend cost me $23. Amtrak wanted $125 for the cheapest Regional and $197 for the cheapest Acela.

I probably won't take BoltBus to Boston, because it's such a long trip, but you know what? The NYP-BOS segment is a lot cheaper on the Acela than is WAS-NYP. With service right in front of Penn Station, I'm thinking that the way to go is a $20 ticket to NYP on the BoltBus and a $67 Acela ticket to South Station.

By the way, here's a secret that will amaze you: it has its own rewards program, its own vibe, a pickup business model, a curbside pickup, and couldn't be more unlike its parent company, but BoltBus is actually operated by Greyhound. Seems our de-facto national bus carrier finally realized that it was losing a big part of the market to people who were opting for ad hoc Chinatown buses and figured it could take that challenge head-on.

And you know what? As someone who took Greyhound exactly one time and vowed never to do it again, I can say that they're right. BoltBus is something different, and it's great. Give it a try next time you're looking for East Coast travel.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Explore America by Rail

Amtrak has offered a USA Rail Pass for a very long time. For most of that time, though, the Rail Pass was pointedly not available to U.S. residents, a confusing arrangement that is nonetheless typical among rail providers around the world. (Apparently, rail passes exist for international tourists and not to cater to tourists already in the country.)

Now, though, things have changed. Amtrak is offering USA Rail Passes to anyone who wants to buy them, and with gas prices soaring over $4.00 a gallon, traveling by train may be the perfect alternative to the high cost of a traditional road trip without resorting to the discomfort and extremely long travel times involved in long-distance bus travel.

How's it work? Well, first you buy the pass itself, the cost of which depends on three things:
  • Where (West, East, Northeast, or National);
  • When (May-Sept is peak season, while most of Sept-May is non-peak); and
  • How long (15 or 30 days) you want to travel.
The prices are surprisingly reasonable, with a National 30-day Peak rail pass going for just $599 and off-peak prices about 25% less ($469).

Having bought your pass, which you can then pick up at any Amtrak station, the next step is to schedule your travel. You do need to reserve tickets, and there are a limited number of seats on each train set aside as eligible for rail pass holders. That being said, there's no minimum timeframe to book the tickets, and if you arrive at the station and they're still available for that same day, you can scoop them up on the fly--but Amtrak is getting more popular as fuel prices rise, so it's better to plan ahead where possible.

The USA Rail Pass covers Coach seating and isn't valid on the Acela or the Auto Train. You also can't use it in Canada (though there is a North American Rail Pass that includes travel on VIA Rail Canada if you're looking to go farther afield; that goes for $999 during peak season). But you can purchase upgrades to Sleeper or Business Class accommodations where available for a surcharge, and when the cost of a single round-trip flight is as much as a 30-day blank check for rail travel, you have to wonder:

Isn't this a good time to explore America by rail?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Overheard in the Presidents Club in Houston

15-year old girl: "I should get the seat in first class."
Dad: "Why you? Why not your mom?"
Girl: "Because I've never ridden in first class."
Dad: "When I was 15, I hadn't either."
Girl: "But don't you want the best for me?"
Dad: "Not really."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Changes in the skies

Today, Continental Airlines announced that it will be leaving SkyTeam in favor of joining the Star Alliance. It's a move that has been predicted for months by some analysts, who noted that the pending merger of Delta and Northwest Airlines would leave the Houston-based carrier as the junior U.S. partner of SkyTeam.

The shift won't happen overnight; Continental anticipates a transition period of at least a year, during which time reciprocity with Delta, Northwest, Air France, and other SkyTeam airlines will continue. But when it's complete, Continental will count itself among the members of the largest airline alliance in the world, with more than 20 members including heavyweights like United, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines.

Frequent flyers, take note: this changes everything.

Of somewhat less significance is the failure of another all-business class airline. SilverJet stopped flying on May 30 with little fanfare, joining MAXjet and Eos in bankruptcy and leaving France's L'avion as the only remaining airline of this sort still operating. For how long?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Airlines and their fees...

A few weeks ago, American Airlines decided that a good way to boost its revenues would be to charge $15 for a checked bag. Last week, U.S. Airways and United decided to follow suit. Continental is apparently watching and waiting to see how it goes over with passengers.

I'm opposed to baggage fees for a single bag. Three bags? Okay, you're pushing it. Even two and I'm sympathetic, because the weight does all to the cost. But flying is transportation, and travel means bringing luggage. Whatever the bottom-line cost of an airline ticket, that price should be definition include the right to bring a bag--especially since all that this fee does is encourage people to overpack their carry-on bags, which in turn makes it take longer to board and depart the aircraft, which costs the airlines money in flight delays.

Now, regular readers will recognize that Continental is my favorite domestic airline, and with good reason. Coach passengers still get meals. There are pillows and blankets readily available. Service is the best among U.S. legacy carriers. And why? Because Continental didn't dump its pension plan. Because, when facing the immense burden of fuel costs and the need to lay off 3000 employees, CEO Larry Kellner decided to forego his salary and other compensation to show that he feels the pain too. Because Continental treats its employees well, and those employees treat passengers like me well in turn.

So now Continental is studying the baggage fee question. Kellner doesn't like the idea. But he's facing real, serious challenges with oil at more than $135 per barrel, and if passengers don't mind, he'll take the unusual step of following the rest of the industry.

They'll tell you that it's temporary. It's not.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, the airlines were in a financial tailspin. They decided that the best way to save money was to eliminate meal service in coach. Passengers could see the bind that the airlines were in, so they tolerated it. But when the airlines returned to profitability, did the meals come back? No--just like the pension plans that the carriers dumped in bankruptcy court didn't factor into the immense pay packages of airline executives. And that will happen again, guaranteed.

Do your flying with an airline that doesn't charge the fee--you can choose from Alaska, Delta, Northwest, and all of the low-cost carriers as well as Continental--and make it clear that paying for a bag is not okay. If we tolerate a baggage fee today, we'll be paying it tomorrow and forever.