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.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hit by the Amtrak outage? Try the BoltBus or Limoliner!

As most of you who might be affected probably know, Amtrak has canceled both its Acela and regional service between New York and Boston over the June 16-19 stretch (updated; the work was originally scheduled for June 14-17). The culprit is the Thames River Bridge, which is old and in desperate need of repair.

If you need to travel during that time, there are the other usual choices: flying, driving, or taking the bus. The BoltBus, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, is probably the most cost-effective for the level of comfort that you get, with fares under $30. If you'd usually be riding First Class on the Acela, though, you might prefer the Limoliner, which has between three and six departures per day in each direction. It's not cheap--you can expect to pay around $90 each way--but that's still a savings versus an Acela ticket.

It's also a nice trip, with the same two-one seat configuration you'd find in First Class along with per-seat power outlets, WiFi for Internet access, movies, and even meal service provided by an onboard attendant (who is guaranteed to be competent and friendly, whereas Amtrak has a hard time promising either and rarely delivers both).

So during the Amtrak outage, take the opportunity to give one of these alternative methods of travel a try. I'll always be a supporter of passenger rail, but the real goal is to get from A to B at a cost and with a level of comfort that's right for you. Might as well see what's available.