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.