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.

Oops.

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.