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train for the inauguration, America is taking a new look at what is literally an old problem: our rail infrastructure is obsolete.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?