Monday, December 28, 2009

New, and unpredictable, security measures

In the wake of the weekend's attempted destruction of a plane en route to Detroit, governments are imposing new security measures at airports and on board internationally bound aircraft.

Details from the Transportation Security Administration are sketchy, because one of the TSA's stated goals is to make security less predictable. However, reports from non-U.S. governments, airlines, and passengers suggest these among other measures may be put in place:
  • Double-screening, with initial security checkpoints supplemented by pre-boarding screening at the gate;

  • Pat-downs, paying particular attention to the upper thigh and groin areas, something that the TSA has always had authority to do but has rarely done out of concern for privacy, but which have taken on new importance since the weekend attack apparently involved explosive powder taped to the would-be bomber's thigh;

  • Restroom monitoring, looking to limit the amount of time that someone onboard an aircraft might be removed from visibility and thereby having time to assemble an explosive device from components smuggled onboard; and

  • Last-hour restrictions on carry-on items and movement within the cabin, aimed at keeping people from carrying out plots during a landing sequence.

The last bullet, keeping passengers in their seats, strikes me as quite unnecessary. Collecting blankets and making people put away laptops for a whole hour is unlikely to do much more than result in bored, chilly passengers.

Remember, the weekend plot was focused on destroying a plane, not hijacking it in the style of Setpember 11; should we feel better if terrorists start blowing up planes 90 minutes before landing rather than waiting for the last hour? I doubt it.

I do, however, strongly support the other measures, which make good sense. I think it's also time that we stop whining about privacy issues relating to backscatter machines that can see through clothes. Prudish Americans doubtless imagine that everyone is desperate to see them naked, but as any nudist will tell you, absent sexual context, nudity simply isn't that exciting -- and seeing whatever someone is concealing beneath clothing will really make it hard to smuggle things onto planes.

It's time that we start taking security seriously, demanding results rather than assurances. These are good steps in that direction.

Looking critically at the TSA

Most of you are aware that, on Christmas Day, a Nigerian citizen on a flight en route to Detroit tried to detonate an explosive device made from powder and liquid components smuggled aboard the aircraft.

You know that the plot did not work, because the would-be bomb failed to detonate, instead burning the would-be bomber.

You know that passengers apprehended the would-be bomber and held him until the plane landed, then turned him over to U.S. authorities.

You probably also know that Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's claim that "the system worked" is ridiculous and insulting to the intelligence of every American.

The system did not work. No security screener or device anywhere along the line picked up the threat. The plot failed because of quick passenger reactions, but mostly it failed because of bad luck: the explosive didn't detonate.

Governments in general like to pretend they are all-powerful. The U.S. government in particular has pretended for nearly a decade since September 11 that the massive make-work program called the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has made us safer. These are lies; study after study and test after test have shown that TSA is almost entirely ineffective.

Whatever your politics, be aware that the TSA is not a failure because it was created by the Bush administration, and it is not a failure because it is currently under the Obama administration. It is a failure because it is a huge government bureaucracy, and like most government bureaucracies, it is far more focused on looking effective than being effective.

Today, Napolitano is backtracking from her earlier claims and admitting that the system failed. But we already knew that: she is changing the system, which would not be necessary if it had actually worked.

Monday, December 21, 2009

For passengers, at last the right to fair treatment

Throughout the years of the Bush administration, airline passengers filed complaint after complaint. In response, the Department of Transportation asked airlines to agree to some voluntary rules. Few did.

Change is coming. Beginning this spring, when DOT-OST-2007-0022 takes effect, airline passengers will finally have some actual rights -- backed by hefty penalties for airlines that fail to comply.

Under the new rule, airlines will be required to:
  • Provide food and beverages to passengers waiting on a tarmac for more than two hours; and

  • Return planes to terminals and allow passengers to disembark after delays of more than three hours.
Airlines failing to comply will be fined $175,000 per passenger, or more than three million dollars for a 20-seat regional jet.

That's big money, and it's getting the airlines' attention -- so much so that, according to the New York Times, even regional jets that typically don't serve snacks are going to be stocking up on peanuts and pretzels to meet the snack requirements "just in case."

For now, the rule applies to domestic flights only. In the future, it may b e expanded to include international flights as well.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

When will the Acela get wireless Internet?

I was at a Washington Wizards game a few days ago, and an Amtrak advertisement came up promoting Acela service between Washington and New York.

The Acela, as many of you know, is Amtrak's flagship offering. Having been introduced in 2000, Acela is new -- by American standards. Reaching speeds of up to 150 mph for about ten miles of its trip between New York and Boston, it's fast -- by American standards.

And with a ticket price more than double the cost of an equivalent-route Northeast Regional train, it's expensive -- by any standard -- and that brings me back to that Wizards advertisement.

The advertisement encouraged people to "Go online." In October, Amtrak committed to getting Acela Wi-Fi in place by mid-2010. But what's the delay?

Next-generation northeast Corridor bus services like BoltBus and MegaBus already have free Wi-Fi for all of their passengers, as well as comfortable seats and power outlets -- and ticket prices of $25 for WAS-NYC.

Why is it so hard for Amtrak's flagship line to meet the level of service provided by buses?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Amtrak's lounges: Private, but amenities and quality vary.

Amtrak's ClubAcela and Metropolitan Lounge facilities are perhaps the most inconsistent facilities in the U.S. transit industry outside of bus terminals.

Both facilities cater to travelers who have First Class tickets -- either on the Acela or in Sleeper Car accommodations on Amtrak's long-haul lines -- as well as Select Plus members of Amtrak's Guest Rewards program and members of Continental Airlines' Presidents Club.

Beyond that, there is little consistency.

In Chicago, for instance, the Metropolitan Lounge is a grand facility that can seat hundreds, with multiple televisions, soda fountains, and comfortable chairs in a mahogany-paneled setting. New Orleans also boasts a Metropolitan Lounge; it is small room with a tube television and a couch, plus a coffee pot.

The ClubAcela facilities, which can be found in Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, also vary in terms of quality:
  • The 30th-Street Station ClubAcela in Philadelphia occupies what was once a passenger lounge during the golden age of rail travel, with elevators to the track and views of concourse.

  • Union Station's ClubAcela in Washington D.C. is less impressive but offers East and West exits directly to the tracks from which Acela trains leave, bypassing lines.

  • In New York, where the grandeur of the old Penn Station has given way to an underground 70s-era shopping mall vibe, the ClubAcela is off to one corner, and passengers heading for their trains need to join the main passenger waiting lines to reach the tracks.
Looking for connectivity? All of the ClubAcela facilities have a few computers set up for Internet access. New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago are among those that also have complimentary Wi-Fi; D.C. does not.

Of course, every lounge does offer a few basics, including reasonably comfortable (if evidently used) armchairs and couches, television, and coffee. And since Amtrak doesn't sell ClubAcela memberships, passengers can rest assured that whatever lounge facilities are offered are meant to augment their ticket accommodations rather than stack up as benefits in their own right (the way that airline lounges do).

But as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, and America wrestles with upgrades to its aging rail infrastructure, one does have to ask: could we get some consistency in the lounge amenities?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Surcharges extended; U.S. Airways adds more.

As you know, about ten weeks ago, all of the legacy airlines announced that they would be adding surcharges -- essentially, fare increases -- to a few "peak" travel days between now and the end of the year.

In the past week, those same airlines have one by one opted to extend the surcharges to peak travel days as far out as May 2010, and increase them to $30 each way.

I talked about the merits of these surcharges when they first debuted, and my position hasn't changed: they are simple fare increases, not fees, and it is entirely reasonable that airlines will raise their prices when they are literally losing hundreds of millions of dollars every quarter.

What separates reasonable from unreasonable? Timing.

The surcharges were first added and now extended based on observed travel conditions and current bookings. That's understandable.

In typical fashion, U.S. Airways has gone one farther than its peers, adding a 5% surcharge on all flights on or after May 8, 2010. U.S. Airways made this move "because fuel prices could increase by then."

In other words, U.S. Airways is imposing a de facto fuel surcharge in advance of any fuel price increases. That is not reasonable -- and it is precisely why so many of us choose to fly with other airlines.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Becoming the Junior Partner: U.S. Airways and Star Alliance

Until just a few weeks ago, there were two domestic airlines in the Star Alliance: United and U.S. Airways. They were grudging partners, always doing as little to cooperate as possible.

On October 27, that changed. Continental Airlines joined Star Alliance after leaving SkyTeam three days earlier, the first airline to change alliances since alliances debuted. Continental left SkyTeam because, as incoming CEO and current President/COO Jeff Smisek put it, the merger of Delta and Northwest had left Continental "relegated to junior partner status."

Even before the official transition, United and Continental -- which had previously discussed a merger but decided against it -- had started aligning their interests. They put their fee structures and complimentary upgrade policies in sync; for instance, Continental began including Hawaii in its list of destinations for complimentary domestic upgrades. Continental Presidents Club members also got access to United Red Carpet Clubs a few weeks early.

Yesterday, they raised the stakes: beginning in mid-2010, United and Continental will offer reciprocal domestic upgrades to elite passengers, including giving Continental elite members free access to United's Economy Plus seating.

United specifically denies such access to U.S. Airways elite members and has said nothing about extending it to them.

The writing is on the wall, Mr. Parker: U.S. Airways is the junior domestic partner in the Star Alliance. Maybe American Airlines can make room for you in oneworld.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Recycling makes a difference.

Continental Airlines has been recycling for years, but beginning in 2008, the company really started promoting recycling.

Some people ask, what difference does recycling really make?

Well, over the last ten months, Continental has recycled enough aluminum to build 20 Boeing 777 airplanes!

According to the company's press release, "Proceeds from Continental’s recycling program are re-invested in the program or donated to We Care, a nonprofit charity organization that provides financial assistance to Continental employees in need."

I'd say that's making a difference.

Monday, November 9, 2009

U.S. Airways passengers: GoAwards is a bad deal for you.

U.S. Airways is touting a change in its frequent flyer program as one that provides "more flexibility and options when redeeming miles for award travel."

GoAwards, as the new program is called, replaces what was a two-tiered mileage redemption chart with a chart that has four tiers that vary based on travel volume for a given day. So far, so good--except GoAwards doesn't offer the lowest tier (Off-Peak) for flights within the United States and Canada, or between North America and Hawaii.

  • Flying exclusively within the U.S. and Canada? Today, it's either 25K for Saver or 50K for Standard. Under GoAwards, you'll need 25K for Low days, 40K for Medium days, or 60K for High days.

  • Looking for that trip to Hawaii? Saver awards are 35K and Standards are 70K. But GoAwards takes 40K on Low days, 65K on Medium days, and a whopping 90K on High days.
There are a few instances, such as travel from the U.S. to the Caribbean or Europe, where Off-Peak awards are listed for less than today's Saver awards, but let's be honest. There won't be many Off-Peak flights--and all of the Low awards are at least as high as the current Savers.

In other words, all of this "choice" talk is meant to camoflage the real purpose of the program, which is to basically guarantee that you'll need more miles to travel under GoAwards than you need today under the two-tiered system. (For comparison, just look at the current award chart.)

There's no news yet as to whether fellow Star Alliance airlines United and Continental will copy this model. But I doubt it, because angry elite passengers tend to go elsewhere.

And if they don't follow U.S. Airways' lead, I suggest that every U.S. Airways Dividend Miles elite member do exactly that: request reciprocal status in OnePass or Mileage Plus, and get more value for your miles.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Continental's approach to award fares makes waves in the Star Alliance

The Washington Times this week drew attention to one of the most significant impacts of Continental Airlines moving from SkyTeam to the Star Alliance: transparency.

All of the Star Alliance airlines have an integrated system called StarNet for booking seats on one another's flights using frequent-flyer miles. Most of the member airlines use proprietary restrictions build into their own award-fare systems to "block" most of the available seats from showing up.

In making its move to the Star Alliance, Continental decided it would join just two other carriers--Air Canada and Japan's ANA--in making the full volume of seats available for booking.

This move gives members of Continental's OnePass program a big advantage over United Mileage Plus or U.S. Airways Dividend Miles program members, who will see only the limited number of seats that their carriers want them to see.

Among other advantages that OnePass offers over its domestic-partner counterparts:
  • Award tickets may include both a stopover and an open jaw (arrive and depart from different airports);
  • Tickets may be routed from North America to Australia via Asia; and
  • Elite members of OnePass are exempt from cash copayments when upgrading using miles.
If you're looking to join a Star Alliance frequent flyer program, these benefits make it more attractive to go with OnePass.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Continental to add fees, review meal policy

Since September 11, 2009, Continental Airlines has lost more than $1 billion. That's according to President Jeffrey Smisek, who on January 1, 2010 will succeed Larry Kellner as Continental's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

Bloomberg has all of the details of an interview with Smisek, but Continental flyers (like me) should be aware that we "absolutely will see change in [Continental's] products."

Everything is on the table. Some ideas, like offering premium non-alcoholic beverages like electrolyte water for the same $5.00 cost that already applies to alcoholic beverages in Coach, would be genuine choices.

Also on the table as a potential cut: complimentary meals.

Continental is the only U.S. airline that offers free meals to Coach passengers. It's something that makes Continental unique.

On the other hand, the airline is losing money. Every other airline that offers meals charges for them and pockets that revenue to shore up the bottom line, and it's not clear that Continental has actually benefitted from increased demand on account of what is frankly a pretty big gesture of goodwill.

"We're either really smart or we're really dumb" for providing free meals, he said. "Time will be a great test of that."

Fly for $25? Check out Southwest's 4th Quarter Sale.

Southwest is offering a very limited-time fare deal through its 4th Quarter Sale promotion.

Through midnight tonight, you'll pay one-way fares based on the length of the flight:
  • $25 for up to 374 miles;
  • $50 for 375-500 miles;
  • $75 for 501-999 miles; and
  • $100 for 1000 miles or more.

Sale fares cover travel between December 2-16, 2009 and January 5-February 10, 2010.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Continental joins the Star Alliance!

After officially departing SkyTeam on October 24, Continental spent two days wandering in limbo before today formally entering the Star Alliance.

Continental's addition raises the number of airlines in the Star Alliance to 25, including domestic partners United and U.S. Airways and German powerhouse Lufthansa.

The Star Alliance's diverse membership, which also includes South African Airways, Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Air Canada, and Japan-based ANA (among many others), means that passengers can go just about anywhere while concentrating elite and award miles in one frequently flyer program of their preference.

For Continental OnePass members, this transition means new Alliance-level benefits at one of two levels: Star Alliance Silver for OnePass Silver, or Star Alliance Gold for OnePass Gold or Platinum members.

The transition also brings several new program-level benefits to OnePass members:
  • Saturday night stays are no longer required for award travel.
  • Discounted fares purchased from third-party consolidators now qualify for 100% of elite-qualifying mileage.
  • Complimentary elite upgrades now apply to flights between Los Angeles (LAX) and Hawaii.

OnePass members should be aware that they no longer enjoy complimentary upgrades on Northwest flights, which would be eliminated anyway as the merger of Delta and Northwest continues to take effect.

In addition, effective immediately, OnePass members do not earn elite qualifying mileage or points, or elite mileage bonuses, on travel with bilateral partners, including Emirates, EVA Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Island Air, Kingfisher, US Helicopter, or Amtrak.

This is a huge change for Continental and the industry. We'll see where it leads.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

U.S. Airways Club expanding its privileges?

For most of the time that they've been supposed partners in the Star Alliance, United and U.S. Airways have had rather chilly relations.

Two years ago, U.S. Airways decided that its Club members should pay $120 more if they wanted reciprocal access to United's Red Carpet Club network.

CEO Doug Parker was particularly fee-happy at that time, also trying an abortive plan to charge passengers for beverages (which failed) and requiring an outrageous $240 membership upgrade for Club members to get reciprocity with non-domestic Star Alliance airlines' clubs.

Throughout this chapter, Red Carpet Club members continued to enjoy complimentary reciprocity to U.S. Airways Clubs when traveling of U.S. Airways flights.

Well, that's changing.

Effective October 30, U.S. Airways Club memberships will be converted to a single style that allows reciprocal access to lounges operated by United, Continental, and other Star Alliance airlines. No additional fees will be needed.

Starting that same day, members will also have complimentary selections of wine and beer available in addition to the soft drinks that have always been complimentary.

Why the change? My guess is that someone must finally have crunched the numbers and realized that, with the upcoming switch of Continental Airlines from SkyTeam to Star Alliance, and with United and Continental already establishing tight associations, U.S. Airways was almost sure to lose out.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Imperfect Substitutes

When airlines started adding fees for checked baggage, many people assumed that passengers would shift their business to carriers that reject such fees, like Southwest and JetBlue.

Christopher Elliott cites several studies that have analyzed that idea, and guess what? It isn't true. I'm also completely unsurprised.

People assuming that passengers would change their behavior made their assumptions on the basis of a premise that different airlines are perfect substitutes. Those of us who travel tens or hundreds of thousands of miles a year know better. Two factors drive airline selection:
  1. Convenience. Which airlines are strongest at your preferred airport (which is usually but may not be your closest airport)? People like more flight options, especially direct flights.

  2. Loyalty. Frequent flyers get more benefits from concentrating miles in one or just a few programs, and those of us with elite access (who generally pay no bag fees anyway) are particularly likely to go with our preferred airline or one of its partners, even if it costs a few bucks more.
Now, every now and then, an airline tries something so outrageous that it does take a hit. U.S. Airways ran into that last year when it tried to charge for beverages. No one followed suit, and free drinks returned to the aisles.

But not everything is so clear cut. Continental, after all, is the only airline in the United States -- legacy or low-cost -- that still serves free meals in Coach. Notice that plenty of people fly with other airlines.

My apologies to Southwest and Jetblue. In an age where practically everything is a carry on, checked baggage fees just aren't enough of a hassle to drive away passengers.

Correction: It's a holiday surcharge.

Two weeks ago, I blasted the airlines for imposing what I understood to be a fee for travel on certain days defined as holiday time. At the time, I said that using add-on fees to avoid raising fares was inexcusable.

I stand by that notion, but it turns out that what the airlines have put in place are holiday surcharges, not fees -- and the difference matters.

A fee is an add-on. Passengers pay fees to check bags, buy drinks, and sometimes to access preferred seating. Fees are costs added to what would otherwise be bottom-line prices.

Surcharges are different. Under the Airline Deregulation Act, airlines in the United States have to publish their fares in advance, and changing published fares for just a few days can be complicated. The FAA allows airlines to use surcharges as costs included in the bottom-line prices shown for tickets.

I was angry about a "holiday fee" because I believe that traveling on a certain day should be part of the bottom line. But surcharge is entirely transparent to passengers, and the ticket price you see includes any applicable surcharges.

It still means higher fares. But there's nothing shady about raising fares in times of short supply (like holidays). That's how competition works, and if you compare the fares we have today -- even with the $10 surcharge for holiday travel included -- with the fares we had in 1960, well... competition has really made flying cheap.

So, I don't see these surcharges as a problem.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A fee for holiday travel? Yep.

Everyone knows that it costs more to fly during the holidays. For as long as there have been airfares, those fares have been priced higher whenever there was peak demand: Thanksgiving, New Year's Eve, and the Fourth of July weekend all come to mind.

Not content with fares, though, airlines have started a new tradition: in addition to charging more for the ticket, you'll now have to pay a special $10 "holiday fee" for the privilege of doing so.

The holiday fee was announced last week by American and United. A few days later, U.S. Airways and Delta came out in support of it. Today, Continental jumped on the bandwagon. At least among the legacy carriers(1), it's a done deal.

No one can say whether the low-cost airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, and AirTran will join this insanity. I doubt it; Southwest didn't even adopt baggage fees, and the others are likely to benefit more from increased holiday bookings by passengers protesting their usual carriers than they would by adding this sort of junk fee.

I know that many of the airlines have struggled with reduced business bookings and excess capacity during the recession. I sympathize, and I have defended them on more than one occasion. But the "holiday fee" is nothing more than a fare hike by another name, added onto what are already higher-than-other-days holiday fares.

There's just no excuse, and I hope that this comes back to bite them in a big way.

1 Excluding Alaska Airlines, which is also technically a legacy carrier but often behaves as a special case since it retains near-monopoly status within its home territory.

United miles: Not just for flying anymore

Starting right away, members of United Airlines' Mileage Plus program may use their miles to book hotel rooms and car service.

Hotel rooms start at 10,000 miles per night and go up from there, with some premium properties listing for more than 50,000. Cars also start at 10,000 miles per day and vary by class of vehicle.

There are no blackout dates.

While this is a "first" for the airline industry, it's worth noting that has long offered a simplified rewards program where staying at any listed hotel gives one credit per night towards a free stay at any other listed hotel (with free nights costing ten credits), which can be a better value over time if you stay in mid-range hotels for business and then want to pick out luxury accommodations for special personal trips.

If you're a United frequent flyer, this new program is a pretty good benefit, especially if you're earning lots of bonus miles with a United credit card, elite bonuses, etc. If you do most of your flying with another airline, you're probably better off staying where you are.

Monday, September 14, 2009

United adds international baggage fee

Last year, some pondered whether financial considerations would result in U.S. carriers canceling Coach-class meal service on international routes. At the time, I laughed. Now, I'm not so sure.

As recently as a year ago, even as airlines were buckling under the pressure of record fuel prices and adding fees to find new revenue in nearly every way imaginable, checked baggage remained free on international flights.

The economic meltdown and decline in overall passenger traffic, particularly the near-collapse of business travel, has left airlines in an arguably worse financial position in 2009 than they were in 2008, even as fuel prices have dropped.

In part, this situation is because fuel prices--possibly driven by speculation--have recovered faster than passenger demand.

Now, United is joining U.S. Airways and Continental in imposing a $50 checked baggage fee for a second bag on international flights between North America and Europe.

Will free meals follow as the next thing to go?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

JetBlue's New Model

Those who have read Spontaneous Tourism will know that I have typically not recommended low-cost airlines like JetBlue or Southwest. Their service is usually excellent. The problem has been the frequent flyer programs of these airlines.

Unlike the legacy carriers, most low-cost airlines opted for flight- or distance-banded point systems rather than direct mileage when they built their programs.

They also had inflexible expiration policies, which left flyers watching their earliest-earned points expire just before they might have been able to use them.

JetBlue has apparently gotten the message from me and other flyers, and it’s making some changes. Beginning September 28, TrueBlue members will:

  • Earn points for dollars spent rather than distance flown, a better alignment of customer and airline interests anyway since airlines are in business to make money and not simply fly planes;

  • Earn bonuses for frequent as well as longer-distance flights; and

  • Most importantly, renew their points for another year every time that they take a paid JetBlue flight.

These are big changes, and they go a long way towards helping JetBlue—an excellent airline with outstanding service—get the attention that it deserves from those of us who spend a lot of time in the air. I’ll be giving them a new look because of this new approach and hope to fly with them more often in the future.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Southwest and Frontier?

Until recently, it looked like Frontier would emerge from bankruptcy as a wholly-owned subsidiary of otherwise-regional Republic Airlines.

The Frontier-Republic deal had already been approved but was contingent on an auction period during which time other companies would be allowed to submit offers for Frontier's assets.

And that's the twist.

According to Business Wire, "Southwest Airlines Co. has submitted an initial non-binding proposal to acquire Frontier under the auction procedures established in Frontier’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases and approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court."

Having posted a profit for Q2, Southwest has ample cash and credit to pull off an aquisition of Frontier. That would in turn eliminate Frontier from the market, depriving AirTran of its partner and strengthening America's largest low-cost carrier.

It'd make sense. Will it happen? We'll see.

Expanding Frequent Flyer Benefits

For decades, airlines have rewarded frequent flyers with perks based on how much they travel each year. The travelers in turn have given most or all of their business to the carriers with which they were entitled to the highest levels of perks.

Now, airlines shrinking to keep their planes full in the face of a recession-driven decline in travel have a new challenge: how to retain those valuable frequent flyers.

Fewer, fuller flights mean fewer opportunities for to upgrade or book free tickets, driving down the value of their miles. Cuts in staffing mean fewer people to take care of these travelers when they need to rebook flights. And, of course, service itself often takes a hit when employees experience pay or staffing cuts.

The key is to find ways to reward the most valuable frequent flyers, those who hold elite status in an airline's program, and especially those with status in the highest tier ranking. Here are a few changes already underway:
  • Delta is unveiling a new top level in its SkyMiles program (Diamond), and will now offer "rollover" qualifying miles for those who fly more than the number of miles needed to qualify.

  • United is eliminating fees previously charged for award tickets booked within 21 days of travel.

Of course, airlines need to make money, so any cut in fees or expansion of benefits to top-level elites will be felt by everyone else--and especially by the "ordinary" (non-elite) passengers.

But as United spokesperson Robin Urbanski put it, "Significant revenue comes from Mileage Plus members, so in order to continue earning their business and grow it, we are making our program more beneficial. Making it easier to use their miles will give us more repeat business."

In other words, reward the people who care. The rest will just buy the cheapest fare no matter what you do.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Greyhound for the Next Generation

In recent months, I've introduced you to BoltBus and NeON, both of which revolutionized bus travel with innovations like onboard wireless Internet, much roomier seats, and power outlets, and fares in the $20-30 range connecting New York to destinations like Washington, D.C., Boston, Toronto, and Montreal.

In both cases, I pointed out that BoltBus and NeON were operated by Greyhound, America's largest bus network which in recent years has lost market share to curbside discounters commonly known as Chinatown buses.

Certainly, Greyhound used these new ventures to compete with the Chinatown companies (most of which were charter-based operations of questionable reliability). It also avoided waving around its role in the companies to avoid turning off potential travelers who have come to associate Greyhound with cramped, uncomfortable travel.

But the real intent behind these efforts was to fend off a far more serious challenger: MegaBus, which is operated by one of Greyhound's few real domestic competitors (Coach USA) and also offers free onboard WiFi and other goodies.

BoltBus and NeON were used to proof a concept, and now Greyhound has revealed its next step: a new-generation service that incorporates everything we loved about those services (the Internet, the roomy seats, the power outlets) under the Greyhound name. Greyhound is calling "the future of bus travel."

Private Commuter Rail: METRA Car 553

I was amazed this morning to read about Car 553, the last private commuter rail car on the Chicago-area METRA system. For a $900 annual membership, passengers who already hold valid METRA passes may ride in the car, which dates back to the 1920s.

Yesteryear's luxury parlor car has lost much of its luster. Mahogany paneling, gold trim, and crystal chandeliers have given way to blue-carpeted walls and seats that are "comfy but not cushy." But as the Tribune article points out, there are always seats, the ride is quiet (since cell phone conversations are limited to the vestibule or card room), and there are tables for work and other purposes.

This led me to wonder: is there possibly a market for private cars on today's busiest commuter rail routes?

What do you think?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Alaska and Continental part ways

For ten years, members of Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan have earned miles for flights flown with Continental flights, and Continental passengers have earned miles for flying with Alaska.

On October 25, 2009, the same day that Continental officially moves from SkyTeam to the Star Alliance, that partnership will end.

Most people probably didn't see this change coming. Unlike Continental's relationship with Delta, the Alaska partnership wasn't derived from SkyTeam; it's a bilateral arrangement between the two carriers.

Continental didn't offer an explanation for the change. But observers might note that United Airlines has been making headway in Alaska's home area in the northwest for some time, and dumping the CAL-ALK relationship gives Continental's frequent flyers an incentive to look to their soon-to-be Star Alliance partner for their travels in that region.

I'll miss being able to fly with Alaska and earn miles; it's something that always struck me as special about Continental. More important is whether Presidents Club members will continue to have access to Alaska Airlines' Board Room clubs, which serve tasty soup.

Officially, the issue of the clubs is "still being finalized." But with the ties cut for actual travel, does anyone believe the club reciprocity would continue?

Monday, July 20, 2009

JetAmerica - the Airline that Wasn't

In 2007, John Weikle launched a daring venture called SkyBus.

Modeled on Ireland's successful RyanAir, SkyBus promised to deliver extremely cheap air travel--as in, fares under $20--by doing away with all of the frills and connecting obscure airports, which have lower landing fees because there is no demand.

SkyBus got off the ground and offered something comparable to nationwide service, albeit to places that were often very far from the destinations they claimed to serve. But fuel prices climbed and climbed, and Weikle's venture was caught up in the same doom that crushed established carriers like Aloha. SkyBus ceased operations in April 2008.

JetAmerica made the same promise, and it used the same model, neither of which should be surprising since it was also founded by John Weikle. It also had an even shorter run than its predecessor: JetAmerica collapsed today, before getting a single plane in the air.

At a time when drastically reduced demand has shaken the foundations of every domestic carrier and share prices have plunged to a third of their values at the height of the fuel crisis, one could hardly be surprised to learn that financing for a new airline held limited appeal.

But seriously, does anyone believe that it's possible to operate an airline across a landmass as big as the United States while charging fares lower than the BoltBus?

Weikle has his vision, and bravo for his enthusiasm and effort. But I don't see this model ever working.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Farewell, Larry Kellner.

Larry Kellner, Continental's Chairman and Chief Executive, surprised analysts and just about everyone else today with news that he is leaving the airline industry at the end of the year to head up newly formed private equity firm Emerald Creek Group LLC.

Kellner has headed
Continental since 2004, and while times have not been good for the airlines as a whole, the company has done much better than most of its competitors during his tenure. He'll be succeeded as CEO by the company's President, Jeff Smisek.

It's expected to be a smooth transition. But no matter how seamless it may be in the boardroom, the thousands upon thousands of us who fly with Continental will know the difference: a recorded video of Kellner has welcomed us onto every flight, and while it might seem silly, I'll miss it.

Farewell, Larry. You did a great job. I hope that Jeff lives up to the bar you placed.

The Return of Eastern Airlines?

Eastern Airlines stopped flying and dissolved in 1991. Now, a core group of former employees and new investors is lining up funding with the goal of relaunching the forgotten carrier under a new business model. Seriously.

I know what you're thinking: it's not a good time to start an airline. And you have a point. Every airline is trading in the red. Fuel prices are not favorable even with oil having fallen to a "mere" $62 per barrel, and how long will it be before we see $70 or higher again on speculation?

But hey, these people have stayed in touch for 18 years since their employer went out of business. They've spent a lot of time on this, including designing an employee stock ownership plan that should align the interests of labor and management (a perennial problem for airlines). They're also looking to start small, with just 30 planes.

Will it work? I doubt it. But at least they won't need to hire someone to design a new logo.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

BIG sale on airfare after Labor Day!

Okay, this is huge.

To prop up booking for 2009, Southwest decided that it was going to offer ridiculously low fares in the traditionally low-demand period between Labor Day and Veterans Day.

How low? I'm talking about $30 for flights up to 400 miles, $60 out to about 800 miles, and $90 for destinations anywhere in the Lower 48 states!

It's not just Southwest, either: United, American, JetBlue, U.S. Airways, and Continental are all onboard with the same deal. I'm looking at flights from Washington to Los Angeles all through the fall months for $190 round-trip!

If you want to travel, this is a huge opportunity. Huge.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Eating Hot Dogs in Chicago

The Capitol Limited got us into Chicago exactly on schedule, an end-to-end travel time of about 17 hours. That might sound like a long time to those unused to train travel, but it's a remarkably relaxing time when one can just watch the scenery go by while playing cards in the comfort of a roomette.

I was a little disappointed to see that the dining car has been reconfigured along the lines of the City of New Orleans' Cross Country Cafe, though: the layout looks cool, but the seating doesn't face the tables squarely so it can be a little uncomfortable.

Even so, we hadn't been on a train since our honeymoon in January, and we both had a great time.

As one might expect, Chicago was bustling with activity on Friday. People were piling into Millennium Park to stake out prime viewing locations for the fireworks, much as they would be doing the following day in D.C. Since Gwen and I were going to the Mid-America Club, though, we opted to wander the city.

We'd been to Chicago before, and we only had so much time, so we limited our plans to one goal: hot dogs.

The Chicago-style hot dog is an undertaking: beyond the basic hot dog, one has the poppy-seeded bun; mustard and relish (but not ketchup); chopped onions and tomatoes; peppers; and a full dill pickle spear. Cheese and chili are optional.

It's an undertaking to eat one without making a mess, and we didn't manage that. We did enjoy our hot dogs immensely, though, mine with cheese while Gwen added chili as well. Accompanied by fries and milkshakes, our meal easily exceeded recommended daily calorie intake. But calories on trips don't count, right?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back-to-Back Fireworks

Chicago is doing its Independence Day fireworks this year on Friday, July 3. Predictably, D.C. has opted for July 4. So, Gwen and I have decided to see both.

We'll be leaving tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon on Amtrak's Capitol Limited. Overnight accommodations in a Superliner Roomette, dinner and breakfast included, and we get into Chicago-Union at 9:45 a.m. That means we have the day to sightsee in the Windy City before attending the Taste of Chicago event at the Mid-America Club.

One night in Chicago and then we fly back via Detroit. The flight is with Delta, but it's a Northwest flight, so our Continental status got us upgraded to First Class.

When we get back to Reagan on Saturday around 4:30 p.m., we'll have time to go home, shower, change, and head over to see fireworks from the party my boss is having in Arlington.

And that still leaves us Sunday!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Turbulence for the Registered Traveler Program

As of June 22, 2009, the largest participant in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)'s Registered Traveler program has ceased operations. To some, this news will be shocking (especially anyone who recently invested $199 in an annual memberhip). But in truth, the program has never made any sense.

Registered Traveler was created by the Bush Administration to provide a way for a private company to re-insert itself into a newly-federalized airport screening process. But because no one wanted to risk profiling, missing someone, or exempting the wealthy, Registered Traveler--which was always intended to have a monetary cost--could not replace the too-familiar process of shoe, belt, and laptop removal that we all experience whenever we fly.

As a result, TSA's program requires Registered Travelers to be fingerprinted, undergo background checks, and have their iris images scanned. But having gone through the process and obtained valid cards, Clear members still go through regular security screening. The only time savings is that they go to the front of the line--if, and only if, the airport from which they are traveling actually has a Clear lane, and at its height, Clear had operations at just 18 airports.

Now, I think that an expediting screening program for frequent travelers is a great idea. What isn't a great idea is making companies compete in this space, because what they're doing (i.e. meeting standards for security) is dictated by the government and falls under government jurisdiction. A single contractor, chosen competitively to operate Registered Traveler on behalf of the TSA, could have pulled this off much better.

Clear competitor FLO Card continues to operate for the time being. But unless and until the model changes, the rationale behind anyone operating a Registered Traveler program or signing up for one is, well, unclear.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The End of Socialized Air Travel

The dawn of the twenty-first century brought calls for a new "ownership society," the end of the "socialism" of previous years. Personal responsibility and paying only for one's own consumption, we heard, was the way of the future.

Airlines listened. They understood. And, over the last nine years, they have acted.

In 1990, tickets included checked and carry-on baggage. Curbside baggage checks were for the airlines' convenience as much as their passengers, and these were free (tips aside). Virtually every flight included at least a sandwich; mealtimes called for hot meals.

Fast-forward to 2009.

Meals? Free only on Continental; otherwise, plan for $6-8. U.S. Airways desperately wanted you to pay $2 for that soft drink, but thankfully, their competitors held the line. For now.

Checking bags will cost you $15-20 for the first bag, and as much as $50 for the second. Add $2-3 to check those bags at the curb. Oh, and if you didn't pay those fees online, United and U.S. Airways plan to charge you an extra $5 for the privilege of paying the fees in person at the airport.

Want to choose a specific seat? You'll pay as much as $20 for an exit row or aisle seat on most airlines; some charge for choosing any seat.

And RyanAir, the Irish carrier at the vanguard of fee creation, has added a fee for checking in online; the airline plans to outright eliminate its airport check-in desks.

Socialized air travel is dead. Today, you will pay for everything you want a la carte. And if that means paying a higher bottom line price, well... learn to want less. Welcome to the ownership society.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cramped in Coach?

In the 1950s, a study by Harvard University of seating on passenger trains found that 18 inches of width was the minimum needed to comfortably accommodate passengers. But narrower 17" seats to add less weight, which makes planes cheaper to fly. Airlines have also found that by spacing seats closer together, they can cram in additional rows.

How do they get away with it? Legacy airlines' best customers are often given complimentary domestic upgrades based on their elite status. First Class seats remain plenty comfortable. If you're an occasional flyer, though, you're going to be stuck in the "cattle car."

Prefer comfort? Low-cost carriers offer the most spacious Coach seats and the greatest reclining seat pitch. JetBlue's seats, 18" wide with at least 34" of seat pitch, stand out at the top of the list.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sao Paulo? Not as dangerous as you may think.

Reading the State Department travel advisory or most guidebooks, one could easily get the impression that Brazil in general, and Sao Paulo in particular, is a very dangerous place.

I don't doubt the claims of daylight robbery, or that the murder rate in Brazil is four times as high as in America; the people who write such things know their business. But I can say that I, having gone to the world's third-largest city on a typical weekend of Spontaneous Tourism, didn't encounter any of that danger.

Some of that can be attributed to planning. My wife and I stayed in an upscale hotel a few blocks from Avenida Paulista, widely known to be the safest place in the city. I kept my camera hidden when not in active use, divided money into small portions carried in various places, and kept my wallet in a less predictable spot than my back pocket. Our passports stayed secure at the hotel.

We also took the guidebooks' advice in trusting the Metro subway system but shunning the packed buses that regularly cruised the streets. Getting to and from the airport, we opted for taxis.

But that was basically it. We walked the streets of Jardim Paulista, the Centro, and the area around Parque Republica with confidence and had no trouble.

And we had a fabulous time! We devoted Saturday to Avenida Paulista, including a delightful exhibit at the Museo de Arte Sao Paulo (MASP), a stroll through Parque Trianon and coffee at the Casa da Rosas, a Versaille-style garden. The national cocktail, a caipirinha, is made with crushed lime, ice, sugar, and a rum-like liquor made from sugarcane, and we enjoyed several at the hotel bar before dinner.

Sunday was entirely different. Coincidentally, we chose as our weekend to visit Sao Paulo the same weekend as the Gay Pride parade, a massive event that last year drew some 2.5 million people and probably had even more in attendance this year. There are no "open container" laws in Brazil, and it's an odd sight for an American to see thousands of people wandering around swigging from bottles of wine, beer, and liquor.

We were there for the start of the parade, around noon, in the midst of the crowds. That was, in fact, the one security incident of our trip: Gwen's wallet was stolen out of her purse. But that's a risk at any event that masses seven figures in terms of attendees, and it was a lesson learned that will help her next time. In the meantime, it's easy enough to replace a wallet when there isn't much of value inside of it.

But we did break away from the parade at that point, and jumped on the Metro. We toured the Museo de Arte Sacre (sacred art), visited the Cathedral de Se and historic railway Estacao de Luz, and ended up in Parque Republica by around 4:00 p.m. At that point, we made our way back to the hotel and headed to the airport.

People often ask, why would you go to another country and stay only for a weekend? This trip provides the same answer to the question that I give each and every time: because on Monday morning, I'll have spent my weekend in Sao Paulo, while the person asking spent his or her time sitting at home.

This was a great trip.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Deciding on a trip

The week leading up to Independence Day is one during which Gwen has a rare break. No work, no school; genuine free time. It's the ideal time to consider a trip.

Continental has fare specials to Hong Kong right now. We could go for four days (in-country time, or ICT) for about $800 per person. United has similar fare specials to Australia, for about the same price. It's tempting.

But should we go?

Even an avid traveler like me is not immune to the inertia, the inclination to do nothing. Yes, there's free time; what if we just spent that time around town? There's nothing wrong with that, certainly. But I can be at home any time, right?

On the other hand, my mind argues with itself, you never are just "at home." You're always planning to go somewhere else.

And that's basically true: my time spent at home is the hours between those spent at work. So, to travel, or to stay put?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Greenopia lists "greenest" airlines

Want to fly, but concerned about the environment?

It's true that airplanes create a lot of pollution, in terms of greenhouse gases (air traffic may account for up to 11% of total emissions) but also just when it comes to plain old waste. With that in mind, Greenopia looked across the industry to figure out which carriers were the "greenest."

Virgin America tops the list, hard to beat given an average fleet age of just three years. But it's more than just fleet age; Continental comes in second despite an average age three times that of fourth-ranked JetBlue.

Southwest, Delta, United, U.S. Airways, Horizon Air (part of Alaska Airlines), and American also made the top ten.

Greenopia looked at airlines using a variety of measures, including:
  • Fleet age;
  • Fuel consumption practices;
  • Carbon offsets;
  • Green building design;
  • Recycling programs; and
  • Organic, local and sustainable food items available onboard.

One thing that they didn't do, unfortunately, is look outside of the United States. Proud American that I am, I have long observed that U.S. carriers tend to rank behind their international counterparts in any measured area. I'd like to see if it held true in this regard as well.

It's also not clear whether the airlines were measured in terms of domestic-only air traffic or if their international segments were included. Since some of the listed carriers (Virgin America, Southwest) are only domestic, and one (Horizon) is basically regional, that makes a difference.

And keep in mind, there are "only" about fifteen airlines in the U.S.--yes, that is a big number in absolute terms, but I think we can agree that it skews what it means to be in the top ten. (Then again, think of what it means to be excluded from the top ten; AirTran, Spirit, and Frontier are among those conspicuously absent.)

Even so, thanks to Greenopia for putting out this list. Imperfect it may be, but at least it gives us something.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Copa follows Continental

For years, Copa Airlines has enjoyed an affiliation with Continental Airlines and also been an affiliate member of the Skyteam alliance. When Continental leaves Skyteam on October 24, 2009, however, Copa will also depart the alliance.

The move is no surprise; these are airlines that work in very close cooperation, providing combined service throughout the Americas and unified frequent flyer credit (along with Aero Rep├║blica) under the shared OnePass program.

Besides, have you looked at the Copa logo? You could hardly be blamed for confusing them in a hurried rush through an airport terminal.

There have been no announcements from Copa or Aero Rep├║blica of plans to join the Star Alliance.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Marmalade is a gel. (Or a liquid.)

Coming through security a few minutes ago, I discovered two things:
  1. I didn't transfer the marmalade that I bought this morning at Glasgow Airport into our checked bag when we briefly retrieved it to clear U.S. customs; and
  2. Marmalade is considered either a gel or a liquid by the TSA.
To those who follow my writings, it won't be a surprise to learn that I dislike the TSA. I know their protocols well, and the annoyance of having to remove shoes and such has long since dissipated for me over the course of the hundreds of flights that I've taken.

In other words, what I dislike about the TSA is not simply that their screening slows me down. I'd accept that to achieve real security. What bothers me is that the TSA standards do not provide security.

Take the prohibition on gels and liquids, for instance. Everyone is allowed one quart-size bag containing gels and liquids in individual bottles of not more than 3 oz. each (250 mL for those outside of the U.S. Standard system of weights and measures, which today is basically everyone). Within this bag, apparently, and segregated into individual containers, whatever substances one might be bringing onto a plane are innocuous.

That'd be fine, except the bag of liquids will remain in my possession during the trip. So, what is the functional difference between my having a bag with four 3 oz. bottles of liquid and an empty 12 oz. bottle into which I combine them after screening, or a single 12 oz. bottle that I bring through? Nothing.

Situations like my marmalade add insult to injury. I bought that marmalade inside a secure area at Glasgow. If I didn't have to clear customs and enter the general population for re-screening before boarding my connection--in other words, if after customs there were a pathway for transfer passengers that just kept them inside the secure area--I would neither need to be rescreened nor could I possibly have obtained any dangerous substance in the U.S. upon my arrival.

This model would be cheaper (fewer screenings without duplication), and it would be safer (because I already went on a flight after getting through the foreign screening, so if I had bad intentions, why would I wait?). But TSA doesn't enforce such a model.

And so, after paying £3.50 (abut $6.00 USD) for my marmalade, I lost it. The world is not safer, but I am without my marmalade. And that is why I dislike the TSA.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rangers win!

In Scotland, the Rangers-Celtics rivalry is comparable to what America would recognize between the Yankees and Red Sox. It was therefore quite a big event today when the Rangers won a key game, defeating their rivals. Throughout Glasgow, blue-clad fans celebrated.

We had a busy day. Gwen commented that Glasgow isn't as much a tourist draw as Edinburgh. She's right, I think; on the other hand, Edinburgh is particularly appealing to tourists. To me, Glasgow is as much as destination as most places, definitely worth the trip.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Update from Edinburgh

Gwen and I are having an afternoon snack--perhaps we should call it "tea," but I'm reluctant to use the word to describe a Mediterranean shared plate with Stella Artois lager--in the Old City area of Edinburgh. We found a backpackers-style pub called Villagers, which has (as you might guess) free wireless Internet access, so I figured a quick update was in order.

It's been a busy day. We've toured Edinburgh Castle, walked the Royal Mile, and hiked up the crags overlooking Holyroodhouse Palace (though the Palace itself was closed for an event, and I wonder if the Queen might be in residence?). We climbed Calton Hill to see the City Observatory and the memorial to Scottish casualties in the Napoleonic Wars, a monument long-unfinished and known as "Scotland's Shame." We have, of course, heard ample bagpiping, and seen many a lad sporting a kilt.

One fascinating development was finding the tartan and family history for the Moffats, the line of Gwen's grandfather. We bought a scarf. ;-) I also found a shot glass (YAY!) and we picked up a stack of postcards to write tonight on the train.

Our train to Glasgow leaves tonight at 9:30 p.m. and gets us in about an hour later, and we'll be there until Monday. I'll see about writing something tomorrow from there.

Monday, May 18, 2009

$1 Billion for Excess Baggage

Remember last summer, when United Airlines introduced fees for checked baggage? Remember how every other airline except Southwest soon followed suit, saying that the money was needed to offset brutal losses from fuel costs?

I told you at the time that these fees would not go away. No fee ever goes away, no cut service ever comes back, once it's adopted by the bulk of the industry. The only cases of rollbacks in recent memory--restoration of 500-mile minimums for elite flyers, or U.S. Airways dumping its charge for onboard beverages--came because they weren't copied.

Today, we found out that all of those fees generate upwards of $1 billion for the airline industry. And have you noticed that oil is below $60 per barrel? That jet fuel has dropped by more than 50%?

The only question is, will Southwest join the rest of the pack and slap them on passengers? Or will they become the "Continental of baggage," holding the line on baggage the way that CAL does on meals?

Time will tell. Either way, it's pretty clear: baggage fees are here to stay.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Summer of Driving..?

Last summer, gas prices in cities across America hovered around $4.00 per gallon. This summer, recession has driven those prices way down, and while prices are ticking up, they remain only slightly more than half as high as we saw in 2008.

That's going to leave a lot of people wondering: is this, finally, the summer for that big road trip of American legend?

The answer, as always, is "It depends."

Without a doubt, there are bargains to be had. Beyond gas prices, hotel prices have also been slashed, even in popular tourist spots like Las Vegas (though one place you won't find a break is at Disney World; their appeal is basically recession-proof).

Before you jump in the car and go, though, here are a few points to consider.
  1. Mileage costs money. Gas isn't the only expense of driving. Wear and tear adds to maintenance bills and shortens the life of your car. What's more, driving a long distance in a short time is quite a bit worse than short trips over months.

    If you want to drive, it's often a good bargain to rent a car instead. The recession has driven daily rates even lower than usual, and a rental car is meant to be driven hard and then quickly replaced.

    Just be sure that your contract covers unlimited mileage--and that if you plan to leave the United States, you have special approval. Otherwise, driving into Canada or Mexico may get you into trouble, and at the very least will void your insurance coverage.
  2. Driving is exhausting. It's fun for the first few hundred miles, but as the odometer keeps turning, you're going to get tired. Change drivers often, at least every few hours. Bringing snacks is a good way to save money, but take time to stretch your legs.

  3. Plan your route. Part of the fun of a road trip is that you can detour to see things along the way, but aimlessly driving around wastes time and costs money. Whether you have a GPS system or a paper road atlas, you want to know where you are and where you're going.
There's a lot to be said against driving. It's slow. On a per-mile basis, it's more expensive for long trips than flying or taking the train, and way more expensive than taking a bus. But for better or worse, the road trip is part of the American psyche. If it's an experience you want to have, this summer may be your chance. The recession will eventually end, and $4.00-per-gallon gasoline may be back before long.

Happy driving.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Alaska: Pillows no more!

Effective immediately, Alaska Airlines no longer has pillows or blankets on its planes.

This unexpected move has been billed as a response to the (for some reason) dreaded "swine flu," a headline-grabbing variation of the ordinary flu that thus far has killed so few people that it shouldn't even be in the news but instead has driven Americans in particular to near-panic.

I don't doubt, per se, that Alaska Airlines has the best interests of its passengers in mind. Really. Alaska Airlines is a good airline, its flight attendants are friendly, and in general, you can expect good service.

But history suggests that a benefit, once removed, is gone for good. So I wonder: now that Alaska has pounced on this opportunity for health reasons, will the pillows and blankets stay off of its planes to help the company's bottom line?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I'm ignoring the Swine Flu.

Readers might wonder why I've been silent on the topic flooding the news these days. I'm referring, of course, to swine influenza A, designated H1N1 and colloquially known as the "swine flu."

Simply put: I don't care about the swine flu.

We're really excited about this right now. It's spreading, people have died, etc. But the fact is, tens of thousands of Americans die every year from the regular flu. And do we care? Not a bit.

So, yes, the swine flu is out there. And yes, you might want to take advantage of the airlines' offers to rebook your ticket free of charge if you're scheduled to go to Mexico--not primarily because you'll get sick, which can happen to you right here in America, but because everything will be closed when you get there. Not much fun.

But beyond that, stop worrying about the swine flu and live your life. Oh, unless you own stock in the airlines; in that case, you might as well worry about the swine flu, because until everyone else stops worrying, your stock is going to stay about 20% down from where it should be.

I'm just sayin'.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Overbooking might get you an update

Coming back from a recent trip to Shanghai, I was "involuntarily" upgraded by Continental from my assigned Coach seat to a seat in BusinessFirst class. This upgrade would have cost $500 plus 25,000 miles if I'd scheduled it. Instead, I got it for free.

The reason? Coach was oversold.

I wish I could say that getting one of these upgrades was a matter of asking. The real key, though, is elite status.

Like most of the legacy airlines, Continental doesn't give complimentary upgrades to anyone on long-haul international segments. If there aren't enough seats in Coach for everyone who checks in, though, they'll start upgrading people in order of seniority based on elite status until they've taken care of the overflow.

This scenario happens surprisingly often on U.S. carriers operating flights from overseas destinations (especially Asia) back to the United States. It's quite common for flights that have little booking on their outbound routes to be packed coming home.

Of course, there's a downside: they'll only upgrade as few people as needed to get rid of the overbooking. In my case, that left my wife in Coach while I was put in BusinessFirst--she did insist that I take the seat, you understand--because that left Coach completely full.

I'm lobbying Continental to allow people in this situation to buy discounted upgrades for their travel companions at the gate; we'll see what comes of that.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Remembering the Lockheed L-1011... and how far we've come?

More often than not, the aircraft would push back from the gate on time, and sit. The aircraft would show “off the blocks” on time, but it would sit on the tarmac, waiting for the temperature to fall.

Beverage service would commence, movies would be shown, and many times the wait turned out to be several hours before the aircraft could depart into the falling temperatures of the late afternoon. The plane would turn about every 30 minutes while waiting so passengers on each side of the aircraft could benefit from alternating sun and shade...

This, of course, was assuming the aircraft didn’t have something break while at the gate, which was pretty often."

I've never flown on an L-1011. More of the article segment shown above, by Scott Laird and talking about his favorite airplane, can be found in the Oklahoma City Airport Examiner.

I wanted to share that part of Scott's recollections with you, though, because the segment makes a good point often forgotten: a plane sitting on a tarmac for hours is not a new phenomenon, and in fact, was once more common than it is today. What's different is how people are treated.

In Scott's story, the crew serves drinks and shows movies. Today, passengers are forced to stay in their seats, bludgeoned with threats of arrest if they do not comply. Flight attendants keep passengers from getting up to use the bathroom, claiming that takeoff is imminent, even when they know that it will be hours before anything changes.

That, more than anything, captures the difference between aviation three decades ago and what we endure today.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rail Review: The Ireland-U.K. Enterprise

Looking to get from Dublin to Belfast, fast? You might be interested in the Enterprise train jointly operated by Irish national rail carrier Eirnrod Eireann and Northern Ireland's NI Railways.

We took the Enterprise in February. Gwen and I are always cost-conscious on our trips, but hotel rates were surprisingly low over Valentine's Day weekend, so I opted for First Plus seating at a premium of around €20 over standard €45 Enterprise Class tickets. After retrieving our prepaid tickets from the counter at Connoley Station, we boarded the train at 10:00 a.m. and settled into comfortable seats.

In First Plus, passengers who would like meals order off of menus--there is one for weekday travel and another for the weekends--so we each enjoyed full Irish breakfasts with tea. Unlike First Class on Amtrak's Acela, food is not included in the price of an Enterprise First Plus ticket, but the prices were comparable to what one would spend in town, and the quality was good if not outstanding.

There's also a Cafe Bar car on the Enterprise. We had no reason to visit it, but my understanding is that there are hot and cold snacks available as well as an assortment of beverages, and there's a snack trolley that passes through the Enterprise Class coaches.

Whichever ticket you have, of course, the view is free. En route from Dublin, we saw beaches, towns, and miles of green countryside.

We arrived at Belfast Central Station just after noon for a total trip time of a little over two hours. It's the same time that one would estimate the trip to take by car, and I understand the appeal (particularly among Americans) for jumping behind the wheel of an automobile and hitting the open road.

But if you'd prefer to relax en route and arrive rested without the hassles of tolls and expensive gasoline, check out the Enterprise. It could be just the ticket you want.

Destination: Dublin

Republic of Ireland

Currency: Euro (check rates)
Languages: English (prevalent); Gaelic
Per Diem: $271 L / $168 M&IE

In years gone by, Dublin might have been remembered for its exceptionally poor coffee. These days, the city is as cosmopolitan as any in Europe, and the coffee, provided by various multinational chains, is what you'd expect in a national capital.

But then, no one comes to Dublin for coffee. More than a thousand years of history, including the multi-volume Book of Kells on display at Trinity College as well as dozens of museums and cathedrals, beckon those who wander past. There's an endless array of pubs and clubs to be found, especially in the Temple Bar area, and a number of impressive shopping districts, including charming stores that line busy Grafton Street.

While in town, most visitors also tour the Guinness Storehouse; I did, and I'd call it a "must see" for anyone visiting Dublin. The near-religious vibe of the place, combined with several opportunities for free tastings and complete with a free pint served on the top floor against the backdrop of a panoramic city view, make the price more than worthwhile.

How expensive is Dublin?

For much of its history, Ireland has been economically depressed. That changed about a decade ago, and the country underwent its first boom; today, it is experiencing its first recession.

That's bad news for the Irish, but good news for tourists: when I visited Dublin in February, discounted flights were available for less than $300 round-trip and average nightly hotel costs were under $100.

Ireland uses the Euro common currency. (Check current exchange rates at As of March 2009, U.S. government Per Diem rates for Dublin were $168 M&IE / $271 lodging.

Travel Considerations

The Republic of Ireland is part of the European Union but is not a signatory to the Schengen Protocol, which means that you'll need to go through passport control to travel from Ireland to any European country on the continent.

Ireland does, however, maintain an open border with the United Kingdom (which is why it could not adopt the Schengen treaty, as the U.K. does not want open borders with continental Europe), so travel from Dublin to Belfast or other parts of Northern Ireland is transparent.

U.S. citizens do not need visas to visit Ireland.

  • Air: Dublin Airport (DUB) is about 10km outside of the city. Buses to the city center leave almost constantly.
  • Rail: Dublin-Connoley Station offers Iarnrod Eireann rail service across Ireland as well as the Irish-U.K. cooperative Enterprise line that connects Dublin to Belfast.
  • Bus: Busarus central bus station, with Bus Eireann coach service across the country.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

JetBlue, direct to Costa Rica

On March 26, JetBlue Airways will begin new service to San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO) from Orlando (MCO) with fares starting at around $99 each way. Adding taxes and fees, that's around $250 for a round-trip.

Later this year, New York-based JetBlue is on track to add service to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. (Check out their route map.) Denver-based Frontier added Costa Rica to its list of destinations in late 2008 and other low-cost carriers are looking to branch out as well.

Given the dire state of the economy and declining passenger numbers for all of the airlines, it's nice to see that these airlines are moving forward with confidence.

U.S. Airways' CEO, meanwhile, is wondering how he can cut further capacity and talking about the need for consolidation. Here's an idea, Mr. Parker: why don't you just go out of business and give your planes to airlines that have a future?

Monday, February 23, 2009

U.S. Airways abandons charging for drinks!

Seven months and who knows how many lost sales having passed since U.S. Airways CEO Doug Parker announced that his airline would charge $2 for soda or water and $1 for coffee or tea, he's finally admitting what travel experts everywhere already knew: it was a really bad idea.

Over the last year or so, airlines have begun charging or boosted fees for all sorts of things. Passengers now pay to check even one bag on some carriers, and every carrier charges for a second or third piece of luggage. Change fees have gone up. Fees have been added to mileage redemption. United Airlines got out in front by offering a proactive charge to earn more miles through its Award Accelerator program.

Yet despite that apparent willingness to add and expand fees, not a single U.S. airline followed Parker's lead on charging for beverages. Why?

Simple: the idea was stupid.

Seriously, at a time when air travel is less pleasant than ever, why would you possibly want to antagonize passengers by charging them $2 for bottled water?

Parker's example stands in marked contrast to Continental (which still offers complimentary meals to Coach passengers) and highlights a key flaw in the airline model: cutting costs only goes so far. At the end of the day, airlines provide services, and treating passengers like cattle leaves them preferring to fly with a competing airline.

So, after months of defending the supposed success of his policy, Parker has backtracked--apparently surprising some of his own executives, who were still touting the merits of the plan--and U.S. Airways returns to mediocrity from the depths of complete disaster.

I guess we can cheer for that.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Behind its Acela fare cut, Amtrak hides a pretty big change

According to the Boston Globe, Amtrak is cutting fares on its Acela Express trains by as much as 25%. It makes sense: since the latest fare increases during the 2008 gas-fueled ridership boom, Acela fares have gone for as much as two and a half times equivalent Regional fares.

The lower fares are offered to passengers booking at least 14 days in advance and apply to Business Class tickets only. Limiting the discount, and making these tickets specifically non-upgradeable, feels like a misstep; Amtrak had a great opportunity here to introduce people to Acela First Class service (which is rather nice) and lure them as long-term customers.

But there is also another twist, and it is far more troubling: these discounted tickets are non-refundable.

For people used to flying, this might seem like 'no big deal.' Up until this point, though, Amtrak had two big advantages over its sky-based competitors:
  1. Amtrak fares included all taxes, so there were no surprises; and
  2. Amtrak fares were fully refundable and changeable.

Introducing non-refundable fares is a new twist for Amtrak, and frankly one that carries with it more downsides than it did for airlines.

Air travel is a big deal, involving a trip out to the airport; checking baggage; security screening; the flight itself; arrival procedures; baggage reclamation; and travel into to the city. Rail travel means showing up at the station, having a ticket, stepping on the train, and traveling.

In other words, you would rarely book a flight on a whim, because you can't cancel it if circumstances change. You can do that with rail, so it's easier to decide to travel. Nonrefundable fares get rid of that flexibility--and once that happens, how can I justify that it often costs just as much to take the Acela as to fly with a low-cost airline?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reducing Customer Complaints

United Airlines has found an innovative new way to lower the number of customer complaints that it receives: effective immediately, United will stop publishing a customer relations phone number. By the end of April, it will drop the number altogether.

Odds are that this approach is not what most people have in mind.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Another AirTran Debacle

AirTran is an airline that I really want to like. They're a low-cost carrier, but they've got bigger ambitions:
  • They're partnered with Frontier, essentially giving their route map twice as many destinations.
  • Their planes have Business Class seating.
  • AirTran's A+ Reward program offers an Elite status benefit that offers perks like complimentary upgrades typically only found on legacy carriers.
In other words, there's a lot there that should be impressive. And I'm an A+ Elite member, so I theoretically get the best treatment one can get from the airline. Yet whenever I have flown AirTran--here's one example, and here's another--and I've been disappointed:
  • Check-in lines are long.
  • Elite check-in lines are closed or not staffed.
  • Flights are late.
  • Business Class is filled with young children who spend the flight whining.
The latest comic scenario from AirTran continues this fine spirit of setting lofty goals but failing to achieve them. AirTran Flight 373 was supposed to take three hours to get from Columbus, Ohio to Orlando, Florida. There was ice on the plane, so it couldn't fly.

There are two good choices here: replace the plane, or cancel the flight. AirTran did neither. Instead, it delayed the flight for an astonishing nine hours, turning a three-hour trip into twelve.

And would you believe that when the plane did finally arrive, some of the passengers' luggage wasn't on board?

AirTran apologized, and all 84 passengers on the flight were offered round-trip tickets to destinations of their choice. But is that enough? Round-trip tickets make poor compensation when it's likely that the next flight will be no better.

I want to like AirTran. But the truth is, as an airline, AirTran consistently fails to achieve the level of service that it claims to offer. When is that going to change?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Amtrak Review: The Coast Starlight

There's little debate: the Coast Starlight is the best route that Amtrak offers. Spanning more than 1100 miles from Los Angeles to Seattle, the Coast Starlight offers its passengers a delightful range of scenery, from
crashing waves and rolling hills to snowy mountains and thick forests. Along the way, the train makes major station stops in Sacramento, Oakland, and Portland as well as dozens of other cities and towns that span the West Coast.

The Coast Starlight is a long-haul Amtrak line and offers a full range of standard amenities, including a Sightseer Lounge with Cafe, full Dining Car, and baggage service. Superliner Coach seats are quite comfortable--comparable to what one would find in First Class on most international flights before the advent of the lie-flat seat--and the large windows in the Coaches as well as in the Lounge give you ample opportunity to enjoy the landscape as it passes by. You'll also find a mini-arcade on the lower level of one of the Coach cars; this is the only Amtrak route to offer one.

With so much to be said for Coach, you might be surprised to learn that the Coast Starlight is also the route on which you probably benefit the most from choosing to upgrade to First Class, or what Amtrak calls "sleeper accommodations." There are a variety of sleeper options from which to choose, but the most affordable is the Superliner Roomette; on the Coast Starlight, these cost around $100 (per room, not per person) above Coach fare. (True Bedrooms are also available but cost much more, often around $400.)

Roomettes tend to be a good value on any Amtrak long-haul train; in addition to showers, fresh linens, and the comfort of a true lay-flat bed, your meals as a First Class passenger are included at no cost, which saves you $10-15 per meal per person. The Coast Starlight is a particularly great route on which to upgrade, though, because you also get something extra-special: the Pacific Parlour Car.

The Parlour Car is a unique treat. On one level, it's not so different from the Sightseer Lounge: there are places to sit, tables, windows, and a nearby cafe attendant. But the chairs are plush and more comfy, and the cafe offers complimentary coffee as well as reasonably priced cocktails and specialty coffee drinks. In the afternoons, there are wine-and-cheese tastings for $5--the wines are forgettable, but the cheeses are often impressive--and the lower level is a movie theater.

You'll also find tables in the Parlour Car, and you can choose to eat any or all of your meals there as an alternative to the main Dining Car. The menu is limited but specialized--nothing on the Parlour Car menu is available in the Dining Car, or vice versa--and the service is less rushed and better suited to couples.

Oh, and did I mention? The Pacific Parlour Car is exclusively for passengers traveling First Class.

All tolled, a trip from Los Angeles to Seattle (or the other way around) takes two days, leaving on the morning of the first day and arriving at around 9:00 p.m. on the second. You'll spend one night and enjoy five meals aboard this Amtrak flagship route, and tickets can be as little as $100 per person for one-way Coach. Add the Roomette and you're looking at less than $300 for two people--a small price to pay when you're also enjoying scenery and service like this.

America has a long way to go before its rail system will be the equal of those found in Western Europe, Japan, and Canada. We all know that. On the Coast Starlight, though, you'll experience the very best that Amtrak has to offer. It's a trip worth taking.