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.