Monday, September 27, 2010

Southwest buys AirTran! Continental updates its meal policy!

We usually don't see so much activity on a Monday, but there were two big developments today in U.S. domestic travel industry:
  1. Southwest is buying AirTran Airways; and
  2. Continental is really and truly doing away with complimentary meals for domestic Coach passengers.
I was very surprised to hear about the Southwest-AirTran deal.  Mostly, I was surprised by the lack of advance coverage; we'd heard about the United-Continental deal with months before it was announced.  But it also seems like an odd match-up.

Sure, AirTran has gates at some airports where Southwest would like to add service, like (where?).  But Southwest is a one-class carrier.  Absorbing AirTran will mean reconfiguring all of the planes to eliminate the Business Class cabins that are in place now, and that seems like a lot of work.

I'm also sorry to see AirTran go, precisely because of those Business Class cabins.  We have lots of excess capacity and mergers make sense, but AirTran had broken new ground by offering two-class service for affordable prices.  Virgin America has two-class service, but its First Class offering is much pricier than the front cabins on AirTran flights.  I can't help thinking that we've lost something here.

As for Continental, I'd been totally confused by the situation on meals ever since my recent Alaska trip.  I lobbied for an end to free meals months ago and was happy when they first announced they'd be doing away with them, and these for-purchase food items sound really tasty.  I'm all for it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Continental still serves meals, sometimes.

Back in March, I wrote about Continental's decision to end complimentary meal service for Coach passengers.

It was, as I understood it, a "done deal."  So, Gwen and I were surprised on a recent flight segment from Houston to Seattle when flight attendants came around passing out trays with chicken enchiladas, carrot sticks, salad cups, and Kit Kat candy bars. 

There was no meal offered from Seattle to Anchorage.  However, we encountered a similar meal service (this time with a turkey sandwich) flying from Anchorage back to Seattle -- and no meal from Seattle to Newark.

That led me to do some checking, and according to Continental's posted dining policy, meal service is still in effect for flights over three hours in length that fall between "standard meal times:"
  • Breakfast / Snack: 7:00 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.
  • Lunch / Snack: 11:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
  • Dinner / Snack: 5:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m. 
To be sure, these are not gourmet meals.  I also doubt that they'll survive the merger, as United already has an established product line of (quite tasty) fresh food items sold onboard.

But getting something to eat was a pleasant surprise. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Would you like less legroom on your flight?

American airline passengers complain about legroom.  I mean, whenever Americans fly, they complaint about pretty much everything, but legroom is one of the biggest complaints I hear onboard aircraft.

Well, for all that you consider that 30-32" seat pitch woefully inadequate, Italian firm Aviointeriors has actually come up with something smaller.

The SkyRider seat is patterned on a saddle design.
The SkyRider seat is patterned after a horse saddle.  By having a contoured base, it can actually accommodate a... well, rider, with as little as 23" of seat pitch.  That means that in an economy cabin with 30 rows of 30" standard seating, an airline could actually fit an additional nine rows of seats by putting in SkyRider seats and squishing everything closer together.

SkyRider seats are specifically intended for shorter flights.  RyanAir enthusiasts shouldn't be surprised if these appear soon on the plane soon.

That said, there are three reasons we're unlikely to see these in America:
  1. They're not FAA-approved;
  2. The typical U.S. flight is long by the standards of most other countries; and
  3. Passengers almost certainly wouldn't tolerate them.
FAA approval might be forthcoming, of course, if there were enough testing done.  And an that third point, I admit I'm making an assumption here.  Ten years ago, I'd have assumed that Americans would never tolerate checked baggage fees or the elimination of Coach meals. 

But even if those we could clear those jumps, they'd still be of limited use in a country with such long flights.  So, you're not likely to see many SkyRiders here.

If we did, would they be comfortable?  As an Aviointeriors spokesman points out, cowboys ride in saddles for hours.

But Americans would still complain.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Roaming Alaska

Alaska may be America's Last Frontier, but this is the twenty-first century. "Far" just isn't as far as it used to be, at least in the cities. And Anchorage, while small by Lower 48 standards, is a city.

I was therefore quite expecting that when I turned on my Verizon BlackBerry Storm on my first morning in Anchorage, there would be signal, and there was. The familiar 1xev block appeared, telling me that the 3G CDMA signal we call EVDO was available. But after a few minutes, I was surprised to see that it still appeared exactly that way: lowercase, meaning that while 3G service was available, I wasn't getting it. Verizon, it turns out, doesn't have coverage in Anchorage.

I was roaming.

Once feared for its potential to mean huge per-minute charges, domestic "roaming" is now mostly a novelty concept for customers of major cell phone plans. But my experience reminded me of how precarious the access to data that we assume every day really is. There can be infrastructure, and signal. But sometimes, it's not enough.

Sometimes, despite all of the technology, you're left roaming.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fees and Rewards: Airline Priorities

Over the last two years, we've seen U.S. domestic airline amenities cut back and fees put in place for things that used to be free.

Many airlines have eliminated pillows and blankets, ostensibly in the name of hygiene. One can genuinely agree with the merits of this idea, yet that justification has nicely underpinned offers for passengers to buy their very own new pillows and blankets; do we really imagine that it was primarily health and not revenue that led to the move?

Then there's luggage. Free checked baggage used to be a given, but most airlines now charge even for a first checked bag, and only Southwest still allows two free pieces of checked luggage per passenger. Spirit has gone the opposite direction and added charges for carry-on bags in addition to those for checked luggage, telling passengers in effect that their ticket prices are genuine only for those who have no intention to stay more than a few hours and are pointedly not traveling on business.

And, of course, food and beverages. The industry balked at U.S. Airways' 2008 attempt to charge for all drinks (something that low-cost carriers in other countries do). But complimentary meals, which had been waning since the traffic declines after September 11, 2001, finally vanished this year when Continental pulled the plug.

There's an interesting countertrend emerging, though: while airlines are charging for things that never cost money before and charging more for things that used to cost less (like curbside luggage and alcoholic beverages), they are also taking more opportunities to extend those benefits for free or at discounted rates to passengers who qualify.

Again, take luggage. The legacy carriers charge $25 or more for a first checked bag and up to $50 for a second. But if you hold elite status with the airline you're traveling -- or if you're an elite member of a partner airline -- you won't pay that fee.

Similarly, Continental recently boosted the cost of onboard alcoholic beverages from $5 to $6. But if you're paying with a Continental credit card, you'll actually pay $4 -- less than you paid before the price went up.

In the months ahead, keep a lookout for more of these special discounts and benefits.  They may move people around in the skies, but airlines are in business to make money.  For a while, they forgot that.  Now, they're remembering, and airlines are bound to expand the list of what is given at no cost to their most profitable customers.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Approved: The New United

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice signed off on the proposed merger of United and Continental, after the latter agreed to transfer some of its gates at Newark-Liberty International Airport to low-cost carrier Southwest.  A shareholder vote is scheduled for September 17 (which is also the last day to trade September options, by the way), and a passing tally looks assured. 

There is some noise being made by opponents seeking judicial intervention to block the deal, and House Transportation Committee Chairman Oberstar is talking about re-regulation.  Oberstar says that, if the merger goes ahead, "our domestic carrier fleet will have shrunk to four network carriers."  (In making that claim, he dismisses Southwest, JetBlue, Airtran, Frontier, Spirit, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian, Virgin America, Sun Country, and a few others.  But who's counting, right?)

The fact is, this is going to happen, whatever Oberstar says.  The question is, what lies ahead for passengers?  And the answer is, in the short run, nothing.

In a post-merger scenario, Continental and United will at first continue to operate as separate airlines under common ownership by a holding company.  (United Air Lines is already owned by a traded holding company as a result of a previous bankruptcy, so this is itself nothing new.)

The two Star Alliance airlines have already been working to extend cross-carrier benefits such as elite upgrades, so we can reasonably expect to see those roll out pretty soon after the merger is finalized.  Straightening out booking and routing systems, aligning flight schedules, and building a combined frequent flyer program will take longer.

One also has to keep in mind the ever-present labor issues of the industry  -- though my casual asides with United employees suggest they are thrilled to be coming under the management of Continental's executive team, which has long been held up as the gold standard for airline labor-management relations.  (As an example of why, Continental still maintains and funds a pension plan for its employees.)

By early next spring, Continental CEO Jeff Smisek, who will be the CEO of the new United, envisions that the combined carrier will be ready for "Customer Day One."  That's when everything will be in place from a passenger point of view.

And the last step, where the Department of Transportation issues a single carrier certificate for the new airline?  That will probably be next winter.

But it matters about as much as Chairman Oberstar's ability to count.