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A Few Notes from My Trip Out West

A few random notes from my trip to the West Coast:

- Apparently the TSA-approved method of handling a non-English speaking passenger who is passing through security with something in their pocket is to yell at them in increasingly louder tones: EMPTY EVERYTHING FROM YOUR POCKETS. EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING. EVERY. THING. POCKETS. EVERYTHING. EMPTY. EVERY. POCKETS. EVERYTHING. SIR. SIR. SIR. SIR. SIR. EVERYTHING.

- One thing to note about the coach cabin of the United 757 PS service aircraft is that there are only 2 lavs for the 114 (I think that’s correct) coach passengers, meaning there is basically a line for the bathroom for 5 hours. I was waiting in line and I noticed that bathroom one was turning over quickly, while bathroom two was occupied by the same passenger for quite some time. I’m next in line and I’m praying – Dear God am I praying – that bathroom two does NOT open up first, because I cannot imagine what the hell was going on in that lavatory. I emerged after quickly finishing my business, gave a knowing smile to the next person in line, and flashed a look of pity at the 2nd person in line, who is now engaged in a game of foul-smelling musical chairs.

- Vote: would you rather have the Live TV found on most United domestic aircraft, or would you rather have the deeper selection of non-live TV and movies found on PS and international flights? I’ll vote for non-live TV.

- I had to buy a ticket on Monday to fly from the LA area to Miami on Tuesday. I thought for sure that this ticket would cost 4 figures. I was pleasantly shocked to discover that I could purchase a ticket on United from Orange County (via Houston) to Miami for $203 with a 1-day advance purchase. My complete lack of understanding of how airline pricing works was further confirmed when, upon check-in (which was immediately after I purchased the ticket, as the flight was leaving in less than 24 hours), they offered a confirmed upgrade to First for $119. Did you know that you could fly up front from California to Miami for $322 with no advanced purchase? I did not know that either. And because I am cheap, I turned down the upgrade. It was a calculated decision, as I was able to grab my favorite (?) coach seat (21D – reclining exit row, aisle) on each leg. I was then complimentarily upgraded for the IAH-MIA leg.

- Seriously – $322.

- Quiz: What the hell was that on my tray table on the JFK-LAX flight?

A) Old squished banana
B) Lugie
C) Yogurt
D) Wet cracker
E) All of the Above

- Answer: Probably A. Really hoping it wasn’t B.

- For the third consecutive time that I’ve been there, the Avis Preferred hut at LAX was a complete cluster. My name wasn’t on the board, an affliction that was apparently also troubling the 20 other people who were on line wondering where their cars were. For my troubles, they gave me a convertible red Camaro, which is both

Awesome; and
Cheeseball

- OK, United…time to put the TVs in the 737-800.

- Yep – Miami is absolutely the worst airport in America.

- And finally…thanks Element Miami Airport Hotel. That was nice of you to charge $10 for parking even though you’re located in the middle of nowhere. And even nicer after I arrived at 1am to make me drag my ass back out to my car to put my parking pass in it. Classy.


787 – So Close, Yet So Far

I’m headed to Los Angeles this morning and in a complete airline nerd move I booked a flight from LaGuardia to Houston to LA so I could fly a United 787 from Houston to LA. I had to get up at 430 this morning but I was very excited (again, in a complete airline nerd way) and getting up at that hour didn’t even bother me.

Plus – I got upgraded on that leg. What could go wrong?

Obviously something went wrong or I wouldn’t be writing this. At 630am the pilot told us we had been hit by a truck. Literally, not figuratively. Maintenance was taking a look. At 710 it became clear we were not leaving and I was not flying the 787 today. That is a huge bummer.

But in what must be a record, I left the plane at 710am, stopped by the United Club where they moved me to an 830am nonstop out of JFK. I hopped in a taxi and was AT MY GATE at JFK at 745.

If you have ever had to make that switch, you will understand that I jumped some time/space continuum to accomplish that. As they said in Seinfeld, nobody beats the Van Wyck. But I did this morning.

35 minutes from plane to plane, including a stop to change the flight. I’m in shock.

And I’ll arrive in LA 30 minutes earlier than planned, sadly without a 787 flight.

See you in LA.


Friday Roundup: Azerbaijan Airlines, Delta to Liberia, Fiji Airlines Pass…

- Azerbaijan Airlines will launch twice weekly service between Baku, Azerbaijan, and New York’s JFK Airport beginning September 24th. The A340 flights operate Wednesdays and Saturdays. Flights will earn extremely valuable Azal Miles, which cannot be redeemed on any partners.

- Effective September 1st, Delta is canceling is Accra – Monrovia (Liberia) service. Flights operated JFK-ACC-ROB. Flights between JFK and Accra are unaffected. Sad to see they couldn’t make the 3x/wk operation work.

- Fiji Airways has introduced a pass that allows you to fly to as many islands in Fiji as you’d like for $179 (after you’ve bought a ticket to Fiji on Fiji Airways). Call (800) 227-4446 to book.

- A VietJet A320 landed at the wrong airport earlier this week, touching down at Cam Ranh airport near Nha Trang, instead of at Lien Khuong Airport near Da Lat City in the central highlands 62 miles away. Most odd is that one airport is in the mountains, and one is by the sea, so perhaps the crew should have noticed that. Staff have been suspended.


Why Is the Customer Experience on US Airlines So Bad? (Or Is It So Bad?)

I’ve been emailing with a reader about the state of customer experience on US airlines, and I thought I’d share some of the conversation here, because it opens up a discussion about whether US airline service and experience is as bad as everyone seems to suggest, and whether everywhere else has it as good as we all think.

The point that kicked off the discussion was this: US airlines are now very profitable. Given that, why don’t they invest more in the experience, at least for premium travelers? Why should people who fly all the time feel like the rug is always being pulled out from under them?

My response (shortened) was this:

I think the airlines are figuring out the minimum service level required for each class…

As much as everyone complains, the airline industry is the healthiest it’s ever been. Literally ever. There is probably the right amount of competition, fares are high enough to turn a profit but not so high that demand is suffering, and people who just want very cheap fares have options on the low end. And I know everyone whines about service, but basically all domestic aircraft will have wi-fi and entertainment on them in the next 2 years. I’d trade a 2007 Continental half-turkey sandwich for that any day.

There is no other country in the world with an airline industry like ours. Large country, highly competitive airline marketplace, no flag carrier nor ex-flag carrier, and because of geography and visa laws, no possibility of using anywhere in the country as a transit point. So it’s not like the Middle East. It’s not like Singapore. It’s not like any airline in Europe. It’s its own entity, and it’s not really a passenger service industry, it’s just a utility. So for the first time ever they’re acting as a rational actor in a commodity environment: maximize pricing while minimizing cost at a place where you optimize revenues. Voila.

Singapore was a luxury provider because they didn’t fly short-haul and they were competing solely for long-distance traffic (primarily with BA and Qantas). Emirates was initially competing with Singapore for connecting traffic between Asia/Australia & Europe, so they had to compete with them from a service perspective. Then Qatar and Etihad had to match. The European airlines haven’t been historically profitable, and they have never figured out how to make short-haul work.

US carriers have to do all of that – short haul, compete with lowfare airlines on the same routes, while not being able to benefit from, say, connecting traffic between Europe & South America. They’ve done the most with the hand they’ve been dealt, no?

If you fly a 2-3 hour flight in Europe, there is likely no first class, no wi-fi, and no television. Yes, they give you a sandwich.

If you fly a 2-3 hour flight in the US, I’d say there is a 75% chance that you have a first class cabin, wi-fi, seatback TV, and paid something resembling a reasonable fare. A one-way ticket from Amsterdam to Frankfurt is $600.

The big 3 have now elevated the Transcon product to be perfectly acceptable for a 5-hour flight – full entertainment and wi-fi, a food offering of some sort, and really sold premium cabin options (remembering that it’s a 5 hour flight).

I think the issue is that US carriers do not compete on service in a long-haul environment. They’re somewhat subpar in a mid-haul environment (say <8 hours), but they offer a perfectly acceptable product for that distance.

It appears to me that US short-haul travelers simply will not pay for the other stuff. They won’t. They apparently will on transcon flights (because there’s enough entertainment and finance industry business to support it), so the airlines have invested there.

I wish I could see a future where airlines offered a better “more fun” flying experience. But nobody will pay for it. And because literally for the first time in the history of the US airline industry they’ve actually figured out how to make boatloads of money, I cannot imagine them making any crazy changes right now.

So, I’m not sure service is actually bad. It seems to me that the airlines have focused investments on areas where customers will pay for it. Essentially, you’ve traded free food, drinks & pillows for paid wi-fi and television. I actually think that’s a pretty good tradeoff, and well ahead of what most other airlines offer on flights under 5 hours in their regions.


Whoa – United Will Fly an Embraer ERJ from Newark to London!

London, Ontario. Ha ha, I’m funny.

Starting October 26th, they’ll fly Newark-London (Ontario) twice daily. I expect we’ll have the first report of someone going to the wrong London by the end of the year.


Trip Report: Dulles – JFK on JetBlue (By an 8 Year Old)

One common theme that runs through basically every trip report I’ve ever read is that they’re written by people who are over the age of 8. Well, I’m putting a stop to that today. As I mentioned last week, one of my 8 year old girls flew unaccompanied for the first time on JetBlue from Dulles to JFK yesterday. Because it takes her approximately an hour and a half to type 3 sentences, I thought it would be best if she would tell me her trip report, and I could write it up here for her.

I forgot to ask her to take photos, so you’ll have to imagine what a seat on a plane looks like. Also, she did not have any champagne so those of you who like to hear about free champagne should skip.

TRIP REPORT
Where: Dulles (near Grandma and Zeide’s house) – New York JFK Airport
Airline: JetBlue Flight “I don’t know what flight number”
Aircraft: “I guess it was a pretty big plane”

Check-In
We got to the airport pretty early and we went up to check in. No, we didn’t check in online (laughing). We had to go to the man at the counter, and it took a while because he had to scan all these pieces of paper saying who was dropping me off and who was picking me up. It took a while for him to do that. I wasn’t sure if they’d let both Grandma and Zeide through security with me, but they did.

I didn’t get to pick my seat, but they gave me the window seat in the last row of the plane. All of the kids traveling alone have to sit in the last row so the flight attendants can watch them.

Security was really fast – maybe we waited 3 minutes.

Gate & Boarding
Grandma brought me a bunch of snacks – grapes, cereal, chocolates, a Dum Dum lollypop. I said goodbye, and a guy named Pete took me to my seat and he took care of me during the flight.

Pete brought me to my seat in the last row and there was no one in the row with me. But there was a man sitting in the aisle across from me, and he said “hi” to me when I sat down. The plane was pretty full.

In-Flight Service
Pete gave me all these snacks at the beginning before we took off – I had Doritos, and chocolate chip cookies and a bottle of water. He asked if I had headphones, and I didn’t so he gave me TWO pairs of headphones.

The TV was already on, so I didn’t have to figure out how to turn it on. There wasn’t anything good on Disney, so I watched HGTV. I watched parts of 2 different episodes of Love It or List It. That show is soooooo good!

During the flight Pete came by with drinks and I had a SPRITE! He also gave me pretzels. They made an announcement that because the flight was so short that they were only going to give out drinks and pretzels, but Pete gave me a whole bunch of snacks. And I couldn’t figure out how to open the can of Sprite, so I asked Pete and he opened it for me. I only drank half of it.

Since I’m small I think every seat has lots of legroom, so I guess the seat was fine.

Arrival
One really cool thing when we landed they showed us that right outside the plane there was the biggest airplane in the world. It’s called a A Something? It was really big.

I was the last one off the plane and Pete took me to the front of the plane and another guy took me to another gate. I waited there for like 10 minutes, and then someone else came around with a girl who wasn’t traveling with her parents. The guy I was with kept talking on a walkie-talkie to see if someone could get me. Then someone did and took me to where my parents and sister were standing.

Final Thoughts
I would fly JetBlue again. I like the TV part. And the snacks were really good.


The Spirit Airlines 8,000 Mile Giveaway Video

So a bunch of people have written about how Spirit Airlines is giving away 8,000 of their miles to anyone who complains about another airline at Hatethousandmiles.com (because they’ve heard so many complaints about their own airline). Hint: take the miles and get a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. You’re welcome (thanks to a kind reader for that heads up).

But I’m really bringing it up because the accompanying video & song they’ve made for this made me laugh a lot. Especially at about :44 seconds in. Skip if easily offended, please.


Save 20% On Lots of Non-Chain Hotels with a Cheaptickets.com Coupon

Cheaptickets.com has a coupon for 20% off lots of non-chain hotels when you book by July 13th for stays through the end of the year. Use code HELLOJULY when you book. It’s not good on all non-chain hotels, but you’ll see there are a bunch in most cities, and it actually does take 20% off the rate.


Tuesday Roundup: Goodbye, Stuttgart; WestJet Widebodies; Delta in Venezuela

- United Airlines will drop their daily Newark – Stuttgart route beginning September 20th.

- Beginning August 1st, Delta will run its Atlanta-Caracas flights once a week instead of once a day because of a dispute with the Venezuelan government over funds that are tied up in the country. Most noteworthy, I thought, is that the crew will overnight (Saturday night) in Caracas and return in the morning.

- Lufthansa will postpone 747-8i service from Frankfurt to Mumbai and instead use the aircraft for 1 daily flight between JFK and Frankfurt from July 15th to October 25th. Mumbai’s Airport authorities told Lufthansa that Emirates will be using the only gate at the airport capable of handling the airplane. Remember that Lufthansa’s 747-8i aircraft feature lie-flat beds in business class.

- WestJet reached an agreement with its pilots union to allow them to fly widebody aircraft for the first time, likely in late 2015 for flights between Alberta and Hawaii. Those flights are currently operated by Thomas Cook using 757-200s.

- An Air New Zealand captain locked his first officer out of the cockpit during a flight between Perth and Auckland because he was angry about a delay caused by the first officer having to take a drug test. I know, I don’t get it either.

- A train derailment caused 3 737s fuselages to be dumped in a river (check out the photo in that link)…


Oh, New York Times….You Can Do Better Than This

The NY Times has a rather ridiculous piece today about how leisure flyers are constantly getting screwed by frequent flyer programs blah blah blah blah blah etc etc etc etc good old days ya ya ya.

My favorite line is this one from someone complaining about award availability:

“I can’t even remember the last time I was able to book a free ticket that didn’t cost 50,000 points, made three stops or left in the middle of the night,”

Wait – THREE flights had award seats available, but the nonstop you happened to want never has any seats available? How is that possible?

That Seattle-based whiner shouldn’t complain – his Alaska miles can be used on Alaska, American or Delta. He has it better than most, no?

Another person is quoted as saying she feels that she has no choice but to take whatever miles she can, “mostly to pay for upgrades so we can get back some of the perks like more legroom that we used to get for free.”

What airline is she using miles for upgrades on? And when did airlines have more legroom in coach than they do now? Every airline offers a chance to buy up for more space – more space than they ever had before…

One interesting tidbit: “In 2012, American sold 66 percent of the 209 billion miles it awarded to frequent fliers that year to partners like Citibank, Starwood and Avis.” I had no idea that partners gave away most of the miles…

I’ll spare you the rest of it, but it just makes me sad that mainstream publications write nonsense whining about how awful frequent flyer programs are while, with just a tiny amount of work, lots of people are racking up miles and using them for award tickets.

The only redeeming point was the nice shout out for Summer at Mommy Points….well done!) who tells people do get off their ass and take a minute to research before joining a frequent flyer program. It just takes a small amount of effort for a large amount of benefit.


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