Monthly Archives: April 2010

WSJ: United to Announce Purchase of Texas International, New York Air, Others

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that United Airlines will announce on Monday that it is merging with the remaining pieces of struggling carriers Texas International, PEOPLExpress, Frontier, New York Air and Eastern to form an international behemoth that could emerge as America’s strongest airline.

Continental Airlines will also be included in the sale.

No word yet on whether Ionosphere Club members will have access to Red Carpet Clubs.  Sadly, it looks like New York Air’s Flying Nosh snacks will be a casualty of the deal.

Har.

If you hadn’t read, should the merger go through, the combined entity will be called United, which, as you’ve by now deduced, means that Continental, which dates back to 1934, will disappears from the air.  Not since Pan Am have I felt such a tinge of sadness about an airline’s name vanishing.

We have been a Continental/Eastern family since I was a child going back and forth to Florida from Newark.  My first trips to California and Hawaii were on Continental 747s – trips that caused by slightly disturbed quasi-obsession with airplanes and airlines.  Continental was a hated carrier for a long time, primarily because of its association with Frank Lorenzo.  However, the Gordon Bethune years turned many of us into true believers.  Airlines yammer on about their loyalty programs, but they really only generate loyalty by how they treat their customers.  I know that most people who fly Continental frequently know that they were treated as well as anyone, if not better, whether they were in the front of the plane or in 34G.  Those who fly them often, despite Continental’s management taking over the combined carrier, know that it won’t really be the same after that.

After my beloved Hartford Whalers moved to North Carolina, I basically gave up on the NHL.  I’m not going to stop flying, but it’s depressing to see a great piece of American aviation history evaporate into thin air.

Could Spirit Be Opening the Door to Dropping the Carry On Baggage Charges?

In an interview with the WSJ, Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza seems to leave the door open just the slightest bit that they may eliminate the carry on baggage charges that have caused so much blowhardery in ye olde press.  Asked if they have any plans to eliminate the fee, Baldanza said, “Right now, it still seems like a good idea to us…I think the jury on this idea is still out. We need to get into the operational phase and see how people react.”  The “right now” and “seems like” make me wonder if they are starting the backpedaling campaign that they may need to undertake after they meet with the US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tomorrow.  LaHood, for his part, made the rather ridiculous statement, “Charging passengers to stow carry-on bags in overhead bins does not strike me as good customer service.”  Since when is the government in charge of policing customer service?

OTR readers will notice that I’m fascinated with the carry on bag story; an interesting move by a small airline has caused an enormous amount of bluster and ridiculousness from government officials (shocker) and customers.  This is an issue of whether an advertised fare actually represents the price of the product.  I contend that that is the primary problem here — adding these fees, which won’t be obvious when purchasing through a third party — amounts to false advertising.  Instead, the government is essentially saying that carry on fees aren’t nice.  Way to take a stand.

2 Brief Notes from A Quick Trip to Florida

I’m back from a very quick trip to Florida, but I wanted to point out 2 quick things that just go to show I can still be pleasantly surprised once in a while:

1) My 5:30 pm return flight from Ft. Lauderdale was delayed a bit because of traffic congestion up in Newark (shocker).  They made a gate announcement after the flight was delayed a second time saying, “We’re going to hold off boarding for a few more minutes.  Because you’re taking off to the west, you’ll have a very short taxi today.  If we board you now, you’ll just end up sitting on the tarmac longer and we thought you’d prefer to stay in the terminal.”  Huh – I’ve never had that happen before.  (We did sit out on the taxiway for a while anyway, as we were further delayed; nonetheless, I appreciated that…)

2) Because we were late a number of people had tight connections to European flights.  Flight attendants asked passengers without connections to allow those with connections to get off the plane first.  AND THEY ACTUALLY DID!  Usually there’s still a mad scrum for everyone to get off the plane.  I’ve never seen people actually stay in their seats and let the 10 or so people off the plane first (on a Florida – to – New York flight, no less).

None of this made up for the unbelievable stinkiness of the dude driving my cab home, but there ya go.

If You Don’t Like What Spirit Is Doing, You Should Have Been Hating Allegiant for a While Now

To wrap up Spirit Airlines week here at the OTR, I wanted to point out the role that executives make in how customers perceive airlines.  Case in point, Spirit and Allegiant.

Would you complain constantly about an airline that offers a miserable 30″ seat pitch on its rather old planes, features seats that do not recline, charges you $11 to reserve a middle seat, charges $5 for priority boarding, charges $35 for a gate-checked bag, and makes you pay for water?  Probably, right?  But Allegiant does all that (and more) but has legions of fans that keep their planes more than 90% full quarter-after-quarter.  Spirit Airlines has implemented similar policies, and each time they do, they are met with derision and scorn. Why is that?

I think the answer is two-fold:

1) Spirit’s executives have kept a high profile in the media, making a big deal out of each fee as a way of suggesting that fees are keeping their fares very low.  Yet each time they do, media and customers freak out (this is not suggesting that they lose customers; on the contrary, they have grown considerably over time).  Spirit has simply taken the approach that any publicity (and in their case, it is nearly exclusively negative) is good publicity.  And…

2) Allegiant offers services to cities where not only to customers have no other choice, their customers are absolutely thrilled that nonstop service is offered to leisure destinations.  The fine folks in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Bozeman, Montana, are just happy to not fly through a hub (or happy have service at all).  Allegiant has portrayed itself as a way for people in these cities to enjoy more time on vacation and less time traveling, while paying a pretty low fare.  That message has generated an enormous amount of goodwill, causing customers to accept the very same policies that have caused people to complain nonstop about Spirit.

Neither method is correct, and I do think that Spirit’s execs have flaunted their policies on purpose, keeping the airline’s name in the news and generating an impressive amount of awareness for their airline.  You can hate them, but don’t hate them for the same policies that Allegiant implements without passenger complaint.

(I’ve mentioned before, though, that Allegiant is probably the best-run airline in the US, and among the best-run airlines in the world.  Through the economic downturn they have continued to be profitable and grow – quarter after quarter – while making an impressive number of smart decisions.)

Spirit Airlines Rolls Out “Pre-Reclined” (aka, No Recline) Seats on New A320s

Ah, Spirit.  I just can’t quit you.

Spirit Airlines announced that it has installed non-reclining seats (or as it calls them, “pre-reclined”) in its new A320s.  This move will allow them to:

a) piss off more people somehow; and

b) squeeze 178 seats in an aircraft that typically holds 150.  How do they do that?  Oh, by shrinking pitch to an unreal 28″, a pathetic amount not seen since, um.  Britain’s Monarch Airlines has some 28″ seats.  Easyjet is at 29″.  Ryanair at 30″ or so.

It’s not the end of the world – most Spirit flights are under 3 hours.  You’ll read how Spirit is now the Ryanair of the US, but that’s not really true.  Yes, they’ve unbundled pricing.  Yes, their seats don’t reclined.  But Ryanair has 30+ aircraft bases (ie, 30+ focus cities), where Spirit has 1 or 2, depending on whether you count Detroit.  When Spirit starts flying out of Detroit City; Gary, Indiana; Hagerstown, Maryland; Trenton, New Jersey; and Portsmouth, NH, with flights to 10 or so cities each, then they’ll be Ryanair.  And when they offer a million seats at a $1.

Spirit has taken some pages from the Ryanair playbook (ie, management pissing people off; charging for everything), without most of the benefits (absurdly low fares on offer much of the time).  Yes, they have $9 fares on certain flights now and again.  Go look at Ryanair’s website.  They have 3 million seats available at GBP3 (about $4.50).  That’s a sale.

Spirit can shrink their pitch and do whatever they’d like with ancillary charges; the question becomes this:  people put up with Ryanair because their fares are absurdly cheap,  and in many cases they are the only nonstop option.  Spirit doesn’t have either of those things going for it.  Unless it’s just planning on building up its Latin America business (which may be the case), where people don’t care that much about service, and just want to go home cheaply, I’m interested to see how they get people to turn down other airlines to fly on Spirit.

Spirit Airlines’ CEO: Bookings Up 50% Since We Added Carry On Fee

CEO Ben Baldanza says that Spirit Airlines’ bookings for travel after the carryon baggage fee goes into effect are up 50%.  Yes, he is saying that the added fee has driven a large jump in people wanting to fly them.  Possible?  Sure.  First, bookings that far in advance are generally pretty slow, so a 50% increase won’t represent that many seats.  Second, they did lower their fares in conjunction with the carry on fee announcement.  Third, when you go to do a search for a flight to Ft Lauderdale in September online, their fares do appear to be lower, since the carryon bag fees don’t show up on other sites, making their fares look much lower, even though the total cost of the trip may not be lower.

And again, this has been my issue with this fee:  this specific surcharge enters territory where the price being displayed does not represent the true cost to the traveler.  All the grandstanding around how a carry on fee isn’t fare — that’s nonsense. They can charge whatever fees they want.  My issue is that the way travel distribution is currently set up, customers are being duped.

5 Airlines Pledge Not to Implement Carry-On Fees

5 Airlines sucked up to Senator Charles Schumer and pledged not to add the fees for carry-on bags that Spirit Airlines implemented 2 weeks ago.

Hahahhahahahahahahahahahah.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahah.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

That’s a good one.

Curacao Quick Flight Report

I almost have to laugh when I read some of the trip reports from some of my fellow travel-blogger-types out there (see here and here for examples) – when you travel without children, there is nothing more wonderful than the presidential suite, the executive lounge, the first class cabin.  Here are the highlights of what it is like to travel with children to Curacao for a week:

Flight highlights (Continental, nonstop from Newark):

Child 2 vomits on trip down.  We clean up.  We learn that flight attendants have hazmat-quality materials on board to remove vomit-related items from plane.  Good to know.

Flight highlights (Continental, nonstop back to Newark):

Child 2 vomits again, possibly due to turkey hot pocket-type snack.  Not sure.  Doesn’t really matter, I suppose, as my wife is cupping said item in its now-liquid form, and yelling at me to get a towel.

Hotel highlights (Hilton Curacao, upgrade to Executive Floor with lounge access):

Night 2:  Child 2 is forcably removed from the aforementioned lounge after not sharing orange juice with Child 1 leads to screaming fit.

Night 5: Child 2 is, again, forcably removed from said lounge after some happy-hour-snack-related disagreement with father that leads to screaming fit.  After 5 minute time out back in room (recently renovated), she is returned to lounge without incident to join wife and Child 1 for happy hour snacks.

Night 6: Child 1, despite telling us that she was full from dinner, is basically force-fed an ice cream cone by her none-too-bright parents.  Child 1 decorates the lovely grounds of the hotel with the now-liquid remains of her meal, including the ice cream cone.  Although at the time we thought that was the 2nd-and-final vomit of the trip, as noted above, it was the 2nd of 3.

All-in-all, a great trip.

The OTR in Curacao: See You April 19th

The OTR is heading out for some R&R in Curacao for a week or so.  We’ll be back April 19th with aviation news from the southern Caribbean.  Have a great week.

A Quick Note on the US Airways/United Merger Rumors

One quick thought about the US Airways – United merger rumors that we learned about yesterday (and have been hearing about for almost 10 years).

Articles about airline mergers nearly always focus on hub overlap and aircraft overlap.  I’m not suggesting those things matter – they do on some level.  But I think we’ve learned 2 things over the years about airline mergers:

1) Much like drafting a quarterback out of college, there’s been very little success predicting whether an airline merger works before it actually happens.  The Delta/Northwest merger, which took about 2 years to really complete, is probably as successful a merger as you’re going to see in the industry and they had about 217 aircraft types between them, as well as 4 hubs within striking distance of each other.

2) That merger has been successful (or, as I said, as successful as any merger is going to be) because, as US Airways & America West learned the hard way, mergers succeed because they manage the labor issue.  You can sell the old DC-9s.  You can shut down the hub in St. Louis.  But you can’t easily merge pilot seniority lists.  And if the pilots aren’t happy, they can really, really screw everything up.  I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just the reality of it:  you have to get labor on your side, then the rest of it will come into place.

And that’s the big hurdle for US Airways/United.  Fine, there are overlapping hubs.  Fine, frequent flyers may not be happy with the US Airways product.  None of that matters, frankly (if you are hub captive, what are you going to do?  And Star Allliance offers a pretty solid set of benefits).  It’s going to come down to whether the unions are happy (it’s a topic for another day whether United could survive without a merger, a prospect that would leave everyone out of a job, which would certainly make the unions unhappy).