Monthly Archives: October 2010

Spirit Takes a Page from the Allegiant Playbook

Spirit Airlines is trying a bit of a different strategy:  taking a page out of the Allegiant playbook, they have announced new service from tertiary cities to Ft Lauderdale and Myrtle Beach beginning next January.  Spirit will roll out flights from Plattsburgh (NY), Latrobe (PA), Niagara Falls, Charleston (WV) and Dallas (OK, not a tertiary city) to FLL and roughly the same cities (swapping Washington DC for Dallas) to Myrtle Beach.

Although Allegiant serves Plattsburgh – FLL, they will stay out of their way, only offering overlapping flights on Saturdays.  Latrobe, Niagara Falls and Charleston are all new service, though not daily (Dallas is double-daily).  Spirit’s domestic service to FLL has typically been daily, so this 4x/week service to small cities is likely a test to see if they can mimic that Allegiant strategy.  Given Spirit’s strong ancillary revenues (and propensity to pull out of cities that don’t work immediately), I bet we’ll see them expand using this strategy over the coming years.

A Few Words about Why People Hate Airlines, Part 2

(See Part 1 here)  Today:  How did the airlines contribute to the miserable relationship passengers have with the carriers?

I do think airlines have contributed to the current state of passenger-airline relations, though it does not excuse the level to which it has degenerated.  We’re kidding ourselves if we think that in 1974 the flying experience was akin to taking a luxury cruise; it was not.  Regulation kept fares high, competition at a minimum, frequencies capped, and international flying out of reach of most.  In-flight service may have included food, but everyone complained nonstop about its quality.  Perhaps seats had more legroom, but not always.  Certainly today Premium Economy cabins have made extra legroom available to those who are willing to pay a bit more for the room.  And let’s be honest — Premium Economy tickets on many routes are roughly the cost of a coach ticket to Europe in 1974.

The complaints really started, though, after deregulation, when fares dropped, far more people were able to fly, and the system (both the air traffic system, and the way an airline runs more generally) became more taxed than ever.  Low fare carriers entered the market, competing on price in exchange (arguably) for a lower level of service.

Since few passengers put a premium on the service offered by legacy airlines, these carriers were forced to lower the prices to match new entrants.  No company can do that without cutting costs somewhere.  And cut they did.  Sure, they tried to weather that storm for years, but that resulted either in years with billions lost or boom years where they charged $2000 for a last minute trip to Dallas.  Both of these scenarios played into the hands of new entrants.  Again, services were cut, the system was taxed, and consumers were left wondering what the hell happened.

I don’t blame the airlines for stooping to the lowest common denominator — passengers have shown repeatedly that they won’t spend extra for amenities (Exhibit 1: AA’s More Room in Coach experiment).  I do, however, see 4 areas that have led, at least in part, to the situation we’re in.

— Airline advertising.  Airline advertising in the 1940s and 1950s focused in large part on the destination rather than on any airline-specific benefits.  You’ve likely seen the great art deco mid-century posters touting how you can fly American Airlines to MIAMI or other cities.  The ability to get to the world’s great cities quickly was the primary benefit an airline provided.  Where in 1935 a visit to San Francisco from New York was either inconceivable or requiring two weeks of train travel, suddenly an executive could hop onboard and view the Pacific in less than a day.

Sometime later airlines moved the focus from, roughly, “we’ll get you there” to “we’ll get you there in style” (or some variation on those themes).  That message resonated as more people were able to travel and the idea of being pampered in the air – both in coach and first class – became more appealing, and airlines upped their in-flight amenities to appeal to these frequent travelers who were no longer awed simply by the idea of travel.  These were the brief, but golden, years of piano lounges in 747s and chateaubriand.

Then as legacy airlines were forced into price competition following deregulation, they continued to try to differentiate themselves from lowfare airlines in advertisements by touting service.  Only now they were cutting in-flight service and suddenly these claims of “something special in the air” rang hollow.  Very hollow.

Somehow, even as it is pretty clear that the in-flight experience is not exactly what it once was carriers continue to market using a service-focused message (“we know why you fly” or the ridiculous ads Continental recently ran hyping their in-flight food).  That has led to wildly unreasonable expectations about what your $119 transcon flight is going to get you.  Airfares are, without question, one of the world’s great bargains — on most routes over, say, 500 miles, it is cheaper to fly than to drive.  Yet the expectation that advertisements have created suggest that not only will $119 get you across the country in a couple of hours (the reality of what you get for $119, and a bargain unto itself), but also that you will enjoy service akin to that found on the Queen Mary.  That is ridiculous.  Expectations are out of whack, and that is a problem created by airline marketing departments, and exacerbated by Americans’ endless sentiment that they are entitled to everything.

– Load factors.  Flights are crowded.  That is a good thing for airlines, and, frankly, passengers should not have expectations that their plane will be empty.  But over time, the percentage of filled seats has increased about 10% meaning that if you’ve felt that airplanes are simply more crowded than ever, that is because airplanes are more crowded than ever.  Again, no one can fault the airlines for this; if anything, they’ve figured out how to balance supply, demand and pricing so they can offer their service profitably.  But it is one part of a 3-part reason as to why people are simply less comfortable when they fly.

– Narrowbody aircraft.  The second part is that airlines used to fly widebody planes willy-nilly around the US on routes where it made absolutely zero economic sense.  As mentioned here previously, Delta ran ads in the early 1970s promoting their 747 service between Detroit and Atlanta.  Detroit.  And.  Atlanta.  Unless the government is propping up your industry (oh wait, they were), that is unsustainable.

So airlines, as they say, downgauged their aircraft, flying smaller planes where possible.  And with the new generation 737s and the A320 family of aircraft, they could suddenly fly across the country in a single-aisle plane with seating (150 or so) that was, in Goldilocks parlance, just right (yes, the 757s could fly those routes too with more seats, but the 737s and A320 really opened it up and airlines have moved those 757s in some part to trans-Atlantic flights, which is a whole other story).

While the move to narrowbodies on longer flights made economic sense, the cost was the inflight experience for passengers.  Narrowbodies have fewer bathrooms, leading to in-aisle pileups of folks waiting to use the lavs after meals, and there is little-to-no room to stand up and stretch out on a 6-hour transcon to San Francisco.  Add that to the more crowded flights, and passengers came to realize that they simply felt squished.

(Tomorrow – or Monday – Part 3: Final Thoughts)

JetBlue to Launch Long Beach – Anchorage in May

JetBlue has come a long way from JFK -Buffalo.  The airline announced that it is launching seasonal service between Long Beach and Anchorage beginning next May.  Flights start at $119 each way, and depart LGB at 7:20pm & depart Anchorage at 1:10 am.  Alaska can’t be particularly happy about that, but it’s great news for travelers who fill see greater competition on the popular summer route, and much lower fares than they’ve typically seen in the past.

A Few Words about Why People Hate Airlines, Part 1

I try hard not to write about what others in the airline blogging world are writing about, but Cranky Flier earlier this week touched on a story about an NYU Professor (and blogger) named Jay Rosen who flew cross-country on Virgin America and discovered that the power outlet at his seat didn’t work (James Fallows at the Atlantic originally mentioned this here.)  In short, Rosen was on a VA flight and discovered that for whatever reason, when he plugged in his laptop, the powerport at his seat no longer worked.  The hypothesis is that either in-seat power on planes can’t handle a full flight of people plugged in (not true), or that some laptops cause a power surge thereby shutting off its ability to recharge until you unplug then replug it in (basically true).

This is not about in-seat power.  This is about the power that consumers think they have over companies, and this is specifically about the unbelievable animosity that passengers have toward airlines.  As soon as Rosen discovered that his power was out he used the airline’s free in-flight wireless to Tweet his followers his dismay about the plug (Fallows includes the Twitter exchange):

“Virgin America’s claim to offer power at every seat is false. I am experiencing that fake claim now.”

Zero to 100 in .1 seconds. Instantly accusing the airline of lying.  Over a (possibly) broken power plug.  There’s some back and forth with VA over twitter — WHILE HE’S FLYING, mind you, on what I’m guessing is probably a $119 transcon ticket and enjoying free Internet 6 miles above the Earth — and then accuses the airline of lying (“your claim is a lie.”)  and threatens to take the whole thing to his Twittering masses of readers.

How many things are wrong with the picture?  A grown man getting this riled up over a power plug during a flight.  Said grown man accusing an airline of lying.  The aforementioned individual getting into a pissing match with an airline employee over whether his broken plug constitutes lying.  The same guy then threatening to spread this accusation without any proof whatsoever.

VA’s twitter-er handled the entire episode with aplomb (“Would you mind sharing your flight/seat # so I can share with our Engineering dept? Sorry for the inconvenience”), while I would’ve gone completely apeshit (excuse me) on the guy.

How did we get to this point where passengers have such an enormous and unwarranted sense of entitlement?  How did the relationship between passengers and the airlines become so poor that every slight suffered is magnified into a diatribe that every Facebook friend/Twitter follower has to endure whenever people fly?  Why did the guy in the row behind me on my flight home over the weekend start screaming at the flight attendant when he thought she was touching his hat in the overhead bin?  The assumption is automatically that every airline is out to get us, that every policy is meant to screw us over, and that every interaction with personnel is accusatory.

All of this in a golden age of flying.  Airfares are as cheap as ever (well, they were as cheap as ever last year, and they’re somewhat higher this year), and in-flight amenities — free, in many cases — are abundant.  Yes, you have to pay $6 to eat something, but on many airlines watching live television, using the internet and plugging in your laptop are all gratis.  Flights are plentiful and we can fly to more places nonstop than ever before.  Alliances and frequent flyer programs mean that for opening a credit card we can get a free business class trip to Europe.

And that is the backdrop for the relationship that passengers have with airlines – cheap fares, free flights and 95% of the world’s cities are a one-stop flight away.  Yet there has never been more vitriol and hatred spewed at these airlines than we have seen in the past couple of years.  Sure, social networking and review sites have made this true for other industries (I have noted my frustration with the incessant whining at Tripadvisor here and with people saying a given airline “sucks” here.)  But airlines have certainly taken the brunt of it.

Part of the reason is that social media has made everyone assume they are an expert in just about everything.  The gentleman mentioned at the top of this column is a journalism professor who, in the twitter exchange with Virgin America, makes himself out to be (apparently) an electrical engineer.  TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington (who knows better) wrote a ridiculous rant about his flight “from JFK to hell” that inspired more than 500 comments.  Flying has become “intolerable.”  The problem that caused his trip to be hellish?  His bag was lost.

Everyone’s an expert.

Tomorrow, Part 2:  How Did the Airlines Contribute to the Backlash?

A Quick Note about Spirit Airlines and Carry-On Bags

I just returned from a quick trip to Michigan on Spirit Airlines, and longtime readers of OTR know that I’m perhaps the only person willing to stick up for the much maligned carrier.  I’ll stick up for them again:

– My ticket was $88.  Round trip.

– They’ve received all manner of flack for charging for carryons.  And I’ll admit that it’s annoying.  But really what they’re doing is trying to encourage people to check their bags, as that reduces the boarding time.  And I saw that first-hand:  boarding went quickly despite it being a full flight.  And more incredibly, there was overhead bin space even after the full flight was boarded.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that.

– Regardless of what Seatguru says, the seat pitch in rows behind the exit row are far less than the 31″ they say.  Rows in front of exit rows are about 31″, but rows behind that and continuing to the rear of the aircraft are likely 29″ (if not less – I didn’t have a ruler).  They are tight.  Very, very, very tight.  It nearly goes from being wildly uncomfortable to funny.  Except that it wasn’t funny.  That all said, I sprung the $25 for an exit row on my return flight and that was a $25 well spent.

The World’s Happiest Funeral Home

World's Happiest Funeral Home

I’m heading off to Michigan today, and I’ve been swamped with actual work so I apologize for the light posting this week.

With that, I’ll share this:

Although the photo has nothing to do with airlines, I love – LOVE – this sign I saw for a funeral home in Granada, Nicaragua, last week.  “Hey look, I’m dead!” (Seriously – click on the photo and enlarge it and see how happy that dead guy is.)

Cheap 10-Day Tour to China, $999 Including Air, Hotel and Internal Flights

I haven’t shared a great deal to China in a while, but I saw this today:  Friendly Planet is offering a 10-day 3-city China tour for $999 (plus taxes in the $150 range) for 2 people departing January 12 (other dates available for a bit more).  The package includes flights from LA to Shanghai, flights from Shanghai to X’ian, and from X’ian to Beijing as well as hotels in each city and 12 meals.  If you don’t have the miles to get over there, it’s a pretty solid deal (even if January is not exactly high season).

Words You Can’t Say on American Airlines

I’m still catching up from being away, but a quick note about American Airlines:

I was fascinated that on our flights they bleeped two seemingly innocuous words from two NBC programs they showed on the flight.  In an episode of The Office they bleeped the word “porn” from an episode, and in a 30 Rock they cut out the word “circumcision.”

Now, it certainly begs the question about how those words are OK to say on television but not OK on an airplane.  I also wonder whether if you find yourself traveling to a Bris, whether you should fly another airline…

The OTR Heads to Nicaragua for a Few Days…

The OTR is taking a little r-n-r and heading down to Nicaragua through Sunday (miles on AA, in case you care).  I will absolutely not be using the computer for a blissful 5 days.

I’ll leave you with some great airplane porn from Airliners.net with a thread that has a bunch of pictures of retro liveries.

A Hotel Aside: Comparing Jetsetter and SniqueAway for Discount Hotels

This is really a hotel thing, not an airline thing, but I thought it was worth noting that Jetsetter (a Gilt-owned “members only” short-term sale hotel discount site) and SniqueAway (a Tripadvisor-owned “members only” short-term sale hotel discount site) are offering deals on the same hotel today, The Mount Cinnamon in Grenada (use this link for a Jetsetter invite; use this link for a SniqueAway invite).

For what it’s worth:

a) I can’t imagine either company is happy about having the same deal on the same day;
b) If you’re keeping score at home, SniqueAway has better prices ($189 vs $215 for the 1-bedroom suite; $259 vs. $290 for the 2-bedroom villa)
c) These sites generally have similar-type discounts (30% and up) on interesting properties
d) I’m not yet convinced this is more than just a niche product
e) For full disclosure I interviewed with Jetsetter over a year ago and I have only the nicest things to say about that team.
f) Other short-term discount sites like RueLaLa, ideeli and Hautelook (which bought BonVoyou) are also getting into this short-term hotel discount game, along with existing products from Tablet Hotels and LuxuryLink.
g) This is the end of my list and of my hotel diversion for the week.  Carry on.