Category Archives: Featured Columns

A Quick Word about Onboard Product

Those of us in the airline blog world seem to write a decent amount about on-board products provided by airlines (some more than others, certainly; and some taking more photos than others; and some taking many, many, many more photos than others).  But it occurred to me this morning after reading this story which suggested less than 10% of travelers on wi-fi equipped planes actually use the service that on-board product barely matters, if at all.

There, I said it.  Sure, those with a first class fetish (FCF) love that they’re given a $12 glass of champagne with a mediocre meal in exchange for cashing in an extra 60,000 frequent flyer miles, but if we’ve learned anything over the years it’s that airline success has little-to-nothing to do with the product they offer (in the US, at least).

The two most consistently profitable airlines over the past years – Allegiant and Spirit – offer an in-flight product that would be generously described as non-existent.  Many travelers would suggest that Virgin America offers the best coach product in the sky, and they have yet to turn a profit.

Among legacy carriers, Northwest (prior to their Delta merger) offered the least-amenity-filled in-fight product and their financials looked roughly as miserable as other airlines offering some level of frills on newer planes.

The best example of this is American’s ill-fated “More Room in Coach” initiative, which offered exactly what every single coach passenger complained about:  legroom.  Those same passengers then refused to pay any premium whatsoever, and American ripped the seats out.

jetBlue did differentiate themselves with TV (along with consistent great service), but they were unable to grow and keep the same service level consistently, and hence they ended up in a financial situation more akin to what we see from legacy carriers.

First class?  US airlines have upgraded their wares while at the same time showing a massive decrease in premium class bookings, coupled with discounting at the front of the plane in ways we’ve never seen before.

Airlines are a commodity business.  They can market themselves as if they are not; and they can offer amenities to try to differentiate themselves, but in the end, people care only about 2 things:  1) fare; 2) frequent flyer program.  Don’t discount the frequent flyer program – it is a major decision factor for travelers (ask Virgin America…or Eos).  Everything else the airlines offer – wi-fi, TV, food, massage, whatever – have zero value to consumers in coach.  In first class, the only real value offered is some amount of additional legroom (certainly domestically, and for the large part internationally).  Domestic first class fares are pretty much the same, regardless of the quality of the first class product.  Internationally there is some difference in some markets, but not much (if any).  One major benefit for the airlines, though, is that people are willing to burn an extra 60,000 miles for that glass of $12 champagne. That’s not too shabby for the airline.

That all said, you can get on a plane in New York, and show up 8 hours later in Dakar.  And regardless of the food they serve on that plane, it’s still pretty amazing that in the blink of an eye, you can be in Africa.  For all the fetishism around onboard product, the real onboard product – going anywhere you want in the world for less than $1200 – is pretty hard to beat.

Twitter Is Creating a Generation of Whiny Travelers Who Complain About Everything (Boo Hoo)

A couple of recent articles note how travelers are using Twitter to complain in large numbers about travel experiences.  Do a quick search on Twitter Search for “worst hotel room” and look at the complaining:

worst hotel experience ever!”
Worst hotel/pub ever!!”
“We are in THE worst hotel in all of Cannes”
“Last (hotel) was the WORST ever!

That’s from the past 3 days.

The Wall St. Journal article tells the story of a sales guy on a business trip who was unhappy with his room at a Marriott in Orlando.  He then Tweeted, “I have the crappiest room in the hotel.”  Supposedly the front desk manager saw the tweet, then upgraded the guy.

Now, perhaps it was the way I was raised, but why in God’s name wouldn’t he just go down to the front desk, chat with the nice fellow, and ask for a different room?  Or as I once read from a travel columnist, when you check in just tell the front desk clerk that you’d like the 4th room they would’ve given you.

Either way, why wouldn’t you just go downstairs and ask nicely?  Why does everyone complain constantly on Twitter?  Look at a search for “worst airline”…

“They remain to be the country’s worst airline.”
“Hey @flyfrontier, you’re officially worse than @delta, thought no airline could be THAT bad. Worst customer service.”
@Delta =worst airline evr. Horrible service
This may be the worst airline flight experience so far this summer:
Delta! Worst airline food

Those are from the past 12 hours.  Seriously.

Is it all so bad?  Can it all be the worst?  As my favorite Shakespeare quote from King Lear says, “The worst is not, So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst…”

I’m a realist — I know that things go wrong in travel sometimes.  But we have choices — go speak with a manager.  Be courteous, even when in a stressful travel situation.  Ask for a supervisor to come sit with you in the lobby and discuss the issues.  Have realistic expectations for what a $39 flight will get you.  Every $79 Pricelined hotel room will not be the Presidential Suite.

Twitter certainly has its uses, but the never-ending flow of complaints has already gotten old.  Quit your whining and do something about it.  Go have a conversation with someone.  Like an adult.

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.

A Quick Word about Bundling Airline Fees

Add travel agents to the list of people annoyed at the ever-growing list of ancillary fees being charged by airlines.  In their case, they are annoyed about the amount (and difficulty) of work required to add ancillary services to the tickets they’re booking for clients.  Plus, they’re not getting paid for providing these often time-consuming services.

At this point, just about everyone, from consumer to travel agent, dislikes the way airlines have implemented fees.  Consumers feel they’re constantly being asked for $15, travel agents feel they’re not getting paid for the services they provide, bloggers have to listen to people whine about bag charges (OK, that last part isn’t the end of the world).

My issue is not around the fees themselves — God knows the airlines need revenue wherever they can get it.  My issue is that they have done a terrible job from a pricing standpoint.  By breaking out every fee individually, consumers are left feeling two things about their airline transaction:

1) They are hit with feels at every part of the process.  When buying a ticket, when picking a seat, when checking a bag, when on the plane.  There is no escape from the feeling that your wallet is out the entire time.  That is not a good feeling, even if, as is the case, airfares are quite low (except for summer travel to Europe this year which is out of control expensive…but that’s a different story); and

2) They have no idea how much the total trip will cost.  That is not a good feeling.  People need to understand the total cost to determine whether they’re getting fair value for their price.  Once that initial purchase is made, the consumer has already made up her mind.  Adding additional charges once the purchase is made only makes customers re-consider the value proposition.  That’s why people feel they’re being taken advantage of (allow me to apologize here for that dangling preposition).

Car companies went through this years ago with the myriad options available on their cars.  They decided that offering bundled packages of options led to a win-win situation:  They could make a greater profit by obscuring the price of the individual package components, and consumers wouldn’t feel like they were seeing a lowball price on the base car only to be attacked with added option costs.  Nowadays, most car consumers simply pick a package of options.

A recent Harvard Business Review blog post addresses this by suggesting that unbundled pricing (the airline scenario) benefits consumers because they know the true cost of components, while bundles benefit the company because they can make higher margins by obscuring the price of each part of the product.

This is true, but it leaves out the value consumers receive in feeling like they’re getting a fair deal.  I’ve mentioned several times how much I admire Air Canada’s choice of offering 5 bundles — consumers do not walk away from the purchase with the anxiety and frustration many feel with every other carrier.

I fully understand that the ability to offer bundled services for airlines (ie, a fare class that will give you airfare, 1 checked bag and wi-fi) is reliant on technology that is not ready out of the box.  But Air Canada made the investment, and so could other carriers; they’ve simply chosen not to.

We’re at the beginning of the new reality around how airlines price their product, and I know that in 5 years we’ll likely be closer to a bundled strategy for most tickets.  But until airlines choose to invest in selling their product in a bundled fashion, consumers will continue to be frustrated with every purchase.  That will not benefit anyone in the long-term.

Until JetBlue came along new entrant airlines tended to compete on price; their sole value proposition was around lower fares.  Airlines could match those fares within minutes, and doom was impending for the new entrant almost from the moment they launched.  JetBlue changed that by competing on services, and it took airlines years to catch up (10 years, as Continental is just now putting TV in their planes, and few other airlines have developed the employee culture JetBlue has to offer).  Now, I believe a new entrant airline could compete by offering a JetBlue/Virgin America-type service combined with a bundled pricing offering that would allow them to offer consumers an anxiety-free pricing experience that is considered to be high-value to the customer.  That’s a niche they can enjoy for years.

10 Rules for Booking Frequent Flyer Tickets

Is there anyone online who does NOT give frequent flyer advice?  No, no there is not.  And let’s be honest, 98% of what you read about booking airline tickets is utter and complete garbage (Gary and Lucky excepted, of course). I know there are 10 things to be true about booking award tickets and today is the day I’m going to share them with you.  I’m that kinda guy.

1) You will probably not get the flights you want the first time you look…but DO NOT give up.  I have never not gotten an award ticket that I’ve wanted.  Never.  Business class seats to Sri Lanka with a stopover in Europe?  No problem.  Business class seats to Easter Island?  No problem.  Vietnam?  No sweat.  The key?  Check again. A 4-leg journey from New York to Colombo has many moving parts.  The odds on all of that being available the first time you search are slim.  But if you look every day (and what’s a few minutes a day for $10,000 worth of tickets?), I guarantee you will not fail.  Probably.

2) While you should look every day, I’ve found that 45 days out is a sweet spot.  This is not to say that you won’t find tickets further out than that (especially in markets – such as first class seats to Sydney on Qantas – where there are incredibly few seats available and you need to look 330 days ahead).  But at 45 days seats seem to open up.  In short – don’t give up because your trip is in 6 weeks.

3) Frequent flyer tickets are not free tickets…at least not anymore.  You need to get over this:  frequent flyer tickets will have fees associated with them.  Deal with it.  Complex itineraries on partner airlines will require phone calls, and those calls will likely cost you a few dollars in telephone booking fees.  Or maybe you’ll need to change the ticket.  It’s going to cost you.  But in the overall scheme of things, it won’t cost you much.  Just accept it.

4) In terms of award availability, Star Alliance and Oneworld are light years ahead of SkyTeam.  Usually.  In the US, if you are stuck with Delta miles you are probably very unhappy when you go to check for available flights.  Why?  Because not only is Delta’s award availability horrible, there is no good way to check partner airlines.  When searching for a Star Alliance flight, use ANA’s booking tool, which shows most Star carriers (though remember that United will often block award seats that would otherwise be available for other Star Alliance members).  For Oneworld, sign up for Qantas’ frequent flyer program and you’ll see most options there.  For Skyteam?  Good luck.

5) You will need to follow this stuff basically full time to understand the minutia around who is adding exorbitant surcharges onto tickets.  But there are a couple of quick rules:  Delta adds a ridiculous fee if you are booking intra-Europe Skyteam tickets with Skymiles; British Airways adds a ludicrous fuel surcharge (unless you use BA miles on American or LAN); and Air Canada has fuel surcharges that can be hundreds of dollars.  There is an enormous amount of detail around this point, and the blogs I’ve mentioned above have gotten into the details in great, uh, detail.  This is not the place for that, but just remember — not every airline charges ridiculous fuel surcharges for international award tickets.

6) Air Canada gives you Star Alliance Gold Status after only 35,000 flown miles.  Not only is that the lowest threshold out there, you get Lounge access for that.  Nice.

7) Everyone has a different opinion about the best way to use up your miles.  Some folks save up for first class tickets to Asia.  Those of us with kids may not feel like spending 480,000 miles to go to Tokyo and will use those miles to go to Puerto Rico.  None of those is wrong.  Don’t let anyone let you think you’re wasting miles by using them.  Using miles is good (yes, there are great ways to use them and bad ways to use them…but anything is better than paying).

8) One-way award tickets offered by American and United offer enormous flexibility on routes where they compete.  No longer do you have to hope that American has roundtrip seats available if you’re looking for a JFK-LAX award ticket in business class.  Fly one way on AA, back on United.  Or vice versa.  You get my point.

9) If booking an international award ticket, do NOT forget the more obscure partners.  There are lots of ways, for example, to fly on Star Alliance from New York to Moscow.  Don’t forget that LOT, for example, is an option (albeit not a particularly glamorous one).  Before starting the booking process, look on the alliances’ websites to remind yourself of all of your airline options.

10) One of the most valuable features of most international award tickets is the ability to stopover in a city.  American has limited this somewhat (by restricting stopovers to gateway cities), but on other tickets you can basically double the value of the award by booking a stopover.  A stopover would often add a significant amount to a paid fare, but it’s free with most international tickets.  I almost always try to add in a stopover — why not?

I’d love to hear reader tips on this…

A Quick Word about Sandwiches

I mentioned on Wednesday how I believe that Ambien has changed long-haul travel more than any on-board amenity.  But then I was thinking that for short-haul, has anything changed the on-board coach experience more than airlines cutting off food service?  (Yes, Live TV…but that’s not what I’m writing about today) Terrible airline food was a universal constant, joked about by every hack comedian on the planet.  In fact, it became a joke when comedians joked about it.

Then airlines cut it off, and suddenly people starting complaining that there was no food on board.  Continental ran unbelievably stupid commercials suggesting that people on a plane were longing for the days when airlines served food.

Of course, we just started bringing our own food on the plane (Salvadorans have known this all along, as if you’ve ever flown from San Salvador what is most striking is that every single — EVERY SINGLE — person brings Pollo Campero fried chicken on the plane).  It seems so obvious now – why did we complain about airline food for 50 years when we just could’ve brought our own sandwich.  Were we morons?  Sadists?  I’m not sure.  But I do know this:  I’m always happy with what I bring with me.  I don’t understand why people ever, ever complain about a lack of onboard food.  Or why people ever, ever talk about how good an airline meal was.  It wasn’t.  (Except for the ice cream sundae.  That was good).

Maybe it’s because I have kids now, and when we fly we have roughly a 7-11′s worth of snacks with us.  But man does that make me happy.  Why didn’t we think of that before?

Ambien IS Business Class…

I’ve been reading the news about the new Air New Zealand coach seats that convert into a bed-ish thingy (see here) and it got me thinking about whether we just complain way, way too much about the current state of coach seats.  And whether we fetishize business & first class seating way beyond the actual comfort they provide.

Air New Zealand will be offering a product that allows you to convert 3 coach seats into a bed-ish thing that supposedly can be shared by two adults.  Look at that photo I linked to.  Could you sleep like that for 8 hours?  My wife and I are in a king bed, and that’s too crowded for us.  I truly have to wonder whether that would be better than taking an Ambien and dealing with it in coach.

And here is where I say that with all of the improvements in airplane seating over the past 15 years, the truly biggest difference in long-haul airline travel is Ambien.  Not lie-flat beds; not the A380; not Sky suites; not video on demand.  Ambien.  I can sleep 7 hours in a middle seat in coach on Biman Bangladesh.  No matter the length of the flight or the time change, I arrive feeling like a million bucks.  I would take an Ambien and sit in coach over no Ambien in business class on a red eye any day.  Not sleeping in a moderately comfortable seat stinks compared to being passed out in coach.

And while I’m at it:  I don’t understand the business class cabin fetish people have (look, a photo of the soda they served me!)  Yes, it’s far more comfortable than coach.  Sure.  But really – it’s not like sleeping on your own bed.  And it’s not as if airplane food – even when served on nice china – would be even remotely acceptable in the real world.  QANTAS charges $26,000 for a roundtrip first class ticket from New York to Sydney.  The same price as a 2-year old BMW.  For a sad approxmation of a meal and a nap.  I know a lot of airline blogger types LOOOOOOOVE first class.  God bless ‘em.  And it’s not sour grapes: i’ve done my share of flying up front (thanks, miles!).  But every time I feel the same thing:  I wish I used half the miles and flew in coach twice.

For $3, I’ll take an Ambien and wake up wherever I’m going.  Well, Ambien plus an in-seat plug so I can watch a movie on my laptop.  In-seat plugs are pretty underrated…

TSA Offers Helpful Tips for Terrorists This Holiday Season

WASHINGTON, DC, Dec. 29 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ — The holiday season is a great time for terrorists looking to make a name for themselves by disrupting travel in the United States.  Given the popularity of this time of year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) offers some helpful hints for terrorists looking to make a splash during this time of year.

- Instead of focusing on airplanes, why not break away from the pack and take a look at trains?  This option offers the popular benefit of blowing up lots of Americans without any of the hassles of sneaking items through security.  Remember, no one cares if you bring a knife, gun, poison, explosives or reading items onto a train.  Helpful TSA Hint:  The Acela usually has some politicians on it.

- If your plan is to blow up an airplane, please do it before there is one hour left in the flight.  You are no longer permitted to hold items in your lap with one hour remaining in the flight, so take care to time your bombing accordingly.

- Since in-flight maps are now turned off, a little math may come in helpful to figure out where you are during your journey.  Let’s do a quick quiz: If you are on an 8 hour flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, and you have been flying for 4 hours (we haven’t confiscated watches…yet) you are:

a) Halfway to your destination
b) Two-thirds of the way to your destination
c) 3 hours from not being able to hold your explosives in your lap.

- If train tickets are too expensive, Megabus offers lots of $1 seats from New York to Washington.  Like trains, you get the benefit of not having anyone search your baggage, so we recommend focusing your terrorist acts on buses, rather than planes, where you can make quite a splash for only a buck!

- Remember, we ask that terrorists (or other passengers) not congregate in public areas of the plane to help keep everyone safe.  However, we encourage passengers to use the bathrooms prior to the one-hour lockdown period before landing.  At that point, we encourage congregating in public areas of the plane.  This can be confusing, so let us provide this helpful list:

Do not Congregate in Public Areas: During flight until 1 hour and 15 minutes before landing.  With 1 hour or less prior to landing.

Congregate in Public Areas: During boarding.  15 minutes prior to lockdown.  After landing.

- Please remember to leave extra time for security at the airport — you don’t want to miss that flight you’ve been planning to take for the past 13 years since you first showed up in Yemen.  Security is taking a bit longer at airports as TSA agents remove shoes from 3-year-olds and old ladies to ensure they are not carrying 4 ounces of shampoo on a plane.

We hope these hints make your next (and last!) journey a safe, comfortable and on-time success.

For more information please contact tsa@tsa.gov.

2009 OTR Airline of the Year: Allegiant Air

Whew, has 2009 been a tough one for airlines. Globally, carriers are expected to lose $11 billion this year, with US airlines contributing about $2.5 billion worth of those losses.  Mainline carriers saw 10-15% drops in year-over-year Revenue per Available Seat Mile, and back in June US Airways reported a nearly 30% drop in year-over-year yields (roughly – the average fare paid).  Add the that a 5-7% decrease in capacity, and it would look like 2009 was the year that airlines tried to shrink themselves into a $2.5 billion loss.

Except Allegiant.  The Las Vegas-based low fare carrier continued its tradition of posting ridiculously good numbers, even as every analyst out there assumed that people would stop flying to Las Vegas altogether.  Wrong.  Allegiant diversified, flying to Phoenix and several cities in Florida, generally avoiding any competition by flying a few days a week to cities with little air service.  For $69 or so people in third-tier cities could go to a sun destination without having to change planes.  There is a lot to be said for that, even in a down economy.

During the first 3 quarters of 2009, Allegiant posted a $65 million profit on $423 million in revenue.  Their operating margin was more than 24%.  While their average fares dropped from the first quarter ($74 in Q1 vs $67 in Q3), ancillary revenues only dropped from $34 to $32 per ticket.  Yes, they derive about 1/3 of their ticket revenue from ancillary charges.  They decreased operating expenses nearly 30% year-over-year in an operation that was already lean, allowing them to post strong profits even when average fares were dropping.

Their decision to purchase MD-80s on the used market for several million dollars each, rather than investing billions in new planes is brilliant, allowing them to keep utilization pretty low and still print money.  Sure, when fuel costs increase they get hit because of their less efficient aircraft, but it is offset by their ability to manage their cashflows by buying planes outright.

Their strategy seems obvious:  do what you do well and avoid doing anything else.  I was concerned when they moved away from their Vegas strategy to diversify a bit, but it turns out to be a great move in light of decreasing travel to Vegas during the recession.  They were able to translate their strategy to a handful of new markets, offering service to small cities and selling hotel rooms, attractions, and onboard services to keep revenues at a profitable level, even as fares decreased.

Bravo to yet another year well done at Allegiant.

Top 5 Friday: 5 Random Observations from This Week’s Trip

I’m back a bit early from my excursion (I’ve recently changed jobs, so I’ll be traveling more nowadays), and I thought I’d share 5 thoughts from the trip:

- Changing your return flight on an international trip can be ridiculous.  My roundtrip fare was originally $800.  I decided to come back early…the cost to make that change?  $1600.  Instead I threw out the return ticket and  booked a roundtrip for $700.  I’ve said before that my biggest issue with this type of thing is not that it’s ridiculous – airlines are just trying to maximize revenue.  My issue is that most of us on that plane are just trying to get home to our families, and when it costs $1600 to do that on an $800 ticket, it’s annoying.  My solution?  Airlines send Elite members a “get home free” card where once (twice?) a year they change their return ticket for free.

- You know how after a long flight, the cabin is in complete disarray with newspapers, food, blankets, and random crap strewn everywhere?  Somehow the flight over to Amsterdam was nearly spotless when we disembarked.  Weird.

- Flights to Europe from the East Coast are brutal.  No matter how many times you do it, or how much ambien you take, it’s not long enough to get a night’s sleep and the time change makes a short work trip into a series of dream-like experiences.  I looked across the table during one meeting and saw my co-worker with her head down on the table fighting to stay awake.  There’s no real answer to this, but it became the theme of the trip.  I’ll take the 10-hour South American overnight with no time change any day.

- On a short Edelweiss Air flight from Amsterdam to Zurich they served a sandwich of some sort during the 65 minute hop.  I’ve heard repeatedly about how amazing the service is in other countries because they serve food even on short flights.  But honestly – what the hell difference does that make?  If you can’t go from 9:50am to 11:05am without eating a ham and cheese sandwich, you have problems.  (Disclaimer:  I ate it.)

- I know I’m the only person in the world who loves Spirit Airlines, but I called them on Friday at 5:15pm to book a 7:45pm flight to Florida with a Sunday return.  It cost $190.  You can hate them all you want, but that’s just fantastic.