United gets sued

October 12, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service, Frequent Flier | No Comments

Someone has sued United Airlines for having an algorithm in its frequent flier system that causes more points to be charged to those who have more points when redeeming frequent flier points for hotels.

United Airlines says this suit is without merit.

Curiously, I have often noticed that American Airlines own system often will offer me a “low” price in points for a flight that if I do not take it, minutes later “disappears” and is replaced with a higher price.  And keeps incrementing as long as I stay on the site.

Mind you, this is an anecdotal observation and I really have no idea of what strategy is employed by airlines with their points based system.  But such strategies have an “airline smell” about them.

And that’s why I think frequent flier points are useless and not be sought when choosing travel.

Southwest’s CMO muddies the picture

May 6, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline News, Airline Service, Frequent Flier | No Comments

In a Forbes online story, Southwest Airlines Chief Marketing Officer Kevin Krone finally tried to answer the question many of us have been wondering:

What’s up with the generic TV commercials?

Apparently it is about being Southwest Airlines but not the old Southwest Airlines but, actually, connected to the old Southwest Airlines while remembering that they’re different now but, in fact, they aren’t because they’re still being a disruptor even if they aren’t trying to win leisure passengers but, rather business passengers now despite that being their business model 40 years ago.

Yeah, I’m confused too.

I have seen this over and over and over again:  Change for change’s sake.

Southwest isn’t trying to win.  It’s newly minted Vice President Whiz Bangs are trying to find a way to make a name for themselves instead of being stewards in running one of the most successful airlines in aviation history.

Since when is Southwest not interested in that incremental passenger called the leisure traveler?  It’s those incremental passengers that often earn the profit on a flight.

Dallas to Chicago

March 5, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees, Airline Fleets, Airline Seating, Airline Service, Airports, Frequent Flier, Travel Hints | 4 Comments

Later today, I’m flying from Dallas to Chicago and this time I’m trying out Southwest Airlines’ service from Love Field to Midway Airport.  Both airports are the quintessential second airports for their respective cities and both have a strong Southwest history. 

Why this airline and these airports?  I’ve long advocated that you can enjoy a better, less expensive flight on Southwest that is essentially the same time elapsed “door to door” as a flight on a carrier such as American Airlines. 

So, I’ll be making a much quicker drive to Love Field airport where I’ll make a much quicker transit  through security to my gate.  I did pay the $10 Southwest Fee to early check in to improve my seating options (and it’s a fee that, for Southwest customers, does provide extra value).  My flight, however, is not non-stop.  I’ll be on a one-stop Southwest flight that pauses briefly in St. Louis.  Total programmed flight time?  2 hours, 55 minutes.

I paid $408 for this trip last Saturday compared to American Airlines fare for similar departure times on the same days of $659 and that does not include the fees for one checked bag that I’ll have to take with me.  All in, AA would have cost me (or, rather, my client) over $700. 

If I had taken AA, I would have had a much longer drive to DFW airport and a much more expensive one as well.  (One takes a tollway to DFW if one expects to get to DFW in a reasonable amount of time from where I live.)  The difference in time to get to each airport for me on a day where there are no traffic jams?  About 20 minutes less to access Love Field.

My Southwest flight time will be 2 hours, 55 minutes (if they’re on time) and a similar choice with American Airlines would be 2 hours, 30 minutes.  With the difference in drive time alone, I’ve just made up 20 minutes of a 25 minute difference.  When you account for the fact that I can arrive at Love Field with a bare minimum amount of time for passing through vs DFW airport where I would arrive about 15 minutes before my one hour deadline prior to flight time (because checking bags and passing through security at DFW can be easy or it can be real lengthy), I’ve just gained another 10 minutes. 

Since I”m arriving at Chicago Midway Airport, I’ll have a drive to my hotel in downtown Chicago that is nominally 6 miles shorter in distance and about 20 minutes quicker than if I arrived at Chicago O’Hare.  I’m now up by 30 minutes using Southwest.

At least in theory.

But let’s take a look at the contrasts in experiences I’m liable to enjoy between the two airlines.  On Southwest, I paid the $10 Early Bird Check-In fee so I’ll have a very high likelihood of obtaining a good, front of cabin seat on a 737-700.  It will be a fairly new aircraft and possibly a brand new aircraft.  It won’t be old and it won’t have old, worn out seats either.  I’ll enjoy 32″ to 33″ of seat pitch, most likely a friend flight attendant and no charge for a beverage.  Because of the nature of my trip, I have to check a bag and that comes free and on an airline with a good reputation for baggage handling and security.

If I had taken American Airlines on similar flight time, I would have enjoyed a 20+ year old MD-82.  Since I would have bought AA’s best economy price, I would have likely been at the back of the aircraft and sitting in old, worn out seating with 31″ of seat pitch.  My flight attendants would have most likely been cranky, older crew who have a reputation of taking out their job dissatisfaction on their customers.  (AA flight attendants can be good but in my experience the DFW and Chicago based crews are frequently hostile to customers.) 

My bag would be handled by an airline who had a less than positive reputation for baggage handling (and strangely I’ve had many bags delayed over the years on the DFW-ORD route) and only for a $25 fee each way.   If I had paid AA’s fee for priority boarding, I’d get earlier access to overhead bins but no options to sit in a preferred seat up front and an economy passenger on an AA MD-80 flight is going to have the options of “bad” and “worse” when it comes to seat assignments.

Savings in dollars:  About $300

Savings in time:  About 30 minutes door to door (if this works out as I expect).

What do I give up?  I don’t get frequent flier points on American Airlines.  Let me point out that my dollar savings alone just bought me a “free trip” if I wanted it.  Which would you rather have?  about 1600 frequent flier point or $300 in savings?  Which would you rather fly on?  An old MD-80 with old seats and a hostile flight crew or on a fairly new 737 with new seats and a friendly flight crew?

Once I complete this trip, I’ll write up what actually happened.

Delta Miles Won’t Expire

February 17, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service, Frequent Flier | No Comments

Delta has made what I think is a pretty significant change in its SkyMiles program: They’ll no longer expire after 24 months with no account activity.

This, and other changes coming, is about improving its SkyMiles program and one focus is on communicating with its customers better. Ultimately, as an airline, you do want those miles used for something because it enhances value.

You just don’t want them used when it is inconvenient for the airline.

Over the years, I’ve never really seen much good said about Delta’s frequent flier program. The mile chasers don’t value their program very much at all and my own cursory analysis is that their program appears to be about par for the course on first glance but the award availability is something south of atrocious.

Of course, you could wise up and start buying tickets based on best price, service and convenience instead of being a vassal to a mileage program but that’s another post.

Bid to be Bumped

January 23, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News, Frequent Flier | No Comments

Delta is introducing a program where upon check-in, you can bid to be bumped from certain flights.  The customer will name how much they want in order to be bumped.  The low bidder(s) get bumped for that compensation.  The passenger can opt to change their mind and if there are no bidders, the airline will have to involuntarily bump someone and compensate them accordingly.

I like this idea.  It is economically efficient by prioritizing bumps according to those who have the least to lose as opposed to the most to lose.  It also drives down the cost of bumps which inherently means the airline’s costs are driven down as well.  The current system for seeking volunteers bids upwards instead and passengers know that waiting before volunteering will drive up the offer of compensation.  In fact, frequent fliers know that they can game the system for high compensation that doesn’t necessarily go to whoever paid for the ticket:  their businesses.

If someone is on a leisure trip and they’re willing to be bumped in return for $200 in travel voucher plus a guaranteed booking on the next flight, that means those who really need to get to their destination have a far higher probability of doing so and at the least cost to the airline.  Remember, higher costs = higher air fares.

Yes, if you are in voluntarily bumpbed, you can get far higher compensation in the form of real cash, hotels and positive space on another flight.  However, the idea here is to bump those who have the least to lose, not the most.  It also means less probability of angry passengers as well. 

Other airlines could stand to adopt this system and, frankly, I think it should be deployed so that at a certain overbooking point, airlines solicit these people *before* they arrive at the airport.  And if this works as Delta believes it will, I suspect that will be the next step.

Southwest and Rapid Rewards

January 20, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Frequent Flier | No Comments

Since Southwest Airlines announced its re-vamped Rapid Rewards program, it has taken a lot of flack both from long time program members as well as in the press.  Undeservedly so, in my opinion. 

Southwest needed to do something badly with that program and orient it towards the customer of tomorrow as opposed to the customer of the early 1990s.  These changes do that and while, yes, some people who have been reaping the rewards (pun intended) from short haul flights will do a bit worse, customers who will drive their business going forward will do a bit better. 

It’s all about rewarding those who spend more and travel more.  It’s scaled to mostly reward the people who are driving profits the most and that is what a rewards programs should do. 

I do hope that Southwest holds its course on this program and resists the temptation to change or revise their new plan.  Doing this now corrects a strong imbalance that has existed for some time and ensures that Southwest is competing nationally when it comes to this kind of program.  People will settle down in time and members will buy into the changes but it will take time as no one likes change.

The FAA and the 3 Hour Rule

September 16, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Airline News, Airline Service, Airports, Frequent Flier, security | No Comments

Two days ago, I took exception to a post made by the very popular blogger, The Cranky Flier, over statements made about the 3 Hour Rule.  The dialogue taking place over there highlights the biggest problems with arguments being made for and against the 3 Hour Rule.  Too many judgements are being made on both sides on the basis of incomplete data and emotional arguments rather than facts.

The FAA argued that tarmac delays were dramatically down versus a slight increase in cancellations and, I agree, crowing about it just a bit too much.  Cranky argued that the “slight increase” was in fact a 20% increase and there was an emotional reaction to that.  The problem is, no definition or data is being given for really measuring the impact of the rule on cancellations or the impact of the rule on people. 

Most of the original arguments made for a 3 Hour Rule were derived from exceptionally rare events.  Even when you considered those events in a seasonal context, they were vastly outside the norms.  Indeed, you might have been able to say that 3+ hour delays occurred infrequently enough to be considered statistically insignificant.  What we do know is that if your population of events is large enough, you’re going to have a few that occur far outside the norms. 

Further, we reacted emotionally to the conditions people sat through on many of those flights and really only to the subjective reactions on the part of people who spoke to the press.  We never heard from the person who just sat on the plane quietly for 7 hours and thanked his lucky stars he finally arrived home and got off.   That person doesn’t play well on CNN. 

I do think that there is an argument to be made for limits on the basis of health and welfare of individuals on flights.  I do not think it is wise to hold people on a MD-80 for 8 hours except in the case of major emergencies.

There are health issues to consider such as the close proximity and contact that occurs between a wide variety of people in that environment.  Air quality is another.  Sanitation is also a serious one.  Food and water is really a strong factor as well.  And let me point out that we will divert an entire aircraft to an unscheduled stop when someone is having a medical emergency.  There should be a discussion on how we value the health and welfare of people in these situations.  And just because 4 people want to go at all costs doesn’t mean that rises above the needs of 4 people who have serious health conditions that could well be impacted by a prolonged stay inside an aircraft. 

We should carefully evaluate anything we hear in the media about cancellations as well.  Should we be giving full weight to the person who had a flight cancelled and who suffered a 24 hour delay vs the other 10 people who had a flight cancelled and suffered a 5 hour delay?   Is a businessman’s need to get to the next meeting superior to the mother’s need to get her 2 young children off a plane because of health considerations?  The truth is, I don’t have black and white answers to questions like that but it would be good to see a debate on issues like that.  We, as consumers, should see a bit of argument on both sides and get a more complete picture before we start judging these moments purely on our needs at that particular moment.

As far as the data goes, we don’t know what the impact of this rule is.  We aren’t measuring the impact by the number of people per 100,000 travelers who are getting their flights cancelled specifically because of the 3 hour rule.  We know that cancellation rates go up and down.  Those cancellations can be caused by seasonal events, bad airline operations or, frankly, just a bad week of equipment failures at a particular airline (I believe it was AA who recently saw not one, not two but three 767s go INOP in a single day).  We do know that the overwhelming majority of flights never come close to spending 3 hours delay on the airfield.  Seriously, we do know that.  We know that the frequency of occurrence for delays going past 3 hours prior to the 3 Hour Rule was negligible by any standard. 

What I believe (which is different than objective fact) is that we also have a need for some kind of rule governing those instances that did fall outside all of the norms and which were not caused by major acts of god or major emergencies.  As Doug Parker said, the airlines did this to themselves in many respects.   There were enough instances that we, as a nation, found unacceptable given the particular circumstances around the event.  Airlines and airports didn’t deal with those situations considering what might be humane but instead were making objective decisions based on operational and financial data. 

Objective data and objective decisions are, generally speaking, good to have.  However, we live in a world with human beings who are very subjective creatures.  Yes, you really do have to give consideration to that. 

Statistically speaking, an increase in cancellations that sees a rise from 1.18 percent to 1.43 denotes an exceptionally slight increase from an objective point of view.  The FAA was right.  However, the FAA failed to consider the number of people who were potentially impacted by that slight increase and Cranky was right to point out that these incredibly slight increases do have an impact on a rather large number of people.  By Cranky’s math, that slight increase potentially affected 150,000 more people.  Are we satisfied with the idea that more people than the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium can hold were materially affected by a cancellation?  Well, we can’t even make that judgment because we don’t know all of the “why” behind each cancellation. 

But I think we can agree that it isn’t anything to brag about when 150,000 more people were affected by cancellations.  If nothing else, it is in appropriate to reduce people, human beings, to that kind of statement.

At some point we all should start acknowledging that our airline transportation system is imperfect and cannot delivery you to your destination 100% on time without any cancellations.  If you travel by air, you are going to be affected by a combination of factors virtually every time.  It’s time to be a bit more reasonable in our expectations.

On the other hand, it’s time for airlines to start acknowledging that as well.  One of the biggest causes of uproars over these kinds of situations is an airlines propensity to expect us to adhere to a byzantine set of rules governing our options when traveling while allowing themselves all manner of leeway for those same events.  Airlines want a $20 fee to check a bag but they don’t want to refund that money when they don’t perform.  However, when you miss flight due to a large traffic jam or weather event, you’re often expected to pay penalties and change fees for being affected by something outside your control. 

Not even Las Vegas has a better rigged game than the present US airline industry.  That is what is driving the perception that airlines are abusing people.  And I think it’s manifesting itself in reactions to the more outrageous although exceptionally infrequent events such as a long tarmac delay.  A little more balance between the airline and its customer is called for in my opinion.

Is it right for the government and/or the FAA to regulate some of this behaviour?  Absolutely.  Airlines are using public airways and other public infrastructure while serving the public.  They benefit from a great deal of government investment and expenditures.  The government is not created by the businesses for the businesses.  It’s here for the citizens.  The people who vote and who are ultimately and individually responsible for this nation.  That said, it doesn’t mean that the regulation and oversight needs to be hamhanded or political either.  However, just like no human being or airline is perfect, neither is government. 

Let’s be a bit more realistic about our expectations for all parties involved in this subject area.

Mid-Summer and the 3 Hour Rule

July 15, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News, Airline Service, Deregulation, Frequent Flier | 1 Comment

A number of airline and aviation bloggers have been writing posts about the 3 Hour Rule since statistics for on-time departures, arrivals, cancellations and delays came out for the first full month under this rule.   The Cranky Flier feels certain that this rule is inconveniencing more people now.  Dan Webb writing Things In The Sky thinks it might be too early to make a final call on the rule.   PlaneBuzz speculates on whether or not the FAA will send a fine to the airlines who exceeded the 3 Hour Rule in that first full month (There were five 3 Hour Rule “violations” in May). 

For readers of this or any other blog on airlines, there are a few things to keep in mind about this rule and the statistics.  First, this rule wasn’t put into place because of statistics.  If statistics had driven the rule making, we wouldn’t have a rule.   The rule was driven by egregious delays that far exceeded 3 hours and it was far more political than fact driven. 

Second, the first month of statistics on this mean absolutely nothing.  Frankly, if you were going to use statistics to judge this rule, I think you would need, at minimum, 24 months of contiguous data at the least.  A 5 year data set would be far better.   It isn’t just airline decisions driving these statistics.  It’s weather, passenger trends, disrupted airport operations (for non-weather related reasons) and other factors.  The variables in play here are far too many to make a judgement based on statistics. 

Third, airline fans tend to favor airlines or, rather, they favor airline operations.  And that subset of airline fans we know as frequent flier freaks are even more favorably disposed to airline operations.  We’re a biased group because we see things from both the inside and outside and we tend to excuse events that appear to occur because of one-time conditions.  We tend to excuse what isn’t in the norm because of conditions that are outside of an airlines’ control.  While we may think we have far more than average knowledge and therefore better equipped to make that judgement on a 3 hour rule, we really aren’t.  We have the same bias that airlines as a whole have.

A politically driven rule generally occurs because of a general public perception, not statistics.  The general public perception, whether its based on fact or fiction, is really the controlling factor and the public perception of these delays is *bad*.   It’s bad because airlines have done nothing to change that perception and its bad because those who are trying to explain these delays are coming off as apologists for airlines rather than as subject matter experts.  There is a disconnect between the airline industry and the public consumer in that industry. 

In many ways, this problem of delays could have been solved by some saavy marketing.  The defensive posture airlines have taken during these events has done them no good and apologizing profusely and promising to “fix it” going forward now sounds hollow because these events continue to happen and airlines continue to often appear to have no clue about the passengers being affected by it.  

Airlines have received a lot of bounty from the public over the past several years.  Special considerations have been granted to the industry over and over, particularly since the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, and the airline industry has not acted very grateful nor very responsive in that same time period.  To the contrary, airlines have generally responded with acts that, to the public, appear overtly hostile to the customer.  The general public, right or wrong on its facts, is now entirely resentful of the entire industry. 

This is much more an airline marketing and PR problem than it is an airline operations problem. 

The rule isn’t going to go away and anyone who thinks there is a chance that it will is enjoying a nice fantasy.  The rule is a consequence of airlines doing a poor job to fix an admittedly tiny problem and then acting officious with anyone challenging their behaviour.  Failure to self regulate and respond *and* communicate during these problems created the rule.  There is a lack of public trust when it comes to airlines and that will take a decade or more to fix.  The best any airline or the industry itself can ever hope to accomplish is to hold off even more restrictive rules in the future and that will only be done by being better public citizens themselves.

Do I think the 3 Hour Rule is a success or failure?  I have no idea.  I would note that, anecdotally, the public isn’t crying out to the news media about being delayed an extra 12 hours because of a 3 Hour Rule cancellation.  Until they do, I am extremely hesitant to declare the 3 Hour Rule a failure.

Secret Invitation Only Frequent Flier Programs on NPR

December 12, 2009 on 8:00 am | In Airline News, Frequent Flier | No Comments

NPR did THIS story recently on various airlines’ secret “invitation only” frequent flier programs. In addition, the new movie, Up In The Air, mentions such a program on American Airlines. Lately, these programs are starting to get some publicity and, frankly, I wonder if the airlines aren’t encouraging this.

I have a small link to airline fame. My father created the first modern frequent flier program at Braniff. Yes, I know the popular wisdom is that it was done by Robert Crandall but it wasn’t. His program rolled out about 2 months after Braniff’s did. I still remember my brother and I being somewhat outraged that someone copied our father’s good idea. The original intent was to simply cement customer loyalty to one airline. Essentially, if you flew the airline a lot, you got some free trips via points accrued on the basis of miles. Now, while that exists still in each program, the truth is that these mileage programs lost their intent and value when they started awarding miles for things like credit card use and hotel affiliations.

Let’s face it, it’s a *lot* easier to be a mile pig than it should be. The loyalty isn’t to the airline anymore. It’s to the program and with programs working in concert with airline alliances, the loyalty is diluted even more. That, my friends, is why airlines have secret invitation only programs. You can bet that invitation to those programs is not mileage based but, rather, dollar and frequency based. I suspect that if you are traveling on full fare tickets in first and/or business class on a frequent basis, then you’re going to be considered a candidate by the airline. Do it several years in a row, and I”m sure you’re going to be invited into the program.

And I suddenly wonder how my father isn’t in one of those programs given the nature of his travel for the past 30 years. He’s exactly the kind of customer an airline wants and he really isn’t a mileage gamer either. He just buys a lot of tickets at full coach fares to go where he needs to go. Since he’s lifetime platinum on a couple of airlines (I believe), he is the guy that bumps most people from getting that upgrade.

Airlines want customers and I suspect that we’ll see a bit more of these programs come to light if only to speak to the business travelers a bit more. But I guarantee it won’t be based on how much you spent on your credit cards unless those purchases were full fare business class or better tickets. If your company is buying those tickets for you, I doubt you’ll be invited. They want the person who is buying his tickets based on his desires regardless of what a company is doing for him or her.

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