United sells a subscription

June 6, 2013 on 1:41 pm | In Airline Fees | 2 Comments

United Airlines would be considered a big player in the ancillary fee department of airlines in the United States.  They had really 4 classes of service, for instance, long before most when they adopted Economy Plus.  Most recently, they became national news for their decision to raise already high ticket change fees another $50.

If there are going to be fees, I hope more airlines also take United’s approach to offering some value in the process.  United is now offering subscription plans that would either allow a passengers to routinely check bags for a year without additional fees or another plan that would permit travel in Economy Plus for a year without additional fees.

United isn’t just offering one plan either.  Checked baggage subscription plans offering opportunities to carry one or two bags and also offer the opportunity through widened regions.  Their simplest plan (1 bag) in the domestic United States is just $349 and one of their most expensive, two bags checked globally, is $799.

There is value in those fees for the frequent traveler.

Economy Plus works similarly.  For a base fee, the traveler would be able to access Economy Plus on a space available basis for $499.  It’s $599 if we add in Hawaii and/or Alaska.  For global access, it is $699.

But remember that that is on a space available basis and space available comes after top tier elites in that area.  There may be value here or may not be.

What’s the catch?  Well, top tier frequent travelers already get access to these things and this is really aimed towards the frequent flier that is traveling just a few times a year.  It fits a niche.

If fees aren’t going away, programs like these are good values for those who travel more than very occasionally and other airlines would be smart to emulate them.

Fees for Southwest

May 15, 2013 on 12:50 pm | In Airline Fees | No Comments

Southwest, as a function of owning Airtran, has tasted the allure of fees and saw its revenues increase 6x most recently in earning more than $176million in fees for 2012.  Most of that was from bag fees collected by Airtran.

A very small portion was Southwest related (they do charge for bags, just not the first few bags).

I think we now know what the temptation is.  Someone at Southwest did the math on their customers and realized that number could climb 6x more if they adopted it system wide.

The question asked is “Yes, but at what cost?”

It’s hard to say with Southwest.  Their extremely loyal customer base might be far more likely to punish Southwest than some other airlines’ customers would.

I think we’ll see more dialog about the chance of fees at Southwest and we may even see Southwest adjust itself somewhat in the landscape of fees.  Frankly, I think you could make an argument at Southwest that introducing modest baggage fees for 2 or more checked bags.  It aligns Southwest against its competitors better while still delivering exeptional value to almost all who fly them.

Never Say Never

January 28, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees | No Comments

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly made a statement in a TV interview where he said never say never when it comes to adding baggage fees at Southwest Airlines.

Before anyone over interprets:  He also said that there are no plans to do so in 2013.

He also said that he believed that Southwest’s customers would tell SWA if it wanted that unbundled fee added and he is absolutely right.  The customers will indicate to Southwest just how much of an unbundled carrier it wants it to be and that is as it should be.

It occurs to me that Southwest could soundly smack airlines such as Delta, American and United by lowering its fares and adding a baggage fee.  I doubt the revenue picture would change much at all on a per passenger basis but the fundamentally lower fares would put real pressure on the SuperLegacy airlines (with or without their lower costs.)  Why?  Because those carriers have a unique disadvantage against Southwest with respect to costs:  The SuperLegacy Airlines all incur the hub & spoke network costs that Southwest avoids.  And while Southwest pays some of the highest labor rates in the industry now, they also get the highest productivity in the industry as well.  That offsets those costs considerably.

Imagine you are American Airlines and Southwest lowers fares against you on the top 25 routes out of the DFW area and adds a baggage fee that is $5 cheaper than yours.  If I’m the AA CEO, I reach for the Tums.

Carry On Fees

April 7, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service | No Comments

When Allegiant Airlines announced their new carry-on luggage fees for those needing to use overhead storage, quite a few people said “Aha!  I told you others would do this after Spirit did it!”  Spirit was the first and they do share something with Allegiant.  They are both ULCC airlines in the United States.

Will it happen with other legacy carriers?  No, I still do not think so.  Nor do I think it will happen with LCC carriers.

ULCC carriers aren’t worried about loyalty.  LCC and legacy carriers are.  In fact, LCC and legacy carriers are very worried about loyalty and a carry-on fee is one of those things that, I think, those carriers realize could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Does Allegiant’s move make any difference in the airline world?  No, I think not.  It isn’t even very newsworthy as it will never affect more than single digit percentage of passengers in the United States.

Service with a Smile

March 21, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service | No Comments

Customer service rankings of airlines are very interesting to me these days because it is the LCC carriers such as Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and Virgin America who are doing very well in these.   There was a time when legacy airlines such as American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, etc would be the ones to garner high rankings and largely because they were regarded as full service airlines.

Before I go further, let’s just toss out first/business class experiences.  They are typically quite good no matter what airline you are on and it isn’t worth doing too much comparison.  The truth is, if you’re flying in first or business class on most any airline, you’re going to be well taken care of.

Economy class is where the differentiation takes place.  Legacy airlines have dumbed down their service so much over the past 4 years that few customers see real value in flying on these airlines.  The typical customer flying mainline service from one of these airlines can expect a cramped seat on an older aircraft on a flight whose departure and arrival are far more dependent upon a hub system that can have immediate ripple effects when there are problems at a hub.  In addition, that customer can expect to pay for checking baggage and even privileges such as a well placed seat or softdrink.  Best (or worst) of all:  the consumer can expect a less than friendly experience from service staff and that extends from the front door of the airport to the back of the aircraft.

That isn’t the experience on most LCC carriers.  To the contrary, a passenger can generally expect to *not* pay for checking a bag, not pay for a non-alcoholic drink, not pay for a snack and even not pay for changing a ticket (Southwest).  The aircraft are far newer and frequently have onboard entertainment available for purchase and WiFi for a small service fee.  The service staff tend to be friendlier from front of airport to back of aircraft and the fee structures that do exist don’t generally come off as someone nickel & diming the passenger.

In short, the LCC carriers are generally offering far greater value for the price of an air fare than the legacy airlines are.

The truth is that LCC carriers aren’t really low cost anymore in terms of sheer price.  In fact, it’s been noted that LCC fares are ranging far higher than once before and often they let the legacy carriers set the price in markets.  Where the LCC carriers are winning is in the value delivered:  few or no fees, better service, more comfortable aircraft, etc.

Ironically, this is how airlines differentiated themselves until the late 1970s.   Then, airlines didn’t get to differentiate on price because fares were set by regulatory authorities.  Instead, they could differentiate on schedule and service and they certainly did so.  People often flew those airlines based on the kind of service they enjoyed.  A TWA passenger wasn’t typically a Braniff passenger.  An American Airlines passenger wasn’t typically a Pan Am passenger.

That’s happening again.  A Southwest passenger tends to not be a JetBlue or Virgin America passenger and vice versa.  The differentiation is on service.  Southwest passengers tend to like the reliable, consistent and fast service.  JetBlue passengers enjoy the amenities vs price.  Virgin America passengers like the full service approach versus legacy airlines.

If you believe that your experiences on legacy carriers has been lacking, I couldn’t shout loud enough in favor of going to the LCC carriers for your needs.  The service experiences are far superior (in general) and for the same or lower price.  Each has their own loyalty programs that are as generous as anyone else’s as well.

This is an area where Virgin America does very well.  They are entering traditional route markets and competing on service for the business traveler successfully.  Their schedules are well suited to those travelers, their service product is superior and their prices are vastly more reasonable on those same routes.

And that’s the way it will continue to trend.  Legacy carriers who’ve even got their act together are still competing largely on price alone and while that works to a degree, it doesn’t work well over the long term.  To a degree, this is being answered with Economy Plus seating on these flights but those service options largely make it possible for the airlines to offer the frequent flier an “upgrade” that isn’t what  an upgrade used to be.  If it was intended as a real service upgrade of value, the pricing for that seating would be far more competitive than it is.

LCC carriers will continue in this path because they have a sustainable service model and a business model that allows the airline to earn the profits necessary to be sustainable as an airline.  They haven’t lost sight of the fact that service with a smile wins customers and keeps them.

Lost Luggage

December 22, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service, Airports, security | No Comments

Short of tarmac delays, lost luggage drives more hate of airlines than just about anything else I can think of.  I frequently hear stories from people about their bad experiences with lost, misplaced and stolen luggage and, to be honest, I generally discard them as data points to evaluate airlines by.

I’ve been flying since I was 2 years old and I have flown as many miles as any of today’s frequent flyers.  In that time, I’ve had luggage delayed or misplaced maybe as many times as can be counted on one hand.  I’ve had luggage completely lost once and, believe it or not, that was on a train, not an airline.

With a few exceptions, I check my luggage.  I have no interest in making my life more miserable navigating airports and flights with it. 

There are times when airlines not only get it wrong but get it wrong consistently.  US Airways wasn’t particularly good for quite a while in Philadelphia, for instance.  London Heathrow has handled such things very badly at times as well.

To the traveler, I say this:  planning for the event that has less than one percent chance of happening will only stress you out more than a single incident of it actually happening.   And if you can’t afford to check your bag, you can’t really afford to travel. 

Now, with all that said, I also think airlines do an atrocious job of handling these problems.  Airlines have never handled the problem well and they’ve only gotten worse at it by compounding the problem with luggage check fees. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  No airline should be charging a fee to check at least the first bag and as long as that bag is within some reasonable weight limit (50lbs domestic and 30lbs international strikes me as fair.)  The very nature of getting on an aircraft to go somewhere implies that a passenger is carrying luggage.  It’s silly and insulting to the traveler.

And to charge that fee regardless of whether or not you have delivered the bag with the traveler at the same time is also insulting.  If you want to charge fees, you need to be prepared to answer appropriate for not providing that service.  Airlines aren’t unique in that service sense.  Do we expect to pay for a meal that is 2 hours later at the table in a restaurant?

Furthermore, not doing your job in delivering the luggage with the person can impose an expensive, time consuming and challenging problem upon people.  Denying reasonable compensation in a timely manner is just wrong.  Plan for the expense and fix the problems causing the losses.

Writing complex and unfair clauses in your contracts of carriage is wrong.  I’m not sure the rules in place today are exactly fair to the airlines at times but they are the present rules.  Not following them or trying to sidestep them is wrong.  It’s bad business to cheat your customers.

There should be a time limit to how long an airline has to find your luggage and return it to you.  That should be something like 48 hours for domestic losses and no more than 5 days for international losses.  After that, you pay reasonable claims. 

I don’t think it particularly fair for a person to be able to pack $10,000 worth of items in a suitcase and then claim their loss entirely either.  But my solution would be to suggest to airlines that you charge insurance for any luggage exceeding $1000 in value.  There, I just gave you a new revenue stream and an opportunity to keep passengers happier and more secure.  Want to pack your Apple laptop in your luggage?  Go ahead but take out $1500 in insurance at, say, $10 per trip against this loss. 

And prove you actually put the expensive items in your suitcase. 

The dirty secret in this business is that you, the customer, have a long history of inflating the value of your possessions during a claim.  Suddenly a $200 Canon point and shoot camera becomes a $1000 Nikon in a claim.  That wrong and it’s fraud.

I also think airports and the TSA have a *strong* duty to keep luggage secure while transiting airports.  I know of already too many incidents where luggage secured with TSA approved locks were pillaged for their expensive items and then RELOCKED AND PUT ON THE PLANE.   That’s theft and only people with TSA lock *keys* are able to get into those bags. 

More transparency, fairness and insurance is required on all sides.  Everyone needs to quit addressing the problem with greed and most could stand to quit taking it personally.  Even airlines have a bad problem of acting as if they are victims over any lost luggage and they aren’t.

Baggage Theft

September 2, 2011 on 11:36 am | In Airline Fees, Airline News | No Comments

Someone please explain to me why we are paying exorbitant “security taxes” as well as exorbitant baggage fees?

USA Today has a story about baggage theft by an American Eagle baggage handler and this gentleman managed quite a significant take. 

Let me point out that when you charge fees in the name of security, etc, then there is an obligation to protect people from these thefts.  In addition, IF THIS MAN CAN STEAL THIS KIND OF STUFF TO THIS LEVEL, ISN’T THAT A CREDIBLE SECURITY WHOLE AS WELL?

After all, he’s accessing baggage that is TSA processed.  If you can steal from a bag, you can put a bomb in a bag.  Food for thought.

Let’s talk about traveling military bag fees.

June 10, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees, Airline News | 2 Comments

So, Delta got hit badly by a viral Youtube video made by two soldiers among a group of 30+ soldiers traveling under orders back from overseas.  Because they (the group) mostly had 4 bags instead of 3, Delta charged $2800 in extra bag fees (for the entire group) and then got pummeled with bad press for it.

Before we go further, let me say a couple of things as qualifiers.  First, I’m no fan of baggage fees although I think that when anyone is traveling with more than 2 checked bags, yes, a fee is probably in order.  Second, I am not anti-military or anti-GI whatsoever.  Their government service is appreciated by me as well as most.

Now, airlines have typically allowed 3 free bags to traveling servicemen under orders with fees for in excess of that.  That alone is exceptionally generous and it isn’t a kindess to the servicemen, it’s a kindness to the US Government and, by extension, taxpayers.  Why?  BECAUSE TRAVELING SERVICEMEN UNDER ORDERS HAVE THEIR BAG FEES PAID REIMBURSED BY THE US GOVERNMENT.

From USA Today’s story:  “Army spokesman Paul Boyce says the reservists won’t be out anything because their traveling orders stated that all excess bag charges will be reimbursed by the government.”

The airlines aren’t imposing a hardship on servicemen.  In fact, they giving the US government a considerable break on fees instead.  Why is an airline obligated to giveway services and take a hit on revenue just because its government travel by GIs?  It isn’t in my opinion.  To the contrary.  Why isn’t the US government paying for the services it receives from airlines?

In other situations, airlines would heartily argue that giving away such stuff to other parties would raise *your* ticket prices.  They wouldn’t be wrong in that argument. 

Absolutely we should support the troops.  And I (and you) contribute taxes that pay for their travel (as they should) and it should be paid for in full and responsibly.   How would we feel about airlines giving away (for free) services to other public servants?  We would probably be pretty angry and concerned about that.

This may be wholly unpopular but I would offer that Delta is not the villain here.  The US Army is culpable for not making prior arrangements to transport its troops without financial burden. 

It is inappropriate and, frankly, lacking class to make a video, put it on Youtube and turn a company into a villain for something your command structure didn’t identify and take care of.

Consumer Groups want airline rules made into law

May 26, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

Christopher Elliott, a pro consumer problem solver in the travel business, has this excellent opinion piece about a drive on the part of several consumer advocacy groups to get recent FAA rules regulating airline behaviour codified into federal law.   His stance is that this isn’t something that the public has asked for and I couldn’t agree more.

I tend to be a bit more “pro consumer” in this blog myself.  The tarmac delays and some other behaviours needed to get addressed but these issues are, in my opinion, being more than adequately addressed by the current FAA rules.  In fact, if anything, I think we need to review the “3-Hour Rule” some time soon.  In my opinion, this rule needs to be lengthened to 4 hours and that is what I advocated originally. 

I think we need rules on baggage fees as well as other unbundled service charges airlines are making.  I think they should be oriented towards enforcing performance on the part of the airline charging for the service. 

There is no question in my mind that the recent baggage fee rule does very little to the benefit of the consumer since it only addresses lost baggage.  Nothing is being done about requiring performance from airlines on delayed baggage and that, in my opinion, is a far greater problem.

But making this stuff into federal law is a very bad idea in my opinion.  It doesn’t gain better performance from airlines and makes it much more difficult to change rules to fit changing circumstances.  Laws have inertia and that inertia can be very bad for the airline / travel industries. 

Making those rules *will* have the effect of adding significant costs to the price of travel and will *not* have the effect of making the experience one iota better. 

This is an answer to a question that has already been asked and answered plenty well enough.

jetBlue’s Most Excellent Commercial

May 21, 2011 on 1:00 pm | In Airline Fees, Trivia | No Comments

jetBlue has this most excellent commercial for making its point on baggage fees.  Far better than even what SWA has done so far.   It’s notable, however, that while jetBlue doesn’t charge for the first checked bag, it does charge after that.  It charges $35 for the second bag and $75 for the third bag.


New Rules from the DoT

April 23, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | 2 Comments

The Department of  Transportation has announced new rules governing airline behaviour in a variety of areas that should become firm in about 120 days.  First off:  Baggage fees.

Airlines will be required to refund baggage fees in the event that the airline loses a piece of checked baggage.  This, to me, is a no brainer and I’m going to make a prediction that airlines are going to cast about to find a loophole in this rule.  I think someone is going to try to change the “contract” for carrying this luggage.   Airlines are going to be faced with a lot of demands for refunds as a result of this and not only is that lost revenue, it also spells out additional costs in managing those refunds.

International airlines will have a “4-hour” rule mandating departure take place within 4 hours of leaving the gate.  They’ll also be required to supply food and water after 2 hours.  I think this is a fine idea and, frankly, I would even support a change of the domestic rule to 4 hours as well.  Both would be reasonable in my opinion. 

Airlines will be required to prominently display all potential fees and taxes for their fares on their websites.  I’m still trying to find the rules so that I can read them but I do wonder if this requirement applies to fares displayed on websites (and other venues) maintained by other companies.  Regardless, this one is a no brainer to me.  Airlines should be required to have a bit more transparency in this area.   Now it is time for consumers to step up and *read* what they are buying.

The airline industry response to this is roughly “Rules Bad!  Market forces good!” 

No, not really.  There is such a thing as too much regulation.  However, airlines are huge corporations with a lot of power on their side.  To act as if individual consumers can force this change if they want it is disingenous.  Government regulation is also good and in these cases, it’s about leveling the playing field between the consumers and the airlines. 

However, I’ll also say that I believe that with these rules, the playing field is leveled and it is now up to the consumers to do their work.  It’s time to read what is displayed with respect to the fares you are shopping.  It’s up to you to claim your baggage fee refund.  And it’s time to stop acting like every departure delay is a conspiracy against you.  In short, it is time to act like responsible adults instead of like children enjoying a temper tantrum.  You are getting what you asked for so now you need to step up and behave appropriately as well.

Should airlines refund baggage fees?

April 16, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees | 1 Comment

Shortly after most airlines begin charging to check a bag on flights, the debate began on whether or not the airlines had an obligation to deliver that bag to the destination reliably and, failing to do that, refund the charge.

It’s a question I asked myself as soon as American Airlines began those charges since they used to be well known for bag delays from Chicago to Dallas. So well known that if you’re bag didn’t show up on your flight and you were a regular, you just waited for the flight that arrived an hour to two hours later. It never came on the very next flight, it usually came on the flight after that and sometimes the flight after that. I became so used to it, I simply sighed, went to a bar and waited without even registering a complaint to the AA baggage clerks because I inevitably found that I knew when it was coming more accurately than they did.

I firmly believe that when you charge for this service, you have obligation to deliver the service reliably or, failing that, an obligation to refund the baggage charge. In dollars, not flight credit. And immediately, not weeks later.

Airlines say that if the DoT requires them to do this, costs will rise and everyone will pay more for their flights. Yes, they said costs.

Costs won’t rise but the revenue from those fees might, perhaps, be reduced and doesn’t it say something when airlines panic over this? The airline industry is a weird one. They’ll cavalierly hand out freebies to people who fly frequently and, yet, charge huge fees and abuse customers left and right who are anything less than a frequent flier. They’ll cling to the fees and fares they’ve charged until their body is cold and dead. And many consumers accept this without even much objection.

Let me ask you this: Would you order a new washer and drier, permit yourself to be charged months in advance for a delivery that is delayed and when the items do arrive you find them damaged or one missing and not complain? What we wouldn’t put up with from just about any other service or product provider we regularly put up with from the airlines. Why?

I would love to see someone reading this argue the airline case and not from the point of view of “fares are cheap, quit expecting so much.” It isn’t expecting much to see your luggage travel on the same aircraft to the same destination you are going to.

Do checked bag fees add to security?

March 19, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees | No Comments

The US Travel Association claims that airlines’ checked bag fees are making it more difficult to pass through security at airports and are calling upon airlines to reduce or eliminate them to improve this situation.

Do they add to security line time?  I suspect that those fees added an incremental amount of time to waiting in lines but I don’t think it’s a prime driver of security wait times.  The truth is, the business traveler has been running around with briefcases, purses and rollaboards for years and the business traveler comprises the major part of those passing through security most of the time. 

Furthermore, no airline is going to do this to alleviate security wait times.  If anything, they’ll (rightly) point out that security wait times are the problem of the government.  Given the taxes and fees that are levied on travel already, I would agree that it isn’t the airline’s problem. 

Security wait times are much more likely being driven by how those lines are designed, changed and/or increased security procedures and old airport infrastructure.  I honestly look forward to the day we see a modern airport designed to accomodate security in the 21st century as I think that could be managed much better with design. 

Another contributor to security wait time is the staff itself.  Anyone who has traveled can tell you that some airports have fairly effective and efficient staff while others have very ineffective and inefficient staff.  Again, that’s the government’s domain and problem. 

Are people carrying more onboard aircraft?  Absolutely.  But changes in baggage fees didn’t drive 100% more carry on baggage.  It was a much more incremental amount and I would make an off the cuff guess that it probably drove about 20% more carry on baggage at most.  Remember that most business travelers already can avail themselves of free baggage check-in as a function of their membership in frequent flier programs.  They simply choose not to.

Fares, Fees and Fuel Surcharges Part 2

March 16, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees, Travel Hints | 1 Comment

Before you shop for a fare to travel this spring or summer, remember one thing:  You will almost certainly pay more than last year.  And, not for nothing, you probably should.  Gasoline prices are way up ($0.50 / gallon to date for my area just over the past 2.5 months) and so are costs for things like food or even dining out.  It costs more to do business today and the airlines are subject to the same events that drive costs as we are.  If you’re laboring under the idea that airlines are fat cats just squeezing money out of people, well, reset your mind on that.  One has to wonder why anyone would go into the airline business given the very few profits available.

But if you want the best price, it is time to get smart and if you do play it smart, you’ll not only be rewarded but airlines just might start paying attention to customer dissatisfaction as well. 

It’s hard to do but start by figuring out what your needs are not just in going from Point A to Point B but also who you are traveling with, how much luggage you might take and whether or not you might be more flexible with your travel dates.  Let’s say that you, your spouse and one child are traveling on a vacation.  Can you combine 2 or more people’s clothing needs into a larger suitcase and keep it under 50lbs?  If so, you may well save on baggage fees.  With baggage fees costing people as much as a couple of hundred dollars extra for this kind of trip, there are real savings to be had.  My own family follows this philosophy and we’ve discovered that we can generally eliminate at least one bag to be checked and often two.

Consider your choice in airports.  Many metropolitan areas have 2 or more airports and those choices can yield big savings.  Perhaps it costs less gas to access one or another.  Often rental cars at a secondary airport can be less expensive than at the primary airport (this is that demand thing again).  Low cost carriers like secondary airports because it costs them less to fly there.  Shop your choices. 

In addition, if you’re already going to rent a car, check to see if there is another airport within 1 to 1.5 hours from where you want to be.  Sometimes the savings can be huge and well worth the drive.  I once flew to Tampa Bay for $140 less than flying to Orlando.  I was already renting a car and it cost me just about 1.25 hours to drive plus the gas cost which then was cheap but even today would yield worthwhile savings.  Particularly when you multiply that fare savings by 3 or more who are traveling with you.

See if leaving on a day different than a Friday or Saturday saves you money.  You might reduce your vacation stay by one day out of 7 or more days but  you may be willing to give up that day for a savings of $300 or more, right? 

Check the alternative LCC carriers as well as the traditionals.  Allegiant Airlines and Spirit Airlines are the airlines of fees, for certain, but if you can plan your trip right on them, you may well save hundreds of dollars.  You might not be in the most comfortable seat but if you’re savings $300 or more on air fares, I’m guessing 2 hours in a 30″ seat pitch seat will be tolerable if you’re on a budget.  If you do choose one of these airlines, READ THEIR RULES CAREFULLY.  Everything costs a fee and several are “opt out” type choices when purchasing your ticket. 

Don’t rule out legacy airlines.  It’s often surprising to me just how competitive legacy airlines are when faced with fighting for business against a few LCC carriers in a market.  Sometimes, when it comes to advance purchase fares, the legacy carriers are the better deal even with their fees. 

Are you using airline miles to pay one or more fares?  Well, maybe you can travel alone and your family can travel another airline cheaper but you can all arrive at the same airport within an hour or so of each other.  It seems awkward, yes, but I also suspect that if you can save $200 or more with this strategy, it might just be worth spending an hour in an airport waiting for the second part of your party.

Before you buy, compare, compare, compare.  You have a computer so use it.  Put both your airline choices up on the screen and be certain of every thing you’re paying before you pay.  Fuel surcharges are going to make a big difference in the cost to families this summer and if you can fly an airline that doesn’t have them, you may well save significant money.  The same is true for baggage fees.   Even airport taxes and fees can be different between a primary and secondary airport in a city and different enough sometimes to more than pay for the inconvenience of choosing one over another. 

Most people would use great care and consideration when spending $1000 or more on a piece of furniture for a home or a home improvement.  Why not use the very same care and consideration on your vacation?  There are real savings to be had out there for someone who invests an extra hour of time into their search.  That extra time frequently results in big savings and everyone likes an extra $100 bill in their wallet.

An Open Letter to ALL Travelers

March 13, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Travel Hints | 5 Comments

Over the past few years that I’ve traveled while writing this blog, I’ve been much more observant of everything going on around me on every flight.  My recent flight between Dallas and Chicago was the breaking point for me when it comes to travelers and I offer this with as much good spirit as I can muster.  I urge any of you readers to either share the link for this post or print it out and share it with those you know to travel with any frequency.

First up:  Business Travelers

Business Travelers are one of the biggest problems I’ve observed.  Sorry folks but you, as a group, are a terrible bunch of people when it comes to traveling.  You carry far too much onto airplanes, invade other passenger’s personal space and act far too vain about your position as a frequent flier.   I witnessed men and women in business suits denigrating people who got relegated to the back of the aircraft  on one recent flight.  Openly insulting people is not only rude and inappropriate, it’s vain. 

You’ve got to learn to check your baggage more often.  Just because you got a Tumi rollaboard that the salesman said was for overhead bins doesn’t mean it is for overhead bins.  Quick history lesson:  Overhead bins were never intended to hold massive amounts of heavy luggage.  In fact, they originally didn’t even have doors on them.  They were created for women’s purses, hats, coats and briefcases.  They were not created for a grossly overpacked and oversized piece of luggage. 

You must pack more modestly and check your bags.  I would agree that if you are making 3 connections to get to a destination that carrying your luggage might be smart.  However, if you’re going point to point or traveling on airline with a good reputation with baggage handling, you need to check your bag(s).   Worried about your possessions?  So am I and that is why you can buy TSA approved locks.  I own 4 and I use them every time and I’ve not yet experienced a loss.   It isn’t necessary to leave your luggage unsecured.

You need to be more observant of the personal space that exists around you.  I saw a number of people open large 17″ laptops on my last flight and proceed to stick their elbows in people’s sides while trying to tweak their latest Power Point presentation.  Just because you have work to do doesn’t mean you get to violate another person’s space.  You also need to be more aware of how you’re dragging your coat, briefcase and rollaboard onto the plane with you.  Again, on my last flight, I had to tell two different men that they were using their briefcases as weapons after they banged them into my head.  Be situationally aware at all times when you’re going down that aisle.

Businessmen:  Quit chatting up the flight attendants.  I don’t care if you’re lonely and I don’t care if you’re single.  You’re holding them up from serving other people.

Businesswomen:  I know you like to look good and feel good.  Stop putting on so much perfume that you offend those sitting in close proximity to you.  Frankly, traveling with perfume on is just a bad idea. 


Find an airline that offers inexpensive and/or free baggage checking and use it.  The truth is, airlines very rarely lose baggage for anyone and even the worst offenders are literally an order of magnitude better than they were a generation ago.  You’re troubling yourself and your passengers for a risk that has a less than 1% chance of happening on any one flight you take. 

Fly the airlines that work for you and stop chasing the frequent flier points.  Traveling with an extra connection is silly, time consuming and wasteful to both you and your employer.  Get as direct a flight as you can for the least money possible.

Pay attention to changes at airlines.  Some that were pretty bad 10 years ago are dramatically improved.  I recently convinced someone to try US Air again and then were stunned at both the service, price and care shown towards passengers.  Just because you had a bad experience 5 years ago doesn’t mean you’ll have another today.  They two events are entirely unconnected.

Eat some food.  Seriously, eat a good meal before departing on your flight.  Why?  Because you’ll be less prone to feel annoyed and aggravated at inconveniences, you’ll rest easier on the flight and you’ll find your ability to cope with sudden events beyond your control much improved.  Eat a good, healthy meal before you get on that airplane.

Plan your day around your flight.  Allow time for being flexibile and quit expecting ideal circumstances at every airport.  Ideal circumstances are not the norm, they’re the extraordinary.  Delays, weather, congestion, etc are the norm.  Get used to that ide and start building time into your day around your flight.  Stop planning a meeting 2 hours before your departure or one hour after your arrival.  It’s silly and impratical to expect that you have a real chance  to make it.  

Refresh yourself on what it means to be polite and exercise courtesy with both the flight crews as well as your passengers.  I’m not saying you have to be a doormat but you can learn to pause to let someone by you and you can stop acting exasperated because someone needs to get up and use a restroom.  Civility and courtesy can and will make your travel a better overall experience.   I want to point out that the rudest people I’ve witnessed are the so called and very apparent frequent fliers. 

All of you need to figure out that airplanes are quite possibly the worst place to expect to get any work done.  Stop thinking that it is your opportunity to “catch up” and do work.  Think about this:  Even on a domestic first class flight you’re expecting to be productive and be at your best game working in a personal space area measuring about 20″ x 38″ with well over a hundred people within no more than 100 feet of you.  This is not anything close to a good situation for getting work done. 

PAY ATTENTION TO THE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS!!!  I watched a Southwest Flight attendant request a woman terminate her phone call while she briefed people on safety who were sitting in the exit aisle row of the aircraft.  She actually had 2 very important key points to make and this softheaded woman continued her call ignoring the flight attendant who then had to stop, get her (the passenger) attention and listen to her briefing *again*.  This delayed the flight attendant and annoyed a number of people who were around her trying to just get done with it.

Quite making phone calls before takeoff and as soon as you land.  I’m pretty sure that I and the other passengers don’t want to share in your conversation with your wife, mistress, colleague or buddy.  It’s a crowded airplane and we don’t need to hear about your kids, your problems or your work.  We most particularly don’t need to hear you speaking louder and louder because you have 150 people around you.  Stop it.  Nothing is going to change if you wait until you’re off the aircraft to make your call.  You’re being a jackass if you keep it up.

When they tell you to turn off your electronic items, turn them off.  Don’t put them into “airplane mode” or “game mode” or anything else.  Turn them off.  There is a real and valid reason for this and, yes, they really can intefere with aircraft systems during those critical times they ask you to turn them off.  In addition, when you argue with the flight attendant about “airplane mode”, you’re delaying the flight attendant, potentially the flight, breaking airline rules and showing your ignorance about aircraft systems.  In short:  you’re being a jackass.

I mean all of this.  It’s time to be civil and polite people and stop being vain, selfish and overbearing.  Frequent flier status doesn’t make you a superior being.  It makes you a frequent flier who has had more time than most to unlearn appropriate behaviour.  If your an infrequent flier, take a few minutes and use Google to learn about the airports you’ll be passing through and be smart about your packing and the security requirements.  Waiting until you’re about to put your bags through security to learn about the security requirements is bad planning and inconsiderate to the 4 dozen other people behind you in the line. 

It’s time for everyone to tune up their behaviour when traveling.

MDW-DAL on Southwest

March 12, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Seating, Airline Service, Airports, security, Travel Hints | 1 Comment

Returning to Dallas on Southwest from Chicago was a different experience.  First, we neglected to insist on avoiding Lakeshore Drive from downtown Chicago to Midway.  This found us sitting in stop and go traffic with our margin of safety time eroding quickly.  A quick tip and some encouragement to the taxi driver found us suddenly surging ahead when a hole opened and he got us there with time to spare. 

Again, I paid for Early Bird check-in on my flight.  This found me with a seat number of A group, position 37.  This is unsatisfying and I don’t believe the old “A” group went to 37.  What I’m saying is that A37 really translates into roughly B10 when you consider the number of people ahead of you and the fact that virtually every flight departing MDW originated somewhere else and already has passengers on it. I obtained a seat in the back on the aisle and that’s OK.

My security experience at MDW was unpleasant and I would say it was about average for a lot of busy airports.  In this case, I put the blame squarely on the staffers.  They were certainly moving in the Chicago Way.  One thing that found me objecting vocally were the wheelchairs.  While I stood in line with my belt and shoes in my hands, I saw 3 wheelchair bound people go to the front of the line where all three people got up, walked able bodied through the process and then sat down again. 

Sorry but being in a wheelchair does not entitle you to get in front of two dozen people waiting to move through.  I objected and the TSA offered that I was being unreasonable.  I offered that fair is fair and able bodied people in wheelchairs don’t get to go in front of me. Based on the reaction of passengers around me, public opinion was on my side.

Again, this airport is crowded and I walked the full lengths of both A and B concourses where I did not witness an empty Southwest gate.  I witnessed empty Delta gates and empty Porter Airlines gates but not one Southwest gate.  They are bursting at the seems and the gate areas don’t quite have enough space for full flights in my opinion. 

On this flight (via STL again), I witnessed person after person trying to stuff grossly overpacked and slightly oversized rollaboard cases into overhead bins.  This causes many delays when boarding the aircraft.  People move through the aisles slower, they put their things away slower and they fight for overhead bin space near their seat.  Flight attendants numbering just 3 per aircraft are not enough to keep this kind of herd flowing smoothly.  Even a few off duty Southwest staff pitched in to help and made little difference.

One staffer attempted to move my modest briefcase and light fleece jacket all the way to the back.  Uh, no, you aren’t going to penalize me for being efficient in favor of people who are apparently clueless about checking oversized bags.  My stuff took up, at best, 1/5 of the overhead bin.  I’m comfortable with that and it’s notable that just 2 fat bags were able to fit into the bin next to my stuff and the bin lid was only closed after a SWA FA essentially beat the bags down with the lid until it latched.

The flight departure was significantly delayed and I would attribute all of that to people boarding slowly, sitting down slowly, arguing for bin space instead of accepting a gate check of their bag and, last but not least, a 100% full flight.  These 100% full flights are exactly why SWA needs the Boeing 737-800 in its fleet.

Once every got seated, we did depart the gate fairly rapidly and experienced about a 10 minute taxi delay as well.  Once we took off, things settled down and the trip into STL was quick.  Taxiing into STL was efficient and deplaning went quickly.  However, once again, it was 100% full and, once again, we played baggage and seat games far longer than necessary.  This found the plane departing even later. 

Ultimately, I arrived in DAL about 40 minutes late.  That was unsatisfying because it wasn’t weather and it wasn’t the aircraft.  It was the sheer mass of people attempting to occupy too much space on that aircraft.   Southwest needs bigger gate areas to get people organized onto the aircraft and it might be time to consider some variation of assigned seating.  Too many people are jockeying for position on full aircraft and that delays things quite a bit.  Assigned seating would eliminate the jockeying and, I think, speed seating.  Unassigned seating on aircraft that are seeing 70% load factors is one thing but on aircraft that are as much as 89% load factor average, it becomes almost untenable.

All of that said, I still think the experience on both flights was as good or better than what was available to me via American Airlines, DFW and ORD airports.  And about $300 cheaper as well.  I still recommend Southwest but I also recommend that you use flights that are “no plane change” flights into and out of MDW or you may well risk making a connection.  That recommendation stands until Southwest improves its ontime rate at Midway.

One more hint:  Southwest doesn’t charge for checking your bags.  It has an excellent record when it comes to lost or misplaced baggage and it delivers checked bags to its carousels pretty quickly.  Save yourself trouble and just check your rollaboard.  You’ll find yourself able to maneuver on and off the airplane quicker.  You won’t have to fight for overhead bin space near you (and if you don’t get it near you, you’re going to be massively delayed in getting off that aircraft anyway.)  Don’t be vain and insist on taking it onboard when it is completely unnecessary on this airline.

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.

First Fees, Now Surcharges

December 17, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | 1 Comment

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Delta is considering new moves when it comes to pricing in order to bolster their profits even more in the coming years.   Instead of another fee, this time it’ll be a surcharge.

A fuel surcharge, to be exact.  Delta wants to explore having fuel surcharges for both international and domestic trips.   It’s notable that Delta’s CEO Richard Anderson has plans to achieve a 10% profit margin for his company in the coming years which would be nearly unheard of. 

Fuel surcharges are in use in many other parts of the world today and they are used commonly in Europe.  It’s no surprise that many European airlines also earn a decent profit and did so even when the chips were down in their economies just a year ago.

But does that make it right?

Well, first of all, I think a 10% profit margin is actually unhealthy for the airline economy, at least in the United States.  It sounds rather reasonable but in most competitive marketplaces, a 10% profit margin for that kind of service isn’t really common. 

Second, companies tend to get addicted to fuel surcharges.  They are the airlines way of grabbing more money in lieu of getting more productive as times passes by.  A surcharge also levels the playing field among airlines and why should an airline who properly manages it fuel hedges not benefit more than airline who chooses to simply pass the penalty on to the passengers?

I think airlines would love to introduce fuel charges and I think if they could get away with it with respect to the FAA, they would all introduce surcharges instantly.  It would resemble the Great Baggage Fee rush we saw 2 years ago.  The problem is, this is just one more pricing complexity to be introduced for the consumer when it comes to choosing an airline flight. 

The typical consumer will have to find a price for a flight, weigh the option on baggage fees and then determine if the fuel surcharge raises the cost of that flight above an alternative flight.  Since an airline flight involves traveling from one place to another, I’ve got a better idea.

How about we start recognizing that some baggage is part of the bargain and how about we recognize that fuel prices (and their fluctuations) are also a part of running an airline business and get back to offering a *real* price for a trip instead of surprising consumers (and annoying them) on every trip?

Loyalties and Ratings

October 31, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service | No Comments

For the past few months, I’ve seen a number of “quality” ratings go out on airlines in the media.  The criteria of these various media outlets seems to be out of step with reality in the airline world and I want to talk about that for a minute.

First, any one airline experience is a highly subjective event.  Complaints about airlines are usually driven by 2 or more bad experiences on flights rather than one and keeping statistics on single events to drive an evaluation doesn’t necessarily reveal whether or not airlines are offering good service. 

Second, the criteria being used to “rate” an airline is often based on the luxuries offered such as in-flight entertainment, WiFi, food or business class seats.   Three of those 4 criteria are often based on price as a function of the kind of ticket a person bought. 

Third, the loyalty programs of airlines tend to skew ratings as well.  It’s amazing how many passengers will continue to rate an airline as “good” in return for those almighty miles.  A “free” ticket excuses a lot of discomfort and abuse. 

Why  not rate airlines on things like seat pitch available in economy seating?  And what about the costs to upgrade to a better seat and/or level of service?  Shouldn’t the ” a la carte” pricing scheme of airlines be included in such a rating? 

Imagine a rating system that offers negative points for less than 31″ of seat pitch, no points for 31″-32″ of seat pitch and positive points for anything 33″ or greater in seat pitch.  Let’s consider bag fees and offer negative points for anything costing over $25 or more for 1st bag checked, no points for $20 to $24 per bag and positive points for less than $20 per 1st bag checked.  You could do the same with food offerings as well. 

Let’s count things like baggage loss claims on annual basis and on time ratings as well.  Offer positive points for being in the top 3, no points from level 4 to level 6 and negative points for being below level 6.  Let’s evaluate how the airline accomodates passengers inside its hub terminals because airlines do have some control and influence over the environment they offer you in most cases. 

Why not include regional carriers in the evaluation of the legacy and SuperLegacy airlines?  They are, after all, selling you the ticket and their brand is what is being touted so shouldn’t those regional airline flights be included in evaluating the brand?

And let’s evaluate on the basis of economy, economy plus and business (and first class domestic) class.  First class, on an international basis, doesn’t really matter because I assure you that it will be top notch compared to any other service level you could experience.   On any given domestic flight, about 10 to 12 percent of the seats available are business/first class seats.  The rest are economy.  All too often we’re rating airlines on how well they’re treating the vast minority of passengers. 

And let’s leave loyalty programs out of it.  They cause passengers to act irrationally and only to the benefit of the airline. 

Wouldn’t it be nice to choose a flight based on such a rating system and the price for a fare?  You can bet that airlines would pay a lot more attention to the basics and a lot less attention to the 10% whose fares are generally being paid for by their business and who don’t have a financial stake in their choices.

Airlines Object To Baggage Fee Refunds

September 27, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | 1 Comment

You’re surprised, right?

The Chicago Tribune has a story on airline objections to baggage fee refunds and how most airlines are reacting to a proposed federal rule that such refunds be available.  The Airline Transport Association says this should be determined by the marketplace, not the federal government.  It claims that mandating such a thing will raise fares on everyone and a determining what constituted a timely delivered bag was subjective at best.

The ATA sounds like a political party at this point.  Actually, it sounds like the Republican party at this point.  No regulation!  No Rules!  No Taxes.  Leave Us Alone!  Get off our lawn!

I’m pretty sure I could determine what constituted a timely delivered bag.  If it is at the baggage carousel available for my pickup in no more than 60 minutes, it’s timely delivered.  (I’ll point out that this is more generous than Alaska Airlines at present.) If it isn’t delivered to me in a timely manner, my fee is refunded in the manner of payment I originally used for such a fee.  

Hey, if you want cake and you want to eat it, be prepared to pay for it.  It doesn’t come free.  It’s time even airlines get that message.  Don’t like the infrastructure such a rule might impose upon you?  Figure it out.  

Airlines earned over $3 Billion with a “B” in baggage fees between June 2009 and June 2010.  I know they love that revenue and I know it’s making a difference in their profits.  Thing is, if you charge a fee for something, you *should* be held to standard of performance.

Offering some points or making it incredibly difficult to obtain a refund falls short of a performance standard that anyone would find acceptable anywhere else.

And let me comment on this idea that the marketplace should determine this concept.  Bah!  We don’t have a free marketplace in the airline industry.  We have an ever increasing oligopoly that competes with itself on price but which cooperates in signaling policy behaviors on just about every other subject. 

Even restaurants have to operate within health standards and dry cleaners get to pay for what they lost.  Why should airlines be exempt from this?

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