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From KHOU (autoplaying video):

Michael Hohl, the groom, said he and his fiancé, Amber Maxwell, were the last to board the plane.

According to Hohl, they noticed a man was spread across their row napping when they approached their seats, 24 B and C.

Not wanting to wake the man, Hohl said they decided to sit a three rows up in seats 21 B and C. He said they didn’t think it would matter because the flight was half full with multiple empty rows.

21 B and C are exit row seats on United planes and considered Economy Plus because of the extra legroom.

After sitting, Hohl said a flight attendant approached and asked if they were in their ticketed seats. The couple explained they weren’t and asked if they could get an upgrade, but instead they were told they needed to return to their assigned seats.

So then they tried to finagle their way into the seats by asking for the upgrade.

“I think customer service and the airlines has gone real downhill,” said Hohl. “The way United Airlines handled this was really absurd.”

So the couple could have simply asked the flight attendants to ask the man in their row to sit up (which he would have been required to do for takeoff anyway), but they opted to seat themselves in a better seat.

To sum it all up, this is a non-story.

I am sure you have seen the videos of the United passenger being forcibly removed from a flight by police after refusing to be “bumped” (called an IDB) to a flight the next day. The video and the situation in general, is disturbing and frustrating. First off, United has handled the entire situation poorly. United told everyone the situation and then after this particular passenger refused to leave the plane, police were called to remove him. He was yanked out of his seat dragged down the aisle, bloodied. As Seth points out, United had more options available to them to deescalate the situation from the beginning.

Even at $800 in comp (plus presumably the overnight hotel, meals, etc.) United failed to find the four it needed. The first two IDB candidates left quietly enough. The doctor did not and authorities were called. The resulting removal was not pretty, to say the least. Could United have gone higher in compensation offer? Absolutely? If it has strict policies that prevent such then those should be revisited. Especially when it is a case of must-ride employees and not a more common oversell tied to maximizing yields.

The passenger also has some culpability in the matter. The contract of carriage you “sign” by buying a ticket states that you can be involuntarily bumped from a flight if needed. Compensation must be provided, accommodations are to be arranged, and a new flight is to be booked. The problem is, most people do not read the contracts of carriage. Just about every airline has one and though it is a dense document, a lot of crucial information about your rights as a passenger are contained within. This article by Julia Horowitz and Jon Ostrower puts the state of the contract of carriage in perspective.

Airlines set their own policies when it comes to the order in which passengers are bumped. The terms are sketched out in “contracts of carriage” that passengers agree to when they buy their tickets.

On United flights, people with disabilities and unaccompanied minors should be the last to be kicked off, according to the company’s carriage contract.

American Airlines says it denies boarding based on order of check-in, but will also consider “severe hardships,” ticket cost and status within the carrier’s loyalty program.

Delta Air Lines also takes check-in order and loyalty status into account, as well as which cabin a passenger is slated to sit in. The carrier also says it makes exceptions for people with disabilities, unaccompanied minors and members of the military.

The lack of knowledge about the contract of carriage is no excuse for United’s actions though. And there were still other options they could have exhausted in addition to cash. Why not offer the passenger a rental car for a one-way drive to Louisville? Or what about guaranteeing a seat on the next flight (there was another flight leaving later that night)? Instead the cops were called. This seems to be the common way to handle issues onboard planes still at the gate these days. The gate agents and flight attendants are not referees and their typical operating method is to explain once, maybe twice, and then involve an authority figure.

Lastly are the police officers. Their handling of the situation was downright uncalled for. And deflecting the cause of the man’s injuries as “tripping” just makes me even more upset.

All of this to say, I still don’t think we have all of the facts yet. We know the handling of the entire thing by United was crappy but the three unanswered questions that are important are:

  1. What prompted the calling of police? Was it just the man’s refusal to leave the plane? If so, there needs to be some serious work done on policies for involving authorities.
  2. How did the man get back on the plane? It seems crazy to me that he was dragged off the plane by police and then somehow made his way back on. What transpired during all of this?
  3. Why did United agents not try harder to entice passengers to voluntarily leave? And on top of that, why exactly did they need a crew of four in Louisville so last minute? It seems like a crew scheduling issue really was the root cause of this entire thing. Maybe their regional carrier has a little explaining to do on why the scheduling was so messed up.

I actually tried to avoid writing about this topic but the general noise on social media and around the web just really made me question our intentions. It seems like we’re all itching for a modern day crucifixion of anyone that seems to have done any kind of wrong and social media gives us an outlet to express that. But without all of the facts are we really doing the most good? Or are we fueling a fire that perpetuates bad behavior in the long run? If we don’t want air travel to be like a bus in the sky then we need to treat it better than a bus and expect more of it.

Seeing tweets about banning the overbooking of flights or that having a ticket gives you “rights” is frustrating to me in a way that is hard to explain. I am sure there are good intentions behind most of it but without all of the facts the tweets seem like noise for the sake of noise. And it just seems to pile up.

As a frequent United flier I am disappointed in their handling of the situation and how they have responded to it so far. I will my voice my displeasure with them directly. I am also frustrated that law enforcement handled a non-violent situation with violence and in their write-up of the events placed the blame for the passenger’s injuries on the passenger.

Let’s hope that this serves as an example of how not to handle these situations in the future for everyone involved. If you are looking for more reading on the subject, I think Seth’s take is one of the more levelheaded and thought provoking write-ups out there. Phil Derner Jr’s piece on NYCAviation is also great.

Delta and United at PDX

Scott McCartney for the Wall Street Journal:

The big three U.S. airlines—American, Delta and United—match each other more closely than ever. The three were created from the merger of six large airlines over the past eight years and now each has the profits to spend upgrading its product. They’re all intent on not letting one rival gain a cost or product advantage.

[…]

Airlines say the similarities just mean they are all coming to the same conclusions about what customers are willing to pay for and what they aren’t. “The market dictates what your product will look like,’’ says Brian Znotins, United’s vice president of network.

Three mergers later and we are just now figuring out that the three remaining major U.S. carriers are basically copying each other. The “race to the bottom” language is appropriate at times but really the carriers are simply competing for the passengers who do not necessarily care who they fly. With the low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier offering a no-frills experience, the majors are happy to follow suit and charge for the privilege of more legroom or early boarding. The majority of passengers simply want the lowest fare available that fits their schedule, add to that analysts who want to see profits, and you have what is driving airline decisions.

Remember, they are reporting record profits, all while customer complaints increase. The result is a form of collusion by following. The airlines are not meeting in back rooms to decide what amenity should be cut next, instead they just wait for one to cut an amenity and then follow suit. The latest way of trying to compete with low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier is the basic economy fare. Delta, American, and United are all working to offer a fare that has zero perks, including no pre-reserved seat assignment and no mileage earning. These fares are not necessarily cheaper than fares of the past, but when you compare them to fares that do earn miles they appear cheaper.

This is not a trend that will be changing anytime soon. With new low cost airlines like Norwegian entering the U.S. longhaul market, the reduction of amenities on the three major airlines while charging for perks will continue. It will take a spike in oil prices along with a reduction in travel before anything changes.

car2go
car2go, the smart car sharing company from Daimler AG, announced that starting July 1, 2016 you will be able to use their cars to go to and from Portland International Airport. Parking will be at AirPark, a short shuttle ride from the airport. Trips to and from the airport are charged a $5.00 Airport Fee, but even with that, from places all around Portland, this is now a really cheap and convenient way to get to and from the airport. The real beauty of car2go in Portland is that they can be parked anywhere within the boundaries of the program, even paid parking spots.. And since they are small, it is really easy to find spots. Since paid parking is in downtown Portland and expanding to Northwest and the inner east side, the ability to park in these spots (for free) is a great feature.

The biggest downside is the off-airport parking area. It would have been great if the short term parking garage would have been the parking area, as you could simply walk out of your car2go and be in the terminal. I don’t know if a deal could not be reached with the airport or if the parking situation there is too constrained to allow for it.

I will try to get out there and document the process and how quick the shuttles are as soon as this comes online and would love to hear what people think of it when they use it.

You can read more about car2go parking and the new airport features on their website. The press release sent to members regarding airport parking is also available.

Since the merger, United has struggled to keep its more loyal fliers, but today, in a bid to update the product and the overall premium cabin brand, United announced their reimagined business class product and experience, United Polaris. Named for the North Star, the new international business class for United promises a more enjoyable and restful journey.


At the center of the update is the new business class seat, an all aisle-access offering from Zodiac UK. Jason Rabinowitz posted a few shots on Twitter and my first impression is that it is much better than the 2-4-2 seat setup on the pre-merger United Boeing 777s.

The aisle seats look to be the worst choice, as they are a bit tighter and very exposed to traffic in the aisle. The window seats and those offset from the aisle in the middle look to be the best choices, with more space and great privacy. For more on the seat, be sure and follow Jason Rabinowitz and Scott Mayerowitz on Twitter to see their coverage of the announcement.

Amenities

In addition to the updated business class seat United also announced amenities for travelers in United Polaris. There will be dedicated Polaris lounges with private shower rooms, small sleeping/nap areas, sit down pre-flight dining, and improved seating with AC and USB power. Onboard the aircraft United has promised updated inflight dining menus, wine flights, slippers, a cool-gel memory foam pillow, and on flights over 12-hours, pajamas. The Cowshed personal amenities will remain as part of the amenity kit.

[T]he new bedding collection will feature plush duvets, lightweight day-blankets and a large and small pillow for each United Polaris customer. In addition, mattress cushions will be available upon request.

Slippers will be available on all flights, and customized United Polaris pajamas will be available by request on flights longer than 12 hours. Flyers will also be able to request a gel-cooled pillow. New amenity kits will feature ergonomically designed eye shades, calming lavender pillow mist and additional products from Soho House & Co.’s Cowshed Spa.

United Polaris Pillow, Slippers, and Pajamas
You will start seeing Polaris rolled out starting December 1, 2016 with the soft products onboard (pillows, duvets, etc.) and the opening of the Polaris lounge in Chicago O’Hare Airport.

My $.02

Besides the name, I think this is a step in the right direction for United. The inflight dining in business class on longhaul flights is not very enjoyable and I would much rather enjoy the ability to eat a meal on the ground and use the time in the air for sleep. The new seat is innovative and while there is more density in the business class cabin when compared to American’s 1-2-1 seating, you still have aisle access from every seat and what looks to be a pretty nice sleeping area.

The lounge updates are also a welcome change. Anyone who has been to a United Club at Newark, San Francisco, Houston, or really, any of the United hubs, knows how crowded they can be. A lounge solely for business class passengers will help relieve some of the crowding at the United Clubs and give a few extra benefits to those traveling in business class. Shower rooms at all Polaris Club locations will be great and I would like to know if those will be accessible on arrival or if United will offer another option for those arriving from a long haul flight in business class, similar to the arrivals lounge concept they already have at San Francisco.

Anyway, these announced changes are a welcome improvement and I hope that the execution and delivery of them is as United promises.

The Economist has an interesting short piece and infographic on international airlines and the price you pay versus the service you receive. They used customer satisfaction data from Skytrax and lined that up against flight-volume data from FlightStats.com.

At the bottom of the satisfaction list? United and American Airlines.

Another interesting tidbit was the “worst airports to sleep in” category. Port Harcourt International Airport in Nigeria topped that list… And that isn’t a good thing.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Alaska Airlines has reached a deal to purchase Virgin America. The big news is the price paid.

Alaska Air Group Inc. said Monday morning that it had reached a deal to buy Virgin America Inc., winning a frenzied bidding war with rival JetBlue Airways Corp. The parent company of Alaska Airlines said it would pay $57 a share for Virgin, a 47% premium to Friday’s closing price, representing a total equity value of $2.6 billion. The Wall Street Journal had reported Sunday that Alaska won the bidding contest for Virgin, whose shares have risen lately on takeover speculation.

And investors are responding with a little bit of disapproval as well, with Alaska Airlines stock down around 5.5% at 10am Pacific.
Alaska Stock Price After Purchase Announcement of Virgin America

I am a little concerned that Alaska is paying a significant premium simply to gain gate space and landing slots at a few different airports, namely San Francisco. They are making the purchase at a time when Delta is still trying to grow their new Seattle operation and encroach further into Alaska’s dominant hub, yet they seem unfazed. The Alaska premium product is definitely not cut out to go head to head with some of the other premium transcontinental products and Virgin’s product is showing its age. How does Alaska plan to compete with better products on some of the more lucrative transcon markets (SFO/LAX-NYC, SFO-BOS)?

And all of this without taking into account two very different customer loyalty groups. Virgin is considered sleek and hip, while Alaska Airlines has a loyal following in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Merging those two cultures together while not losing customers will be key for Alaska to succeed. I wonder if the Alaska Airlines management team has a plan in place for doing just that or if they are going to call in the consultants to try and sort it out.

Lastly is the two very different airplane fleets. Virgin America operates an all Airbus A320 and A319 fleet while Alaska Airlines is Boeing 737s for their mainline operations. During the analyst call this morning it was mentioned that the Virgin America Airbus leases start expiring in 2020, so for the next few years, there will be a mixed fleet. The one possibility is that Alaska will use the Airbus fleet up and down the west coast since their capacity is a little less than what the 737s can hold and Alaska could run more frequencies to make up for that.

My general sentiment is that I had thought JetBlue would win the bidding war and build a larger west coast presence. This seems like a generally risky move for Alaska who up until this point has not needed financing to operate and they have grown very organically through the years. I worry that biting off more than they can chew could come back to haunt them in the next few years. I hope I am wrong, but the true test will be whether or not they are able to stay entrenched at Seattle-Tacoma International.

After our move to Portland last year, I decided to match my United 1K status to Alaska Airlines. At the time, there were rumors that Alaska was matching top tier statuses from other airlines with their Gold 75K status, so I gave it a shot. A few weeks after submitting the match I received my credentials in the mail and sure enough, Gold 75K was what they gave me.


Since then I have not had much of an opportunity to fly on Alaska. Most of trips early in the year were to places they don’t fly or where their prices were not competitive. But recently Alaska Airlines has started offering flights between Seattle and Milwaukee and it has been perfect for my work trips. The flights are operated by Skywest using Embraer E-175s, a regional jet that doesn’t feel like a regional jet. They can hold normal sized carry-on bags in the overhead bins, they have tall ceilings, and for most carriers, they have a first class cabin.

My first trip on Alaska’s new Skywest E175 service was a return from Milwaukee to Seattle on the second day the flight operated. I had been upgraded to first class shortly after booking. The only seats available were the set of two in the bulkhead. Not my favorite seats, but I was not going to complain. At the airport, there was an agent helping customers use the kiosk as well as two agents helping at the counter to check bags and print boarding passes. All were very friendly and seemed excited about the new service. I arrived with a little more than an hour until boarding but with PreCheck, I was through security and at the gate very quickly. Not much more waiting and they were already announcing boarding for families with children under two and those needing extra assistance. Then active duty military were called and first class. Walking onboard I got a good whiff of “new plane smell” which, I have to say, is like new car smell just a bit more expensive.

The flight attendants had already placed small Dasani water bottles at every seat and were greeting passengers as they boarded. They both seemed excited about the new planes, the new service, and just happy to be there. It was refreshing. The plane did not take long to board and we pushed back from the gate right on schedule, the captain telling us it would be right at four hours until wheels down in Seattle. I was actually seated next to a pilot who explained that for the first few days of service, Alaska and Skywest were flying an extra crew to operate the return flight just in case there was a storm or other delay that would cause the original crew to time out and cancel the flight. He was gracious and answered all of my questions about the E-175 and the Skywest service for all of the different carriers. It seemed like he enjoyed his job and was happy to be able to fly the E-175 for multiple carriers now.

Shortly after takeoff the flight attendant visited each passenger, asking them what they wanted to drink and whether or not they would be having dinner. I asked for an Alaskan Amber and mentioned that yes, I would be having dinner. I expected to hear choices for dinner but none were presented. A short time later and the Alaskan Amber and plastic ramekin of nuts was delivered (the nuts had been heated). A little while later and the dinner was placed in front of me. The meal consisted of a sandwich, in this case chipotle chicken, a salad, and a cookie. The meal was ok. I am not a fan of those sandwich rounds used for the bread but other than that, it was fine. I will say that I found the portion to be a little small for a flight of four hours. United, on Chicago-Portland in first, serves a large portion meal followed by an ice cream dessert.


On the next flight I took, Seattle to Milwaukee, the meal was a similar sandwich and salad affair but the sandwich was a “Cuban”. I put it in quotes because it had pickles, cheese, and ham but that’s about where the similarities between what I ate and a what Cuban sandwich is end.

 
Let’s talk about the seat for a minute. It’s a simple first class seat with a power outlet for each passenger. The headrest is adjustable and the recline is nice. Other than that, it’s a basic seat. There is also supposed to be WiFi and streaming entertainment but neither of these have been available on any of the flights I have been on, though I am told it is definitely coming.


Overall, Alaska’s E-175 offering is a great option to get from the Pacific Northwest to Milwaukee. The food leaves a little to be desired but it’s non-stop from Seattle (I do wish it left a little earlier) and the operation seems to be pretty solid. I have taken thes flights between Seattle and Milwaukee about 5 times so far and the only inconsistency I’ve noticed is in the flight attendant service. I think this will work itself out once they are used to operating for Alaska on the E-175s, but there were a few times where the crew did not know how to operate some of the equipment or handle the service. Definitely nothing that is a deal breaker for me. I am just happy to have another option where I do not have to connect through Chicago.

 

The Financial Times on Why Luxury Air Travel is Taking Off Again

An interesting tidbit:

“Everyone thinks first class must be diminishing, but its quite incredible how more and more airlines are renewing their first-class offer and having more first-class seats on board,” says Nigel Goode, director of the design agency PriestmanGoode, whose recent projects include new first-class cabins for Qatar Airways, Swiss, Lufthansa and Air France. “There is quite a resurgence.”

And yet the picture isn’t straightforward. “Absolute numbers are up, but it’s the composition that is the really intriguing thing,” says John Grant, executive vice-president at OAG. Look at individual airlines and you see big discrepancies. In China, where flying first has traditionally been an important status symbol for executives and politicians, as well as in the Middle East, carriers have rapidly expanded their first-class offering. However European airlines, and US carriers on international routes, have tended to scale back.

Really, it is the Middle East and Far East carriers who are bringing the resurgence. Western carriers are simply trying to keep up and some are doing better at it than others. And I doubt we’ve seen the end of western carriers getting rid of longhaul first class cabins. Maybe the answer is for some western carriers to focus on the business class traveler experience and make it as comfortable and beneficial for flyers as possible while keeping the price in the range of employers.

This short article from Business Insider seems to suggest we as travelers are getting exactly what we want. From the article:

The reason flying is the way it is is because that’s exactly what today’s fliers want.

Specifically, fliers want:

  • Safe, rapid travel between two cities
  • The lowest possible price

Oh, sure, people who fly won’t say that they’re getting what they want — because then they would reveal themselves to be cheap bastards who care mostly about price.

While it is true that travelers are getting low priced, relatively fast transportation between cities, the amenities that used to be offered on the same flights have been eroded to keep the price low.

I think what travelers want has changed a little in recent years and the above list needs to be amended to include power ports and internet connectivity. These two items have become even more important travelers over the last few years and most of the airlines are just now getting these things installed or playing catch up figuring out how to do so. I would also add “cleanliness” to the list. My last few flights on United have been on planes that were absolutely filthy and it was not a pleasant experience.

Are travelers willing to pay more for a better experience in flight? Based on Delta and United reconfiguring a number of aircraft to remove economy seats that have extra legroom and replace them with regular economy seats, my guess is no. There is a small segment of the traveling public that is willing to pay for more amenities but most just want a seat between two cities.