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Posts tagged paxex

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.

Last night as I boarded my flight home from a week of work in New York City, I noticed that the seats on my United Airbus A320 looked a little different. Turns out I was experiencing the newly converted A320 with the Recaro slimline seats with the “comfort” upgrade. These seats are very similar to the Lufthansa NEK seats that have caused a bit of stir in their frequent flyer ranks, the difference being that United’s install has more padding and are supposed to be a more comfortable experience. From my three hour and fifteen minute flight last night, my conclusion are that the seats are a downgrade for passengers.

Recaro Slimline Seat 1

My immediate reaction to the flight last night was a little bit of the knee-jerk, “I hate change!” type but after gathering my thoughts and reading through my notes, my summary is this – the seats are not a one for one swap with regards to passenger comfort when compared to the previous United A320 seats and the new seats are certainly not an improvement. United’s reasoning for these seats was clear from the get-go, they wanted to fit an extra row of seats on the plane and these seats allowed them to do that by moving the rows closer together.

I was seated in row 21, seat A, an exit row window seat, for my flight last night. The first thing I noticed was that the legroom in this particular row had been severly reduced. The previous seat configuration here gave so much legroom that a passenger could barely touch their bag if there was one under the seat in front of them. The exit rows were clearly the losers when it came to where rows were squeezed closer together. The second thing I noticed was the somewhat cheap feeling of the seat. It is flimsy, just like the Lufthansa seat. When you or others in your row move, the lightweight metal frame of the seat is not very forgiving, allowing that movement to be felt by everyone else in the row.

Recaro Slimline Seat 2

The magazine storage has changed so that the magazine and safety briefing card are now in a small plastic divider behind the tray table. I was not surprised by this, I have seen the setup before on Lufthansa and it is actually a smart way to store the magazines. Where the negatives are for the passengers is the standard storage sleeve. What used to be a pocket in the seatback in front of you is now a shortened mesh pocket that is not good for storing much. I typically carry a small bag with my headphones and electrical accessories and between it and an iPad mini, the storage area could barely hold them. The seatback pocket is great for holding things and allowing a passenger to stay in their seat and avoid moving things around in the overhead bin.

Recaro Slimline Seat 3

The tray table on these new seats is noticeably smaller. In the exit rows the tray table used to be held in the armrest, that is no longer the case. I did not see what the setup was for the bulkhead rows but in the exit row, the tray table is now on the seat in front of you. The width has been reduced but I would say the depth is about the same as what the tray tables were when stored in the armrests. Again, the metal connections feel a little flimsy here. I rested my hands holding a book on the table and without really pushing I could feel a significant give in the table.

Lastly, the seat itself and a number of aspects that I find contribute to the overall uncomfortable feel of these seats. A lot of people think it’s the padding alone but with the things I list below, I think it is a group of things that really make these seats a downgrade for passengers.

  1. The comfort package does not add a significant amount of padding. There is definitely more than what Lufthansa offers but it is certainly not a huge improvement. It slightly removes the wood feel of the Lufthansa seats.
  2. The bottom cushion of the seat is a standard width but does not extend as far forward under the passenger’s legs as the previous seats. I would say the bottom seat cushion reminded me more of an exit row seat on a regional jet where they had to reduce its length to comply with safety standards. Thinking about this now I wonder if it is the same case on the A320s, the exit row required the seat cushion to be shorter. If you’ve flown in a regular row (rather than an exit row) on this converted plane I’d love to know if you felt the same way about the bottom cushion.
  3. There is very little lumbar support. In United’s announcement about these seats it was stated that there would be more lumbar support than the seats installed on Lufthansa but if it was there, it definitely was not noticeable. I thought reclining would help a little but it did not.
  4. The armrest width and length has been significantly reduced. The armrest is no longer as long as the seat is deep, ending up around four to five inches shorter. The width suffers greatly as well. I used to be able to share the armrest with a neighbor, each of us taking a little bit of it, but that is no longer possible. My seatmate and I were being polite and trying to do just that on the flight but we both commented that it wasn’t really possible.
  5. Tapering of the back of the seat. Halfway down the seatback, the seat tapers inward, leaving larger gaps between the seats. I have not noticed this before on Lufthansa flights but doing a quick Google Images search shows that it is there as well. My only comment on this is that it leaves you feeling a little more exposed. The armrest used to fill this void now there is nothing there. It is not a huge deal, just really different.
  6. The multidirectional headrest is small but slightly padded. I do not see any real benefit.

All of the above, especially items 1-4, combine to make the seat uncomfortable. Let me explain. Since there is less support under the forward portion of your legs your butt slides forward some so that your back takes on more of a support role, but there is no longer significant lumbar support so you continue to slide forward. To counteract this you have to use your feet to push yourself back into place. This process repeats until finally you leave your feet firmly planted on the floor to keep from sliding forward. In the exit row window seat there is no armrest attached to the seat on the window side leaving you with the middle seat’s outer armrest to try and keep your balance. This leaves you kind of squirming in the seat trying to find a comfortable position. I tried leaning back against the headrest but to keep from sliding into a slouched position I had to plant my feet and push myself into the seat to use the headrest.

Recaro Slimline Seat 4

If you can’t tell from the short novella I have written, I do not find the seat very comfortable. I think it is a downgrade for customers and a poor choice for United to make, no matter the extra revenue United squeezes out of those six extra seats. And I was not the only one making negative remarks, I heard plenty of people comment that they could not find a comfortable position in the seat. My co-worker leaned over and asked me “why have they not removed these old harder seats for those nicer padded ones”. I am serious, that is what I was asked. When I replied that these were new seats and were coming to the Airbus fleet he simply shook his head.

One last item. In the United announcement a comment was made about the entertainment options on these planes. There are none. While it was stated that Wi-Fi would be available, it definitely was not on during my flight last night and I also noticed there are no power ports to charge devices when they do get Wi-Fi on these planes. If they are going to be streaming entertainment via the Wi-Fi then they are going to need a power source of some kind. Also, the pilot announced Channel 9 was available but there is no audio on the plane and thus, no way to listen to air traffic control.

Recaro Slimline Seat 5

All in all the seat is a disappointment and I hope decision makers at United are flying on these planes and noting the issues that customers are having. I cannot imagine sitting in one of these seats for a transcon or even a red-eye, which are bad enough without uncomfortable seats thrown into the mix. The revenue of those six extra seats may look good on an accountant’s business case but it is being earned on passenger’s lower backs and rear ends.

I know this was a lot of words to describe a seat but when you are in one of these things twice a week, every week, it kind of matters.