Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Two, Two, Two Best Airlines

We just saw two Tweets on Twitter – one from jetBlue that said, “Woot! Thank you all so much! J.D. Power and Associates ranked us top in Customer Satisfaction for the 5th time,” and the other from Alaska Airlines that said, “Thank you! Highest in customer satisfaction among traditional carriers in North America 2 yrs in a row!”

At first quick glance, we were confused, two “highest/top” ratings? Then, we looked more closely – Alaska did say “...among traditional carriers.” So we went to the J.D. Power press release, and saw that indeed, both statements were accurate: Alaska was tops in the Traditional Network Carrier Segment, and jetBlue tops in the Low-Cost Carrier Segment.

What’s interesting are the actual numbers. We assume (which often gets us in trouble) that the metrics were the same for each category. If so, ALL the low-cost carriers had a higher numerical score – and therefore were rated better – than the BEST traditional carrier (Alaska). This isn’t to pick on Alaska – we really like the airline – but it shows one huge reason that the low-cost operators are successful. Wake up Big Guys, it’s not (just) the ticket price of the upstarts that attracts consumers, it’s actual SERVICE.

Yes, we know that’s a strange concept, but as J.D. Power notes, “...overall customer satisfaction with airlines in 2009 has declined for a third consecutive year to a four-year low.”

For the record, the low-cost carriers, in order from the top, were: jetBlue, Southwest, WestJet, Frontier, and Air Tran. The traditional carriers, again in order, were: Alaska, Continental, Delta, Air Canada, American, Northwest, United, and US Airways

Monday, June 29, 2009

Loose Threads – 29 June 2009

The weird, wonderful, and hugely popular London Eye is being refurbished – one cabin at a time. The upgrade is planned to be complete by the opening of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

View From the Wing has an excellent roundup of current mileage and hotel reward credit cards.

Fitch Ratings has downgraded Delta’s credit rating – still better than its rivals, though. According to ATW News, Fitch also commented earlier this month that United, US Air, and American “could be forced to file for bankruptcy protection ‘as early as the winter if operating trends fail to stabilize.’”

We’re still not completely sure about multi-country SIM chips for GSM phones, but a new one has caught our eye. We haven’t tried it yet, but the Global Roaming chip seems to offer excellent world-wide coverage and very competitive rates.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Republic & Lufthansa

We’ve been pondering the latest news of acquisitions by Republic Airways (U.S.) and Lufthansa (Germany). And we really haven’t come up with any brilliant commentary about whether their recent acquisitions hold portent for the future of air travel, or are just signs of a couple of successful (?) companies growing while the cherry picking is good.

Just for the record, here are the airlines that Lufthansa owns (or at least will probably own once regulatory approval is granted), plus a couple of others that Lufthansa has an ownership percentage in.

  • Lufthansa
  • bmi
  • Brussels
  • Austrian
  • Eurowings
  • Swiss
  • Air Dolomiti
  • Germanwings
  • Sun Express 50%
  • jetBlue 19%
  • Luxair 13%

Republic’s list reads like this. Note that Republic hasn’t operated any planes under its own name. Yet.
  • Frontier
  • Midwest
  • Republic Airlines (operating flights for US Airways Express, Midwest Connect)
  • Chautauqua (operating flights for AmericanConnection, Continental Express, Delta Connection, United Express, US Airways Express)
  • Shuttle America (operating flights for Delta Connection, United Express, Mokulele Airlines)

Just focusing on the U.S. airline landscape, back on April 15 we said, “Here’s our only slightly tongue-in-cheek prediction: Five years from now the U.S. will have five dominant airlines – Southwest, jetBlue, Alaska, and two other airlines created from some combination/merger/bankruptcy of the existing five majors.” But we certainly are far from being airline experts.

Yesterday (6/25), Swelblog (who does know something about the airline industry) wrote: “The top domestic airlines of tomorrow might be Southwest, jetBlue, Republic and maybe two of the five current legacy carriers.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ryanair – The World’s First Completely Self-Service Airline

We’re beginning to think that Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has been drinking too much of his own Kool-Aid.

From the Los Angeles Times:
“Ryanair... Europe’s largest low-cost airline, will bar passengers from traveling with anything other than hand luggage as it seeks to cut costs.
Ryanair plans to offer an ‘unlimited’ allowance for carry-on bags ... while abolishing checked luggage from next spring.
‘We’re going to move away from check-in luggage to more carry-on luggage,’ O’Leary said. ‘This isn't the end of civilization as we know it, it only sounds revolutionary. I can assure you it’s not.’
Ryanair is already scrapping airport check-in desks for passengers from Oct. 1, compelling people to register for flights via the company’s Web site. According to O’Leary’s new rule on baggage, passengers must carry all belongings onto the plane themselves and only when overhead lockers become full will items be stowed in the cargo hold.”

The airline is basically being converted into a complete self-serve operation. Think of the history of grocery checkout. Originally, you’d enter a store and ask the clerk for everything you wanted. Then came stores where you could wander the aisles, choosing your own products, and upon checkout a cashier would unload your groceries and total your bill. Next came the conveyor belts, but a store employee would still unload your cart onto the check-out belt and the cashier would ring it up. Soon, you were emptying your own cart onto the belt, and sometimes bagging your own groceries. Now, you can go completely self-serve, without interacting with another person (unless the flashing lights go off and the nasty voice tells you there’s a problem).

We can see that happening with Ryanair. Some day soon, you’ll purchase your ticket online; print your own boarding pass; schlep yourself and your bags through security; scan your boarding pass at an automated turnstile; throw your bags in the belly of an airplane; find a seat by yourself; watch a recorded safety briefing; break out your credit card to go take a pee; deplane upon landing; search through the cargo hold for your bags; and continue on your jolly journey.

Each Ryanair flight will then only require three employees – two in the cockpit and a hall monitor in the cabin. No check-in personnel, no baggage handlers, no one collecting boarding passes.

Is this an airline you’d want to fly?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Loose Threads - 23 June 2009

If you write a travel blog – or any blog, for that matter – watch out what you write and how you disclose any compensation you might receive. The Federal Trade Commission wants to get in your face and “monitor” what’s written online about products, trips, or anything that purports to be a sort of “review” that might have been influenced by compensation from a company. The FTC has an 86-page document detailing the proposal.
UPDATE: John C. Dvorak, writing on pcmag.com, has the most well-written commentary on this topic. He didn’t pay us anything to say that.

Travel Business News:

  • Lufthansa has entered into agreement to purchase the majority of bmi airline.
  • Frontier will be acquired by Republic airlines, but will continue to fly under the Frontier name. (UPDATE: And today Republic announced the acquisition of Midwest.)
  • Clear, providers of verified-identity security services, has folded.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Loose Threads - 22 June 2009

View From The Wing has a good evaluation and commentary about the proposed new carry-on-baggage-standardization bill that’s been introduced in Congress. The bill, HR 2870, is delightfully being called the “Securing Cabin Baggage Act.”

No airline has yet to make it work – the all-business model (Silverjet, EOS, Maxjet) – and it looks like the last holdout may not survive either. Speculation is rampant that British Airways will soon shut down their OpenSkies subsidiary. We’ve wondered about it from the beginning. Weirdly, BA is inaugurating a new all-business service from London City to New York.

Finally, another mention of how provincial we can be in viewing the airline industry. Today’s headlines from Alternative Airlines News:

  • Vietnam Airlines signs for 18 new Airbus aircraft
  • Daallo Airlines launch services from Hargeisa
  • airBaltic launch flights Riga to Warsaw and Pskov
  • Iranian Airline Mahan Air launches UK to India service
  • BH airlines (Air Bosna) and Montenegro Airlines announce new routes
  • Australia loses third airline [Oz Jet] this year
  • Avianova - New Russian Low cost airline to be launched
  • Chile gets new domestic airline - PAL
  • Moscow to Irkutsk, New Route From Transaero Airlines
  • Mexican airline, Aviacsa grounded
  • SBA Airlines launch Panama to Caracas

Friday, June 19, 2009

Questioning Travel Blogger Ethics: Painting With Too Broad a Brush?

Nicholas Kralev, in his blog On The Fly (published by The Washington Times), revisits an ongoing discussion about the ethics of travel blogs (and, by extension, all blogs) that aren’t written by “professional” journalists. While fairly objective, in my view the article perpetrates some myths about travel writing – on blogs or in traditional media. I wish Kralev had taken this nascent discussion and expanded it a lot.

Kralev writes that, “the blogosphere has no editorial rules; authors are free to write anything they want, and they don’t answer to editors.” Generally true. He adds: “The absence of an ethics code hasn’t been lost on travel companies, which have been offering bloggers free or discounted flights, hotel stays and meals. Most mainstream media organizations are almost certain to decline such gifts.” I guess also technically true, but....

Having been in the “mainstream media” as a writer, editor, and publisher, I agree that any outward appearance of favoritism in the industry is kept pretty well in check. And generally freebies are frowned upon. But I also know that there are myriad subtle shadings of favoritism. Big advertisers may be more likely to have their products reviewed in the publication. Publishers can design special editorial sections to appeal to an industry or group of advertisers. And writers who successfully pitch a destination story idea will be paid (by the magazine) for their words and insight into that place – maybe not getting directly “paid” to travel there, but they will be recompensated for their travels by the article sale.

Mainstream Media are businesses – they’re in it to maximize profits. Travel publications want readers to desire to visit a place, and to buy the next issue of the magazine; purchase airfare from advertisers; and shop with other travel suppliers – negative destination articles don’t sell magazines. Conversely, few, if any, bloggers make enough money to pay even their minimal web hosting costs.

The world is full of self promotion. Lodging properties game the system on TripAdvisor and other travel review sites by recruiting folks to post glowing reviews; small book publishers have been known to round up friends to write great reviews on Amazon; and many of your “followers” on Twitter are out to sell you porn or cameras or airline tickets or their product/service of the moment.

I believe that most travel bloggers are in it for the joy of writing and sharing their thoughts. To me, they are the least offensive self-promotional folks out there. As long as a travel (or other) blogger indicates that his or her trip was paid for, a review can be taken in its proper context. And even if the writer doesn’t explicitly state that a trip was a freebie, well, Sunset Magazine doesn’t always say in the opening of an article on North Wonderfulstan that there’s an ad for the same destination in the back of the book.

The common complaint is that when freebies are given, the travel blogger seldom writes anything negative. Yet so it is with Mainstream Media. Negative articles (covering any topic) usually come from deep “investigative” research. Seldom does a Mainstream Media travel writer say anything bad about any destination (look no further than the Sunday travel section of any newspaper). If anything, I believe that travel blog writers might be more likely to be objective or write a critical piece simply because they don’t have a Mainstream Media advertising director sitting in the next office. Bloggers are known for being opinionated, and revel in voicing those opinions.

A consumer is probably more likely to be fooled by a slick color brochure for Tropical Holiday Paradise than by any blogger’s write-up of the property – no matter how glowing the words. Another check-and-balance is that most bloggers offer their readers a way to comment directly and immediately on their postings. Blog readers are quick to slam anything they disagree with or perceive as inaccurate.

There have been too many Mainstream Media articles painting bloggers as not being “real” writers. I’ve seen some terrible writing on travel (and other) blogs, but I’ve also seen third-grade writing (and research and editing) in the Wall St. Journal and National Geographic Traveler and a host of other publications. And I’ve also seen – especially in the travel realm – many instances where it’s obvious that the writer of the mainstream-publication article does not know the subject; has not even traveled to the destination; or has been edited (supposedly by professional editors) so that a great deal of the story is missing or inaccurate.

Lastly, I even dislike the word “blogger.” We are writers. Some of us are good, some are crappy, most fall in the middle. But that’s true everywhere. There’s a class-distinction feeling to having a different name for folks who write about travel and other topics on “non-professional” websites or blogs. We don’t call newspaper writers “newsies” nor magazine writers “maggies.” Let’s get away from the somewhat pejorative term “blogger” and just all be writers.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

We Don’t Make ‘Em Up, We Just Report ‘Em

Coming soon to a country near you: In-flight cell phone use. The last two major holdouts in the UK cell phone industry – Vodafone and Orange – have agreed to let their subscribers use their mobiles on aircraft featuring the OnAir system.

A report in the UK TimesOnline says that the service will cost £2.50 per minute (about $4 currently). The article stresses that many mobile users could be shocked by a big phone bill, but the CEO of OnAir offers the best quote in the piece. “The British do not talk much, but the Italians talk a lot. It must be a cultural thing.”

For us, though, the scariest line from the article is this: “...British Airways will introduce the system for its service from London City Airport to New York this summer.” Currently, U.S. airlines have resisted implementing in-flight cell usage, but you could lose money betting that ban will last for long, with the airlines scraping for every cent they can make from fees and add-ons.

Prepare to say goodbye to whatever tiny trace of civility was left in the airline cabin.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Reward Credit Cards Redux

Just a few days ago, we posted a piece about a survey from MilesLink that said most credit card users (in their poll) strongly preferred frequent flyer miles as rewards. We tended to disagree, noting that we felt miles seldom offer the most value. A recent article by finance columnist Liz Weston quotes a J.D. Power survey about which cards and card companies users were “happiest” with. American Express was at the top of the list and HSBC at the bottom, echoing our sentiments.

Similarly, the card users in the survey strongly favored hotel rewards as the best, followed by cash back – again, our feelings and recommendations exactly. (One small but shocking tidbit in the article noted that J.D. Power said that, on average, 10% of consumers reported having problems with their account in the previous year.)

Travel rewards, annual fees, award reductions, changes in terms are rampant in today’s credit-card environment. We’ll continue to follow and comment on the latest news, especially as it relates to travel and rewards cards

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thoughts About Twitter

Everyone in the world is apparently either on Twitter or talking about Twitter. On the site, there seems to be this weird competition to see who can have the most followers. (In case you’re one of the last four people on the planet who doesn’t know, on Twitter you post 140-character Tweets, and people can choose to follow your postings. You, of course, can also choose to follow other people or companies. Or not.)

It seems that many folks are on Twitter just to spew their babblings – there are an incredible number of inane “I woke up tired this morning” posts. But I guess for some folks that’s fine. Personally, I view Twitter as a mini blog feed – it’s a place where I can see quick information bites from folks whose opinions I value. Thus, as I said on one of my Twitter posts, I can’t imagine following even a hundred people – just the people I like to read.

As for followers, well, I guess more followers spreads “your words” out there, but so what? I write of things that interest me, and that I feel might be of interest to others. If you don’t want to read what I write, that’s totally OK. When I read a newspaper I skip many articles – I don’t think the writer cares too much. Maybe I’m missing something, but I just don’t need a hundred or a thousand or a million followers. I’d rather take pride in the fact that the followers I do have chose to follow my rambling thoughts and opinions.

As I write this, I just looked at Twitter to see what’s up. Through one of the people I follow, I saw one of his people links, which led to this site. This is exactly what I’m talking about. This bozo and his bozo software (“Increase Your Followers By 10's of Thousands!” [sounds like computer Viagra to me]) are focused on one thing – MORE followers. This guy has nothing to say, nothing worth reading, is just focused on egotistical self promotion. He apparently doesn’t even write anything, just uses the software he’s pitching to create automated posts by the thousands.

So forgive me if I don’t have near as many followers as either you or Oprah do. I really just don’t care. But if you do find my writings interesting, thanks for following this blog and on Twitter. (Find us on Twitter here.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

More Fun With Numbers

The June 10 MilesLink newsletter reported results of a poll about preferences for frequent flyer and reward credit cards. One of the questions was....
“If you could have one credit card only from the list below, which card would you choose?
66.7% Co-branded credit card earning miles in a frequent flyer program
0% Co-branded credit card earning points in a hotel loyalty program
16.7% Cash-back credit card.
11.1% American Express Membership Rewards card.
5.6% Diners Club Club Rewards card.
0% Other type of credit card not listed above.”
We, of course, found this rather strange. Many reasonably knowledgeable observers who follow trends in the world of rewards credit cards frequently recommend Amex Membership Rewards or the Starwood Hotels’ Amex (and occasionally Hilton’s Amex, as we do). These same writers are very frequently of the opinion that airline card programs give you far less value and versatility.

In unrelated fun with numbers, four airlines received votes in our recent blog poll: “What U.S. airline will be the first to fly to Havana, Cuba?”
Delta received 41% of the votes
American 33%
United 11%
Virgin America 11%
We didn’t vote in our own poll, but our two bets were for Continental and JetBlue.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

British Airways CEO Speaks

We love good quotes. According to ATW Daily News, British Airways CEO Willie Walsh wrote in the latest edition of BA News that “[the OpenSkies subsidiary] is not profitable, Heathrow is not profitable, Gatwick is not profitable, cargo is not profitable and British Airways is not profitable.” Cheerful.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Good Guess or Just Wishful Thinking?

“Think Tanks Expect US Travel to Cuba to Open Fully by Oct” – Jamaica Observer


Could we possibly say anything more when the headline says it all? “Airlines Reduce Size of Spoons to Save Fuel” – Telegraph UK

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Opinion: The Two Most Rewarding Reward Credit Cards

After posting several entries recently about changes in credit card rewards, we thought we’d detail our two current favorite reward credit cards. (Note that we are NOT an affiliate marketing site for any card or other product, so we have no agenda in recommending any one card over another.)

The Hilton American Express offers 6 Hilton HHonors points per $1 spent at grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, and for phone, cable/satellite TV, and internet service; 3 points for other purchases. This card is useful primarily if you stay at Hilton properties (ranging from Hampton to Doubletree to Hilton, etc.). When we use points in lieu of payment, we generally feel we get about 1% reward per point. Thus, the Hilton Amex gives us what we think of as 6% or 3% rewards for our purchases.

The Schwab Visa offers two significant advantages: It offers 2% cash rewards on all purchases, and it does not charge any foreign-currency conversion fees (nearly every other credit card charges about 3%). So used for international travel (or any purchase in a foreign currency) the Schwab card provides the equivalent of a 5% reward. The Schwab rewards are a little awkward, in that you need to open a Schwab brokerage account for the rewards to be credited to. But there are no fees nor minimum balances for that account.

(We still have a fond spot in our hearts for the Alaska Visa, but Alaska Airlines isn’t a viable airline for many folks around the country. In addition, the card has a $75 annual fee, but you do receive an annual $50 companion ticket – a pretty good value if you use it for an $800 Hawaii ticket. And Alaska does have many airline partners, including Delta, AirFrance, American, British Airways, Qantas, LAN. Still, the card’s reward is only 1 mile per $1 spent, so you need to use your miles wisely to get a return better than 2%.)

Needless to say, within the current credit-card environment, you’ll never know in advance whether or not your card’s rewards will be changed in the future. But for now, and for most travelers, we think the Hilton Amex and the Schwab Visa are your top two bets.

UPDATE: Our friend Marcus (@CreditMatters on Twitter) reminded us that Hilton’s new fee card – Surpass – offers 9 Hilton HHonors points for spending at Hilton properties (in addition to the same other Hilton points as above), and comes with a basic membership in the Priority Pass airport lounge access program ($99 value). If you spend $20,000 per year on the card, you receive Hilton Gold status; with $40K spend you receive Diamond status. Annual fee of $75.

Delta Extends Mileage Expiration with 1 Mile Deposits

Delta Airlines seems to have deposited 1 mile in every frequent flyer account. That means you now have another 24 months before your miles expire. This is good news for infrequent flyers who may have some miles with an airline, but don’t want to lose them if they don’t fly the airline for awhile. Remember also that once you link your Northwest and Delta frequent flyer accounts, you can transfer back and forth between the two until the Delta/Northwest merger is finalized.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Misc. Travel News

Microsoft has entered the travel-search game with Bing, a combination of Farecast and MSN Travel. Bing also has a weeklong trivia contest on Twitter, beginning today, June 3.

Hilton Hotels is offering 25% off their “best available rate” if paying with a Visa Signature card. Pre-qualification of the card is required before booking. Finally, a decent benefit for Visa Signature.

United Airlines has a game you can play daily through July 17 for a chance to win a year’s Economy Plus Access.

A survey by IdeaWorks looked at on-line award seat availability on 5 U.S. and 5 International carriers. The results are limited, but interesting.
1 Iberia – successful 83% of the time
2 Lufthansa – 66%
3 British Airways – 63%
4 American – 58%
5 Air France/KLM – 53%
6 Delta/Northwest – 44%
7 Continental – 36%
8 United – 18%
9 Scandinavian Airlines – 7%
10 US Airways – 4%