Why JetBlue Between Boston And New York Is unbeatable

Regular readers know that I’m a big fan of JetBlue. Their service is excellent, the onboard product is the best in the industry and they truly value their loyal customers. And my flight yesterday was just another example of the airline simply doing what they do well.

The Boston-New York market is known as the shuttle market. At one time, planes would simply run continuously, with one rolling up to the gate as the previous one departed. Because it was such an important business market, you used to get great seats, newspapers, extra service touches, etc. Over time, though, airlines began to cut back. The flights still run hourly, but that’s about the extent of the benefits.

Enter JetBlue. While they’ve had a few missteps in establishing their shuttle presence, including lousy La Guardia gates and a rebellion against the simits that they served as snacks, the product yesterday was as close to flawless as they get. Here’s why:

The Marine Air Terminal

jetblue

JetBlue’s previous gates at La Guardia

The biggest problem with the JetBlue shuttle used to be the fact that it flew into remote gates in La Guardia’s B Terminal. Finding your way out of their gates and to the street required a two-mile walk through a labyrinth, in  which there was a 50/50 shot that you’d be eaten by a Minotaur.

No longer, as JetBlue has moved its La Guardia operations to Terminal A, or the Marine Air Terminal. You may never have heard of the terminal, since it’s not attached to the main terminal, but it’s the new home to JetBlue’s gates. Just down the road from the main airport, Terminal A is an Art Deco building from 1940, with an entrance dominated by a 237-foot mural, the largest created through the Works Progress Administration. It’s one of the few remaining buildings from the “golden age of flying” and is on the and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the real beauty isn’t limited to the mural. No, what also makes the MAT great is that it has six gates. Six. In terms of crowds, it’s a ghost town. There was no wait at either security line, pre-check or regular, not to mention on the runway. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 5:40 pm. It took off at 5:41.

JetBlue, of course, stepped it up a notch. Employees were everywhere. When I went to check in, a JetBlue employee came running over to help and, when he saw that I had Mosaic elite status, he exclaimed, “Oh, you’re Mosaic! Thank you so much for your business! We appreciate it so much!” That differs from the traditional carriers, who would simply say, “Oh, you’re Diamond. We’ll try not to lose your luggage.” Another bonus: If you are on a flight to Boston, you get free coffee from Dunkin Donuts.

It’s just as good once you get onboard. Seating is 2X2, so there is no middle seat to deal with. Drinks are free. They do a full beverage and snack service, with a cart and everything, as opposed to the legacy carriers who make sure that you know that “due to the short nature of this flight, we are doing an abbreviated service.” And here’s one final bonus: If they run out of overhead space or you are forced to gate check your bag, they return it to you on the jet bridge as you are getting off the plane. There’s no need to wait at the baggage carousel.

Free coffee, a small terminal, great on-board experience and a 39-minute flight that got in 31 minutes early? Can’t beat it.

 


*The flight is blocked for 71 minutes, 39 minutes for the flight and 32 for the time that you spend getting off the ground at LGA and landing. Our flight was scheduled to land at 6:51pm but actually got in at 6:20. Flight time of 39 minutes, early arrival by 31. The flight itself took 1/3 of the time that it took us to get from the city to the airport.

 

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Are We Saying Goodbye To Cheap Flights To Europe?

It was good while it lasted, as cheap flights between the US and Europe could soon be a thing of the past due to airline consolidation. First, at its investor day last week, British Airways announced that it was still interested in purchasing Norwegian Air. BA already holds 4.6% of their stock. And yesterday, we learned that Iceland Air is buying WOW Air, a carrier that connects passengers through Iceland for cheap flights over the Atlantic.

Why You Should Care

reykjavic, iceland

A flight on WOW will also get you a trip to Reykyavik  Reykjarvik  Reykjavick   Iceland                                Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Norwegian and WOW air are the two Ultra-Low Cost Carriers (ULCC) that could fly you over the Atlantic for less than $100 each way. Of course, you pay for everything else, including bags, seat assignments, etc., but if you are traveling lightly and don’t care where you sit, they’re a bargain. Think they are too small to matter? Think again. In the year ending July 31, Norwegian carried more passengers to New York City than British Airways did.

Here’s what’s important: Iceland Air and British Airways aren’t trying to buy these carriers because they want to run a low cost operation. Rather, the bigger carriers will likely shut the smaller carriers down, or at least reduce them in size to a point where they can’t affect the legacy airlines. Sad but true. The two ULCCs are eating up passengers at much lower prices, putting pressure on the fares of all the other airlines. But the ULCCs are discovering what all of their ilk discover: Rising fuel prices puts more pressure on them than it does on their competitors, since fuel makes up a larger percentage of total costs.

As for Iceland Air, they’re ecstatic to be forking out a mere $18-25m for the carrier That’s pocket change compared to the benefit that Iceland Air will see to its ticket prices. Wanna know how I know that? Because their stock price was up 40% yesterday, and has been up 60% over the past week. Norwegian probably wouldn’t mind a buyout, either. The stock price of the highly indebted carrier jumped 50% earlier this year when BA announced that it was taking a stake in the carrier. Considering that Wall Street analysts expect Norwegian to lose $50m in operating income in 2019, BA may not have to buy them. They may go under on their own.

 

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Suing An Airline, A Scenic View And An Attack On Root Beer

Another week in the world of travel (and I still don’t have access to my Delta account)…

Taking The Airlines to Court

court

Feel like suing an airline? Okay, that’s a stupid question. Everyone has wanted to sue an airline at one time or another. Well congratulations, since somebody has done that for you.

According to this piece, lawyers have launched a class action suit against the major airlines for price fixing. The genesis of the suit is from a couple of summers ago, when airlines announced price increases in public forums that the lawyers claim was a signaling mechanism to other airlines, in violation of anti-trust laws. American and Southwest have already agreed to fork over some cash, and I’m assuming that the others will follow behind shortly.

Here’s the bad news: You may not actually get any money. Since it’s unknown how much expenses and lawyers fees will be, you could end up with a couple of $5 discount coupons on your next flight. But it does feel good to hit back, doesn’t it?

A View from The Loo

Delta has announced the launch of its newest plane, the Airbus A220. I’m still a little freaked out over the fact that it’s a 2-series, but it comes with lots of nifty features:

  • A 3-2 seat configuration (three on one side, two on the other), means that you only have a 20% chance of getting stuck in a middle seat, similar to the old AirTran configurations.
  • Higher ceilings and a wider body mean that you won’t feel quite so much like you are in a coffin.
  • The best part, though, may be the window in the bathroom. I’m not sure what the advantage is, other than to brighten up the area a bit, but it does seem like a cool thing to have. No word on whether the window comes with a shade for privacy.

The Disgusting Food Museum

No, seriously, that’s the name. Opening in Malmo, Sweden, one of the museum’s primary purpose is to show that one man’s poison ivy is, as George Ade said, another man’s spinach.

There’s no word on whether spinach or poison ivy will be represented, but you’ll get a chance to sample (orally or otherwise) several “delicacies from around the world, such as fried tarantula or bull penis.

I’m not sure, however, how a museum that is trying to get me to eat a poisonous spider can take a shot at root beer, claiming that Swedes think it tastes like toothpaste. For shame!

 

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Keeping An Eye On Your Online Accounts (Delta Hack)

On Tuesday, I got the dreaded “We have frozen your account due to potential fraud” email from Delta. At first, I thought that it was simply spam but, after trying to log on, I realized that it was the genuine thing. No problem. Most companies would send a password reset to the address on file and/or have you call in to give a security code.

delta

My password is back there somewhere

Delta, however, is not most companies. There are two reasons that they would lock your account: They thought that somebody had defrauded you, or that you had “defrauded” them by selling miles. It took me six phone calls to find out that I was the former. Over the next two days, I spend about 90 minutes on the phone with six different Delta representatives, trying to figure out how to reset my account. Not only did they not know how to fix it but the people that they called internally often didn’t know how to do so, either. Finally, we determined that I needed to fax (Who faxes anything anymore?) a copy of my driver’s license to the SkyMiles department. At first I was told that it would take a day to reset. Then 5-7 days. Then 7-10 days. I’m afraid to call them anymore, since they’ll probably extend the deadline until the next decade.

I don’t begrudge Delta trying to protect my account. What I am upset about, however, is that they don’t have a standard policy, time frame or knowledge base to pass on to the customers, not to mention the fact that the password reset mechanism is so cumbersome. For a company in 2018, neither of those faults is excusable.

So What?

Normally, I wouldn’t make too big a deal about one password hack, since it has become so sadly commonplace. But this does not appear to be an isolated case. I was told by two of the representatives that I spoke with that I was not the only one experiencing this issue, which is consistent with what Flyertalker Leew wrote in a post indicating that a lot of people had been affected.

So here are two suggestions that may help you avoid the time that I have spent getting to know Delta’s phone reps:

  • Change your Delta password. Now. I have no idea as to the extent of the problem, but it does seem to be at least somewhat pervasive.
  • Don’t use the same password from account to account. If you use all the same passwords/emails, somebody who steals one of them will be able to try them on all of your accounts. It’s a royal pain in the neck, but it’s becoming increasingly necessary.

 

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Basic Economy: Demand Continues To Increase

Airlines are emphasizing their “hourglass” structure more than ever. For those who want luxury, the companies are spending more in business class enhancements. For those who want the cheapest flight possible, airlines are making those available, as well. And the demand for basic economy is increasing, so airlines are responding.*

JetBlue, Alaska Adding Basic Economy

This is NOT basic economy.

JetBlue is the perfect example of the move toward the extremes. When the airline first launched, it was an egalitarian system, where everyone had the same seats, snacks and entertainment. Over time, they added “more room in coach” and Mint to appeal to business travelers. And now, they, along with Alaska Air, are launching their own version of basic economy.

From the little that we know, their trimmed-down coach class will not be quite as punitive as their legacy brethren. You’ll probably still be able to bring a bag on board, and JetBlue is saying that it won’t take away the free entertainment or internet. But both carriers are better than average on non-refundable ticket change fees, and it’s likely that the new low-fare classes of service will eliminate the ability to make any changes. Tickets will probably become fully non-refundable and non-changeable. You’ll also probably be boarding last and may not even have a seat assignment.

Airlines have been working for years to better adapt their products to demand. Expect one more product to become available as time goes on.

 


*No, of course nobody actually “wants” fewer benefits and worse seats, but everyone wants lower prices. The average American only flies a couple of times per year and price is the #1 factor when choosing an airline.

 

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Hyatt Making Changes To Points Redemptions

I’ve always been a little weak on Hyatt, since I don’t spend a lot of time at their hotels. Since I’m changing my loyalty to them from Marriott, however, it’s probably worth following now. We’ll start with a couple of changes that they made last week, and what they could mean for you.

Free Nights, Premium Suites

hyatt

Redeem for premium suites

Hyatt has always been one of the better companies when it comes to redeeming for suites. Standard suites have generally sold at a 60% premium (in points) to regular rooms, and you could use points to upgrade from a paid standard room.

Now, Hyatt is adding premium suites to the list of rooms that you can redeem for. A “premium suite” is just what it sounds like, a suite that is nicer than the standard of a room and a living room. Each hotel will decide what defines a “premium” product, but for those who need more room than just a regular pair of rooms, it could offer a great option. In particular, families may want to consider this option, although it may also be a good one for hosting an event.

Cash And Points Awards

hyatt

The new points and cash regime

And, on the downside…

Most hotels (and some airlines) offer a reward feature known as “cash and points.” Rather than paying for your room outright or using a slug of points to pay for it, you can split the difference. At Hyatt, for a given number of points, plus a fixed co-pay, you’d get your room. They’ve changed the formula a bit: Now, you pay a given number of points plus half of the cash price. The problem is, those rooms at the top often sell for a heck of a lot of money, and 1/2 of the cash price could be more than the fixed charge. The sweet spots were category 5-6 rooms, which offered a lot more value than the Cat 7 properties, who charged 30,000 points plus $300 for a redemption.

Now that the pricing portion of the equation is variable, however, you’re going to be subject to the whims of the market. If you are traveling at a non-peak period, you could actually come out ahead, if the room was cheap to begin with. For instance, a Category 6 hotel would have had a fixed co-pay of $150 in a C&P situation. If that room is selling for $250 in a non-peak period, your co-pay is now 50%, or $125. If you’re trying to get that same room over Christmas break, however, look out below. The room price will be through the roof.

Bottom line: Hotels (and airlines) are finding that they are being rewarded by their customers for offering more choices than ever. What you pay for those choices, though, might be less thrilling.

 

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Weird Weekend Travel Stuff

I usually like to keep my posts light on Fridays, mostly because we all need something to ease us into the weekend. Naturally, the travel industry never fails to disappoint.

Travel Leading to Love

For you and your soon-to-be spouse

For those of you who always dread what the seat next to you on a plane could bring, this story will hopefully make you feel a little better about the next stranger to sit down.

I couldn’t imagine meeting somebody on the road like that until I remembered that I met my wife at an American Airlines event in Dallas, a city that was home to neither of us. And I knew it was true love when she agreed to stay at three different hotels in the same city over four nights so that I could maintain my Starwood elite status. What more could a guy want?

Travel Leading to A Brush with Fame

Admit it: You have always wanted to see just how much “material” the Material Girl has. No problem. Now, you can stay in one of her former houses, albeit one that she sold 15 years ago. Okay, it’s going to cost you somewhere between $500 and $1,000 per night, but it’ll just be one more item that you can check off your bucket list.

Travel Leading to Industrial Products

They all look alike

And you thought that you were having a bad day. You could be American Airlines passenger Anna Knight, who filed a complaint on Twitter (naturally) that American Airline employees had stolen her bag and replaced the items with airline equipment. Apparently, the most likely possibility, that she had simply taken the wrong bag, never occurred to her. Her panicked tweet proclaimed “I just got robbed by American Airlines . . . ALL MY STUFF IS GONE & replaced with airline equipment! $8000 worth of items GONE! Priceless souvenirs from my trip GONE!!” 

Fortunately, it turned out that she had, indeed, grabbed the wrong bag.

Note to Ms. Knight, as well as everyone else: First, you shouldn’t put $8,000 of anything in your bag. If you have expensive goodies, carry it with you, or find some other way to get it home. Never check anything valuable. And second, you can’t call souvenirs “priceless” and also give them a dollar value. I do not think that word means what she think it means.

 

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Citibank Adjusts High-End Prestige Card. Again.

There’s a continuing battle in the credit card business of benefits versus rewards. Some card companies, like American Express, offer you great benefits for having the card, but not as much in the way of rewards when you actually use the card. Chase, on the other hand, focuses more on offering great rewards when you spend money using its products. And then there’s Citibank, which can’t seem to make up its mind.

Citi Changes Prestige, And It Looks Better

citibank prestige

Citibank launched its high-end Prestige card several years ago to compete with Chase’s Sapphire brands and American Express’s Platinum. The problem for Citi was that they didn’t have a ton of experience competing in the luxury business, and initially produced a product that was so lucrative for customers that the bank couldn’t afford to maintain it. So, being Citibank, they did the only thing that they could think to do. They gutted it. It wasn’t terrible, since they kept two of the best benefits (fourth night free on any hotel stay, $250 airline credit, Priority Pass lounge access), but it made a difference.

And now, Citibank is making some major changes again, with the new set of benefits slated to begin in January, when it starts issuing cards again. Many of these are positive, so let’s take a look.

The Good

  • Rewards for spending are going up. You will now receive five points for every dollar spent on dining or air travel. This is up from three, and represents a new high in the industry. Hotel travel stays at three points. This is huge. You can convert these points to miles on several carriers, so they’re worth racking up.
  • The $250 airline credit will now become a general travel credit, which is good for any form of travel, not just air travel.

The Bad

  • The annual fee is going up $45, to $495.
  • They’re eliminating the 25% bonus you get for spending points through Citi’s travel portal. It was good while it lasted.

The Ugly

  • This will only affect some of you, but for those it does hit, it’s big: Currently, you get the fourth night free on any hotel booking you make through Citi’s travel agency. The bank is now limiting that benefit to 2X per year. That means that if you take a lot of multi-day trips, you could be losing out on some substantial rebates.

Overall, I think the changes are positive, particularly with the upgrade to the rewards. If you are a frequent traveler who uses the “fourth night free” benefit, though, it’s definitely a downgrade.

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Basic Economy: Take Advantage Of ULCCs (Without Flying Them)

ULCCs, or “ultra-low cost carriers” are the airlines that everyone loves to hate. They’re the Spirits and Frontiers of the world, with incredibly low teaser prices but fees for everything, including bags, pre-boarding, a can of Coke, etc. Passengers frequently complain about them, but they are growing faster than any other airlines, meaning that there’s something to the model.

But to take advantage of these fares, you don’t have to fly with them. You just have to be flying the same routes that they fly.

The Basics Of Basic Economy

This past weekend, I had to book a flight from Boston to Charleston, SC. It was a last minute flight and there is not a lot of competition in the market, so the one-way fare cost over $350. And because I was booking at the last minute, most seats had already been booked, so the chances of getting anything but a middle seat would have required paying up to sit in first class. Lovely.

And then, there’s my brother, who flew American from Philadelphia to South Carolina. And here’s what he paid:

ulcc, basic economy

Even now that we’re older, he gets away with everything

So what’s the difference between the two locations, other than a few hundred miles? Simple: Frontier Airlines, one of the largest ultra-low cost carriers, flies a non-stop in his market and the legacy airlines need to compete. To do so, they established basic economy fares. These fares offer many of the same restrictions on the major carriers that you find on the ULCC, such as a charge to check a bag (and potentially even to bring a bag on board), a restriction on seat selections, boarding last, etc.

Having said that, the basic economy product offers some advantages over its ULCC brethren. You’ll get miles on your favorite carriers, still get the can of Coke and have access to the airline’s infrastructure, such as the customer service lines and lounge access at the airport. And if you have elite status on the airline, you probably won’t be eligible for upgrades on these fares, but you may receive some of your other benefits, such as the ability to pre-board. You’ll also be eligible to be re-routed if your flight is cancelled or delay. If you’re flying a ULCC, there’s really nowhere to put you, since they don’t have the network that the legacy carriers do.

Here’s the bottom line: A lot of people will go to Spirit’s or Frontier’s website and book a flight there, assuming that it will automatically be the cheapest. In fact, those sites may be a good place to start your search, since you’ll get a feel for where they fly, and thus, where the network carriers will be forced to match them. If the network carrier as space available at similar prices, even if they’re a few dollars more, book with the big guy.

 

 

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Uber, Lyft, Las Vegas And The Death Of Taxis

I was in Las Vegas last week and, for the most part, got from hotel to hotel by walking. But when I needed to go someplace farther away, I did something that I had never done before (in Las Vegas): I took a ride share. It occurred to me at the time just how quickly one of the city’s primary industries, transportation, was dying. There was no line for taxis, but a pen of people at the ride share station.

Technological Destruction

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the taxi business in Las Vegas. Unless you are walking along the Strip, the city is spread out, and public transportation is poor. At one time, a taxi strike would have practically shut the city down.

Uber was founded in 2009, but it was 2012 before the first UberX was introduced. Within a few years, the taxi business’s obits were being written.

It was, of course, the industry’s own monopoly that led to its downfall. Like the music industry, the taxi industry had made few changes over the past few decades and had forced customers to operate on its terms. It wasn’t that long ago that taxis didn’t accept credit cards, drivers smoked freely and getting a cab required either luck or a phone call and callback. There was no incentive to give up healthy profit margins.

And then there were the charges. In Las Vegas, taxis were D on Uber’s OA in 2016. Taxis charge $3.50 for the initial pick-up, a $2.00 airport fee, $2.76 per mile and a potential $3.00 credit card surcharge. You could end up paying over $10 as soon as the driver hit the accelerator. On the other hand, Uber has a base fare of $1.50, service charge of $2.75 and a per mile fee of only $.80 (in addition to a $.21 per minute charge). Uber does have the annoying surcharges, but their cost is still low.

By the time taxis introduced convenience changes, such as apps for rides, it was too late. Ride shares had become so pervasive that the cab industry had been disintermediated.

Are Rideshares Eliminating Their Biggest Cost?

uber, lyft

Look, Ma, no driver!

Today, I got a pop-up notification from Lyft asking me if I would be willing to take a self-driving car. As of now, the cars would still have Lyft employees in the front seat, just in case anything went wrong. But it might not be too much longer that all the drivers who have benefited from ride share technology might get disintermediated themselves.

 

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