Can Airlines Fix Their Own Service Issues? Yes, but…

Traveling in coach is like visiting the doctor: A best case scenario is that nothing happens. You want your flight to be forgettable. It’s sad that we’ve gotten to this point, and the airlines can take credit for much of the decline in service standards. Recently, I began to think about what it would take for the airlines to fix their reputation and, more importantly, would they be willing to do so.

Where There’s A Will…

airplane seat

That doesn’t look like fun. Photo Credit:                                                                   Creative Commons

I started thinking about the topic after reading this article. United CEO Oscar Munoz, when prompted, commented on how depressing the flight experience had become.

“It’s become so stressful,” he said, “from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security.”

“Frankly,” Munoz added, “by the time you sit on one of our aircraft … you’re just pissed at the world,” and improving the flying experience won’t ultimately depend on “what coffee or cookie I give you.”

 

Okay, he gets it. Good. Now, is he going to do anything about it? History would suggest not. For example, look at this article from CNN Travel about the ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC) experience, which, come to think of it, doesn’t actually talk much about whether ULCCs are worth it. We all know about those types of flights. They come with super-low fares, but a lot of conditions. No free seat assignment. No complimentary carry-on bags in the overhead. $3 for a can of Coke. Etc.

Is it worth it? Lots of people seem to think so. ULCCs are growing at a double-digit rate. No matter how uncomfortable they are, people vote with their wallets, and their wallets are pushing them toward the lowest prices. The only way for the major carriers to compete is on price, meaning that fares drop to a point where nobody makes money. Not the world’s most efficient business.

United Simply Doesn’t Have to Do Anything

Here’s the problem behind Munoz’s statements: It would be nice if United gave bigger seats or made flying more comfortable. But they can’t. In the world of airline accounting, costs are measured on a “per seat mile” basis. In other words, what are the costs to fly one seat one mile? If you can cram more seats onto a plane, your average cost will go down. Improving seat space won’t do anything other than drive up costs to the airline. In a commodity business like the airlines, where one seat is as good as another, the lowest price usually wins. And, because of that, when it comes to passenger comfort, everyone loses.

 

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Virtual Disney: The Best Of The 3D And 4D Rides

The Walt Disney World theme parks are obviously known for their rides.It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about slow ones, like “It’s a Small World,” or roller coasters, such as “Space Mountain.” They tend to do everything well.

Over the past several years, however, I have noticed a shift in the newer rides. Many of them don’t move you more than a few feet. They give you a pair of special glasses and let all the movement be virtual. Here are some of the best 3D and 4D* rides that I’ve experienced.

Magic Kingdom: Mickey’s Philharmagic

Mickey’s Philharmagic is one of my favorites. It follows Donald Duck, after he steals a baton from Mickey’s orchestra, a play on Fantasia. I’ve never seen a 3D movie that is so realistic, and they incorporate the music from several of Disney’s movies flawlessly.  In addition, they incorporate other sensory devices to keep you on your toes. Be prepared to jump when Donald throws the baton, and don’t forget to take a sniff of the cherry pie in the Beast’s castle.

Best Added Feature: There is almost never a line for the ride,” since the theater holds so many people. It’s one of the best “values” in terms of the entertainment to wait time ratio. And if you hate it? Take off your glasses and enjoy eight minutes of air conditioning.

Epcot: Soarin’

soarin epcot disney

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Of the rides that I will discuss, Soarin’ is the only one that doesn’t require special glasses. It is also the only one that moves vertically, although it’s only a few feet.

For Soarin’, you’ll sit in one of the contraptions above and it will lift you off the ground and move you as you fly over sites around the world. It gives you a bird’s eye view of The Great Wall of China, Eiffel Tower and several other famous locations. Although you’re not wearing 3D glasses, the “flight” is realistic. You’ll feel like you’re actually, well, soaring over these sites. You’ll end up landing in a barrage of fireworks at, of course, Epcot.

Soarin’ is the shortest of the four rides I’ll talk about but, because it runs in three theaters simultaneously, the lines move (relatively) quickly, given its popularity. Here’s the smart play:

Disney gives you three “fast passes” per day, per park. A fast pass lets you jump to the front of the line during a designated time slot, and can be a lifesaver at the most popular rides. You can choose them 60 days ahead of time if you are staying in a Disney hotel, and 30 days at other hotels. Each park operates slightly differently, and at Epcot, you can only use one of your passes for the most popular, or “Tier 1,” rides. There are three Tier 1 rides, and only one of them is a slow ride (Frozen). The other two are Soarin’ and Test Track. You’ll have to pick one of the two, so choose Test Track, since it’s slightly more popular and the lines get longer during the day. Then, right at Epcot’s open (“rope drop”), run over to Soarin’. The line will only be about 10-15 minutes. In fact, you may be able to get on it a second time with a short wait.

Best Added Feature: While you’re waiting in line, they play a trivia game on the wall.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Two Options

Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the newest of the Big 3 Orlando parks, offers two virtual rides. One is clearly superior to the other, but you’ll pay for it in terms of time. Possibly.

Avatar Flight Of Passage

There’s no way to do this ride justice on paper. It’s hard to describe this attraction well, since the effects are simply breathtaking. Suffice it to say that this one is the best of the virtual reality rides. You’ll take a 3D flight on a banshee over Pandora, the land of the movie Avatar. You won’t actually move much, but it certainly feels like you are flying at a high speed. You’ll be checking out the Pandora landscape, which is stunning. No other ride makes you feel like you are a part of it the way that this one does.

The downside is this: You really, really want to have a fast pass for this ride. At their peak, the lines will be over three hours long. No ride, not even this one, is worth a three hour wait. And to get a fast pass, you are going to need to stay at a Disney resort, which gives you a 60 day window. Here’s a hint: at T-60, log in as soon as the fast passes become available and pick whatever time you can get, preferably earlier in the day. I’m not kidding. By T-59, they could very well be gone. And at T-30, the day when most people can choose, it will be gone.

We didn’t have a fast pass and intended to go straight there at rope drop. The park opened, and by the time we had made it through the turnstiles, the estimated wait time was already 90 minutes.

Best Added Feature: At 3pm (+/- a few minutes), Disney will release more fast passes. Sign on at that time and hit refresh. That’s how we got it. And even with the fast pass, our wait was still 15-20 minutes.

Second Place: It’s Tough to Be A Bug

Based on the movie “It’s a Bugs Life,” It’s Tough to Be A Bug is the Animal Kingdom version of Mickey’s Philharmagic. You’ll enter the world of bugs and learn how they live, as well as how they interact with people. The effects are still excellent, although without the music, it’s not quite as much fun. Still, the ride does a nice job of capturing the “Disney magic,” and I’d recommend it.

Best Added Feature: Like Philharmagic, the lines are almost always short. Oh, watch out for the bugs that climb across your back as it’s ending.

 


 

*4D is a marketing term. Providers use it to refer to traditional 3D rides that add effects to the other senses, such as the smell of food when you are in a kitchen. or a splash of water when a wave hits you.

 

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Out of Office Notice

Hi all,

I’m going to be spending a week or so away, so posts will be few, far between or non-existent. Have a great week!

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Getting Free Money From The Airlines For Volunteering

This morning, I packed up my family of four to go from Boston to Orlando, by way of Atlanta (As the old saying goes, it doesn’t matter whether you’re going to heaven or hell. You still have to change planes in Atlanta.). And, to my utter delight, there are only three of us on the flight. We left my wife in Boston. On purpose.

$1,000 to Arrive Early

“Goodbye airplane! Thanks for the thousand dollars!”

It’s not what you think. Actually, if you’re a regular reader, it probably is what you think. When we arrived at the gate, we discovered that the flight was oversold*, and they needed volunteers to give up their seats, Otherwise, they’d have to involuntarily deny boarding (colloquially called “bumping) to somebody, which opens a whole new airplane of worms. That’s why airlines will do just about anything to get somebody to volunteer, particularly after the 2017 David Dao incident.

Delta was offering $1,000 gift cards to anyone who was willing to take a later flight*. It was an American Express gift card, which means that it can be used anywhere, not just on Delta. They didn’t have four seats together, but they did need one, so my wife volunteered to stay behind while my kids and I boarded without her. Most days, she would pay $1,000 to have six hours to herself, so everybody makes out in this deal.

Added bonus: They’re putting my wife on a non-stop to Orlando two hours after the original flight was supposed to take off, which means that she’ll actually get in before we do.

Sign Me up! How Do I Volunteer?

Airlines have gotten very good at revenue management, so opportunities to get bumped and score some cash are fewer than they used to be. It still happens every once in a while, so here are a few hints to put yourself in the most advantageous position. Remember, they’ll ask for

  • Airlines are most likely to face oversell situations at the busiest times, particularly for leisure travelers. Think the Saturday at the beginning of a vacation week (Spring break starts today in Boston.), the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, etc. Business travelers are often on refundable tickets, so they don’t care if they miss their flights. Leisure travelers are rarely that flexible.
  • Get to the gate early and ask if they need volunteers. The worst that they’ll say is no. The best is that you’re at the top of the list if they do need people.
  • If there aren’t enough passengers who accept the first offer, the gate agent may raise it. Fortunately, they’ll almost always give every passenger the highest amount. So if you accept $600 and they later raise the bid to $800, they’ll likely give you the $800 as well. Remember to ask if they’ll do so for your when you accept an early offer.
  • If you’re sitting in Coach and you give up your seat, ask them to put you in First Class for your new flight.
  • On the other hand, if you volunteer, do not let them take your seat until they are sure that they will need it. Here’s why: Let’s say that you are in your favorite seat, an exit row aisle. You volunteer and they move somebody into your seat. At the last minute, though, they decide that they don’t need your seat after all, so you’ll get to board the plane. But now, somebody else is in your favorite seat, and the only seat left is a middle seat in row 43. They’ll be anxious to get the plane moving, so the chances that they take the time to switch everyone around on the plane is, at best, slim. Thus, if you volunteer, tell them that you want your original seat back if they don’t need volunteers.
  • And finally, if you have some extra time, feel free to ask again at your next flight if they need volunteers. There’s nothing as great as the elusive double-bump.

 

 


*Beginner’s Hint: Airlines often sell more seats than are actually available on the plane, taking the chance that somebody won’t show up, allowing them to keep the extra revenue. This policy is called “overselling” the flight.

**Note that the amount is often negotiable. Remember, you’re doing them the favor, so ask for the moon, e.g., food vouchers, overnight accommodations, Hamilton tickets, etc.

 

 

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Airline Lounges: Your Airport Escape

Let’s face it: Airports, particularly American airports, are not fun places to hang out. There are rude people, little comfort and exorbitant prices. But having access to a lounge can make the time fly by.

Airport Lounges

There are two types of airport lounges. First, you have those run by the airlines themselves. Usually, you have to be flying that particular airline to use the lounge that day. And second, you have independent lounges. These are ones that sell memberships independently or through credit cards. Today’s post concentrates on those run by the airlines.

Airline Exclusives

delta, sky club, airport lounge

The Delta Sky Club at Boston’s Logan Airport

The most common lounges that you will find at airports are ones operated by an airline. They tend to be a bit on the sterile side, but they more than get the job done. They offer comfortable seating, food & beverages and, most importantly, the airline’s best customer service agents (usually; La Guardia, I’m looking at you…). When something goes wrong, these are the folks you want fixing it. And even if nothing goes wrong, they’ll save you a fortune in airport meals.

delta, sky club, airport lounge

The lunch spread at Delta’s Sky Club

There are several ways to gain access to an airline lounge. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Buy A Membership: You can always buy a membership to the clubs, which generally give you unlimited access.* At some airlines, you can also buy a day pass. The problem with this method, though, is that it isn’t cheap. For instance, here’s the American Airlines Admirals Club price list:

admirals club, lounge

You can also pay for membership with miles, although the conversion rate usually isn’t favorable. Think in the neighborhood of a penny per mile.

Fortunately, there are other ways of getting in. They include:

  • Have the right credit card. Most of the major airlines offer a premium credit card that gets you access to their lounges when you are flying. Some will even allow you to bring in guests. The cards have high annual fees (~$450), but they usually come with a host of other benefits. Regardless, plastic is generally a more cost effective method of entry than buying a membership.
  • Have the right elite status. Among American carriers, Delta is the only way to go. With Delta, their top tiers of elite status, Platinum and Diamond, get you “choice benefits,” which are extra perks that you can individualize. One of those options is lounge access. But there’s another way that your status can help you out. If you have a high enough status with a foreign carrier, you usually have access to their partner lounges. Those include their American brethren. For example, if you have a high level of status with a Star Alliance carrier, you’ll generally be able to use United lounges, since United is a member of the alliance. Note that it doesn’t work the other way: Because US carriers sell access, foreign airlines usually won’t let members use their lounges, which they reserve for frequent flyers.
  • Buy the right international ticket. If you are flying on a business or first class ticket, you will usually have access to your airline’s lounge (or their partner’s). Note that this benefit applies almost exclusively to international flights.

Infrequent flyers may not get a lot of value out of lounges, but for the road warriors, they can be invaluable. If something goes wrong, or even if nothing goes wrong, they are a nice place to relax before your flight.

 


*You may have to be flying the airline that day.

 

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Discover Deals Are Dead

I’ll end the week with some sad news, although it really isn’t news, since it happened six months ago. Discover Deals are dead.*

Discover Deals Have Ended

Discover

At the end of October, Discover folded its “Discover Deals (DD)” program. DD was a cash-back shopping portal that gave you money back for making purchases at participating stores. Shopping portals are just what they sound like: Shop through the link on Discover’s website and the merchant would give Discover a commission, which it would then share with you. Discover’s was well-known for its variety of merchants and generous rebates. No online store paid back less than 5%, which means you always got a decent rebate. While there was some question about whether you actually needed a Discover card when it first launched, by the end you definitely had to have one to access the shopping portal.

There are still a number of rebate sites available. Some offer miles, some offer cash. Generally, I’ve found the cash rebates to be more valuable. Here is a list of my favorites (for both reliability and percentage back), but the bottom line is that you should never shop online without getting something back.

 


*So why bring this up now? I realized that I’d never written about it, and I’m one of Discover’s biggest fans, so I didn’t want to ignore what I view as a negative change.

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Finding The Best Seat On Your Flight

One of the most common questions that I see about flights is regarding which seat to book. Nobody wants to get stuck in the middle seat in front of the lavatory, of course, but how do you know which one has less legroom or limited seat recline.

Several months ago, I wrote an article about two of my favorite sites for choosing seats. There have been a few updates since then, but the sites are still the go-to pages for finding your favorite seat.

I’d visit both Seat Guru or Seat Expert to help you choose.  Both sites are very similar, although one may warn you about certain seats that the other doesn’t.  You’ll find out what seats have limited recline, a misaligned window, armrests that don’t fold up, etc.  Some facts may not be important to you, but you’ll be forewarned.  Seats will be colored based on their desirability, as well as have an explanation for why they are advantageous or disadvantageous seats.

seatguru

You don’t have to book the dreaded middle seat (although you might get it anyway). Photo Credit: Creative Commons

The sites are easy to navigate.  There’s drop-down menus to sort by airline or you can enter your flight number and pull up the seat map.  Just hover over the seat and it will tell you the plusses and minuses of each.

Note that the airlines recognize that certain seats are considered advantageous, so they’ll charge you a premium if you don’t have elite status.  You might even have to pay extra to sit close to the front of the plane. But even if you don’t want to pay for a better seat, at least you’ll avoid the bad ones.

 

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Wow Airlines Shuts Down Operations

Last week, the inevitable happened, as Wow Airlines announced that it was ceasing operations. It happened overnight, as passengers woke up to a notice on the website. Over 1,000 passengers were stranded and advised to ask for “rescue fares” from other carriers. Here’s what we know:

Wow Airlines

wow

It doesn’t matter what the service is like onboard, my daughter would love to fly in a purple airplane.

Wow was an “ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC),” a la Spirit Airways or Ryan Air. You got a ridiculously low fare, but paid for everything else. Seat assignment? Pay. Bag? Pay. Can of Coke? Yup, you’ll pay. Needless to say, customer service was minimal.

The airline has been on the ropes for a while, particularly after a buyout from Icelandair fell through. Plane sales helped raise short-term cash, but that was only a stopgap. Bottom Line: If your airline is offering $100 international fares, it’s probably a good idea to keep up with the news.

  • The ULCC model is a very difficult one, particularly when you have several competitors. Managements never think so, of course. Their attitude is that the major airlines simply can’t match them, and thus, will choose not to compete. Majors, however, have history on their side. The last thing that they want to do is let a tiny competitor become a big one, so they try to squash the upstart in its early growth phase. And, truthfully, it’s pretty easy for a large carrier to do. If you’re Wow, and you only have a few planes, every single route matters. On the other hand, if you’re British Airways, Wow flights only represent a percent or two of your total competition. Thus, it’s easy to match them on those routes without doing much damage to your overall financials. Consumers who have a choice of Wow or a major carrier at the same price will always choose the latter.
  • It’s a tough situation for Iceland: Tourism represents 10% of Iceland’s overall GDP and has been growing at double digit rates this decade. Wow flew 30% of the tourists in Iceland, which means that not only has 30% of the capacity gone but the other 70% will become more expensive, as Icelandair no longer has an ULCC competitor.
  • Passengers shouldn’t expect any help from Wow: I’ve seen articles in which stranded passengers complained that there was no one at the Wow Air desks to help them. Well, of course not. The employees had just been told that their employer was shutting down. It’s unlikely that they would stick around. Still, they may have some recourse. Anyone who purchased with a credit card should be able to get their money back from their credit card companies. But that doesn’t get them a ticket home. It only reimburses them for the cost of the ticket from Wow. Of course, many credit cards offer travel insurance, although it’s not as comprehensive as it once was. That insurance may offset part or all of the cost of travel. And finally, many large carriers, like United and American, will offer “rescue fares”. These are significantly reduced last-minute rates to stranded passengers. But with planes flying almost full these days, it’s not going to be easy for passengers to find a lot of spare seats.

 

Bottom Line: Rock-bottom fares are nice, but low prices can cost you in other ways. Be aware of what you’re getting.

 

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More Fun In The World Of Travel…

I haven’t been posting as frequently, as I make some changes to the site, but that doesn’t stop the world of travel from going on. Here are a few of the fun things that I have missed.

Wrong Way BA, ftw…

A British Airways flight caused a little extra Umweltverschmutzung when it flew to Edinburgh last week. Flight from London to Scotland? Happens every day. But not when the plane was supposed to be going to Dusseldorf. Seriously, how do you pull that off. Apparently, somebody entered the wrong flight plan, and it just got worse from there. Passengers first discovered the issue when they got off the plane and saw haggis stands, rather than wienerschnitzel.* Fortunately, the plane was able to refuel, go to Dusseldorf and everything ended well, as long as you weren’t that one guy who had to get to a meeting.

There’s a Brexit joke in here somewhere. I’m just having trouble finding it.

Apple’s Blah Credit Card…

apple credit card

Per Yahoo news…

Hey, it’s Apple, so it has to be good, right? There’s been some anticipation around their new credit card but, like the most recent iPhone iterations, they’ve managed to disappoint.

Apple’s new credit card may have a cool design, but that’s about it. The “benefits” that it comes with are standard on many cards, while the rewards are quite blah. They brag about the lack of an annual fee and digital access, but, well, who cares? Rewards:

  • 1% if you use the credit card
  • 2% back if you use Apple Pay
  • 3% on Apple purchases

I suppose there’s something to be gained if you spend four to five-figures per year on Apple products, but that’s about it. For most people, the Citi Double Cash card is a better choice.

Worst thing about the card?  It’s made of Titanium. I know that’s supposedly a design feature, but those metal cards are a pain. They’re impossible to cut up. Take that from somebody who broke a pair of scissors on one.

The Barbie-Themed Hotel Room

hilton, barbie

And that’s the bed for the grownups…

I leave this one without comment. Okay, I will comment. My daughter would love this. So don’t tell her about it, or else my son will make us go to California.

 


*Okay, I made that up.

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Should You Buy Miles From United?

Well, maybe.

Selling miles is an easy way for airlines to make some quick cash. Since there is no governor on mileage inflation, if too many miles get sold, they’ll simply raise amount of miles that a ticket costs.

Apparently, it’s that time of year, since United is winding down a mileage sale,* as well. Last week, I wrote about the American Airlines mileage sale, which might be appropriate under certain circumstances. Now, I’ll do the same for United. Their bonus,  by the way, gives you up to 70,000 extra miles.

Buying United Miles: Only under One Circumstance…

united

Is buying United miles worth it? Maybe.

The same rule applies for United that applied for American: Only buy miles if you will be using them right away and if the cost in miles is cheaper than the cost in money. For example, 175,000 miles will cost you $3,900. So if you were buying two tickets that cost more than $3,900 in cash but were also available for 175,000 miles (or fewer), you’d be better off buying the miles than you would paying cash (keeping in mind that you don’t earn miles on a ticket paid for with miles).

United’s sale, which ends tomorrow, differs from American in two key ways. One is a positive, one is a negative.

Positive: You don’t need to buy the maximum amount of miles to get the biggest bonus. For American, you needed to buy 150,000 miles to get the full bonus of 75,000 free miles. Even 149,000 miles would not have qualified. On the other hand, United will give you the full 67% bonus for buying as few as 30,000 miles. Of course, you’re probably not getting a deal at that level, but at least it’s offered.**

Negative: The miles are expensive. Even if you max out your purchase, you’re paying 2.2 cents per mile. Under most circumstances, that’s not going to be worth it.

Bottom line: If you have a reason to buy United miles, go for it. But don’t buy a bunch of miles just to have them. You never know what their value will be.

 


*So this is actually an affiliate link. If you buy miles through this link, I may receive something. I say “may,” since I rarely post the URL code correctly, anyway. But I’d appreciate it if you give it a try.

**There is one circumstance under which you could consider buying as few as 30,000 miles (which gets you 50,000, after the bonus). Let’s say you wanted to buy a very expensive ticket, such as an international business class ticket, with miles, but didn’t have the full amount of miles that you needed. It may be worth it to fork out some cash, even if it’s $1,100 to get the remaining miles. For example, if you have 100,000 miles and the ticket you want is 150,000 miles, you could buy the difference. A ticket that might cost $8,000 in cash may be worth paying for the difference.

 

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