Taking Southwest

July 9, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service, Travel Hints | No Comments

I advocate using Southwest quite a bit on this blog and my trip to New Jersey last week was an excellent example of why.  No muss, no fuss.  Check in was fast (I use Early Bird Check In) and the new terminal at Love Field is fantastic.

My flight to St. Louis was fast and uneventful and ditto from St. Louis to Newark.  It was efficient and pleasant and I was reminded twice just how nice the seats are on SWA compared to other airlines.

My trip home had some issues.  In the grand scheme of delays in Newark, mine wasn’t bad.  Some thoughts on that experience.

When a tarmac delay is absolutely, positively unavoidable, keep those window shades closed.   We pulled over into a waiting area and as soon as the captain announced we would be sitting for an hour or more, window shades snapped upwards.  I got up and met the flight attendant in mid-aisle and explained that I wasn’t looking for trouble but that I wrote the Flying Colors blog and recommended that she ask passengers to close those blinds again to avoid heat.  To her credit, she responded that it was a good idea and immediately did so.  As a result, by the time we did taxi, I was actually a bit chilly rather than over heated.  But I do wonder why that wouldn’t be a flight attendant’s first move anyway.

It’s clear to me that SWA is becoming more corporate and less people and that struck home when I sat in a cabin for 1+ hours with nary a peep from flight attendants or pilots on what was going on.  Even if you announce that it will be an hour wait, keep talking.  It helps.  It really does help.  People don’t feel forgotten.

Be very careful about your reasons for sitting.  The captains announced that they were told to hold.  Then they sat in a hold area for about 75 minutes or more not including taxi time (which can be considerable at Newark Liberty airport) and then took off on a new flight plan that had us ducking north considerably to avoid storms. See, right there, I know that the dispatchers loaded a lot of extra fuel and knew there would be a hold.  What if someone like me figures out the truth and calls y0u on it?  Just tell the truth SWA.  Tell your passengers that you had to board everyone and move out of the way and that you’ll be doing everything necessary to make people comfortable during the wait.  Don’t get caught in fibs.

I still know of no airline that can move planes into and out of gates as well as Southwest can.  While I watched their ops in St. Louis, I saw some old school SWA moves on the airplane dance that even today manage to impress me.  They had one flight depart for Baltimore and another came into the gate all in about 90 seconds.  Very well done.

All the nice business select seats with USB ports for charging?  Not a one that I tried actually would charge.  Not a single one.  I tried 4 rows of 3 seats each without any luck.  That’s just poor form.

I think that some people are taking advantage of Southwest’s bending over backwards to be accommodating.  I watched 4 people board in Newark from wheelchairs.  A husband and wife proved to be exceptionally able bodied in St. Louis and a third man miraculously found his ability to walk from the vicinity of gate 20 all the way down to around gate 5 and back.  I’m not saying for sure there was fraud going on but I will say that it is possible I witnessed a healing if some kind of fraud wasn’t going on.

Row 44:  One More Time I must say that Southwest has *got* to get on the ball and get this onto all of its aircraft.  This is a killer app that they should be using to their advantage and I observed . . . nothing.  No one even invited me to use it in the pre-departure briefing.  Hey Southwest!  I’ll endorse your Row 44 Wifi any day you want but you’ve got to get moving on that product.  You’ve had more than enough time to get it out there into the fleet.  There is money being left on the table here.

I tried the new seating that SWA is deploying onto its aircraft.  It’s not horrible.  It’s superior still to AA seating that I’ve experienced.  It is thinner and it is a touch less comfortable for that reason.  It’s also ever so slightly more narrow and that bothered me.  It wasn’t quite tight but it was pretty snug.  The seats also sit lower than the old ones and I suspect that’s to create the illusion of the seat pitch not changing.  Well, it didn’t change.  It’s not bad but it’s a bit of a downgrade and that makes me sad.

That said, it’s also the best “thin” seating I’ve experienced.  Thin seating is the new reality so I’ll still prefer SWA seats but not quite as much as I used to.

Southwest flight attendants continue to deliver a pretty consistent experience.  I find myself sympathizing with them a lot because they have to spend a great deal of the boarding time explaining to people why their Whopper Bag can’t go up into the overhead compartment and will have to be gate checked.

I watched at least 14 bags get gate checked on my return home and I think Southwest would be wise to start telling people at check in and prior to boarding that if they’re in the “C” group, they would be very wise to check their bag. Chances are, it isn’t going to fit and they’ll have to make the Walk of Shame up to the front of the aircraft to send it down below.

In the last few years, all but one flight I’ve taken was 100% full.  Most of those flights are on Southwest.  When I say 100% full, I mean just that.  100% full is actually not desirable and I think that Southwest needs to move more 737-800 aircraft into the system pronto.  I also think that Southwest needs to work a touch harder at earning a profit in light of the exceptional load factors being experienced.

Tomorrow, a story about Southwest that isn’t quite as positive.  I’m waiting because I want to see how Southwest performs today right to the end.  I’ll give you a hint though.

It involves me, 4 baggage agents, 2 police officers and about 22 minutes of recorded interaction with those people over a behavior.

 

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Shop that flight

June 26, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Travel Hints | No Comments

It pays to shop around and it pays to question whether or not a Low Cost Carrier really is low cost.

Just for fun, I looked around for flights from the DFW area to Portland, Oregon and I used Labor Day weekend as my target as it was a weekend where we should see some restrictions and fairly high travel.  In other words, I wanted to make it a popular time to travel that would see realistic fares.

I checked out Spirit Airlines and found a roundtrip all-in fare of $320 and that didn’t seem all that great to me given what we know about their many fees.  Next, I checked out my favorite airline, Southwest Airlines, and found a very high fare available for just over $500.

Yes, over $500 to fly Southwest to Portland, Oregon from Dallas and it was a connecting flight.  This is way too much.

Like Goldilocks, I found the bed that was just comfortable enough:  United Airlines with an all-in fare of just $367.00.  It, too, was connecting (through San Francisco) but not with an terrible flight time involved.

Yes, I would pay a fee to check a bag on United but that fee would be less than Spirit’s typically and I would get to fly on a vastly more comfortable aircraft.

United’s 31″ of seat pitch vs Spirit’s 29″ of seat pitch.  It makes a huge difference.

So, the Low Cost Carrier wasn’t, the Ultra Low Cost Carrier wasn’t and the legacy airline was the best fit.

Lesson learned?

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Merry Christmas

December 25, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Travel Hints | No Comments

Merry Christmas from FlyingColors.

If you are traveling today or later in this holiday season and you want to do a good turn for your flight crew, consider buying $5.00 Starbucks cards and handing them out.  Buy your crew a cup of coffee.  Most flight crews make use of Starbucks and if they’re on a multi-leg trip, it’s quite common for one of the crew to get designated as the “coffee gopher” during a stop.  Most airports have a Starbucks and they can use that card for a better cup of coffee.

If you are flying, keep in mind that the air crew you’re seeing are generally the lower seniority, lower paid crew who are likely missing quite a bit of the holidays.  Give them a break when you can.

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Travel Hints: Do yourself a favor when flying during these holidays

November 23, 2011 on 11:00 am | In Travel Hints | No Comments

News media is full of predictions that you’ll be packed like sardines on flights for both the Thanksgiving and Christmas travel seasons.  It is enough to make one throw away that non-refundable ticket and stay at home, right?

It shouldn’t.  Read these travel hints and you *will* have a better overall experience no matter how many people are traveling or no matter how much your flights are delayed.

One: If you have traveled at all over the past 2 years, you’ve already experienced  a packed flight.  The reality is that you should fly with the expectation that you will have people seated next to you.  Accept that reality and you’re already on your way to a better experience.

Two:  If you’re flying, choose airlines, if possible that do not have baggage check fees.  Readers here know I”m a big fan of Southwest in this respect.  The nature of their system means they handle baggage reliably and they permit 2 free checked bags up to 50lbs each.  That, alone, can save you money even when Southwest isn’t the absolute cheapest on your route. 

Three:  If overhead bin space is important, pay that fee to get onboard early.  This isn’t just true for Southwest but also for other airlines as well.  Priority boarding is often available and that does increase your chances for overhead bin space.

Four:  Take soft luggage as your carry on.  It’s easier to fit into odd shaped spaces.  Take something that is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you so that if bin space is fully occupied, you still keep it with you instead of having to gate check your bag.  Do you want to be one of the 4 or 5 people who delay a flight for 20 minutes because you had to gate check? 

Five: Wear comfortable clothes but keep the sweats and pajamas at home.  Wear something that is comfortable *and* appropriate to travel so that if you’re stuck someplace, you’ve got something wearable if you have to go to a hotel or restaurant because of a delay without looking and feeling like the idiot.

Six: Get yourself a bottle of water.  Yes, pay the $3 for the bottle at the store in the terminal and take the water.  But even more important, drink the water.  Staying hydrated helps with muscle aches and pains and also leaves you feeling more able to deal with the unexpected.  In my home, we say “Agua es vida” or “Water is Life”.  It helps, use it. 

Seven:  Eat a *good* meal prior to departure.  I am not referring to getting yourself a Big Mac to take on board.  Have a balanced meal and ensure it has some protein.  This will keep you better fueled for your trip that junk will.  Avoid sugar, chocolate, energy drinks and coffee.  THIS GOES DOUBLE FOR YOUR CHILDREN.

Eight:  Build someslack time in your schedule.  If an airline advises arriving at least 60 minutes prior to departure, get there 90 to 105 minutes ahead of departure.  Schedule your connections so that you and your bags can transit the airport to the next flight without panic or urgency. 

Nine:  Early morning flights are far more likely to work than late afternoon and evening flights. 

Ten:  Go to the TSA website and ensure you are packed and dressed in a manner that makes transiting security smooth.  Do NOT be that person who discovers large bottles of liquid in your briefcase or purse as TSA scans it. 

Eleven:  Be kind to those around you.  They’re in the same situation as you.  Show your fellow human beings some courtesy and you’ll get it back as well.  Smile a little and offer a holiday greeting to a fellow traveler or airline employee.  You get what you give.

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Will air fares be lower in the fall and winter?

September 12, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees, Travel Hints | No Comments

Will air fares be lower in the fall and winter?

It depends on what your standard is for low.  If you mean lower compared to this summer, yes, they probably will be a bit lower.  If you mean lower than last year, I think not.

Airlines continue to manage their capacity very closely and consolidation has brought more capacity management into play.  LCC carriers such as Southwest are not acting like rebels right now in that they’re joining most fare hikes quite willingly. 

I do expect some fare sales and I do think that some of those advertised fares will be incredibly low.  I also think that the number of seats available at those fares will be incredibly small.  They are the “door busters” of air fare sales.

Should you buy now?  I think you can hardly go wrong buying a ticket for holiday travel right now.  It’s possible that a lower fare might come along in a few instances but I think the probability of that is quite low. 

Expect seats on LCC carriers in the holiday season to be at a premium.  Particularly on airlines such as Southwest and jetBlue as their no baggage fees for a checked bag make travel for families much cheaper.  A family of 4 can save as much as $200 and that’s real money.

So, if I were looking for an inexpensive fare for holiday travel, I would buy now.  If I were hoping for a great fare for a whimsical trip, I might wait just a bit longer.  I do not think that we’ll see a plethora of low, low fares until after January 1st.

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Fares, Fees and Fuel Surcharges Part 2

March 16, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees, Travel Hints | 1 Comment

Before you shop for a fare to travel this spring or summer, remember one thing:  You will almost certainly pay more than last year.  And, not for nothing, you probably should.  Gasoline prices are way up ($0.50 / gallon to date for my area just over the past 2.5 months) and so are costs for things like food or even dining out.  It costs more to do business today and the airlines are subject to the same events that drive costs as we are.  If you’re laboring under the idea that airlines are fat cats just squeezing money out of people, well, reset your mind on that.  One has to wonder why anyone would go into the airline business given the very few profits available.

But if you want the best price, it is time to get smart and if you do play it smart, you’ll not only be rewarded but airlines just might start paying attention to customer dissatisfaction as well. 

It’s hard to do but start by figuring out what your needs are not just in going from Point A to Point B but also who you are traveling with, how much luggage you might take and whether or not you might be more flexible with your travel dates.  Let’s say that you, your spouse and one child are traveling on a vacation.  Can you combine 2 or more people’s clothing needs into a larger suitcase and keep it under 50lbs?  If so, you may well save on baggage fees.  With baggage fees costing people as much as a couple of hundred dollars extra for this kind of trip, there are real savings to be had.  My own family follows this philosophy and we’ve discovered that we can generally eliminate at least one bag to be checked and often two.

Consider your choice in airports.  Many metropolitan areas have 2 or more airports and those choices can yield big savings.  Perhaps it costs less gas to access one or another.  Often rental cars at a secondary airport can be less expensive than at the primary airport (this is that demand thing again).  Low cost carriers like secondary airports because it costs them less to fly there.  Shop your choices. 

In addition, if you’re already going to rent a car, check to see if there is another airport within 1 to 1.5 hours from where you want to be.  Sometimes the savings can be huge and well worth the drive.  I once flew to Tampa Bay for $140 less than flying to Orlando.  I was already renting a car and it cost me just about 1.25 hours to drive plus the gas cost which then was cheap but even today would yield worthwhile savings.  Particularly when you multiply that fare savings by 3 or more who are traveling with you.

See if leaving on a day different than a Friday or Saturday saves you money.  You might reduce your vacation stay by one day out of 7 or more days but  you may be willing to give up that day for a savings of $300 or more, right? 

Check the alternative LCC carriers as well as the traditionals.  Allegiant Airlines and Spirit Airlines are the airlines of fees, for certain, but if you can plan your trip right on them, you may well save hundreds of dollars.  You might not be in the most comfortable seat but if you’re savings $300 or more on air fares, I’m guessing 2 hours in a 30″ seat pitch seat will be tolerable if you’re on a budget.  If you do choose one of these airlines, READ THEIR RULES CAREFULLY.  Everything costs a fee and several are “opt out” type choices when purchasing your ticket. 

Don’t rule out legacy airlines.  It’s often surprising to me just how competitive legacy airlines are when faced with fighting for business against a few LCC carriers in a market.  Sometimes, when it comes to advance purchase fares, the legacy carriers are the better deal even with their fees. 

Are you using airline miles to pay one or more fares?  Well, maybe you can travel alone and your family can travel another airline cheaper but you can all arrive at the same airport within an hour or so of each other.  It seems awkward, yes, but I also suspect that if you can save $200 or more with this strategy, it might just be worth spending an hour in an airport waiting for the second part of your party.

Before you buy, compare, compare, compare.  You have a computer so use it.  Put both your airline choices up on the screen and be certain of every thing you’re paying before you pay.  Fuel surcharges are going to make a big difference in the cost to families this summer and if you can fly an airline that doesn’t have them, you may well save significant money.  The same is true for baggage fees.   Even airport taxes and fees can be different between a primary and secondary airport in a city and different enough sometimes to more than pay for the inconvenience of choosing one over another. 

Most people would use great care and consideration when spending $1000 or more on a piece of furniture for a home or a home improvement.  Why not use the very same care and consideration on your vacation?  There are real savings to be had out there for someone who invests an extra hour of time into their search.  That extra time frequently results in big savings and everyone likes an extra $100 bill in their wallet.

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Fares, Fees and Fuel Surcharges Part 1

March 15, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees, Travel Hints | No Comments

It’s common for a variety of friends and family to ask me about obtaining a “cheap” fare to some destination throughout the year.  It’s a frequent request as we approach spring but this year what I’m hearing most is the comment that fares are “way up” compared to what they usually are.

Yes, they are.  Air fares have been rising steadily over the past several weeks with one airline bidding up the fare(s) and the others following with increases of their own.  Typical fares are much higher and often as much as 25% higher than this time last year. 

In addition, airlines are returning to the fee game and several have recently tweaked their fees to get more revenue in the door especially in advance of leisure travel that usually finds people checking more luggage.  JetBlue just raised its 2nd bag checked fee to $35 and American Airlines has added a “booking fee”. 

And now we’re hearing about fuel surcharges.  These are, in some ways, the most irritating fees attached to base fares around.  While they must be specified prior to booking, these fuel surcharges aren’t necessarily advertised as a part of the base fare.  In addition, they’re often a one fuel surcharge fits all flights approach.  That means a $20 fuel surcharge is supposedly covering fuel costs on both that 500 mile flight as well as that 2300 mile trans-continental flight.

Is this about fuel?  Yes, it is.  When oil prices rise such as they have over the past 2 months, jet fuel prices actually rise faster and higher.  They are not proportionate to the cost of a barrel of fuel and that has to do with how a barrel of oil is refined into various types of fuels and other products.  Fuel prices are skyrocketing and they threaten the airlines in two ways:  in demand as well as costs. 

The airlines well know that rising fares can cost them passengers and that is evident in the fact that airlines are already announcing reductions in their plans to grow capacity over this calendar year.  American Airlines announced it was going to bring back several hundred flight attendants as well as hire new flight attendants (with special skills for international flights) just a few months ago.  Now it is announcing that it will offer several hundred flight attendants the opportunity of a leave of absence because it will not grow its capacity quite as much as planned.

Cuts in capacity are designed to improve how much someone is willing to pay for a seat.   It’s simple economics:  if there are 100 seats but 110 potential customers, the airline is liable to get a premium price for its seats.  If there are 100 seats and just 90 customers available at a particular price, those seats will either fly empty or the airline has to cut prices to get them filled.  It’s a difficult balancing act because those seats fly every day whether there is a body in the or not.  If you cut your prices too much, you’re liable to fly that aircraft (even full) at a loss.  If you raise your prices too much, you’re liable to fly that aircraft at a loss as well due to empty seats. 

The various fees that legacy airlines charge are designed to boost the average fare and maintain profitability.  It’s notable that US Airways has said that but for their additional revenue from these ancillary fees, they would be unprofitable.  For an industry that has seen exceptional losses over the past 20 years, those fees represent a new era of profitability and survival.

Are they fair?  Reasonable?  In many cases, I think not.  I think the approach to fees has been poorly executed and has potentially driven away customers because of airline clumsiness in instituting them.  Airlines are rather new at the game of marketing value added to their business.  The entire industry was founded on and run by the maxim of providing the best value added product for over 70 years.  Now, they’re expected to figure out how to earn more profit by charging for value added items and their novice approach is very noticeable.

The notable exception to this is two airlines:  Southwest Airlines and jetBlue.  These airlines haven’t ignored fees but they have paid attention to the game better than most.  When you pay a fee on one of these airlines, there is added value and the customer perceives added value.  The profitability and increased revenues that Southwest has experienced is firm proof of that.

Tomorrow:  What to shop for when it comes to fares

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An Open Letter to ALL Travelers

March 13, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Travel Hints | 5 Comments

Over the past few years that I’ve traveled while writing this blog, I’ve been much more observant of everything going on around me on every flight.  My recent flight between Dallas and Chicago was the breaking point for me when it comes to travelers and I offer this with as much good spirit as I can muster.  I urge any of you readers to either share the link for this post or print it out and share it with those you know to travel with any frequency.

First up:  Business Travelers

Business Travelers are one of the biggest problems I’ve observed.  Sorry folks but you, as a group, are a terrible bunch of people when it comes to traveling.  You carry far too much onto airplanes, invade other passenger’s personal space and act far too vain about your position as a frequent flier.   I witnessed men and women in business suits denigrating people who got relegated to the back of the aircraft  on one recent flight.  Openly insulting people is not only rude and inappropriate, it’s vain. 

You’ve got to learn to check your baggage more often.  Just because you got a Tumi rollaboard that the salesman said was for overhead bins doesn’t mean it is for overhead bins.  Quick history lesson:  Overhead bins were never intended to hold massive amounts of heavy luggage.  In fact, they originally didn’t even have doors on them.  They were created for women’s purses, hats, coats and briefcases.  They were not created for a grossly overpacked and oversized piece of luggage. 

You must pack more modestly and check your bags.  I would agree that if you are making 3 connections to get to a destination that carrying your luggage might be smart.  However, if you’re going point to point or traveling on airline with a good reputation with baggage handling, you need to check your bag(s).   Worried about your possessions?  So am I and that is why you can buy TSA approved locks.  I own 4 and I use them every time and I’ve not yet experienced a loss.   It isn’t necessary to leave your luggage unsecured.

You need to be more observant of the personal space that exists around you.  I saw a number of people open large 17″ laptops on my last flight and proceed to stick their elbows in people’s sides while trying to tweak their latest Power Point presentation.  Just because you have work to do doesn’t mean you get to violate another person’s space.  You also need to be more aware of how you’re dragging your coat, briefcase and rollaboard onto the plane with you.  Again, on my last flight, I had to tell two different men that they were using their briefcases as weapons after they banged them into my head.  Be situationally aware at all times when you’re going down that aisle.

Businessmen:  Quit chatting up the flight attendants.  I don’t care if you’re lonely and I don’t care if you’re single.  You’re holding them up from serving other people.

Businesswomen:  I know you like to look good and feel good.  Stop putting on so much perfume that you offend those sitting in close proximity to you.  Frankly, traveling with perfume on is just a bad idea. 

Everyone:

Find an airline that offers inexpensive and/or free baggage checking and use it.  The truth is, airlines very rarely lose baggage for anyone and even the worst offenders are literally an order of magnitude better than they were a generation ago.  You’re troubling yourself and your passengers for a risk that has a less than 1% chance of happening on any one flight you take. 

Fly the airlines that work for you and stop chasing the frequent flier points.  Traveling with an extra connection is silly, time consuming and wasteful to both you and your employer.  Get as direct a flight as you can for the least money possible.

Pay attention to changes at airlines.  Some that were pretty bad 10 years ago are dramatically improved.  I recently convinced someone to try US Air again and then were stunned at both the service, price and care shown towards passengers.  Just because you had a bad experience 5 years ago doesn’t mean you’ll have another today.  They two events are entirely unconnected.

Eat some food.  Seriously, eat a good meal before departing on your flight.  Why?  Because you’ll be less prone to feel annoyed and aggravated at inconveniences, you’ll rest easier on the flight and you’ll find your ability to cope with sudden events beyond your control much improved.  Eat a good, healthy meal before you get on that airplane.

Plan your day around your flight.  Allow time for being flexibile and quit expecting ideal circumstances at every airport.  Ideal circumstances are not the norm, they’re the extraordinary.  Delays, weather, congestion, etc are the norm.  Get used to that ide and start building time into your day around your flight.  Stop planning a meeting 2 hours before your departure or one hour after your arrival.  It’s silly and impratical to expect that you have a real chance  to make it.  

Refresh yourself on what it means to be polite and exercise courtesy with both the flight crews as well as your passengers.  I’m not saying you have to be a doormat but you can learn to pause to let someone by you and you can stop acting exasperated because someone needs to get up and use a restroom.  Civility and courtesy can and will make your travel a better overall experience.   I want to point out that the rudest people I’ve witnessed are the so called and very apparent frequent fliers. 

All of you need to figure out that airplanes are quite possibly the worst place to expect to get any work done.  Stop thinking that it is your opportunity to “catch up” and do work.  Think about this:  Even on a domestic first class flight you’re expecting to be productive and be at your best game working in a personal space area measuring about 20″ x 38″ with well over a hundred people within no more than 100 feet of you.  This is not anything close to a good situation for getting work done. 

PAY ATTENTION TO THE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS!!!  I watched a Southwest Flight attendant request a woman terminate her phone call while she briefed people on safety who were sitting in the exit aisle row of the aircraft.  She actually had 2 very important key points to make and this softheaded woman continued her call ignoring the flight attendant who then had to stop, get her (the passenger) attention and listen to her briefing *again*.  This delayed the flight attendant and annoyed a number of people who were around her trying to just get done with it.

Quite making phone calls before takeoff and as soon as you land.  I’m pretty sure that I and the other passengers don’t want to share in your conversation with your wife, mistress, colleague or buddy.  It’s a crowded airplane and we don’t need to hear about your kids, your problems or your work.  We most particularly don’t need to hear you speaking louder and louder because you have 150 people around you.  Stop it.  Nothing is going to change if you wait until you’re off the aircraft to make your call.  You’re being a jackass if you keep it up.

When they tell you to turn off your electronic items, turn them off.  Don’t put them into “airplane mode” or “game mode” or anything else.  Turn them off.  There is a real and valid reason for this and, yes, they really can intefere with aircraft systems during those critical times they ask you to turn them off.  In addition, when you argue with the flight attendant about “airplane mode”, you’re delaying the flight attendant, potentially the flight, breaking airline rules and showing your ignorance about aircraft systems.  In short:  you’re being a jackass.

I mean all of this.  It’s time to be civil and polite people and stop being vain, selfish and overbearing.  Frequent flier status doesn’t make you a superior being.  It makes you a frequent flier who has had more time than most to unlearn appropriate behaviour.  If your an infrequent flier, take a few minutes and use Google to learn about the airports you’ll be passing through and be smart about your packing and the security requirements.  Waiting until you’re about to put your bags through security to learn about the security requirements is bad planning and inconsiderate to the 4 dozen other people behind you in the line. 

It’s time for everyone to tune up their behaviour when traveling.

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MDW-DAL on Southwest

March 12, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Seating, Airline Service, Airports, security, Travel Hints | 1 Comment

Returning to Dallas on Southwest from Chicago was a different experience.  First, we neglected to insist on avoiding Lakeshore Drive from downtown Chicago to Midway.  This found us sitting in stop and go traffic with our margin of safety time eroding quickly.  A quick tip and some encouragement to the taxi driver found us suddenly surging ahead when a hole opened and he got us there with time to spare. 

Again, I paid for Early Bird check-in on my flight.  This found me with a seat number of A group, position 37.  This is unsatisfying and I don’t believe the old “A” group went to 37.  What I’m saying is that A37 really translates into roughly B10 when you consider the number of people ahead of you and the fact that virtually every flight departing MDW originated somewhere else and already has passengers on it. I obtained a seat in the back on the aisle and that’s OK.

My security experience at MDW was unpleasant and I would say it was about average for a lot of busy airports.  In this case, I put the blame squarely on the staffers.  They were certainly moving in the Chicago Way.  One thing that found me objecting vocally were the wheelchairs.  While I stood in line with my belt and shoes in my hands, I saw 3 wheelchair bound people go to the front of the line where all three people got up, walked able bodied through the process and then sat down again. 

Sorry but being in a wheelchair does not entitle you to get in front of two dozen people waiting to move through.  I objected and the TSA offered that I was being unreasonable.  I offered that fair is fair and able bodied people in wheelchairs don’t get to go in front of me. Based on the reaction of passengers around me, public opinion was on my side.

Again, this airport is crowded and I walked the full lengths of both A and B concourses where I did not witness an empty Southwest gate.  I witnessed empty Delta gates and empty Porter Airlines gates but not one Southwest gate.  They are bursting at the seems and the gate areas don’t quite have enough space for full flights in my opinion. 

On this flight (via STL again), I witnessed person after person trying to stuff grossly overpacked and slightly oversized rollaboard cases into overhead bins.  This causes many delays when boarding the aircraft.  People move through the aisles slower, they put their things away slower and they fight for overhead bin space near their seat.  Flight attendants numbering just 3 per aircraft are not enough to keep this kind of herd flowing smoothly.  Even a few off duty Southwest staff pitched in to help and made little difference.

One staffer attempted to move my modest briefcase and light fleece jacket all the way to the back.  Uh, no, you aren’t going to penalize me for being efficient in favor of people who are apparently clueless about checking oversized bags.  My stuff took up, at best, 1/5 of the overhead bin.  I’m comfortable with that and it’s notable that just 2 fat bags were able to fit into the bin next to my stuff and the bin lid was only closed after a SWA FA essentially beat the bags down with the lid until it latched.

The flight departure was significantly delayed and I would attribute all of that to people boarding slowly, sitting down slowly, arguing for bin space instead of accepting a gate check of their bag and, last but not least, a 100% full flight.  These 100% full flights are exactly why SWA needs the Boeing 737-800 in its fleet.

Once every got seated, we did depart the gate fairly rapidly and experienced about a 10 minute taxi delay as well.  Once we took off, things settled down and the trip into STL was quick.  Taxiing into STL was efficient and deplaning went quickly.  However, once again, it was 100% full and, once again, we played baggage and seat games far longer than necessary.  This found the plane departing even later. 

Ultimately, I arrived in DAL about 40 minutes late.  That was unsatisfying because it wasn’t weather and it wasn’t the aircraft.  It was the sheer mass of people attempting to occupy too much space on that aircraft.   Southwest needs bigger gate areas to get people organized onto the aircraft and it might be time to consider some variation of assigned seating.  Too many people are jockeying for position on full aircraft and that delays things quite a bit.  Assigned seating would eliminate the jockeying and, I think, speed seating.  Unassigned seating on aircraft that are seeing 70% load factors is one thing but on aircraft that are as much as 89% load factor average, it becomes almost untenable.

All of that said, I still think the experience on both flights was as good or better than what was available to me via American Airlines, DFW and ORD airports.  And about $300 cheaper as well.  I still recommend Southwest but I also recommend that you use flights that are “no plane change” flights into and out of MDW or you may well risk making a connection.  That recommendation stands until Southwest improves its ontime rate at Midway.

One more hint:  Southwest doesn’t charge for checking your bags.  It has an excellent record when it comes to lost or misplaced baggage and it delivers checked bags to its carousels pretty quickly.  Save yourself trouble and just check your rollaboard.  You’ll find yourself able to maneuver on and off the airplane quicker.  You won’t have to fight for overhead bin space near you (and if you don’t get it near you, you’re going to be massively delayed in getting off that aircraft anyway.)  Don’t be vain and insist on taking it onboard when it is completely unnecessary on this airline.

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DAL-MDW on Southwest

March 11, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service, Airports, security, Travel Hints | 2 Comments

Last Saturday, I wrote about a trip I was taking from Dallas to Chicago on Southwest.  This was my first opportunity to fly Southwest between the two cities and I’ve long believed that even though the flight was a one stop flight, it was actually as efficient or more efficient than taking a legacy carrier such as American Airlines from DFW to ORD.

Yes, it was.  Entry into Love Field and moving to the gate was simple and quick.  I don’t know why but they appear to be able to move more people through security at Love Field in shorter time than anything I’ve ever seen at DFW.  I also don’t know why the TSA staffers at Love Field are coherent and focused and polite in stark contrast with the typical TSA staffers I’ve seen at DFW.  The experience at Love Field is better in every way that counts.

The flight departed on time and arrived in St. Louis on time.  I paid for Early Bird check-in and got an excellent window seat in the front of the aircraft.  The flight was about 80% full to STL but I managed to not have someone sit next to me on that segment. 

Departing STL for Chicago, we were delayed a brief while and the Captain announced that they were holding at the gate due to traffic congestion in Chicago.  The weather in Chicago was overcast with extremely light snow falling and temperatures at about 36 degrees.  When we did take off, there was light to moderate turbulence for the first 45 minutes or so but it wasn’t really uncomfortable with a seatbelt on.  As we neared Chicago, the pilot performed a series of “S” turns and I would presume he was asked to do so to fit into the traffic pattern.

Landing at MDW was uneventful and the taxi to the gate was short and quick.  But now we get to the downsides.  It’s clear that Southwest is overtaxed at MDW.  It’s clear by the fact that virtually every gate had an aircraft and when I deplaned, I found every gate area I passed full to overflowing with people awaiting a departure.  The walk from the gate areas to the baggage claims is long(ish) but no more so than at many other older airports.  Certainly not really more than one experiences at Love Field. 

By the time I claimed my baggage, the person I was to meet there arrived and I waited another 15 minutes for him to claim his luggage as well.  Travel into downtown Chicago was efficient and quick but probably only because we insisted on taking the interestate northwards instead of being lead to Lakeshore Drive.  Make a note of this:  You’ll generally always be better off if you insist on the taxi driver not taking Lakeshore Drive to downtown.  They’ll insist that it is quicker, it isn’t.  It’s slightly shorter but much more congested as a rule.

My Southwest service excellent in all respects on that flight but I do understand why MDW is having delay problems.  I don’t think it is the airport so much as it is the fact that virtually every Southwest flight into and out of this airport is full.  By full, I mean full to the brim. 

What makes those full flights worse is the fact that a great many people are business travelers carrying quite a bit of carry-on luggage.  By quite a bit, I mean an obscene amount.  With unassigned seating, these travelers jockey for position, jockey for overhead bin space and jockey to avoid sitting in a middle seat.  I’ll have more on that in my next post on this trip.

Overall, the experience was pleasant and everything Southwest is praised for.  But that said, you’ll find that I see some growing pains in the Southwest model that I think Southwest is going to have to figure out if it expects to continue to profit in the future.

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Dallas to Chicago

March 5, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees, Airline Fleets, Airline Seating, Airline Service, Airports, Frequent Flier, Travel Hints | 4 Comments

Later today, I’m flying from Dallas to Chicago and this time I’m trying out Southwest Airlines’ service from Love Field to Midway Airport.  Both airports are the quintessential second airports for their respective cities and both have a strong Southwest history. 

Why this airline and these airports?  I’ve long advocated that you can enjoy a better, less expensive flight on Southwest that is essentially the same time elapsed “door to door” as a flight on a carrier such as American Airlines. 

So, I’ll be making a much quicker drive to Love Field airport where I’ll make a much quicker transit  through security to my gate.  I did pay the $10 Southwest Fee to early check in to improve my seating options (and it’s a fee that, for Southwest customers, does provide extra value).  My flight, however, is not non-stop.  I’ll be on a one-stop Southwest flight that pauses briefly in St. Louis.  Total programmed flight time?  2 hours, 55 minutes.

I paid $408 for this trip last Saturday compared to American Airlines fare for similar departure times on the same days of $659 and that does not include the fees for one checked bag that I’ll have to take with me.  All in, AA would have cost me (or, rather, my client) over $700. 

If I had taken AA, I would have had a much longer drive to DFW airport and a much more expensive one as well.  (One takes a tollway to DFW if one expects to get to DFW in a reasonable amount of time from where I live.)  The difference in time to get to each airport for me on a day where there are no traffic jams?  About 20 minutes less to access Love Field.

My Southwest flight time will be 2 hours, 55 minutes (if they’re on time) and a similar choice with American Airlines would be 2 hours, 30 minutes.  With the difference in drive time alone, I’ve just made up 20 minutes of a 25 minute difference.  When you account for the fact that I can arrive at Love Field with a bare minimum amount of time for passing through vs DFW airport where I would arrive about 15 minutes before my one hour deadline prior to flight time (because checking bags and passing through security at DFW can be easy or it can be real lengthy), I’ve just gained another 10 minutes. 

Since I”m arriving at Chicago Midway Airport, I’ll have a drive to my hotel in downtown Chicago that is nominally 6 miles shorter in distance and about 20 minutes quicker than if I arrived at Chicago O’Hare.  I’m now up by 30 minutes using Southwest.

At least in theory.

But let’s take a look at the contrasts in experiences I’m liable to enjoy between the two airlines.  On Southwest, I paid the $10 Early Bird Check-In fee so I’ll have a very high likelihood of obtaining a good, front of cabin seat on a 737-700.  It will be a fairly new aircraft and possibly a brand new aircraft.  It won’t be old and it won’t have old, worn out seats either.  I’ll enjoy 32″ to 33″ of seat pitch, most likely a friend flight attendant and no charge for a beverage.  Because of the nature of my trip, I have to check a bag and that comes free and on an airline with a good reputation for baggage handling and security.

If I had taken American Airlines on similar flight time, I would have enjoyed a 20+ year old MD-82.  Since I would have bought AA’s best economy price, I would have likely been at the back of the aircraft and sitting in old, worn out seating with 31″ of seat pitch.  My flight attendants would have most likely been cranky, older crew who have a reputation of taking out their job dissatisfaction on their customers.  (AA flight attendants can be good but in my experience the DFW and Chicago based crews are frequently hostile to customers.) 

My bag would be handled by an airline who had a less than positive reputation for baggage handling (and strangely I’ve had many bags delayed over the years on the DFW-ORD route) and only for a $25 fee each way.   If I had paid AA’s fee for priority boarding, I’d get earlier access to overhead bins but no options to sit in a preferred seat up front and an economy passenger on an AA MD-80 flight is going to have the options of “bad” and “worse” when it comes to seat assignments.

Savings in dollars:  About $300

Savings in time:  About 30 minutes door to door (if this works out as I expect).

What do I give up?  I don’t get frequent flier points on American Airlines.  Let me point out that my dollar savings alone just bought me a “free trip” if I wanted it.  Which would you rather have?  about 1600 frequent flier point or $300 in savings?  Which would you rather fly on?  An old MD-80 with old seats and a hostile flight crew or on a fairly new 737 with new seats and a friendly flight crew?

Once I complete this trip, I’ll write up what actually happened.

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Flights Cancelled

December 27, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Airline News, Airline Service, Airports, Travel Hints | 1 Comment

We just saw what an impending storm can cause when it comes to flight cancellations.  One thing that people often wonder at is the reason their flight was cancelled when it isn’t snowing yet in their departure city.

In fact, people are often left wondering what happened to their flight when it isn’t even forecast to snow in their departure city.

It has to do with with an airline’s network.  An airline may have to cancel a flight in one city because the aircraft is stuck in another city due to weather.  That’s really a common occurrence. 

Sometimes an impending storm results in an airline cancelling flights in advance of the arrival of a snow storm.  There are a lot of valid reasons for doing this.  It may be unwise to send a flight out to a city where the airline doesn’t customarily overnight aircraft.  Doing so potentially leaves the aircraft and its flight crew orphaned in an unknown city and unusable when weather does clear.

Since storms, particularly snow storms, can leave an airline’s network destroyed, it is attractive to the airline to keep its aircraft at its hub(s) so that when the storm does clear, it has the equipment to get people on their way immediately. 

Another reason is that snow storms approach a lot of cities with a great deal of uncertainty.  It’s poor safety to send aircraft to a city prior to a potential snow storm because that storm may arrive early causing the aircraft to divert or hazard a landing in poor conditions. 

Flight cancellations are painful not because of the immediate inconvenience.  They are painful because airlines often are incapable of taking care of a customer for days afterwards.  That may be unacceptable.  There isn’t anything that an airline is going to do about it unless forced to.  The best alternative is to really weigh consequences of sticking to your travel plans.

Most airlines welcome a change to an earlier flight and offer the ability to do so without penalty in these situations.  Take advantage of that.  Sometimes no matter how much you want to go, you can’t.  Skip your trip if you can get a refund and many airlines will offer such a thing during bad storms. Flex a little and avoid being that person stuck in an airport for 4 days clinging to the idea of taking a flight somewhere.

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Airline and travel mobile sites: The future today.

July 9, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service, Travel Hints | 1 Comment

As an owner of an iPhone, I’ve become very interested in web sites developed specifically for the smart phone users and even more interested in travel related apps as well as travel specific mobile websites.  As much as social networking is becoming important for airlines, I think having a mobile website is even more important.  

It’s kind of cool to be able to complain by Twitter or some other social networking media but the busy traveler is even better served by being able to access his airline of choice via a mobile website.  I may be wrong but I believe that Continental Airlines had one of the first mobile websites available and that comes as little surprise to me given their popularity with the business traveler.  

I wrote about that Continental website more than a year ago.  Since then, a number of airlines and travel related websites have now also gone mobile.  Now that we have a quorum of companies participating, I’ve added a new section of links titled, oddly enough, Mobile Sites. 

It isn’t comprehensive but it is a good slice of what we in the United States would use.  Interestingly enough, I think many of these sites were rolled out with little or no fanfare and that seems strange to me. 

Midwest Airlines has a site but Frontier, it’s sister airline under Republic Airways, does not.  That doesn’t surprise me as I think Midwest Airlines was doing a much better job than many when it comes to technology and social networking.  I do hope that that feature will be adopted over to Frontier in the near future. 

Virgin America doesn’t have one either and I think I know why.  Those folks have used an excessive amount of Flash programming on their sites and that won’t fly on many mobiles including the iPhone.  For a company that has positioned itself in the way Virgin America has, I think this is bad for the airline.  (Just like I think opening new routes to leisure destinations is bad, too.)  Virgin was an early adopter of GoGo Wireless and has its “Red” system onboard for entertainment and food/beverage ordering.  They don’t, however, appear to be embracing social networking or mobile apps yet.   It is an area that a young, agile airline should be leading in.

Are you listening Mr. Cush?  You need someone working on this as of last year!

The various sites available are robust in some cases and some offer pretty limited capability.  I expect that that playing field will level out over time and result in a reasonably consistent group of offerings. 

Quite a few airlines have offered iPhone apps and I do hope to talk about those in the future sometimes but they’re only relevant to the iPhone and while it is an amazingly popular phone, the Blackberry is the businesman’s mobile phone still. 

Web sites that are mobile capable are the way to go both because it serves the busy person with a smart phone but also because it delivers a consistent look and feel to customers who may move from, say, a Blackberry to an iPhone or an Android based smartphone to a Blackberry.   Apps, on the other hand, are either phone or phone OS specific and that means maintaining a growing collection of software. 

I’ve added a couple of flight services mobile sites as well.  Each works from OK to good and, again, I think these will be updated to offer more functionality over time.  They’re all linked on the FlyingColors blog but fair warning:  a few don’t launch to the mobile site unless you’re browsing from a mobile smartphone. 

Got an app you like or another mobile site I haven’t found?  Offer it up in the comments section and I’ll add it along with the others.

Update:  Virgin America has dumped Flash from its site and is apparently working on a mobile site to be rolled out this year.  See this PC World story.  That’s good but they’re still behind the curve on mobile sites and, from what I can tell, social networking as well.  So much for being a hip airline.

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Involuntary Denied Boarding

June 19, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Travel Hints | 1 Comment

With the DoT proposing changes to rules for airlines that include how denied boarding compensation should be handled, I thought this might be a good time to remind and/or inform folks about what they’re actually entitled to but are rarely aware of.

First, let’s take care of some definitions.  Denied boarding comes in two basic forms.  Voluntary and Involuntary.  Voluntary is when the airline, for some reason unrelated to weather and/or equipment failure or other events that prevent the airline from boarding the aircraft, has overbooked the flight and needs seats to accomodate everyone.  They’ll ask for volunteers and generally offer a travel voucher and guaranteed space on another flight.  How much that travel voucher is worth generally depends on how badly they need the space and how much it takes to get a volunteer. 

For the record, I’ve only volunteered a couple of timese because I prefer to reach my destinations when I originally planned and because I find travel vouchers for the general sum of $200 credit to have little worth to me.  I don’t know when I’ll fly next and I don’t know that it will be on the same airline when I do fly.  The times I have volunteered, the voucher values were considerably higher than $200 and on airlines that did go to most destinations I frequent.

There is no requirement that the airline give you money for volunteering to take a later flight.  A volunteer negotiates for the compensation and makes the best deal they can or just takes what they’re offering.

Then there is involuntary denied boarding.  That happens when the airline is unable (or unwilling) to get volunteers to give up their seats and simply says you don’t get to go on that flight.  Now, the airlines are obligated to offer you either a travel voucher *or* cash compensation (in the form of cash or check) up to a certain value which is dependent upon how long it will take them to get you onto another flight.  The rub is, most people are unaware that the airlines have to give you that compensation in cash (in cash or check form) if you so wish.  In fact, most gate agents leave off that little nugget of information in hopes you’ll simply take what they’re offering as a voucher.  And most do.

Why do they offer travel vouchers?  Because history shows that a certain percentage of those vouchers are never claimed.  They come with expiration dates and the airlines ferverently hope you’ll forget to claim the travel before the expiration date.  (To be fair, I do know of two airlines who have in the past reinstated a credit that wasn’t too far past its expiration date.)  So, if an airline manages to issue $10,000,000.00 in credit over one year and 10% never claim that credit, they’ve just saved $1,000,000.00.  A very tidy sum.

What should you do?  Unless that travel voucher is worth twice what the cash compensation should be, I would take the cash every time (and have.)  Why?  For several reasons.  First, you never know what other costs an impact to your schedule such as that is going to generate.  Why not have the cash available in case you end up incurring more costs. 

Second, a dollar in your hand today is worth far more than a potential dollar in credit a year later.  That dollar can go into your bank account.  It can be used to buy travel on another airline or pay for a hotel stay on a different trip.  It’s flexible and can accomodate you in a variety of ways.  A travel voucher has to be spent on the airline. 

Third, I like punishing an airline.  How are they punished by accepting cash instead of a voucher?  The voucher goes towards the price of the ticket but the airline’s *costs* for the trip you’re purchasing with that voucher are considerably less in most cases.  In other words, it costs the airline a lot less if you accept that voucher than it does to give you currency.   I like punishing airlines who’ve overbooked. 

So, if you are involuntarily denied boarding, make sure the gate agent spells out *all* of our options including the cash you’re entitled to before you make a decision.  Remember that a voucher is worth about 60% of its face value in real world use so if they *really* want to give you a voucher, ask them for more than the cash compensation you’re entitled to.  If they won’t do that, take the cash and the booking on the next available flight and then go find a bar and celebrate beating the airline with a cocktail.

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DFW MKE Fares are getting cheaper

March 24, 2010 on 8:00 am | In Airline Service, Travel Hints | No Comments

Since I wrote this post HERE in mid January, I’ve kept an eye on airfares between these two cities.  A check made yesterday revealed that advanced purchase (and not too advanced as in less than 30 day) fares are now at $158.00 on American Airlines and Airtran.  They are a few dollars higher on Midwest and a few more dollars higher on the Frontier flight that is actually the Midwest flight. 

 

Airtran hasn’t started these flights yet and when they do, they’re planning to use SkyWest CRJ-200 aircraft for those trips.  Not the most comfortable airliner for 2+ hours of flight.  It’s interesting to note that since I last visited this subject, AA has upgraded its equipment to CRJ-700 aircraft on most of the flights with just one ERJ-145 remaining.  Midwest/Frontier continues to use Embraer E-170 equipment and both those aircraft are quite tolerable for the trip. 

 

Even more interesting, Southwest Airlines is now offering not one but two “direct” flights with no plane change between the two cities and their cheapest available fares match Airtran’s offerings.   The flight times are 3 hours, 10 minutes which is just shy of an hour more than the others nominally.  In other words, they’ve shortened up the transit time by 20 minutes and when you consider where you live in Dallas, flying through Love Field just might make that a wash at this point.  You also get to fly a mainline Boeing 737 instead of a regional jet.  The real kicker is no bag fees on Southwest which, in many cases, makes Southwest the cheaper flight and potentially no longer than the others “door to door” for many in the Dallas area. 

 

I would say that if Airtran does expect to keep this route, the CRJ-200 isn’t going to be adequate for that route.  They’ll need to offer the kind of service they have on their B717 aircraft to siphon away traffic from both AA and Midwest.

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What’s in a name?

January 18, 2010 on 8:00 am | In Travel Hints | No Comments

What’s in a name?  It turns out quite a bit.

 

In light of the latest travel “scares” over the past 3 weeks, it seemed like a good time to talk about looking after yourself when making a reservation.   Before anything else, please remember that to an airline, the most ideal situation is one where you pay money and don’t actually fly.  What I really mean is that airlines are not your friend.  They are not particularly accomodating and they are focused on extracting as much money from you as possible. 

 

When you are flying, names are important.  The security we have in place today is largely predicated on matching an ID with a name to your ticket.  Airlines have discovered that if you have the wrong name on the ticket, it’s a revenue opportunity as opposed to a honest mistake to be fixed.   With the recent travel worries, names are being scrutinized even closer than they have been in some time.  What you don’t want is to have a ticket that has a name that does not match your ID. 

 

First, make your reservations and ticket purchases with patience and care.  If you are booking not only for yourself, take the time to find out exactly how someone’s name reads on the ID they plan to use.  Get their birthdates right too.  Before you “confirm” the reservation and make that purchase, confirm each person’s information including their name. 

 

In my family, it is tricky business.  My wife uses her middle name as the name she goes by.  My daughter (step-daughter), has a different last name from both mine and my wife’s.   Now, you would expect family to get this stuff right but they have a mother/grandmother who has incorrectly booked tickets with the wrong name for them more than once.   Their brother/uncle has done the same thing at least once.   What’s worse (and I don’t know how you plan to ensure avoiding this), they’ve done it after I ensured that my wife reminded them of her full name as shown on her driver’s license.    Since my daughter is now 14 years old, she’s now going through security on her own when traveling to see her family.  It’s become doubly important to ensure her name is correct because she uses her passport as her ID.

 

What can happen?  A lot.  Remember that the ticket you buy determines your “class” with the airline.  If you’ve bought a non-refundanble, no changes ticket, most often the airline will require you to pay fees to change the ticket or even cancel it.  Those fees can add up to hundreds of dollars too. 

 

You have to get the name right and you must triple check the information you’ve giving the airline (or travel website or travel agency) matches your ID.   If you do make a mistake, you are now at the mercy of the airline.

 

If you do make a mistake, go to work instantly on trying to get it resolved.  If you purchased through an online or traditional travel agency, work through them.  If you bought it directly from the airline, start calling them.  The quicker you try to fix it, the more likely they are to treat it as an honest mistake.   Calling the night before your trip just gives them leverage.

 

If you do run into trouble with an airline when speaking to them by phone, consider another strategy.  Go to the airport and speak to an agent directly.  Yeah, it’s gonna cost you a trip to the airport but that probably is going to cost a lot less than the potential fees you’ll be charged.  By going to the airport, you’re placing a human being located here in the United States in direct face to face contact with you and that’s a more difficult position for that person than phone or email contact.  Second, you can ask to speak to a manager.  But be smart.  Don’t go at the busiest time of the day.  You want to find an agent who is slow or completely unbusy.  Take your ID with you as well as a printed copy of your purchase (you did remember to print out your transaction, right?)

 

If this is for someone else, that person needs to be with you or they’re the one who needs to go.  Preferably, you want to have whoever bought the ticket and whoever is traveling on the ticket at the same place at the same time.  Granted, that’s not always possible. 

 

Don’t assume that just because “family” is making your reservation, they’re paying attention.  Be pro-active and write down the exact spelling of your name and your birthdate for them. 

 

Don’t assume that the airline will just change it at the airport the day you’re leaving.  If you’ve waited that long, you’ve given them all the power.  Take action as soon as you realize your mistake.

 

Do review the reservation and purchase one more time after you’ve made the transaction.

 

Do make sure your ID is current and, if possible, carry back up with you.

 

Don’t check in online until you’re certain that your name is correct.  Once you do, the ball game is over.

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Southwest gets aggressive and we don’t notice?

January 15, 2010 on 8:00 am | In Airline Service, Travel Hints | 7 Comments

Yesterday on my post about flights between Dallas / Fort Worth and Milwaukee, the surprise of that investigation was that Southwest Airlines was most probably the best choice based on cost (price + baggage fees + convenience from doorway to doorway) and service (mainline aircraft and service product). 

 

Well, that got me to wondering about other routes out of the DFW area that I’m generally interested in.  So, I checked on flights between Dallas and Portland, Oregon, another city I have an interest in.   Southwest offers a number of two stop connections between the two destinations at competitive prices but your travel duration on those would be excruciating. 

 

However, Southwest *does* offer a couple of flights each day that are one stop – no plane change flights.  And guess what?  They’re pretty reasonable in flight duration.  Again, I cannot tell where that one stop is but it must be mostly right along the flight path.  Best of all, their price is about as good as I’ve seen in a long time at an advance purchase fare of $129 each way.  Again, considering that Southwest doesn’t charge for baggage and is more convenient in the Dallas area, this is the best deal all in all. 

 

American Airlines offers 5 non-stop flights a day (all 4 hour long flights using MD-82 aircraft) for the same nominal price and charges for baggage. 

 

And I have to tell you, I think I’d rather fly Southwest even with one stop.  AA’s MD-80 aircraft are woefully worn out, uncomfortable  and their crews are surly at best.  Southwest offers me a more comfortable seat, most likely a newer aircraft and certainly a better maintained cabin and a service staff that was happy to get out of bed that day and go to work. 

 

So, what does this mean?  Well, it’s hard for me to research every route that SW and AA might compete on but it looks as if Southwest might be getting aggressive with American on a lot of routes that AA has been dominating with almost zero competition for a long time.   Southwest is doing it by offering direct, one stop, no plane change flights and they look pretty good to me. 

 

If you live in an area served by Southwest, it may very well pay dividends to take the extra moment to see what they’re offering on your chosen route.  Just remember that you won’t pay baggage (or non-alcohoic beverage) fees and you will fly on mainline aircraft with friendly service staff.  That has a value in and of itself.

 

In way, it is a shame that Southwest continues to refuse to list itself with online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity as I think they would compare so favorably against legacy airlines that it might well be worth it.

 

Now I’ll stop acting like a Southwest commercial.

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Delta and Continental up baggage fees, will anyone notice?

January 13, 2010 on 8:00 am | In Airline Fees, Airline News, Travel Hints | 2 Comments

Delta Airlines chose to announce they are increasing their checked baggage fees.  If you pay online, your fee goes from $15 for the first bag to $23 for the first bag.  The second bag checked rises from $25 to $32 (paid online).   Continental matched those fees almost immediately.  While it seems exorbitant to me, I wonder if anyone will really notice right now.

 

I suspect Delta did this simply because they have pricing power at most of their hubs (ATL, MSP, DTW, SLC, CVG, MEM) and because they don’t think it is going to affect the consumer’s decision about which airline to fly in most cases.  Delta doesn’t get a lot of LCC competition at its hubs except for ATL and there seems to be a unspoken agreement with Airtran not to get too ugly there.  Besides, Airtran has checked baggage fees too. 

 

The thing is, most online sites that offer booking for airlines in the US do not mention baggage fees when displaying prices for routes.  Delta will continue to appear to be very competitive on routes while likely adding additional incremental revenue through the “gotcha” approach.   Quite honestly, I suspect they’ll get away with it.  At least until there is a healthy recovery in the airline industry and that is likely 18 to 24 months away still.  Maybe more.

 

Will others match it?  I suspect that American Airlines might.   There is no precise harmony among airlines on these fees, not yet anyway.  Continental already had pretty high fees at $18 and $27 for online checked fees (with a $2 and $3 surcharge at the airport).  AA is at $20 and $30 respectively whether you check online or at the airport.  US Airways is at $20 / $30 for online (with a $5 surcharge for checking at the airport.)  United is $15 and $25 for online checking.

 

By contrast, Southwest Airlines has no fees up to the 3rd bag, jetBlue offers the first bag free and $30 fee for the second while Airtran charges $15 for the first and $25 for the second.  In other words, these fees are all over the place.  The truth is, as competitive as airfares are on many routes, these fees can change the equation pretty dramatically in some cases since those fees are for each way on a round trip flight. 

 

These fees have added dramatic amounts of revenue to airlines’ bottom line and I don’t see them going away at all.   I don’t think the fees among legacy airlines will harmonize much at all until and if online travel sites begin showing an “all in” pricing when comparing fares.  Even with such comparisons, I don’t think the fees go away so much as they just begin to merge together among the airlines. 

 

Will anyone else raise their fees?  Well, maybe.  I’m sure it will be tempting to do so among all the legacy airlines.  One or two may even try to raise the ante some.  I kind of  think both United and American Airlines will try some kind of new mix in the future.   I don’t see the LCC carriers playing around with their fees much if at all.  They have the revenue and now this may be their chance to follow Southwest’s strategy in a modified form by advertising lower checked baggage fees. 

 

I don’t think Southwest will change its attitude on these fees based on this new development.  Their strategy appears to be working for them and they don’t have a history of following the pack when something works.   That said, I’m sure it is something they’ll re-examine from time to time and it doesn’t mean they won’t add fees at some point in the future.  Right now, they appear to be capturing customers with their ‘no fees” approach and their aggressive advertising seems to have caught some attention. 

 

As much as I hate these fees for the 1st bag checked, I hate that airlines and travel websites  have done really little to truly show the “all in” price for these trips.  It makes things just that much more murky for the consumer and that is a bad thing.   However, the best thing you can do is learn the fees for the airlines you may be shopping for a trip and do the math yourself.  You’ll be frustrated by it and no doubt resent it but there isn’t a ready made solution at this time. 

 

Frankly, these developments are just one more reason why I wonder about Southwest re-joining the travel agency world.   The world has changed since they left it and, quite honestly, I think they could re-structure their IT infrastructure and re-join those agencies with little incremental costs involved.  At that point, they become the no brainer for many consumers from my view.  Even as aware as I am of airline options and even being located in the DFW area, even I tend to forget about Southwest as an option sometimes. 

 

One strategy for learning these fees is to visit LuggageLimits.Com (also linked in my sidebar).

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Free WiFi on AA until Jan 7

January 4, 2010 on 8:46 am | In Travel Hints | No Comments

Supposedly, if you are flying American Airlines and  you are on a GoGo WiFi equipped flight, you can use the code “UpInTheAir” for free access.

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New Storm Sees Airlines Waiving Fees

December 23, 2009 on 12:49 pm | In Airline News, Travel Hints | No Comments

Due to the building midestern winter storm that is already gaining strength, airlines are, once again, waiving change fees to diminish the impact of looming cancellations and delays. 

 

For a list of airlines and details on their current policies, visit USA Today’s Today in the Sky blog HERE.

 

If you have any flexibility at all, consider attempting to depart on your flight early or, perhaps, re-routing yourself through a connection in a city likely to be unaffected by the weather.  Considering the current weather picture and current forecast, hub cities such as DFW, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Denver. 

 

Hub cities such as Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cincinatti, and Cleveland are all likely to be affected at least somewhat by the looming weather over the next few days.   Based on that, airlines likely to be most affected might be  Delta / Northwest Airlines (Minneapolis, Detroit), United Airlines (Chicago and Denver), American Airlines (Chicago), Airtran (Milwaukee), Southwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, Michigan), and Continental (Cleveland).

 

Hint:  If you are a member of a frequent flier program, see if there is a dedicated phone number you can call.

 

Hint:  Make sure your cellular phone is charged and you have your charger in your carry on luggage.

 

Hint:  If you have a laptop computer, consider traveling with it in your carry on luggage.

 

Hint:  If you are seeking to re-route yourself, explore options among codeshare partners with your airline when speaking to a reservations agent.

 

Hint:  If you must board and travel on a flight in a city being affected by the storm, purchase some snacks and water in the terminal to take on the aircraft with you.

 

You can review all travel hints by clicking HERE.

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