Having been out of the Washington, DC work environment for a couple years now I often forget just how seriously many there take themselves. They are smart and important people in smart suits and carrying on important business, even when they’re just drinking beers on the bar stool next to me. At least many of them seem to try to exude that air. Fortunately it doesn’t really work completely, but it was enough to make me feel slightly out of place wearing a short-sleeved golf shirt rather than at least a button-down shirt yesterday afternoon (so much so that I actually changed between drinks and dinner).
But none of that stands in the way of a well organized and well lubricated happy hour event, and that is one thing that DC still does rather well. I met up with some former co-workers at Chef Geoff’s for a few beers. Like an idiot, I didn’t bother to figure out what the actual happy hour specials were when I got there. They offer a 34 ounce draft beer special for $8 every day at happy hour, along with $3 bottles. Of course, I had already ordered a pint of beer ($6) when I realized this so I had to finish that one before moving on to the specials, of which I had two. Yummy.
Following happy hour it was off to dinner at Jaleo’s with another friend. They’ve got some top-notch tapas going on there. If I had to search for a negative about the various tastes we had it would be that everything seemed to clean and crisp flavor-wise. I’m not sure that is really a problem, but it was rather different from most of my recent tapas experiences at the now closed El Cid in Manhattan. The dishes there were more traditional and the flavors a bit smoother and more subdued. Jaleo’s dishes seemed to have a edge to them that was interesting. Of course, I only got to taste 6 of the dozens of options they have on the menu so I’ll have to go back at least once or twice more to try some of the other options and make sure my analysis is accurate. I am happy to report that the sangria is top notch; no worries at all on that front.
Overall a very nice way to start up the week of ridiculous travel. A little normal to lead in to the crazy, if you will.
I made it through the first flight of my fifteen-flight, seven day, 35,000 mile adventure this morning just fine. Thanks to my elite upgrade I was able to enjoy a comfy seat and sleep the majority of the flight, which is a good thing since the 5:30am departure meant a 4am wake-up call this morning. And I was foolish enough to go out drinking in DC with friends and didn’t actually make it to the hotel until ~11:30pm last night. Not a lot of sleep going on there. Good thing I have so much time to nap today to make up for it.
I actually have had the upgrade clear in advance for eleven of the flights, not a bad percentage really. And I’m still holding out a glimmer of hope on the others, but that seems less likely. Plus, I only had to endure a minor amount of mocking from the guy printing out my boarding passes as he looked at my itineraries and tried to figure out exactly where I was going.
And for the folks who don’t believe that the airlines actually really do try to get the bags on to the next flight on a short connection, I just watched them stop moving a plane back from the gate and pop the hatch open to get a couple late bags on. That’s great news for those spring breakers who will actually have their stuff with them when they arrive.
The battles between in-flight internet service providers are rather entertaining. The two main players, Row44 and Aircell (provider of the gogo service) are after each other like a couple of rival kids on the playground, constantly asserting themselves as the better option and working behind the scenes through lawsuits to scuttle the other. But beyond that bickering, Row44 has finally taken to the skies, with planes in service for both Southwest and Alaska Airlines.
Southwest has four planes operating with the service and is very excited about it. They are offering the system to users for free while they evaluate its performance and impact on the planes flying around. At least one industry insider has been out on one of the equipped Southwest planes and has some comments about its functionality, mostly positive. Still, there is no indication as to when (or even if) Southwest will be expanding the service across their fleet. Still no in-seat power available from Southwest, so hopefully you’ve got plenty of battery life available for your trip. Oh, and on the content front, they do acknowledge that, “As is common on many other public networks, we will attempt to filter indecent content.” Giving it the old college try, I see.
Among other in-flight internet providers out there, Aircell has also been making great progress. They are turning out one Delta plane a day, which is pretty impressive. Of course, Delta has a sizable fleet to work through, but this has been their plan for a while now, so good for them getting the service deployed.
LiveTV, on the other hand, hasn’t been making such great progress. The jetBlue subsidiary has a pretty stable and reliable product for their TV systems in North America, but everything else they are working on seems to be significantly delayed. They are going to be the provider of in-flight TV systems for Azul, the Brazilian carrier founded by jetBlue founder David Neeleman. But they are apparently having some trouble tuning the antennae just right for working in Brazil, slowing their deployment down there.
LiveTV is also running a bit delayed on getting the Continental LiveTV system up and running. This is a next-gen system (LiveTV3) and has some pretty amazing features, including on-screen guide and 80 channels to choose from. And it is a couple weeks delayed now in getting activated on the initial test plane that Continental gave to the LiveTV folks to work on. The good news is that a Continental maintenance engineer in Orlando is reporting that he’s seen the new plane and that it appears to finally be ready to go. Of course, now that the innards are all set they have to apply to the FAA for a certification of the modifications and that will allow them to deploy on additional 737-900ERs. That certification is expected to take about 30 days, so we’re looking at late March before these really start flying. The other interesting thing about the FAA certification process is that it is required for each plane type. As Continental intends to provide this service on several different types (757-300, 737-700, 737-800, 737-900, 737-900ER) they will have to undergo the certification process for each type, including having the plane out of service for the 30-60 days that the install and FAA processing takes. They’ve got the spare capacity, but it will be a bit of time before they can really start popping these out for the fleet. They announced that they expect to have it fully deployed by May 2010 or so; hopefully they can still hold to that date.
And one last bit on the LiveTV front. Their in-flight “internet” offering, known as Project KiteLine, is also running a bit slowly. Continental has committed to having this service on all their planes as part of the LiveTV deployment, but it now appears that it isn’t going to happen, at least not in a timely manner. The schedule now appears to have KiteLine available late this year. And it is still going to be a very limited subset of the Internet available. At least Continental acknowledges that it isn’t necessarily the best solution for their customers. They negotiated the contract with LiveTV such that they can add a true internet provider to their planes at a later time if they desire and the demand is really there.
Phew…that’s a lot of Internet to keep track of.
By the time I made it over to my barber this afternoon, I was long overdue for a haircut. Very long overdue. So I took my shaggy head in, hopped in chair when called and settled in for a shave (a little treat I give myself every now and then) and a haircut. The haircut was rather uneventful, but as I started to prepare for the shave, a little bit of famous walked in the door.
Apparently Tim Gunn and I share a barber. He’s a renowned fashion guru with, quite frankly, great hair. I’m just a guy obsessed with travel that likes my $15 haircuts and the fact that the barber has known me for seven years so I can stumble in completely hung over, sit down and not say anything and still get my same cut.
Pretty much the entire time that we were both in the barber shop I was busy getting a shave, which mostly involves lying down in the chair with my eyes closed. So most of how I experienced his presence was by listening to his conversations with others in the shop. First there was one of the other barbers who was ecstatic to gossip with him about just about everything that happened at the Oscar’s this past Sunday. They discussed the dresses, the stars, etc. And then there was the most hysterical part, a FIT student who was walking by and couldn’t help but come inside to say hi.
The kid was hysterical. He was insistent on getting a photo using his camera phone. He received a call while begging for the photo and answered with “Tim Gunn says hi… Tim Gunn… The fashion guy… Oh, never mind <click>” And then he got the photo and ran off. Once gone the barber asked, “Does that happen to you often?” The response, “Almost never.” He sounded a bit surprised that it happened at all.
Anyways, he’s an incredibly nice guy based on the parts of the conversations I heard him having. It was certainly an experience listening to the interactions he had with everyone around him.
My first foray into lightening up my load on the road has been wildly successful, more than I actually expected it to be. And I’ve been envious of my wife’s Kindle ever since she got it. I don’t read nearly as much as she does, but just the idea of being able to take all the books you want with you seems great to me. But there were always production delays and rumors of a new version on the horizon, so I never bothered to get one.
Well, the Kindle 2 was announced a couple weeks ago and I was on that order like white on rice. And I almost hugged the UPS guy when it was delivered this morning – a day earlier than expected! I played with it for about an hour this morning and it is pretty awesome. I don’t know that it is phenomenally better than the original Kindle, and there are certainly a few things that I like less about it versus the original. But I am very happy to have one of my own now. It certainly will help make the 35,000 miles I’ll be flying next week easier to manage.
One thing I cannot figure out is why no travel guides are publishing in Kindle format yet. It is the ultimate in form meets function for the platform. You can bookmark, annotate and highlight specific bits that you want to call out – something I’m constantly doing with post-it notes and scraps of paper in my real travel guides. Plus, I always want to have a few different sources while on the road but don’t want to be carrying around 10-20 pounds of travel guides. And being able to buy a different one while on the road (what if you unexpectedly find yourself in Japan on a trip home from Seattle??) is a huge benefit that Kindle provides. There’s a huge market here, I think. Whichever vendor gets to the Kindle platform first will be my new favorite travel guide in a heartbeat.
For a more thorough review, check out my post on TravelTechTalk.
US Airways is a lesson in how not to run an airline. They’re hemorrhaging money and doing their best to drive away passengers. That doesn’t seem like a particularly good combination, does it? Well they’re at it again this week, with more cuts announced. At least one of the announcements this week was a good one.
First, the bad news. They’re dropping more flights from Las Vegas. Six flights are on the chopping block, removing non-stop service from five cities, including New York City and Baltimore. It is hard to believe that they cannot make money on those routes, though the competition from just about everyone in the NYC market and Southwest in the BWI market may have something to do with those. They’ve come a long, long way from their former status of having ~150 flights/day from Las Vegas to the current schedule of ~62. And that’s a long way in the wrong direction.
And now the good news. Beverages will soon be free again. The seven month experiment of charging for beverages on flights has finally been declared a failure by CEO Doug Parker. But even in retreat Doug somehow manages to come off as a total schmuck on this issue. For starters, they are waiting a week to actually implement the reversal. You actually cannot get a free drink until next Sunday. Why? No one knows, but for some reason they are stretching it out just one last week. And then there are the quotes from Dougie:
While US Airways remains “firmly committed” to the a la carte strategy, “it is a work in progress,” Parker said yesterday in an e-mail to employees before the beverage policy was announced publicly.
“Customers don’t buy an airline ticket based on whether or not they will get a free soda onboard, but with US Airways being the only large network carrier to charge for drinks, we are at a disadvantage,” Parker wrote.
“It would have been a bigger risk for us not to have tried charging for drinks because innovation and a new business model are desperately needed,” Parker told employees.
So either people do or don’t buy based on the charge for beverages. Doug seems to think that it plays both ways, depending on what he’s trying to prove. Sure, they had the best on-time performance for 2008, but that’s much easier when you have fewer flights and even fewer passengers on those flights.
What is amazing to me is that the Board of Directors and the shareholders haven’t managed to toss him out.
A few tidbits of news concerning flights to Australia this week, all of them good for the consumer.
First up, V Australia is finally ready to start operations. They were originally supposed to start up a few months ago during the peak southern hemisphere summer season, but thanks to the Boeing strike they couldn’t get their plane delivered in time. But that’s all behind us now, and they have their first 777-300ER fully loaded with three classes of service – business, premium economy and economy – and ready to fly. They are starting service this Thursday, with 3x weekly service between Sydney and Los Angeles. Service will go to daily in a few weeks when they receive their second plane. Additional service between Brisbane and Los Angeles will start in April and Melbourne is coming in September (both also dependant on receiving additional planes).
If that isn’t enough to drive some competition on the USA-Oz routes, Delta’s planned start of service between Los Angeles and Sydney on July 1 is certainly going to do so. Delta is going to be flying with a 777-200LR. The plane certainly has the range, but they only have 276 seats on the plane. A 777-300LR has 75-100 more seats on it, and the 747s that United and Qantas use have close to 400 as well. And then there are the Qantas A380s that are running on the route, with 450 seats and even more cargo capacity. I have no idea how Delta is going to be competitive in such a market. They have fewer seats to spread the fixed costs over and the fixed costs on such a route are VERY high. But the net result remains the same – cheaper prices for customers and now all three alliances will have service between the USA and Oz.
Last up on the this this morning is an interesting report that came out yesterday regarding potential changes in trans-Tasman service. The New Zealand and Australian governments have apparently agreed to streamline the operations for immigration, customs and quarantine for the short hops between their countries. This is apparently expected to help ease the travel experience and, according to some carriers, cut ticket costs by as much as 30% on those routes. From the article:
Quarantine, security and immigration issues have to be addressed to make the route a common border, The Sydney Morning Herald website said.
An Open Skies bilateral agreement is already in place, relaxing the rules for carriers flying between the two countries.
After two years of discussions, Australian and New Zealand Customs are planning trials to clear passengers before they board flights between the countries.
Sure, none of this is as cool as the crazy Los Angeles – Honolulu – San Francisco – Sydney round trip flights for $600 (I really wish I had bought one or two of those), but it is still all great news for folks headed to or from Australia. Oh, and there are still plenty of great deals to be had for flights ex-Sydney, thanks to the V Australia fares. Enjoy.
I’ve been trying to convince myself of this for the past few days now. It isn’t working and I believe that I will just give up on rationalizing it at this point in favor of celebrating the fact that I’m going to be in Tokyo in a couple weeks.
A couple months ago Southwest was having some fun with sale fares. They were pricing a different city at 50% off each day for about a week. And other carriers were matching those sale prices in markets that they shared. So when I saw that flights between Baltimore and Seattle on Continental were ridiculously cheap (~$137) and could earn me a LOT of miles for each one, I bought a few. I bought three to be precise, on three consecutive days. The plan was basically to just fly all weekend, rack up some miles and relax in the comfy confines of Continental’s 737 fleet. Sure, that’s just a bit crazy, but it is the kind of thing I do from time to time. Besides, I have a few books I’ve been meaning to read. I actually have a 10 hour layover in Seattle next Saturday during which I plan to leave the airport and head up to the Boeing facility for a factory tour. Other than that, however, I plan on being in the Baltimore, Houston and Seattle airports the whole time. Thank goodness they have showers in the Presidents Club in Houston.
And then Continental threw another curve ball out there. For a brief period of time on Wednesday and Thursday of this past week they had a mispriced fare loaded in their systems. Flights from Seattle to Tokyo were <$600 round trip. That is a pretty good deal just on the fare alone, but the kicker in this case is that the fare class they were priced in was actually the second highest coach class Continental offers. That makes upgrades on these fares VERY affordable, assuming the inventory is there. It also means that there are bonus miles to be earned. Just one of these $600 tickets will accrue over 25,000 elite points, enough to make a status level jump. With all the Seattle trips I already had planned I was already going to be qualified for Silver for next year. And one of these Tokyo trips puts me at Gold. Not too shabby a place to be in the first week of March. Oh, and I was already able to clear the upgrade for the outbound flight, so I get to fly at least part of the way in the BusinessFirst cabin.
I actually relayed this schedule to a pilot I know who occasionally flies on the Houston-Seattle runs to see if I might overlap with one of his flights. The response I got was great:
Man, are you twisted? I fly for a living and don’t have an itinerary like THAT!
Yes, I really am just that crazy. I’m flying a hair under 35,000 miles in a span of 7 days, starting next Saturday. And I’m going to Tokyo, because for some reason I believed that it is on the way home from Seattle.
I’ll be in Tokyo for about 50 hours total – a completely ridiculous proposition in many regards. But it should be sufficient time to visit the Tsukiji market a couple times, eat more sushi than I probably should, drink more whiskey than I probably should and get lost in their subway system for a while. Sounds like a great trip to me!
After a pretty strong run of loyalty program devaluations during the past year or so (I’m looking at you, Delta) there have finally been a few small changes that are benefitting the travelers. This week’s good news comes from two of my favorite programs, Continental’s OnePass and Starwood Preferred Guest.
From Continental, it is the implementation of a change that was announced a couple weeks ago at the event they hosted in Houston and a compromise on a change that they announced last summer for reward tickets. The change was particularly severe for their gold and silver elite members, where the fees jumped 3-5x from previous levels. After having their ear chewed off enough from their frequent fliers, Continental agreed to change the policy again, and the new policy went into effect yesterday. The policy is a nice compromise. It allows free changes for everyone as long as the origin and destinations do not change and the travel dates – both old and new – are 21 days out. For changes closer in to the date of travel or changes to the cities there are still fees, but this way one can make a reservation several months out on less than ideal connections/flights and refine the details as better connections or routings become available. That is a big win, particularly for non-elites, but also a nice give back to the silver and gold elites.
On the Starwood front, they announced the results of their annual award category reassignments yesterday. This happens every year and hotels are shifted around, with some becoming more expensive to redeem for and some becoming cheaper. Over the past few years the trend has been strongly in favor of the more expensive direction. Plus they added a “peak dates” surcharge, making things even worse. Well, the 2009 changes are strongly in favor of the customer. Peak date surcharges have been removed on all but three properties worldwide. Moreover, the number of hotels going down a redemption level is actually more than the number going up. That’s great news for us. Some notable changes (courtesy of ALCO):
- Cat 6 (20,000/night) —-> Cat 5 (12,000/night):
- Westin St. John, U.S.V.I.
- Cat 5 (12,000/night) —-> Cat 4 (10,000/night):
- W Montreal
- Westin Aruba
- Westin Dawn Beach, St. Maarten
- US Grant, San Diego
- W San Diego
- Westin Riverfront, Avon, Colorado
- W Atlanta Buckhead
- Sheraton Kauai
- W Lakeshore Chicago
- Westin Michigan Avenue, Chicago
- Hotel Ivy, Minneapolis
- W Minneapolis
- Le Meridien Vienna
- Westin Dublin
- W Seoul Walkerhill
- Cat 4 (10,000/night) —-> Cat 3 (7,000/night):
- Westin Fiji
- Westin Chosun Busan
- Sheraton Fota Island Resort & Spa, Cork, Ireland
- Sheraton Austin
- Le Meridien Lingotto, Turin, Italy
- Sheraton Bilbao
- Four Points Darling Harbour, Sydney
So this is some happy news to head in to the weekend with. It is about time.
Southwest has had service to the “Boston area” for a dozen years now through their operations at Providence, RI and Manchester, NH. Later this year they are going to dive in to the heart of Beantown, opening up service to Boston’s Logan airport. The initial service will be reasonably small – only two gates – but they are going in with what appear to be reasonably grand ambitions.
I applaud Southwest for going after the bigger, central airports. There really aren’t many more secondary airports left and they want to continue to grow their operations. As pointed out over on the Hudson Crossing blog, service in San Francisco and Denver has been pretty solid, and they basically eviscerated US Airways’s service in Philadelphia. But in the latter two of those they didn’t really have much of an operation in the area. In the case of Boston they do. Big time. They operate 60 flights a day between PVD and MHT. And while they probably won’t get many more than 10-15 initially with their two gates at BOS, I cannot help but wonder if this action is going to be killing the goose that lays the golden egg for them in that region.
Interestingly enough, it seems that jetBlue might be the competitor that suffers the most from this. They are the largest single carrier in Boston (though the combined Northwelta will surpass them when the stats are combined).
No firm details on destinations (assume typical focus cities until something surprising gets announced) or schedules yet. They did acknowledge that they plan to do it without bringing more planes online:
The Logan service will be made possible by the airline optimizing its current flight schedule and repositioning aircraft. Southwest has not changed its previously announced plan to reduce the Company’s available seat miles by approximately four percent in 2009 compared to 2008.
So that tidbit is interesting. Seems like there is potential to see more leisure routes sacrificed in the name of the business routes. Besides, with other carriers destroying their frequent flier programs, there doesn’t seem to be much preventing folks from taking advantage of the Rapid Rewards program at this point.