No one knows exactly where they came from, where the were going or how they happened to be discovered on a small island in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. What is known about the Lewis Chessmen, however, is that they are simply amazing. The collection of nearly 80 pieces represent phenomenal craftsmanship and give insight into the lifestyle of the Nordic people from roughly 800 years ago.
The pieces are carved in intricate detail from walrus ivory and whale teeth. The characters are somewhat comical in appearance, though some historians suggest that they are meant to appear contemplative or fierce. In either case they are a sight to behold. The facial expressions vary somewhat widely, as do the other details of the carvings. These differences are attributed to the pieces belonging to different sets – at least five in total.
The history of their discovery and how the collection came to be is rather interesting. Reportedly located in a stone kist in the sand dunes on the island, the collection was displayed locally for a brief period and then sold to a passing ship captain who brought them to the Scottish mainland. They were sold in two different batches, splitting the set up. This split has caused much controversy in the recent past as the Scottish and British museums that hold the pieces vie to consolidate the collection to a single display; each side wants the entirety of the collection for themselves.
Despite the differences on who should own the collection, there is currently a exhibit with 30 of the pieces form both the British and Scottish sets. The exhibition is traveling throughout Scotland for 18 months. We got to see them at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh where they are on display through 19 September 2010. The exhibit shares not only the history of the pieces and their discovery but also a bit of the history of the culture at the time the pieces were made. The exhibit has more than just the pieces on display; there are interactive opportunities as well. In one corner of the room several tables are set up with games to be played by visitors. Chess is there, as expected, but so are other games from the region’s history, including Hnefatafl. I don’t know how to pronounce that name but I learned to play it during a quite relaxing moment that afternoon. Oh, and I won.
The exhibit was also the highlight of or visit to the National Museum of Scotland. The other exhibits we saw – one on telecommunications and another “hands on” gallery for kids – were not particularly great. But the Chessmen were.
Getting to see a major musical act in an airport is definitely a rare experience. Many airports offer music of some sort – I’ve seen performances in Austin and San Diego and probably others I don’t remember – but those shows have been local folks, not Grammy-award winning artists. So when JetBlue announced that Sarah McLachlan would be performing at their flagship JFK T5 terminal in New York City this week it caught my attention. Were I a huge Sarah fan I’d have just purchased a refundable ticket to get past security (and a few folks at the company assumed I would anyways) but I actually didn’t have to.
Thanks to an awesome friend I got an email on Wednesday morning letting me know that I had access to a legitimate ticket. Woo Hoo! Apparently part of my qualification for getting the invite as her +1 was my known willingness to go hang out at the airport for no particular reason. I’m happy that has finally paid off in some manner.
And so it was that I found myself at JFK T5 on Thursday evening, chatting with a whole bunch of folks who had come to the show from near and far, plus all the people who just happened to be connecting through the terminal on their regular flights. There was the family from Queens – father, son, girlfriend and her friend – of which the father was the most excited for the event. Giddy like a schoolgirl doesn’t begin to describe the excitement. Watching him get his copy of the latest CD autographed was awesome, both for how friendly McLachlan was about it and for how happy he was to receive it. There was also the couple from Seattle who won a trip to NYC and Boston to see the shows, including airfare, hotels and seats at the Lilith Fair concert in Boston. Not only were they getting to see one of their favorite artists, they got to do it while celebrating their 5th anniversary this weekend. Good stuff all around.
JetBlue put on a great show, too, with a happy hour set up for the invited guests that was quite nice. A few glasses of wine and some finger food, as well as being basically in the middle of the “back stage” setup during the sound check.
In addition to getting the back stage access we also were able to access the opposite raised platform during the show. It is my normal place in the terminal so I was a little annoyed to see that it had been cleared off for the show, but getting to stand up there during the show made up for that. We were a bit back from the stage but well above everyone and with pretty good views of the performance.
And then, after the performance, Sarah hung out and took photos with fans and signed autographs and was generally just awesome.
Finally, for some reason JetBlue had their JD Power Award statue out in the terminal during the show, along with the bunch of summer interns that were helping work at and getting to attend the concert. Had I not been slowed by the wine earlier in the evening I think I would have had a chance to abscond with it when one of the interns handed it to me to look at. At least I have a photo of me with it and no police record. That cannot be all bad.
They say that bad things come in threes. Southwest Airlines seems to think so, or at least their recent policy changes are playing out that way. First it was the changes to their “travel bank” funds policy. Then there was the claim that mechanical problems aren’t really their fault. And today it is strike three: Many drink coupons will lose their value this weekend.
Southwest has had a VERY lenient policy regarding drink coupons over the years. Most notably was that, although there was an expiration date printed on the coupons, they were always accepted. As of Sunday, August 1, 2010 that will no longer be the case. Starting in the new month no chits will be accepted past their printed expiry date. Additionally, chits that do not have an expiry date printed on them will inherit such a date: August 31, 2011. Finally, the drink coupons that customers receive for buying Business Select fares – the most expensive fares Southwest offers – will now only be valid on the day of travel; they cannot be saved for future use.
There are also some changes expected with the next round of drink chits that get issued. Most notably they have the customer’s name and Rapid Rewards member number printed on them. No word yet from the company on why they will be personalized but it will certainly limit the 3rd party market value of the chits. Selling a drink chit on eBay is much less likely to happen if it has a name and member number on it.
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Airlines generally stack the deck against their customers. Most rules are written such that should anything go wrong, the airline will likely benefit more than the passengers do. In some cases this is reasonable – an airline certainly isn’t responsible for delays caused when weather happens – but in many cases it is not. Historically airlines have accepted that maintenance of their aircraft is something that they are responsible for and that a mechanical failure of a plane is something that they should have avoided in the first place, leaving them on the hook to care for passengers during any associated delay or cancelation.
Southwest has decided to push the envelope on this issue, however, declaring that mechanical failures of their aircraft are force majeure events in their newly revised Contract of Carriage (CoC):
Force Majeure Event means any event outside of Carrier’s control, including, without limitation, acts of God, meteorological events, such as storms, rain, wind, fire, fog, flooding, earthquakes, haze, volcanic eruption or any other event, including, without limitation, government action, disturbances or potentially volatile international conditions, civil commotions, riots, embargoes, wars, or hostilities, whether actual, threatened, or reported, strikes, work stoppage, slowdown, lockout or any other labor related dispute involving or affecting Carrier’s service, mechanical difficulties, Air Traffic Control, the inability to obtain fuel, labor or landing facilities for the flight in question or any fact not reasonably foreseen, anticipated or predicted by Carrier.
Tucked away at the bottom there is the phrase “mechanical difficulties.” Having those two words in this section of the CoC essentially means that Southwest has significantly fewer obligations to their customers now should there be an aircraft breakdown. Southwest is the only major US-based carrier to include that phrase in the force majeure section of their CoC. Maybe this only applies if the whole fleet is affected – think DOT maintenance directive or something similar – but that certainly is not clear from the way the Contract is written. Moreover, there are a number of seemingly conflicting sections in the CoC that Southwest may or may not hold responsibility in the same instance. These gray areas are dangerous territory for customers.
Combined with the move to limit the use of travel credits for canceled reservations, the new Southwest CoC takes a significant step backwards in customer flexibility and care. The airline has made a name for itself in many ways because of the reputation it carries for customer care. These changes portend a very unfortunate change in such customer-focused service.
The rumors surrounding the cabin configuration for Virgin Atlantic’s new Airbus A330 deliveries have been swirling for some time now. Today the company has confirmed that they will take delivery of “the first batch” of the planes with only Premium Economy and Economy cabins. There will be no Upper Class on these planes.
The comment about later A330s including Upper Class is somewhat promising but it is not clear if the aircraft delivered without will be retrofit or if the carrier will be operating some aircraft without their premium cabin. Rumor has it that the Upper Class cabin will not be available because the carrier cannot get the seats they want in time for the initial deliveries. That would suggest that the aircraft will eventually be refit. Then again, the company has reduced the Upper Class capacity on a number of their Boeing 747-400 aircraft suggesting that they are seeing a decline in demand for the product in some markets. Either way, the introduction of aircraft without the premium cabin is not good for folks looking to enjoy the Virgin Upper Class experience.
Assigning a value to points in a loyalty program is always a relative calculation. Each individual will have different uses for their points and the associated value that comes with that usage will necessarily vary. Still, when I read the following email I received from Hilton I was not really expecting the devaluation of the points that they had executed:
Dear Wandering Aramean,
Hilton HHonors supports the National Coalition for the Homeless as they engage in public education, policy advocacy, and grassroots organizing focusing on the following four areas: housing justice, economic justice, health care justice, and civil rights.
If you would like to support the effort, we have arranged for HHonors members to be able to donate points to support this cause.
For every 10,000 points you donate, we’ll send US$25 to the National Coalition for the Homeless. If you would like to join us in supporting this organization in their determination to battle homelessness by donating points, please visit us here.
So what’s the problem? Well 10,000 points are worth more than $25. A lot more. A conservative valuation puts the value at much closer to $50. Buying the points directly from Hilton – a terrible idea in almost every scenario – would cost $100.
So Hilton gets some quality PR from the move, appearing sympathetic to the cause. They also get to take a tax deduction on the value of the donation they make to the charity. And they get to wipe out the value of the points on their books, reducing their financial liabilities. They look good and profit while selling the scheme as charitable.
Last time they tried this scheme – as a response to the Haiti Earthquake – they received so much bad press that they ultimately agreed to match the value of the donations made by their members. This one hasn’t been out long enough to see if such a response is coming but here’s hoping they step up and put a reasonable value back on their points.
I’m happy that the company is publicizing an organization that certainly needs support. But the way they are going about it is not above board. HHonors members who want to support the cause should donate cash directly to the organization – and get the tax deduction directly – and redeem points for your next stay that would have been cash-based. The charity will get more money out of the deal and you’ll still use your points.
Virgin America is suggesting that they intend to offer service to Chicago’s O’Hare airport in early 2011. As part of their announcement of a major aircraft purchase – 40 firm orders and 20 options on Airbus narrow-body planes – the carrier also noted that “We still have a lot of places to expand, but Chicago remains high on the list, as we hope to inject some healthy competition into a market that is still dominated by just a few legacy carriers.”
This may sound all to familiar to fans of the carrier and it should. Virgin America suggested that they’d offer service to Chicago in 2008 as well but ultimately chose not to, citing the inability to acquire gates at the airport. Of course, there were gates available but they were in the international terminal, not the main terminal complex. That would mean an extra tram ride to connect to the main airport facilities in many cases, something that Virgin America did not want to deal with. This time around it is not clear that there are specific gates available to the carrier in the main terminal complex, but there is a caveat in the negotiations.
The airline is negotiating for an “economically viable” deal with O’Hare officials. In other words, if they come up with anything that they don’t like about the negotiations – including the gate arrangements – they can walk away form the discussions. Again.
On the plus side, passengers will get to use an awesome new in-flight map system that Google has developed for the airline’s RED in-flight entertainment system. It shows much higher levels of detail and permits panning, zooming and other features through the touch-screens on the plane.
Following on the approval granted by the EU last week, the US Department of Transportation has approved the request from American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia to have anti-trust immunity on their service in the highly competitive and lucrative transatlantic market. The approval was granted 12 years after AA and BA initially requested such permission and after being denied repeatedly for most of that interim period. The approval is not without conditions, but generally they are minimal compared to the benefits that the airlines will receive from this approval.
The airlines will be required to give up 4 daily slot-pairs at London’s Heathrow airport, two of which will be ear-marked for service between London and Boston. This divestiture requirement is less strict than that required by the EU and significantly less than some competitors, namely Virgin Atlantic, would have liked to see. The DoT dismissed Virgin Atlantic’s concerns rather abruptly,
Furthermore, Virgin Atlantic’s analysis of the constraints at Heathrow airport does not prove that the agreements are anti-competitive and should, therefore, be disapproved. We directly addressed the issue of Heathrow access in the Show-Cause Order. Even though the immunized oneworld members will collectively hold almost half of Heathrow slots, there are still a number of other competitors at Heathrow. There are also some important mitigating factors that Virgin Atlantic does not adequately consider. First, since the provisional application of the U.S.-EU open-skies agreement, at least three major airlines have begun serving the United States from Heathrow, and the overall U.S.-Heathrow market has enjoyed an expansion and diversification of services.27 The new entrants have enhanced competition and will continue to exert competitive discipline in the market when the joint venture is implemented.
The DoT is correct that there have been a number of new entrants into the Heathrow market but those companies have paid a sizable sum for those slots. Moreover, fares have increased significantly in the US-London market. It is not clear that competitive discipline has truly remained even with the competition, and this approval will reduce competition in the market.
Also interesting in the filings is the support that the oneworld partners received from parties who are exposed to potential harm from the move in terms of reduced competition. The Dallas-Ft. Worth airport authority supported the application even though BA and AA are the only carriers offering non-stop service to Heathrow from the airport. The fact that is is a major hub for AA certainly doesn’t hurt the claim, but ultimately both the airport and the DoT are supporting the idea that connecting traffic is sufficient to preclude anti-competition concerns.
As DFW pointed out in its reply, the connecting services available in the nonstop overlap markets discipline the fares charged for nonstop service. For example, in the case of the Dallas/Ft. Worth-London route, which concerned Virgin Atlantic because it will effectively have one competitor in the nonstop market following the transaction, we determined that approximately one-quarter of the passengers already use connecting services in the overall city-pair.
The approval of this request was not at all unexpected, though the very light divestiture requirements are somewhat so. The DoT has previously approved similar deals for SkyTeam and Star Alliance; continuing to deny similar benefits to oneworld would amount to a regulatory competitive disadvantage being applied to the carriers. Fares will be higher in many cases, not lower. It is rare that reducing competition results in anything else; that the DoT can suggest otherwise is disheartening. It is even more confusing when considering the restrictions that the DoT applied to the proposed Delta/US Airways slot swaps which would have similar impact on competition.
The DoT release can be found here and the full report here.
As new aircraft models are launched the airlines often do fun, interesting and new things to attract additional business and help cover the costs of those multi-million dollar pieces of equipment. When the Airbus A380 went into service things like double beds (Singapore Air) and showers (Emirates) came about. With the eventual entry into service of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner there are similar promises of grandeur and benefits being made. Sortof.
Thomson Airways, the UK-based charter/tour operator, is expecting to take delivery of their first 787 in a bit more than 18 months. And they are starting the PR push now. Among the benefits being touted, more legroom in long haul economy that any other European leisure airline, in-flight broadband internet access and aromatherapy fragrances. The carrier also intends to fit the plane with a bar area that will provide, among other things, unlimited fresh fruit smoothies and mineral water.
Yup, all-you-can-drink smoothies. That’s something to look forward to in the air.
For nearly a year now Continental has been offering customers the opportunity to upgrade their tickets to a fare that would get them into the first class cabin. In many cases the cost for that change, particularly for non-elites was somewhat prohibitive, but if the original purchase was expensive enough then the incremental cost to get into the front cabin was not particularly significant. While the up-take on that offer was not incredibly high, the numbers add up across the fleet every day to the point that the revenue realized from this policy was quite significant.
In addition to the above the airline has also been offering non-elites the opportunity to purchase upgrades at a discount to the fare difference on a segment-by-segment basis if all elites were accounted for on the flight. This program has also realized a notable revenue gain for the company but without interfering with the elite upgrade program.
The two programs operated very differently, however, with the fare-up program working on an itinerary basis and the buy-up program working on a per segment basis. This was confusing for customers and Continental employees alike. Starting yesterday the company has made changes to the fare-up program on the day of departure to address this issue.
Here’s the policy as stated in yesterday’s internal documentation:
All customers who check-in at a Continental kiosk, continental.com, or through their mobile devices, will now be offered the opportunity to purchase a fee-based upgrade and secure a seat in First Class when there are more Elite members than unsold seats within 24 hours. Fees will be based on Elite status, market, original fare paid and the applicable first class fare, and additional factors. Upgrades will continue to be processed through EDD.
OnePass Elite customers will be able to view where they stand on the upgrade standby list to determine the option of purchasing the upgrade. Those who choose not to purchase the upgrade will continue to be added to the standby list to be cleared at the gate.
Customers may continue to redeem OnePass miles or pay the difference in fare for upgrades outside of 24 hours.
This change is being made to offer customers the chance to upgrade to unsold seats for a fee. This fee will generate additional revenue for filling a seat that would have otherwise gone empty.
Putting aside the fact that the “Why” section is pretty much wrong – the seats will be going to elites on EUAs in pretty much every case – this change will be standardize the upgrade process to a per-segment system; there will be no more fare-ups for an entire itinerary on the day of departure. The rates will still be determined by the fare difference between the coach and the cheapest eligible forward cabin fare but that difference will now be calculated on a per-segment basis, even for passengers on a connecting itinerary. This change is designed to remove the potential frustration of a customer buying up to a F fare on connecting flights where not all segments are available to upgrade. Customers performing a fare-up change in advance of the day of departure will still be able to upgrade the entire itinerary, assuming there are seats available.
Continental has been very aggressive in marketing these fare-up changes to customers and they have been successful in realizing revenue gains from those efforts. This change will simplify the process on the day of departure. Despite earlier panic that this would mean all passengers would be able to buy cheap upgrades on the day of departure before EUAs were accounted for, that is not the case.