It seems lately that all the discussion fees and airlines involves how annoying they are and how there is no end in sight to what the airlines will think of to charge for. While that is mostly true, there is the occasional positive development on the fee front, where things get better rather than worse. Frontier Airlines announced this week that they are reducing a number of their fees.
Fees covering flight changes ($100->$50), checked baggage ($25->$20 if paid online) and name changes ($100->$50) will all be reduced under the new scheme. So will same-day flight changes at the airport ($50->$25, plus fare difference). And excess bag fees will be standardized across the carrier’s route network ($50).
Definitely still a lot of things customers will be paying fees on, even with the new rules, but in a business market that doesn’t seem keen to remove the fees any time soon, lower is a step in the right direction.
There’s really nothing quick about this trip. The Pan Am Clipper could make it from New York City to Seattle faster than I will. But the itinerary sure is an entertaining one.
It all started when there was a mistake loaded in the routing rules for Continental flights between the two cities. Most fares are limited to non-stop flights only or just a couple connections in a specific sequence. This particular fare, however, had pretty much no rules. If you could dream it – and if you could get a booking engine to process it – then you could connect pretty much anywhere in the Americas en route between the two cities. It was, in Mileage Run terms, a gold mine, particularly given that multi-stop routings are harder and harder to find.
Connections in Bogota, Panama City, Panama and Florida worked. So did connections in Hawaii. And that is how I find myself passing over the Golden Gate Bridge, headed westbound to Honolulu, on my way to Seattle. Some folks managed to be even more creative than I was, with multiple trips between the mainland and Hawaii on the same ticket. Me? I’m settling for a six-segment routing that covers Hawaii, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Illinois.
The look on the ticket agent’s face when I asked her to print my boarding passes was fantastic. As she traced my itinerary segment-by-segment and counted off the connecting cities, each more the wrong direction than the next, the confusion changed to shock and then disbelief. The part where she called me crazy was pretty entertaining, too. And the fact that she’s not wrong doesn’t hurt the situation.
All told, I’m flying somewhere around 12,000 miles instead of the normal ~2,400 miles to get there. Definitely not normal, but for the price it is hard to beat. Most the segments got upgraded and I’ve got power at my seat so I’m getting some work done and relaxing. A friendly group of flight attendants, one of whom recently celebrated her 40th anniversary with the company and who is still hustling up and down the aisles, certainly helps the time pass quickly as well.
Six hours down, thirty to go, and the trip is great so far. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow after a few more hours inside the aluminum tube.
The drive from Santa Maria di Leuca to Gallipoli is relatively easy. At least it appears that way on the maps. And yet, as we drove along the coast of Puglia and tried to make our way up to the port town we struggled. Mightily.
Town after town and turn after turn we followed the signs pointing us towards our intended destination. And for about 10 minutes in the middle of the drive we simply could not get any closer than 14 kilometers. I do not know if it is the Italians having fun at the expense of those who don’t know better or just a quirk that comes with trying to navigate across small back-roads around that region. Or maybe there was some strange geographical quirk where a number of roads ran around a radius from town in a manner that doesn’t make much sense. Hard as we tried, we seemed to make little progress in getting any closer to town.
Eventually we made it, though not without quite a bit of laughter and a few choice words muttered about. Once into town we headed straight to the old city and the marina – the more scenic sections.
The marina and seawall are quite lovely to wander around in. And if you head all the way out to the end of the sea wall there’s an awesome view from the top of a navigational marker.
Of course, you have to be willing to climb up onto the navigational marker to get that view.
The rest of the marina is similarly pretty, with typical small fishing vessels tied up along the docks and various fishing nets and other gear accumulated.
And one not so well parked boat.
Gallipoli was fine and definitely worth passing through as we circumnavigated the heel of Italy, but probably not worth going too far out of the way for. I’m sure there were parts we missed; it was getting late and we wanted to be back in Lecce for dinner so we didn’t really dally.
Read more of our adventures in and around Lecce, Italy, here.
Every now and then a good story comes across the wire of an airline doing something particularly heartfelt and unexpected. A couple months back there was a story making the rounds about a pilot form Southwest that held a flight to allow a man to get to his grandson’s funeral at the last minute. Today’s story comes from Norway, where SAS made some special arrangements to save a woman’s vision.
The flight in question is a milk run up the west coast of Norway (and one that I’ve actually been on), shuttling folks between Trondheim, Alesund, Bergen and Stavanger. This particular aircraft suffered a mechanical failure after the first segment and the operations folks were content to cancel the rest of the flights and book all the passengers on the next plane, 6 hours later.
For one passenger on board, however, that flight was 3 hours too late. She was on her way to Bergen for emergency eye surgery that was necessary to save her vision and the new flight would land three hours later. A couple hours later a replacement aircraft, ferried in from Oslo, was on the ground in Alesund and made a quick turn to get the passengers loaded and on the way to Bergen. The plane arrived in Bergen approximately 25 minutes prior to the surgery and the patient made it to the hospital in time.
We happened upon the cave by accident. We had no idea what we were getting in to and the decision to pull off the road was a snap one made thanks to a simple sign noting that there were caverns at that particular turn. Standing in the mostly empty parking lot I called upon the power of Google to help verify that what we were walking in to was actually worthwhile. I needn’t have worried. The Zinzulusa Grotto is phenomenal.
Just a couple miles north of Castro, Italy, the Zinzulusa Grotto is a Karst cave and is considered to be one of the most important examples of this geologic phenomenon in Italy. The name comes from the word zinzuli, meaning rags. The extensive collection of stalactites that have formed over the years have a similar appearance to rags hanging, hence the name.
The approach to the cave consists of a long set of stairs followed by a walk along the cliff side. The views are quite impressive but pale in comparison to the interior. The stalagmites and stalactites throughout are a mix of boring brown rock and bright colors, toned by the minerals in the water that seeps through the limestone, forming them.
The interior has a long corridor that can be explored as well as large pools of water down below. The pools are brackish, a mix of the Adriatic Sea and underground rivers that flow through the area and which caused the creation of the caved in the first place. In addition to being rather pretty, the pools also house a number of endemic species of aquatic life. During the summer season boats are available for tours at the water level.
Towards the back of the area open for tours is a space known as the Crypt. The ceiling soars 25 meters above the floor level, creating a rather enormous room. The Crypt used to be inhabited by bats; they’ve since left for less trafficked areas, leaving the room open for tourists to enjoy.
The cave was “discovered” in the late 18th century but has only been excavated and open to the public for about 50 years. Amongst the things discovered were vases and votive axes dating back roughly 5,000 years. Pretty amazing.
The excavated part is huge. Only a small portion is open to the public but it is still incredible to walk through the carved out paths that have existed for millennia.
Read more of our adventures in and around Lecce, Italy, here.
Apparently it is the season of producing bad statistical interpretations of the airline industry. First there was the NY Times piece that failed quite notably to account for the primary factors of airfare pricing. And now we have the annual Airline Quality Report and the associated article, America’s Meanest Airlines.
With a headline like that you’re bound to get plenty of readers. What you do not get, however, is a particularly useful analysis of the underlying data. The authors of the AQR describe their research as bettering the historically subjective analysis that had previously existed in the industry. They use objective measures instead. Sortof.
Using the Airline Quality Rating system of weighted averages and monthly performance data in the areas of on-time arrivals, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage, and a combination of 12 customer complaint categories, airlines’ comparative performance for the calendar year of 2010 is reported.
The first three categories are definitely objective, though still skewed as noted below. That last category, not so much. After all, not only must there be a service problem but the customer must also know that they can file a complaint to the DoT and then figure out how to do so. Most customers simply don’t. So while it may be the best data we have, it is not great data in that category.
The researchers also conducted significant surveys to determine how important the 4 categories of statistics are to passengers. On a scale of 1-10 the four categories range between 7.17 and 8.63. That’s not a ton of range, though having a bit of weighting between them is better than nothing I suppose.
But my biggest beef with reporting the results as a meaningful measure of airline quality is that there is rarely statistical significance between the values being compared. This is most noticeable in the "customer complaints" category, where the values range between 0.44 and 2.00 in this year’s results. That’s the number of complaints per 100,000 passengers. Suggesting that such a tiny variation across such a large user population matter is a specious claim, yet it represents nearly 20% of the value of the AQR score, sortof.
On-time performance has the broadest spread – from 75.7 – 92.5% – and also gets the highest weighting (and then some, as noted below).
The spread on mishandled baggage for mainline carriers is between 1.63 and 3.49 instances per 1,000 passengers. This can either be reported as one being twice as bad or both being incredibly good; it is all about how sensational you want the headline to be. And whether one regularly check bags or not probably skews the value of this metric. Priority baggage handling (and no fees) for elite passengers also probably skews the importance of this factor more in recent years than in the past, though the weighting has remained constant.
The variance for involuntary denied boarding is 0-2.26 instances per 10,000 mainline passengers. It would certainly suck if you’re one of the two, but it is not clear that there is sufficient statistical within that range to discern that one carrier is better than another.
The most common category for customer complaints in each of the 12 months is "Flight Problems." This category covers "cancellations, delays and other deviations from schedule" which seems to be quite similar to on-time performance ratings. I happen to agree that getting where I’m going, hopefully close to on-time, is important, but not so much so that it is worth giving it extra weight above and beyond the established 8.63 weighting. With nearly 30% of the complaints in this category they are effectively worth an extra 2.4 points.
The second highest ranking category of complaints in 10/12 months was baggage related. This is on top of the wholly dedicated missing baggage category in the formula. Similar to the on-time performance numbers above, this results in baggage receiving an extra 1.14 points of significance in the scoring.
At the end of the day, the fact that they’re using consistent calculations and mostly objective numbers means that tracking trends is viable. The question is what the value of those trends really is. Sadly, in this case, the reporting is trending towards the sensationalistic rather than observing statistically significant variances. But these guys get a lot of press and the airlines who win tend to brag about it. I guess objective analysis is overrated.
Read the AQR report here (PDF!).
I’ve written a few good things about US Airways this week, both related to their Dividend Miles loyalty program and their in-flight product. Indeed, it seems that the folks out in Tempe are finally starting to regroup and do what they can to build their company back up into a top-notch travel experience provider. At least that’s what I thought at the time. It turns out maybe that isn’t really the case.
Apparently they have decided that the 1,000 miles they promised folks on Monday – with the tag "They’re waiting in your account!" – was an error. The miles were not actually in the accounts. That part we already knew. The somewhat surprising part, however, is that they apparently never will be.
A number of Dividend Miles members are receiving follow-up emails today with this text:
Earlier this week, we inadvertently delivered an email message to many of our Dividend Miles members’ email accounts. Unfortunately, one of those accounts was yours. Worse, this email incorrectly stated that we posted 1,000 Dividend Miles into your account. This was not accurate and the email message was sent in error.
We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused you and appreciate your understanding.
I know that the miles are a liability on the books and it would suck to bear that. But this is not the way you attract customers. It definitely is not the way to make folks loyal to your brand.
I have no idea if my account is one that was a mistake or not. I guess I’ll just have to wait to see if the miles ever show up. Easy come, easy go. Both with the miles and loyalty these days it would seem.
There are two things I concern myself with on every airport arrival: cash and transportation. Getting some money in the local currency – preferably from an ATM machine – and finding my way into town or to my hotel – preferably on public transit – are key. Unfortunately for visitors, these tasks are not nearly as easy as they should be at South Africa‘s international gateway airport.
Sure, it looks easy enough. Just like most every other airport in the world there are money changers right outside the customs call when you arrive. But unlike most airports those money changers do not have ATMs attached. Indeed, there are no ATMs at all to be found on the arrivals level in the airport. The money change facilities all advertise “ATM Services” but you’re still almost certain to get hosed on the exchange rate. No thanks.
The key to getting cash is to head upstairs. More or less directly above the doors from which one exits customs there are ATM machines from a number of banks available. This is a WAY better deal than changing money with the folks on the ground floor and is well worth the escalator ride. It also happens to give a nice view of the arrivals hall, which is rather pretty.
Next up is finding your way into town. For me that meant a ride to Sandton on the Gautrain rail system. Finding the train platform is pretty easy – just keep heading up and follow the signs to the train.
A round-trip fare from the airport to Sandton is 200 Rand (~$30 USD at time of writing). In addition, you have to purchase the smart card that the train system uses for fare collection and debit for an extra 10 Rand. This souvenir is yours to keep. Check out the attached video for the step-by-step instructions in this video for making the purchase.
The trains are pretty new and quite a comfortable ride. As we rolled through the farms surrounding the airport, speeding past the traffic jams, I was quite happy that the Gautrain option existed. At only 25 minutes or so each way to Sandton, with several trains each hour it really is the best way to get between the airport and town.
You’ll be in Nelson Mandela Square (and likely just as disappointed by it as I was) in no time.
Among the many announcements made at Wednesday’s US Airways Media Day was the introduction of a first class cabin on their larger regional jets. These aircraft are increasingly flying longer stages and carrying more passengers for the airlines, often in rather cramped environs. Adding a few first class seats opens up the possibility for elite upgrades or just buying the bigger seat for folks who roll that way.
Certainly offering a better in-flight experience is a good thing for the customer and can help drive demand for the product. And frequent flyer guru Randy Petersen suggests that the move may be coming now based on the aircraft being scheduled for an interior clean-up/retrofit this year anyways. But is it possible that there is another motivation for this move?
On the supply side of the market the airlines are struggling to control capacity, especially as oil prices are rising. Even in the face of some markets growing (see American Airlines’s move from Monday) the airlines are trying to keep capacity growth under control. This plan definitely helps with that. These planes fly more than the larger mainline aircraft and reducing their total capacity will definitely help keep the numbers down. Overall it is nearly 700 seats being removed from the fleet, roughly 7.5% of the total seats in the large RJ market. Taking out a couple seats here and there adds up quick when the planes don’t have many to begin with.
So it seems like a good move for everyone involved, at least until we discover the impact that the reduced capacity has on airfares.
There was a time that the American Express Platinum Charge Card was a tremendous value for road warriors. The list of benefits was impressive, from airport lounges to point accrual to other perks, like concierge service. And the benefits covered a broad chunk of the travel landscape.
In recent years, however, the shine has started to fade. Some of it was little things, like the concierge service effectively becoming an operator with OpenTable and Google trying to find stuff that might work. There were some big things, too, like partners dropping out of the Membership Rewards program at an alarming pace. Sure, some others showed up, but the value was slipping. When AmEx raised their foreign exchange fees to 2.7% that was yet another reason to keep the card in my wallet rather than whip it out as I wandered the globe; the points just aren’t worth paying that much extra for on every transaction, especially when better cards offer 0% f/x rates.
The final nail in the coffin seemed to be the decision by Continental to withdraw from the Membership Rewards and Airport Lounge programs. This move was announced back in September 2010 and it isn’t much of a surprise considering how tightly Continental has been tied to Chase in recent years. They even have their own premium credit card that includes lounge membership and some other travel benefits, and a similarly high annual fee.
And then AmEx was mostly quiet. There have been some ads and AmEx has shrink-wrapped the AirTrain at Newark touting the features of their Membership Rewards program to its customers at Continental’s hub. But the actual feature set hadn’t really gone anywhere useful. Until now.
First off, the end of foreign exchange fees finally happened. It was promised months ago in competitive response to Chase, Citi and a couple other issuers. Fortunately it has finally happened.
There is also the $200 “fee” credit that can be assigned to any one airline. Designated to offset baggage, food or other fees during a trip, this is a pretty sweet deal. It is not without fine print, but for the most part it is a solid benefit.
To address the lounge issue AmEx added US Airways as a partner last July. That was pretty good, but not so useful for international travel. That move was trumped by the addition this week of Priority Pass Select membership for card holders. The access is
only for the primary card holder, not for guests and not for additional gold card holders, but it is still a pretty solid benefit, particularly overseas.
And, just for kicks, AmEx is also giving card holders free enrollment in the Global Entry program. This last one is actually the benefit I’ll probably get the most value out of. Sure, it is only $100, but I almost certainly wouldn’t have paid it myself given that I have not yet had a long line experience where it would have mattered.
Overall, it seems that AmEx really is trying to step up and provide value for the $450 annual fee. I’ve carried the card for nine years now and each year I say that I’ll cancel unless the value is there. They’ve still got me paying and these moves just ensured another year of fees. If I was only ever flying on Continental/United Airlines it would be a harder decision to make. But since I have options and I do fly with other carriers it is an easy one for me. At least this year.
For more details from AmEx on the card benefits check out their new site here.
And if you do not have an AmEx Platinum yet but are intrigued by the possibilities, you can apply for one here. It comes with 50K points for only $1000 spend in the first three months, which pretty much offsets the annual fee, and that’s before you get in to any of the benefits noted above. Definitely worth a look these days.