Everyone has a theory on what the best method is for boarding an airplane. Back to front, outside in and random are just a few of the commonly used methods by airlines. And there is no shortage of opinions – both from customers and the carriers – on which is best. Add to the list of folks with an opinion Dr. Jason Steffen. His new method is now being touted as a means to improve boarding times by up to 40%.
The Steffen Method suggests boarding from the outside in (windows first) but also by sequencing passengers back to front and skipping rows along the way. Essentially it creates a system where customers don’t get in the way of each other while in the aisle. That approach eliminates the battles in the aisle as customers put their bags away and take their seats. It looks like this:
Rather than just running computer simulations these researchers actually put the design to test in an almost real-world environment. Sortof. They rented out a movie studio’s 757 mock-up that includes 12 rows of seats. The hired 72 locals to board the plane in 5 different ways and timed the results. In the end the numbers look like this:
So, yes, the Steffen method is fastest, assuming you can get folks to line up in order. But that simply doesn’t happen.
Only Southwest has a boarding where passengers have a specific sequence number rather than just being in a group. The Southwest policy can be best approximated as the "Random" method in the study, though the Random method still had assigned seating so it still doesn’t really map. The authors of the study do acknowledge this, suggesting that without assigned seats the passengers would likely self-select seats that reduce the interference instances and speeding things up.
Block boarding – the historical model of loading passengers in sets of rows back to front – is incredibly inefficient in the manner most airlines implement it. As noted in the study:
Clearly, boarding in blocks of four rows does not help the enplaning process. Blocks of 12 rows, on the other hand, clearly does—the difference between back to front and random boarding (almost 90 seconds) shows this…. [O]nly other considerations would serve to justify its use.
Ultimately none of the results in the studies surprise me. Alaska Airlines recently stated that they found their current boarding process notably less efficient than alternatives but that they also found they could not change to the more efficient means due to the need to provide priority boarding to certain customers. While the study had three parent-child pairs which always boarded first, most airlines who pre-board any group of customers have a much higher percentage of the total number in that pre-boarding group.
And it is those passengers – namely elites – who ultimately ruin the statistics for everyone.
By boarding the elite customers who are scattered throughout the cabin in an inefficient manner the process effectively becomes the equivalent of two or three random boarding groups and then another boarding by whichever policy the particular airline subscribes to. By mixing the boarding styles even greater inefficiencies are introduced into the process.
I would be more interested in the results if the aircraft size being simulated was closer to that of an actual commercial plane. I’d also be more interested if they bothered to include the concept of elite boarding in the process since it seems highly unlikely that will ever go away. In the meantime, however, this certainly makes for a bit of interesting reading.
Check out the full report here (PDF).
Box seats for opening night at the US Open tennis tournament in Flushing, New York. Not a bad deal if you can swing it. And I almost didn’t bother to show up.
Starwood and their social media marketing team held contests via Twitter and FaceBook to give away the seats in their box for opening night. I don’t really follow the hotel programs so much so I didn’t even know the contest was going on. I found out about it quite quickly last Thursday when a friend announced that he had won. Said friend isn’t in New York and couldn’t use them and didn’t want them to go to waste. Fortunately I was available to help out on that front.
Thanks to Hurricane Irene the FedEx delivery of the tickets didn’t work out so well but that’s what Will Call is for, right? How hard could that be? Apparently harder than I thought as they left one ticket for me and one for my wife who ended up not coming. A friend did instead. Convincing the ticket agent to let me sign for her ticket was quite a challenge (even the SPG rep had trouble) but eventually we got that sorted as well and finally made it into the stadium.
I love the USTA facility.
There isn’t a bad seat anywhere on the property. The smaller courts offer up close and personal views of the action, especially in the early rounds. And the sight lines in Arthur Ashe Court are phenomenal from every seat. That said, the SPG box seats are incredible.
|Great views of the opening round women’s match from the SPG box seats.
The box seats also had us directly adjacent to the President’s Box area of the stadium. That was great for celebrity spotting. Alec Baldwin and Tony Bennett were among the stars out for the festivities. Lots of fun.
|Views from the 300-level seats aren’t so bad either. I stopped by to visit a friend up there.
As I mentioned above, I almost didn’t show up for the night. I wasn’t particularly keen on heading out to Flushing on my own. Fortunately I found someone at the office who was willing to go with me. That contributed to part of the problem with picking up the tickets at Will Call, but it was way better to have gone than not.
|Some of the goodies provided by SPG at the event. There was a full Westin toiletry kit, too.
We also got to experience the inanity that is security at the USTA. No laptops are permitted, unless you are a credentialed sponsor. Ditto for metal water bottles. It wasn’t that there was water in it, but that it was metal. Go figure. Fortunately we had the SPG sponsor with us and she was able to bring my stuff in for me.
The tennis was a lot of fun to watch and all that much better thanks to the food and beverage provided and the great seats. Plus, they managed to maintain the brand standards in the bathroom, with Westin amenities on offer. I didn’t see the loofa though.
Overall, a wonderful event and very well managed by the folks at Starwood. Thanks for the great time!
The announcement that the merged United Airlines would be keeping the legacy Continental CRS system – SHARES – was made a few months back. Not particularly surprising given the lower licensing costs and the lower customization costs for the product going forward. When this decision was announced it was also suggested that the migration would include integration with a new front-end interface, similar to the FastAir interface that United has been using for many years now. Apparently that plan isn’t working out so well.
I’ve now received reports from two different sources indicating that the development on the replacement GUI software is significantly behind schedule and the migration date for the server-side systems is not slipping to match it. The net result is that United front-line employees will be switching back to a command-line interface to manage most transactions, switching away from the current Windows-based system.
|Buh-bye, pretty GUI (This is a generic shot, not the FastAir system)
Reservations agents are expected to migrate to the EZR system which does provide GUI access to the GDS. It is only the airport agents that will be stuck with the old terminal interface.
Such a change in operational software, regardless of the amount of training provided, will result in a pretty messy consumer experience. The change is expected to happen either late this year or early next, with "native SHARES in use for several months." It will ultimately be replaced with a home-grown GUI that will interface with SHARES but it will apparently be several months before this is available for the agents to use. That is not good for customers.
This news certainly makes me wonder if maybe former CIO Keith Halbert was right to jump ship earlier this year. He tried an end-run to keep Apollo, even after SHARES was announced as the new platform, and it cost him his job. If he saw things like this on the horizon that might not have been such a horrible move, though I still think the way he did it was pretty stupid.
All flights are cancelled. So are buses and trains. But you already knew that. Still, as a blog that is supposed to be focused on travel I figured that starting with the relevant bits was useful.
Beyond that, New York City is eerie tonight. Walking around the Meatpacking District at 9:30pm on a Saturday night and, at times, being the only person I could see on the streets was just plain strange. There were a a surprisingly high number of emergency services cars out and taxis rolling through from time to time. But very few people actually out on the streets.
I was also fortunate to find a local bar that was still open tonight. Apparently they were all supposed to close at 9pm but at least one was still serving. Kitchen was closed, but the taps were flowing quite well. And nights like this are when you truly bond with the other patrons at the bar. Needless to say, the folks out tonight were having a blast, self included.
The alarm is set to get up early tomorrow and watch the tide – and storm surge – roll in. It will be interesting to see how things develop up here. Hopefully the apartment doesn’t flood too badly.
Click on the pictures for larger versions and more images from the ‘hood tonight.
American Airlines announced yesterday that they have expanded their Preferred Seating product offering. While this is being spun as making more seats available to all customers they are conveniently overlooking the part where such availability comes at a price – starting at $4 per seat per segment. This paid option starts at the 24-hour check-in window and will be available throughout the check-in period.
For customers interested in select aisle and window seats near the front of the main cabin, Preferred Seats are available for purchase as early as 24 hours prior to departure with prices beginning at $4 USD per flight.
Taking a look at a seat map for a flight with no customers yet booked one can get some ideas of what the seating options are. The forward two-thirds of the aircraft no longer offers aisle or window seats for free to non-premium passengers. That’s pretty rough. The MD80s are actually worse than the 737-800s, I think, as the two seat side is pretty much entirely blocked. There are significantly fewer free aisle or window seats available.
American is quick to point out that passengers choosing to not pay for a seat assignment will be given one for free. If there are still middle seats left to be assigned those will likely be the free ones. The company also points out that not all blocked seats are Preferred. Some are Preferred Plus, reserved only for elites and full fare customers. So the fee a non-elite pays for a seat assignment doesn’t even necessarily get them a particularly great seat.
The company is also advertising that active-duty military get free access to these Preferred seats. The fine print suggests that might actually only apply when they are ticketed on military fares, but it is not clear how this will actually apply at the airports.
Lest folks think that only non-elites are losing out here, it seems that elites are actually losing in some scenarios. Yes, they now get complimentary access to more seats (including bulkheads) which is a benefit, but they are also losing the ability to have companions on a separate reservation granted the good seats for free. That’s not so great.
Finally, there is one awesomely awful quirk in the new policy with respect to award tickets. While AAnytime Award tickets (double miles) are considered premium and will get the seats for free the same cannot be said for MileSAAver level (normal rates) tickets. In fact, these tickets are expressly ineligible for even paying for the seats.
We’re excited to provide you with even more options to customize your travel experience based on your needs.
Apparently paying more for the exact same seat assignment is a great new option for customers. I’m not buying it.
I’ve been feeling a bit unwell this afternoon and I wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe because of the rain currently coming down outside. Or because of the impending doom from hurricane Irene coming to visit this weekend. Or any of a number of other reasons.
Then I got an email from Continental reminding me that I had registered for their OnePass Auctions website. So I clicked on the link to see the special deals they were offering. This is what I saw:
No wonder I feel ill.
The 32GB WiFi-only iPad 2 is a $600 device. At a penny per point (generally accepted as the baseline price for valuation) the price is currently almost triple what the retail price of the device is. And it will certainly increase in the next 20 days. Ludicrous. I know that plenty of people have plenty of miles that they see as relatively worthless and so they do things like this to unload them rather than spending cash. But it still hurts.
Seriously, folks, if you find yourself in this sort of position drop me a line. I’m sure we can come up with a better way to spend those points.
Given a few days bumming around in Cape Town, South Africa, there were several different tours of the Cape on the itinerary. One of the trips was a bit more special than the others, mostly because it was run at 2500 feet above ground in a helicopter. Yes, the tour was a bit pricey (~$320/person for the hour-long flight), but it was an awesome way to see the area and a ton of fun.
We started off at the Helicopters Cape Town offices adjacent to the V&A Waterfront. This is the main tourist area downtown and offers up the infrastructure to support the tour operations. The crew working there were friendly and fun and quite accommodating of our rather ridiculous behavior. After watching the safety video and signing away our lives on the waiver form it was time to head out to the helicopter and go for a ride.
Taking off over the harbor we flew down the western coast of the Cape, past Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and the other peaks dotting the coast line.
As we approached Hout Bay we crossed over a bit of land and then made our run at the tip of the continent. The beaches and coast line in this area is mostly national park lands and rather well managed. This leaves them in a pristine state. Gaining access on the ground to many of them is quite difficult but they are stunning from above.
We also passed by a beach with some folks riding horses along the shore and a beach with a shipwreck right in the middle. Apparently the captain thought that he was pulling into False Bay and missed. The outline of the wreck in the sand is pretty cool.
The next stop on the tour was the Cape itself. The chunk of rock jutting out into the ocean is rather impressive. Seeing it from above is awesome.
After circling around there for a bit we headed up the eastern side of the Cape back towards town. Once again, amazing views along the coast line. The inside of the Cape is more populated and that created a rather different set of scenery as we flew along. At one point we crossed near a military base. Apparently they are known for running training missions from time to time firing shells out into the sea. Or our pilot was just having some fun with us. Either way, an entertaining story.
Finally, we made our approach to land. Being the aerogeeks that we are, and because we were given the option, we chose to have the flight end at our hotel rather than back up at the waterfront. Mostly because it is cool but also to save the 30 minute drive back after the flight. Needless to say, the folks playing golf on the course adjacent to where we landed were a bit annoyed. But it sure was nice landing about 100 feet from the room.
Overall, a fantastic experience and one that I’m quite happy I let myself be talked into.
For many months now the rumor mill was been swirling with thoughts on changes to the lifetime elite status program offered by American Airlines‘ AAdvantage program. Today those rumors – most of which were accurate – are laid to rest as the company has announced the details of their new lifetime qualification requirements and benefit levels. The new rules go into effect on December 1, 2011.
First up, the qualification requirements:
Base miles earned by flying on American Airlines, American Eagle® or the AmericanConnection® carrier or any eligible AAdvantage program participating airline will count towards Million Miler status. Also, as a limited time offer, one mile for every dollar spent on eligible purchases using the new Citi ExecutiveSM / AAdvantage® World Elite™ MasterCard® credit card that post to billing statements through December 2012 will count toward Million Miler status*. The Citi ExecutiveSM / AAdvantage® World Elite™ MasterCard® credit card account must be open and in good standing by December 1, 2011.
Second, the benefits for reaching those levels:
- At 1,000,000 Million Miler miles, AAdvantage members will receive lifetime AAdvantage Gold® status and 35,000 AAdvantage bonus miles (which, as you know, can be exchanged for eight 500-mile upgrades if that’s what you prefer)
- At 2,000,000 Million Miler miles, AAdvantage members will receive lifetime AAdvantage Platinum® status and four one-way systemwide upgrades
- At each additional Million Miler mile mark, AAdvantage members will receive four additional one-way systemwide upgrades
Finally, any points accrued to your lifetime balance prior to the rules change will still be there.
As noted above, these changes do not come as much of a surprise to anyone paying attention to the program recently. And the changes bring the program much more in line with their competition. That’s not necessarily a good thing for consumers, particularly as previously American offered the easiest qualification to lifetime status of any program out there. Still, it is not hard to understand their desire to move in this direction based on the costs of servicing the ever growing elite population. AAdvantage President Maya Leibman commented to that point rather explicitly in a round table discussion in April.
The qualification options are still reasonable, however, including base miles flown on all AAdvantage airline partners, not just oneworld partners. It does not, however, include any class of service bonus points that might be accrued for flying in premium cabins or on full-fare tickets.
There is also a one year window for earning points on the credit card, assuming you have the right card and the account was open prior to the rules changing on December 1, 2011. The AA American Express cards are excluded from this earning.
Overall, the program is still reasonably competitive. Not nearly as lucrative as it used to be, but also not horrible. And there has been a decent amount of notice provided prior to the downgrade.
Not a great day for folks trying to be lifetime elite on AA without flying, to be sure, but I can think of many ways it could have been worse.
Update (5:33pm EDT 24 Aug 11):
I just realized that only the $450 annual fee credit card gets the spend to still count. Comparable to Continental and their top-end card, though still likely too pricey to justify. I guess it is a bit worse than I previously thought.
I do a decent amount of shopping online. Not a ton, but a decent amount. And, if I were truly dedicated to maximizing every single points and miles earning opportunity I’d do a bunch of research, figure out which online shopping mall give the best value for my spend and then funnel all my shopping through the appropriate site(s). The reality of is that I simply do not bother. Why not? Because the online malls simply aren’t worth it to me.
Yes, I’m giving up some theoretical number of points. But I like that I don’t have to jump through hoops. And I like that I don’t have to keep track of order status emails and following up with the companies to make sure that I’m actually getting the points I’m due. It is this last bit, actually that inspired my post on the topic. It turns out that these online malls are more like shell games than anything resembling respectable operations, and a recent experience by a few frequent fliers is bearing this out in excruciating detail.
Let us first take a look at how the transaction appears to the consumer:
Seems pretty simple, right? But there is actually a lot more going on in the background.
For starters, there are the affiliate marketing programs that come into play. These are the folks who arrange to manage the data traffic between the merchants and the affiliate marketers. Basically the merchants do not want to manage hundreds of thousands of different partners so they pay a tiny slice of the transaction to the affiliate marketing folks for handling those relationships, including paying out the commission when it is due.
Next up are the affiliate managers. In a few cases this is the loyalty program itself. More often, however, there is a third party involved. For reasons similar to why the merchants don’t want to manage all the folks doing the selling, the loyalty programs do not want to manage the different merchants or even affiliate marketing programs they will be dealing with. So they farm that bit out to someone who takes care of the details. In exchange for a small slice of the action, of course.
And then there are the folks managing the mall technology itself. There are a few major players in this market. SkyMall, Points.com and Cartera are the biggest names; there are a few other smaller players, too. These companies run the websites that are branded with the loyalty program names and logos, ensuring that the systems are running smoothly.
Generally speaking the loyalty programs will strike a deal with a mall operator to run the site for them. That operator may partner with an affiliate management company or they may run that functionality in-house. That group then works with the affiliate marketing company to handle the financial and legal arrangements that allow the malls to operate in compliance with all the affiliate marketing policies. When the time comes to deliver points to the consumer the mall operator will pay the loyalty program the necessary funds to cover the bulk volume of points that need to be delivered to consumers.
So it looks a bit more like this:
It is pretty easy to see how there are so many places where things can go wrong. And things do go wrong with these programs all the time. More often than not it is a few customers who do not get a bonus or something like that. But every now and then a more significant issue comes to light.
A couple weeks ago the American Airlines mall, operated by Cartera Commerce, had an offer posted for 83,000 AAdvantage miles for making a $5 purchase. Never mind that the T&C for that partner clearly excluded the object being advertised from earning any points; the offer was there and a number of people tried to make a go of it. Most anyone looking at that offer would immediately recognize that it was a mistake to have that number listed that way, but many bought anyways, hoping to win big.
The orders shipped, but credit will not be forthcoming. American points the finger at Cartera, saying that fulfillment is their responsibility. Cartera hides behind their T&C, saying that they owe nothing to anyone most likely because, among other things, they won’t actually earn a commission on the sales. And the merchant, Verizon Wireless, ships all the orders anyways, collecting the cash from the consumers. A bit of a mess, but not nearly as crazy as some can be.
A few months ago there was an offer available to earn several thousand miles in either the Hawaiian or US Airways programs for signing up with a web hosting company. The circumstances were somewhat similar to the AA deal in that the number of points promised was wholly out of line with the price of the transaction that would net those points. But the deal was also online for an extended period of time, not just a couple hours. So maybe it wasn’t so crazy. Just like with the AA deal a bunch of folks got in on it, buying the product in hopes of winning big. And I have it on reasonably solid authority that the outstanding mileage liability number has quite a few zeros on it. But no one is willing to actually pay out the miles supposedly earnt.
So who is on the hook for delivering the miles?
Once again, the airlines are pointing the finger at the mall operator. In the case of Hawaiian the operator is FreeCause. In the case of US Airways the operator is SkyMall but they contract out the affiliate management to FreeCause as well. The merchant claims they have no liability because they only pay out cash commissions, not points, and they only pay those on specific types of transactions made under certain terms. I can see the current rules for them as a merchant and this type of transaction would absolutely not qualify, but I have no idea when those rules were last changed. Still, at best the only thing that the merchant can be compelled to pay is the commission to the company that drove the sale.
Sitting smack in the middle of the crosshairs is FreeCause. They are the folks that were responsible for managing the affiliate relationship and understanding the obligations they have for generating the sales and what the commission would be. They also set the bonus numbers based on their expected revenue models. And now they’re the ones claiming "whoopsie" because they messed up.
Of course, stuck in the middle are the consumers. The folks that spent their money, based on marketing offers made under the banner of the loyalty programs, are out the cash and also out the points. And no one is willing to take their calls. Hardly seems fair, right?
This is simply another case of over-promising and under-delivering by the loyalty programs, much like how the airlines love to market regional flights as their own, right up until things go bad, at which point the regional carrier is on the hook. Sure, they can turn around and blame someone else. And legally they’re probably in the right to do so. But that doesn’t excuse the failure to deliver. Especially not when they are using their brand name to generate the sales..
Shame on the airlines for not delivering. Yeah, it will cost them some cash, but they put their name out there and vouched for the legitimacy of these portals. They have to stand up and take the hit when the operations don’t go to plan.
Outsourcing the operations is not carte blanche to outsource responsibility, too. And I just don’t have the energy to pick this fight.
Some additional commentary on the topic from Gary can be found here:
It seems that in-flight entertainment and connectivity provider LiveTV just cannot catch a break in getting their in-flight internet product to a deliverable state. First there was the Kiteline product, built on the back of the old Airfone bandwidth spectrum and only ever live on a single plane. That project fell apart when they were unable to get a functional antenna produced for a wider install. From there they moved on to a satellite-based solution, promising higher speeds and lower operating costs. Assuming they can get it in the air.
|JetBlue‘s BetBlue, the only commercial plane to fly with the LiveTV Kiteline internet service in operation.
That effort hit a speed bump this week when International Launch Services (ILS), the company tasked with sending the necessary satellite from partner ViaSat into space this year, suffered a failure on Sunday when attempting to launch the Ekspress-AM4 communications satellite. Neither that launch nor that satellite are directly related to the ViaSat efforts, but the failure likely means a full stand-down of ILS’s operations until they can figure out what happened and how to prevent it. Given that the ViaSat launch has already been postponed due to "scheduling conflicts with other priority launches" it seems that having the launch date slip again wouldn’t be all that hard to imagine. When the project was originally announced the intended launch date was "early 2011."
On the plus side, the folks at ViaSat are saying that they do not expect this potential delay to impact the LiveTV rollout as they weren’t planning on having any aircraft equipped until early 2012 anyways. But with the rather checkered history of this bird (it was damaged earlier in the year while being transported for testing) and the ongoing delays – plus the rather suspect track record of LiveTV in delivering – it is hard to have a ton of faith in the previously announced timeline.