JetBlue has big plans for Fly-Fi, their in-flight internet service. The carrier has been working for the past couple years to get the Ka-band satellite service up and running and they’re in the home stretch, with one plane fitted and awaiting FAA approval for test flights and, eventually, formal certification. And while they might not be flying yet, that doesn’t mean that the service isn’t being tested. Thanks to this modified test truck the company is able to test the connectivity and performance from a moving vehicle.
Sure, it isn’t an Airbus A320 cruising at 35,000 feet, but it gets the job done, at least for now.
The excede product from ViaSat is known to be reliable and functional for stationary transceivers; the big leap for JetBlue, LiveTV and ViaSat is ensuring that the system remains stable when the dish is moving. This custom rig lets the companies test their operations at highway speeds. The test rig previously spent some time on the west coast and it is now doing a tour of duty in central Florida, near the LiveTV headquarters.
The company still expects to have the system flying by mid-year on their planes. United Airlines will also be using the system on part of their fleet.
I was only a bit surprised to find a wide range of choices available for award flights from New York to Northern Germany in mid-March. After all, it is the middle of winter and most spring break folks are headed to sun and surf or other more traditional destinations. We had our choice of the non-stop United flight to Hamburg or taking a connection in Frankfurt and flying in to Hannover. Given our initial destination of Hildesheim is much closer to Hannover, plus the better flight time (9pm departure rather than 5:30pm) I figured we’d take the extra travel time. Plus it meant I’d get to experience Singapore Air in their economy cabin, rounding out the full set (I did suites a couple months ago and business a year ago). So, thanks to some MileagePlus points I got us booked on JFK-FRA-HAJ with a reasonable layover in Frankfurt for breakfast and a shower in the Senator Lounge.
We got to JFK a bit early so that we could have dinner. We considered the options in the Swiss lounge in T4 and quickly decided to have a real dinner instead. There is a branch of The Palm in the terminal and, despite some previous bad experiences with other airport steakhouses, we gave it a go. Mostly because it was the only reasonable meal option there. And it was surprisingly good. It was helped by our waitress Victoria who was old-school NYC in a good way. But the food was also quite tasty. And by virtue of sitting there rather than in the lounge we got to see this guy and his sparkly backpack. All sorts of good happening there.
Once on board we were treated to the bonus of having the middle seat between us empty. We almost got lie-flat coach but I was slow to jump into the seat across the aisle. Yeah, loads were light. That was good because the space on board isn’t particularly generous down the back of the plane. There is a foot rest which mostly just got in my way, preventing me from extending my legs under the seat in front of me. And the seats are the articulating ones so the recline slides the bottom forward a bit. Reclining decreases legroom. Yuck.
On the plus side, economy class got amenity kits (socks & a toothbrush) and earplugs/eye mask were available on request from the flight attendants. Also, free drinks with the dinner service, though it was really only beer & wine. Liquor was available but not on the drink cart so the delay in having the FA go to the galley to get it made it a rather unappealing option. The meal was OK. Nothing special, really, either good or bad. I suppose that’s about all one can really hope for in coach these days.
On the plus side, Singapore has quite a selection of movies loaded up on their IFE systems. Most were relatively new releases but there were a few from the archives as well. It took three reboots for my IFE to actually work properly (others around me had similar troubles) but once it got working it was pretty good. The in-flight internet was not working, making me 0/2 on trying that product out with Singapore Air. I’m happy my plan was to sleep and not be working.
Oh, and just because I can, a laviator shot on board showing off my RouteHappy shirt.
Overall I’d say that the timing of the SQ flight was still better than the UA option I had. But seat comfort would have been better on United, especially vis a vis personal space since I can get EconomyPlus for free. The meal was maybe a smidgen better on Singapore Air but with the later departure that matters less. And United’s IFE selection is sufficient for my tastes, maybe even better if you like the classics more than current cinema. In premium cabins there are a many more reasons to favor Singapore Air over United. In economy I’m not so sure about that choice. Especially if you’ve got elite status.
The fact that a few United Airlines Airbus A319 aircraft have the Panasonic in-flight internet kit installed is not much of a secret. The carrier has been reasonably open about the fact that the type is getting the gear installed these days. But there haven’t been any more details released. No word on exactly when the carrier expects to formally launch the service. No word on pricing. Basically no word.
A member on FlyerTalk has indicated that a flight today indicated that they were posting on the site while in-flight on one of the A319s. Based on the time of the post and the route listed it would appear that the service actually is live on ship 4002 a/k/a N802UA. There were apparently two advertised prices for the quick 3 hour flight from Houston to Washington, DC, $6.99 or $9.99 with different speeds offered as well, though not much on details there either.
The United website doesn’t indicate that this frame has in-flight connectivity yet. And I haven’t found the STC approval in the FAA database yet. But at least one person was able to use it. That’s a great step forward.
UPDATE: FlightAware shows the aircraft on the ground in O’Hare for 20 days at the end of November. That seems like when the install happened.
Nine months after activating a satellite-based internet service on their A380 fleet flying between Australia and the United States Qantas shut down the service this past weekend. Apparently usage was not sufficient to justify the costs of operating the systems. In a statement the airline indicated that the usage rate was less than 5 percent over the trial period. The company believes that this limited adoption is mostly attributed to the timing of the flights; passengers were more inclined to sleep on the overnights than pay for the internet connection.
Satellite coverage is limited over the Pacific Ocean and the systems are not cheap to install nor to operate on an ongoing basis. The kit weighs in at several hundred pounds. That means less cargo capacity and more fuel costs. If users aren’t buying the service then it is hard to justify the costs. Similar reports were heard in the early days of the gogo service rollouts. The US carriers soldiered on, however, continuing the deployments. Clearly Qantas feels the customer demand just isn’t there. With both United Airlines and Delta committed to adding comparable service on their aircraft flying to Australia it will be interesting to see if the competitive aspect of the market sees the service returning in the future.
And at the same time as Qantas is cutting the service Etihad has announced that by the end of 2014 they expect their entire fleet to have global connectivity. The announcement came as the carrier launched their first aircraft with "Wi-Fly" service. The Wi-Fly product is based on Panasonic’s satellite connectivity solution and is in service now on one of the carrier’s A330-200 aircraft. Etihad already has some other aircraft configured with the OnAir product they trialed previously. Etihad will be configuring their fleet with voice/data connectivity on all aircraft and augmenting that on their long-haul fleet with the wifi service as well. The carrier expects 10 aircraft to be configured with the Wi-Fly service by the end of 2013. Oh, and for first class passengers the in-flight internet service will be free.
Perhaps there is a finite number of tubes available out there on the internet and the convenient timing of these two announcements is more than just coincidence. Or there are vastly different ideas about what consumers want – and are willing to pay for – in-flight.
When Passbook was announced as part of the new iOS 6 platform I was pretty bullish on the technology. I think that it presents a great opportunity to make travel easier and better for their passengers. I also predicted that adoption would be relatively quick, mostly because it is really, really easy to do. Turns out that wasn’t so much the case. With Qantas announcing support this month the total number of airlines working with Passbook is now just 10. Oh, and the Qantas support, at least for now, doesn’t include the auto-updating features of the Passbook application; the Qantas boarding passes will be static at least through January 2013. Oh, and Delta, a carrier which announced support back when it launched still hasn’t implemented support.
So, why hasn’t Passbook been a bigger hit? Customers who use it love it. Hotels have gotten in on the game, too. And it really is quite easy to implement.
Obviously there is the need to support mobile boarding passes. Not every airline does yet. But even those airlines which do support mobile BPs aren’t rushing to embrace Passbook. I honestly cannot figure it out. Something cheap and easy which betters the passenger experience. Why aren’t the other carriers making that investments?
Any of y’all have any ideas??
The past couple days I’ve been trying to help a friend of mine book a relatively complicated itinerary from Seattle to Stockholm. At 12,663 miles round trip the “normal” routing via Newark isn’t so bad.
But the routing rules available on the discounted business class fare (P class) are pretty loose, opening up a number of options if you’re willing to spend a bit of extra time flying. Said friend was pretty aggressive in his itinerary planning and came up with an alternate routing which would cover roughly 15,000 miles for the same price. It also added an overnight in Frankfurt, allowing for an extra city to visit on the trip.
The P fare allows for 2 transfers in Area 1 (Americas) and 3 in Area 2 (Europe/Africa) in each direction. Combine that with these routing rules:
There are a lot of options worth exploring. I’m a bit biased in my searches, focusing on the ITA site as a first point of proving whether the trip can be made to happen or not. It is generally faster for me to punch the data in there than searching individual segments for inventory or checking each connection. He did a ton of research, finding flights with P class available and making sure that they met the routing rules. Here’s where we ended up on ITA:
And then, when push came to shove it was nearly impossible to book. Nearly.
Part of the problem is that there are so many segments. Most multi-city itinerary tools max out at three city pairs; even the most flexible seem to top out at six. And while it is possible to skip certain hubs in the city pairs (e.g. just search IAH-ARN for the second flight above rather than IAH-EWR + EWR-ARN) that isn’t a guarantee that it will work out in your favor. Indeed, as I tried to replicate the search for him and find the seats I hit a few roadblocks as well. And so I turned to Hipmunk.
Hipmunk is one of a few search engines which leverages the latest version of the ITA Matrix search interface (Google Flights and Kayak are the others I know of). None of these sites allow for booking directly but they can connect you to the proper booking engine once you find the fare you want. And they dump you right to the “buy now” page rather than making you fight the engine again to find the flights. Of course, getting Hipmunk to price out a trip like this isn’t trivial. The company made a splash initially with their “agony” scoring matrix, trying to optimize flights to reduce connection times, the number of connections and other factors which most customers find annoying. Trying to convince the Hipmunk engine to skip those factors can be a challenge. Fortunately, because it is built on the ITA platform, it also supports the ITA syntax.
For the above itinerary just putting in SEA-IAH, IAH-ARN, ARN-SEA wouldn’t work at all. It takes a couple tries to figure out where to put the city breaks (Hipmunk isn’t very good at allowing overnight connections where not forced to do so) but with a bit of practice it isn’t so hard to actually get this to a bookable state. Here’s what my Hipmunk search looks like for this itinerary:
The text boxes get cut off in the above screen so here are the specific entries I used:
SEA::UA780 IAH UA1094 EWR UA68
I’m starting in SEA and then telling the system I want to fly on UA780 to Houston then UA1094 to Newark and then UA 68. The “to” field has ARN indicating that I’m stopping that segment in Stockholm.
Next up is the relatively easy ARN::LH803 indicating that I want to leave Stockholm on Lufthansa flight 803. I put FRA in the destination box so it knows to stop there.
Finally, the last set of flights has quite a string:
FRA :: LH1184 ZRH UA937 IAD UA402 ORD
I’m leaving Frankfurt on the morning of the 6th on LH1184, connecting in Zurich then on UA937 to Dulles then UA402 to O’Hare. Putting SEA in the destination field there the system finishes the routing out for me.
Set the final two parameters – number of passengers and class of service and set it loose. Here’s what I got back for each page:
You can see that the last page left me a few extra choices because I didn’t specify the flight number for the last segment. Similarly, if I wanted some flexibility on the IAH-EWR segment at the beginning of the trip I could specify just UA there instead of UA1094. That would look like this:
Obviously that last one at $8642 doesn’t have the correct inventory available but if you wanted a day in NYC the quick connection in Houston might work out OK. Or a longer layover in Newark to protect against a misconnect. Or choosing UA1146 to get the 787 flight from Houston to Newark confirmed in the BusinessFirst seat rather than flying the 767 up. Lots of options available.
Even more useful – specifically on the Hipmunk site – is that the ITA syntax is supported by a type-down tool tip interface. Simply put the :: after the airport code and start adding the codes. It will actually translate what you’ve typed into reasonably plain English. Taking my “SEA::UA780 IAH UA1094 EWR UA68″ from above this is what it explains:
And that’s exactly what I’m trying to book. A flight from SEA on UA870 to IAH and then UA 1094 to EWR and then UA68 to ARN.
There are a few other options along the way worth considering. For the last IAD-SEA chunk of the trip a connection in EWR, SFO or LAX would be a lot more miles than the ORD hop. If I want to try that routing I can put in the following:
FRA :: LH1184 ZRH UA937 IAD UA SFO,EWR,LAX UA+
The text is a bit long, overrunning the popup box on the page but you can see that after IAD it will force a connection on UA metal via SFO, EWR or LAX and then one or more UA flights to SEA.
And the best part is that after going through all the options and selecting the segments I want I get this results page:
In other words, despite many engines not supporting the many multi-city search parameters necessary to make the crazy routing happen, Hipmunk can get it done. There are other tools, too, but this set of features has quickly moved Hipmunk to the top of my bookmarks list when it comes to finding cheap flights. It isn’t fool-proof by any stretch. I spent a couple hours working on the itinerary this afternoon. Part of that is because I didn’t have the full fare rules at the time and I was trying to force extra connections on the trip which kept blowing up the price on ITA and Hipmunk. And part of it is because, even on Hipmunk, there is some work required to get the itinerary out of the system; I cannot count how many “No results found” pages I hit. But I’m getting better at it and I’ve tried to distill some of that information above.
Another awesome thing about Hipmunk is that the search query is wholly contained in the URL. That means once you figure out a trip you can easily share the search with others. And I’m sharing this one with all of you. If you want to see how the search looks on the Hipmunk site try this link. Keep in mind that the P inventory changes all the time so there’s a decent chance by the time this post foes live the seats might not be there so the fare might skew. But it should get you on to the site and show how the data gets entered in to make searches like this happen.
Oh, and we didn’t even fully maximize the routing rules on this one. With the multiple connections permitted in Europe and the routing rules it is theoretically possible to do SEA-IAH-IAD/EWR-FRA-MUC-ARN. I’m not sure how well Hipmunk would handle that and I’m a bit scared to try to find out. Maybe tomorrow…
Yes, getting to drive the deicing truck was the highlight of my visit to United Airlines last week. But that was on Thursday; Friday offered up the opportunity to meet with a number of executives from the company and ask pretty much any questions we wanted of them. Sure, not all the questions were answered in our favor, but it was great to have that access to everyone from the CEO down to department level managers. I asked a few questions of my own but mostly just listened to the others and to the answers and I came away with a whole lot of information. Really almost too much to process in many ways, but I’ll try to parse out the useful bits and split it up by category.
If you are interested in what Jeff Smisek has to say about the state of the company vis a vis some of its most obsessive and vocal critics, I recommend watching the recording of his keynote embedded below. I wish he would have been more direct on a couple of the issues rather than skirting them. But overall I remain impressed by his direct, no nonsense approach to running the business. I don’t necessarily like all the answers, but I appreciate that he’s willing to give them without wavering and because he believes they’re in the best interests of the company.
Beyond that, there are a few interesting bits of information which came up in the other sessions throughout the day. Here’s my take on them, split by category.
United’s social media efforts have lagged their peers for a while now. It turns out that probably had something to do with the Social Media team being part of their marketing group rather than as part of the product team. That changed over the summer and, while the evidence of progress has been scarce thus far, they’ve got big plans on the horizon. The group is now managed by a direct report to Mark Bergsrud, SVP of Product, with a staff sized to handle the responsibilities. Also, the team will include employees from across the organization. This includes members of the reservations group. While it remains to be seen just how actively they are able to get involved on any specific incident, the plans suggest that United is going to try to catch up to the others in a big way. When pressed for details on a timeline the answer was "weeks" which is actually better than I expected.
The lounges are too crowded, the amenities are mediocre and the wifi is slow. The concerns about the lounges haven’t really changed all that much over the years. Bergsrud addressed the inquiries with a few updates:
- O’Hare will be getting a new 12,000 square foot lounge in Terminal 2 later this year. That should help with the crowding issues there.
- San Francisco will get a new lounge when the renovations of the old terminal are completed. That’s going to take a while yet, but it is in the plans and the construction is already started.
- Newark doesn’t have a lot of space for new construction so that’s the main limitation to expansion right now.
- Los Angeles will undergo a major renovation effort starting in 2014 and lounges will be addressed as part of that.
- Dulles is a problem and they know it. Conversations are ongoing with the MWAA but don’t hold your breath at this point.
Regarding the wifi performance concerns, the migration off of the T-Mobile systems is complete. They are working on building additional monitoring platforms now so they can react in real-time to slowness and other connectivity issues.
Beyond that, don’t expect any additional airports to have lounges opening anytime soon. They’re pretty comfortable with the lounge network they have.
In-flight Entertainment & Connectivity
The company is very happy with the entertainment systems they have in place, particularly on their long-haul fleet. For in-flight internet connectivity they accept that they are currently slow on the adoption but they are also confident that waiting will allow them to leapfrog the competition. The plan is still to have 300-350 planes outfitted with satellite-based connectivity by the end of 2013. This will allow for internet service on nearly all routes, save for some in China and on Polar flights.
There is one A319 currently with the Panasonic wifi kit installed but not active, pending FAA certification. There is also a 747 in the shop getting fitted for connectivity. As part of the 747 fitting they are also installing streaming media servers on-board for so-called bring your own device ("BYOD") service. The BYOD content will be free for passengers in all cabins, just like the AVOD systems on the other aircraft. No word on power plugs in economy on the 747s, mostly because I forgot to ask.
Regarding the aircraft conversions, there are only 2 767-400s still pending the new seats and 7 777-200s which will receive the IPTE international flat-bed configuration. The 777-200s which will receive the new Hawaii configuration will start in 2013.
Pretty much every passenger wants a bigger, better seat with more amenities in the air and on the ground. It doesn’t appear that United is going to be pursuing that path. That’s not to say that they won’t remain competitive – they are the leader in business class flat beds flying these days – but they don’t plan to be running in front. As Bergsrud said, "We are not going to differentiate through pitch or through width or hard product." Essentially that’s a cash-heavy requirement and they’ll constantly be passed by others in the investment cycles. So they’ll remain competitive in the seats but look to win elsewhere.
There are two main areas where Bergsrud indicated that such effort will be invested. The first is in the route network. That’s been the party line pretty much since the merger and that was the first thing out of his mouth when asked the question. I don’t expect that to change any time soon. The other area they expect to excel is in technology. "We are going to differentiate ourselves through IT.… We should be able to spend a little more money on our website than Alaska." A noble goal, but it is going to take some work. They plan a number of small updates to the website in the coming months with a major redesign happening later in 2013. And there will be a number of back-end updates as well; they are still running different systems for some legacy United versus Continental operations.
The session on the MileagePlus was probably the most contentious of the day. There were many questions asked about upgrades, how many people are at each level, how often upgrades happen and why United Club memberships cannot be purchased with points. Unfortunately there weren’t a ton of answers offered. Part of that is that many of the questions were about things which I wouldn’t have expected to be answered. And part of it was about who was running the session. Such is life.
Overall it was a very informative set of sessions. Lots of information to process and plenty of things to think about. And United stuck to their guns on a number of topics. As I’d expect a business to do.
In-flight internet provider gogo has a few attractive promos out for getting online during your flights over the coming Thanksgiving week and beyond. The first option is a 2-pack of all-day passes valid from November 17 – November 25, 2012. Basically you get to be online all day both to and from your Thanksgiving weekend for only $14.50, roughly half price versus buying it one at a time.
The second offer is a 3-pack of all-day passes. The validity on these runs through January 3, 2013 so they can cover Christmas or New Years trips as well. This pack is priced at $19.50, a discount of more than 50%.
Pack number three is similar to pack number one – two all-day passes – but is it for the Christmas-New Years timeframe. The pack will be valid December 22-January 3 and it will go on sale December 10th. It will be priced at $14.50, just like the Turkey 2-pack above.
Both of these are pretty good deals and actually bring the price of the connectivity down to a level where I can actually see paying for it, especially on transcons or other long trips. That said, free is generally better than paid. I have been fortunate to accumulate a handful of promo cards from gogo over the year and I’ve got a few I won’t be using which I’m giving away. So, if you want a free session for use before the end of 2013 leave a comment below about what route you’ll be flying to use it on and I’ll pick three winners to get a free day code. Entries will close at noon EST on Wednesday, November 21st based on the server time and I’ll pick the three winners after that and email the codes out straight away. Good luck!
I’m headed to Istanbul tomorrow and, as is often my habit, I’m looking over the plans I’ve made and considering changing them. Specifically, I’m looking at changing my hotel. I’m currently booked in what appears to be a pretty solid option in a great location in the Sultanhamet neighborhood but I’m always looking for other options. And with three nights in town I don’t feel all that guilty about hopping to another hotel for part of the stay.
And, while I don’t generally love the site, I figured I’d give RoomKey.com another chance, just to see if they had something I hadn’t otherwise considered. I switched to the map view and zoomed in on the Taksim Square area and was ecstatic to find a property listed at $120 all in. That’s a tremendous bargain for a decent quality property in that neighborhood.
I cannot express how happy I am I didn’t book it.
I decided to cross-check the rate, just to see if there was anything similar available on my favorite booking site, hotels.com, so I could also get my booking rebate and WelcomeRewards credit. Hotels.com had the same property listed but when I zoomed in on the map there I didn’t see hotel. So I took the address and headed over to Google Maps to figure out which one is correct. Point A is where RoomKey mapped it; Point B is from Hotels.com.
Only 4 kilometers off. And nowhere near mass transit options. No big deal, right!?
I’m really, really happy I didn’t change my reservation. I’m also still reasonably convinced that RoomKey.com sucks.
For a guy who doesn’t use an iPhone I’ve been rather irrationally excited about the PassBook application and the implications it has for travelers. Most of my analysis to date has been a bit superficial which might be part of why I’m so excited. As part of research for a story on PassBook & airline travel I wrote for the Apex Association Blog this week I did a bit more research. And, believe it or not, I’m actually more impressed with the platform and what it might mean to passengers.
PassBook is not revolutionary. Location-based alerts are available to any developer willing to write the code into their app. Ditto for updates (i.e. gate change notification) via the Apple Push Notification (APN) services. These are the features which make PassBook so awesome and yet they’ve been available to everyone for a while now. So what actually makes PassBook so special? Basically it is just too easy to use as a developer.
Rather than investing in development of a full iOS application airlines can quickly deploy PassBook integration. The financial and time investments to get into the mobile travel space have been cut dramatically. This development should allow more airlines to offer mobile boarding passes more quickly. It should allow more passengers to pass through airports more quickly. And it should mean fewer confused passengers along the way.
It also means potential for better alerts and notifications of customers for travel-related activity other than just boarding passes. There are some airlines who don’t want to allow customers to track their award balances through a 3rd party application; Delta was the most recent to shut down such access. Creating a PassBook membership card would allow the airlines to still control the interaction while also allowing for timely and useful updates to their members. Seems like a win for everyone involved. Of course, the airlines actually have to get on board. But this is a great opportunity to do so in a way that is actually customer-friendly.
The PassBook developments aren’t enough to get me on board with the iPhone bandwagon. But they certainly have me looking a the developer side of things a lot more closely. What about a PassBook listing of award search alerts from Wandering Aramean Travel Tools? Instant push alerts and quick review of pending queries can’t be all bad, right??