Seems to me that, in the interest of being able to more easily find awards, having a listing of all the long-haul routes, by alliance and region, would be useful. And I haven’t ever found a good collection of them so I decided to start building one. Shocking, right??
I’m sure you’ll also be shocked to learn that I started with Star Alliance and the transatlantic (TATL) routes. I’m defining TATL in this context as between North America and Europe. I know there are more flights than just these but I’m going to have a series of posts in the coming days breaking it down and adding to the collection. And I had to start somewhere. So here it is.
There are, by my count,
172 173 route/carrier combinations across the North Atlantic Ocean operated by one of the thirteen Star Alliance members with at least one flight in the regions. Some are seasonal but, if you’re looking for seats, this is probably a good place to start.
Putting them all on a single map is actually pretty useless, other than just to show how massive the coverage footprint is:
To make it slightly more useful here’s a collection of maps split up by carrier. Still sortof sloppy in some cases, but better.
And, if you prefer the data in a less graphical format, it is also available in a table format here.
If you can see any I’ve missed let me know and I’ll update the tables.
Unique North American Gateways:
Unique European Gateways:
The good news from Air Canada this week is that they are going to be offering a new Premium Economy product in their longhaul fleet. Their 777-300ER will start to see some planes converted to support the new cabin layout this summer and the specs on the Premium Economy product are pretty solid. They will be 2-4-2 across, with 38" pitch and 20" width. Every seat will have power and also larger screens for the AVOD systems than the regular economy cabin. Premium meals, too, from what the carrier is advertising:
Enjoy a welcome beverage as you settle into your seat, and then make your choice between two delicious hot meals served in a china casserole with glassware and cutlery. Your hot meal is also accompanied by a refreshing salad, warm bread and dessert.
Breakfast offerings in Premium Economy include: fresh coffee, juice, pastries and yoghurt.
That sounds quite a bit like business class service. They even have hot towels on offer. And the seats look pretty nice in the press shots:
Air Canada is also rebranding the premium cabin on their Rouge flights as Premium Rouge, with basically the same benefits, though they really are just the same seats that are currently installed on those planes.
So that’s the good news. Now for the bad news. All these benefits in Premium Economy come at the expense of the regular economy cabin. Air Canada is shifting from 9-across to 10-across in the back, leaving passengers with just a 17" seat width. And if that wasn’t bad enough they are also cutting the pitch on the seats from 32" inches to 31". The net result is a notably smaller space and a LOT more passengers on board. The new config will be 36/24/398 compared to the current 77W layout of 42/307. That’s more than 100 additional seats on board and, from what I can see on the seat maps, no additional lavatories added.
About the only good bit here for economy passengers is that Air Canada will not be considering Premium Economy as part of the upgrade path for passengers. That means you can still upgrade from coach into the business class ("Executive First") cabin.
So, yeah, the Premium Economy product is nice. But at what cost? Things are not going to be fun for the other nearly 400 passengers on board. And if this kills the upgrade options, too, that’s even worse.
Looking at the Air Canada website today it would appear that the Tango Plus marketing name for Air Canada’s economy class fares is on the way out. Tango Plus refers to the “normal” economy fares – deep discount are Tango and full fare are Latitude – and there is either confusion over Tango versus Tango Plus or someone had an extra bit of marketing spend they needed to use up by the end of last year to get their budget numbers right. Either way, the website is now indicating that Tango Plus fares will be renamed to Flex.
UPDATE: Press release now available confirming the change.
Of course, the name “Flex” implies flexible so it is a bit strange that the fees for changes and refunds on the Flex fares are the same as for Tango fares. Then again, the Tango Plus fares were the same way so not really all that surprising.
There are still some differences between Tango and Flex, just like always. Tango has limited earning in the Aeroplan and Altitude frequent flyer programs:
And options for priority handling at the airport are increased as the fares increase:
Overall this shouldn’t affect things too much, other than possibly reducing confusion between Tango and Tango Plus fares, even if it does introduce confusion with the idea of Flex fares which aren’t actually so flexible.
It isn’t quite a new carrier and it isn’t quite a discount carrier. It won’t involve service to new destinations and it won’t really alter the way flights are sold. Air Canada‘s new Rouge operation is launching in 2013 and there will be changes but probably not enough to help the airline-within-an-airline model succeed. Rouge is targeting leisure routes. There will be 13 destinations covered by the rouge service including three in Europe and ten so-called "Sun" destinations. The rouge fleet is small – only 4 aircraft – so most destinations will apparently not be served daily.
The infrequent service is unfortunate in some respects but it makes a bit of sense for leisure markets where there is limited demand. There are several other aspects of the service which also speak to the limited amenities associated with leisure/LCC operations. Most in-flight services will be on a paid basis. Meals will be complimentary on flights to and from Europe but the Sun routes will be buy-on-board for everything. The in-flight entertainment systems will take advantage of newer streaming media options, saving the company money. But passengers are likely going to be paying to access that content; full details on the price and systems are not yet available. Oh, and no in-seat power will be provided so hopefully the tablet, phone or laptop batteries are fully charged and long-lasting.
Where Air Canada is really cutting away at the value, however, is in the integration with their Aeroplan frequent flier program. Rather than offering earning based on the distance flown routes operated under the rouge brand will earn a fixed number of points based on the fare paid. And the earning rates are not at all pretty.
Flying a cheap fare from Toronto to Athens on rouge will net most passengers fewer than 1000 points. That same trip flown on Air Canada and other partners would net 10,000 points or more. Certainly for the very occasional traveler those accrual numbers don’t necessarily matter; there is a good chance they’d never get good value out of the 10,000 points either. But the skewing of the rates is rather severe.
Also potentially confusing is that, because it isn’t really a separate operation, the rouge flights are mixed in with the regular search results on the Air Canada site. Here’s what a search from Toronto to Athens looks like:
There is no indication that the direct flight, saving around 3 hours of travel time, comes with distinctly different services, both in-flight and on the ground. Hovering the mouse over the fare names at the top gives some additional details but not all of them. Once the flight is selected there are some additional details offered:
Still, the mixed levels of service have the potential to be rather confusing to customers.
Also, it is not clear how these flights will register with Air Canada’s Star Alliance partners. That could lead to even more customer frustration. Air Canada has confirmed that the flights will still be considered Star Alliance-operated with respect to partner benefits. So in many ways these are way better for customers of Air Canada’s partners than for Air Canada’s direct customers:
Air Canada is facing stiff competition from lower cost competitors, including Air Transat and WestJet, competitors which have a similarly limited offering to the new rouge services. But for those competitors there is no confusion amongst the customers; all the service is at that same level. And, at the end of the day, meeting the expectations of customers is more important that having the best product in the market. Air Canada is creating quite the opportunity for such confusion, a move which may ultimately prove to be the downfall of rouge.
Brazilian airline Gol is struggling. They reported losses last week of BRL 201 million (~$96mm) for the quarter, the fifth loss in six reporting periods. And the outlook for the company doesn’t look particularly promising. They’re seeing huge cost spikes in their fuel and aircraft rental/leasing costs and continued pressure on currency exchange due to foreign debt. But they have a glimmer of hope: an IPO for their Smiles loyalty program.
Gol is the latest carrier to consider such an approach to raising capital. And, by most accounts, spinning off the loyalty program is a great way to raise cash. The programs are generally profit centers in the companies and their value is not fully realized so long as they’re just another cog in the bigger company. But can they maintain their profitability once separated?
Aeroplan, the program spun off from Air Canada seems to be doing a reasonable job of remaining profitable since that transaction but even there it hasn’t been a particularly smooth road. The stock price is still 4% below where it opened trading in October 2006, and that’s after dropping to less than half the initial pricing in late 2009. Then again, relative to the airline itself, the performance of Aimia is actually tremendous:
And that’s the real risk associated with these spin-offs: What happens if the airline falters? What happens if the ability to redeem the points for the primary reward opportunity disappears or changes dramatically? The value of the programs is based mostly on the ability to sell the points to 3rd parties – banks in the United States for their credit card portfolios – and those points are only valuable to the 3rd parties if the customers believe they can be redeemed for something useful. There may be a bit of a lag on the timing of the issue but the general concept works pretty well. So while spinning off the program can create an influx of capital for the airline, that only can last so long. The airline must also be able to right itself long-term. Air Canada seems to be reasonably stable, at least for now. It is not clear if Gol will be able to achieve such stability.
As for the spin-off becoming a trend, it isn’t just Gol looking at the possibility. Management in Brazil says they’ll decide in Q2 2013 on whether to actually have an IPO for the Smiles division. Jet Airways of India will be in action before then based on their announced plans. They are pursuing a similar path with their JetPrivilege program. And some private investors are looking at the Qantas program as another where the spin-off could make for a quick return on investment for shareholders. The current challenging economic conditions and the profitability of the loyalty programs make them ripe targets for quick cash. And the fact that handful of airlines have completed such a transaction successfully is emboldening to others considering the same path.
Hopefully they don’t have to go back to that well again, because this is generally a one-time cash infusion.
Air Canada and United Airlines have been negotiating for several months now with the competition authorities on both sides of the border to allow the two Star Alliance partners to further tighten their relationship. The two are seeking anti-trust immunity (ATI) to operate their trans-border flights in a coordinated fashion, allowing them to cooperate on scheduling, marketing, pricing and more. Such arrangements are growing in popularity as, among other things, a way around the foreign ownership rules of various countries and also as a way for airlines to decrease capacity, decrease risk and increase yields.
Canadian authorities this week indicated that an agreement has been reached with the two carriers, allowing the joint venture operation to proceed. From a story in the Canadian media:
The bureau said Wednesday it had struck an agreement with the carriers that would “protect and preserve competition” on 14 high-demand routes between Canada and the U.S. that, in part, led the bureau’s initial challenge of the partnership in June 2011.
Those contentious routes include flights between Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary to certain U.S. destinations like Chicago, Washington, Houston and others.
On these 14 routes the two airlines will not be permitted to collude. On all the other trans-border routes they will. Such carve-outs are common in ATI agreements, often on the most popular routes where it is perceived that sufficient competition exists to support the carriers independently. For the other routes it becomes a matter of whether they would simply be dropped from service without the ATI, be significantly more expensive for customers or otherwise affected. Then again, with two major North American carriers essentially combining to be one in those markets, the competition is already dropping.
For Air Canada customers the split between Tango and Tango Plus fares has often made navigating their frequent flyer program a bit of a challenge. The most discounted fares – called Tango by the Air Canada marketing folks – earn fewer miles on most routes and generally cannot be upgraded while the more expensive fare classes – Tango Plus – earn full miles and are eligible for upgrades. For the company’s long-haul customers this was generally less of an issue as flights to Europe, Israel & South America did not offer any fares in the Tango classes; everything long-haul was Tango Plus or higher. That changed last week, with little notice nor fanfare.
The new policy moves three fare classes – T, L & K – from the Tango Plus designation to Tango. And the selling of Tango fares expanded in long-haul markets from only Asia & Australia to include Europe, Israel & South America, too. This means customers buying the cheapest coach seats on overseas flights will not be able to upgrade their seats using their elite status benefits. And that is on top of cuts in the earning rates of these elite credits as part of the 2013 changes to the Aeroplan Top Tier Altitude program. Further, passengers flying on these fares will also now earn only 50% credit for the flights, making it harder to earn elite status and award travel. It is not yet clear what impact this will have on the earning rates of partner airlines; as of yet none appear to have altered their published earning charts.
It should also be noted that the company has also upgraded the earning rates on Tango fares between the USA and Canada. These flights will earn at 50% and will also count towards elite status. A minor upgrade relative to the hit on the long-haul changes.
This move puts Air Canada and Aeroplan into a long list of programs which are adjusting their program rules to focus not only on how much time you spend with the airline in the air but also on how much money you spend with them. That this change isn’t cutting the lowest fares, just renaming them to make them less valuable to the loyalty scheme is particularly unfortunate for customers. Not surprising, but unfortunate.
Air Canada was, for a while, considered one of the easier programs in which Star Alliance Gold status could be earnt. That is now, by far, no longer the case. For customers buying mid or high level fares and who are focused or forced into flying on Air Canada flights the program can still be reasonably valuable. For low-fare customers who have a choice Aeroplan and
Top Tier Altitude are looking worse and worse every day.
Air Canada is launching Altitude as a revamp of its frequent flyer program starting in 2013. This move marks the first significant changes since the Top Tier program was introduced a decade ago. The new program takes effect March 1, 2013 when the new program year begins. Qualification for the initial program year will be based on activity in the 2012 calendar year. That means the announced changes affect customers who have been flying with Air Canada the past 9.5 months. At least they have 2.5 months left to change their behavior if the new program isn’t to their liking. Not ideal, but better than nothing. And better than what most programs have offered recently.
As for what the changes are, there are many. For starters, the move adds new tiers to the program. There will now be five elite levels:
Perhaps the most significant change is that the Elite 35K level will no longer receive Star Alliance Gold status. That means no more free lounge access on all trips, no more extra baggage allowance, no more priority baggage handling and other benefits being lost. Members at this level will retain access to "select Maple Leaf Lounges located in the domestic and transborder departure zones of Canadian airports, along with those in Los Angeles and New York, LaGuardia." In their FAQ the company states that the change brings the carrier in line with "most other global frequent flyer programs" at the 50K qualification level for full lounge access. They also indicate that they simply have too many elites at the 35K level to be able to provide the service to manageable standards.
The 50K level effectively replaces the 35K level from previous years. The 75K level is similar to 50K but with the option to receive more eUpgrade credits and higher bonus flight miles, among other things. The bundles of options available are nice, allowing members to pick and choose the benefits which matter most to them, though compared to other carriers the total number of options available is rather lower in many cases.
As for upgrade credits, the earning rates appear to have dropped a bit for top-tier members. That’s not going to be a particularly welcome change (the chart is much taller but I can only capture so much on screen; click it to see more):
That said, for customers who fly 200,000 status miles or more the number of upgrade certs appears to be increasing. Similar to the lounge issue at 35K, the company appears to be focused on rewarding the passengers who fly more with greater benefits.
In some ways this is a classic example of the "rich getting richer" in terms of loyalty program benefits. There are definitely drawbacks, particularly at the 35K level. Although they haven’t had a C-level executive come out and say it, the changes seem to mesh with those made by United in the 2012 program year where the CFO suggested some elites were "over entitled" in terms of benefits being delivered. Not what the person who flew 35K miles on AC wants to hear, but it is likely the answer the business has to the situation.
There are a couple small positive changes mixed in with mostly negative ones, particularly at the 35K level and, to a lesser extent, at the 100K level. It could have been worse. Could have been better, too, but definitely could have been worse.
Lots of activity in the New York City airline lounge space in recent weeks, nearly all of it good news for passengers. Two new lounges have opened, one at LaGuardia and one at Newark, and another is on the horizon.
First up, at Newark, Porter Air has opened their first lounge in the United States and the third in their system. Unique to Porter is that the lounge is open to all ticketed passengers; access is included in the ticket price. And while the lounge doesn’t include free booze it does offer free wifi, cookies and non-alcoholic beverages including Starbucks coffee. The seating area is also rather pleasant and much more lounge-like than the typical Newark gate area. The wifi was a bit spotty when I dropped by to check out the facility but they were working on it at the time; hopefully it gets better soon. Adding to the convenience factor of the lounge is its location, directly adjacent to the gates Porter operates from at Newark.
Next up, Delta has opened a new lounge in Terminal C at LaGuardia. The lounge replaces one of the US Airways lounges in that terminal and allows Delta customers access to a lounge in that terminal, something which was not previously available since they expanded operations there earlier this year.
Also at LaGuardia, the former Eastern Ionosphere club, currently operating as the United Club by the A pier of the central terminal, will be closing next Friday. United will be consolidating their club operations to the former Red Carpet Club closer to the C pier of that terminal. The lounge won’t be closed for long, however. Air Canada will be taking over the space and opening a Maple Leaf Lounge at LaGuardia on September 24th. As an added bonus, Air Canada will actually be updating the lounge to match their typical brand standards in the coming months. That should be a major upgrade for the space.
Details on all these lounges (and more photos of the Porter Air one) can be found Lounge Guide section of Wandering Aramean Travel Tools.
Believe it or not, this is the spin that United Airlines is trying to put on their decision to start cutting routes out of Houston in the face of Southwest‘s plans to start international flights from Hobby in 2015. United suggested that the City approving the plan would lead to direct and immediate route cuts and they’re holding to that plan, with several route cuts announced in recent weeks. Comments offered on one of the most recent announcements – the cessation of service on Houston – Paris in October – leads to some interesting conclusions.
Speaking with the Houston Chronicle about the most recently announced cuts, United spokeswoman Mary Clark indicated that the routes being cut are generally money-losing operations. By choosing to cut them now, in the face of potential competition in three years’ time, United plans to stem their losses.
Clark said United had continued to offer service to the unprofitable locations, hoping they would turn around as Bush Intercontinental grows, but was prompted to nix them after the Houston City Council’s approval of Southwest’s Hobby proposal.
As part of that deal, Southwest agreed to pay for a customs facility and five-gate expansion at Hobby so it could begin flying in 2015 to the Caribbean and Latin America.
Clark said the Paris route hadn’t been profitable for more than two years.
"With Hobby operating internationally, we don’t feel we have the same growth prospects at IAH we had in the past," she said. "So we don’t expect these flights to become profitable.
"Our most prudent path is to eliminate the unprofitable flying now rather than continue to lose money."
Apparently, had Hobby remained closed to international flights, the most prudent path would have been to continue operating the money-losing routes for two years just to see if things shifted in the market. At least that’s how I’m reading this quote. Never mind that the airline will still offer at least four daily flights to Paris on their own aircraft and that from North America they can also offer connectivity via partners Air Canada, Swiss and Lufthansa as part of the A++ anti-trust immune joint venture which allows for collusion on pricing and revenue/cost sharing on the route.
The massive route network which United now has, one of the factors it routinely cites as a key value differentiator for its customers, is impressive. It also means that it is possible for man customers to be better routed through other hubs than only via Houston. It might suck for the folks living in Houston or Paris and trying to get to the other city, but there are a lot more passengers than just the O/D crowd.The number of folks who are losing a single connect routing to Paris is surprisingly low. And the company has to consider all its customers.
Honestly, it is a shame that they’re using the Hobby decision as an excuse here. The cuts were almost certainly going to happen anyways. But now they’ve got someone to blame for the actions they were likely going to make either way.