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.
What happens when scores of aviation enthusiasts are given access to a behind-the-scenes experience with the largest airline in the world? Something roughly like this. From operating the deicing trucks to climbing inside cargo bins to walking the wing out and saluting the pilot to send a plane off, we got to do a little bit of everything. And it was an absolute blast!
I was fortunate to be one of a couple hundred guests of United Airlines at their hub operations in Chicago‘s O’Hare airport. More than two hundred of their employees volunteered to take us around the facility, showing us pretty much everything involved in moving hundreds of thousands of passengers through the airport on a given day.
The first stop for my group was a maintenance hangar where there were a dozen or so different stations set up with most of the ground handling equipment available for us to use. As the door to the bus opened the guide said, "Go pick a truck" and we were off. I headed straight to the deicing trucks. What ensued was a 20 minute training session from two senior ramp agents, covering everything from the types of fluids to the mix ratios to actually getting into the cab on the boom arm and climbing up into the sky.
The controls are more or less a video game. There are two pedals, a toggle switch for each hand and a three-axis joystick for each hand. Incredibly complicated but also surprisingly easy to get the hang of. And this wasn’t just a quick in-and-out on the gear. The rampers I was working with made sure I got to see the full range of capabilities from the truck. They had me "washing" the fence, practicing as though it was an airplane wing. And they insisted that I take the cab up to the highest possible range, simulating work on the tail of a wide-body aircraft. Plus some awesome views.
Next up we headed inside the hangar. There was a 757 on hand, opened up for us to inspect and explore. There were also a few tables covered in spare parts. And price tags. The brakes assembly for a 747-400 comes in at just under $50,000. And there are 14 of them on the plane. Oh, and they have to be replaced every so often. A cockpit voice recorder will run you about $8,500.
We were given reasonably free rein to explore the plane in the hangar. The cockpit is always a fun place to explore but, for me, the baggage hold was a bit more interesting. Go figure.
Next up was a demonstration of the emergency slide deployment. It was a rather dramatic few seconds of activity, to say the least. Check the video for the full version.
We also ended up out on the active ramp for a couple flights. We were a bit less involved on this part but we still got to participate. Getting to work as a wing walker was a lot of fun, though I do have to wonder what the passengers were thinking as it took five people to do the job of one. Plus we were all taking photos the whole time.
And then the afternoon wrapped up. It was an incredible experience. I did a similar event a year ago in Tampa and that one was amazing. This was even better. Hard to believe, but it is true.
A bunch more photos online in the gallery here.
We had been sitting in the lounge for far too long, waiting out the overnight prior to our scheduled 5:15 am flight when the first TripAlert email from United Airlines rolled in: Our flight from Singapore to Hong Kong was going to be delayed approximately 45 minutes. With just over two hours on the connection that wasn’t catastrophic, but we soon realized that the 45 minute estimate was a pipe dream. And that was ultimately a bigger problem than not.
The transfer desk opened eventually and we went to get our boarding passes. It was then we were informed that our flights had all been changed and that we were now getting home about 5 hours late. Not the end of the world, to be sure, but when the plan was originally that we’d be home for dinner that was not such great news. Perhaps there was a better option available, one which would get us home closer to on time? It turns out that there was but United did not want us to have it. And I’m not so sure they were correct on that move.
My first try was to get us rebooked on the non-stop flight operated by Singapore Airlines. That was clearly a long shot and I didn’t expect them to agree to it. They didn’t. But at least they had a decent reason and they intimated that they would had our delay been more significant. All of the other options involved connections in Tokyo. Not awful as a routing, but the flights which got us home on time (or close to it) were not available. Well, they were, but not in coach and the folks at United were not willing to oversell the back or confirm us in business. Their view was that the five hour delay was acceptable even though there were seats on the plane and the delay was their fault.
Another in our group is flying to Houston. His upgrade on Hong Kong – Chicago had cleared well in advance. And there were business class seats for sale on Narita – Houston. But the rebooking engine skipped the natural, non-stop flight in favor of an extra connection which got in later and which had a 50 minute connection in SFO (not sure that meets the MCT, much less is reasonable). That wasn’t even a case of having to change the booking cabin. Fortunately that one was resolved pretty quickly on the phone.
And this is where the conundrum comes into play. I called in to the Global Services desk to try to get on those flights and was given a somewhat perplexing option. It actually was possible for them to force the seats available without a fare difference; I just had to redeem a GPU (f/k/a SWU). Even though the upgrade inventory wasn’t there the agent would be willing to force that open for me (pending approval by a supervisor). But they would not just do it on their own. In other words, I could either accept the 5 hour delay, getting home close to midnight, or pay up for the upgrade to force the issue. Which brings me to the crux of the issue: should I have accepted the "extortion" to get home on time or should it have been free?
Ultimately it worked in that I scrounged up the GPU and got the rebooking completed. And, yes, I’m going to be riding upstairs on the 747 rather than likely in a middle seat down the back somewhere. So I did realize value from the transaction. But I’m still not so sure that it was a choice I should have been forced in to or that the realized value of redeeming the GPU for the flight was what it should have been. Getting listed for the Singapore – Tokyo segment was not possible even though I was now redeeming the upgrade, and several passengers ended up clearing into both business and first on the segment. Assuming the next connection actually is on time I’ll still make it home for dinner, albeit an hour later than planned. But it came with a personal cost that I’m not so sure was reasonable.
And the ultimate irony is that the SIN-HKG flight ended up getting to HKG early enough that we probably would have made the connection anyways. Smart not to gamble on that, I think, but annoying when it cost us GPUs.
UPDATE: This deal managed to disappear with the 1pm ET data load just like Keyser Soze. But it was fun while it lasted.
Whether this is a mistake or a sale probably doesn’t matter too much, especially because it seems to be booking quite well right now. A number of US gateways have flights to Tel Aviv via a connection in Europe for under $400 all in right now. Travel is valid from October 26th – December 16th or December 24th – March 24th, 2013. And inventory looks pretty wide open right now. Here’s what prices look like on a 7-day trip from NYC in November:
Chicago and Boston have similar fares available. The flights are coded by El Al but book on to partners meaning that mileage earning has the potential to be minimal or non-existent. But you can fly on American Airlines and Swiss, among others, as part of the deal if you’d rather than than flying on El Al metal. Oh, and thanks to connection rules on international itineraries a nearly full day or even overnight in a European connection point is possible, too.
Book online through an OTA. You can try to get a few more bucks back through Vayama, Expedia or CheapoAir using the links here or just use your favorite OTA and see how it plays out.
This is most likely the result of a fuel surcharge not being loaded properly with the partner-operated flights so no idea how long it will last. I’m having trouble finding time to make a proper trip out of it and I’m not too keen on a mileage run to Israel being my first visit so I’m going to skip it. But if you’ve got any interest in visiting Israel this winter the chances of a lower fare coming along are virtually nil.
Some more discussion online can be found here:
United Airlines is keeping busy with major announcements during the Farnborough Air Show this week. Today they indicated that new service will be offered on about 10 new routes from 5 of their US hubs. The routes will be launched starting later this year and into early 2013.
Perhaps the most significant routes announced are two long-haul routes from San Francisco. Taipei, Taiwan and Paris, France will see service return from San Francisco in mid-April 2013. Taipei will be served with a 3-cabin 777-200 and Paris will be served with a 2-cabin 767-300. Other routes being offered include Chicago to Monterrey, Mexico; Thunder Bay, Canada; Nassau, Bahamas (weekly seasonal); Jackson, Mississippi and additional seasonal service to Anchorage. Denver will see service added to Williston, ND. Los Angeles will gain service to Kelowna, British Columbia. Washington’s Dulles will add service to San Salvador, El Salvador.
Maybe it is just a coincidence, but no new service was announced from Cleveland, Newark or Houston as part of this move.
Read the full announcement from United here.
My mileage run to Hawaii a couple weeks ago included 16 segments over five days and roughly 23,000 miles flown. It also included two nights on airplanes and a number of flights that had meal service. I showed some of the food from the longest segment – Newark to Honolulu – here but there were a few other United Airlines meals that offered up interesting dining options.
Three of my flights were during a traditional breakfast time. I had Phoenix to Houston, Dulles to Houston and San Francisco to Chicago and the choices on each were a bit different. I usually take the safe option at breakfast, opting for the cereal. I eat it dry which always seems to confuse the flight attendants but between that, the yogurt and the fruit I’m usually reasonably full for a few hours. On the Phoenix to Houston flight the cereal was served in a rather interesting way:
Tasted just fine and it was actually probably easier to eat this way, but I was still rather entertained with the service approach.
Meal number two, Dulles to Houston, was actually probably my favorite of the three. The offering was an egg sandwich. It was surprisingly similar to an Egg McMuffin. I’m not saying that it was delicious – airplane food rarely is – but it was definitely a different option from the usual I’ve had over the past few years.
The third meal is what I consider the traditional alternative to the cereal breakfast. I tend to avoid it but I figured I’d give it a try once just to make sure I still don’t really like it. Eggs, meat and potatoes seems like a great breakfast, I know, but the flavors just don’t work for me on this one. It was fine, I suppose, but not something I’ll likely be ordering again.
Two of the flights – Houston to Pittsburgh and Houston to Phoenix – were at lunch time. Apparently one of them was actually only at snack time, not lunch time, so the meal was the cold chicken breast salad plate, but an actual salad, not the pasta. The flight attendant made sure to ask everyone if they wanted the chicken or not so that it could be served vegetarian; that was a nice touch. I had the chicken and it was decent. Consistent with the other times I’ve had the same plate and reasonably good.
The other flight offered a hot lunch. I ended up with the "chicken parmesan roll" or something like that. It was, umm, interesting. It definitely had some flavors like chicken, tomato sauce and cheese. That said, I wouldn’t recommend ordering it if there is another option. Not particularly impressive.
These were all short-haul flights so I’m never expecting fine dining. And some of them didn’t completely suck. Sadly that seems to be the standard by which in-flight domestic dining is measured these days.
Having had so much fun the last time around (plus, I did book five of these!) I was off again last week for a quick trip to Portland, Oregon, again for just long enough to have dinner before heading back home on the redeye flight. And, like last time, the trip was pleasantly uneventful. I didn’t put together a video this time, but it still was a reasonably fun trip to document.
Somewhat shockingly we left on time from LaGuardia and made it in to Houston early. Alas, only a snack plate so I declined (I had just eaten at my favorite NYC taco truck) and took a nap instead. Incredibly exciting, right??
Flight number two had a meal service offering up two options that both sounded decent enough. I asked the flight attendant to surprise me and I ended up with a ravioli-ish option in tomato sauce. Nothing to write home about, good or bad.
A couple hours later we were on final into PDX, though we came in from the "wrong" direction. The winds were different than any other time I’ve arrived in PDX so we came in from the other side. It gave me a very different view of arrival than I was expecting
The really good part of the evening came when I arrived in Portland. A friend who lives there was available to go out to dinner that night so he picked me up from the airport and we headed out to some awesome Cuban food at Pambiche.
Just a quick stay in Portland, however, so I was soon back at the airport, just in time to clear security and head over to the gate for my departure back to Chicago.
I was happy to be upgraded for the redeye, though that may have worked against me. The two folks in the row ahead seemed to become fast friends prior to departure and they kept chatting into the first hour or so of the flight. Mid-con redeyes are already bad enough. Having chatty passengers nearby didn’t help the situation. I still managed to get a bit of sleep and was semi-functional by the time we made it to O’Hare.
I did rather enjoy being the only passenger in the first class cabin on the 6am ORD-LGA flight not wearing a suit. It was a pleasant reminder that life can be fun without having to dress up to play a part.
Departure from O’Hare was right on time and pretty soon I was napping again, all the way to New York City.
We arrived early and an hour later I had navigated the bus/subway transfer – including helping another passenger who didn’t have a MetroCard and who only had bills – back in to Manhattan. The day was just getting started and I was ready to go. Or at least ready to try to survive on just a couple hours of sleep.
Like I said at the beginning, nothing too amazing on the flights, but it was a fun day. Special thanks to Luke for driving out to the airport to pick me up for dinner, and for knowing where the good food is in Portland. Definitely made for a great night.
I’m a huge fan of Istanbul and Turkey in general. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences there (even with attempted scammings twice) and between the architecture, food and people it is one of my favorite places to visit and one that I return to willingly, which is a big step for me. When a visit can be had on the cheap that’s an even bigger draw. And right now there are some great deals out there for travel from the USA to Istanbul.
The deals are for the shoulder season so look for travel in September or October for great weather and even better rates. Here’s what the fare calendars look like for October, departing a few cities in the USA:
New York City
In many cases the W fares on United Airlines aren’t too much more than these lowest fares (~$300 ex-EWR) and the upgrade inventory is plentiful. I’ve already confirmed my flat bed for a weekend in early October. It is going to be a lot of fun.
It was August 2010 when Virgin America announced their plans to offer reciprocal earning and redemption benefits with the other carriers in the Virgin brand. Alas, the frequent flier market works slowly in some cases and after more than a year there was no real news on the redemption side of the deal. That ends this week, with both Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia and Virgin America announcing redemption rates.
I’m focusing on the the rates for Virgin America here, mostly because I find the ranges they cover to be more intriguing than the numbers from the other two. Virgin America has published a calculator that displays the number of points required based on the city pairs that the two partners serve. Even more interesting to me, however, is that the underlying data is contained in a singe easy to download
XML JSON file. Drop that file into Excel and throw some filters on it and the data that comes back is quite interesting indeed.
First up, both one-way and round-trip redemptions will be offered. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there is a penalty for one-way awards relative to return trips. The penalty is generally 5-10,000 points, based on the samples I saw, though one or two did go higher than that, especially in premium cabins.
As for the actual redemption rates, there are definitely some interesting sweet-spots on the chart. JFK to London return is only 35,000 points in Upper Class, for example, which is pretty nice. The down-side is that it also comes with $1100 in taxes and fees to be paid. Also, it is more than double the price of an economy award on the same route (15,000 points + $650 in fees). The fees do track directly with what Virgin Atlantic charges for a revenue booking (the APD and the YQ are both higher in business class) so that’s not completely ridiculous, but with base fares as low as $120ish round trip in economy dropping 15,000 points seems like a REALLY bad idea.
The real fleecing in the program, however, comes when you try to redeem for Business Class awards on Virgin Australia AND you add a connection in the United States. Los Angeles to Brisbane is a rather reasonable 80,000 points up front. Want to connect onward to Chicago? Tack on another 100,000 points. And if you want to go to JFK rather than Chicago it is an extra 50,000 on top of that. Yeah, it is that ridiculous.
And the taxes aren’t particularly great on those fares either. At least the transcon penalty on Virgin Atlantic is only 15,000 points.
Comparing the rates to the value via American Express Membership Rewards – one of the easier ways to accumulate Elevate Points – shows further examples of the limited value. Getting that JFK-London award is 35K Elevate points, which would mean 70K MR points. Redeeming via ANA would allow the same trip for 63K points and roughly the same fees. JFK-Capetown would be 190K MR points via Elevate or 115K via ANA.
Adding these partners is a great thing, in theory, for members of the Elevate program. With the redemption charts the way they look, however, the numbers are not particularly attractive. I’d stay far, far away.
As part of their bankruptcy reorganization efforts American Airlines has announced that they are cutting the longest route in their network, the flights between Chicago and Delhi, India. The flights are being terminated as of March 1, 2012. Live from a Lounge (a local on the India side) and One Mile at a Time (a quite vocal AAficionado) have both weighed in on the topic, mostly with disbelief. To me the surprise is really that it took the bAAnkruptcy to do the route in.
At least one analyst out there says the route was losing $40MM annually. And naturally you’re going to cut anything that isn’t profitable in a reorganization, right? The problem with that approach is that, at this point, nearly everything American touches is not profitable; they’ve got the inverse of the Midas touch. The real question should be whether a route can be profitable, not whether it is right now. And in the case of the Delhi flight, the answer is still no.
It is the longest route in their system, roughly 7500 miles in the air each way. That’s a whole lot of fuel that needs to be carried so the plane can make it to the destination, and that fuel has increased significantly in cost since the route was launched in 2005. It seems that even if the company could get the labor costs down, their stated goal in the bankruptcy process, the other fixed costs of the route are still too great.
The same analyst who asserts the $40MM annual losses also suggests that there are a few other routes which are hemorrhaging cash and which seem primed to be cut: New York-London, New York-California, Chicago to Delhi, Beijing and Shanghai and Miami to Buenos Aires. Seems unlikely to me that all those are going to be touched. The London routes gets the advantage now of ATI, something that was far too late in being granted by the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. That should help significantly for margins on that service. The transcon market is an interesting one and I could see some changes come, but I doubt they’ll fully retreat. And the South America service seems to have way more potential than the Asia routes, putting it squarely in the "potentially could be successful" category.
Could the Beijing and Shanghai routes be on the out? Loads to China are down and the yields are likely following. At the same time, however, getting back into that market is incredibly challenging. Plus, there aren’t particularly great onward connections if you look to partners. It seems much more likely that the China routes could be profitable and that they’d stick around a least a bit longer.
The other consideration for American, more than individual routes, is the combined effect of cutting too much on the route map. Their international network was already somewhat anemic outside of Latin America and further cuts won’t help that. Even with partners and the ATI agreement, it is hard to market and sell flights to corporate contracts when you don’t actually have service to the destinations they need to serve. And a merger with US Airways, JetBlue or Alaska Airlines isn’t going to solve any of those problems.