When United Airlines announced last August that they’d be changing the seats on their Airbus A319 and A320 planes there was a bit of concern among their customers. The Recaro Slimline seat is a VERY basic product. It has been widely deployed in Europe (the Lufthansa Group of airlines has made it their default for narrow-body planes) and it is not particularly comfortable for flights of more than an hour or two. That can work in Europe where the hubs are more central and the flights are generally shorter. For the US market, however, it would have been a potentially unpleasant ride. A United official announced today that the carrier will be including the "comfort package" in their version of the seats. That should have many passengers quite relieved.
The new seats are manufactured by RECARO, and you may recognize the specific model from several European carriers, who feature it on many of their mainline narrow-body aircraft. However, because we fly our Airbuses over longer stage lengths than the typical intra-Europe segment, our version of the seat will have several upgraded comfort features over the base model. These include multi-directional headrests, added lumbar support, and a different seat bottom cushion with more padding and multiple layers of soft memory foam. The literature seat pocket has been moved higher, which facilitates the above increase in knee space, and there’s a new amenity pocket specifically for personal items.
The Recaro Slimline seat in service on a Lufthansa narrow-body plane; the middle seat is blocked for 'business class' service.
As part of the same announcement a scant few details on the streaming media offering were made public:
Along with Wi-Fi, the addition of on-demand streaming video will become the standard for our Airbus fleet. As a result, when these aircraft go in to have the new seats installed, the traditional audio/video system with dropdown monitors will be removed. However, these aircraft won’t “go dark”—Wi-Fi will be available on all aircraft that have the new seats. In any case, like Wi-Fi the streaming product will eventually have pricing attached to it, although we do plan to offer a limited range of complimentary content until we finalize these plans.
The 747s are also getting the streaming media option and it was previously stated that the content would be free on those planes; it is interesting to see the slightly different tack being taken with the short-haul fleet.
Finally, for the Channel 9 lovers, the IFE retrofit means that offering will disappear. That’s definitely a bummer.
Air travel is treated as a commodity market for the most part. Price is, by far, the most significant driver of purchase decisions. But there are other things travelers should be thinking about. Unfortunately, figuring out which flight offers a better overall travel experience is a pain in the ass. It is roughly impossible to determine the differences airlines offer in terms of seat, IFE, meals and service. Enter Routehappy. Rather than shopping only by fare, they want to show customers that the same price can get you a notably different travel experience.
The company officially launched their new site today and it offers a tremendous amount of information, including some major upgrades from the earlier iterations of the interface. The Happiness Score factor is an aggregation of both customer reviews and administratively managed data like seat comfort/space, IFE systems, wifi connectivity and even airplane type. And, with today’s launch, there is also fare data and a booking channel integrated into the site. Search for a trip and you’ll get the available flights, a rating of the expected trip quality and the fare details.
Pick a flight on the search screen and you get a ton of useful information, all focused on helping find a better flight experience.
And, once you find the flight you want, click through and book the trip.
This is a tremendous collection of information and I’ve only started to scrape the surface of what is available in the site. But it is clear that there is a lot of potential for this to be both a lot of fun for the data geeks and very useful for the rest of the world, too.
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 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.
Ever since Amtrak rolled out internet connectivity on their trains in the northeast corridor the response has been a mixed bag. Passengers are happy it exists in theory but the actual performance has been less than spectacular, particularly if you believe some of the many Twitter rants out there on the topic. Amtrak is trying to improve the situation but they’re faced with many challenges, not the least of which is providing free connectivity to hundreds of people while traveling up and down the coast. The latest step in the upgrade process is to upgrade the systems on the trains to support 4G service, up from the 3G network currently supported. There’s just one small problem with that plan: the route doesn’t have much 4G coverage.
Most of Amtrak’s problems stem from the fact that they are running on tracks where they stray rather far from civilization, and the high population density areas are where the cell towers are. Combine those two factors and the cell coverage isn’t all that great. So it doesn’t matter how fast the radio is on the device; if there isn’t coverage between the train and the base station things aren’t going to work so well. The other potential problem comes from having so many users on the system. Free services tend to attract more users and heavily loaded systems tend to struggle unless they are built to support that level of use. It does not seem that the Amtrak wifi systems were built that way. And upgrading to a 4G connection won’t solve that part of the problem.
The service is great when it works. But promising connectivity and not actually providing that to customers can actually hurt the business more than the offer of the service can help. Airlines are facing similar issues as they deal with upgrading the bandwidth on their planes. The gogo service can now support 4G with an upgraded radio on the planes (ATG4). Airlines are getting these new systems installed but it is not yet clear that the additional bandwidth will solve the performance issues which crop up from time to time. It will be interesting to see if either Amtrak or the airlines can solve this problem. The current connectivity provided by both is still challenging to users in many instances.
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.
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.
As a traveler there are plenty of things to love about the new iPhone 5. The PassBook application and LTE support are two significant improvements which will benefit travelers around the globe. But there is one rather enormous change which will make things quite difficult on travelers. Maybe not completely ruining the experience but certainly a significant negative impact. And I’m not talking about the new maps.
The problem comes in the form of the new “Lightning” connector on the iPhone 5. The new interface is thinner, smaller and more resilient than the old one, but that doesn’t make it a winner for everyone. After all, there is a huge inventory of devices out there which have the legacy interface already. And while there are adapters to convert from the 30-pin plug of pervious models to the Lightning plug, even those can cause issues. Folks getting on an airplane or checking into a hotel are going to see a number of issues with these plugs.
For hotel guests (and operators), the main issue will be with the alarm clocks in rooms. With five million devices confirmed sold already it won’t be long before guests are showing up with the new models in reasonable numbers and expecting to use the bed-side systems like they have become accustomed to in recent years. As industry analyst Henry Harteveldt puts it, “Hotels, unfortunately, have no choice but to explore their options to buy adapters.” Of course, the customers likely have a number of other devices at home so they’ll be investing in adapters anyways, but hotels may be inclined to have at least some available for guests, similar to plug adapters available in many properties for foreign guests.
The hotels have it easy, relatively speaking. They don’t have to deal with FAA certification of electronics in their rooms the way airlines do on board their aircraft. Airlines and in-flight entertainment manufacturers are facing a much more significant challenge. Putting aside the physical dimensions which are different and the impact that will have on a number of carriers and the “fitted” systems installed to cradle the phones which now won’t work at all, there are bigger issues afoot.
It isn’t just that the IFE providers would need to recertify their hardware, going through the FAA processes and getting the airlines to take planes out of service to handle the testing. There’s also the fact that the current version of the Lightning connector doesn’t support the same set of features. Notably missing: video output. This passengers used to plugging in and watching their videos on the big screen at their set will be shut out. VGA and HDMI to Lightning connectors will be available eventually but in-flight systems don’t offer those inputs. Even when those connectors come out iPhone 5 customers are still not going to be able to watch their content on the in-seat screen.
And, that’s not the end of the story. According to Gizmodo there is a very real chance that the Lightning connector cables have an authentication chip embedded in the cable. Such authentication has been required in the past for video out activity because of the DRM involved but never just for syncing and powering the device. The full details are still unfolding on this but it doesn’t look good. At least this issue is addressed just by paying a few extra dollars for the name-brand cabling.
These are probably more like annoyances than events which will actually ruin the experience. Still, they’re pretty annoying for customer and even worse for the hotel and airline operators and IFE providers who are now looking significant costs to retrofit their systems.
The battle for in-flight entertainment supremacy wages on. The latest move in the space comes from Delta and Gogo, announcing major upgrades to the carrier’s systems over the next 15 months. The latest announcement will see the airline aggressively upgrade their in-flight internet connections to the new ATG4 system from Gogo, increasing bandwidth available for passengers. Delta will also add the Gogo Vision product to their flights, offering streaming media content to passengers. The domestic fleet is expected to be fully fitted by the end of 2013 and the international fleet by 2015.
Neither the ATG4 nor the Gogo Vision upgrades come as much of a surprise. Both the airlines and Gogo recognize that ATG4 is necessary to support more concurrent users on their systems and the higher bandwidth demands those users are placing on the system. It still won’t be sufficient to have many users streaming media while in-flight but it should be more capable of supporting media-rich sites. And once you’ve got the rest of the Gogo infrastructure on the plane adding the Gogo Vision system doesn’t seem like too great a challenge or investment. Whether anyone is buying it or not, particularly since Delta offers free seat-back entertainment on most flights, is not so clear. Definitely an interesting bit to watch.