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.
Competition does strange things, like making the airlines offer better products to attract customers. Hard to say that’s a bad thing, right?? Delta is adding some new benefits for passengers in their Economy Comfort seats on flights on their main transcon routes. For flights between New York City‘s JFK and either Los Angeles or San Francisco customers in the Economy Comfort (extra legroom/recline) seats will now include free drinks, a free "premium snack" and free newspapers.
Like many things in the airline industry this seems to be a case of things coming full circle, with complimentary snacks and drinks returning to the coach cabin in the name of competition. Virgin America already has free snacks/drinks in their comparable offering (Main Cabin Select). American Airlines is going to be competing with frequencies, upping to roughly hourly shuttle service in the coming year as they get their new A321 planes with fewer seats. United is also pushing new configurations out in the market, though no other special features noted.
Airlines are looking to cut costs in just about every way imaginable. For Frontier airlines a major focus on that front has been encouraging customers to book on their website rather than through 3rd party sites (OTAs). The OTA bookings cost the airlines a lot of money and saving those margins can be significant, particularly for a smaller airline which is struggling as it is.
Last September Frontier cut mileage earning on OTA tickets to 50%. At that time they also increased most fees by $50 for fares not booked directly. It was hoped that would help increase direct bookings. In March of this year Frontier pulled their inventory from Expedia, cutting distribution costs but also reducing the potential bookings. And, this week, they’ve taken this a step further, announcing that they have "Enhance[d] Services for Customers Using FlyFrontier.com." Yes, they used the word "enhance" in the ironic form.
The latest changes see more cuts for customers booking OTA-issued tickets. Carry-on bags will now come with a fee – up to $100 at the gate – for the cheapest fares booked through 3rd party sites. "With this change, we are ensuring that our most loyal customers – Ascent and Summit level members of EarlyReturns®, those who book Economy, Classic and Classic Plus tickets, including all customers who book through FlyFrontier.com, will have more space onboard the aircraft for their carry-on bags,” said David Siegel, Frontier’s chief executive officer. The effective date for the carry-on charges has not yet been set.
Charges are also coming for in-flight beverages. Effective July 1, 2013, customers who purchase Economy or Basic fares will be charged $1.99 for coffee, tea, soda and juice. On the plus side, that $2 will entitle customers to the whole can of soda or to unlimited refills on coffee. No word on if they’ll charge again if you want more hot water for your tea. Customers who purchase a higher fare or who have elite status will need to show their boarding pass or elite card to have the beverage fees waived.
And, on the mileage front, the fares which were earning only 50% when purchased through an OTA will see that number further reduced, down to 25%.
There’s a whole lot of hurt in this latest round of changes. It is hard to believe that things will end well for Frontier out of these moves. Maybe it will shift the consumer behavior but I get the feeling more customers are going to buy their tickets through an OTA, get annoyed at the lower service levels and then choose a different carrier on the OTA rather than change their buying habits. I suppose we’ll see soon enough.
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 ability to pre-order a meal for inflight dining on American Airlines is expanding in a huge way. The program, launched in a trial mode last October, has expanded to now cover pretty much every flight not operated as part of their long-haul service. The routes covered include American Airlines marketed and operated flights within the continental U.S., and to/from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. This benefit is available for customers in the first and business class cabins.
Back when the service was initially announced I took the website for a drive. It was a pretty good setup and reasonably intuitive interface.
Apparently it was sufficiently well-liked and easy enough to implement that they’re going to cover all flights now. That’s definitely an upgrade, even if it is the same food as before.
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.
In what can either be chalked up as the most insignificant change to catering in a few years or yet another move to destroy a product through minor changes the dinner meal service in BusinessFirst on United Airlines‘ 2-cabin long-haul planes is being trimmed. This time it is the appetizer course being cut, being reduced to one option from the current two. The change takes effect March 1, 2013.
In the grand scheme of things this really is a non-event. The food isn’t that good to begin with and losing one appetizer option isn’t really all that big a deal for most people. At the same time, it is quite easy to see this as another "death by a thousand cuts" move. The catering for BusinessFirst was already downgraded once back in May 2012 to only have cold appetizers. At that time, however, the 2-cabin planes kept a choice of two while the 3-cabin planes were reduced to the single option. Apparently the move was such a rousing success that they’re expanding it to the 2-cabin planes, too. That, or they figure no one cares enough for it to matter.
Such is life in the world where improved service offerings are more rare than they should be.
Adding on an extra segment from Hong Kong to Bangkok as part of our award trip to try the Singapore suites was basically free. Same points and more or less the same taxes. And when first class seats showed up on the new A380 from Thai Airways the decision to grab them was a no-brainer. I was very, very excited to see the different first class products and compare them. Plus, the stopover in Hong Kong didn’t completely suck.
Most of our time pre-flight was spent visiting Hong Kong rather than napping in Thai’s Royal First lounge in Hong Kong. Maybe that was a mistake, though I still think it was some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had, so not a horrible idea. We did shower in the lounge and enjoyed some snacks prior to the flight. There was also an option for menu service but I didn’t really look at the menu so I’m not sure how extensive the choices were. The first class side of the Thai lounge was a small step up from the business class side I’ve generally been on. More space and better booze, but not a dramatic difference like Thai has in Bangkok.
The Thai A380 First Class seat is not a suite with a sliding door, so in that regard it is a minor downgrade from Singapore Air or Emirates‘ offering. Other than that minor difference, however, I’m not so sure there is a lot to separate it. Still a ton of space – my bags still fit under the ottoman – and quite comfy. And it converts to a flat bed which I had quite a nice nap on. I would have absolutely no problem taking this seat on a long-haul trip and would expect to sleep quite well in it.
For passengers in the middle pair of eats the divider console is reasonably wide, making for a large space between the two. And there is a privacy screen which can slide up to the top of the seat edge if more separation is desired.
There is also a small lounge space just forward of the cabin, where Emirates has one of their lavs. There are a few seats – VERY firm cushions – and space to congregate and chat if desired. Not a lot of action there on the short flight we had but I can imagine it gets some use on the longer trips.
And on the other side up front is the lavatory. It is similar to the Emirates first class lav in terms of space – which is to say HUGE – but no shower and not nearly as ornate. There is a sitting area separate from the "business" section for changing, applying makeup and the like.
Also, it turns out that taking a photo of yourself in a mirror without looking completely deranged is harder than it should be.
I had initially tried to order the book-the-cook option for the flight. Turns out there were some issues with that on their website. LOTS of issues, actually, like it mostly didn’t work. Plus we were originating outside of Bangkok so the massive list of choices really was only 5 or 6. Still, we had a rather enjoyable meal on board. The food all tasted like I expected it to based on the descriptions and there were several choices of main courses to please most palettes.
I honestly wish I remember more about the meal but it was a few weeks ago now and I was already pretty much zonked by the time we got to that point in the trip.
The screen is huge. Absolutely tremendous. And they have a tail camera, available throughout the flight. I love that sort of thing.
Beyond that, the selections on the IFE are, as is oft my experience with Thai, limited and mediocre. They were better on this flight than I remember from my prior trips and better than my next flight was on an older configuration. Still, not a ton of choices. I’d be mildly bothered by that if I really cared about having a ton of movies to watch on a plane.
The A380 also included OnAir internet connectivity. Much like the prior flight on Singapore Air, however, it was not in service. I’m not sure if that was a one-off thing or if the systems generally aren’t active yet, but it was slightly disappointing to not be able to try it out.
The service was quite consistent with my other experiences on Thai, which is to say incredibly inconsistent. I know that my pre-flight service was somewhat limited because I was walking around the plane taking pictures and such. But even once I was belted in and we were flying the crew was a bit hit-or-miss. Not bad, really, in any way, but also just not really the "smooth as silk" which Thai suggests their product offers. It was nowhere near bad enough for me to suggest that others would be better to book away from the flights, but there were plenty of small inconsistencies which were unfortunate for a first class product.
The new A380s offer a significantly better hard product in first class than anything else Thai has flying today, with the possible exception of the Jet 77Ws on wet-lease, though I’m not sure even those are better. And their soft product is good enough that there’s no reason to not fly with them. Departures from Bangkok are better because of the spa, lounge and generally better ground handling, but even inbound flights to Bangkok get met by a golf cart and escorted to the premium immigration line. And there’s the little thing where award inventory on Thai is far easier to come by than many other carriers, even on the A380. In short, this isn’t the best product flying at all but it is very, very good and seems to be quite readily available in general. That makes it one of the better options out there to me.
As a small aside, the folks over at RouteHappy asked me to check out the other cabins on the plane as part of the trip, mostly because they were surprised by a rather negative review someone had for the business class cabin. I obviously didn’t get the service from coach or business class but I did get a bunch of photos of the seats.
Business class is a staggered seating option so theoretically 1-2-1 though much closer in seat size to 2-4-2. The seats didn’t look awful to me but I can see how the aisle seats would be a bit exposed to traffic in the aisles. The window seats looked a little tight and the middle pairs seem OK if you’re a couple traveling together but otherwise might be a bit too intimate.
In economy, beyond the awesome colors, the seats look pretty comfortable. Decent amount of pitch and if you can get that exit row upstairs in the back it should be quite quiet and plenty of space. Everyone gets the AVOD system so that’s a win, even if you’re in coach.