I’m in the midst of a reasonably ridiculous mileage run this weekend, flying between Philadelphia and San Diego a few times over 72 hours. The originally booked flights were reasonable enough but, thanks to schedule changes and such the connection in San Diego – less than an hour between the arrival and departure which required switching from the commuter terminal to the regular terminal – became rather concerning to me. A quick call to the United reservations line had me switched from Newark-Los Angeles-San Diego to Newark-Chicago-San Diego. With a slightly longer layover in San Diego and no terminal change required I was much happier. Plus, about 15 minutes after making the change the upgrade on the Chicago-San Diego segment cleared (Newark-LA wasn’t going to happen) so that a win all around.
On the day of travel I thought things were going pretty well right up until my Amtrak ride from Philadelphia to Newark got delayed. That delay wasn’t enough to really mess me up but it was enough that I called to double-check my connections. At one point during that conversation the agent mentioned that they had a note in their system to expect delays in the Chicago area later Saturday afternoon. That wouldn’t be good at all.
Once I got to Newark I played around with trying to get on the earlier flight to Chicago; SDC worked perfectly except that the new flight started a rolling mechanical delay as soon as I was confirmed on it. I switched back and forth between the two flights a few times before deciding that neither really seemed like a good idea. Both were taking delays and my sub-60 minute connection in Chicago seemed suspect. I changed again, this time to the non-stop from Newark to San Diego. Yes, I gave up the upgrade but I had a bulkhead window seat which is just fine for me. Plus, no more worries about connections.
The thunderstorms causing problems in Chicago topped out around FL350; we detoured far south of them en route to SAN
Ultimately the Newark-Chicago flight ended up ~30 minutes late which likely would’ve blown my connection in Chicago, except that the Chicago-San Diego flight was delayed, too, thanks to the storms the agent had mentioned to me. Listening to Channel 9 as we flew through the region I heard at least one plane divert and discussion from several others about hour-long holding patterns, major storms and long delays. The second delay meant I would’ve actually made the Chicago-San Diego flight, though that still would have ended badly for me. It was so delayed that I would have lost in my original goal – making the connection in San Diego. The inbound from Chicago landed in the other terminal at SAN about 15 minutes before the scheduled departure on SAN-IAD and we closed the door a couple minutes early. I almost certainly would have missed that flight.
So, yeah, I gave up around 500 miles by changing the routing from the original LAX connection. And I gave up a first class seat when I switched to the non-stop (I finished as #1 on the waitlist for EWR-SAN). But I actually got where I was going in time to catch my next flight. And, as an added bonus, I had enough time to leave the airport for a few hours and grab some dinner. That’s always a win.
And, in case anyone is wondering, I do occasionally fly trips as originally booked. Just not all that often. What fun would that be??
The launch of service by Virgin America between Newark and both Los Angeles and San Francisco touched off a bit of a fare war. Most route launches do, especially when it is an upstart encroaching on a cash cow route of a legacy carrier. The fare war itself was not unexpected, really. Slightly less expected was the amount of capacity United Airlines has chosen to respond with. Not only did they match the fares but they are essentially running hourly shuttle service on both routes.
At least one person is willing to call the revised schedule out for being more than just a reasonable response to a sudden increase in demand in the markets. Sir Richard Branson, the outspoken head of the Virgin Group which owns a minority stake in Virgin America was at Newark this week to talk about the new service launch and he had a few words about United’s approach. Speaking to FlightGlobal at the event he was downright defiant:
It’s old-style American airline management. It won’t succeed. They will be the losers. They certainly won’t drive us out of Newark.
Branson also suggests that the move by United is going to cost roughly $150mm annually. I have no idea if those numbers are sound or not; my back of the napkin calculations based on CASM, the aircraft and the number of flights suggests that the operating costs will be a lot higher than that, though I suppose they’ll make some money selling the seats, even at the bargain $99 one-way rates they have on the market right now.
But Branson is also suggesting another tactic may come in to play as Virgin America tries to make it in the market: the government. Branson is suggesting that the carrier may file complaints to regulators regarding the inventory dumping that United has engaged in on these routes. Given that he’s not actually running the company it is hard to tell if either of these defiant stands is real. Saying you’re going to file a complaint is a lot different than actually doing so and it is not actually his position to do it so others will have to get involved before it actually happens. Still, it is always interesting to hear that approach discussed.
I get that Branson wants to see more service and lower fares in the market. That makes sense. So it is hard to use that same argument to say that United’s inventory dumping here is a bad thing. At the same time, history suggests that should United actually drive Virgin America out of the market the service and fares will rapidly return to the old levels. The question is whether the feds should be involved.
Thus far I’m happy with the fare sales; they’re going to be very useful for me, I’m sure. We’ll just have to see how long it all lasts.
Passengers will have one more option for flights between Milan and New York City starting this Fall. Emirates will launch the route in October 2013 ending their 5 year hiatus of service between New York and Europe. Their previous iteration of service was to Hamburg, Germany which ended in 2008.
Flights will depart New York at 10:20pm, arriving in Milan at 12:15pm the following day and continuing on to Dubai at 2:00pm. The westbound flight will depart Milan at 4:00pm, arriving in New York at 7:00pm the same day. The eastbound flight time is nice, providing useful onward connection options in Europe. It is also a late enough flight such that sleeping should be reasonably easy for passengers. Westbound the timing is great for passengers who want most of a day in Europe before heading back to New York City. Onward connections are limited, however, with the late arrival at JFK.
The route will compete directly with Delta, Alitalia and American Airlines There is also a flight on United Airlines into Newark. And the Emirates 777-300ER will be the largest plane on the route, adding a lot of capacity and also adding an option for first class service.
I now know which route I’ll be looking over the winter for bargain deals.
It turns out that I was wrong about how United Airlines would respond to Virgin America announcing 3x daily service from Newark to both San Francisco and Los Angeles in Spring 2013. I figured maybe an extra flight or two and possibly some promos for extra frequent flyer points. United apparently has a different plan in mind. First there was the announcement of a San Francisco – Ft. Lauderdale route by United. A minor retaliation, really, but there it was. More recently, however, United has updated their schedule for service between the coasts. If this isn’t dumping inventory I don’t know what is.
Check out the timetables for the first week of June:
United is basically running hourly shuttle service on transcon flights. That’s nuts. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with pricing to try to fill those seats. There’s no way they’re going to be able fill them at their old price levels.
JetBlue is continuing to grow their operations in Boston, focusing on business markets in a big way. The carrier announced today that they will offer service between Boston and Philadelphia with five daily flights beginning May 23, 2013. This is not a small entry into a market, testing the waters to see if there will be resistance. This is a major move with the expectation that they have to show up with a solid offering or be beaten out of the market by US Airways.
Speaking of getting beaten out of the market, Southwest tried to attack US Air on this route recently. The carrier added service in June 2010 and competed with US Airways for 20 months before throwing in the towel. As of February 2012 Southwest killed the route, leaving US Airways once again as the only carrier on the route. JetBlue is no stranger to competing with an incumbent on a major business Boston route. The New York-based carrier has previously established similar service at Washington’s National airport and Newark.
The route schedule offers reasonably good timings for business travelers:
It would be nice to see one early morning flight out of Philadelphia and a later flight out of Boston – as it stands a "day trip" out of Philly is really only about half a day – but the schedule has potential. That said, JetBlue will be competing with 15-17 daily departures on US Airways. The shuttle-type service will be tough to match. JetBlue faced a similar schedule discrepancy in Washington, DC and eventually grew their operation to 10 daily flights to keep pace. The Philadelphia operation may need to grow to succeed, though it is not clear that demand exists for both JetBlue and US Airways to run "shuttle" operations on the route.
Also worth noting is that, despite the reputation of Philadelphia as a massive US Airways fortress hub, the carrier isn’t nearly as dominant there as some other airline hubs around the country. Not that the JetBlue service appears to be focusing on connecting traffic, but there could be an opportunity here. If nothing else it should help bring fares down for passengers. Currently a one-way fare in the nonstop market is $404 while return trips can be had for as low as $260 return. Even aside from the introductory $17.76 fare sale there is the opportunity for the lower one-way fares to make a big difference for both leisure and business travelers. And to cut at US Airways’ bottom line.
It is not surprising that, eventually, younger airlines have to compete on major business routes to try to win customers. JetBlue has taken a relatively conservative approach lately on this front. They’ve been somewhat selective and limited in their moves but they seem to be working as the carrier has maintained loads and yields as they’ve expanded. Still, this is a market where such an effort has been staged before and the challenger lost. It will be interesting to see if JetBlue can succeed.
When was the last time you heard someone get excited about Newark? For Virgin America, however, there is a lot of excitement as the carrier looks to challenge United Airlines on two major routes, connecting Newark to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The service starts in April 2013, with thrice daily service each to both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Given that Virgin America has been slowing its growth (and even cutting ASMs this winter) adding these long-haul flights is a big move for them. Not surprisingly, the introductory fare sale is obvious in the market. Here’s the lowest one-way fares between Newark and San Francisco chart for the two weeks before and after the service launches:
The numbers are similar out of LAX.
For the premium cabin seats and refundable fares, the markets where real money is made (at least in theory) the fares don’t appear to be changing all that much. It doesn’t appear that Virgin is pushing too hard against United and United has not – at least not yet – decided that they are looking to start a fare war. That said, I do expect that United will eventually respond in some way. After all, disparities like this make it hard to justify the higher fare:
The competition is good for consumers in that it should bring fares down a bit in the market. And it might be good for consumers in service levels or other experiences. A decent chance of a frequent flier promotion based on this, too. That said, it isn’t clear just how long Virgin America can afford to fight it out with other carriers based on fare alone, and their service frequencies are half of what United is offering. Virgin has challenged US Airways in Philadelphia and American in DFW. They’re still in both markets but it doesn’t appear that the legacies have taken much of a hit either.
It will certainly be interesting to watch.
After several weeks of speculation Delta, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have come to an agreement which will see Delta acquire a 49% ownership stake in Virgin Atlantic for $360mm. Delta’s stake will come from Singapore Airlines; Virgin Group, headed by Sir Richard Branson, will retain their current 51% share and control of the company. The Virgin brand and operating certificate will remain intact. The deal is still dependent on approval from regulators on both sides of the Atlantic. The airlines expect the deal to close by the end of 2013.
Delta and Virgin Atlantic also intend to establish a joint venture operation for trans-Atlantic operations. The joint venture will not, at least for now, include other SkyTeam partners. It will, however include:
- A fully integrated joint venture that will operate on a "metal neutral" basis with both airlines sharing the costs and revenues from all joint venture flights.
- A combined trans-Atlantic network between the United Kingdom and North America with 31 peak-day round-trip flights.
- Enhanced benefits for customers including cooperation on services between New York and London, with a combined total of nine daily round-trip flights from London-Heathrow to John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport.
- Reciprocal frequent flyer benefits.
- Shared access to Delta Sky Club and Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse airport lounges for elite passengers.
The joint venture will definitely give the combined carriers a leg up in the ultra-competitive London market. That said, the combined lift between London and New York City and Newark still doesn’t begin to reach the frequencies at British Airways/American Airlines offer. The 23 total flights daily between the USA and Heathrow will place Delta/Virgin in a solid second place, ahead of United’s 16 but well behind BA/AA’s nearly 40 daily operations.
From a passenger perspective the overall product should be very competitive in both economy and business class. Both Delta and Virgin Atlantic currently offer flat beds for all passengers in their business class cabins. For economy class the AVOD systems on both carriers should provide sufficient entertainment to distract the passengers from their tighter seating quarters. Virgin Atlantic has a proper premium economy cabin which Delta does not offer; there may be some work to reconcile that difference at some point. On the ground the Virgin Clubhouse lounges are some of the nicest business class operations, particularly in New York and London. Delta’s SkyClubs are not at the same level but in shared markets customers will have the benefit of access to both.
Delta has been looking for a way to get at more slots into Heathrow. They picked up a couple when British Airways was forced to divest them following their acquisition of bmi but that wasn’t enough to significantly change their operations. The partnership with Virgin Atlantic will open up access to many more slots eventually. And the price point was quite reasonable. Of course, Virgin Atlantic has been losing money in recent quarters so it might become a more expensive investment over time, but at least initially it looks like a positive opportunity for both carriers.
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.
The wind and rain may have stopped but that doesn’t mean the disaster is over. Far from it, really.
As the recovery process in the New York City area continues in the wake of Hurricane Sandy airlines are getting in on the act, supporting the American Red Cross and other agencies. For some airlines that support comes in the form of volunteers from their employee ranks, heading in to the disaster area to support the efforts on the ground. And for others the support comes in encouraging members to donate to the relief organizations, mostly in the form of earning frequent flyer points in exchange for donating.
Here are the links I can find right now for airlines offering up bonus miles. If anyone has any others let me know and I’ll add them to the list.
- JetBlue is matching customer donations up to the first $50,000 donated to the American Red Cross and also offering 6 points per dollar to their TrueBlue members. JetBlue is also making their presence felt on the ground in New York City, paying for meals from the Wafels & Dinges food trucks to be distributed to residents.
- Delta is donating $100,000 to the American Red Cross relief efforts. Additionally, SkyMiles members can also donate miles or money to the Red Cross; there does not appear to be any miles promo associated with it at this time.
- United Airlines is matching up to $100,000 in donations to three charities: the American Red Cross, Feeding America and AmeriCares. As of this morning their member have already donated more than $300,000 to the charities so the match is maxed out. Additionally, members who give a minimum of $50 will receive 250 bonus miles.Donations of $100 or more will receive 500 miles. The company will issue up to 5 million miles as part of the effort.
- American Airlines is offering 250 AAdvantage miles to members who donate $50 and 500 miles to members who donate $100 or more.
- Starwood is matching donations of points made through November 30, 2012.
- 2,000 Starpoints = $25 USD donation
- 4,000 Starpoints = $50 USD donation
- 8,000 Starpoints = $100 USD donation
- 12,000 Starpoints = $150 USD donation
- 16,000 Starpoints = $200 USD donation
- Hilton is matching donations up to $100,000 through December 31, 2012. Additionally, members will earn 10 HHonors points for every dollar donated.
Finally, there are a bunch more resources available for folks looking to see how they can help out. JetBlue has a great list at the end of their post here.
UPDATE: Official statement from United online now:
As some of you have heard, there has been an unexpected delay with the delivery of additional 787 Dreamliner aircraft from Boeing. While many flights will continue to operate with the 787, this delay will result in some flights being operated by other aircraft in November and December. Specifically, here’s what this means:
- Our first 787 is continuing with pre-certification proving runs and is expected to enter commercial service Nov. 4 as scheduled. However, this year’s subsequent 787 deliveries are running behind schedule.
- This weekend United is updating our systems to reflect the different aircraft types flying in place of certain previously-published 787 flying.
- We will begin the process of notifying customers on the initial affected flights over the weekend, and will offer them the opportunity to re-book or receive a refund. These customers were given a special Reservations desk phone number to contact, which has been assigned to help them with this situation.
We’re just excited as many of you to introduce this 787 to our fleet, and we appreciate your patience with these unexpected schedule changes. To those of you whose travel plans are impacted, we’re very sorry for the inconvenience.
Remember how there were rumors of trouble brewing with the United Airlines 787 Dreamliner and getting it fully tested and into service in time for the previously announced service launch? Yeah, turns out those seem to be true.
The generally reliable @airlineroute account on twitter is reporting now that the one-time flights from Houston to Cleveland and Washington-Dulles will be scrapped. Additionally, the scheduled service to Newark, Los Angeles and San Francisco will see some substitutions.
My original plan to get on a United 787 was scrubbed when there was a schedule change, killing my connection in Houston. I have another scheduled (and upgraded!) flight at the end of the month which I figured was pretty much a sure thing. I’m less convinced of that right now but still hopeful.
Keep an eye out on the timetables with this weekend’s schedule changes. This time they’re actually real.