Monthly Archives: February 2011

A Quick Word about Hotel Fees

The OTR is on vacation at the Marriott Los Suenos in Costa Rica (flew AA on miles – 30k to Central America is 5k fewer miles than anyone else charges), and so I won’t be back writing til Thursday.  But I wanted to mention quickly to everyone who complains about airline fees, they should save their vitriol for hotels (such as this hotel) which dare to charge $7 for a bottle of water.  It’s beautiful here, don’t get me wrong, but really – $7?

EasyJet Apologizes for Serving Pork on Israel Flight

EasyJet offered an apology for mistakenly serving pork on a flight from Israel to London (the CNN story notes that they served pork instead of “the standard kosher food” – pork is clearly an unstandard kosher food.    Easyjet generally offers Kosher and vegetarian sandwiches on its Tel Aviv flights, but loaded the wrong food onto the plane.  Passengers who kept kosher (and who didn’t bring food on-board which, if you keep kosher, is really your fault, even if the airline did screw up), had to go without food for, gasp, 4 hours.

Summer Fares to Europe Are Way, Way Up

Anyone looking to make a jaunt to Europe this summer either has been or quickly will be extremely unpleasantly surprised by the fares they’re seeing.  Summer round trips from the east coast are in the $1400 range (give or take) for flights to Paris, Rome and London.  I’ve been watching these fares for years, and we’re up 40-50% from historical levels. Even last year, when we saw fares consistently over $1100, seems like a bargain compared to what we’re seeing now.

This isn’t to say that as we get closer fares won’t come down.  They might.  But they are sky-high right now.  (Before you start complaining about the airlines, they’re charging this amount because they can).  If you’re interested in saving a few dollars, Icelandair and Iceland Express are both offering fares about $300-400 less than their nonstop competitors.

Continental Will Offer Economy Plus

You may have read this elsewhere already, but for the record:  United has decided to keep Economy Plus in its aircraft and will roll it out to all Continental planes beginning in 2012.  Some larger regional aircraft will also feature the product with additional legroom.

I think that every Continental frequent traveler has eyes welled with tears right now, as Continental’s major drawback has been the lack of seats with extra legroom.  I wouldn’t be shocked if they lose a row or two of first class to put in these seats, but let’s be honest — you weren’t getting that upgrade.

Delta Air Lines Offers Frozen Snickers, $50

A distraught cat owner is fighting a decision by Delta Air Lines, which offered her a $50 reimbursement after her cat, Snickers, froze to death in the cargo hold of a Delta plane.  Delta originally told Heather Lombardi that they would reimburse her nearly $3,000 for various vet-related costs, but this week reduced the payment to $50.

The cat froze while in the cargo hold during a flight from Salt Lake City to Hartford last month.

(Thanks to reader Joe-Z).

A Great Consumer Benefit: Delta’s SkyMiles No Longer Expire

You can parse this one however you want, but the outcome is the same:  Delta has eliminated the expiration date on SkyMiles, a move that benefits every consumer.  More importantly for infrequent flyers, it’s one of the few moves I’ve seen an airline make recently that also benefits travelers who are not Elite members.  There is no catch or compromise.  I have no idea whether other airlines will follow suit (I’m guessing not – even though this is a great benefit, no one is going to fly Delta because their miles don’t expire.  The expiration date was 18 months from your last activity, so the date would extend any time you flew).  Even so, it’s pro-consumer and it’s hard to argue with that.

(On a side note, the frequent flyer community seems to refer to SkyMiles as SkyPesos because they are seen as a devalued currency.  I prefer to use SkyKilometers, as it always seems to take 1.6 times as many SkyMiles as you’d expect to actually redeem an award).

A Quick Review of Hipmunk

When Orbitz launched in 2000 it signaled a revolution in how consumers shopped for airfares.  Previously, online travel agencies simply listed a huge number of flights and it was up to the customer to make sense of which airline was charging how much; how many stops there were; and when flights were leaving.  Orbitz changed all that by introducing the fare matrix at the top of the page which gave customers a quick understanding of the tradeoffs between price, stops and choice of airline.

At the time, I remember speaking to staff at Orbitz and they said that customers either understood the matrix right away and it changed their life (I’m paraphrasing) or they didn’t understand it at all.  I always felt the matrix was an amazing leap in information architecture, and other OTAs eventually agreed, as they have all adopted a matrix display for airfares.  I can’t imagine looking at airfares without it.

Fast forward about 10 years, and we’ve basically seen no change in how airfares are displayed to consumers.  Until now.  A little company called Hipmunk is trying to take Orbitz’ idea one step further, displaying airfares in a graphic that displays a grid based on the duration of flight (go over and check it out.  I’ll wait here).

Back?  Good.  Interesting, right?  They’re putting a lot of weight on measure they call “Agony,” which is an index of tradeoffs between price, stops and duration.  I’m not sure customers are going to get that (especially since I think a nonstop in a middle seat on a Continental 757 from Newark to Paris with little legroom may be more agony than a 1-stop on KLM Economy Comfort through Amsterdam…to each his own).

Putting the Agony measure aside, I admire that they’ve taken an entirely different approach to the amazingly complex problem of how you display multiple-factor options when choosing a flight.  I appreciate that the focus is not on price, and that they’re focused on helping understand tradeoffs – that’s a great thing for travelers, especially when Hipmunk introduces some level of understanding the fees involved in each flight (they don’t have that now, but how do they not roll that out soon?)

That all said, while I admire what they’ve done, I don’t actually think it will take off in its current form.  Why?

– Orbitz was a hit pretty quickly not only because the matrix display was brilliant, but because they were the first OTA to be tied into ITA Software.  Why did that matter?  Especially in the beginning, ITA simply brought back more and better fare options.  That’s less true today, but in 2001 web fares were a big deal, and fares really did vary by site.  That’s not really the case (much) anymore, and Orbitz brought back lower fares more often.  Hipmunk is hit-or-miss on fares.  That can be solved over time, but it’s not solved yet.

– The fundamental idea of the Hipmunk display is that customers will graphically understand the tradeoff between fare and duration.  Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.  The lines they use to connote how long a flight is all look pretty similar to my eye (check out a longer flight, say New York to Paris).  It’s not the obvious that one flight is two hours longer than another because of a stop.  In fact, I think the way that most OTAs just tell you the flight duration actually works better (perhaps if Hipmunk put the duration of the flight within the horizontal bar connoting the length of time it would help).  However, most people can’t easily suss out the difference in length of flight based on the length of line.  They just look too similar.

But this is still a Version 1 — I imagine this site will look quite different in a year.  There’s been so little innovation in airfares over the past year, that I really admire a company taking a different approach to visualizing a very complex problem.  I’m not convinced they’ve solved it yet, but they’ve raised some money from some impressive folks who know what they’re doing.  I look forward to watching them grow.

Qatar Airways CEO: We Are Not Taking Over the World (To Paraphrase)

We are in the midst of a bit of a back-and-forth between the head of the
Association of European Airlines (Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus, for those keeping score, and to whom I’ll refer as S-S) and outspoken CEO of Qatar Airways (Akbar Al Baker, in the other corner).  S-S started things off last month when, while speaking at an aviation conference, he accused Gulf-based carriers Qatar Airways, Etihad and Emirates of conspiring to capacity dump (offering more seats than necessary at a price below their true cost) to drive out Asian and European competitors and, (this is an odd one), accusing the governments of the Gulf nations of operating the airlines “as an instrument of national strategy.”

The latter part was meant to suggest that the airlines are subsidized by the government as a way of building the strength of the countries.  This is, of course, an absurd accusation coming from someone representing Europe, where countries have propped up both airlines and airplane manufacturers for years.

He went on, essentially suggesting that these 3 airlines are spending upwards of $100 billion to take over the aviation world (not necessarily untrue).  These carriers have more than 400 widebody aircraft on order, more than the US airlines combined.

S-S’ complaint smells of sour grapes if you ask me (which you haven’t), as he’s really just disappointed that no European carrier has been able to accomplish in 80 years what these 3 airlines have done in 20.

Al-Baker struck back in a statement earlier this week saying that S-S’ remarks were “factually incorrect” and called him out for the “billions of Euros” that European countries have pumped into their aviation industry.  He then answered S-S’ call for a World Trade Organization for airlines, which would adjudicate disputes between carriers and ensure free trade.  Al-Baker said that he’d be happy to have this body as long as it allowed “free competition across the board.”  In other words:  I’ll sign up for an airline WTO when you let me fly from Frankfurt to New York.  Don’t hold your breath.

The Gulf carriers have been much maligned by representatives of airlines in other regions, primarily because they are growing so quickly from the seemingly unlimited funding of their governments.  Funny though – isn’t that how just about every other major airline in the world started?  Boo hoo, Lufthansa.

Houston to London Round Trip: $294 TAX INCLUDED

Expedia is showing a roundtrip fare from Houston to London for $294 round trip (all taxes included).  The fare is listed on Iberia, but it’s actually on British Airways metal.

Flight are available Monday – Wednesday through March.

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Baggage Handler Trapped in Cargo Hold Escapes…Barely

Passengers on a US Airways Embraer E-170 were surprised to hear banging and screaming coming from under the plane as they were about to pull away from their gate at Reagan National Airport.  A baggage handler had been in the cargo hold and was trapped after a co-worker shut the door without realizing he was in it.  The trapped staffer was supposed to also operate the tow to pull the plane away from the gate.  When he didn’t show up for that part of his duties (oh, that and the screaming and banging on the floor), the pilot realized what had happened.  He got out fine and went on to operate the tow.