Category Archives: Featured Columns - Page 2

Top 5 Friday: Unique Routes Flown by US Airlines

With United’s announcement yesterday that they will begin serving Accra, Lagos and Bahrain (the latter two being extensions of other flights), I was reminded how much I appreciate when an airline takes on a route that is un- or under-served.  Today I bring the Top 5 Unique Routes Flown by US Airlines:

1) Continental’s Island Hopper.  Continental’s Micronesia service has served as an area of endless fascination for many Continental frequent flyers thumbing through the in-flight magazine route map and wondering when they’ll ever get to go to Yap.  The island hopper, a flight skipping from Honolulu to Majuro, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Guam, is particularly fascinating since flights that hop-hop-hop along to its destination rarely exist anymore and harken back to the days when Pan Am skipped along the west coast of Africa.

2) Delta’s JFK – Georgetown, Guyana.  A small outfit called Universal Airlines (as well as North American Airlines) used to fly this route so New York’s large Guyanese community could go back home to visit.  Always nice to see a more stable carrier taking over and letting Americans see what its like in this bustling Caribbean capital.

3) Delta’s JFK-Dakar.  Africa has been a mystery to most Americans forever, but Delta’s nonstop to Senegal – which is just about as far as Western Europe – makes a long weekend in Africa a real possibility.  Imagine that.

4) Northwest’s Tokyo – Saipan.  While most of us in the US think of Northwest as the airline you take to fly from Minneapolis to Minot, they have an extensive Asian network with rights to carry passengers from Tokyo to points onward.  Most unique is the leisure-focused Tokyo-Saipan flight, which, although it sounds exotic as I sit here and type it, would be roughly as exotic as New York – Fort Lauderdale if you were Japanese.

5) Spirit Airlines’ Fort Lauderdale – Cartagena, Colombia.  We got to visit Cartagena earlier this year because of Spirit’s flight there.  Although just a short 2-hour hop from southern Florida, it’s rather difficult to get to without Spirit’s flight.  Cartagena is one of the great jewels of Latin America, and Americans have largely avoided it because people assume it’s unsafe (wrong), and you pretty much had to fly through Bogota to get there (and most assumed you would be killed while in Bogota’s airport – wrong again).  Spirit has made the flight easy, and opened up a city that you’ll want to go back to again and again.


One Final Note (I Promise) on Easter Island: Why We Collect Frequent Flyer Miles

My final thought on the whole Easter Island trip:  Polynesians arrived on the island more than a thousand years ago likely by paddling 2,000 miles on a double-hulled canoe.  Air service to the island did not begin until the late 1960s — yes, until 40 years ago the only way to get to this remote dot was via ship.

By opening a couple of credit cards I accumulated enough miles to get a free flight there.  Think about how insane that is:  For all of human history until just a few years ago, you couldn’t even get to the place without suffering unspeakable misery on a ship hoping you could navigate your way to a 100 square mile speck in the Pacific Ocean.  Now I literally did nothing and could get there in a few hours for free.

Outside of the invention of the aircraft itself, have frequent flyer miles done more than anything else to shrink the size of the world?  We take for granted nowadays that we can fill out a credit card application and get just about enough miles to fly to Hawaii for free.  Then people complain that all of the dates they want aren’t available.

Think about that:  you can fly just about anywhere in the world you want for free.  And yet we hear (and read) about people complaining about the middle seat.  Or that the food wasn’t great.  Or that the availability wasn’t quite what they wanted.  Are we all crazy?  This is a revolution.  Anyone with half a brain can gather enough frequent flyer miles (without actually even flying anywhere) in a couple of months (if that long) to get a free ticket anywhere in the world.  Stop for a second.  You can go anywhere.  In.  The.  World.  For.  Free.

We are the first generation to experience the world shrinking like that.  Everywhere was far away until the airline alliances kicked in over the past 20 years.  Now nowhere is far.  Everywhere is right out the back door, and nowhere costs anything.  And we’ve gotten so spoiled about it that so many of us, upon returning from a free trip to heaven knows where, will mention only that the seating was a bit cramped and the pre-flight drink not quite up to snuff.

All of us who spend time accumulating miles really need to take a step back once in a while and remember that we are the beneficiaries of a system that has made it possible to travel anywhere in the world we want without paying.  Does this give the airlines a free pass?  Of course not.  But the idea that the entire world is accessible to the average person outweighs any indignity suffered at the hands of an airline.  I, for one, know that I need to smack myself in the ass once in a while and remind myself that I have it pretty good.


Some Help Planning a Trip to Easter Island…For How Many Days Should You Go?

When I was planning the Easter Island trip I found that the resources online were, shall I say, less than completely useful. Before I left I shared tips about how to plan a trip there using miles. Today I thought I’d pass along some additional logistical odds and ends.

The only flight gateways to Easter Island are Tahiti (which I didn’t fly through) and Santiago (which I did). Santiago – Easter Island is a domestic flight, so you will clear customs after landing in Santiago. The bad news for business class passengers is that the lounge in Santiago is accessible for passengers departing on international flights. What’s that mean? It means that you won’t be getting a shower when you land in Santiago.

The Santiago airport has an international and domestic wing. The Easter Island flights are boarded at a gate that straddles both the international and domestic terminals.

There is no lounge at Easter Island either, but we did see wild horses playing in the parking lot.

The big question (other than whether you should bother going) is for how many days you should go. Let’s start with that one. If you’re a huge history buff, you could spend 5-7 days on the island (if not more, frankly). There are hundreds of Moai (the statues) all over the island, and, again, if you are into the history (which, admittedly, is fascinating) you will have ample opportunity to view many of the important sites strewn about the island.

If you have a mild interest in history, you will be able to accomplish what you’d like in a 3-night trip. This will present you with plenty of time to see key sites and allow for some important hanging around time. 3 nights would probably have sufficed for us (Susan may say that 0 nights would have sufficed and that 5 nights in St. Bart’s would have been better. Neither answer is wrong).

What you give up in 3 nights (rather than a 5-7 night trip) is getting into the rhythm of the place. It’s a Polynesian island and offers a laidback, friendly attitude that can be experienced with a beer watching the waves roll in in town. It is not, however, Hawaii. Or Tahiti. There are two sandy beaches. Only two. And they are not exactly Waikiki. Which was fine for me – no one else was there, and we were surrounded by the ubiquitous wild horses, and I found it to be relaxing and different. My wife didn’t really see it that way. You (or your spouse) may feel similarly.

The big question is really whether you would be happy going at all: There seem to be three camps:

1) It’s just a bunch of statues. Please don’t make me fly that far for a bunch of statues.

2) It’s a bunch of statues, but I’d like to see them because they are part of the world’s most interesting history. 3-nights will suffice.

3) It’s one of the world’s great archeological discoveries and when you combine that with an off-the-beaten path locale, you could get lost there easily for a week.

None of those, obviously, is correct (or incorrect). To be frank, I was able to appreciate the place and the speed of it more than my wife. I was moved by the idea that this civilization spent an unspeakable amount of time and effort to carve these statues using only the most primitive of means. That’s fine (well, not exactly fine as this was supposed to be a trip for her birthday), but I’m guessing that is a common reaction – one of the two of you may feel much differently about it than the other person. That can be, as my wife says, a chafe, as you’ve flown way the hell out there. Which is why I make this recommendation: Combine it either with a trip to Patagonia or a trip to Tahiti. Most of the people at the hotel had combined it with a trip to one of those places (we were more jealous of the folks going to Tahiti). LAN flights from Santiago continue on to Tahiti several days a week, making the stopover quite easy.

Our trip was sidelined a bit by absolutely miserable weather. Biblical rains washed us out the first few days and we felt a bit trapped. Guidebooks generally suggest that October is among the best times to visit. This was probably true several years ago. Because of changing weather patterns October, which used to be warm and dry, is now part of the rainy season. That’s a bummer. Going from site to site would be wonderful in the 80-degree climes found in December – February. The chilly, rainy weather we found (and which locals told us has now become normal during that time of year) is not conducive to sightseeting (to be fair, no vacation benefits from several days of rain).

The Explora (which is where we stayed thanks to the contest we won) is insanely expensive ($1500/night) but the only very nice option on the island. The Hotel Tauraa and Hotel Otai are apparently OK 2-3 star choices, but if “somewhat rustic” is not your thing, the Explora is your only option. And you’ll be shelling out decent bucks for it.

As Susan said to me on the last day, when (like us) you are trying to go to some more interesting vacation spots, not every one is going to be a winner. I felt Easter Island was a risk worth taking. In the end, I’m not 100% sure. But before you go, think about what’s important to you in a vacation – it’s a very long trip to find yourself disappointed.


How to Get to Easter Island Using Frequent Flyer Miles (Since I’m Leaving for Easter Island Today)

The OTR is headed to Easter Island for a few days (I’ll be back posting again next Thursday, most likely) thanks to frequent flyer miles and my somehow winning Voyage.Tv’s TweetYourTrip contest.  While doing some research about how to get to Easter Island using frequent flyer miles, I found that there wasn’t a particularly useful roundup of how to do that.  I’ll provide that now:

LAN (part of oneworld) is the only airline that flies to Easter Island, and the schedule varies quite widely based on seasons – though you can only fly there via Santiago, Chile, or Tahiti.  There are a handful of months (October is one) where you can make the connection from New York without having to spend a day in Santiago.  For those of us in the US, American would be the most obvious choice to use miles, but they consider Easter Island to be part of the South Pacific – so you would have to fly via Tahiti.  Not really an option from the East Coast (especially with Air Tahiti Nui’s nonstop from New York no longer flying).

Fret not:  you have several other options:

– Use your AAdvantage points for the flight to Santiago (40k miles offpeak), then book the 50,000 kilometer reward from Santiago to Easter Island using points you’ve transfered into LAN from Starwood.  Remember – Starwood points transfer at 1-to-2, so 20k Starwood points gets you 50,000 kilometers.

– Or, even better if you’re going with two people, British Airways only requires 20,000 miles for the Santiago – Easter Island flight.  Transfer 35,000 SPG points into BA and you’ve got two roundtrip tickets.  40k AA miles + 17,500 SPG points is a pretty good deal, considering it’s 16 hours flying time.

– Or you can suck it up and pay 100k AA miles and fly on LAN’s apparently great premium business to Santiago.  My wife doesn’t do 17 hours in coach anymore.

– Thanks to TweetYourTrip we’ll be staying at the Explora Rapa Nui.  Trust me, I would not pay $1,600/night on my own.  I’ll let you know if it’s worth it.

In any case, we’ll be back Wednesday.  Looking online there really was a lack of resources out there about how to plan this trip so if any of you have questions about Easter Island, I’ll be more than happy to answer & post here.


Top 5 Friday: Airlines I’ve Been Surprised to Learn Fly (or Flew) 747s

I was pleased with the response from last Friday’s Top 5 747 routes Delta flew that made no sense.  Along those lines I bring you the Top 5 Airlines I’ve been surprised to learn Fly (or Flew) 747s:

– Surinam Airways.  Because of the distance from Surinam back to Amsterdam there was probably a point at which a 747 made sense.  Nah.  Check out the awesome circa-1973 font, though, on the livery.

– Cameroon Airlines.  The vaguely Indian, vaguely psychedelic font on their livery is even better than that on Surinam Airways.  Seriously, why did Cameroon need 747s?

– Air Madagascar.  Sure, it’s an island thousands of miles from anywhere.  Again, great font.

– Ernest Angley Ministries.  When I lived in Cleveland Ernest Angley used to have an absolutely awesome televangelist show from his home base in Akron.  Badly lip-synching singers were the cherry on the sundae of mangled scripture and a terrible toupee.  But for some reason he flies this awesome 747-SP.  Even God is impressed.

– Air Gabon.  Quite a disappointing font for an airline that has no reason to own a 747.


Top 5 Friday: City Pairs that Had Delta 747 Service in the Early 1970s that Made No Economic Sense Whatsoever

I was thinking about an old advertisement I saw from the early 1970s touting Delta’s then-new (and short-lived) 747 service.  Since I was a small child 747s have always been my favorite plane – their unusual shape, upstairs/downstairs configuration, and long-distance ability represented all that flight had to offer.  You could sit in this incredibly designed airplane and go anywhere in the world you wanted.  What more could a 10 year old need?

The young’uns out there likely have no recollection that 747s used to ply the domestic skies fairly regularly.  In the mid-1980s I flew Continental and People Express 747s from New York to Los Angeles.  Pan Am, Northwest and United were all flying 747s domestically at that time as well (American and Eastern also operated them for short periods.)

Using those aircraft on domestic flights today makes little-to-no economic sense.  It probably made little-to-no economic sense on many of the flights it served back then (Pan Am was flying 747s between New York and Miami for a bit).  But the most ridiculous were flown by Delta, which offered these 5 routes on 747s:

Dallas – Atlanta
Chicago – Miami
Detroit – Miami
Detroit – Altanta
Miami – Atlanta

Those were good times.  Detroit – Miami on a 747.  Har.

(Also funny is that ad I linked to suggesting that first class felt like being on a private jet – albeit a private jet with, uh, 400 seats).


Top 5 Friday: Airline Concepts We Wish Had Worked

Lots of hare-brained airline concepts have been launched over the years, but today we wanted to focus on 5 airlines that launched with interesting ideas that weren’t able to survive:

Legend – Legend flew all-business class regional jets out of Dallas Love Airport for about 10 minutes back in 2000.  The idea of avoiding DFW and not having to fly Southwest was an appealing combination for some business travelers.  Unfortunately for Legend, American came along and crushed them by essentially launching the exact same service.  Game over.

MGM Grand – In the late 1980s, MGM Grand Air flew a couple of transcon routes on 727s and DC-8s outfitted like private jets.  Oh those were heady times.  But as Wall Street collapsed and the cocaine dried up, so did interest in the airline.  Oddly enough, it survives today as charter carrier Champion.

EOS Airlines – All first-class seating to London for fares that were often available under $2,000.  What’s not to like?  It’s hard to remember that before they came along your only option for premium Transatlantic travel cost $5,000 and up.

Eastwind – For a brief period in the mid-1990s Eastwind flew from Trenton to points in Florida.  As a New Jersey boy, the idea of much, much-maligned Trenton getting its own airline was somewhat exciting, considering that the capital city of New Jersey didn’t even have a movie theater.  But as you’d suspect, that love affair lasted about 10 minutes and they moved their headquarters to Greensboro before disappearing.

Midwest Express – Yes, Midwest still exists today.  But ask anyone who used to fly them and you’ll know that it’s a completely different airline.  Flying an all-business class configuration with full meal service and warm cookies for a very small premium over coach fares, their on-board product made flying to Milwaukee almost bearable. Almost.


Top 5 Terrible Airline Concepts That Actually Flew

In our final installment of Top 5 week, we’ll look at Top 5 Terrible Airline Concepts that actually flew.  And I think I’m going to do Top 5 Fridays going forward.  What do you care, really?

Vanguard Airlines. The pitch:  $29 fares to Kansas City.  To.  Kansas. City.  Yes, they had significant flights to other cities (Chicago-Midway), but it all came down to $29 fares to Kansas City.  That people stopped flying altogether after 9/11 certainly didn’t help either.

Hooters Air. The pitch:  Guys like chicken wings and girls in tight shirts in our restaurants, so they’ll be thrilled when they board our planes and find neither.  Oh, and you can only go to Myrtle Beach.

ExpressJet. The pitch:  Screw you, Continental, we’ll fly on our own.  To Raleigh.  And El Paso.  Oh wait – people don’t want to fly from Ontario, California, to El Paso?  Oops!

Trump Shuttle. The pitch:  Trump.  Shuttle.  Mired with debt from day 1, they never had a chance.  Turns out running an airline is more difficult than slapping your name on a plane.  (Who knew?)

Roots Air. The pitch:  People love our Gap-like clothes, so they’ll love flying from Toronto to Vancouver on a plane with our name on it.  Lasted one month before Air Canada stepped in and took over.


Top 5 Airlines You Don’t Appreciate Enough

I’ve actually been enjoying the Top 5 lists, so they’ll continue through the rest of this week.  Today we’re going to look at the Top 5 Airlines You Don’t Appreciate Enough:

Spirit.  Wow, do people hate Spirit Airlines.  People really, really hate Spirit.  Go and read some of the reviews and Twitter comments and online chatter about Spirit.  It’s ugly.  And the amazing part is this:  all of those people are wrong to complain.  Spirit promises you nothing, and they deliver on it.  In exchange, you have the opportunity to fly to Haiti for $9.  OK, you don’t want to go to Haiti.  But lots of people do, and it used to cost them hundreds and hundreds of dollars to go to Haiti.  And Honduras.  And Bogota.  You may not like paying for soda, but if your family is in Nicaragua and you couldn’t afford to visit for years, and all of a sudden it costs $9 (or $29 or $49) to fly to Managua, are you really going to complain?  I’ve flown to Ft Lauderdale on Spirit in their Big Front Seat for $21.  Round trip.  I’m going to whine about paying for chips?  Or checking my bag?  And ha ha, the joke’s on you, because every airline charges fees for everything now.  And do you think JetBlue would be offering their $9 Twitter fares if Spirit hadn’t made $9 the low price to beat?  No.  No they wouldn’t.  If you want a free soda, fly someone else.  (Editor’s Note:  On second thought, based on this unprecedented $375,000 DoT fine, they actually do suck…)

Alaska Airlines.  People like Alaska Airlines – and they should.  But I’m not sure everyone appreciates that many, many of the time-saving airline technologies we have nowadays started (or were championed) by Alaska.  E-tickets, online check-in, kiosks, “Airport of the future” and print-at-home boarding passes are all thanks (either in large part or in whole part) to Alaska.  It helps that they’re based in Seattle, where the population is pretty technology friendly, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re the most technically innovative airline in the US, if not the world.

Ryanair.  Like Spirit, they are reviled.  Like Spirit, people are crazy to complain.  Maybe you flew them and had a bad incident.  I have no idea.  But I do know this:  Remember when it cost $600 to fly between London and Paris?  Or London and Dublin?  Or Dublin and Rome?  No?  That’s thanks to Ryanair.  And if you really hate them, you’re free to fly British Airways, which has lowered their fares tremendously over the past 10 years, solely because of Ryanair’s presence.  The days of taking a train around Europe are (in large part) gone, because you can just fly Ryanair (or one of its copycat airlines on the Continent).

People Express (or PEOPLExpress).  It was sooooo good, before it went soooooo bad.  I’m not going to argue that People Express was not a disaster.  It was.  But they championed $99 transcon fares and $99 fares to London, pricepoints that still exist today (which makes it that much more of a bargain 25 years later).  I’m not saying fares would never have dropped to today’s levels without People Express, but they reset the bar to levels that still exist today.

Air Deccan (India).  Air Deccan not only offered crazy low fares (1 Rupee fares, for example), they changed the culture of India.  Indians had (and, truthfully, continue to have) no problem traveling 20 hours by train to reach a destination.  With extremely high fares as the norm to fly just about anywhere, India’s aviation sector was reserved for only the wealthiest Indians.  That all changed with Air Deccan (and their other lowfare counterparts).  Suddenly that 20 hour train trip was exchanged for a 1-hour flight that cost next-to-nothing.  Families that could see each other only once a year could get together more often.  Business travelers could see customers in other cities more frequently.  Imagine if nobody in the US flew, then all of a sudden everybody flew.  It taxed the infrastructure in a terrible, terrible way.  But still, there are now dozens of flights per day between large cities, and fares are extremely low, mostly thanks to Deccan.


Top 5 Reasons Why We Shouldn’t Miss How Airlines Used to Be

Oh, the good old days.  I’m not sure there’s an industry where people look back at the past and cry more about how great it used to be, and how terrible it is now.  Oh, for those halcyon days where everyone sat in first class and ate only the finest cuisine prepared by a Congress of France’s great chefs.

Oh wait, that’s not how it was.  Today I bring you the Top 5 Reasons Why We Shouldn’t Miss How Airlines Used to Be

–    Smoking.  I’ll never understand how the same people who were so brilliant that they could get a hunk of metal to fly through the air for 12 hours could also say, “Sure, stick 200 people in a small tube and let them smoke for hours on end.”  I can barely imagine sitting in a restaurant where people are allowed to smoke anymore.  Can you picture a flight to Tokyo?  And you miss those days?

–    Food.  How is it possible that people complain that airline food is gone?  I think the Marx brothers were making fun of airline food 70 years ago.  Let’s stop pretending that the “steak” and “chateaubriand” that was served on your Pan Am flight to Frankfurt was any good.  It wasn’t.

–    Entertainment.  See that flickering light 35 rows ahead of you showing Smokey and the Bandit II?  That’s your inflight entertainment.

–    Frequent Flyer Miles.  In 1972, do you know how many miles you earned for your flight from Miami to LA?  That’s right, zero.  And how many double elite qualifying miles you earned on that flight?  Correct, zero.  And how many unlimited upgrades you received because you had elite status?  Yes, zero.  I hope you enjoyed not getting any free first class flights to Europe as well.

–    Fares.  You liked the government setting fares between Cleveland and Miami and telling you which airlines could fly there?  And that they weren’t allowed to discount those flights?  Flights cost much, much more (don’t even count all the free flights you’re earning with miles), and discounts were rare (there were no $9 Spirit fares to Ft. Lauderdale).  You may miss those great days in 1972, but you couldn’t have afforded to fly very much.  Which is why what most people my age remember about traveling is sitting in the back of a station wagon for 11 hours.