Today we bring you three stories from around the airline industry, including a viral image of a flight attendant flipping the bird, the possible end of airline fees and an attempt to make airline loyalty programs “sustainable.”
Middle Seat, Middle Finger
The image, taken from a flight attendant’s rear cabin point of view, shows an outstretched arm with a certain finger aimed skyward. The sentiment is directed towards the fliers. Now Tatiana Kozlenko, an Aeroflot flight attendant said to have posted the pic on her Vkontakte page (Vkontakte is a social network in Russia), has been deplaned from the company. Russia-based news and TV outfit RT.com reports that the pic was posted back in October 2011 and had been languishing in relative obscurity until a popular Russian blogger reposted it on Twitter.
Kozlenko says it’s 1) not her in the photo, 2) not an Aeroflot plane and 3) not something she posted herself (she says she just tagged herself to it). Regardless, the airline has still laid down the long finger of the law. Aeroflot tweeted Monday morning that the firing was justified: “The fact of posting a photo shows Tatiana’s attitude towards passengers and her duties. She acknowledged her fault when she spoke to the leadership of the company.”
Airlines Running out of Fee Ideas?
Around the globe, airlines charged an estimate $36 billion in ancillary fees in 2012. But on Time.com, Brad Tuttle ponders whether a la carte pricing may have reached maximum altitude. Simply put, there’s almost nothing left to charge fliers for. What gave him that idea? The CEO of Spirit Airlines, the undisputed czar of deconstruction, recently told American Media Public Marketplace that the wellspring of added-fee innovations is starting to run dry. We’re not convinced. (Still left on the docket are a fee to talk to a human, fines for in-flight flatulence and an up-charge for armrest dominion.)
In the end, Tuttle doesn’t buy it either. He argues that any dearth of new ideas would be outweighed by ascending fees for baggage, onboard meals and the like.
Loyalty Pays Less
Veteran travel writer Chris Elliott reports that Delta is the first legacy airline to bind the value of its frequent-flier program not only to the number of miles passengers fly but also to the amount they spend. From January 1, 2014, loyalists will reach new echelons through a combination of miles or segments flown and annual spending on Delta flights. The key downside, among others: Snagging a great deal will help you less in the loyalty program game.
Naturally, Delta’s new program will help the airline’s bottom line. In the airline’s mind, too many undeserving fliers were benefiting. For Elliott, “As painful as these changes are, they make sense.” JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America already have programs that reward fliers based on how much they spend, he says. “Air travelers tempted to give their loyalty to an airline like Delta now won’t cling to an empty promise that they can reach elite status any other way than by spending their way there. Some will refuse to participate and will instead purchase a ticket that makes sense for them, and not for their loyalty program.”
Remember United Breaks Guitars, the song that became a social media sensation after a country musician had his instrument destroyed at the hands of an airline? Well, it turns out Delta breaks guitars too.
Dave Schneider, a musician with the band the LeeVees, was carrying a vintage 1965 Gibson ES-335 guitar — worth about $10,000 — on a flight from Buffalo to Detroit last month, reports Yahoo! News. On trips for past gigs, Schneider had always carried the valuable instrument onto the plane with him, but this time Delta employees at the gate wouldn’t allow it. “They said it was their policy,” Schneider told IndependentTraveler.com. “They had let me carry the guitar on [our previous Delta flight] from Portland to Philly, so why not here in Buffalo?”
Schneider reluctantly gate-checked the guitar, even though he told us that there were empty seats on the plane where he could have put the instrument, and that it would also have fit into an overhead bin. (On its Web site, Delta says, “Guitars and other smaller musical instruments, such as violins, will be accepted as your free carry-on baggage item on Delta and Delta Connection carriers flights. These items must easily fit in the overhead bin or other approved storage location in the cabin, based on available space at the time of boarding. Musical instruments may be gate claimed at the discretion of the passenger and as a result of limited overhead space.”)
After the plane touched down in Detroit, Schneider waited at the gate for his instrument to be returned, only to hear a screech from the elevator — where the guitar case was caught between it and a rail on the loading dock. Here’s how it looked when it was finally freed an hour later:
The guitar was damaged to the tune of $1,980 — more than the $1,000 Delta initially offered as compensation. After a whirlwind of media coverage, including an appearance on CNN, Schneider told us that he and Delta finally settled the issue yesterday. “They’re paying for the repairs and more,” he said.
The story has an even happier ending: Gibson, the maker of the damaged guitar, recently reached out to Schneider. The company offered him “a brand new 1963 50th Anniversary Cherry Red ES-335 due to the incident with Delta Airlines,” Schneider wrote on his Facebook page. “THANK YOU GIBSON!”
But what happens the next time Schneider needs to fly? “I might start just using ukeleles,” Schneider joked. “I really don’t know what to do. A lot of people ship their guitars, so that is a good option. But even that makes me nervous. It shouldn’t be that hard. I would pay a $50 fee to bring an instrument on the plane. I think that’s a great idea.”
Forget sushi — on your next Japan Airlines flight, you could enjoy a homegrown American favorite: KFC (once known as Kentucky Fried Chicken). The airline recently announced that for the next three months, meal service on select U.S. and Europe flights will feature a two-piece chicken meal from KFC, including a drumstick, a chicken breast fillet, coleslaw, flat bread and lettuce leaves (which you can use to make a chicken sandwich).
KFC will be available during the second meal service on premium economy and economy flights from Tokyo’s Narita airport to New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, London, Paris and Frankfurt, through February 28, 2013. According to the airline’s press release, “KFC is widely popular in Japan particularly during the Christmas season.”
Personally, I’d rather have sushi. But I guess KFC is as delicious and exotic to the Japanese as sushi is to us Yanks!
Would you board a plane with no pilot? Sounds like a crazy idea — but according to an article from the Economist, it’s something that could become the future of air travel.
At some point within the next few weeks, a pilotless flight is slated to be tested during a trip from England to Scotland, meaning that the pilot operating the plane will be doing so from the ground in a control room. (There will also be a pilot in the cockpit, just in case anything goes wrong.)
The article notes that the U.S. Congress has shown interest in the technology, asking aviation regulators to find a way to incorporate unmanned aircraft into America’s air traffic control system as soon as the year 2015. The technology would likely be used on smaller aircraft carrying out functions such as border patrols or police surveillance.
For commercial aircraft carrying large numbers of passengers, it’s unlikely that onboard pilots would be eliminated altogether; instead, opines the Economist, flights might have just one pilot instead of a crew of two or three. (Our two cents: If any airline might try cutting pilots, it would be ultra-discounter Ryanair, whose CEO questions the importance of seatbelts in the air.)
Most of today’s planes are technologically advanced enough to take off, fly and land at a specified destination automatically — much like drone aircraft currently used by the military.
Overall, there still seem to be a lot of unanswered questions: How safe is an unmanned plane? Could this lead to job losses among pilots? Will pilots be able to concentrate better while controlling aircraft from the ground, or will it make them less accountable for safe flying if their lives aren’t at stake like those of the passengers onboard? And how might it affect consumer airfare prices?
Flying in the face of safety regulations around the world, one airline executive is speaking out against seatbelts on planes. “If there ever was a crash on an aircraft, God forbid, a seatbelt won’t save you,” claimed Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, as reported in Britain’s Daily Telegraph.
Actually, Mr. O’Leary, we beg to differ. In a recent test crash, scientists found that passengers without seatbelts would have died, while those wearing seatbelts and using the brace position on impact would have survived. (See How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life for more details.)
Even in non-crash situations, seatbelts can keep you safe. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 58 people are injured each year by turbulence when not wearing their seatbelts.
Naturally, O’Leary’s diatribe was brought about because those pesky seatbelt regulations are keeping him from making money. According to the Telegraph, he wants to add “standing room only” cabins in the back of Ryanair planes, allowing budget-minded travelers to stand throughout their flights (while holding onto a handle for greater stability) at a price of 1 GBP, about $1.58 US. This is not permitted under current aviation safety laws, which require air travelers to wear seatbelts during takeoff and landing. “We’re always looking for new ways of doing things; it’s the authorities who won’t allow us to do them,” complained O’Leary. “They are all a bunch of plonkers.”
Would you buy a ticket in a standing-room-only section of a plane if the price were cheap enough?
On top of decimating houses and deluging city streets, Hurricane Sandy temporarily upended what we travelers take for granted: the ability to hop in a car or plane and go. But while that “right” has been more or less restored for most, many New York and New Jersey residents are still reeling (yesterday’s nor’easter didn’t help matters). Thankfully, along with an outpouring of aid from individuals and the expected charitable heavyweights, a number of popular travel brands have jumped in to help, some leveraging their leisure offerings in creative ways.
Last week, non-legacy favorite JetBlue partnered with NYC food trucks to offer free meals and snacks to hard hit residents of Staten Island, the Rockaways and Hoboken. The airline says thousands of locals were offered bites from mobile purveyors of grilled cheese, pizza, Lebanese specialties and cupcakes. JetBlue is also matching all donations to the Red Cross up to $100,000, and touting frequent flier miles as a bonus incentive. Those who give can earn six TrueBlue points for every $1 they donate by November 30.
Hip “for rent by owner” site Airbnb has partnered with the city of New York in an effort to offer free housing for residents displaced by Sandy. Several hundred local hosts have offered up their couches and spare rooms. Airbnb uses a mutual verification process — owner and potential renter must meet virtually and the owner always has final approval. (Renters and rent-ees can be both be “reviewed” and Airbnb cautions never to rent unless you’re completely confident in the occupant.) Though no money is changing hands, hosts are still covered by Airbnb’s guarantee. For those who can afford to shell out a bit for their temporary digs, there’s also a list of “discounted for Sandy” spots.
American Airlines is using its Web space and social platforms to promote the efforts of the American Red Cross — and throwing in some bonus frequent flier miles for good measure. Through November 30, 2012, AAdvantage members can earn a one-time award of 250 AAdvantage bonus miles for a minimum $50 donation, or 500 AAdvantage bonus miles for a donation of $100 or more to the American Red Cross.
Have a favorite travel brand you think deserves kudos? Share it in the comments.
This week, super-storm Sandy grounded planes and snarled travel itineraries across the Eastern Seaboard and beyond, with some travelers still marooned even now. In today’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear from readers whose travel plans were affected by the storm. Did you have to reschedule a flight, cancel a hotel booking, reroute a train trip or make a travel insurance claim? Was your airline or other travel provider helpful in responding to your dilemma? Tell us in the comments below!
Several staffers from our sister site, Cruise Critic, shared their own Sandy stories.
Managing Editor Colleen McDaniel gives US Airways a gold star for its assistance during the storm. “Six hours before my flight was scheduled to depart from Norfolk to Philadelphia, I got a call notifying me my flight had been canceled,” she told us. “I called US Airways to reschedule, and was able to speak to a real, live person who helped get me booked on a flight a few days later. Sandy came and went in Virginia, causing damage and some power issues, but when it hit New Jersey, knocking out power to millions and causing widespread damage, I realized I was better off staying put. When I explained the situation, the US Airways agent was perfectly agreeable to another switch. I wasn’t charged a dime for the changes either time, and the agents were perfectly pleasant despite, I’m certain, some tough customers.”
Senior Editor Dan Askin was also booked on US Airways, but his experience was complicated by the fact that he’d booked with frequent flier miles. “When the airline announced to the world it was waiving change fees … we didn’t apply,” he said. “Naturally, there were no ‘awards eligible’ seats available on any flights leaving inside of three days, so there was nothing for us, ostensibly the most loyal fliers, to switch to. Our only option — if we wanted to avoid change fees or recoup the miles — was to wait until the flight was actually canceled. We did so, and were able to rebook on a Wednesday flight. Then that was canceled, so we scrapped the trip altogether.”
United Airlines gets mixed reviews from Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown, who was scheduled to fly from Newark to Istanbul for a cruise. The airline canceled her flight a full two days before the storm even arrived. “At least I had some notice and could make an effort to find another route, but United was absolutely unreachable — as a platinum member all I could get was a fast busy signal when I called. I didn’t even have the pleasure of being put on hold,” she said.
Brown generally doesn’t recommend that cruisers book airfare through their cruise line — “they usually cost more and don’t accommodate personal preferences” — but in this case, asking for help from her cruise line, Regent Seven Seas, saved her trip. “A quick e-mail to Regent’s air/sea department at midnight resulted in a rebooking on Swiss Air, same night, though this time from JFK. It got me onboard — and on time.”
The takeaway? Brown told us she’ll consider booking a cruise line’s airfare for complicated itineraries; that way, “you’ve got back-up if you need it.”
We here at IndependentTraveler.com have seen some crazy airline safety briefings in our time (Richard Simmons, anyone?), but this one definitely caught our attention. Featuring 11 Air New Zealand crewmembers and surprise appearances by “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” producer and “The Hobbit” director Peter Jackson, plus J.R.R. Tolkien’s grandsons Mike and Royd, this Middle Earth-inspired video tells passengers the standard need-to-know information from seatbelt-fastening to oxygen mask application. Take a look:
Air New Zealand has partnered with Jackson to promote the new “Hobbit” trilogy; the first movie in the series, shot in New Zealand, is due in American theaters in December.
Do new twists on standard briefings make you any more likely to pay attention? Sound off in the comments below.
I was hunched over my laptop, searching for flights to Montreal, when I hit pay dirt. I’d first checked fares a month or two earlier, only to see unpalatable prices in the $500′s and $600′s for a roundtrip flight from the East Coast. But when I looked this time, they were under $350. Score!
Excited, I consulted Bing.com/travel, which offers a Price Predictor tool that advises travelers whether to purchase or wait for a cheaper fare. “Buy,” said Bing, claiming with “80% confidence” that fares would continue to rise. Clearly the time was right to pull out my credit card.
Except for one little problem. It was a Saturday night, and I couldn’t book until I’d confirmed my desired vacation days at the office on Monday. Who knew how much the fares might change in 48 hours?
Then I noticed an option called “FareLock” on the United Airlines Web site. “United’s FareLock service allows you to hold your itinerary and fare for 72 hours or seven days, for a fee, and is available on select flights. So go ahead and book your flight while you complete and confirm your travel plans. Our FareLock service will guarantee an available seat and the fare you were quoted at the time you booked your reservation.”
I’d never been so happy to pay an airline fee in my life. For a nonrefundable $14, I was able to hold my seats, itinerary and fare for the following week, giving me time to clear my vacation days with the office and to keep an eye on the fare to make sure it didn’t drop any lower. It didn’t; nor did it go up as I’d feared. In the end the sub-$350 fare was still available a week later when I finally booked it, and would have been even without the FareLock. But as someone who’s been burned in the past by wildly fluctuating airfares, I don’t consider that $14 wasted — to me, the peace of mind was worth every penny.
FareLock has been around for nearly two years now (it started as a Continental service, then was adopted by United after the carriers merged). So why haven’t more airlines followed suit? It seems like a win/win: useful for travelers who need a little more time to book, and lucrative for airlines that are eager to scoop up yet more revenue in fees. As of now, the only airlines I know of that offer similar services are KLM, whose “Time to Think” option allows travelers to lock in an itinerary for up to two weeks, and Spanish carrier Vueling, which permits a 24-hour reservation hold.
A new Web site called steadyfare.com, currently in beta, could offer some promise on this front. The site allows travelers to lock in a given “steadyfare” for a particular itinerary, and hold it for two to four weeks. But the site is a long way from prime time; the airports and travel dates available are currently very limited, and you can’t yet choose your preferred airline or flight schedule.
Have you used FareLock or similar services on other airlines? Are they worth the price?
Today we bring you three stories from around the airline industry, including JetBlue’s toe-dip into presidential politics, a robot suitcase and a new approach to reducing airplane aisle gridlock.
If That Stupid [Candidate A/Candidate B] Wins…
I’m leaving the country on the next JetBlue flight. Even after Goodwill trucks pack up the last box of “Yes We Can (Again)”/”I Built This!” T-shirts on November 7, the losing side can take some solace. Nonpartisan airline JetBlue is giving away 2,012 flights to destinations outside the United States after the election. Entering is easy: Go to JetBlueElectionProtection.com and pick Obama or Romney. If your guy loses, you have a shot at becoming a temporary expat via one of JetBlue’s international routes, which include the Caribbean and Mexico. All of America wins.
About Time: Robot Luggage
Aussie air travel news site Terminal U is reporting on a new type of robot luggage that could someday hit an airport near you. An inventor has created a prototype of a hands-free suitcase, called “Hop,” which stalks its owner via signals from a cell phone’s Bluetooth. You move, Hop moves. You move, Hop doesn’t move? Hop alerts you by making your phone vibrate. (Hop moves, you move? The TSA bans Hop and you end up on the no-fly list.)
Check out this video of Hop in action:
About Time: Moving Airplane Seats
Reports the U.K.’s Daily Mail: U.S. company Molon Labe Designs claims that its “Sider Seat” — an aisle seat that can slide over and atop the middle seat — will save airlines two hours of extra flying time a day. Molon Labe says the movable seats would expand aisle width from 19 to 43 inches, allowing for whimsical twirling and quicker loading and unloading. The seats are not robots — a passenger or member of the flight crew must physically move them — and they do not recline. As one commenter on the Daily Mail site correctly pointed out, the approach to boarding would have to change in tandem with the furniture. What happens when the already beleaguered middle-seater finds he now has no seat?
IndependentTraveler.com has requested access to the airport bar napkin the idea was originally scribbled on.