Saturday, June 21, 2008

Taking the Train

I guess I'm not the only one who has noticed that the train is cheaper and more relaxing than driving.

The good news here for me I suppose is that as long as I can get a seat, I'm not terribly worried that Amtrak's success will diminish the travel experience. Trains are sufficiently comfortable that even full, it's a very good travel experience.

Depressing though that now that this country is perhaps finally ready for reliable, high speed, high quality train service...we're not in a position to meet the demand. Figures.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

I'm taking American to San Francisco on Tuesday, returning on Friday. That could be my last transcon on American for the year. In July, when I'm back out in the Bay Area, I'm taking JetBlue from JFK. It's a shame their new terminal ( isn't open yet. Parking's a hassle so I may well consider taking a car service back and forth to the airport. The other bonus for me: I'll be at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay and then in San Jose on this particular trip and JetBlue actually flies nonstop into San Jose (SJC) in addition to SFO. Saves 30-60 minutes of ground transportation. That said, the rental car situation at SJC is an absolute circus with inadequate ground space and inconsistent centralized shuttle bus service. Oh well. You'd think as they've been building out this airport over the years, they could have planned something around rental cars and roadways, but it has been a mess for years and years. It always appears to be in a state of construction...but that they're making things worse rather than better.

I always find it amusing that SJC is now officially Mineta San Jose International Airport. First of all, can you think of another airport that's named for a living individual? None come to mind for me. Second, when I was at Hill & Knowlton in a previous job, the firm hired Norm Mineta to be a senior strategic advisor. I worked briefly with him on a couple of new business proposals and so it's now always weird to fly through the airport being as I know the guy. Great guy and all...but is he really the first person you'd think of to name your airport after if you were willing to name it for anyone, living or dead? And having established this precedent, how long do you think it will be before airlines, like sports teams, start selling naming rights to their airline terminals? "Welcome to Pepto-Bismol United Terminal B here at LaGuardia..."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Musings on American: Why I May Be Done with Them for the Year

I'm a Platinum flyer on American. I've already reached 25,000 miles on them for the year. Here's why that may be enough:
  • On my most frequent routes (transcon), Platinum isn't enough to get you upgraded. My upgrade rate is less than 20%, probably closer to 10.
  • Given USAir's salvo, I expect that mileage bonuses will be eliminated. Therefore, there's no value to higher levels of privilege.
  • At 25,000 miles, I already qualify for most of the priority/fee treatments.
  • I don't expect to reach Platinum Exec.

If I've already got the key remaining benefits and the coach product sucks as compared with my transcon alternatives (JetBlue, Virgin America), why would I fly American any more?

Next Vista: Frequent Flyer Miles

USAir has eliminated bonuses for its preferred level members of its frequent flyer program ( USAir's rationale: the cost of mileage redemption is a cost they can no longer afford to incur. This is the death knell for "loyalty" programs. Given the monkey see, monkey do management style of the large American airlines, we can expect the others to follow suit. When this happens, I guess they're all concluding this is a zero sum game. For every passenger I retain, the other airlines are retaining someone else, so if we all lower our benefits, there's no net change. If you take JetBlue and Southwest out of the equation, that's probably true. American, United, USAir, Northwest = zero sum game. Lowering their marginal attractiveness just moves more business elsewhere.

I haven't booked my next flight to the Bay Area for July...but if I believe anything that I've written, it's going to be on JetBlue or Virgin America.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

United Sucks

Joe Brancatelli, one of the deans of business travel, just wrote a column calling United the “Worst. Airline. Ever.” ( ) I came to that conclusion a few years ago. (As an aside, when I subscribed to his newsletter, JoeSentMe, my wife thought a name like that had to be some porn I had subscribed to. “No, it’s a travel newsletter.”)

Anyhow, I used to be among the most loyal of United flyers. I would even fly through O’Hare to get to Dallas from New York instead of flying American nonstop. It’s not like United was a paragon of customer service but I could always count on finding an employee that cared enough to go above and beyond.

Things got even better when, around 1991, someone at United tested an interesting proposition: that the frequent flyer program didn’t reward profitable travelers. The year they did this was a year I flew to Australia twice, once on a $10,000 first class ticket and once on a $7,500 business class ticket. While I didn’t even make it to 100,000 miles, and hence was not noticed by the Mileage Plus gods, I was in fact United’s 7th most profitable flyer that year. As a result, I got the super secret phone numbers. They held planes for me, they made space…they valued my business. I looked forward to flying United. They treated me even better than I got treated at home.

A million miles later, United decided to institutionalize this level of service with its Global Services program. The first year, I qualified. The second year, however, despite flying as much as ever, I had the misfortune of flying on a competitive route where United slashed its airfares and as a result, I didn’t qualify for Global Services. Missing the safety net of the magic phone numbers, I had some "standard" experiences. As a result, I started flying nonstop on other airlines. Meanwhile, I corresponded with United brass, suggesting that terminating a user after one year of lowered revenue was perhaps a foolish attitude. They asked, obviously rhetorically, “how would you feel if you had qualified and we bent the standards for someone else?” I suggested to them that given the state of the US airline business, I would applaud their efforts to attract and retain profitable, high volume business flyers and that the health of the airline was an important consideration for a traveler like me. Of course, this didn’t sway them.

As I shifted my allegiance, perhaps not coincidentally United starting finding New York a difficult market. They downsized their transcon planes to remove capacity, they stopped flying to London and Tokyo and otherwise decreased their footprint in New York. Indignity of indignities, the "United" terminal at JFK became the British Airways terminal. Fewer flights. Labor problems. Gruesome customer “service” experiences. Net result: I think I’ve flown United once in the last three years. Has anyone from United ever called to see why not? I guess that would require that someone at United really care to understand why things have gone so horribly awry. Or care, period. They're just working on their golden parachutes. Or maybe they’re afraid that I’m going to ask “where are my lost bags?” United was slow in delivering my bags two years ago. In fact, as far as they’re concerned, they’re still lost. I spent several hours calling United's Indian lost baggage call center, getting conflicting answers and other answers I just knew to be wrong. Several hours later, I decided it was just easier to go back to the San Diego airport to see what was going on. I found them sitting unwatched in the baggage claim area and took them with me. No one from United was there to watch. If they have surveillance video, no one from United ever called to confirm that I’m the one who picked up the bags. As far as they know, my bags are still lost. And so is my business with United.

Good bye United. Going, going…and soon enough to be forgotten. (Note to self: use up the last of the frequent flyer miles before United goes under. On merchandise; I'm not going to bet that they'll still be flying.)