Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Life, Death, and Art at the Airport

Here is an interesting story that I wrote in my travel blog at PlanetEye. The more I think about it, the more bizarrely fascinating it is.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Tale of Two Companies

The current, and recently unthinkable, price of oil is hitting drivers and airlines very hard. One company outside of the energy sector has been seeing huge profits associated with the rise in oil prices. Boeing has a runaway hit with it's new, fuel efficient, 787 mid-size passenger airliner. It has experienced some delays with production that are being magnified by the amazing demand for their product. There are currently nearly 900 orders for the aircraft, which hasn't even flown yet. 1000 orders are expect by the time the first aircraft is delivered next year.

To put that in perspective, Boeing's last all new product, the 777, was delivered in 1995. It has also been considered a success, yet is has "only" 1060 orders to date.

Clearly, the rise in oil prices has triggered the demand for more fuel efficient vehicles.

On the other hand, the automotive industry is responding very slowly to consumer demand for more fuel efficient vehicles. Toyota has it's ubiquitous Prius, and VW just announced a new 60 mpg Jetta sedan, yet the big three American manufacturers have been long on hype and short on innovation when it comes to efficiency.

Both the 60 mpg VW Jetta and the Boeing 787 are fueled by a petroleum distillate called kerosene, rather than gasoline. We typically refer to automotive kerosene as diesel and aviation kerosene as Jet-A. Both vehicles will make their manufacturer's a ton of money.

Now, if there were only an American car company that had a CEO with both the knowledge and experience making money by producing more fuel efficient vehicles.

Perhaps the current CEO of Ford, Alan Mulally, has picked up some interesting skills from his previous job. You see, in 2007 Ford hired him from Boeing, where he was the President of their Commercial Aircraft Division.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Disgusting

Finding reasons to despise Rush Limbaugh is all too easy, but this hits a little to close to home, my home.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My solutions to the airline crisis

Now that oil is priced about on par with caviar, minor airlines are dropping like flies and major airlines are loosing gazillions of dollars. I have decided to give the major airlines some free advice, since I know that if I were having problems, they would go out of their way to help me.

1. Simplify your fleets of airplanes. Take a look at this chart of Delta and Northwest. They are seemingly trying to operate one of every type of airplane.

2. Simplify your fare structure. Stop wasting millions of dollars on computers that try to predict the maximum fare people will pay, and go to a simplified fare structure. Shopping for a flight should be like finding a hotel or a rental car, not be like playing the stock market.

3. Either make frequent flier programs useful, or get rid of them. I have recently spend hours and hours on the phone with various airlines attempting to redeem miles or change a flight. What a waste of my time and their money. Invariably, I am left dissatisfied by what was once a "loyalty program". If a flight is not available, I should at least be able to be put on a wait list.

4. Get better web sites. I have recently discovered glitches on Continental's web site that made it impossible to book flights shown as available. United's web site does not have any way to search to redeem miles for partner travel, or to change itineraries on partners. Their advice to me is to keep calling back. What a waste. Every time someone has to call an airline, the website has failed and the airline has wasted money.

5. Get rid of the fees. I really doubt they earn much on these, they just piss customers off. United just announced their "change fee" is now an outrageous $150. If their web sites worked well, they could easily offer changes with no fees as a feature. They could actually make money since changing to an earlier flight frees up a seat that could later be purchased.

6. Use larger aircraft with fewer flights between destinations. There are about 30 flights a day between Denver and Las Vegas, almost all using aircraft that seat less than 150 people. Ditto between New York and Chicago, San Francisco and LA. A plane twice as large still requires just two pilots, and would be much more efficient in almost every way. A side effect would be less congestion.

7. Use turboprops like the Q400. Horizon airlines has just decided to standardize their fleet with this type. This airplane is as quiet as a jet and nearly as fast, while consuming %30 less fuel. Stop whining about fuel prices and do something.

8. Help fix the TSA. Everyone knows it is a joke, and people hate to fly because of it. If all the airlines got together on this, I believe they would have some influence.

9. Forget the mergers. Once you reach a certain size, there really are no further efficiencies to be gained. On the contrary, the process of merging will take a decade and will be very expensive. In fact, you could make a better argument that mega-airlines will be less efficient.

10. Be honest. Display real time flight and weather information at the gate. Passengers now have access to the internet at the airport and they know when they are being lied to. Show the actual availability of frequent flier seats in advance, otherwise frequent flier programs are just a con game.

I'm sorry Jason, I cannot do that.

Even if you haven't had the patience to see the classic 1968 movie: 2001, A Space Odyssey, you will recall the famous line, "Open the pod bay doors HAL"

This line is a plea to a computer named HAL from an astronaut who is locked outside his space ship. HAL decides that it is in the best interest of it's mission to over-rule the request of the mission commander and responds in it's eerie voice "I am sorry Dave, I cannot do that."

The year is now 2008, and while computers generally have not spoken to us in monotone voices since they changed the announcement in the trains at the Atlanta airport, I am astonished that the end result is the same, if not worse. Today, Humans have now surrendered to the will of their computers.

Do you think I am being too dramatic? Twice in the last week I spoke with managers from two major companies, Comcast and Continental Airlines, who have tried to accomplish relatively simple tasks, only to give up as their computer won't let them.

With Comcast, I am trying to use a cable modem on their system that I purchased, rather than the one they rent to me. With Continental Airlines, I am trying to redeem frequent flier rewards for seats that that are repeatedly shown as available on their web site.

In both situations, I spent over an hour on the phone with someone who claimed to be a manager or a supervisor. Each time the human agreed to my request, but the computer did not. Both calls ended in a stalemate as I pleaded with them to find a person in their company who can override their computers. In the case of Comcast, they agreed to research the problem and get back with me. In the case of Continental Airlines, I was told that an "internal report" would be filed regarding the error, but I should NOT expect anyone to resolve the problem. The supervisor at Continental actually told me "They won't let me" book the flight, for March 2009, that the web site showed as available. When I asked who she was referring to as "they," she told me that "they" are the computers!

While it does scare me to consider that computers have now enslaved the human race (would you like to play global thermonuclear war?), there are three other possibilities:

1. The humans are merely blaming the computers because it is company policy to lie to their customers.

2. The humans are too lazy to find someone to fix the problem, therefore they just blame it on the computer and tell their customers that there is nothing more that they can do.

3. The humans actually believe the computers are in charge, either because their management has told them it is so or they are just idiots.

With Comcast, I will give them a couple weeks to try to solve this, especially since they offered to credit me for the modem rental fee. With Continental, I have already launched the EECB, CC'd to several travel and consumer web sites. Why people have to threaten a company with adverse publicity in order to get basic customer service will be the subject of a future post.

In the movie 2001, Dave ultimately overrides the computer and gains access to his ship manually, although he almost dies doing so. Let's hope that Comcast and Continental can force their computers to comply with their commands without threatening anyone's life.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Trip Report: Airtran Airlines

You don't have to be a travel writer to notice that airlines in this country are melting down.

With that in mind, I flew to Atlanta on Airtran this weekend, my first flight since November. Airtran operates a fleet of fairly new 737s between Denver and Atlanta. They have very low profile Recaro seats that really do make you feel like you have an extra inch or two of legroom. On the other hand, United has been using very small regional jets on this rather long (3 hr) trip.

The overhead space was generous enough to easily fit my roll on in lengthwise, and gate checking our child's stroller was a breeze.

Amazingly, airline seemed to operate with almost clockwork precision. I say almost for two reasons.

1. Both flights arrived EARLY. We in Denver are used to arriving at our destination a bit early because, with six runways, aircraft departing DIA rarely have to wait in line. The arrival in Atlanta was a full 30 minutes early, while the return flight was merely 15 minutes early, due to some waiting on the ground behind other aircraft. I have reason to believe this is a common practice at Airtran as my grandmother also arrived early on her flight from Florida.

2. There was a problem with the check-in for our flight to Atlanta. We had paid an additional $5 per person in fees for reserved seats. Having chosen seats fairly close to the front of the plane, I was surprised when I checked in online to have been assigned seats in the back of the plane. Fortunately, I changed them to aisle and window seats, and we were able to enjoy a vacant middle seat between my wife, our daughter, and I.

If you have read this post, then you already know what comes next. There is no way that I will tolerate paying a fee, and then not receiving the service I paid for.

Upon my return, I wrote the following e-mail to Airtran (via their web site):
February 15, I purchased a 2 roundtrip tickets for a flight from Denver to Atlanta departing April 18, 2007. Additionally, I purchased reserve seats for $5 per/person, each way. I selected seats 15E and 15F in order to sit as close to the front of the aircraft as possible. When I checked in online for the flight on April 18th, we were given seats in the last few rows of the aircraft. I was then able to select seats only slightly forward in row 26.
Considering that my wife and I paid $10 for reserved seats, and we did not received what we paid for, I would like a refund of the $10 fee for that flight.

Sincerely, J Daniel Steele
Note that I am flying under my middle name for reasons that have been reported here.

I figured that they would deny this request or ignore it, and I would be forced to call and ask for a manager. If that didn't work, I would then launch an EECB.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I received the following response within 24 hours:
Mr Mr. Steele,

Thank you for contacting AirTran Airways. I apologize for the inconvenience that this caused. I have refunded the seat fee for that flight in the amount of $10.00 to the credit card that was used for the original purchase. This should post to your account within 3-7 business days.

If there is anything else I may assist you with, please feel free to contact me.

Sincerely,

Melanie
Customer Relations Department, AirTran Airways
Way to go Airtran!

Nevertheless, I believe that I won't choose to pay this fee in the future as there seemed to be plenty of empty seats available for reservation 24 hours before departure.

On time service + quick resolution of a problem = someone who will choose this carrier over another in the future.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Atlanta

As a writer in this and another blog about travel, it is amazing how little I travel lately. I suppose I had a good reason this winter. Now that it is spring, I have the opportunity to visit my former hometown of Atlanta this weekend.

I have had an ongoing discussion with people in Atlanta regarding the future of Hartsfield and air travel there. I am reminded of a documentary I once saw that explains how Atlanta will ultimately be moved offshore in an effort to boost tourism and become a bigger Delta hub. The city will then be overdeveloped and its excess weight caused it to sink to the bottom. Everyone that stays with the city evolved into merpeople, with the assistance of leaking caffeine from Atlanta's Coca-Cola plant. You can read about this amazing prediction here.

Seriously, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson-(dead mayor to be named later) Airport is the busiest in the world. This fact that makes travelers based at most other airports jealous, while making travelers in Atlanta frustrated.

Here is an interesting article on various proposals for a second airport in Atlanta. I also found this read from a couple years ago that still seems relevant.

My take is that Chattanooga will not be considered a reliever to Atlanta for decades to come. The prerequisite would have to be that a high speed rail link is built, an endeavor that is far more expensive than building a second airport.

More likely is that Dobbins Naval Air Station will become a reliever some day. It has both proximity to the metro area as well as excellent runways. Furthermore, I will go out on a limb and say that Atlanta is pretty safe from the threat of a Naval assault.

I would not bet on even Dobbins becoming a reality in the next 20 years. That is how long it will take for Hartsfield to build out the new international terminal and the south terminal complex. When Delta and Airtran start increasing the size of their aircraft due to runway capacity restraints, only then will they accept any effort to build a second airport for shorter regional trips.

Until then, Atlantans should thank god and Maynard Jackson for having a facility that:

1. Offers more non-stop flights to both domestic and international destinations than just about any city in the country. Seriously, I haven't even heard of some of these places.

2. Is very close to the city compared to most airports it's size; See Dallas-Ft. Worth, Washington Dulles, Denver, and JFK.

3. Has reasonable prices due to the presence of two competing airline hubs.

4. Is very well served by public transportation.

With the absorption of Northwest, formerly Northwest Orient, I will predict that Atlanta will see more service to Asia, and possibly this sight that hasn't been seen in over 30 years. A Delta 747.

The South Gate Complex is expected to add up to 70 new gates in the next decade to handle the growth. I predict that after it is finished, the airport will rebuild the original concourses A-D one by one. If I could redesign them, I would have departing passengers (and passengers connecting on the same concourse) on one large level and arriving passengers on a much smaller level with moving walkways leading straight to the trains.

While I expect future technological advances increasing the capacity of the existing runways, don't be surprised if the construction of a sixth runway becomes an issue in the next decade.

Finally, it is only natural to compare Hartsfield to my home airport of Denver. They are of similar designs, and are the only major new airports built in the United States in the last 30 years.

Denver currently lies 11th on the list of the world's busiest airports by traffic volume, just ahead of JFK. Atlanta's airport is maxed out in terms of runways, and will be maxed out in terms of passenger capacity within the next 20 years, merely 50 years after it opened. Denver, on the other hand, has built an airport for the next 100 years. It currently boasts 6 runways, with room for 6 more within it's current boundaries. I believe that Denver is presently underserved internationally. Recent expansion by German Carrier Lufthansa to include daily flights to both Frankfurt and Munich just hint at the business and leisure demand that is not being exploited by lazy and inefficient United Airlines. Even Frontier serves almost dozen destinations in Mexico and Costa Rica. I think it is only a mater of time until United as well as other Asian and European carriers begin serving Denver, just as Atlanta evolved as an international destination in the 80s and 90s.

While we Denverites don't yet enjoy the numerous international non-stop flights and the convenient location that Atlanta fliers do, we actually have hubs for three airlines, United, Frontier, and Southwest. Sure Frontier is operating in bankruptcy protection, but that is practically a rite of passage for airlines these days. Furthermore, I predict that some time in the next 30 years, Denver will overtake Atlanta as the busiest airport in the United States. The busiest airport in the world in 2038 is almost certainly under construction today somewhere in Asia or the Middle East.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

DL + NW = ??

I could write a really great analysis of what actually means, but you might as well just read this.

Furthermore, think about this chart every time you hear the word "synergies" (that is if you don't puke first.)

Uh, both companies fly...airplanes. That is about all they have in common operationally.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

New Jersey Under Attack!

Just when you were thinking about moving to the Garden State, it turns out to be more dangerous than even I imagined.

Yesterday, the U.S. launched an artillery shell into the home of a family in Jefferson Township.

This wasn't the only recent incident involving "friendly fire" in Neuw Joysee. Believe it or not, four years ago an F-16 fighter jet strafed a New Jersey school!

It's an all out assault on New Jersey!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Avoiding fees: Stupid Tips, Smart Tips

I hate it when I see a article with a catchy title like this one, Coping With Rising Travel Fees that I found on Digg.

There is really no useful information in that article and, in fact, some of it is out of date. This is really just a bunch of generalizations that could be found by reading the website of the airline, hotel, or rental car company you are actually using. This is very sloppy journalism at best.

I hate surcharges as much as anyone, and I actually have some real advice for avoiding them that goes beyond "find a company that doesn't charge them."

My advice: Don't pay them!

Do not pay any fee that you were not informed of in advance.
If you book a hotel or a rental car, and you have a price quoted in writing, insist on paying only that price. I have done this on numerous instances. When I reserve a rental car, I always ask the reservations agent for a written quote that includes all taxes, fees, and surcharges. Invariably, the price turns out differently, and I insist on the price I was quoted.

Dispute all charges that are unauthorized. Just because a company has your credit card number, they are not allowed to add unauthorized surcharges.

Don't pay any surcharge that was added after your reservation was made. This has been an issue recently as cruise lines being caught adding fuel surcharges after passengers
pay for their cruise. Airlines are also changing their baggage fees after you have purchased your ticket. Make sure you do not pay a fee that was not in effect at the time you paid for your flight.

Don't pay any "optional surcharges" I once checked into a hotel and the check in sheet listed the price of the room as well as a "safe fee." I told them I didn't need to use the safe, and they offered to remove the fee if I ask them again when I check out. I was checking out very early in the morning, and I insisted it be taken off right then and there.

Pack Smart, Not Less: I won't insult your intelligence by telling you to pack less to avoid paying more. I will advise that when packing multiple bags, you distribute the weight equally so that one bag doesn't get hit with the charge. If you are near the limit, pack the heaviest items in a roll on suitcase. Carry-ons do not have a weight limit, and anyways, you should always carry on a bag with any essentials and valuables.

Finally, weigh your bag empty. Some large bags with wheels and retractable handles actually weight 10-15 lbs by themselves. If you are pushing the weight limit, switch to a duffle bag. Duffles weigh almost nothing. I would gladly lug my bag from baggage claim to the car to save $50, or just get a cart or a skycap.

Don't pay any overweight baggage fees if the scale is not accurate: I have long suspected the baggage scales at the check in counter were not very accurate. I have even seen scales that read a few pounds before I put my bag on them. My suspicions were confirmed. The scales at the check in counter predate the overweight baggage fees as they were originally used to estimate baggage weight for the purposes of aircraft weight and balance. They were not designed to be accurate to any particular degree. I always weigh my bags at home to ensure they are under the 50 lb limit. If an airline ever tries to hit me with a $50 fee, I will report them to the appropriate authorities.

Get what you pay for or get a refund:
I once paid a $50 standby fee to catch an earlier flight. The flight was then delayed and I was successfully able to get a refund. If I ever had to pay a baggage fee, and my bag then was lost or delayed, you could bet that I would ask for the fee to be refunded.

Avoid taxes and surcharges by renting your car away from the airport:
Get a ride, take a hotel shuttle, or do anything you can to leave the airport without renting a car. When you need a car, use Enterprise or any other off site rental car company. Check first, but you can usually return the car to the airport when you depart without any additional cost. Your savings can be significant as every city likes to fund their new stadium or convention center by taxing out of town visitors with a hefty surcharge at the airport.

Googlegängers - Your Guide to the Jason Steeles of the world.

I just came across the word Googlegängers, which is obviously a form of the words Google and Doppelganger.

I personally have come across two, the infamous candidate Jason Steele (who's opponent is currently leasing my domain), and a rather nice guy who I have corresponded with who is also a technical professional and is actually from my former home town of Atlanta.

Just when I thought candidate Steele was as bad as it could get, I just found this. Convict Steele is incarcerated in Colorado and even shares my middle initial. Yikes!

Perhaps he explains this article I was interviewed for about a problem we Jason Steeles have been having.

Then there is the fictional Jason Steele from Atlanta who appeared in The Dukes of Hazzard.

I can't make this stuff up by myself.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Unlimited Free Movies

One of the themes that has developed in this blog is how to survive without cable TV.

Turns out that renting DVDs is much more enjoyable and cost effective than cable.

So just in case you thought that reading this blog was useless, here is the best tip I know:

Redbox + Promo Codes = Unlimited Free Movies

Note that each code may only be used once with each of your credit cards, but new codes appear every day.

It turns out that there are several Redbox locations within walking distance of my house.

Of course, I would never, ever use this to make a backup copy of the disc.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Friday, April 4, 2008

Finding My Blogging Voice

Sometimes I go a few days without a post, other days I just can't stop writing, today must be the later.

Furthermore, I am very excited that I will soon be featured as the Local Expert on Denver at the PlanetEye travel web site.

Think of it as my way to become a travel writer even though I don't get to travel as much as I used to.

Look for the link to be posted here soon.

Ironic Advertising

You might have noticed that Google places ads on my blog. I thought it would be fun to experiment and see if I made much revenue off them.

I'm not, but I do think it is hysterical how the companies that I write negatively about, often end up advertised next to the post. Such is the nature of keyword advertising.

Insane

I don't know what else to call this kind of thing that I am reading about more and more often, such as these articles here and here.

I really think this kind of thing should be criminal, i.e. someone should be arrested for filing a false police report against an 6 year old.

Anyone who does such a thing should also be fired from their job. I wonder how long it will be until almost every kindergartener is considered either a drug addict or a sex offender?

Certainly, I wouldn't want people with such obviously poor judgment ever teaching my child.

Unauthorized!

I recently read two articles, here and here, that have one thing in common; they are both situations where supposedly reputable companies have decided to charge their customer's credit cards for fees they did not disclose and/or authorize.

They reminded me of a similar situation that I had been in. I had purchased two tickets on United Airlines. I reserved the flights on their web site, and called the company to redeem two discount vouchers, neither of which could not be redeemed online. The person I spoke to confirmed the price, took my credit card information, and issued me two electronic tickets. I was asked to mail the vouchers to United, and I later received a receipt in the mail for the correct amount. When I received my credit card bill, I saw one charge for correct amount from United, as well as two additional charges from United labeled "ticket by mail" for $15 each.

I called the airline to complain that not only had I not ticketed the flight by mail, but more importantly, I was not notified of this charge and I did not authorize it.

I was first told their was nothing they could do. When I asked for a supervisor, I was then told that they would send me, get this, another voucher! I refused this offer and told them that they had made an unauthorized charge on my credit card and if it was not refunded immediately I would dispute the charge with the credit card company. I was refunded the charge.

The moral of the story is that companies can not charge your credit card without your authorization. Just because I give out my card number to purchase item A, it doesn't mean that they can charge you in excess of what you authorized for that purchase; or for item B or fee X. All charges and fees must be presented and a total amount must be given, or the charge is not authorized.

Furthermore, just the threat of a credit card chargeback is enough to get most companies to back down. Chargebacks are very costly, and the more chargebacks that are made, the more a company will be charged for each credit card transaction in the future. In the case of an airline or hotel chain that receives virtually %100 of it's revenue from credit card transactions, chargebacks are avoided at all cost.

Remember this next time a company tries to impose an unauthorized fee on you and fight back.