Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Trip Report: Southwest Airlines

For years I have heard of the legend of Southwest Airlines. Their prices are great, you sit wherever you want, and the company has been by far the most profitably airline in the United States for decades.

Unfortunately, I have spent most of the last 30 years of my life living in cities that did not have service with Southwest Airlines, specifically Atlanta and Denver. That is the thing with Southwest, historically, they have been very picky with which cities they fly to. While airlines like Delta are constantly seeking new service to fly to every paved airstrip within 8,000 miles of Atlanta, Southwest, the largest domestic airline (by passengers), doesn't even serve Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world. That is because they expand slowly and only wish to fly to cities that they could make a profit from. That policy is changing as they have recently announced service to New York LaGuardia and other cities that once lacked their service.

Two years ago, they decided to start a hub in Denver. Interestingly, almost every city they fly to is a hub of some sort. You can connect between almost every city they serve, unlike most airlines that only have a handful of major hubs.

On our trip last week, we went from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale and continued on to Tampa before returning to Denver. Each leg of the trip was priced and purchased separately. After I booked it, I realized that I had entered one of the dates wrong. With any other airline, this error on my part would have incurred a hefty change fee at best. With Southwest, there are no change fees at all. You always have the option of booking a new flight, at whatever price is currently available, using the money paid for your existing reservation as a credit. If the new flight is less than your reservations, you receive a refund as a credit towards a future flight.

Before you say that Southwest is giving away money with this policy, consider my experience: The price drops on my Florida trip, so I received a credit towards a future flight. I actually did this twice in the three months between my initial reservation and the trip, as airfares plummeted with the price of crude. The credits were part of our payment for our next trip on Southwest to San Diego. Just today, the price dropped on our San Diego trip to an incredible $59 each way, resulting in a further flight credit. I am now just starting to wonder how I can fly Southwest again using that credit! It appears to be a win-win policy for everyone, yet no other airline I know of works like this.

I have to say that our first impression with Southwest at the airport was a little strange. We are traveling with our 18 month old daughter, as we have many times before. At check in, Southwest insisted on documentation of her age, unlike Airtran, United, and Frontier have when we flew them domestically. They relented, but it was odd that they would not take the word of the child's parents, as every other business does. They even tried hard to blame FAA regulations that required a seat to be purchased for children over 2 years old, but it seemed like a revenue enhancement meausure to us. We were later able to get our pediatrician's office to fax us her immunization records, so the problem never came up again.

That experience behind us, we were treated to exceptional service by the flight attendants on all of our flights. To our shock, they actually seemed to care about their customers, even showing us extra consideration as we were traveling with an infant.

On each flight we were warned repeatedly that the flight was full, yet on each occasion we were able to have a whole row of three seats for my wife and I as well as our "lap child". My only complaint would be that Southwest mimics the practice of most other airlines in this country of leaving the seat belt sign on for most of the flight. They announce it is for safety as they are expecting turbulence, even when a half an hour goes by without so much as a jiggle. Throughout the whole time, flight attendants are walking about, apparently immune to the laws of physics.

That said, every flight departed and arrived on time. We actually chose a flight from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale that stopped in New Orleans. They offered a non-stop flight, but the price was $80 greater. The quick stop, with no change of plane, was easily worth the $160 saved.

Another great benefit of flying Southwest is their "no fees" policy. There are no telephone booking fees, no fuel surcharges, no curb checking fees, and each passenger gets two free checked bags. I used to travel alone for business, and I rarely checked a bag. Now, it is an absolute pleasure to be able to travel with a child without worrying about the cost of checking luggage. On each flight, our luggage was promptly delivered intact.

Every now and then, I hear someone attempt to justify their company's stupid policies by explaining that they do it their way because other companies in their industry do it that way too. I have also heard people explain weird practices by saying that if there was a better way, someone would have figured it out by now. After flying Southwest, I now see that 1) not every airline is run by idiots, and 2) Southwest has already figured out how to do it better.

So whenever your travel plans call for air travel, consider Southwest. They provide excellent service to every major city in the United States not named Atlanta.

My Thoughts On US Airways 1549

Most pilots find the initial mainstream media coverage of aviation accidents humorous. We chuckle when the local news reporter recounts the amazing story of a plane that somehow lands without being able to put it's wheels down (this is perhaps the most frequent aviation accident and almost never causes injury). Our eyes roll when we hear about the incredible pilot who lands on the highway after running out of gas. We know the pilot was a moron for running out of gas in the first place and that landing on a highway is no big deal for any decent pilot. Then there was the case of the "hero" pilot who was caught on camera attempting to land in severe conditions. I exposed the fact that he was wrecklessly trying to land on the wrong runway in a dangerous crosswind.

As a commercially rated pilot and a certified flight instructor, I was still quite amazed when I heard about this accident.

I had just landed on a commercial flight to Ft. Lauderdale when I saw the coverage. I immediately assumed that the pictures of an intact airliner in the water in New York City occurred when it skidded off a runway at LaGuardia. Frankly, most pilots had considered the possibility of a commercial airliner landing in the water intact to be somewhat of a joke. The crash scene from the movie Castaway or the fate Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 seems a more likely outcome for this scenario. I was astonished to find out that the plane had actually landed in the Hudson River, not Long Island Sound.

Over at Meadow's Lane, Eric has rightfully commended the entire crew for their bravery, not just the Captain.

As for Captain Sully, I believe that his brilliance was not merely the landing itself, but his timely decision to attempt the landing. I think that that any professional airline pilot should have been capable of making such a landing, however very few would have chosen to do so in time to have the chance to save everyone on board. This has always been a consideration for me as a general aviation (light aircraft) pilot. When I flew a four seat plane to Alaska, I always anticipated landing in the water if I were to have an engine failure, rather than impacting the forests or mountains. Water landings in small aircraft are much more survivable than most dry landings other than on a road or a field.

The truth about being a great pilot is that it is more about making the right decisions quickly than having superior hand/eye coordination. In making the decision to land on the Hudson, his actions went beyond bravery into the realm of chutzpah. In fact, aviation experts are now reconsidering their recommendations for when a "water landing" might be the safest alternative for a stricken airliner.

Finally, for all of my criticisms of domestic airlines terrible customer service, and blatant hypocrisy, there is clearly one area in commercial aviation where the United States leads the world, safety. Having now gone over two years without a fatal accident, we are currently setting historic new milestones for commercial aviation that we can be proud of.

Monday, January 12, 2009

2 Airlines, 2 Bizarre Policies, 2 Different Results

We have all run across airline policies that clearly make no sense. In fact, as I have documented, airlines in this country have serious credibility problems as they compete with automakers for the title of the worst managed industry.

Recently, I read two different articles about these type of ridiculous price gouging policies, both of which I have had personal experience with.

Problem Number One: United Airlines insists on charging 10% of their highest possible fare for infants traveling on your lap on international flights. When my wife and I flew to Israel last year, using United frequent flier miles for a business class ticket, they wanted to charge us over $800 to carry our infant on our lap. I was able to resolve the situation to my satisfaction, as the representative I initially spoke with quoted us a price of under $100. When asked later to pay $800, I launched an EECB that resulted in a reasonable payment of taxes and fees.

When another flier encounters the same absurd policy and complains, here is their account of United's response via Chris Elliot's blog:

This is a policy they’ve had in place that they will charge 10 percent of whatever cabin that the parents are in. She is not willing to budge as this is “not negotiable” and it is what it is.

She did say that she agrees that this is strange but that the policy has been in effect for a very long time.

They know this is stupid, but that is how they do it, so tough crap.

Problem Number Two: Airlines want to charge fliers enormous fees for carrying a bicycle, even if it folds or can be disassembled to fit in the same size of a normal suitcase. Using the word "bicycle" to describe your luggage's contents triggers both the fee, as well as a waiver of all damages. They can run over it with a truck, and they are not liable for a penny.

I have solved this problem in the past by putting the wheels in one box, and the frame in the other. I mark the large, flat boxes "photography" so that the baggage agents do not consider they contain a bicycle.

A contributor to the Consumerist complains about this absurd policy to JetBlue, and JetBlue replies:

"Thanks for helping to bring this to our attention. We pride ourselves on our customer service and when we’re faced with a situation where policy doesn’t make sense in practice, we’re always ready to correct or clarify......Our bicycle policy has now been updated to reflect that Customers traveling with a folding bikes in a bag that fits within the standard checked bag weights and dimensions (62 inches in overall dimensions and 50 pounds in weight — see our baggage requirements here) will not be charged the Bike fee and will be treated like any checked bag."

Conclusion: When faced with absurd policies, United says "Too bad, that's how we do it.", while JetBlue says, "The customer is right, we are changing our policy".

Which airline would you fly? Which airline do you think will be around in the future?