Monday, December 20, 2010

A Frontier Airlines Debacle

I used to like good old Frontier.   They were the only sane alternative to United here in Denver.

Lately, however, Frontier has been having some real problems as far as my family and I are concerned.


My last two encounters with F9 staff at ATL have been two of the worst encounters with any airline ever. I wish it was merely a 45 minute wait before an uneventful check in.

Encounter 1 was traveling with my family and, after having requested and received seats together (after they re-instated free assigned seats), F9 said we were actually booked on different flights on different days. Turns out the original booking was flawed (my bad), but then why did they later confirm us seating together? Either way, terminal staff was utterly useless in resolving problem and my family was split up before they could be bothered to help. My wife basically had to cause a scene to get them to do anything to resolve it. I had already left by then, but it sounded like a mess.  We received some vouchers for the experience and decided to use them to book a trip for my niece to visit us her in Denver.

Fast forward to last week, when my sister attempts to check in my 13 year old niece flying out to visit us as an unaccompanied minor, and F9 at the terminal has no clue. Two agents spend 1/2 hour playing with their computers and speaking to the help desk before sending her and my sister to the gate with no boarding pass, just a gate pass to get through security!

No booking errors this time, we did everything right, but they had some unspecified computer problem that made it impossible for them to do anything, so they just dumped the problem on the gate staff.    Apparently their reservations systems are about as modern as the aircraft pictured above, and/or their staff has no idea how to use them!

Gate agents did everything they could not to help. They started boarding, ignored my sister, and even had her bag removed from the flight. My sister calls me from the gate beside herself that they won't help her and are about to deny her daughter boarding.

Although less of a scene was made my sister was rightfully pissed at this mess. They ultimately boarded her last, without a boarding pass, sitting a 13 year old girl on the back of the plane in a middle seat between two older men. By design, her bag didn't make it either.   We had to take time from her vacation to return to the airport.   We declined hanging around the house for them to deliver the bag in a 5 hour window.

Imagine a 13 year old girl, on her first flight as an unaccompanied minor, watching her mother fight with the airline staff for an hour just to get a seat.   Then, they board her at the last second without barely a chance to say goodbye.  What an outrage!

The pattern is clear, F9 staff in ATL are useless, incompetent, or worse. When a problem comes up, they just try to make you go away without solving it.   I have traveled a lot, and I write about travel every day, but I have never encountered such customer disservice anywhere else by any airline.

Worse, my sister calls in to customer service to complain, they offer her a $50 voucher and then drop her call.


What an insult!

Frontier Airlines has some major problems.  The worst part is we have no reason to believe the experience will be any better in two days when she returns to Atlanta.   I will keep you posted if and when they decide to actually address these problems.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What's Going On With Steele Street

It has been a very busy few months for me, and I apologize to both my regular readers for not keeping up with this blog.   I have been writing extensively on both travel and finance daily over at the AskMrCreditCard blog.    I have also been submitting travel expert columns monthly for Blend.com.  

Finally, I have just started a new blog about another of my passions, bicycling.   The Go Tubeless blog will educate readers on the emerging technology of tubeless bicycle tires, just in case you hate getting flats when you ride.

Nevertheless, I promise to update this blog more often.

Thanks for sticking with me.

Jason

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Edinburgh

http://www.airflights.to/Edinburgh/edinburgh-castle.jpg 


Edinburgh, Scotland is one of the more fascinating cities in Europe.   The history of the city dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years, and much of it is now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site.   It is the seat of the Scottish Parliament, and home to such famous people as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sean Connery, J.K. Rowling and even Tony Blair.

It is easy to pass up a chance to visit Edinburgh, as most tourists flock to nearby tourist destinations such as London and Ireland.  While London is great, hotels in the city center are extremely expensive, as is the city in general.   By comparison, there are many great deals available for hotels in Edinburgh city centre.   Staying in the city center allow visitors to experience it's many museums, castles, and festivals.   Such an experience is just not possible in today's hectic London.

Delta once had a non-stop flight from Atlanta and New York to Edinburgh, but it didn't last.   Today, the only non-stop to Edinburgh from the United States is on Continental via Newark.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Everything That Is Wrong With The Airline Industry



I am a big fan of Brett Snyder over at the Cranky Flier.   Two years ago, I was even privileged to contribute a guest post on The Future Of Airline Loyalty Programs.    Last week, Brett was on vacation and had an anonymous guest write a post for his blog for his Headwinds blog at BNet.

You should read the post in it's entirety here.

In it, an anonymous airline insider says that his company just doesn't have the basic technology necessary to disseminate accurate information in the event of a delay, yet even;

...if we had “perfect” information to give, should the airlines invest in better technology or more bodies to communicate in a more timely manner? For that matter, should the airlines invest in technology that would help cultivate that perfect knowledge? Quite honestly, I don’t think so.
I simply don’t see the return on investment. In fact, I don’t see how giving passengers better information actually saves (or generates) the airline any money at all. How would it? The tickets are paid for, and most of them are non-refundable. “Everybody knows” the airlines provide lousy information, so it’s not as if customers will flee to the competition for that sole reason.
There you go.  Customer service provides no return on it's investment according to this guy because you already paid for your ticket.  I have no reason to believe his views are unusual in the airline industry.

Now personally, I enjoy flying on Southwest airlines, as they seem to be the most operationally efficient airline out there.    This guy's airline flies for United, a carrier that I have been avoiding like the plague for some time.  

As I wrote in the comments of the post, I give Brett tremendous credit for allowing this guy to share is views, which I am sure he does not agree with.  As long as there are people in the airline industry who feel the way this guy does, passengers will suffer and airlines will continue to lose money.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Consumer Advocacy Win


Update: Penny Parker at The Denver Post has written about this issue, crediting me with the shopping center's new disclosure of this fee.

I love to write.

I write about credit cards in my daily column for the blog at AskMrCreditCard.com.   I write about travel over at Blend.com, and I write about politics, travel, aviation, and consumer issues here at Steele Street.   The common thread here is that I am a consumer advocate.  The only think I hate more than getting ripped off, is seeing it happen to others.

So last week, I went out to for lunch to the Belmar Shopping Center in Lakewood Colorado.  I stopped in a restaurant that advertised a $8.99 sushi lunch.    When I received the bill, I was charged $9.21 plus tax.    On the bill was a 22 cent charge labeled "PIF".   I asked the waitress what "PIF" was, and she produced a leaflet indicating that the shopping center was requiring merchants to add 2.5% to every bill for it's Public Improvement Fund.   The leaflet also said that the fee was not a tax.  I double checked, and there was no disclosure of the fee anywhere in the restaurant or on the menu.

Now, 22 cents is not worth fighting over in a restaurant, and I did not.  They can call it anything they want, but the money that a merchant pays it's landlord is called rent.   22 cents isn't a lot, but the principal is important.   If the practice of adding an undisclosed surcharge to your restaurant bill becomes widespread, soon, every retailer will start advertising prices that don't include rent.   We have already seen businesses such as rental car companies and hotels adding surcharges for things like electricity, labor, and compliance with the law.   Do we really want every store to start adding an undisclosed surcharge to every purchase you make?  What's to stop them from adding a surcharge that better reflects their rent, such as 20% or 30%?

My response was to write the restaurant, the shopping center, the city of Lakewood, the Denver Post, and the Colorado Attorney General's office.     Before you wonder how much time I wasted on this, keep in mind that we are talking about two emails addressed to multiple recipients, and like I said, I love to write.

Today, I received a reply from the city, which approved a tax break for the shopping center as well as their PIF scheme.   In response to my efforts, they will now be requiring every merchant in the shopping center to prominently disclose this surcharge to all customers before their purchase.

You may consider this a small win for consumers, but if no one makes the effort, how long would it be until every retailer feels free to add whatever surcharge they feel like, and not tell you about it unless you question your receipt?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ireland


Earlier this month, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Salvador Brazil.  We were going to be in Atlanta, so going even further south was not too inconvenient.

We actually considered visiting Ireland instead, and we would still like to.   One of the things that appeals to me about Ireland is it's incredible scenery and culture.   The fact that they speak English there is a bonus as well.    While the place has a reputation for being cold and rainy, it can be quite sunny and mild in the summer when places like Rome and Paris are just a bit too hot for my tastes.

When we looked at going to Ireland, the Euro was still pretty high, and things looked pretty expensive there.   Even a pint of Guinness was going for something like eight dollars!    Now, prices have come down a bit, and I was even able to find some great deals on Hotels in Dublin, with many under 100 Euros.

Here's to the Euro staying reasonably low, and my chances for visiting Dublin soon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Miami

Most of the time I spend in Florida has been in the Ft. Lauderday and West Palm Beach areas, primarily because that is where my family has been.   Lately, I have had a couple opportunities to fly through Miami, and I forgot how interesting of a place it can be.  Think if it like a Latin version of New York, as there are so many communities of people from places like Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Haiti and other exotic places.   Beyond Latin America there are large populations of Russians, Israelis, Vietnamese, and other Asian nations.  With the people, comes their food, music, and culture.

Even at the airport, we were able to take in some great Cuban food, not to mention some interesting people watching as passengers arrived and departed to every corner of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.    In the past, I have taken Holidays to Miami along with my family visits to check out the Coral Castles, Little Havana, and even some decent Israeli food on Miami Beach.    Certainly, the weather is always better there than in New York!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How To Find Cheap Airfare

There has been much written about finding the cheapest airfares.    Some people actually believe that the least expensive airfares can be found on certain days of the week, but I have never seen any evidence to back that up.  Others feel that there is a certain time of year when fares are the least expensive.

When I look for tickets, I first go to the websites of each of the airlines that fly the route non-stop.    Living in a city that major airline hub for three different airlines, I often have a wide selection of non-stop flights to most cities.  

Things get trickier when I am trying to fly somewhere that requires a change of planes.   At that point, I am forced to look at other web sites that offer airfares or even packages.    For example, here is a site that offers great deals to America for European travelers.    Never forget that it is often cheaper to get a package that includes hotel and airfare than it is to try to buy each service separately.

Finding A Great Hotel

I just returned from a trip to Brazil.   Naturally, I used frequent flier miles to get there, and we didn't need a car, so my biggest decision regarding the trip was finding a great hotel.    Fortunately, we came across the Pousada Redfish in the historic center of Salvador Brazil (Pousada is Pourtuguese for inn).   

How did we find it?   Lots of Googling, especially sites such as TripAdvisor.  It wasn't always that easy.   In 1998, a few years before the Internet was really what it is now, I went to London.   Naturally, I wanted to stay at one of the hotels in London city centre.    Somehow, I came across a little hotel a block or so from one of the major train stations.   It was expensive, and the room was just barely larger than the bed, but it worked.    I think that today I would have a much easier time.

Here are the criteria I would use today to select a hotel.   First, location is the most important thing.   You can save money by staying further away, but it is rarely worth it.    You will have to pay for gas or other public transportation, eating into your savings, but more importantly, you will be loosing time, the most valuable commodity in most vacations.    You went somewhere to experience the place, so why bother staying far away.    It is tiring to go back and forth between an city center and your hotel.   It is surprising how nice it is to return to your room during the day for a couple hours to read, shower, or just catch up on sleep after a long flight.

After narrowing down the location, search TripAdvisor for the best rated hotels in the area.   Read through some reviews of the ones you like.   I tend to dismiss reviews that are extremely positive with no drawbacks.   I also have to take bad reviews into account depending on the context.   For example, a hotel might get a bad review based solely on someone not liking the pool.   If I am visiting in the winter and the pool will not even be open, what do I care?

Finally, try to find the best deals out there on the hotels you like.    You might find a great deal on one of the large travel sites like Expedia, but don't forget to check out specialty travel sites as well.   Between resources such as TripAdvisor and all of the great Internet sites offering hotel deals, it is fairly easy to find great hotels anywhere in the world.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Amazing Story Of Life, Death, and Art At Denver International Airport

Denver International Airport (known as DIA) was built in the early 1990's with a mandate to include a broad variety of public art displays.   From my non-artist's point of view, their effort has been somewhat of a success.   Attentive visitors can enjoy moving sculptures along the walls of the tunnels of the people mover system.  Others might appreciate the murals in the terminal or the paper airplane sculptures hanging from the ceiling.  In total, there are 26 art exhibits that include works from 39 different artists.

One exhibit is stands out in many ways.   On the only access road to and from the airport, Pena Boulevard, about 1 mile from the terminal, stands a giant sculpture of blue horse.   It is meant to symbolize the spirit of the west, not to promote Denver's football team, the Broncos.   The horse is reared up on it's hind legs, it's muscles are well defined, and it has a pair of lights where it's eyes would be.

Some find it a bit scary.

This work of art is even more ominous when you consider how it got there.  In 1992, Denver commissioned this work from famed Latino artist Luis Jimenez.   When the airport opened in 1995, 16 months behind schedule, it's signature piece of art was still not ready.   In fact, it's story had hardly begun.  Over the next decade, the artist labored at his own pace to complete it, while successive city governments became annoyed, frustrated, and angry as each targeted completion date passed without the artist producing a finished work.   The delay culminated with the tragic events of June 13th, 2006.   On that day, a large piece of the sculpture broke free, landed on the artist, and killed him.

It would be impossible to imagine the story ending there.  The city found an artist who was able to rebuild and complete the sculpture.    It was finally delivered to Denver earlier in 2008.    This piece represents the final work of Luis Jimenez.    

As it stands now, it is actually illegal to pull over to admire the work.   Sadly, one can only appreciate it by driving down Pena Boulevard at 55 miles per hour.   It took 16 years to complete and cost the artist his life, and now you have only a few seconds to view it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Tour de France

video 
My friend Shawn just arrived in Bordeaux, France and just sent me this video of the finish of Stage 18.    That is his mom saying "Is that all?".

They will undoubtedly see more at the time trial tomorrow when the riders go by one by one, or at the finale in Paris where they make several circuits on the  Champs-Élysées.

You may recall my role in planning their their trip.   It turns out he was able to land a First Class seat on the way over.




Friday, July 16, 2010

Triple Bypass Bicycle Ride

Yes, that is me completing the famed Triple Bypass bicycle ride here in the spectacular Colorado Rockies.   Sure, my blog boasts "Politics, Consumer Information, Travel, Aviation, and Humor from a Mile High perspective", but in this picture I am actually over two miles high, at the top of the 10,662 ft. high Vail Pass.   Vail is the third of the three grueling climbs that make up the Triple Bypass.   In total, there is over 10,000 feet of climbing in a single day, spaced out among 120 miles.   

I have been training for months for this event, which marked the fourth time I have ridden this ride.   This year, my training paid off as I was able to complete the ride in 11 hours without serious difficulty.    It was challenging, but I did not experience the sense of complete and utter exhaustion that I had in previous years.

3,500 riders participated in the event, which sold out in a matter of minutes.  The riders were from all over the United States, and I even met several riders from other countries.   It seems that bicycling is one of the reason people choose to take their Holidays in America.   

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cruising In Europe

I have never been a big cruise fan.   I like to visit many of the islands in Mexico and the Bahamas that get visited by the cruise ships, but I am always glad I am staying there, and not just docking for a few hours.  It seems like many Caribbean cruisers don't stray too far from the boat, leaving them in clusters of tourist centers.

On the other hand, in Europe, Mediterranean Cruises are a different experience.   So many of the major sites in the Mediterranean are close to major ports.   In addition, hotel costs in Europe can be sky high.    Finally, getting around in Europe is typically done by trains, and it can be somewhat of a pain to carry your luggage around from train to train.    From what I have heard, a cruise there is actually a decent way to get around.   You avoid all of the hassles of checking in and out of various hotels, while having the time to see some great cities.

Just be sure to arrive a day or two early.    You want to get a head start on overcoming jet lag, while avoiding the risk of a delayed flight that would cause you to miss your boat.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Being An Amateur Travel Agent


In the old days, if you wanted to go somewhere, you would call up your travel agent.   They would use their fancy computers to find you flights, hotels, and otherwise build your itinerary.   The alternative was to make dozens of, then expensive, long distance calls yourself.   I remember booking business trips like this in the mid nineties.

Although everyone can be a travel agent these days, the Internet has made booking travel to be quite a challenge in many other ways.   I have taken it upon myself to become as much of a travel expert as I can be, considering that I can hardly call myself a frequent traveler.  

One of my tricks as been to volunteer to book travel for other people.   I was able to book some friends of mine a trip to see the Tour de France this year.    First I helped them book some super-cheap first class tickets.   Next, I helped them find a place to stay in Bordeaux, as well as some hotels in Paris city centre.   Finally, I have been offering these novice international travelers some tips on credit card usage in Europe, over at the blog I write for at AskMrCreditCard.com.

I like doing this for several reasons.   It feels good to use my knowledge to help my friends, and it is just plain fun to sort out travel itineraries.

So to paraphrase some pop culture, "If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find me, maybe you can hire... The J-Team."

Monday, July 5, 2010

Florida In 2010

While our news continues to be dominated by the gulf oil spill, it is easy to loose sight of just what has been affected and what hasn't.   Certainly the norther Gulf coast of Florida near Pensacola is being devastated by the spill.   On the other hand, the rest of the Gulf coast, such as Tampa, and the entire Atlantic coast also remains unaffected.   There may even be some great Florida holiday deals, especially to places like Orlando.   What often happens when there is a major event like the oil spill, is that people avoid an entire region.   While, that is unfortunate both for the local economy, savvy travelers will see this as an opportunity to travel at lower prices.  For example, tourists avoid countries anytime there is unrest, even if it is localized to areas hundreds of miles away from where they would normally visit.   Due to this phenomenon, I have stayed in empty hotels in Africa and the Middle East, and had a great time.

While I am not a huge Disney fan, Orlando is very convenient to the space coast. With a little luck, I am hoping to go out to see one of the few remaining SpaceShuttle launches latter this year or early next year.   Of course, neither Disney nor NASA are affected by the oil spill.  

Hot And Cold In Las Vegas

It was three years ago, when we were expecting our first child, that we went to Las Vegas in the middle of the summer.    We took one of those quick Las Vegas Holidays in order to give my very pregnant wife some needed relaxation. You might think that Vegas is the hottest place in the country this time of year, but in fact, in my memory, this was an extremely cold place to be.

At home in Denver, we rarely use our air conditioner, and are obviously very hot, yet in Vegas, our hotel was air conditioned so well, that it was like visiting a mountain top.   Spending a few days in a dry, air conditioned climate was a much need break from the hot house we live in, despite it being in relatively cool Denver.   A typical summer day in Denver may be "only" in the 90s, while a summer day in Vegas can easily reach 110!.   We relished the chance to enjoy the pool and actually experience some of the incredibly hot temperatures.   We didn't even need a towel, as the sun dried us off in seconds!

It is one of the ironies in life that Las Vegas in the summer can be one of the coldest places to visit.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gulf Coast Oil Production

This is a good time to link back to my post on Peak Oil.  I have been listening to all sorts of people saying how we have to keep drilling so that we don't have pay more for oil.   It is a great argument, other than the fact that it is not true.

Every time you hear the argument for drilling somehow linked to the price of oil, remember back a few months ago when I wrote the following: "We produce 7% of the world's oil, while consuming 24%. Simple economics say that we can have a lot more influence on price of oil by managing our demand rather than our production."

(Actually these stats show that we produce 5.8% of the world's oil, and consume 22.8%)

Oil prices are set on a global market, whether we drill in the gulf or not, it isn't going to affect the worldwide price of oil much.    What we consume will tremendously affect the price of oil, and the Saudi's know it.

A better argument is that oil prices are currently too low.   They don't price oil for externalities, such as national security, global climate change, and the risk of environmental disasters like the gulf oil spill.   Including these costs in the price of oil would be a free market approach to reducing oil consumption.

Friday, June 11, 2010

New Blog

A crazy Colorado town has banned cycling. 

I decided to write a blog about it.

Read more here at Boycott Blackhawk.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Is Failure An Option?



I once heard former NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz speak about the Apollo 13 mission, in which he repeated his famous quote, "Failure Is Not An Option".    For the last month and a half, our nation has been puzzled as to how BP could have failed so miserably to prevent the tragedy in the gulf that is still unfolding.

The backups designed to prevent this exact problem failed, and it appears that additional backups were deemed too costly.    The best analysis on this subject that I have read comes from Kenneth G. Brill over at Forbes Magazine.

As you read his analysis, keep in mind what Brill is famous for.  According to Brill's page at the University Of Redlands, "Brill is the founder and former executive director of the Uptime Institute and the Site Uptime Network, an organization that provides many opportunities and resources for the data center industry and data center professionals."

Basically, he has devoted his professional life to studying the why machines and organizations fail and how to prevent it.   Brill, who has a degree in electrical engineering from the Redlands College of Arts and Sciences says that very few business even need to have a "never failing" approach to their activities, as the cost of creating such a system are incredibly high.  Unfortunately, companies are designed to accept the possibility of failure, so long as the risk is low enough and the cost of preventing it is high enough so that, on average, the cost of failure is less than the cost of preventive measures. Simply put, from the standpoint of a corporation, failure will always be an option.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

ATC Intrigue At JFK

One of the coolest parts about being a pilot is not only communicating with air traffic control (ATC), but listening in on and understand the other dramas unfolding.   Pilots, like people in many other professions, communicate with their own language of jargon.   Such jargon was a highlight of the film Pushing Tin.

As a flight instructor, I spend a lot of time with my students at relatively uncrowded airports with no commercial service.    Nevertheless, as licensed pilots they need to be prepared to communicate with ATC at any airfield.   Therefore, I tell my students to spend some time listening to ATC at a major airfield, like JFK. Anyone can listen to the JFK tower over the internet through websites like LiveATC.net.


This week has been an especially exiting one at JFK in particular, and you can listen to the drama yourself.
First, there was the near departure of the Emirates flight with the suspected Times Square bomber on board.  You can listen to the conversation between the Emirates pilot and the tower, a mere seconds before departure.



It sounds really dramatic, indeed the flight was turned around seconds before departure.   On the other hand, had the plane departed, it could have been sent back to JFK, or diverted to Bangor Maine before leaving US airspace.   It is also possible that the authorities in Dubai might have apprehended the suspect upon landing, but then again Dubai is known to harbor terrorists.

The next clip is one that received just a little media attention.   In this instance, the captain of an American Airlines 767 is forced to declare an emergency when he encounters a strong crosswind.   He then gets pissed at the controllers after they are slow to give him a better runway.   You can listen to the clip at this link.   You can read a full discussion about the incident over at Airliners.net.

I think the pilot and the controller could have handled the situation better, but I think the captain ultimately made the right call, unlike this one that I blogged about two years ago who tried to land on the wrong runway in a hideous crosswind.


Monday, May 3, 2010

On Air Travel And Exclusiveness

On my last international flight, I sat in Delta's BusinessElite section on the 12 hour flight from Atlanta to Tel Aviv and back.   As I made myself comfortable in my seat, the passengers heading back to economy gawked enviously.   Some asked me how I was lucky enough to get to sit in Business class, and I could only respond, "Collect frequent flier miles".

I have often wondered if economy passengers are deliberately paraded past the first and business class sections.  It occurs to me that business class really isn't all that great, unless you compare it economy class.   Delta does have these wonderful lie flat sleeper seats on some aircraft, but they are very narrow and really aren't quite as comfortable as the bunk bed in your average summer camp.   The food was pretty good by airline standards, but if I had paid more than $10 for the very same dinner at a restaurant, I probably would not have returned.    Keep in mind that this is a meal on a flight that sells for $4,000.

Sometimes I read travel blogs in which the author gets to travel in International First Class (usually on miles), on some great airlines.   Take a look at this post from a First Class flight on Cathay Pacific, certainly valued at more than twice my Delta flight.   Here is the steak dinner.
The steak has nice grill marks and decent presentation, but now imagine what your opinion of this plate would be if it were being served on the ground.    You would probably be disappointed had you spent $20 for this meal.   Even at Outback Steakhouse, I would expect a larger cut of beef for $15.  

An airline defender might say that there is only so much one can expect from food at 40,000 feet served by flight attendants.   That would be a reasonable argument, but it can easily be tested by how the same airline treats it's customers on the ground.   Take a look at some of the writers picture's of the First Class lounge from the same trip:


This is average for an airport business lounge.    On the other hand, it is about what I would expect from the lobby of a $79 a night Courtyard Marriott in the suburb of any American City.   If they are trying to impress someone who paid $10,000 for the experience, I think they are probably coming up short again.

My point is not to knock Cathay Pacific.   It looks like their First Class Seat is truly remarkable:


My point is that most of the "elite" features of business and first class aren't really all that great, unless you compare them with economy class travel.   Certainly the meals and the business lounges are hardly worth spending thousands of extra dollars for.  Recently, I have been traveling with my wife an daughter in coach, and found that their petite size allowed me to enjoy far more room in coach than I ever did while traveling solo amongst strangers of all sizes.   So long as the airline has decent legroom, like Southwest, I find coach to be more than adequate for domestic flights.

The other crazy part about business and first class travel is the entire notion of being elite that airlines are marketing.   On my last flight on Delta, boarding was divided between the "Sky Priority" line, and the regular line.    The only difference was one line passed to the left of turnstile, and the other line was on the right before entering the same jetway.    There was also a short, rubberized "red carpet" to add to the feeling of exclusivity that the exalted ones must feel when passing to the left or the right of the turnstile (I forget which side was which).    Such class distinctions sometimes result in shorter lines, but in this instance, it was truly comical.

I have often wondered how airlines continue to sell first and business class seats for several times the price of their coach product.    The answer is that most of the premium cabin is not sold.   It is filled with award seats, upgrades, and plenty of employees and their families.  If you want a reasonable estimate for how an airline values their costs for premium seat compared with coach, consult their award redemption tables.   Here is the Star Alliance award redemption table from US Airways.   Most business class awards are a mere 50% more than coach, with international first class sometimes just barely exceeding twice the coach price.

Yes, I want a reclining sleeper seat for an overnight flight, but we are getting to the point where exclusivity is being marketed as an end in of itself while people are spending good money to be considered Elite by some company. 

That is not a game that I am willing to play with my money.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

DIA's Future: Dream or Nightmare?

 
When Denver International Airport opened 15 years ago, years late and way over budget, it was derided as being too big, too costly, and too far away from the the city it served.  Continental abandoned it's hub operations and discount carriers like Southwest declined to offer service due to the high cost of operating here.

Day's Plans For DIA

As DIA celebrates it's 15th anniversary, a new article in Denver's Westword weekly paper "DIA Dreams: Aviation director Kim Day plans to take DIA where no airport has gone before" examines some ideas for it's future, as proposed by DIA's Manager of Aviation, Kim Day.   I would like to share my perspective on of her plans as a pilot, a Denver based traveler, and an aviation enthusiast.

First, let's look at where we agree:

Kim Day, DIA's manager of aviation, believes the airport is uniquely positioned to adapt to growing traffic, in part because of the remote location its detractors have always complained about. The airport sits on 53 square miles of sheer potential. It has room for half a dozen more runways, with few neighbors to complain about them, while other, hemmed-in airports are spending billions on protracted battles with adjacent communities over expansion issues.
"We have so many physical advantages," Day says. "JFK has limited land, LAX has limited land. Their gateways, in particular, are very constrained. They will cap out at some point in time, while we could well move up in market share."

This is to say that DIA's weakness, it's remote location, will be it's strength in the decades to come.   DIA has six runways and ample room for six more, while Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world, recently spent billions to add a fifth runway to it's constrained location.    It may take thirty years or more, but I can see Denver offering better service than Atlanta one day.

Light Rail And A Hotel Good, A New Terminal.....

Day is also wise to pursue light rail access to the airport, as well as an on site hotel.   Both of these projects will mitigate the weakness of DIA's remote location.

When it comes to some of her other grandiose plans for the airport, I have to strongly disagree with her thinking. Day's idea to create a whole new terminal to the south of the existing one seems predicated on some flawed beliefs.  Alan Pendergast, the author of the Westword article states; "As passenger traffic increases in the next few years, the trains will be operating at capacity".    It is not clear if this Pendergast's view or Day's, but that statement just doesn't make sense.   DIA has virtually the same train system as Atlanta's Hartsfield airport, yet Hartsfield operates with 76% more passengers (85 million annually to DIA's 46 million).   While Atlanta continues to expand it's people mover system to serve a new international concourse, it's 7th, Day is hiring consultants to build new concourses and terminals away from it's existing three concourses because Denver's train is supposedly reaching capacity.     Sure, DIA's trains could be operated more efficiently, but they are a far cry from reaching their maximum capacity.

According to the article, "Alternative plans place the new concourses flanking the terminal on the east and west or even south of the hotel development, with a bus shuttling back and forth."  Such distant concourses, accessed by bus, will ruin the most efficient aspects of the DIA and ATL designs, the linking of all gates with a single in line transportation system.

Day is also ignoring the fact that like DIA's runways, it's concourses were originally designed for tremendous growth.  Unlike Atlanta, DIA's existing concourses can be substantially lengthened to accommodate far more  aircraft gates than they currently do.   According to Denver International Airport: Lessons Learned, by Paul Stephen Dempsey, DIA was designed to accommodate 110 million passengers a year at full buildout, more than any other airport that existed at the time.

In the most optimistic growth scenarios, it will be decades before DIA builds out it's concourses and necessitates the kind of expansion Day is planning for.  Realistically, it is not hard to imagine that Denver residents might look back on the last few years as a Golden Age for DIA when we had United, Frontier, and Southwest, each competing with an extensive hub operation.  Any one of these hubs would be the envy of many a medium sized city, and the list of airports in the world that have sustained three separate domestic hub operations is a very small list.

The Great Hall


I will join the chorus of jeers Day received when she proposed placing security outside of the Great Hall.   If one truly wanted to encourage the use of the Great Hall as a public space, there would be a simple way to accomplish that.    Before 9/11, parking was free at the terminal for 90 minutes, and people who felt like entering the terminal with arriving and departing passengers could do so for free, as long as they kept a close eye on the time.   Free parking disappeared for a few years after 9/11 due to "security reasons", only to reappear as paid short term parking.     Why not bring back free short term parking?    It would be easy to allow several hours of free parking without impugning on revenue from actual travelers.    The money lost from the existing short term parkers would be made up with concession revenue in the great hall.   A side effect would be an easing of congestion in the passenger pickup area.    I am sure this idea would never work as it hasn't been the subject of a multi-million dollar study and wouldn't cost a thing to implement.

It's All About The Money

The real danger is that Day's grand plans will raise enplanement costs to airlines, which will discourage growth, or even result in less traffic.  As the article states:

One reason for DIA's economic success has been the relentless whittling away of its landing fees, so that the average "cost per enplanement" (CPE) has dropped from $16.85 in 1995 to about $10.50 in 2009. That makes the airport a more attractive stop for carriers such as Southwest, which, in turn, helps to keep airfares low for the consumer.

Once you have less traffic, enplanement costs could rise in a viscous cycle, further discouraging new entrants to the market.   It is hard to see how Day's dreams could result in anything other than runaway costs and less growth at DIA.

Conclusions

DIA's visionary architects clearly anticipated that the city and the airport would grow far beyond it's initial capacity.   A generation ago, that growth was planned for in an intelligent manner.    It would be really sad if Kim Day threw those plans away and squandered DIA's hard won economic advantages by pursuing her bizarre redesign of Denver's aviation icon.

Monday, March 1, 2010

And I've Never Flown US Airways!!!

 

This is my balance in Frequent Flier Miles with US Airways as of today.  I "bought" these miles for about $2,000.  I described the whole scheme here.

Yes, it was perfectly legal.

No, it is too late for you to do it.

Looking at US Airways Star Alliance award chart, you can see that this is the equivalent of:

19 round trip domestic tickets.

or

4 tickets to Israel in Business class (with 3 domestic round trips remaining).

These miles are good on any Star Alliance airline such as Continental, Lufthansa, Swiss and others.

Remember, I have never flown US Airways, and I probably never will.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Budget Car Rental Scam Exposed!!!

Over at the blog at AskMrCreditCard, I have been digging into a scam involving Budget rental car.

Budget Rent A Car Gives Out Your Credit Card Number To Scammers

More On Negative Option Billing and Preaquired Account Marketing

Here is the short story.   You rent a car from Budget.   Over six months later you get a "check" that stipulates that when you cash it you get charged a monthly fee to "your credit card on file with Budget".

The problem is, you never authorized Budget to keep your card on file, and as I will write today, Budget can't even tell you which card you have on file, let alone how to get it off their files.

What you are getting is one, two punch of two notorious scams, negative option billing and preaquired account marketing.   Each by itself is unscrupulous, and together they are extra devious.  
 
Needless to say, these scammers have a checkered reputation, yet they are clearly still in operation via Budget and Your Credit Card Company!

Be sure to read the blog as I unravel this further....

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shmolympic Season Again

It used to be the world had to suffer through the Olympics every four  years, now it haunts us every two years.   Fourteen years ago, I worked for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and I witnessed from an insider's perspective all of the ineptitude and corruption that made me despise this mega-corporation masquerading as some kind of a "sports movement".

This year is no different.  In the run up to the games, they have again demonstrated incredible abuse of copyright and trademark laws, documented here.   Next, we saw their callous attitude towards the death of one of their athletes, an Olympic tradition since 1972.   Not to mention all of their technical failures or their rampant environmental hypocrisy.

Let's face it, the Olympics is a traveling circus that leaves financial ruin in it's wake. It is the worst example of corrupt crony capitalism.   Even the television coverage is a sap filled nonsense.  I want to puke when I hear the NBC affiliates covering the Olympics during the news like it is the top story of the day.

For more of my observations on the Shmolympics, read here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Is The Right Stuff?

Other than my favorite movie of all time, The Right Stuff is that which separates the ordinary pilots from the extraordinary ones.    This is especially true when it comes to the most critical moment in a pilot's life, when a split second decision means the difference between life and death.

In the past I have written about the "Miracle on the Hudson" and expressed my opinion that it was not Sully's superior airplane handling skills that saved the passengers and crew of flight 1549, it was his brave and timely decision to attempt a landing in the Hudson river.

A year later, my thoughts have been echoed over at FlightGlobal in regards to this incident as well as a very similar crash, British Airways flight 38.   Kieran Daly writes this week that the British Airways pilot's "achievement, like Sully Sullenberger´s in New York, was to make the tough decision. Plenty - probably the great majority - of pilots could have landed on the Hudson and made it over the fence to Heathrow - but not all would have taken the decision to opt for the river over a distant but tempting runway.."

On the other hand, you have "The Wrong Stuff" in the news this week as well.   I have also explored the possible causes of crash of Continental flight 3047.   In the immediate aftermath of the accident, it appeared that icing was a likely suspect.    The truth that has been revealed lately is far more shocking.     Both the pilot and the co-pilot displayed a lack of basic airmanship that would be expected of any candidate for a pilot's license.    The pilots failed to recover from a stall, an exercise that I have taught thousands of times to student pilots on one of their first few flights.

In defense of the pilots they were incredibly fatigued and poorly trained, as pointed out in this PBS Frontline documentary that aired this week.  I encourage you watch it online in it's entirety.

I found the report surprising, even as I know regional pilots and was even once offered a job as a pilot for a regional airline.    Many of the issues explored in this report directly relate to my decision not to pursue a career as an airline pilot.