Monday, November 18, 2013

Fads, Crazes, and the Low Cost Carrier Hoi-Polloi

Many of you who know me know I do not subscribe to the Southwest "Effect", drink the jetBlue "Kool-Aid" or go ape over any LCC's (Low Cost Carrier) gimmicks.  My criteria for airlines are the following:

* gets me there safely (and in 1 piece)
* allows interlining with International partners (I like to keep my options open when flying abroad)
* has a network with access to the majority of my most frequent destinations
* has a decent elite mileage program for frequent fliers that's easy to understand, use, and accrue

Those are my requirements.  Every traveler on Earth has their own requirements that fit their needs. Some fly on Southwest as it gets them where they want with frequent intervals.  Some fly jetBlue because it's the "in" thing to do.  Some fly American because they have corporate contracts out of JFK or LAX (seriously, AA's 9:00AM Flight 1 to LAX is nothing but corporate contracts in Business and First Class). 

That being said, I do not believe in the fads several airlines perceive to have, let me tell you why.

The Southwest "effect":  According to the US Department of Transportation, the definition of the Southwest effect is the increase in air travel originating from a community after service to and from that community is inaugurated by Southwest Airlines that a) improves service to and from that community and b) lower airfares in/out of said community.

In the 1990's this was absolutely true.   Southwest came into cities like Columbus, Ohio; Islip/Long Island, NY; and Manchester, NH and obliterated fares while increasing frequencies and service to various cities and allowing the masses to fly.  Southwest also expanded quite a bit in the Pacific Northwest and West Coast due to their buyout of up and comer Morris Air, enabling Southwest to take over Morris operations in places like Seattle, Spokane, Salt Lake City, Boise, and increased access to Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles area airports.

That was then.  This is now.  the Southwest of today has absorbed a fantastic low-cost carrier out of Orlando and Atlanta by the name of AirTran Airways (itself being the resuscitation of ill-fated Valujet Airlines).  This merger gives Southwest access to places like Atlanta, Newport News, increased access to New York's LaGuardia Airport, among others.  Also, during this last round of mergers and acquisitions,  Southwest came away from the pack with a big chunk of coveted slots in Newark, Washington/National, and Boston airports.  Now, with the impending US Airways/American Airlines tie-up, Southwest stands to gain more from LaGuardia and again in Washington/National.

Here's what I can't stand about Southwest.  They perceive themselves to still be the underdog airline that they were under the tutelage and care of Herb Kelleher.  They are not.  Herb's gone, and Southwest has metamorphosed into just another airline, with fares just as high as the legacy carriers on the majority of routes, with a dislike for larger passengers (size 36 waist or higher needs to purchase a second seat, for safety's sake after all) and a penchant for being the most arrogant airline flying the friendly skies, at least in this writer's not so humble opinion.

Back in it's heyday, Southwest had a fictitious claim to being THE origianl low-fare airline.  Wrong.  That claim righteously belongs to Pacific Southwest Airlines, colloquially known as PSA.  A West Coast airline based in San Diego that originated short-haul, high-frequency flights between San Deigo, Los Angeles, and Oakland.  When Southwest was still in the planning stages, they visited PSA and got their hands on policies, procedures, best practices, uniforms, and even their first two 737's came from PSA!  PSA was unfortunately bought out in 1989 in an unscrupulous move by a very inept senior management bent on erasing their famous smiling airplanes from the sky permanently.  Also, the low fares Southwest used to be able to sell no longer apply on a majority of their routes.  I've sampled in a month-long stretch several different fare pricings between various city pairs and have found Southwest is now THE highest fare in the market.  Talk about false advertising.  The reasons they had those low fares all these years were due to their sly manipulationg of fuel futures on Wall Street where the financial wizards at Southwest hedged their bets on fuel going higher and locked in multiple year contracts that averaged the barrel of fuel out to just over $10/barrel while other airlines were paying out the nose to the tune of over $35-40 a barrel!

Drinking the jetBlue Kool-Aid:  Everyone in the industry remembers all the hoopla and chutzpah behind the launch of jetBlue back in 1998.  With brand-new planes, a nice sized hub at New York's JFK Airport, and the penchant for bringing humanity back to air travel, everyone was lining up to buy tickets and nosh on Blue chips (which are actually purple) , Blue this, and Blue that.  They went all out looking for staff that didnt fit the airline mold and had a soul.  Their first casting call was an ad the Village Voice in NYC.  An eclectic mix of folks showed up aged from 18 to 92...if you think I'm kidding, I'm her eto say I'm not.  I was in NYC on and off during this time  and lemme tell ya, the lines of people looking for a job with an airline were insane! 

Let's fast forward a bit.  I decided to try jetBlue on a few segments in and out of Salt Lake City to JFK.  These 4 segments were the absolute worse 4 flights I had ever been up to that point.  From the moment of boarding, the Flight Attendants had the attitude that made you feel like you were worthless and weak and that it was a priviledge for you to be in their presence, all the way to New York, and back.  No, these weren't the same crew on all segments, but they ALL had that same attitude.  I initially chalked it up to the luck of the draw and i happened to be on the odd bad flight that every airline has.  Until 2005, when I got back on jetBlue to head back to Salt Lake City and had THE SAME kind of treatment that I was subject to in 2001!  After that experience I shunned jetBlue for good.  I just cant get into the whole hipster vibe and college frat party atmosphere the airline puts out.

Now it's 2013, and jetBlue has (hopefully) grown up some, and the big bad Mormon is gone, and a competent airline chief is running the show.  They've got a few different planes and they are now adding a First Class section (dubbed "Mint" of all things) to their new Airbus 321 Transcontinental fleet.  I am willing to try them on a segment or two, just to see if they've fixed their in-flight service levels and general in-flight attitude, and to try out the new Mint offereing.  We'll see what happens.

Now that I've bashed the two biggest post-deregulation LCC's out there, let me tell you about the two i do like.

US Airways.  Yep.  You heard me.  US Airways, after being bought out of their second bankruptcy by Doug Parker's newly refreshed America West Airlines, US Airways has turned into an amazing carrier with low fares to destinations I want to go to.Domestic AND International.  Now that they are merging with American and taking them over, the list of destinations grows, and their portfolio of partners (in the OneWorld Alliance) improves tenfold.  Yes, I'd much rather fly American or British Airways across the pond than god-awful United or any of the other financially struggling Star Alliance carriers. 

What US Airways does right.  Now that they've connected the dots from my home airports to their East Coast hubs, the connections are much easier to get across the Atlantic to Eastern Europe or the Middle East.  True, some of those flights are red eyes to their fortress hub in Charlotte, or an afternoon arrival into Philadelphia, but that's better than the countless times I've connected through Phoenix.  Don't get me wrong, Sky Harbor is a nice airport, I'm just burnt out on it. 

US Airways baggage policy is not bad, $35 for the first checked bag on Domestic flights, unless you have status in their Dividend Miles program, and the baggage is free on International flights.  They operate the world's biggest fleet of Airbus aircraft, and to a larger guy like me, the extra inches are a godsend.  Their ground staff are some of the best in the business and the in flight folks know how to take good care of you, rain or shine.

The next on my list is little Virgin America.  They finally started making profits, and I'm glad my segments on them helped them out.  Despite all the glitz and glamour they put off, they actually do run a neat operation.  With hubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the are popular up and down the West Coast and on Transcons to Florida and the Eastern Seaboard.  I've racked up a few segments on them, and have enjoyed each and every flight with them thus far.  Mood lighting or not, you cant help but feel like you're in your own living room on board Virgin America. Oh, and those low fares don't hurt either, but I opt for paying the slight higher Economy plus fares, or the First Class Fares, as their Elevate program makes it easy to accrue and redeem points, and their Loft lounge at LAX hearkens back to the glory days of that terminal's former tenant, TWA, and their halycon days of being THE airline of Hollywood.  Many kudos to Virgina America and I can't wait to see what the future brings for them.

There you have it.  My list of my preferred "low-cost" carriers, and the fluff behind them.  Some good, some bad, some downright terrible.  Drop me a line if you would like to add anything to this list.

Enjoy your flight,