Dear Frequent Flyer, Your Airline’s Just Not That Into You

Every road warrior has stories – good and bad – about their favorite airline.  But the thing is, for most people who have a favorite airline that they use the most frequently, those good stories outweigh the bad.  The “Hey, the flight attendant on yesterday’s flight was so nice because X and Y” stories outweigh the crappy, “Girl, you betta check yourself!” stories.  But make no mistake about it – the airline is a business, and they couldn’t really care less about you.  Your money? Yes.  But you?  Not so much.

Sure there are nice amenities to be had out there.  Complimentary access to lounges, free upgrades, and free drinks.  People who travel a lot get free baggage on the “big” airlines, whereas four of the top five airlines (Alaska, Delta, American, and United) will charge a fee for regular travelers.  As far as I know, Southwest is still the last hold out, and doesn’t charge.  Then again, Southwest doesn’t have the niceties that the other big airlines have – namely a first class section, nor parters that will get you halfway around the world on points alone.

But even with things like upgrades, nothing is a given anymore.  As an Alaska Airlines frequent flyer, I used to get complimentary upgrades on Delta when they were partners.  But it went from a routine thing to a more unusual thing. And by unusual, I mean that they would try and do their damndest to sell that seat out from under your “cheap” ass.  Why do I say cheap?  Because you were going to get it for free, and the airline is there to do one thing – make money for their investors.  So even if there were half a dozen seats open on a Delta flight and I was the only person on the upgrade list, Delta would do their damndest to sell those seats instead of upgrading me per their agreement with Alaska.

And now Alaska seems to be doing it as well.  No matter where you are on the upgrade list, if you haven’t been upgraded before a flight, don’t expect it to happen when you get to the airport.  On Alaska, I’m personally at 96% of my million miler status, and are one of the highest elites out there.  I could – and do – buy instant upgrade tickets so that the “perk” of having to leave my husband every week to go to work at least happens in a roomier cabin, with people who don’t touch you constantly and flight attendants who don’t splash you with errant liquids from the drink cart parked in the middle aisle.  Of course you don’t always get upgraded, and that’s a fact of flying.  But what’s gotten worse, is that now Alaska is in the habit of selling that seat out from under you.  Or at least me.  I’ve watched it happen countless times as I’ll be first on the upgrade list starting 24 hours before the flight, and there’ll be a seat or two open.  But once I get to the airport for my flight, suddenly there’s a new name on the list, they’re above my name, and they have that coveted upgrade seat.

Now I’m not saying that the people of your favorite airline, from the gate agents to the pilots to the cabin crew, don’t like you.  They more than likely do – especially if you make their job easy by being an easy flyer or maybe bring them a treat.  But the airline as a whole?  They don’t see you as a person.  You’re a frequent flyer number that’s a source of revenue to them.  Anything else that happens to occur that might be good or bad for you?  They really couldn’t care less.

In my book, “A Million Miles Amok“, I warn people not to let fancy things like upgrades and the like spoil you, though I myself have been spoiled.  But I think it’s becoming more and more transparent as of late; the airline wants you for your money, and really not much else.

The golden age of travel is, indeed, dead.

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Airsnark’s Unscientific Guide To The Airlines – ON BOARD AMENITIES

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Airsnark’s Unscientific Guide To The Airlines – SAFETY

As I start this five part series on my own ranking of the airlines, I have to say that these rankings are all of my own choosing, and have to do solely by my experiences first hand, or because of things I’ve read (from credible sources).

So when you’re ready to go on a trip, be it a once in a lifetime trip or that twice a week slog across the continent, you’re probably not thinking about safety.  As a matter of fact, unless there has been a recent high profile airline crash, chances are that you’re probably not thinking about safety at all.  But safety is, first and foremost, how we can rest assured that our travel is going to get us from point A to point B without any hiccups.

I’m going to break these into the good, the okay, and the “WTF were you thinking?”.  And they are

  • The Good
    • Frontier Airlines
    • Alaska Airlines
    • Southwest Airlines
  • The Okay
    • Southwest Airlines
    • United Airlines
  • The “WTF were you thinking?”
    • American Airlines
    • US Airways
    • Skywest Airlines
    • Delta Airlines

Why did Frontier come out on top?  I haven’t flown them in a few years, but whenever I did, I almost always ended up in the exit row.  And you know that little schpiel that you’re given whenever you sit in the exit row?  Frontier stands heads and tails above the rest, because they didn’t pull the crap that most airlines do, which is, “You’re in the exit row, say yes that you understand your responsibilities. Thank you.”  No, Frontier was freaking serious about what they considered safety.  If you sat in that exit row, you normally got the regular schpiel, but you also got a lesson on how to evacuate the plane.  For instance, did you know that when there are 3 people in the exit row that each has a different job?  The one closest to the door opens the emergency exit (and disposes as needed), climbs out onto the wing, and drops the the ground below.  The person in the middle seat climbs out the window and stands on the wing, just outside the emergency exit.  Finally, the person on the aisle stands up where they are seated.  They are to help direct people to the exit, where the middle-seat person helps them out of the plane, and then sends the pax down to the waiting window-seated person.  The aisle-seated person is technically the last person off the plane.

I bet you didn’t know that, did you?  Unless you’ve flown Frontier.

Beyond that awesome briefing (which should be mandatory on every airline), Frontier mechanics have gotten into trouble for making sure their planes are airworthy.  Who else remembers the Frontier plane that got struck by lightning, and was being inspected between flights at DIA?  And while the pilot pushed to leave, the mechanic didn’t want the plant to take off, for safety reasons.  When he was overruled, he stopped the plane by throwing a chuck (a wooden block that they put under the tires to keep the plane in place) into the engine.  Some see this as illegal or sabotage – but I can see concerned about a potentially unsafe plane taking to the air.  For a young airline (Frontier was still flying 737s back then – they’re now all Airbus), it could have been devastating.

Second, I have Alaska Airlines.  Now if this was just post flight AS261 (the MD80 that went down in the Pacific, killing all on board due to shoddy maintenance), then Alaska may not be this high up on the list.  Thing is, Alaska learned from that, and suddenly proper maintenance and passenger safety became a higher priority.

I’ve actually gotten the whole big “passenger evacuation” schpiel on Alaska a couple of times, but really rare.  The thing is, though, they’ve taken security very serious.  For example, there was an incident that I watched play out, where someone who was seated in the emergency exit row didn’t speak English.  The Flight Attendant actually stopped the plane from taxiing when it was revealed (thus another reason for more than just a cursory  “Yes” at the safety question) and they moved the passenger.  I’ve also watched them move people that they didn’t consider capable of sitting in the exit row.

The “Okay” list includes Southwest and United.  Now there’s nothing really special about either of these airlines, and absolutely nothing sticks out in my mind whenever I’ve flown either.  I know that at one point there was a question as to where Southwest was doing their heavy maintenance (possible outsourcing to Latin America, where the FAA doesn’t certify the mechanics), but I don’t know whatever became of that.  As a matter of fact, I’m going to put out a letter to all the Majors, and ask where B, C, and D maintenance checks are performed (in house, outsourced, etc).

Then comes the “WTF were you thinking?” list.  And this list goes from least to most worrisome in my head, starting with American Airlines.

Now overall, American isn’t really bad, though I’ve had one scary situation.  I flew DFW to LAS for work, and had to spend the 4 hour flight standing.  Why?  Well, I purchased a ticket and was flying on an MD80 in the 2 side exit row.  The man next to me was absolutely ginormous.  Not his fault – I’m not going to be put out because of a large passenger.  But the thing is, he was in the window seat next to me on the 2 side exit row – and the man was so large that A) I couldn’t fit in my seat if we both were seated and B) if that emergency exit had to be opened, he would have absolutely not fit through it.

American handled the situation horribly (more on that in the upcoming customer service post), and the only official word that I had was from a gate agent who said that American couldn’t discriminate against someone just because they were large.  I didn’t care about the man’s size – just that he would have not fit through the emergency exit.  And were there an emergency, I’m not sure exactly what would have happened.

Next comes American’s suitor, US Airways.  Now I can say that there’s still a definitive split here at US Airways, with them and America West.  America West is a more professional, more safety conscious airline – but for all intents and purposes, they don’t exist anymore.  I’ve been on flights (plural) where flight attendants were more interested in standing around talking than checking to see if pax were wearing their seatbelts when the sign comes on.  My last trip on them ended with the lead FA and her “best friend” male FA stood up in the galley, hooting and hollering and just having a fun time – which is fine.  But they never picked up the cabin from a 2.5 hour flight, they never got people to put away tray tables, and it came as a shock to them that we touched down while they were still standing around talking.

Now people don’t understand the big deal about a tray table down during landing – but think of it this way.  Your tray table is out and usually has a metal ring around it (and is comprised of hard plastic), making it rather sturdy.  You land and hit something (not unheard of!) and are forced forward into the seat in front of you.  Think about this – what’s going to give way first – the hard, sturdy tray table, or your squishy organs?  I’ll take being cut in half for $200, Alex.

Then we get to Skywest Airlines.  Now it’s true that they were named one of the 10 most dangerous airlines (though there’s a well deserved refutation of how that came to be).  Thing is, this doesn’t have to do with accidents.  Rather, it has to do with maintenance issues.  Specifically, I was flying Skywest as a regional carrier for United this past Summer, and out of 8 flights, only 3 of them were not delayed by maintenance.  Otherwise every one of the other 5 flights had a maintenance delay of between 15 minutes and 3 hours.  Now it’s just a maintenance delay, right?  Well tell me WTH is going on that a plane needs that much maintenance.  The night of our 3 hour maintenance delay in O’Hare, there were 4 other Skywest operated flights from nearby gates – and every single one of them also had a maintenance delay.  Think about it – five planes at five gates, all with maintenance delays. Exactly what happens to these planes when they’re supposed to be taken care of during routine maintenance?  Or is the airline performing maintenance whenever there’s a flight.  Whatever the case, I had such lack in trust for Skywest that I abandoned flying United altogether – and told them why.

And finally we get to the bottom of the barrel, which in my personal opinion is Delta Airlines.  There are so many damn issues that it’s hard to classify them all.  From pax that get up and walk around during the plane’s taxi (and flight crews not doing anything about it, much less stopping the plane or calling the cockpit), to leaving unqualified people in the exit row.  I boarded a plane to Amsterdam after watching Delta put an elderly couple in a wheelchair in the exit row.  I’ve seen them not even ask people in the exit row if they were okay.  Hell, one of the first picture I ever tweeted was this:

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If you can’t make it out, it’s a disabled woman with a cane looking out the emergency exit, which she is seated next to.

But probably the biggest thing was when I watched two passengers get into it.  The person in the middle seat wanted the exit row windowshade opened, while the person at the window wanted it closed.  Everyone knows the most important (and most dangerous) parts of flight are takeoff and touchdown – and that windowshades need to be open.  The middle seat pax contacted a flight attendant to try and force the window seat passenger to open the windowshade, but the flight attendant took the window seat passenger’s side, saying it could be closed if they wanted.

Sorry, but windowshades need to be open at least during takeoff and touchdown.  The only airline that I know that had this as part of their safety briefing was TWA, but when American took them over in 2001, that went away.

So that’s AirSnark’s guide to passenger safety rankings of the airlines – all my own personal opinion.  You may have other experiences, and that’s fine – but this is how I see it.

Next rankings should be less contentious – onboard amenities!

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The AA/US Merger Is Finalized!

So if you’ve been a frequent flyer of either American or US Airways, you probably just got notice that the merger between the two giants, making the largest airline in the world.  But it’s only done on paper; there are going to be years before anything really substantial happens.

The letter emailed out today says that the biggest change will be that US Airways will join oneworld Alliance on March 31st, 2014.  I knew that was going to be the case, but it’s still good to see it in writing.  Otherwise you’d have two of the three largest US airlines in the Star Alliance network – which wouldn’t be good.  And finally we’re going to see a beefed up answer to Skyteam and Star Alliance with the newly formed AA/US merger and oneworld Alliance.  Other than that, there shouldn’t be too many visible differences for a couple of years.  It took a couple of years for TWA to be fully absorbed by American, so I foresee the same thing happening with US Airways and American.

And now the real speculation begins.

So there’s always been scuttlebutt about the fate of Phoenix.  I think that, like Northwest’s Memphis hub, it will slowly become a focus city, with more flights funneled through DFW.  Whenever I’ve talked to people who work for America West (because AW/US still haven’t integrated crews, etc, even after all these years), they’ve acknowledged that the Phoenix hub doesn’t make a lot of money.  So honestly, I think there will be lesser emphasis on Phoenix, and more on DFW.  That means good things for carriers like Alaska and Southwest, both of which have expanded in the Phoenix market.

Speaking of Alaska Airlines, I’m wondering how this is going to affect them,  especially with the way they are maintaining their ‘frenemy’ relationship with Delta.  Delta is taking aim at Alaska, expanding in their primary Portland and Seattle markets, with Alaska taking aim at Salt Lake City.  Right now in markets where Alaska has a smaller presence, they contract with Delta to do a lot of their groundwork (checkin, luggage handling, boarding, etc.).  But say this merger with American and US Airways goes well, and Alaska – hedging their bets – keeps strategic partners with both Delta and the new American?  Maybe Alaska will move gates in Dallas /Ft. Worth and Atlanta and have American do the work that Delta is doing now?  And with the big expansion in SLC, I can foresee Alaska hiring their own employees in Utah instead of outsourcing to Delta; they’re going from 4 flights a day (2 incoming, 2 outgoing) all the way up to 18 flights a day (9 incoming, 9 outgoing) starting in June 2014.  With that much time to prepare, and with flights coming & going from 7am to 10:45pm, I bet those will be AS employees, and not DL.

Finally, are we done with merger mania?  Or is there any more consolidation to come?  The only thing I could possibly see myself is Alaska taking over Hawaiian – and making a commanding lead in Hawaiian flights (retiring the Hawaiian brand state-side and operating only Alaska 737s between the mainland & Hawaii), while letting a Hawaiian Air subsidiary concentrate on flights between Asia and Hawaii.  And we’ve still yet to find out the fate of beleaguered Frontier Airlines; have they been sold yet?  And what about once-darling jetBlue?  They’d better compliment a carrier like Alaska, but if jetBlue and Frontier somehow combined, that might let Frontier bow out of the super-dominated Denver market and focus more on less hub & spoke, giving jetBlue a better route network.  Or maybe even jetBlue marrying Virgin; might make getting Virgin out of the red a little easier.

So here’s to US Airways and American, and hoping the merger gets off on the right foot.  And I’m raising my glass to all the other speculators out there as well, who probably have their own ideas about what to expect next in the wild & crazy world of commercial passenger aviation.

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About this electronics stuff…

Okay, so first it was Delta and jetBlue that got the okay to go gate-to-gate with electronic gadgets.  Then it was American.  I had a question from a friend on this new policy, because he flew Delta mainline, where they announced the new policy, and then flew a Delta Connection flight, where the flight attendant nearly came unglued when he wouldn’t put his iPhone away during taxi out to the runway.

Try as they might, airlines aren’t telling their customers the distinction between “mainline” flights and those that are subcontracted.  Indeed, my friend’s Delta Connection flight was on ExpressJet, though it was branded a Delta Connection flight.

Earlier this week I got an email from US Airways saying that they were rolling out gate-to-gate electronic use – but they were actually freaking helpful!  They said that the new policy applied only to mainline US Airways flights, and that the policy didn’t yet apply to US Airways Express flights; that would come at a later date.  And just now, I got an email from Alaska Airlines saying that starting Saturday passengers on mainline flights would be able to use electronics, with sister carrier Horizon coming up soon, as well as subcontractor SkyWest, pending FAA approval.

From what I can tell, US Airways and Alaska Airlines are the only ones to roll out this new policy correctly.

So congrats you guys!  Travel is just about to get a little more interesting.

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Scuttlebutt on the AA/US merger – Thoughts?

So it should be no secret to those that follow me on here or on Twitter that I primarily fly Alaska Airlines.  I’ve been curious about the announced American/US Airways merger since day one – mostly because American is a partner with Alaska Airlines.  Not as strong a partner as Delta, but still – a partner.

As I was traveling on the new AS route PDX->ATL yesterday, I was talking to some folks on my flight, and the merger came up.  Specifically, there was scuttlebutt that, if the AA/US merger goes through, the new AA would drop the partnership with Alaska.  I’m wondering if this is true or not.

I couldn’t see Alaska dropping the newly merged AA, because it opens so many doors for them.  Hell, if they did, there’d be virtually no reason to fly from SEA or PDX to DFW, because there wouldn’t be any more continuing tickets (AS to DFW, AA or AE DFW to final destination).

This has me thinking…  So what do you think?  Think the merger will go through, and if so, do you think they’ll stay partners with AS?  Or do you think new AA management will force AS to drop the contract?

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Wondering about AS fallout from the US/AA merger

It’s no secret that I’m personally a big supporter of Alaska Airlines.  Part of that is because they choose to not be part of an alliance, but instead work with a multitude of partners.  Their partnership with Emirates Airlines seems to be paying off; in recent weeks, I’ve seen a number of people flying with Emirates luggage tags.  I know that’s not scientific, but I hadn’t seen these luggage tags outside of the Middle East until now.

Everyone knows about US Airways taking over American Airlines.  But what’s not known is what’s going to happen with the Alaska/American tie-up.  Yes, the new AA/US is going to be part of oneworld (and isn’t US Airways supposed to drop Star Alliance any day now?), and the new AA will have hubs in Phoenix, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Charlotte, and Chicago.  But how is it going to effect Alaska Airline’s relationship with the “new” American?  I, for one, am curious.

And speaking of Alaska partners, they’ve severed their ties to Kenmore Air as of 4/1/2013, and will be severing their ties with Iceland Air on 6/1/2013 – and they say to consider one of their other partners, including American.  So there’s that (though it may not hold water – we’ll see).

I, for one, was actually wanting to fly to Reykjavik one of these days.  Guess it won’t be on Iceland, if I’m cashing in Alaska miles…

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Differences in cabin crews

After yesterday, I felt I really needed to post this.

I fly primarily Alaska Airlines.  I think I’ve said this before, but I’ve never fully said why.  My flight on Delta yesterday should give you a good reason as to why.

Whenever I fly, no matter what airline, I always bring a $3 bag of Hershey’s Miniatures for the flight crew.  It’s just something that I do.  I have many flight attendant friends, and I know what they go through on a daily basis.  Trust me, it’s not always glamorous and fun.

So when I get on, say, a Alaska Airlines or Horizon Air flight, the reaction is always the same.  The person I hand the chocolates gets a big smile on their face, and they ask something to the effect of, “For me?  For us?  Really?”  And at that point, I either get a thank you or the biggest hug possible.  When I was flying American Airlines every week, I usually had the same flight crews – and often I would come down the jet bridge, and would here someone on the plane get on the PA and say, “Here comes the candy man!”  The flight crews on US Airways were almost as animated and thankful.

So I flew on 4 Delta flights this week.  Two of the times that I gave chocolate, absolutely NONE of that happened.  What happened?  The first time, the flight attendant basically rolled their eyes and took the chocolate, then turned to throw it away.  When I said that it was a treat for her and the crew, she “got it”, and said thanks.

Yesterday when I was flying home, I handed the bag of chocolate to the lead FA as I was boarding the plane.  What did he do?  Without asking or anything, he just turned around and threw the bag in the garbage.  I stood there kind of stunned for a second, then shook my head and walked to my seat.

I get people who tell me I should fly Delta all the time.  Why?  Seriously, why should I put up with the vapidity of a flight crew that many times a week?  It’s just not worth it.  As my seatmate on the plane yesterday told me, “I get treated better in Coach on Alaska Airlines than I do in First Class on Delta.”  And you know what?  He couldn’t be more right.

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Bad Writing or Bad Research? Or Both?

Okay, so I may be an amateur blogger/hack, but at least I try to get my basic facts right!  That’s what frustrates me with some stories out there.  People just don’t freaking try!  And, I have a sneaking suspicion, that they’re outsourcing a bunch of these stories to people whose first language is not English.

Case in point: An enstarz.com article about American Airways flight #1295.  Go read that, and you count the things that are wrong…  I’ll wait.

Let’s see…  146 Pax in the headline? Wrong. 139 pax.  The picture above the article?  It’s a Boeing 737.  The article about the incident itself?  It’s about a McDonnell Douglas MD80.  Inside the article, there’s references to both 139 pax and 7 crew (which I know is wrong), and then a little farther down it’s changed to 139 pax and 5 crew (which is correct).  People on the ground reporting a problem with a plane when said plane is at 4,000 feet?  I hardly think so.  Not unless an engine freaking fell off or something like that!  And there’s the ever present “Some say…” towards the bottom of the article, where the “reporter” mentions American’s “significant problems with engines, according to Fox News” – and then cites absolutely nothing to back up that claim.

Such crap…  Hell, I could do a better job!  And like I said, I’m a freaking amateur hack!

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Where My 2 Worlds Intersect

I’m not only proudly American, and proudly Union, I’m also an airline guy.  So this bit of information from Jim Hightower intersects both of my worlds.

Hightower put together an article on his website called “Fixing American Airlines”.  And I tend to agree with the man, on many, many things.  He’s spot on here, as usual.

Anyone who’s paid attention to airline news has heard about American Airlines 757s losing rows of seats – they’ve literally come loose during flights.  Scary as hell, right?  I was just on an American 757 a few weeks ago, though we didn’t notice anything different…  Anyway, American is going through their bankruptcy, and their CEO has said that not all maintenance needs to be done here – by US workers.  It can be outsourced – you know, cheaper for the airlines.

So then the seats started coming loose.  And…  Well, let’s just see how Jim put it:

In September, when the seats started coming loose, the brass callously drove company morale further down by implying that American’s maintenance crews, who are members of the Transport Workers Union, were the culprits. But TWU fired right back, pointing out that maintenance of two lines of 757s, including seats, had been outsourced to a non-union, low-wage corporation where employees don’t get expert union training or regular on-site reviews by federal safety inspectors.

HA!  Those in power want so much to slash costs – and send jobs overseas – that they will use anything to say American workers aren’t up to snuff.  But in this case, those greedy executives at American Airlines were hoisted by their own petard.

Sounds like the greedy short-sighted outsourcers at American Airlines need to be outsourced, and those that truly care about the company need to take over.  “Why?” you may ask.  Because this is something people remember – for a long time.  Don’t believe me?  The Ford Edsel came out 52 years ago, but Ford still can’t shake the link between “Fords” and the “Edsel” being a lemon – and comparisons of “X is the new Ford Edsel” still continue to this day.

American had better come clean, or they won’t make it 50 years to even be made fun of!

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