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Airline seat advice showdown 2009: SeatGuru vs SeatExpert

Not all airline seats are created equal. For those who understand this simple but important point, SeatGuru has been an invaluable resource for years. Rarely do I choose a seat without consulting the Seatguru charts first.

But now, the competing site SeatExpert has gotten a makeover. Is it finally the worthy competitor it promised to be, or is the ‘guru still the king?

Both of these sites have changed owners in recent years. SeatGuru was bought by TripAdvisor (part of Expedia, Inc.), and SeatExpert was bought by Randy Petersen’s Frequent Flyer Services, the onetime parent of the Flyertalk message boards, and the publisher of various websites related to travel.

So which site is the champ?

The assessment:
Both sites use a similar color-coding scheme for indicating seat quality, and both focus on seat pitch (distance between rows), with a secondary emphasis on proximity to toilets and galleys. SeatExpert cleverly figures out which aircraft configuration you’ll be flying, which is a nice feature. But while SeatExpert has offered some good improvements on the usability front, it still doesn’t have the breadth of information that SeatGuru does. Consult both. But if you choose only one, choose SeatGuru.

Depth and Breadth
For starters, the number of airlines covered is significantly different. SeatExpert lists aircraft from 57 different airlines. SeatGuru has 84 airlines in its database.

Within airlines, there’s some variation too. One site may list 5 aircraft for an airline, while another may list 8. Or the aircraft listed may be different: For example, SeatGuru and SeatExpert both list 6 seatmaps for Aeroflot, but SeatGuru lists two different Ilyushin IL 96-300′s, while SeatExpert doesn’t have any. Instead, SeatExpert maps a broader range of Boeing 767′s. If you’re not traveling domestically on one of the major US airlines, you’ll want to browse to both sites.

Display
I find SeatGuru’s visual design more elegant, overall. Not only is it relatively “clean,” and generally conveys information more effectively. For example, passengers who like window seats should check to see that they’re not sitting in a row with a misaligned window. SeatGuru typically marks those seats in yellow, with an explanation when you hover over with your mouse. On SeatExpert, misaligned windows are noted with a tiny, easy-to-miss red line on the fuselage. The seat itself might still be highlighted in bright green, indicating a good seat, though it could really stink. The warning about the window is visible when you hover over, but SeatExpert’s color coded warnings aren’t strong enough.

To be fair, SeatGuru has some inconsistencies as well. A seat that’s got a ton of legroom but that’s close to the galley might be green and yellow on one plane, but simply green on another.

While I prefer SeatGuru’s graphics overall, SeatExpert’s categories for critiquing seats are more in-depth. One seat could have seven or eight commentaries. I particularly like comments like, “You will be one of the last from this cabin off the plane and through immigration.” Another one for queasy fliers, is “Beware that the back of the plane has more sideways motion.”

For the most part, the information is comparable when comparing apples to apples. But there are almost always minor differences. Here’s a head-to-head analysis of the same seat (80A on a Qantas A380):

Above: SeatExpert
Above: SeatGuru

What’s missing?
One factor that’s missing from both sites — and which may be the Holy Grail of seat selection — is the comfort level of the seats themselves. I received an e-mail from a reader recently, which addressed this precise point:

…being a 6’4″ person I noticed that 32 inch pitch on KLM is not the same as 32 inch pitch on, say, United. One seat might feel comfy and roomy, while the other might feel horrible. Is there a site that rates seats using some measure of “comfort”? Should there be?

Yes, there should be. But there’s nothing really systematic out there like that. Yet. It would be tough to do, admittedly, and you’ll find comfort variation from plane to plane for the very same seat. But you can still generalize, based on seat design and features. Yes, there are the Skytrax seat ratings, but they focus primarily on seat pitch, rather than comfort. You can sift through review after review describing the comfort on an individual flight, but it’s not organized effectively.

So, at the end of the day, there’s an opportunity here for an entrepreneurial spirit to bring these valuable user-generated data sources together into a graphically-accessible format.

The bottom line:
When it comes to searching for a good seat, I’m still starting with SeatGuru because of their coverage of more airlines and cleaner interface. But if I don’t know the equipment the airline is using on my flight, or if SeatGuru doesn’t have the aircraft I need in its database, I’ll run it through SeatExpert. And I’ll keep hoping for one of these sites (or a third competitor) to add seat quality and comfort to the calculus someday soon.

Rail website charges double if you search in English

Last week, I was trying to book tickets for travel between Barcelona and Madrid on the relatively-new AVE high-speed rail line. I soon realized that the price quoted on the website of RENFE, Spain’s national railway, depended on the language in which you chose to conduct your searches.

When I searched the site earlier that day from my office, I searched in Spanish. A one-way ticket from Barcelona to Madrid could be had for around 44 euros on a “tarifa Web,” their Internet special fare with 30 day advance purchase.

When I was at home, ready to finalize my purchase, I opted to search with the site language set to English. The price was nearly 110 euros.

(On the positive side, RENFE’s full-fare ticket is still less than the $253 per person that Rail Europe is charging… Where on earth is that fare coming from?…) Rail website charges double if you search in English

A little digging revealed that the Spanish-language RENFE site offered three tiers of ticket, including the deep-discounted 15-day advance purchase “Tarifa Web” and the discounted 7-day advance purchase “Tarifa Estrella.” 

The English-language site only offered the full-price fare, with an indication of how much that fare would cost if you bought it in the station vs. on the web. Web and Estrella fares were missing.

My one year of high school Spanish, limited travel experience in the Spanish-speaking world, and Google Translate were enough to figure out what I was buying on the Spanish-language site. And I was able to get the lower fare, using a US billing address and an American Visa card, with two tickets costing less than one ticket on the English site. But why is this necessary?

A quick search shows that other English speakers have had similar experiences, and that some users have been unable to complete a purchase at all.

The bothersome part is that RENFE has actively constructed a site that looks and acts differently for different users, based solely on their language. It’s not based on your IP address, or your billing address. It affects Americans, Britons, and anyone who opts for English in the same way.

I just did another search, for different dates, and it’s not just a fluke. It’s systematic. Here’s a screenshot of Spanish-language search results (note that fares in the search images below are different from what I booked):

And here’s the site in English:

(The two-price system reminds me of a trip through eastern Europe in 1992. At the Vilnius train station, where I was trying to buy a ticket to Warsaw, the rail station cashiers had a simple standard for outsiders: The fare was 200. 200 rubles, dollars, Deutschmarks, whatever. Your nationality determined your currency. It always cost 200.)

Segmenting your customers, and pitching different products to them accordingly, is one thing. Discriminating against them wholesale is quite another.

——

UPDATE 1:
An unnamed RENFE representative writes in:

Subject: Renfe website doesn’t charge double
The information found in the Upgrade Travel Better blog, stating that the price for tickets purchased in the English language option on Renfe’s website is much more expensive than in the Spanish version, is incorrect. The prices referred to in the above-mentioned information relate exclusively to the Timetables Search section; legally, Renfe is obliged to publish the prices to which the various discounts are applied. However, when tickets are actually acquired (by pressing the shopping trolley icon) the purchaser is taken directly to the ticket purchase application, which shows all special offer prices, identically in all languages. The area designed for purchasing tickets also has an English version.

As I indicated in my comment, it is indeed possible to find the discounted web fares. But this misses the point: The initial English quoted price is still double the initial Spanish quoted price.Why would anyone who searches in English assume that the price would go down from there? There’s no indication on the initial English search page that web or estrella fares even exist.

Renfe’s English site is the equivalent of going to a supermarket and seeing a pack of gum labeled for sale for $5. If you see the $5 price, you’ll probably just leave it there. Or, you could ask the cashier about the price, and when he doesn’t know why it’s so expensive, he could call over the manager, who would politely explain that you could buy the pack of gum for $1. So, yes, after much time and negotiation, the gum actually costs $1, but why would you go through that trouble?

Renfe’s response shows that they’re content to sell their services with mislabeled prices. Why is this an acceptable business practice, exactly?

UPDATE 2:
The folks from Renfe just won’t give up on denying that their site misrepresents their prices! But they admit their site needs work, and they indicate that a relaunch of the site is coming. If the response to this post is any indicator, that relaunch can’t come soon enough.

This post is already incredibly long, so I share their latest e-mail to me, and my response to it, after the jump.

Subject: The prices quote are the same, definetively

Dear Mark,

Your update of the post regarding Renfe’s website maintains the same mistake there was in the main post, as it’s to say “The initial English quoted price is still double the initial Spanish quoted price”. That’s no true, so let’s hope we could break the misunderstanding. Spanish Renfe’s home have two different sections: Tickets Sale (Venta de Billetes) and Timetable Search (Buscador de Horarios). If you enter into the second section you’ll find, of course, only timetables with general fares. But if you want actually purchase the tickets, then –and only then- you have to enter into the first section. There you can choose your train, the web “question” the system about the availability of tickets and shows the places, the offers, etc.

Since a simple timetable can’t say anything about availability, it’s as well not possible for it say anything about discount or special fares, that are subjected to a availability and, furthermore, they’re changing (the discount are NOT 40 or 60%, but UP TO 40 or 60).

The misunderstanding begins when you select a language (any language, not only English) and you’re droved directly to “Timetable Search”. If you want to know how are the prices and availability you’re addressed to the proper section. Maybe all these steps are not so clear for everyone, so from now on we’ll put a note explaining that if you want to check’em you have to go to Ticket Sales.

In short, when you say “the initial Spanish quoted price” probably you mean the banner with a list of fares: Estrella, up to 40%, etc. But, Mark, this is not a quoted price, neither a price! It’s only an advertisement…

Moreover, it’s not a double price of any other, since you don’t even know if there’s a discount available for your train!

On the other hand, this “English website”, like the other languages websites, is only a provisional solution, because we’re currently building a brand new website, clearer for the purchaser and with proper translations.

Sincerely,
Renfe Operadora
Press Office

My response, in an attempt to be as detailed as possible, to avoid any further misunderstandings, and hopefully guide their efforts to improve the customer experience…:

First, thank you for your note. I appreciate the fact that RENFE is answering these concerns, though I disagree strongly with your assessment. The problems are not simply a “misunderstanding.” They are a failure of RENFE to build a sensible website, and your defensiveness shows a lack of comprehension of the consumer experience.

So, dear RENFE, let me try to help you. I think you need to understand how visitors actually enter your site, rather than the abstract notion of what information is out there on your site.

Let’s compare the user experience of the Spanish-speaker and the English-speaker.

Here’s the Spanish-language flow through the site:
1) I go to www.renfe.es. On the left sidebar, I choose cities, dates, etc., in Spanish. I click “buscar.”

2) A new window opens (annoying, I might add). The fares are all there, including web and estrella fares. Fares are as low as 43.80 euros for a one-way AVE ticket between Barcelona and Madrid. (THIS is what I refer to as the “initial Spanish quoted price” in the post above. Not the advertised “fares as low as 60% off” banner, which you seem to think I’m referring to.) I choose a specific train/fare option, scroll to the bottom, enter the CAPTCHA number, and click “continuar.”

3) Next screen: I enter my billing information, check the terms/conditions box, and click “comprar.”

The Spanish version is relatively simple. (Of course, when booking two tickets, and choosing web fare, your site sometimes hiccups when only one seat is available at that price… that’s another problem but let’s stay on topic…)

In contrast, here’s the English-language experience. If you haven’t done this yourself, try it sometime, and imagine that you don’t understand the Spanish words that appear on the screen…:

1) I go to www.renfe.es. I look for something that suggests an option to view in another language, which most sites indicate with, say, the word “English,” or a small icon of a UK flag. Alas, there isn’t anything obvious for those who can’t read Spanish. Instead, at the bottom left, there is a pulldown labeled “Seleccione su idioma” with a stylized European Union flag adjacent. Somehow, despite the lack of clarity, I don’t give up, and I click on the pulldown and choose “English.” Next page automatically loads…

2) I arrive at a page entitled “Timetables and Prices.” There is no indication that this page is just information, vs. a way to purchase. The English-speaking visitor is unaware, at this point, that there is a separate process for buying tickets, and that there might conceivably be any discounts available. There is no mention of web or estrella fares. I choose my cities, my date of travel, etc., and I click “search.”

3) A new window opens (annoying, again). Fares are listed in the English-language format as pictured in the original post above. Despite this being the English site, fares are labeled in Spanish: “precio Internet,” for example. No discounts are shown. Again, no information about the EXISTENCE or POSSIBILITY of discounted web or estrella fares is shown. Prices here are full-fare, with the lowest fare at 109.50 euros; I refer to this as the “initial English quoted price” above. I click the shopping cart icon in the column labeled “compra,” rather than “buy.”

4) Another new window opens (have I mentioned that all these new windows are annoying?). I’m brought to a page that’s entirely in Spanish. Irritated, I start looking for a way to change the language to English. At the bottom left, I see some text in Spanish, and a pulldown with the word “espanol” on it. I click it, and see English as an option. I choose English…

5) The page refreshes, with the left sidebar and tabs at the top in partial English. The main frame of the screen is in Spanish. I now need to re-enter all the information I entered earlier (annoying, again) to perform a new search. I enter my cities, dates, etc., and click “buscar” — again, in Spanish, not in English, despite this being the “English” version.

6) FINALLY, I get a screen with bookable fares, with web and estrella discounts. I choose a fare, enter the CAPTCHA, and click “continue.”

7) Billing information, terms/conditions, etc., with a “purchase” option at the bottom.

Why are there all these unnecessary steps in the English version? Why not simply bring an English user to the search page that features bookable fares, as you do for Spanish customers? Instead, you route English-language visitors to timetables which look like booking pages. Note also that a reasonable person should expect the quoted price to be the price available for purchase. If you’re listing the highest prices, with no indication of alternative fares, you’re doing yourselves and your customers a grave disservice.

You’re costing yourselves sales, and good will.

I look forward to seeing the promised improvements to the website. But above all, I look forward to my travel between Barcelona and Madrid.

Sincerely,
Mark Ashley

Disaggregating fare aggregators 2009: Which airfare comparison sites are the best?

Nearly three years ago, this site reviewed the then-burgeoning field of airfare aggregators, also known as metasearch sites. These sites let you compare the fares available across multiple airlines and across multiple booking sites, to help you find the lowest fare. Last time, Kayak came out on top. How much has changed in the last three years?

For starters, there are sites which have folded, some new competitors, and sites that changed their model significantly. At the same time, there has been pushback from airlines and suppliers, some of which have resisted the aggregator model. (The lawsuits between American Airlines and Kayak, which initially resulted in American Airlines no longer being listed in Kayak results, was perhaps the most prominent case of pushback. Since October 2008, aa.com results are back in the results. More on that below.)

The result: The golden ring of a truly complete search, covering all the options and all the providers, is still a ways away. No single site actually finds every flight option, every fare, or every seller.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences between the aggregators. It’s time to disaggregate the aggregators again.

This year, each site was put through multiple tests. Four kinds of itinerary were tested: A large-city to medium-city domestic US flight with multiple carriers offering direct service; a medium-city to small-city domestic US flight with at least one change of plane required; an international flight with a US origin; and international flights (from Paris to Dubai, and Manchester to Madrid) to test how sites do for non-US flights. For each of these flights, I tested a short-term booking (7 days advance purchase) and a longer-term booking (30 days advance purchase).

This time, I compared Kayak, Sidestep, Mobissimo, TripAdvisor Flights, Momondo, Skyscanner, WeGo (formerly Bezurk), Trax, Farecast, Fly.com, and Dohop. Sites which were on the list last time but either folded or stopped doing metasearch include FareChase (bought by Yahoo, then abandoned in March 2009), PriceGrabber, and Qixo.

So which aggregator came out on top in 2009? Here’s the summary, with site-by-site reviews thereafter…

  • Overall best bet: TripAdvisor Flights. Low fares, good features, a solid performer overall. It took them a while to join the game, but it’s a strong product with a small but important edge over its closest competitor, Kayak.
  • Lowest price, domestic: If you’re searching for domestic US airfare, most of the aggregators did pretty well, but the lowest fares were consistently on TripAdvisor Flights, Mobissimo, or Momondo. (Kayak and Sidestep would have been included in this list, but they often offered the lowest flights at the same base fares, but typically directed you to Orbitz, instead of to the airline or to a no-fee site like Priceline, to buy the ticket. Orbitz still charges a booking fee as of this writing, so single-airline itineraries can typically be purchased for less elsewhere.)
  • Lowest price, international from US: If you’re searching for international flights starting in the US, try Kayak and Trax.
  • Lowest price, international, ex-US: If you’re search for international flights that don’t originate or end in the United States, Mobissimo and Momondo performed best.
  • Class conscious: If you’re looking for a deal on premium cabin fares, fly.com is your site.
  • Sorting features: If you want control over options, and like to tweak and limit your results, Kayak gives you the most power.
  • Real total cost: TripAdvisor Flights lets you estimate what your actual costs will be, including luggage checking fees, headphone charges, etc.
  • Avoid: WeGo, which offered impressively-low search results, but none were actually bookable. Also avoid Dohop, whose prices were consistently higher than their competitors.

Individual site reviews

TripAdvisor Flights

Although a clone of its competitors in many respects, TripAdvisor’s new aggregator offers one big difference: The site offers an analysis of how much the flight will actually cost you, once you figure in the baggage fees, the headphone fees, etc. It even considers what your elite status is. That’s a great feature. Second, and more disappointingly, the site (unsurprisingly) favors its sister sites Expedia and Hotwire in its results. But those sites add no booking fee right now, so no big whoop. The site combines the best sorting features of Kayak with the added value of fee analysis. TripAdvisor takes it by a nose.

Kayak

Kayak is the largest of the metasearch sites, and it offers solid results. But it didn’t consistently offer the cheapest fare, because the universe of sites it searches is sometimes limited by agreements with individual partners. (American Airlines, for example, won’t allow results from its website to be shown alongside AA flights sold through Orbitz.) Orbitz puts demands on its partners, too, and subsequently, Kayak is heavily Orbitz-centric, with no representation of Expedia, Travelocity, or Priceline. Actual fare availability was good when I clicked through to sellers’ sites. Kayak’s sorting features are still the best (so good that they’re copied wholesale by TripAdvisor), with the ability to narrow search results by time, airline, or aircraft type (e.g., no props or RJs), to name a few. The site has recently added “flight quality warnings,” such as on-time percentages and tight-connection alerts, but those aren’t a big deal.

SideStep

Kayak bought Sidestep a few years ago, but continues to operate the site as a standalone entity. Frankly, I don’t see why. The results are identical, the search tools are nearly the same, and there’s nothing to recommend this site over its parent. Everything stated above is true here as well, but why bother?

Farecast

Farecast, now owned by Microsoft, is most famous for their fare prediction engine, which suggests whether ticket prices for your route will drop in the future. The predictions are pretty accurate, though they don’t account for times of day, routing, or airline, if you have preferences on those matters. (And you should.) Farecast also offers up an aggregator, albeit a fairly minimalist one with few options and a favoritism for Orbitz results. Come here for the fare predictions, but for live fare comparisons, you’re better off elsewhere.

Mobissimo

Mobissimo claims to search more sites than anyone else, but not necessarily for a domestic US search. They have good coverage of Asian and European airlines, but their controls and filters are less than others’. Decent results, but I preferred others’ display of information.

Fly.com

From the folks who brought you TravelZoo, Fly.com offers one gimmick that’s worth noticing: First- and business class fare comparison. That’s it. Otherwise, it’s a clone of other sites. If you’re not looking for premium cabin seats, skip it.

WeGo (formerly Bezurk)

Big on teasers, low on success. WeGo touts some amazing fares, but good luck buying them. They also don’t list the lowest flight first: They show a sponsored link at the top. Bad, bad, bad.

Update April 9, 2009: WeGo has eliminated the sponsored results feature.

SkyScanner

Britain’s SkyScanner offers decent results for UK-based searches, but it’s not as helpful to others. For US and non-UK searches, SkyScanner searches returned far higher fares than the average.

Momondo

This Danish site is quite good at ferreting out obscure sellers of travel, especially for intra-European itineraries. But be aware that you’ll often get results from suppliers in countries outside the destination or origin. Flying Chicago to Baltimore? Your ticket could be sold by a British company (which could mean a 3% credit card surcharge).

Trax

Update December 2009: Trax has retrenched, and is no longer touting their fare comparison as their primary product. Their homepage shows a disclaimer as of December 7, 2009. But their search engine is still up and running if you dig for it… This is odd, to say the least.

Trax.com offers a Kayak-lite search that works well for domestic US itineraries. They include Priceline and Cheapoair, which others don’t, but the results weren’t significantly better.

Two other sites of note:

1. An aggregator you can’t use for booking, but which is great for research, remains ITA Software. Their engine powers Orbitz, and backs up Kayak and TripAdvisor results. They’re a great resource. (Click “log in as a guest” to use the search without registering.)

2. No discussion of fare search would be complete without a mention of FareCompare. The site’s alerts give you a heads-up on future sales by notifying you when fares drop, before they go on sale. They offer fare search, too, which is powered by Kayak.

So… what’s your experience with fare aggregators? Hit the comments to share your stories.

Caught on tape: TSA harasses traveler for carrying cash

This is the kind of stuff that drives me absolutely bonkers: A passenger departing St. Louis was detained and harassed by the TSA because he was carrying $4700 in cash. When questioned, the gentleman opted to secretly tape the conversation using his phone, and whattayaknow, it’s on the internet.

It’s not a crime to carry cash. (Though it’s not the way I like to travel, frankly.) What I simply don’t understand is why the TSA would care about this man’s means of transporting money in the first place. The DEA? I might expect them to wonder about large sums of cash, but $4700 is small enough to not even raise an eyebrow for them, either.

The TSA is supposed to be about travel safety and security. Why would they care about cash? Think about it: A guy carrying $4700 is not going to blow up a plane — if he’s got that much money with him, he wants to make it safely!

“You have chunks in your beer”: Amazing customer letter to Midwest Airlines

Midwest Airlines recently went from having “Signature Service,” with wider seats on its Boeing 717s, to stuffing “normal” coach seats onto the back half the plane and charging $50 extra for the right to sit in the wider seats. The same wider seats that used to be the norm.

Good luck trying to get your company’s travel office to pay for that extra $50 upgrade, each way!

Well, friend of the blog Robert P., a longtime Midwest Airlines booster, has had it. He has written a great letter to the CEO of Midwest Airlines, in which he compares the airline to Schlitz Beer.

It’s a great letter, not because it successfully and efficiently argues for a clean resolution to a customer service problem. No, this isn’t that kind of letter. Rather, it’s a slap-in-the-face, the kind of letter that, if the CEO actually receives it, he’ll remember. He’ll have a laugh, but then he might — just might — realize that the race to the bottom isn’t a winning strategy for a small airline in a competitive market.

We’re republishing the letter here, both for your entertainment, and to make it just a little easier for the airline to take note…

Mr. Timothy E. Hoeksema
Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer
Midwest Airlines
6744 South Howell Avenue
Oak Creek, WI 53154

Dear Mr. Hoeksema:

I frequently fly Midwest Airlines for both business and personal travel, and, as a Wisconsin resident, I have been very proud of this Milwaukee-based company. However, two recent flights to and from Washington, DC (Flight 411 on October 27, and Flight 418 on October 28) reminded me of another great Milwaukee company: the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.

As you probably know, Schlitz was the most popular beer in the United States throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. Indeed, it probably put Milwaukee on the map of the national consciousness. Unfortunately for that great company, in the 1970s, facing an increase in commodity prices, it changed the formula for its beer, adding rice, cheaper yeast, and a different fermentation process. Customers reacted badly to the formula change, particularly noting that the beer no longer kept a proper “head.” To rectify that problem, the Schlitz managers added a seaweed extract as a foaming agent. However, after several months and under the types of temperatures common in a warehouse, the extract would solidify, resulting in “chunks” floating in the beer. Rather than recall the defective product, revert to the tried and true formula, and “weather” the increase in commodity prices, Schlitz instead decided to weather the bad publicity. As you can guess, it didn’t, and Milwaukee lost what was once a great company.

The reason my flights to and from Washington brought this story to mind is because of the new seating arrangements on your Boeing 717s. Midwest has long been known for the comfort of its seating and the quality of its service. I read some time ago that Midwest was refitting its planes to offer two types of seats, but the implication was that the smaller seats were for cheaper, discount tickets and tourist travel, not business travelers. However, you recently decided to start charging an extra $50 fee for the types of seats that were standard on your flights just last month.

Worse, you charge this fee even for full-fare tickets and Executive Miles members, even though other airlines offer their “economy plus” seats to their frequent fliers and full-fare ticket holders as a matter of course. Frankly, I think this is ridiculous. Midwest typically charges more for its tickets to begin with, which I’ve long been happy to pay to avoid being crammed into an airplane like so many sardines. However, your new seating arrangements mean Midwest is now essentially offering AirTran comfort at Singapore Airlines prices.

Furthermore, Flight 411 and 418 lead me to believe that this new policy is not exactly a rousing success. On my flight to Washington, there were 9 people in the “Signature Seating” section. On my return, exactly 3 people. The back sections of both flights were full. The difference was so obvious that I’m surprised that, while you were refitting the 717s, you didn’t add a tail-wheel to address the potential load imbalance.

In other words, it appears that your new seating charges netted you $450 in extra fees going to DC, and $150 on the return.

Paradoxically, $450 is approximately the price of the ticket I paid for this trip, and would have paid on a trip I’m likely to forego in the future. Air travel today is sufficiently annoying that the significant difference in comfort these new seats offer is enough to keep me home from many proposed trips. At the very least, where Midwest is but one of several choices to a destination, there is no longer a good reason to choose Midwest over a discount carrier.

I am confident I am not alone in making these decisions. I know these are tough times, particularly for smaller airlines, who historically have not benefitted as much from government assistance in hard times as have the larger carriers. But alienating long-time customers with poorly thought-through policies is not a recipe for success. And eliminating the very things that make you special is not a way to make yourself competitive. If Flight 418 is any indication, you now have $150 in extra fees, a half-empty flight, and a group of irate customers.

In other words, Mr. Hoeksema, you have chunks in your beer. Please fix it before it’s too late.

Thank you very much for your time.

Best regards,

Robert P…

Tired of secondary screenings? Change your name

It’s come to this:

A Quebec businessman whose name is one of the many that have erroneously landed on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s flight passenger watch list has decided to change his name to avoid lengthy security hassles at the airport.

Mario Labbé, an executive with a Montreal-based record company, says his Canadian passport triggers a red alert on the computers of U.S. customs agents every time he tries to board a flight to the U.S. — which is about once a month for the past seven years.

“I was pulled aside in a room … and you have to wait your turn to finally be released,” Labbé said. “An hour, an hour and a half, two hours, whatever it is after. Once I was caught in Miami like that for six hours.
[…]
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security wrote a letter to Labbé in 2004, saying he had been placed on their watch list after falling victim to identity theft. At the time, the department said there was no way for his name to be removed.

Although Labbé wrote letters to the U.S. department, his efforts were in vain, prompting him to legally change his name.

“So now, my official name is François Mario Labbé,” he said.
[…]
Although it’s not a big change from Mario Labbé, he said it’s been enough to foil the U.S. customs computers.

(emphasis added)

There’s no way a terrorist would change their name to avoid scrutiny is there?… Nahhhhh…

Proving once again that name identification is a pointless exercise in airport-level security screening.

United backs off buy-on-board meals on international flights

As quickly as United rolled out its plan to start selling food on international flights, they’ve backed off again.

One month ago, United polled its customers about their willingness to pay for food on international flights. Two weeks later, they made it official. Now, two more weeks pass, and they back off.

What gives? The letter to disgruntled customers suggests that this is a response to customer feedback. But I’m sure they got lots of angry letters when they rolled out checked-luggage fees, fuel surcharges, and award-ticketing charges. And none of that stopped them from sticking with those add-ons.

If it’s any customer, it’s the contracted corporate customer who has to be p.o.’ed here.

What I’m also hearing is that the airlines’ partners in the Star Alliance are another major source of the pressure. Disgust at the dilution of the Star Alliance brand? Fear of reprisals from their own customers on United-operated codeshares, enraged at having to pay a fee to eat a hockey-puck sandwich? Or just the last straw, after seeing more and more fees pile up?

For some of the other changes, announced at the same time, things are still going forward. United’s business class will still receive coach meals on domestic 3-class planes (only 16 affected flights anymore).

Bottom line: The international meal fee is dead. For now. But don’t expect this to be the last time you hear this concept floated, at United or anywhere else. This is guaranteed to be one of those zombie ideas you think you’ve killed, but it just keeps rising again, under the guise of “testing new ideas.”

Full text of United’s letter, announcing the fee reversal, below:

Dear (redacted),

Thank you for your direct, candid feedback on the test we had planned to launch in the fourth quarter for food choices on some of our flights. We heard you and have decided not to move forward with the test of offering customers buy-on-board options in United Economy on certain trans-Atlantic flights. We will continue to offer complimentary hot meals on those flights.

The response from you and many of our corporate customers, even before we launched the test, told us what we would have undoubtedly learned had we proceeded – you value our hot meal service in economy class for international flights.

In this environment, where higher costs driven by volatile fuel prices are now the norm, we must continue to tailor products and services so that we provide you with choices and competitive fares. As such, we will continue to be proactive in testing new ideas.

On October 1, we will proceed with the test of new, complimentary options for United Business customers on three-cabin aircraft used for domestic routes, which represents 16 daily flights. Customers on these flights will receive complimentary fresh sandwiches, salads, breakfast, snack boxes or snacks, depending on the length of flight and time of departure. They will also continue to enjoy complimentary beverages, including beer, wine and cocktails. We will evaluate the results and determine next steps by the end of the year.

It’s also important to note that full meals will still be served on our p.s. transcontinental flights.

Thank you again for your feedback. We will continue to listen and make changes that enable us in this environment to provide you with the choices you value.

Sincerely,

Graham Atkinson
Chief Customer Officer

Downgrade made official: United eliminates free meals on most transatlantic flights

The major airlines’ race downhill has shifted into overdrive. United, once an airline that tried to make the customer experience better, is making hypotheticals real. They’re charging for meals on flights to Europe, raising prices for stuff sold on board, and reducing the service offered in some domestic premium classes.

And all the while, they’re blaming oil prices and cynically saying this represents customer preference and expands choice. Could someone remind them that oil is off its highs? Alrighty then.

This comes as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. After all, United was polling some of its customers just two weeks ago to gauge their tolerance for international buy-on-board meals. Now those charges are reality. I guess they interpreted those survey results with impressive speed…

One thing that’s missing from the new pay-to-eat-while-trapped-in-an-aluminum-tube regime is an improvement in quality, which was implied in earlier surveys. You’ll recall that United’s poll included a “restaurant quality meal” as an option. That doesn’t appear to be on offer. Rather, you’ll be asked to pay good money for “fresh and snack box offerings” — read: shelf-stable snack boxes, as you already know them, or hockey-puck sandwiches. No price points are mentioned. Uh oh.

So who among you told United in the poll that you’d happily pay $30 for a meal? Fess up!

This is yet another embarrassment to the once-grand tradition of American aviation. United has become a pathetic, washed-up mess of an airline. Patriotism be damned, I’m a consumer: If United is the primary carrier on an international route I need to fly, I would bend over backwards to fly another airline, preferably a carrier without an American flag on the tail.

The internal United memo announcing the changes, confirmed by reputable sources, is below. Comments inserted.

Catering Changes Provide Value and Options

Cost reduction and revenue generating opportunities continue to be the focus of every division throughout the company. In the wake of high fuel prices and a challenging economic environment, we must continue to examine every aspect of our business and find new ways to improve our day-today operations through efficiencies that still meet our customers’ expectations.

Comment: Value. Choices. And the fuel excuse, again. And I ask you, does charging for crappy food meet your expectations? Browse over to non-US airlines and read about their onboard service. Let me know if your expectations are still being met. Back to the memo…

And we can expect this will continue to drive changes to the way we do business.

Comment: So the worst is yet to come?

Fleet and capacity reductions announced in June have already resulted in significant changes for our division, many of which were implemented in July and August. And there are more changes scheduled for September and October.

These changes are difficult, but necessary, and we do not make them lightly.

However, they enable us to reduce costs and generate additional revenue while preserving a differentiated product for our premium cabin customers both internationally and domestically. Our industry is changing, and in United’s ongoing efforts to offer overall value and competitive fares, we need to tailor our products and services to what the customer values and can choose from accordingly.

Comment: Which services is the customer valuing, or choosing? Choices are being taken away, not added.

The following is a general overview of the upcoming changes. You can expect detailed information in the coming weeks.

Effective Sept. 2

North America United Economy® (UE) -All Markets

• Expanding a la carte snacks for purchase to flights between 760 -1149 miles (approximately 2-3 hours in duration) as a result of successful testing in select markets. Along with the expansion, we’re removing complimentary biscoff and pretzels as data from those tests confirmed that the a la carte offering appeals to our customers and they are willing to pay for snacks of higher value.

Comment: No more Biscoff?? Noooooooooo… the last tasty freebie snack in the American sky, now gone…

• Continuing test of a fresh Buy on Board offering along with the current snack box on flights between 1440 – 2099 miles (approximately 3.5 – 5 hours in duration). Testing limited to ORD-LAX-ORD and DEN-IAD-DEN.

Effective Oct. 1

Increasing Buy on Board Prices

• Shelf-stable items increase from $5 to $6.

• Fresh items increase from $7 to $9.

Comment: Raising prices bothers me little, frankly, if these were already items being assessed a fee. Everything costs more at the supermarket, so why not in the sky. No problems here.

Offering Two-Class Service on North America Three-Class Airplanes

• United First® service remains the same.

• A combined BOB service will be offered in United Business® (UB) and United Economy® (UE).

• Customers in UB will receive complimentary beverages and BOB offering.

• Staffing will be adjusted to FAA minimums.

Comment: This is a real downgrade. Previously, on a 3-class plane traveling domestically, you’d have three classes of service. Not anymore. Now, the business-class seats get coach service, just comped. It’s like the Spirit Airlines “big front seat” model.

And the fact that they are cutting back on the number of flight attendants signals that there won’t be more attentiveness to customers in any cabin. This signals to premium-cabin customers that it’s not all that premium. United seems to think it’s all about the seat, and not the service. And that’s just sad.

Buy on Board Offered Out of IAD to Europe (except KWI)

• Replacing complimentary meals in UE with BOB fresh and snack box offerings.

• Economy staffing breakpoints for all aircraft will be adjusted to current North America BOB staffing guidelines.

Comment: There it is. The meal downgrade. Flights to Europe will be buy-on-board only, effective October 1. Folks on the flight to Kuwait should chow down for the rest of the flying public. Flights to Asia are safe for the time being, too.

Eliminate Second Service in p.s. Market

• Removing the pre-arrival snack service and replacing with a beverage service in response to flight attendant and customer feedback.

All in all, another notch down for the United customer experience. As stated earlier, United is giving its international competitors more and more advantage. No doubt other American carriers will follow suit on some or all of these changes.

United considers charging for ALL food and drink on international flights

It’s a long flight, say, from Washington to Tokyo. About 14 hours trapped on a plane. About two meals and a snack. So how much would you pay to eat airline food? $7? $24? Maybe even $39? That’s the question United is asking its customers as it contemplates charging for all meals in international coach.

The airline sent the survey to many of its frequent flyers, and it focuses on international flying, not domestic. 

Economy meals on international flights have been “complimentary,” i.e., included in the base fare, forever. But in today’s let’s-use-the-price-of-oil-as-an-excuse-to-start-charging-fees-for-everything-that’s-not-bolted-down world, airlines see a window of opportunity to screw their coach customers some more.

Remember when United was framing itself as a “premium” American carrier? So much for that.

The food options United wants you to consider paying for are pictured below. “Gourmet” salads. “Premium” sandwiches. “Current” economy meals…

Isn’t it nice how the sandwich and salad are styled and plated — good luck getting china and glassware in coach — while the current inflight meal is just pictured realistically in a plastic tray? Wouldn’t want to bias the survey sample, would we…

(As a bonus, the image they use in the survey for their current inflight coach meal is a user photo from flickr.com. I thought it looked familiar.)

United is clearly trying to gauge customer willingness to put up with this sort of nickel-and-diming. And they’re trying to get a sense of just how much those willing to put up with this are willing to take. The survey has a price-discovery component: Here are the prices I was asked to consider:

$39? Yowza. But two survey respondents in a row would get two very different suggested prices to consider. For example, the price for the current coach meal comes up at $12, $16, or even $24. Salads ranged from as low as $7 to as high as $24.

$24 salads (or $19, or $16…) are laughable. $24 for the current complimentary meal is an insult. And do you trust United to actually assemble a “restaurant quality” meal at 41,000 feet?

Look, long-haul international flying is not like domestic flying, both in terms of duration, and in terms of competition. People need to eat, and with carry-on limits, we can’t all bring along a movable feast.

But beyond that, United needs to remember that not every airline is racing toward the bottom like they are. If anything, there are some quality airlines out there — outside the U.S., mostly — which actually know a little something about customer service. If United were to implement this sort of pricing, I would encourage everyone to pursue alternate carriers. You could even stick within the Star Alliance — Lufthansa, ANA, Asiana, Singapore, to name a few… — if you need to keep status or earn miles.

As I’ve said again and again, this a-la-carte pricing model is going out of control, and is making it harder and harder to make price comparisons. Paying for food only adds another layer to the onion.

Take United’s poll, and let them know how you feel. Your opinion may not stop this from happening: The phrasing suggests that it’s coming, and it’s only a matter of which items, and at which price.

But remember, you can “respond” in the most important way possible: With your pocketbook. 

Airlines, unable to manage risk, scapegoat oil markets

The e-mail blitz was on this afternoon. Several airlines sent out their bulk-mails, announcing their opposition to “speculators” in the oil market. In an orchestrated letter signed by 12 airline CEOs, the airlines blamed the oil market for their companies’ woes. It’s a maddening piece of propaganda.

The airlines’ efforts to blame the oil market’s participants for causing the price of oil to go up is a red herring. Speculators exist, sure, but unlike the housing market’s speculators, in which investors actually bought physical properties to affect market pricing, oil futures market participants aren’t actually taking delivery of oil. They’re effectively wagering on the direction of prices, but that doesn’t directly affect oil supply or real consumptive demand.

The letter is chock full of misinformation and dumb logic. For example:

A barrel of oil may trade 20-plus times before it is delivered and used; the price goes up with each trade and consumers pick up the final tab.

The price goes up every time? If so, why would anyone sell? No one has ever lost money on a trade? What market is this, and how can I participate?!!

Our country is facing a possible sharp economic downturn because of skyrocketing oil and fuel prices…

It’s a smidge more complicated than that, guys. War in Iraq and Afghanistan, mortgage meltdown and uptick in foreclosures, trade deficits, currency devaluation, bloated consumer debt, runaway derivatives markets… But anyway…

…speculators who trade oil on paper with no intention of ever taking delivery…

Umm, that’s an argument against futures markets in and of themselves, and not against speculators per se.

The Economist has a good breakdown of the “blame the speculators” logic this week. Forgive me for quoting them at length:

[Blaming the speculators] holds obvious appeal for those looking for a scapegoat. But there is little evidence to support it. For one thing, the surge in investment in oil futures is not that large relative to the global trade in oil. Barclays Capital, an investment bank, calculates that “index funds”, which have especially exercised the politicians because they always bet on rising prices, account for only 12% of the outstanding contracts on NYMEX and have a value equivalent to just 2% of the world’s yearly oil consumption.

More importantly, neither index funds nor other speculators ever buy any physical oil. Instead, they buy futures and options which they settle with a cash payment when they fall due. In essence, these are bets on which way the oil price will move. Since the real currency of such contracts is cash, rather than barrels of crude, there is no limit to the number of bets that can be made. And since no oil is ever held back from the market, these bets do not affect the price of oil any more than bets on a football match affect the result.

The market for nickel provides a good illustration of this. Speculative investment in the metal has been growing steadily over the past year, yet its price has fallen by half. By the same token, the prices of several commodities that are not traded on any exchanges, such as iron ore and rice, have been rising almost as fast as that of oil.

Bottom line: The airlines are whining. Suck it up. It’s your business. Manage it.

One surprise: Southwest signed the letter. By the logic of the letter, Southwest is one of the “speculators,” and in fact it’s a major reason Southwest has been eating everyone else’s lunch. Yet they signed the letter decrying their own business practices. Huh.

Less surprising: The signature of United. Despite having a CEO who previously worked at Texaco, these guys couldn’t figure out how to manage fuel prices. When they emerged from bankruptcy, they based their business plan on an unrealistic $50/barrel oil. It was trading around $65/bbl at the time, and it hasn’t gotten any cheaper. ($142/bbl today.)

The airlines who today whine about the oil market moving higher are complaining about their poor past decisions. They’re hatin’ the player and the game.

That said, if you want to check out the airlines’ “campaign” to stop investment, or “speculation,” they’ve got a website which I am loath to link to, but offer up for the sake of fairness and equal time. It’s StopOilSpeculationNow.com.