northwest 787 Upgrades and Downgrades: Delta 787s, crocodiles on planes, cruises, Expedia, more
Downgraded: 787s on Delta
For those who thought that Delta would soon by flying the Boeing 787, thanks to their takeover of Northwest, prepare for a decade of disappointment. Northwest was an early buyer (in May 2005) of the 787 and was originally scheduled to take delivery between 2008 and 2010. Thanks to delays, that delivery timetable is over two years out of whack. But now Delta has pushed the delivery back even further: Now, Delta will receive the planes between 2020 and 2022. That’s a long deferment.

Upgraded: Ideas for bad Hollywood movies
Downgraded: Congolese carry-on inspections

Headline: “Crocodile on plane kills 19 passengers“… I immediately had visions of a crocodile biting its way through the passenger list. But the truth is more unfortunate. A crocodile hidden in a carry-on bag gets loose, people panic, plane goes out of balance, aircraft crashes. Very sad. And preventable.

Downgraded: Cruise ship pricing
The cruise ship lines are taking a page from the airlines and going a la carte with their services, slowly but surely whittling away at the “all-inclusive” pricing plans that were the hallmark of cruising. Sure, there have been upcharges for shore excursions, but now you have to pay up for certain meals, services, and options. Looks like easyCruise‘s fully-a-la-carte model may not be so farfetched after all. (Thanks, Bill!)

Upgraded: Cross-selling of Hotwire inventory on Expedia
Expedia is now widely selling Hotwire’s hotel inventory as “unpublished rates.” Like on Hotwire, the hotels won’t be listed by name, just by star-level and city zone. Since Expedia and Hotwire are part of the same parent company, I’m surprised it’s taken this long.

Upgraded: The last frontier of domestic inflight wifi
Aircell’s Gogo service has launched inflight wifi within the state of Alaska, for those traveling on Alaska Airlines. For now, the service only exists between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and Alaska Airlines is giving it away for free. It’s slated to be complimentary until the entire state is blanketed with signal availability.

Upgraded: Traveler seat-selection stereotypes
The folks at Hunch have found significant personality and life-experience differences between those who prefer aisle seats vs. window seats. It’s based on poll data. ME, I prefer the window seat, not just because it makes napping easier, because I never tire of looking out the window and staring down from 35,000 feet. And yet, my vita reads much more like the aisle passenger’s. Call me an outlier.

 Is the Northwest Airlines overshot airport flight an argument for Channel 9?
After last week’s incident in which a Northwest Airlines flight from San Diego to Minneapolis flew 150 miles past its destination before turning around and coming back to land, there have been more questions than answers. The pilots claimed to have been embroiled in a heated discussion. They deny reports that they were napping, and they had no alcohol in their systems. It’s unclear how long it will take before we really know what happened, and why these pilots were out of touch with air traffic control for so long.

I offer no answers here, either, but another question: Would this have happened if passengers were able to hear the cockpit conversations?

I don’t fly United Airlines much anymore (and it seems I’m on United Express when I do), but the thing which made United unique (and to me, pleasant) was Channel 9. Audio channel 9 on the inflight entertainment system can, at the captain’s discretion, be set to the radio frequency which the pilots are using to communicate with the FAA center, airport approach, or tower handling that flight’s movements. I’m a nerd, I realize, but I’ve always found that audio interesting: You can hear the frustrations of pilots and controllers at busy airports like O’Hare. You can hear what the ride is going to be like minutes before you hit a patch of bumpy air. You can hear your pilots getting cranky when they’re delayed for takeoff, or guided to descend into severe wake turbulence (which I experienced once.)

But if I were a passenger on a Channel 9 enabled flight that was scheduled to arrive at 8, and it was 8:15 and we weren’t descending, with pilots silent on Channel 9, I would suspect something was up. I might ask the flight attendants questions. And maybe, just maybe, the incident in question might have played out differently.

Now, someone might argue that this degree of passenger empowerment leads to nuisance questions from travelers who don’t understand the technical lingo of aviation and who misinterpret the meaning things your pilots might say. (“Fuel emergency” on approach would scare the pants off of many people, I’m sure.) That’s part of the reason Channel 9 has been increasingly turned off on United flights in recent years.

But I am left thinking that Channel 9 would have been a healthy check on this wayward flight. Passengers could have raised the alarm, and a huge imbroglio could have been avoided — not to mention missed connections at MSP.

So what do you think? Should passengers be allowed to hear the pilots’ conversations with air traffic control? And what would you have done if you had been listening on a flight like NW 188 and heard nothing but dead air?

Image: Northwest 188′s flight path, courtesy of FlightAware. When the pilots didn’t respond to air traffic control, many suspected the possibility of a hijacking. Some of the twisting-back-and-forth maneuvers were apparently required by air traffic control to test whether the pilots were actually in command of their aircraft.

Categorized in: airlines

Northwest and Delta clearly really want to keep travelers loyal to their brands. Both airlines have been sending their elite-level frequent flier program members e-mails announcing a “gift” of elite-qualifying miles (EQMs, or, in the case of Delta, MQMs for “Medallion Qualifying Miles”), making it easier to requalify for status next year. Which, in turn, increases the likelihood that those travelers will stay with the brand.

With few exceptions, EQMs are earned primarily by flying, unlike the redeemable miles that can also be earned through credit card spending, rental cars, etc. So EQMs are a greater measure of loyalty to an airline (and its alliance partners) than redeemables.

The size of the EQM gift ranges from 5000 EQMs (20% of the way to entry-level status) all the way to 15,000, but according to reports on Flyertalk threads (here for Delta, here for Northwest), there’s no obvious rhyme or reason. A traveler with 140K miles under his belt for the year got a 5000 mile bonus (which doesnt’ really change anything) while a traveler with far fewer miles got more. I don’t get it.

Reader Cindy forwarded me a message she received from Northwest, quoted below:

A jump start can be the perfect beginning.

That’s why we’re excited to provide you with 10,000 complimentary Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) – which have already been deposited into your WorldPerks account – to help you requalify for Elite status in 2010.

We understand your ability to travel is more restricted this year, due to the economy and other factors, but we hope you’ll continue to fly with us and enjoy your elite status benefits while continuing to add even more Elite Qualification Miles to your balance. Take advantage of our vast new network, serving almost 400 destinations in more than 65 countries on six continents, including new routes to Johannesburg, Sydney, Saigon and beyond. Book a flight today.

You’re the reason we fly,

Jeff Robertson
Vice President – Loyalty Programs

This is bound to please many people who might have lost their status (and the commensurate perks) next year. On the flip side, it’s bound to annoy people who get fewer EQMs than they think they deserve, relative to others. It can equally annoy customers who earned their status through actual flying, instead of bonuses. But hey, it’s a business decision on the part of the airlines, and they think they’ll be able to keep more business this way.

Will other airlines follow suit?…

How’s this for an indicator that premium-class travel isn’t selling: The recently-merged Delta and Northwest are permitting passengers of high-fare international economy fare tickets to upgrade to business class for just 1 mile each way.

2 miles to upgrade an international roundtrip? Two?!!

Northwest and Delta both sent e-mails to their lists. Here’s a piece of a Delta e-mail, but the gist is the same for flights on Delta’s subsidiary, Northwest:

You can now upgrade to our award-winning BusinessElite cabin for one mile each way when you fly internationally on a paid Y, B or M Economy fare between June 30 and September 15, 2009.

Terms & Conditions
Eligible Fares/Booking: All taxes, fees and blackout dates are governed by the rules of the Y, B or M economy class fare purchased. Additional upgrade tax may apply. SkyMiles members can request a one-way upgrade Award for 1-mile for paid tickets purchased in Y, B, or M economy class between the continental United States, Alaska, and Canada and any international destination that offers J class fares (BusinessElite) where upgrade class of service is available on Delta or Northwest-operated flights only. SkyMiles members must call a Delta reservations representative for upgrades. Tickets: Must be purchased and upgrade requested no later than July 13, 2009. Travel Period: Travel must be completed by September 15, 2009. Restrictions: Availability of one-way upgrade inventory is limited and may not be available on all flights. Some markets may have more availability than others. Members may reissue existing tickets to be eligible for upgrade offer, but will need to pay applicable fees. Customers may combine this upgrade Award with other one-way upgrade Awards. Upgrades not available on Air France and KLM or any other SkyTeam® or codeshare partner operated flights. Tickets are nontransferable. SkyMiles accrual will be for class of service originally purchased. Miscellaneous: All SkyMiles program rules apply. To review the rules, please visit Fares, taxes, fees, rules, and offers are subject to change without notice. Other restrictions may apply. Please refer Delta reservations representative to 970222.

“Additional upgrade tax” ??! Be sure to get a full quote before you finalize anything.

Also, and very importantly: Note that the eligible fares — Y, B, and M — aren’t the rock-bottom cheapie bucket of fares, they’re at the top end — the most expensive range of economy fares.

You may in fact be able to find a cheaper fare confirmed in business class by looking for a business fare outright. (Most likely a fare with a “Z” an “I” or “S” fare code.) Shop around.

All told, though, spending 2 miles for a roundtrip international upgrade is fantastic value. The airlines are obviously having trouble filling seats. Summer months are typically slow for paid business class travel, and that’s on top of the recession’s crimp on high-fare spending.

Take advantage while you can.

Upgraded: Room rate guarantees
In a continuing escalation of the war between the online travel agencies, Orbitz has added their Price Assurance guarantee to hotel reservations. If you book a room, and then someone else uses Orbitz to book the same hotel, with the same class of hotel room and on the same dates, and the price has dropped since you booked it, you get a refund. That’s a lot of if’s! This is not as robust as Yapta’s effort to track hotel room rates, but it’s an improvement, nonetheless.

Upgraded: Coffee on Southwest
Southwest Airlines is cranking out an improved brew on its flights. They are quick to remind customers that they’re still not charging a fee for the pleasure of arabica beans at 35,000 feet.

Downgraded: Coffee on Northwest
Back on the ground, a Northwest Airlines flight attendant charged with tending to an unaccompanied minor allegedly took an 8-year old to Starbucks. The flight attendant allegedly gave the girl a venti coffee loaded with cream and sugar, which made her sick. “I told her I was tired and she took me to Starbucks and said, ‘Go order a large coffee.’ She made me pay with my own money.” Why would anyone give an eight-year old, who is about to get into a plane, coffee? I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that an airline employee had slipped the kid a Benadryl, frankly, but giving an 8-year old a giant coffee makes no sense. Northwest says the story “doesn’t match their records.”

Upgraded: Stories of irate passengers
Every time I think the latest story of a passenger gone wild on an aircraft is the winner, there’s a new story that takes the crown. And I quote: “A British woman allegedly had an in-flight meal of prescription drugs, wine and liquid soap — before trying to bite the crew of a London-bound jetliner. Galina Rusanova punched and kicked flight attendants on the Chicago-based United Airlines flight after downing two or three bottles of wine, prescription drugs and liquid soap from the jet’s lavatory, prosecutors said.”

Upgraded: Nonstops to see Yakov Smirnoff
Upgraded: Airline monopolies

Branson, Missouri! America’s low-rent Vegas! No, gambling or smut, but you can get Soviet Union jokes o’plenty! But this Ozark mecca of entertainment has-beens finally has its own airport. It apparently bears the distinction of being America’s first privately-owned airport with commercial service, and it was built without federal transportation funds. The flipside of this savings to the taxpayer: The airport can negotiate exclusivity on routes. If airlines have exclusive contracts for service for a delimited timeframe, “That’s a major incentive to an airline because they know they won’t have to duke it out over fares with anyone.” In English, we call that monopoly.

yakov smirnoff Upgrades and Downgrades    Hotel rate guarantees, coffee good and bad, lavatory soap, and Yakov Smirnoff

approaching airport Upgrades and Downgrades    Passenger dropoffs, failed lawsuits, and frequent flyer sales

Downgraded: Willingness of friends and loved ones to give you a ride to the airport
Airports’ inventive enthusiasm for new fees rivals that of the airlines, as we’ve seen when airports try to add fees to previously free services like shuttle buses. The latest entry: A passenger dropoff fee. London-Luton Airport will charge a £1 toll to cars bringing passengers to the departures area, with a 10-minute time limit. Dropoff at a parking shuttle bus stop remains complimentary. Birmingham charges double the fee for a 15-minute time window. Great, now they’re not just charging the traveler, but also the family or friends. I realize that this is a way to manage traffic as well as raise money, but I honestly hope we don’t see this set of fees proliferate. (Thanks, Rick!)

Downgraded: Tort law remedies for trapped passengers
A passenger who sued American Airlines for being stuck on a plane on the tarmac for 9 and a half hours (ouch) had her case dismissed by the court. Her charge of false imprisonment didn’t stick.

Upgraded: Buses
Private jets are out. What’s in: Pimped out corporate buses.

Upgraded: Short-term discounts booking Delta or Northwest miles
Delta and Northwest are temporarily reducing the number of miles you need to book frequent flier tickets to international destinations on Delta, Northwest, or KLM. It’s only through April 20, and only for travel abroad, so move quickly. See here for Northwest, or here for Delta. Another sign that traffic across the oceans isn’t exactly brisk… (And remember, you can get bonus miles through April 15 — again, hurry! — for converting your Northwest WorldPerks miles to Delta SkyMiles.)