luggage tag Upgrades and Downgrades: Baggage check in, cellphone room keys, defending AirTran, TSA Downgraded: Checking in your bags at US airports
You’ve mastered the self-service check-in. You’ve printed your own boarding passes. Now, get ready to tag your own checked bags: “American Airlines(AMR) and Air Canada say they’re in talks with the Transportation Security Administration for a trial program in Boston likely later this year to let travelers tag their own checked bags for the first time in the U.S. Delta Air Lines (DAL) says it’s in talks with TSA for a trial at another airport.” Not a huge deal, frankly, and 32 airlines worldwide have already been testing this for some time at airports around the world, but it’s new to the United States. It’s another transfer of responsibility from the airline to you. Don’t expect to receive any discounts, vouchers, or thank-yous for doing someone else’s job, either.

Upgraded: Inflight wi-fi on Southwest
Southwest is (finally) getting on the inflight wifi train (err, or plane…) and their price will be a relatively low $5 per connection, regardless of flight duration/distance or device used to connect.

Upgraded: Passion for AirTran’s first class seats
Fans of AirTran, which is being taken over by Southwest, have set up a website devoted to saving the first class seats that AirTran frequent fliers have grown accustomed to. Join the resistance at AirTranSOS.com.

Upgraded: Your cellphone as a key
The Clarion Hotel in Stockholm is the first hotel to install a cellphone-based room lock/key system. It’s a limited rollout, for starters. In theory, you’ll be able to check in by phone and walk straight to your room, bypassing the front desk, and avoiding the need for a room key. Neat, if it works.

Upgraded: Back-channel efforts to change our security theater
If existing efforts to change TSA policy have failed — and if the policy itself has continuously gotten worse for travelers — then perhaps a back-channel effort to effect change may be in order. Reader Ed sends in this open letter to the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. The letter-writer, Arthur Krolman, argues that Disney is tacitly endorsing TSA policy, and is thereby supporting the “nude photography or inspection of private parts” of children. Ouch. Will Disney take the bait ?…

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As you’ve probably heard by now, Southwest Airlines has made a $1.4 billion cash-and-stock offer to buy AirTran. (The rumors that Southwest would buy SunCountry didn’t pan out.) I’ll leave the financial analysis to others. The market went nutso today though, with Southwest going up 8.7% and AirTran going up a whopping 61.3%.

So what does this mean to you, whether you fly Southwest, AirTran, or neither?

  • More open seating, more coach, fewer first class seats, and tougher upgrades elsewhere?
    Southwest seating rules will prevail, which means a victory for the open-seating model. AirTran will lose assigned seats and its first class. Those first-class seats were rather inexpensive, compared to other airlines’ products, which will disappoint some premium travelers out there. And the network effects of that loss of first-class seats? Demand for first-class fares on other carriers might go up as a result, making your upgrades harder to clear. Hey, it’s a theory.
  • Bag fees take a well-deserved beating.
    Southwest has vowed to remove checked baggage fees on AirTran, post-merger. Spreading the gospel of no- or low-fee travel is a good thing. (And given Southwest’s recent advertising of its baggage policy, I think they’re committed to it.) This won’t kill the concept of bag fees, but it might make them less socially acceptable.
  • This is about Atlanta and Washington.
    When organic growth slows, or the barriers to entry in a new market are great, buying a local rival becomes more attractive, and that’s what happened here. AirTran has been successfully carving out a piece of the Atlanta market from Delta for the past few years. For Southwest fliers, you’ll (finally) be able to fly to Atlanta without having to change to a different airline. This deal also brings Southwest to Washington-Reagan National. If you fly into either of those cities, you’ll see a bit of fanfare over this deal, and likely some fare sales to kick things off. You may see counteroffers, like double-mileage promotions from Delta in ATL, US Airways at DCA, etc. But over the longer term…
  • Fares? A wash, for now.
    Yes, there’s a “Southwest effect” on fares, but it’s particularly pronounced when Southwest enters a new market, bringing low-fare competition to the legacy airlines. In this instance, AirTran has already warmed up the market. So for now, we shouldn’t expect any macro-level discounting. If anything, we might see fares go up in the long term if Southwest retires some of the AirTran capacity. But that’s not going to happen overnight.
  • This takes Southwest international, but it’s not a big deal.
    Yes, it’s international, but it’s not like this takes Southwest to Tokyo and Sydney. If Southwest keeps the AirTran routes, you’ll be able to fly Southwest to Cancun, Montego Bay, and Punta Cana. For those who have avoided Southwest because their travel plans (and frequent flier redemption goals) take them to other hemispheres, you’ll still be out of luck, for now.

Any other thoughts on Southwest and AirTran? Any predictions on how this will affect your travels, on a post-merger Southwest or anywhere else? Hit the comments!


newark airport Good news for New York airfares: Southwest Airlines coming to Newark
Southwest has agreed to lease 18 take-off/landing slot pairs at Newark Airport from United and Continental. The deal is a function of the CO-UA merger, which, if it were approved without conditions, would solidify Continental’s grip on Newark.

Bringing Southwest into Newark is a big deal. Southwest hasn’t flown to a New York airport yet (correction: they have had flights from LGA to Chicago and Baltimore since June 2009… sorry about that!) — and no, their flights to Islip, NY are not New York City. It’s a major move into a huge market, and it’s to Newark, which is arguably the easiest and most convenient airport to access from Manhattan, despite being in New Jersey.

Especially if it goes above and beyond these initial slots, Southwest’s presence will mean lower fares at all the NYC airports, so New Yorkers can look forward to the greater competition.

No word yet on the specific routes Southwest will fly out of Newark, once it starts up.

Update: Just hours after the announcement related to Newark slots, United and Continental received clearance from the US Dept of Justice, paving the way for the finalization of their merger. Stockholder approval is still required, but the two airlines are expected to be merged into one company by October 1, 2010. Ta-daaaa.


nissan leaf Upgrades and Downgrades: Electric rental cars, acts of God, proto bankrupt Mexicana and more
Upgraded: Enterprise Rent-a-Car turns a new leaf
Enterprise Rent-a-Car has committed to purchasing 500 Nissan Leaf electric vehicles — not hybrids, electrics — for implementation in Phoenix, Tucson, Knoxville, Nashville, San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. The cars can run for about 100 miles on a single charge. No word yet on rates, but you’ll start to see the cars at rental locations beginning in January 2011. The challenge, of course, is recharging it, unless you happen to have “a standard SAE J1772-2009 connector for level 1 and 2 recharging (110/220 V AC)” or “a TEPCO connector for high-voltage ‘level 3′ quick charging (480 V DC 125 amps) using the CHAdeMO protocol” handy…

Downgraded: Southwest Airlines
Southwest keeps acting more and more like a “regular” airline. The company has changed its contract of carriage to brazenly and bizarrely refer to a mechanical delay as an act of God. Deus ex machina? I don’t think so. Lame, and begging for a legal challenge…

Strong: Downgraded: Wegolo
The Netherlands-based discount-airline fare aggregator Wegolo lost a court case to Ryanair, thereby preventing it from scraping Ryanair’s website to include their fares in search results. Ryanair’s beef? Wegolo charged a surtax on the Ryanair fare for booking via the search site. Upgrades and Downgrades: Electric rental cars, acts of God, proto bankrupt Mexicana and more

Downgraded: Star Alliance
After several years of expansion (with the addition of Continental being the biggest deal, from a USA-centric perspective), Star Alliance is losing a member: Shanghai Airlines, which is merging with China Eastern Airlines, is leaving Star Alliance for SkyTeam in October. Within Star Alliance, Air China remains the lone Chinese member airline. Will another Chinese airline join the fray? Maybe the butt-kicking staff at Sichuan Airlines will convince management to get interested in joining the party?…

Upgraded: Hotel ratings
Every year, the J.D. Power survey results come out with some fanfare, rating customer satisfaction with major hotel chains. The top line news is usually the winner in each category. I like to go deeper, and if you’re interested, the full results are here. Somewhat of surprise for me: The more casual Aloft brand beat (but effectively tied) the more established Westin brand within the Starwood franchise.

Downgraded: Mexicana
Upgraded: Repo Men

It’s not looking good for Mexicana Airlines right now. The company has had three aircraft seized by creditors, they are canceling flights, and they are publicly admitting that they are “probably” looking to enter bankruptcy. Points for honesty! If you’ve got tickets already, it’s probably too late to buy travel insurance. If you haven’t bought tickets, it’s probably a bad idea to click “purchase” until you know for sure what’s happening.
UPDATED August 3, 2010: Mexicana has indeed filed for bankruptcy. The airline is cutting back flights, but is still operating.
UPDATED August 5, 2010: Mexicana has now stopped selling further tickets, but is still technically operating. Not exactly a confidence booster to shut down your sales operations, though. Mexicana Click and Mexicana Link, the lower-cost domestic airline subsidiaries, are still operating and selling tickets.

20
Jul
2010

The Cranky Flier and I normally see eye to eye on most matters, but he’s got a post today that I just can’t agree with.

Southwest, which has had — and still has — one of the most liberal refund / rebooking policies in commercial aviation, is tightening one of their most liberal provisions:

Effective January 28, 2011, unused travel funds may only be applied toward the purchase of future travel for the individual named on the ticket.

In the past, the unused voucher could be transferable to anyone else. (I’m told their contract of carriage has included this provision for some time, and that they’re just finally getting around to enforcing it, but I can’t currently find a prior version of the contract. Late Edit: Found it. Google cache has it. Sixth revised edition includes updates through April 23, 2010. That version already includes: “Tickets are not transferable unless specified thereon, but Carrier is not liable to the owner of a ticket for honoring or refunding such ticket when presented by another person.”)

Cranky, a.k.a. Brett, doesn’t like it, and would rather see the airline keep the transferability and instead introduce a small (i.e., $25) change fee.

I completely disagree. For me, it’s exactly the opposite. Tying a voucher to the original buyer of the ticket doesn’t offend me nearly as much as if they introduced a fee. The lack of a change fee is what differentiates Southwest from its competitors.

Granted, Brett’s idea of a $25 fee would be less offensive than a more typical $100 or $150 fee. But — let’s say it again — the lack of a fee is what differentiates Southwest from it’s competitors. It fits with their low/no fee marketing strategy, and it’s something I’ve actually heard passengers discuss publicly in an airport.

Sure, you won’t be able to book a ticket for yourself, cancel it, and have your spouse/sibling/parent use the credit the week after. But really, who expects to do that these days?

Maybe I’m suffering from Stockholm syndrome, and the airlines-TSA industrial complex have got me convinced that a ticket is non-transferable. Maybe I fly enough myself that using up a voucher within a year is not going to be a problem. But since I’m so accustomed to non-transferability, it doesn’t even enter my consciousness that an airline ticket could be transferable.

Would it have been more consumer-friendly to stay no-fee and permit transferability? Sure. But failing that, Southwest is still a better deal on this front that its competitors. And that’s worth something.

Categorized in: Southwest Airlines

Downgraded: The Chongqing Hilton
If you’ve got reservations for the Chongqing Hilton in the next few days or weeks, you’ll want to look into alternatives: Chinese authorities have closed the hotel as part of a prostitution bust. “A statement by Chongqing police said that an investigation had uncovered ‘a complete chain’ of people involved in prostitution ‘involving the hotel managers, security guards, luggage carriers, receptionists and staff.’” The karaoke bar was the epicenter. For branding purposes, perhaps they should have advertised “HHookers”… But did customers get both points and miles for the transaction?…

Upgraded: Spirit Airlines
Upgraded: Passenger awareness, hopefully

Yes, Spirit is upgraded! But only because their strike is on hold for the time being. If you were a passenger during the strike, it sucked. And if, at this point, you decide that you’re willing to be a Spirit customer in the future, you know where you stand with this company. You will have only yourself to blame.

Upgraded: Discount airlines in Japan
Japan’s ANA is reportedly launching a new discount airline, with fares at express bus prices.

futurama disembodied heads Upgrades & Downgrades: Karaoke with benefits, disembodied heads, boarding passes, moreUpgraded: Heads fly free on Southwest!
Three suspicious boxes in the cargo hold of a Southwest flight were opened by airline employees, to reveal 45 human heads. While the airline’s internal packaging policies — and best practices in packing human body parts for cross-country shipment — were violated, no laws were broken, and the heads were actually being shipped for legitimate medical purposes. Paging Matt Groening!

Upgraded: Recycling of fake boarding passes
Reader Nick sends in this story of a boarding pass that appeared in a British Airways/London Heathrow in-house magazine. What struck my eye was the fact that I had seen this boarding pass before… I had even published a copy of that boarding pass on this very site, here. Compare the pictures: Exhibit A. Exhibit B. I particularly enjoy the irony that a controversial fake boarding pass generator rises again, to be repurposed as a phony mobile boarding pass. Who says the airline industry doesn’t recycle enough?