virgin tail small Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, V Australia and Virgin Blue (finally) join forcesFour “Virgin” airlines, based in the UK, US, and Australia, are joining forces to create what may be the start of a fourth global airline alliance. Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, and the already-partnered Virgin Blue & V Australia are joining forces to create what amounts to the groundwork for a new airline alliance.

It’s still very early, but if things go as planned, this could lead to a real competitor to Star Alliance, oneworld, or SkyTeam. (For better or worse… Alliance provide earning/redemption options and some timetable efficiencies, but they typically also include anti-consumer price collusion, through anti-trust exemptions. And Virgin’s Richard Branson has been vocally anti-alliance, until now…)

While a global-Virgin alliance makes perfect intuitive sense, it’s actually surprising, considering the contentious corporate history of the Virgin franchise in the US.

When Virgin America launched, its very existence was challenged by competitors and the US Dept. of Transportation, which initially ruled that the company didn’t meet the threshold of minimum US-ownership for an airline. After some tinkerings with the corporate structure, and replacing the CEO, the airline was allowed to fly.

So you’ll soon have reciprocal earning and burning privileges on each of these airlines, and through their respective partnerships as defined by each program. (Virgin Atlantic has the most extensive range of partnerships at this stage of the game.)

Details still need to be fleshed out a little, but here’s what their release states:

As of today, guests flying on Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, and V Australia/Virgin Blue are all eligible to earn miles or points for their flights that can later be redeemed under any of the carrier’s frequent flyer programs. The reciprocal agreements enable Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club members to earn Flying Club miles/status points; Virgin America’s Elevate members to earn Elevate points; and V Australia/Virgin Blue Velocity members to earn Velocity points — wherever they are flying on a Virgin-branded carrier around the world.

Also as of today, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club members and V Australia/Virgin Blue Velocity members can redeem their miles on either of the airlines. V Australia/Virgin Blue Velocity members and Virgin America Elevate members will be eligible to spend their miles or points to fly on either airline as of the fourth quarter of 2010. Virgin Atlantic Flying Club members and Virgin America Elevate members will be eligible to spend their miles or points on either airline as of the second quarter of 2011.

How good this alliance ends up being for consumers remains to be seen. For now, it’s not a huge win. Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club isn’t the greatest program — you don’t earn full mileage on low-fare tickets, and as Wandering Aramean reminds us, they charge hefty fuel surcharges on mileage tickets.

But keep your eyes on this. It could get big.

virgin atlantic upstairs Upgrades and Downgrades: Virgin Atlantic, mistake fares, TSA SOPs, Continental upgradesDowngraded: Upper Class, upstairs, on Virgin Atlantic
Upgraded: Economy Class, upstairs, on Virgin Atlantic

Like many airlines, Virgin Atlantic has been cutting seats in business class, in response to the economy’s woes. But the upstairs section of the 747 has always been sacred space for the premium-cabin travelers. Until now. The airline will slowly roll out “configuration 4,” which moves some regular economy seats to the back of the upstairs cabin. Virgin Atlantic Upper Class loyalists will object to the lack of exclusivity. Which, in turn, should be an improvement for economy customers who get the service boost of a small cabin.

Upgraded: Consumer rights for “mistake” fares
As I’ve argued in the past, it’s sometimes impossible to know if a low fare is an error, or just a deal. (1 cent fares, anyone?) So I’m pleased to read that, in the U.S., the federal government is warning airlines that they’re (at least partially) on the hook for mistake fares. The DOT ruled: “We believe that all airlines should accept some responsibility for even the erroneous fares they publish.” Customers with canceled tickets must now be “made whole,” though this doesn’t mean that tickets will be honored. Still, a good move.

Downgraded: TSA’s mad redacting skillz
Seth, over at the Wandering Aramean has been digging through a document detailing the TSA’s standard operating procedures. The document was redacted, but Adobe Acrobat doesn’t delete the text hidden behind the black boxes. Oops. Now the TSA says the policies were never implemented, after all. (Then why were they posted, and redacted?) Seth has links to the original documents on his site.

Upgraded: Continental systemwide upgrades for top-level elites
In a further alignment of Continental OnePass with United MileagePlus, Continental is systemwide upgrades and a double-secret invitation-only ultra-elite level for high-spend elite frequent fliers.

Upgraded: United’s long-range aircraft… eventually
After slicing and dicing their fleet over the years, and recently killing off their 737s, it’s finally time for United to look at renewing their fleet. They’re ordering 25 Boeing 787s and 25 Airbus A350s, which will replace their 767s and 747s, respectively. …in 6 to 9 years.

rockettes Procrastinators Special: Holiday business class fare sales
Every year, around this time, there’s a nearly-simultaneous sale on multiple airlines, with discounts for business class airfares across the oceans. It’s as predictable as the Rockettes’ act. (There will be high-kicking.)

Blame seasonality. Beyond the economic slowdown that’s killed premium-cabin traffic, there’s the seasonal slowdown, as business travel grinds to a halt near year-end. What this means for the leisure traveler is premium class deals in premium economy, business class, and first.

Most of the deals are to Europe. Very few deals target Asia. There are a handful of deals to Australia, too, but they’re not the best I’ve seen.

Sure, even the discounted premium seats will still cost you more than a coach seat. But there are some decent prices nonetheless.

Some examples:

Compare a roundtrip in coach from New York to Paris for $858, all-in, on American, with a $1415 fare for the same dates on OpenSkies, the British Airways subsidiary operating an all-premium configuration. (The quoted fare is for a cradle seat, which they call “BizSeat,” vs. their lie-flat “BizBed” product. It’s arguably a high-end premium economy seat, or a low-end business class seat.)

Or Continental’s BusinessFirst sale: Houston to London for $2087 all-in, vs. $1096 for the same flights in coach.

Or check out Lufthansa, which is running specials to a range of European destinations from each of the US cities where it has nonstop departures to Frankfurt or Munich. Cities that don’t see regular fare sales, like Charlotte, get a little love thrown their way, though it’s not quite as generous as the discounts New Yorkers get. (E.g., Charlotte to Amsterdam for $2278 all-in, vs. $1099 for the same flights in coach.)

These flights would cost thousands more at other times of the year.

But not all airlines are playing along. I test-drove Virgin Atlantic Upper Class fares, and I wasn’t impressed at all. Over $3000 for a flight from New York to London? That’s hardly a sale.

Bottom line: If you haven’t booked international travel around the holidays, don’t neglect to search for business class fares. You may find a deal.

Upgraded: Business reasons for business travel
Take this with a grain of salt the size of a Rubik’s Cube, but the U.S. Travel Association announced that research they commissioned shows that “every dollar invested in business travel generates an average $12.50 in increased revenue and $3.80 in new profits.” Slightly more specifically, “Executives cited customer meetings as having the greatest returns, approximately $15-$19.99 per dollar invested, with conference and trade show participation returns ranging from $4-$5.99 per dollar invested.” The entire report — which is based on a survey of perceptions of the impact of travel — is available here.
business travel breakdown Upgrades and Downgrades: business travel, baggage limits, boarding passes, more

Upgraded: Baggage allowances on Gulf Air
This isn’t something you’ll see in North America anytime soon: Gulf Air is raising the weight limits for passengers with (complimentary!) checked baggage, effective October 1, 2009. And the increases aren’t small: +10 kg (22 lbs), in each class. That raises the total weight limits for First, Business and Economy to 50 kg, 40 kg, and 30 kg, respectively. Silver-level frequent fliers in Gulf Air’s frequent flyer program get another 15 kg; gold members get another 20 kg. Individual bags are still limited to a whopping 32kg (70 lbs) each.

Upgraded: Virgin Atlantic’s website
Sure, airline websites have been selling hotel reservations and rental cars. But now Virgin Atlantic is trying to go further by offering “add-ons” like passports and visas. Services are provided by CIBT, either via the Virgin website or call center. (Or, perhaps more accurately, centre.)

Upgraded: Paperless boarding passes at US airports
The number of airlines and airports that permit scanning boarding passes from your mobile device keeps increasing. The TSA blog compiles the who/where. Here’s the bottom line, airlines and airport codes:

Delta/Northwest: ATL, LAS, MEM, MSP, DET, SLC, CVG
Delta only: LGA
Northwest only: IND
Alaska: SEA
American: ORD, SNA, LAX

Upgraded: Punishments for abusive passengers in-flight
The FAA is increasing the size of the penalties it levies against unruly passengers, like the man who “dropped his pants and exposed himself to the female passenger sitting next to him, then punched her, according to an FBI affidavit.” Good.

Downgraded: Bali’s public health strategy
While a vigorous attempt to contain the spread of the H1N1 flu virus is understandable and sensible, Bali is taking the notion to a new level:

Upon landing at Bali’s airport planes will be taken to a remote aircraft parking area where the plane and its passengers will be sprayed with disinfectant. Passengers will then be disembarked and subjected to thermal scanners.

However, the Jakarta Globe is reporting that Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport is now requiring all arriving international air passengers to undergo a blood test. Nyoman Murtiyasa, the head of the airport’s health office, quoted in the Jakarta Globe said that all passengers arriving from overseas would be required to take a blood test at the airport.

Thermal scanners? Sure. Blood tests for everyone? Extreme. They make United States passport control seem downright lovable.

Downgraded: Airline uniforms
The airport administrators at Nepal’s Kathmandu Airport are taking an unusual step in an effort to reduce bribery: They are banning pockets in airline personnel uniforms. In a few months, expect reports of secret back-room sewing operations and black market tailoring.

Upgraded: Onboard duty-free, online check-in
Remember when airlines gave you extra miles for online check-in? It’s not coming back, alas. But Virgin Atlantic will give you a coupon for £6 off onboard duty free shopping when spending £30 or more. Whoo?

Downgraded: Jamaican sand wars
500 truckloads of white sand were stolen from a Jamaican resort development site in July 2008. Now, it’s going to trial, and other resort owners are among the accused. (hat tip to Veronica Stoddart)

Upgraded: Overview of disparate carry-on luggage rules
Steven Frischling at Flying with Fish has compiled a great list of 65 airlines’ carry-on baggage restrictions. Be sure to check the rules before your next flight.

Upgraded: Cruises with a theme
Downgraded: Pirates; Conscience

Finally, a cruise concept for the bloodthirsty: A Russian company is sponsoring pirate-hunting cruises. $5000 gets you on board, and you can rent AK-47s and buy ammo. The money quote: “They are worse than the pirates. At least the pirates have the decency to take hostages; these people are just paying to commit murder.”

Upgraded: Eclipse travel
THIS is a concept trip I could do: Special flights to view the upcoming solar eclipse. (Thanks, Kim!)

eclipse flight Upgrades and Downgrades    blood tests, airline uniforms, pirate cruises, sand wars, and more

united customer service phone Upgrades and Downgrades: Southwest wi fi, United customer non service, fare sales and $0 fares, and moreDowngraded: United unplugs customer complaint phone line
The Indian call center that took United Airlines passenger compliments or complaints is being shut down, in favor of going entirely e-mail. “United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said the airline is able to respond better to customers who write, since they often include more detail, making it possible to provide a more specific response.” Not to mention that sending a form letter response is faster than having a real conversation. And I’m positive every disgruntled passenger appreciates the convenience of requiring them to take the time to write, rather than make a quick call from the road… Sure.

Upgraded: Transatlantic deals on Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic has a great sale going on right now over the pond, with economy fares as low as $453 round trip including taxes, and premium economy for as low as $675. Best part: No advance purchase. Buy today, leave today! But fares aren’t just last-minute fares, either. But no summer fares. You’ll find the cheapest prices from Feb 11, 2009 – Mar 22, 2009 or Oct 22, 2009 – Nov 30, 2009.

Downgraded: $0 airfares
I’ve always felt that companies should honor the prices they publish. And in an era of airlines that pay you to fly them, why wouldn’t a passenger think that a $0 airfare (plus taxes) was legit? Alas, tickets booked on Northwest at that last Wednesday fare aren’t being honored, unless the passengers are already mid-trip.

Upgraded: Inflight wi-fi live on Southwest
If you’re flying Southwest today (Wednesday, Feb. 11), check to see if you’re flying on aircraft #901. It’s the first plane equipped with inflight wi-fi. The plane is routed OAK-ONT-PHX-SAN-OAK-SNA-PHX-OAK-PHX. And while the service is being tested, the wi-fi is free.

Downgraded: Reading, Geography, Responsibility
A Thomas Cook travel agent mistakenly booked a passenger to San Juan, Puerto Rico, instead of San Jose, Costa Rica. SJU instead of SJO. Bad mistake. But didn’t the traveler bear any responsibility to check the tickets — or heck, figure this out at the departure airport?? I love her quote, though: “I looked around the airport, saw posters of Puerto Rico everywhere, and thought: ‘What am I going to do? Where is Puerto Rico? Where am I?’” Yes, “where is Puerto Rico.”

Downgraded: Surprise
Headline: “Surprising number of companies cut travel spending.” Umm, “surprising”? Have USA Today’s editors been so insulated from the economic crisis that they’re shocked that travel spending is cut back?