Archive for April, 2008
Darn that alarm clock!
It’s a few minutes before 3 on a Saturday morning and it is telling me, very insistently, that I have to get up. Well, that’s what I get for starting a mileage run with a 6 a.m. flight.
After a quick shower and breakfast I drove to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA), arriving at 5 a.m. I remain amazed at how crowded ABIA is at 5 o’clock on a Saturday morning. The lines at the American Airlines counter were longer than I had ever seen, stretching so far that they blocked the entrance to the main security line. I saw families with young children, a few people with guitar cases who may have performed at an Austin club the night before, and many soldiers in uniform returning to duty.
This worried me: a heavy line of thunderstorms had passed through the area the evening before, with a tornado reported less than 15 miles from my house. Was the weather causing a delay this morning? Fortunately, it wasn’t; this was just a busy morning at ABIA.
Since I didn’t have any luggage I used the self check-in terminal, getting all four boarding passes for the day. I quickly walked to the Southwest Airlines end of the passenger terminal where the security lines were much shorter and quickly passed through the inspection.
My first flight would go from Austin to Chicago O’Hare. I got to my gate and saw that this would be a full flight. They did not have to bump anyone, but there were several stand-by passengers from later flights trying to leave on the early one, and they would take every available seat.
As a Platinum AAdvantage member I boarded after the first class passengers but before the other coach passengers and quickly got to my aisle seat on an exit row. And then I watched everyone else board. I am always amazed at the growing size of the carry-on bags that people bring on board. They eventually get them to fit in the overhead compartment but it sometimes takes a lot of shoving and pounding for that to happen.
I also saw the passengers who think they are “special.” American boards passengers by group, with the people sitting in the rear of the plane boarding first. Invariably, on every flight, I see one of these people, who is probably sitting in aisle 29, put their luggage in the first available overhead compartment, usually above aisle 6 or 7. I guess they don’t think they need to carry it all the way to the back of the plane where they are sitting. This creates a problem for the people sitting in aisle 6 who, when they finally board, find they have no place to put their bags. I wish the flight attendants would watch and do something about this, but I guess they do have, particularly since 9/11, more important things to deal with.
The last passenger to board was a stand-by from a later flight. He had a computer bag, a 22-inch rollerboard, and a garment bag. They ended up having to put his carry-ons in the cargo compartment; there simply wasn’t any room in the passenger compartment.
Our MD-80 departed the terminal exactly on time, taxied to the runway and took off without delay. And that is all I remember about that flight. Moments later I was sound asleep. I woke up when the pilot announced that we were 100 miles out from ORD and were starting the descent. He mentioned that it might be a bumpy landing due to wind gusting as high as 40 m.p.h. The next several minutes were indeed bumpy, but we had a relatively smooth landing 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
Those extra few moments gave me enough time to grab a cup of coffee and a muffin at the Admirals Club before boarding the Seattle flight.
Everything again went just as expected. It was another MD-80, and I had the same exit row seat on the aisle. The plane was 75 percent full, and departed on time. This was easily the smoothest flight I have ever taken. We always have to put our seatbelts on for the take off and landing; there are normally some moments of turbulence during a flight when the pilot asks everyone to remain in their seats with “your seat belts securely fastened.” That never happened on this flight! I can’t recall ever taking a flight, particularly one that had to cross the Rockies that had no turbulence at all! We got into Seattle 10 minutes early.
It was a lovely day, temperatures in the mid 50s with a very slight overcast. I wish I could have gone into town, but this would be a short turnaround, leaving me only enough time for lunch.
There is a large central area at Sea-Tac airport called Pacific Marketplace. It features a variety of stores including one of my favorites, the Discovery Channel Store, and a large food court with splendid views of the main runways with aircraft of all sizes landing and taking off. My favorite restaurant at the food court is Anthony’s, an excellent seafood restaurant.
It’s not your normal food court establishment; it’s an actual restaurant with wait staff serving your meal. I have eaten there before and had some excellent meals, particularly the fresh seafood that I cannot normally get at home in Texas. They also have incredible fresh-from-the-oven sourdough bread!
They sat me at a great table, right by the window, and I looked at their fresh seafood selection and ordered the cod. “Sorry sir, we are out of that.”
“Okay, let’s go with the Ahi Tuna.”
“Sorry, we’re out of that too.” And they were out of the next item I selected. Darn! It had been over 12 hours since I had eaten breakfast and I was very hungry, so I went with Plan B, a salmon burger with fries. Not what I had in mind, but I was too hungry to look for other options.
My table overlooked the runway and I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot pictures of some of the aircraft.
After a relaxing meal I went to my gate for the flight back to Chicago, I expected the flight to board in 10-15 minutes. After 20 minutes nothing had happened. Then the gate crew announced that there were flight control delays on all flights into and out of Chicago, and we would be delayed by 30 minutes.
Uh oh. Not good, I have less than a 50 minute layover in Chicago to catch the last Austin flight of the day; this 30-minute delay could cause some serious problems for me. Maybe there was another option. However, the gate crew said not to worry, all flights at Chicago were delayed and my Austin flight would be too. So, I had no choice but to board the plane.
We left the terminal 30 minutes late then sat at a remote area of the airport for another 10 minutes before we finally took off. We had an uneventful flight to Chicago, arriving shortly before 9 p.m. The good news was that my Austin flight was also delayed until 9:54, so I’d have enough time for a quick stop at the Admirals Club for a cup of coffee and to refill my water bottle.
I wasn’t prepared for the show I was about to see. I got to the gate for my flight to Austin at 9:25.
There was no gate agent, but the pilot was behind the counter doing his “pilot stuff.” I looked and saw there was an MD-80 sitting at the gate so I knew we’d probably depart on time. It did not occur to me at the time that the lights on the wingtips and atop the fuselage were flashing, something you don’t normally see when an aircraft has pulled up to the gate.
Five minutes went by, still no gate agent.
One little old lady went up to the pilot and asked if “someone regular” would be there to help with her ticketing problem. The pilot said he was “pretty regular” but when she explained her problem, he was not able to solve it, but would get a gate agent to help when one showed up.
The phone rang and he answered it, saying “I’m a pilot, not a gate agent and we need a gate agent here right now!” A few minutes later another call and again the pilot stating that he was not a gate agent and needed one immediately. In the meantime, the MD-80 was still sitting at the gate. Several minutes later a gate attendant arrived; she apologized to the pilot, saying her shift had ended and she was leaving when they told her to stay late and help at this gate. He was glad to see her.
The first thing she did was wave at the cockpit of the aircraft. And then she started to move the ramp to the aircraft. Moments later the passengers started to get off. The plane had sat at the gate for at least 15 minutes before a gate agent had arrived to start the deplaning process!
The last people off the plane were two elderly women in wheel chairs. They were taken off the plane and left at the gate. Several minutes later, as we were starting to board, one attendant arrived to take them to their next flight. I felt sorry for him as he tried to steer each wheel chair with only one hand. I felt even more sorry when the ladies loudly informed him “We need to go to the bathroom!” I don’t know what happened after that, I had to board.
We were originally scheduled to depart ORD at 9:25; we ended up leaving at 9:54. Not too bad, all things considered. I fell asleep shortly after we took off.
We landed in Austin at 12:30, only 15 minutes behind our normal schedule. I drove home, arriving at 1:15.
It had been a long day. I did not get the meal I wanted in Seattle, but that was a minor inconvenience. I had gotten home safely and earned over 11,000 miles.
Last week Delta and Northwest Airlines announced plans to merge and become the world’s largest airline. At first glance the merger seemed to be a wonderful idea: Northwest offers many routes from the United States to Asia, while Delta offered strong service to Europe. Their main hubs are in different parts of the country which would minimize the number of routes on which they directly compete. It seemed a great idea.
I had never considered using either airline because they did not offer as many options from Austin as American Airlines does, but the newly created Delta Airlines would be so large that I realized I had to give serious thought to changing my mileage runs to them.
And then the quarterly reports came out. Delta announced that it had lost $6.4 billion in the previous quarter. Northwest lost a more mundane $3.2 billion, giving them a combined total loss of more than $10.5 billion in one quarter. The numbers are staggering.
Let’s look at Delta. There were 91 days in the quarter: that means that during that period Delta lost $70,329,670 per day! How do you loose that kind of money? Yes, fuel costs have gone up, but not by $70 million per day! In fact, Delta announced that its fuel costs for the quarter were $1.4 billion, admittedly a huge number, but even if their fuel had been free they still would have lost $5 billion in 91 days!
Compare their loss to that at other airlines for the same period:
- United Airlines — $537 million loss
- American Airlines — $328 million loss
- Continental Airlines — $80 million loss
- Southwest Airlines — $34 million profit
- Northwest Airlines — $3.2 billion loss
- Delta Airlines — $6.4 billion loss
Can anyone look at those numbers and reasonably think that combining the last two airlines on that list is a good idea? One can look at the losses at United, American, and Continental, and say “If it wasn’t for the fuel hikes, they would have made a profit.” But there is no way to say that for the last two!
Is there a problem with Delta management? Are there problems with Delta’s union contracts? I don’t know, but the size of the loss is beyond comprehension. And here is one thing that makes it worse: the newly merged airline would have its headquarters in Atlanta at Delta’s current headquarters, and Delta’s current CEO Richard Anderson would be the CEO of the new airline.
Richard Anderson of Delta and Doug Steenland, CEO of Northwest, testified before Congress last week, saying that the merged airline would be stronger and better able to compete with foreign carriers that sometimes operate with generous government subsidies. They said no hubs would be closed, and only 1,000 people, mostly at headquarters, would lose their jobs. They predicted the combined airline could save $1 billion a year in operating costs. Congress loves to hear things like this and the committee seemed supportive of the plan.
However, a $1 billion annual savings does not sounds so grand when compared to a combined $10.5 billion loss in one quarter. In the week since the merger, Wall Street has expressed its displeasure of the plan, selling off the stock of both airlines, creating drop in value of the two of more than $1 billion.
If the Delta-Northwest merger goes through, experts expect a merger between Continental and United, and American and US Airways. When that happens, the majority of air travel in the United States will be controlled by four major airlines (the three merged lines, and Southwest).
Is that good for the consumer? No.
The best analysis I have seen of the proposed merger and other possible airline mergers was posted on Inside Flyer.
Given all of this, I’ll be staying with American Airlines.
In other airline news, another airline has announced it is filing for bankruptcy and will cease operations Monday. Eos Airlines, a business-class only airline that offered service between New York JFK and London Stanstead filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is the fourth American airline this month (following Aloha Air, ATA and Skybus) to file for bankruptcy and cease operations. Frontier also filed for bankruptcy but has continued to fly.
In the meantime, fuel costs continue to rise, putting additional pressures on all remaining airlines.
After the debacle of the MD-80 groundings, American Airlines had to respond to the all the negative news stories and complaints from the hundreds of thousands of people that were inconvenienced by the decision to ground all 300 MD-80 aircraft at one time for maintenance.
The first thing it did was apologize. The airline sent an apology letter on April 11 to people who have AAdvantage accounts. I received the letter and would love to post it, but for some reason, American included a message at the bottom of the apology stating that it was copyrighted and any unauthorized reproduction is prohibited. Dumb move. The ideal solution was to state, in very bold print, “Please send our apology to everyone you know.” Instead, they put a copyright on it, prohibit reproduction of it, and don’t even post it on their website! Is there something secret in the apology that they don’t want anyone other than their customers to know? Perhaps American hired some people from the Communications department at Enron…
In the future, business schools may cite this as a way to NOT handle crisis communications. In fact, the Harvard Business School has already posted an article called Crisis Communications and American Airlines. In the article they point out some of the things American could have done better. For example, the apology came from Dan Garton, Executive Vice President of Marketing, rather than from CEO Gerard Arpey. A reasonable person would conclude that Arpey, as CEO, had a lot more to do with the decisions, right or wrong, of the previous week than Garton did. It should have been Arpey’s signature on the apology.
On the same day they sent the apology, American launched a new blog, American Airlines, AA Conversation. They must have been in quite a rush to get it online, it is not even on the AA.com domain. Instead, it is on blogger.com at http://aaconversation.blogspot.com/. They also used a standard blogger.com template, they don’t even have the AA logo on the site. Dumb. A multi-billion dollar corporation should have a blog that looks better than one created by a junior high school student. In the first week online there have been three messages, all from someone named Billy S.
Who is Billy S.? In what department does he work? What is his position? Is he a senior person in a position of authority or an intern from Southern Methodist University working 15 hours a week while getting class credit in communications? There is no way to tell. The only information he provides is that he has written some AA press releases. Dumb. Readers need to know if those messages originated in the board room or the mail room.
Again, a bad move by AA.
Finally, American came up with an offer for its AAdvantage members. They will give double-elite status qualifying miles on travel between April 16, 2008 and June 15, 2008. Note the dates: the offer is not retroactive to the week of the groundings. In other words, if you still believed in American Airlines and flew them during that crisis situation, they will not give you anything additional. But if you fly with them for the next two months, you will get a bonus.
What does double-elite status qualifying miles mean? Members of the AAdvantage program either have no status or have elite status (Gold, Platinum, Executive Platinum). Travelers earn elite status by building up Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) each year. Earn Gold status with 25K EQMs, Platinum status with 50K EQMs, or Executive Platinum with 100k EQMs. These are the miles we use to pay for our trips.
Under this bonus, people will get double miles, but the extra miles will not count for travel, they will only count towards earning elite status for the year.
Is this a good deal? Yes for some, no for others.
In my case, it’s not a great help. I have three trips scheduled during the award period: two mileage runs (MRs) to Seattle, and a vacation in Florida. I expected to be at 43K points for the year once those trips were over, leaving me in easy reach of the 50K I need to remain Platinum.
With the bonus, I will earn an additional 14K miles toward status, putting me at 57K miles for the year. So, I will reach Platinum status by the end of May. While that is good, there is no long term benefit. Whether I earn it in May or December, I will still be Platinum for the following year.
However, maybe this bonus will put Executive Platinum within reach. Perhaps I will find some good deals later in the year and do several MRs and be able to earn Exec Plat for next year, instead of Platinum. That would be excellent!
Will it happen? I don’t know, 43K miles is a lot, particularly for someone like me who does very little business travel. But I’ll be giving it a lot of thought as I plan my trips for the rest of the year.
Okay, American Airlines has canceled by my count, almost three thousand flights in the last four days, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of passengers. They have had a rough week. But that does not change the fact that I am still looking for flights and miles and my search must continue.
I have two upcoming trips. Mrs. Happy Flier and I are going to Orlando for vacation for a few days, and I am doing a mileage run (MR) to Seattle in a few weeks. (Austin to Chicago to Seattle to Chicago to Austin.) I looked at doing a trip to Philadelphia, but that did not work out.
I looked at flights to Oakland, one of the new routes that Southwest will be flying from Austin. AA did not have any bargain fares there though. So, I found myself again looking at Seattle.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Seattle is the most distant flight from Austin, so I have made several trips to the Emerald City.
I searched AA.com and managed to find a good MR. Not great, but good. I’ll fly from Austin to Dallas and then to San Diego. In San Diego I’ll change to Alaska Airlines for a flight to Seattle. While Alaska Airlines is not a member of the Oneworld Alliance with American, I’ll still earn the same mileage I would earn if that was an American flight.
After a short layover in Seattle I’ll fly AA to Chicago and then back to Austin. Leave at 6 a.m., back by midnight.
An ideal trip to Seattle would give me time to go into town: I’ve promised myself that I would visit the Museum of Flight on my next trip to Seattle. Unfortunately, neither of my two MRs will give me enough time to leave the airport. My next MR has a three-hour layover in SEA, so I will be able to eat some incredible seafood at one of the restaurants at the airport. I won’t even be able to do that on this trip, my longest layover is one hour and ten minutes. Oh well, looks like some fast-food stops that day.
The good news is that I will earn almost 5,500 Elite Qualifying Miles, putting me over 40,000 for the year. My total miles will be almost 11,000 at 2.33 cents per mile. As I said, good but not great. Given how much fares are rising lately, I’ll take anything in that range.
I’ll do three trips before May 31, leaving me with almost 6 months to earn the remaining 7,000 EQMs to keep my Platinum Status. I am very happy with that!
After canceling 500 flights on Tuesday and 1,000 flights on Wednesday, American Airlines announced it was canceling 900 flights scheduled for today. All the cancellations involve the MD-80 aircraft and inspecting/repairing bundles of wires in the aircraft. American has now canceled more than one third of all its flights in the past three days.
As of Wednesday evening only 60 aircraft had been cleared for service, leaving almost 240 yet to be cleared to fly. At that rate, AA will not be able to complete the process until Saturday at the earliest.
AA is doing the right thing by providing passengers with travel vouchers of up to $500 to cover food and lodging expenses caused by canceled flights. But there are still some unanswered questions:
- Why did 90% of the aircraft that were grounded and repaired a few weeks ago fail a new inspection?
- How large a financial hit is American taking with all of these cancellations and the cost of helping the passengers. Can it afford this huge hit?
- How many passengers, after dealing with so much inconvenience, will decide to take their future air travel business elsewhere? How much will this damage American’s business in the months to come?
This is a bad week for American.
No, I don’t mean time to get nervous about whether or not it’s safe to take your next flight, it IS safe. It’s time to get nervous about whether or not that flight will even be there.
Yesterday American Airlines canceled almost 500 flights for maintenance inspections of the MD-80 aircraft, the same aircraft they grounded two weeks ago for the same inspections. Additional flights will be canceled today for the same inspection. Gerald Arpey, AA’s CEO said that the inspections ares due to “detailed technical compliance issues and not safety-of-flight issues.”
The problem is with bundles of wires in the aircraft and how well they are insulated and kept apart from each other. According to CBS news, “an FAA spot check Monday night in Dallas revealed 9 out of 10 American aircraft were not in compliance with airworthiness regulations.”
Ninety percent of the aircraft were not in compliance two weeks after AA canceled 300 flights to make sure they were in compliance? Something is wrong here. They either did it wrong the first time, or they did not inspect all aircraft. Safety comes first, so I am glad AA is looking at this issue; what is not clear to me is why they need to do this after grounding so many aircraft two weeks ago. American needs to get this under control and do it properly. Did they miss all these aircraft when they grounded them two weeks ago, or did they not inspect them properly at that time?
I am scheduled to fly on the MD-80 in the next two months. I am not the least bit nervous about this from a safety standpoint, I’d get on an MD-80 today. My concern is whether or not my flights will even be there for me to take.
Many other airlines fly the MD-80. I expect the FAA to take a serious look at those too. Several airlines canceled flights (although not as many as AA) two weeks ago to inspect the wire bundles. It will be interesting to see how many cancel flights this week for the same reason.
Let’s hope the airlines and the FAA get it right this time.
(for those who missed it, this is the announcement on the AA web site)
American is cancelling several hundred flights starting on April 8 to conduct additional inspections of its MD-80 fleet. These inspections are to ensure precise and complete compliance with the FAA’s directive related to wiring in the aircraft’s wheel wells. We sincerely regret this inconvenience and are actively working to re-accommodate our affected customers. Please be assured that safety of our customers is, and always will be, American’s first priority. For more information about your flight, please check Gates & Times.