Archive for June, 2008
Readers of this site know that I have selected American Airlines as my airline of choice. I live near Austin, Texas: only Southwest offers more service from Austin than American, but Southwest does not offer international service or service to Hawaii, so that eliminated them from my consideration. I try to do all of my traveling on American Airlines or one of its Oneworld partners.
I recently had to attend a conference in San Francisco: the corporate travel agent made the reservations for me and I had no choice in the matter, I had to fly on United Airlines. I hadn’t flown United in several years, and thought a comparison of UA and AA would be of interest to you.
I have flown around the continental United States, to Hawaii, and to Europe on American Airlines, and have elite status. I have taken three flights on UA, and do not have elite status.
Flight Status Notification:
Each airline lets you register for free flight status notification. Once you sign up for this service, the airline’s computer will call you in advance of your flight to let you know if it is on time and what the departure gate is. I always sign up for this at American and have found it to be a very valuable feature. I also found that there is a difference between the way the two airlines operate their notification systems.
American continually updates their notifications. If you are supposed to depart from Gate 14, but there has been a change to Gate 6 instead, you will get a call to let you know. United apparently does not offer this feature. My flight home from San Francisco had a layover in Denver. I received a call with one gate listed for my departure, but the video screens in the airport listed another gate that was at the other end of the terminal. I have never experienced a disagreement between the video screens and the notification system on American, but now I had this problem with United. I decided to go to the gate listed on the video screen, and that was the correct decision. If I had gone to the gate provided by the flight notification system, I would have missed my flight.
United also called me to let me know the arrival time of my flight. Since I did not get this message until after I had landed and turned on my cell phone, this did not help me at all. However, if you set it up to have the call go to someone who is meeting you at the airport, it would be a great help.
Check In Process:
American allows passengers to check in with a reservations agent, or use a self-serve kiosk. If you check in with the agent, he/she issues your boarding pass and receives your checked baggage. If you use the kiosk, the kiosk issues your boarding pass, but you then have to stand on another line to hand in your baggage.
United has combined this. Everyone stands on one line (unless they are flying First Class, which has a separate process) until they reach the check in counter. They use a computer terminal to check in, then give their checked baggage to the agent behind the counter.
I have elite status with American Airlines, this allows me to reserve exit row seating which gives me extra legroom.
I checked in for my Austin – San Francisco flight and the agent asked if I would like a seat with extra legroom. Would I? It’s a four-hour flight! Of course I would! How nice of them to offer!
“Yes, I would love extra legroom!.”
“That will be $49, would you like to pay with cash or charge?”
“Neither, thanks for offering.”
Since I don’t have elite status with United I could only get extra legroom by paying the extra fee. I declined that offer.
On my return from San Francisco I took two flights, San Francisco-Denver and Denver-Austin. The cost for extra legroom was $78. Again, I refused this benefit.
Most of my flights on American are on MD-80s, some of the oldest aircraft in their fleet. My United flights were on an Airbus A-319, Boeing 737 and 757. In each case, the United aircraft felt newer than the MD-80s I normally get on American.
American does not offer in-flight entertainment (IFE) on the MD-80, so I rarely experience it. All three of the United flights offered it. None of the flights were long enough to show a movie, but there were several TV shows. In addition, there was the standard choice of music channels to listen to.
My favorite feature on United is Channel 9. This channel lets you listen to the air traffic controllers as they talk to the aircraft, and the replies from the cockpit crews. I’ve always been fascinated by this and really enjoy listening to it. You never know what you will hear.
You’ll hear the expected “United 43 heavy clear for departure on runway 27 left” mesages, but also hear pilots asking if they can change their altitude or course to avoid turbulence. When we backed away from the terminal in Denver for the flight to Austin, I heard the controller tell our pilot “I have 15 aircraft getting ready to depart in the next few minutes. If you can leave now, I can put you in front of them all.” Needless to say, our pilot accepted that offer!
When we landed in Austin I heard our pilot tell the controller that the spotlights in a maintenance area were shining directly in her eyes as she taxied to the terminal.
I love Channel 9 and wish other airlines offered it.
It’s 2008 and neither airline offers food in coach unless you buy a snack box. You can get a complimentary non-alcoholic beverage.
American has 12-volt power outlets on its aircraft, providing a place to plug in your laptop or DVD player. United does not. This is a definite advantage to American, particularly on a long flight where your battery will not last long enough to get you to your destination.
Without exception, every American Airlines flight I’ve taken has featured arrival information announcements. One of the flight attendants announces our arrival gate, where to pick up our luggage, and departure information for connecting flights.
United offered no information other than the recommendation that we review the video screens in the terminal for information. This was a problem when we arrived in Austin as passengers from my flight wandered around the luggage area trying to figure out which carousel had our bags. An on-flight announcement would have helped prevent this.
There you have it, a short and totally un-scientific comparison of American and United Airlines. Did I find one airline to be dramatically better than the other? No.
American offers more service from Austin than United does, so I will continue to give them my business.
My wife and I visited Orlando in May. We took advantage of that trip to visit the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), America’s gateway to space!
I’ve wanted to visit the Cape since I was a little kid. I remember when the “Space Race” was a big deal, when it was important that we beat the Russians to the Moon. In those days every flight was front page news and received a huge amount of coverage in the press. Today, while space flight is no less dangerous, it is so common, that the media hardly mentions it.
The full Space Center tour costs $42 per person, and you can purchase your tickets online.
It’s an easy drive from Orlando to Cape Kennedy: just remember to bring pocket change because the highway in the Orlando area is a toll road that seems to have a toll booth every three miles or so. Also, be sure to bring comfortable walking shoes, you will do a LOT of walking at the Cape.
As you enter the KSC, you see a display of the rockets used in the early years of the space race. The Redstone rocket on the left launched Alan Shepard into space in 1961. The next rocket is the Atlas, which was used for all of the Mercury program’s orbital flights. (click on photo for larger image)
The NASA logo greets you as you enter the tourist area of the KSC. This is a special year to visit the Cape, it is NASA’s 50th anniversary. (click on photo for larger image)
After you enter the tourist center, you board a bus for your tour of the KSC. There are three stops along the way; since the buses run every 15 minutes you can spend as much time as you want at each location.
One of the first sites you see on your tour is the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). It is one of the largest buildings in the world and was originally built for assembly of Apollo/Saturn vehicles; it was later modified to support Space Shuttle operations. The VAB is 525 feet tall (160 meters), 716 feet long (218 meters) and 518 feet wide (158 meters). The Space Shuttle is mated to its solid rocket boosters, fuel tank, and cralwer-transporter in the VAB. (click on photo for larger image)
The crawler-transporter carries the Space Shuttle to the launch pad, and serves as the rocket’s support during launch. It’s top speed is one mile-per-hour and uses 150 gallons of diesel per mile. The transporter weighs 2,721 metric tons (6 million pounds), is 40 meters (131 ft) wide, 35 meters (114 ft). long (click on photo for larger image)
Your first stop is the Launch Complex (LC) 39 Observation Gantry, a four-story gantry from which you get excellent views of the KSC. The Vehicle Assembly Building is in the background, the crawler-transporter is in the foreground. (click on photo for larger image)
KSC has only two launch pads, 39-A and 39-B. Both are used to launch the Space Shuttle. This is 39-A. The military has several launch pads at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of the KSC. (click on photo for larger image)
The Space Shuttle Discovery sits on launch pad 39-B, ten days before the start of its mission to the International Space Station. This is the closest one can get to the launch pads. (click on photo for larger image)
The next stop on the tour is the Apollo/Saturn V Center that focuses on the Apollo missions to the moon. You begin in the control room that was used for the Apollo launches and go through a simulation of the launch of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon. (click on photo for larger image)
When you leave the control room you enter an exhibit hall that features a full-scal model of the Saturn V rocket, the rocket that launched the Apollo missions to the moon, and is still the most powerful rocket ever made. With the Apollo spacecraft onboard, the Saturn V stood 363 feet (111 meters) high. (click on photo for larger image)
The five giant F-1 rocket engines at the base of the Saturn’s first stage used kerosene and liquid oxygen (Lox) as propellants and produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust. They burned for almost 3 minutes. (click on photo for larger image)
A model of the lunar landing module hangs above the exhibit hall, next to a model of the third stage of the Saturn V. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin rode the Eagle to the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. It’s hard to believe that we are coming up on the 40th anniversary of the landing! (click on photo for larger image)
The Apollo command module sat at the top of the Saturn V. The three astronauts traveled to the moon in the command module. Once they entered lunar orbit, two astronauts entered the lunar module for the trip to the surface of the moon. (click on photo for larger image)
The final stop on the tour is the International Space Station (ISS) Center. Visitors can walk through a mock-up of the ISS Habitation Module where astronauts live when aboard the ISS. (click on photo for larger image)
The interior of one of the ISS science modules. (click on photo for larger image)
Visitors are able to look down upon the ISS assembly area and watch as modules are assembled before being loaded aboard the Space Shuttle for the flight to space. (click on photo for larger image)
After touring the International Space Station (ISS) Center, visitors board the bus for the return to the main tourist center at KSC. Visitors can enter a full scale mock-up of the Space Shuttle Explorer. Next door it the Shuttle Launch Experience where you get to experience the first 5 minutes of a Shuttle launch. (click on photo for larger image)
The tourist center offers many options for visitors including an IMAX movie theater (we saw a movie about the construction of the ISS), gift shops, places to eat, and a movie about the American mission to Mars.
Nothing can equal the Kennedy Space Center tour, I highly recommend it. Be sure to get there early, and expect to stay all day. It is an experience you will never forget.
While I have not posted a message about my travels since my May 10 mileage run to Seattle, that does not mean I have not been traveling. I’ve made two trips in the last month, one for vacation, one for business, but have been too busy with work to post any information about those trips.
It’s a quiet weekend, so now I can catch up.
My wife and I went to Orlando, Florida for 5 days in May. We flew there on my birthday; my mileage runs paid off when we got an upgrade to First Class on the Dallas-Orlando flight.
We were in Orlando for 5 days and did not do very much. We had been there before and had gone to DisneyWorld and Universal Studios. If you are in Orlando and don’t want to visit the theme parks, there are, in my opinion, not that many things left to do.
For me, one of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Kennedy Space Center! (I’ll post a separate message with photos of that trip.) I found it quite special to visit the Cape!
We saw the Arabian Nights dinner show on our second night in Orlando. The food was good, and we saw some amazing demonstrations of horse-riding skills. You’ll enjoy this show, put it on your Orlando to-do list!
We spent the rest of our time relaxing and not doing much, so sorry, there are not many photos to post. We did see one unusual building on International Drive.
Our flight home was interesting. The weather was nice when we got to the Orlando airport, but soon thereafter the skies grew dark and it started to rain. That would not be enough to delay our flight. But then there was a flash of lightning, I knew that would be a problem.
Whenever lightning strikes, all ground personnel are immediately ordered to leave the flight line and come indoors. So, the people who were fueling our aircraft, loading food and luggage, etc. had to stop what they were doing. After 40 minutes the weather cleared up and the ground crew was allowed outdoors again. We boarded the flight on time, but had a 20 minute delay as they tried to make up for lost time as they finished loading the aircraft.
My wife and I were upgraded to First Class. Not only are the First Class seats larger and more comfortable, but you are also served a meal during the flight. I chose the mushroom tortellini, and have to say it was one of the best pasta dishes I have had in a long time! The food on our flight to Orlando was nothing special, typical airline fare, but the flight back made up for it! I wish I could find a restaurant near my home that had tortellini as good as this, I’d be a frequent visitor!
We got back to Dallas, arriving at Terminal A, and changed to Terminal C for our Austin flight. Whenever I fly American Airlines, I sign up for the flight notification system: with this feature AA calls me on my cell phone to let me know when my flight will depart, and which gate it will depart from.
When I landed I got the call telling me that we would depart from Terminal C on time. We had almost two hours to wait, so we took the tram to Terminal C and went to the Admirals Club. Then I got a call telling me the flight would be 10 minutes late. Then another call that we would be 25 minutes late. Then another call that we would be 45 minutes late. Then another call that we not only would be 45 minutes late, but would now be departing from Terminal A. Not only would we leave from Terminal A, but we would be only one gate down from our arrival gate!
So, we took the tram back to A and waited at our gate.
Fortunately, there were no further delays and we got home safely that evening.
Last year we celebrated my wife’s birthday in Honolulu. This year we celebrated mine in Orlando. I think the next birthday celebration will be here at home.
Our trip to Orlando was, when all was said and done, average. While we enjoyed the trip to the Cape and Arabian Nights, the rest of our stay, while relaxing, was boring. Orlando is best for families with kids
It’s been a dismal year for the airline industry. Several airlines have filed for bankruptcy and stopped flying. The remaining airlines are raising fees (United Airlines and US Airways have matched American Airlines’ policy of charging passengers for their first checked bag), laying off workers, grounding aircraft, reducing service, and loosing money at an unbelievable rate.
Every airline is doing this except for one: Southwest Airlines.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly visited Austin Thursday and told the Austin American-Statesman that Southwest will purchase 13 new aircraft this year, and an additional 14 next year. It also plans to add new routes to the system and expects to increase service in the coming year.
“We are expecting to take more market share. We are planning for that,” Kelly said. In addition, Southwest made $43 million in the quarter ending March 31. Compare that to Continental which lost $80 million, American Airlines which lost $328 million, and United which lost $537 million.
How do they do it?
One of the key factors to Southwest’s success has been it’s continuing ability to lock in low fuel prices in advance. Southwest has been locking in fuel prices since the 1991 Gulf War, helping to hedge against increasing prices in fuel. When fuel prices are stable, they get little benefit from the policy, but when prices rise as they have in the past few months, they come out way ahead.
According the article, Southwest has locked in 73 percent of its fuel costs at a price equivalent to $51 for a barrel of oil. The current price for a barrel of oil is $136.74. That means that Southwest is getting a 63 percent discount on almost three-quarters of its oil purchases. It’s like me buying gas for $4 a gallon, while my neighbor gets it for $1.49.
How would you like to be buying gas for $1.49 a gallon right now? That is basically what Southwest is doing.
It is not an industry secret that Southwest has been locking in fuel costs for 17 years. Other airlines have tried to do the same, but have not been as successful.
“There are others in the industry that do hedge their fuel costs,” Kelly said in the article, “but no one doe it to the extent that we do, nor have they locked in the prices that we have locked in.”
While other airlines are charging fees for almost everything, including curbside check-in, checking luggage, snacks, window or aisle seats, or making reservations over the telephone, Kelly said Southwest will not match those charges. As Southwest says on its website, “We despise fees as much as the other airlines seem to love them. So we’ll just keep taking care of you, rather than charging fees for the stuff that should come with your fare in the first place. We believe in not asking you to pull out your wallet every few minutes.”
If I were a shareholder at American, United, Continental, or any of the other major North American carriers, I’d be at the next shareholders’ meeting asking why my airline is not able to match Southwest’s amazing seventeen-year record of locking in low fuel costs. It seems to be a fair question.
It seems that everyone has started a blog in the last year. And why not? Applications such as Blogger.com and similar sites make it very easy to do, but this is a good news / bad news situation.
The good news is that anyone can set up a blog.
The bad news is that anyone can set up a blog.
And that holds true in the corporate world. Many corporations have set up official corporate blogs in the last year, including General Motors, Boeing (the May 20, 2008 entry has some great videos/photos of the 787!), Dell, and Wal-Mart.
And now airlines have also begun corporate blogs. The three that I have found are: Southwest Airlines, Delta Airlines, and American Airlines. Those three sites are Very Good, and EAT (Embarrassing, Awful, Terrible.)
Southwest Airlines – Nuts About Southwest: Southwest Airlines sells itself as the “Fun” airline, and that sense comes through strongly on this excellent blog. Nuts About Southwest has an interesting way of getting information: instead of it being a site for the staff in the corporate PR office to post ideas, scores of Southwest employees serves as the editors. And they not only write about the airline, but other fun things too.
On May 30 a Southwest employee posted the story about his visit to New York City to see the David Letterman Show. Another employee writes about serving on jury duty (they found the defendant guilty). But it also has corporate side featuring, You Tube videos posted by Christi Day, Public Relations Coordinator.
The latest video has Christi visiting with Southwest’s Culture Committee in Los Angeles on Hokey Day. (This is the day when Committee members meet every Southwest flight into Los Angeles: they clean the plane and bring food for the flight attendants and cockpit crew.) Previous videos included: the Culture Committee flying to Oklahoma City to greet customers at the airport and thank them for flying Southwest — they gave the passengers free snacks and made laminated luggage tags from business cards; and another video showing Airport Operations at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. I have to admit it looks like Christi has the number one fun job at Southwest!
The site features a news section: some articles are very serious and business oriented, such as Limited Time Promotion on Business Select Fares and Southwest: First and second checked-bags still free. But the less serious articles are also there, including Southwest Airlines to celebrate National Donut Day. Many other sites would not carry an article like that, but this is Southwest and those articles fit its corporate attitude.
I particularly like the fact that anyone, after registering, can post their stories and photos on the site. As Southwest says, “This is as much your site as it is ours… We want to build a personal relationship between our Team and you, and we need your participation. Everyone is encouraged to join in, and you don’t need to register to read, watch, or comment. However, if you would like to share photos or videos or rate a post, among other things, you will need to complete a profile.”
Nuts About Southwest is a Very Good blog!
Delta Airlines – Under The Wing: Delta has done a good job with their blog. It’s not as much fun as Southwest’s, but anyone who has flown the two airlines would probably expect that. After all, I don’t remember the flight attendants on Delta singing songs, or asking everyone to “move to the right side of the aircraft so that we’ll look full to the Continental flight next to us.” I’ve heard both of those things SW.
Delta takes a more business-like approach, but that is not bad. Their site provides a lot of good information about the airline. As they say, “The Delta blog will take you under the wing and behind the scenes sharing stories on ideas, changes, our people, and their working lives.”
This is not a site for the corporate PR department to spout the company line. Many Delta employees post items on Under the Wing, but they are not the only ones to post. If you are a baseball fan, you will enjoy the stories by Jeff Francouer, outfielder for the Atlanta Braves.
Under the Wing has one feature I particularly like, The Blogroll. This is a list of over 30 blogs about travel, aircraft, and airlines. Some of the sites listed include Boeing, Marriott Hotels, Conde Nast Traveler, and the Lonely Planet Travel blog. They even list the Southwest blog on their site. The Blogroll is a great resource.
Another very strong feature on the Delta blog is the Categories listing. Previous posts are divided into categories, allowing you to see the ones that interest you most. Click on “Flight Attendants” to read about the training one must take to become a Delta FA. “Planeguage” takes you to very entertaining animated videos about flying — after watching them I will forever be aware of the dreaded Domino affect. In all, there are 19 Categories listed, I think you will find it to be an excellent source of information.
Under the Wing is also Very Good blog!
And now, the last entry.
American Airlines – American Airlines AA Conversation: My parents always told me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” By that standard, I can’t say anything about this terrible site.
It’s obvious that Delta and Southwest operate their blogs, the sites are hosted on the airlines’ domains. (southwest.com and delta.com). The American Airlines blog is hosted on blogger.com, using the cheap blogger template. There are no photographs, no links, it doesn’t even have the AA logo.
So, the question is this: Is this really an American Airlines site, or is it something that was done by someone as a hoax? And the answer is, I don’t know.
Billy S. claims to be the author, and “the director of corporate communications, promotions and advertising for AA.” If so, he should know better than to do this.
The site went online after American had returned the 300 MD-80s to service in April. Four messages were posted, featuring pompous comments like “We NEED to continue the conversation, and we need to keep it going permanently.” Apparently, Billy did not really mean that: only four messages were posted, and none since April 28.
It makes the following comment seem absurd. “It’s time for us to officially join the mighty blogosphere, and that’s just what we have done. We’re going to take this “starter” blog and beef it up. And make sure our readers know that this is real folks at American blogging …and not someone’s nephew.” If this is an example of them beefing it up, then I can only quote the great Wendy’s commercial from 20 years ago and ask “Where’s the beef?”
If American Airlines AA Conversation is really an American Airlines site, and they really mean the things they said, they need to follow through on their proclamations and act like they are serious about blogging.
How do they do that? They start by moving the site to the AA.com domain. Then they redesign the site so that it doesn’t look like something done by a 13-year-old amateur. Then they need to provide meaningful content with frequent updates.
If Billy S. is who he says he is, I suspect he started this from home one day. After posting his four messages he showed it to his superiors at corporate headquarters and they told him they had more important things to do. And with that, he dropped it.
AA needs to either fix this site, or kill it. And do it quickly.
American Airlines AA Conversation is the EAT site: Embarrassing. Awful. Terrible.
Update: American Airlines has taken their blog offline. Good move.
On May 22 I posted a comment about the way American Airlines had failed to promptly let its AAdvantage members know about the new policy on luggage fees. (AA will charge $15 for the first checked bag, $25 for the second checked bag. Elite members are exempt from the fee. AA is, to the best of my knowledge, the ONLY airline to charge a fee for the first bag.)
One of the things I said was “What American should have done is send a “Dear AAdvantage Member” message explaining the new policy.”
Well, I guess they were listening. Six days later, on May 28, I received a message with the heading “AAdvantage Platinum® Members Are Exempt FromNew Checked Baggage Fees.” Better late than never.
So, a week after implementing the policy, they decided to make sure that their passengers knew about it. Good move to let us know, bad move to wait so long to do it. That message should have been sent to all AAdvantage members before they even notified the media of the new policy.
I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday. He travels hundreds of thousands of miles every year, and has elite status with almost every North American airline. When the media announced the new charge for the first checked bag, he decided he was not going to pay the fee, and booked four trips on a different airline. A week later, after he had already made those reservations, American sent him the message letting him know that as an elite member, he did not have to pay the fee.
If they had sent him that message on day one, he would have booked with American. Instead, they lost him for at least four trips because they were not proactive in letting their AAdvantage members know the details of their new policy.
Hopefully, someone at American Airlines will wake up and realize that this is not the way to treat your most valuable asset, your passengers.