Posts about airlines

The cloud crisis

The ash cloud is on my mind more than yours, I’ll bet, because I outran it and because I’m concerned for my friends at re:publica and elsewhere who are still trying to get home by tortured combinations of planes, trains, and automobiles (and boats). It’s a big deal, a profound crisis with profound implications.

But I don’t see government, the airline industry, and media responding that way. They can’t see past their noses and the ashes right ahead of them.

In media, I’ve seen next to no stories looking at the long-term impact and implications; that’s what Richard Sambrook — ex BBC newsman — asked for this morning. The best I’ve found is Robert Paterson asking whether the volcano presents a Black Swan event. All over Twitter and blogs I see the big questions being asked; I don’t see media trying to answer them. I fear it’s not built to.

The airlines are, understandably, engulfed in crisis. But I’d like to see them get dispensation from governments, airports, and other airlines to ferry passengers out of other airports: Get yourself to Rome, Lufthansa could say, and we’ll use a jet stuck in America to get you back (and not have to refund your ticket).

Governments are issuing edicts about safety, which is, indeed, their job. And now they’re going to face fights from airlines: KLM is sending up test flights and making noise about the bans being overkill: “We are asking the authorities to really have a good look at the situation, because 100 percent safety does not exist,” the spokesman said (how comforting; how good for their band; KLM becomes the Toyota of the air — safe enough). But others are testing, too, and are finding gunk in jets: see this and this (via Suw) and this (via Rob Paterson again). So government will have its work cut out protecting us.

Meanwhile, we, the people, are taking our fate into our hands — organizing without organizations, as Clay Shirky would see it. @calaisrescue organized a Dunkirk-like flotilla to take people across the Channel until French authorities stopped them. Friend Heather Gold, stuck in Berlin on her way to Finland, is sending people to ride-sharing and couch-sharing services to help. Friend Micah Sifry, who left Berlin for Zurich and next Rome, says Twitter — the people who use Twitter, of course — has been a Godsend, as it was for me, along with the Google Maps that navigated me and my rescuers to Munich. We’re doing the best we can.

What’s failing us, all in all, is our power structures, which aren’t built to think big and fast at the same time. They should be bending rules to get planes and people to where planes can fly to get people home. They need to be thinking about and taking action about the bigger implications for the European and then world economies (more on that later). Companies of all shorts should be standing up to provide relief (Skype and Cisco offering video conferencing; pharmacy companies offering to help the people lost without prescriptions I’m seeing in Twitter; airlines should let us use their sites to book seats and work out the refunds later, promising not to rip us off; bus and train companies moving mountains to move people — instead of ripping them off, as is unfortunately happening in some cases). They are treating this is a short-term, one-time event. It may well not be. This piece in the Times of London explains why and how this could go on for sometime — and repeat itself.

Operational transparency

I am in Tampa waiting to fly back home to New Jersey and, thanks to the snowicane but rather than sitting in the usual information vacuum to which airlines subject us, I am watching as Continental shows us the status of the flights that were supposed to bring our jet in from LA to Cleveland to Newark to Tampa. I saw the flight to Cleveland canceled, then the one to Newark canceled, and I figured we were doomed when I saw the aircraft number for my flight erased. But then I saw us assigned a new jet, one that flew into Tampa from Houston last night.

That’s simply amazing. Continental is practicing operational transparency. It opened up information is already has to us, the customers, so we can be informed and empowered. This way, I’m not cursing the airline and its employees. I’m well aware that our flight might be canceled and that’s entirely out of Continental’s control, so I wouldn’t blame them. But every time this has happened in the past, I hated being in the dark; I hated being lied to by airlines; I simply want more information. And now an airline is giving it to me. Bravo for Continental.

What information does your company have that you can and should share with your customers?

The essence of Google’s value is that — though it’s opaque about its algorithms and ad splits — it turns around the information it gathers from us and feeds it back to us (that is, our aggregate links and clicks inform its search results for everyone). OpenTable lets us know when tables are open in restaurants so we can plan on our own. In What Would Google Do? I suggest that a Googley restaurant should share data on how many people order each dish on a menu so we can use that to choose what we want. A manufacturer should expose the provenance of the component parts that go into its products. A newspaper should footnote its work so we can know the provenance of its information and we can judge the sources. A store could reveal its inventory so we know there’s only one left (better hurry). I say we should expect doctors and hospitals to reveal data about the patients they treat. What else?

The social airline

On this blog and in my book, I speculated about the social airline. A Dutch reader points me to Bluenity, a social network for AirFrance and KLM passengers. Neat.

Biz Air

I’m late to discovering Richard Branson’s plans to have entrepreneurs make video pitches, which he’ll then show to his captive audience: passengers. One wonders whether the ticket conditions should include giving Virgin a carry.

But seriously, it’s a way in which an airline can become a content publisher (one of the ideas in What Would Google Do?, which came from here). It’s a way to give his passengers extra value (hey, I discovered the next Google on my last London flight). It establishes a unique relationship with a valued demographic.

The next step should be putting cameras on the backs of seats so the VCs on board can give their critiques back to the entrepreneurs: round-trip content.

Grounded

Well, damn, my beloved Silverjet is grounded. Great idea, great service, terrible timing, what with record oil prices, a credit drought, a recession, and a sucky dollar. There goes the last hope of an independent example of a service based on the quality of service in the air.

And flying today is pure misery, which is proving to be very bad for business:

Some air travelers prefer to stay home rather than suffer through flight delays and cancellations, a loss of about $9 billion in potential revenue for an industry desperate to offset the soaring cost of fuel, a new survey showed Thursday.

In a survey of 1,003 travelers by the Travel Industry Association, more than half said they were fed up with flight delays and blamed airlines for the deteriorating state of U.S. air travel. They also prefer to stay home, or take alternative transportation such as a bus, train or car.

“Many travelers believe their time is not respected and it is leading them to avoid a significant number of trips,” said Allan Rivlin, a partner at Peter D. Hart Research Associates, which helped sponsor the survey. “Inefficient security screening and flight cancellations and delays are air travelers’ top frustrations.”

The TIA estimates that more than a quarter of U.S. air travelers cancel about two trips a year to avoid dealing with security, delays and cancellations. That translates into a loss of about 41 million passenger tickets at an average roundtrip price of $700.

When lost revenue for hotels, restaurants and taxes are factored in, flight delays are costing the U.S. economy about $26.5 billion, the survey showed.

Bad service is bad business.

Unimaginative business is also bad business. Rather than trying to make the business work charging us for every breath, maybe the airlines should be looking at alternatives: advertising or gambling on the plane and even this.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll be looking for alternative means of transporation.

Fly Silverjet, please

I was going to write a post after returning from my latest trip to London urging anyone who could afford to to fly Silverjet, the last remaining independent all-business airline (after the death of Eos and Maxjet) because I want this one to stay in business. Today, there was some bad news as Silverjet is having issues with getting cash out of its latest line of credit. They say they are still flying the usual schedule between New York-Newark, London-Luton, and Dubai. But clearly things are at risk. Damn. Damn. Damn.

I’m telling you: This is the way to fly. That was the conversation among passengers in the lounge going over and in the line for U.S. Customs coming back. It’s no nonsense: Arrive at the lounge, hand them your passport, sit down and have a drink, they bring you your boarding pass, you get on the jet, you have your own space, you can lie down and go to sleep, you arrive at an uncrowded airport in London — no Heathrow madness — and head easily into the city. The food is good, the service wonderful. Everything I hate about other airlines today, I love about Silverjet. (And I’m not getting a thing out of saying this; it’s a happy and frequent flier’s endorsement, pure and simple.)

BA is about to start its mostly business-class airline, OpenSkies, but it’s flying only from New York JFK to Paris CDG*, two nightmare airports, and it is maintaining three classes (business seats recline only 140 degrees). Drat. And Virgin is supposed to follow. But I’m afraid their prices will be high so they don’t cannibalize their regular services. Silverjet’s prices are reasonable considering the level of service.

I don’t fly Silverjet to get free wine. I fly so I can lie flat, take my Ambien, sleep through the night, arrive in London in the morning full of my dreaded vim, and get a day’s work in. It’s worth the money to me to save the lost day. And on the way back, I can plug in my laptop and get a good seven hours’ work done (with a little free wine).

If you have a chance and if it stays afloat, please fly Silverjet. You will thank me. And I will thank you.

: By the way, OpenSkies is trying to market itself virally with a blog, even, which I learned about in a comment here from someone who wondered whether they were following my advice. We’ll see.

* CORRECTION: OpenSkies will fly into Orly, not CDG. I’ve not flown into Orly but it has to be better than CDG. Also note that OpenSkies objects to my calling the highest of three classes on the plane first class; they call it business class. I’d say this is rather like fighting with Starbucks over small, medium, and large — a fight I obnoxiously continue to the death. But duly noted. (I’m sure they call it that so company accountants will not object to expense reports.)

If pigs could fly

Ed Cone tells a story of an airline’s exquisite stupidity. He shows a picture of the jammed seats behind his jammed row 11 and the empty seats ahead and says:

What’s going on? An industry that has forgotten about customer service.

Almost nobody opted to pay $30 bucks extra to sit in “economy plus,” which promises a few inches of extra legroom. When it became clear that the flight would be packed six across from row 11 back while row after row sat empty in the front, people asked if they could move up. The flight attendants said no, you have to pay for those seats. Not very customer-friendly or situationally aware, but comprehensible.

So a guy asks if he could pay on the spot. Nope. People were laughing at the United’s cluelessness, but it wasn’t very friendly laughter.

When the drink cart came by I bought myself $5 worth of stress relief and asked the flight attendant (politely) why she could sell me a drink but not a seat. She looked at me like I had two heads and said they are in no way set up to take reservations, you have to do that with a service representative.

I started to say I didn’t want a reservation, I wanted to hand her $30 and move up one freaking row, but it felt like I was on the phone with Bangalore and couldn’t get a supervisor, so I just shut up and drank.

To recap: They don’t know how to allocate their seating categories, they aren’t going to let people spread out across a half-empty plane as a courtesy, and they turn down the chance to upsell on the spot, even though they do commerce in the aisles all the time.

What a stupid industry.

They’re so stupid they think their business strategy is to imprison passengers. They’re so stupid they don’t know how to take passengers’ money. They’re so stupid they don’t realize — or apparently care — how stupid they are. Too bad the all-powerful internet couldn’t give us all wings.

Bad news for London fliers

Eos, the great all-business (all-first, actually) airline to London is shutting down after something snagged its $50 million in financing, forcing it into bankruptcy. This pretty much leaves Silverjet, which I fly every time to London (and which offered Eos paassengers tickets at the same price). I can only hope that with the reasonably priced all-business market to London pretty much to itself — even though Virgin and BA are going to bring in all-biz flights, they are sure to be much more expensive — this will help Silverjet. If I had to fly one of the big, old guys at their big, old prices, I think I’d become an American isolationist. Man, the airline industry is a mess and with the price of fuel doing what it’s doing and the credit crunch, it’s only going to get messier. Damn.