November 2008

Thanksgiving Finds Air Travel Industry Stressed Out to the Max

Posted November 26, 2008 by Carl Unger

Turkey No one really knows what Thanksgiving travel will be like this year. Chaotic? Frustrating? Totally awesome? Hard to say. But what we do know is that the air travel industry has changed dramatically since last year, with numerous bankruptcies, countless new fees, industrywide capacity cuts between 10 and 15 percent, and the disappearance of beloved traditions such as free snacks and beverages. The question on everyone's mind, then, is how these changes will affect travel on what is traditionally the busiest travel holiday of the year.

And if you happen to be flying this Thanksgiving, you may be asking yourself how you can make things go a little more smoothly. Well, you've come to the right place. Here are a few tips:

  • If you're flying home with a pie, keep in mind that while pies and cakes are permitted through security, they may be subject to additional screening. Now, by "screening," does the TSA mean its security officials will eat the pie? That's not for me to say. But yes.*
  • Do not wrap any gifts, because security screeners may have to unwrap them for further inspection. (What's that, you say? Don't security screeners have X-ray machines that can see through luggage, and should therefore be able to see through wrapping paper? Thus negating any need to unwrap presents? Well … ) Instead, just wrap them when you get where you're going, or ship them ahead of time.
  • Check in online, thus allowing you to skip the long, torturous line at the check-in counter and proceed directly to the long, tortuous line at security. Hey, it's one less long, torturous line. Let's focus on little victories, OK?
  • Get to the airport early, at least by a few hours. Why? Do I even need to explain it? How about those long lines, the potential for weather-related delays, the difficulty of rebooking a canceled flight during the busiest travel period of the year, and the awesome shops at the airport mall. Yeah, get there early.

*This, of course, is not true in any way.

To those of you taking to the skies this Thanksgiving, I wish you luck and safe travels. Hopefully these tips will help you a little. And if anyone else has additional tips to share, please leave a comment below. Thanks!

(Photo: New Hampshire Fish and Game Department)

Zagat Rates Airlines, Raises Questions About Itself

Posted November 26, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Laughterapplause_2 There’s a sacrosanct level of trust with rating agencies and critics that has to exist in order for them to be useful. We trusted that Siskel & Ebert actually watched the movies before they recommended them. We trust that Consumer Reports actually does crash lots and lots of cars into brick walls at 40 mph and so, we believe the subsequent evaluations. When Wall Street rating agencies give a mortgage-backed security a AAA rating … oh, didn’t see that one coming, did you? Uh-huh, because we trusted them.

Now, before I make my full accusation, here’s the backstory: Zagat, the company most famous for offering ratings and reviews of hotels, restaurants, and other enjoyable pastimes, recently posted the results of an airline survey. You’ll see several old favorites among them: JetBlue got Best Large Domestic Airlines (Economy Seating), Midwest Airlines got Best Midsized Domestic Airlines (Economy Seating), Southwest got best Value for the Money (Domestic) and so on.

Nothing really fishy here, right? No one’s going to question that Virgin Atlantic could have been rated the Best In-Flight Entertainment (International) or that Singapore Airlines is the Best International Airlines (Premium and Economy Seating). The problem, dear readers, arises when we look to their "Outtakes" page, where they’ve compiled some of the best respondents’ quotes. These include snappy zingers like "You get what you pay for—in other words, you don't get it if you don't pay extra for it!" and "Oh, for the good old days when we had food to complain about," not to mention "Like the Flintstones, their planes are a page right out of history, and their service is bedrock."

Wait a minute … I’ve seen Leno. I’ve seen Letterman. But I’ve also talked to the Man on the Street, and he didn't sound this clever at all! These quotes don’t sound like they came from Joe the Plumber, Betsy Smith the Middle Manager, or even Carter Bushnell, Esq. the Oil Conglomerate Executive. No, they sound much more like they came from Henny Youngman, the King of the One-Liners! J’accuse! Zagat, in an effort to boost its readership and entertainment value, has clearly replaced its independent lay-commentators with a carefully-chosen crew of moxie-rich stand-up comedians! Who else would say things like, "The only thing older than the planes are the flight attendants"?

As for Zagat, they have no response to this accusation. Because I haven’t called them. (Why should I have to do all the work?) But I urge you to investigate further for yourself. Comb through their archives. Read their reviews. Does Continental really offer the Best Value for the Money (International) or is it merely some set-up for a cleverly quipped joke? It’s a tough world out there, kids, when you’ve got to take even Zagat with a grain of salt.


AirTran, Virgin America, and More Add Flights to D.C.

Posted November 20, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Refugeecamp If you’re spending your winter vacation days heading to Cabo or Cancun, you’re in the minority. However, if you’re using those days to sample a bit of history in our nation’s capital ‘round about January 20th, you’re in good company. Lots of good company. So much good company, in fact, that major carriers including AirTran, Virgin America, and JetBlue have all added flights into either Washington’s Dulles Airport or Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

Which is wonderful of them. Completely without sarcasm, I’ll say that I think it’s nice to see airlines responding to demand and trying to accommodate passengers. Here’s the tricky thing, though: Many, many, many people who are planning on heading into the city for the inauguration have already booked their flights—and hotel rooms. Meaning, if you’re taking one of the newly added flights from Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Milwaukee, you’re on the late-boat for finding a place to stay.

But calm your panic-stricken mind. If you can’t count on your genial BookingBuddy blogger to solve your travel troubles, who can you count on? It is, therefore, my pleasure and privilege to offer a few suggestions for those travelers who have yet to secure a place to lay their heads.

1. College Friends. Chances are, you know at least one person from your college years who has since settled in D.C. January is a perfect time to visit, stay for a few days and reconnect. Stumped? Get creative: After all, six degrees of separation means you’re actually connected to everyone in Washington.

2. Bipartisan Bunking. Both candidates were aaaaaall about working with members of both parties to bring change-with-a-capital-C to the country. And if President-elect Obama and Senator McCain can be all chummy now, who are you to not follow suit? I recommend reaching across the proverbial aisle and inviting yourself into the home of a member of your rival party. If they’re hesitant, try hinting that your party allegiance is tenuous and you might be swayed with a sleeper sofa.

3. Statue Snoozing. If presidents stand on the shoulders of giants, you certainly have the right to sleep on them. Or, if not the shoulders, try the lap. Especially good for such repose is the Lincoln Memorial, wherein you can snuggle with a national hero and get a lovely view of the reflecting pool.

4. Floating Motel. Speaking of the reflecting pool, that’s an awful lot of unused real estate. With a raft, camp tent, battery-powered space heater, and a little ingenuity, you could outfit yourself quite nicely. Plus, you could bring a few extra and sell them to the highest bidders to demonstrate a little free market, entrepreneurial, all-American moxie.

5. Shantytown, Anyone? Don’t make any plans at all and get a first-hand experience of exactly why both parties have to work together to get the economy, unemployment, and poverty under control. It’s awfully cold on park benches in December, you know—no matter which city you’re in.

Any other ideas? Or have you already booked your hotel? What are your inaugural travel plans?

Southwest Closes in on New York City's LaGuardia Airport

Posted November 19, 2008 by Zak Patten

Newyorkcitybroadwaylights_2 Last week, I reported on how Southwest is teaming up with a Mexican airline to offer south-of-the-border flights. As if we needed more proof that the LUV airline is making a power play with the economy down, financially secure Southwest is set to buy ATA and muscle into the Big Apple's LaGuardia airport. In these tough times, Southwest is particularly appealing to those of us with less cash to spend on expensive flights. It's like travelers are hearing an old blues song being turned on its head: "Somebody knows you when you're down and out," and that somebody is Southwest Airlines.

Obscure musical references aside, picking up the now-defunct ATA for its landing and takeoff slots, is a really big deal. According to the AP, "Southwest would get 14 slots, enough to operate seven takeoffs and seven landings per day at LaGuardia." What will be interesting is where Southwest actually flies from New York. USA Today's Ben Mutzabaugh predicts Chicago (Midway) and Florida to be high on the list of potential destinations.

Why hasn't Southwest, with its household-name status, gone Broadway in the past? Well, for one thing, it's tough to find a slot at New York airports. The Wall Street Journal cites Department of Transportation statistics that link 75 percent of all the country's delayed flights to New York Airports. Southwest counts on efficiency and probably doesn't want to be associated with tardiness, sort of like that friend of yours who always shows up to your dinner parties two hours late—but is really sorry about it!

Currently, Southwest is flying out of MacArthur Airport on Long Island, which is some 50 miles from the bright lights of the City That Never Sleeps. This is the equivalent of leaving the quiet confines of suburbia and seeking your fortune in the big town. And what better place to do that than New York?

Time will tell if this was a stroke of genius or a blunder by Southwest. The potential for lots of customers is certainly there, but so is the possibility of getting bogged down by delays. And while there's no shortage of business travelers in New York, until that Wall Street bailout kicks in, "down and out" stockbrokers may be stretching it to even pick up a $49 Southwest fare out of town.

(Photo: NYC & Company)

Is Southwest Airlines Going Global?

Posted November 12, 2008 by Zak Patten

Airfaresouthwestfrontofpl Southwest Airlines has come a long way in the 40 years since it was first sketched out on a paper napkin as a carrier to serve the Texan triangle of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Its commercials compete with Budweiser for face time with America's football fans. And just about everyone knows someone who's gotten some super-cheap flight home for the holidays, even if it meant touching down at an airport that's not exactly "in" that person's hometown.

But what's most amazing about this household-name airline is that Southwest has never needed a passport for any of its travels. Sticking to the Lower 48 has undoubtedly paid off as a business plan thus far, but it looks like the LUV airline may be getting restless. As evidence I would cite the fact that Southwest has just inked a deal with Volaris, a low-cost Mexican carrier, to provide codeshare service south of the border.

I'm just wondering what will happen once Southwest tastes real Mexican cooking or lies on a sandy Acapulco beach. Will other "foreign relations" be far off? Which of course leads to the next thought: Who would Southwest hook up with? My first bet is on Ryanair, which is evidently considering transatlantic service to complement its European domination. Ryanair, with its ultra-cheap reputation and tendency to charge extra for every little thing, makes Southwest look like the Armani of airlines. But I digress. For flights to Australia, could that country's Virgin Blue be a possible mate? I think it a better match than Qantas, but the real struggle would be over who would spring for the fuel, since I'm quite sure Southwest isn't interested in picking up the tab on a 15-hour flight to Sydney, and I dare say Virgin Blue feels the same way.

Southwest and its potential partners might even someday create an alliance comprised of just low-cost carriers, which would really shake up the flying experience. If you thought the glamour days of air travel went out with Pan Am in the 1970s, welcome to the new no-frills flight. Forget meal service—you'd be lucky to find some Chex Mix under your seat on one of these planes. And baggage fees? Oh man, there'd be some serious carry-on cramming on a Ryanair trip from Boston to London. So no, it probably won't be much to write home about. But that's not why you'll buy a ticket. You'll pony up your $99 and get on that flight to Paris because it'll cost you ninety-nine dollars. In a time of capacity cuts and high fares, I'll take the cheap flight, thanks.

My only question is how big a napkin I need to sketch out an international route map for a new global Southwest and its friends. Would you buy a ticket on a long-haul international flight offered by one of these airlines? Please let me know by leaving a comment below.

(Photo: Southwest Airlines)

What Can the New President Do for the Airline Industry?

Posted November 11, 2008 by Carl Unger

Presidentbarackobamaairplan With a new administration coming to the White House this January, many are wondering how the world will look under a new president. Will the economy recover? Will the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan be resolved? Will wind farms and solar panels start popping up all over the country?

Well, here at the BookingBuddy blog, we're curious to see how a new administration changes the travel landscape. Shortly after Barack Obama was elected last week, we gathered in an undisclosed location, ordered about 50 pizzas, a few cases of energy drinks, and put Airplane! on the DVD player. Our task: Draft a list of ways the President-elect could improve the travel industry. We pored through Department of Transportation reports, highly classified TSA documents, and thousands of anecdotal reports from travelers like you, looking for problems and finding answers. We emerged a few days later with a list of suggestions so wise that the printed words actually glowed with what can only be described as a shimmering light of hope.

Much to our dismay, however, we quickly learned that had already published a list of its own, and while Salon's list isn't luminescent exactly, it is pretty darn good. So, back to the drawing board. We split a five-pound bag of M&Ms and a few gallons of Mountain Dew and this is what we came up with. Mr. President, you can thank us later.

1. Onboard seat upgrades for all. We like AirTran's idea for first-come-first-served business-class upgrades on the plane. Let's see more airlines adopt similar policies. Bonus points if you can convince airlines to give upgrades away for free (like, say, if you do a top-notch tap dance routine, you get the empty business-class seat).

2. More airlines realizing their food isn't really good enough to sell. United got the hint, will other airlines follow suit? Methinks a gentle nudge (or a sharp elbow to the ribs) from you may help clarify the picture, if you get my meaning. Alternately, good food for sale would be acceptable.

3. More free helicopter rides. Nothing says "executive" like landing on top of a skyscraper, and Continental is making the dream of a high-flying luxe lifestyle a reality for all. So even if you're just a bored hamburger-flipper (or an underpaid travel news blogger), you can fly like some of the richest folks in the world (except Bill Gates, who probably has some sort of teleportation device).

4. Better advertising. Spirit's amusing political play on words and United's surreal animations notwithstanding, this wasn't a great year for airline ads. Never mind that airfares are usually displayed without taxes and fees, which borders on outright deception by making them seem lower than they really are, but the ads just aren't that good. Southwest took a wrong turn and ended up in creepyville, and Spirit—well, Spirit just does its own thing, doesn't it?

5. Stop the a-la-carte revolution. Sure, it's good for business. Sure, most people don't seem to mind too much. But pretty soon you'll have to pay to buckle your seat belt! I don't want to point any fingers (and certainly not at American, US Airways, or United!) but a few airlines have been leading the charge. I think a stern talking-to would set them straight.

Well folks, there are the five ideas I can print. There were more ideas, trust me, but I mean it when I say these are the ones I can print. What ideas do you have? Any suggestions for our President-elect? Leave a comment below with your thoughts. I'm pretty sure he reads this blog regularly, so he'll see them. Thanks


US Airways to Sell Blankets, Pillows, Chloroform. (OK, 2 Out of 3.)

Posted November 6, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Nonsleeping_2 As tends to be the case lately, there’s been a big kerfuffle (a fluffy kerfuffle) about US Airways' plan to start selling blankets and pillows to flyers instead of just offering them for free. ( Jet Blue is already doing it.) I’ll be honest: I just don’t get the outrage at this one. Who wants to use some skeevy old blanket or pillow that’s been reused and drooled on by flight after flight of intra- and inter-continental strangers? I say, you people can keep your recycled germs. Bring on the sterile bedding.

There is, though, one more element to this little debate that seems to have been overlooked. Specifically, it’s the fact that no matter how hypo-allergenic your pillow may be, no matter how warm your fleecy blanket keeps you, you will not sleep on your flight. I can say this with more confidence than ever now, considering that ain’t nobody able to afford those ultra-platinum-class seats with the full-reclining bed in a plush cabin-of-cozy. Sorry, Emirates.

If you can afford to fly, you’re still going to be sardine-packed into your four-inch reclining seat. (Which goes with the territory. To all of those who are still complaining, I offer you a resounding “eh.”) You can read your book, listen to your iPod, and perhaps even enjoy in-flight entertainment in relative peace and comfort. But you will not—I repeat—will not sleep. The human body was not designed to sleep upright. Horses, sure. Flamingos, you bet. But not humans. Unless the airline starts pumping chloroform through those air vent thingies or mixing Ambien in with the ginger ale, there is absolutely nothing in this world or above it that will allow you to sleep.

Well, nothing … save one thing. If you get yourself all wrapped up tight in your new pillow and blanket and snug as a bug in a rug, request a copy of the airline’s policy on new charges and dig right in. It may just be the opiate a weary and fee-squeezed traveler needs to finally to catch a few furtive moments of sleep.


Spirit Airlines Gets Punny As Election Closes

Posted November 4, 2008 by Carl Unger

Vote_3 Well folks, we made it: It's election day. A year (two years, really) of mudslinging, name-calling, mavericky-ness, "change," hockey moms, ACORN, Bill Ayers, and $150,000 wardrobes is finally coming to an end. With all we've seen and heard during this long and arduous campaign, you'd think the candidates and their surrogates couldn't have left anything out. But they did. And fortunately for us, we have Spirit Airlines to pick up the slack.

So what, pray tell, could Spirit offer that neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, Joe Biden nor Sarah Palin could provide? Puns. Lots and lots of horrible puns. Read:

"Spirit, a Maverick in airline sales, brings you Ochobama! He's built his platform around bringing you low fares, from only $8* each way for $9 Fare Club** members. We're also offering many more great fares for everyone. We've been Biden our time to bring you this sale. Check out the low fares and save big today! All other sales Palin comparison. But hurry, the polls close on the best fares on November 4, 2008 at 11:59 PM ET! All fares are based on roundtrip purchase and taxes, fees & restrictions apply."

This comes from the airline's "Ochobama" sale, which features fares starting at $8 one-way (hence the "ocho," get it?). Now, if you're not familiar with Spirit's advertising schemes, you should know the airline tends to make up characters to represent its sale, and writes a blurb that is somehow thematically linked to its character. In this case, the ad came with a number eight adorned with a set of large, Obama-esque ears and a red tie.

Sometimes Spirit's ads are just plain silly and corny and sometimes they're downright offensive. This one obviously falls in the corny category. My guess here is that Spirit's ad folks, like the rest of us, are borderline delirious after months upon months of intense campaign coverage.


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