Podcast #95 — Holiday Travel Tips; Bad Spirit In The Air

Standing in Line! © Lance Smith / Flickr

Once again skipping the mayhem of the busiest travel week of the year, though it’s getting more difficult as the Thanksgiving travel crush seems to start earlier each year. Good listener comments about last episode’s story of a rare prop plane flight sitting next to a “passenger of size”; then my own thoughts on USAir‘s completely inadequate response to the passenger forced to stand on a 7-hour flight because a “passenger of size” overflowed into his seat.  I update my holiday travel tips — drive or train for trips less than 350 miles, pay extra to fly direct, catch the first flight out, and bone up on your geography so you know all the alternative airports. Watching news reports of the hassles of Black Friday shopping make me wonder why people would go through the hassles to fly airlines like Spirit Air. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

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Here are the transcript from TravelCommons podcast #95:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Looking back over the past 5 years of Thanksgiving week episodes, I always say the same thing — Coming to you today from the TravelCommons studio outside of Chicago, Illinois during the one week a year I refuse to travel… But it’s true.  Let the families have the airports for this week. It doesn’t make sense for anyone to travel on business Thanksgiving week anyways.  At best, you get 2 days of business – Monday and Tuesday – because Wednesday is a complete waste – and even then, nobody’s head is really in the game.
  • Indeed, Thanksgiving week has become even more worthless for business over the past few years. With more school districts throwing in the towel and closing down for the entire week, what was a four-day extended weekend has now become a full 9-day extravaganza.
  • Which then pushes back the travel crush even further.  An article in the Chicago Tribune earlier this week said that Air Transport Association forecasted that the Friday before Thanksgiving would replace the Wednesday before as the busiest outbound travel day.  Made me glad that I’d returned from Dallas a day early – the Thursday before – missing the crush.
  • Over the last 5 years, there’s only one year – 2009 – that I traveled on Thanksgiving week.  A client called a meeting in Philadelphia on the Monday before Thanksgiving. Really? Really. It’s called a power play.
  • I had them schedule the meeting first thing Monday morning.  I flew in on the last flight Sunday night, took the meeting on an intravenous coffee drip, and then flew back home after lunch.  It was a 16-hour up-&-back, getting me through security in Philadelphia airport just as the tide of strollers and Hello Kitty roller boards was starting to build…
  • Bridge music — Making Circles by the Seldon Plan

Following Up

  • Rich Fraser posted this on the TravelCommons website, commenting on my lack of appreciation for the smaller things of travel…
    • Mark, you gotta get to more airports.  As a domestic road warrior, I’ve flown into some of the smallest airports with commercial service on a wide variety of turboprop planes.  Whether it’s Mesaba (Delta) with their Saab 340s or Horizon (Alaska) with their Q800s, just about every regional carrier has turboprops in their fleet.  Up until their demise 3 years ago, Midwest Connect was using the Beech B1900D, a 19 seat flying minivan that did not require a flight attendant.  It remains the only plane that I could guarantee I could fall asleep in.
    • You big time international guys may look down and scoff at the small birds, but as a private pilot myself, I rather enjoy flying in a type that is closer to what I pilot.  It feeds the fantasy that I could possibly jump into the cockpit and take over just in case the crew had the fish for dinner.
  • Rich has me pegged.  I self-select out of smaller airports.  I’d rather drive 2 hrs from a major airport with more service than fly into a thinly-served smaller one. A few years back, I had a client in Huntsville, Alabama.  Every visit, I flew Southwest from Chicago to Nashville and then drove the 120 miles down I-65 to Huntsville.  I liked the control it gave me – much more than depending on the one Delta flight a day between O’Hare and Huntsville.
  • But as Rich will certainly remind me, you don’t always have that luxury.  I was doing some work in Sioux City, IA – which, of course, is most memorable for its three-letter airport code SUX.  I ended up on a 25-seat United Express prop plane that had an intermediate stop in Waterloo, IA.  After half the passengers deplaned in Waterloo, the flight attendant came on, looked at everyone left and said, “you, you, and you – you need move to a seat behind the wing”.  We got up and shifted back, but I can tell you that we weren’t completely comfortable with the eyeball method of weight distribution.
  • And continuing that thought about weight distribution, Linda Martin of the Indie Travel Podcast sent this in a few days ago, commenting on my experience sitting next to a “person of size” on my 2-hr prop plane flight from Grand Junction, CO to Phoenix…
    • Your comments on people of size got me thinking about Air New Zealand‘s trans-Tasman and Pacific system, which was introduced a year or so ago; I think to compete against the budget carriers.
    • There are four levels of ticket: 1. “Seat” which is just a seat, no checked bag, no food, 2. “Seat + bag”: a checked bag but no food, 3. “The Works”: a checked bag, a meal and extra entertainment, 4. “Works Deluxe”: all of the above, an extra checked bag and priority boarding, and a guaranteed empty seat beside you. Since the planes are single-aisle with three seats on either side, this means that you’ll be on the aisle or the window with the centre seat empty.
    • I think it’s a great system because it gives the consumer the choice to have a full-service or more-budget flight. But it’s also great for larger passengers, because in buying the most expensive ticket (which is still cheap) they can get a seat-and-a-half for a lot less than the cost of two seats, meaning everyone is more comfortable. Plus it’s a regular option off the seat menu, so there’s no stigma attached to choosing it.
  • Linda, thanks for sending that in.  I agree that the Air New Zealand approach is a smart one if they can get the price points to work. Study after study has shown that, far away, the main driver of flyer satisfaction is an empty middle seat. Think about it – every time the middle seat occupant shows up, he/she apologize to their seatmates – “Sorry but I’m in the middle”.  No one wants the seat, and no one wants it filled next to them. If Air New Zealand can make enough money off the “Works Deluxe” tickets, they’re in the bonus round – more revenue, satisfied customers, and not just those “of size”
  • Because this size thing just keeps being an issue.  The latest story surfaced earlier this week when a USAir passenger Arthur Berkowitz told the story of his experience on a July flight from Anchorage, AK to Philadelphia to Chris Elliott, a traveler advocate blogger. It was a full flight except for one middle seat, into which a 400-lb passenger tried to fit himself. He apologized, but with his size, he took up his seat and half the seats on each side of him. Not only could Berkowitz not put his armrest down, he couldn’t fasten his seatbelt. He ended up standing most of the 7-hr flight.
  • Berkowitz rightfully complained to USAir, not only about the discomfort of having to stand for 7 hours, but also about the safety issues – the inability to use his seatbelt.  USAir offered him a $200 voucher to compensate – on an $800 ticket.  Berkowitz said, and I think rightly, that’s not enough. Their response — “We have attempted to address this customer’s service concerns.  The way to ensure you have space available next to you — whether you are a person of size, or you would simply like to ensure you have more personal space to relax on a long flight — is to purchase that additional seat, or First Class, in advance.”  So to make sure I can put my armrest down, to make sure I can use my seatbelt, to make sure I’m not crowded out of the seat I paid for, I should buy an additional seat or upgrade to First Class?  When I first read this, I was dumbfounded.  But then I reminded myself – it’s USAir. Then it all made sense.
  • And to wrap on a more attractive note, commenting on last episode’s Hot Flight Attendant segment, Sak writes
    • I recently flew Copa Airlines Colombia between Medellin (MDE) and Panama City (PTY) and flight attendants were still young and hot. Of course, different country and labor laws and in Colombia is normal to discriminate by age.
  • There you go, hot flight attendant and Star Alliance miles.  Who could ask for more?
  • If you have a question, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along.  The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — use the Voice Memo app on your iPhone or something like Virtual Recorder on your Android phone to record and send in an audio comment – or iMovie if you want to send in some video; send a Twitter message to mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge music — Oh Yeah by Eliyahu Sills

Holiday Travel Tips

  • Looking back over those past 5 years of Thanksgiving episodes and then listening to Craig and Linda Martin’s recent holiday travel tips episode on their Indie Travel Podcast reminded me that it’s been a couple of years since I’ve done my own holiday travel tips, so here’s my updated Road Warrior 201 tips for traveling between now and the New Year.
  • Holiday travel generates a real miasma of emotions for frequent travelers.  You’re traveling because (theoretically) you want to – you want to visit those in-laws, don’t you? – not because have to to stay employed. You’re out of your comfort zone, out of your travel groove because you’re not solo-ing; you’re traveling with your family.  You gotta move slower through the airport; can’t react as easily to flight interruptions (are you really going to try stand-by with your wife and two young children?). It’s like Superman dragging along kryptonite – other than early boarding privileges, you’re just another traveler slugging it out with the rest of the teeming mass of travelers.
  • Add to this that airplane load factors – how full they’re packing the planes – have been at historic heights for at least 6 months and that, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s winter, making weather disruptions a near certainty…
  • Well now, that paints an attractive picture.  So how do you survive this?
  • The first question might be – do you really need to fly?  We’ve talked about the fly-vs.-drive breakeven point in a couple of past episodes.  Now driving in the winter isn’t all sweetness and light either – especially across stretches of I-70 through Kansas or up the Jersey Turnpike, but depending on how you value your time and the state of repair of your car, I think the breakeven point has got to be at least 350 miles.  And if you’re in certain parts of the US – the East Coast, between Chicago and New Orleans, along some bits of the West Coast – take the train. Amtrak’s on-time record is never a thing of beauty either, but it’s always going to be better than Newark or LaGuardia in December.
  • That’s all well and good, but you’re going from Philly to San Francisco.  You’ve got to grit your teeth and fly.  First, fly direct.  I know I say this every time, but it’s a foundational strategy – limit the points of failure in an overloaded system.  Expecting airlines already operating at capacity to ferry even more passengers between airports operating at or over capacity during marginal weather – and to do this all on schedule? Suck it up, pay the extra $100 and have a fighting chance of getting to your family on time with your sanity and your luggage in hand.
  • Next, catch the earliest flight you can.  Again, it’s about avoiding congestion. Delays stack up as the day wears on.  As your airplane goes from airport to airport, the probability of it getting stuck increases.  If it gets stuck too long, the probability of it getting canceled increases. Overnight, airlines have a chance to recover – late planes finally get their destinations and operations groups can reassign planes.  So while the last flight out can be a crap shoot, I’ve rarely hit a delay on the first flight out.
  • And the final tip, bone up on your geography – know your alternative airports. A couple of weeks ago, I got stuck in a rolling delay due to fog in LaGuardia. After two hours, I finally gave up my 1st Class upgrade for a middle coach seat to Newark – no matter how nice the seat, it has to get me where I’m going.  If LGA is jacked up, EWR – no matter how much I hate that airport – is the next best thing.
  • Knowing your alternatives – and their dominant carriers – is a key piece of knowledge when trying to pivot away from a delay or cancelled flight. Now, the LGA-EWR pivot is easy, but others aren’t so obvious.  Everyone knows that Chicago has two airports – ORD and MDW.  But Milwaukee is only 80 miles north, but not an alternative that it top of mind to everyone.  If PHL is in trouble, how many folks think about Harrisburg or BWI?  Or SAC as an alternative to SFO?  I tend to think about alternatives in two rings – within 60 miles – SNA and LGB for LAX; and then within 100-120 miles, which now picks up Palm Springs and San Diego for LAX.  Someone will drive a couple of hours to pick you up if it means getting you to Christmas dinner on time.
  • But, above all, be realistic – it’s going to be a zoo. Give yourself extra time. Figure out how much time it’ll take and add another 50%. At worst, you’ll have some extra time to watch the planes take off. But it’ll allow you to breathe a bit easier when the snow begins to fall.
  • Bridge music – Is That Called Love by Liquid Zen

Bad Spirit In The Air

  • My undergraduate degree is in chemical engineering, which means I had to take too many math courses to allow time for course like psychology or sociology.  Every once in a while, I feel this gap.  Like a few months ago when I walked past a huge line tailing out of a small shop in downtown Chicago. “What’s this for?” I asked.  “Waiting for a free cupcake,” a couple of line standers answered. 20 minutes in line for a $2 cupcake says your time is worth $6/hour.  Minimum wage is $7.25/hr. Huh?
  • I kinda have the same feeling about Black Friday – is your time worth so little that you’re willing to camp out in front of a WalMart for a half-price Wii game?  There’s something more emotional than rational about getting a “deal”
  • Which must be the reason that Spirit Airlines is still in business.  They advertise “low low prices”, but don’t tell you about all the add-on fees – like the $34 fee for the convenience of booking the flight on-line rather than going down to the airport and queuing up for a ticket agent, but then you will be charged $5 to have that ticket agent print out a boarding pass for you. The Dept of Transportation fined them earlier this week $50,000 neglecting to reveal this full bill of fare.
  • And it doesn’t stop there.  Want to reserve a seat? It’ll cost you, depending on the seat, betwee $1 and $50. Want to fly with luggage?  It’ll cost you $18-$38 for a checked bag or $20-$45 for a carryon bag.  Don’t worry, though.  They assure you that you won’t be charged for carrying on “reading material”.
  • Once you’re on board, Spirit sports the least amount of seat space of any US domestic airline – 28” seat pitch with non-reclining seats.  Like everyone else, Spirit charges for meals, but unlike everyone else, Spirit will charge you $3 for a glass of water.
  • So at what point does one’s self-respect kick in and say “enough” — my time, my comfort, is worth more than this. Certainly for me it happened a long time ago. Spirit flies some of my regular routes – Chicago to LGA or to Ft Myers, FL – but I never consider them.  Indeed, they just annoy me – their fares which are artificially low because they don’t disclose/include all their fees crowd out the fares of other carriers, making me work to get to a true low cost fare.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #95
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Bridge music from the Magnatune site
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or audio file, to comments@travelcommons.com or to @mpeacock on Twitter, or post them on our website at travelcommons.com. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to send in e-mails, Tweets and post comments on the website
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  • Direct link to the show
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1 Comments.

  1. Mark,

    Enjoyed episode 95 today, thanks as always.

    One thing to note….today, November 30, 2011 was the final revenue flight for the Mesaba Saab 340 fleet….sad to see them gone. Been riding on them for years. Two weeks ago my wife & I took one last Saab ride to DVL & JMS.

    Also, Horizon’s next-gen Dash 8s are Q400s, I think you may have called them Q800s.

    Keep up the great work,

    Dan & Sara Gradwohl