Podcast #160 — Disappearing Seatback Screens; Shrinking Difference Between Ride-Share and Taxis

Is this the IMAX seatback screen?

Trying to watch the Super Bowl while flying from Durango, CO to Chicago via Denver got me thinking about the fading away of seatback entertainment. We also talk about the continuing evolution of ride sharing. Uber and Lyft are looking more and more like the taxi companies they fought to replace. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #160:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois. I finished my Phoenix travels at the end of January and made the last trip a “bleisure” trip — business in Phoenix Monday thru Thursday afternoon, and then leisure Thursday evening thru Sunday with a ski weekend in Durango, CO, the first time I’ve been on the slopes in 7 years. I first thought about heading up to Salt Lake for the weekend, but when I saw that the Sundance Film Festival was the same weekend, I thought “Nope” and started Googling for other ideas. The ski slopes around Flagstaff were too small and I didn’t want to fight the traffic on I-70 to hit the areas near Denver. Durango, in the San Juan mountains in the southwest corner of the state — near Four Corners — looked like a good spot. It’s a quick and fairly inexpensive hour hop from Phoenix; it’s an actual town, not just a ski resort, so there’d be other things to do when the lifts closed; the lift tickets at Purgatory and Wolf Creek were reasonable — 40-50% of the price at, say, Vail or Park City; I was able to book a whole tiny house on AirBnB for the price of a generic Fairfield Inn room; and, I’d never been there before. And, as I found out from my AirBnB host, it was the weekend of Durango’s Snowdown Festival — the 42nd annual, with a parade down Main Street and everything. The snow was just OK, but the skiing was great — beautiful weather, damn few lift lines, nice people — a weird but fun combination of families — mostly from Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico — and the Colorado hippy-dippy ski bum crew. It was a nice ending to my 2 months of Phoenix trips.
  • The only downside was… I had to check a bag. Even though I rented all my equipment — skis, boots, poles — I still needed that extra bag for all the other paraphernalia — helmet, ski pants, gloves, parka, …. I love skiing but it requires a lot of stuff. Not that it cost me anything — even flying Basic Economy on American from Phoenix to Durango, I got free bags with my Platinum status. Though American’s website wasn’t very clear about that when they tried to upsell me off of Basic Economy — imagine that. And while I got free bags, I couldn’t select my seat in advance. But given it was a small regional jet with no middle seats, I figured I’d risk it.  I will say, though, that I was pretty happy with the teal green luggage tags I bought before the trip. Made it very easy to spot my bags amidst the sea of black suitcases on the luggage belt. Probably the best $5 I’ve spent on Amazon
  • One detail I missed when planning my ski weekend is that my Sunday night flights from Durango to Denver to Chicago would be right in the middle of the Super Bowl. Though I’m not sure I’d have changed anything if I’d remembered it. I didn’t really have a dog in that hunt — I’m not a big San Francisco or Kansas City fan and so was kinda like everyone else who wasn’t in the Bay Area, I was rooting more for Andy Reid than KC. I did end up catching most of the game, but it was a little choppy. I watched the kick-off and 1st quarter in the bar at Durango Airport. Durango Airport isn’t big — just 4 gates if I remember correctly — and the bar kinda sticks out into the gate seating area. I sat at the bar, had a beer, and watched the game on the TV hanging on the wall near Gate 2 — or maybe 3. But then United called boarding, so I caught bits of the second quarter on the Fox TV iPhone app while waiting to take off for Denver. And then tracked the start of the 3rd quarter after touchdown and a really long taxi in DEN. I caught the rest of the 3rd quarter on multiple screens — bars, CNN gate TVs — while walking down the B Concourse to make my ORD connection. I got lucky, though, and was able to catch all of Kansas City’s phenomenal come-back uninterrupted in a Mexican restaurant with about a dozen other fixated passengers and restaurant workers. After KC’s final interception, I walked down and caught the final plays on the CNN TV at the gate. Every other night, I consciously avoid those CNN TVs — the volumes always up on people yelling at each other. But this night, I was happy for that volume — the one night when they weren’t to CNN.
  • Bridge Music — Like Music (cdk Mix) by Analog By Nature (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/cdk/48915 Ft: Phasenwandler

Following Up

  • The week after that last Phoenix trip, I wrote a post on the TravelCommons website listing my favorite food and beer hangouts in downtown Phoenix. When I started traveling to Phoenix in the mid-’90’s, there wasn’t much to downtown Phoenix other than a big Hyatt Regency hotel. Everything was in Scottsdale and Tempe. I’d usually stay in Tempe because, with Arizona State University there, there were restaurants and bars I could walk to. Fast forward to today, downtown Phoenix has a lot more going on. Stadiums for the Phoenix Suns and the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a new downtown campus for ASU’s law school bring in enough people to support a solid selection of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. The blog post doesn’t cover everything — just the places I found myself going back to again and again during my 2-month stay.
  • Most of my flights from the mid-90’s on went into PHX Sky Harbor’s Terminal 2 — on United and on American, until they moved to the much better Terminal 4 after merging with US Air which had merged with America West, the original hub airline for PHX. Terminal 2 was PHX’s slum terminal. Built in 1962 and originally planned to shut down in 2000, they finally shut it down on Feb 4, 2020, the week after I finished my latest Phoenix gig. The last two airlines using it — United and Alaska Air — have moved to Terminal 3 with the rest of the non-hub carriers. PHX’s two major carriers — American and Southwest — split Terminal 4. Some of the newspaper articles said business travelers liked it because it was compact, easy to navigate. I’m not one of them. I thought it was a cramped low-ceilinged place, with small restrooms and lousy food and beer options when I had to wait out delays back to ORD.  I think you can tell that I won’t miss it. The plans are to demo the terminal this year and replace it with European-style bus gates — using buses to take passengers out to remotely parked aircraft instead of boarding through jetways. I’m gonna bet those bus gates won’t be popular in August when PHX’s tarmac temperatures hit 120 degrees. 
  • Waiting for my American Eagle PHX-Durango flight, I was half-paying attention to the PA announcements, but then noticed that the gate agent wasn’t doing the boarding announcements. Instead they were using recorded announcements. That wasn’t what caught my attention, though. I’ve heard recorded gate announcements hundreds of times. But usually, they’re recordings of humans reading the announcements. Here at gate B19, it was one of those robotic text-to-speech synthesized voices — something like <insert Boarding Groups 1, 2, and 3>. I mean, why? How much savings do you get by using text-to-speech over some gate agent standing in a closet and recording it, say, on their iPhone? Maybe more that I think now that American has, what, 7, 10, 123 boarding groups? I asked this question “Why the robot” out loud — to Twitter. American came back “We heard back and the PHX gate staff actually does record the voices used in the announcements. They are real humans.” Kudos for American’s Twitter staff for following up, but unless they have an android with a bad vox box working for them, I think the gang at gate B19 is using text2speech.org.
  • I posted an article on the TravelCommons Facebook page about a guy who wore a plastic tent on a plane to avoid the coronavirus. Now, as it turns out, it was really more of a publicity stunt for the guy’s company. He makes personal tents to protect people from bad weather when sitting on the sidelines of their kids’ soccer games. Might cut down on the colds I catch when flying, but from the picture, it looks like it would be quite a pain when the person in the window seat wants to get out to use the toilet.
  • On January 6th, the first Monday of the new year, I posted a picture on Twitter of the “cannabis amnesty box” that was on the other side of security at ORD’s Terminal 1. Pot became legal in Illinois the first of the year, and the Chicago Dept of Aviation put out these boxes “so travelers have the opportunity to ensure compliance with federal law, as well as the local laws at their destination” according to the police department. If you look at the picture I posted, the box looks like something the maintenance guys knocked together in the wood shop during their break. So no surprise that 3 weeks later, someone broke into a similar box at Midway airport and helped themselves to some surrendered weed. Actually, I think the only real surprise is that it took as long as 3 weeks for this to happen.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along — text or audio comment to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or our Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Somewhere by spinmeister (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/spinmeister/53428 Ft: DJ Vadim

Seatback Screens Fading Away

  • On my flight from Durango to Denver, half the guys on the plane were staring down at their phones during boarding and taxi, watching the second quarter until the plane rotated up off the runway. For folks flying United planes with DirectTV seatback screens — the repainted Continental 737s — no problems; just swipe your credit card and keep watching. But that’s a shrinking group. Seat back entertainment screens have been on the death watch list for 5 years now, but it seems to be on its way out — at least on a lot of the domestic routes. 
  • And I can’t really say that I miss them. The DirectTV controls on those United planes are in the armrest, so I’m always changing the channel or the volume or the screen brightness. On American 737s, screens bulging out of the seat backs into an already tight space thanks to American’s war against seat pitch; I have to recline my seat just to be able to get that screen in focus. And the power supplies for all these seat back units are under the seat, crowding out space for my backpack or my feet. 
  • I’m happy with the BYOS — bring your own screen — approach. I watched the season finale of The Mandalorian Star Wars TV show on my 8-inch Samsung tablet. It wasn’t as good as watching it on the 65-inch LG 4K TV at home, but it was bigger than any domestic in-flight screen. On one of my Southwest flights home from PHX, I saw a guy hang his big iPhone Max from the tray on the seatback in front of him — kind of a DIY seatback entertainment unit. 
  • On long international flights, though, I can see the case for seatback screens. My wife and kids have perfected synchronized movie viewing. They’re sitting three abreast; they queue up the same movie and then count down — 3, 2, 1, Press Play! The airplane version of watching a movie together in the living room. I’m not sure it would be the same if they were all looking down at their iPhones. This tends to work better on newer planes, like the 787, that have bigger screens. I remember Andrew trying to watch the movie Dunkirk – a big WW II action movie that was great on IMAX — on a maybe 7-inch screen on a United 767. I don’t think he got the full experience of that movie.
  • Back in December, United tweeted out the top 10 most watched in-flight movies in 2019 — Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born, and Crazy Rich Asians were 1, 2, and 3. Makes sense. In 9th place, though, was John Wick 3, the 3rd installment of the Keanu Reeves fists of fury action flick. Loved that movie, but I can’t see even the new 16-inch screens in United’s business class being big enough to handle that flick.
  • Bridge Music — Hear Us Now (poptastic mix) by Scott Altham (c) copyright 2009 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/scottaltham/20747

Any Difference Left Between Ride-Share and Taxis?

  • I got an e-mail survey the other day asking for my thoughts, impressions about Uber and Lyft. One of the questions was how long I’d used each of them — less than 1 year; 1-2 years, 2-3 years, more than 3 years. Which got me kinda wondering, so I pulled out my iPhone and fired up each app. My first Uber ride was in December 2013, from midtown Manhattan to LGA at 4pm. I signed up because it’s such a pain to find a regular cab to take you to LGA at rush hour, and I’d forgotten to book a ride with the black car service I would normally use. Interesting that I didn’t use Uber again for another 6 months, in June 2014, when again, I’d didn’t have a black car book for a ride from PHL to a client out in the suburbs along the Blue Route. I signed up with Lyft in December 2015 when I was in Las Vegas for a project. I’d be using Uber more frequently in 2015, but back then, only Lyft had permission to drop-off at LAS. We had used Uber a couple of times, but they’d have to drop us off at the rental car center so we could take the bus to the terminal. I did that exactly one time and then pivoted to Lyft. So, according to this e-mail survey — which, at the end, revealed itself to be sponsored by Uber — I’m a grizzled ride-sharing veteran — as I’m sure are many of you.
  • And ride-sharing was what it was — an app-driven version of the old ride-sharing bulletin boards — “I’m driving from Chicago to Rockford; looking for someone to split the gas and tolls” — except locally. I remember, at the start, that caused a bit of an etiquette challenge — do I sit in the front or the back? And you were careful because it was their car — and usually a nice one. Certainly much nicer and way less beat-up than the typical cab.  And there were usually good stories from the drivers — all but a couple were doing it part-time, to make some additional cash. Way back in episode #125, in November 2016, early on in my Uber/Lyft days, I told some of those stories.
  • A year later, a driver in Charlottesville, VA told me he was driving full-time and wanted to expand, so he’d bought 3 used Toyota Corollas (even back then the preferred ride-share car) and was renting them out to “Hispanics”, his words, who were driving Uber and Lyft a couple hours north in the Washington, DC area. Interesting idea. A bit like the standard taxi cab model — leasing licensed cabs to drivers for a shift — but without the need to drop money on a taxi license, or a medallion in places like New York and Chicago. Interesting enough that there are now 6-7 companies, including Hertz, offering daily and weekly rentals if you don’t want to share rides in your personal car.
  • Back in December, landing in Chicago Midway on a Southwest flight from PHX, I did my usual drill, opened up Uber and Lyft as I got off the plane and checked prices and wait times for a ride home. The prices were about the same, but the wait time… 10 min for Uber, 2 for Lyft. Lyft it is! I hit the Request Ride button, but instead of searching for a driver, I immediately get a 4-digit PIN. I head downstairs and get into a queue that looks a lot like the cab line a few doors over, except this one is run by women in pink Lyft safety vests. But they’re doing the same thing the cab rank workers do — wave down cars and then point passengers to them. I wait, I dunno, maybe 5 minutes to get into a car, show the guy the PIN on my Lyft app, he enters it into his, and off we go. A bit less hectic than the typical airport rideshare scrum, but again, how is this different than a taxi — except that I don’t have to ask the driver if his credit card machine works.
  • Indeed, on most of my trips over the past year, arriving in PHX or CHO, there typically wouldn’t be a line for a cab, so I’d skip the 5-10 minute wait for Uber or Lyft. Or, returning from Durango with my extra bag of ski paraphernalia, I skipped the schlep up to to the ride-share pick-up zone; I just walked out the door to a waiting cab. And the price difference is shrinking —  as we talked about in episode #154, Uber and Lyft have been nudging their rates up to stem their losses. 
  • This is not to say there aren’t important differences; places where Uber and Lyft bring real value. I was working in New Orleans before Uber set up shop. It was impossible to get a cab anywhere other than between the airport and the French Quarter. Trying to get to and from a restaurant in, say, Mid-City or Uptown was painful — until Uber showed up.
  • It kinda feels like, after all the hype, the battles with regulators, the IPOs, that Uber and Lyft used billions of venture capital dollars to break the medallion monopolies and build some phenomenal taxi dispatch systems. As a traveler, it’s been great for me. For the investors though? Well, I’m glad I skipped those IPOs

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #160
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