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Flying on a bus
October 31, 2012 9:10 PM   Subscribe

Why an airline that travelers love is failing. Virgin America, named the "top overall airline in the U.S." with a huge wow factor is having financial problems and experiencing cutbacks. Meanwhile, deep discounter Spirit Air is imposing $100 checked-bag fees, is wildly profitable, and has high bookings.

This leads Time's Brad Tuttle to declare: "So who is to blame if an airline that’s comfortable and treats passengers well fails, while a carrier that annoys and nickel-and-dimes customers at every turn is a run-away success? We all are."
posted by fireoyster (109 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
> They had an assumption that consumers would choose product quality over price...

Yeah, that's why Wal-Mart went out of business.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:16 PM on October 31, 2012 [19 favorites]


Well, to be fair, in case the fact escaped Virgin America's attention, not so many Americans feel much like they have the option to choose quality over price these days.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:24 PM on October 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's not so much choosing quality over price as it is choosing an airline which goes from my non-hub to a place which I would most likely fly, also a non-hub.

If I have to drive 300 miles to catch your plane and you aren't flying to within 500 miles of where I want to end up, chances are, I won't take your airline.
posted by hippybear at 9:27 PM on October 31, 2012 [13 favorites]


"You complain that we've been nickel and diming you. But guess what? You've been nickel and diming us ever since deregulation. If one of our competitors has a fare a couple of dollars less, you fly them, not us. You have no brand loyalty. All you care about is price, not comfort, or legroom, or service, or even frequent flyer miles.

"So what did we do? We eliminated service. We cut salaries, pensions and benefits. We merged with our competitors. No more little plastic wings for the kiddies; if you remember those, then you remember that the cheapest - and only - roundtrip coach fare from New York to Los Angeles in 1959 was about $US1800 in today's dollars. And if you remember that, then please stop whining about the fees.


From a hypothetical rant about the air travel market.
posted by pompomtom at 9:30 PM on October 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


First off, Virgin America is amazing. Spirit is so bad that I have stopped flying it in almost every circumstance. They literally hate you (and dying veterans) on that airline.

The race to the bottom in airlines, especially in coach, is long-standing. I will be very sad if Virgin goes away though.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:33 PM on October 31, 2012 [10 favorites]


I fly a lot, and I've never seen Virgin come up on any of the flight-comparison sites that I use when booking (mainly ITA Matrix). I don't know where they fly, but it's not out of any of the major East Coast hubs.

I'd love to take them, but they don't seem to go anywhere I need to go. Maybe that's a bigger problem than their emphasis on quality.

Spirit, OTOH, comes up all the damn time. I just refuse to take any airline with a $100 checked-bag fee. Not so much because of the expense itself, but because I don't want to deal with what the cabin of an airline with a $100 checked-bag fee is going to be like, with hundreds of people trying to shove their oversized bags into the compartments.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:33 PM on October 31, 2012 [18 favorites]


VirginI'd love to take them, but they don't seem to go anywhere I need to go

Basically all their flights are cross-country- from Philly, DC, BOS, New York to LA and SF.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:36 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Warning: Rant ahead:

As someone who was stuck in California last weekend due to Sandy, let me tell you that Virgin America doesn't particularly care for its customers all that well when the shit hits the fan. Virgin's in-flight experience is phenomenal, but the cracks are showing, and the airline just clearly doesn't have its shit together when it comes to actually running an airline.

Their website was all but useless (it says "Please call us to do this" for just about any change you'd actually want to make), and I still haven't been able to get a hold of a live person on the phone to get my money back. Hold queues are over 3 hours long, and I've been disconnected every time I've tried to wait in them. It's no secret that their reservation system has been an unmitigated disaster from the time that they debuted it last year -- it's astonishing that they still haven't worked out the kinks.

Also, the flight cancellations took about 24-36 hours to make their way into their booking/status system. I got a cancellation email a day and a half before the flight was "officially" cancelled, which made it very difficult to actually make alternative arrangements.

Because I wasn't able to get any useful information from Virgin, and had no idea when they'd eventually be able to get me back into DC, I ended up booking a same-day USAir flight to Vegas on Monday morning (to stay for free with my partner who was there on business), and got back home today on a Delta flight that I also booked on Monday morning. I'll be eating ramen for the next few weeks....

Both flights were completely uneventful – on Monday afternoon, USAir's counter at SFO was just about the only one that wasn't surrounded by an angry mob of people. Go figure, right?

The Delta flight I took back to DC today was similarly uneventful. The first leg of my trip was 3 minutes late, which prompted Delta's app on my phone to alert me (through the free portion of the airplane's Wi-Fi) that we would be arriving late, and offered to rebook me on any flight to the DC area (generously defined -- as far as Newark or Charlotte) for free. This let me switch my cheapo BWI flight to a super-convenient DCA flight. All done from the app while I was in the air.

Yes, the drink service on Virgin is wonderful, and their economy cabin is second to none. However, when it comes to getting from Point A to Point B, I just don't trust them anymore. Yes, the storm was an extraordinary circumstance, but Virgin demonstrated a clear inability to roll with the punches.

I know that a lot of the criticism of Virgin comes from the super-privileged frequent-flier crowd (and therefore needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt), but this past week definitely bumped the mainline carriers up a notch in my book, and Virgin down several notches.

Virgin provides a comfortable experience at a rock-bottom price, but their operational problems make it difficult to make the claim that they provide good customer service. Right now, I'd probably say that Southwest probably (ironically) offers the best overall flying experience to the average consumer (ie. anyone without frequent flier "status"). Their base fares are usually a bit high, but they supposedly have great customer service, and provide their customers with a tremendous amount of flexibility, with very few surcharges for anything.

I'll be sad if Virgin goes away, because I think that they sure do a lot of things right. However, they also need to figure out the basics of running an airline, and fire their entire IT staff.
posted by schmod at 9:36 PM on October 31, 2012 [11 favorites]


I don't know where they fly, but it's not out of any of the major East Coast hubs.

They fly between 20 locations in the US and Mexico, including 7 locations I'd consider "east cost", three of which are DC airports. It's all Big City to Ideal Vacation Destination, nothing which services, you know, most of the US.
posted by hippybear at 9:37 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I fly Virgin from SFO to Dulles for family trips. It's the only airline I don't despise. (Well, JetBlue isn't too bad, but it doesn't do nonstops for the flights I'd want anymore.) I will be very sad if it goes away and I have to suffer again.
posted by feckless at 9:38 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


A certain amount of the blame has to be placed on the flight search companies (like ITA, Expedia, etc), or the state of their business...

Not many people fly so frequently that they actually have developed brand loyalty. So when they look for flights, what do they do? They look for the cheapest, fastest flight they can find. And the search company doesn't necessarily tell them that they picked the one that will charge you an extra $100 for the first checked bag, or an extra $20 to use the bathroom in the plane...

So you fume and stomp at the airport, and swear you'll never fly Spirit again... But the next time you buy a ticket is a year later, and the other airlines are now charging first-bag fees too... So you buy a non-Spirit ticket, and find that the new airline charges you extra as well... Grr... But what can you do? Not much. Just grit your teeth and curse.

Brand loyalty requires the brand to be loyal to the customers too, and that's not really happening with airlines these days.

It would be really nice if it was possible to include bag fees and extra charges in the "cheapest price" calculation that you get from flight search... But that is (unfortunately) not likely to happen any time soon.
posted by georgikeith at 9:45 PM on October 31, 2012 [12 favorites]


hippybear: "They fly between 20 locations in the US and Mexico, including 7 locations I'd consider "east cost", three of which are DC airports. It's all Big City to Ideal Vacation Destination, nothing which services, you know, most of the US."

I think that they're specifically aiming to only serve the single-leg transcontinental routes (mainly anything between SFO/LAX and the big East Coast cities), which should theoretically be pretty profitable for them. Unfortunately, their lack of ass-kissing status programs for frequent business travelers has made it difficult for them to compete in this market segment, even when their fares are frequently among the lowest on the routes that they fly.

I don't think that you could actually start up a new nationwide carrier. Too much competition, and not a big enough customer base. Plus, the airlines have got to be losing money on most of those low-cost, multi-segment flights (an area where newer airlines like AirTran and Southwest also never even tried to compete).

I don't consider Virgin to be a hub-and-spoke airline, simply because their hubs have terrible locations for that. They're a point-to-point airline that heavily focuses on just a few cities, which makes them look like a hub-and-spoke carrier on a map. Also, they'd presumably be affiliated with a larger mainline carrier if they actually wanted to attract business via connecting flights.

That said, the recent addition of the vacation destinations is a bit weird, and I don't see how it fits into their business model.
posted by schmod at 9:46 PM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I love Virgin, and I ship my daughter LAX to JFK about 3 times a year, but for the past 2 years we have rarely booked with them. It has boiled down to scheduling. I like to send her early in the day so she won't be schlepping luggage in the dark, and I like to bring her home later in the day so she has time to close down her dorm room before geting a shuttle to the airport. They just don't have the mix we need.

But I wish they did, cuz I really like their flights.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:48 PM on October 31, 2012


I'll stop posting here in a second, but can I pour out a beer for the slow demise of AirTran?

They were a low-cost, no-frills carrier that actually treated their customers unbelievably well. Their flights were never remotely as glamorous as Virgin's, but they were always just unbelievably solid for such a cheap airline. Even though Southwest is a good airline for other reasons, I'm really sad to see AirTran slowly being absorbed into them.
posted by schmod at 9:50 PM on October 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think that they're specifically aiming to only serve the single-leg transcontinental routes

Thus embodying the soft bigotry of coastal regions for the so-called fly-over states.

Seriously, I've heard so much good about Virgin Airlines, I'd love to take them. But if I literally have to drive 300 miles to Seattle to catch a start-point, and then can't fly to either Phoenix or El Paso or Dallas or Denver or any of the other places I'm most likely to fly, then they literally do not exist for me as an airline.
posted by hippybear at 9:53 PM on October 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


Ooooh nooooo! Virgin is my airline of choice for Seattle to SF. They have a very special super-secret deal: as a working musician, they will check a 50lb bag for free if I bring my (fragile, expensive) baroque instrument as a carry-on at my own risk and not their baggage-handlers'. It has to fit in the overhead bin or garment-bag closet. Several times they've nicely strapped it into an empty crew seat! And I can bring a regular carry-on, too - musicians gotta review their scores, ya know, and we have laptops just like normal people.

Most other airlines will neither let me check an instrument as baggage - the required flight case makes it larger and heavier than permitted checked baggage - nor bring an instrument into the cabin as a carry-on unless I buy it a seat. Which causes endless trouble with the TSA. Apparently Viola da Dreidl is on the Do-Not-Fly list? (It's true, only a commie early music expert could get it to talk).
posted by Dreidl at 9:54 PM on October 31, 2012 [12 favorites]


I stopped even considering flying about three or four years ago. The abusive nature of the airline industry coupled with the hassles imposed by airport security pushed me over the edge... I'll not fly again. I would rather spend four days driving across the country than allow the airline industry and the federal government treat me like a criminal. Sorry Europe, until they have sub-Atlantic tunnels, I'll not be making the trip!
posted by HuronBob at 10:10 PM on October 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


Every time I fly [Air Canada] and have to dig out my credit card to pay for something to eat, I curse and wonder why they don't just charge an extra $10 for the ticket and give us all a nice lunch like they used to.

Every time I book a flight [to any destination] I book the cheapest flight, even if it's only $10 cheaper.

I'm glad I don't run an airline.
posted by looli at 10:12 PM on October 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


I flew on Spirit once and good lord, I will never fly with them again, I don't care how cheap they are (I went with them that time because, yes, they were by far the cheapest option to where I was going). That was the most uncomfortable flight I've ever endured - the seat pitch is ridiculously tight, I mean you are used to being rather sardined in economy but this was beyond, and the seats wouldn't recline, it was miserable. I couldn't even put my legs in front of me - I had to sit tilted to the side, it was so cramped - I'm not that tall. I won't go into all the other hassles we went through in booking, boarding, waiting for that flight but it's obvious they skimp to the max - it shows.

Even if I hadn't had pretty much the crappiest experience I've ever had flying anywhere with Spirit, their emails would put me off. The daily auto-emails to their email list often enough have subject lines that are either ripped-from-Fox-News "jokes" or sexist "jokes". It's obnoxious and off-putting, though I'm sure they think they're clever.

Flying Southwest, on the other hand, is excellent: you get the low price point, the really easy online booking, no fees to transfer your ticket, two checked bags for free, pleasant customer service, and the most comfortable economy seating I've ever had domestically... I could go on. It's a clear example that you can run a successful low-cost airline without making it unpleasant for your customers.

(I haven't flown at all since they put in the full-body scanners, however; I refuse.)
posted by flex at 10:13 PM on October 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


According to their map, if I look up at the right time I should see their NY-SF flight way way up there.

Beyond that, they have as much relevance to me as Air Madagascar.
posted by gimonca at 10:18 PM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Remember when air travel felt like a human experience instead of something designed to demoralize and humiliate you? It seems so long ago. Some of you may not recall that time. Virgin has managed to put some marginal amount of fun back into flying. If that costs a little bit more then I happily pay it.
posted by quadog at 11:12 PM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm a Southwest flyer myself, and operationally they are miles ahead of Virgin. The lack of assigned seating makes the boarding and turnarounds faster, which has a knock-on efficiency effect for the whole experience. Virgin on the other hand has never been good for me, and just feels like a normal ho-hum airline with some half-assed design touches at check-in and weird purple cabin lights.
posted by migurski at 11:22 PM on October 31, 2012


I love Virgin America. They're reasonably priced and their planes are well-staffed and shiny.

But. I had a flight from the west coast to JFK arriving early Monday maaaaybe just before Hurricane Sandy.

Virgin America's website showed the plane was scheduled to depart "on time" but gave me a "page not found" when I tried to select a seat on my already booked ticket. Their phone queue was, at their estimate, three hours long. I had to drive to the airport to find out that the flight was cancelled.
posted by zippy at 11:23 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know where they fly, but it's not out of any of the major East Coast hubs.

PHL and JFK, to name the two I know of. And thank god for PHL, because US Air sucks a de-icing machine's balls (not de-icing-ist or ball-sucking-ist).
posted by zippy at 11:26 PM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's still a way to sink. Somewhere lying around on the floor of the Internet is a cleverly-altered safety card from Ryanair (the European archetype of the shit-on-your-customer airline ethos) featuring an "Insert coin to inflate ramp" panel.
posted by cromagnon at 11:27 PM on October 31, 2012 [10 favorites]


> Yes, the drink service on Virgin is wonderful, and their economy cabin is second to none. However, when it comes to getting from Point A to Point B, I just don't trust them anymore. Yes, the storm was an extraordinary circumstance, but Virgin demonstrated a clear inability to roll with the punches.

I had the similar experience with JetBlue during the 2010 snowstorm that shutdown JFK.

They had no plan or training to communicate to any staff about their entire *terminal* being shutdown. They didn't have any indication of which of the super long lines were for what, or that if you could check a bag, or what your flight status was. They kept saying flights were delayed, when in fact many were canceled (the ground crews knew this already), but no one was picking up a intercom to make the actual announcement.

I finally had to go to the gate and just ask if the flight was canceled. They said yes, of course it was. I pointed to the room full of people in the gate, and the sign saying it was still scheduled to depart in 45 minutes and say "Well, you better get on the intercom and tell these fucking people, so they can get a ride home for the night." Then turned around, it was another five minutes before the person I talked to (as I was getting my stuff gathered and found out my ride hadn't left the airport yet) finally picked up the intercom and made the announcement.

New airlines don't have the history of dealing with such huge levels of communication failures and breakdowns.

They have a tendenancy to also not know what to do in situations they haven't created a binder item for.

At this point I am flying every other week, I don't care about being in a cozy space lounge, I want something that will get me to my destination, and has enough flights that if that means bouncing me through O'Hare instead of Denver, that I still get home within the same day I leave, instead of three days later. Since JFK shutdown in that 2010 snow storm, it caused a cascading overbooking as they bumped passengers back from flight to flight (there is only one jetblue PDX-JFK flight a day).
posted by mrzarquon at 11:28 PM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I consider myself fortunate I've cut the business travel I have to do down to 1-3 trips a year whereas I used to travel 2-3 times a month. As soon as I can cut those last few trips out, glorious bliss. I'd rather take 2-3 days driving on the road than deal with the airlines.

And the shame of it is, I like flying. I'd go international monthly rather than anywhere in the US, so long as it was on one of the European carriers where they treat you like people.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:30 PM on October 31, 2012


Somewhere lying around on the floor of the Internet is a cleverly-altered safety card from Ryanair (the European archetype of the shit-on-your-customer airline ethos) featuring an "Insert coin to inflate ramp" panel.

In case of pressure loss, insert £1 into slot to release oxygen mask.
posted by zippy at 11:34 PM on October 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


warning, linked thread from b3ta may cause permanent brain injury
posted by zippy at 11:36 PM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like Virgin a lot and fly them pretty commonly from SFO to SEA, and occasionally to LAX for business. Terminal 2 at SFO, where they are, is much nicer than the crush at Terminal 3 (I'm Gold with United, as well). I'd fly them probably always if they flew to EWR, because I have family in New Jersey and PHL and JFK are just a bit too far away.

Their planes are simply newer and overall I find the the experience is better, especially since the flight attendants aren't super stressed/tired/mean and everyone seems to care a bit more — and good wifi is a big deal.

But I agree that their IT staff needs to be fired; the website is just a load of shit and not having mobile boarding passes is pretty irritating in this day and age.
posted by Han Tzu at 11:42 PM on October 31, 2012


Gleaning from the comments here it seems that the Virgin America experience in the air is good or above average or great. Their website, ground staff, IT inner workings, customer service, etc., needs a lot of work. The latter aspect is what's bringing down the company.
posted by zardoz at 11:54 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know how an airline can launch without a decent web site and IT these days. Couldn't Virgin America have licensed Virgin Atlantic's code and spun it up on EC2 or something?
posted by zippy at 12:21 AM on November 1, 2012


When you fly a bus-in-the-sky like Spirit or Ryanair you at least get what you pay for. The bad ones are carriers like Alitalia, which have normal fares and then treat you like cattle. Ever try calling their "customer service" number? I don't know why they bother calling it that. If you have any problem more complicated that a ticket change you're given their email address for complaints, which has a three month turnaround time.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:58 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


A certain amount of the blame has to be placed on the flight search companies (like ITA, Expedia, etc), or the state of their business...

Not so much these guys as the four GDS (Global Distribution System) middlemen who sit between the airline and the travel agent: Galileo, Amadeus, Sabre and Travelport. These are the organisations which determine how one gets to book a flight. The linked article explains that everybody else associated with airlines: airports, travel agents, caterers has done quite well off the back of the activities of the airlines: however airlines themselves remain lousy businesses in terms of their profitability.
posted by rongorongo at 2:44 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


First we don't really know whats going on with Virgin America its a private company. They sold 75% of the company to private equity in 2010 . Virgin is only a minority partner now. Spirit is a very small airline they only do about 300 million a quarter. Jetblue for example does around 1 - 1.1 billion a quarter. Southwest in a good quarter does twice spirits entire revenue in profit alone.
posted by Rubbstone at 2:52 AM on November 1, 2012


^Actually this commenter on the above article - who runs a travel agent - does a good job of explaining how ITA, Google and the GDSs eat your lunch if you are an airline.
posted by rongorongo at 2:54 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Virgin America's website showed the plane was scheduled to depart "on time" but gave me a "page not found" when I tried to select a seat on my already booked ticket. Their phone queue was, at their estimate, three hours long.

I've heard that VA both lost their main data center and their main res center when Sandy hit. So that may be a part of it.

I fly a mainline. I'll be on them in, oh, two hours, as a matter of fact. Why?

1) I get nonstops to virtually anywhere in the US that flies, one stops to the few places that don't. I get non stops to a large chunk of the world, and one stops to most of the rest. There are damn few airports on the planet that I'd need to change twice for.

2) I know where I'm going to sit, so as long as I'm there 10 minutes before posted departure, I get my seat.

3) If I check bags, it's free. I'm nearly first on and first off the plane.

4) They have a useful schedule.

5) Oh, there's more. Too short on time.

How do you manage this? I actually do my best to give them business. They've taken care of me. And, you know what? They're always within $10 of the "lowest" fare.

One of the things low cost airlines do is optimize the aircraft's time on the ground by pessimizing *your* time on the ground. If more people understood the cost of time, they'd realize why they should pay for it. There was a time, quite recently, where I woke up 50 minutes *before* posted departure, and went from home to gate, with a shower, in 35 minutes.

What seat did I get? 4F. How? Because I knew I had that seat, nobody else just walked on and took it. It takes 10-15 minutes longer to board, but when I needed that plane to be there, it was.

Why do I care about this? Today will be segments 90 and 91 this year. I literally fly at least once a week. Every 10 minutes an airline takes from me is at least 1000 minutes *of my life* that I lose a year. That's 16 hours. I can do a *lot* in 16 hours.

I'll not count the extra 30-60 minutes to get to MDW if I wanted to fly a low cost airline out of there -- that's an accident of location, though you can bet a factor in where I live is how easy it was to get to the airport I'd be flying from frequently.

Low cost airlines also have another trick -- they cherry pick routes. Why do VA and JetBlue fly JFK/LAX? Most lucrative route in the US. They don't fly anything that isn't hyperprofitable. If everyone flew like a low cost carrier, at least half the cities in the US with some sort of air service would lose it.

And, of course -- low cost carriers often can't compete. The one reason WN has done so well is they genuinely try with customer service, and they *very* much get it with working conditions. I'd work for SouthWest in a heartbeat.

But fly them? I've better things to do with my time. Speaking of which, I need to get to the airport. One more day in the sky....
posted by eriko at 3:00 AM on November 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


I think what we've mostly forgotten is that flying is hard. In 1900, if you wanted to get from San Francisco to New York, you took the train, and that took the better part of a week most times. Now we can jump on a plane and be there same day. That makes it look as if flying were logistically uncomplicated when it really, really isn't.

We may think of airliners are buses in the sky, but they aren't. They require an incredible amount of support and staffing that buses don't. From sophisticated terminals, to baggage handling, to huge chunks of real estate dedicated to runways, to air traffic control, running an airline is one of the most complicated things one can do with one's time. Indeed, you basically need all of the infrastructure that goes in to making buses possible as a dependency.

But because the airlines have been good enough at disguising that fact, we've somehow forgotten and thus become less willing to pay for the fact that it's a significant technological and logistical feat every time you disembark from an airliner. We think that we've somehow got the right to travel from wherever to wherever for a few hundred bucks and no hassles.

Well we don't. An incredible number of people have to put in an incredible amount of work to enable us to do that. The idea that we can do this without having to pay for it and without any of that logistical contraption ever malfunctioning at our inconvenience is just wrong.
posted by valkyryn at 3:02 AM on November 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


Sorry Europe, until they have sub-Atlantic tunnels, I'll not be making the trip!

Don't forget the boats, Bob! You can get a repositioning cruise for $600-800. Or try a freighter. C'mon, we'll have a meet-up in Paris and the Kir Royales are on me.
posted by Segundus at 3:02 AM on November 1, 2012


It's worth observing that Spirit Air charges a $35 carryon bag fee. I've travelled without checked baggage frequently but probably never without a carryon, that makes every Spirit Air flight $35 more expensive, maybe $135 more expensive if you want checked bags too. Very much no discount there.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:26 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Gosh. 39 comments and not a single one mentions rail (high-speed or otherwise).

Let's face it, airlines are not the long term solution to travel, even in a country as large as the US. High speed rail is obviously a better long term bet in most situations, so why mourn the loss of airlines and instead start rooting for proper investment in rail infrastructure?

Sure, it'll need government money. You think the airlines don't get hefty subsidies via tax-breaks on fuel and a hundred other perks?

Any thoughts?
posted by JohnnyForeign at 3:28 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


High speed rail is obviously a better long term bet in most situations

No, it isn't. It's arguably a better long term solution in many situations, but it's far from obvious that this should be the case.
posted by valkyryn at 4:08 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


High speed rail makes more sense from a regional standpoint, but long flights will never be replaced by rail as long as the former remains viable.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:40 AM on November 1, 2012


I fly from Boston to Chicago a couple of times a year. Which isn't much, I know, though I have coworkers who make the same trip fairly regularly.

Virgin flies to Boston. Virgin flies to Chicago. They do not fly from Boston to Chicago. They do not fly from Boston or Chicago to anywhere besides the west coast, where I almost never travel.

A few times in the past, when booking flights, I've gone to Virgin's website thinking, "oh, I've heard such good things about this airline, I'd really like to try... oh. Never mind." So now the entire airline is stamped with a huge NOT FOR YOU in my mind. Even if I were to travel somewhere Virgin flies, it probably wouldn't cross my mind that they were an option.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:02 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, it isn't. It's arguably a better long term solution in many situations, but it's far from obvious that this should be the case.

Most of Scandinavia has a population density similar to (or lower) than the 'flyover' states in the United States *and* high speed and/or decent passenger rail. Yes, not ever small town has a rail station, but any reasonably sized city or town has *something* unless it's truly remote. The United States has bizarrely warped infrastructure priorities that aren't doing us any favors. It is a delight not to be scanned, prodded, poked, or hassled getting on a train; the seats are comfortable in coach; you end up at your destination generally in the city center where there's ample transportation to the outskirts. I think that's pretty much a damning conviction of passenger transport priorities in the United States (at least regarding infrastructure improvements/development).

Well, at least we have rent-seeking airlines in the US!

More on topic: I've had some truly horrific experiences with Delta when flying - not bothering to tell people that the flight they were on was going to be cancelled until *after* another non-full flight going to the same destination left (15-minutes after the original flight was supposed to!), among others. So, even the large airlines are capable of some poor customer service (although, not apparently, at the epic level shown by Virgin and Jet Blue). I was pleasantly surprised that Frontier soldiered right on a few years ago as it went into some sort of bankruptcy - no issues with my flights at all.
posted by combinatorial explosion at 5:04 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The right-wing rubes in flyover country are not going to want to pony up the taxes to make high speed rail possible and I don't see Bill Gates or Warren Buffet ponying up the start up money. Also,
one bad accident and high-speed rail gets shelved like the SST.

It's going to be Amtrak at 55 miles and hour top speed for the foreseeable future, I'm afraid...
posted by Renoroc at 5:05 AM on November 1, 2012


What a relief... when I saw "airline" and "love", I got worried it was Southwest.

I didn't even know Virgin had US operations.
posted by indubitable at 5:05 AM on November 1, 2012


The pokiest jetliner cruises at 550mph. Even the fastest high speed train tops out at 250mph. Airports are easier and cheaper to construct than high speed rail track.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:06 AM on November 1, 2012


It is a delight not to be scanned, prodded, poked, or hassled getting on a train.

I was about to post an obvious quip about this getting ruined in sort order after the first terrorism incident to hit an HSR train. But then it occurred to me that all the airline security infrastructure in the world is not there to protect you, it's to protect the very expensive flying tubes that take you from place to place. And a train car or two is much cheaper to replace. So I'm now more hopeful for the future of rail, thanks to my utter cynicism and lack of hope for our civilization in general.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:16 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Virgin Atlantic's great too - way better than British Airways, which would be my obvious transatlantic choice from here in London. By the time you've added in all the extras that so-called budget airlines impose, I doubt you save much cash by opting for them anyway.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:24 AM on November 1, 2012


indubitable: "I didn't even know Virgin had US operations."

I though that they only went to Europe. On he other hand, I fly fairly often and I've never even heard of Spirit. They sound terrible but can they really be worse than USAir?
posted by octothorpe at 5:34 AM on November 1, 2012


Every time I'm frustrated at an Airport, or on a plane, I'm remind myself of the story my dad told me about his first ever flight.

My dad was born in 1938 in a small mid-western farming community. He still remembers the first time he saw a tv when he moved to the local "big-city" in the late 40s. Anyways, after high school and college in that city, he became a Catholic priest (looooong story) and taught at a Catholic High School in the early 60s. He earned a reputation of being very pro-Vatican II and pro-Civil Rights (he, along with some other priest and nuns, marched with MLK) that made him very unpopular among the people and diocese he worked in (this city is still battling its legacy of racism). He was considered a gnat, so the diocese gave him a new job: Missionary! He had a choice between doing missionary work in Vietnam, or in South America (you may recall that neither of these locations where happy places in the late 60s). He chose South America.

International flights weren't cheap back then. So the diocese cut a deal with the local Air Force Base to get a seat on a Military Cargo flight to Peru. No amenities, just a small bench welded to the side of the plane (metal and cold). At least it had a belt. The only food and drink he had was whatever the flight crew and other military personnel would share from their own rations (they were very generous though - Charisma was not a dump stat for my dad). He spent the next decade doing what missionaries do, and telling both communists and military fascists in Latin America that they could both fuck off. He was shot at a few times.

That said, I love flying Southwest.
posted by Groundhog Week at 6:00 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's worth noting that Southwest is no longer really a discount airline. Either their prices have drifted upwards or they've brought everyone else's prices down. They're one of few airlines with almost uniformly happy employees, though. (That said, I kind of hate Southwest. MDW-OAK was late a lot when I flew that route, the Southwest baggage claim at OAK made no sense, I had a flight that was late, a flight attendant made a racist comment and the pilot told us there was a war on Christmas, all before we took off. Then the bags took two hours to show up at MDW.)

Most of Scandinavia has a population density similar to (or lower) than the 'flyover' states in the United States *and* high speed and/or decent passenger rail. Yes, not ever small town has a rail station, but any reasonably sized city or town has *something* unless it's truly remote.

Except the entire length of Sweden is probably about the distance from Boston to Atlanta (100 miles longer on Google maps, but it's not a straight line). The fact that that trip seems to take 24 hours on Amtrak is absurd. On the other hand, it's anywhere from 20-28 hours from Malmö to Kiruna. A lot could be done to improve rail transport in the US, like Amtrak owning the track outside the northeast (not going to happen), like actual high speed service outside the northeast (does Acela count as high speed?), laying some more track and so on.

I should be able to view taking the train from Minneapolis to Chicago as my best option. But the trip was two hours faster in the 1940s (I think it's the loss of track that slowed it down). Right now, the bus beats the train hands down (the train might be more pleasant, but costs ways more and the return trip puts you in some random part of St Paul at 11pm) and flying beats the bus, but is expensive However, I don't see how taking the train to San Francisco is ever going to make more sense than flying.
posted by hoyland at 6:08 AM on November 1, 2012


flex:
(I haven't flown at all since they put in the full-body scanners, however; I refuse.)

You can still opt out in the security line, in favor of a pat-down. That's what I do, every time I fly. The TSA agents have been professional and courteous each time I do it. Strangely the pat-down feels much less awful and invasive to me than the full-body scan.
posted by xthlc at 6:12 AM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's pretty obvious that people give lip service to better airline service but they vote with their pocket books for the most affordable booking option. Airlines have figured out that once someone is packed and standing at the gate they will suffer various additional charges. Infrequent travelers like myself have little experience to develop any brand loyalty but we still harbor a general distrust of the whole experience. That is a hard perception to turn around and I can see why the financial solvent airlines do the crappy stuff.
posted by dgran at 6:17 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I fly a lot, and I've never seen Virgin come up on any of the flight-comparison sites that I use when booking (mainly ITA Matrix). I don't know where they fly, but it's not out of any of the major East Coast hubs.

I have to agree. I've never seen it on Kayak. Also, prices for tickets vary so much by dates that I go with the cheapest, even shifting airports if need be because the prices are so different.
posted by discopolo at 6:19 AM on November 1, 2012


I just looked at flights from SFO to IAD on Kayak and Virgin comes up there. It's about fifty bucks more than the chepapest USAIR flight, but it's a nonstop.
posted by rtha at 6:25 AM on November 1, 2012


If more people understood the cost of time, they'd realize why they should pay for it.

For a frequent business traveler, I totally agree with your points about time. However, when we fly (not too often) we generally don't care too much about time spent out at the airport as long as we're healthy and not too sleepy. We yell at the TV news and complain about how bad it is these days and read some books, and our kid gets a kick out of the whole airport thing (mostly that there are so many people to play peekaboo with him and tell him how cute he is). I don't know, I feel like most people are the same way. As long as they're comfortable and decently fed, the airport is just part of the traveling with family thing.

Of course, comfortable and decently fed is important.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:28 AM on November 1, 2012


It's pretty obvious that people give lip service to better airline service but they vote with their pocket books for the most affordable booking option

For most domestic flights it's at most seven hours of flying, you can put up with almost anything for that amount of time. If I was flying to Europe or Asia, I might pony up for a little more comfortable flight but if I'm just hopping from PIT to BDL, I can deal with a little annoyance.
posted by octothorpe at 6:33 AM on November 1, 2012


hoyland: "The fact that that trip seems to take 24 hours on Amtrak is absurd. On the other hand, it's anywhere from 20-28 hours from Malmö to Kiruna. A lot could be done to improve rail transport in the US, like Amtrak owning the track outside the northeast (not going to happen), like actual high speed service outside the northeast (does Acela count as high speed?), laying some more track and so on. "

A lot of this is already in process (sadly minus Amtrak actually owning the rails). It'll be a while before we have "true" HSR in the Southeast, but the incremental improvements that are being planned should start shaving minutes off in the very near future. Next month, Amtrak will be adding an entirely new service to Norfolk that will run on an upgraded freight line, and offer very competitive travel times to Richmond and DC (far better than the existing line to Newport News).

It's worth noting that the US rail infrastructure is not quite as terrible as most people make it out to be. We have a lot of right-of-way that's either abandoned or reserved for freight operations (and much of it was built to very high standards back in the day). It won't be cheap to build true HSR in the US, but we already do have a head-start that will make it a lot easier than building from scratch.

There's also an awful lot of freight rail in the US. Way more than in Europe, and the density of freight railroads is actually pretty good throughout the country. Running freight and passenger traffic together is problematic, but again, we've got an awful lot of ROW that could be expanded to add dedicated passenger tracks.

(Also, the train journey from Malmo to Umea (the longest I could reasonably calculate in Sweden) is only 750 miles, and takes 14-18 hours. Boston to Atlanta is 1100 miles, and takes 23 hours by train. We're actually not that far behind, and you're probably better off flying those distances anyway. Still, it's a comfortable journey if you ever want to try it.)
posted by schmod at 6:52 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Am still bitter that proper transporter technology hasn't evolved yet. I hate plane rides enough that I would be willing to risk dismemberment by loss of molecules if it got me to a destination in less than 5 minutes.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:07 AM on November 1, 2012


I wonder how much different people's flight decisions would be if it was mandated that all costs -- upgrades, baggage fees, meals, headphones, etc, -- be selectable upfront and included in the cost of the ticket when people are searching for flights? Let people compare what flights are actually going to cost them and it might tilt the balance a bit.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:15 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I flew Spirit last year because it was probably $500 cheaper for two people. I didn't think it was too bad but I'm willing to sacrifice comforts for saving that much money and I've had worse experiences on major airlines.

Holy cow though, a lot of the other passengers hated it. I wouldn't be surprised if their rate of return customers is way lower than other airlines.
posted by ghharr at 7:18 AM on November 1, 2012


xthlc: You can still opt out in the security line, in favor of a pat-down. That's what I do, every time I fly

Oh, yes (and I actually agree with you that in my mind the pat-down option feels less invasive!) - I think that was just the bright line of "no, I will not tolerate this, that's it" for me - the x-ray scanners/full pat-downs - it was just too much. But hey, they're apparently starting to remove those scanners, so...!
posted by flex at 7:34 AM on November 1, 2012


I'd fly Virgin in a heartbeat if they went anywhere I wanted to go from my home base airport. As it is, I'm stuck flying Allegiant ($35 for a carry on!) as they're the only airline to go into the Quad Cities without a host of transfers and stops. I decided paying for my time was worth the additional hassle in this case - but as a general rule, I would prefer to go with a traditional carrier or Southwest.
posted by skittlekicks at 7:37 AM on November 1, 2012


I think the problem for Virgin (and JetBlue and other "non-major" airlines that have tried to distinguish themselves with the in-flight experience) is that people just don't trust any airline anymore to consistently deliver a pleasant flight. I travel frequently on business, and because I sometimes go to weird places I've flown nearly all of the major US airlines in the last couple of years. Other than Canada's Porter Airlines - the world's greatest low-cost airline that has almost uniformly happy staff - each flight depends on who's at the gate and who's on the plane. Sometimes it's great and sometimes it's terrible. So I am not willing to pay $50 more, even when it's not my money, if I can't count on a real difference.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:37 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much different people's flight decisions would be if it was mandated that all costs -- upgrades, baggage fees, meals, headphones, etc, -- be selectable upfront and included in the cost of the ticket when people are searching for flights?

Kayak will let you add baggage fees to the prices it displays. I have no idea how they handle Spirit's carry-on bag charge.

Also, I want to rant about the fact that AirTran tried their damndest to charge me for a seat assignment this summer. The funny thing was, by the time I found a person (at a random gate!) to give me a seat assignment, only exit rows were left, which they would have tried to charge me extra for at the check-in counter. I would have been furious if they had said "Sorry, no seats left" because I had refused to pay them $10 at check-in. (On the way to ATL, I passed on online check-in due to the their dumb fee, but when I got to the airport, I used a self-check-in machine at the counter (I did have to check a bag) and the guy gave me a seat assignment. In ATL, same thing, except the self-check-in machine wanted to charge me $10 and the person didn't look at me long enough to even ask about a seat assignment.)
posted by hoyland at 7:41 AM on November 1, 2012


I will not hear a bad word about Ryanair. I flew with them twice a week for year. You get exactly what you pay for and if you play by their rules (don't turn up in with a chello as hand luggage 5 mins before gate closes etc) you'll save a packet. It's like that shtick Malcolm Gladwell was peddling about choice a few years back, if you ask people what kind of coffee they want they'll all say 'a rich, artisan, organic dark roast' but what they actually buy when no one is watching is filter coffee with a lot of milk.
posted by Damienmce at 8:00 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not many people fly so frequently that they actually have developed brand loyalty. So when they look for flights, what do they do? They look for the cheapest, fastest flight they can find. And the search company doesn't necessarily tell them that they picked the one that will charge you an extra $100 for the first checked bag, or an extra $20 to use the bathroom in the plane....

It would be really nice if it was possible to include bag fees and extra charges in the "cheapest price" calculation that you get from flight search... But that is (unfortunately) not likely to happen any time soon.


There ought to be a regulation that defines a default service profile for flight search engines, so there would be less incentive for the airlines to game them by changing their pricing structure. Even the search engines have incentive play along with the this stuff, since it's so easy to with a competitor that's giving cheaper results.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 8:05 AM on November 1, 2012


The idea that we can do this without having to pay for it and without any of that logistical contraption ever malfunctioning at our inconvenience is just wrong.

I get that the price we pay for airline tickets does not reflect the real cost of air travel. But after several decades of aggressive cost-cutting by airlines to compete for business and whole generations of people who know nothing but low cost airline tickets, you’re blaming the consumer? I think this is a clear case of the airlines having unsustainable business plans and doing a poor job of managing customers’ expectations.

"You complain that we've been nickel and diming you. But guess what? You've been nickel and diming us ever since deregulation. If one of our competitors has a fare a couple of dollars less, you fly them, not us. You have no brand loyalty. All you care about is price, not comfort, or legroom, or service, or even frequent flyer miles.

This makes me angry enough to spit. I flew AA for years while traveling between the US and the UK and I flew them because they had a hub in my destination and I was building up frequent flyer miles. Last year, without warning, they took away my tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles because I had not traveled for 18 months. I called them up and told them I had been flying with them for years because of the miles and the least they could have done was send an automated email a month or two before they expired to warn me to use ‘em or lose ‘em. I also asked if I could have them back, given me history of regularly flying with AA. The agent said I could get them back – for $300. Yeah right. So I then sent an email through their website expressing my disappointment and asking them to give me a reason to ever want to fly AA again. I never got a reply, which I took as their answer.

So, you know, fuck them and their sad brand loyalty speech. If they want brand loyalty, they should make themselves into a brand that people want to come back to. I think there is room in the market for the dirt cheap airlines that get you from point A to point B as well as the ones that charge a little more but in return, give you: good service, reasonable legroom and a generally less stressful flying experience.

The right-wing rubes in flyover country are not going to want to pony up the taxes to make high speed rail possible

Maybe you could make your point without the asshole-ish comments about people who don’t live on the coasts?
posted by triggerfinger at 8:26 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah. I wasn't particularly upset with RyanAir when I flew with them (apart from the terrible locations of their airports). You get exactly what you pay for, and their website seemed to make it pretty clear what you'd be getting for your money.

A RyanAir flight costs about about as much as a bus ticket, and you get a similar level of service and comfort. In the sky.
posted by schmod at 8:29 AM on November 1, 2012


We recently flew VA from BOS to SFO for a wedding. It was my first time on VA and I was excited since I had heard such good things.
The plug at our seat didn't work. The (not free) wifi was spotty at best. One of our tv/entertainment system things didn't work. They charged for snacks. And then they ran out of meals an hour into the flight. And when I mentioned these things not so much as an apology.
This is an airline that supposedly treats its customers welll? Pshaw. Never again.
posted by bowmaniac at 9:35 AM on November 1, 2012


> It's worth noting that Southwest is no longer really a discount airline

I've noticed this, as well. I've reluctantly looked into them when booking flights, and their prices have never been remarkably lower. Between that and the unpleasantness of not having assigned seats -- I usually fly with my kids, so this matters -- I've never bothered with them.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:53 AM on November 1, 2012


I usually fly with my kids, so this matters -- I've never bothered with them.

I haven't flown Southwest recently, as they're usually one of the more expensive airlines on any route I typically travel, but last time I did, they let families with children board before group A. I doubt this has changed.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 10:01 AM on November 1, 2012


If your kids are four years old or younger Southwest lets you board before group B. That's not good enough for me, especially if they're not even that much cheaper than a standard airline.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:14 AM on November 1, 2012


Air travel is a commodity market for the vast majority of travelers. All that matters is lowest cost between point A & B. You wouldn't pay extra for gasoline with "premium service" especially if the sticker price difference was several dollars. Why more for air travel?
posted by pd0658a at 10:30 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


But I agree that their IT staff needs to be fired; the website is just a load of shit and not having mobile boarding passes is pretty irritating in this day and age.

I'm a web developer at Virgin America and first of all we're going to be rolling out Passbook for iOS devices in the next month or so.

That said, our website is in need of serious help. We're running with a very lean team that's about 90% contractors. The website was built and designed when we launched 5 years ago and it shows. A year ago we made a major transition from an old reservation system to Sabre and that has allowed us to better integrate with travel agents and websites like Hipmunk, Travelocity and Kayak. The changeover however, has required a ton of work and we're just now starting to dig out from the bugs that that introduced. At the same time we're rolling out lots of new features - tier levels for our frequent flyers, Main Cabin express, Passbook, self-service IROPS and so on. Our team is stretched thin.

The company has expanded something like 300% in the past few years and we're having serious growing pains. Fuel prices are at a record high and that affects all airlines and what they can do for passengers.

On the positive side, our on-time performance and percentage of lost baggage are both the first or second best in the industry - Alaska is usually the only airline with better stats.

If you're trying to get some customer service I'd recommend DMing our Twitter account or Facebook - our social media team is very responsive.

Since we're so new and so small compared to legacy carriers, we've focused on the cross-country market. Business travelers are obviously a lucrative market and they are a lot of our revenue. SFO is our hub, and we built Terminal 2 there a couple years ago - it's the "greenest" terminal in the country.

I'd rather not go into a ton of detail here, but feel free to MeMail me.
posted by bendy at 10:44 AM on November 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


I would love to try Virgin. Honestly. I'm a business traveler (flying 1-4x/month), and would love to improve the experience.
But Virgin doesn't fly from my nearest airport, Burlington (nearest = 70-90 minutes each way). Nor the next two nearest ones (2, 3 hours each way).
So I don't.
posted by doctornemo at 10:46 AM on November 1, 2012


It would be really nice if it was possible to include bag fees and extra charges in the "cheapest price" calculation that you get from flight search... But that is (unfortunately) not likely to happen any time soon.

I don't see why not. Airline baggage fees are public information. So's things like the price of food on the plane.

The problem is the non-monetary stuff. Many people, given a choice between getting stuck overnight in La Guardia or paying $50 more for their ticket, would happily pay the extra money. But incorporating stuff like "shows up on time" and "has good customer service" into the ranking algorithm is not at all straightforward. Different people prioritize goods (money, time, not-getting-a-runaround-from-some-asshole-in-a-phone-bank...) in different ways.

Part of the problem is just that people suck at thinking rationally about risk. If we were good expected-utility maximizers (like economists often pretend we are), you could ask a customer "Okay, how much money will you pay for a 10% reduction in your odds of getting delayed?" (Airlines' on-time percentages are also public information as I understand it.) But people's brains don't generally work like that. Even if you understand the mathematics of probability, it's really, really hard to get a good intuitive feel for it. I think I understand probability better than most people, and I fly more than most people, and yet I have no idea how much a 10% boost in on-time percentage is actually worth to me.

(Or, I mean, on the other hand, you could take on the economist's assumption that we always do what we prefer — that our preferences are, by definition, just whatever mental predilections we have that lead us to do what we actually do. If you look at it that way, you'll conclude that nobody actually values on-time travel or good customer service at all, and that we just bitch about those things because we like hearing ourselves talk. Which, uh, maybe? But I sure do feel like I value those things; I'm just never sure how much weight to give them in making a financial decision.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:54 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I fly Virgin whenever I visit SFO from BOS. When I choose a non-stop flight that leaves in the evening, they're pretty much on par with the national carriers (United, for example) in cost. I could fly a little cheaper by bouncing around the country or only flying red eyes, but Virgin is price-competitive when I apply my personal preferences.
posted by maryr at 11:08 AM on November 1, 2012


Don't forget that the Virgin business model is hyperdiverse, but not usually aimed at a majority share in the market. Books, spas, banking, trains, mobile phones - each works *for some people* and their loyalty transfers.
posted by cromagnon at 11:16 AM on November 1, 2012


The trouble seems to be that you can't really be a niche global airline.

Maintaining a presence at an airport, and running a useful number of flights in and out, costs a fuckton of money. It's just a huge, huge money pit. If those planes are only half full, it doesn't get any cheaper. If the planes are tiny, it still doesn't get a whole lot cheaper, because your labor and maintenance costs per passenger go way up.

It can make sense for airlines to fill local niches, to be like "Okay, we're just going to run two routes, but we aim to have like 50% of the total traffic on both routes." But it makes no sense at all to be like "We're going to run dozens of routes all over the world, and we only want 2% of the total traffic on any of them."
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:48 AM on November 1, 2012


Basically, running an airline is like being a landlord in midtown Manhattan. Every property (or route) you have represents a huge investment of capital. Refusing to fully develop the property (or refusing to run lots of full planes on the route) doesn't actually free up much of the capital you invested. If you're in the game at all, you're already fully committed, and you have to act like it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:51 AM on November 1, 2012


In 1900, if you wanted to get from San Francisco to New York, you took the train, and that took the better part of a week most times

How far the train in the US has come since 1900! Now instead of the better part of a week, we can make that trip in just three days!

SFF to NYP, per schedule, three transfers including a bus, doesn't include delays or breakdowns.
posted by zippy at 12:14 PM on November 1, 2012


(sorry, three and a half days)
posted by zippy at 12:17 PM on November 1, 2012


I don't fly quite as much as eriko -- I'm lucky that I can coordinate most of my travel into spurts of just going everywhere for a few weeks, then being home and decompressing for a bit after -- but I do agree with practically everything he says.

When I made the transition from flying "maybe once or twice a year" to "I just don't bother with bookmarks anymore because I always have a boarding pass handy", I also stopped shopping around for fares and flying "budget" airlines. And wow, am I glad I did that.

When the traditional big carriers see you coming back as a consistent repeat customer, they love you and find innumerable small and large ways to express that love. Echoing one of the earlier points: recently a friend of mine faced two (non-hurricane-induced) days stuck because although Southwest had flights, and they were running on time, and he'd paid for a ticket, they wouldn't let him get on the plane. He didn't check in early enough, and ended up in the very last boarding group, which is also the first bunch to get bumped when a flight is overbooked.

I know that this will never happen to me; whether I check in 24 hours ahead or 1 hour ahead, the only reason I won't have the seat I'm expecting is because I'm getting moved into a nicer one. And all I had to do to get that privilege was be a repeat customer.

I know that I'm never going to miss a flight because I was stuck in a huge baggage-check or security line at rush time, because my airline will either bump me to the front of the line, or at some airports have a separate shorter one I can use. And all I had to do to get that privilege was be a repeat customer.

I know that I'm never going to get stranded someplace because of a cancelled or delayed flight, because they will bust their asses to get me on the next plane going, even if it's a different airline (I have had this happen, and heard the magic words "all right, I see one of our partners has a direct flight leaving in half an hour that lands before your original connection would have, let me put you on that", and it is so worth it). And all I had to do to get that privilege was be a repeat customer.

I could go on and on about how just buying my tickets from the same airline has more than repaid, in time saved and peace of mind, whatever slight additional money I've paid for those tickets over a "budget" carrier. But dear God, people, if you're going to be flying more than a few times a year, just pick an airline and stick with it.
posted by ubernostrum at 2:38 PM on November 1, 2012


I've flown more than usual this year (maybe a dozen trips?) and am so tired of unexpected fees on supposedly low cost airlines that I no longer book with the lowest fare. Instead, I move up the price list until I find a major carrier, and often it's less than a $10 difference. It's sort of like not ordering the cheapest wine on the wine list. More than not, I'm choosing based on who has the nicest terminal at the destination.

Another thing: I'm sick of resellers and discounters who think they can get my business with ridiculously small undercuts. Like, offering me a price ending in .91 instead of .95 so that they appear higher on the list, and seeing ten airlines (I fly between major hubs serviced by dozens of airlines) all priced within one dollar of each other. Now I do some browsing on Expedia, but then I take my picks and find out what it costs to book directly with the actual airline, and a few others that don't seem to be in Expedia's rolodex. If Expedia or the low cost airline isn't saving me at least $25 over a known carrier then forget it. I'm not going to risk inferior service for so little reward, and if a booking reseller can only shave my ticket price by a tiny amount then they're not worth doing business with.
posted by ceribus peribus at 3:54 PM on November 1, 2012


hippybear: "They fly between 20 locations in the US and Mexico, including 7 locations I'd consider "east cost", three of which are DC airports. It's all Big City to Ideal Vacation Destination, nothing which services, you know, most of the US."

Actually, I just did the math, and by my rough estimate, about 177 million Americans live within a Metropolitan area that contains an airport that Virgin services (which is crazy, considering that it's only a handful of cities). That's just a bit over half of the US population, so you could actually make the claim that Virgin is accessible to "most of the US."

Sure, Virgin's route network is still very limited in scope (mainly only good if you're flying from a big city to California), but the jealousy/envy thing that a lot of people have for them (and are demonstrating here) is weird. "Flyover country" doesn't have the population density necessary to economically support a lot of things. I don't think it should be terribly surprising that 'Boutique airline that only goes to California' is on that list.
posted by schmod at 5:47 PM on November 1, 2012


That's just a bit over half of the US population, so you could actually make the claim that Virgin is accessible to "most of the US."

Well, that's a pretty broad definition of "most". Certainly one which likely lies within dictionary definitions, but it wouldn't be what a large majority of people picture in their mind when you ask them to picture, say, "he ate most of the pie".

But sure. I'll accept that just under half of the country isn't served by this airline. I just get the feeling that often the implication is "well, that is the half that doesn't matter".
posted by hippybear at 6:06 PM on November 1, 2012


They all suck. The only factors that matter to this 25 times a year traveler are schedule, price, and frequent flier miles calculus.

There are dissenting views on this, but I find Alaska Airlines to be very pleasant to deal with. The seats and meals are nothing special at all. But if you fly them a lot, they are a smallish company and you get to know flght crews and ground staff. For people who fly them all the time, it's got a little bit of a family feeling (because everyone flies everywhere all the time in Alaska). I have never had any problem with getting them to come up with creative solutions in crisis situations, and they don't gouge you on the little stuff (baggage is free within Alaska, free to anyone with the credit card, and the credit card is quite generous as is the mileage plan in general, plus they go to Hawai'i). Flying sucks. But at least on Alaska I have the impression they are interested in keeping my loyalty. I recommend to anyone that you try to fly enough on at least one airline that you earn the MVP level mileage status if at all possible (which often involves using the credit card tie-in creatively). You get treated differently even under crap conditions.
posted by spitbull at 7:25 PM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


But Virgin doesn't fly from my nearest airport, Burlington (nearest = 70-90 minutes each way). Nor the next two nearest ones (2, 3 hours each way). So I don't.

I don't think you can fault Virgin for not flying from Burlington, though. The short version is that, as far as I know, Burlington gets the regional jets. Virgin America flies planes with twice as many seats. Burlington's a totally different market from what they're targeting. (I assume your next closest airport is Montreal, but they don't fly to Canada full stop.)
posted by hoyland at 7:50 PM on November 1, 2012


I flew AA for years while traveling between the US and the UK and I flew them because they had a hub in my destination and I was building up frequent flyer miles. Last year, without warning, they took away my tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles because I had not traveled for 18 months.

The warning was like four years ago when they announced miles would expire. I agree they should give you a heads up before they expire, but it's not like it wasn't known that they'd expire or what the time frame was. I'm pretty sure the expiration date is on every mileage statement they email, too. (Granted, part of me thinks they're not sending statements as frequently, but I may have just gotten so used to deleting the email that I don't remember looking at it.)
posted by hoyland at 7:54 PM on November 1, 2012


Just name me a non-Virgin or non-Alaska airline that will let me get my damn instrument(s) on the plane for less than the price of three additional tickets. Yes, $1000 to get my flight case through baggage because a wooden thing the size of a cello or acoustic guitar is too dangerous (!) to bring onboard, or gets bumped even if *I* can get aboard. And the flightcase won't fit in a standard airline seat, although the hardshell case will. But the hardcase can't be checked.... you get the idea.

I'd take Amtrak further than Seattle-Eugene Oregon if
A) The ticket didn't cost >2x airfare and
B) Amtrak didn't take >24hrs on the 77% of the time they arrive within 2 hours of schedule. The other 23%... see below.
C) Amtrak actually arrived within a few hours (much less *days*) of schedule and somewhere near 24-hour public transportation - you do know where their Bay Area terminals are, right? As in no service to SF and not near BART? Ever tried to get a large backpack or rolling case, plus a bass in a coffin case, onto a city bus or sedan taxi?
I'm aware Amtrak has to use freight lines that have priority over passengers, while getting their subsidy cut year by year. I consistently pester my congresscritters to do otherwise. I want my West Coast bullet train in my lifetime! Hell, I'd settle for a bigger engine for the Talgo light rail Cascades (similar rolling gear to Acela) to take me over the mountains to SF.

So how do I usually get up and down I-5? Craigslist and Ridejoy rideshares. As if I love cramming myself into some stranger's vehicle for up to 16 hours. But... average cost is just $50 and it's usually door-to-door.
posted by Dreidl at 9:34 PM on November 1, 2012


frequent flier miles calculus

spitbull: if you earn the most frequent flyer miles of any Virgin America passenger this year, you get a free flight on Virgin Galactic, FYI.
posted by bendy at 11:13 PM on November 1, 2012


To chime in here again: the thing that makes flying frequently suck less is status. Pick an airline and fly it everywhere.

I've picked Alaska, and I might end up using United as a backup carrier, but after 20k miles you already get basic status with them (and their partners), and since your flights on Delta and American count as well, you can easily cover most of the country.

I am relieved that my current job lets me schedule my own flights, compared to a previous one where they booked the cheapest flight that met their requirements, not mine, so I ended up have 30k miles in a year spread across four airlines.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:49 PM on November 1, 2012


Yeah, for me the Delta tie-in is also crucial in favor of Alaska. I fly one or the other 20 times a year at least, and both credit cards provide real value added with free baggage and companion flights and the like. The miles being transferable (and the many partner benefits, so being MVP Gold on Alaska gets you top service from Delta) are crucial factors. It's a pure game at some level, and those of us who travel a lot for business need to play it smartly to make the shithole that is air travel bearable and fruitful.

I remember Virgin being great for instruments back in my musician days too. Alaska Airlines is really good for accepting any possible kind of meat or fish, a really good operation for keeping stuff frozen at no extra charge, seeing as so many of their customers travel with raw meat.
posted by spitbull at 10:08 AM on November 2, 2012


you do know where their Bay Area terminals are, right? As in no service to SF and not near BART?

You take the train to Richmond, CA. It's like 100 yards through the station from Amtrak to BART. The only problem is the California Zephyr, which stops in Emeryville and not Richmond. But all trains to Jack London Square in Oakland stop in Richmond. I concede that this perhaps not obvious unless one is familiar with the Bay Area, but 'not near BART' it is not.
posted by hoyland at 10:24 AM on November 2, 2012


There ought to be a regulation that defines a default service profile for flight search engines

Yes, this exactly. I've often thought that the solution to the explosion of last minute nickel-and-dime charges would be to mandate that the airlines can only advertise prices that apply to a "standard customer": say one adult with one 45 lb., 22x10x14" checked suitcase, a carryon bag and a handbag, consuming one 12 oz non-alcoholic beverage or water every two hours, in a reserved coach seat. They should probably even specify the dimensions of the seat.

It'd be similar to the EPA mileage ratings on cars. Before the EPA standardized the methodology, car manufacturers used to advertise all sorts of crappy numbers for gas mileage (e.g. "30 MPG* [*Downhill, with a tailwind, with the engine shut off]"). So now they are only allowed to advertise the number that comes out of a standardized testing method, so that it's easy for consumers to compare one product to another.

If airlines want to give customers discounts for forgoing their checked bag, carryon bag, drink, or for sitting on bleachers or standing on their heads or whateverthefuck else, fine. No issues. But they damn well ought not to advertise the numbers that are inclusive of those discounts as the "fare", particularly in a context where people are going to be comparing one airline to the next.

They fly between 20 locations in the US and Mexico [...]

I just went and looked at their website. I guess the reason I've never seen them pop up on ITA Matrix is because, out of the DC airports, they only fly to LAS/LAX/PDX/SAN/SFO/SEA, plus some very pleasant-sounding vacation destinations that my job is sadly unlikely to take me to. So basically, they are a coast-to-coast airline. That's not how I travel (my job mostly takes me to the places they're flying over), so I guess it makes sense that I've never seen them.

Presumably they've done the math and think that there's enough coast-to-coast traffic to keep them in business, and my viewpoint is obviously biased by a small sample, but I really wonder if that's the case. In terms of actual number of flight legs, I suspect that there are many more flights that are in the 500-1000 mile range (too far for a pleasant car trip or a train) than in the near-transcontinental range.

Also, if I'm flying to LA, I'd rather be flogged bloody than go through LAX, I don't care how nice the damn flight is. That's what SNA is for.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:55 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kadin2048: "I just went and looked at their website. I guess the reason I've never seen them pop up on ITA Matrix is because, out of the DC airports, they only fly to LAS/LAX/PDX/SAN/SFO/SEA, plus some very pleasant-sounding vacation destinations that my job is sadly unlikely to take me to. So basically, they are a coast-to-coast airline."

I posted this thread so I haven't been commenting, but I have to chime in: I'm thrilled that DFW Airport is now a "very pleasant-sounding vacation destination[]." Somebody get the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce on the phone! Yours isn't the first comment to forget DFW; I just liked its quote best. :)

Virgin America's ticket counter is right next to my second-favorite airline's ticket counter—Alaska—in DFW's terminal E. Come on, 2014, I want to fly my favorite airline again!
posted by fireoyster at 11:04 AM on November 2, 2012


I would lo-o-o-o-ove a regional high speed rail connection from MSP to Milwaukee and Chicago. Unfortunately, "that idiot" who took over as governor in Madison scotched the idea.

I can understand Virgin not flying in/out of MSP if they don't want to. Some of the popular routes out of here do seem like they have a lot of competition now (Denver, for example), but on the other hand, there's still a lot of weirdness around this being historically a giant Delta (formerly NW) hub.

But only two flights out of Chicago? And none heading east? To me, that's "not a real airline".
posted by gimonca at 12:13 PM on November 2, 2012


fireoyster: Although far be it from me to comment on Dallas' possibilities as a vacation hotspot, I didn't forget it; Virgin doesn't have it as a possible destination when flying from the DC-area airports, and those were the ones I listed.

The reverse is also true: from DFW, you can only fly to LAS, LAX, PDX, SAN, SFO, SEA, and the warm-and-sunny locales of SDJ and PSP.

You can't do DFW to any of the east coast cities, for some reason. Though IAD to DFW by way of Cabo, hopefully with a very long layover, doesn't sound too bad... maybe I'm doing things all wrong.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:51 PM on November 2, 2012


As in no service to SF and not near BART? Ever tried to get a large backpack or rolling case, plus a bass in a coffin case, onto a city bus or sedan taxi?

Amtrak is way less than ideal in many ways, but service to SF is not really that bad. You are aware that Amtrak has a bus that runs from Emeryville? You transfer right to the bus, throw your luggage underneath and cross the Bay Bridge. It stops in seven places in SF.

In the long term, direct service to SF would be amazing, but there are essentially infinite better projects to spend money on than getting Amtrak to cross the bay.
posted by ssg at 1:05 PM on November 2, 2012


hippybear: "But sure. I'll accept that just under half of the country isn't served by this airline. I just get the feeling that often the implication is "well, that is the half that doesn't matter"."

Yeah, but nobody makes this complaint about Alaska, Allegiant, Hawaiian, etc.

If VX had named themselves Virgin California, we wouldn't be having this discussion. For all intents and purposes, Virgin America is an airline that almost exclusively flies to and from California.

Short-haul connecting flights really eat away at an airline's profits, so it really shouldn't be surprising that a new airline doesn't want to use lots of expensive tiny planes to shuttle its customers out to smaller destinations, especially when their competition would often be heavily subsidized. They probably also don't want to lease gates that won't be frequently used. To profitably run an airline, you need to guarantee that your assets (gates/planes/people) are being utilized almost 100% of the time.

The geographic location of Virgin's hubs also makes very little sense for running this kind of hub-and-spoke service. There are only a small handful of airports that are within a short hop of the West Coast, and Virgin already serves most of them. The population density out west is nothing like the East Coast, where there are tons of busy airports/destinations within a short hop of BOS, JDK, IAD, or ATL. You can still run a hub in a less densely populated area, as long as it's centrally-located (SLC, ORD, DTW, MSP). However, the Pacific coast isn't really 'central' at all, unless you're hopping to Asia. If your only hubs are in SFO and LAX, you're not going to be operating many flights that require connections. It just doesn't make sense from a geographical perspective.

They're under no obligation to operate high-risk routes that probably won't make them any money. If you live in a rural area, your best bet is to use your own regional carrier, or fly on one of the mainlines.
posted by schmod at 3:01 PM on November 2, 2012


Alaska Airlines: many of their customers travel with raw meat.
posted by zippy at 4:41 PM on November 2, 2012


Yeah, but nobody makes this complaint about Alaska, Allegiant, Hawaiian, etc.

Alaska Airlines has service to a LOT more cities scattered all across the country. (Yes, some of the service is with partner airlines, but a lot of it is not.)

I take your point about what Virgin is designed to do. I was playing with their route map widget and was surprised to see that they don't fly between, say, NYC and Florida. They literally are an airline which is designed to get people between X and California. (Well, and up and down the west coast.)

And Alaskan seems to be designed to move people toward Seattle mostly. But with service that covers a lot more places all across the country. It's an older airline, maybe, but it does seem to be a lot more full-service in a lot of ways.

If you live in a rural area, your best bet is to use your own regional carrier, or fly on one of the mainlines.

Stop that. Spokane WA is not a rural area (despite the opinions held on the west side of the Cascades). Neither is El Paso or Phoenix or Denver or any other places where there are a lot of people and Virgin provides no service.

I hear they're a pleasant flying experience. They just aren't of much use, as you have pointed out, to about half the populace of the country.
posted by hippybear at 6:09 PM on November 2, 2012


They just aren't of much use, as you have pointed out, to about half the populace of the country.

Neither is whomever is elected president.
posted by zippy at 12:23 AM on November 3, 2012


Stop that. Spokane WA is not a rural area (despite the opinions held on the west side of the Cascades). Neither is El Paso or Phoenix or Denver or any other places where there are a lot of people and Virgin provides no service.

I'm not sure why this is an issue for you, though, aside from the fact it's annoying that a supposedly pleasant airline is useless to you. I mean, you're not having a moan about Sun Country, who fly from MSP to X, where X is a major coastal city (plus PHX, DFW) or a vacation destination (plus a few Lansing to $vacationdestination and fewer DFW to $vacationdestination). I hear Jet Blue's pretty nice, too, but guess what? When I lived in California, they didn't fly to Chicago (they were holding out for a spot at ORD, rather than MDW). Checking the website now, they still don't fly from Chicago to the Bay Area, only to Boston and JFK, I'm guessing because they didn't get many slots at O'Hare. Or maybe they don't think the third largest city in the country and fourth busiest airport in the world is not worth serving properly. But I'm guessing that's not it. And they still don't fly to MSP.

schmod has already pointed out the Essential Air Service. We've already realised the market left to its own devices won't keep small airports open. But it's a jump from there being a state/societal interest to ensuring a minimal level of service (we can debate what the minimal service should be) to all airlines needing to fly everywhere else they can't be bothered to acknowledge the existence of half the country.
posted by hoyland at 4:49 AM on November 3, 2012


I didn't even realize the Burlington comment was referring to BTV - I assumed it was Ontario or New Jersey or something. Of course Virgin doesn't fly out of Burlington. It's tiny. You can fly commericially to 10 airports from Burlington, all of which are hubs for their respective airlines. It's a lovely little airport, but LOTS of airlines don't fly in or out. I can't even fly home from Boston.
posted by maryr at 8:45 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The media has had some doom and gloom stories surrounding Virgin America, Silicon Valley’s startup airline, recently. Time wondered if the airline was like a TV show that was a hit with critics but was facing cancellation. Bloomberg quoted an analyst who said the airline would need a “major restructuring” in order to survive.

“We obviously don’t agree with that,” David Cush, the airline’s CEO told me in an interview. “Not only are we not in danger, we’re projecting a profit for the fourth quarter.”

Virgin America CEO navigates turbulent skies

posted by purpleclover at 7:00 PM on November 19, 2012


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