March 29, 2002
Rediscovering the Friendly Skies
IN HARD TIMES, SKY-HIGH PERKS ARE APPRECIATED MORE
THAN EVER. BUT WITH SOME AIRLINES EVEN CUTTING OUT MEALS, PERKS ARE HARD
by Stefanie Berry Stark
It used to be taken for granted that lunch on a five-hour
flight departing at 10 in the morning was a given, especially in first
class. Not anymore. Just ask Gloria Bohan, president and CEO of Fairfax-based
Omega World Travel. This top executive of one of the largest travel agencies
in the United States (with sales revenues in excess of $750 million annually)
found her stomach grumbling on a recent America West flight from Ft. Lauderdale,
FL, to Phoenix, AZ. "They didn't serve anything for five hours except
peanuts," marvels Bohan. Worse, passengers were not informed before
boarding that no meal would be served, so many, including Bohan, did not
eat in advance or carry on a meal of their own. "With the hassle
of flying now, and there's a certain amount of fear factor, airlines need
to assuage people, give a few creature comforts," says Bohan, as
she reflects on the air travel industry today.
But, for many airlines, shrinking profit margins were an issue even before
last fall's terrorist attacks, which made things much worse. Many airlines
are dealing with dramatic losses in a day-by-day style, with the attitude
that desperate times call for desperate cost-cutting measures. Some stopped
offering in-flight movies and magazines. Others closed secondary airport
clubs or reduced club hours. Perks you thought were as standard as your
seatbelt have vanished. In perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of
cutbacks, US Airways stopped offering pillows and blankets on most flights
to save on its laundry bill, only to bring them back after customers complained.
And establishing that a meal is indeed a perk these days, when asked what
extras the well-respected Alaska Airlines is offering, spokesman Jack
Walsh replied, "One of the most significant thingsÉis that
we still have meals at mealtimes on most of our flights."
Beyond airline cuts are other frustrations, like having to get to the
airport two hours ahead of your flight and the long lines and sometimes-invasive
searches at security checkpoints. Given the extra time now spent in the
airport, same-day business trips are almost a thing of the past. Perhaps
now more than ever, passengers want to be treated well once onboard. But
there's often little if any choice when it comes to which airline to fly,
if travelers opt for direct flights and factor their schedules in. "Usually,
there's one airline that dominates the route," says Mark Ein, founder
and CEO of Venturehouse Group, a private equity financing company in Washington.
But what if you had more choice? Which airline might you choose? Some
airlines are particularly focused on customer satisfaction and are managing
to keep their passengers happy. Others have slipped, including US Airways.
Yes, it offers a number of flights from Washington, particularly from
Reagan National, and you may not notice any change on its short-haul flights,
particularly popular business routes. But once-loyal US Airways customers
say they have noticed cutbacks, from the lack of meals (even in first
class) to significantly fewer frequent-flyer code-sharing options, in
which an airline can expand its network by establishing sharing relationships
with other airlines, often based in a different country.
To find the best airline service, along with creature comforts and maybe
even top-notch perks, you have to know where to look. Here's a comparison
of two airlines, at opposite ends of the perk spectrum. United, said by
some to be the worst-run airline, nonetheless has a ton of flights, which
business travelers love. Virgin Atlantic, on the other hand, excels at
the high end of customer care.
Despite its record losses (a little more than $2 billion last year) United
offers 1,650 flights a day on its worldwide network, including many non-stops
from Washington to the Midwest and West Coast, along with a number of
international flights. "It's a big airline with lots of planes,"
says Eduardo Sanchez, vice president of worldwide sales for McLean-based
MicroStrategy, who travels by plane as often as three to four times a
week. "They offer quite competitive rates, but most important is
the number of flights," he continues, explaining that more planes
equals more flights, and that equals more options and destinations.
Erica Barnes-Thomas, director of business development for the Advisory
Board Company, also favors United. She clocks about 100,000 airborne miles
a year domestically and says she'll "move mountains" to fly
United. "They're pretty good with upgrade certificates, and the seats
are great with great neck rests, even in economy class."
Ah, the seats. In a new "economy plus" section of its coach
class, United has reconfigured the seats to better accommodate business
travelers in economy, particularly frequent flyers unable to upgrade to
first class. The first six to 11 rows of coach (depending on the type
of plane) now offer as much as 5 inches of additional legroom. But in
terms of seats, where United really shines is in first class on international
overnight flights. Frequent international business traveler David Rutchik,
who has served as a senior executive for the past few years at Diveo Broadband
Networks (a facilities-based Internet infrastructure and communications
provider to Latin American businesses), praises what he calls "pods,"
saying that they are the most comfortable out there. United calls these
super seats "first suites." They transform into beds (they lie
flat open at 180 degrees) complete with a mattress pad, an extra-large
fluffy pillow and a comforter.
Rutchik estimates he earned about 300,000 frequent-flyer miles last year,
mostly on United, which he considers one of the best airlines. He holds
"premier executive 1K status" (the highest frequent-flyer membership
level, requiring a minimum of 100,000 paid miles in a calendar year),
and Rutchik appreciates the many upgrades to business and first class
he's received as a result. But gone are the days when top-dog treatment
included extra, sometimes unofficial, perks like waived ticket change
fees. "Before, they were more flexible," says Rutchik. "Now
they're beyond strict. I get charged $100 for any change I make."
He's also noticed that food service used to be better and can't help being
disappointed that Godiva chocolates are no longer served on international
business and first-class flights. Those premium chocolates were popular
- a little extra that had a big effect. Another United first-class customer
was deeply disappointed when she was recently told, "Honey, those
days are gone," after requesting a piece of the chocolate from a
VIRGIN ATLANTIC AIRWAYS
Sometimes the perks really make a difference. On Virgin Atlantic, particularly
in its upper class (which most airlines call first class), the extras
are so plentiful (and playful), you might forget we're talking about an
airline. For premium service, only Singapore Airlines, which is considered
by most to be in a class of its own, beats Virgin in Zagat's 2001 airline
survey of international carriers. (Alas, Singapore does not serve the
Most upper-class passengers start enjoying the Virgin experience at their
home or office, where complimentary limo service picks them up and takes
them to the airport. Then, on the other end of the flight, another driver
will be waiting for them at the airport, ready to drive to the final destination.
This ultimate luxury perk can end up saving a bundle in cab fares, but
check in advance to make sure you'll get it if you're not paying full-fare
- some discounted upper-class tickets won't include the service.
Virgin is innovative and hip when it comes to top-notch perks, and the
airline has fun along the way. Even economy passengers rave about it,
though some say legroom is scarce and, if possible, an upgrade to premium
economy is worth it. It'll bring extras like its own check-in line for
quicker service, preflight champagne and more comfortable and spacious
seats. But again, it's in upper class that Virgin really makes its mark.
As if a chauffeured ride wasn't enough, if you're flying from Gatwick
or Heathrow, you can sit back and relax with drive-through check-in made
possible by a computer in the limo (your boarding card will be waiting
for you once you get inside).
Outfitted in bold colors, the first-class cabin offers state-of-the-art
electronic seats with recline settings that ultimately extend to more
than 6 feet of flat sleeping space. So comfortable are the chairs that
passengers might want to skip taking a seat at the bar. But then again,
maybe stretching your legs is a good thing. In most upper-class cabins,
you're free to pull up a barstool anytime enjoy wine, spirits and snacks.
But there's more. Upper-class passengers on most flights also get the
chance to enjoy a complimentary massage or manicure, given in a private
area dedicated to on-board spa services. With perks like these, the more
standard cabin comforts offered, such as tasty meal service, friendly
service and individual entertainment systems seem rather ordinary, even
though they're not.