Weather Events Send Aircraft, Cruise Ships Running

When weather events cause travel disruptions, most people planning a vacation or business trip to an affected area have to change their plans. Airports and roads close, flights are diverted and destinations may be damaged or destroyed. Suddenly, the best travel plan has gaping holes in it that need instant attention. The good news is that many travel service providers stand by to help.

Right now, a massive superstorm, caused by the rendezvous of hurricane Sandy and two other big winter storms, is aimed at locations 800 miles inland up and down the U.S. East Coast and experts are worried.

“We’re looking at impact of greater than 50 to 60 million people,” said Louis Uccellini, head of environmental prediction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an Associated Press report.

Those with travel plans on either side of the storm are scrambling to reschedule. Airlines are waiving change fees for travelers who want to change their flights in and out of the growing area to be affected by the storm. It’s not something they have to do, but as travel service providers, airlines want to minimize the inconvenience to their customers.

Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines and others are allowing air travelers to rebook flights starting Sunday for travel to and from a variety of Eastern U.S. airports.

Airlines are urging booked passengers to check the status of their flight frequently. Another good idea is to have a backup plan in place. If travelers have those potentially affected flights entered in smartphone app TripIt, for example, alternate flights are readily available. Signing up for email and/or text alerts from your airline provides additional information.

Similar in formation to 1991’s perfect storm when hurricane Grace joined a nor’easter and a cold front, this one looks to be far more powerful. That 1991 storm never came ashore. This one will.

Now, travel via cruise ship suddenly has a bit more allure. Unlike land-based travel destinations, cruise ships can, do and have moved out of harms way. Those booked on a cruise vacation will have less disruption than, say, those planning a trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey where casinos are closed and mandatory evacuations are happening.

Most of the time.

This storm is so big that in addition to normal itinerary modifications, ports are closing and entire sailings of a few ships have been cancelled. Carnival Cruise Line has canceled the October 28 sailing of Carnival Glory, not because of the storm, but due to a situation at the Norfolk Cruise Terminal. Positioned behind a major flood gate, which will will be closed to protect the city, there will be no access to the cruise terminal.

Regardless of the method of travel, this is where having a good travel agent in our back pocket comes in handy. Frankly, providing assistance to travelers in a time of emergency is probably one of the least common tasks that agents do. But in a situation like this, when surfing the Internet to make alternate plans can burn up valuable time that might have snagged a seat on the next flight out, travel agents shine.

Armed with information on all flights, hotels, cruise lines and other travel service providers at their fingertips, a good full-service travel agent can be the most efficient way to save the day.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user by ph_zainabe]

Airline Passengers Want More Quick Self-Service Options

The Airline Passengers Bill of Rights gave air travelers compensation when bumped, a refund of fees for lost baggage, a ban on hidden fees and more. Now, airline passengers want more control via self-service and mobile-based offerings to reduce stress during travel according a survey released this week.

“What passengers really want is to avoid delays and to be kept informed of what is happening,” said Francesco Violante, CEO, SITA in a Travel Daily News report. “Nearly everyone surveyed said they would welcome any queue-busting services and 89% voted self-boarding as their top technology.”

Among findings in the survey;

  • 79% of passengers use online check-in regularly or occasionally
  • 68% prefer automated bag drop as opposed to checking it with an agent
  • 62% of passengers use social media, a higher rate than the general population
  • It’s not that today’s air traveler is anti-social; 80% of younger travelers (18-24) are active on social media, compared to 39% of the over-55s but neither group really wants to buy travel via their smartphone
  • The number of passengers with smartphones rose over the past year from 54% to 70%, fueling the desire for more self-service options

The Air Transport World (ATW) seventh annual survey was conducted with 2,526 passengers from more than 70 countries, a representative sampling of the 280 million passengers who pass through six of the world’s leading airports each year at Abu Dhabi, Atlanta, Beijing, Frankfurt, Mumbai and São Paulo.

[Flickr photo by ericksonkee]

Aircraft Boarding Challenges Bring Innovative Designs

Boarding commercial aircraft, from a traveler’s point of view, is all about getting to our seats, stowing gear and getting underway. We hope to have overhead bin space available, a reasonably comfortable seat and an on-time departure. Airlines are right there with us on the getting to our seats part and getting underway; they could not agree more. It’s a major issue so aircraft designers devote a lot of time and resources to making the whole process efficient.

Airlines want the boarding process to go as fast as it can for a couple big reasons. They want to stay on time, sure. But the less time they spend boarding passengers, the more flights they can fit in a day. As airlines cut back on the number of flights, choosing to insure full, profitable planes, they are constantly looking for ways to increase that efficiency.

One way might be slider seats that promise quicker boarding.Using the new Molon Labe Designs approach during boarding, the aisle seat slides on top of the middle seat, creating a 43-inch wide aisle. That gives boarding passengers much more room to navigate, stow gear and be seated. When boarding on each row is completed, the aisle seat then slides back into position.

The manufacturer promises they can cut loading time in half, adding up to 120 minutes flying time every day. Good news for airlines that could fly the same number of passengers with up to 15 percent fewer aircraft. But what about passengers?

“I’m not going to tell you it’s a comfortable seat,” Hank Scott, founder of the company said in a LA Times article. “It’s a quick, turn-around seat.” A prototype is due in November and the company has presented the idea to Boeing and Airbus.

Like it or not, aircraft seating is a huge topic to designers. The amount of time it takes to board passengers is on the table for discussion. To those with mobility issues, its also about the indignity and discrimination they face boarding aircraft.

Air Access is a concept designed by Priestmangoode that speeds up the boarding process for passengers with reduced mobility by enabling an easier transition from gate to aircraft. Air Access is a detachable wheelchair the passenger gets in at the departure gate or on the jet way. After seating, the passenger is wheeled onto the plane where the chair slides sideways and locks into the fixed-frame aisle seat without the passenger needing to get up.

On arrival, ground staff unlocks the seat, slide it out into the aisle and wheel the passenger to the jet way or arrival gate as we see in this video:

[Flickr photo by Slices of Life]

United Airlines Puts First North American Dreamliner In The Air

Over the weekend, United Airlines put the first of 50 Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft in the air. Said to be the most technologically advanced aircraft ever built, the 787 will initially be used by United on international flights to Asia, Africa and Europe. But first, a series of domestic flights will showcase the aircraft around the United States.

“As the North American launch customer, we are delighted to be getting our first 787 Dreamliner,” said Jeff Smisek, president and chief executive of United in a Seattle Post Intelligencer article.” As we continue to build the world’s leading airline, we are excited for our customers and co-workers to experience this game-changing aircraft.”

And experience it they will. After an October filled with proving/validation flights and training activities, the new Dreamliner will fly out of United’s Houston (IAH) hub with daily service to San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX), Denver (DEN) and Newark (EWR). Six times a week, the new aircraft will fly to Chicago (ORD) with special one-time flights to Washington (IAD) and Cleveland (CLE).In addition to unprecedented operating efficiency, comfort and lower emissions, the Dreamliner has a host of passenger-friendly features too. Passengers will notice 30 percent larger windows and larger overhead storage bins for today’s roll-aboard bags. Improved lighting, cabins pressurized at 6,000 feet rather than the 8,000-foot mark typical for commercial passenger aircraft and higher humidity levels will help with fatigue, headaches and jet lag.

“United now begins a new chapter with the 787 Dreamliner,” said Smisek, “the most technologically advanced commercial jetliner ever built.”

Here is video of that first 787 Dreamliner being rolled out of the paint shop at Boeing late last week:

Want to see inside the new Dreamliner? Go with Gadling’s Zach Honig Inside United’s First 787 Dreamliner At Boeing HQ

Photo- United Airlines

Five reasons the airlines don’t need to care about you

I’m getting on a plane next week, and I’m not looking forward to it. This will be yet another long, painful flight this year – and I’ve already had more than I have in a while. Though I’m getting used to this sort of business travel again, I can’t say that I like it. All the time spent in transit, quite frankly, blows.

It isn’t unusual at this point to lament the state of customer service in an industry that won’t even call us customers. How nice it would be to be treated well and given a product worth consuming, right? Well, we all know that isn’t going to happen. And the truth is that there’s no reason for it.

The airline industry really wouldn’t benefit from making our lives better, while the impact of the status quo on airline shareholders is as positive as it is evident. Let’s take a look at five reasons why it would be stupid for the airlines to start treating us better:
1. You get what you pay for: when I booked my flight to London (my upcoming trip), one thing mattered: price. I went with Delta, and it’s been years since I’ve had a good experience on that carrier. That didn’t matter to me, though. Price did.

Even if good service were a differentiator, it probably wouldn’t cause sales to surge. If you don’t pay extra for leg room or other forms of premium seating, then you definitely wouldn’t pay more for a ticket on an airline committed to customer service.

2. The current model seems to be working: a la carte pricing, extra fees and few (if any) amenities – along with route cuts and other operational changes – have taken the airlines out of the red and into the black. They’re making money, which really is the only reason they exist.

The fact that people gripe doesn’t mean they aren’t responding to the product. We’re spending a lot of money on extras … because we want them. Lower fares, net of amenities, provide travel consumers with the starting place they want. They can add (and pay) if they choose. In this market, service just isn’t a priority.

3. The right people are happy: the first thing you’ll learn in any business ethics course is that a company’s primary obligation is to its shareholders. So, if a company can create shareholder wealth while pissing off its customers, then it should probably stay the course. The airline industry, generally, has been doing this.

If shareholders are happy, we don’t have to be. If customer service becomes a problem for airlines to the point that it causes sales to drop, then the shareholders won’t be happy, and customer service becomes a priority.

4. Expectations are low and probably won’t change: let’s say you’re an airline executive, and you want to rehabilitate your company’s image. What would you have to do? The answer is pretty simple: spend a lot of money. You’d have to invest in equipment, operations, training and (after that) marketing. You’d have to change the business fundamentally, and it would cost a fortune. Would you do all this just to keep your customers happy? In all likelihood, you’d do it only if the financial upside were sufficient to justify the hefty investment. The outcome you’d need, however, doesn’t seem likely in this market.

It’s not impossible. JetBlue did turn itself around a few years ago, becoming an efficient and customer-friendly organization. It’s a smaller airline, though, which made the process easier. Also, there were issues beyond customer service that made such a bold change necessary.

5. You wouldn’t appreciate it anyway: why? Let’s face it – we buy on price. It keeps coming back to that. We want cheap, and airlines want profit. The airlines have found a way to deliver the former in a way that enables the latter. The travel industry and its consumers appear to have found some degree of balance in this regard. Ultimately, we really don’t care much about service … so why should the airlines?

[photo by Refracted Moments via Flickr]