The cheapest way from London to Paris: Bus service for £15

Backpackers rejoice. Eurolines, a part of UK bus carrier National Express has reduced the fare of their bus service from London to Paris, a hotly competitive route currently served by dozens of air and rail carriers. To date, Eurostar and budget air carriers have fought hard over the route, with fares on either sinking as low as $100 round trip.

Currently, one of the most common inexpensive routes taken is via low cost carrier such as Easyjet, where non-peak flights can often be found for a bargain. Eurostar, conversely, delivers passengers from city-center to city-center without security hassles and sometimes in just as much travel time.

With Eurolines, passengers can pay as little as £15 ($24 as of August 2010) for one way fare between the two cities. Travel time? Seven hours, and there’s even an over night bus that leaves at 11PM. For those without a tight schedule though, that’s a lot of money saved.

Make sure you book your tickets far in advance though, like with most carriers the £15 fares are probably in short supply.


Designing Air New Zealand’s new long haul configurations

Air New Zealand‘s marketing team is well underway promoting their new cabin configurations that we reported on earlier this year. The designs, which our very own Kent Wien covered in a series of on-the-ground dispatches, are set to vastly improve the business class and coach experiences, with redesigned business class cabins and lie-flat sections implemented in economy.

The highly dramatic version of the design process is summed up in the Youtube video below. We can’t wait to take the new configurations for a spin.

[Via Mike Lee]

Coach cabin revolution — Air New Zealand adds beds in economy

Innovation may have played a part in Air New Zealand’s eight-year quest for renewed profitability.

As Kathryn Gregory, director of marketing for the Americas region recently said, “We like to look at what the other airlines are doing in their marketing and then… don’t do that.”

If you’ve been keeping track of the Air New Zealand inflight safety demo and their recent matchmaking flights, it’s clear that they’re setting their own course while keeping the brand edgy and fresh.

But the company knows that it’s not all just marketing and promotions. Their inflight product needs to maintain the quality that recently earned them the coveted ATW Airline of the Year award.Air New Zealand currently offers a Premium Plus Economy seating that doesn’t stop at just a few more inches of legroom for the front part of the coach cabin. Dining options are also enhanced to mirror more of the business class meals on their long-haul service and it’s been very well received.

And two years ago, the airline added in-flight concierges who can assist everyone with their onward flight arrangements, itineraries they may wish to adjust at their destination, scheduling issues with weather disruption and managing their frequent flyer miles. This even includes passengers traveling in economy.

At a time when airlines strive to be just a smidgen better than their competition, it would seem Air New Zealand could rest easily with their comfortable lead over other airlines.

But Roger Poulton, vice president of the Americas for Air New Zealand, said that to stay ahead, it was important to forgo some of the standard Boeing options in aircraft seating and to spend the time and money needed to design their own product. They also realized that Economy and Economy Plus passengers shouldn’t be forsaken and that families flying together represented a large portion of their passengers.


It took years, but the results not only put Air New Zealand in the front of the industry but also might just change how other long-haul airlines look at the coach cabin in the future. Knowing that if word got out about their plans they would lose part of their lead, they’ve secretly been working on a new layout that has finally been revealed to the public.

The coach seats have been completely re-designed by Recaro, including eleven rows of three seats on each side of the cabin dubbed “Skycouches” that are available for families and couples who want the ability to buy an entire row. Couples who buy the third seat will only play need to pay half the price for the third seat.

Interior seats will not be able to convert to a Skycouch.

While it’s still not possible to stretch your legs out straight without them extending into the aisle, the Skycouch design will likely be very popular for economy travelers and especially for families traveling together. Parents could purchase two seats in the center of the cabin, and then a row of three across from them where the kids can lay out and sleep.

Internally at Air New Zealand, they’ve referred to the Skycouch seats as “Spoon Seats” since the design lends itself well to that sleeping position for couples.

To convert the seat, a button in the armrest allows you to pop up the modified footrest. It’s then necessary to snap the rest into place, making for a solid bed when all three are in place. The design is stressed for three hundred pounds, and it has a rather solid feel. The seat cushions align perfectly with each other, providing for a very smooth surface to stretch out on.

A foot net provides for more comfortable leg position options, presumably so your feet don’t impede the aisle.

Every economy seat will have an improved ‘sleep pillow’ headrest and PC power, USB and iPod connections.

A new feature has been added throughout the cabin, called Snacks on Demand, which allows passengers to order more food using the inflight entertainment screen in between the three course meal service.

After meals are served from the redesigned galley, ‘onboard events’ will be offered, including wine tasting, a destination seminar or kids story time using the 23″ mounted galley monitor. This area was modified to avoid looking like a kitchen and more like a lounge area where passengers can help themselves to snacks and drinks.

These changes apply to the new Boeing 777-300 aircraft that are being delivered starting in November of this year. Initially the Auckland to Los Angeles flight will see this aircraft and eventually this reconfiguration will make its way to other aircraft in the long-haul fleet.

Gadling had the opportunity to see the new seating configuration up close during the unveiling in Auckland at a building that had to be well hidden from the local press who have been relentlessly trying to learn details about the rumored seating changes. Recaro will be building the seats in Fort Worth, Texas.

If the prying media had only known that the building where the design work was being done was just two blocks from the Air New Zealand headquarters. The location was obvious on the morning of the event, when a huge sign that said “Hangar 9” and featured the Air New Zealand logo was unveiled and gave away the secret location.

Group General Manager, Ed Sims said that while the Skycouch experience is owned by Air New Zealand, other airlines that aren’t competing directly with the company would be able to license the design. He mentioned that when Boeing first viewed the work they’ve accomplished at Hangar 9, the airline manufacturer was convinced that this represented the future of air travel.

Initially, the company was working on a staggered seat design. They were pretty sure the offering would be a successful way to give people more room, but when they tested the mockup with focus groups, they found people uncomfortable with the lack of privacy from the people just behind or in front of them. There was a sense they needed to watch their belongings more and that people could see everything they were doing.

It wasn’t just Air New Zealand’s work in economy cabin that is going to change air travel. They have also redesigned their Premium Economy seats, creating a solution for passengers who want more privacy while at the same time satisfying those who prefer to sit together as a couple. Be sure to check out our video from the unveiling to see the Skycouch in action.

The pride in the new corporate culture at Air New Zealand is evident in every employee that we came across, from the flight attendants to management. They’re exceedingly proud of their country and many of the flight attendants told us they felt they had a responsibility at Air New Zealand to represent their country as well.

With this revolutionary design, it has become much easier for families to experience the Kiwi culture in person on what could be a restful twelve hour flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Auckland.




Airlines: why it always has to come down to price

Imagine what would be pretty much a perfect world, at least for airline CEOs. You’re running a reasonable profit – let’s say 10 percent, enough to keep the shareholders off their backs. And, they’re growing annually at a low double-digit rate, as well. Again, the shareholders are seeing an upside, so there’s no pressure on the airline’s management. Since the numbers being posted are healthy, the need for cutthroat competition evaporates, and passengers make their choices by destination and service, the latter playing a minor role, because in this perfect world, service is pretty much consistent (and high) from one airline to the next.

Blissful, right? Well, it’s just about impossible.

What shatters this fantasy, in which Santa‘s the pilot and the tooth fairy is pushing the drink cart, is the concept of price. The travel market – like any market – doesn’t carve itself up neatly into the best possible outcomes for all involved. Some people make fantastic decisions, while others behave like morons. The leaders of each company think they can find an edge. Even in the perfect world described above, the mere possibility of an advantage can send the whole system into mayhem, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The perfectly coordinated airline industry has a practical barrier. Such harmonizing is also known as “collusion.” And, it’s illegal. Just imagine every grocery store in your neighborhood setting the same prices. In doing so, they could guarantee themselves a tidy profit, as long as all agree not to break ranks. Now, if the airlines did this, they could basically set the prices they want, regardless of service. In fact, if all agreed to provide shitty service for a universally high price, you’d be screwed.

A lesser form of this is regulation. The prices are fixed, and there are no secrets about it. We tried this for a while in the United States, and I’ve heard great things about the experience of flying in those days. But, the thought of the government setting prices for anything makes me a tad uncomfortable. Business owners should be free to make a profit that reflects their hard work and skill.

So, we are where we are now … which is pretty ugly. Most airlines are struggling to keep planes in the air. Bankruptcy announcements are not met with surprise (unlike profitable quarters). Even the layman, who knows nothing about the air transportation industry, knows that the airlines are screwed up. The challenge is finding where the blame needs to go and fixing the problem. While it’s pretty easy to beat up the airlines on this one, the reality is that the system as a whole is pretty close to unsustainable.

Fares sell by price
We may complain about having to pay for soda or not getting those crappy little pillows and blankets (which we complained about getting before they were taken away), but we still beeline for the cheapest flights available. Need proof? I’ve heard countless people wonder aloud about an airline that charged just a little more for something resembling customer service. Yet, those wheels never go up. Meanwhile, Ryanair plans to get rid of some seats and creating a standing room only section on its flights and will probably sell tickets for those torture devices before filling the cheap regular seats on the plane. We’re addicted to cheap. If there were real demand for anything slightly better than what we have now, it would exist.

There’s a reason fares sell by price
Sure, there are travelers with a little extra disposable income, and they’d pay for a class that’s lightly better than coach. Maybe they’d shell out an extra $50 or $100 – maybe more. But, there’s always the squeal point. The squeal point, per ticket, gets lower when multipliers are involved. I’d pay an extra $100 for a little more legroom and coffee in a ceramic mug. Seriously. I don’t need a pillow or a blanket; I really don’t even give a damn about getting a smile. I just want to stretch out a little and sip my coffee from a civilized receptacle. Here’s the problem: if I fly with my wife, that $100 luxury becomes $200. If we were a family of four, it would jump to $400. Legroom isn’t worth that much.

For the business travelers, the situation is even more severe. It’s easy to figure that these guys would go for the extras because they don’t have to pay for it. Well, that’s true. But, someone does. These guys are accountable to the people who write the checks. Would a client notice a weekly expense bill that’s $100 higher? Probably not. When I lived that life, I’d run up $3,000 to $5,000 in travel expenses a week. Flight prices changed from time to time. The $100 wouldn’t be noticed. If someone did notice, he probably wouldn’t care.

But, we have to deal with the multiplier.

If you have 100 consultants or other professionals on a project where each has a weekly flight and hotel stay for an entire year (call it 50 weeks to leave room for vacation), the money adds up fast. The extra $100 becomes $5,000 per traveler. For the entire project team, this small taste of luxury would amount to half a million dollars … which would be noticed and to which the client would object. Business travelers are constantly pressured to keep expenses as low as possible, which takes us right back to buying on price. With business travel off substantially this year, we’re experiencing this dynamic today.

Airlines have to live with this
Since customers make their decisions based on the cost of a ticket, this is how airlines have to position themselves in the market. Being the best can mean going out of business. Instead, an airline has to be the cheapest for a particular route in order to win in the market – there’s no alternative to this. That’s why people complain about the service they get; if they weren’t flying these airlines, they wouldn’t be complaining.

So, to succeed, an airline has to make the calculated decision that anything can be sacrificed in the name of low prices. Whatever misery is inflicted on the passengers, they’ll accept it – they made that decision when they bought their tickets. I’m not trying to be mean, here, just honest. We’re not talking about Santa any more.

The market has evolved into one in which passengers have little likelihood of being happy … in part because they are making the conscious decision to fly that way. As long as price is king, the airlines have few levers they can pull.

Of course, this isn’t universal. There are some airlines with excellent financial track records (Southwest comes to mind immediately), and their flights can be decent, even enjoyable. While customer service is an obvious way to make even a no-frills flight much better, there are structural problems in the industry that have to be overcome. An obvious thought is that the big airlines should cut back to be more like their smaller, regional counterparts, which tend to do a better job of running profitably.

Let’s think through this.

First, cutting some routes can cause a chain reaction of change in the vast network that an airline traces around the world. There aren’t any easy answers here, but it can be done. Many airlines have cut back on flights and cities this year and have lived to tell about it. Take it to the extreme. The large airlines carve themselves up into little guys, run their routes and post strong earnings. Unfortunately, profits are intoxicating – and shareholders will want more. Eventually, this requires growth into new markets (e.g., adding routes) or acquiring other airlines. It may take a while, but the airline industry would eventually return to where it is today … and would assume the problems it has now.

Doing the right thing, essentially, would lead the industry back to doing the wrong thing.

The exceptions to the rule
Alternatives do exist for passengers who want more than the claustrophobic experience that is coach. Business class and first class come to mind. The problem is that the gap is far too wide – both in terms of amenities and cost. Most coach passengers could be fairly happy with much less than business and first offer. Unfortunately, it’s all or nothing, and the prices reflect the “all.”

There are passengers who pay the extra cost for these improved offerings, but there’s always a reason. They may have the financial means to make the decision easy. Or, in the corporate world, they reside far enough up the food chain that corporate travel policies favor them.

The super-luxury travel market has plenty of services available for passengers who don’t buy on price. You could use an exclusive service (though many of them have fallen on tough times), get a private jet share or simply buy your own wings. Again, this is far more than the legroom and ceramic mug I’m looking for.

Of course, even these upscale services aren’t making as much as the airlines had hoped, even at lower prices.

Why even collusion wouldn’t work
Let’s circle back to where we started, that imaginary airline industry in which everything is perfect. Even that is doomed to failure. Take regulation out of the picture (that’s a whole different animal), and think about airlines in which passengers can get something slightly better than what we have now. They pay a little more, but air travel is no longer a dehumanizing experience.

Now, think about a smoke-filled backroom in which a guy with a new idea is surrounded by cigar-chomping investors.

“I have something for you. I want to start an airline. Yes, I know that the guys in the market now have gotten together to fix their prices – it’s an open secret. But, I’m not going to play ball with them. I figure we can cut prices and run at a thinner margin. What we lose per flight we’ll make up in volume. Hell, people will buy on price, and they’ll flock to us. We’ll grow like mad.

“The other airlines will try to make a play on service, on how they give a little extra legroom and coffee in a ceramic mug. But, we’ll only need to say, ‘We’re cheaper.’

“It starts with short flights. If you’re only flying from Boston to New York, do you really need the extra legroom? How about Boston to Washington? The slope is awfully slippery. Next thing you know, people will go for the cheaper fares on flights from New England to Orlando … and then Orlando to Los Angeles. Finally, they’ll cut their comfort when they cross oceans.

“And, they’ll be flying our airline.”

The investors would be fools not to drive dump trucks up to this guy and unload their cash at his feet … at first. For a while, this airline would dominate the skies. But, the others would catch on. One by one, they’d break ranks from the agreement to keep their prices high, and they wouldn’t stop until the industry looks a lot like it does today.

What the airlines can do
It looks like the airlines are out of options. They are doomed to a low-margin (at best) existence in which cost-cutting, layoffs and disgruntled passengers are the norm. A Hobbesian state of nature will always play itself out at the gate. Knees will always poke chins in increasingly compact quarters.

This doesn’t mean the airlines are powerless to make the experience better, though. Even with small seats and no meals, there are plenty of ways to win on service. A smile can go a long way. Being polite can defuse a nasty situation.

Of course, none of this addresses the cost and price pressures and their impacts on the industry. But, does anyone think that’ll ever change?

Air New Zealand turns unsold coach seats into your new bed

Air New Zealand may be coming one step closer to solving the hell that is long haul coach. Starting next April, the airline plans to sell unsold coach class seats to passengers.

Now, an empty seat certainly is worth something, but the airline will take that one step further by turning these empty seats into a lie-flat bed.

The description does not go into too much detail, but apparently by sliding the seats forward and raising the foot rest, the seats will allow you to lie down flat and grab a couple of hours of sleep. The new seat design is the brainchild of Altitude Aerospace Interiors, an Air New Zealand subsidiary.

Empty seats will sell for $150, which is about in line with what I’d be willing to pay for the luxury of sleeping in coach.

According to aviation analysts, the design has the potential of earning the airline an additional $60 million each year.

If Air New Zealand can pull this off, they’ll be the first airline to offer lie-flat beds in coach, hopefully starting a trend that other airlines are eager to copy.