The continuing rise of Gulf state carriers

gulf state carriers

The rise of Gulf state carriers continues to impress. These airlines, which have defined themselves in part as hub-and-spoke carriers linking Europe (and the eastern coast of North America) to Asia, have developed exciting route maps over the last several years with a particularly strong reach into the Arabian Peninsula and India.

While other airlines have recently attempted to develop their hub airports for intercontinental hub-and-spoke connections as well – Finnair‘s recasting of Helsinki as a northern Europe-Asia hub is one example – the Gulf carriers really stand out in global terms.

Yet, awareness of their services remains far lower than it should be among Americans, despite the presence of Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways at a handful of major US airports.

The Gulf state carriers’ key consumer product is a luxury flight with premium class service and a truly over-the-top experience on all three airlines. On Emirates, first class passengers are treated to private suites. Etihad’s Diamond First Class features flatbeds, personal mini-bars, and anytime dining, while Qatar Airways’ First Class offers turndown service with an amenity kit including products by Prada. With perks like these, it is clear that these carriers are establishing new standards for premium class service.

Even in coach, however, these airlines are delivering a decent product. I experienced the Qatar Airways economy treatment on a recent mid-haul journey from London, via Doha, and back. There was more legroom than in standard coach and the ongoing parade of meals and snacks was, if not exactly delicious, then without question, a cut above average airplane food.

Route maps, however, provide the most interesting dimension of the rise of the Gulf state carriers. While there is quite a bit of overlap between airlines, each airline covers some original territory. Let’s look at where these airlines fly.Etihad flies from Chicago, New York, and (as of March 31) Washington, D.C., to Abu Dhabi. Etihad also flies direct routes between most major European hubs and Abu Dhabi, in addition to a few surprising ports of call (Minsk, anyone?). In addition to eight destinations in India, Etihad’s more popular Asian destinations from Abu Dhabi include Bangkok, Colombo, the Maldives, and Seychelles.

Qatar Airways links Houston, New York, and Washington, D.C., to Doha. The airline flies to 31 destinations in Europe (including 2012 launches), 12 destinations in India, four in Pakistan, and four in China. Other destinations of note include Zanzibar, Ho Chi Minh City, and Denpasar.

Emirates boasts the best links to the US of all with direct connections from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, and New York to Dubai. Of these, Seattle and Dallas are new routes. The former begins on March 1 and the latter route kicked off on February 2. Emirates’ reach is particularly remarkable. The airline flies to 28 destinations in Europe, 15 destinations in sub-Saharan Africa, 10 destinations in India, and four in Australia; all but a handful of these routes are direct.

With beefed up links to major US airports, premium services to lure business and moneyed travelers, and route maps that show no sign of contracting, the Gulf state carriers look set to be important long-haul standbys for some time to come.

[Image: Flickr | jmmcdgll]

Business travelers told to be logical with tickets

In a move that’s shocking because it’s sensible, corporate travel managers are pushing business travelers to make decisions that aren’t stupid. In the past two years, 75 percent of companies in North America have changed their travel policies, with cost-cutting a major motivation. First and business class have become more and more elite in the white collar set, thanks to more restrictive policies, in an effort to put more business travelers in the sky at as low a cost as possible.

But, the need for cost containment isn’t resulting in idiocy. Rather, employees are being told to look for the “lowest logical fare.” Basically, this is “the lowest-priced fare that doesn’t cause travelers to take wildly circuitous routes, cause them to miss important engagements, incur an extra night in a hotel or lose productivity,” reports USA Today.

The report continues:

North American companies, which spent an estimated $48.7 billion on airline tickets in 2009, could save almost $30 billion combined annually if they instituted and enforced stricter travel policies that required non-refundable tickets or the lowest logical fare. That’s according to the survey’s publishers, Egencia and the National Business Travel Association Foundation.

Christophe Peymirat, vice president of global marketing at Egencia, Expedia‘s corporate travel arm, observes, “Based on our research, companies … can save as much as 38% by encouraging travelers to be flexible.” Departure times two hours before or after the desired flight and less-expensive connecting flights (rather than non-stop) are ways this could happen.

Luxury air travel not taking off

While other areas in the travel industry are talking about a recovery, luxury travel remains in rough shape. In fact, it’s only on long-haul flights that the big spenders are even asking for upgrades, let alone chartering flights or firing up their own planes. According to Peter Yesawich, CEO of travel marketing firm Ypartnership, “Luxury air travel has essentially been grounded.”

Meanwhile, the airlines are struggling for ways to restore the revenue they used to be able to pull in from its top passengers. Notes Yesawich, “It’s said that real profit in any flight is front of plane. The rest covers the overhead.”

While Delta and British Airways are playing with in-flight amenities for first class passengers, such as showers, it doesn’t compare to the relatively blissful conditions offered on the likes of Eos, which no longer exists. People with private jets are buying airline tickets more often, it seems, though fractional jet ownership remains fairly popular among those with means to access it.

Despite the shift in conditions, one thing remains true, according to Mike Weingart of Travel Leaders: “The super rich fly anyway they want.”

How to get an upgrade to first or business class (and how not to)

For some reason, the topic of “how to get upgraded” pops up on almost every travel site. And in most cases, the information provided in them is exactly the same as every other similar article. One thing they all have in common is that the tips are a mix of old information, incorrect information and complete lies.

So, we’ve collected some of those tips to explain what does not work – and most importantly – what does work.
What does NOT work?

Here are five tips that just do not work – I hate calling myself an expert, but I’ve flown enough (and been upgraded enough) to know the best ways to get upgraded.

Dress for the occasion

This is the number one tip posted in every “how to be upgraded” article. And it is the one that makes the least sense. Airlines don’t go looking for upgrade eligible passengers based on their looks – because airlines upgrade the majority of their passengers using a computer behind a desk.

When they decide to upgrade Mr. John Smith, they won’t call him up to the desk to check his attire – they check his fare class and his airline status and apply the upgrade.

Most importantly, airlines know that the best dressed people may not be their most important passengers.

I know many travelers that mean a lot to the airline, and usually fly in jeans – they probably spend 25x more on their favorite airline than half the suits on the plane. One of my best friends flies over 500k miles a year and looks like a slob – but at his home airport, almost every airline employee knows him personally , and would never consider skipping him for an upgrade just because of his looks.

Ask friends that work at the airline

This is another bogus one – your friends at the airline have a hard enough time getting their own free tickets and upgrades.

Unless your friend at the airline is the CEO, nobody that works there is going to get you upgraded. They may be able to supply vouchers for free drinks, or the occasional free pass to the lounge, but upgrades are a closely guarded commodity, and they’d much rather use their resources to get one for themselves than hook you up with something that could potentially cost them their job.

Ask a flight attendant

Nope – this is another that just won’t work. First of all, flight attendants are not allowed to upgrade you, and secondly – if there really are open first class seats after the doors are closed, the crew up front will prefer to keep those open to reduce their workload. The only possible exceptions are for broken seats that pose a safety hazard. A non-working TV screen won’t get you an upgrade to first, but a broken seatbelt may. Still, in those cases, the purser will usually check the manifest for a high-level elite, move him or her to first, then move you to that open coach seat.

If you were late because of a competitor, make the airline aware of it

HA! Do you really think an airline will upgrade you to first class, just because your connecting flight was late? The fact that you had a flight on a competitor means you are not 100% loyal, and no amount of upgrading is going to fix that. The theory is that the airline will treat you better, as a way of winning your business.

Well, this may work if you are a captain of industry, and determine the airline that your entire company uses. But trust me, if you are that important, the airlines have better (and far more efficient) ways of getting your attention.

Book with a travel agent

This tip usually comes from other travel agents, because they still feel that they are immensely important in the world of air travel. The idea behind this is that travel agents can add important information to your profile, letting the airline know that you are some sort of bigshot.

Problem is, that if you really are that important, you’ll usually fly frequently enough to get upgrades based on your status, and that a lot the information provided won’t be read by a human 99.9% of the time. The additional information added to your profile by a travel agent is referred to as “OSI – Other Significant Information”, and it really only worked back in the early good old days when a lot of ticketing was still done by hand. Nowadays, computers do all the work, computers pick your seats and computers know your elite status. Today, OSI information is mainly used when something goes wrong, and your travel agent contacts the airline for refunds or other changes – because that is the only time a human will actually read the information.

If you really are important (or potentially important) to the airline, your corporate travel agent can contact the airline and talk to their sales department asking what they can do for you. Just don’t consider this unless you are planning to move a million dollars or more of travel their way. In other words – that main street travel agent you usually use to book your once-a-year vacation won’t be able to do a damn thing for you.

What does work?

There are things that do work – and every now and then you may find yourself being moved up front.

Use the airport check-in kiosk

Even if you checked in online, always make a stop at the check-in kiosk and see whether it offers an upgrade. This usually only works up to two hours before departure, on some airlines, I’ve been offered upgrades for as little as $50. These upgrades are usually offered to anyone – regardless of airline status, as a way to make some more money before handing out free (operational) upgrades.

Cross your fingers and hope for the best

Operational upgrades are what an airline will use to move people around – if they have 100 coach seats, and 120 passengers, 20 of those passengers may find themselves being moved up front. This is cheaper for the airline than bumping them, and airlines will always try to fill a plane to capacity.

There is no clear set of rules for how you’ll get an operational upgrade, but you’ll understand that an airline will pick their own elite members first, followed by elite members from fellow airlines in the same alliance.

If you have no status and you are on a highly discounted ticket, the only way you’ll be picked is if you are really, really lucky. Yes – asking at the desk could work, but you are going to need the charm skills of James Bond to get their attention.

Some simple rules to remember – always make sure you are in the gate area, because those passengers being upgraded will need to pick up their new boarding card as quickly as possible. The process of moving 50 passengers around is a lot of work for the agents – so go easy on them, and remember that a nice smile is always a good tool.

Buy an upgrade

Most airlines allow their frequent fliers to purchase upgrades – others upgrade all their elite passengers when available. Unfortunately, most of these programs are only open to frequent fliers, so before you can start buying $30 upgrades, you’ll need to check out the next tip…

Fly a lot

I’m sure this will disappoint you, but flying a couple of times a year isn’t going to get you elite status any time soon. If you want to be considered important to the airline, you’ll need to fly a lot. One you reach 50k miles a year, you’ll finally hit mid-tier elite level, and could start seeing the occasional upgrade. Make sure you always enroll in bonus promotions offered by the airline, and start learning the tricks of becoming a frequent flier. If elite status means a lot to you, check out a “mileage run” – a series of flights with no other purpose than increasing the miles in your account.

Learn how to get bumped (and upgraded)

Airlines overbook their flights – they have this down to an art, thanks to their many years of understanding passenger dynamics. Sadly for the airlines, there are days that everyone just shows up on time, forcing them to bump passengers and rebook them on a different flight.

If you see desperation in the eyes of the gate agent, or they keep raising the price they are willing to pay, check with them whether they’d be willing to rebook you and upgrade you. There is something pretty cool about snagging $400 and a free upgrade, all for just arriving home a couple of hours later than scheduled.

Just remember – if you want to volunteer, make sure you don’t have any checked bags or they may try to find someone else.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

If you really want/need/desire to be up front, pay for it. Contrary to popular belief, there are people that actually pay for the luxury of a first class seat. Yes – it’ll cost you, but if you do some research, you’ll learn the tricks of the trade.

Find discounted F tickets, find airlines that have an upgrade policy for full fare coach tickets, or ask frequent flying friends whether they’d be willing to sell you an upgrade. Just don’t expect to find any bargains – most frequent fliers cherish their miles, and will ask fair market value for anything they sell you.

Do not fall for tricks on Ebay or other auction sites – paid upgrade vouchers can be fraudulent, and you wouldn’t be the first person to show up at the airport and have your ticket confiscated for fraud.

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