Your Cash Is No Good At 20,000 Feet

Continental is the latest airline to convert completely to plastic-only, in-flight cabin services. Starting today, If you want to purchase alcohol, headsets or snacks on board, you have to hand over your credit card. The “cashless cabin” trend really gained traction this year, with nearly all the airlines going plastic: United in April, American Airlines in June, Delta in November and now Continental this December. JetBlue and Virgin America have been cashless for years now.

What’s up with this credit-only trend? People spend more when they pay with a card. When you don’t physically count out the dollars it’s much less painful to blow twenty bucks on booze and more booze. According to JetBlue spokesman Bryan Baldwin, sales nearly doubled in the first few weeks after the company went cashless in 2007.

Track Suit Deemed Too Casual for First Class

Best Buy executive Armando Alvarez was hosed last Monday when he was denied boarding onto a United flight from Washington Dulles to Connecticut because he was wearing a tracksuit. He showed up for his flight and upgraded his seat at the counter from coach to first, using miles. Once it was time to board, an employee stopped him at the gate and reprimanded him for his dress, saying he was not dressed appropriately for first class and was denied entry, and ultimately, his flight. “I was humiliated,” Alvarez is quoted as saying to FOX 5 reporter Will Thomas following the incident. “I was embarrassed and when some of the passengers were boarding behind me they said, ‘Hey, what just happened?’ And I said the agent just said I wasn’t properly dressed to go in first class today. And they said, ‘Was he kidding?’ I said obviously not because I’m boarding and not getting in first class.”

United weighed in with their sketchy side of the story — they claim that the employee on duty who didn’t allow Alvarez to fly was very busy at the time, helping other customers, erroneously thought that Alvarez was an airline employee, and therefore subject to the airline employee dress code for first class. Note there is no dress code for passengers, other than they must be wearing clothes and shoes. Also, United tossed in that the airline employee who denied Alvarez entrance also speaks English as a second language. Hey, the guy was busy, and c’mon, he don’t speak English so good. So obviously he thought Alvarez was also an employee of the airline. What’s next? Are you going to lose people’s luggage and break their guitars, due to the fact that the baggage handlers were busy and don’t speak English?

Expedia Drops Phone Fee

In an unprecedented move, Expedia has dropped their phone fee, which is great news for those of us with complicated flight booking needs, or those of us who just prefer to actually talk to someone instead of clicking through a website. As of yesterday, the $20 fee to speak with a real, live agent has been dropped completely. This gives Expedia an edge in both customer service and in cost. Not only can you talk to someone live, it’s now going to be cheaper to go through Expedia because most airlines charge ridiculous booking fees over the phone.

For example, Virgin America charges $15 per guest per itinerary. Delta charges $20 per person per ticket, and United charges $25 per person, per reservation. This also gives Expedia an advantage over direct competitors like Orbitz and Cheap Tickets because they both charge to the tune of $25 for a booking, and another ridiculous $30-$50 to change or cancel a reservation. Ideally this will spark similar moves across the industry, since no one wants to be labeled as the airline who makes their customers literally pay for customer service. In fact, Expedia should go ahead and roll out a YouTube video that calls out your competitors in that very way. Talk that smack!

United Loses Guitar Guy’s Bags

This guy either has the worst luck in the world, or he’s part of an elaborate scheme to continue making hit videos. David Carroll, of the popular United Breaks Guitars YouTube video series — wherein he sings, polka-style, about United Airlines breaking his $3,000 guitar –has gotten the short end of the stick once again, this time with United losing his luggage. Carroll was on his way to Denver to give a speech about customer service when his luggage was lost. Quite a coincidence.

Why doesn’t this guy just fly another airline? Well, it seems that United is best option. “The only direct flight to Denver was with United. So I flew United and my bag got lost,” he said. To make matters worse, the guys at the luggage carousel were conflicted in telling Carroll how to proceed. First they said to stick around and wait for his bag, and that it was only delayed, and then they told him to fill out a claim and leave, because his bags were instead actually lost. He finally got his bags back two days later. You can bet that this little incident will make the cut on his third and allegedly final video, which is set to release imminently. Good luck with that, United.

Twitter Fares from JetBlue & United

Those of you who already Twitter-savvy might know about the deals beginning to seep into the newsfeeds of big corporations. Companies are tweeting out last-minute deals and steals in all arenas. JetBlue and United have decided to give it a go and are tweeting out special deals to those that follow them on Twitter. The airlines are giving out seats on less-than-full planes for unbelievable deals; see JetBlue’s “Cheeps,” i.e. $9 fares from JFK to Nantucket. The deals are usually dispersed on a Monday, giving followers about eight hours (or as long as there are seats) to book a flight for the next weekend.

“By promoting the Cheeps through Twitter, we give the already spontaneous audience of Twitter users a chance to grab great last-minute fares,” says JetBlue spokesman Morgan Johnston. In addition to filling empty seats, the sales can introduce new customers to the airline, he says. “Those first-time customers trying Cheeps … we know they’re going to come back.” Over at United, the “Twares” usually go faster, with a window of one to two hours before they’re snapped up. “Twares are all about surprising our customers with low fares for a very, very limited time,” says Robin Urbanski, a United spokeswoman. And, she says, they “sell extremely fast because the prices are unbeatable.” Twitter is cutting the window of time for deals smaller and smaller. With email deals, you usually have a few days, but with Tweets, you’re talking hours. It’s a neat way to get a great deal on the fly. With Twitter fares, Johnston says, “You really have to act fast. Because people watch Twitter in a real-time manner, the ability for someone to … come in and immediately act on it is a unique phenomenon to the culture of Twitter.”

United Airlines Refuses Feedback on Bad Food

imageWith all the cuts and slashes in service in the airline industry, it’s no surprise getting a bite to eat in-flight is as rare as getting an entire row to yourself. Meals have been cut for flights under three hours, and on the magical three-to-six-hour flights, there’s no particular standard. Over on Virgin America, it’ll cost you upwards of $9 for a (decent) fruit and cheese plate, while on JetBlue, they bombard you with free chips, cookies, and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee (I always want hot chocolate to appear on the menu, but it hasn’t happened yet). Beyond those two airlines (and Continental) though, it’s not likely you’ll run into anything worth sticking your fork into on a domestic flight.

According to Seat Guru’s latest survey, a full 40 percent of passengers agree that a full meal is the amenity they value the most — my guess is because the options for bringing your own snacks are limited by the TSA’s draconian liquid regulations, and the airport options are usually pricey and gross. Anyway, so people want to eat on the plane, and surprise, surprise, they’re disappointed by what they get. The big three airlines came in dead last in terms of food quality. American Airlines, US Airways, and United Airlines all failed the food benchmarks set by Continental, Singapore, and British Airways, who lead the charge in terms of best food in the air. The bottom three, however, aren’t listening to the critics. In fact, they’re saying that this survey is hogwash. “The survey’s results don’t line up with the feedback that we’re getting from our own customers as we rank in-flight service and meal service,” says Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for United Airlines. Well then! Carry on, United, carry on.

Fat Tax for Heavy Passengers

imageThe idea of an airline “fat tax” for heavy passengers is making the rounds again. This time, United Airlines is taking a decidedly anti-robust stance. The policy, which is a little convoluted, says that if (and only if) there is enough room (har) to seat the larger passenger next to an empty seat, they will. However, if the flight is full, the passenger needing “extra space” will have to pay for said extra space by way of purchasing another ticket. If the flight is full, how can they buy another ticket? Anyway, how do you know if you’re too big?

Well, just see the handy checklist United gives: If you are unable to fit into a single seat in the ticketed cabin; are unable to properly buckle the seatbelt using a single seatbelt extender; and/or are unable to put the seat’s armrests down when seated, you’re gonna need to buy that extra chair. Ryanair is also considering charging per pound per passenger; in their Screw Your Fellow Passenger contest, one contending proposal was a fat tax, while another was allowing passengers to smoke in a converted toilet for a fee. People are debating this topic with fervor. Check out some of the learn’d discourse here.

United Airlines Cutting Back on Customer Service

imageUnited Airlines is pulling the plug on their customer service call center in India, effectively cutting off all hope of actually talking to someone on the phone when you’ve got beef with UA. The service center will be shuttered as of April, and UA is already working to erase all traces of the phone number from their site and all company publications. The way they’re spinning this move?

“We did a lot of research, we looked into it, and people who e-mail or write us are more satisfied with our responses.” Shutting down all human contact is going to increase customer satisfaction? That makes perfect sense to me. No fear though — I’ve found a small loophole in this incommunicado situation. If you really want to berate someone, you can still call their reservations call centers, as they’re planning to cross-train these folks to respond to the customer service emails in addition to booking flights. So in theory, they should be able to help you. In theory.

Travel Trend: Fewer Flights, Less Expansion

imageAirlines continue to tighten their collective belts as demand for flights steadily drops nationwide. Even with the recent decrease in oil prices, increased baggage fees, and third-quarter capacity cuts, the picture still looks fairly grim for the industry. Delta and United are considering more layoffs and more capacity cuts, Southwest is holding off on previously planned expansions, and AirTran is cutting domestic capacity 3 to 7 percent. However, lonely optimist US Airways CEO Doug Parker is predicting a resurgence in travel demands as early as January.