It Was Bound to Happen Eventually

6414430209_6e0e1a67fb_z (1)When my cab pulled up to Terminal 1 at LAX on Tuesday, I cringed: The line outside Southwest Airlines’ doors snaked down the sidewalk. Bomb scare? Computer system down? Flight schedule bottleneck? I immediately made a beeline for the self-serve kiosks I knew were just inside the door, feeling a little smug that I was an experienced traveler and knew I did not need to wait in line.

Unfortunately, after recognizing my identity and my destination airport, three different kiosks told me I’d need to talk with an agent. So there I was, at the end of the line with all the leisure travelers, despite my best efforts to find someone who could talk with me immediately.

Things did not get better. When I finally reached the check-in agent, she told me she couldn’t find my confirmation number. I showed her the email, and she tried every which way to “locate” me. Finally, she checked the date.

That’s right, my ticket was for the flight three days prior. Well, that was humbling. After handing over my credit card and getting booked on a full-fare ticket (plus losing my funds on the “missed” flight since that’s SWA’s policy on no-shows), I gathered my belongings and headed to the gate.

The inevitable had happened. I’d made a stupid mistake and booked a ticket on the wrong date. This was something I thought about a couple of years ago when interviewing a frequent flyer who said it was one of his big fears because he traveled so much and was booking flights so quickly. He knew booking the wrong date was bound to happen eventually. A friend made the mistake a few years back. And now, I had, too.

I bought the ticket online a few weeks ago, while in a hurry, on a complicated, multi-leg itinerary. Now there was nothing to do but swallow my pride, eat the cost, and learn from it.

Have you ever booked a ticket on the wrong day?


Photo: Flickr/Aero Icarus

Airfares: What I’m Willing to Pay More For and Not (You’re certain to disagree with one.)

People who whine bother me. And I hear too much whining about ancillary fees. I believe the unbundling of airfares that occurred in the last few years has been a brilliant development. Airlines are finally gaining some financial stability (which benefits passengers), and passengers continue to enjoy low base fares. It makes perfect sense to me that we only pay for what’s important to us.

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be on the inaugural flight of American Airlines’ new A321T service between SFO and JFK. (You can read my trip report on The Bay Area Traveler here.) I sat in first class on the way out, and business class on the way back. I am most often a back-of-the-bus passenger, so this was a real treat. And this aircraft and its inflight service is lovely and amenity-heavy. The trip caused me to think about which features on a flight are of particular value to me. (A caveat: I am not a natural spender, whether or not the fare is being footed by me or the company.)

What I’m willing to pay more for:

1. A seat with a view. My flying life changed a few years ago when I switched from being an aisle person to a window person. Previously a stressed passenger all too aware of flying in an aluminum box, I became a relaxed spectator as the amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty moved by. My claustrophobia eased by having a big space to look at over my shoulder. AA’s A321T first class seat is fabulous, don’t get me wrong, and it’s hard to complain about a ginormous seat that is both window and aisle. The first class 1-1 configuration is pure indulgence. But the seat is so darn huge, and the window so far away, that I could hardly see out: the horizon, perhaps, but certainly nothing below the plane. (Apologies: perhaps I’m whining.) In economy, I am happy to pay more for a seat with a good view.

2. Early boarding. Thanks to the relatively recent development of fistfights over carry-on space, I appreciate the knowledge that I don’t have to concern myself with the possibility of gate-checking my bag. An additional perk: Not having to climb over someone (most times) adds to the illusion that I’m having some kind of civilized experience.

3. Personal attention. I appreciate being called by name and having a pleasant chat here and there with the crew in the premium cabins. I hope that’s not my ego talking, but just my human-ness. I wish we could have this option for a fee in coach. Human interaction can make or break an inflight experience for me. Occasionally and randomly, it comes free of charge.

4. Continuous wine pour. I don’t want to sound like I have a drinking problem, but there’s something I like about wine service in the premium classes. It’s certainly not the wine itself. But to have a glass refilled generously without paying feels a bit like I’m at someone’s house and my thoughtful hostess is keeping me comfortable. I realize this is, again, only an illusion, but it’s one I welcome.

What I won’t pay more for:

1. Food. I really don’t care about eating on a plane anymore. I always pack healthy snacks (and meals sometimes), and I like that the new normal requires that I do so. My first class and business meals on the A321T were decent, and there’s something nice about being offered food. But really, I’d rather not. I like healthy, well prepared food choices. And even the best airplane food isn’t tempting enough to make it matter.

2. Entertainment. I have to admit, the jury may be out on this one. The premium cabins on the A321T service have deep choice in their inflight entertainment systems. And I liked getting caught up on things with the “still in theaters” category. But then I didn’t get a speck of work done during my SFO-JFK-SFO trip, and I cracked nary a book. While the entertainment is pleasant, I’m not sure I like that. Perhaps I just need more self-discipline. Something’s wrong when you wish for a moment that the flight were longer so you could catch another movie.

3. The seat. I know I am in the minority on this one—in fact, I’m perhaps the only person on the planet who doesn’t care about seat pitch or recline (exception: a red eye or international flight at night). My legs are short and stretch nicely out in front of me. My rear must be average, because I have a few inches of comfortable air space on either side of me in even the smallest seat. I don’t see what the big deal is for someone my size to sit in a typical airplane seat for five or more hours. A business class seat or better is totally wasted on me. My feet do not reach the ottoman. The recline functions just leave me fiddling with the adjustments—because I can–and usually to no avail, comfort-wise. When my status allows me a free seat in premium economy, I couldn’t care less about the leg room. (But I do like the early boarding, as noted above. Also, sitting in the front of the plane helps me feel less like I’m in a mass experience. If you can’t see those other 200 people, they aren’t there, right?)

Every individual on every flight values a different set of offerings. I love that we pay for what we value. But airlines, please, let’s not get carried away and over-marketize this concept. American’s economy fares are now listed in categories from cheapest to most expensive, named like this:  Choice, Choice Essential, and Choice Plus. With Choice, you get nothing. That feels a little offensive to me, not much of a choice (or with another meaning, not exactly a “choice” option). If you’re giving me nothing but the seat, let’s call it like it is.

What do you value most or least in an inflight experience? (Come on, I know you tall people will have a bone to pick with my willingness to give up leg room….)

When the Company Pays, How Do You Spend?

Traveling on an expense account can shed some light on your relationship with money.

During a recent #travelskills Twitter chat (most Fridays, 12 noon EST), this question was posed: What’s one thing you struggle with or want to do better when traveling for biz? One of the participants answered: “I would spend more.” Another participant related that after his first business trip, his boss chided him for holding back. Counter-intuitive answers, right?

I am by nature a saver, not a spender. (Confession: I have an irrational aversion to ordering the priciest item on a menu. I simply cannot do it.) My money sensibility carries through to my work travel life. Even when it’s not my money, I will seriously consider the value of most purchases–whether I really need that bottle of juice or if I will select the slightly less convenient flight for a better fare.

Others I know are confident spenders in their personal life and that carries through to expense account travel–not going overboard, but valuing convenience and comfort over price. Perfectly reasonable, and I wish I were more like this.

Then there are those who spend more on travel expenses than they would or could with their own money. In particular, twenty-somethings who travel a lot for work (management consultants come to mind) live a lifestyle on the road they could never afford on their salaries. This in part compensates for the negatives of the always-away lifestyle.

Finally, for an entitled few, pulling out the company credit card means “Go for it.” It’s an excuse to pull out all the stops. The most expensive bottle of wine on the list, please. Well, let’s make that two. And how about another? Once 2008 hit, plenty of these escapades came to light.

Most corporations have travel policies in place. Want that bottle of water? Not if it’s not lunch time. Like to be a big tipper? Sorry: 15% max on taxis. Doesn’t that five-star property look divine? Well, here are the four-stars we’ve selected for you. Being “parented” can be annoying, but these policies level the playing field between the various spending psychologies. Which is not always unwelcome. What kind of spender are you?

Seat 12C 1/2

This week I attended the Global Business Travel Association convention in San Diego, and one novel topic intrigued me: the opportunity to sell half-seats on planes. I had never heard this argument, so let me explain.

The topic was presented in light of a growing trend: the sharing economy. It’s had an influence on travel at the fringes: FlightCar, Airbnb, Zipcar, etc. But not so much in the mainstream. During a general session at the convention, a panel of travel executives was asked about new sharing economy opportunities for travel. One, the CEO of a large network of travel agencies, said he’d always believed airlines should sell seats in half-increments. He had my attention with that. How would this work?

If you were seated in economy and wanted extra width, you could buy half of the middle seat. You’d be matched with someone else who wanted the same, so in essence, you would each own half of the middle seat for the flight. Reserved. Just for you two. No worrying that the last person to board the plane would be slipping in beside you. Theoretically it could be a win/win: passenger gets more room for less than premium, and the airline sells the seat at (perhaps) full fare, reduces cost of fuel with a lighter load, etc.

I thought it was a capital idea until my colleague painted this scenario: What if several seats on a flight had been sold this way. To the unaided eye, they would appear to be open. Yet, if several passengers were bumped from the flight and told it was full, wouldn’t they be a wee bit angry when their colleagues or friends on the flight reported that several seats were actually empty?

What do you think of the half-seat opportunity for airlines? The next ancillary fee or a recipe for customer revolt?