Archive for category Flying

Vino Volo Lands at CVG

If you’ve never been to Vino Volo, my friends, then you are in for a real treat!  A few weeks ago, the Cincinnati airport became home to one of these marvelous hideaways and it’s a must-stop for Kentucky wine lovers who fly out of CVG.

vino volo 2As much as I love airports, I have to say that most of them are fairly devoid of peaceful hangouts, and even further lacking in restaurants that don’t serve junk.  Enter Vino Volo: part wine bar, part wine shop, and part tapas restaurant.  They offer wines by the glass, flight, or bottle and a selection of lunch/dinner plates designed to accompany the wine.  The focus is educational, and most Vino Volos are more spacious than you would expect.  Most locations even offer free wi-fi, which makes Vino Volo a great alternative to the airline clubs if you’re looking for a quiet space to get some work done.

My only experience with Vino Volo to date has been in the Seattle and Detroit airports.  I thought the wine selection was well thought-out, and featured some true quality wines that you don’t often see in wine shops, let alone an airport.  The food was excellent, again, especially by airport standards, and the pricing was surprisingly reasonable.  Unfortunately, the pricing is probably the least consistent piece of Vino Volo since some airports have stricter rules than others about how much markup vendors are allowed to charge (although I’ve never seen a Vino Volo that was outrageous.)vino volo 1

My next trip through CVG isn’t until September, so I’ll have to wait until then to check this location out.  I’ll be sure to report back!

In the years since Delta dismantled it’s Cincinnati hub, the airport has been struggling.  But it appears, at least according to the news stories coming across my desk, that CVG is experiencing something of a renaissance as of late.  It was good of Vino Volo to join the party.

In case you’re curious, Vino Volo also has locations in the Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, New York, Newark, Oakland, Philly, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Seattle, Vancouver, and Washington DC airports as well as a stand-alone location in Bethesda.

Cheers!

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Air travel today (part 2) – what are CEO’s thinking?

In my last post I lamented at the state of the airline industry today from a passenger perspective as compared to in years long past.

Perhaps someone can indulge me here, but what in the world are airline CEO’s thinking? As I stated before, today jets are sleeker, faster, quieter, more efficient, and more technologically advanced than ever before. It stands to reason that air travel should be getting better rather than worse. But the average traveler is concerned with one thing, and that is getting from point A to B as quickly and cheaply as possible. Why are the airlines so intent to oblige us on this?

Most people are quick to blame de-regulation. When the airlines were regulated the government controlled which airlines could fly certain routes. For instance, the government would only allow Delta and TWA to fly Atlanta-Boston, and only TWA and PanAm to fly New York-Los Angeles. The “legacy carriers” (American, Delta, United, Northwest, Continental and a few defunct ones) were formed under business models that presumed they could charge really high fares. The only way they could really compete was based on service. Offer a better experience than they next guy. (A trip through the TWA/Airline History museum at Kansas City downtown airport offers a neat step back in time to this era.) After de-regulation was introduced anyone could fly anywhere, so in come Southwest, AirTran, JetBlue, etc. who operate on a low(er) cost basis and thus charge lower fares. The legacies have aircraft leases, airport leases, and labor and fuel contracts which were negotiated under a higher revenue stream. They cut fares to compete, but still have high costs, thus bankruptcy is required to get out of those old contracts. This is grossly over-simplified, and there has been plenty of mis-management involved as well (the legacies were slow to adjust)… but that’s the short of it.

The problem is, it ain’t cheap to run an airline. Those airliners cost upwards of a hundred-million (maybe less for the regional jets), and suck thousands of dollars in gas just to get off the ground. Basic economics should tell you that you can’t make money if you’re charging a really low price for a product that has a really high cost basis. So what are CEO’s thinking? Losing money hand-over-foot, why are they still trying? I wonder if the legacy carriers had made the decision years ago to stick to their roots of providing excellent service rather than competing on price, would the discounters have gotten a foothold? For sure, the legacies would be in better financial shape today. Cheap air travel is an oxymoron, and the dirt-cheap fares are not sustainable.

What I really don’t understand is why the meals, blanket, pillows, and other in-flight amenities have been cut. Charging for extra checked bags I can understand. American Airlines did a study a few years back, and they figured if they could drop 100 pounds from each of their flights they’d save a million bucks a year in fuel. Those extra bags are heavy, so I can see trying to re-coup the cost of extra fuel.

But catering is cheap. It costs $125 or so every time a catering truck services a mainline airliner… that’s about a buck a passenger assuming a full flight. Those snack boxes costs less than a dollar a piece, maybe $5 for a full meal. Those pillows and blankets are cheaply made, and not everyone uses them anyways. For an extra $10 per ticket (per segment) you could easily cover the costs of providing those items.

Even worse, now we’re seeing the airlines alienate some of their best customers. Delta is closing several of their Crown rooms (private members-only lounges where elite travelers can rest between flight away from the chaos of the rest of the airport), and United just announced a significant change to the way frequent-flier miles are earned.

Perhaps I mis-understand the American travel market, but it seems to me that good service (this includes on-time performance), decent amenities, and immaculately clean and functional aircraft would go a long way towards building a loyal customer base. An airline that provided these things by selling tickets based on the actual operating cost of the flight and by hiring only the best people (there is a huge pool of quality people who are dying for flight attendant, pilot, and mechanic jobs). Wait a minute… that sounds a lot like United, TWA, and PanAm in the good old days.

Which again makes me wonder what the current airline CEO’s are thinking. If you want to salvage your airline, go back to basics. In the near future there is no question that the size of your operation would be drastically reduced as your lower-priced competitors gobble up your market share. That’s a tough cookie to swallow. Yet I really do think that such an airline (or any business for that matter) could hold it’s own. Over time, if you stuck to your commitment to competing on product and service, you’d build a loyal customer base. And as the airline industry shakes out, I think you’d be in a position to succeed.

I’m one of the many who would no longer be able to afford to fly as often if fares go through the roof. But if those fares were accompanied by an increase in service and quality, it would be worth it… to resurrect the prestige, respect, and wonder that is the marvel of flying.

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Air travel today (part 1) – Yesterday vs. Today

Recently I came across some old photos of the lounges – yes, lounges – found years ago on widebody airliners.  Along with those, I  found some old TV commercials which advertised those lounges.  Sadly, I am too young to have ever enjoyed those sorts of amenities – growing up, we loved to go hang out at the airport and watch the planes, but we didn’t have the resources to afford a ticket.  Most of my flying these days is on modern jets – an increasingly unfortunate reflection on the status of the business.  On a recent American Eagle flight out of White Plains, NY, my comfy window seat was “stuck” in the reclined position, and the overhead bin above my seat was taped shut, a sign advising that it was out of service.  On an earlier Eagle segment that week, there was no soap in the lav – rather a bucket of wet wipes tossed in the sink.

I often wonder if airline flying has taken a step forwards or backwards over the past eighty years.  In the 1930’s and 40’s when passenger airlines were first born, the mighty DC-2 and DC-3 prowled the skies.  They were slow and those big radial engines were loud (I imagine earplugs were a part of the amenity kits back then.)  But flying was an event – enjoyed mainly by the rich.  People dressed their best for a flight and the passengers were treated like gold (often treated to low-altitude passes of famous landmarks en-route).

Over the years as the jet was introduced, airliners became faster and nicer.  The flight attendant was introduced – young, sexy and classy to be sure, but their primary function was to make sure the passengers’ every need was met.  Hot meals of lobster tail, chicken cordon bleu, and a glass or two of wine were the norm… all served on fine china with real silverware and cloth napkins.  Hot towels, coat check, lounges, and even piano bars were among the other amenities offered to airlines passengers.  Those tickets cost a fortune, and dressing up was the expectation.  Flying was an experience to behold – as much a tribute to the wonder of it all as well as a sign of respect for the multi-million-dollar machine and the highly trained pilots who commanded it.

What happened?   Today’s airliners are packed with as many seats as the airlines can safely install.  Amenities are scarce.  Gone are blankets and pillows, and you’ll pay to check that second bag now.  Flight attendants are often surly (seriously, I just about tipped the guy on my last O’Hare-Lexington flight just because he was nice!) and even coat check is a first-class feature now, if they remember.  You want food?  You’ll pay for it – I actually got excited about the little snack box on a recent Miami-Port au Prince flight, and the only place you’ll find fine china these days is at flea markets.  (I have a very nice set of Delta china on my bookshelf right now.)  On many routes flip-flops and tee shirts outnumber the business suits, and increasingly you’ll find useful amenities such as power ports, lavatories, and galley coffee makers inoperative.

It’s actually rather embarrassing that in the country that basically invented commercial aviation, we have to look at overseas airlines to learn how to do things right.  Look at who’s winning the awards these days for primo cabins and best flying experience.  Singapore Airlines, Air France, Royal Jordanian, Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong), Lufthansa (Germany) and Emirates.  Many of the entertainment options being installed on US airliners now have been used to years overseas, ditto with the lie-flat beds and mini-compartments being installed in business class cabins on the major US carriers.

Today’s jets are sleeker, faster and quieter than ever before.  By all measures of common sense, air travel should be getting better rather than worse.  However people are demanding cheaper and cheaper flights.  (The Concorde was the odd exception.  They were fast, but surprising cramped inside.)  Flying has lost its mystery and prestige in this country.  We want one thing – to get from point A to B as cheaply as possible.  And for reasons unbeknown to me, the airlines are happy to oblige us.

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Thoughts on the new Age 65 retirement rule

Ever since the legislation was proposed, I have had mixed feelings about the new “Age 65” rule that congress recently passed, which now permits airline pilots to fly until age 65. The previous law required them to retire at age 60. An article in today’s Aero-News got me thinking.

About 50% of current airline pilots are over age 50. As a prospective airline pilot this is great news for me because, theoretically, in the next several years many empty seats will be opening up in the cockpits of airliners, which means job opportunities. In my mind, this is theoretical because the airline industry is in such a state of flux. Once the mergers and bankruptcies stabilize, and the majors shovel more flying out to the regionals, I suspect the actual number of available jobs will be small.

Now the airlines hate the new rule and I can see why. The oldest, most senior pilots are the most highly paid. Getting them off the payroll saves the airlines a small fortune. While dancing around the edges of bankruptcy, the airlines can use every spare dollar they can find.

But in ways I like the rule. These pilots have put in their time, and so long as they are healthy enough to do so, why not allow them to continue in the labor of their love? There is an added incentive for younger pilots to tough it out, knowing they can now earn a paycheck by flying for longer than ever before.

That being said, according to the aforementioned article, the way the Age 65 rule was written, older pilots (between 60 and 65) who have just retired don’t have the option to get their jobs back. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be forced out of your job with the knowledge that a new law meant to protect your job was about to be passed.

Unfortunately, now that they’re retired it just doesn’t make any sense to hire them back – from the standpoints of both business and fairness. Fairness dictates that, if re-hired, they go to the bottom of the seniority list, just like every other pilot in the business. At the bottom of the list one is generally on reserve and not doing much flying. By the time they got off of reserves, they’d be 65 and have to quit again.

The business side is a bit more complicated. The FAA doesn’t publish such figures, but I’m guessing that upon retirement many of these pilots never went back to flying, so before going back to work they’d need a new medical, flight review, and type ratings, and a fresh trip through their airline’s ground school. Months worth of work, even if fast-tracked. As the article points out, for the airlines to invest that kind of money into training just to get a couple more years of service from a pilot just doesn’t make sense. The same money could be used to bring a new guy up from the regionals who they can get twenty years of service from.

So while a select few get caught in the middle, the law actually benefits the whole of airline pilots. The main reason the Age 65 rule was even introduced was to compensate for the slashing of pilot pensions. The theory goes that the highest-paid pilots are those right around age 60. Give them an extra five years to sock away some of that $200,000 a year into retirement accounts so that they have the ability to retire comfortably. Makes sense on paper at least.

So I’ll have to disagree with Mr. Speace’s comment in the article. Nobody’s throwing airline pilots under the bus. They are the victims of a broken system – a system they’ve known was broken for decades. The system is slowly attempting to change, but change doesn’t come without sacrifice.

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