As 2014 comes to an end, I’m reflecting on my year in travel, including great meals and hotel stays I experienced in the past 12 months, all around the world. Today I am exploring the year in flight, from both my perspective – airlines I actually experienced – and bigger changes to the air travel system in general.
First I’ll review the systemic issues affecting many travelers here and abroad.
Frequent Flyer Program Changes: This was the first year of actual implementation of the new dollars spent combined with miles flown requirements for earning elite status in Delta’s SkyMiles and United’s MileagePlus programs. As I noted in 2013, the new method makes little sense, a misguided hybrid of the two prevailing frequent flier program logics, those based on either miles flown or dollars spent. Apparently I was right, because after just a single year, both airlines changed their programs again and will move to a dollar spent qualification program for 2015. This is a much bigger change (read more here) than the previous iteration, which basically kept the same tiers but added a minimum spend to qualify, a minimum that was easily met. The new programs will really hurt the frequent but budget minded flier and reward those traveling on full-priced or premium (first, business) class tickets, largely regardless of distance. While this will be worse for many frequent fliers, including myself, it makes a lot of economic sense for the airlines, who have long rewarded less-profitable customers at the expense of their best customers. But the bottom line is that business travelers without hefty expense accounts who fly on lower fares will find themselves losing status in many cases and may want to rethink their airline choice for 2015. American has so far held out on following its two big competitors and stuck with miles, and some in the industry see this as an attempt to differentiate itself and lure disenfranchised fliers away from United and Delta, but at the same time, American quietly changed its redemption level for frequent flier point tickets, angering many loyal customers.
Chaos: Between climate change causing more winter storms at airports not used to them (Charlotte, Atlanta, etc.), volcanoes, seemingly more frequent strikes by employees of European carriers, and major computer crashes like the one that recently shut down Heathrow, system-wide glitches affecting flights at a global level seem to be the new normal, rather than a winter weather oddity. There is little the flier can do to protect themselves against such random acts, but the best defense is a good offense, and the earlier you find out trouble is brewing the better. So if you fly regularly you might well consider subscribing to a service like JoeSentMe.com which closely follows weather, political and economic problems in the aviation system and alerts its members in real time, along with information on the solutions affected airlines offer. I know it helped me in 2014.
Delta’s New Classes: Delta closed out 2014 with a major announcement that it is reconfiguring itself into a 5-class carrier, as of March 1, 2015. For business and luxury travelers, the changes are not nearly as big as they sound, and the real impact is at the bottom rung of the carrier’s economic ladder. The former BusinessElite top shelf product is being rebranded as Delta One, but the change is more in name than anything, and while the cabin product will continue to improve, it theoretically would have anyway, as it has for years. First class is still first class and mainly domestic, without lay flat seats and below Delta One. What most of us know as economy plus or premium economy will be called comfort plus, adding free alcoholic beverages. The final change is the biggest, splitting the remaining economy cabin into economy and economy basic. It is the latter that is raising eyebrows, a new lowest class – economy basic customers cannot choose seats in advance, and cannot make any changes or get refunds at all, even by paying the already onerous change fees. From where you sit to whether you will have an illness or family emergency, economy basic becomes the ultimate something (certainly not all) or nothing travel crapshoot. Additionally, if elite Medallion members purchase these fares, they will no longer be eligible for either upgrades or seat selection.
Lounges: I’m a big fan of airline lounges, an oasis in otherwise hectic airports, and I belong to both United’s and Delta’s clubs. That being said, the lounges of European and Asian carriers are much better, but less commonplace, and while I wish my lounges offered more than cheese and crackers, at least they are a place to relax, work, rest, read and recharge, personally and electronically. Like the frequent flier programs, these domestic lounges have slowly eroded the customer experience by taking away freebies and reducing the complimentary beer, wine and spirits to a pittance of their former selves, and in major airports, even the largest lounges are often jammed to the point where you can’t find a seat. As a rule, British Airways remains at the top of the global heap in terms of the nexus of number and quality of lounges, and using any of its many locations is always a delight. Other top carries like Virgin and Cathay have excellent lounges, but less of them. I had very positive experiences using the lounges of Lufthansa, Swiss, and KLM this year and all were much better than any domestic versions, especially Lufthansa. My only major lounge disappointment was AirFrance – I used their lounge in Boston Logan twice, before and after renovations, and they needn’t have bothered because it didn’t get any better. For a country synonymous with gourmet cuisine, they have the worst food product of any lounge I’ve been in, bearing in mind that this is not the normal frequent flier club lounge but rather their business and first class departure lounge for international flights. I believe I have been in every other airline lounge in Logan’s international E Terminal, and not only is AirFrance the only one without hot food, favoring bags of potato chips, it is the only one without its own Wi-Fi. Instead, they defer to the same free airport Wi-Fi you get outside the lounge, which is very slow and requires you to watch a commercial to access. And they clearly don’t care. Admittedly their lounges in Paris are better, but given that this is the home base for the airline, not that much better – they don’t even remotely compare to, say, Virgin or BA in London, Cathay in Hong Kong, Singapore in Singapore, or any other flagships.
The only major lounge change 2014 brought us was the rollout of American Express’ posh Centurion Lounges, aimed at its elite Centurion and Platinum cardholders, who get free access, while other cardholders can pay $50. High end Amex members used to have routine access to many airline clubs, but those benefits were largely negotiated away by airlines (elite cardholders still get Delta SkyClub admission), so Amex took things into their own hands. I’ll be previewing my first Centurion Lounge next month and will write about it here, but my aviation expert friends like Chris McGinnis of TravelSkillsGroup swear by them and his pictures and postings make me jealous. The lounges feature hot buffets at all three meals, open bar with top shelf brand beer and spirits, and automated temperature controlled wine dispensers, along with showers and family rooms. Currently there are just four lounges, in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Dallas and New York’s greatly revamped LaGuardia, with Miami opening in the next two months or so and more to follow.
Airport Dining: In general, aviation is becoming ever more segmented between the haves and have nots, with the former sequestered in posh lounges and the latter roaming the terminal, but this is one case where the general public is winning big. In the past few years there has been a national revolution in the once comical and derided genre of airport dining. I believe this all started with celebrity chef Rick Bayless and his Fronterra Tortas at Chicago’s O’Hare, but in any case, virtually every major airport in America now offers some surprisingly appetizing dining choices, from Cat Cora’s in Houston to the Oyster Bar in Newark to the complete revamp of LaGuardia and Boston’s new United terminal. Smaller airports like Nashville and Austin embrace a sense of place with great local eats and when I visited Chicago’s Midway for the first time in 2014 I was overwhelmed with tempting choices.