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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Project Runway: Part II

First Richard Tyler, now Balenciaga. As I noted previously (see 7/16 post), high fashion designers are taking to airport runways. Over at Delta, Richard Tyler's wares are currently causing a kerfuffle--with newly-incoming Northwest flight attendants in a tiff over the lack of larger-sized designer uniforms. Their union has filed a complaint about the situation.

The skies appear calmer at Air Tahiti Nui, where Balenciaga designs are now being donned by the Tahitian carrier’s flight and ground crews. According to airline press material, “the fresh new look was inspired by Tahiti’s stunning land and waterscapes, and has a Polynesian spirit about it.”

Flight attendants get to sport two different outfits on each flight. As they are boarding passengers, flight attendants wear serene ocean and lagoon blue uniforms. It's only after take-off that the fashion show truly begins. Air Tahiti Nui’s male flight attendants change into short-sleeved, Tahitian shirts, “convivial with floral accents featuring tropical notes of yellow, orange, fuchsia and red." Meanwhile, female crew members change into one of two dresses. A long tight-fitting dress is called a purotu, which means pretty girl in Tahitian. The mamaru’au, or grandmother, is a long loose-fitting dress. Can you imagine the field day the Northwest flight attendants union would have with those names?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Survey Says...

Blame ancillary fees, perceptions of customer service, or lack of free amenities, but airline passengers in North America aren’t happy. According to J.D. Power and Associates, customer satisfaction with air carriers has fallen to its lowest level in four years. J.D. Power conducted a survey of almost 13,000 passengers from April, 2008 to May, 2009.

Even though the overall picture isn't pretty, some airlines fared better than others. Alaska Airlines won the best "traditional network carrier" sash, beating Continental Airlines by two points. (Traditional network carriers are defined as airlines that operate multi-cabin aircraft and multiple airport hubs). At the other end of the heap, United came in second to last, and US Airways was at the bottom.

Perceptions of low-cost carriers, defined by J.D. Power as "airlines that operate single-cabin aircraft with typically low fares," were, on the whole, higher than those of network carriers. For the fourth year in a row, JetBlue came in first among low-cast carriers and was, in 2009, tops among all North American carriers, according to the survey. Southwest and Canada’s WestJet tied for second among low-cost carriers. Even Frontier and AirTran, the other low-cost carriers in the survey, scored higher than the top network carrier.

Survey respondents gave the lowest marks to cutbacks of in-flight services, increases in fees, and flight crew courtesy (or lack thereof). That said, passengers did appreciate expedited service at the airport (probably due to all of those self-serve kiosks), fewer delays (probably due to fewer planes in the sky), and more on-time arrivals (probably due to schedule creep).

For those of you not familiar with the term schedule creep, here’s the deal. In order to avoid the dreaded "delayed" label (defined as a plane arriving 15 minutes after its scheduled time), airlines are randomly increasing flight times, even though flights aren't actually taking more time. In other words, a JFK to LAX flight that was scheduled for six hours ten years ago is now scheduled for six hours and 20 minutes. By saying the flights take longer than they actually do, the likelihood of arriving "on-time" becomes higher.

In hearings before Congress this spring, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general confirmed that schedule creep leads “to a perceived decline in flight delays, (but) results in an increase in average flight time." According to Calvin Scovel III, during the past ten years, airlines have increased flight times on two-thirds of the 2,500 domestic routes his office examined. Some scheduled flight times increased by as much as 18 percent.

And that, my friends, is a large part of the reason airlines are reporting their best on-time performances in years. Of course, there are other contributing factors to better on-time performance, including fewer planes in the sky and less baggage to transfer from one plane to another. However, according to DOT's Scovel, there is no evidence that his agency's initiatives to curb delays have done anything to contribute to their reduction.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Here's the Scoop

July is National Ice Cream Month. In celebration, here’s the scoop on some of the world’s oddest ice cream flavors. Check them out next time you are on the road and report back.

Venezuela, England and Japan seem to take the cake when it comes to alien ice cream additives. Let’s start at the Heladería Coromoto in Mérida, Venezuela. The shop tops the Guinness List of World Records in the category of most ice cream flavors (nearly 1000 served, albeit not all at the same time). The ice cream makers there have a tendency to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Ingredients like corn, ham and cheese, tuna, and chile have peppered the menu over the years. But the flavor that gets the biggest rise out of customers is Viagra. While the actual drug is not an ingredient, the little blue scoop does stand proudly erect atop the cone. Plus, it is reported that Viagra ice cream does contain plant aphrodisiacs. Olé.

Next, it’s off to Jolly Olde England, where sheep’s stomach ice cream is served at Harrods in London. Yum, yum. If that doesn‘t curdle your own stomach, travel on to Tokyo’s Sunshine City Shopping Mall, where Ice Cream City has a menu containing flavors such as octopus, snake, horse flesh and cow’s tongue.

In comparison, our "ususual" flavors here in the United States seem rather tame. Sure, bacon, garlic, lavender and beer ice creams aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they aren't that far off the flavor map. That's because the American ice cream palate isn't all that adventurous. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, the top five flavors in terms of market share in the United States are vanilla (30%); chocolate (10%); butter pecan (4%); strawberry (3.7%); and chocolate chip mint (3.2%).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Project Runway: Delta, Northwest and the (Not-So-Little) Red Dress

Of all of the challenges facing Delta and Northwest as they merge, who woulda thunk that a flap about a dress could create so much hemming and hawing? But indeed, as Delta is trying to sew up the details of its takeover of Northwest (the acquisition took place in October 2008), fashion on the airport runway is in the spotlight.

You see, the Northwest chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has filed a grievance with Delta, asking it to provide its hip Richard Tyler-designed red uniforms in sizes up to 28. The little red dresses are currently offered only in sizes 2 to 18, although a Delta spokeswoman notes the airline offers a range of other outfits that go up to 28.

Delta hired Tyler in 2004 to reshape its drab gray employee uniforms. Tyler was quoted as saying his designs would make flight attendants "look sexy and great, but classic as well." The uniforms, including the red dress, debuted in 2006.

Patricia Reller, who handles grievances for the union's executive committee, sums up the complaint. "I think red is an eye-popping color and it's not subtle, and to me by not offering it in a size over 18, Delta is saying, 'We don't want you wearing that if you are over size 18,'" Reller says. "But the job isn't about being sexy. It's about safety." Reller also says the dresses just don't measure up. While vanity sizing (labeling a true size 12 a size 10) is in vogue among designers selling to mass retail, apparently, the opposite is the case for Delta. According to Reller, the dress is "a very small size 18, so that makes the numbers a lot larger." In other words, even a true size 16 could not fit in the 18 dress.

Given how few female flight attendants I have ever seen who weigh more than 180 pounds (a size 18 for a five-foot-one woman, which is the legal height minimum), methinks this is much ado about nothing. Hardly model behavior on the part of Delta's newest flight attendants...

It's truly a good thing Reller wasn’t around when airlines had weight restrictions on female flight attendants (the few male flight attendants flying pre-1990 were allowed “extra baggage”). In the earliest days of commercial flight, stewardesses (as they were then called) had to weigh less than 115 pounds. Apropos of nothing, they also had to be single. Even though they were allowed a little more heft through the years, the scales of justice were only tipped in favor of size 10-plus flight attendants in the 1990s (even though the equally-loathsome marriage bans had ended way back in the 1960s).

One footnote: While Northwest’s prime beef is with the dress, it’s not their sole complaint. The flight attendants are also upset with Delta’s requirement that flight attendants who wear orthopedic shoes must wear slacks instead of a skirt or dress. Furthermore, those who want to wear said shoes must obtain a doctor’s note.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Standing Room Only

Ryanair, the no-frills European airline that was the first to introduce fees for everything from luggage check-in to telephone reservations to using credit or debit cards to pay for a ticket, is now talking with Boeing about designing aircraft with standing room. This brilliant move would allow Ryanair to squeeze in more passengers per flight.

The idea would see standing passengers strapped to stools during take-off and landing, allowing Ryanair to fly up to 50 per cent more travelers per flight. Spring Airlines, which calls itself China's first low-cost airline, is also considering this tactic.

Any such move would need approval from local aviation authorities. Here in the United States, regulations would not allow standing room. "The regulations ... are very specific, said Les Dorr, spokesman for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. "Everybody above the age of 2 has to have a seat or a berth."

Even if this particular idea doesn't end up passing the smell test, Ryanair continues spewing out unique ways to increase revenue. For example, CEO Michael O'Leary recently has suggested that #1, he might start charging more for overweight passengers or #2, he might make people pay to use the toilet. Given that the latter idea would heavily undercut in-flight beverage sales, it appears highly likely that the revenue-savvy O'Leary was merely tossing out #2 as a publicity stunt.

Still, you can't poo-poo everything O'Leary says. After all, he said passengers would start paying for online check-in in 2009, and voila, in May, it came to pass. Ryanair now charges five pounds for customers to check in online. Of course, since Ryanair no longer has check-in desks at airports, that basically means all passengers have to add five pounds to the price of their tickets. For passengers who check in online but forget to print a boarding pass...tack on another 40 pounds for getting one at the airport.

For those of you not familiar with Ryanair, it's no fly-by-night operation. The airline was established in Ireland in 1985 and has become one of Europe's largest carriers. Flying to nearly 150 airports, Ryanair claims to be “twice the size of British Airways”, having flown 5.8 million passengers in June, compared to BA’s 2.9 million travelers over the same period. The point-to-point carrier sells its seats for next to nothing, but makes up for its low ticket prices, as you might have guessed from reading this post, by figuring out how to charge ancillary fees for everything from A to W.C.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Take a Vacation!

Just because July 4th has come and gone doesn't mean it's too late to get a deal on a summer vacation. For the first time in a long time, this year, when it comes to vacation planning, to the latecomer will go the spoils in terms of deals and discounts.

The most important thing is to choose your destination wisely. Some places are bigger bargains than others.

--Go where summer is the off-season. Sure, places like Phoenix and Las Vegas are scorching hot during the summer. And sure, the Caribbean is prone to hurricanes. But if you are ready to brave the weather, you will find yourself staying in plush surroundings for up to 50 percent off (more if you are going to Las Vegas). Plus, hurricanes are no sure thing and pools and air conditioning offer respite from desert rays.

--Go where tourism is king....and the king is AWOL. Tops in this category is Mexico. Thanks to all of the bad spring publicity about the swine flu, which never hit Mexico's resort areas, no one booked summer trips to Mazatlan, Cancun, and Acapulco.
Empty rooms abounding, Mexico is hot to attract tourists this summer with bargain packages and cheap airfares. Hawaii is another place where you'll find some discounting going on--with hotels throwing in free nights, etc.

--Go where the dollar is strong. Yes, you will still have to pay the airfare (this is where those frequent flyer points that have been accumulating come in handy), but once you get to places like Iceland, Australia, or England, you'll find the dollar resembling a post-workout Charles Atlas. Last summer at this time, $1 US bought 77 Icelandic krona. Now, it buys 127 krona. Last summer at this time, $1 US bought $1.03 Australian. Now it buys $1.25. Finally, last summer at this time, $1 US bought half a British pound (that's why all those Brits were flocking to New York and shopping last summer--remember?). Now, the dollar buys .61 pounds, a 20% increase.

--Check the web site of the destination you are planning to visit for special deals, packages and discounts. Oftentimes, a city's visitor bureau will offer a single admission pass to all area attractions or will provide a discounted public transportation pass for out-of-towners.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Laura Talks Travel in the Twin Cities and NYC

Happy July 4th weekend, everyone. For a special holiday treat, just cut and paste http://abcnews.go.com/abcnewsnow/ in your browser and then type Laura Powell in ABC's search box. Click on July 4th Getaways and let the fireworks begin!

For double your pleasure, check out my visit to the Twin Cities. Go to http://www.showcaseminnesota.com/and look for the June 25th travel segment (or type Laura Travel in the search box). Watch with a magnifying glass and see if you can spot the false eyelashes.

Prince Philip Redux

I know this has nothing to do with travel, but I simply can't contain myself. This post, you see, follows up on my ditty from June 19 about a visit to Buckingham Palace to meet Prince Philip. In said post, I implied that the poor prince just doesn't get any respect.

Well, watching Jeopardy last night once again proved my point. You see, I'm a channel-flipper of the highest degree. I rank up there with any alpha male on that score, although I am quite dainty and lady-like (as you can tell from my column about the meeting with Prince Philip). At any rate, I flipped over to Jeopardy in time for the final round. The topic was Royalty and the "answer" went something like this: "This person, also known as the Baron of Greenwich, shares a great-great-great-grandmother, namely Queen Victoria, with his wife." All thoughts about royal inbreeding aside, I quickly buzzed in with "Prince Philip" and, by golly, I knew I was right. Furthermore, I thought this one was a no-brainer that all of the contestants would ace.

But alas, two of the contestants were downright wrong, answering "Prince Charles" (read the clue carefully, man). And even the one who got Prince Philip right, and went on to gain the Jeopardy throne, spelled his name "Phillip." Fortunately, Alex Trebek doesn't penalize you for spelling, although he's a stickler for punctuation (and pronunciation--don't you love how Alex is always Mr. Know-It-All when it comes to saying things correctly---as if he doesn't have producers whispering in his ears all of the time with the proper patois).

But I digress. Who's with me for starting a Prince Philip Phan Club? The poor guy needs a little PR, don't you think?