Saturday, February 25, 2006

Thoughts on airlines from recent trips

Look, I'm no seasoned world traveler. I fly maybe once a month, around the country. Once upon a time, I was so paralyzed with fear about flying I had to be sedated to even get near an airplane, but after so many flights, that's mostly passed. Last week, I was on three different airlines, in three different cities, and it got me thinking.

First, what the heck is it about air travel? Yes, it's fast and convenient, but I think JetBlue has it right: go between the big cities, long haul flights, and don't try to make it any more complicated than that. On the East Coast, there is simply no excuse not to take a train between cities 500 miles away. Out here in the West, the land is a little more expansive, but it's crazy to fly.

By the same token, I'm so conditioned to fly everywhere, I forget all about trains. Case in point: last week, I flew AirTran from Boston to Chicago. $39 ticket justifies me getting on an airline I never have heard of. Small old plane, poor service, but XM Radio at every seat. Overall, not the most amazing experience, and terrible headwinds meant a 2 hour flight was 4 hours. I left where I was staying in Boston at about 4:30 PM, and arrived in Chicago at about 11pm. Dropped me off at Midway Airport, one of these smaller airports that are cropping up all over, without the charm of a Long Beach or Burbank, for instance. Another hour's drive to a Holiday Inn Express for $70 (but free WiFi), and a forgettable dinner at Friday’s. I caught 5 hours of sleep between the work I missed while traveling and the paranoia about missing an early meeting in rural Chicago.

Contrast that with the other option I could have done: Amtrak, leaving Boston at 1:00 PM, getting in at 9:30 AM into Chicago. Could have worked the entire time, caught up on calls on the cell. Could have had a great dinner on the Lakeshore Limited, before retiring to my Viewliner Roomette, with my personal attendant. Ever slept on a train? NOTHING better. Wake up in the morning, hit the shower, grab some coffee, catch up on the work, and at 9:30 AM, you are in the heart of Chicago.

So, why didn't I do it? Several reasons:
- Truthfully, I just forgot. I forget it's possible to travel to another city on The East Coast by train. I live in San Francisco; going to LA or Seattle by train is a full 24 hour affair.
- Convenience. My meeting this time was out in rural Chicago, and started at 9 AM, so I would have been at least 2 hours late, probably.
- Cost. My plane & hotel? About $150. Train? $271, with the roomette.

Why doesn’t Amtrak get it? They have the infrastructure, but need to attract customers. Keep the prices for the basics a little lower, and make it up with premium services (DirecTV feeds in the rooms; WiFi on the train; special meals or DVD rentals). If the price had been $200, I would have seriously considered pushing back the start time of my meetings to accommodate. Seriously.

On the other side is JetBlue. They get it. Simple routes. Big leather seats. 30 channels of DirecTV in flight. No fancy meals, but enough selection of snacks and a great attitude that no one cares. They are full up, honest when they are late, happy to help, and inexpensive. Easily the best airline I fly. Perfect for Cross country flying. Boston to Oakland in just over 4 hours, for $130.

Finally, there’s United. I flew them from Chicago to Oakland. I’m a Premier member with them, but the joylessness of flying with them is painful. Since I am a frequent flyer, they upgrade me to “Economy Plus,” and make sure whenever possible that no one is sitting next to me. So, basically I get a little more legroom, without the comfort of JetBlue, and surly service. Not to mention crappy entertainment. No wonder they went bankrupt. Oh, did I mention my flight was over $ way?

They are trying to change with Ted, their discount airline, but even that is strained and hardly enjoyable. They are becoming the Amtrak of the air: supported by the government, woefully failing to compete or adapt, and sad.

In short, it's sad to see that, with this workaholic nation, we keep trying to go faster and jam in more, only to see if we planned better, we could be so much more productive, relaxed, and efficient, with no significant loss of time, if we just realized the plane is not always the answer.

I've learned it this week. I’ll look forward to applying it on my next East Coast trip.

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