Etihad Airways goes green: Working towards zero single-use plastic

Courtesy Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways marked Earth Day (22 April) by becoming the first Middle East airline to operate a flight without any single-use plastic item on board. This is commendable considering that the carrier uses some 27 million single-use plastic coffee cup lids every year. So on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Brisbane, passengers got to eat their coffee cups as well.

Etihad says it is committed to improving its environmental policies beyond the Earth Day flight. The carrier hopes to be able to reduce usage of single-use plastic by 80 per cent by the end of 2022. No fewer than 95 such items will be replaced.

Tony Douglas, Group chief executive officer, said “as a leading airline, it’s our responsibility to act on this, to challenge industry standards and work with suppliers who provide lower impact alternatives.”

H.E. Mohamed Mubarak Fadhel Al Mazriuei, Group chairman, said: “This step is an extension of Etihad’s pioneering environmental efforts. Inaugurating 2019 with the locally sourced biofuel flight and the operation of the longest single-use plastic free flight are testament to our commitment to leading effective change towards sustainability.”

Now that should set an example for other airlines to emulate if they are serious about saving the environment. In fact, some airlines are already doing their part.

Portuguese charter airline Hi Fly is already flying plastic-free since December.

Alaska Airlines, which in 2011 declared a policy to go green when it launched 75 commercial flights using biofuel and replaced traditional holiday card with e-cards, has ceased using plastic straws.

And Ryanair has pledged to scrap single-use plastic by 2023.

We wait to hear what other airlines will do. Action speaks louder than words.

Baggage Woes

Courtesy Ryanair

Ryanair

Ryanair flew into a rough patch with Italian antitrust lobbyists following its decision to levy new fees for hand luggage. Unless you pay €6 (US$7) for priority boarding, you will be allowed to carry only one piece of hand luggage, which must be able to fit the space under the seat in front. Any second piece (up to 10 kg) to be checked in will be at a cost of €8.

Antitrust advocates said this could amount to unfair commercial practice as hand luggage should be “an essential element of transport”. It would distort fares and make it difficult for comparison across the industry.

In defence Ryanair said its policy was intended to “improve punctuality and reduce boarding gate delays”. In fact, it maintained that it would not make any money out of it and may in fact lose revenue when more passengers switched to carrying smaller bags instead of the the normally larger suitcases which must be checked in at a higher fee.

However, research by US travel consultancy IdeaWorks suggests that a third of the airline’s profits came from so-called “ancillary revenue” comprising £1.7 billion (US$2.2 billion) from charges for add-ons such as checked baggage and seat selection last year.

Swoop

Across the pond in Canada, new Calgary-based budget carrier by WestJet is also facing complaints about fees charged for a carry-on bag. The fee is C$35 (US$27) if paid in advance, C$50 if paid at the time of check-in at the airport, and C$80 at the gate.

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs has filed a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency, claiming that this is unlawful since the Canada Transportation Act requires domestic airlines to offer a basic fare for travel within the country that has no restrictions with “reasonable baggage”.

As in the Italian argument, Lukacs finds Swoop’s practice “deceptive”. While what constitutes “reasonable” may be debatable, the general rule thus far has been that the allowable one piece has to fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat. Ryanair has restricted the carriage at no fee to the space under the seat, but Swoop is not even considering that. In defence, Swoop says it is “confident that Canadians are appreciative of the ability to be in control of what they pay for.”

American carriers

Meantime south of the border, American carriers are taking turns to up their checked baggage fees. American Airlines joined JetBlue, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines in raising their fees from US$25 to US$30 for the first bag, and from US$35 to US$40 for the second bag. Budget carriers Spirit and Frontier are already charging between US$40 and US$50 per bag. For now, Alaska Airlines has kept its fees at US$25 for the first and second bags, while Southwest Airlines still allows passengers to check in two bags for free.

These fees generally apply to travel within North America and to destinations in the Caribbean. Internationally, the likes of United Airlines cannot afford to ignore the competition especially in Asia where many legacy airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are still generous with free carriage of two checked bags.

Indeed, ancillary services have become a significant billion dollar business world-wide in an airline’s portfolio as more operators including legacy airlines go “a la carte” to keep the fare seemingly low but charge extra for features that used to be part and parcel of the normal ticket price. And the list is getting longer to include also priority check-in, priority seats (with more leg room), meals and headsets. It will not stop growing as the permutation multiplies, as can be seen in the different ways charges are applied even within the same service category, such as the baggage fees imposed by Ryanair.

Virgin America tops, according to Conde Nast

Courtesy Virgin America

Courtesy Virgin America

Virgin America is the best airlines in the US according to a readers survey by Conde Nast. It is a credible list.

The top five airlines are as follows:

1. Virgin America, for its service and roomy cabins that include such features as touch-screen menus ordering, seat-to-seat messaging, no shortage of power outlets, Netflix streaming and mood lighting.

2. JetBlue Airways, for its ten-inch seatback screens, entertainment streaming options, free internet, unlimited blue chips and snacks.

3. Hawaiian Airlines, for its lie-flat seating in the premium cabin, welcome mai tais and guava cookies, and reputation for punctuality.

4. Alaska Airways, for its friendly staff, comfortable seats, reliability and guarantee that checked luggage will arrive no later than 20 minutes after touchdown.

5. Southwest Airlines, for its fun staff, affordable fare, two free checked bags allowance and any change of ticket without penalty.

Worthy of note is the ranking in the top five positions of both Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, which have since merged but continue to operate under their different names for the time being. Their merged identity is set to be a major aviation powerhouse in the US,

Also worthy of note is the absence of the big three US airlines: American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Size is not a plus in this case, it seems.

Confirmed: Alaska Airlines acquires Virgin America

Courtesy Alaska Airlines

Courtesy Alaska Airlines

IT’s confirmed, subject to final approval by the relevant parties, Alaska Airlines will acquire Virgin America.

Alaska has that personal touch that many airlines lack. As a registered customer of the airline, it is nice to receive this message :

“As one of our most valued customers, we wanted to be the first to share with you some exciting news that Alaska Airlines is acquiring Virgin America, combining two leading airlines both known for low fares and award-winning customer service. With complimentary West Coast-based networks, operational excellence and a strong commitment to innovation, the joining of Virgin America and Alaska will expand our existing California footprint and grow our transcontinental network, giving you more travel options with 1,200 daily departures nationwide.

We’ll keep you updated on the timing and plan for integrating our two airlines.”

So, congratulations, Alaska Airlines!

Both airlines will continue to fly their individual identity until the single operating certificate is issued when the combined entity will be known as Alaska Airlines.

Alaska Airlines pips JetBlue for Virgin America deal

alaska airlinesWHILE it was initially speculated that JetBlue would win the bid for Virgin America, now it looks like it is Alaska Airlines that will emerge the victor. The Seattle-hub airline is expected to pay US$2 billion for the deal.

Merging with Virgin will enlarge Alaska’s base on the west coast, more specifically its share of traffic out of San Francisco from 4 per cent to 15 per cent and Los Angeles from 5 per cent to 11 per cent. Alaska, currently ranked 6th by traffic in the US behind JetBlue, will now be bigger than its rival.

A point in favour of Alaska, which also owns Horizon Air, is that it has fewer overlapping schedules with Virgin.

As American aviation continues to spawn mega mergers that shrink the number of competing carriers, the authorities will have to grapple with concerns that this may lead to higher airfares. However, there is the glimmer of hope that both Virgin and Alaska as one airline will continue to offer lower fares with fewer add-ons competing with the other airlines.

A conscionable call as oil price plummets: Will airlines reduce airfares?

AS the oil price plummets – some 55 per cent since June last year – the question topmost in the mind of the consumer must be: Will airlines reduce airfares?

Many of them have chosen to be silent on the subject, the excuse being that the historical volatility of the market is such that the trend can turn any time. But it has taken a while, and long enough for some conviction from the airlines, now that analysts are convinced that the cost of fuel is likely to stay low for at least another year.

Travellers on American carriers can stop wishing to share in the bounty, even as US carriers are reporting hefty savings as a consequence. Southwest Airlines estimated it would save US$1.7 billion on fuel in the current year, and Delta Air Lines more than US$2.0 billion. Other airlines that include Untied Airlines and Alaska Airlines are forecasting similar cost reductions. But, say the airlines, fare reduction is not on the card. Instead, shareholders will reap the benefits while the airlines themselves see this as a well deserved windfall and respite to recoup past losses and pare down debts.

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

United Airlines spokesperson Megan McCarthy delivered the cold reality of the business when she said: “It has been our position all along that fares are not cost-driven. They are demand-driven.”

That, we all know, is the simple economics of the law of supply and demand. So consumers have themselves to blame. Airlines are enjoying near-full loads that there is no incentive for them to want to lower the fare. In Europe, even budget carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair are looking forward to even higher profits from not only savings on fuel costs but also higher fares. So McCarthy was darn right there. But airlines too have learnt to make the formula work better for them, ceteris paribus, as they reduce capacity particularly in the US with merged operations to hold up demand and maintain airfares.

The consumer’s best hope lies in competition as how it should work in the liberal world, but with consolidation which has seen the merger of big entities in the US, raising questions about the assumed competition itself. Today four airline companies control more than 80 per cent of the US market. Little wonder how US carriers have collectively signalled that airfares will not fall in response to the falling fuel cost.

Where competition does not work, the consumer can hope that some conscionable authority will be able to address the fair fare issue. On that second score, you might fault McCarthy for turning a blind eye, but United, like any other, would contend with some validity that it cannot be both operator and watchdog. Company with conscience is a preacher’s prerogative, more idealistic than operative.

Still, the likes of United may be reminded that back in the days not too long ago when the fuel price reached giddy heights, airlines were raising fuel surcharges as many as four times within a year. Strange as it sounds, they have always maintained that the surcharge is not part of the fare, but not as far as the consumer is concerned. Even so, the corollary must apply as the fuel price dips. No lesser a person than Toby Tyler, director general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), has said that airline fuel surcharges should begin falling as the drop in oil price works its way through the aviation fuel system. Tyler said: “In many cases, airlines operates now with a basic fare and a fuel surcharge of some kind and the fuel surcharge in many airlines is directly linked to the price they’re paying for fuel.”

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

But it looks like it is not happening quite as quickly as Mr Tyler was convinced that it would when he said in October last year: “You’ll see the fuel surcharge very quickly come down.” Still, better late than never. Better somewhere else if not in the United States. Japan Airlines (JAL) announced lower fuel surcharges for international flights from February 1, recognizing the genesis of introducing such levies back in February 2005 in response to rises in the cost of fuel. Now that is one conscionable airline. JAL said it would revise the surcharge, whether upward or downward, if the fuel price fluctuates further. Fair enough. American and other carriers waiting on the sideline, take note.

Qatar Airlines has also announced it will reduce the fuel surcharge although it has not committed to a date for implementation.

Courtesy flyertalk

Courtesy flyertalk

Australian airlines are among the first to drop airfares in response to the falling oil price. Two forces are at work: competition and the authority. Nowhere else in the world is there more bitter rivalry than that between the two Australian carriers of Qantas and Virgin Australia. Virgin took the lead, and Qantas followed suit. Virgin said it would not get rid of the fuel surcharge altogether, but incorporate it into the fares; however it is packaged, the bottom line should see a reduction. Virgin said the “reductions reflect the benefits of the decline in global oil prices” following monitoring over recent months and “in anticipation that fuel costs will continue to remain at lower levels than the record highs seen in recent years.”

At the same time, the Australian government is putting pressure on the airlines to respond to the drop in fuel costs. Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said: “It is not against the law to introduce a surcharge – what is against the law is to mislead customers.” The ACCC announced it was investigating the matter. In a statement that it released, it said: “The ACCC has confirmed that it is considering whether representations made by airlines imposing fuel surcharges, following the fall in wholesale aviation fuel prices, are misleading. Under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 businesses must not make misleading, deceptive or false representations about the price of goods or services. This includes when making representations about the reasons for rising fuel costs.”

In this connection, Qantas said: “The bottom line for consumers is that Qantas fares already in the market are some of the cheapest in years. Fuel surcharges are already included in the advertised price and those fares remain extremely competitive.”

The issue is not about the fares already being the cheapest in the market but rather whether they should be even cheaper as a result of lower fuel costs that have saved the airlines millions to billions of dollars.

Meantime the British government is studying the need for intervention. British Airways circumvents the issue with no clear commitment, saying it has launched several sale initiatives. Virgin Atlantic said it has reduced the fuel surcharge before last Christmas and will “continue to monitor the situation and fuel surcharges under review to make them as affordable as possible.”

Courtesy Delta Airlines

Courtesy Delta Airlines

It is a world of ironies. The consumer may as well confront the hard truths about the market. The door does not always swing both ways. As the global economy improves, the demand for seats picks up. And when demand exceeds supply, the game belongs to the airlines so much so that Delta CEO Richard Anderson has suggested to passengers who are looking at reduced fares to “shop around”. He said: “The marketplace is incredibly competitive, and there are always differences in fares.” The consumer can only hope that competition is well and alive without the need for state intervention. If Anderson had come across as being somewhat arrogant, he probably knew he could afford it. But heed his advice anyway.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Flying across North America: Peanuts are a big deal

FLYING the short 50-minute leg from Seattle to Vancouver aboard Alaska Air (the flight was operated by Horizon Air) , I wasn’t really expecting much of inflight service and was quite content with a cup of water and the roomy Q400 seat. But when I flew six hours from New York to Seattle aboard American Airlines, I did wish there was a complimentary packet of peanuts (or pretzels or mixed snacks) to go with my soda.

Gone were the days when these tiny packets whose contents could be consumed in less than a minute would be handed out more as a welcome gesture than as meaningful victuals to satisfy the stomach, something perhaps to soothe the nerves or for a brief respite to take your mind off the dread of boredom on a reasonably long flight across the continent. You see, not handing out the peanuts has become a big deal on North American flights or else you might not dish out your credit card for a packet of chips.

So it was when I flew Air Canada from Vancouver to Toronto, but what an impression the smaller Air Canada Express made on my short onward journey of an hour or so to Pittsburgh. There was only one flight attendant in the small propeller aircraft and she had to walk back up the aisle to the head of the aircraft if someone wanted coffee as that was where the urns were installed. And you get a snack pack of pretzels to go with your coffee (or soda or juice).

Courtesy Delta Air Lines

Courtesy Delta Air Lines


But not all North American airlines are stinging on the peanuts. Flying from Pittsburgh to New York on Delta Air Lines, an equally short journey, the flight attendant came round with a snack basket for you to pick what may tempt you from bananas to granola bars to peanuts. You cannot deny that it makes a difference.

The good news for globetrotters is that outside North America, particularly in Asia, many airlines have kept the customary complimentary gesture which you no doubt appreciate even if you don’t really like peanuts.

Frequent Flyer program: Airlines go for the big spender, not frequent flyer

AS the global economy recovers and more people begin flying, airlines do not have to work as hard to retain old customers or entice new ones. There appears to be a rethink of the flyer program to base its rewards not on frequency of travel or the miles travelled but how much you spend on a ticket. The name of the frequent flyer program is apt to become a misnomer as airlines shift their preference from frequent flyers to big spenders. The new Qantas Frequent Flyer program does exactly that, moving from a miles-based system to a zone-based system whereby flyer points and status credits are based on the cost of the ticket. There is also a shift in downgrading rewards for travel on partner airlines to encourage customers to fly Qantas first and its partners second.

Courtesy Delta Air Lines

Courtesy Delta Air Lines

The trend is also catching up in the United States. Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines (though a domestic operator) already have such a system in place. The American Airlines Group comprising the merged entity of erstwhile American Airlines and US Airways is following suit. Alaska Airlines is mooting over a “Sphere” program to award points based on spending rather than just flying. Delta’s SkyMiles program vice-president Jeff Robertson said: “The travel industry, including nearly all hotel and credit card programs, has already moved to a spend-based model. The introduction of a new model for earning miles will increase rewards for those who spend more as well as differentiate the SkyMiles Frequent flyer program for our premium traveler.”

Is this a sign of the premium market recovering or merely yet another push to energize that segment of travel that in better days make up the bulk of a legacy airline’s earnings? However you look at it, it makes economic sense to reward those who spend more. What price then is loyalty for those who fly frequently but do not splash to drink champagne and feast on caviar? The base may shift, particularly when you can join any one of so many airline programs for a fee, such as Cathay Pacific’s Marco Polo Club, just to enjoy priority check-in and boarding, access to an airport lounge in some cases, and possibly an upgrade. Who needs to fly frequently thus or even spend the big bucks?

Alaska Airlines considers fee for choice seats

THE next time that you book an air ticket, be aware that the fare may not come in the usual package when you last travelled. And I’m not talking about just budget carriers, known for their add-on model that charges a base rate and customers pay additionally for options such as meals. Full-service airlines (the appellation is becoming a misnomer) have adopted this same principle to beef up revenue.

Some legacy carriers are already charging for meals and in-flight entertainment. More airlines have followed the United Airlines example of levying a fee for checked baggage. Singapore Airlines levies a fee for preferred seating with more legroom. And now Alaska Airlines is considering going down that same road, considering a fee for “choice seats”.

Ancillary revenue has become a significant source of boosting profitability for these airlines – as if it is really a new income stream for providing new and additional services to their customers. According to Alaska Airlines CFO Brandon Pedersen, this amounts to about US$300 million annually for the airline, 40 per cent of which is derived from checked baggage. He felt Alaska Airlines was somewhat a laggard in the game. Mr Pedersen said: “We recognize we haven’t done as much as other carriers… We think there is more to do here.”

Alaska Airlines is even considering upping its checked baggage fee from US$20 to US$25 for the first bag – to be in line with the industry norm – and why when it looks like many passengers will travel with at least one checked bag? At the current rate, this is already contributing US$120 million annually.

Lest it be too hasty, Mr Pedersen warned that Alaska Ailrines’ major rival Southwest Airlines does not charge passengers for checked baggage. So how far can Alaska Air go before its customers decide to switch allegiance?

What next, you may ask, and wish for the good old days when the airfare was less complicated and entailed certain basic services without your having to stuff down an early meal before boarding or agonize over what you should throw out of your only bag that is allowed as a carry-on?

Indeed, competition is the air traveller’s last bastion of hope for a fair fare deal. And it behooves upon the authorities to ensure that that stays alive and is not abused through collusions and fare-fixing. Airlines should know that what has happened in recent times is that travellers have become more conscious of the numbers. And that more of them are shopping around than they used to, especially when the product becomes increasingly uniform and the only reason for travelling is to get from one point to another.

Believe it, Air Canada scores!

ON the few occasions that I spoke good words about Air Canada to Canadians, their reaction was one of disbelief. I attributed that to old memories of past experiences, the rumor mill for regurgitating those stories (without personal experiences), and of course Canadian modesty.

Yet, more than 36,000 Global Traveler readers have only recently voted Air Canada the best airline in North America. It may not be all that of a surprise considering how most American carriers are not known for their service. However, 78 per cent of those respondents traveled first or business class – which should be good on any airline. You can’t fault any airline for paying more attention to this class of travelers since they bring in the big bucks, as recognized by Air Canada in a statement that it released: “Winning the loyalty of premium customers is a priority for all carriers and clearly our renewed focus on service and the investments we have made in on-board, airport and on-line improvements are appealing to travelers.”

What about the service for passengers booked to travel at the back of the aircraft? The seats may be smaller and less comfortable, the meals less elaborate and limited in choice, the flight attendants less personal and the check-in lines much longer, but if you believe that it has more to do with company culture, then that spirit should percolate all the way down from first and business to economy.

I have flown long-haul economy on Air Canada and am reasonably satisfied with the experience. There are some pluses worth mentioning.

Communication

The minute that you book with Air Canada, they maintain a communication line with you, with reminders of your pending travel and information pertaining to not only your flight but also the destination where you are heading. If there is any change to the schedule, you rest assured that you will be informed. This is generally the practice of the more service-oriented North American airlines, such as WestJet (another Canadian airline) and Alaska Airlines. Asian carriers generally prefer to keep their distance, and that includes even some of the more reputable ones. It gives the impression that all that matters to them is that the cat is in the bag.

My main complaint is that you wait an inordinately long time to reach a customer service officer when you use the telephone, but then this happens with practically all – I daresay, all – the other airlines. Air Canada’s redeeming grace is that when you finally succeed in getting through, the officers are by and large very pleasant, knowledgeable and helpful. Most time, you get off the line feeling the wait was worth it.

Seat selection

Air Canada allows you to select your seat as soon as you have booked to fly, something which again most Asian carriers do not permit until 48 hours before you fly if you check-in online for some, unless you travel premium. I feel at ease knowing that I have secured my preferred seat early, on a first-come-first-served basis.

Inflight meals

If you are a seasoned traveler, inflight meals can be boring. But from my varied experience, Air Canada tops in the meals served. Interestingly, a survey conducted by Professor Charles Stuart Platkin of CUNY School of Public Health at New York’s Hunter College praised Air Canada and Virgin America for serving the healthiest inflight food. Prof Platkin was particularly impressed with Air Canada NutriCuisine and with how the airline provides nutritional data sheets for all items that it serves. I’m no health nut, but find the meals appetizing. Now I wonder what it’s like up front.

Mileage rewards

Most mileage rewards offered by the airlines seem unattainable either because of restrictive conditions that limit their ready conversion or because of the high ceiling set for redemption. Air Canada offers probably one of the best schemes in the industry if you are a loyal customer, even in economy – with crossover conversions from industry partners such as hotels and car rentals, and retailers of household products. Reward mileage may be used to top up the fare of your next flight or for a free sector flight within North America, and you can look forward to an upgrade to “Prestige” status annually. By the way, economy class passengers may use the CIP lounge (Maple Leaf) for a fee (sometimes this is just what you need on a long haul) whereas it is a “No No” for most airlines which fear dilution of the premium product.

There are a couple of minuses too.

Long line at check-in

This can be nerve-wrecking when the line does not seem to move fast enough and you worry that you may not be able to make it to the gate in time, considering that there is likely to be a line as long at Immigration and Security. This happens particularly at American ports and in Europe. Industry insiders will tell you this is not quite an airline issue unless the airline self-handles (which Air Canada does at home) as an airport handling agent that has been engaged by the airline to perform the function. But he who pays the piper calls the tune. By comparison, Asian airlines and airports fare better in this respect.

Industrial strikes

Somehow western airlines (and airports) have a propensity for industrial standoff that can be extremely disruptive, especially when your travel entails more than just arriving at a certain destination or if you have an important appointment to keep. Air Canada, British Airways and Qantas are notorious in this respect if you look at recent history. Qantas suffered a big setback to its reputation in recent strikes which resulted in a cancellation of some 450 flights affecting 70,000 passengers in 22 cities around the world and costing the airline A$68 million. So, given a choice, you may weigh your options in favor of an airline with a good industrial record.

That considered, equally important is how an affected airline brings its customers through the rough patch – a matter of consumer’s confidence that the airline during such times will not neglect its customers. In June, when airport staff at check-in went on strike across Canada, Air Canada did a commendable job in continuing to fly as scheduled with reasonably few delays and cancellations. Granted, the situation would have been less manageable had the flight crew gone on strike.

So, believe it, Air Canada must be doing something right. It was also ranked this year’s Best International Airline in North America by Skytrax and Best Flight Experience to Canada by Executive Travel magazine. So far its survey popularity seems to be largely localized within North America, which suggests it compares less favorably in the wider international arena against rival airlines, especially Asian carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways.

Nonetheless, Air Canada deserves to celebrate. The airline’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer Ben Smith said: “This award (Globe Traveler) reflects the efforts of Air Canada’s 26,000 employees and their dedication to providing a superior travel experience to our customers.” It all comes down to corporate culture, eh?