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CRUNCHED KNEES, ANSWERED QUESTIONS
By Joe Brancatelli
May 29, 2014 -- This is the question I get most frequently these days: When are the airlines going to stop squeezing us into smaller coach seats?
We now have the answer, thanks to Calvin Rovinescu, chief executive of Air Canada, which is stuffing its Rouge aircraft with seats that have 29 inches of legroom, about two inches less than the bone-crunching standard to which we've become accustomed.
"This product [Rouge] is coming into the market at a time when some level of adjustment in customer expectations is occurring."
In other words, Rovinescu is telling you to grin and bear it because it'll be a hot day in Montreal before Air Canada changes its mind and stops the torture.
Now we've got that vexing question out of the way, let's get to some other things that have been on your mind.
WHERE ARE THE BARGAINS TO EUROPE?
This question actually comes in two flavors: "I gotta get to [insert European city here] fast. What's the best premium-class bargain I can get?" The other is: "Where's the best bargain to Europe for a holiday?"
My answer to both: OpenSkies, the boutique airline launched by British Airways in 2008. The tiny carrier originally planned to fly to an array of European destinations, but then the global financial meltdown happened. OpenSkies never quite recovered and now it only flies to Paris' Orly Airport from Newark or New York/Kennedy.
But OpenSkies remains an insane bargain. For a little as $1,300 and almost never more than $2,000 roundtrip, you can fly its insanely good premium-economy class. It offers 2x2 seating on narrowbody Boeing 757s and the leather recliners have 47 inches of seat pitch. The meals are surprisingly good, wines are drinkable, you're offered use of an entertainment-stuffed iPad, crews are quite accommodating and Orly is a breeze compared to Charles de Gaulle, where Air France and its SkyTeam partner Delta Air Lines hub.
Self-connecting to OpenSkies at Newark or Kennedy is easy enough, of course. (OpenSkies also code-shares with its BA parent and its Oneworld partner American Airlines.) And you can self-connect at Orly to dozens of European cities. (Travel light, though, since most European carriers flying from Orly charge frightful amounts for checked bags.)
"Loved OpenSkies," an I-only-fly-business-class traveler I know texted me this week after flying them for the first time. "Never slept better on a flight. It was everything you said: sleek, clean aircraft with great service."
WHEN IS HILTON HHONORS GOING TO BACK DOWN?
After a brutal barrage of devaluations, Hilton HHonors has become the frequent-stay program business travelers justifiably love to hate. And the question is relentless: When is Hilton going to back down, reverse some of the cutbacks and improve the program?
The answer is simple: Hilton isn't going to back down because it doesn't have to back down. There's no indication that the cutbacks have hurt or that top-level elites are defecting. In fact, Hilton pulled off a successful IPO last year and its earnings have been just dandy. The chain is opening hotels at a frenetic pace and it plans to announce two new brands later this year.
Which means your only option is to get a $95 Citi HHonors card (see the Steals & Deals page), tuck the Gold status that comes with it in your back pocket for emergency use and concentrate your hotel loyalty elsewhere. What should you do with your HHonors points? Burn them off. And to that end, Hilton has opened a slew of new properties in desirable holiday destinations.
There's now a 167-room Hilton Garden Inn on the Virginia Beach boardwalk. (It's a Category 7.) Hilton is also finishing up a dual-brand property in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. A 135-room Homewood Suites (Category 5) is already open and the attached 181-room Hampton Inn (Category 5) will open next month. In Amsterdam, a 93-room Waldorf Astoria has opened in a collection of six 17th- and 18th-century townhouses. It's in the UNESCO heritage area on the Herengracht Canal. It's a Category 9 award. And in London, where Hilton already has a clutch of properties, a Jurys Hotel in the heart of Chelsea has reflagged as a DoubleTree by Hilton. The 172-room property has undergone a renovation and it's available as a Category 7 award.
WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH THE DREAMLINER?
After last year's much-publicized grounding, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is rebounding nicely. It's allowing airlines to open new routes and yesterday the Federal Aviation Administration nearly doubled the amount of time the Dreamliner can fly without being in range of a suitable airport. This so-called ETOPs certification for 330 minutes (up from 180 minutes) means that the Boeing 787 will be able to operate on even more transoceanic routes.
But the big question remains: Is the Dreamliner reliable? For the answer, I turned to Sebastian Mikosz, chief executive of LOT Polish Airlines. Why him? LOT has six Dreamliners, two more on order and is the only airline in the world that operates an all-787 long-haul operation. If any carrier can talk authoritatively about the Dreamliner, it's LOT.
"We consider the questions about the Dreamliner closed and done," Mikosz told me last week when he was in the United States. "For that matter, the Boeing 767s we used to fly had at least as many technical issues at the start as the Dreamliner."
Besides remaking long-haul service around the Dreamliner--LOT added a premium-economy class, installed lie-flat beds in business class and, this month, began what the airline calls a "restaurant-style" food service--the Polish airline is running the Boeing 787 hard.
"No one uses it more than we do," Mikosz said. "Our fleet utilization is 19-20 hours a day. It's become a very reliable plane."
Still, Mikosz admits, "The Dreamliner will not reach its full maturity for another 12-15 months. But I've become more philosophical about it. I don't lose sleep now. I know it is reliable and it will get even better."
WHEN WILL AIRLINES STOP FUDGING ON-TIME NUMBERS?
Airlines like to point to the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report and boast about their on-time ratings. But I get the same questions from business travelers all the time: Why aren't I getting the kind of performance that the airlines claim? And aren't the on-time numbers a lie?
The answer to those questions is that the numbers are a fudge. The on-time statistics for the legacy carriers--American, US Airways, United and Delta--as well as Alaska Airlines only include the flights those carriers actually operate. As we all know, however, about half of the nation's flights that carry legacy codes are actually run by commuter carriers. Their on-time performance is substantially lower than the mainline carriers and some aren't even required to report statistics to the Transportation Department. Moreover, a study by the DOT Inspector General released late last year concluded that airlines padded schedules on virtually all routes.
But there's good news on the horizon. The same set of DOT regulations I discussed in today's Seat 2B column about airline fees will address some of the on-time fudges. The agency will require more regional airlines to report their on-time performance. More importantly, the DOT will bundle code-sharing commuter carriers with their legacy patrons and report combined on-time ratings as well as combined statistics for lost bags and bumping.
Will that make travel better? Of course not. But it will give a more accurate look at how the major carriers are faring while they're crunching our knees in smaller and smaller seats.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.