The skies are friendly; the passengers are not
Mon, 2009/05/18 - 22:02 by aargh

I recently noted that airlines have stepped up to the early 1990's and are experimenting with customer relationship management (CRM) software. All this to help improve, well, their relationships with their customers. At the top of the agenda was to identify elite-status passengers who weren't flying in a premium cabin and offer them some extra pampering back in cattle class.

(Just as a side note, how silly is this? Do they plan to go the other way and mistreat the people who got the lucky boost into first class?)

CRM? For airlines? I can see the vendors rubbing their greedy hands together. They'll charge the airlines a pretty penny for the software, then another two or three more for the overpriced consultants to install and tweak it.

This is a bold move for an industry that is hemhorraging cash. And damn me if I can figure out how a free drink here or a nod there will get them a proper return on the investment. If you start pampering folks when they're slumming in coach, what fool is going to pay to go back to club posh?

Nonetheless, I can help. Skip letting the software to find them for you. All you really need is an eye for detail. Allow me, dear airlines, to share a page of my air travel field guide. I've spent my share of time in the best and worst of airplane seats so I have plenty of experience spotting the stealth royalty hidden among the peasants.

How, you may ask?

Simple: look for someone who clearly travels a lot but hasn't learned any manners along the way.

If you're not sure what I mean, keep your eyes peeled for someone who:

  • is well-dressed -- too well-dressed for a trip, especially given that the halcyon days of air travel have long since passed.
  • talks to himself -- well, really, he's having a conversation with the shiny gadget protruding from his ear. Listen for key phrases such as, "PROFIT MARGINS! SALES FIGURES! MEETING WITH A CLIENT!"
  • is convinced the airline conspires to drive him to the poor house -- no, the weather delays aren't fabricated so you'll miss your meeting. Trust me.
  • brings enough carry-on baggage for a family into the cabin where he tries to take over four rows' worth of overhead space to stash it all.

In other words, look for someone who still thinks they're flying in business class.

Need I mention, the vast majority of this stock is overweight and typically grouchy?

So there you go. Easy-peasy. You'll have no trouble spotting these troublemakers and you won't spend a dime on costly CRM tools.

Now in exchange for the money I've saved you, airlines, may I suggest you give these people gags instead of free drinks? The rest of us could use some quiet time.

Tue, 2009/05/12 - 18:09 by aargh

A recent New York Times article shares some thoughts on hotels that charge for internet access.

I won't go into too many details (short version: the higher-end places tend to stick you on the price) but I will share that I enjoyed the accompanying graphic: it shows a bellhop cheerfully delivering wi-fi service on a tray.

It's a fitting image, really, spot-on. Hotels that charge guests to connect to the internet really are lumping it in with room service: overpriced fare for the desperate traveller. The prices would seem fair if someone actually dropped by the room to set everything up for you, but the technical know-how is practically second nature these days. It's easier than putting fuel in the tank and less messy to boot. Though I do occasionally forget which side of the laptop has the ethernet jack.

Even worse are the flat-rate fee structures: the person who needs to transfer a few kilobytes' e-mails per day pays the same rate as the workaholic tapped into the corporate VPN, who in turn is competing with the multimedia freak in the next room for Number One Bandwidth Hog.

Last week my mind was chewing on the economics of it all (price discrimination, anyone?) as well as the implementation costs (low and flat, I'd expect). I was weighing the hotel's highway robbery prices for access against the uncharacteristically diminished signal of my mobile broadband card. (Let's just say, it gave me flashbacks of the early dial-up days. I mean early dial-up.)

Thankfully I didn't have to think it over very long. I would use neither the hotel's wi-fi service nor its electricity, as my laptop's battery was drained and I had forgotten to pack the power adapter. So for a couple of days I accessed the Great Land of Connectivity via my phone. It was like trying to watch a movie through a keyhole, except less comfortable.

Another hotel ripoff thwarted by my ailing memory. Brilliant. Now if only I could forget why I travel in the first place ...

Sun, 2009/05/03 - 14:12 by aargh

Today let's turn to hotels, shall we?

Sure, we've all had hotel hell: dodgy rooms, dodgier staff, and inhuman sounds coming from the room next door. Short fuses, short-sheeted, shortened stays, the whole bit. But what about the fun that gets you to the room in the first place?

No wonder services such as have been so successful -- choosing a hotel can be very stressful. It's hellish to pick through website after website, profile after profile, asking yourself:

Is it really as nice as the photos let on? A little creative camera work can hide flaws. Less creative are the photos that show just the lobby and long-views of the city skyline. (Beware.)

What about the neighbourhood? Some hotels realize tourists know little about the area and do little to warn them that the bum outside is not a valet.

Even if the outside is nice and the neighborhood seems welcoming, you have that brief gasp as you open your room door that first time: "did I get stiffed on the bed size cos I'm travelling solo?" "Where's the loo? The brochure did say private loo, right??" "Why are there four other people in my room?"

No wonder as well, then, that some hotels rely heavily on brand recognition. If I've always stayed in Brand X hotels, then I'm damned sure this one will pretty much resemble the last one, and that's one less thing for me to worry about as I plan my travel.

Or maybe not. Some hotels are franchises of a brand name, so you may not really be staying in a Hote By Brand X but a building wearing the Brand X logo. To that end some hotels have even changed brands and names overnight: same rooms, different name on the towels. (I've always wondered how it feels to, say, check-in at a Hilton and check-out of an Intercontinental...)

Which is why I'm a little wary of any brand-name hotel that advertises itself as "new." Is it "new" as in, "we just built this?" or does "new" mean "new to our name, plus some hasty remodeling?"

I ask because, on a recent journey, I checked into a "new" hotel of my preferred brand and noticed some ... of the finer details.

The bathroom was a real eye-pleaser, yes, until I looked toward the floor:

doorframe with chipped paint

And this here? In lieu of a working window lock and handle, I used this thingamajig to control how much of the outside I would let in:

bolt as window handle

Yes, that is indeed a bolt. A bolt used to hold the window closed. I suspect this system was popular in an era, oh, before modern science had created handles.

I took a brief tour of my floor and noted other signs of construction-in-progress in the hallways and on the various doors.

All in all I enjoyed my stay just as much as I have enjoyed any other with this particular brand. This hotel just opened up a little early. Hopefully by the time I return it will be served up as well-done and not quite so blood-rare.

Mon, 2009/04/27 - 17:32 by aargh

Air travel can be overwhelming. As if hunting for tickets wasn't its own fun, you then have to go to the airport. Long lines, people walking aimlessly, announcements barked over the loudspeaker in a variety of languages.... Your average airport is a mess of distraction that borders on sensory overload. You don't dare tune out for survival, though, lest you risk missing an announcement about your flight or someone driving a cart mows you down.

This is why frequent travellers keep their eyes and ears open for tips and guidance to improve the signal to noise ratio. Anything to tell them what's going on without making them fish around for it.

Sometimes we swap war stories with friends, other times we pick up a tip in a magazine. Once in a rare while, though, the information practically announces itself. Such as this gate number from a recent voyage:

airport gate: L8

(Still don't get it? Say it aloud.)

Before you ask, yes, my flight was indeed delayed. But I knew it would be the minute I saw the gate number, so no worries.

My gate number told me something else: that I'd have to sprint over Hell's half-acre to go from the local Admiral's Club to the boarding area. Because those two were about as far apart as they could get without being in separate terminals. I'm not sure who planned this, but at least the delayed flight gave me time to cool off and catch my breath after some unanticipated exercise.

Mon, 2009/04/20 - 17:23 by aargh

In a previous rant, I noted that hotels had taken a page from the airline book in offering a waitlist for room upgrades during the booking process.

On the one hand, I think it's a novel idea. Anything that makes your hotel experience more of a gamble sure gets my vote.

At the same time, I think the hotels see a few too many similarities between airplane seat upgrades and hotel room upgrades. If there's any hole in the hotels' view, that's it.

Hear me out:

The free booze and better meal service are certainly perks, but most people I've met upgrade their airplane seats for the extra space. Since many airlines' upgrades cost dollars and/or hard-earned miles a traveller can't realistically upgrade on all flights. To guide the rationing process, then, most savvy travellers will use the airlines' seat maps: if the coach cabin is empty or at partial capacity, they pick a decent spot (such as an aisle seat near the front) and take a gamble that they'll have no seating companion so they'll have room to stretch out.

On the other hand if coach is reasonably full, travellers then apply for a seat in business or first. These first passengers are happy because they have more personal space. The airline is happy because they were able to make some cash on the upgrade. And if the flight is overbooked, other passengers are happy because they get the seats vacated by the upgrade crowd.

Three rounds of benefit because one person wanted some breathing room. All of this is brought about by providing the passengers more information in the form of seat maps.

Compare that to a hotel room: at least for the hotels I frequent, while it's possible to request a particular room number there's no guarantee you'll get it. This is because hotel room occupancy changes all the time, be it someone who checks out early or late, or someone who extends their stay at the last minute. Furthermore, unless you're sandwiched between honeymoon couples, having neighbours in a hotel won't impact your personal space.

So all in all, air travellers have better stakes (or at least a more-informed decision) when it comes to their upgrades. Hotel patrons, not so much.

I will give the hotels credit for trying something new. And for being bold about it: unlike the airlines, there was no namby-pamby hand-wringing over the potential insults to people who had paid full price for their premium rooms.

In the meantime, may I make a suggestion: on the booking form, let folks tick a checkbox if they plan to celebrate nuptials or otherwise expect a naughty-fest... Then offer, for a modest fee, to move anyone near them to a different floor.

(Be sure to explain their neighbours' rooms are stocked with plenty of these if they don't get the hint at first.)

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