Friday, July 22, 2005

Profits flying away

Excellent article in the Wall Street Journal. Of course, the Journal, as an honest newspaper, just reports the news as it is without editorializing, so that leaves it to the rest of the world to do just that.
Most people may be surprised that of the airlines in the United States, the ones that are earning the largest profits are not Delta, United, and Northwest, but rather airlines such as JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska Air. But if you fly a few times a year, there are many obvious reasons.
For most of us, there are two main factors when we fly: Price and comfort. Over the last eight years or so, I've probably flown between 75 and 100 times. Northwest, Delta, and especially United were these huge airplanes that were about half empty, yet I still was squashed into a seat that was way too small for a 12-year old, let alone a 6'0 guy in his late teens. Even sitting sideways, I was unable to get any room for my legs anywhere without squeezing some other body part while cutting off all circulation to one of my arms. I remember getting really annoyed on a United flight to Chicago where the seats were so cramped I could not put my feet on the floor without chafing off half of my knee against the seat in front of me.
When I was going to high school, I usually flew Continental. Most of the time, Continental was pretty good - the seats weren't huge, but they weren't completely cramped. In addition, their customer service was excellent - if there was ever a problem, they would give us vouchers for free flights, or if there was a delay, they would either give us money for snacks or try and get us onto another flight - often on Midwest Express. Midwest Express was a great airline. My favorite memory was when I was once flying from Milwaukee to Cleveland. It's about an hour-long flight, yet they were serving meals to everyone, something that is unheard of on most airlines. They also have huge, leather, first-class type seats for everyone: They don't have a first-class section. I received my kosher meal, a bagel, and watched with envy as the man next to me received a very large, probably 12" china plate, (yes, china) filled with shrimp. Who serves shrimp on a plane? Who uses china? Is that normal?!
The best airline, outside of Midwest Express, which I believe shut down (I guess shrimp got expensive), is either JetBlue or Southwest. There's two reasons for this, both the same as the ones I said before. My wife and I flew from New York to Cleveland to Los Angeles and back to New York for Sukkos last year. We spent $514 plus taxes and fees, so about $600 in total - all on 3 different airlines, one-way tickets each time. We flew from La Guardia (about 10 minutes from our apartment) to Akron on AirTran (another solid airline) for $59 a ticket; from Cleveland to Los Angeles on Southwest for $99 a ticket; and from Los Angeles to JFK (also about 10 minutes from our apartment) on JetBlue for $99 a ticket. Not only that, but we were decently comfortable on each flight.
AirTran is the most cramped of the three, though if you're lucky and log on to their site 24 hours before flight time you can get the first row; which, since it is seperated from the first-class by a curtain, not a wall, has a huge amount of leg-room, enough for me to stretch all the way out and still have plenty of space. Southwest everyone chooses their seat based on when they arrive at the airport, but usually is not too bad no matter where you sit, plus has the added bonus of free entertainment from the flight crew on occasion. When we first got married, a family friend informed the flight crew that there were newlyweds aboard! Not only did they announce it over the intercom, they came around and gave us a bag full of goodies as a present, including decks of Southwest cards and a nice bottle of non-kosher champagne! JetBlue, meanwhile, has larger seats, sometimes serves blue terra chips which are really good, and just has a more relaxed feel in general.
Overall, it's not surprising that the smaller airlines are doing far better financially than the larger ones. On airlines such as JetBlue, people don't feel like they have just spent a decent amount of money for the right to not feel their feet. They also don't have to walk through huge terminals just to find there are no seats by their gate, let alone on their delayed flight, and that the person at the airline counter is having a bad day thanks to the fourty people before you who asked when they would be taking off. Instead, they think about how nice and polite the stewardess was, how relaxed all the people on the flight seemed, and how much of a bargain their tickets were as opposed to the larger airlines. When they walk off the plane, they immediately think in the back of their minds, "I'll fly this airline again next time."
And they do.

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