Why airline alliances are good for fliers

The Star Alliance’s 15th birthday this month reminds me that a global airline alliance is one of the most fascinating concepts in the history of commercial aviation. It’s also an example of the airline industry’s creative thinking aimed at increasing revenues. However, unlike some of the questionable practices I described in “Decoding Air Travel,” this one has dramatically improved the customer experience.

It’s fascinating for me personally, because it combines my two passions and areas of expertise, international affairs and air travel. In fact, what alliance executive teams do every day is nothing short of diplomacy. International negotiations and dispute resolution are two of their specialties, and a big part of their duties is selecting new members, not unlike NATO and the European Union.

When Star was formed in 1997, the idea was not only to represent its members’ best interests — that’s primarily the job of trade associations — but to boost business by feeding passengers from one carrier to another in the smoothest possible way. Soon, airline diplomacy began in earnest — first among alliance members, which after all are rivals in a fiercely competitive industry, and then with airports, transportation authorities and governments around the world. The other two global alliances are Oneworld and SkyTeam…

American tries to entice top United fliers

American Airlines has finally decided to take advantage of the problems many United Airlines fliers have experienced since the merger with Continental Airlines was completed on March 3. In an extremely rare move, American is now offering conditions-free top-elite status match to United’s most loyal customers.

Having read and heard about many United customers’ troubles after the carrier adopted Continental’s reservations system — and having encountered some problems myself — I e-mailed American spokesman Tim Smith on March 16. Smith has been the best PR person to deal with at any airline since I started writing my column in the Washington Times in 2008. I asked him whether American had any intention of capitalizing on United customers’ dissatisfaction by stealing some of them away through a status-match offer…

Rare airport luxury, almost wasted

Turkish Airlines has built an impressive business lounge at its hub is Istanbul, with the best sleeping rooms I’ve seen anywhere in the world, including in First Class lounges. The best, that is, until you try to sleep — unless you don’t mind loud noise that even Bose headphones on top of earplugs can’t block out.

As I’ve written before, Turkish has made significant progress in recent years toward becoming a world-class carrier, but it’s still a long way from being anywhere close to the top. It rushes to do something it deems top-notch but doesn’t really think it through — and for high-end customers, a little glitz doesn’t sparkle brightly enough if the entire experience is inconsistent and unpredictable…

Round the world in a week, without pain

How do you make sure a whirlwind trip round the world in just a week doesn’t wear you out and affect your productivity? Things went surprisingly well for me last week, as I flew from Washington to Munich to Paris to Bangkok to Islamabad, back to Bangkok, on to Seoul and back to Washington, so I thought I’d share the experience.

The first thing I have to say is that I don’t drink coffee or take sleeping pills. My only medicine when it comes to air travel is securing the best comfort and luxury I can — I need my flat beds, gourmet meals, lounges with showers, and sometimes even chauffeur-driven cars to connecting flights. I certainly can’t pay for them, but we’ll come to that momentarily…

British Air loses bags on $12,000 ticket

There must be very few things more embarrassing to an airline than losing the luggage of a passenger who paid more than $12,000 for a First Class ticket. Even more shockingly, British Airways, which did just that last week, didn’t try to right the screamingly obvious wrong and offer some sort of a good-will gesture.

Many of us often wonder who would pay $10,000 or $15,000 for a plane ticket, but let me assure you, there are such people. Premium travel has staged a remarkable recovery in recent months. As I look at flight inventory, I’m amazed every day by how full Business and First Class cabins are on various carriers…

What are your air travel pet peeves?

There are many things about today’s air travel system that annoy the most patient people — passengers and airline employees alike. It’s easy to encounter rudeness on both sides. I’ve learned to block out most of the noise and avoid hassle or stress, but I realized during a trip this week that I have my own pet peeves list.

1. Passengers demanding upgrades from gate agents, because they are on a “full fare” or have elite status — except that their ticket’s booking class is nowhere near Y or B, and they have the lowest status level.
2. Airport lounge gatekeepers wrongly denying you access and insisting they are correct when you confront them with the actual rules. Worse yet, they find a supervisor who agrees with them — as if repeating a mistake twice makes it right.
3. Passengers trying to hide a bag they put on the floor of an exit row, not to be seen by the flight attendant who warned them that luggage is not allowed there…