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Tag Archives: business travel

United Airlines still leaving passengers on hold

United Airlines passengers were still having difficulty getting a reservations agent on the phone and experiencing other glitches on Tuesday, more than three weeks after a computer switchover that was supposed to make traveling better after the airline’s merger with Continental.


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There were widespread reports of passengers waiting on hold to fix ticketing problems. Many said that they couldn’t get through at all. Odd balances were showing up in frequent flier accounts.

On its website, United warned travelers that its call centers were getting “extraordinarily high call volumes,” and that some customers were waiting on hold for more than an hour.

The airline said it had added 600 extra call center workers, and others were working overtime. It was also working to fix the problems that were prompting the calls in the first place. By Tuesday afternoon, average wait times were down to 10 minutes, according to airline spokeswoman Megan McCarthy, although that varied depending on time of day and weather disruptions.

Generally, passengers who didn’t need to call the airline didn’t appear to be running into trouble. But many customers trying to resolve an issue with a ticket or an upgrade found that calling to fix it turned out to be a patience-building exercise.

Stephen Eskins used a debit card last week to buy a ticket from Bakersfield, Calif., where he has an internship, to fly back home to Charleston, W.V. His bank told him he was overdrawn when the charge for the ticket hit his account twice.

Eskins ended up making several calls on Tuesday to sort it out. One United worker told him to talk to the refund department, while another told him there was no such thing. An email address he was given to get the charge reversed turned out to be invalid.

The whole reason he was flying on United was to use a $150 gift certificate he got from a previous snafu with the airline.

“After I used that I was planning on not ever flying with them again, just because stuff like this happens,” he said.

United and Continental merged in 2010 to become United Continental Holdings Inc. An important part of turning them into one airline happened on March 3, when the company moved passenger data to what used to be Continental’s computer system. It also merged frequent flier accounts that day.

Delays were high over that weekend as United workers struggled to learn Continental’s software. United’s on-time performance improved as the month went on. By Saturday March 24, FlightStats.com showed about 81 percent of United flights arriving on-time, compared with 89 percent for Delta Air Lines Inc.

Other problems persisted, though. According to the airline:

— Every time the airline’s computer found discrepancies in passenger records, passengers were told to call in to fix it, flooding United’s call center.

— United workers had to fix those discrepancies one-by-one.

— High-level frequent fliers are supposed to be put on a list for automatic upgrades to better seats, generally about four days before their flight. When their upgrades didn’t come through, they started calling. The airline said most of the upgrade issues have been resolved.

— Many travelers weren’t seeing accurate miles posted to frequent-flier accounts for flights under 500 miles. United fixed that on Saturday, McCarthy said.

March is a busy travel month for airlines, with spring-break travelers adding to the usual mix of business fliers and vacationers. United executives have said that they want to customize the airline for business travelers, who tend to pay more. So problems upgrading frequent fliers to better seats annoyed the very passengers that the airline was trying to impress.

“This merger has just been a disaster for customers,” said Bill Ihle, a communications consultant who flies regularly from Medford, Ore., where he lives. On Monday he gave up after he couldn’t log onto the airline’s website with his frequent flier number to book a ticket.

Last week, while trying to book a different flight, a call center worker confused the airport he wanted to fly to — Fiumicino airport in Rome — with one in Japan. Ihle said the worker even suggested flying there on Japan’s All Nippon Airlines, which is a United partner.

“At this point the level of confidence that you’re going to get to Rome, Italy, as opposed to Rome, Georgia, is not very high,” he said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Starwood ups the ante for its most loyal guests

Acknowledging its most loyal customers, Starwood Hotels and Resorts this week announced enhancements to its Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty program.

One of the world’s biggest hotel companies, Starwood owns, leases, manages or franchises more than 1,000 upscale properties around the world, offering 302,000 rooms in 100 countries. 

The new elite benefits, which begin March 1, include:

  • Allowing SPG members who spend more than 75 eligible nights at Starwood hotels each year to choose their own check-in and check-out times during a 24-hour period, giving them control over their arrival and departure times;
  • Assigning a “personal ambassador” to SPG members who stay 100 nights annually. This individual works one-on-one with members, on an ongoing basis, to provide customized service any time, even when members are not traveling;
  • Bestowing lifetime gold status on members who have stayed 250 nights in total and maintained gold or platinum status for at least five years (not necessarily consecutive), and lifetime platinum status on members who have stayed 500 nights in total and maintained platinum status for ten years (not necessarily consecutive).

“Our goal is to make SPG so rich that it’s impossible for mega-travelers not to choose Starwood,” said Mark Vondrasek, Starwood’s senior vice president of distribution, loyalty and partnership marketing. “We also want to make the program wildly aspirational for all frequent travelers. And because we know that many of our members are also members of other hotel loyalty programs, we believe these upgrades give travelers a compelling reason to consolidate all their travel with us.”

The company noted that just 2 percent of its top-tiered guests generate 30 percent of profits.

Loyalty program experts said many new SPG perks are already offered by other hotel companies. For example, Lynda Hanwella, managing editor of InsideFlyer, a magazine devoted to loyalty programs, said both Hyatt and Marriott already offer lifetime elite status to their program participants.

But at least one loyalty perk sets Starwood apart from the competition. Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, a website devoted to travel loyalty programs, called SPG elite members’ new ability to check in and out at their convenience “pretty terrific. As benefits go, it’s something that’s truly usable. And Starwood’s is the only significant program to do it.”

Both Winship and Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a market research company, questioned how popular services of the “personal ambassador” will be. 

“A lot of people who stay 100 nights are very self-sufficient,” Harteveldt said. “What I like about the concept is that the ambassador is there if you need him. It elevates the loyalty program from being a utility that’s used to a relationship that’s valued.”

Winship also said the “average traveler” would not have access to the new SPG perks, the exception being an “average traveler who aspires to elite status and has a fighting chance of reaching elite status.”

Moreover, what Starwood did not do when announcing the new perks is as significant as what it is doing, Harteveldt said.

“They’re not taking away benefits like United did, when it downgraded benefits of the lowest tier of its elite frequent fliers last September. They’re not introducing a silver tier between the standard and gold tiers, which would make standard participants feel less valued. They’re not allowing American Express to dictate to them what they can do with people who have a co-branded credit card. For standard members, they’ve preserved the integrity of the program,” Harteveldt said.

“Most business people understand that you treat all customers well but certain customers better,” he added, “because their volume of business earns them extra attention.”

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Exclusive: New airline plans London City-NY link

Bankers may be languishing in popularity polls but a new airline wants their business and is prepared to challenge British Airways for it once the financial crisis is over.


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A British venture called Odyssey Airlines hopes to start non-stop all-business class flights from London City to New York and other locations using 10 newly-ordered Bombardier CSeries passenger jets, aviation industry sources told Reuters.

The disclosure lifts a mystery surrounding the identity of one of the buyers for a Canadian jet which aims to break into a market long dominated by Airbus and Boeing.

Train and plane maker Bombardier said in June it had sold two sets of 10 aircraft to customers that preferred to stay anonymous, one of which was an “unidentified European buyer” and the other was an already established airline.

Bombardier declined any further comment.

The start-up directly targets BA which offers twice-daily all-business flights using Airbus A318 aircraft from London City, a small business airport near the capital’s financial district which can handle only moderately-sized jetliners.

The idea is to capture demand for bankers and other professionals for transatlantic travel without a time-consuming journey across the capital to London’s congested Heathrow. Using the future CSeries jet would also eliminate the need for a fuel stop in Ireland when travelling westbound to New York.

The new airline may hope to entice executive travelers away from other business jet schemes such as NetJets.

But its path is strewn with potential hazards and previous failures.

Several all-business airlines have been killed off by high costs and the difficulty niche airlines face in matching benefits offered by big players. U.S.-based Maxjets filed for bankruptcy in 2007 and UK-based Silverjet collapsed in 2008.

“It is difficult for small companies to make money in this type of market. Business travelers usually belong to frequent flyer schemes and loyalty programs are difficult to crack,” said John Feren, executive vice president of U.S. lessor Aviation Capital Group, owned by insurer Pacific Life.

Analysts say that to succeed, new entrants into business travel must have an alliance with a major airline.

Even then, the number of previous casualties suggests the margin for error is small.

“If you find a niche that looks attractive, it just takes two seconds for somebody to come in like a freight train and usurp the market,” said Ray Neidl, Senior Aerospace and Airlines Analyst, Maxim Group investment bank in New York.

“It is a tough environment because of high oil prices, tight capital markets and all of the consolidation which has made the competition stronger.”

NON-STOP FLIGHTS

Odyssey Airlines is keeping a low profile, as is common for new entrants in the cut-throat travel industry, but at least two web addresses — www.odysseyairlines.com and www.odyair.com — have been reserved for “Future Odyssey Airlines International.”

The company was incorporated in the UK in September 2010 and its main director is Adam Scott, according to public UK records.

When contacted via an email address hosted on the company’s web domain, a person identifying himself as Adam Scott replied from a personal account and denied all links with the project.

Reached later by telephone he denied any links with the airline industry and said he could not explain how he had received email via Odyssey Airlines’ web domain.

A former Air France executive said to have been involved in the project also denied any involvement.

None of the sources agreed to be named because the project has yet to be launched.

The CSeries is a major bet too for Bombardier. Its decision to enter the $100 billion-a-year jet market partially prompted Airbus and Boeing to revamp their best-selling narrowbody jets.

Bombardier’s firm orders since then have been somewhat sluggish with 133 confirmed sales, a tenth of the combined total of the revamped alternatives. Industry analysts monitor the types of buyer on the backlog as well as the number of orders.

The CSeries is due to enter service in late 2013 and Odyssey would not be likely to start operations before 2014 or 2015, hoping Canada’s new jet will change the competitive landscape.

Built from new lightweight materials, the CSeries aircraft could be attractive because it would be able to cross the Atlantic in one hop when carrying a small load of passengers.

When travelling westbound, BA’s twice-daily flights have to stop in Ireland to refuel. That is because the A318, the smallest member of the Airbus fleet, lacks enough range to make the whole trip against prevailing headwinds.

Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

Business travel outlook: Meetings to be shorter

Although planning professionals expect an increase in the number of business meetings next year, they predict them to be shorter, smaller, busier and closer to home, according to a survey recently released by the meetings and events division of American Express.

Among the findings from the meeting planners, buyers and hotel suppliers who were polled:

  • 60 percent expect the number of meetings to increase in 2012;
  • 40 percent of hotel suppliers said the number of attendees per meeting will likely decrease;
  • 33 percent of hotel suppliers predicted the length of meetings will decrease because of a “demand to do more with less,” American Express said;
  • 53 percent of meeting suppliers predicted meetings would be held closer to businesses conducting them in order to cut costs.

Moreover, business travelers increasingly opted for coach over premium seats in October — a move aimed at cutting costs in a tough global economic period, according to the International Air Transport Association.

The number of passengers traveling premium (first and business class) on international flights fell sharply in October, rising only 0.1 percent from the same month last year, against year-on-year growth for September of 6.7 percent, IATA said. 

“We interpret this as being mostly due to business travelers shifting to cheaper seats, since in October economy travel was up 4 percent on last year,” IATA said in its monthly premium traffic monitor. 

Authors of the American Express survey predict the North American meetings market in particular would continue to grow in 2012, as it did this year, and that strong demand for mid-price hotels also would continue. 

“Companies are keen to avoid the perception of excessive spending on events, and many companies are following the pharmaceutical industry’s lead by incorporating a code of compliance that limits the use of five-star properties, or those with certain resort-type amenities” like a golf course or spa, authors of the survey wrote. 

The company also predicted large cities would “still dominate” as the site for North American meetings in 2012 while “second-tier cities remain attractive from a price perspective, they offer fewer facilities to accommodate events and may require additional travel time for attendees.” 

Chris Meyer, vice president of sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said his city — long a popular site for meetings and conventions — in 2011 will experience more a 3- to 4- percent jump in the number of conventions held and a 10-percent jump in delegates attending, a trend he expects will continue in 2012.

One factor is what he called a “rebalancing” between large trade shows and individual meetings, with fewer of the former scheduled in 2012. Industries whose meetings were curtailed by the recession— such as financial services, banking, insurance, automotive and technology — began holding them again in late 2009, a trend he said picked up in 2010, was “very, very strong” in 2011, and is expected to continue next year.

Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, called the American Express forecast “good news for destinations that have the right mix of affordable air fares and hotels with available rooms and meeting facilities. It’s a sign of optimism about the economy and business in general, because meetings are one of the first things to be cut when business conditions are bad and one of the last things to be restored as business conditions improve.”

However, he said American Express’ findings also indicate that companies holding meetings and conventions “are not opening the water faucet to full blast in terms of spending and the number of people attending and what they can do.”

American Express’ bullish forecast for large cities “bodes well” for destinations like New York, San Francisco and Miami, and cities with major airline hubs like Atlanta, Chicago and Houston, Harteveldt added.

He warned, though, that meeting planners likely will book hotels closer to the date they will occur, which could mean for the “regular traveler that the hotel you thought would be available could get booked up.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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Business travel outlook: Meetings to be shorter, smaller, closer to home

Although planning professionals expect an increase in the number of business meetings next year, they predict them to be shorter, smaller, busier and closer to home, according to a survey recently released by the meetings and events division of American Express.

Among the findings from the questioned meeting planners, buyers and hotel suppliers:

  • 60 percent expect the number of meetings to increase in 2012;
  • 40 percent of hotel suppliers said the number of attendees per meeting will likely decrease;
  • 33 percent predicted the length of meetings will decrease because of a “demand to do more with less,” American Express said;
  • 53 percent of meeting suppliers predicted meetings would be held closer to businesses conducting them in order to cut costs.

Moreover, business travelers increasingly opted for coach over premium seats in October — a move aimed at cutting costs in a tough global economic period, according to the International Air Transport Association.

The number of passengers traveling premium (first and business class) on international flights fell sharply in October, rising only 0.1 percent from the same month last year, against year-on-year growth for September of 6.7 percent, IATA said. 

“We interpret this as being mostly due to business travelers shifting to cheaper seats, since in October economy travel was up 4 percent on last year,” IATA said in its monthly premium traffic monitor. 

Authors of the American Express survey predict the North American meetings market in particular would continue to grow in 2012, as it did this year, and that strong demand for mid-price hotels also would continue. 

“Companies are keen to avoid the perception of excessive spending on events, and many companies are following the pharmaceutical industry’s lead by incorporating a code of compliance that limits the use of five-star properties, or those with certain resort-type amenities” like a golf course or spa, authors of the survey wrote. 

The company also predicted large cities would “still dominate” as the site for North American meetings in 2012 while “second-tier cities remain attractive from a price perspective, they offer fewer facilities to accommodate events and may require additional travel time for attendees.” 

Chris Meyer, vice president of sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said his city — long a popular site for meetings and conventions — in 2011 will experience more a 3- to 4- percent jump in the number of conventions held and a 10-percent jump in delegates attending, a trend he expects will continue in 2012.

One factor is what he called a “rebalancing” between large trade shows and individual meetings, with fewer of the former scheduled in 2012. Industries whose meetings were curtailed by the recession— such as financial services, banking, insurance, automotive and technology — began holding them again in late 2009, a trend he said picked up in 2010, was “very, very strong” in 2011, and is expected to continue next year.

Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, called the American Express forecast “good news for destinations that have the right mix of affordable air fares and hotels with available rooms and meeting facilities. It’s a sign of optimism about the economy and business in general, because meetings are one of the first things to be cut when business conditions are bad and one of the last things to be restored as business conditions improve.”

However, he said American Express’ findings also indicate that companies holding meetings and conventions “are not opening the water faucet to full blast in terms of spending and the number of people attending and what they can do.”

American Express’ bullish forecast for large cities “bodes well” for destinations like New York, San Francisco and Miami, and cities with major airline hubs like Atlanta, Chicago and Houston, Harteveldt added.

He warned, though, that meeting planners likely will book hotels closer to the date they will occur, which could mean for the “regular traveler that the hotel you thought would be available could get booked up.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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