American’s plans for its fleet, and other aviation stories of the past week

An American Airlines 777-300ER parked at LAX. Photo credit: American.

An American Airlines 777-300ER parked at LAX. American is taking delivery of six 777-300s this year, which will bring the total number in the fleet to 16. Photo credit: American.

What’s news in the world of aviation? These are the stories I have enjoyed most in the past week or so:

The size of American’s combined fleet will be just about the same this December as it was in December 2013, the Dallas Morning News reports. But the mix of the mainline airplanes will change a lot. “AAG plans to take delivery of 83 new airplanes in 2014 for American and US Airways, led by 42 of the Airbus A321s,” Terry Maxon writes. “That’s one new airplane every 4½ days, approximately. But AAG also plans to park 80 older airplanes, including 26 McDonnell Douglas MD-80s and 22 Boeing 757s.” The size of the total fleet will be about 970 airplanes.

Did you know that on 72 days in 2013 Delta did not cancel a single flight? And already this year, Delta told the Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney, it is already ahead of that pace. What’s Delta’s secret? McCartney breaks it down. One of the most interesting things? Delta moves flight crews around the system to ensure a flight does not necessarily need to be canceled just because the original pilots have gone illegal.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports on an interesting study on airline price volatility. Among U.S. airports, Bloomberg reported that San Francisco had the most volatility, while New York LaGuardia had the least. Among carriers, Alaska Airlines and US Airways played with their prices the least, according to the study.

In her regular column on Flyertalk, flight attendant Sarah Steegar says your flight crews like to mix things up with pranks. Apparently pilots will sometimes tell new hires that they have “forgotten the keys” to the airplane.  Hah!

Is Spirit interested in moving some flights from Fort Lauderdale to Miami? The Miami Herald says it’s a possibility. But that seems odd considering Miami has unusually high costs for airlines. Any ideas on why Spirit is floating this option?

And finally, one of my stories. I wrote a trend piece asking whether airlines have instituted something like an on-board caste system as they have added perks in premium cabins and taken them away from economy class travelers. “I just find it distasteful.” said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance and a consistent airline critic. Others, of course, see no problem with airlines rewarding their most lucrative customers.

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Why are drinks free on airplanes?

Why do most airlines still offer free drinks? Photo: Nick Ares, via Creative Commons.

Why do most airlines still offer free drinks? Photo: Nick Ares, via Creative Commons.

I’ve written a lot recently about how everything is for sale on an airplane. But I’ve been puzzled about one thing. Drinks remain free. But why?

I asked Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry expert at Hudson Crossing in San Francisco, and a general expert on all matters relating to the passenger experience. He said taking away away a decades-long freebie is difficult to do, though it has happened before. (See checked baggage.) What is more likely, Harteveldt said, is that airlines might continue to experiment with super cheap fares that have literally no amenities.

“You can go back into the history books in the late 1950 and 1960s,” Harteveldt said. “Between the Mainland and Hawaii some airlines offered what they called thrift class where meals and beverages were available for sale. Some airlines could again institute a fare where you don’t get anything. If you take a look at Frontier Airlines, they basically take a tact that is more like ‘the more you pay, the more you get.’”

Ultra low cost carriers in the United States, including Spirit and Allegiant, charge for drinks, as do many similar carriers abroad. Major legacy carriers here have been reluctant to do so, with one exception — US Airways, which in 2008 and 2009 briefly charged for drinks. But no airline copied and the charge was rescinded in March 2009.

Allegiant president and ancillary revenue guru Andrew Levy told me recently that charging for drinks is helpful in two respects. One, it takes what had been a loss for the airline and turns it into some revenue. And two, it allows the airline to stock a lot less product. When drinks are free, he said, people take cans even when they don’t want them.

Why do you think drinks are free on major airlines? And do you suspect this will ever change?

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Spirit Airlines will give extra frequent flier miles to most frugal customers

Spirit is poking fun at Delta Air Lines. Photo: Spirit.

Spirit is poking fun at Delta Air Lines. Photo: Spirit.

Spirit Airlines is having some fun at the expense of its much larger rivals.

In a bit of gorilla marketing on Monday, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based airline said  it will temporarily give bonus frequent flier miles to passengers who book the cheapest fares.

If you book a one-way fare for fewer than $36, you’ll receive 1,000 bonus miles from Spirit. If the fare is between $26 and $65, you’ll get an extra 500 miles. And if your fare is between $66 and $99, you’ll receive an additional 250 miles.

Last month, Delta Air Lines revamped its Skymiles structure so that customers who buy expensive tickets will receive far more miles than those who buy cheap ones. Other larger airlines are also moving in this direction, though not as quickly.

“We see an increasing trend in other airlines switching to an elitist frequent flier reward system that essentially favors customers who have deeper wallets and can spend more money on their flights,” Bobby Schroeter, Vice President of Consumer Marketing said in a statement. “Our FREE SPIRIT program rewards customers based on their loyalty and we
firmly believe that the more money we save our customers, the more loyal they will be.”

Customers who buy Spirit tickets before April 15 will be eligible for the promotion.

Spirit is known for two things. Cheap fares and suspect customer service. NPR’s Planet Money program did a feature on Spirit recently, and it’s worth a listen if you haven’t yet heard it.

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Aviation Links: The best airline and airport stories from the past week

Here are some aviation stories I’ve enjoyed in the past week.

  • Delta’s newest 737s are arriving with slightly smaller lavatories than others in the carrier’s fleet, according to Business Insider. On an airliner, space is money. See the photo below.
  • More than 170 new LED lights at Newark Liberty International Airport are more than just lights, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, “… the light fixtures are part of a new wireless network that collects and feeds data into software that can spot long lines, recognize license plates and even identify suspicious activity, sending alerts to the appropriate staff.”
  • With United substantially reducing its Cleveland operations, Delta and Frontier are swooping in to add flights. Not many, but at least it’s something, Brett Snyder writes at Cranky Flier.
  • Brazil won’t allow Air France to fly its A380s into Sao Paulo. The reason, according to Today in the Sky and the Associated Press? The airport runway is not wide enough to accommodate the plane.
  • Starting in June, Allegiant Air will resume flight from LAX to two cities – Billings, Montana and Pasco (Tri-Cities), Washington — according to World Airline News. 
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Frontier Airlines: Is there room for a third ultra low cost airline?

Frontier Airlines belivves there's space for a third ultra low cost carrer in the United States. Do you agree?

Frontier Airlines believes there’s space for a third ultra low cost carrier in the United States. Do you agree?

I linked to it earlier today, but I think it’s worth taking another look at Brett Snyder’s interview with Daniel Shurz, Senior Vice President – Commercial for Frontier Airlines.

In one of the most interesting parts, Schurz says the U.S. market needs more ultra-low cost carriers, like Allegiant and Spirit. He says the airlines we now view as low cost — Southwest and Jetblue among them — are not really LCCs in the European model.

Into and out of the UK on intra-Europe flying, ULCCs account for over 50% of capacity. In all of Europe, it’s just over a third. Spirit and Allegiant represent slightly below 3% of US capacity. Even if you include Frontier, we want to get to the ULCC point, it’s still under 4.5% of the capacity. I think that leaves a significant opportunity for ULCCs in the US market, and I think it leaves an opportunity for differentiated strategies across the ULCCs.

Frontier has been making a play not only in its long-time home of Denver, but also in smaller airports in the Northeast, such as Trenton, N.J. Shurz tells Snyder that the region is ripe for an ultra low cost carrier.

And the world has changed. I think you’ve done work, Brett, to show how much domestic fares have risen notably on one airline, but also generally. And that’s what’s creating opportunity for ULCCs in the country. It’s that fare umbrella. The northeast never had low fares to the same extent since Southwest was never that big in the Northeast. And their failure to succeed in Philadelphia has led to fares rising. One of the things about Wilmington is that even though Baltimore fares are lower than in general in the northeast, they’re significantly higher than they were 5 to 10 years ago.

I’m not sure whether Frontier will be successful as the third ultra low cost carrier in the United States. But I do think the market needs more low-fare airlines to undercut carriers like United, American, Delta and even Jetblue and Southwest. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Do you think Frontier can make it? The airline likely will be sold in the next few days to Indigo Partners, a Phoenix investment firm. 

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