Here’s how a viral video starts: First, a few FlyerTalkers upload footage to YouTube of the pillow fight that broke out on our PHX-PAE leg last week. In order to protect the dignity of the FAs and keep the whole incident our private joke, the video is rendered invisible to the general public. Then I go ahead and post it to Facebook anyway (along with many others), where the editor of BroBible sees it. He reposts it, and then it immediately starts trending on Digg. (His plan all along, he later confesses.) At first, a few U.K. newspapers notice it, then the Phoenix ABC affiliate, and then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And before you know it, it’s on the Today Show. Amazing. And speaking on behalf of my fellow journalists, it’s not that we don’t know this was a privately chartered flight; it’s that we just don’t care. Next stop: NBC Nightly News.
(The first version of the video was removed from YouTube; this is another copy from another participant on the flight. -Ed.)
“I really don’t know what to say to you,” Doug Parker began. “The part I don’t know how to describe is why you’re doing what you’re doing.” The 150+ FlyerTalkers felt the same way as they struggled to understand Parker’s Darwinian philosophy about the future of the American airline industry — an oligopoly featuring permanently higher fares and restrained capacity, in which baggage fees and a la carte pricing annually deliver $400-$500 million in pure profit. “If we didn’t have it, we’d be right back where we were before,” he said, “barely breaking even or worse.”
Parker isn’t the most popular airline CEO in the FlyerTalk canon, but U.S. Airways warmly welcomed the Mega DOers to the Desert Botanical Garden, where they nibbled at a breakfast spread and drank cappuccinos (to counteract the champagne) before Parker addressed them. During final descent into PHX, we’d been scolded on the PA to “be respectful of our hosts — his name is Doug, not ‘Dougie.’” But the audience was quiet and polite — or maybe just depressed after listening to Parker’s worldview.
As amiably as could be, Parker laid out his bleak vision of the airline industry in which six carriers — United, Delta, American, U.S. Airways, Southwest and JetBlue — co-exist in a profitable equilibrium, one in which seat capacity is rigidly controlled to restore a measure of pricing, and consolidation continues to strip more seats out of the sky. The four things that could “screw up” this equilibrium are “loss of capacity discipline, and I don’t think that’s going to happen;” labor relations (“We can’t give it all back”); new entrants such Virgin America (“all we’d do is spend a lot of money fighting them off”) and government pressure to curb carbon emissions, leading to new taxes on aviation. Higher oil prices are less an issue than simply a fact of life, with costs being passed along to the customer.
As cynical as his formula is, it appears to be working. For the first time since industry deregulation in 1978, the airline industry is countercyclical, posting record profits while the broader economy is depressed. “Our third quarter results were the best in our company’s history,” he said. “What was required because of crisis is what’s got us making money.”
Predictably, the Mega DOers weren’t exactly stirred by this call to arms. A lengthy Q&A period followed, featuring questions about when the airline will finally solve its labor issues, ending the “East/West” split (he was non-committal), international expansion (don’t expect much anytime soon) and its role in the alliance. One attendee told the story of a flight last October in which she was told to “sit down and shut up” by a fight attendant during a medical emergency, and has been flying Continental ever since (from CLT to PHX, no less). Parker pleaded with her to reconsider — “You’re probably waiting three hours at Houston,” he said. “An hour and ten minutes,” she replied — before finally resorting to “in terms of running the airline, we’re doing better than they are.”
But the most anticipated question came from Art Pushkin, the former U.S. Airways elite who founded what was effectively a resistance group (FFOCUS, a.k.a the “Cockroaches”) before defecting to Continental and taking a hundred elites with him. By his own calculations, he has cost U.S. Airways at least $1 million since. His question: why are you alienating Chairmen by charging them for premium coach seats. Parker’s answer, in a nutshell: we’re selling some of them, but not all of them — and you have to get there first. “The goal is not to take them away from Chairmen and sell them to someone else — or to Chairmen. The room began to stir when Park insisted other airlines are doing the same thing — they’re not — and then countered with “I know they’re going to do the same thing we are.” Maybe, maybe not. But no one present wanted to imagine a race to the bottom.
Then he left, and we had an hour to kill chasing butterflies.
Remember the day when getting your picture in the cockpit was the “must have”? FlyerTalkers have moved on .. the new “must have” is your picture with an open engine. This is clearly the most popular moment of this early day–as witnessed here.
Seeing as we’ve just touched down in Houston, it’s only fitting to recall that the first airline-sponsored DO was held just five years ago, when Dean Burri (a.k.a cigarman) made a bet with then-Continental CEO Larry Kellner that FlyerTalkers wanted more face time with airline executives and won handily when 300 FTers landed on Kellner’s doorstep. Since then, a growing number of airlines have gotten in on the act — including the second SMD and a large Delta DO the other weekend — followed by hotel chains like Hyatt (which hosted a DO at its Andaz West Hollywood property) and Starwood — one of SMD2′s sponsors.
What changed in the interim? What led airlines to drop their view that FTers were “just a bunch of hot-air whiners,” as Randy Petersen puts it, and actually some of their best customers? Why the explosion in sponsored DOs over the last 12-18 months? (As Southwest has discovered with the AirTran customer leading the charge to save business class aboard that carrier). Obviously, there are many reasons, but one of them has to be the belated realization that they needed a “social media strategy,” and that FlyerTalk itself was their social media strategy.
Lufthansa’s head of social media marketing, Torsten Wingenter, seemed to validate this theory during one of the workshops on social media at Lufthansa’s headquarters Tuesday night. In describing the evolution of the Miles & More program from offering basic awards in the 1990s to creating status benefits and then the exclusivity of HON Circle, he outlined a “Miles & More 2.0″ built around social media. “Our customer changed,” he told the group, “and the question is: ‘should we change as a company?’” Later, he described the airlines’ reluctance succinctly: “Airlines are all about control, because it’s necessary for flight. And social media is to some extent out of control… The customer wants to talk to us at eye-level, not through our traditional channels.”
Enter the Mega DOers, who last year ripped the first iteration of a Miles & More-meets-Foursquare app to shreds. This year’s workshops were calmer, as they talked more broadly about the successes and misses of other airlines online. (The gold standard in America: JetBlue, whose “All You Can Jet” promotion originally started as a tweet. That led to the revelation Lufthansa was considering some form of GroupOn-style group-buying, with implementation as-yet unknown.
The Lufthansa workshops included one devoted to a new ground services app enabling passengers to troubleshoot itineraries with one touch and deal with problems in the air. Another focused on “special moments,” i.e. one-off gifts or onboard experiences designed to reintroduce a measure of surprise and luxury to the comfortable monotony of premium cabins. A few of the 70 or so ideas bandied about included luxury good giveaways (a la the La Prairie products in the amenity kits of Swiss), special country-themed meals, “movie nights” with new releases and popcorn, and so on.
At dinner afterward, Lufthansa and Star executives once again hailed the Mega DOers as knowing more about their product than they do, and in case they didn’t the Lufthansa Group’s other airlines — Swiss, Austrian, Brussels, and bmi — stood by offering cheese, chocolate and goodies to guests. It was the most social media of all.
When I wrapped up last year’s Star Mega DO by (quite legally) crashing the Lufthansa First Class Terminal along with a small gaggle of FlyerTalkers, I figured it was literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But here we are a year later, and I’ve been back not once, but twice in a span of less than 12 hours. As mentioned in a previous post, Lufthansa took the unprecedented step of busing the entire roster of this year’s Mega DO to the FCT for a nightcap after dinner — the first and only time in its history that non-HONs and non-ticketed first class passengers have ever been allowed inside. This was especially impressive considering the terminal is technically airside, which meant stationing personnel at every exit to keep the entire terminal in lockdown.
So what did you miss? First, the basics: the FCT is a standalone building, built at a cost of $43 million. The best-known feature is the fleet of Porches, BMWs and Mercedes downstairs waiting to whisk you to your flight. (This morning, I settled for a Mercedes van; Randy hitched a ride in a Porsche. “I can cross that off my frequent traveler bucket list,” he said.) Equally famous in FT circles are the rubber duckies in the bathtub, which had been removed for the evening to keep people like me (and Will Steele) from making off with them.
I’ll leave it to others to debate which airline has the best lounges, or which is the single best lounge in the world, but the FCT has to be in the uppermost tier with the Virgin Clubhouse at LHR and the Wing and the Pier at HKG. (If anyone would like to argue why their favorite is better, I’d love to see it in the comments.) One myth that was shattered for me was the fact that the pastries — which years ago on a quick press tour I’d been told were flown in fresh on the first flight from Vienna each morning — were more or less baked locally, with only a handful of delicacies being flown in from Austria. (Why shouldn’t the FCT be hand-stocked with air-freighted delicacies?)
On Tuesday night, the restaurant was closed and the bar (which prides itself on its single malt selection, delighting Tommy) was limited to a small selection of scotches, cognac and grappa, but a small expedition the next morning (thanks to our HON chaperones) sampled breakfast, toasted with Tattinger, and did the things “air warriors” do in these situations: enjoyed our good fortune.
This week’s joyride is billed as the “Star Alliance Mega DO,” but as in real life, we’re spending a lot of time with Star’s member airlines and very little with Star Alliance itself. That changed a bit for the FlyerTalkers selected to participate in a workshop Tuesday afternoon at Star Alliance’s headquarters, and, members willing, may be about to change for the average flyer.
As USA Today’s Ben Mutzbaugh covered yesterday, Star executives asked Mega DOers for feedback on a conceptual iPhone app and an alliance-wide service kiosk with which a stranded traveler might pick up a phone, swap a credit card, and instantly be connected to a reservation agent with the full itinerary already in front of them. It sounded useful, but the story behind the kiosk is more interesting than the results.
At the Lufthansa dinner, I spoke with Jeremy Drury, Star’s director of alliance innovation services, who sat in on the sessions Tuesday. He explained Star was “used to working with our members’ boards; as of this year, we’re working with our members’ employees.” In a nutshell, Star is seeking to crowdsource ideas across the 400,000-strong combined workforce of its members. “We want to connect a United idea to a Japanese customer service rep,” as Drury put it.
Out of 190 ideas in the original harvest, eight or nine so far have made the cut. The kiosk is the outcome of a suggestion that began life unpromisingly as increasing the “cross-fertilization of reservation agents.” It ended up a kiosk connecting travelers to whichever Star reservation agents happen to be awake and under-utilized at that hour. “We wanted to take the kiosk out of the kiosk and put a person inside instead,” Drury said.
But more intriguing is seeing Star Alliance executives scheming to unlock the creativity of its members, and to put their ideas to work across all 27 airlines, presumably with a Star Alliance logo on the kiosk or app instead of an airline’s. Industry pundits — especially the analyst Mike Boyd — have predicted that the big three alliances may one day supersede airline brands just as the name carriers superseded the regional affiliates that comprise a good percentage of their lift.
That day may yet come, but for now “I’d like 10,000-20,000 employees talking to each other, and we’re not there yet,” Drury said. When I asked how quickly Star will move to implement these suggestions once they’ve been vetted by customers, he just shook his head. There are no timetables for anything, because “there are 27 carriers, and they all need to be convinced. And if you’d like my job, you can have it,” he joked. Still, it’s interesting to see Star Alliance taking the lead when it comes to innovation.
As we exit dinner and head for the evening surprise, many FlyerTalkers grab a moments rest—don’t laugh, we were all jealous violist found this spot.
One of the most frightening things about FlyerTalkers from a journalist’s perspective is that you make us more or less redundant: I know I can’t possible grill travel industry executives better than a roomful of platinum elites from FT. Their inquisitiveness was once again on display this morning in the Atrium Lounge on the 8th Floor (the Club floor) of the Westin Times Square, where GM Terry Lewis, sales & marketing director Mary Beth O’Connor, and the hotel’s executive chef (I confess I missed his name) soothed the assembled Mega Doers with “superfoods” (not including the caviar) and talked a bit about the hotel — the first of four Starwood properties on this trip (along with Sheratons at FRA, IAH and in Seattle). Some highlights:
• Starwood Platinums are typically offered high floor and corner rooms when suites aren’t available;
• Club rooms are typically priced at just $60 more per night than standard rooms;
• The Times Square location is the only Westin to offer 17″ Apple iMacs in every rooms;
• ”Occupancy is back,” as Lewis put it, although European traffic is still a little off. But the percentage of international customers is rising again, as are prices — although they’re still softer than occupancy levels.
• There’s less cannibalization between Starwood brands in New York than you might think; geography matters to customers, and they stick to their brands.
With 70 some FlyerTalkers heading to Germany on this first leg of the Mega Do2, here’s 5 tips on how not to embarrass ourselves when there (courtesy of More Than Manners and the German Foreign Office):
1) never jaywalk even if there’s no traffic anywhere to be seen.
2) crossing your utensils means you’re still eating. Laying them parallel means you’re finished.
3) ordering tapwater at restaurants is considered impolite.
4) keep your hands on the table when eating. To do otherwise is considered rude.
5) never light a cigarette off a candle. A common superstition says doing so kills a sailor.
Hey, I’m just saying …