The Tactical Traveler

FOR APRIL 18 TO APRIL 25, 2002


This week: Never buy airline tickets on the weekend; Hawaiian adds more mainland service; the premium you pay to fly from a hub; Acela overtakes the airline shuttles; Continental upgrades its business class; and more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: The Decline of the East Coast Shuttles
Look no further than the once-mighty East Coast Shuttles for proof that business travelers are fed up with high fares, bad service and increasingly onerous airport-security regimens. According to government statistics, 216,366 passengers flew the US Airways and Delta Air Lines shuttles last December. That is a startling year-over-year drop of about 35 percent from the 330,040 passengers who flew the shuttles in December, 2000. By comparison, Amtrak's high-speed Acela, which competes with the shuttles in the Boston-Washington corridor, carried 219,917 passengers in February. That's an average of about 300 passengers per train, compared to Amtrak's average of about 218 passengers per train last August. "It's insane to fly between New York and Washington now," one former frequent flyer told me this week as he waited for a train at New York's Pennsylvania station. "You don't save any time by flying now. And on the [Acela] I get a comfortable seat, I plug in my laptop and my cell phone, and I work comfortably. You can't do that on the shuttle."

ALTERNATE ARRANGEMENTS: Hawaiian Bumps Up Mainland Schedule, Too
I reported last week that Aloha Airlines was bumping up its schedule between Hawaii and the West Coast. But Aloha isn't alone. Hawaii's other local carrier, Hawaiian Airlines, is also adding flights and routes. Effective June 7, Hawaiian will launch nonstop service between Honolulu and Sacramento and between Honolulu and Los Angeles/Ontario. Then, on October 11, Hawaiian is due to launch nonstops between Honolulu and Phoenix. Hawaiian will use 767-300s outfitted with 18 first-class and 234 coach seats. Introductory fares start at $399 roundtrip; see the Steals & Deals page for more details and restrictions.

AIRPORT REPORT: The Cost of Flying From a Hub
How much does an airline squeeze from you if you are a prisoner flying from one of its fortress hubs? You'll be unhappy to know that you pay, on average, 28 percent more. That startling statistic comes from a survey of U.S. airport hubs compiled by the Wall Street firm of Salomon Smith Barney. What's worse, the more dominant an airline is at its hub, the more it squeezes from you. For every 1 percent increase in its share of the seats at its hub airport, the airline's "yield premium" (the extra revenue it generates on every mile it flies) rises by about 0.5 percent. Which are the nation's most rapaciously priced hubs? According to Salomon, that dubious distinction goes to Northwest's Detroit hub and American's hubs in Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Never Buy Airline Tickets on the Weekend
Several mainline carriers tried--and failed--to raise fares by $20 roundtrip last weekend and the attempt is a reminder of one of the current golden rules of buying travel: Never purchase airline tickets over the weekend. For the umpteenth time in recent years, several carriers raised their prices late on Thursday evening and then watched to see if other airlines matched. In this case, Continental initiated the across-the-board fare increase and most carriers quickly fell in line. Northwest, however, refused to match the hike and, by Monday morning, all the other airlines had rescinded their increases. But if you bought tickets over the weekend, you won't get a refund. This implicit fare signaling by airlines is nasty business--and proof of their idiotic herd mentality. But all that pales in comparison to the hard-dollar costs to you: If you buy on the weekends, when the airlines are wrangling over fares, you're guaranteed to be the loser. In fact, United launched a more limited fare increase on Wednesday night and prices will be in flux this weekend, too.

ON THE FLY: Continental Upgrades Its BusinessFirst Seat
One of the few success stories in recent airline history is Continental BusinessFirst, the carrier's up-front service on international and long-haul domestic flights. It is generally regarded as the best, most consistent in-flight product among all the airlines offering two classes on their long-haul service. Not content to sit on its success, however, Continental upped the ante this month by installing new BusinessFirst seats on some of its 18 Boeing 777s. The new seats do not offer any additional seat pitch--legroom remains at 55 inches--and that was part of the challenge, says Eric Kleiman, Continental's director of product marketing. "We asked ourselves how we could improve the product without giving up any real estate," he explains. The solutions: wider seats, which now measure 22 inches between the armrest; a more comfortable sleeping position, with a recline of about 170 degrees; better seat controls, including one-touch electronic settings for standard seat positions; larger seat "wings" and "privacy hoods" for more in-flight privacy; dual-level reading lights and more storage space for personal items. "Part of this will also be about managing expectations," Kleiman said, since the installation of new seats will not be complete on all of the Boeing 777s until October and they will only be available on selected international routes from Continental's Newark and Houston hubs.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.