Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Business Travel and Airline Loyalty

One aspect of my work I enjoy is travel, both to domestic and international destinations. I enjoy the opportunity to attend scientific conferences and disseminate my own knowledge by giving talks and teaching. I also enjoy seeing how informatics plays out in the rest of the world, and how its issues good and bad are universal around the globe. Beyond informatics, I just enjoy visiting different parts of the United States and the rest of the world.

Part of my enjoyment stems from my fascination with airplanes. While I can’t say that I enjoy every aspect of air travel, especially delays and cancellations, I do enjoy arriving at my destinations and airplane spotting and tracking along the way. I have fun both tracking down new or unusual types of planes or different liveries that I do not frequently get to see. My photo archive is filled with such photos, and sometimes my biggest photography disappointments are when I am unable to get good pictures of such planes. I have gone out of my way to get booked on new planes. Not only can I remember my first rides on the Boeing 777, the Airbus 380, and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I am currently anticipating my first ride on an Airbus 350.

I also take my airplane travel very seriously, due in part to how much time I spend on airplanes and knowing that good seats and other amenities truly matter. My frequent travel puts me into the category of “business traveler.” This type of traveler does not seek the absolute lowest fare. While the fare difference cannot be exorbitant, factors of convenience and comfort also play into the equation. In addition, every business travel also knows that there is great value to loyalty to one airline, usually whereby one can achieve “status.”

I learned about airline loyalty initially on American Airlines. But American never really had a strong presence at Portland International Airport (PDX), so about two decades ago, I switched my loyalty to United Airlines. United historically had a strong presence at PDX, with flights not only to its major hubs but also up and down the west coast. I also valued its integration in the Star Alliance, not to mention the ability to have status in almost any airport in the world.

But in recent years, United had been reducing its presence in Portland (and actually the entire Pacific Northwest). I found myself sometimes having connections with long layovers or prices that were simply not tenable, even if they did not need to be the absolute cheapest. United essentially now only flies from PDX to its major hubs in Denver, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

So last year, I decided to give Alaska Airlines a try. Their West coast coverage is comprehensive, and they increasingly fly to many cities around the country, if not from Portland then from their primary hub in Seattle. They had a robust partnership with Delta Airlines, which was ideal for PDX, since Delta is the only airline to fly non-stop from PDX to Asia and Europe. Alaska also has a partnership with American, including sharing of lounges, as well as a number of global partners.

But also this past year, Alaska dialed down those partnerships. They ended their relationship with Delta and dialed back with American in order for the federal government to allow their acquisition of Virgin America. One can no longer get elite-qualifying miles on all American flights, but only those that are code share flights, mostly from American hubs to places Alaska does not fly. Alaska passengers no longer get elite benefits on American, which is unfortunate since early boarding and better seats not only allow better productivity on the plane, but also insure I will find overhead bin space for the suitcase I usually carry on and would prefer not to have to check (and potentially not arrive at my destination).

This year, I decided to return to United. It is true that Alaska has growing numbers of destinations. It is unbeatable for western destinations, especially those in California, Arizona, and Hawaii. Alaska flies non-stop to my two most common destinations where United flies, Chicago and Washington, DC, but United actually has more non-stop flights to Chicago and plenty of options for all DC airports.

Alaska has a growing number of non-stop flights to other Eastern destinations, although more typically, one needs to connect to less common cities through an American hub. Some of the Alaska Eastern destinations are only available on red-eye flights. As a business traveler, I have no interest in red-eye flights, which not only make me tired the next day, but also arrive at the wrong time (early instead of late in the day, so one can’t check into a hotel right away). Even though United has fewer flights out of PDX, I can get to almost anywhere on those flights by flying through one of their hubs. I will occasionally have missed connections, but Alaska has delayed and cancelled flights too, and I once got stuck in Seattle due to a freak snowstorm, with the pilots timing out before we could take off for the 37-minute flight to Portland. (My rebooked flights were canceled too, so I ended up renting a car and driving to Portland.)

The Alaska lounge situation is also sub-optimal. Their lounge at PDX is substandard, and while Alaska reciprocates with American Admiral’s Clubs in many cities, some of those lounges are in different terminals from the Alaska gates (e.g., Boston and San Diego), meaning it is almost impossible to have enough time to go through security to visit the lounge and then back out and through security again to get to the Alaska gates.

Alaska has a decent situation with its global partners, but it is just not the same as the Star Alliance, where status on your home airline (United, in my case) gets you status with all of the airlines in the alliance (especially Lufthansa and ANA).

United also has better technology. Its mobile app is more functional, and while United was late to the game with wifi, its satellite-based wifi is superior to the terrestrial GoGo.

In returning to United, I will have to live with some of the disadvantages - requiring connecting flights except to hubs and having to live with occasional disruptions due to missed connections. But United management seems to have improved, and its prices are more competitive out of PDX for now. This makes the calculus for me, as a business traveler, to have United as my preferred airline for travel.

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