With all due respect to hardworking business travelers in fly-over country, it’s still all about the transcons.
Whether we’re talking about the Golden Triangle of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco or slightly less glamorous coast-to-coast routes like Seattle-Boston, Philadelphia-San Diego and Washington-Long Beach, transcontinental flying remains the place where the airlines try to make their bones.
It’s about the power. (Or so they say.) The privilege. (Or so they claim.) The perks. (At least what’s left of them.) The prestige. (Whatever that means in the airline business.) And, for the last couple of years, the utter madness of it all.
Whether driven by market share or macho silliness, airlines can’t resist the siren song of the transcons. Which explains why they are the bloodiest financial killing fields in the domestic marketplace. Fares have plummeted: Walk-up flights that once commanded $1,200 one-way are selling for less than $200 now. Almost no one is making money. All the carriers flying transcons — and every airline except Northwest and Spirit has tried flying them during the last year — have been bruised and battered. Some have pulled out. Others are maniacally fiddling with their pricing, their products, their fleets and their capacity. Business travelers don’t know from one day to the next who flies what routes at what prices.
Last year at this time, for example, we were riveted by the astonishing fare war that slashed some advance-purchase transcon prices to $79 one-way. Also astonishing was the traveling public’s response: Even at 80 bucks a pop, transcontinental seats were going empty.
Now it’s all about the frenzy. Who’s coming, who’s going and who seems to be coming and going at the same time.
Here are just a few highlights from the recent days:
*America West said it would all but abandon its 18-month quest to crack the transcon market. It is permanently dropping nonstops from San Francisco to Boston and New York/Kennedy and scuttling its Washington/Dulles-LAX nonstops. For the moment, at least, it will continue flying on the Kennedy-LAX and Boston-LAX routes.
*Delta Air Lines announced that it is pulling its traditional two-class service off four JFK transcon routes: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and San Diego. Three routes — Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle — will get all-coach Delta Song service beginning May 1. The Kennedy-San Diego route, launched only last year, is being dropped altogether.
*United Airlines is nearing completion of its risky effort to slash capacity by 35 percent on its JFK-SFO and JFK-LAX routes. It is replacing its 168-passenger Boeing 767s with 110-seat Boeing 757s configured with its unique p.s. service.
*Jet Blue Airways announced that it would launch two new transcon routes on May 3: Boston-San Jose and Dulles-San Diego. Existing transcon routes from Dulles and Boston will get more flights, too. JetBlue will also add still more service between its Kennedy hub and five California cities this spring.
Like I said, that’s just a few days worth of transcon news. Want some other recent tidbits? How about the fact that American Airlines surrendered to JetBlue and dropped its JFK-Long Beach service in October? Or that ATA Airlines dumped its short-lived San Francisco-Newark flights? Or that Newark-based Continental has added a $499 one-way, advance-purchase first-class fare on its transcons to Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego? Or that Frontier abandons its Los Angeles-Philadelphia route next month?
I know that’s an immense amount of information to process and I haven’t even mentioned Alaska Airlines’ coast-to-coast growth from its Seattle hub, United’s battle with JetBlue at Dulles and the fact that even smaller markets such as Sacramento now get the nonstop transcon treatment.
Fares? No one seems to know what anything costs on a transcon anymore. Walk up to JetBlue’s ticket counter at JFK’s Terminal 6 tomorrow and you’ll pay $164 for a nonstop to Long Beach. It’s $209 one-way tomorrow if you want to fly from Philadelphia to Los Angeles on US Airways. It’s $357 one-way tomorrow if you want to fly from Boston to San Francisco on American. It’s $446 one-way in coach on Alaska Airlines tomorrow for a Seattle-Newark flight, but $99 more will get you upgraded to first class.
And for the privilege of getting 34 inches of seat pitch in coach on United’s newly configured p.s. flights between JFK and LAX, you’ll pay $507 tomorrow. That’s ludicrous, of course, especially when just $50 more buys you a seat in the new p.s. business class, where the reclining chairs have 54 inches of legroom and the in-flight service includes meals, nice wines and personal DVD players.
I bring up p.s because United deserves some credit for trying something new on the transcon. While American and Delta tie themselves in knots trying to compete with JetBlue, United has gone upscale.
Make no mistake about it: p.s. is as much about slashing United’s unprofitable transcon capacity as it is about delivering an upmarket service. But at least United can legitimately claim some product differentiation now. First-class p.s. cabins have been outfitted with the airline’s lie-flat beds. The business-class cabin on the p.s. transcons now resembles the airline’s international business-class product. And even coach got an upgrade to the United Economy Plus seat configuration. There are at-seat power outlets everywhere and lots of other little perks along the way.
The idea, one United insider tells me, is to give the premium-class cabins a more exclusive atmosphere. “We’re going for a private-jet ambiance,” the insider said. “Or at least as close to that intimacy as is reasonably possible.”
I flew p.s. on a roundtrip last week between Kennedy and Los Angeles and found the business-class service a gigantic improvement over anything that United is offering in first class on its other domestic flights. It’s also better than anything American, Alaska, Delta or Continental is offering up front domestically.
The p.s. product is hardly perfect, of course. Flight attendants handing out amenities — eyemasks, earplugs, socks and some odd dental-care product — must dole the stuff out one by one from a cart, which makes for an unwieldy, uncomfortable in-flight dance. The cabin crew also has to distribute converter kits for the AC power ports because some design genius didn’t realize that many laptops use polarized plugs. I can’t figure out why a mid-morning flight from JFK needs both a breakfast and a lunch presentation, yet a red-eye flight back features a deli platter at bedtime — not a single person in the 26-seat cabin wanted one — but no breakfast on arrival. Flight attendants don’t even offer coffee in the morning. You have to make your way to the galley if you want a cup of joe before disembarking into the frigid New York morning.
And from what I saw of the p.s. Economy Plus cabin, I’ll stick with JetBlue when I fly coach. Why? Because JetBlue’s flights are substantially cheaper, its chairs are leather, most seats offer the same 34 inches of legroom as United and JetBlue has the advantage of the live, at-your-seat television programming.
But nitpicking United’s in-flight service isn’t necessarily relevant because I’m not sure that p.s. has a fighting shot no matter how good it could be. The unique three-class transcon configuration just adds another level of complexity to United’s already-inexplicable network. On United these days, you never know if you’re booking Ted, or a traditional two-class first/coach flight, or a two-class flight with Economy Plus and coach, or a regional jet with one class or one of United Express’ new two-class regionals. P.S. is a great idea, but it gets lost in the internecine operational hash that is United Airlines.
Besides, with all the chaos on the transcons just now, it’s hard to see how United can get any traction with p.s. It’s nearly impossible to focus on a premium-priced in-flight service on two routes when most of us can’t even tell the airlines flying the transcon without a scorecard.