US Airlines Continue to Cut Passenger Services, Please Investors

Snip, snip, snip….

This is apparently the week for US-based airlines to make all sorts of passenger un-friendly changes and cuts.  While ultimately screwing over the passengers, the cuts are largely going to please investors on Wall Street.

Just this week, Delta, United and JetBlue have announced some cuts that hurt the consumer, and in many cases, they’ve prettied-up their press releases to make it look consumer-friendly.  Tsk, tsk…

Some of the changes this week include:

  • JetBlue announces “refresh” of A320 cabins (read – less leg room)
  • JetBlue announces that free checked bags are no more!
  • United makes a number of “enhancements”
  • Delta announces new 2015 award chart
  • Delta eliminates stopovers and open jaws on award tickets

Here’s a list of some of the changes announced just this week…

Jet Blue

From its own blog and from an investor relations press release, JetBlue announced Wednesday some details on “branded fares” and a “cabin refresh”.

Branded Fares

JetBlue says:

Branded Fares – Beginning in the first half of 2015, customers will be able to choose between three fare bundle options that provide new choices and allow travelers to tailor each trip to their preferences. The first fare bundle will be designed for those customers who don’t traditionally check a bag; the latter two will offer one and two free checked bags, respectively, along with other attractive benefits, like additional TrueBlue points and increased flexibility. These new options will allow us to tailor our offerings to individual customers in a way that is simple and transparent. You will hear a lot more about the features of this plan over the next several months. We want to be sure customers understand how this approach works for them when we roll it out officially in mid-2015.

Translation:  JetBlue is joining several other airlines by introducing bundled fares that include a bevy of benefits that many travelers frankly don’t want or need.  For the travelers who are interested in the cheapest fares, a checked bag now requires a fee.  This move effectively leaves Southwest Airlines as the only US carrier that offers free checked bags for all… but how long will that last?

Cabin Refresh

JetBlue says:

Cabin Refresh – Our customers love the look and feel of our new Airbus A321 jets. In fact, this aircraft is rated significantly higher than other aircraft in our satisfaction surveys. Beginning in mid-2016 we’ll retrofit our A320 aircraft – which are the workhorse of our fleet – with the same lighter and more comfortable seats found on our A321 along with the improved 100+ channels of DirecTV on beautiful 10” widescreen displays. These modern seats will enable us to increase the total number of seats on our planes – which helps us continue our low fare commitment – while still offering the most legroom in coach by a significant margin. The entire aircraft will be upgraded with power ports accessible at every seat along with new lighting, new lavatories, and more.

– Emphasis is mine

Translation:  Yes, JetBlue is re-doing its cabins, but at the expense of passenger comfort.   The capacity on their A320s will increase from the current 150 passengers to 165.  That’s an increase of 2.5 rows… which means the average legroom will shrink from close to 35″ down to 33″ — and industry-leading number in the US, but it still sucks.  But hey, it’ll lead to increased profits!  Wall Street will love this!

United

Joining in the bad-news-for-customers-parade on Wednesday was United.  The airline added a number of “enhancements” to its MileagePlus program, including:

Reduction of baggage benefit for Premier Golds

For all United Economy® tickets issued or re-issued before February 1, 2015, Premier Gold members are eligible for three complimentary checked bags at 70 pounds (32 kg) each. For United Economy tickets issued or re-issued on or after February 1, 2015, Premier Gold members are eligible for two complimentary checked bags at 70 pounds (32 kg) each for travel between the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For travel to and from select international markets, Premier Gold members are eligible for three complimentary checked bags at 70 pounds (32 kg) each. To determine specific checked baggage service charges, please use the Baggage Calculator.

Translation:  Premier Gold members’ free baggage allowance decreases from three to two.  Not a huge deal, and kind of a petty cut if you ask me, but this can really hurt families, writes Mommy Points.  This is especially rough around the holidays.

Global Entry benefit ending for Premier 1Ks

As of February 1, 2015, MileagePlus will no longer provide a payment code which can be used as the form of payment for the $100 Global Entry application fee. Eligible members may continue to request a payment code until January 31, 2015.

Translation:  A benefit for Premier 1K members goes away.  United used to provide a $100 subsidy for its 1K members to register for a five-year membership to Global Entry (and TSA Pre-check).  This goes away.  In my opinion, this is something any semi-frequent traveler should have anyway, and it’s well worth the $20 per year fee.

Premier members no longer exempt from copay on upgrade mileage awards for P.S. flights

Premier members who request a MileagePlus Upgrade Award on or after February 1, 2015, for a p.s. route between New York JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco will no longer be exempt from the co-pay.

Translation:  Previously, United Premier members could upgrade flights on United Premium Service flights from JFK-LAX/SFO with miles only.  Now, they will need to pay a chunk of cash to go along with these miles.

Premier status will no longer extend to non-status passengers on award tickets:

As of April 15, 2015, when traveling on an award ticket for United- and United Express®-operated flights, benefits including but not limited to complimentary Economy Plus seating, Premier priority travel services (such as Premier Access check-in and priority boarding), and checked baggage service charge waivers are determined by the traveler’s own Premier status, even if another member’s miles were used to purchase the award ticket. Customers traveling on the same reservation as a Premier member may receive the applicable companion benefits. Please visit the pages relating to specific Premier benefits for more information.

Translation:  This one hurts for Premier members who send their friends and family on trips with their miles.  Currently, those tickets inherit the Premier memeber’s status and benefits (Premier Access, priority boarding, economy plus seating, etc).  Well, that all goes away.  Now, if you’re a 1K and book a non-status friend or family member, they’ll fly like a status-free passenger in the back of the bus.

Copa Airlines is starting its own loyalty program in July 2015

The gist of this announcement centers around these points, summarized best on FlyerTalk:

  • No more Complimentary Premier Upgrades and instant upgrades on Copa
  • No priority access to front rows in Economy on Copa
  • No more waived same-day change fee for Premier members on Copa
  • Copa segments will no longer count toward the 4 minimum segment for Premier qualification
  • Copa flights will no longer count toward lifetime mileage for UA Million Miler program
  • No United Premium Qualifying Dollars for Copa flights on non-016 (United-issued) tickets

Translation:  This one hurts, but is not really United’s fault.  Currently, Copa Airlines runs basically as an extension to the United MileagePlus frequent flyer program.  Once Copa spins off its own program, United members will essentially lose their top-tier benefits with Copa.  It’s understandable that this would happen, but at the same time it does hurt the value proposition of Premier status with United.

Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with United.  They’ve continued to gash their MileagePlus program so viciously over the last year and a half that it caused me to leave for greener pastures (American).   It seems that they continue to cut at the program, constantly leaving the loyal customer out to dry while raking in more profits for the airline.

Delta

Speaking of leaving the customer out to dry, the pioneer in devaluing its frequent flyer program — Delta announced a couple of changes in the last week.

First, Delta announced its new award chart for 2015.

I’ll get into specifics of this award chart later, but the key takeaways / changes are:

  • One-way awards are now allowed (good!)
  • The award chart is more complicated now, with 5 different award levels (bad)
  • The award levels are still waaaay higher than competitors (US, AA and UA)
  • For the most part, redemptions remained somewhat level (so-so)

The big mystery is the availability of the new award levels.  If the availability on the current award chart is any indication, then redemptions in the new program will be just as difficult to deal with.  And that’s NOT a good thing.

Another huge killer on the new award chart is….

Delta eliminated stopovers and open-jaws from award tickets

Stopovers eliminated after 1/1/15:

For Award Travel booked prior to January 1, 2015, one stopover is allowed per roundtrip Award Ticket under certain circumstances. A stopover is defined as a stay of more than 4 hours between domestic flights and more than 24 hours between domestic and international or all international flights. The destination city is not considered a stopover. A stopover is allowed, provided there are no more than two connections between the origin and destination including any connections that are made while traveling to/from the stopover point. The stopover city must be located on a valid routing.

Open-Jaws too!:

Open jaw Award Travel is permitted for Awards booked prior to January 1, 2015. To be eligible, the mileage between the open jaw points must be less than or equal to the total mileage flown between any other trip in the itinerary (origin to destination). A double open jaw is not permitted.

For Award Travel ticketed on or after January 1, 2015, all open jaw itineraries will be priced based on One-Way Award Travel pricing rules.

Okay, this part really sucks.   For flights after January 1, customers can no longer book a stopover (a stop >23 hours on an international trip, and >4 hours on a domestic trip) as part of their round-trip award tickets.  Additionally, open-jaws will no longer be allowed and will instead be priced as separate one-ways from the award chart. (h/t Renee from Delta Points for uncovering this).


It seems the race to the bottom is in full swing amongst US carriers, as these US airlines continue to cut passenger services and frequent flyer program benefits in favor of pleasing investors.  Yes, it’s business — but as the flying pubic, these changes just suck.  All these changes just leave me thinking… who’s next?  And what’s next?

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