Tuesday, March 29, 2011

High-income fliers are unhappier with airlines, survey says

With airfares on the rise and airlines cramming more fliers per plane, it's no surprise that passengers are feeling increasingly unhappy about the service they get from U.S. carriers.

And well-heeled passengers — who presumably spend more on airline flights — feel even worse about the service they get, according to a survey released last week.

Fliers with annual household incomes of $100,000 or more are nearly twice as likely as travelers from households making less than $50,000 a year to have negative feelings toward their airline, according to an online survey by the Connecticut marketing research firm PhoCusWright.

The reason: Business travelers and affluent fliers said they didn't feel they were getting their money's worth.

"When you spend that much money, you have higher expectations," said Carroll Rheem, the firm's research director. "There is definitely a connection between price points and satisfaction."

Thirty-two percent of fliers with incomes of more than $100,000 had somewhat negative or very negative sentiments toward their airline, according to the survey of 1,559 people. Only 17% of fliers with incomes of less than $50,000 felt that way.

Part of the reason for the negative feelings, Rheem said, is that passengers must pay fees to check bags, get better seats and receive meals, among other things.

"Passengers are not happy," she said, "because they are being charged for things they didn't pay for before."

• Upgrade planned for Burbank airport

Anyone who has ever flown from Burbank's Bob Hope Airport knows it's a cramped, aging facility that is nonetheless popular among fliers from the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

But the airport is working on upgrades, starting with construction this summer of a $120-million transit center to house its car rental companies. The center will also provide better access to the Amtrak, Metrolink and bus stations.

The transit center will be on the south end of the airport, near West Empire Avenue, and an elevated moving walkway will connect it to the terminal, airport spokesman Victor Gill said.

The center will provide room for more car rental agencies, thus increasing competition, he said.

The convenience will come with a cost. To help pay for the center's construction, the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority is eliminating the one-time $10 facility improvement fee that passengers pay when they rent a car. Instead, the airport will charge a $6 per day rental fee for up to five days or a maximum of $30.

The new center should be open by December 2012.

• Wi-Fi to be added on 200 Continental planes

The last three years have been an era of airline mergers and acquisitions.

The biggest of the recently announced mergers — the marriage of United Airlines and Continental Airlines — should be completed this year. When the two airlines operate as one called United, it will fly more than 700 aircraft.

But pulling off all the details of an airline merger can be tricky.

For example, United Continental Holdings Inc., the parent company of the merging airlines, announced last week plans to install wireless Internet service on 200 Continental aircraft.

Since 2009, United has provided airborne Internet on only 14 planes through Illinois-based Aircell, the ground-to-air Internet provider for seven other major airlines in North America.

But instead of adding Aircell Internet service to the Continental planes, the merged airline will use the Wi-Fi services of Florida-based LiveTV, which already provides satellite-based television on dozens of Continental planes.

United Continental spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said using LiveTV for the Internet service would be easier for the airline and enable it to keep the existing satellite TV service.

United charges a flat $12.95 fee to connect to the Aircell service. The price to use the Wi-Fi service on the Continental aircraft has not been announced.

3. JAL Emerges From Bankruptcy

TOKYO—Japan Airlines Corp. said Monday it has effectively emerged from bankruptcy protection, completing a restructuring process that entailed a massive curtailing of its work force and routes.

But the outlook for the airline remains cloudy, with travel demand sharply eroded by the massive earthquake and ...

4. Congress seeks to bridge distance on air-travel bills

Consumer protection for airline passengers, funding for airport improvements and the efficiency of the nation's air-traffic system are among the issues at stake in wide-ranging legislation moving through Congress.

Separate versions of the legislation in the House of Representatives and Senate contain many provisions that could affect fliers.
Among them: provisions that would write into law passenger protections from lengthy delays on the tarmac; cuts in federal subsidies to airlines for flying into rural airports; and more options for people who want to fly non-stop from the West Coast to Washington, D.C.
The bills also could have sweeping implications for the efficiency of air travel. They contain several provisions that would push the Federal Aviation Administration to speed up the introduction of new technology that promises to make flights flow more smoothly.
The legislation, which sets guidelines for the FAA, expired in 2007. Attempts to update policies for the agency that oversees flight have been blocked since then, most often by fights over labor issues. Leaders in the House and Senate have vowed to move the legislation this year, although bills in the two chambers differ significantly.
The Senate passed its version of the bill in February. The House bill has been approved by the transportation committee and could come up in the full chamber as early as this week. If the House bill passes, the differences would be worked out in a conference committee.
•Consumer protection. Following a federal rule enacted last year, the Senate's bill would require airlines to return aircraft to the gate if a flight is delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours. It also says airports must develop plans for dealing with such lengthy delays. Writing the protection into law makes the protection harder to overturn.
The Senate bill would create criminal penalties for airport security screeners who distribute images created by body scanners, which peer through clothing in search of weapons or explosives. The Transportation Security Administration, which oversees aviation security, prohibits copying or distributing the images.
Noting that more airlines are charging passengers for checked bags, the House bill would require a study of the feasibility of requiring airlines to compensate passengers for bags that arrive late.
•Airport construction. Spurred by the election of dozens of fiscally conservative new members, the House version would cut funding on several fronts, including grants to airports for runway maintenance, safety enhancements and security. The proposal would cut funding to $3 billion a year, a 14% decrease from the $3.5 billion in place since 2006.
Airports believe that the cuts would reduce their ability to keep up with future capacity demands, says Greg Principato, president of the Airports Council International. The Senate would increase funding to $4 billion a year for airport projects.
•FAA spending. The House also wants to cut FAA spending to 2008 levels, saving $4 billion over four years, a roughly 7% reduction. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., says the agency could cut that money without jeopardizing air safety or the ongoing program to modernize the air-traffic system over the next decade.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt says uncertainty about FAA funding already has prompted the agency to pause in its efforts to certify new aviation technology and could even slow the opening of aircraft manufacturer plants, thereby reducing jobs.
The Senate supports giving the FAA $17.5 billion this year, a 16% increase over the House.
•Rural flights. The House would end federal subsidies to airlines that fly to rural airports that otherwise would not have commercial service. Airports in Alaska and Hawaii would still be eligible for federal subsidies.
The Senate would keep the program, nearly doubling the funding to $200 million. Senate commerce committee Chairman John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., whose state relies on the flights, vows to keep the subsidy.

Neha Jain

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