Baggage

Airlines get thumbs up from data; thumbs down from travelers

(From my story on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin. )

Performance-wise, 2011 was a very good year for U.S. airlines. As an industry, overall performance was the best in the 21 years of the Airline Quality Rating 2012 (AQR) (PDF), a yearly report that crunches data such as lost bags, delayed flights, bumped passengers and customer complaints.

“This is not opinion. In almost two decades we have not had this level of optimum performance,” Dr. Brent Bowen, the head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University, told msnbc.com. Bowen conducts the AQR with Dr. Dean Headley, an associate professor at the W. Frank Barton School of Business, Wichita State University. The report was released April 2.

Despite the strong marks, however, air travelers don’t seem to notice. In the Airline Passenger Survey 2012 (PDF), also conducted by Purdue and Wichita State researchers and released Friday, more than half of frequent fliers polled reported being disappointed with the air travel experience.

“By the numbers, 2011 may have been the best year for the airlines,” said Dr. Erin Bowen, one of the survey’s authors and an assistant professor at Purdue University’s Department of Technology Leadership & Innovation. “But airlines are doing a poor job of conveying these improvements to passengers. The objective improvements don’t match up with the experience passengers are getting when they fly,” she said.

Among some other findings from the survey:

Fifty-four percent of frequent fliers don’t believe airlines are being completely honest by attributing fare and fee increases to rising fuel costs;

Given a choice of how to offset rising air costs, air passengers put a la carte fees, such as Allegiant Air’s recently imposed fee for carry-on bags, at the bottom of their wish list. “They’d rather pay a higher fee, take alternative transportation or fly less,” Erin Bowen said;

Passengers primarily rely on price and schedule when choosing an airline. When that is constant, however, travelers consider customer service (36 percent) and on-time arrival (32 percent) as factors.

In a ranking of the most passenger-friendly airlines, Southwest was an overwhelming favorite. More than one-third of frequent fliers surveyed put the low-cost carrier ahead of the 14 other airlines on the list. JetBlue was ranked No. 2 (12 percent), followed by Continental and Alaska (6 percent each).

Southwest also ranked No. 1 as the most preferred airline with 17 percent of the vote. Delta and United were close behind at 12 percent, followed by American (11 percent) and JetBlue (10 percent).

The gap between Southwest and its competitors has been shrinking. In 2009, the first year of the Airline Passenger Survey, the discrepancy between Southwest and Delta was 9 percent; the gap fell to just under 6 percent at the end of 2010, and now sits at 5 percent.

“Southwest has the lead, but other airlines are starting to do a better job of meeting consumer expectations and putting out a friendlier message,” Erin Bowen said.

Euro crisis worries airlines, but progress marches on

Troubles in the Eurozone have caused the organization representing 240 of the world’s airlines and 84% of global air traffic to revise its overall outlook for the airline industry.

Based on current actions being taken to try to avert a credit crunch in the Eurozone and additional measures central banks are expected to take to avert financing problems facing Italy and Spain, on Wednesday the International Air Transport Association (IATA), downgraded its central forecast for airline profits from $4.9 billion to $3.5 billion for a net margin of 0.6%.

“The biggest risk facing airline profitability over the next year is the economic turmoil that would result from a failure of governments to resolve the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Such an outcome could lead to losses of over $8 billion—the largest since the 2008 financial crisis,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

Tyler was speaking at a meeting held at IATA’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, where a wide variety of ‘state of the industry’ reports and forecasts for security, safety, the environment and other aspects of the airline industry were also presented.

Now that so much of the check-in process is done electronically via kiosks, the web and mobile boarding passes, Paul Behan, IATA’s Head of Passenger Experience predicted that the ‘boarding pass’ will soon replaced by a ‘boarding token’ and said that “baggage processing, is still one of the greatest challenges in terms of simplification.”

Behan described several trials currently underway that allow travelers to print their baggage tags at home and another in which Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has been embedded right into a suitcase. “This trial simply showed that you can embed an RFID baggage tag, program it at a baggage drop and then use the tag for sortation,” said Behan, but he said the next step is to use the system to make “interaction-free and tag-free baggage drop a possibility.”

Behan also noted that while many airlines already offer the ability to register a lost bag claim online, IATA is working with airlines to move the baggage tracking systems from interactive to proactive.

For example, he said that instead of having a passenger wait to see if their bag shows up at the baggage claim, “The passenger might get a proactive text or phone message from the airline saying they already know there’s a problem with a bag and that the process of locating their bag has begun.”

In the area of security, Ken Dunlap, IATA’s Global Director Security and Travel Facilitation, outlined ways in which airlines are working with airports and governments on a “checkpoint of the future” designed to change the passenger experience and enhance security. He said that while far more high-tech than today’s checkpoints, as designed, the checkpoint of the future only uses personal data about passengers that has already been gathered by other organizations. “That data is now used at the end of the journey [i.e. at customs and immigration]. We want to use it at the beginning of the journey as well to increase security.”

 

“Get your freak on” TSA worker to be fired

Update: The Transportation Security Administration employee who added the personal note (above) to the inspection paperwork placed in a traveler’s checked bag will be fired, the agency said on its blog.

“TSA has completed its investigation of this matter, and has initiated action to remove the individual from federal service,” the agency said.

After traveling with a small vibrator in her checked luggage, New York-based blogger and lawyer Jill Filipovic discovered that someone had scrawled “Get your freak on girl,” across the TSA paperwork left in her bag.

Under the title “Your tax dollars at work,” Filipovic posted the note on the Feministe blog and added her own comment, “Total violation of privacy, wildly inappropriate and clearly not ok, but I also just died laughing in my hotel room.”

She also Tweeted a photo of the note, adding: “Just unpacked my suitcase and found this note from TSA. Guess they discovered a ‘personal item’ in my bag. Wow.”

The TSA inspection card is printed in Spanish on one side and English on the other.

“The note was inappropriate,” said Filipovic, “the agent in question acted unprofessionally when s/he put in my bag, there should be consequences and I’m glad the TSA takes these things seriously. But I get no satisfaction in hearing that someone may be in danger of losing their job over this. I would much prefer a look at why ‘security’ has been used to justify so many intrusions on our civil liberties, rather than fire a person who made a mistake.”

(The original version of this story appeared on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin)

PDX workers find good use for abandoned luggage

Here’s a nice story I found in this month’s PDXaminer, a newsletter for the people who work at Portland International Airport (PDX)

Two employees from Portland Habilitation Center (PHC), the company that provides the janitorial services at the airport, came up with an idea that does something nice for kids going into foster care while recycling luggage that police have determined is neither lost or stolen, but for one reason or another, abandoned at the airport.

Instead of throwing all that luggage away, the PHC employees donate some pieces to Oregon’s Department of Human Services Foster Child program so a kid who ends up in foster care with his or her belongings in a paper bag can at least have a suitcase where they can keep their stuff.

(Courtesy PDXaminer)

Good thinking!