Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trouble in paradise, another one bites the dust - Skyservice shuts down

Wow! Didn't see this one coming. Charter operator Skyservice ceased operations this morning, stranding thousands of passengers. Good grief, what the heck is happening in this crazy industry?

Here is the full story from today's (March 31st) Winnipeg Free Press:

WINNIPEG — Some passengers are stranded in paradise today, after the sudden collapse of a popular charter airline stunned the travel world.

On Wednesday morning, Skyservice announced it would cease operations immediately, after Ontario's Supreme Court handed the 15-year-old airline over to a receiver. Debt problems and "changes in the Canadian vacation tour market" led to the shutdown, the airline said in a press release. According to its website, the airline flew 20 Airbus and Boeing aircraft and employed 1,200 people. It provided charter flights for major tour operators such as Signature Vacations and SunQuest.

The news came as a shock to many — especially the folks booked for an 8 a.m. flight to the Dominican Republic out of the Winnipeg airport this morning. That flight has been rescheduled for 8 p.m. today while tour operators scramble to find aircraft to accommodate their booked and stranded passengers. By Wednesday afternoon, all of tour operator SunQuest's passengers had been slotted onto alternate flights, the company said in a release.

Winnipeg travel agent Ron Pradinuk said that although Skyservice's sudden death is a big surprise, it will not make a long-term impact on the industry. "These are big players... they've got contacts with airlines all over the world. I'm confident that these major operators will find aircraft for (tourists) by the time they need to return," Pradinuk said. "It's going to be a blip... I don't think it will affect anything a week from now."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Those crazy Icelanders

Whale watching is so last year

Volcano watching is the latest offering from the ever inventive Icelandic travel industry.

Ever quick to spot an opportunity where others see disaster, our friends at Iceland Excursions have come up with something even better than whale watching.

For only €55 they will take you to see the current volcanic eruption for yourself. At a safe distance, their guides give you a good overview of the geology of the area and tell you all about it.

Still prefer whale watching? Good. They have that, too.

Thanks to the Iceland Express website for this info!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sexy txting = coercion to commit sin


Two members of an Emirates Airline cabin crew have been jailed for three months in Dubai for exchanging lewd text messages, the Dubai newspaper The National reports.

A 42-year-old flight attendant and her 47-year-old cabin services supervisor -- both Indian -- were convicted of "coercion to commit sin," for sending the texts, the newspaper says, quoting court documents.

An appeal courts this week upheld the December convictions, saying the texts "fulfilled all the necessary angles of coercion to the commitment of sin," but cut a six-month sentence in half and dropped a deportation order.

The case came to light after the flight attendant's estranged husband filed a lawsuit against her in 2009 claiming that she was involved in an illicit relationship with the supervisor, the newspaper says.

Top ten list - total passengers

The numbers came out today for the top ten airports in the world by total passengers. To put this in perspective for the local readers of this blog, Richardson International Airport here in Winnipeg sees approximately 3 million a year.

So that means Atlanta has 29 times the passengers that Winnipeg does! Maybe this is just a big deal to airport geeks (like me) but it helps make sense of the sheer volume of passengers that use these airports.

Top 10 list (by total passengers) for 2009, according to the Journal-Constitution:

1. Atlanta (87,993,451 passengers; down 2.3%);
2. London Heathrow (66,037,578; down 1.5%);
3. Beijing Capital (65,329,851, up 16.8%);
4. Chicago O'Hare (64,397,891; down 8.8%);
5. Tokyo Haneda (61,903,656; down 7.2%);
6. Paris Charles de Gaulle (57,884,954; down 4.9%);
7. Los Angeles (56,518,605; down 5.5%);
8. Dallas Fort/Worth (56,030,457; down 1.9%);
9. Frankfurt (50,932,840; down 4.7%);
10. Denver (50,167,485; down 2.1%).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

WestJet's new loyalty program

Do you travel with WestJet? Have you been hoping that the airline would figure out some kind of loyalty program to reward you for your hard earned travel dollars? If so, then you will be happy to know the long awaited WestJet frequent flier program was finally unveiled yesterday.

"The WestJet Frequent Guest Program" gives the traveling public the opportunity to earn and accumulate WestJet dollars, which can be used as cash toward the purchase of any flight on any date to any destination - including seat sales. These 'dollars' can also be used towards WestJet Vacations packages, up to a maximum of 500 'dollars' per person.

The program is fairly simple in its approach, according to WestJet. You fly and earn 'dollars' towards future flights and vacation packages. The really nice things is that it isn't point based, it doesn't require advance booking, and there are no blackouts or seat restrictions. (Aeroplan, which is associated with Air Canada, has many of these drawbacks.)

A quick check of frequent flyer/loyalty rewards blogs did find a few concerns with the new WestJet program. There is apparently a high-spending threshold before you can start earning awards, and WestJet does not have the same global reach that Air Canada (and Aeroplan) can offer through membership in the Star Alliance.

Still, props to WestJet for taking a simpler approach to loyalty rewards. I think it fits in nicely with the way they originally positioned the company as an affordable alternative to Air Canada. While it is no doubt aimed at frequent fliers as WJ battles for control of the Canadian market, my guess is that it will also be appreciated by the less frequent traveler who will be pleased to earn a few dollars off their future flights or vacations.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Who'd have thought?

From March 5, 2010 USATODAY

"Since its humiliating bankruptcy in January, Japan Airlines has faced mass layoffs, customer fury and national shame, but its worst nightmare may yet lie ahead: a potentially thriving black market for the uniforms worn by its air stewardesses." That's from The Times of London, one of numerous media outlets reporting that demand from fetishists and sex clubs has forced ailing JAL to work to keep its flight attendant uniforms from falling into the wrong hands.

The problem may be bigger than most would initially think. Scott Mayerowitz of ABC News reports that "in Japan plenty of people are willing to pay top dollar for an experience with a club entertainer clad in an authentic Japan Airlines flight attendant uniform." He adds "people have been known to pay thousands of dollars for the outfits of JAL and rival airline All Nippon Airways, or ANA."

Airlines officials are not only concerned that the issue could tarnish the company's corporate image. ABC's Mayerowitz writes "outside of the fetish factor, JAL worries that in the wrong hands, missing airline uniforms could pose a security risk."

Indeed, an unnamed JAL spokeswoman tells the London Telegraph: "It's a question of security, as anyone wearing a JAL uniform at an airport could quite easily access restricted areas, but we also do not want people misrepresenting the company or damaging our image in any way."

The Telegraph adds JAL has warned its staff not to sell their uniforms, "fearing that laid-off air crew could try to auction their old stewardess outfits on the internet for a profit." How much could the uniforms fetch? Britain's Sky News writes "Asahi GeinĊ, a weekly tabloid magazine, reports that a rare full set is on sale on Yahoo Japan's auction site for over £2,000 and there are suggestions the latest uniform could fetch even more." In case you're wondering, £2,000 is about $3,010 at today's conversion rate.

To fight the "new flood of uniforms on to the black market," the Telegraph reports JAL is considering sewing tracking computer chips into its uniforms. Fellow Japanese carrier ANA – which faces similar problems – already does that. In the meantime, an unnamed JAL spokesperson tells the Times that the carrier has a series of measures that make it "virtually impossible for an individual to hold on to their uniform after they have left their job."

Still, the spokesperson acknowledges to the Times that at least one uniform belonging to a business-class attendant hit the black market a few years ago after it was reported as stolen. The carrier's solution in that instance? It paid nearly $2,000 to buy it back off the black market.

Maybe I should watch more reality TV

From March 5, 2010 USATODAY

ABOARD FLIGHT 97 FROM WASHINGTON TO LOS ANGELES — The man in 4D flirts with Louise Nguyen as she serves him a drink. Then he hands her his business card.

"He probably wanted a date, but I won't see him," says the poised, perfectly made-up Virgin America flight attendant.

Not that doe-eyed Nguyen, 28, won't date passengers. In fact, she accepts an invite to a Beverly Hills pool party from a handsome flier in the first episode of Fly Girls, a reality series premiering March 24 on the CW network.

Promoted as "Life at 500 mph" or "The Hills on a plane," the show focuses on a quintet of comely Virgin flight attendants, on and off the job. They were introduced to the media last week via red-carpet events in New York and Las Vegas.

Chosen after answering a mass e-mail from Virgin execs and auditioning, the five let cameras follow them for two months. Virgin sanctioned the show, over which it has limited control, to spotlight the 2-year-old airline, which positions itself as a fun, hip, lower-cost alternative to the legacy carriers. In a throwback to days of old, its flight attendants emphasize "smiles in the aisles" and pampering.

"Flying isn't about getting from Point A to Point B — it's about enjoying the ride," says cast member Farrah Williams, a statuesque blonde named after Farrah Fawcett.

The morning of the Vegas premiere, Nguyen and Williams — at 34, the oldest Fly Girl — prepare to work a flight from Dulles airport outside Washington, D.C. An ironing board takes center stage in Williams' hotel room; she'll appear at the gate in perfectly pressed white shirt, curve-hugging black skirt and high heels.

Taking a break in the forward galley of the Airbus 320 with lavender mood lighting, the pair say they have no problem being called "fly girls" — a moniker sure to offend those who lobbied for years to get "stewardess" excised from travelers' lexicon.

"Fly" means "cool," Nguyen says. "It's also what we do." Fly girl is "hip and kinda sexy. It's definitely a compliment."

"It suits the brand," chimes in Williams, a think-before-you-speak sort who calls herself the "senior mama" Fly Girl.

Nguyen says the five "like to go to the hot restaurants and the hot clubs — we're young, and why not?" She planned to be a nurse before being lured by travel's siren song and Virgin's non-stodgy image. Her Vietnamese/Chinese immigrant parents weren't happy. They wanted her to finish nursing school. Her family dynamics are incorporated into the series.

The seat-belt sign has been illuminated

Though soon to be TV personalities, the young women continue to serve drinks and meals at 30,000 feet, "and we take the business of flying seriously," Nguyen says.

The trip to L.A. looks calm on the surface ("a good flight depends on the energy we put out," Williams says. "If we're smiley, it's happy"). But underneath, there's turbulence. The "teammates" in Virgin lingo deal with a passenger with a spurting nosebleed, one who acts oddly and one who faints.

Medics come aboard in L.A. with a wheelchair for the fainter, who is tended at the gate in a surreal scene, as photographers, bloggers and guests gather for a special Fly Girls party flight to Las Vegas. On board, Nikole Rubyn, 31 — the series' vamp — delivers what's surely the most sultry pre-flight safety briefing ever. "Are you guys feeling fly?" she purrs, rolling her hips while demonstrating how to put on an oxygen mask and cope with a water landing.

Among those served weird-tasting "Fly Girls" cocktails made with Brazilian ac¸ai´ fruit liquor are French actor Gilles Marini (Sex and the City movie, Dancing With the Stars, Brothers & Sisters) and The Real Housewives of Orange County bombshell Gretchen Rossi. They're in first class. Virgin America CEO David Cush is in coach.

He flies in back and says he makes employees do the same to encourage an egalitarian spirit. The low-key former American Airlines exec in a gray suit settles in and says Fly Girls came about after Hollywood folk flew VA and "just loved the crews." He knows the show is "definitely risky" for Virgin, because cameras follow the young women day and night.

But "as a small airline, we don't have huge ad budgets. We hope to drive awareness" of VA's fleet-wide Wi-Fi, touchpad food and drink ordering, seat-to-seat e-chats. (That last toy has resulted in more than one hookup, say the Fly Girls.)

The A&E's reality show Airline raised the profile of Southwest Airlines in 2004. CW "promised a positive show, and I know these girls," Cush says. "They are people you would be proud to have as a sister or a daughter. They live exciting lives, but they'd never do anything to harm the company."

Indeed, the first episode, screened in-flight, is tame compared with other reality shows. No drunken liaisons, no dining tables overturned. Viewers do get inside info, such as the meaning of "IFB" — Virgin attendants' shorthand for "in-flight boyfriend," a cute guy they scope out to make time fly and who may get extra attention.

The only catfight in Episode 1 is a verbal confrontation when perky Mandy Roberts, 26, accuses sassy Rubyn of deviously stealing the limelight at VA's Fort Lauderdale launch. Things do get more reality-show-tacky in Episode 2, when the wine bottle — and claws — come out at the L.A.-area "crash pad" the five share for the show.

Attendants, prepare for your close-up

But all — including Tasha Dunnigan, 29, the show's single mom — share media attention with seeming amity as they walk a red carpet at The Palazzo Las Vegas hotel. (They've been warned by VA to project a positive image and avoid issues such as their pay or spats.) The fete is Oscar-like, with a daunting line of photographers and smartphone-waving bloggers and fans. To clicking shutters, the Fly Girls strut the gantlet with chests out. Their excitement is palpable.

Nguyen tells a reporter she hopes the show gives viewers "a different perception of flight attendants."

Working the carpet in leather jacket and jeans, screen hunk Marini, 34, is mobbed. He is asked if he ever dated a flight attendant. "Never."

Has he ever imagined doing more than dating one? "In my mind," he says. "But look, I've been married for 11 years."

Later, in the party's VIP area, he says he is here because he admires Virgin America shareholder Richard Branson and the "lightness" of VA crews.

"When there is turbulence, they say it in such a nice way that it makes you want to sit down," he says.

At 11:06 p.m., the Fly Girls climb onto a makeshift stage, posing beneath a giant screen running results of a party texting survey asking which Fly Girl will be the most popular. Rubyn wins for a while; Williams takes the lead after saying a few words in breathy tones.

"Whoo, baby!" a male voice yells from the crowd.

Dunnigan hits the dance floor with pals, pumping her fists to solicit votes. "I'm blessed," she says of the TV experience.

All the fuss "is surreal … it's amazing!" Nguyen says.

By midnight, most VIPs have flown. And the Fly Girls — hoping to lift a few glasses and let their hair down in privacy — have flitted away, too.