The Daily Flyer
Happy first day of March, and welcome to this edition of “The Daily Flyer,” The Higher Flyer‘s newsletter that gathers up and summarizes some of the most important happenings in the world of airlines, hotels, award points, and other travel-related things. Today’s feature offers a different reason to avoid the Boeing’s beleaguered 737 MAX jet, as well as innovation in premium cabins, another Delta devaluation, and an exceptional piece on the vanity of flying.
The Headline Feature
A recent edition of “The Daily Flyer” explored whether or not the Boeing 737 MAX is safe to fly. Don’t be convinced otherwise: the plane is airworthy and is as sure as anything else in the sky. You have nothing to worry about if you’re scheduled to travel on one, and while the blood of 346 passengers will forever be on Boeing’s negligent hands, the company has at least taken appropriate steps to ensure that no such tragedies happen again. In the nearly two years since the MAX was grounded everywhere, Boeing has addressed and resolved the model’s original design flaws, devised and implemented new safety standards, and sought — and subsequently won — the approval of regulatory agencies all over the world. The United States’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Canada’s Transport Canada, and the EU’s European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have among others, separately inspected the 737 MAX and all recertified it for commercial use.
Airlines are now hustling to get their MAXs back in action, and the U.S. carriers that operate them — American, Southwest, United, and Alaska — have already scheduled theirs for passenger service; if they’re not already, they’ll all be flying theirs by mid-March. For an industry that’s been hammered by bad news for the past year, this has all the makings of a positive development and a symbolic step in the “return to normalcy.” Granted, these fleets won’t be fully utilized for a while because of the pandemic, but they’ll be ready for when passenger traffic once again mimics the high pre-2020 levels. If you’re a forward-looking corporate executive, this gives you plenty of reason to be hopeful for the future. But if you’re a higher flyer? Well, not exactly…
There’s no doubt that the reformed MAX aircraft are safe, but no matter how well they perform in service, there’s ample reason to keep avoiding them: they’re just not very comfortable. This claim isn’t to downplay or trivialize the lives of those lost, but several independent regulatory bodies and oversight agencies agree that Boeing has implemented sufficient measures to ensure that it won’t fail again. It would be shocking if another crashed due to an operational or mechanical failure. The plane’s troubled past nevertheless may be the more visceral factor in deterring would-be travelers from choosing to fly one, but seeing that they’ll be used to operate increasingly longer flights, comfort should be the more important one.
It’s frustrating because the MAX has been hailed as a triumph of innovative efficiency since its inception. For all of the features that Boeing pioneered in order to extend its range — 737s can now operate some Transatlantic flights! — most airlines haven’t brought the same innovative spirit to the passenger experience. Sure, COPA for the first time ever is installing lie flat seats on its MAX 9s, but that positive development is countered by the fact that U.S.-based operators are actively equipping their fleets with anti-higher flyer accommodations. Generally speaking, legroom is tight and seat padding is nonexistent, traditional amenities are no more, and lavatories are now hilariously too small on new MAX aircraft.
American Airlines has received the lion’s share of bad press regarding these new discomforts; its MAXs offer the best explanations as to why you should keep avoiding them (as safe as they may be). AA introduced the model, along with the “Project Oasis” interiors, as its new standard bearer for domestic accommodations. Too bad this initiative represents a wretched downgrade! Among other things, American cut seat pitch so drastically that Ryanair — yes, ultra low cost carrier Ryanair — offers more legroom on its old 737s than American does on its new ones. For an airline that says that it’s going for great, this is pathetic.
Of course, American isn’t alone in its crusade to make flying more efficient at the expense of personal comfort. As Ben Schlappig at One Mile At A Time once characterized it, the state of AA’s new planes are more sad than terrible, and just about every carrier is guilty of introducing unwelcome changes to passenger experiences. Fleets of MAXs, based both domestically and overseas, will only normalize these trends further. Slimline seats with minimal recline and padding for example are the new standard…
…And traditional in flight entertainment, which had long been a staple of the AA and United passenger experiences, are being stripped from seatbacks and replaced with… nothing (unless you count a tablet holder as something). Not even those seated in domestic first class are treated to built-in IFE.
The greatest dishonor though has to be the more “efficient” lavatories that are rolling out with many MAX aircraft. Not only can its width be measured in inches — everyone except for the most petite among us have trouble moving around in it — but the sink situation would be comical if it weren’t for the fact that this is included on a plane once lauded for its innovative features.
(Admittedly this basin is efficient to the extreme, but “innovation“ suggests some kind of improvement. This here is non-functional.)
The picture above was snapped onboard one of Southwest’s 737s, but the appallingly tiny lavatories are standard across the U.S. carriers’ MAXs. Then-editor-at-large of The Points Guy Zach Honig complained about the bathroom onboard United’s MAXs…
…And a group of American’s flight attendants have gone on record to speak out against the awfulness of the toilets.
Once upon a time, a big-boned (but not obese) flight attendant explained to me that he hated these lavatories because he has “to enter in the direction [he] needs to go and hope that [he] can reach around to wash [his] hands.” These details were shared in jest, but you can’t help but think that the joke carries some degree of truth to it. Perhaps his take is just positive spin on what his colleagues have said, but nevertheless this isn’t something you’d want to hear from the guy who earlier was handing you warm nuts and a glass of wine.
In any case, a lot of these “innovations” aren’t new, but the 737 MAX is the logical culmination of all of them. If given a choice, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to travel on one of these planes for any flight longer than a short regional hop. Even that may be pushing the limits of what’s acceptable; Embraers aren’t known for being feature-rich either, but at least they don’t have middle seats! These 737s are so obviously uncomfortable to the point where they’re anti-higher flyer, and it’s borderline offensive that airlines plan to operate them on medium-to-long haul routes. For your own sake, avoid these planes at all costs. However with each delivery that Boeing fulfills — and there are thousands of orders currently outstanding — the MAXs’ lacking passenger experiences will only become more common, and consumers in the long run may have no other option than to deal with the new standards of efficiency. But hey, at least a bunch of aviation regulatory bodies say that the MAXs are now airworthy. That’s one less thing to worry about.
From The Higher Flyer
The most recent entry in to the “Photo of the Week!” series represents a thematic departure from pictures previously shared on The Higher Flyer. January 2021 brought profound, history-making developments in U.S. politics, and these topics proved unavoidable even in this space; its newsworthiness transcends travel-related subjects. No matter your opinion, the jarring juxtapositions between the highs and lows of the past month/year proved exhausting. Now that there’s a new President, let’s hope that we can settle in to saner routines and, as we do, let’s channel Bart Simpson’s favorite phrase…
From the archive: “What’s the difference between economy plus and premium economy?”
Internet search traffic to The Higher Flyer can yield some interesting insights in to the state of affairs. For example, the most-read post of all time (so far) is my review of Iberia’s premium economy, but its number of daily page hits took a dive in February 2020. That trend makes sense: until that point, premium economy had been growing increasingly more prevalent across the industry as airlines introduced their own versions of the product, but then people stopped caring when COVID put travel on hold indefinitely. Meanwhile in the past ten days, “What’s the difference between economy plus and premium economy?” has experienced exponential popularity growth. Seriously: more people have read this single article in the past week than have read The Higher Flyer in all of January. It’s an important question to answer — it’s why I wrote it a little over a year ago — but why is there an audience asking about this right now at this moment in time? It’s not like folks are looking for anything else… Oh well, I’m not complaining, and be sure to hop on the bandwagon and check it out if you haven’t already!
One more point: Don’t let one defective engine deter you from never flying Boeing 777s
Whenever the airline industry attracts international media attention, it’s almost always the result of something tragically awful. The most recent newsworthy event however — an engine on a United-operated 777 disintegrated shortly after takeoff — is an exception. Yes, this episode is traumatic and frightening, but it’s important to remember that the plane was able to land otherwise without a hitch. While a massive piece of the cowling landed a little too close for comfort in someone’s front yard, ultimately no one was harmed, and the passengers onboard even made it to their original destination that same day. This whole saga reflects the reliability of air travel. Aircraft shouldn’t be suffering catastrophic engine failures, but when they do, they can negotiate the urgent, high-stakes challenges in part because of the sophisticated safety measures that Boeing (and Airbus) have developed and implemented. If you need more convincing, just look at other similar incidents and note the number of casualties. Don’t fear!
If you were on that United flight though, I wouldn’t blame you if you hesitated before flying again…
Other developments, discussions, and articles in higher flying
Here are three things worth reading from around the web. There hasn’t been much news to go around (other than the aforementioned United 777 incident), but here’s a sampling of some interesting articles. Note that while some of them are dated, they’re still perfectly timely.
1. How airlines can innovate in their premium cabins
It’s growing increasingly likely that the “unbundled” pricing model pioneered by low cost carriers — in which passengers pay extra for additional services like luggage allowances and “luxuries” like seat selection — will be expanding to business class. That’s discouraging, and John Walton from Runway Girl Network writes that it doesn’t have to be this way. Industry-wide cuts are inevitable, especially with demand for corporate travel as nonexistent as it is, but instead of cheapening the passenger experience, airlines could introduce less-expensive-but-equally-practical accommodations. This would be a departure from the current standards of over-the-top luxuries, but the changes would constitute a win-win: there would still be a premium option for discerning clients, but the operating costs would be significantly lower.
Sourced from Runway Girl Network.
2. The inevitabilities of life: death, taxes, and devalued SkyMiles
In what’s terrible news for higher flyers bound to Delta, SkyMiles have been devalued once more. Ben Schlappig at One Mile At A Time explains the changes in greater detail, but the key takeaway is that business class award tickets on Delta’s partners — particularly those that operate in the Transatlantic and Transpacific markets — are now significantly more expensive. The most egregious example is a trip between North America and Southeast Asia. As recently as six months ago, you could fly round trip in business class for around 200,000 SkyMiles. That’s a lot as-is, but positively cheap compared to what it is now. That same itinerary costs 330,000 SkyMiles. That’s shocking to the point where it invites commentators to ask: “Is Delta Airlines trolling us?” If you can handle the bad news, be sure to check out the links below for more information.
3. “Vanity, Routine: Things I Miss About Flying“
Kyle Stewart, who’s a contributor at Live and Let’s Fly, has been featured in past editions of “The Daily Flyer” for his hot/unreasonable takes on a couple travel-related issues. Earlier in February though he authored one of the best op-eds in recent memory. I won’t spoil his piece nor speak over him, but know that his writing captures the thoughts and sentiments of so many higher flyers who are lamenting the sad state of affairs. There are few articles that are truly “must-read;” this is one of them.
Written by Kyle Stewart on Live and Let’s Fly.
… And that’s it for today. Got any tips? Questions? Comments? Email anything and everything to Paul@TheHigherFlyer.org, or comment below! In the meantime, thanks for reading, fly higher, and wear a mask. Regarding future programming: as amusing as it is to read about passengers gobbling excessive amounts of oranges to avoid punative bag fees, publishing a daily newsletter doesn’t make sense when there’s not much meaningful news to go around. So, “The Daily Flyer” will be back in due time for another update on how things stand. Until then, stay safe, be responsible, and wear a mask. We’ll get through this soon enough!
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