Airplanes, frequent flyers and the mile high tomato juice club

This week I’ve been mostly trying to find a happy place amongst all the stuff that’s been going on at work, so I turn to flying and other related topics:

What frequent flyer miles teach about central banking:

The company keeps the power to devalue the points at any time, which would make its balance sheet look better. That gives a CEO facing a rough patch every incentive to devalue the points. It is a way of improving the company’s financial position just with a change of policy. But while it seems easy, it comes at a long-term cost. You are angering some of your most loyal customers, essentially exacting a tax from the people who fly your airline most often. If you get a reputation for devaluing points all the time, they may even switch their loyalty entirely, and start flying Delta instead of United or staying in Marriotts instead of Hiltons.

Gabriel Leigh, Frequent Flyer – a 20 min short film on the people who rack up almost 17m miles if not more. Cities becoming more like airports, airports becoming more like cities – Dallas Fort Worth is larger than the whole of Manhattan. What I don’t get is how one grey, drab-looking lounge is more ‘appealing’ than alternatives. 17-23 trillion airplane miles not claimed; worth more than all the USD bills in circulation. Big stuff.


Hacking frequent flyer programmes – more like how it actually works. Airline alliances as cartels. Mile runs, crazy routes, bump runs, etc.

Last but not least – things to do while on planes if a) you are a woman b) you want to feel good and c) you don’t particularly care about anyone next to you. Of course. Except don’t touch the Elizabeth Arden 8-hour cream – it’s not really that great. For something that’s 48% Petrolatum, Vaseline works just as well and doesn’t cost as much.

The upper limit of what people would pay for on trains

Tyler Brûlé had a magnificent column in FT Weekend last week about short-haul flights in Europe and various carriers going under or doing badly. It’s interesting given I used to work on bmibaby, bought by British Airways to consolidate their weekend routes. As Mr. Brule pointed out, Lufthansa is moving more of its short distance flights to Germanwings (their low-cost business) and SAS is definitely feeling the pinch and trying to avoid going into administration. Yet Turkish Airlines has twice been named best European airline, so it is possible to deliver good service.

It begs two questions:

One, do countries even need a flag carrier anymore? There are two things in here: if you’re a big country, you’d want to make sure there’s someone to cover your commuting routes and that you’ll always be connected to the rest of the world, rather than wait and hope someone will fly to you.

Secondly, the one Tyler asked in the article: do any of these managers admire any global carriers or feel passionate about flying at all? You wouldn’t think so, given the experience you get on most of them. Like Henry Mintzberg would say, it’s the art of smiling at you in the front office while they’re rubbing their hands thinking about how to make more money off you in the back office.

Now I’m aware that planes is that they only make money when they’re in the air, but they can’t always fill up seats on all routes – sometimes it may be a good thing in terms of fuel economy. Tyler points out that a lot of this is down to the layout of the planes, twin-engined aircraft with a three-three configuration (Airbus A320, Boeing 737). More seats means more people means more money generally, like trains stripping shops and toilets from coaches. Then you push the marketing drive to make the destination city exciting. “Look at the many things you can visit in Dusseldorf!” they say. “Travel more so you have more stories to tell!” Really? Some carriers are luckier than others with “hero” destinations- in a Bordeaux vs. Frankfurt fight, I know where I’d rather spend my weekend by some distance. The column also points out that there’s very little reason to choose a business class seat over an economy one: the experience is very much the same. On Lufthansa, your seats are the same, just that in business class they don’t sandwich anyone between 2 people.

The same could be said about trains: people pay dearly for the fast route because it makes zero economical sense to cover the same ground in 2 hours instead of 50 minutes. However, George Osborne reminded us that a ticket from Wilmslow to London in 1st class is about £180. The annual season ticket makes you weep ,but the alternative (car) is so much more expensive. And Virgin trains, whatever people say, provide an OK level of comfort and warmth on commuter routes. Think of the places you could fly with that.

Ryanair always used to be the outlier in NPS scores: scoring low on everything other airlines were struggling hard to address through organisation change and communications (customer service, recommend to a friend) and people still flew with them in spite of it all. As long as they made it from A to B, to hell with the free food, children’s crayons and smiley people asking you if you want another drink. When you stop positioning yourself as an ‘airline’ with the pretenses attached and talk about yourself as mere taxi from A to B, people treat you accordingly. You don’t have to like taxis, but you pay for them because you need them.

The herd-like mentality Brule points out applies in train-running too: if First had had their way, they would have stripped the coaches to make room for more seats. It seems counter-intuitive that someone would pay more than £180 for a first class experience, but what business wouldn’t impress someone with a trip on a British Pullman or Northern Belle at £720? However, that solves your problem of travel, expensive lunch and question of ‘how do I entertain my guests?’ that’s worth its weight in gold to some companies. Not all, but you’d only need to sell a small number of super premium routes or have a super premium coach on an existing train to make it worthwhile.

And advertise the shit out of that – look at what they get. Now wouldn’t it be really nice to upgrade to that at the weekend? 

Back from Romania and Bulgaria

I don’t generally talk about holidays and things around here, but if we’re friends on instagram, you’ll have noticed a few photos. I went to see my family in Romania and we travelled to neighbouring Bulgaria for 2 days. Romania is a common destination of mine so it’s redundant to keep talking about it unless there’s something interesting worth mentioning.

In Bulgaria we did a trail (Negovanka) around Veliko Tarnovo, which is probably best described as a medieval city/fortress that used to serve as Bulgaria’s capital before it was moved to Sofia. We visited a few other places of interest and at the other end, Romania was just an opportunity to catch up with friends and spend time with family.

I get asked ‘what’s it like’ and ‘is it worth visiting’ a lot so I want to do these places justice. Where do I start? Everything is always worth visiting, it depends on how much time you want to invest and what your motivation is. Would you spend more than two days in a place like Cambridge? Perhaps not, unless you used it as a base for doing things in and around Cambridgeshire and going for country walks. But you might hate country walks, so anyone going on about them as ‘beautiful, quaint and picturesque‘ is useless.

So I came back with this feeling that there are some really lovely things to see and do but things get in the way if you’re a tourist: that you’d need a car, that you’d need better instructions, translations or someone who speaks the language and can help, that unless you have these things it’ll be harder, but not impossible. It’s easy for me to go when they’re a 3h drive away, it’s like taking your car and dog and going to Wales (also very beautiful). The food is wonderful, cheap and the portions enormous (as advertised) but the bigger picture I get (probably blase by my research) is that the poverty is apparent, but the people are tremendously nice and enthusiastic when meeting tourists.

Both Romania and Bulgaria can rub people up the wrong way (“no vegetarian option”, “no one speaks english” — though less in capital cities, “no english menu”, “no public transport”, “a car nearly ran me over”), or they can be pretty enjoyable experiences. If you happen to be passing by.

Put it this way – if you’re the sort of person who thinks it’s unacceptable for a train to be 5 minutes late, wait till you get to the place where it might be 5hrs late. You return to Britain as a zen master.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Bulgaria+ Romania: Veliko Tarnovo, Bucharest

NHM’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year

I noticed this really neat thing at the Natural History Museum for Veolia’s ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year‘:

You could scan your ticket on a machine and save all the photos you really liked to look at them from home (or wherever) later. Very clever. You’ve seen them all, ooh-ed and aah-ed and they’re fresh in your mind but it’s still nice to recap all the stuff on show.