Category Archives: Transportation

Handy Table of Airline Fees

Flying somewhere used to be simple, but recently airlines have begun to implement unbelievably complicated pricing policies. If you ask them, they’ll say it’s because of the increase in the price of oil. But it’s funny how all these special fees only seem to go up, never down. Some airlines are saying that this kind of pricing is a life-and-death proposition for the industry, while other airlines don’t feel terribly compelled to follow suit.

If it’s really the case that airlines can’t make money in the current environment without resorting to these pricing practices, how come Southwest, one of the most consistently profitable airlines in the country, doesn’t charge anything to check a second bag? And how is it that Continental can possibly get away with serving free meals on its flights?

Also: Fifty bucks to check a second bag, Delta? Seriously? Seven bucks for a fruit plate, Northwest? You guys are douches.

Tacking on all these little charges is cheesy. It’s yet another thing (in addition to abusive airport security and interminable delays) that makes me not want to fly at all. Anytime you can’t express the price of something in a sentence or less, there’s nearly always something predatory and possibly crooked going on.

People accept these charges because they have to; by the time you get to the airport, you don’t have any choice but to pay them if you want to get on your plane. But if all these charges were applied at the time you purchased your ticket instead of at the airport, my guess is that we’d see them evaporate (folded into the regular cost of a ticket) pronto.

I actually don’t mind what United and other airlines do with upsells at the airport — they let you pay a few extra bucks (typically under $20) for an exit row seat, which is sometimes worth it to me since I’m a big guy. But this is an option, not a requirement they force on you at the last minute.

This table shows a handy list of a few dozen major airlines and the fees they charge for stuff they used to do for free.

Update: I just booked a flight to London in November and paid an extra $100 out of my own pocket to fly Virgin Atlantic instead of United, la la la.

I Don’t Think That “Business Model” Means What You Think It Means

Continental Cuts 3,000 Jobs as It Grounds Planes – NYTimes.com

Continental’s move, which equals a 16 percent reduction in its capacity, had been rumored in industry circles on Wednesday. The details came in a message to employees from Continental’s chief executive Lawrence W. Kellner and its president, Jeffrey A. Smisek.

“The airline industry is in a crisis,” the two executives said in the message to employees. “Its business model doesn’t work with the current price of fuel and the existing level of capacity in the marketplace. We need to make changes in response.”

It is about time that these airlines realize that charging for tickets is a horribly outdated business model. I’m looking forward to the airlines switching their business model to a pure CPC advertising model, where you click on a flight attendant when you see an ad you like, or perhaps a freemium model where you board the plane for free and can pay halfway through the flight if you like the service. If you choose not to pay, you must complete the rest of the flight while seated in the lavatory, or perhaps they eject you with a parachute (which is also sold onboard for a nominal additional charge).

American, Cutting Back, Plans $15 Bag Fee

Link: American, Cutting Back, Plans $15 Bag Fee

“It’s the end of an era,” said Robert W. Mann Jr., an airline industry consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. Referring to the range of fees that customers face, Mr. Mann added, “Soon, like freight, we will pay by the pound for passenger air travel.”

Horse hockey. Only the amateurs and unfortunates who are for some reason forced to fly American will have to put up with this. Airlines try this kind of stuff all the time; it only sticks if the other airlines follow suit. So if customers remove American from the list of airlines they’re willing to subject themselves to (as I plan to), the other airlines won’t emulate this predatory pricing tactic and we won’t have to put up with it.

I should mention that last week when I was traveling to Florida and New York I flew Continental and it was terrific.

The Era of GPS Is Fostering Mindless Truck-Driving

Link: Turn Back. Exit Village. Truck Shortcut Hitting Barrier

"This little village would seem to be an obviously poor place through which to drive your average large truck. There is no room to pass and no room to maneuver.
But trucks and tractor-trailers come here all the time, as they do in similarly inappropriate spots across Britain, directed by G.P.S. navigation devices that fail to appreciate that the shortest route is not always the best route. ‘They have no idea where they are,’ said Wayne Hahn, a local store owner who watches a daily parade of vehicles come to grief — hitting fences, shearing mirrors from cars and becoming stuck at the bottom of Wedmore’s lone hill. Once, he saw an enormous tractor-trailer speeding by, unaware that in its wake it was dragging a passenger car, complete with distraught passenger."

You don’t have to go to rural Britain to see examples of this in action. A few weeks back in our neighborhood, a car-carrying truck took a turn onto our cross-street. If he was using GPS navigation instead of his noggin, he couldn’t have known that the street is technically two lanes, but in practice is so narrow that only one normal-sized car can get through at a time. Forget about getting a big truck through. But this guy plowed on, grinding a huge set of divots in the freshly-resurfaced pavement. He finally came to rest in the middle of an intersection, where his truck was stuck for a few hours, blocking traffic through the neighborhood until somebody came to haul him away.

Revisiting the User Experience of a 100 Year Old System

Link: Navigation Help for Surfacing Subway Riders

"It is one of those embarrassing, frustrating, infuriating experiences of everyday life that many New York subway passengers are loath to admit: that disorienting moment when they step onto the street, lost in a city they know — or think they know — perfectly well. Which way is Ninth Avenue, anyway?

Now the city is experimenting with a new way to help people go where they want to go without wasting more steps than they have to. The city and the private business improvement district for the neighborhood around Grand Central Terminal have installed compass-shaped decals on sidewalks, right where riders emerge from heavily used subway stairwells."

This is terrific — I was in New York recently, and I know my way around the city, sorta, but one morning I got off at a subway station and I didn’t know for sure which way I was going until I’d walked a block in some random direction.

It’s inspirational, too, that someone is re-examining the user experience of a 100-year-old product (the subway system) that to the casual observer would seem to have a critical mass of reasonably satisfied customers. There’s definitely a lesson here for technologists.

Residential Parking in San Francisco

I’ve already blogged about the gigantic scam that is parking enforcement in San Francisco. There is a sub-scam at work for people who live in certain neighborhoods: the residential parking permit system. It’s intended to make parking more sensible for people who live in high-density neighborhoods, and it may very well serve that purpose, but it’s also a huge scam intended to generate revenue for the city from fees and parking tickets.

As a thought exercise, do a web search on Residential Parking Permits on sfgov.org. Notice how all the pages pertaining to this topic on sfgov.org return 404 not found. (I’m assuming these pages were moved around recently, since both Yahoo and Google’s indexes have pointers to dead pages.) But notice, too, how sfgov.org’s own search function doesn’t find any mention of this mysterious residential parking permit on their site. It’s almost as if they don’t actually want you to apply for a permit.

When, after a half hour of searching, you eventually find the link to download the form (which, by the way, you can find here), you may rejoice as you discover that the cost of a residential parking permit is a whopping $60 per year — $10 more than the average parking ticket.

There are several goals of San Francisco’s residential parking program, according to the parking authority’s web site. They are stated thusly:

  • Promote the safety, health and welfare of all San Francisco residents
    by reducing unnecessary personal motor vehicle travel, noise and
    pollution
  • Promoting improvements in air quality, convenience
    and attractiveness of urban residential living
  • Increased use of
    public mass transit
  • The program’s main goal is to provide more parking
    spaces for residents by discouraging long-term parking by people who do
    not live in the area

I’m not beneath a little old-fashioned social engineering, but sweet jumping Moses. Having a residential sticker (or not) has not reduced my driving one bit. It has never done anything to encourage me to take public transit. It doesn’t prevent me from parking in the neighborhood.

The program probably does increase the number of parking spaces in our neighborhood a little bit. But the primary motivation for someone who doesn’t live in our neighborhood to park in front of our house would be to get closer to the BART station three blocks away. Instead, because of residential permit parking, people who live a mile away from BART are likely just going to drive to work, defeating 100% of the goals of the program, at least as they apply to our area.

There’s an unstated goal behind the program, of course, which is for the city to capture more revenue, by ticketing cars that don’t have residential stickers as well as collecting that $60 a year just so people can park in front of their houses.

Ultimately, if being able to park in your own neighborhood was really the primary objective here, then they’d make the stickers cost nothing (which would be workable since you have to provide all kinds of proof that you live in the neighborhood before you can get a sticker).

Sorry for another municipal rant. I must be getting old. If I had a front lawn, I’d probably be out there right now, hiking up my pants and yelling at the neighborhood kids to stay off my property.

Update: It looks like sfgov.com still has the map of the residential parking permit up; it’s here (PDF).

A Precious View of Public Transit in Portland

From our the museum of condescending, cliched NY Times stories about the West comes another gem, this one about an aerial tramway in Portland.

Let’s imagine that you just arrived in the United States from some other country for the first time, and somebody handed you this story about the Oregonians and their crazy sky-subway to you as you stepped off the plane. The story would not even make sense to you unless you understood the following unspoken cliches:

  • The "those people in Oregon sure are liberal" cliche, exemplified by the fact that they went out of their way to name the tram cars after a woman and a black guy when they could have just, you know, named it after some dead governor or a war hero or something
  • People from Oregon are basically rubes who generally ride horses and buggies and flip out and act like bonobos whenever they find themselves in a motorized conveyance
  • The free-spending lefties in government out in Oregon have no idea how to build public transit in a fiscally responsible manner, paying nearly $60 million for this monstrosity (even though this is just a fraction of the $300+ million per mile that subways cost)

It’s particularly weird that this story treats the strange, expensive exotic yet completely provincial Portland tramway in such a precious way, since New York has its own tramway (which wasn’t mentioned in the story). I guess if you’re writing an otherwise boring story like this, you have to choose your angle to make it interesting, but if you’re going for something spicy, you could just as well have gone for the horrific angle instead.

San Franciscans Hurl Their Rage at Parking Patrol

Link: San Franciscans Hurl Their Rage at Parking Patrol

"They think they can take out their frustration on government in general" by abusing the [parking control] officers, who work 40-hour weeks for about $40,000 a year," she said, adding, "They say, ‘I’m tired of the city taking my money.’ "

There certainly is money in parking tickets. San Francisco issues 1.9 million parking citations and brings in more than $40 million a year from violators, according to the transportation agency.

There’s obviously no excuse for beating up a meter maid, but it’s also not the case that the assaults on parking enforcement officers in San Francisco are some sort of random happenstance. This NY Times piece (in which only union officials and "parking experts" are quoted) seems to imply that it’s Californians’ crazed affinity for cars that’s to blame. (This, by the way, is probably the millionth NY Times piece that uses some lazy, pointless and ultimately inaccurate cliche about the culture of the West as its launchpad.)

Anyway, if the "car crazy culture" bit were true, parking enforcement would be as manic and dangerous in Los Angeles or Santa Barbara as it is here. But it’s not. It’s a fact that our city does some very aggressive parking enforcement and consequently demands a lot from its meter maids/tax collectors. Anecdotal example #1: I’ve received at least five tickets parked in my own driveway in the past year. Example #2: Last year we got a ticket while we were repairing a flat tire. The meter maid didn’t even stop to see if we were OK, he just whizzed by and took down our license plate. If we’d been murdered in a drive-by shooting in front of a fire hydrant, would the meter maid have pinned the ticket to our corpses?

San Francisco is not a car-crazy city, at any rate. We love our public transit here (one of the reasons why we moved to our neighborhood is because it’s near a BART station). As the Times piece points out, the only thing wrong with public transit in San Francisco is that there isn’t enough of it, but on the other hand, no duh, that’s the problem with public transit in every city on the globe.

I’ve always wondered how parking enforcement might change if there weren’t a profit motive in it for the city, but I suppose that’s a pointless fantasy, since parking fines represent such a gigantic chunk of the city’s annual budget. (To put it in perspective, the $40 million in parking fines plus the $33 million in parking taxes pay for about 25% of the budget of the entire SF Police Department.) I realize that the money’s gotta come from somewhere, but taking it out of the pockets of people who happen to roll to a stop in front of a red curb after getting a flat tire seems sort of wrong to me.

End of embittered municipal rant. I thank you for permitting me to indulge myself.