December travel musing

In that peculiar annual period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when it seems not much work gets done, I counter the trend by taking stock of the year just ending and to think about and plan travel for the coming 12 months.  For me, it’s a time for reflection about all things related to travel.  Here are some of my reflections,

HOLIDAY AIRFARE BARGAINS (NOT!)

Lots of airline come-ons in my inbox starting in November, but all in coach.  I saw only one bargain in Premium Economy this year, and that was on Cathay Pacific and ended after the Thanksgiving weekend.  Zero deals in Business Class.

The coach deals on Qatar are especially good, like Houston to Nairobi for $695 round trip for travel Jan 11 to May 19 next year if you buy by Dec 15.  But I won’t worry if I miss this sale because there is sure to be another on Qatar in a few days or next week, latest.  Qatar economy class is rumored to be pretty good—meaning it is not as uncomfortable as some other airlines—but heck, it’s still coach.

The dearth of deals in PE and Biz Class is made worse for me by the fact that business travel to Johannesburg (JNB) is strong and South African Airways is on the ropes. Both factors mean steady demand for butts in business class to that part of the world.  I go back to the Kruger National Park in South Africa nearly every year, and while coach seats are as little as $880 round trip, I can’t get a business class fare to JNB any more for less than about $4,500, often closer to $5,500.

I’ve flown to Jo’burg countless times since 1991—quite a lot in the last few years—and I’ve never seen it so consistently expensive to fly up front.  I snagged a good Premium Economy fare on Delta for a trip I am making there in Feb-Mar, 2020, but even PE fares have risen dramatically since my purchase date.

TO BUY MILES OR NOT

This time of year American Airlines usually sends me offers to supplement my AAdvantage miles by buying more.  I bought a hundred thousand miles from AA a few years back at a good rate, which miles contributed to an AAdvantage award RDU to Tanzania on Qatar in Business Class.

Sure enough, I got this year’s AA email yesterday, and the top offer is 70% bonus miles if I purchase 100,000-150,000 AAdvantage miles.  But it’s no bargain at $0.032/mile to buy 150,000 ($5,036.38), though with 105,000 bonus miles, that drops it to $0.022/mile.

Still, I wonder, is that a bargain?  I am not sure any more what that total of 255,000 AAdvantage miles buys me based on the past year’s steep award level increases, but certainly not the reasonable mileage award in business on Qatar of several years ago. Instead, for about $5,000 I can usually find a business class fare to South Africa, so why use miles?  And that’s just one example.  I passed on the AAdvantage offer this year.

WEDNESDAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING USED TO BE THE BUSIEST TRAVEL DAY OF THE YEAR

My home Raleigh/Durham Airport (RDU) saw its busiest one-day travel on that Sunday after Thanksgiving at 54,800.  Used to be Wednesday before Thanksgiving was the busiest travel day of the year, but now it’s the Sunday afterward.  I guess that, because of widespread American prosperity, many folks can take off a day or two, or even the whole week of Thanksgiving, which spreads out the demand.

During four decades of flying home from consulting gigs at Thanksgiving, however, it was always Wednesday, and always had to be booked at least six to nine months in advance to get a fare that didn’t make my clients shriek in pain when I sought reimbursement.

RDU WANTS A NONSTOP TO CHINA

Staying with RDU, local business leaders—including many tech company execs—have long sought to bag a direct flight to China. RDU already boasts nonstops to London (AA) and Paris (DL).

But first the airport needs a new runway.  That will be part of an airport master plan for the future that RDU calls “Vision 2040” and includes adding 23 new gates and bringing the rental car and TNCs (Uber, Lyft) to a close-in building within easy walking distance from Terminal 2, which most of RDU’s airlines use.  I am excited about the coming improvements and gung-ho about a possible nonstop to China.

RDU QUARRY QUARREL

The airport’s needs notwithstanding, a controversy took root in the past year regarding property owned by RDU that it wants to lease to a stone quarry operation.  The land is contiguous to heavily-forested Umstead State Park, a popular hiking and biking destination for Triangle residents. Some park advocates don’t like the idea of a quarry, even though it’s entirely on airport property and will supply a much-needed income stream to the airport for several decades before being restored for recreational uses. Unlike highways, airports have no steady federal and state funding, instead relying on periodic, unpredictable federal and state grants.

Our airport has authority to make the quarry deal.  The issue, like many these days, became polarized and over-simplified, with anti-quarry forces ignoring the greater need as well as the overarching economic benefit to the region of RDU.  With airport passenger traffic surpassing ten million per year and contributing $8.5 billion to the region’s economy, RDU is essential to our ability to absorb the growth we are experiencing in this part of North Carolina.

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