Is Unlimited Air Travel a Good Deal?
Air travel is rarely anyone's idea of a good time. It's expensive, time-consuming and difficult.
There are the byzantine demands of the ticketing process, in which you have to confirm your exact travel dates and times weeks or months in advance and then pay exorbitant fees if you change your plans. (Or if you buy super cheap tickets, sometimes you run the risk of not being able to get your money back at all!) There's the constant nickel-and-dime fees for everything from checked baggage to in-flight snacks. There's the seemingly endless TSA security procedures that have to be planned around carefully while you're packing.
In short, traveling by air can be a drag. Most of us are willing to do it sometimes for the thrill of travel, and many of us have to do it frequently for work. Especially for those in the latter category, flying might be about to get a whole lot better.
In the past few weeks, I've seen two different ventures getting ready to launch that would take a lot of the hassle out of air travel for frequent flyers. There's reason to hope that if these succeed, we'll see some real innovation in how the airline industry treats passengers.
The first is a service called PlaneRed. This is an entirely new airline planning to launch this fall. For a monthly subscription, you'll be able to fly all you want. Better yet, you won't have to deal with the TSA at all. Their first routes go up and down the Eastern seaboard, but they're hoping to expand quickly.
How will they do it? PlaneRed is planning to operate small planes and fly out of secondary airports, essentially flying under the radar of the TSA's jurisdiction. Their flights will carry only nine passengers at a time, and fly short distances. They're setting themselves up to be a commuter airline, committing to short routes between cities: New York to Washington, D.C., possibly San Francisco to L.A.
I realize there's a political debate to be had about PlaneRed's plan to dodge TSA security. Some people will see that as a perk, while others will see it as a dangerous problem. Like so many politically charged decisions made by private companies, consumers will be able to vote with their dollars on this one: Don't like their approach, don't give them your money. I'm not really interested in PlaneRed's political position.
What I'm interested in is how they're looking to streamline air travel and make it more customer friendly. And more affordable. They're planning to sell subscriptions for just $150 a month, though they acknowledge that price point may not be sustainable. If they can't turn a profit at that rate, they may add a $25 per flight fee, or raise the subscription rate to $200 or even $250.
Even at the high end of that price point, this is a steal for anyone who travels regularly for business. Not only is it cheaper than paying $150 or more per flight, but it gives you more flexibility and better service. No more booking your tickets weeks in advance, no more penalties for last minute schedule changes, no more hassle at the gate. You don't have to worry about missing your flight because the woman ahead of you in security forgot to label her baby's medication and caused a big delay, and you don't need to stress about finding a cheap flight for the meeting your boss suddenly scheduled next Wednesday in New York.
If it works, this is a great deal for people who travel more than once a month.
That seems like a big “if” though. It's notoriously hard for airlines to stay profitable, and these guys are starting from scratch. Their whole business model is a radical departure from the rest of the industry. Will it catch on? Hard to say.
The idea of unlimited flying has some mainstream appeal, though. JetBlue has recently announced that they'll be test-driving an all-you-can-fly pass for the next three months. Users can pay $1999 to travel anywhere JetBlue flies, $1499 for unlimited travel to any of their eastern U.S. destinations or $1299 for unlimited trips to western cities. You can get in on that deal by checking out their website, though the most expansive option has sold out already.
Like PlaneRed's proposed service, JetBlue's Bluepass will give you more flexibility with travel. You can book a flight online as little as 90 minutes before departure, and there are no fees for changing or canceling your plans.
While the obvious appeal is to business passengers, the deal is good enough that it could be a bargain for pleasure travelers as well. The Economist wrote:
SmartMoney's Kelli Grant notes that JetBlue's most expensive plan—for unlimited travel between Boston and any JetBlue city over the three-month period—can get you to many Caribbean destinations. Since round-trip tickets to most Caribbean islands normally cost between $400 and $600, Bostonians with an itch for crystal-clear waters, five or six free weekends between August 22 and November 22, and a place to stay could get a pretty good deal.
Since those Caribbean passes appear to have sold out already, we'll have to wait for this program to continue or expand to take advantage of this deal. The remaining offerings could still be a bargain for new grandparents, long-distance lovers, or anyone else trying to stay close to friends and family in far-flung cities. You'd need to travel about two to three times a month to beat the cost of just buying your tickets separately for each trip, but you'd get the added benefit of flexibility with your trip planning.
Are you interested in an unlimited subscription approach to air travel? Would you consider buying a monthly or quarterly pass instead of individual plane tickets?