First Person

Steve Barsh wants you to come to his condo in Lake Tahoe next weekend

What would you do if you had a three-bedroom condo all to yourself on the year’s busiest weekend in Park City, Utah? Steve Barsh decided to invite a few of his friends over. And he has a lot of friends. It took no time for Barsh, the chief executive of the vacation rental site, to fill the unit with a several virtual acquaintances. What happened next may become part of social media lore. I asked him to explain.

Let’s start with the rental. How did you end up with such a large unit?

I was in Park City skiing with some of PackLate’s investors. It was Sundance Film Festival and the cheapest hotel I could find was $600 per night.

So I turned to PackLate the day before check-in and got a great last-minute deal on a three-bedroom condo for $400 a night.

Nice. Most people would just say, “Ah, more room for me!” But not you. What were you thinking?

I walked in the door, looked around, and thought, “This is huge, but it’s a waste for just one person.”
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Vacation rental expert offers tips on avoiding scams

Anthony Lipschitz is the chief executive of iStopover, a site that connects homeowners who have spare rooms, apartments or homes to rent with travelers looking for affordable accommodations. With several high-profile cases of vacation rental customers being ripped off — including, ahem, some of my colleagues — I wanted to find out how to avoid becoming a victim.

Apart from the recent stories about vacation-rental scams, how big a problem is this?

It’s a problem, but like everything else in life, you do have choices. If you choose to use pure classified sites then you have no recourse if you do get scammed. You should always use a site that has a telephone number and dedicated support, so you know who you’re dealing with and who to go to if something does go wrong.
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American Airlines: “We want the customer to know what the total cost of the trip is”

Cory Garner is the director of distribution strategy for American Airlines. You may have heard about American removing its flights from Orbitz this week and Expedia’s subsequent action to “de-emphasize” American’s fares. I wanted to find out why – and how it might affect customers. Here’s our interview.

Why did you remove your flights from Orbitz?

It’s important for us to be free to customize our product offerings to improve the customer experience, and to distribute our products in a way that doesn’t result in unnecessary costs.

Unfortunately, we were unable to reach an agreement with Orbitz on this point and determined it would be better to part ways, for now. We’re open to talking with them to reach a viable, mutually beneficial agreement and hope to one day return to their site.

How about yesterday’s action by Expedia to de-emphasize your fares?

We’re disappointed that Expedia is making American Airlines flights and fares more difficult to find on its website.

This discriminatory action is unwarranted, especially considering that American has taken no action against [it] and continues to operate in good faith with Expedia.

While tickets for air travel on American remain available for purchase on Expedia, its favoritism toward other airlines’ airfares may lead consumers into believing that they have fewer choices, even in situations where American’s fares are lower, and schedules are superior, than other airlines that are listed first.
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Ex-TSA officer: “Every new controversy breaks down morale further”

Ron Moore is a former Transportation Security Administration officer at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and whistleblower who has called for better Congressional oversight and training for federal screeners. With some of the busiest air travel days of the year still ahead of us, and with the TSA continuing to insist body scans or pat-downs are necessary, I wanted to know what he thought. Here’s our interview.

So what did you think of Opt-Out Day?

When I discovered that The Rutherford Institute was filing suit on behalf of the pilot who refused to go through screening, then a larger movement evolved, it seemed fishy.

Since the early days, TSA was a target for private firms with the help of Rep. Mica of Florida in particular and this looked like an attempt to move the ball forward in that direction.

It has been a media firestorm more than an airport firestorm. TSA policy will not change one bit if private firms are paid to staff the checkpoints. I think TSA always poorly rolls out new policies as virtually no one at headquarters has worked a checkpoint.

That doesn’t mean that passengers shouldn’t ask questions and TSA shouldn’t be accountable, but the media narrative didn’t match the reality in my opinion.
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Virgin America’s Cush: Passengers “should not have to ask” for customer service

Virgin America begins service to Orlando tomorrow. Remarkably, the three-year-old airline has stayed off my radar, when it comes to customer complaints. I asked David Cush, Virgin America’s chief executive, how he’s done it.

First of all, congratulations on adding service to Orlando. I live here, so I’m pretty excited about having a new airline in town. At the same time, I’m curious about your reasons for coming here. Orlando isn’t exactly a lucrative business travel destination. What’s the appeal?

Orlando has an incredibly strong year-round tourism economy and a great deal of convention traffic. The addition of Orlando also helps us address seasonality in our still growing network. As we grow we do have to balance out our network for seasonal traffic patterns – adding a sunny warm weather destination like Orlando helps us balance our winter schedules.
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Vail Resorts’ Katz: New EpicMix application is “best of both worlds”

EpicMix is Vail Resorts’ newest online mobile application for winter sports, and with ski season just around the corner, I asked Rob Katz, Vail Resorts’ CEO, to weigh in on social media and skiing. Here’s our interview.

Let me pick up where we left off the last time we talked. At the end of our interview, I mentioned that I had several family members who haven’t skied and were not interested. And I asked you how I could persuade them. You recommended showing them one of your resorts, which is, in fact, what I did. And now they’re hooked. So, I guess to follow up on that, how do you keep families interested in a mountain resort experience?

It’s great news to hear you and your family are hooked on skiing. At our five world-class resorts, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly, we try to offer a variety of family programming and activities for children of all ages — both on and off the snow — to give families the best possible experience at our resorts. Plus, the nature of doing activities together like skiing, snow tubing, ice skating, and attending unique family events like Kidtopia at Keystone Resort gives parents an opportunity to spend time with their kids to create those lasting family vacation memories.
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I didn’t do it! Subrogation company says 10 percent of damage claims are disputed by renters

Frivolous car rental damage claims are a hot topic. Not a day seems to go by that I don’t hear from someone complaining about a bogus repair bill from a car rental company.

But there’s another side to the story that’s easily overlooked: the car rental company’s side. So I asked Randy Harris, president of Khoury Alternative Claims Management, a subrogation management company based in San Antonio, Tex., for his take on the issue. Here’s our interview.
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It’s hip, it flies, and now it speaks: Hipmunk’s Goldstein on how to make buying a plane ticket cool again

It’s been a busy 48 hours since the launch of Hipmunk, the new airline booking site with an impossibly cute name and a slick, critically-acclaimed interface.

Early reviews in Lifehacker and Gadling have praised the new project for its minimalist, intuitive fare display, and the early buzz online — browse the comments on Hipmunk’s Twitter account — is overwhelmingly positive.

I asked Adam Goldstein, Hipmunk’s co-founder, to fill in a few details.

“As someone who spends your time dealing with the annoyances of modern travel, I’m sure you’ve had the infuriating experience of spending hours searching for the right flight on existing travel sites,” he says. “I had that experience my whole time as an undergrad at MIT, which is why when I graduated in June I decided to start a new site for making the experience better.”
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“Every on-time departure, every bag and every customer interaction really counts”

US Airways ranked number one in on-time performance, baggage handling and customer satisfaction among the major network carriers for May, according to the latest Transportation Department report — a rare trifecta. It’s even more impressive, considering that just a few years ago, the airline consistently ranked near the bottom of the list. I asked Kerry Hester, the airline’s vice president for reservations and customer service planning, to shed some light on the numbers, and what they mean to passengers. You can read a related interview about US Airways fixation on numbers with Robert Isom here.

How did you do it?

Our employees did it. I am very proud of my 31,000 colleagues who have worked hard to run a safe and reliable airline, while focusing on taking great care of our customers. They deserve the credit for achieving this important milestone.

OK. How did they do it?

This was a significant achievement for us that only a handful of other airlines have shared in the past decade. It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, but we’ve done it by institutionalizing a culture where our employees understand that every on-time departure, every bag and every customer interaction really counts.

We beat United in on-time performance by just a half percentage point, and bettered Continental by just 10 bags and eight complaints. Simply put, every contact that we have with our customers really makes a difference.

Leading the industry in on-time departures is the key to our success, and we do it without padding our schedule like some other airlines do. Our Express partners also contributed to these results, with record-setting performances in April in on-time departures, on-time arrivals, and completion factor (the percent of scheduled departures that actually departed during the daily schedule) followed by strong results in each of these measures again in May.
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Isom: Numbers-obsessed US Airways paid $1 million in “above and beyond” bonuses last year

US Airways is kind of obsessed with its numbers. It’s a good kind of obsession — it regularly touts its improvements in on-time arrivals, misplaced baggage, oversales and other metrics reported every month to the Transportation Department. Why is the airline so fixated on these figures? I asked Robert Isom, US Airways’ executive vice president and chief operating officer.

What’s so important about the numbers?

We focus on these numbers because they represent the reliability and convenience our customers expect from US Airways. These are also the metrics that the media most closely reports on and that all of the airlines are consistently measured against.

These are the measures most often cited as defining an airline as an under or over-performer, and you have to believe that these are the metrics that level the playing field — although, that being said, comparing yourself to an airline that flies, say solely in Hawaii, from an on-time arrival perspective when your operation is based in the Northeast, for example, doesn’t seem to be a great leveler but hopefully you get the point.

Our core beliefs as a company are that at the end of the day, most people want and are willing to pay for a safe, reliable, clean, hassle-free trip where you’re treated with respect along the way, and where your bags arrive when and where you do. So from that perspective, too, these measures work for setting and continually raising that bar for us.
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Forensic weather expert: What to do when you’re snowed in

This weekend’s snowstorm in the eastern United States shut down several major airports and stranded tens of thousands of airline passengers. Most flights are operating normally this morning, but there’s always the trip home. I asked Howard Altschule, a meteorologist with Forensic Weather Consultants, what to do when weather threatens to ground your next flight.

Your flight is stuck in the snow. Now what?

If you’re stuck in the airport already because of weather delays with such a huge storm, one thing I would recommend is try to immediately get a hotel room nearby — especially if you have kids.
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NatureAir’s Khajavi: “Of course any airline could be carbon-neutral”

NatureAirAlexi Huntley Khajavi is the chief marketing officer for NatureAir, a small airline that serves destinations in Costa Rica and Panama. Your NatureAir flight comes with an unusual guarantee: It won’t leave a carbon footprint. I asked Khajavi to explain.

What does it mean to be a carbon-neutral airline?

It means that any and all CO2 emissions NatureAir emits from its operations are sequestered through another activity which reduces or fixes CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. We have chosen to offset our emissions through conservation of tropical forests here in Costa Rica.
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Delta’s Cantarutti: “We don’t have to choose to be profitable versus having happy customers … we can do both”

Perry CantaruttiPerry Cantarutti is the vice president for sales and customer care at Delta Air Lines, the airline’s top customer-service position. I wanted to find out his tips for getting better customer service from an airline — particularly his. So I asked.

Delta used to have a sterling reputation for customer service among legacy carriers. In recent years, you’ve tried to recapture that with internal programs like “First Point of Contact”. How is the customer experience now, in your opinion?

Delta employees are extremely proud of the fact that for a generation we were known as the industry leader in customer service. That’s why our focus today is on delivering a high level of service for customers, but one that is adapted to 21st century expectations.

Deregulation and technology completely changed our industry. Fares are at all-time lows, fuller planes have been required to achieve profitability and customers expect speed and quality that far exceeds what the industry delivered in its early years.
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“I gained more respect for Miley Cyrus than I would have thought possible”

chuckChuck Thompson is the author of the just-released book, To Hellholes And Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism, a follow-up to his wickedly funny Smile When You’re Lying, a takedown of the travel writing business. So where are the hellholes? Congo, India, Mexico City and — “most feared of all,” Disney World. I asked him to explain.

What’s the common thread?

On the most basic level, they’re all places that have earned extremely negative reputations with people who have never been there. Taken together, they represent the whole spread of traveler paranoia — from crime, disease and bloodshed to standing in long lines in the Florida sun next to little Caitlins and Coopers waiting to get on the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.
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