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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris IS TED THE BUSINESS
TRAVELER'S FRIEND?


BY CHRIS BARNETT

November 4, 2004 -- I finally met Ted the other day and I should have taken his advice.

When I checked in for a Las Vegas-to-San Francisco flight on the nine-month-old discount sibling of United Airlines, the touch-screen machine at the check-in kiosk offered me an upgrade to an Economy Plus seat with five more inches of space for a mere $15 extra.

I passed and it proved to be a painful mistake. Instead of being able to straighten out my legs, drop down my seatback table, open up my laptop computer and work in near business-class comfort with 36 inches of legroom, I rode back in cattle-car class.

The tighter, plain-old-coach seats start at Row 12 and have the Big Six standard of 31 inches of legroom. Worse yet, the passenger in front of me was leaning back in his seat so it was impossible to use my computer without turning it upside down to the dreaded inverted clamshell position. Plus, the plane was a sellout so I couldn't switch seats or belatedly pay the $15 and move up to a roomier seat. Luckily, it was only a 90-minute flight.

When it was unveiled on February 12, United pitched Ted as a fun-and-games airline and a value brand--whatever that means. Ted has its own Web site with whimsical graphics, cartoons of paper airplanes and coloring books. Everything a business traveler longs for.

I actually did think Ted was going to be my new buddy. Here was a discount airline that offered United's Mileage Plus frequent-flyer plan and with all that legroom up front that I foolishly ignored. But I should have been wary when the promotional prose started sounding a bit loopy. "Think of Ted as a friend that just happens to be an airline," crowed a Ted Web page. "Sure, Ted's an airline. But is it possible for an airline to behave in a way that is casual yet professional; dependable while surprising? Is it possible for an airline to be, well, more like a good friend? Ted thinks it is."

Ted, it turns out, was not all that friendly to me--at least on this flight. The best one-way fare I could wangle off the United Web site was $141 from Southern Nevada to Northern California. (Third-party sites quoted even higher prices.) But JetBlue Airways had whisked me from San Francisco to New York/Kennedy for $99 in considerable comfort and from Kennedy to Las Vegas for $82. So the shortest leg of the trip--on Ted from Las Vegas to my hometown of San Francisco--was the costliest.

After I arrived at Las Vegas' McCarren Airport and checked myself in for the flight, my bag was tagged quickly and efficiently enough by a United agent. But she neither smiled nor made any real eye contact. Fine. I don't need to be hugged by my new best friend. Boarding was swift, but the plane--Ted flies Airbus A320s, a foot wider than Southwest's B-737s--was chockablock with 156 seats. The pilot was extremely chatty and welcoming and he kept us informed about a brief delay. Robust Starbucks coffee is served (good choice, Ted) along with 55-calorie mini-pretzels. Free headsets are passed out to watch Tedavision, a small video monitor spaced every four rows. Flight attendants are decked out in smart, deep blue uniforms.

Things went downhill from there. When I couldn't open my laptop and noticed other passengers had the same problem, I asked Michelle Fecteau, president of a real-estate investment firm in Ashland, Oregon, what she thought of Ted.

"I didn't know it was going to be on Ted," she said. "I had an aisle seat reserved and it was cancelled." Fecteau complained and got her seat back, but she also was unable to open her laptop because the woman in front of her was leaning back. Annoyed, she had to do paperwork by hand instead.

Another thwarted business traveler started to echo Fecteau's sentiment when a burly flight attendant came up to me and said I couldn't talk to passengers and had to return to my seat. Why? "Passengers are complaining that you are bothering them with questions," he claimed. "And why are you asking questions in the first place?"

When I told him that I was a reporter, had only talked with two people and both were more than willing to give me their impressions about Ted, he became agitated. And he got really huffy and told me to return to my seat when I asked him to point out the passengers who had complained. Since I didn't know what he might do--call the pilot and say there's a troublemaker aboard, perhaps--I sat down.

But not for long. I went back to the galley to ask the husky flight attendant if he was worried that passengers were voicing their opinions in true freedom of expression. He told me that he was a police detective for a decade before becoming a flight attendant. That probably explained it: He saw me as trouble on his beat. But another cabin attendant confided: "If we're caught talking to the media, we can be fired."

I got the message. Ted isn't exactly bowling us over. United is operating in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And Denver-based Ted, which currently operates in seven states, the District of Columbia and Mexico, hasn't put a dent in the market share of JetBlue, Southwest or Frontier Airlines and doesn't have the charismatic personality promised in its pre-launch hype.

Meanwhile, here's a message to Ted: If you keep selling your roomier seats for an extra $15 over an economy ticket, you'll make plenty of new friends without trying. Your timing couldn't be better. Your pals over at American Airlines announced that they were sacking the More Room in Coach program and adding more seats to all AA planes. If you can capture just a small percentage of business travelers who flew American for the extra legroom and might now defect, you'll have friends galore.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.