Stand Together to Fight Back Against Basic Economy Fares

By Robert McGarvey

More reports trickle in about employers that are requiring employees to purchase the so-called basic economy, barebones airfares that usually mean a middle seat, no overhead bin storage, and still less.  Word of advice: just say no.  Push back against that employer want and, honestly, it just is bad for business anyway.

I can’t see business travelers voluntarily opting for basic economy – right now I see the push coming from corporate bean counters and they know they won the fight to herd most of us into coach.

When I fly, it almost always is in coach. I don’t see clients that will spring for front of the plane seats and, although I initially grumbled, I have resigned myself to the inevitability of coach.  So did most other business travelers – which is why the bean counters triumphed.

But a line needs to be drawn against basic economy – even if the bean counters are eyeballing this as a new cost-cutting battleground.

Don’t say you can’t win this fight. You can.  Business travelers have won fights before, notably – in most cases – the right to keep rewards miles and spend them on personal travel.  As far back as the 1980s, some organizations tried to seize those miles . In 1990, the New York Times even ran a story headlined, “Most Employers Covet Frequent Flier Bonus Miles.”    

The dust up continues  today.but, frankly, most employers beat a retreat from this demand in the face of strong employee pushback. Acting as one just about all of us fought to keep the miles – and employers heard us.

Solidarity made the difference.

That same resistance can be harnessed to fight back against basic economy. I know many organizations require their people to use the cheapest available fare, or something very close to the cheapest.  That’s fine, in my mind, particularly when the employer tempers the requirement with common sense, mainly rooted in travel time.  It just is dumb to force an employee to buy a one stop flight from EWR to PHX even if the fare is $100 cheaper, possibly as much as one third less.

But that cheap flight also often is two or three hours longer.

It’s bad business to require business travelers to book flights with stops because they are cheaper.

It’s also bad business to require business travelers to fly basic economy.

I’m not the only naysayer. business travel blogger Joe Brancatelli recently said: “Basic Economy is not a new, cheaper fare that the three remaining legacy carriers have introduced. All they’re doing is taking their existing cheapest fare in a market, stripping out functionality and rebranding it.

You’re not saving any money if you buy Basic Economy. You’re just getting less than ever.”

Brancatelli is right.

Although the big carriers basic economy fares differ in nuances – Delta for instance allows an overhead bag, United doesn’t; American also bans overhead bin use, except for elites and holders of some AA credit cards – the bottomline is that there is no advance seat selection.

And you can’t upgrade seats, even with reward miles.

To me, what that does is eliminate the possibility of doing inflight work and – pretty much always – I work inflight.  I often use the time to write a blog, I frequently catch up on business reading, and I may, if I have splurged on WiFi, do email.  But comfortably doing such tasks requires – in my mind – an aisle seat,

I can’t imagine working from a middle seat.

I also can’t imagine not getting access to the overhead bin because it has been some years since I checked a bag and doing that adds maybe 30 minutes to a trip, time typically spent at a baggage carousel. Those are minutes I do not need to lose.

There also will be a bag check fee for many passengers and that naturally eats away at the savings that basic economy is supposed to deliver.

Tickets typically cannot be changed either and, for a business traveler, that may be a deal killer. Of course I have grumbled about change fees – who hasn’t, aside from Southwest passengers? But these basic economy fares often allow no change. Period.

There are more take-aways involved with basic economy. Some carriers – United for instance – don’t allow basic economy flights to count towards elite status.  American counts Basic Economy flights towards elite status, but elite qualifying miles are earned “at a reduced rate of 0.5 per mile/flight segment flown.”

For me, the elite status issues are no big deal – I have sworn off status for 2017 – but for many others this will be another deal killer.  

Add up the plusses – supposedly a cheaper fare – and the negatives and obviously the carriers have stacked basic economy to appeal no to business travelers but to leisure travelers who are determined to pay the least possible to fly.  

Just say no if orders come down to book basic economy to save the company a tiny amount of money money.  

And urge other business travelers to do likewise.

We have nothing to lose but the middle seats.

Is this the End of Business Travel?


by Robert McGarvey


The question gets louder in my head: Are we finally at the end of the era of mass business travel?

Of course you are skeptical.  Who isn’t? We have heard that business travel was nearing its demise for years, certainly since September 11, 2001 and, really, it started earlier, probably around the birth of the commercialized web in 1996.

It did not happen. Not in 1996. Not in 2001.  Not in the Great Recession of 2008.

And, yes, I know industry execs are forecasting a 2017 uptick in business travel.  What else did you expect?

What I see however is that, little by little, business travel has lost favor – with corporate budget mavens, with business travelers themselves, with their families.

This is a multi-pronged attack.  That’s why I am beginning to think that in fact we may be in the last years of business travel as something we all do often because that’s the way of the work world.

Certainly that’s what I believed when I was sent off on my first business trips decades ago.  I did not question that it had to be done.  I did not know anyone who did.

We packed our bags – for some years I kept a permanent packed and ready to go carryon – and when the boss or a client yelled, off we went.

That obedience is weakening.

Partly it’s because, technologies have emerged that have made some kinds of business travel pointless. If you are of a certain age you probably recall spending two or three days in a meeting room where you – along with maybe 50 or 100 others – learned how to use Microsoft Excel, or maybe Word.  Possibly if you are even older it was WordPerfect or Lotus 123.

Two problems with those classes: they were fantastically expensive in terms of travel costs (hotel, air, meals) and just about everybody who ever took one wondered why he/she could not have done this at home, with video via the Web or maybe even a videotape.  Even in 1990 you had to think that.

Scratch that kind of travel entirely in 2017.

But watch as more kinds of travel also vanish.  That’s the thing: whole classes of travel are getting crossed off the to-do lists.

For instance: staff meetings nowadays too are usually done via videoconference with perhaps a once yearly in-person get together.

Expect still others to vanish.

John Custer, a vice president at, sighed: “I don’t think we have hit the end of business travel yet but new technologies coupled with tech-savvy younger buyers (consumers) are driving a lot of travel out of the equation.”

Custer’s right about technology. Technologies that connect us – often via smartphones – have multiplied. From Skype to Facetime to Whatsapp, there has been an avalanche of tools that let people connect, in real time and, if they wish, with audio and video.

Are they the same as being there? Obviously not.  But they just may be good enough.

Time for a loud, protesting interruption. Sales reps will insist there’s no closing new business without a face to face.

Do you believe that? In 2017?

Let me ask you this: would you believe an Internet company in Seattle would trample over countless retailers, established department store titans included, and would even triumph in the holiday gifting season?

Many used to say Amazon could sell books, music, but clothing, forget about it. Never shoes.  Not gifts, either.

And now Macy’s is closing more and more stores, as Amazon devours ever more retail categories.

The point: we are in an age where massive, wrenching paradigm changes are altering the realities we have known.  From broadcast networks to wireline phone companies, established ways of  doing things are turning to dust.

Is business travel on the endangered list?

Many experts will say that maybe domestic business travel will vanish – but trips overseas will still be needed to conclude deals in Munich or Beijing or Mumbai or Santiago.

But for how much longer?

Right now concluding a significant deal with an Indian company probably does require a trip to the subcontinent.  Will it in 2027?

I just don’t think so and, again, it will be time and money both that lead to a sharp reduction in business travel.

But the elephant in this room is the travel generational shift. More than technology, more than money, it is what I think is now rewriting the old rules about business travel and its necessity.  

The travel burden is moving from Boomers primarily to Millennials and everything I am hearing is that the Millennial generation is exceptionally unenthusiastic about business travel.  Many say it has a negative impact on their family life. Add in the reality that they grew up with technology – and deeply understand how it allows connections — and you have to begin to wonder how long the world of business travel will remain unchallenged.

My prediction is that everytime a Boomer retires (10,000 turn 65 daily) and a Millennial is given the job, there will be less business travel.

Nope, it won’t go away.  But Millennials – unlike Boomers – are and will challenge the belief that business without travel can’t happen.

Because they are right.  It can. It will.

And we have nothing to lose but our carryon bags!


The Next Credit Union Frontier: Personalizing to Succeed


By Robert McGarvey

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the truest.

When I ask credit union executives how they plan to innovate to remain competitive with banks – and at least the big banks are whirlwinds of tech experimentation and innovation – I hear back about chatbots, instant messaging, hoped for improvements in antivirus, and a lot more. All good. But – in my view – none is likely to move the competitive needle for any credit union.

But a new survey from TimeTrade, a developer of appointment scheduling software, just may have fingered the exact differentiator credit unions need to stay viable in a world of every bigger and slicker banks.

The 2016 survey asked 1064 credit union members about their experiences and the answer came back that they very much want one thing: “Results reveal that credit union members desire more personalization and more in-person interaction at the branch than bank customers do. This is supported by the survey data, which shows that not only is personalization an in-branch priority for credit union members, but they visit their branch more often than the typical bank customer.”

What is dazzling about this insight is its simplicity: Credit unions excel at what in their hearts most credit union executives have long believed is their strong suit, that is, people skills and personalization of the member experience.

You have never heard a credit union CEO say his/her institution is winning over more members because it spent millions on a new core system – at least I hope you haven’t heard that.  I happen to know what core my credit union runs on and, honestly, I don’t care and I am a tech guy.  I would care if it didn’t work but it works fine and that’s the end of the story.

I don’t know many members of any credit union who have a clue about cores and why should they?

Besides, banks can win the tech spending race every day, all the time.  J. P. Morgan Chase is spending $500 million on cybersecurity and probably that is much more than all of the US’s credit unions added together will spend.

Other banking behemoths do likewise.

Pick fights you can win.

Person to person is a winnable fight.

The TimeTrade survey gave credit unions the lead in personalization: “85 percent of members feel they have a personalized experience with their credit union, versus only 79 percent of customers who feel the same about their bank,” said TimeTrade.

Millennials too are on this bus: “Among millennial members (respondents ages 20 to 35), 43 percent said they value the personalized experience they receive from their credit union,” said TimeTrade. That is, it’s not just older Baby Boomers.  

Interesting, too, per TimeTrade, is that “77 percent of millennials are willing to schedule an appointment to visit their credit union branch for specialized service, compared to 68 percent of all members.”

So there is no proof – per these data – that millennials have written off branches and personal interactions at them. Quite the contrary.

A staggering factoid in 2016 is this: “43 percent of members visit their credit union more than 10 times a year,” reported TimeTrade.

Many of us – this reporter included – have predicted the death of the branch as slick technology (mobile banking, mobile remote deposit capture, etc.) has made it unnecessary to set foot in a branch.

Just maybe we have missed the point. Just maybe a substantial subset of credit union members go to the branch because they want to.

What that means for credit unions is simple. Train employees to excel at member service and always hire frontline people to whom that matters.

While you are at this, think hard about buying up abandoned bank branches – which in many markets are available at distressed pricing.  That advice represents a reversal of much prevailing thinking (mine included) but if the credit union secret sauce is personalization and if branches are cheap in many locations, it becomes a simple and cheap equation that may lead to greater marketplace visibility and perhaps victory.

Always ask: will this next step help us personalize service to more members?

When the answer is yes, it just may be a good idea.

Even better is that winning the battle for personalized service is within a credit union’s skill set.  It’s a fight where intimate scale becomes a plus.  Where local management and leadership can help an institution triumph over a behemoth with Wall Street leadership.

Sometimes the path to victory is shorter than we might think.


Elite No More in 2017

By Robert McGarvey


It’s not about the money.  But I assure you 2017 will end without me being elite in any airline program.

The numbers just don’t add up anymore.

We all know that this is the year when all the big carriers have joined in imposing a minimum spend to qualify for elite status, at any level.  On American, that’s $3000 for entry level gold, $6000 for Platinum. $9000 for Platinum Pro. And $12,000 for Executive Platinum One World.

The other big US carriers – United and Delta – have similar requirements, although Delta has a $15,000 minimum spend for its top status.

Color me uninterested.

Definitely money is not the obstacle. Often I hear people saying that the new spend requirements will deter travelers from pursuing elite status.  I don’t believe it.

There are more profound reasons for declining interest.

Hitting the lowest dollar targets is easy. Round trip to EWR from where I live, PHX, runs around $500.  One to  Reagan Airport will run around the same.  Figure a couple trips for me this year to EWR, at least one to DC, probably a few to Florida.  Add in flights to Las Vegas – who knows how many but in some years a lot – and some to DFW and, really, there are no hurdles to elite status on my behalf.

Neither dollars nor miles.

But it would require loyalty to a single carrier and I don’t see the point.

Partly it’s because I now live in Phoenix where no carrier truly dominates.  The numbers put American in the lead but Southwest nips at its heels and, often, there are good reasons (price and convenience) to prefer Southwest. Recently I’ve flown American, Southwest, United, Delta and it’s all the same to me.

If I still lived in Jersey City, where I lived for most of this century, I would be all in with United because I only flew from Newark – in eight years, not once from JFK or Laguardia – and that meant United. (Continental before the merger.)  Word of advice: if where you live puts you in that kind of near monopoly, earn elite status because very probably it’s inescapable.  

But a lot of towns are like Phoenix – it’s just as convenient to fly one carrier as another and in those cases suddenly elite status loses its attraction.  Give me the choice and I will opt for the ability to pick the best carrier for each flight, rather than accumulating miles in pursuit of a goal of becoming elite.

That’s because elite status – at all but the very highest levels – brings no real benefits that I don’t already have.  Low level, under $100 annual fee American and United credit cards give me free bag check and priority boarding.

Those of course are two of the prime perks of low level elite status.

Southwest sells priority boarding.

Also included in low level are eligibility are upgrades – and know the likelihood of getting one approaches nil.

A low level elite gets a 40% mileage bonus that I don’t get – but since I buy tickets with the airline cards I get my own bonus anyway.

An elite gets better seat selection – that is fact and can be a real plus in economy. But often I can buy those same seats for a few dollars extra, so maybe that benefit cancels out.

Do you see why elite status has lost its appeal to me?

Several friends have the highest status and that is a different world.  They get real perks – upgrades, often; upgrades for companions; 120% mileage bonus; 3 free bags checked; complimentary same day flight changes; a genuinely exclusive service desk; guaranteed availability in the main cabin; and a lot more, some of it genuinely useful.

Alas, I don’t fly that much to qualify for super elite (100,000 miles on American, plus that $12,000 which often is the easier part). But if you believe you will – without going very far out of your way – go for it. The perks are sweet.

But for the rest of us, the question is: is elite status worth breaking a sweat to earn? And my answer is, nah.  Just don’t bother.

Especially not for the lower levels.

Buy a credit card associated with the airlines you will fly most often, get the priority boarding (also free bag check if you use it), and then exercise total freedom to book the flight that works best for you.

Airlines have forced this reality on us, by curtailing the perks that matter (upgrades in particular, although award tickets to prime destinations are also said by many to be harder to score).  As for the rest of the perks, they can be gotten in other ways.

And that’s exactly what I plan to do in 2017.

How to Make Every Business Trip Special

By Robert McGarvey

There I was, kvetching about the grind of the road, when an oldtimer gave me a jaundiced squint and told me that, obviously, I did not know the secret.

What secret?  “Do something for yourself on every trip.  Do something new that you really, really want to do.”

“It’s not about your bosses. This moment is about you.”

That was some years ago and it changed my perspective on business travel. It went from being a grind to fun.  Genuine fun.

Note: this “secret” does not have to involve a major commitment, of time or money. But make it local, make it special, and you’ll remember your trip to city XYZ with a smile.

This is how to personalize a blur of meeting rooms (and the ones in Houston look exactly like the ones in Orlando).

Case in point: Phoenix, where I live.  It’s easy to dismiss the nation’s sixth biggest city as a blur of suburban mediocrities and much of it honestly is exactly that.

But there’s more, better to be discovered.

I tell all visitors to downtown to make a quick trip to the Heard Museum, which happens to be in my neighborhood but more importantly it just may be the country’s premier museum for Native American art.  You won’t see its collections at the big city museums and you will be glad you did take the time to see them in Phoenix.   

You have never seen anything like the Barry Goldwater katsina collection.

The Heard is maybe a 10 minute lightrail ride from downtown.

Your meeting is in Scottsdale?  Go to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art where you will see very contemporary, typically avant garde works.  

Don’t think all I do is look at art. Already I know my next outing when I am in New York and that’s Ben’s Best in Queens, said by some to serve the best pastrami in New York and a place I have not yet made it to. I am a longtime Katz’s booster so tI know I will be pleased with Ben’s even if I still remain a Katz’s guy.  And of course if you have never eaten pastrami at Katz’s, go to this Lower East Side deli on your next trip to New York.

When next I am in Washington DC I will make time to eat in a Jose Andres restaurant, mainly because he has emerged as one of the country’s most interesting cooks. What about Ben’s Chili Bowl?  Your call. The place is famous, celebrated, but there are more grumbles that it no longer cares. And that always is a risk with a town’s most famous, traditional eateries. Often they are coasting, have been for decades, so take a few minutes to hunt down contemporary opinions before investing your precious few hours of exploration.

You are heading somewhere you are clueless about? Ask business associates what they recommend. I cannot tell you what to do in Chicago, a town I like but only as the occasional visitor.  But you know people who have ideas – ask them.

Do that whenever you are heading to a town with which you are unfamiliar.

Oh, and ask people who share your tastes. I have a business associate – we all have one like this – who knows every top sushi joint in every city. Ask him where to go in Phoenix and probably he’d point to Hana – a good choice, by the way – but I’m the sort who will politely nibble sushi but I am not making it my centerpiece and I have never gone out of my way to eat it.  So I don’t ask him about his local favorites.

I have other friends who are habitual shoppers. Their tips, too, are useless to me.

The idea is: ask people who share your enthusiasms.

As I think about my 2017 to-do’s, I get more excited about travel.

Pretty much every city I travel to has something I want to explore and that prospect excites me.

Is there any town that foils my strategy? Las Vegas does.  I go there a lot and, in the past 10 years, I don’t recall seeing a single show or eating a decent meal or, really, doing anything except work.  Days are long blurs from stand up breakfasts in meeting halls to late night emails at my room desk.  

Next time – really – I have to stop in Gold and Silver Pawn, the home court of Pawn Stars, a reality TV show I confess I have watched probably too many times.  

My list isn’t your list however. So start filling out your local to-do’s. That’s the fast way to make business travel special in 2017.