A Kinder, Gentler United?

by Robert McGarvey

Just when it seems United had resolved to being crowned the most despised airline – it’s lowest ranked in the recent J D Power survey – the carrier may be making a break in the direction of kindness. Will we be persuaded?

Two recent events have me pondering whether it’s time for me to give United another chance. Hear me out before deciding I am nuts. And, yes, I remember JoeSentMe columnist Ralph Raffio’s apocalyptic pronouncement: “United is a bad airline run by bad people and it’s dead to me forevermore.”

But, still, hear me out.

Exhibit A: yesterday’s email brought me this tantalizing subject line: “We’re upgrading you to Economy Plus for your Chicago flight.” Say what? I am flying to ORD imminently, I am booked in economy, and that subject line on a United email got my attention.

The email continued: “To thank you for flying with us, we invite you to enjoy the comfort of an Economy Plus® seat free of charge on your upcoming trip.”

I do not recall the last time I flew United. In days past I frequently flew Continental and I know my frequency plummeted after the merger and then hit bottom when I moved to Phoenix a few years back. However, when Chicago popped up on my travel schedule I checked the United schedule out of PHX and it worked well for me, and the prices worked for the client. So I booked the ticket. Why? I can’t say I have been especially pleased with any recent economy flight, United has ORD covered well, and why not roll the dice and see what I get? Call it a journalist’s duty to investigate.

Odder is that I won’t take the free economy plus seat – which, as far as I can tell, genuinely is free. I have an aisle seat a few rows back and mainly I saw free middle seats in economy plus so I passed. A quirk of mine is that an aisle seat is non negotiable, or as close to that as we can get in today’s aviation world.

But the United offer intrigued me. I had not earned it based upon recent behavior. Why me? Is this just a random act of kindness? It can’t be, it’s an airline. So why?

Call this a riddle I don’t know the answer too.

Which bring us to Exhibit B, detailed in a Skift story headlined, “United Airlines Simplifies Seat Upgrades With Points Incentives.” The story’s gist: “Many flyers stick with an airline not because they want miles, but because they hope they can upgrade to a flatbed to Europe or Asia for free, saving thousands of dollars per trip.

“United Airlines knows this, and on Tuesday, it outlined a new program executives claim will make it easier for the carrier’s best customers to sit in premium seats. Starting Dec. 4, United no longer will award frequent flyers chits they can use for upgrades, replacing them with a new proprietary currency, called PlusPoints.”

I agree that the perk of frequent flying with one airline is that, when enough miles are logged, the upgrades are the reward – until, in recent years, they slowed significantly as carriers decided they would rather monetize front of the cabin seats. Better to sell a seat for $100 than give it to a frequent flyer has become the carrier philosophy. As Scott McCartney observed in a 2017 Wall Street Journal column, “the most important loyalty benefit—an upgrade—has gotten much rarer because airlines are selling more first- and business-class seats, auctioning them off, and in some cases shrinking those cabins and reducing legroom there as well.”

Just maybe United is giving a little back to frequent flyers with this new policy. According to the press release, “On December 4, United will replace Regional Premier Upgrades and Global Premier Upgrades with PlusPoints. Each RPU will be worth 20 PlusPoints and each GPU will be worth 40 PlusPoints. Members using one RPU today to upgrade from Economy to United First on domestic U.S. and North American flights will use 20 PlusPoints from their banks. A member using one GPU today to upgrade from Economy to United Polaris business class on international long-haul flights will use 40 PlusPoints.”

How to earn points? Skift explained: “Customers will start earning points when they fly 75,000 miles in one year, with United giving them 40. But they won’t start racking up a lot of them until they reach 100,000 miles. Then, they’ll get another 280 points.”

A bottomline: the United promise is that the new plan will give elites much more flexibility about how they spend their elite status and, to my mind, that is a very good thing.

United also stressed that you can still try to depend upon the luck of the draw – that is not spend your new points and pray for upgrades. Per the carrier, “PlusPoints does not replace or change United’s Complimentary Premier Upgrades benefit. In recognition of their loyalty, all Premier members will continue to be placed on upgrade waitlists for flights operated by United and United Express when available.”

Right. But for those who have given up on the quest for free upgrades, the option to spend earned points just might be a tempting offer. It isn’t a magic bullet. But it just might be a better deal for many. As Gary Leff observed in View from the Wing, “This is basically the same program (with a few tweaks) but a new currency that allows members to spend fewer points for less valuable upgrades, more points for more valuable upgrades.”

Stay tuned. I may be giving a United another chance. At least I am flying it next week and, you know, I hope it works out.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 25 Michael Peck on Worker Co-ops

by Robert McGarvey

There are maybe 400 worker owned co-ops in the US today.  How many will there be 10 years from now?

Ask Michael Peck, a founder of 1worker1vote, and he says there will be four million.

That’s no typo.  He added, “I really believe we are at a tipping point.”

Worker co-ops now are burning brightest in the constellation of cooperative initiatives.  There is vastly more enthusiasm and energy around worker co-ops than any other kind.  This year perhaps two or three new credit unions will be chartered.  There will be hundreds of times more new worker co-ops.

Peck however is no newcomer to worker co-operatives. He has been promoting them for at least a quarter century and he has long had a tie to Mondragon, the immensely successful Basque co-op that in fact is a global business.

Peck accordingly sees immense potential for Mondragon-style co-ops to sprout in the US.

A key, in his mind, is a cooperative ecosystem.  A stand alone co-op has tough going.  When a new co-op is surrounded by like mined people and businesses it’s just much more likely to prosper, says Peck.

He works to create that ecosystem.  For instance: he is very optimistic about the role labor unions can play in helping to develop new worker co-ops and that could be a win-win for unions which of course have suffered dramatic drops in membership and clout in the past quarter-century.  But just maybe a focus on starting worker co-ops may produce a brighter outlook for unions.

By Peck’s count maybe 10% of US workers have an ownership stake in where they work.

But when workers are also owners they work harder and smarter.

“Workplace democracy is possible for everybody,” says Peck.

Listen in to hear the past, present and possible future of worker co-ops.

Fyi: The Cooperators Podcast has often focused on worker co-ops. Past episode include Esteban Kelly,  Melissa HooverFrank Shipper, and Alex Stone.

Peck in the podcast mentioned the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative. Click the link to learn more.

Also mentioned is a Barron’s piece on the good immigrants do for the US. Read it here.

Listen to the Peck podcast here.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 26 Special Edition Mike Edwards WOCCU on International Trends

This podcast initially appeared the CU 2.0 Podcast series. It appears here as a for instance of a community coming together and creating a cooperative to meet local needs.

Quick now, what country has the highest participation in credit unions? Say the US and you are wong. According to Mike Edwards, senior vice president for advocacy at the World Council of Credit Unions, it’s Ireland, north and south, where 70% belong.

In this podcast he tells why that participation is so high.

He also tells why many regulatory matters in the US in fact originate overseas – risk based capital, Bank Secrecy Act requirements, AML, and more got their start overseas and that is why Edwards spends much of his time monitoring and attempting to influence regulations overseas.

What happens in Basel does not stay in Basel.  It may and probably will wind up in the US.

Listen in to this informative podcast.

Business Travel’s Wellness Hoax

by Robert McGarvey

The Skift headline got me smiling: “Wellness for Business Travel Is An Uphill Slog.” You betcha.

From my perspective of perhaps 45 years of business travel, I’d say the industry can measure its wellness progress in centimeters. No more. We drink less booze – certainly I do – and eat fewer steaks and for that we can congratulate ourselves (and maybe mourn the passing of the “good times”). But as for a real wellness commitment, who is kidding whom?

Hoteliers and event planners talk a good wellness game. Just about every chain now has a “major” wellness initiative. But talk is still cheap. It’s the doing that matters.

Or the non doing in this case. Both on the part of the hoteliers and – truth be acknowledged – us.

I am just back from three nights in Las Vegas – a conference hosted by a financial technology company – and I returned a pound or two lighter than when I left home. But I skipped dinner every night, I also skipped the event cocktail hours, and every day I logged about 10,000 steps, just walking around a huge Strip resort.

But was my trip healthy? A role model for wellness?

Don’t be silly. I swilled maybe six large cups of coffee daily – at least double my norm – to keep me fueled up for long meeting days; I ate more scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage in three mornings than I had in the three prior months; and I also ate close to zero fresh and raw vegetables and fruit.

The breakfast buffet stands as an exemplar of progress not made. Sure, there was a platter of beautiful melon slices, an artistic palette of green, orange, yellow. It remained largely intact throughout service. I am not pointing fingers. I too admired its looks but otherwise ignored it. I dove into the scrambled eggs, the crispy bacon, the sausage links and, shudder, also grabbed a croissant one morning. The bread wasn’t good so I skipped it the other mornings.

Don’t tell my cardiologist about that morning feast. He would double my statin dosage.

Lunch – another buffet line. Fresh salads to start, also largely ignored. Visually appealing but shunned. Onto the chicken, the steak, and – of course – a small heap of cooked veg, just for appearances sake, no need to actually eat them.

The good news about lunch: desserts were at a separate table which I never visited and, by all means, give me applause for my discipline.

Or, more to the facts of this matter, question what happened to my culinary sanity as you review my daily intake of cholesterol, fats, and stuff that we know isn’t good for us.

Note: this was at a lovely, upscale Strip hotel. No faulting execution. It’s the underlying concepts that I question. The concepts are ours, by the way. Hoteliers are giving us what we want.

Here’s the reality: we all are talking a dandy game of enhanced wellness on the road but it is a mirage. Very little has changed in a half century. Perhaps a few more of us use the hotel or resort gym (although I am skeptical about that as are Cornell researchers). But we are a heckuva lot more obese than we were a half century ago. Maybe 10% of men were obese in 1960. Now it’s nearing 40%. Around 15% of women were obese in 1960. Now it is over 40%.

If it had been available, would I have eaten a bowl of oatmeal with almond milk and a handful of berries for breakfast? A feast at home. But on the road?

For lunch would I have eaten a veggie burger on a whole grain bun with an arugula, tomato salad on the side? Well, yes, actually. That’s become a personal favorite meal.

But count me as a no on the oatmeal. What about you?

We – most of us – are wellness laggards.

“The business travel industry is taking baby steps to incorporate more wellness, but there is a ton of room left for growth,” Sahara Rose De Vore, founder of the Travel Coach Network,told SKIFT. Indeed.

It’s not their fault, however. It’s ours. They are giving us what we want.

Are You Covered for Medical Issues on the Road?

by Robert McGarvey

The United States Travel Insurance Association (USTiA) just issued a report that says only 6% of us buy travel medical insurance. Are we all fools?

Uh, no. Answer a few questions to start.

Question: how old are you?

Another question: where do you work?

A third – crucial – question: Do you travel out of the US?

The last question sets the table. If you don’t, or rarely, travel out of the US, you probably have little to worry about especially as regards emergency care. Even if you are in Medicare Advantage – a managed care approach – you are covered for emergencies in the US even if your network has no presence. Ditto for holders of other managed care policies: you probably are covered for emergencies in the US.

So this story tosses a match on fears but there may be nothing to fear here but fear itself.

But probably, like me, you travel outside the US occasionally. Maybe once a year. Maybe a bit more often.

Listen up: that foreign travel could wreck your bank account if a medical emergency hits. Few policies cover foreign care. Not even emergencies.

Even some domestic medical treatment may ding your wallet if it happens away from home. Read that again. If you live in the Bronx the care you get in Bayonne may not be covered. Ouch.

First the good news. Most of us in fact are covered for emergencies in the US. Then there’s the fine print. The word to notice is “emergency.” If you break your arm, it’s an emergency. It’s probably covered. What if you sprain it? What if you really only pulled a muscle? Hang tight because you may be getting billed personally if you are out of network.

Be very cautious about seeking care when you are away from home and out of network, even if you are in the next state. Many plans will deny coverage for what they deem routine care that’s delivered out of network. Said Consumer Reports: “if you have a relatively minor problem—say, you sprained your ankle or suspect your child has strep throat—how much of your bill is covered can depend on where you seek care and the type of insurance you have, says Cathryn Donaldson, director of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade association for insurance companies.

“Your insurer may treat your out-of-town healthcare as an out-of-network claim. As a result, you could be on the hook for a larger portion of the cost or the whole bill.”

If in doubt – and you often should be – contact the insurer for advice before seeking out of network care.

The bigger problem is with foreign travel and, yes, we hear stories of travelers with significant medical issues, a broken limb for instance, getting dinged for several thousand dollars in US cash before a hospital will admit the patient. These stories aren’t in Europe or Canada but traveler beware in a lot of the world.

Which brings us back to the money question: are you covered abroad? The first step: if you are an employee, ask your HR department. Also ask if you are covered when traveling for work and how about on vacation. The answers may differ.

Don’t be surprised if a rider covers business travel incidents – but not personal travel. For that you may need special coverage (see below).

You have a personal, Obamacare type policy? Check the fine print but the odds are high it offers no coverage outside the US. You too need special coverage.

What about Medicare recipients? A very, very few Advantage plans offer international coverage. So do a few traditional plans. But the vast majority provide bupkis. If you are on Medicare and you travel outside the country – and that means exactly what it says: you ordinarily aren’t covered in Canada or Mexico either – get travel medical insurance unless you know your plan specifically says otherwise.

Can you count on the kindness of strangers, that is, hope you will get gratis emergency care? Stories of same were numerous a generation ago, especially among travelers to European Union countries where the hospitals generally do not bill patients and many simply winked when a US patient came in. Do not count on that nowadays as many national health programs are straining under use and lack deep pockets. Ireland for instance says forget about it.

Bottomline: most of us need to take special steps to be sure we are covered when we travel abroad. That usually means buying a policy.

Want coverage? JoeSentMe subscribers get a deal on MedJetAssist Global Evacuation. That’s a $35 discount on a personal policy, $50 on a family deal.

Many others offer one-off policies for specific trips. Shop carefully, buy only from names you know and trust. This is a space with a lot of hucksters and you don’t want to find out you got fleeced when you are on the operating table in Rome.

Personally, for years, I have had a medical protection policy via American Express that provides up to $50,000 in expenses per incident and, no, in today’s medicine that isn’t a lot. But the policy costs me just a notch above $100 annually. Alas, that policy may not be available to new customers, but other outlets offer similar.

Just don’t go out of country without knowing you are covered. And don’t go out of network domestically without knowing similar.

The Cooperators, Special Edition, Maine Harvest

Update: Maine Harvest now officially a new credit union. Hard work makes miracles happen.

This podcast initially appeared the CU 2.0 Podcast series. It appears here as a for instance of a community coming together and creating a cooperative to meet local needs.


It has taken some years but finally Maine Harvest may be in the final lap before gaining an official credit union charter.  That’s because it’s met its fundraising goal, $2.4 million, with last monies ponied up by the Maine Credit Union League and what’s remarkable is that just about the whole credit union movement in the state has supported formation of this novel credit union.

So, too, do the states two U.S. Senators and two House members.

Maybe 30 credit unions have been chartered by NCUA in the past decade. So this is a big deal.

We first covered the Maine Harvest story in 2015.

We picked it up again in 2017.

And in 2019 we may be covering the official opening.

What’s special about Maine Harvest is that it intends to follow a  specific, narrow business plan where it makes loans to small farmers – for land purchase, equipment purchase, and similar.

No checking. In fact no cash in the till.

No other institutions crave that loan business. But small farming is seen as very important to Maine’s future.

Also essential to the business plan is that essentially all the back office will be provided by Synergent, a subsidiary of the Maine League.

That lets the start up focus on finding borrowers and making sound loans.

Why do many credit unions fail? They don’t serve a clear need.

This one knows its need and has a plan for filling it.

Other states would do well to look into similar efforts.

Has Uber Ruined the Drive to the Airport?

By Robert McGarvey

A huge slice of any air travel day is the time it takes to get to and from the airport and yet we don’t talk about that. We do talk about flight times, also about security line times.  Valid topics both. But not so much transit times to/from the airport.

That topic is presently on my mind because Phoenix voters recently voted down – by a two to one margin – an underhanded proposition aimed at destroying the area’s light rail system.  Partly bankrolled by Koch Bothers funds, Proposition 105 aimed to withdraw funding for the light rail.

I applaud that and in fact also voted against it.  Here’s the deal: I cannot imagine why anybody who uses the airport would have voted otherwise. The light rail has significantly reduced automotive congestion at the airport and, a local’s tip, if you are heading from the airport to a downtown Phoenix hotel, take the light rail.  It’s as fast as a car – it won’t take more than 30 minutes – and it costs $2. ($1 if you are 65 and older.)  

And your contribution to global warming is near zip.

The other reality: airports around the country are faced with crumbling road access to airports. Drive times are becoming overwhelming. From Laguardia to Logan to Sea-Tac, airport road access is a descent into circles of Dante’s hell.

Mass transit is the way to go.  

Especially because if you think airport traffic access is worse now you very probably are right.  The New York Times headline tells why:  Ride Sharing Adds to the Crush of Traffic at Airports.

Wrote Julie Weed, “Traffic at the airports — even before you get inside — has gotten worse. The cause is not just the record number of travelers. It’s also the shift to ride sharing.”

Weed continued: “The explosion in ride-share demand has caught airports off-guard, ‘and operations staff are scrambling to address it,’ said Kama Simonds, spokeswoman for the Portland International Airport in Oregon. Ride-share pickups there, she said, have climbed to 106,000 from 48,000 in the last two years.”

Weed also notes that airports, along with ride sharing companies themselves, are seeking ways to address a problem that frankly irritates increasing numbers of travelers.

But a reality is that many airports have limited choices.  They just don’t have space to build new roads.

Meantime, many ride-share drivers behave differently than traditional taxi drivers did.  The latter, historically, have had to wait in a holding lot until dispatched and told to drive to a specific terminal because passengers are waiting.  Years ago, when I drove a cab in Boston, I remember waiting in the holding lot as long as an hour – but the good news is that I did not drive around Logan Airport in never ending circles on a hunt for a fare. My contribution to airport traffic congestion was close to nil.

At many airports, rideshare drivers too have holding lots for their use – but some are fidgety and circle the airport.  That adds to congestion.

Sure, the rideshare companies say they are trying to change driver behavior and maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

And the access roads around airports are more clogged than a foie gras eater’s arteries.

That won’t change soon. Not for those who insist on driving in and out of airports.

Enter mass transit. The silver bullet for many passengers, at many airports, is mass transit. The light rail definitely is in Phoenix. But the same is true of other cities.

I am a big fan of BART from SFO to downtown San Francisco. It’s as fast as a cab and costs about $9.60 compared to maybe $45 in a cab.

LAX now has its Flyaway – another good mass transit option,

Even EWR has a PATH station on the drawing board.

In much of the country similar is true.  That’s why I usually check my mass transit options wherever I fly. It’s increasingly the smart transit play – environmentally best but also often as fast as a car.

But then there are the exceptions. You are flying into PHX but are heading to Scottsdale? For you there’s Lyft. Sorry, no lightrail.  Scottsdale has sat out the lightrail and, looking at a longterm expansion map, it is still a holdout. Why? Ask them, not me. Here’s what the AZ Republic reported the last time Scottsdale knifed light rail.

Fortunately, light rail can thrive without Scottsdale and in fact it presently serves Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. There are plans to extend it to Paradise Valley, Glendale and Avondale.

And now the voters have once again spoken up and once again defeated the anti mass transit lobby. So if you are heading to PHX always check the lightrail options. For me, it’s the only prelude to flying.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 24 Dennis Johnson on Senior Housing Co-Ops

by Robert McGarvey

Co-op housing: a better way for seniors?

 Where to house the ever expanding numbers of American seniors? Ask Dennis Johnson, president of the Senior Cooperative Foundation in Minnesota, where seniors control their housing destiny.

There are many such co-ops in Minnesota and Iowa and a handful more states, typically in the upper midwest. Why isn’t this housing popular elsewhere? Johnson tells why in this podcast.

The guiding principles behind senior co-ops spell out what make them different, special.  Such as: these co-ops “put the well-being of the members above other considerations.”

As you listen to this podcast, dream about how your community would if it had senior housing co-ops. Then take it to the next step, action.

Listen here

Part 1 of our housing co-op series is here, student housing.

Too Old To Fly?

by Robert McGarvey

When are you too old to fly?

The question is getting asked. We are living longer, many of us still want to see the world around us, many companies – and definitely universities – are keeping older employees on staff and active, and the upshot is that seniors are still on the road, both in pursuit of personal bucket list destinations and also as traditional business travelers.

At the other end of the age spectrum, just about all carriers have restrictions on kids flying solo. Delta, for instance, won’t allow children younger than five to fly alone and it won’t allow unaccompanied minors on redeye flights (except for those originating in Alaska or Hawaii or connecting with international flights). At least some airlines require children to be declared as unaccompanied minors – who receive special supervision, for a fee.

Now the question is beginning to pop up: what about seniors? Should there be limitations on their travels? Possibly including special fees?

Understand, this is a Pogo moment where they are me. I am not pointing fingers at others.

A trigger for this inquiry is that lately I have heard more stories from friends – also leading edge Baby Boomers – about how hard travel has gotten for them, how jet lag lasts longer, how more medical issues seem to crop up when far from home. Are these anomalies? Or part of a broader trend?

Let’s start by removing the elephant from this cabin and that’s cognitive impairment (Alzheimer’s etc). I know a 60 year-old with tragically profound cognitive impairment. I know many people in their 80s who are as clever as they were at half the age. Those with cognitive impairment bring significant challenges to the travel experience. There also are no blanket prescriptions. The best advice is such issues have to be decided individually. No more will be said on that topic.

Ditto for severe physical impairments. Delta offers sound advice on this, other airlines do similarly.

What about the rest of us, on the kinds of flights we usually take?

Short flights honestly do not seem to pose a significant issue to the 65+ who are otherwise in good health. Scan the literature and there is not much written about geriatric travel and the one and two hour flights that make up the bulk of my business travel. And using myself as a case study of one I can say no health issues arise on those flights.

It’s the long-haul flights where the literature grows dense. For instance, a St. Louis geriatrician flatly says, “jet lag worsens as you get older.” Definitely my experience, also what I hear from others. Recovery from a hop to Paris 20 years ago that took a day or two now may take a week. “As you get older you feel more tired for longer. It takes about five days for me to recover from jet lag now,” traveler Tim Huxley, 58, told the South China Morning Post.

A key issue is that older travelers have less ability to make the physical compensations often made necessary by long-haul travel, Dr. Winston Goh told the South China Morning Post. Our aged bodies are less resilient and we don’t generate new cells as swiftly.

Alcohol also hits senior harder and that applies all the more to booze at 30,000 feet or in an airport club. It’s why I rarely drinking booze on the road.

The SCMP adds that deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is more of an issue for seniors on long haul flights. That’s a potentially deadly blood clot. The usual precaution is to get up and walk every hour or so. I know I’ve done that since I first wrote about DVT going on 20 years ago.

And then there is a grim finding that longterm, chronic jet lag and related sleep deprivation are associated with cognitive impairment.

At least some physicians also insist that a heavy travel schedule may be associated with more pronounced aging – very probably because our sleep habits are disrupted and so is our diet (who eats as healthy on the road as at home? I know I do not). We simply live unhealthier lives traveling and that may be associated with more signs of visible aging (say hello dry skin and wrinkles).

Business travel indeed may be killing us.

Bottomline: travel definitely is harder past a certain age. What age? For some it’s 60. Others, 80. Still others haven’t hit that age for themselves yet and that’s key: this is a personal matter.

Here’s the other reality however: most of us know when it’s time to put the rollaboard in storage. I have personal friends who have done exactly that in the last year, a decision triggered – in every case I know – by a medical issue that made it prudent to dramatically cut back on travel.

Makes sense to me. My plan is to travel until I no longer can depend upon myself, physically and/or mentally, to navigate through airports and in unknown cities (where the usual chore is no more complicated than getting from the airport to the hotel). I commend that philosophy to you.

Do we need airlines to get involved, to force seniors to fly with designated supervision? Absolutely not. Most seniors – especially most who are still actively on the road – are fit, healthy, perfectly capable of making their own travel plans and decisions.

Let’s leave it that way.