PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- There isn't any one airline that makes travel within the United States an overwhelmingly fantastic experience. The best you can hope for is a carrier that doesn't keep reducing your motivation to fly.
Even that's usually too much to ask.
When airlines charge enough fees to fill a two-page chart, the line between a great flight and an insufferable one can be as narrow as the space between economy class seats. When I visit my parents in New Jersey, I typically fly United because it offers a rare direct flight between Portland International and Newark Liberty. However, after United ignored fees that my wife and I paid for premium seats with extra legroom on a flight back to Portland in November, I've been loathe make United the default choice.
The airline apologized and refunded us the difference in seat prices, but that really wasn't the point. We had paid for a service, hadn't received it and were forced into the exact scenario we'd tried to avoid: Being two tall people getting their kneecaps crushed by folks in front of us exercising their God-given, Constitutionally affirmed right to recline. I don't direct my anger at those reclining passengers any more than I'd yell at the sun for being hot. I do approach United with caution knowing that booking with them and investing in their premium offerings registers as a polite suggestion rather than a reservation. I realize I'm not in their loyalty program, not a frequent traveler and not a business traveler of any kind, but I labor under the perhaps misguided notion that my spending still matters to them.
It's their $34 billion airline and they can do what they want with it. But revenue that's hovered around that $34 billion mark for three straight years after United's merger with Continental Airlines and profits that have only increased thanks to the reduction of product costs suggest that they're not trying to improve customer service as much as they're trying to make it not seem so bad by comparison.
That's wishful thinking. United's $200 ticket change fee and $150 unaccompanied minor fee are the highest among domestic carriers, while its $25 checked-bag fee and $125 charge for bringing a pet on board have become fairly standard.
Their fare for nonstop service between Newark and Portland came in well above a combined rate from other airlines for an Easter weekend trip, so this time around, I gave them a pass. Instead, I signed on for a trip to Newark by way of San Francisco via Virgin America. Richard Branson's U.S. venture isn't exactly a fee-free discounter -- each checked bag costs $25, while changing a ticket or bringing a pet into the cabin $100 -- but it can't justify its flying tech cocktail lounge aesthetic if it doesn't offer some perks. If you can do without the $3 headphones, its multichannel personal in-seat entertainment system with its own remote comes free.
While we're drifting away from linear network TV watching, providing HBO, various ESPN channels, TBS, TNT, USA, WGN and a few other networks gives a Virgin passenger a reason to sit through the choreographed dance-pop safety announcement and stick around for some familiar distractions. You have access to 3,000 music tracks for free, you have a small library of games and a controller on the back of your remote and you have standard and USB power outlets for your devices if all of the above bores you. Even better, you get wi-fi that's free on some legs and getting faster via GoGo's new antennas on others.
There's still a lot you have to pay for, but being able to order food and drinks from your seat, pay for them with a swipe and not have to wait for carts to come around makes that experience a lot more bearable. As does Virgin's ridiculous 38-inch seat pitch on its Airbus 320s, which is legroom second only to JetBlue's Embarer E-190s and certain Frontier Airlines and WestJet flights that expand space to between 39.5 inches and 41 inches, according to SeatGuru. United's best, by comparison, was 37 inches, though many of that airline's planes come in closer to 30 -- which is valuable space when you're trying to fit a 6'4" passenger behind a reclining seat.
I realize that Silicon Valley has known the merits of Virgin America for a while now, but the flight into Newark from Virgin's bright, beautiful well-connected hub in San Francisco gave me the feeling that I'm way late to their party. What I didn't realize was that Alaska Airlines was going to take my one-stop return trip home as a personal challenge.
On a 7:20 a.m. flight the Monday morning after Easter, I was upgraded to an exit row seat on the first 5-and-a-half-hour stretch for free. Alaska's seat pitch is usually 32 inches -- which isn't nearly as spacious as Virgin's, but still slightly roomier than United and some other large carriers -- but every little bit helps. I drank free Starbucks Pike Place coffee throughout the entire ride, I was offered a tablet-sized media player and, once at my layover in Seattle, I got a connecting shuttle via their Horizon regional service that gave me a free beer. It was maybe nine ounces of Pyramid India Pale Lager, but it was nine ounces of beer I didn't have to pay for.
Let that sink in for a second: A free alcoholic beverage. On a publicly traded airline's flight. In 2014.
You don't expect these kind of things as a passenger anymore, but when you encounter them, they alter your entire perspective. Now I know what it must have felt like to be a JetBlue passenger when they first added DirecTV to their flights, or to be an AirTran customer when you could first bump up to business class for about $60. I can now see why passengers flocked to JetBlue and Southwest once baggage fees were introduced by the major carriers and haven't had to pay for checking their first bag since.
Oh, and in Alaska's case, it's working. Its revenue has climbed steadily since 2010. Its gross profit has increased from little more than $1 billion to nearly $4.4 billion over that same span. Its net income has nearly doubled.
There are certain advantages that come with being one of the industry's biggest players. You have routes everywhere, you have direct flights to more places and you have a lot more of them than many of your smaller competitors. That said, those small timers are doing something unorthodox to make passengers consider a slightly less convenient flight time and a slightly more circuitous route: They're holding the line and not eroding the flying experience any further. They're not going overboard with incentives, but they're offering very specific sets of perks that make an earlier flight or a layover enticing.
Instead of trying to maintain their lead, they're trying to win consumers' business and keep it. That happens one comfortable flight, one in-flight TV show and one beer at a time.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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