2006 Extra Mile Awards

By , Tuesday, Sep 19, 2006, 12:00 AM

We're once again praising the folks who, through innovations introduced over the past 12 months, have made travelers' lives easier, more enjoyable, and just plain better. As a reward for their good deeds, this year's winners receive a pat on the back and an invite to our fancy awards dinner at The Modern restaurant in New York City--not to mention one highly coveted snow globe.

JetBlue Airways: On long flights, the little things make a big difference

Rather than removing amenities and nickel-and-diming customers with $7 sandwiches and $25 excess baggage charges, JetBlue actually added perks. The airline gives every passenger on an overnight flight a free Bliss Spa kit with earplugs, eye masks, mint lip balm, and a small tube of lemon-and-sage body butter moisturizer. Passengers on red-eye flights--or "shut-eyes," in JetBlue parlance--receive lemon-scented hot towels prior to landing, too. "We wanted to bring humanity back into travel," says Eric Brinker, JetBlue's director of brand management and customer experience.

JetBlue also introduced a self-serve snack pantry on all cross-country routes. Whenever passengers feel like it (and the seat-belt sign is off), they may head to the back of the plane to help themselves to Terra Blues chips, Doritos Munchies Mix, and more. "They can take what they want without feeling like they're going to get their hand slapped," says Brinker.

Westin Hotels & Resorts: A breath of fresh air in the hotel industry

After conducting a survey that showed 92 percent of its guests request non-smoking rooms, Westin became the first major U.S. hotel chain to ban smoking in all 77 of its North American properties--not just in rooms, but also in bars and restaurants. Before the policy went into effect in January, every one of Westin's 2,400 previously smoking rooms was thoroughly de-smoked: Bedding, pillows, drapes, and air-conditioning filters were replaced; walls, carpets, and other surfaces were treated to eliminate allergens and smells. "It was a nervous decision and it was a huge deal, but I think the gamble paid off," says Sue Brush, senior vice president at Westin. It sure seems so: Not only did the chain receive a lot of positive guest feedback, but other industry players have followed suit. All Marriott hotels in the U.S. and Canada--comprising nearly 400,000 guest rooms--have likewise banned smoking.

Eos Airlines: First-class treatment that extends out onto the sidewalk

With 48 fully reclining seats on a plane that could accommodate 220 passengers, Eos offers a luxurious way to cross the Atlantic. What's most impressive is that the plush treatment begins before passengers even get on board. "We take an end-to-end approach," says David Spurlock, Eos's founder and chief strategic officer. "It's not just about the in-flight experience." The airline, which began flying its sole route between New York JFK and London Stansted last October, originally asked passengers running late to call so that an Eos representative could meet them at their car and speed them through check-in and security. The curbside greeting--which enabled passengers to arrive at the airport only 45 minutes before departure--proved to be so popular that Eos made it standard practice. "Our passengers keep hectic schedules, and it's our job to minimize the impact of traveling," says Spurlock. "They're just blown away that an airline actually cares."

Transport for London: A pricey city is helping families out

Every government claims to want to help children and encourage public transportation. Last September, the city of London actually did something. Mayor Ken Livingstone's government made riding city buses and trams free for kids under 16 (recently extended to all full-time students 17 and under). And, since April, kids under 11 can use the subway for free, so long as they're accompanied by a paying adult during off-peak hours--all day on weekends and after 9:30 A.M. on weekdays. When anyone 18 or over shows a valid ticket, up to four kids can tag along for free. "Staff have been advised to question the accompanying adult at the time of travel, and generally take their word that the child is under 11," says Peter Legg, ticketing policy manager at Transport for London, the city's public transportation authority.

Paris, France: For those times when having exact change isn't top of mind

When you need to use a restroom in a big city, there are usually two courses of action: Beg at a hotel or restaurant, or track down the elusive public toilet. If you wind up at the latter, you might be required to insert a few coins--which is downright maddening if you don't have correct change handy. (Finding a store that'll make change might prove harder than begging a café owner to take pity on you.) In January, Paris's city council voted to eliminate fees at 420 self-cleaning toilets conveniently located on sidewalks all over town. "The council decided that public use was more important than any loss of income from the coin-operated toilets," says Laurent Queige, cabinet director for the deputy mayor in charge of tourism. "To use them now, you just push the door," says Queige.

MAXjet Airways: Business-class fares that tempt middle-class fliers 

Champagne cocktails and spacious leather seats with no middle rows are typically the domain of Hollywood players and corporate bigwigs who don't think twice about dropping $5,000 on airfare. The advent of MAXjet, an all-business-class carrier that began flying between New York JFK and London Stansted last fall, ushered in a new era. "Our goal is simple," says CEO Gary R. Rogliano. "Bring affordable business-class travel to the people who will pay a little more for a lot more quality." With one-way fares starting at around $700, MAXjet may not be a low-fare carrier, but it certainly is a welcome upstart. And its formula is apparently working: MAXjet, which has thus far attracted an even split of business and leisure travelers, recently introduced flights between Washington Dulles and London.

GetHuman.com: The secret code to better customer service 

After frustrating experiences navigating the labyrinth of automated phone prompts used by his bank and wireless provider, Paul English did what seems natural in the Internet era: He blogged about it. English, a cofounder of travel search engine Kayak.com, posted a cheat sheet of which buttons to press to reach a live customer service representative at a handful of companies. The idea struck a chord, and visitors to his blog chimed in with codes for other companies. In February, English shifted the growing list of codes to a new, volunteer-run site, GetHuman.com. At last check there were 415 companies, including health insurers, cable operators, and dozens of travel-industry players--Universal Studios Hollywood (press 4), Holiday Inn (press 0, then 0), and Northwest Airlines (press 3, then 1), to name a few. "I'm not anti-technology," says English. "Automation is great. Companies just need to treat people with dignity and give them a choice when it comes to customer service. When you call, you're automatically jammed down this path."

Hilton Hotels: A hotel making airline check-in go smoother

Smart travelers print their boarding passes before heading to the airport, but until now, folks staying in a hotel before a flight had little choice but to wait in the usual check-in line. "A lot of people travel with laptops," says Thomas Spitler, vice president of front office operations at Hilton. "But no one brings a printer, and sometimes it's troublesome to use the hotel's business center." In March, lobby kiosks began allowing Hilton guests to check in for flights, print boarding passes, and even change seats on 18 airlines (all major U.S. carriers and Air Canada). The kiosks directly access each airline's website, meaning that a Delta passenger looking at the kiosk will see the same page as at delta.com. "It's easy for everyone," says Spitler. "There's no learning curve." More than 90 full-service Hilton hotels currently have the kiosks, and the chain expects about 200 more properties--100 percent of its North American hotels--to be outfitted with them by the end of December. The kiosks are also working at 185 Embassy Suites, another Hilton chain.

LAST YEAR'S WINNERS

China Help Line Chinese-English translations over the phone.

Club Med Introduced The Ramp, a hangout exclusively for teens.

Continental Airlines Easy online calendar displays when frequent fliers can use their miles.

Google Google Maps and Google Earth, which changed how travelers find addresses and directions.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts Free XM Satellite Radio in all rooms in the continental United States.

Independence Air Free tickets for passengers with delayed luggage.

InterContinental Hotels Group Priority Club Rewards members now allowed to exchange points for stays at competitor hotels.

Microtel Inns & Suites Free Wi-Fi and nationwide phone calls.

Travelocity No-penalty flight date changes for customers who goof.

Walt Disney World Magical Express, a free airport shuttle for guests staying at its resort hotels.

2006 EXTRA MILE AWARDS