Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

My Photo
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Friday, June 30, 2006

William Allen = "Familiar Name" = Threat To National Security! And What To Do About It If It Happens To You

As Independence Day is just days away, my thoughts go to things patriotic and my proud family heritage of having lived in what's now the United States for almost 400 years and of having continuously earned my American stripes for 230 years. And it made me think of this travel issue of our times:

We've all read stories of well-known people like Ted Kennedy who somehow got on the TSA Terrorist Watch List.

Well, I, too, am one of those people.

It seems that every "William Allen" on earth is on the TSA Watch List, or, in the vernacular of the shadowy TSA world, I have a "familiar name."

That's the term whispered by airline personnel when I show up at the check-in counter because I couldn't check in on line; they say, "He has a familiar name." It's the code word for being on the TSA Terrorist Watch List.

Even my seven year old son, also named William Allen, is on it. He was denied a boarding pass by Delta Airlines in recent months because, well, simply because his name is William Allen. (But Delta relented when they saw he was a short, skinny 48-pounder and probably no threat to anyone.)

Point is that this is dumb.

When I was growing up, I thought the name William Allen was special; later I discovered that only the John Smiths of the world are more numerous than the William Allens.

But apparently the name is more special than I realized. I pity the millions of other William Allens out there who also get hassled for no other reason than their name.

Take my case: My family has been here since the 1600s. My forebears fought honorably in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, and World war II. Some of them died for their country. I am a member of the Society of the Cincinnati because my lineage traces to an officer in George Washington's Continental Army. My family has risked death over and over to be Americans and to live free in this country for well over two hundred years.

But all that counts for naught when I go to the airport. I am guilty by association with somebody, some time, somewhere, who used "William Allen" as an alias and is (was?) suspected of nefarious activities.

So what is one to do as a practical matter when this happens?

It seems that you can never get off the list. Yes, there are Homeland Security addresses given, and you can write and try to get off the list permanently. But it's all Kafkaesque, and you are not likely to be successful. The government has us all by the short hairs on this one.

There are two things you CAN do, though, that are easier:

First, if you are an elite member of an airline, as I am at Delta, American, Continental, and Northwest, the back offices of those carriers do SOMETHING (I don't know what exactly) in their computer systems once a year to vouch for me (and their other elites on the watch list) as a peaceful, law-abiding citizen. After that I am treated as an ordinary person for the entire year on those carriers. I can check in on line, and I am not automatically a selectee for additional screening (except once in a while, like everyone) simply because of my name.

Second, always take your U.S. passport with you when you travel if you are on the list. Getting approved to fly on each flight, once on the watch list, can take 15-30 minutes, and sometimes longer, because check-in counter agents are required to call special numbers at their company's headquarters to receive clearance just to give us "familiar name" people a boarding pass.

However, if you have your passport, they can scan it through their card readers, which almost every airline has now at every airport, and that alone will prove that this particular William Allen is OK. A boarding pass can then be immediately issued.

It's still a hassle, and it's demeaning and infuriating to think that they think that I might have a connection with some nutcase in Kabul, but it solves the immediate logistical issue of getting on my airplane that day.

If you suddenly find that you, too, have a "familiar name," complain. Maybe you'll have better luck with your government officials than I have had. And if you do have better luck, please share it with me.

Have You Been A Selectee At Washington Reagan Lately And Been Through The Air Squirt Booth? Also, Midwest Is Still A Great Airline

Earlier this year on a Sunday night flight to Omaha on American from Raleigh, AA had all the usual sorts of problems at DFW and ORD, and American told me (again) that I was going to miss my connection on them. Thus I was involuntarily rerouted on AA Raleigh to Washington Reagan Airport and then Midwest Airlines DCA/OMA.

This gave me an opportunity to fly Midwest, which I had not done in about ten years. It was a great experience--on time, relaxed atmosphere, free drinks, hot cookies--and I only wish every airline had such comfortable seating and very nice people who actually seemed to care about me as a human being who had paid a lot of money to use their service. I would fly Midwest Airlines often if they still had direct service to and from RDU.

That was the upside. The negative was that transferring from AA at DCA to Midwest necessitated me leaving security from the AA terminal and walking the entire length of Washington National (Reagan) Airport to terminal A where Midwest departs.

Once there I had to check in with Midwest, get a new boarding pass, and then re-enter security. My Midwest boarding pass had a big red stripe on it, earmarking me as a selectee, because, as they explained nicely, I was a one way passenger on Midwest (my return was still booked on AA), and I was thus deemed a potential national threat, as all one way flyers indiscriminately are.

Of course I've been a selectee many times before. As someone who flies every week, the law of averages catches up from time to time. But I have not been a selectee at Washington National in a few years.

So I was very surprised to find that DCA now has a special booth which selectees must enter, one at the time. It then closes behind you and puffs and squirts air at you top to bottom, and then tests it all. You are required to leave your shoes on when entering this contraption. It's huge, about the size of an English phone box (the old red ones) and is full of all kinds of funhouse lights.

This delightful experience is BEFORE having to ALSO pass through the usual metal detector + X-ray machine (take your shoes off, remove all the stuff out of your pockets, laptop out, and so on). So obviously they don't quite trust the new booth yet, or else it tests for something missed by the usual routine.

I got through it all, but what a tortuously slow procedure it was--it took almost 20 minutes at this gizmo alone, thanks to a long line of
dazed and baffled selectees ahead of me and a TSA staff that couldn't quite get the rhythm of the machine down to a steady pace.

I hope I was not glimpsing the future of security at all our airports. If so, misery gets cranked up several notches in our collective futures.

World Clock URL

This is a very useful site if you do business with partners, colleagues, and clients around the world in many different time zones and have trouble keeping the time differences straight:

Though this site has been on Joe Brancatelli's CyberConcierge at forever, some people missed it, and it's worth repeating here.

I will be on vacation with my family on the North Carolina outer banks July 1-15 and posting stories from the past 6 months that I have not had time to write about.

Back on the road again Sunday, July 16th.

Happy Independence Day!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

American Eagle On-Board Service Anomaly

On a recent very late American Eagle flight, when the FA paused at my seat with the beverage cart, he unexpectedly leaned down, invading my personal space in a big way. Cocooned reading Jared Diamond's great book GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, I hadn't seen the guy coming, and, naturally I recoiled in horror at his unwanted behavior. Well, as far as one can recoil on a 44-seat Embraer RJ--maybe two or three inches.

Whispering, and with furtive glances at my neighbors, the Flight Attendant asked me to verify that I was indeed William Allen, and he brandished his on-board passenger name list under my nose, tapping his finger beside my name, which was underlined.

Taken aback, and worried now that perhaps hidden TSA cameras in the Lilliputian lav at the rear of the passenger cabin had broadcast to Dick Cheney an incriminating video of me stuffing a paper hand towel into the toilet bowl against regulations, I hesitantly acknowledged that, yes, as far as I could tell, I remained the infamous William Allen.

Continuing in a whisper, apparently so as not to alert surrounding passengers (difficult on a cramped ERJ), the Flight Attendant said that due to my status as a Platinum I was entitled to either a free snack box or bag of cashews--my choice!

Although I wasn't really hungry, I took the nuts. I didn't want him to notice my enormous relief that apparently no camera had yet been installed in this particular airplane.
No sense turning down gifts, anyway, especially when I get so little these days (AA cancelled my flights home the previous Friday again, for instance, due to another mechanical, and I ended up on Delta for the umpteenth time).

Why, I wonder, did this occur? Why this miniscule crumb of generosity to punctuate a near perfect record of hard-hearted austerity at American Airlines? It certainly never happened before, including the previous flight from Raleigh to my connection point, nor has it happened on any AA Eagle flight since.

Perhaps it's just another form of exquisite torture designed by the cretins in AA Marketing to once in a while build up the smallest hope that airline service is improving when, actually, of course, it's not.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Delta's New Exotic Cocktails: Unpublished Strings Attached Make It Another Big Lie

Friday, June 2, 2006 - After being delayed all day getting home from Columbus, Ohio (I went to the airport at 11am and got to Raleigh after 11pm) thanks to weather and the sheer incompetence of American Airlines, I ended up on Delta flying through Atlanta. Because of my Delta Platinum and Five Million Miler status, I was upgraded to first class ATL/RDU.

Feeling a tiny bit better about my 12-hour ordeal that at least I'd have a comfortable seat and a mixed drink on my last leg to Raleigh, I boarded the plane and was shocked to discover this lie from Delta’s idiot marketing wizards about the new exotic cocktails supposedly being offered in first class:

The new cocktails are prominently advertised on page 128 of the May edition of SKY Magazine, but when you order one on the ground, as I did tonight, I was told by the Lead Flight Attendant that Delta has restricted serving them only on flights over 4 hours and never on the ground during boarding.

There is nothing in SKY on page 128
, no fine print or asterisks, where the drinks are described, that says anything about any restrictions.

Of course, I was exhausted, and vulnerable, and just wanted to try one of their special drinks and relieve my stress, so this was like a slap in the face.

Delta claims to be offering these great new drinks, but then really doesn’t. As we all know, almost no domestic flights are more than 4 hours.
It’s a bait-and-switch, a mirage, just another big airline lie.

"Out of Service" Hotel Industry Codeword Bought A Few Hours Sleep Amidst O'Hare Chaos

Chicago O'Hare - After sitting on the tarmac at Raleigh/Durham on a recent Sunday night for 3 hours on account of horrific thunderstorms pounding Chicagoland, my American Airlines flight arrived O'Hare just before midnight Central Time. I was astonished to learn in the chaos of O’Hare that my AA Eagle flight to Columbus was still operating. I ran over to the G concourse only to find no aircraft at the gate. It finally got diverted to Fort Wayne at 2:30 AM, and I was stuck with no hotel room.

As a Hilton Diamond member, I thought I’d get a break, but not so. Only rooms were at the Embassy Rosemont, and they had stupidly stopped their supposedly 24-hr shuttle service at midnight (and they call that “service”).

There were hundreds of people waiting for nonexistent taxis, so I walked over to the Hilton O’Hare, which I’d been assured was out of rooms. Sure enough, the desk clerks said they were sold out. I knew to ask for the night manager on duty; when she came around, I showed her my Diamond card, and quietly mentioned a hotel business buzzword I learned from Joe Brancatelli years ago: that I would gladly take an “out of service” room for a few hours.

She immediately understood the code and put me in a large conference room with a Murphy bed for $275.81 with tax, which I was glad to pay under the extreme circumstance. I even got my Diamond breakfast before dashing back over to Terminal 3 to stand by for 3 CMH flights Monday morning.

I sliced open my left foot on the metal ends of the Murphy bed getting up that morning, which bled profusely, and I was utterly exhausted. Of course my client expected a full day’s output no matter how late I was, as clients have a right to do, so it was a very long day and evening.

But, thanks to the using the hotel industry's “out of service” code, I had enjoyed at least a few hours of rest.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Vermin at New York LaGuardia Are The Passengers' Fault, Says Airline Employee

Sunday, June 11, 2006, New York LaGuardia Airport - About 8pm, as I was waiting for my connecting flight on American Eagle, I noticed 2 mice scurrying around gate C7. When I pointed out to an American Airlines gate agent at C8 that these were disease-carrying vermin, she said:

“Oh yes, there are hundreds of them living here at LaGuardia. We see them all the time, day and night. They’ve become bold and unafraid of people. You know, it’s the passengers’ fault. We get thousands of people through here every day, and they are filthy. People don’t put their filthy food in the trash, and that’s what attracts the mice and gives them plenty to live on. If customers weren’t so filthy, we would not have mice.”

I was stunned. I told her that I traveled all over the world and to every airport, large and small, through the United States, and had done so for over 30 years, and that I could not recall seeing vermin loose in an airport, not even in Malaysia, Botswana, or Ecuador. Why, I wonder, didn’t the Port Authority in the supposed greatest city in the world keep things clean like every other airport on earth and exterminate the mice? To which she darkened, and said:

“The Port Authority tries to trap them, but it’s not their fault. It’s the customers who are to blame because of their filth.”

When I asked her if all American Airlines employees felt that the customer was to blame, she said, “Absolutely!”

And there you have it. The problem is you and me, the filthy customers. That’s the modern so-called airline service ethic as succinctly put as one could wish for.

What’s next? Airline employees blaming us for thunderstorms and mechanical problems? I can hear them now:

“Well, sir, there wouldn’t BE any delays if you filthy passengers didn’t keep buying tickets. Maybe THEN we would have time to FIX our planes. But, no, we HAVE to keep FLYING them DAY AND NIGHT because of YOU. Just don’t blame US when they break down, because it’s YOUR fault—just like the filthy vermin YOU’VE caused to thrive in our once-beautiful airports!”

AA Eagle Turns A Simple Thunderstorm Delay On A Short 80 Minute Flight Into A 5 Hour Ordeal – Proper Management Would Have Saved At Least An Hour, And Would Have Been Far Less Unpleasant

Friday, June 23, 2006, LGA/RDU – For the first time this year, I was aboard an AA Eagle flight that left LGA on time. This particular flight left the gate at its scheduled 1:50PM and was due in at RDU (Raleigh) at 3:30 PM. However, we arrived RDU at 7:05 PM, over five hours after leaving LaGuardia.

No one can control the weather: a thunderstorm at RDU caused us to circle over South Boston, VA until 3:30 PM, the time we were due at Raleigh (which is to say, we circled about 20 minutes). Because, as the Captain told us, we were running short on gas (after only 20 minutes of circling?), we diverted to GSO (Greensboro) to refuel, arriving just after 4:00 PM.

The pilot announced as soon as the plane stopped: “Sorry about the delay, folks, but don’t worry, because we are the first airplane diverted and landed, and there’s a long line of aircraft coming in behind us. We got here first, so we’ll be the first to leave. We’ll have you in Raleigh as soon as possible.”

That was reassuring news, and sure enough, a fuel truck arrived pretty quickly, and we were ready to go by 4:30 PM.

But no paperwork was brought to the cockpit crew. An hour passed; still no departure paperwork had come to us.

Our Captain called the American Airlines GSO Operations for the umpteenth time on his radio, and left the cockpit speaker turned on. Those of us in the first few rows could every word through the open cockpit door. There was an argument brewing among the AA employees.

Meanwhile, many other RDU-bound diverted airplanes had piled up on the GSO ramp and had by then been refueled. Turned out they ALL got their departure paperwork ahead of us.

At 5:45 PM, our pilot, exasperated, called his dispatcher on his cell and laid out the complete disorganization of the AA GSO Operations people. The AA GSO Operations Manager on duty came on board with the final paperwork and overheard the cellphone exchange. Livid (and guilty), he told the Captain pilot to “kiss his ass” if he didn’t like it and complained, loud enough for half the passengers on board to hear, that he had 5 AA airplanes to work and that we should feel sorry for him.

He was, as it turned out, completely oblivious to the order in which the planes had arrived and oblivious to the fact that WE were paying his salary. He didn't get the fact that his customers were being inconvenienced and made miserable by his poor planning.

Our pilot was infuriated. So he got on the PA system and told us all that we have been further delayed because of the ineptitude of the AA GSO Ops staff and that we should complain to AA Customer Service. It wasn't his fault, he said.

Thinking that perhaps he was ignorant of the fact that AA never listens to any of us, even Platinums and Exec Platinums, and since I was at that time standing in the galley, I told him so. He and the Second Officer grimaced and said they knew it, and that the Company (American Airlines) doesn’t listen to a thing they say, either.

We finally took off at 6:05 PM, over 2 hrs after arrival, after waiting in a line of airplanes ahead of us en route to RDU. We landed at RDU at 645 PM, and taxied to our gate, but stopped on the ramp well short of the gate. The Captain announced that due to lightning within so many miles of airport the ramp was closed.

However, as he said this, we passengers were looking out the window at many AA ramp workers servicing many other AA planes at other gates. We finally were mustered into our gate at 7:05 PM, with no further explanation for why they had no crew for our airplane until then.

Once off the plane, I asked an agent why no one had serviced our plane, and he told me it was because they were short-staffed “just like always, and your flight was the last to arrive from Greensboro, so we’d run out of people.”

When asked why our pilot had announced a different reason for the delay, the gate agent said, “Probably he was embarrassed to admit the truth after the long delays.”

So what were the issues that could have saved us 60-90 minutes (time stolen forever from the collective lives of all that plane’s passengers) AND made us feel like the airline really CARED about us?

  • Not enough fuel to withstand even a half hour delay circling – skimping on fuel is SOP these days at most airlines, supposedly to save money. But isn’t it a case of ‘pay me now, or pay me later’? I’m sure it cost a lot more to fly to Greensboro, refuel, and fly back to Raleigh than it would have to wait aloft a bit longer for the storm to pass. TOTAL ESTIMATED DELAY – UNKNOWN
  • Uncoordinated GSO Ops work and disregard for FIFO – this was the most egregious issue, and could have been easily avoided by a staff paying attention to what they were doing and sensitized to serving their customers. Since fare-paying passengers have been dehumanized by airline employees, it’s easy for them to ignore us. They just can’t see our misery at all; it’s as if we are invisible. It reminds me of the stigma of racism described to me (a white man) by one of my black friends when he was growing up: the feeling of being invisible; ignored; treated with indifference. Finally, I know what it means; it feels unkind and demeaning on a primitive base level, because that’s what it is: unkind and demeaning. TOTAL DELAY – 60-75 MINUTES (per the Captain – remember that we were ready to go at 4:30 PM but didn’t take off until 6:05 PM)
  • Pilot transferring his anger and frustration to the passengers – caused no delay, but just increased our stress and made the ordeal more difficult
  • Delay at RDU gate caused by lack of staff – Another cost issue, but at the customer’s expense. Of course it’s unreasonable to build the church for Easter Sunday, as the old saw goes, but the staff shortage is chronic, and not just at RDU. Once again, the delay effect on customers and the demoralization of all concerned is not given any value in making these staffing determinations. TOTAL DELAY – 20 MINUTES

Thus an 80 minute flight turned into 5 hours, 15 minutes, of which at least 80-95 minutes was avoidable.

Does this seem like a small or frivolous thing to complain of? I assure you it’s not. The experience is like getting nibbled to death by ducks: a slow and inexorable torture that repeats itself flight after flight, week after week. In over 100 flight segments this year (so far) I have not flown a single itinerary outbound or return that was free of incidents like this.

More later this week on the hellish operation of AA Eagle’s C Concourse hub at LaGuardia.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


I've been traveling on business for 30 years, flying all over the world. I travel 99% of my business life. I'm not proud of it; it's just the way I make my living. All my clients are far away from my home.

Every year I earn a lot of travel battle awards. I am Platinum on four U.S. airlines: Delta (lifetime Platinum, 5.3 million miles), American (Executive Platinum), Continental, and Northwest. I am a Hilton HHonors Diamond, and I belong to the Avis President's Club and the Hertz President's Circle.

In short, I am on a lot of airplanes on a lot of airlines in a lot of airports, behind the wheel of a lot of rental cars, and I put my head down on a lot of hotel pillows, year in and year out. That's my life.

I love my work and my clients, but I dread the experience of flying these days. Whereas it used to be tolerable at worst, and fun at best, it's sheer torture these days. And the airlines don't care, none of them, not at all. The greenest McDonald's employee has been trained up to a higher service ethic than most airline employees.

Airlines hate or ignore their customers. No other industry loathes their customers. There is no pride left at U.S. airlines to simply do a good job and treat people, their customers, as human beings, with simple dignity. Without pride, they have lost all shame for their blatant and frequent service failures.

And it brings unrelenting misery to those of who must travel all the time.

Notice I am not whining about not getting an upgrade--or even about all the cramped RJs I must endure these days. Certainly I don't utter a peep about the loss of meals and pillows and blankets.

I just want the airlines to honor a few simple rules, and I address this to them:

1. FLY YOUR SCHEDULE - We are paying for speed as well as simple transportation. Honor your published promise to get us there, even if it's late. Don't cancel flights willy-nilly and leave us stranded. Even weather and mechanical problems can be overcome with good planning and the right corporate commitment. Take a cue from JetBlue; steal their business plan.

2. KEEP US INFORMED - If there's going to be a delay, tell us the bad news early, and update us often. Strangely enough, we are adults, and we can take bad news. If it's before we get to the airport, call our cells. If it's at the airport, don't keep posting an on-time departure at a gate when the plane or crew is not even there yet. Tell us what's happening, just like you would your best friend.

3. WHEN THINGS GO WRONG, FIND ALTERNATIVES - For those of us who fly the most and who spend the most, do whatever it takes to get us to where we are going. If there's a delay before we get to the airport, have an alternative itinerary booked when you call us. If it happens at the airport, just get us there, whatever it takes. If all else fails and we must spend the night, then at least book us a room at your rate, even on stormy nights at O'Hare when technically you can hide behind Mother Nature's skirts and dodge all responsibility for our misery and lost time.

4. IT'S ALL ABOUT TIME, AND THAT'S ALL WE'VE GOT - Time is all we have in life. If you delay us going to work, you're a drag on productivity and the U.S. economy. If you delay us going home, then you've just robbed us of the most precious commodity on earth: time with our family. I'm only home for about 48 hours every weekend, and I want to be with my wife and two young kids. Every fifteen minute delay on your end is robbing me of my life.

Try to think of us like you would your mother or dad: Be considerate and kind, and keep your promise. Would you lie to your parents? Would you treat your parents like you callously disregard us when you are routinely late? Would you want your mom or dad to sit cramped, too hot or too cold, without food or water, on a tiny regional jet idling on a backed-up LaGuardia runway for three hours waiting to take off and then arrive over three hours late?

You can never get those lost minutes and hours back, not ever. You stole them from us, and you can do better. I know because you used to.

You even used to be cheerful, and it was infectious and made us feel better when we had to leave home.

I cannot recall the last time I saw a smile on an airline employee.

So I am going to write about the things that happen to me every week, and I am going to give readers of this blog the whole truth with no holdbacks or sugar coating. If something good happens, I will relate it. Ditto with the bad news. I will be factual, truthful, and very specific.

What good will come of it? Who knows? The airlines have nowhere to go but up. Maybe one of them will wake up and realize that providing good basic service, like adopting the principles above, translates into bottom line results. People will pay for the difference.

Will Allen III
Allen On Travel
June 22, 2006, written on the road