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.

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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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Delta Airlines Cares

My mom is gravely ill, suddenly and unexpectedly. Yesterday we signed the authorization to move her into a Hospice Unit within her hospital. My family and I are by her side 24 hours.

Later in the day I cancelled a business trip planned for this morning that had me flying out on Delta and returning on American Airlines. Both segments were on nonrefundable fares.

When I phoned the Delta elite line, the agent listened to the situation and immediately, without checking with a supervisor, told me that I would be able to use the full amount of the fare paid for a future Delta flight without any change fee or penalty.

When I phoned AA's elite line, I was told that I would have to pay a $100 change fee to use the residual fare.

Delta cares, and I won't forget.

I will not be able to post further stories for some time while I am with my mom and not traveling.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Episode 146,225: Why I Hate Flying

Since I started this blog in June, I’ve been asked over and over by colleagues and friends, why do it? It seems so futile, an electronic voice in the wilderness, mere roadkill on the Information Superhighway.

I explained my rationale in the very first posting below, but perhaps other examples are warranted. Since no airline manager listens, writing this blog relieves frustration and at least provides a public forum for airing egregious travel experiences.

So, to further illustrate the extreme state of suffering and unhappiness that so often accompanies a business trip, I looked into my archive of letters to friends and colleagues, like this one from a Friday in October, 2005:

I arrived at the Columbus (Ohio) airport at 3:20 PM. I walked into my house at 12:45 AM. Nine and a half hours en route, thanks to American Airlines and their non-service service, for which I paid $563.80. It’s only 361 miles between Raleigh and Columbus, but you can’t get there from here fast or cheap.

AND I was treated to the following bonus events during my AA odyssey:

  • Though we left Columbus on time, we of course circled LGA for a half hour before getting TRACON clearance to land. NOTE: perfect beautiful clear weather, so no excuses there. Could it be a system far beyond capacity and out of control? Could it be that it’s been that way at least since the late 1970s at all three New York airports? Yet no one has the will to effect improvements?
  • Arrived C concourse at LGA, but my departing plane scheduled to leave from D concourse, necessitating LEAVING security from C concourse and RE-ENTERING security at D concourse.
  • But wait! An AA supervisor advised me that the plane at D1 had a mechanical which might cause a gate change back to the C concourse—so don’t go quite yet.
  • But wait! If you don’t go, and you can’t get through security in time, T.S., because AA is not responsible.
  • The mechanically-delayed outbound at D1 turned out to be a moot point, since the inbound aircraft to be used for our RDU flight was coming in from Charlotte, and was already two hours late. Why the delay, I wondered. Remember, this is on a beautiful, clear evening in both Charlotte and New York with no weather problems. No one working for American Airlines had a clue when I asked.
  • The inbound aircraft finally arrived at 9:56 PM, by which time people waiting at D1 were utterly deflated and exhausted. The captain, a guy who looked, swaggered, and talked like John Wayne, came off the aircraft and into the gate area and made the following proclamation in a booming voice: “You people need to understand that we just waited two hours on the runway at Charlotte for clearance, and then had to declare an in-flight fuel emergency on approach to avoid a further delay landing. ATC would not let us take off and did not want us to land here, so it’s not our fault that we’re late. But we are exhausted, and especially Sylvia, our flight attendant. Now our job is to get you to Raleigh SAFELY, not necessarily on time, and we intend to do that. So I want you to greet Sylvia, who has been a trooper through these delays, with a smile when you come on my plane, and be nice to her. UNDERSTAND?!”
  • I was stunned. Apparently the disgruntled crowd was struck dumb by fear and loathing of the belligerant pilot, because it took the wind out of their sails. They meekly boarded the plane (I was in seat 1A on the Embraer RJ and watched every person come on), and they either mumbled something to Sylvia, the FA, or said nothing.
I have three words for the captain: Go f*** yourself.

He and his crew, including Sylvia (who was a very nice lady), are GETTING PAID to do what they do, and they will GET PAID regardless of what time they arrive. I, on the other hand, as the customer, AM PAYING for their salaries, their benefits, the airplane, the raggedy-ass gate at LGA, the lights, the announcements, everything. When they fail to meet their advertised schedule by over two hours, they (and every airline) have robbed me of the most precious commodity in existence: time.

I can never get that time back. If it’s on the way to work, and I am late, then my clients expect me to make it up (or the work associated with it). That robs me of time for relaxation, recovery, and sleep. If it’s on the way home, then it robs me of time with my family. No amount of money can compensate me for the time lost with my family. It’s gone forever, and I am forever in deficit.

Yet the pilot last night bullied every one of his company’s paying customers sitting in that gate area but me into thinking that WE owe HIM because HE had to suffer through a delay earlier in the day while HE got paid. This captain never apologized for his company’s delay, nor did he take any responsibility whatsoever for the total breakdown of service. He did not even offer us the common courtesy of sympathizing with our misery.

The inmates are truly running the asylum. Day is night; up is down; black is white.

Why is it that the other 48 passengers on this flight caved in to this captain’s outrageously bad behavior and shredding of customer service without a peep? Why do people act like morons when confronted with dehumanizing, disrespectful incidents like this one? When will the sheep awake and demand to be treated with simple dignity?

Sour Fruits Of The Delta-Northwest-Continental SkyTeam Bonding

Delta, Northwest, and Continental are twaddling that there are all kinds of great cross-airline benefits for us Platinums now that they are allies, but I have a contrarian view based on experience, to wit:

1. The RDU Crown Room was never a big space to begin with and has often been crowded. Now, however, with the allowance of CO and NW folks in there, it’s wall-to-wall. I went in on a recent Sunday afternoon at 3:00 PM and could not find a place to sit and had to leave. The agents tell me it’s been slammed every day since CO and NW people have been allowed in. Essentially that means Delta is now excluding me from the RDU club. And how is this a benefit to me?

2. My Delta Platinum status means nothing at Northwest for upgrades. I bought a ticket at for future date travel and could not even get access to the so-called “premium” seats in coach, let alone get an upgrade. When I asked an NW telephone reservations agent about it, she confirmed that though Continental Platinums can get complimentary upgrades on NW, DL Platinums cannot. So I had her change my frequent flyer number to enter my Continental Platinum number, and, Bingo! I was upgraded on the only flight that had first class and was allowed access to the premium seats on two other RJ segments. This is wrong. Why can’t Delta Platinums have access to NW upgrades and premium seats if CO Platinums have it?

Spent 30 Years As A Loyal Airline Customer To Sit In Coach, I Guess

Even with elite status on American, Delta, Continental, and Northwest, I am being upgraded in 2006 less than I was 20 years ago—on every carrier—which adds to my stress and misery.

Part of the reason is due to the plethora of RJs out there these days. Obviously no one can upgrade on those toy planes with dinky little seats that barely qualify as coach. (To paraphrase the old Soviet-era saw, the airlines pretend that RJs are real planes with real seats, and we pretend that we are content and comfortable.)

Partly the lack of upgrade opportunities is due to suicidally stupid airline management decisions, like DL scheduling only all-coach aircraft between RDU and ATL in the first quarter (and driving their best customers to AirTran).

But a big part is due to a new competitive dynamic in play: More people are simply paying their way into first class.

For instance, on two consecutive Friday afternoons earlier this year, trying to get an upgrade on an AA flight DFW/RDU, I was candidly told by a sympathetic Admirals Club agent that NOT EVEN ONE EXECUTIVE PLATINUM was upgraded.

Amazing, I thought. Not one super-elite upgrade seat was available out of 16 F seats on that MD-80? Why, this could be a new phenomenom.

Equally perplexed, the agent pecked away at her keyboard and coaxed out the fact that 14 seats were sold to customers who’d ponied up big bucks for a domestic F fare or a business class fare connecting from overseas. The remaining two seats on that Friday, she claimed, went as AAdvantage award travel.

If there were any company bottoms in any of those seats, she did not admit it.

Point is, suddenly, in a severely capacity-constrained air travel environment, we can't even count on getting upgrades on the few airplanes that still have first class sections.

I don't know where those people are getting the money to pay for full fare First Class seats, but my clients won't reimburse for them, and the price is too steep to cover out of my own pocket. So I remain stuck in coach, my reward for a lifetime of loyal flying.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I Always Wear Cheap Earplugs On Airplanes

There’s been a lot written in travel columns for several years about noise-canceling headphones. I even own a pair or two, and I take them on ultra-long overseas flights like LAX-Sydney and ATL-Johannesburg.

But they are a bit of a nuisance.

Nowadays airlines forbid their use as an “electronic device” after the door is closed until after takeoff and again before landing. Headphones require fresh batteries to be effective. Many models fold, but they still add bulk and weight to my chronically over-stuffed briefcase. And all of them hurt my ears after hours of wearing and slip off when I sleep. Not to mention that they are expensive!

Just one more darn thing to fumble around with on the road.

So for day-in, day-out domestic air travel nothing beats a cheap pair of disposable earplugs. I buy them at places like Home Depot for a few pennies per and wear each pair several times before tossing. They don’t require a battery; they have no electronics; they're light, small, and comfortable; and, best of all, they work well.

Why do I wear them? Well, first, because airline public address systems tend to be tuned to the hard-of-hearing. They are turned up to a volume that hurts my ears when announcements are made. Most industrial earplugs have been designed and engineered to meet noise reduction standards required by OSHA for working in high decibel factory environments, so they work beautifully to tone down—not tune out—announcements.

Then there are the incessant pre-flight and after-landing cell phone calls, the unremitting babel of closeby neighbors on cramped RJs, and, famously, crying babies.

I wear cheap throwaway earplugs throughout every flight. I recommend you give it a try. You’ll be amazed at the sense of privacy wearing them imparts.

“Take Five At LAX”

That’s the way Delta proudly marketed the grand opening of its LAX Terminal 5 rebuild in 1987, almost twenty years ago. It was bustling then, the terminal was spit-shined and spotless, and the service was grand!

But not so long ago I was at Delta’s Terminal 5 at LAX waiting for my red-eye on DL to CVG, and I couldn’t believe the contrast. Terminal 5 is dead these days, practically a ghost town compared to Delta’s glory days in 1987.

The world seemed brighter then. Once I rubbed shoulders with Ray Charles getting on a flight (and, no, I didn’t wave to him like “W” did). I shared another flight to ATL with the absolutely gorgeous and petite Jane Fonda in those years. And with John McEnroe and many others.

And the service was genuinely warm and sincere—that old traditional Delta service.

A Fine Example of Misery, Thanks To New Millennium Travel Purveyors

This took all took place on one recent Sunday:

AirTran MSY/ATL – 20 mins late; no reason given; no apologies made; look of surprise by gate agent when I asked why; she said she had no idea.

AirTran ATL/RDU – 20 mins late; no reason given; no apologies made; ATL gate agent was surly, then indifferent when I asked where was the inbound airplane that was to make up our flight; she said she had no idea.

Delta RDU/ATL – Inbound aircraft arrived RDU 20 mins late due to “late crew in ATL” (flight came from ATL); left 40 mins late; no reason or apology given; arrived gate in ATL 55 mins late; again, no explanation.

Delta ATL/DFW – Boarded on time (30 mins ahead of departure); somehow got out of gate 20 mins late; no reason or apology given; managed to arrive DFW 40 mins late; no announcement as to why, just “The local time is one hour earlier than Atlanta.”

DFW Airport’s consolidated bus to consolidated rental car center at south end of DFW – waited 20 mins for bus to arrive; packed to SRO limit within 30 seconds of arrival; arrived at DFW off-airport car rental building just before midnight.

Hertz DFW – Despite being Gold & Presidents' Circle, name not on Gold board; Gold Service office closed at 11:00 PM; forced to go back inside & wait in long line of people with similar problem; lost 20 more mins; no reason or apology given; while in line, I phoned Hertz Gold line, where they confirmed that my reservation number was correct & stated for the correct flight number & time (I write those details down from many such bad experiences).

Hilton Garden Inn-Fort Worth – Arrived long past midnight; despite being a Diamond member, they once again (second week in a row) forgot to put my 2 Diamond water bottles in my room, but assured me that they were in fact here, forcing me to return to the desk to get them; no apologies; just a sullen glower from the desk clerk; so much for my exalted HHonors Diamond Status.

I really try to keep a positive attitude when traveling, and I approach the whole experience with a well-practiced Zen-like self-induced aura to protect my sense of privacy.

No matter: They have perfected the Chinese art of exquisitely fine torture. Whether you call it water torture (drip, drip, drip), or being nibbled to death by ducks, or death by a thousand cuts, the effect is the same. It’s maddening; I have no respect for these so-called "service" providers.

Delta, Hertz, Hilton, Northworst, Southworst, Hyatt, Avis, Continental, National, American, Marriott, United, Useless Air, they all seem indifferent to their customers.

AA’s Tactic To Hide Delays

Anyone but me notice that American Airlines uses a shell game to cover up what are called creeping delays?

It goes like this: Say a flight is scheduled to leave at 6:00 PM, but that for whatever reason the flight is 45 minutes late. AA’s gate times will show the scheduled six o’clock departure only until it makes the first announcement of the delay. After that it will show 6:45 PM as the departure, with no mention of the original time.

If the plane gets even later, say to 7:00 PM, then they slip it again, but this time reference the “scheduled” departure time as 6:45 PM instead of the published scheduled departure of 6:00 PM. It makes the delay look better than it really is.

The same ploy is used with AA’s automatic electronic telephone alert calls.

Nissan Armada SUV Report: Humongous Road Hog, But Very Comfortable

Hertz put a gargantuan Nissan Armada in my rental spot at LAX. The massive SUV is aptly named: It’s the size of the Spanish Armada. It is easily the biggest rental vehicle Hertz has ever given me. Its huge V8 engine has the oomph of a Ferrari, powering its multiple tons from zero to sixty in 8 seconds flat. Truth is, it was a guilty pleasure to drive it.

Seriously, the Armada handled beautifully, with little effort, a lot of zip, and excellent visibility. I actually enjoyed the experience. Too bad I only drove it 164.6 miles.

However, my trip to the local Union 76 station to refill the tank on the way back to LAX was an unpleasant experience. Not surprisingly, this dinosaur gulped down 15.56 gallons after just 164.6 miles! 10.58 MPG! That makes the range of this behemoth just over 200 miles. I think that’s as bad as—or perhaps worse than—a Hummer.

I have found the yang to the Toyota Prius ying!

Perhaps the Armada was also named for the year the Spanish Armada was defeated by Sir Francis Drake in the English Channel, 1588, because my guess is that the giant V8 under the hood must have 1588 cubic inches. That big internal combustion engine makes for a mighty smooth ride.

Even in today’s steeply rising gas price environment, occasionally it’s fun to throw off the shackles of green responsibility and live a little. Maybe I should have used the Armada to stop off at an L.A. multiplex to catch Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Sometimes Hotels Can Torture Us, Too

A few months ago I arrived at the Hampton Inn Great Valley (Frazer, PA) about 45 minutes from PHL Airport. The previous week I paid a last-minute-no-regular-rooms-left-sorry rate of $189 for the best room on the Concierge Floor at the STL Marriott, so I expected this to be a letdown.

But since Hilton bills Hampton Inns as its “quality, value-priced hotels” (Hilton's words), and since I have stayed at many a Hampton in the past, I was stunned to find my very large pharma client’s best corporate rate to be $144.

No overnight accommodation value for money, I guess, is to be found in Frazer, Pennsylvania.

Adding insult to injury, the front desk woman was surly, had no water for Diamond members like me, and gleefully informed me “don’t know if we’ll get any tomorrow.”

She then told my colleague standing next to me, who is HHonors Gold, that he should stay Gold and not become Diamond because “Once a person gets to be a Diamond, they just harass the staff, like your friend here [meaning me].”

Jeez, all I did was politely ask for the bottle of water Hilton says its best customers are entitled to, even at a Hampton.

Little experiences like this really pull me down. I know it’s a horrible job to work behind the desk at that hotel late on Sunday night, but for $144/night plus a fistful of taxes, it seems to me that they could at least be courteous.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

To My Astonishment, US Airways Provides Good Service On 10 Out Of 10 Flights In April-June, 2006

Now that’s a headline I NEVER thought I’d be writing. That’s because US Airways and I have never had a good relationship over the course of four decades of flying.

In the 1970s and early 1980s I had a lot of clients in New York, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, all in Allegheny Airlines country, predecessor name to today’s US Airways. Service was so surly that patrons bitterly nicknamed it Agony Airlines.

Sometime in the seventies the airline changed its name to US Air to shake off the bad reputation, but long-suffering frequent flyers then tagged it Useless Air. My experiences on Agony/Useless were typical; I dreaded every flight.

For instance, I remember one frigid, snowy January Sunday night flying into Pittsburgh from New York. Already more than an hour late, the plane landed and taxied to a dark spot on a distant ramp far from the old Pittsburgh terminal, which was always over-taxed. The pilot shut down both engines and all but emergency lights on board and announced that there were no gates for us and that we’d have to wait. No information on how long.

Without heat, pretty soon the plane’s interior was cold and getting colder. By the time an hour had passed (with no further announcements) there was near-panic on board, as the temperature plunged to the freezing point or below. Flight attendants, noted at Useless for their brusque and rude demeanors, barked at anyone who complained and refused to pass along messages to the cockpit.

At the ninety minute mark, engines were finally restarted, and we taxied to the gate. No apologies were made; no smiles given by the Useless Air staff, as we grumbling and frozen customers left the plane. Our luggage was delivered to the carousel an hour after that, making it a three and a half hour delay and an altogether miserable experience.

See what I mean? Service SO BAD that I vividly recall the details of that single flight after twenty-five years.

Unfortunately, there were many others like it.

Then Useless went on a buying spree to keep up with Joneses through the consolidation of the 1980s that followed deregulation. In the process it steam-rollered two of the best airlines then operating: Piedmont and PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines). Both were renowned for their customer-friendly staff and marvelously efficient operations. I was a big fan of both airlines and flew on them whenever possible.

Today’s Southwest Airlines operations owes a lot to the profitable business models of Piedmont (all-coach 737s; lots of point-to-point, non-hub flights between and among second tier cities) and PSA (all-coach; invented 20-minute quick turns and made them work consistently at busy LAX and SFO).

But Useless in its arrogance ignored those lessons, and soon after buying each airline, gave the boot to the superb Piedmont and PSA managers who had perfected their respective business models, models that had been profitable and attracted customers in droves. Soon former Piedmont and PSA routes and flights were as uniformly miserable as all US Air so-called service.

So it was that I assiduously avoided flying on the carrier for twenty years (not so long ago renamed US Airways in yet another attempt to outrun its soiled reputation). Then American Airlines involuntarily rerouted me on US Airways when AA’s own service failed, forcing me onto 10 US flights in April, May, and June.

The desire to get home to my family overcame my sense of repulsion at flying again on a carrier I despised, but I approached the first flight with the same eager anticipation of a man on the way to his own hanging.

Imagine my surprise to find friendly and helpful airport personnel at every station encountered (Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; Charlotte; Philly; Washington Reagan; Raleigh/Durham; and Toronto, Ontario). In each case, since every William Allen on earth is on the terrorist watch list (as explained in my June 30 posting), airport check-in counter personnel were required to take special steps to release a boarding pass to me.

Of course I am not an elite flyer on US. Yet with no status whatsoever these staff bent over backwards to help me. And they were friendly and kind and looked me in the eye and treated me like a HUMAN BEING! I liked them, and I have not said that about airline employees in a long time.

Well, I thought, I still have to fly their flights; surely they will be late, and on-board service will be nonexistent or rude.

Not so. All planes but one were on time, and that one was due to a mechanical problem that required a replacement aircraft (at DCA), which was handled quickly. The cabin crews cared about us and for us. There were whiffs of the old Piedmont service: casual, relaxed, cordial, whatever it takes to make you happy. And the cockpit crews kept us informed all the way and sounded as if they really cared about us, too.

I changed planes at four busy US Airways stations: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Washington Reagan. Gate personnel there were extra-helpful, if woefully understaffed and overworked. Their attitude, in stark contrast to, say, what I find at American Eagle’s LaGuardia operation, was focused on giving information freely, rebooking if necessary (I was automatically backed up on the flight with a mechanical without having to ask), and being just plain friendly and helpful.

Somehow the people I encountered at US Airways seem to have turned a corner: They actually look at their customers as central to their success. I was happily surprised and very encouraged.

Yes, this could be an anomaly. But, sadly, my history flying is to attract bad luck, not good. I wish US Airways good luck, and I intend to shift some of my flying to them.