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.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Liquids & Gels Ban Eased This Week? Good, I Guess, But I Can't Tell The Difference

Good news arrived earlier this week from TSA that small quantities of liquids and gels will now be allowed through security as long as in clear plastic bags that they can inspect easily. Yeah, that's great news.

Except that I really can't tell the difference.

You see, I went through a purge of my Dopp kit back in August when the BIG BAN first hit, and then later put a few prohibited items (toothpaste and shaving cream) back in my kit and simply checked it alone (see my August 27th blog post). But after waiting too long at the luggage carousel after several late flights I decided to replace the banned items with acceptable substitutes so I could carry on all my luggage again.

So I bought an old-fashioned shaving brush (hog's bristle--available at CVS) and shaving soap (ditto), and I purchased some Shower-To-Shower deodorant powder (yes, solid deodorants are SUPPOSEDLY allowed, but apparently not all TSA folks watched that training video). I am still short any toothpaste, but I find most hotels have some extra if you ask (see my September 12th post).

And thus re-equipped, I threw my old Dopp kit into my carry-on bag and went to the airport. I thought for sure that TSA would x-ray my bag and then paw through my Dopp kit to look for contraband materials, but it has never happened once in the 20+ times I have entered security at various airports since (RDU, IND, DTW, ORD, MQT, LGA, CMH, CVG).

Every time I put my bag into the machine I tell them, "My Dopp kit is in my bag, but I have no liquids or gels." Not that they care or seem to listen. No disrespect meant, either. TSA personnel are just usually so engaged and focused on looking at the x-ray images that they rarely even look my way, let along acknowledge that they heard me. But whatever they are seeing in those images, it must not look threatening, because no TSA person has yet wanted to take a look.

So the new so-called relaxed rule is a yawner for me. I've already been carrying everything on again for weeks, which has been a huge relief. 'Cause let's face it, checking ANY luggage, no matter how small, is a hassle. Not only is there the long wait at the other end, but, worse, if any disruption occurs en route (late flight, missed connection, cancelled flight), having all my luggage with me gives me a lot more options.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Marquette, Michigan Has Small Town Nice Folks - Long May It Last

It was my first-ever trip to Marquette, home to just over 30,000 hearty souls who brave the frigid temps and deep snow of Upper Peninsula winters, surrounded by Great Lakes and hugging Lake Superior. Go, Yoopers! they say proudly and enthusiastically on billboards. It's the city from which the Edmund Fitzgerald sailed to its tragic end, made famous in the great Gordon Lightfoot song. It's a city of tough miners and sailors, where almost all are hunters, fishermen, or outdoorsmen who know instinctively what to do with skis and snowmobiles. The 17 miles from the airport to the port were lined with beautiful white birches, conifers, and hardwoods already resplendent in fall colors.

Small town friendliness and sincerity still pervade Marquette citizenry, much as with the good folks of Greensburg, Indiana I wrote about last week. I find this increasingly rare and wonderful. I was lucky to experience it up close and personal two weeks in a row.

Every employee at the Marquette Holiday Inn was friendly and genuinely concerned that I was having a good experience. They were not doing it because they had taken a company course in how to pretend to be concerned about guests, like Hyatt drills into their staff (often, in my Hyatt experience, with little beneficial effect, sadly).

No, they were concerned about me because they just felt that way naturally. As if I was their neighbor next door. A real human being not lost in the scurrying, impersonal throngs of our hectic big cities, but someone whose comfort and satisfaction with the services I had bought and paid for MATTERED. It was a very good feeling, and I reciprocated as naturally as they emoted. I relaxed; I was nice back to them, without any effort. As a result my overnight stay with them in their somewhat shopworn hotel was infinitely more pleasurable than at the fanciest properties in Hong Kong or Paris that have enjoyed my custom.

Same at the tiny and friendly Marquette Sawyer International Airport: The National Car Rental lady chatted me up about where I was from, teased me about my southern accent, and regaled me with stories about Yooper life in the dead of winter and how to drive to avoid moose. The Northwest Airlink lady yelled across that she "didn't know nothin' about moose" and laughed. The big guy in the little snack bar advised me to get the BBQ rib sandwich, saying as he winked that it was the best thing on the menu. When I'd ordered one and finished it, he came around with a big toothy smile and asked, "What'd you think, eh? Pretty darn good! Told ya so!"

How charmingly different small town life can be. I grew up in one in eastern North Carolina, so I ought to know. But long-ago memories are one thing; a sudden envelopment of genuine humanity is another. Especially when you didn't expect it. Really makes life on the road worth it. Long may it last!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Big Surprise: Northwest Nice--And Early!

No, I can't believe it, either. It is not my usual experience on Northwest frankly. That is, for four flights in a row to be early, and for every flight attendant and gate agent to be nice--GENUINELY nice. But that's what happened.

It made me feel better about having to spend $840.20 just to fly from Indy to the Motor City to Marquette, back to Detroit, and finally back to Indy. I felt almost like I got my money's worth--almost.

When I realized NW was my best choice to go to Marquette and make stops through Detroit, I steeled myself for poor morale, frowns, late flights, and indifferent service. None of which happened.

Example: On my flight back to Indy this noon at DTW, the gate agent apologized profusely that she had no first class seats left to upgrade me to (I am a Platinum), and blocked the entire starboard 3-seat exit row just for me (seats 9DEF on that A319 - I sat in the middle seat feeling like a king). Just as the door was about to close, the agent came to my seat and quietly asked if I wanted to move to First. She'd had a no-show up front. I decided to stay put with the entire row to myself, but I was very touched that she would do that--far beyond the call of duty, and quite a nice thing to do given the chronically sour labor relations at Northwest.

The little things like this trip, and the nice FAs on every NW flight this itinerary, salve a lot of psychic wounds from previous horrible flights (see many past posts). Bravo, Northwest! Thank you very much, and please, PLEASE keep it up.

If It's Thursday, It Must Be London, Detroit, and Indianapolis

Eight flights, four rental cars, and four hotels to and from four destination cities since Monday morning, and I am not sure it's really Thursday. Was it just last night (Wednesday) that I flew from chilly and remote "Youper" city, Marquette, Michigan to Detroit; rented a car from Hertz; drove to London, Ontario to the downtown Hilton; had a business dinner until 1030 PM with two colleagues; worked email and phone messages until 1:30 AM; got up at 5:30 AM; had a client meeting at his big factory (and important Ontario employer) until 8:30 AM; drove back to Detroit (through beautiful Sarnia and Port Huron); flew to Indianapolis; and worked nonstop from 2:00 PM to 11:00 PM on client matters to catch up?

How time flies when you are having fun--especially when you are being grilled by Canadian Immigration officials about your reason for entering Canada. "Well, yes, I AM having a BUSINESS meeting, but, honestly, it has to do with trying to hire two more Canadian citizens. I promise I am NOT stealing jobs from Canadians!"

That finally did the trick. All true, too. Doesn't pay to shave the truth with Immigrations and Customs pros. They can spot even a little lie from ten thousand feet.

And I didn't even mention how I got from Raleigh Monday to Indianapolis and then to Detroit and then to Marquette before Wednesday afternoon. To be honest, it's all a blur.

And that's the point: When things go right with the airlines, the rental car companies, and the hotels, a lot can be accomplished in a short time. This week American and Northwest did a great job, and so did National, Hertz, Holiday Inn, Hampton Inn, and Hilton. My flights were reasonably on time; my cars were OK (well, one smelled like pipe tobacco); and my hotel beds slept well (though the Internet was out at the Hampton and Holiday Inn).

How nice to be able to write about a productive business week because the folks who make life on the road possible all clicked for once. Whew!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Tale Of (Two Hotels In) Two Cities

This week I had business in two Indiana cities: busy big city Indianapolis and sleepy little city Greensburg. Thus I have two hotel experiences to ponder.

Though a new Honda plant is going up in Greensburg, the huge changes that Honda's presence will bring have not yet come to this delightful town (see previous post). Thus I was happy to pay $50 per night (before tax) for a very large room at Marriott's modest Fairfield Inn in Greensburg, a rate which included a typical but decent limited breakfast, free newspaper, free parking, and free Internet service.

Even better, when I asked the genuinely friendly staff at the Fairfield front desk if they had any travel-sized toothpaste or shaving cream for sale, they reached into a drawer and gave me one of each, free of charge. "We routinely keep a supply for any guests who need them," the manager told me.

Great bargain; nice people; thoughtful services.

Traveling just an hour northwest to an equally humble brand of the Hilton chain, the Hampton Inn, in prosperous and busy Carmel, however, and I had to pay $147.60 (before tax) for the same size room and same basic services. Several nearby big company corporate headquarters in Indianapolis' ritzy northern suburb keep demand for rooms high, and hence, I guess, the rates. But $150 at a Hampton Inn?

And the Hampton had no extra courtesies, a la gratis toiletries.

This seems to be a typical hotel story in 2006: Jack up the room rates as high as the local market will bear, even at the supposedly bargain brands like Hampton, the very bottom tier of the Hilton offerings. Honestly, except in Manhattan, who ever heard of paying $150 a night for a Hampton Inn? What added value am I getting for the extra $100 every day compared to the Greensburg Fairfield Inn? Answer: not any.

I am of two minds about this. As a business person, I'm pleased that at least the hotel companies are making money, even if the airlines continue to juggle bowling balls in the dark. But the whole idea of tiered brands was to impart some kind of rational pricing bands around the tiers. Top brands like Marriott's Ritz-Carlton charge hundreds per night while the Fairfield Inns at the other end of the price and service spectrum target guests of modest means with modest rates. You knew what to count on when booking; that's what I thought "rational" meant.

Not any more, I guess. Now I have to shop for hotel rooms the same way I do for airline fares, looking for hidden bargains and ignoring brand tiers and regardless of chain. This dilutes my desire and tendency to be loyal to Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, or any other major name. It also lowers my satisfaction with any one chain and erodes my trust in their branding strata.

Too bad. Just when I was getting used to the perks of Hilton HHonors Diamond status, something that makes my life on the road a little easier to bear, Hilton makes it hard to stay at their properties frequently enough to earn annual status.

Refreshingly Innocent Greensburg, Indiana

I have a client in the small town of Greensburg, Indiana, located on I-74 halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati. 10,260 people officially call Greensburg home according to the 2000 census. And it's one of the many American burgs (in this case, literally a "burg") that I find myself traveling to on business. I am always interested in the people I meet and how they feel, how they live, their attitude toward life, and how they get along with their neighbors.

I struck the jackpot in Greensburg, Indiana! I found a wonderful community of nice people who haven't lost their sense of humor to the political correctness of our times. Here are some examples:

Last night I attended a shift turnover meeting at a large factory here between 2nd & 3rd shifts at 11:00 pm. The 13-person crew at one work center was composed of 6 females and 7 males. As I walked up, one of the older guys on the team was loudly and good-naturedly teasing one of the younger women (all could hear) about her soon completing her Physician’s Assistant schooling, saying how much he was looking forward to the prostate exams she would be giving him! As he said it, he wiggled his bottom around with a big toothy grin on his face, eyes rolling up into his head. My jaw dropping at his outrageous slapstick, I saw this as a career-ending gaffe, and I cringed, expecting an artic chill from all the women present—and certainly a formal HR complaint. I needn’t have worried: His very off-color remark was received by raucous and instantaneous laughter by everyone, including the woman to whom it was directed! They all had tears in their eyes before they stopped laughing.

This morning at a different turnover meeting in the same plant at 7:00 am with an entirely different group in another work center, the 1st shift Team Lead dutifully and seriously went through the key operating indicators on his Lean Visual Display Board (an integral part of most lean manufacturing systems). He was met with good questions and comments from his 11-person crew as they prepared for their work day. I was the only person present who was stunned and horrified that the Team Lead calming conducting his review was wearing a tee shirt with a large picture of a Dachshund sitting up on its hind legs next to a caption that boldly read, “My Wiener Does Tricks.”

I don't endorse the behavior or seek to roll back the clock on 50 years of social progress, but I could not help thinking: How wonderfully innocent and refreshing! The good people of Greensburg, Indiana actually LIKE and TRUST each other. They aren’t cynical, negative, or pessimistic. They watch the same TV programs and news reports we all do, and they read the same newspaper stories, yet they haven't learned to take themselves too seriously.

No wonder Greensburg, Indiana is the city chosen by Honda for their next U.S. plant, the construction of which is already underway out in the middle of the corn fields on U.S. 421.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Why Never To Fly To Australia In Coach: Part 2

In an earlier story (August 29th) the wife of a distinguished scientist related her portrait of the horrors of flying United Air Lines in coach for 16 hours between Australia and the USA. Recently her husband sent his own random thoughts to supplement her impressions, to wit:

"Mary left out some of the good parts, probably because we are still waking up at 3:30 AM and are a bit out of sorts from the flying experience in coach.

"We had a row next to the middle gallery. The video screen was off in the distance, and it faded to black-and-white most of the time. Nothing worth watching anyway. Movie selections were probably to keep the kids under control. I'm sure the many children on board were rapt with attention during the graphic Jennifer Anniston sex scene.

"I loved the reminder to assume the crash position if need be by putting your head on your knees. I guess that's possible in First Class. Bending over in my seat would drive my face into the headrest in front of me--or into that person's long hair, which in my case had been flipped over her seat
back into what I had assumed was my tiny bit of personal space. We put all the seat pocket magazines into the overhead and actually gained an inch of knee space.

"I knew it was going to be tough on my back, so I had my doc prescribe some pain meds. However, I couldn't take them because I needed to stay awake to keep my head up in the inherently cramped position of those tiny seats and spaces. If I dozed off and slumped over, I would get an excruciatingly painful neck ache. I guess it's the airline version of the old water torture.

"The United crew took away any hope of enjoying the so-called meal service in coach, served up in pathetic Dickensian portions, when they announced that we should not worry if our preferred chicken or beef selection had run out by the time the cart reached us 'because they both taste exactly the same.' Just one more example of their sad, sardonic customer service.

"On the plus side we took 9 flights on our journey, and all our luggage showed up, albeit a bit slow at ORD. But it was always a relief each time to see them."

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Alternate Toiletries Solution To Liquids Carry-on Ban

At the end of my August 27th post I asked for better solutions to the liquids ban in carry-on luggage than to check one's Dopp kit (which I have been doing since August 10th). Here's what one enterprising reader wrote in helping her frequent business traveler husband with the problem:

"My solution to the liquids ban was to buy him a shaving brush and soap plus powdered toothpaste (from Whole Foods). He can carry his stick deoderant; hotels normally supply shampoo and lotion, so he's all set. He could get an electric razor to keep in his travel kit, but he says the brush/soap work fine."

Sounds like a good plan to me.