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.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Airline Food On U.S. Domestic Flights: So Twentieth Century

For decades in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s--and well into the 1990s--I took airline food for granted.

I even complained in the early nineties to Delta and United about the QUANTITY of it, not the quality.

For example, about 1992 I asked some senior executives I'd come to know at Delta why they would serve a full breakfast in First Class on both my morning flights: RDU to Atlanta, and then Atlanta to wherever I was going. It was an unintended consequence of hub flying, of course; you couldn't get anywhere without connecting somewhere, so I was always on at least two flights. I did not need two big breakfasts, after all, and I thought Delta (in my example) could save some bucks by cutting back on one or the other meal.

In those not-long-ago days Delta served a really good hot breakfast even on the short 75-minute 6:00 AM departure Raleigh to Atlanta.

And they produced a really good hot meal appropriate to the time on just about every flight throughout the day after breakfast.

Heck, the term "snack" in the OAG meant that Delta (and United and other airlines) were serving a smaller portion of food on flights scheduled for the odd, in-between-meal times. Even a 3:00 PM departure would have something to nibble on if you snagged a First Class seat; you could count on it.

Point is, just about every flight on the major airlines, not matter how short or at what time of day, had some sort of food service in First Class. Like I said, I took it for granted, and I never dreamed we frequent business travelers would go from feast to famine.

But by the time the clock struck midnight on the last day of the 20th century, the omnipresent First Class food was shrinking away to nothing. Soon after the airlines had become artful at defining domestic First Class food for the New Millennium in Catch-22 terms: "Delicious New Meals! Try Us! Look At The Beautiful Pictures Of Food In Our Ads! Here's An Exciting Write-up On Our Famous Executive Food Designer! But, uh, oh yes, you'll see this stuff only on flights over 22.125 hours and within narrow bands of time defined by us as appropriate to time of day, and, uh, never on RJs or 737s without galleys or on some larger planes--can't remember just which ones--and, uh, there might not be enough to go around, either--but never mind those details, because you must: Look At The Beautiful Pictures Of Food In Our Ads!"

So what does this mean for business flyers nowadays?

Well, Delta serves almost no meals any more. Even on some so-called transcon flights I've been on, they have come up with several excuses (wrong plane; wrong time of day by two minutes; flight length missed the meal trigger by five minutes, and so on and so forth).

But at LEAST Delta serves a basket of different REAL snacks on every flight in First Class and often even in coach. They have choices, like Lance cheese and peanut butter snack crackers, bags of peanuts, cookies, and bags of chips. You won't go hungry, but you might get fatter or contribute to rising chlesterol.

Just the same, hurray for Delta! At least they are serving SOMETHING on EVERY flight.

OK, when was the last time we got excited over having tiny bags of peanuts and called that progress? When Delta and most everyone else (except Continental) curtailed virtually all food service, that's when.

A case in point from American: Their 4:10 PM RDU/ORD departure used to serve a "snack" en route to O'Hare (in First Class only), but recently they fiddled it to leave at 3:50 PM. Now the same flight has pathetic tiny bags of unappetizing pretzels and snack thingies which are labeled "Premium Snacks" by AA. I guess they think people will believe the words instead of their eyes and their taste buds.

On one such flight last week I had missed lunch, and, hungry, I asked the First Class FA if she would mind bringing me one of the $5 snack boxes which are normally sold in coach (which I made clear I would pay for). Shaking her head, she said they didn't stock even the for-sale snack boxes in coach on the flight any more because it was not appropriate for the time of day (3:50 PM departure instead of 4:10 PM).

Before I could say it, she admitted it was real stupid of American.

These are just snapshots, of course. But they illustrate my point that 21st century airline food is virtually nonexistent. I miss the days when I could complain to Delta that they served me too much and too often. What was I thinking?

I'll Take Manhattan!

No telling how many times I have been to Manhattan; I've lost count over the years. My first trip was at age 10 in 1958, and it was memorable. I can still feel the thrill of our family arriving at Penn Station on the train and loading into a taxi for the ride over to the Hotel Roosevelt across from Grand Central Station.

Fast forward 48 years and our family's recent weekend in Manhattan. With two young children in tow, we flew up from RDU to LaGuardia rather than subjecting ourselves to the incessant delays of Amtrak, even though the train would have been a nostalgic and proper way to enter New York City.

American Eagle managed to get us there only 70 minutes behind schedule (well, at least the flight operated, and delays are easier to swallow when not on high pressure business trips).

On my many visits to the Big Apple since 1958 I've had all variety of experiences, too many of them discouraging and challenging. Gridlock and urban chaos; hardened New Yorker attitudes and grim demeanors; ubiquitous crazy street people and sometimes lawless streets; garbage strikes and flooded subways; often incompetent and sometimes mean-spirited taxi drivers; dingy, overpriced hotel rooms and nonexistent hotel service: All and more have chipped away at my generally optimistic excitement at entering the greatest city in the United States.

Thus experienced, I was nervous taking my two young children for their first look, and only realized why when the cab from LGA entered the tunnel from Queens: because I wanted them to like the City and be as excited about it as I had been on my first trip so many years ago.

I need not have worried. It was, hands down, my best visit to New York City since I was a child.

We disembarked from our surprisingly clean taxicab at the Doubletree Suites Times Square and paid our very polite driver. My HHonors points-earned room turned out to have a knock-out view of Times Square from the forty-something floor, and the kids (and my wife and I) were enthralled.

The staff at the hotel was competent, polite, and kind without fail. The property was clean, and when I experienced a problem with their Internet service, the Manager On Duty came personally to our room to fix it and then comped it for the entire weekend for my trouble.

Saturday morning we had a leisurely breakfast on the house at the hotel and then cabbed it over to the Empire State Building, hoping to beat the crowds on a beautiful sunlit day. I worried that our 9:30 AM arrival to the ESB would necessitate a long wait, but we were efficiently whisked right up to the 80-something floor main lookout and then had no wait for the 102nd floor elevator.

Could this be the New York of my past? Things seemed to be working, and the people were so nice. This couldn't be Manhattan.

On entering the ancient and tiny elevator, I was amused to see that it had an old hand-crank manual control complete with an attendant to work the lever. The kindly old gentlemen, born and raised in Brooklyn and a lifelong New Yorker, asked my 8 year old if he wanted to operate the elevator on the way up.

And did my son ever jump at that chance, and operate it, he did!

Try to imagine the thrill for a young boy who can say for the rest of his life (and certainly the next week brag to his fellow second graders) that he operated the elevator in the Empire State Building all the way up to the 102nd floor. That moment alone was worth the entire cost of the weekend.

Once at the top we were astonished to find that we shared the view with perhaps ten other people. In all my trips to that venerable top floor, the crowds have been jostling for position around the fantastic 360 degree views in the narrow confines of the 102nd floor, making it difficult to get to a piece of glass anywhere for a good look.

We, however, had the luxury of pausing and pondering every grand view from the Hudson River all the way around to the Hudson again. It was a rare private tour of one of the world's best lookouts.

How, I wondered, as we plunged downward in the ESB's high speed elevators, could it get any better than that?

We made our way next to the Circle Line boat dock and with no wait were the last passengers to board for the 3 hour round-Manhattan cruise. After an emotional run-by of the Statue of Liberty, we went the distance around the island, something my wife and I had never done. I do not have the time to describe how interesting it was, but I highly recommend it. Best of all, the kids loved it, too.

And everyone on board was pleasant and nice and helpful. Could these be New Yorkers? REAL New Yorkers? Indeed they were.

From there we walked to a nearby delicatessen and enjoyed a typical New York deli lunch, including a real NY bagel and cream cheese--my son's favorite treat. The people behind the counter were funny and fast and extremely nice to us.

Could this really be New York? I thought.

Later in the afternoon we rode a subway or two (easy to use, clean, nice people who offered direction to the correct platforms) and stood in the center of the Grand Concourse of Grand Central Station, watching the passing crowds and enjoying the great pulse of the city.

By then I was having trouble grasping that everything seemed to work, and that people were so nice. What happened to the growling, shoving New Yorkers of old?

But why was I complaining? My kids were LOVING it, and so were we.

That night we bought last-minute Orchestra section tickets (a mere six rows back and purchased through Ticketmaster, not a scalper) for the evening performance of Disney's BEAUTY & THE BEAST. An old and fat--and very funny--Donny Osmond guest-starred as the swaggering Gaston at the incomparable and intimate Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, one of the architectural gems of Broadway. It was a riveting performance for all four of us, and the pre-performance and intermission Champagne in the gorgeous lobby made my wife and me feel like adults for a few moments.

Ironically, the marvelous Orchestra seats in the heart of Broadway were a mere $110 each compared to $125 each for comparable seats at the much less intimate Raleigh, North Carolina venue two weeks later for another Disney show, THE LION KING.

On Sunday, after another leisurely breakfast at the wonderful Doubletree Suites Times Square, we went uptown for a long walk through Central Park before heading back to the airport for our return flight to Raleigh (forgettable, as flights should be).

My kids loved New York; my wife and I loved it; and for the life of me I can't get over the feeling that the Manhattan we experienced in 2006 was darn close to the glorious 1958 Manhattan that lives in my memory.

Certainly closer, anyway, than any trip I have made since.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

American Airlines & American Eagle: Bold Innovators Of Travel Misery

If you have read my past blog posts about AA abnd AE, you won’t be surprised to learn that American Airlines and their Eagle operation have once again brought to bear great creativity in their seemingly endless ways to make my life miserable on the road.

Since mid-September I have been traveling to Marquette, Michigan (MQT) in the Upper Peninsula, a truly beautiful part of the world which is home to sincere and kind people.

But getting to and from Marquette by air is a challenge, no matter whether by Midwest through MKE, Northworst through DTW, or American (Eagle) through ORD. To date, most of my flights to MQT have been on American Eagle, and more than half have been either disastrously late (defined by me as more than 120 minutes) or just plain cancelled.

In the most recent full week of flying to Marquette, this report: Last Monday night's sole nonstop flight from O'Hare, scheduled to depart at 6:10 PM, was delayed, delayed, delayed, and finally cancelled just before 10:00 PM--too late for me to have grabbed the last seat on the only other flight that night, which went through Madison before flying on to Marquette.

But then it turned out it didn't matter, since the flight through Madison stopped in Madison overnight (the crew ran out of time). So I would have been stranded in Madison instead of Chicago.

I had a very important 7:30 AM-Noon Tuesday meeting in Marquette that I could not miss, so I reserved a car from National at Milwaukee and made AA put me on the last flight of the night ORD to Milwaukee, which at least got me 70 miles closer to Marquette than Chicago--Marquette's a mere 300 mile drive from Milwaukee.

After the very delayed flight to Milwaukee those short 70 miles (truth be told, I could have driven faster), I picked up the rental car at 11:30 PM and dashed up the Interstate to Green Bay and thence east and north through rural Wisconsin and Michigan towards Marquette.

National at MKE had run out of nonsmoking cars except for a brand new Cadillac DTS, which they gave me as a free upgrade. This made the 300+ mile drive at least slightly more bearable. Utterly exhuasted, I arrived at the Marquette Holiday Inn at 5:30 AM in time for my Tuesday morning meeting.

Of course the Holiday Inn charged me for the full night Monday night even though I arrived at 5:30 AM Tuesday morning after spending the entire night driving to Marquette.

Fast forward now two nights to Thursday evening: Knowing AA Eagle's propensity to cancel flights, and knowing that the 8:35 PM arrival Thursday night makes up the aircraft and crew for my usual 6:30 AM Friday departure to ORD, I phoned the local AA folks at Marquette Sawyer International Airport to be sure my Friday flight would be operating, and would be on time.

Good thing I called, because the airplane had suffered a mechanical in Chicago, an all-too common problem with AE's RJ fleet. It arrived MQT not at 8:35 PM, but instead after midnight, and that caused Friday morning’s flight back to Chicago to be delayed 4 hrs due to crew rest requirements.

Thanks to the nice American Eagle people at MQT, I found out about that at 11:00 PM Thursday night, forcing me and two colleagues, who like me would otherwise have misconnected in Chicago Friday morning, to drive all night to ORD.

Of course the Marquette Holiday Inn charged me for the full night Thursday night because I checked out at 11:00 PM Thursday even though I would spend the entire night in a rental car driving to Chicago.

In an ironic twist, National rental Car at Marquette Airport gave me the same Cadillac DTS Thursday night that I had driven up to Marquette all night the previous Monday night when my AA flight was cancelled in Chicago.

And to top it off, I hit a sizable young buck (about 125 lbs) broadside going about 55 MPH (me, not the deer) at around 1:00 AM just north of Escanaba, Michigan. Bambi on steroids demolished the right front side of the rental car before rolling over the top of the car and off the trunk. I’m sure he’s dead, and we were very glad and very lucky to be alive and not injured.

We lost a headlight and crumpled the right front quarter panel, but the car was drivable, so we just kept going in order to get to Chicago in time for our flights. In fact, we never even stopped completely after hitting the deer. After determining that none of us were hurt, we shook off the temporary trauma, and I floored the Caddy's big V8 back up to highway speed so that we would make it all those 377 long miles to Chicago.

National Car Rental at ORD was not pleased, of course, when I turned the car in and completed an accident report. There was substantial damage to the car, which had just 1750 miles on it. Lucky I had full liability and collision coverage through my American Express Platinum Card because I had declined all such insurance coverage when renting the car Thursday night. Otherwise it would have cost me thousands.

We made the 377 miles in just over 5 hours to ORD. After the shock of colliding with the deer had worn off a bit, we regretted that we had not been able to sling the carcass in the trunk for a team dinner of venison barbecue this week. (Michigan law says you can legally keep a deer you killed with your vehicle if it's reported to a trooper.) I can only imagine trying to put a 125 lb buck through a TSA x-ray machine at O'Hare.

Here's another galling AA fact about Thursday night: I phoned AA's Executive Platinum line to have them delete the MQT/ORD segment since I would not be able to fly it. I knew to do this because otherwise AA's systems would automatically cancel the downline segment ORD/RDU when I didn't turn up for the Marquette to O'Hare flight Friday morning.

But when I got an Exec Platinum agent on the line, she stated that the Friday morning flight was showing that it was on time and not delayed at all. She lectured me harshly, implying that I was manipulating the AA system, and made a big deal about how she was granting me a "one-time exception" to null the flight segment from MQT to ORD.

Incensed that she thought I might be lying in order to experience the perverse thrill of driving all night 377 miles to Chicago, I challenged her to call the local Marquette Airport AA office to verify what I was telling her. I even gave her the local number, which she was surprised they had given me. Yet even after speaking with them and verifying that I wasn't a kook, she persisted in hectoring me, her supposedly valued Executive Platinum customer, before finally deleting the now-four-hour-delayed morning flight to O'Hare from my itinerary.

And do you think AA or AE has offered an apology, let alone any compensation, for my two nights of sleepless misery or the two nights at the Holiday Inn that I paid for but did not receive any value for, not to mention the demolished rental car?

If you do, think again. Instead, they left my electronic reservation record documented so that it appeared American Airlines had done me a magnanimous favor by not charging me for the change to my itinerary caused by the blundering fools at Eagle.

As I have said before, you just can't make this stuff up! Welcome to Travel Hell all who book American Eagle.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Did You Like Your Carefully Chosen Delta Seat Reservations Made Weeks Or Months In Advance? Poof! They're Gone Every Time Delta Has A Small Schedule Change

If, like me, you try to make air reservations around holiday and vacation periods for you and your family months in advance in order to get decent fares and to have access to good seats, then this will not be happy news for you:

My wife and I have two young kids. When I buy tickets well in advance and am lucky enough to snag four seats together, I breathe a sigh of relief. Naturally we don't want to be separated from our small children.

Of course most itineraries involve four flight legs because of the need to change planes at some hub or another. Such was the case when I bought seats on months ago for travel over the upcoming Thanksgiving week--the busiest travel days of the year--to see friends and relatives first in Seattle and later in Minneapolis.

Our open jaw itinerary takes us first RDU/ATL and ATL/SEA. A few days later we ride Amtrak's Empire Builder across the great Northwest through Glacier National Park to the Twin Cities, after which we fly home MSP/CVG and CVG/RDU--four Delta flight segments total.

Yet last night I discovered online at that all 16 of my carefully chosen seats had been vacated on all four segments.

How did this happen? Because Delta's system automatically dumps ALL seat reservations for ALL flight segments every time there is even a small change in their system to an itinerary. The change can be either to the schedule or to a flight number; you still lose all your seat choices. The schedule change might be just a six or seven minute difference to a single flight in the four segment itinerary; you still lose all your seats on all four segments.

Worse, the act is done in silence, without warning. That is, I do not receive an email or a phone message from Delta to let me know that they will have, or have had, such a schedule or flight number change that will affect my travel.

And, even more bizarre, Delta will not automatically rebook the specific seats I selected in the first place, nor will they automatically rebook ANY seats, until I contact THEM to ask why suddenly I have no seats!

If, as often happens, I do not troll my outstanding itineraries frequently enough to notice a change has occurred that has knocked out my seats, then usually by the time I finally call Delta, they inform me that there are not four seats anywhere close together. That's because other passengers have been assigned seats in the interim.

Last night, luckily, I noticed that our Thanksgiving flights had "seat unassigned" shown for every segment, and I was able to restore the same or equivalent seats on three out of four segments. On the last flight, CVG/RDU, however, our family's seats are completely separated: one is in a window seat, another is in another window seat two rows away, and the last two are in yet another row.

And, by the way, such seat re-selections canNOT be made online. I must phone Delta reservations to be able to obtain new seats. They tell me that's because Delta wants to be certain that I have knowledge of the schedule or flight number change--a logic I fail to comprehend, frankly.

One last observation: Good thing for me that I am a Delta Platinum and have access to the Platinum Elite telephone lines. It can often be a long wait for a rez agent on a non-Elite line.

When I complained about the silect shredding of my family seat selections, the Delta agent said--with absolutely no intentional irony--that if I didn't boook in advance this would not happen to me! When I pointed out that if I waited until the last minute to buy tickets for Thanksgiving that there would not be any seats left, or, at best, the seats would be priced at absurdly high full Y prices, he said, "Oh, yeah, I guess you're right. Mmmm."

This sad tale proves once again that airline customer service is defined and designed by people who are smoking something funny, or who just have a hard time with logic and common sense.

It also proves, I guess, that truth is stranger than fiction, because no way I could make something like this up. Unless I was smoking something funny, and, last time I checked, I wasn't.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

American Eagle Blankets On Board, Revisited

I lucked out last Friday and happened to be on board an Eagle aircraft that actually had blankets for sale (see my previous post on this subject below). Good thing, too, because it was a 6:30 AM departure from chilly Marquette, Michigan, and all the formerly free plump and warm red blankets had been removed.

Several freezing customers followed my lead and coughed up a fin for the deal, which arrived as a dark blue, thin blanket rolled up tightly in a plastic tube. With it came one of those ugly, uncomfortable, and useless U-shaped blow-up plastic pillows. I gave mine away to the lady sitting in the seat in front of me.

The blanket itself was decidedly thin, to be sure, but what did I expect for five dollars? It was better than no blanket over my legs on that cold airplane, and it did its job. Not the familiar AA red; instead it looked exactly the dark blue blankets that Delta has used for years.

After takeoff, when the plane warmed up a bit, I examined the blanket's label, sewn into the edge, and my curiosity was rewarded by this bold proclamation thereon: "PROPERTY OF AMERICAN EAGLE"

What, I thought, would now be the implications of me stuffing this blanket into my suitcase. Would I be considered a thief? I had no receipt, after all.

So I pointed out this odd label information to the very nice Flight Attendant, asking whether I had bought the blanket or had merely rented it. She was as surprised as I had been, and just laughed, and said,

"Well, I never! First they remove the blankets. Then they don't provide us with any blankets for sale, which makes everyone mad. And now that we have a few for sale they claim the blankets are airline property! Now I've seen everything! I can hardly wait to point this out to my colleagues at O'Hare. Don't worry; you just rip that label off and take the blanket with you. You paid for it, and it's yours."

So there you have it, another sterling example of airline management's unparalled stupidity at work: First, get rid of the free amenity; then don't stock the replacement you wanted to make money on in the first place, simultaneously losing potential income and angering cold customers who now have no blanket option at all; and finally, when the stock for sale comes in, plaster your ownership claim on it to confuse and offend the same customers you made mad in the first place. Home run!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

American Eagle Is Proud To Have No Blankets: None For Free And None For Sale

On six recent AA Eagle flights I suddenly discovered--and I do mean, suddenly, as in overnight--that the professional managers who make such decisions on behalf of their loyal Executive Platinum customers like me have stripped off every last familiar red, warm blankets and, in place of the formerly complimentary flannel, have only a thin blanket and pillow sold in a roll-up tube.

I eschewed the tube option on four flights out of spite and resentment, frankly.

However, on the most recent two flights I decided it would cost just $5 to do a bit of research and see if the new option was worthy of the comfy red blankets of the recent past.

To my surprise, I was told on both recent flights that no blanket cum pillow tubes (presumably blow-up pillows) were available.

On the last flight (last night) I was actually rebuked by yet another surly Eagle FA en route O'Hare to Marquette, Michigan (and this after a four hour delay) who put his face down close to mine--obviously hoping to intimidate me, but sadly disappointed--and barked, "WE HAVE NO BLANKETS OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER ON THIS FLIGHT, EITHER FREE OR FOR SALE. THAT'S BECAUSE WE RAN OUT SEVERAL DAYS AGO, AND WE HAVE NO BLANKETS ON THIS FLIGHT WHATSOEVER!"

I swear that's a direct quote. Don't know what or who put a bee in his bonnet, but the four hour delay and the swarminess of his o-so-not-customer-focused approach finally caused my rubber band to snap slightly, and I offered the lukewarm response: "Just one more reason not to choose American, I guess."

To which this warm-hearted customer service maven responded, "WELL, SIR, IT'S YOUR CHOICE, OF COURSE, WHICH AIRLINE YOU FLY." Then he stalked away.

Oh, how I love American Eagle! So customer-service focused are they. No blankets now even for sale, and such well-mannered, professional, and good-natured employees to explain the lack thereof.