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.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Amtrak's EMPIRE BUILDER Is A Civilized Way To Travel

I know what you are thinking: The word "Amtrak" has become synonymous with laughably poor service and schedule unreliability as bad or worse than the Big Six conjures for us. Probably many readers are writing off this particular blog post merely on the basis on my headline.

But before you click your browser to another place in the ether, consider for a moment the possibility that not all Amtrak trains are operated as poorly as the NY-Florida service or the Sunset service between L.A. and New Orleans. In fact, my family of four enjoyed two days and two nights of superb, friendly service, good food, grand views, and on-time performance in a Family Room (sleeper) aboard the Empire Builder from Seattle to St. Paul over the Thanksgiving weekend. It was so relaxing and so unexpectedly positive that I want to share it. I heartily recommend it!

First, some background about Amtrak's transcon western trains. There are four possible routings:

  • The Sunset Limited from the Crescent City to Los Angeles via the old Southern Pacific Sunset route (now Union Pacific) along the bottom of the country;
  • The Southwest Chief from Chicago to L.A. via the old Santa Fe railroad route (now BNSF Railway) which used to be the way of the fabled all-Pullman Super Chief through the Southwest;
  • The California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco along the old Burlington Route (now BNSF), Rio Grande (now UP), and Western Pacific (also now UP) tracks through the heart of the Rockies west of Denver;
  • And finally, the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle and Portland along the old Burlington Route (now BNSF) to the Twin Cities and thence via the old Great Northern "Hi-Line" route (also now BNSF) straight across the top of the country through Glacier National Park in Montana to Idaho, Spokane, and across the Cascades to the Pacific Northwest.

So why is their any difference among these trains? Well, partly because Amtrak is forced to use tracks of the freight railroads that formerly operated the passenger trains (until 1971), and the BNSF Railway does a better job than the Union Pacific in moving Amtrak trains across its territory on time. Another reason for service differentials is that regional Amtrak management styles determine how each of these long distance trains are operated.

The point is, there IS a difference in both service and on-time performance, often a BIG difference. Whereas the Sunset Limited is sometimes 10-12 hours late (for many reasons which I won't recount here), the Empire Builder is mostly on time. In fact, it has the best on-time performance of any western long distance Amtrak train.

AND the Empire Builder has the best service. Thanks to years of cutbacks and underfunding, Amtrak has gone to prepared boxed meals on most of its long distance trains--but not on the Empire Builder. It still has a full service, cook-to-order diner that prepares three hot meals a day. On our train the staff was friendly, efficient, helpful, and downright nice. The service was fast and excellent, and the meals were good to very good.

And did I mention that all meals are complimentary for passengers who have paid for sleeper accommodations? You pay only for alcohol; all else is free. Even the tasty 8 oz. flat iron steak (corn-fed beef, hand cut, aged 21 days) that would otherwise set you back $21.

The Empire Builder consists of Amtrak's "Superliner" cars, which are all high-level, which translates into good viewing of the gorgeous western scenery. There is even a full-length high level dome lounge car, with seats facing the floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides. We sat for hours with our kids watching the snow and the Rocky Mountains through Glacier National Park in Montana. What a thrill! And the lounge bar served us beverages of all sorts all day long and into the evening. Very relaxing and civilized.

Sleepers, too, are high level Superliner cars, and most accommodations are in the upper level. The big double bedrooms even have their own toilets AND showers.

Our "Family Room" (Amtrak's name for our type of accommodation) slept four in comfort (two adults, two kids) and was on the lower level, with toilets and a shower down the aisle. It was extremely private and quiet, since the lower level does not have the end-to-end walking corridor of the upper level.

Family Rooms--just two per sleeper car--are at each end of the lower level and are full width rooms, that is, we had a window on each side of the train. This was possible because there is no corridor beyond the Family Room; we were essentially on a cul-de-sac. This made the room very spacious and comfortable.

Each sleeper has a dedicated attendant, and ours was always available, very nice, and helpful. She even offered to babysit our kids while we accepted Amtrak's invitation to an "adults only" wine-and-cheese tasting (a mid-afternoon affair held in the diner between lunch and dinner). We graciously accepted, and had great fun sampling 3 reds and 3 whites and 6 cheeses.

OK, it wasn't the best vino we've ever had by a long shot (we are very fond of grape nectar), but it WAS a LOT of fun! Zipping along at 79 MPH or faster through the vast stretches of the Great Plains in eastern Montana past Havre while sipping and nibbling was exciting--and quite unexpected, frankly.

I had thought the train experience would be a good one for our kids, but I had steeled myself for poor service on Amtrak. I was wrong: It was great service, and the wine tasting was another innovative example of good customer service. The folks running it made it light and fun for everyone, and at the end asked some seriously dumb and funny questions as an excuse to give away the remaining bottles of wine. We enjoyed our free bottle of Washington State Chard with dinner, and it was delicious!

And here's the final kicker (if all that fun wasn't enough): We left Seattle dead on time; we lost over an hour due to some snow delays en route; and we arrived St. Paul dead on schedule on the second morning of our trip. How many times has an airline provided good on-board service lately and been on time to boot?

In the interest of making this quick to read, I have left out a lot of detail. If you're interested, email me with your questions. Bottom line is I recommend the Empire Builder if you have the time and the inclination. It's a great way to see America and have fun doing it!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

American Airlines: We Know How To Make Money!


I've already asserted ad infinitum that American Airline's Eagle operation is abominable. They publish a schedule, but many days it's just a fantasy. They proved it again this week on their 3 daily flights between O'Hare and Marquette.

In addition to endless creeping delays and outright cancellations, these three flights very often tend to be weight-restricted, which requires bumping full fare Y folks--the ones whose tickets cost a fortune--off the flights against their wills. And that's what I want to talk about.

"Weight restricted" means the plane is not considered safe to fly over a certain weight, and that weight is below the normal design weight of the plane fully loaded with all seats filled and all luggage in the cargo hold and gas tanks full. Usually a plane is weight restricted because of weather uncertainty (in case it has to divert to an alternate field, which would require extra fuel), but sometimes it's because the airline just doesn't want to pay for enough fuel to move a fully loaded plane to its destination with sufficient margin for safety.

In either case, they calculate the revised lower-than-normal aircraft weight and then figure the total number of passengers they can board up to that revised lower weight. The rest are bumped off the flight.

Many of my 17 colleagues have been using AA for their travels to and from Marquette (MQT) since September. This past Monday night one of our guys was successively bumped off two flights to MQT because of weight restrictions even with a full fare ticket. He was forced to get a refund and drive a rental car from Chicago to Marquette, a grueling all-night, 311 mile journey of just under six hours.

Why would American Airlines give up $1,000 in revenue (round trip) by bumping off the highest revenue passenger on the flight?

Ironically, it's because when a plane is weight-restricted, the last person to book an AA flight is not given an actual seat assignment until they arrive at the gate, no matter how much they paid. That way the gate agent knows who to bump if the flight is weight restricted: last to book, first to bump.

And of course a person who books at the very last minute (and therefore does not get a seat assignment) is certain to pay the very highest fare in the market.

It's pretty dumb to deny a seat to the highest yield customers while allowing the lowest yield flyers on board, yet the geniuses at AA and AE do it every day. In fact it's standard operating procedure.

Proving once again that AA has no earthly idea how to make money.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Hotel Internet Services: Wireless Is Not Consistently Reliable The Way Hard-Wired Ethernet Service Was

If, as I do, you stay in different hotels every week all over the United States, and if, as I do, you are utterly dependent upon their Internet service for access to the World Wide Web and to the hundreds of daily emails we all get through MS Outlook, then perhaps you have experienced the severe frustrations that I have as hotels have increasingly forsaken good old hard-wired Ethernet cable access for thoroughly modern but less reliable wireless connections.

Why is this happening? Because hotels think it's sexy to have wireless-enabled environments that free us all from the hard-wired rooms of the recent past.

Except that hotel wireless is wildly variable and not (yet) nearly as reliable in signal strength as hard-wired solutions. Wireless installed in the tough concrete and steel structures that hotels are made of is erratic and unpredictable.

Here are some examples:

The Homewood Suites Fort Worth is a great property in every way but one: its wireless doesn't work in every room. In fact it doesn't work worth a toot in many rooms, some adjacent to each other. No one can explain why. The hotel gives us an 800 number to call, which is hopeless and infantile in its root cause analysis ("Sir, is your computer turned on?" is the first question).

The Doubletree Suites Times Square in Manhattan also asked me to phone an 800 number to resolve the fact that their Internet connection would not connect. When I made a fuss, the Manager On Duty came personally to my room and gave several simple solutions that were not on the instruction card and then comped the service for my trouble. But it was still aggravation I didn't need and time wasted, time lost.

The Hampton Inn Columbus (Ohio) Airport's wireless service often fades while the neighboring Hilton Garden Inn property's wireless signal invades the Hampton, causing incorrect password recognition, mass confusion, and dropped signals. The front desk simply says: "Gosh, our Internet provider is REALLY bad. We get LOTS of complaints EVERY week." But they never can get anything corrected.

The most egregious recent example of bad wireless is the Holiday Inn in Marquette, Michigan. Wireless signal strength there varies from a low of 18% (on my state-of-the-art Linksys "N" protocol wireless card) to a high of 62%. And it frequently kicks me off email and the web as often as every minute. Yet other times it is steady as a rock--and all this in the same room (313) that they have given me every week for 7 weeks.

Just tonight the Marquette Holiday Inn sales manager, a wonderful person in her own right, managed to get the company that provides the Internet service to actually come to the property and be on call to those (many) of us who were having problems. Glenn, their manager, was available earlier tonight when, for the first of many occasions, I was kicked off the 'net by his terrible service, and so I phoned to have Glenn come to my room.

His reaction? He stared at my computer without touching it for a minute, and, adjusting his glases, turned to face me, and said, "This is a great learning experience for me."

I ushered Glenn to the door and gave him the bum's rush, telling him never to come back.

I don't know about you, but I am not paying my hotels many hundreds of dollars each week to provide learning laboratories for their horse-hockey technical vendors. Especially when their so-called managers don't have a clue as to why the advertised service isn't working.

This would be a complicated technical subject if I intended to describe the myriad of reasons for poor Internet service via wireless.

But even though I know some of those reasons, they are all beside the point. I don't give a rat's ass why it isn't working, and neither should you. I deeply resent any hotel that tries to foist me off onto their vendor's 800 numbers or in-the-flesh technical people. I just want consistently reliable access to the Internet and to my email. That's all.

Hotels provided fine Internet access when it was via Ethernet cable, but now that it goes by funky radio waves (and that's all wireless is: radio transmitters and receivers) things get dicey real fast. Hell, one has only to look at the myth of cell phone so-called service to understand how unreliable the parsing of radio bandwidth has become. How many dropped mobile calls do you experience a day, regardless of cell provider? Is it any wonder, then, that wireless Internet in the difficult steel and concrete environments of hotels is hopeless?

The point is that gradually we frequent business travelers have become utterly dependent upon the umbilical cord lifeline of the Internet. Our clients have firewalls and other impenetrable Internet occlusions to outsiders (read: nonemployees) that prevent us from accessing the Web during the day. This means we must work our emails nightly from our hotel rooms. Hotels have not faced the fact that their wireless providers are not consistently reliable. Ethernet (hard-wired) connections were simple and always reliable. Hotel managers never considered the difference in reliability when they switched to wireless.

Today I choose my hotels on the basis of consistently reliable Internet access (wireless or Ethernet) even above price and location. This has never been true before, and yet no hotel chain, or even local hotel management competing in hot local markets, has picked up on this marketing differential angle.

Too bad; it would make my life a lot easier on the road if I had a chain I could depend on every time, every place, for reliable wireless Internet service.