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, April 26, 2007

Experiencing A Smoke-filled Cabin On An AA Airplane Is Worth 15,000 AAdvantage Miles

(How Many Miles Would We Have Received If The Plane Had Not Made It Safely Back To RDU?)

My two previous blog entries recounted the extreme anxiety of experiencing a smoke-filled cabin on an American Airlines jet shortly after takeoff last week. I also wrote about the aftermath of that Sunday night's scary incident: namely, that on Monday (the very next day) I could not locate any AA employee at RDU who was even aware that such a close call had occurred.

I did not attempt to contact anyone at AA Customer Service after I realized Monday that no one even knew it had happened, and the week passed in sober reflection.

Then last Friday, to my surprise, I received the following email from American Airlines:

April 19, 2007

Dear Mr. Allen:

Our manager in Raleigh/Durham was concerned and asked us to follow up with you regarding your flight with us on April 15. We can understand how frustrating that trip must have been. We are very sorry for all the difficulties you encountered when flight 4684 unexpectedly returned to the airport and experienced an overnight delay.

As our personnel indicated at the time, a mechanical problem developed en route to Columbus. As a result, the decision was made to return to Raleigh/Durham so our specialists could take a look at the situation. While our personnel worked hard to minimize the inconvenience, we know that many of our customers' important plans were disrupted. I am truly sorry.

In appreciation for your patience, we've added 15,000 Customer Service bonus miles to your AAdvantage® account. You should see this mileage adjustment in your account very soon, and you can view this activity via I hope this gesture of goodwill helps restore your confidence in us.

Your loyalty is important to us and I would like to assure you that we are committed to getting you to your destination as planned. Sometimes, as on April 15, flights won't operate as planned but our goal is to keep those times to a minimum. I know your next trip with us will go much more smoothly than this one did. We will look forward to welcoming you aboard soon.

This is an "outgoing only" email address. If you 'reply' to this message by simply selecting the reply button, we will not receive your additional comments. Please assist us in providing you with a timely response to any feedback you have for us by always sending us your email messages via at


B. J. Russell
Customer Relations
American Airlines

It was interesting to learn that American Airlines thought 15,000 miles would erase the scary memory and placate us (I have since learned that all passengers on AA4684 that night who were AAdvantage members received 15,000 miles).

I wonder how many extra frequent flyer miles we would have received if we had all been killed instead of merely being frightened and inconvenienced.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Like It Never Happened: In the Airline World, It's Manage The Moment & Forget Yesterday

Back at RDU Airport this afternoon no one at American Airlines knew anything about last night's emergency landing (see previous post).

And they were not too keen to hear about it, either. Last night's bad weather was followed by high winds that caused RDU to close at 11:00 AM, and all inbound flights were diverted elsewhere. Apparently, too, the chaos last night up and down the East Coast and Midwest stranded scores of people at Raleigh/Durham Airport. As evidenced by the sea of red flannel in the terminal, AA had provided blankets for the homeless there.

At least I know now what American did with all the blankets it removed from coach.

My flight's designated airplane was among those diverted, of course. And then, like most of the rest, my flight was cancelled. Again.

I was already at the airport when I found this out, having wasted another $40 on taxi fare. Oh, why didn't I have the good sense to check first? you may rightly ask.

But I DID check before I left: online in 2 places and with no less than 3 AA sources by telephone. A friend phoned at noon just as I was preparing to go to the airport for my rebooked flight to Columbus at 2:05 PM and told me that the airport was closed. So I checked the AA website AGAIN, AGAIN, and for good measure I phoned AA's Admiral Club at RDU and the Executive Platinum desk. All those sources confirmed that RDU was operating normally and that my flight was on time.

So I took my cab to the airport thinking my friend had merely heard an unfounded rumor.

Once inside security I checked again with the Admirals Club, and they confirmed that all was well with my 2:05 PM Columbus departure. And they had no knowledge or interest in last night's smoky cabin and emergency landing which scared the bejesus out of everybody on the flight.

So I went to gate C24 at 1:30 PM expecting to board, plane! Also no Columbus flight posted on any monitor there (though the official monitors in the Admirals Club had all shown my flight on time).

When I inquired at the podium about my flight I was given an incredulous look by the gate agent before he said: "Been no flights landed at RDU since 11 this morning. Thought everybody knew that. Your aircraft was diverted to Greensboro. Not sure when to expect it, but it's DEFINITELY going to be late!"

Why don't the old veterans in the Admirals Club like Margaret know this? I asked. I got a shrug in return. Kafka came to mind. Again.

"But your flight WILL operate," the gate agent said, smiling. "It's going to Columbus for sure as soon as that plane gets here from Greensboro!"

Maybe in his dreams. The flight was cancelled less than an hour later, and there are no seats on any flight to Columbus, direct or connecting, until Wednesday.

And when I asked, the gate agent knew nothing about our previous evening's emergency landing, either. Like everyone there, he was too busy fighting the fires of the moment to ponder yesterday's potential disaster.

I Thought I was Going To Die Tonight On American Airlines 4684

Tonight my American Airlines flight 4684, an Embraer RJ, from Raleigh to Columbus, scheduled for a 7:00 PM departure, took off 80 minutes late in bad weather. We had waited at the end of the runway in pouring rain for a thunderstorm to move off the field.

About 5 minutes into our bumpy climb-out, a subtle light gray smoke that looked like condensate suddenly appeared lightly streaming from the overhead air vents. The smoke partially but rapidly filled the cabin, especially among the back rows (where I was seated), accompanied by an oily, acrid smell. It happened so quickly that my fellow passengers, like me, didn’t at first believe what we were seeing and smelling. (I know this because we discussed it later back on the ground.)

When it first occurred, the flight attendant came on the PA system, telling us that we should not worry about what appeared to be smoke coming from the air vents. It was just condensation caused by the high humidity left by the thunderstorm, he said.

But shortly afterwards, the flight attendant made a second announcement, saying, "We are aware of the situation." This time his voice was tense and nervous. He asked us to ring our call buttons if we thought there was a problem. I was sitting in seat 15A on a 16-row airplane, and the smoke seemed to be coming from somewhere near the rear. I immediately rang my call button, as did everyone around me theirs.

The FA was on his phone with the pilots and then came to the rear, fire extinguisher in hand, feeling the floor and ceiling for hot spots. He checked the lavatory right behind row 16 last, but told me he did not find anything. However, smoke continued coming from the air vents, and it appeared to be worsening.

This was the moment when I thought it was over, that we were going to die. I’ve been flying for over 30 years, and I have had several airline clients. I subscribed to AVIATION WEEK, the bible of the industry, for 25 years, and I have read the after-accident FAA and NTSB reports of every major air crash in the past quarter century. I know too much about these incidents. When the cabin of an airplane fills with smoke, odds are that you’re going to die, and quickly, from asphyxiation.

I put down my Time Magazine and started saying my prayers. Ironically, I was reading about Einstein’s faith in God, an excerpt from the new Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson. I prayed for my children’s well-being in their lives.

Nobody panicked; all remained calm. It was a tribute to the human spirit, an experience I never wanted or expected to witness. I thought our lives were over, and many of my companions may have felt the same. However, there was almost no talking between and among passengers during this somber period.

After returning to the front of the cabin, the flight attendant conferred over his phone with the cockpit, and then repeatedly announced that we were turning back to Raleigh. We landed OK after a harrowing 20 minutes or so. The pilots declared an emergency and returned very, very quickly to Raleigh/Durham.

As we descended, the smoke dissipated as mysteriously and as quickly as it had come, to everyone's great relief.

As we touched down, the plane was met and surrounded by fire and emergency vehicles. But because the smoke was now gone, we continued to a gate and deplaned normally.

On my way out I stopped by the cockpit to tell the pilots what happened from my perspective near the rear of the plane, and I thanked them for their quick action and safe landing. They told me that the smoke alarm had been triggered in the lav.

The pilots were shaken (as were we) about the incident, and they refused to fly that airplane tonight. American cancelled the flight. I am booked on another AA flight tomorrow at 2:05 PM that arrives CMH about 4:00 PM Monday.

Tonight, after several stiff drinks, I'm wondering why I keep doing what I do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Emirates Air First Class Experiences (4 Flights Connecting Through Dubai) Bring To Mind A Quote From Robert Browning

The English Victorian writer, Robert Browning, wrote in his poem, Andrea del Sarto:
“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?”

Browning’s sage observation neatly encapsulates humankind’s striving to know and achieve things beyond their current knowledge and ability. Browning meant to illuminate one of man’s admirable qualities. The quote has often been restated in more current terms, such as this quip by Eleanor Roosevelt: "If we wait till we're ready, we'll never get started."

And that pretty much sums up my first First Class experiences on Emirates Air, the international airline based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. As much as Emirates Air tries, its reach exceeds its grasp. At least currently. They are aiming to be the world‘s best international airline, but they are not yet ready to achieve it. I hope they will learn from their mistakes and improve, but I have to give them a B+ at best on my recent four flights in late March and early April (LGW/DXB, DXB/JNB, JNB/DXB, and DXB/LGW).

Emirates has been especially pushing and shoving its way forward to claim big-dog status among premium cabin flyers. It makes noises like it wants to be in the same league as, or even ahead of, Singapore Air, taking the dropped baton of superb premium services left by defunct Swissair. However loudly Emirates toots its own horn, the reality differs from the claim in several ways.

Emirates service on the ground was very good at Gatwick and just fair at Johannesburg, but especially failed against its marketing hype at its hometown hub in Dubai, both in infrastructure and ground staff effectiveness. In the air, on-board service was generally superb, but its First Class cabins differ dramatically among their fleet. The result is that you can get stuck in a three-generations-old seat on many airplanes, which is not acceptable for the astronomically high price of a full fare First Class ticket.

Landside Services

Emirates maintains its own connecting counter at London Gatwick knowing it will be collecting onward customers arriving from North America and elsewhere. Even better, they have a dedicated First/Business Class line at the counter, so there was no waiting after the long trek from my AA gate. Staff members representing Emirates were courteous, thorough, and fast. I had my boarding passes for Dubai and Johannesburg and invitations to the Gatwick and Dubai First Class lounges in hand in no time.

The Emirates lounge in the North Terminal at LGW is huge and new and well-kept. It makes an excellent first impression. It turned out to be a uni-lounge (combined Business and First), but felt tilted to First Class passengers. Good premium wines and Champagne were on offer, along with great snacks (all better than British Air’s dedicated First Class lounge at Gatwick which I used on my return two weeks later). Lots of room in the lounge and 20-odd PCs set up with complimentary, fast Internet connections.

Staff in the lounge were pleasant and eager to please. Plenty of showers were available in the enormous and well-appointed men’s room. In fact the facilities gave the impression of an upscale country club locker room. Announcements were routinely made about flight gate openings and boarding so we could make our (long) way to the plane with plenty of time to spare.

Too bad the Gatwick experience wasn’t duplicated in Dubai or Johannesburg.

In Jo’burg, check-in was subbed out to South African Airways (SAA code-shares with Emirates), which had competent staff, and there were even three separate check-in lines for First, Business, and Economy. However, the Economy line was long, and people started wandering over without being invited to check in at the practically empty First and Business counters (well, that’s the whole idea: First and Business lines should be short or nonexistent to avoid waiting). No SAA staff objected, and I ended up waiting because of the line crashers from coach and because the First Class check-in counter was not staffed when I arrived (an agent eventually showed up to man the First Class counter, but too late for me).

Boarding pass and premium lounge invitation finally in hand, I was unable to visit the lounge because the flight announced early boarding. Thinking boarding had begun, I rushed to the gate and passed through the mandatory secondary screening only to learn that the terminal announcement was incorrect. Not wanting to face another round of secondary screening, I milled around with the hoi polloi for another half hour or so before the flight boarded.

Strangely, boarding in Johannesburg commenced with no announcement when a supervisor simply and quietly opened the gate’s doors and stood aside. Neither First Class nor Business was asked to board first, nor were folks “needing extra time or assistance,” and the masses teemed down the long passage and jet bridge to the waiting aircraft. Luckily, I was close to the door and near the pack leaders and was thus able to scurry into the front cabin’s warm embrace quickly. I wonder what other premium cabin customers thought of the odd boarding method as they fought their way through the sweaty throng.

Saving the worst for last, I can only describe the Dubai hub and terminal as a hot and dusty Arabian Gulf carbon copy of Atlanta or Chicago: overcrowded, over-heated, chaotic, difficult to traverse, under-staffed, and with employees as dazed and insensitive as any calloused airline hub ground staff employee in the States.

Changing planes at 2:30 AM, one would normally expect relative quiet. But not in Dubai. Instead, it was wall-to-wall people and planes, like Grand Central Station at rush hour. They say it's that way 24/7, but especially in the middle of the night. Because of where Dubai is located geographically, many Emirates flights are scheduled at night to make more reasonably-timed connections at cities in the rest of the world.

And you can fly most anywhere from Dubai. While waiting in the First Class lounge there were announcements for Perth, Hong Kong, Osaka, Moscow, London, New York, and my flight for Johannesburg.

Overall, the Dubai terminal operation was an absolute madhouse.

On our London flight’s arrival, no Emirates staff met premium customers at the door, or even made an announcement that might help us. Far from it, once the door was opened, First and Business passengers joined the common herd to board buses idling by the remote parking stand. Emirates now flies to over 80 international destinations, and the airline has far outgrown its Dubai hub, forcing many flights to park a long distance from the terminal. The desert heat stabbed us hard, even at two in the morning, as we walked down the stairs from the plane to the bus.

Our non-air-conditioned buses dumped us unceremoniously at a side door to the single large terminal, where chaos reined inside. Customers who, like me, were connecting, had to endure another security screening process to enter the terminal. Long lines snaked out before the entry points to the few open security screening portals.

I noticed, after standing back for a moment to take all this in, that there was, off to one end, a security gate labeled for First and Business Class passengers, and I made a bee-line for it. As in Johannesburg, gate crashers with Economy boarding passes ignored the signs and gummed up the works, but it still moved faster than the other lines.

Then on to find the Emirates First Class Lounge in the Dubai terminal, said to be adjacent to gate F20. As I walked along, the terminal literally throbbed with people and activity.

There are three Emirates premium customer lounges in the current Dubai terminal, one for First Class passengers and two for denizens of Business Class. I cannot describe the Business Class facilities because I didn’t visit either of them, but the First Class lounge was far too small for the hordes swarming there. I could not find a seat!

Further, the two Emirates staff manning lounge entry bordered on surly in their attitudes, and they were not helpful. My complaint about the heat and the lack of seating was met with a shrug and an averted eye—certainly inappropriate and unexpected staff behavior in any airline’s First Class lounge. It was suggested by the same Emirates lounge staff that I go instead in one of the Business Class lounges if I didn’t like the First Class one, but that I would find them at least as over-crowded as the First Class facility.

When I related this incident to several Emirates flight attendants on subsequent flights, they all acknowledged that ground staff and service at Dubai is well known to be abysmal and an embarrassment to the airline. However, it is unclear to me that Emirates has dedicated itself to improving the situation.

There were just four Internet PC terminals in the lounge, and all must have been on dial-up lines, as they took full minutes to paint each web page. I finally abandoned my objective to check email through webmail access with my ISP because of the slow connections.

Food and drink in the lounge, however, were excellent, as befits a First Class facility. In variety and quality the comestibles were superb (best hummus I have ever tasted, for instance), and the wines and Champagne were top-notch as well.

Chalk up one more deficiency in the Emirates First Class lounge at Dubai in the dearth of shower rooms (on the men’s side, anyway). For the dense Dubai First Class traffic through this lounge, Emirates has provided just two shower rooms. Both are small and puny, and only one was functioning during both my visits (two weeks apart). Contrast this with the Emirates Gatwick facility (admittedly a combined First and Business lounge) where four roomy men’s showers were available.

As departure time closed in for my JNB flight, I departed the First Class lounge for the posted gate. It was an incredibly long walk to the gate at the very end of the terminal, made worse by having to push through the multitudes. Finally at the gate, yet more buses (again with no air-conditioning) slowly tooled across many miles of tarmac to our Johannesburg airplane parked at yet another (very) remote stand.

Connecting back through Dubai from Jo’burg and on to London, the experiences were similar except that the plane actually parked at a terminal gate. This convenience was blunted, however, when they released us from the plane into the terminal only to discover that the door into the terminal at the end of the jet bridge was locked. A scowling and unapologetic Emirates employee finally arrived after a 25-minute wait to let the long queue of tired and irritated passengers in.

Then we endured another very long walk through the hot and chock-full terminal to another security screening point. This was after being waved passed a closed but fully staffed screening point where airport and Emirates employees were standing around chatting with each other, utterly unconcerned about us customers streaming past.

The sole screening point that we did finally find open was even more crowded than upon arrival from London, and there was no dedicated First or Business Class portal this time. There was a very long wait to get through, with no passenger class differentiation whatsoever.

I was tired and frustrated because I had paid many thousands of dollars for First Class to avoid just this sort of thing, and I was lucky enough to snag a passing Emirates staffer. When I explained my plight, she kindly escorted me to the front of the screening line, and I passed through with no further delay. Too bad this was mere coincidence and not a standard Emirates service.

Overall, I was surprised and disappointed that Emirates seemed to have no sensitivity or understanding whatsoever of the need to offer seamless groundside-airside-groundside service to its premium customers—especially surprising because it was on their home turf in Dubai that the worst deficiencies were so in evidence. If Emirates is really chasing Singapore Air and hopes to emulate the storied First Class service of Swissair, it needs to work hard on improving the experience once the planes block in at Dubai.

In the heyday of Swissair, First Class passengers arriving Zurich would be met at the plane and shown the way or escorted to the First Class lounge. There each person was greeted by name and quietly told in person when their onward plane (if connecting) was boarding. Again they would be escorted to the gate if requested.

The same procedure occurred at JFK, with Swissair First Class passengers boarding last after being personally escorted from the lounge at the very last minute. As First Class passengers were getting settled in the front cabin, the boarding door was closed, and the Swissair plane began to get its push back.

I can attest to this because it happened to me on many occasions when flying with Swissair. This kind of personalized service to First Class customers was standard even at remote stations like Johannesburg.

I fondly remember my Swissair flights JNB/ZRH and then ZRH/JFK, and the wonderful service provided seamlessly from airport to airplane to airport to airplane to airport. Swissair would routinely follow up a few days after arrival with both a phone call and a letter asking if the service was good and asking how they could improve it if not.

Emirates would do well to study those service elements if it wants to woo First Class custom away from the likes of Singapore Air.

Airside Services

Emirates Air flies an incredible 8 flights each way daily between London and Dubai, 5 to/from Heathrow and 3 to/from Gatwick. Its long-haul fleet is mainly a mix of 777 types, A330-200s, and A340-200s. I am told the 777-300ERs have the most up-to-date First Class compartments, and that proved to be my experience.

Two of my flights (those between Gatwick and Dubai) were in older First Class seats and compartments on a 777-300 outbound and an A330-200 returning. The so-called First Class seats (18 on the 777, 12 on the A330) were no better than Continental’s BusinessFirst in recline and comfort, and they were in pretty shabby condition to boot.

Between Dubai and Jo’burg Emirates flew 777-300ER aircraft equipped with their newest, state-of-the-art First Class compartments: fully reclining, lie-flat seats; privacy shades; 500+ on-demand video channels shown on huge screens; even built-in, highly variable (and effective) vibrating massage. On such newly-equipped planes, Emirates First Class service was without question world-class in all respects.

Emirates’ complement of flight attendants was much higher than that of many other international carriers in my experience. For 12 seats we had no less than four full-time FAs at our beck and call for the entire flight. All were polite, well-trained, very cheerful, competent, and cognizant of our every want and need.

Unlike many other overnight flight experiences, such as BA’s Heathrow First Class service to Johannesburg, there was never a time when an Emirates FA or three were not in the F cabin checking on the pampered few up front (BA flight attendants, even in First Class, can be hard to find late at night). In this regard Emirates Air excelled beyond my expectation.

On-board service was also superb. Even the boarding Champagne was 1999 Dom Perignon. En route to Dubai, though the seats were old, tired, and outdated, we were served huge dollops of Iranian Black Sea caviar with all the proper accompaniments. Heaven on earth for me!

The LGW/DXB meal service was a no-holds-barred six course affair that harkened back to the halcyon days of Pan American World Airways First Class service from JFK to London in the 1970s when the 747 was the new king of the skies. Even on Singapore in First I have rarely enjoyed a meal in the stratosphere that equaled fine dining on the ground, but I did on Emirates Air en route to Dubai, to wit:

· Hot canapés – lamb kibbeh, coriander & chili scallops, smoked chicken, and so on
· Appetizers – Iranian Caviar, Arabic Mezze, and Salmon Fillet
· Soup & Salad – Cream of Butternut Squash, Seasonal Salad
· Main Courses – Pan-seared Sea Bass, Fillet of Lamb Loin, Chicken Chabsat, Pumpkin Ravioli, and Grilled Halibut (5 choices!), plus seasonal vegetables
· Desserts – Chocolate & Raspberry Pyramid, Banana Toffee Pudding, Cheeses
· Coffee, Tea, Fruit & Chocolates

Any airline can produce a snazzy menu with descriptions of such delights, but the proof is in the presentation and eating. Everyone knows that airline food is notoriously difficult to get right. In this case, however, consumption enjoyment was as good as it promised in print, and that’s a rarity in my many front cabin international flights over 30 years.

The wines were a different matter. Aside from the top-shelf ’99 Dom, neither the whites nor the reds drank well. Since they had the bottles open anyway, I asked for a taste of them all; most were too young, and some just ill-chosen. This proved true on the other three Emirates flights as well. The First Class wine lists looked good, but disappointed on the palate. I stuck with the Dom Perignon, which was silky smooth and delicious.

The other three flights had similar fine food service, but due to the time of day, none offered caviar again (a personal favorite). The excellent attending service was uniform on all four flights.

I cannot praise Emirates flight attendants and pursers enough to do them justice. They reminded me of Delta’s fine, efficient, sincere, and cheerful flight attendants, Delta’s greatest service strength in its glory days and even now in my humble opinion.

Interestingly, the Emirates FAs are a UN-in-the-sky bunch, with, naturally, some UAE folks, Egyptians, and other Arabic nationalities. But I also talked to Emirates Air flight attendants who hailed from Australia, South Africa, Britain, Philippines, Taiwan, Serbia, and Slovakia. I cannot recall an airline with such polyglot on-board staff.

The FAs all seemed to like their jobs, too. They joked and laughed and served all the way to our destinations without any obvious in-flight breaks. Quite remarkable, really.

Lastly is this extremely important element of service: All four of my Emirates flights departed their gates on time or early and arrived on time or early. I don’t think it was coincidence. I am told that Emirates manages its flight operations well and rewards personnel for on-time flights. That’s a very good and praiseworthy standard, if true, and I commend Emirates Air for its commitment to keeping its published schedule. (Swissair was always on time, too, even when departing JFK.)


Emirates Air seeks to provide the best First and Business Class experience in the air. They are bold in asserting this goal, and their on-board services on airplanes equipped with the newest seats are equal to any First Class service in the 21st century.

However, due principally to ground staff and infrastructure issues at Dubai, and significant numbers of older First Class compartments in their long-haul fleet, I believe they have a greater distance to close the gap with the likes of Singapore Air than their marketing people crow about. Their First Class reach indeed exceeds their grasp at the moment. I hope they recognize these gaps and work to narrow them.

Despite several mighty frustrations in Dubai (truly, when flying overseas in First Class, I NEVER want to be reminded of stateside hub horrors like ATL!), I would fly Emirates Air in First Class again. But it would have to be a heavily discounted F fare until service improves.