Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Everybody Loves Steam Locomotives ...

... Especially my son and me. We traveled to Denver and Cheyenne, Wyoming this week invited by the Union Pacific Railroad to experience the last of the giant steam locomotives still operating in the USA, the 4-6-6-4 Challenger Class number 3985 (the largest operating steam engine on earth) and the equally beautiful, if just a bit smaller, 4-8-4 Northern Class number 844.

UP 844 is unique in never having been stricken from the roster. It was, and is, very fast and powerful. It was used to haul the Union Pacific's sleekest 1930s and 1940s streamliners, like the City of Los Angeles. The UP keeps these two steam locomotives in operation at great expense as part of their P.R. and good will campaigns. You can see what UP 844 looks like above and decide for yourself if it stirs your soul like it does mine and my son's.

Of course we had to fly from Raleigh to Denver and back, rent a car, and stay at various hotels in Denver and Cheyenne to be able to experience the steam trip. As usual, we have collected our share of interesting stories (and the week's not over yet), some of which follow:

Denver is terribly expensive, over-crowded, and edgy. I'm always griping about how Raleigh's quality of life has suffered from the influx of too many people. Experiencing Denver for the first time in a several years has reassured me that I’d never want to live here instead. Raleigh may be bad, but Denver proves that there are worse places. The nearby mountains are the best thing this place has going for it, but they have never seemed so distant. Too many people living here have produced a haze that obscures the Rockies. The pollution is pervasive and persistent. The mountains themselves are dotted with houses everywhere. The roads leading to and fro are chronically crowded, day and night. Driving north to Fort Collins or south to Colorado Springs reveals homogenous, monotonous McMansion housing projects endlessly blotting the landscape and replacing the corn and wheat. The inevitable look-alike strip malls to service the newcomers further the transtion from rural to suburban.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming for two nights to visit the Union Pacific steam shop, things were a little better, except for the drive up and back. It’s just 89 miles, but bumper-to-bumper most all the way on I-25. The 75 MPH speed limit is theoretical due to heavy traffic making it impossible to sustain speeds anywhere close to that on most stretches (much like Germany’s theoretically unlimited Autobahn speeds).

Cheyenne used to be quiet. Not any more. The big bikers are everywhere, like flies, with their horrible louder-than-a-locomotive exhaust blasts. Too much traffic even there in the medium size city of 53,000.

We stayed in the quaint, refurbished 1911 Plains Hotel in Cheyenne. Not a bad place, with decent rooms and wireless that actually worked. T
he hotel also boasts a surprisingly good restaurant, the Capitol Grille. My son loved their breakfast French toast and lunch/dinner macaroni and cheese. I was impressed that they had Harp on tap, no less than four single malts, and a menu with plenty of variety that delivered on the palate when set before me. Even the Crème Brulée was homemade and, well, superb. But it was hard to swallow the hotel's $129/night rate in a small city like Cheyenne.

But then neither was the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Denver worth its absurd price of $189 (plus tax), plus another $25/day for parking! I managed to finagle a $170/night AARP rate, but still!

Having stayed in many, many HGIs, I do admit that this property sets a new luxurious standard for the brand. The rooms were huge, furnished well, and fitted with giant LG flat screens. The Garden Inn reminded me of real downtown Hilton properties.

The breakfast was also a cut above other HGIs, in a new restaurant cum full service bar setting snootily called π (Pi). Luckily the staff were considerably more down-to-earth than the rather aloof name implied. Turns out they offer a full dinner menu and try to attract the chic downtown Denver dinner crowd. I've never seen a Garden Inn aspire to such heights.

But then I found out the property has been open just two weeks. Perhaps this is Hilton tinkering around with the HGI brand.

I wonder, too, what Hilton is doing with its Hampton Inn brand, whose property was just a bit away from the epicenter of Denver's CBD. I checked their rates after learning the sky-high HGI rate in the Mile High City. I was utterly atsonished to find the Hampton Inn's lowest rate to be $219/night (plus tax), plus another $16/night for parking!

My God, what has become of Hilton's value brand?

Even though the downtown Denver HGI is super-nice, it isn't worth over $200/night with tax, and then you have to throw in that ridiculous $25 extra per day for parking. So my travel agent, the miracle-worker Steve Crandell at DISCOUNT TRAVEL (800-585-3977, ext. 201), found me a $129 rate at a Marriott Courtyard for our last two nights in Denver.

Better yet, the CY is on the 16th Street Mall, making it even more central, and the parking seems like a bargain at $17/night.

On Tuesday morning we were scheduled to take Amtrak’s westbound California Zephyr train from Denver to Fraser/Winter Park through the Rockies (2 hour trip through 26 tunnels), returning on the eastbound Zephyr that afternoon for a day trip out and back. But the westbound train was 8 hours, 20 minutes late, thus making it arrive back in Denver at 4:20 AM Wednesday morning instead of 8:00 PM Tuesday night.

Luckily Amtrak knew about the big delay that morning, and we were able to cancel our trip and get a refund. We will try again on Friday, but I’m not optimistic that Amtrak will perform any better.

Between trains at Fraser/Winter Park (there is a 7-hour layover if both trains run on time), we planned to spend the day (and will Friday) at the Winter Park Resort on their summer Alpine sled run. At 12,000 feet, they can keep it iced up even this time of year with artificial snow to make the ride thrilling. They also have some kid rides and a maze for children (and stupid adults). If Amtrak is running on time Friday, perhaps we will get to experience it.

We flew out on Northwest Airlines last Saturday, and I was prepared for the worst. It almost happened, too, but not like the NW cancellations we experienced in June flying to Montana (see that blog post). Instead, though our RDU/MSP flight was over an hour late, we made our connection, and NW upgraded both me and my son as a courtesy from the Twin Cities to Denver (sometimes being a Platinum helps). That flight, too, was an hour behind schedule, but we at least traveled in less pain.

Home Saturday unless Northwest cancels our flight(s). After all, it is close to the end of the month, and they have been canceling big chunks of their schedule at the end of each summer month so far as they have run out of crew time.

Bottom line for me is this: Leisure travel like this trip has become so awfully expensive that I just can’t afford them often.

The very good news, however, is that my son, almost nine years old, is having the time of his life! Unlike me, he adores Denver, and is loving every new experience.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Blowing In The Wind

The July 19, 1963 issue of TIME Magazine reported that Bob Dylan's Blowing In The Wind as recorded by the great folk singers Peter, Paul & Mary was "the fastest selling record [Warner Brothers] has ever cut." TIME explained to its readers that "all over the U.S., folk singers are doing what folk singers are classically supposed to do -- singing about current crises. ... They are singing with hot-eyed fervor about police dogs and racial murder. Sometimes they use serviceable old tunes, but just as often they are writing new ones about fresh heroes and villains, from Martin Luther King to Bull Connor."

Our current crisis is the horror of flying, and the question is, what are we going to do about it? We, the passengers, I mean. Let's review the history of human crisis that inspired Bob Dylan.

The Civil Rights Movement was reaching its crescendo in those momentous years, the nineteen-sixties, as America's black citizens demanded to be treated with dignity, respect, and equality, just like the United States Constitution promised. We all know that they ultimately prevailed, and we are all better for it, because it was the right thing to do.

The Movement was successful because people organized and then protested, with a singular front and message, against unfair inequality. They demanded that their federal, state, and local governments become proactive in GIVING them their rights and then PROTECTING their rights. Most of those protests, and all of them led by Martin Luther King, were peaceful, passive, and nonviolent. In the end, despite the vicious dogs and the fire hoses used by Birmingham police chief Bull Connor, despite the church bombings that killed innocent children, despite the murder of MLK, right prevailed.

The will to protest and to organize into a cohesive group earned those rights. (That said, I want to clarify that there is NO moral equivalency at the airports to the Civil Rights Movement. See my comment below.)

In the past few years, as flying has deteriorated into the utter misery it is this summer, I have often wondered why we seem to have lost that fire in our bellies that our fathers and mothers had forty years ago. Why do we tolerate being treated like prisoners who have lost all rights on the other side of the TSA security checkpoint?

Then I read Joe Sharkey's report in the August 14th New York Times. It began:

"On July 29, Continental Flight 1669, a 737-700 with about 120 passengers aboard, was bound for Newark from Caracas, Venezuela, when bad weather caused the plane to be diverted to Baltimore. It sat there for about five hours with passengers on board as food and water ran low and toilets became filthy."

Joe went on to describe the nightmare for those people as they waited for hours. But then a surprise! Finally they organized themselves and began clapping in unison and demanding to be treated like human beings.

Faced with such a novel situation, i.e., their passengers ORGANIZED and PROTESTING PEACEFULLY, the pilots radioed for help. The passengers were eventually let off the plane into a secure area at BWI.

Once inside the airport, however, Joe Sharkey reported that one passenger told this story: “As we walked down the hallway, we were yelled at like we were scary criminals by this female cop who had a dog. She kept yelling: ‘Stay against the wall!’ ” Another passenger said: “We had to negotiate” with airline agents to obtain wheelchairs for passengers needing them. One of the police officers told passengers of a report they received saying that "passengers were violent and out of control.” Yet the passengers were all peaceful, if disgruntled.

Reading Joe's report, I was encouraged. Perhaps, FINALLY, we who must fly frequently have begun to organize ourselves and protest the abysmal, inhuman conditions we must face at the airports these days.

Suppose all 17,000 people stranded on the tarmac at LAX last weekend because of a computer glitch in the immigration software had organized themselves and protested instead of meekly submitting to that torture like sheep. Some waited as long as 10 hours under horrible conditions, much as has been described ad naseum lately on many airport runways.

I wish they had. Such a mass demonstration would have sparked the first step toward real change in mandating air travel rights under deplorable conditions.

To be effective, peaceful demonstrations against inhuman conditions must, however, be accompanied by specific demands. In both the above examples, and perhaps in most runway strandings, I suggest the following demands are reasonable and doable for strandings in excess of two hours:

1. People have to drink and eat. Airlines should be required to cater, and re-cater, and re-cater again, for as long as it takes, ample food and drink (fruit juices, water, soft drinks, but no alcohol). Perhaps they can provide it for sale if they don't want to give it away, but the point is that it should be made available.

2. People need to be made comfortable. Airlines should either (a) hook up stranded airplanes with adequate independent heat or A/C, or (b) ensure each one is refueled so that the APU or engines can heat or cool the passenger cabins.

3. People have to relieve their bladders and bowels. Airlines should be required to bring their honey wagons out to stranded planes to empty and replenish the toilets BEFORE they are full, clogged, and overflowing.

4. People need to be calmed. Airlines should provided playing cards, books, DVD players, whatever they could find, to keep the passengers from going stark raving mad. Again, they could charge for these things.

Aside from being the commonly decent thing to do, the good P.R. alone would be worth its weight in gold.

I never thought of myself as an organizer, but I am asking you to think about this: Next time—and there WILL BE a next time—that you are stranded on an airplane for a long time, suggest to your fellow travelers that you should organize and then demonstrate your unity by clapping and chanting for your basic human rights.

We have to do something. Our politicians are weak, often corrupt, and out of touch. They are insulated from airport woes, and in the thrall of the airline lobby. I don't want to rant, but my point is that we cannot wait for them to help us. We must organize ourselves, and then protest peacefully.

We need inspiration to help us. Where is Bob Dylan when we need him? Please, Bob, write us a protest song! If not Blowing In The Wind, then how about:


"I'm sittin' on a jet plane and thinkin' of home;
But I'm not goin' any place, I feel so all alone;
We've been stranded on the runway for nearly 12 hours;
I could have driven by now and be drinking whiskey sours.

"Oh Lord, I just want to get to altitude and cruise;
But I'm stuck here on the ground with the Tarmac Blues.

"I got lots of seatmates sitting closer than ever before;
Their bad breath and their sweat stench is hard to ignore;
We're all hungry and real thirsty and bored out of our minds;
We're shivering and cold but there are no blankets to find.

"Ms. Flight Attendant with the sneer and too much rouge;
Won't you please, please help me, I got the Tarmac Blues.

"My bladder is bursting, but I just can't go;
They say all the toilets are clogged, never seen such woe;
It's bad when none can even answer nature's call;
I swear I am witness to American civilization's fall.

"Mr. TSA man who makes me take off both my shoes;
Can't you help me just a little, I got the Tarmac Blues.

"Airlines run so badly they haven't got much left to lose;
Oh, please, won't somebody help me! I got the Tarmac Blues."

(With sincere apologies to every folk singer and composer who ever lived.)