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 27, 2007

Airtran, Amex, & What To Expect This Fall


I'm no big fan of Airtran Airways. Even though the bloom is long ago off the Delta rose for me, I don't view Airtran as my lifeboat from the Delta wreckage. My five million miles at Delta earned me lifetime Delta Platinum status, which is at minimum a help in boarding early and getting good seats online, and once in awhile I even get an upgrade. So this is not a diatribe against Delta again, nor is it a love letter to Airtran.

But I have to admit that Airtran seems to be getting better. Several recent trips, including a day trip to Atlanta this week, have been on Airtran instead on Delta simply because the fares were much cheaper on Airtran. I have no idea why Delta fares (both online at and through an agent) are so much higher than Airtran in the competing markets, but they are, and that's made choosing Airtran obvious.

On all these flights, Airtran has been either on time or no more than 20 minutes behind schedule. This is quite remarkable compared to Delta, American, and others, and especially doing a side-by-side contrast with Delta through ATL.

I have no status whatsoever with Airtran, and yet I've been able to get good aisle seats every time. Seats in coach are no more uncomfortable than Delta's, too. This week I paid $40 to upgrade to Airtran's Business Class to be able to work on the flight home, and I was again surprised how easy it was to do that on the spur of the moment at the gate in Atlanta.

Airtran's ATL C concourse gate areas are clean and modern, and their people (at least the ones I talked to) were friendly and knowledgeable.

Overall, these flights reinforced my commitment to make Airtran an ongoing alternative to Delta.


For over a decade I have been a satisfied American Express Platinum Card customer. The past few years, however, the annual fee has risen, and risen again, and this year it went up to $450.

It used to be that the Platinum Card had an edge on other programs, including some of Amex's other products, with better car rental insurance coverage, and especially the 2-for-1 international First/Business Class program with a number of world airlines. At one time I used the 2-for-1 deal annually. Two first class tickets on Asiana, for instance, from JFK to Asia, were just $5,000 one year. In recent years, though, this program has diminished in value, as airlines have tightened up the first and business fares they will allow to be used in the Amex program.

Here's a prime example: Earlier this year we tried to use the 2-for-1 on South African Airways from RDU to Johannesburg, and it was almost $13,000 for two business class seats. It would have been $26,000 for all four of us to go on SAA in business--out of the question! That figure was their highest published business class fare, and the only one allowed to be used in the Amex Platinum 2-for-1 program. It was frustrating to discover that a number of discounted business class fares on SAA on the same flights and dates were available for far less--and they did not require being in the Amex Platinum program.

We eventually flew on Emirates in first class through Dubai using a great discounted first class fare we found on Orbitz. Because of the Internet and the wide variety of discounted premium cabin fares available these days, the Amex Platinum 2-for-1 program just doesn't pay off any more.

The other big plus to the Amex Platinum Card is allowing entry into the Northwest, Continental, and Delta clubs. The catch is that entry is allowed only when flying on the airline whose club you want to use, whereas my Delta Crown Room membership allows me access to Crown Rooms regardless of which airline I am flying. Still, the Amex airline club is a good program, but not enough to justify $450 a year by itself.

So I downgraded to a much cheaper Amex Gold Card for 2007.

Two weeks ago, however, Amex announced that the Platinum Card would now also be accepted in every AA Admirals Club in addition to the DL, NW, and CO clubs. I've been paying about $300/year for my Admirals Club membership, and suddenly the Amex Platinum Card looks like a better deal again.

I contacted American Express about it, and I will renew my Platinum Card with them in early 2008 when my Admirals Club membership expires. I can then avoid the $300 renewal with AA, which makes the Amex Platinum Card cost just $150/year, a figure I can live with. I also plan not to renew my Delta Crown Room membership next year, saving another few hundred dollars.


I've read what everyone says about the coming autumn agonies: the trepidation and anxiety, the hair-pulling and chest-beating. Who knows? But I can't cower in fear at home. Lord knows I intensely dislike submitting myself to the torture of airports and airlines nowadays, but until I find another profession, I will continue to do it.

As foolish as it sounds when I read it, I find that adopting a zen-like composure as I head for the airport and just being alert and prepared (like the Boy Scouts) for any contingency are my best coping mechanisms. Being confident that I have seen the worst and can live through it again helps, too.

And so does maintaining a sense of humor!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Pleasant Surprise When Things Go Right When They Oughtn't

Chance had not smiled upon me, I thought, when I looked at my calendar for this week and saw that a triple whammy lay in store. With a growing sense of dread, I stared at my itinerary for Tuesday. Was it really true that somehow I was booked on the worst airline in the United States through one of the country's most-delayed hub airports on one of the most God-awful days to fly of the entire year?

So it was that, like every year but one on September 11th since 9/11/01, I have found myself on an airplane going somewhere. This year it happened to be on US Airways to and from Philadelphia.

OK, I thought, I can fly on 9/11. Even though our government had this past weekend seen fit to taunt Osama Bin Laden's latest video threat by saying his vicious crew is all bark and no bite, I'm not worried. I've done it virtually every 9/11.

But to and from Philly? Philly, which routinely suffers massive meltdowns even on bluebird days? And on clueless US Airways?

Though my return flight was due back into RDU at 5:11 PM, I warned my family not to expect me home for dinner, and maybe not until the next day.

Steeled for long delays, prepped with meditative chants and deep breathing exercises, plus another great Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly (The Overlook), I left for the Raleigh-Durham Airport before 5:00 AM. My flight wasn't until 7:00 AM, but I figured on the 6th anniversary of 9/11 that security would be extra tight, and extra slow.

This was my first mistake. In fact security at RDU was normal (whatever that means any more). We didn't have any discernable delays or extra scrutiny, and despite thickening crowds of flyers, I breezed through the TSA gauntlet by 5:30 AM.

Well, I thought, US Airways can't get a flight out on time to save itself, even early mornings.

This was my second mistake. Our almost-full flight to Philly boarded up promptly and left early. And the very kind gate agent was even able to give me an exit aisle seat--despite my being a peon at US Airways with no status whatsoever.

On board the A319, I learned that US Airways, unlike Northwest (which also flies the planes), has removed the "A" and "F" seats in row 9 adjacent to the overwing emergency exit doors. Thus seats 9B and 9E have the odd distinction of being both window and aisle seats, and also middle seats. They are quite private and comfortable, too.

But if you are tall, the best seats in coach on US Airways' A319s are seats 10A and 10F. Because seats 9A or 9F have been taken out, there is nothing but air in front of 10A and 10F, with unlimited legroom.

Nice to know if you fly on their A319s, but I digress.

En route to PHL, I thought: Omigod! We are overflying Washington on the morning of 9/11, certainly a prime target for OBL's ilk.

Wrong again: Our flight was the best kind: uneventful.

I realized I was thirsty and needed a Diet Coke, but no way we would get anything back in coach on this short 65-minute flight.

Wrong yet once more: US Airways flight attendants came round and very efficiently served everyone a beverage of their choice. They were very nice about it. I was impressed.

As we descended into Philadelphia, it became apparent that the airport and city were socked in with steady rain and heavy overcast skies. Again, I thought: delay, delay, delay. We'll just tool around the skies and the taxiways for awhile, I thought, waiting for a landing slot and then an open gate. And I'll be late for my meeting.

Nope. Another error on my part. We went straight in, landed almost a half hour early, and after a short wait for an outbound plane to clear the alley, went right into our gate on the B concourse. I was out of the plane in no time and on my way.

Midafternoon saw me returning to PHL with an extra sense of forboding. Sure, things had gone great getting into Philly, but now, statistically, my luck had run out. I was due for the afternoon yang to counter the morning's ying. Besides which, it was still raining rather steadily. I expected the flight boards to be red with cancellations.

With trepidation I consulted the first departures board I came to and scanned it for RDU flights. Mine was showing on time from B14. No way! I thought. I just know that's bull. It must be late or cancelled. They just aren't showing it yet.

So I checked the arrivals board for B14 to match up the inbound flight and aircraft, figuring it would show something either late or nonexistent. And there was a Boston flight coming in 50 minutes before my RDU outbound--about the right amount of time for turning the airplane in order to leave on time.

I trekked the long distance to B14 (end of the concourse), and found some smiling, helpful, and knowledgeable US Airways gate agents (I am not kidding). They not only confirmed that my RDU flight was on time, but gave me another great exit row seat, this time 9B, the peculiar window/aisle/middle seat, so I could try it out.

To my astonishment, my flight boarded and left dead on time, took off in the rain after very little taxi wait time, and we arrived RDU early. The flight was again full, yet my seat (9B) was extremely comfortable and private, and every passenger was again (as on the morning flight) served by competent and very friendly flight attendants.

Go figure. An all-round good experience on an airline with a terrible rep, where I don't even have a frequent flyer account any more (and thus no status), to and from one of the tardiest of the infamously bad East Coast hub airports, and on September 11th to boot.

I was consistently wrong in all my assumptions about how bad things would go for me Tuesday. Could it possibly be that it wasn't all just dumb luck? That maybe US Airways is actually trying harder and succeeding to improve itself in many small but important ways that, taken as a whole, are leading to a better integrated operation?

I'd like to give US Airways some credit here. By contrast, I wish Delta (where I am a five million miler), American (Exec Platinum), Continental (Platinum), and Northwest (Platinum) would treat me so well.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How Low Can You Go?

One fact we all accept is that nobody's ever plumbed the depths of sheer stupidity among so-called "Big Six" airline so-called executives. But reading Tuesday's WALL STREET JOURNAL, I came across a quote that at least establishes a new low for these seaslugs.

The comment was part of Scott McCartney's "Middle Seat" column in the September 4th WSJ regarding the horrible summer delays and cancellations. Since it's commonly agreed that things are not likely to get better any time soon, Mr. McCartney sought inputs from several airlines' best and brightest regarding what action they intend to take to manage their airlines in this environment going forward.

Here's what American Airlines' top marketing guy had to say, taken verbatim from Mr. McCartney's column:

" 'If we hadn't had high load factors, we could have re-accommodated people quickly. If we had high load factors and the operation was OK, we would have been fine,' said Daniel Garton, Executive Vice President of Marketing at AMR
Corp.'s American Airlines. 'Two out of the three factors we could have withstood. But all three together caused the problems we had.'

"American has decided to sell fewer seats on key flights in key markets during busy travel periods so more empty seats are available to rebook customers who miss connections because of late or canceled flights. That will start with Thanksgiving, Mr. Garton said."

So the solution to their problem is to LEAVE SEATS EMPTY on some flights in anticipation of a meltdown?!!?

Funny, I thought the object of any business was to create demand, operate to optimal efficiency to fulfill that demand, and charge as much as the market will bear to make money. I never thought of LEAVING SOME CAPACITY EMPTY in order to make up for your screw-ups elsewhere.

Holy mackerel! The guy must be a genius! No wonder they pay him so much money. The fricking EVP of Marketing, and he lets himself get quoted saying THIS PATHETIC PLOY is their best example of world-class thinking?!!??

I floated this quote, and my reaction to it, around to a number of well-heeled smart guys in business, including some in commercial aviation, who DO know how to make money. I got a lot of feedback, but they were all along the lines of this quote from one of them:

"You are right: This about tops it!"

Mind you, I am not looking for universal agreement to my reaction. I am just trying to figure out whether it's me who's slipped a cog or whether the entire airline industry has lost its grip on reality.

I am sure it's them.

You gotta wonder: Where are the shareholders' voices in this? What kinds of airline Boards of Directors would tolerate this?

Meanwhile, we are doomed to submit ourselves at the airports to the results of their madness week after week because we have no better alternative than to do so.