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, November 29, 2007

American Airlines' New International Business Class Is A Big Disappointment

Just before Thanksgiving I admitted apprehension in regard to our family's then impending trip to Germany and Austria. I was worried about the shrinking dollar and the mighty expensive Euro. Turns out I was right about both, but the high costs did not mar our weeklong vacation. In fact, it was one of the most pleasurable family trips together ever.

I will be writing about various aspects of the trip over the next few weeks, but today I want to focus on American Airlines' disappointing new international Business Class which we experienced for the first time on the way over to Deutschland from O'Hare.

I've used AA's current Business Class on quite a few overseas trips, and I liked it very much. That ineffable quality of comfort on airplanes is firstly about the seats, and AA's existing (older) Business seats have been very comfortable indeed, and laid out in the cabin very spaciously. The front-to-back distance between seats (pitch) is especially good. Every passenger has quite a bit of privacy. For me, private space and distance from my fellow travelers on a long flight is the optimal premium.

The second most valued premium (for me) is individual seat comfort, which is a variable independent of privacy. AA's pre-existing Business Class seats certainly didn't recline flat, but they were nonetheless conducive to resting and sleeping well--as long as you are able to sleep on your back. Like all airlines' so-called "near lie-flat" seats, it's difficult to find a comfortable position lying on one's side in one of them. Having made that qualification, and speaking as somebody who prefers to sleep on his side, I attest that American's older Business Class seats nonetheless had that je ne sais quoi that induces comfort and sleep in me.

With that set-up, let me say that for months I had been relishing the prospect of experiencing the new generation of Business Class seat heralded by American Airlines: True lie-flat! More privacy! Bigger TV screen! Greater comfort! You WILL sleep! And so on. The photographs in AA advertisements looked enticing, too.

However, now that my family of four has been subjected to the new AA seats, all I can say is: I should have known better. AA's new Business Class seats are cramped, claustrophobic, and uncomfortable.

I guess at 59 that I am just as gullible as I was at 20, because I believed the American Airlines hype touting the new seats. Sure, AA has plenty of times disappointed me in any number of ways related to service and schedule reliability, but never in seat comfort and seat privacy in International Business or First.

But American Airlines has now joined the ranks of Delta Airlines in providing one of the most uncomfortable and claustrophobic Business Class seat designs and cabin layouts in the recent wretched history of flying. Worse, they are blatantly lying about its supposed virtues.

Even the very experienced Flight Attendants serving on board AA's flagship international flights were direct and highly vocal about how horrible the seats are. I had several FAs apologize to me for the seats' inherent discomfort and then apologize again for their company's claims that AA's Business Class patrons laud the seats and prefer them over the old ones. The Flight Attendants I talked to were embarrassed that American insists the new seats are preferred, saying that they'd heard nothing but negative feedback from experienced passengers like me who'd tried them.

One look--not even a sit-down--at the new seats puts the lie to the marketing claims by AA. Simply put, the seats are extremely cramped front to back, and they are too narrow. The lack of width is especially apparent on the 767s, where AA has retained the 6-across seat configuration that has ALWAYS been too cramped for the narrow 767 cabin tube. Anyone flying on domestic 767s in First Class will say "Amen" to that.

In my opinion, these seats are no improvement over the former AA Business Class product; they are, instead, a setback for you and me.

Another lie from AA: They claim the seats are "lie-flat." But they are not; they recline to 171 degrees, not to 180. That 9 degrees makes a huge difference. In fact that 9 degrees makes all the difference in the world when trying to sleep on one's side. Because the seats do not really go flat, they are no better for sleeping than the previous Business Class seat model.

(For clarification of terms, I offer this note: One trusted colleague has suggested that there is a distinction in airline marketing new-speak between the term "lie-flat" and "full-flat." "Lie-flat" is supposed to mean the seat is not angled in relation to your body but is still angled off level from the floor, as in AA's 171 degrees rather than prone. In the murky parlance of airline marketing mavens, so-called "lie-flat" seats are much different from traditional armchair seats shaped vaguely like a "V" even if they don't recline to parallel the floor. "Full-flat" is supposed to mean that the seat itself is both not angled in relation to your body and is perfectly parallel to the floor--180 degrees. To me, however, flat means flat, and if an airline says you will sleep flat in their new seats, it should mean that your body'll sleep like it does in your own bed at home: FLAT!, with no asterisks pointing to gobbledygook to the contrary.)

Ironically, the new American Airlines seats' extra recline is the source of the loss of privacy and comfort. AA crammed the new seats into the pre-existing Business cabin area without spreading out the seats front to back. Because the new seats recline more than the old ones did but are limited to the same space as before, they feel as though they are pushed closer together front to back. In the fully reclined "sleep" mode, your feet now slide down under the slightly raised heads of the passenger in front of you. Think sardines in a can, and you'll get the picture, because that's how the seats are layered into Business cabin on American airplanes. Try to imagine a gnawing feeling of claustrophobia that does not abate until you exit the cabin at the end of your flight with great relief.

The inability to turn sideways in the 171 degree recline seats is made worse, too, by the extreme narrowness on 767 aircraft (as mentioned above). We flew ORD/FRA on AA84, a 767, which had no First Class, just Business and Coach. Even my scrawny 9 year old son, sitting next to me in one of the new Business seats, complained that he could not turn over without hitting some part of his body on the armrests.

There are other negatives intrinsic to the new seats. Because of the way AA configured the sardine layering of seats, there is no longer any extra room in front of your seat or elsewhere to put your shoes, briefcase, books, etc. At least not if you want to recline your seat. As soon as you attempt to recline fully, or almost completely, whatever you have stored at your feet is in the way of your encroaching seat's footrest and legrest. Yes, you can then move those personal items and place them under the rising legrest, but if you do, it begs the question of what to do with those items when you lower the legrest to get up. You must move them again.

And moving them back and forth again and again every time you get up or lie down is not only a nuisance, it's cumbersome and embarrassing, because it unavoidably disturbs your neighbor. If the companion next to you is your 9 year old son, that's OK; but if it's an adult-size perfect stranger, well, let's just say that I witnessed some grumpy remarks and dirty looks among other Business Class passengers as their seatmates tried to rearrange their shoes and belongings, inadvertently bumping into them in the process.

Pity anyone who gets the window seat in the new AA Business Class cabin, because if your neighbor has gone down for the night and you suddenly need to stretch your legs or answer nature's call, it's impossible to avoid committing a battery against the person seated on the aisle as you attempt to hurdle his or her outstretched legs. There is simply no extra room to maneuver politely around or across.

The AA Flight Attendants on our flights complained to me that the new Business Class seats have swallowed up aisle space, making it difficult for them to navigate the cabin with their serving carts. This is once again more acute on the 767 airplanes due to the 6-across configuration in the extremely narrow tube. God help any aisle-seat passenger who has a hand or arm carelessly flopped over into the aisle when the carts come through, for crushed extremeties or even amputation seem a distinct possibility. The FAs on our Frankfurt-bound 767 were definitely challenged to get meals and drinks served to us.

I can't think of a better way to sum up this report on American's new Business Class seats than to relate the question my son asked me just before we left the plane in Frankfurt. He has flown all over the world in First and Business on many airlines and airplane types, and he was even the star of a WALL STREET JOURNAL story a couple of years back on children flying in First Class with their parents. So he has a great deal of experience already in the so-called premium cabins of airlines.

"Dad," he said, looking thoughtfully back at his cramped seat in the Business cabin as we waited for the door to open, "Did American put us in coach by mistake?"

Thursday, November 15, 2007

European Trip Looms: It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

About eight months ago my wife and I thought it would be dandy to take our two young kids to Europe during the end-of-year school holidays. Our kids have not been to Germany yet, and since I used to live and work in Munich, we decided to make the Bavarian capital our target destination, with day trips planned to Austria and Switzerland.

Furthermore, we determined to avoid rental cars altogether and see if our family of four could, once on the ground, depend solely on rail, bus, the odd taxi, and our own bipedal locomotion. With that trip plan in mind, I started making preparations through the Internet. Had I known that the itinerary would eventually become as twisted as an Octoberfest pretzel and that the Euro would cost as much as a new Mercedes S Class by the day of our departure, I'd have kept my hands in my pockets and off the keyboard.

First, the air: I wanted to use American Airlines to move us from Raleigh to Munich, if possible. But AA inquiries reminded me that American still has no direct flights to Munich, and my special Executive Platinum upgrades to Business Class don't work on partner British Airways. So, instead, AA reservations were made to Frankfurt, and then from there we would use Germanrail passes, which we were buying anyway, to get to Munich.

This seemed to be a good working solution until AA could not get us any seats on their own flights directly back to a USA city from Frankfurt. The only alternative was British Airways FRA/LHR and then AA LHR/ORD and ORD/RDU. Reluctantly I acceded to this tortured itinerary, having exhausted the possibility of a similar BA connection option from Munich to Heathrow to avoid going back to Frankfurt.

Worse, the BA flight from Frankfurt to London was at 7:30 AM, meaning we'd have to spend the previous night lurking about the Frankfurt Flughafen in an airport hotel. This, in turn, meant leaving Munich essentially a day early to travel by train back to Frankfurt to prep for our early morning odyssey through London and Chicago en route home.

After probing every possible easier routing, I reluctantly agreed, and the AA tickets were issued. At least upgrades were assured on all AA segments for all four of us, but the BA flight would be in cattle class.

Next was the rail planning: The RailEurope website hosts a dizzying array of railpass options these days. Gone are the simple 3 passes of my youth, namely, First Class, Second Class, and Student (each in various time increments). In planning a Thanksgiving week in Provence, France a few years back, we had no trouble picking our railpass, but the current options and rules for German passes are subtle and elusive.

We eventually selected a weeklong First Class pass on Germanrail that included discounts for our family of four and allowed side trips to Basel in Switzerland and Salzburg in Austria. However, we were unable to book it online, even though the pass was presented and defined. My resourceful travel agent, Discount Travel, in Jacksonville, Florida had a similar problem, and I am sure their miniscule commission did not cover even the time required for multiple inquiries to RailEurope to clarify the offering and have the four passes issued.

Passes alone are no guarantee of seat availability on European trains these days, so I garnered and paid for four seat reservations on every train. This turned out to be quite expensive, as there were 8 trains involved: Frankfurt/Munich, Munich/Salzburg/Munich, Munich/Basel/Munich (4 trains due to a connection), Munich/Frankfurt. All in, rail costs (passes and seats) came to a staggering $1,232 for a seven day visit.

Finally accommodation: Using Hilton HHonors points for our residence in Munich was our plan. However, it cost me double the points I'd planned, since European hotels forbid occupancy of more than three in a standard room such as those available in the HHonors program. This necessitated booking two rooms for a week, which drained off the majority of my Hilton points. Adding insult to injury, I had to use 7-day awards even though the seventh night would be at a hotel near the Frankfurt airport. Thus I lost one-seventh of the value of the award at the Munich Hilton, times two rooms.

Lastly, the early morning BA flight departure from Frankfurt required a separate hotel booking near the Frankfurt airport. My travel agent did a better job than I did in locating the least expensive option, but it was no bargain: 180 Euros per room per night, and we once again were forced to book two rooms. Since I'll have to pay this by credit card, I anticipate a miserable exchange rate of $1.60-1.65, even though the current rate as of this writing is around $1.46 to the Euro. This is because of the onerous surcharges made by credit card companies these days on foreign exchange transactions. Thus the one night at a fleabag hotel near the Frankfurt Airport will set us back almost $600. This could have been avoided if we'd been able to get a better air itinerary.

The shrinking dollar hangs over the upcoming trip as well. An acquaintance recently returned from a week in Amsterdam where he was attending his daughter's graduation from an international school. He is quite at home in The Netherlands and in Europe generally. But he was shocked to find on this trip that most Dutch merchants refused to accept his Visa and MasterCard for transactions. They complained that the dollar/Euro rate fluctuations were impacting credit card receipts once processed into Euros, and they demanded either a Euro-based credit card or cash in Euros.

Apparently cash isn't the answer in Europe nowadays, either. At least not when denominated in dollars. One of my siblings, just back from almost three weeks in France and Spain, reported that a colleague was unable to use or exchange dollars in hotels as she had routinely for decades. In refusing U.S. dollars, Hotel management cited the same concerns as the Dutch merchants over collapsing dollar/Euro exchange rates.

Worse, she could not find banks in those countries outside Paris and Madrid that would accept dollars in exchange for Euros. Her traveling companions, including my sibling, loaned her enough Euros to get by until she reached Paris again.

Though I think it ludicrous, and I've certainly never had to do such a thing on any previous European visit, I have accumulated several thousand dollars in cash for our one week trip to be ready for any contingency.

Bottom line is that I've often traveled to, and several times lived and worked in, Europe since 1973. I anticipated every journey across the Atlantic with excitement and enthusiasm. Our upcoming trip, however, looms before us like a dark cloud. My wife and I seriously considered canceling, but the considerable air and rail costs are nonrefundable and already sunk.

So we will go and discover for ourselves how horribly expensive things are and no doubt experience the indignity of the United States dollar as frail as the Zimbabwe dollar. In December I will report on our trip. I'm sure there will be some surprises.

Whatever happens, I eagerly look forward to my first morning's breakfast of Weisswurst with sweet Bavarian mustard and a tall, yeasty Weissbier sitting under the Glockenspiel in Munich's beautiful Marienplatz.

No report next week due to Thanksgiving. Best wishes to readers for a safe and happy holiday week.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Grand Canyon

There is nothing like it on this earth, and it is indescribably beautiful, breathtaking, and magnificent. There is nothing to which it can be compared to make it comprehendible to someone who has not been there and tried desperately to take it in with their own eyes. Despite many visits, what can one say about it? Even the iMax giant-screen theatre presentation devoted to the Grand Canyon is unable to define what the eyes and the soul attempt to digest and grasp.

I first saw the Grand Canyon in June, 1964, when I was 16 years old, traveling across country by rail on a trip I'd planned for over a year. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway took me there on a day trip off their mainline from Williams, Arizona. I rode the Santa Fe's train, EL CAPITAN, to reach Williams, and watched the SUPER CHIEF come in while waiting for it to take to L.A. the next night--but that's another story.

In late October I traveled back to the Grand Canyon with an old friend, a lawyer addicted to his electronic connectivity gadgets. It was supposed to be a "old boy's weekend out" trip, four of us, including my brother plus another close friend. But two backed out, and so just two of us went.

This was perhaps my 12th or 13th trip to the Canyon in the forty-three years since 1964, and I was looking forward to another fill-up of its spiritual grandeur. Every time I go I am overwhelmed and humbled, just like the first time.

Unfortunately, my old friend and lone traveling companion is wired differently from me. The Grand Canyon generated no such awe or inspiration for him. After the briefest of glimpses into the Canyon's overwhelming crags, cliffs, dappled colors and multi-hued depths, he was anxious to get on his cell phone to a tax dodger client back in North Carolina because, as he indignantly put it to me when I complained that his yammering about how to settle with the IRS was bad karma, "Hey, I have to make money!"

Why the hell, then, I wondered, did he come on this trip? Later, I was to find out--but I am getting ahead of myself.

The trip had started rather well, at least getting to Phoenix, from whence we drove up to the Canyon. American Airlines was on time on both flights through DFW, a miracle in itself. And the in-flight catalog, "Sky Mall," which I browsed out of sheer boredom (having lost my book), boldly offered two can't-live-without items for sale: a solar-powered talking Bible, and, on a nearby page, a shock bracelet to cure snoring (no doubt adapted from shock collars for dogs).

It was only en route from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon that I began to doubt our weekend together would be altogether pleasant for me. My friend, in-between interminable and tedious business calls with clients on his cell, queried me about (a) going to the so-called Grand Canyon West to see the so-called "Skywalk," and (b) the possibility of returning home a day early. Inasmuch as our trip was just 4 days as originally planned, I was disappointed to contemplate its attenuation when we had really just arrived.

Neither was I desirous of driving 265 miles (one way) from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) to the so-called Grand Canyon West area where the Skywalk has been constructed for the benefit of (but not constructed by) the Hualapai Tribe who live there on a 1,0o0,000 acre reservation.

But we ended up doing both: driving over hell's half acre to get to the Skywalk, and then going home a day early. However unhappy was the prospect at the time, by the time the last flight touched down at RDU, I was relieved the trip was over.

And that's because my lawyer friend's absolute apathy to the spectacular beauty of the GCNP, along with his ignorant determination to see the Skywalk (an attraction that Phineas Tyler Barnum would have been proud to stage) eventually tipped my spiritual scale in favor of his choices. As the days wore on, being soon separated from my friend was a more spiritually rewarding prospect than the grandeur of the Grand Canyon.

So it was that we spent but a single full day at the Grand Canyon. Having arrived on a Wednesday late afternoon, we departed at daybreak on Friday. Those two nights and one day would have to do for this trip, I knew. And such is the power of the Grand Canyon, they did.

I managed to get us in for dinner at the El Tovar both nights, one outside on the porch and the second in the famed dining room. Though the meals were slightly better than mediocre (I advise skipping the steaks), my wine order was a good one, and we watched the full moon rise above the Canyon as we ate and sipped in the gorgeous old El Tovar digs. Later I walked out to the rim under the full moon and gazed in wonder at the shadows of deep blue and black made by the bright moonlight.

Our rooms were at the Maswik Lodge, one of the best bargains to be found anywhere: We paid just $79 per room (plus tax) per night. Rooms all have two queen or double beds, toilet, shower, bath, and cable TV. If we'd opted for the smaller but classier rooms at the El Tovar, the prices would have been in the $200-300 range per night (GCNP rooms can be booked at

The Grand Canyon has always been, despite the crowds, peaceful. One reason for the relative quiet was the lack of cell phone coverage at the Park. However, I was appalled this year to learn that cell phones now work there (they never did before). I questioned a ranger, and he admitted that the lack of cell phone coverage had been the number one complaint of visitors, so the Park had let a cell tower be constructed locally. I asked him whether the Park would build an elevator to the bottom of the Canyon if enough people complained about having to walk. No reply.

My friend, of course, was delighted that cell coverage enabled him to pursue his law practice while stumbling along the upper reaches of the Bright Angel Trail. Several times he had to ask a client to hold on a minute while he flattened his body against the Canyon wall to let a mule train pass. Then he'd pick up his discussion again, no doubt charging his client for the interlude. My friend's tepid enthusiasm for ambling along the trail a bit (done solely to placate me) evaporated when he realized that the coverage bars on his cell phone dropped more precipitously than the Canyon's sheer cliffs once we had traipsed not far down below the rim. We regained the altitude of the rim so that he could continue the fleecing of his flock back home via cell phone.

I threw in the towel and agreed to drive us to Grand Canyon West the early morning of the third day. 265 miles later we reached the Skywalk. En route we managed to drive one of the last remaining bits of Route 66 between Seligman and Kingman, Arizona, which I enjoyed immensely.

But I did not enjoy the final 21 miles to the Skywalk on Diamond Bar Road, the first 14 of which are an unimproved dirt road. I've driven from Windhoek, Namibia across part of the Namib Desert to the remote coastal town of Swakopmund, and that African dirt road was a damn sight better than the bone-jarring, alkaline dust devil 14 miles of Hualapai Tribe Reservation road to get to their multi-million dollar Skywalk.

Oh, and there are no gas stations any more on Route 66, so we learned too late to fill up when departing I-40 at Seligman. We almost didn't make it to the Skywalk.

What exactly is the Skywalk? The Hualapai Tribe hype it as "a horseshoe-shaped steel frame with glass floor and sides that projects about 70 feet from the canyon rim." We were told it was 4,000 feet above the canyon floor.

As soon as we arrived (finally) at the main parking area for the Skywalk, I grasped the concept in its entirety: Las Vegas come to the Grand Canyon. Fresh off the dirt road, we were met by an army of Indians and hired folk from Vegas directing us into a parking lot, then to buy tickets, then to the buses to take us to the Skywalk, which is another few miles away.

$81 (per person) is the cheapest "package" that can be booked to walk the Skywalk. That included a "meal" (if you wait another hour or two and take the extremely crowded buses to yet another stop beyond the Skywalk) and a viewing of the largest bat guano site known on earth (I am not making this up).

Truth is, the good folks from Las Vegas seem to have co-opted the Hualapai folks into letting them run the place Vegas-style. So the $81 "package" is just another Vegas-type tourist rip-off to lighten your wallet when all you really want to see is the Skywalk.

Or do you? After long waits for the buses, we pulled up to the Skywalk and made our way to the entrance. There we were charged another $1 to put all electronic devices (including cell phones and cameras) into locked storage boxes, as such things are not allowed on the Skywalk. After that we were security-screened through airport-style magnetometers and given booties to put over our shoes. Finally we walked out onto the Skywalk itself and mightily tried to get our $81's worth (each).

Me, I was on the Skywalk for all of one or two minutes. It was crowded, and somehow reminded me of being at the top of the Empire State Building. The huge steel horseshoe appears to be well-constructed, but it's an abomination in this place of such natural beauty. Certainly the Hualapai Tribe has lost its spiritual center if it conceived of this blight upon the landscape. Whatever the tribe claims credit for, it smacks of Vegas, pure and simple.

Though I tried to like it for my friend's sake, I didn't, not even a little. The Skywalk is horrible, yet the hordes come daily, mainly from Las Vegas, lured by boredom, stupidity, and shallowness: to be able to say, "I stood 4,000 feet above the Grand Canyon [for 120 seconds]." They endure that long and bumpy ride in a big bus from Vegas, and then, after a minute or two standing on the thick glass over a second rate part of the Grand Canyon, they go munch on their "meal" while they gaze at the bat guano, and then are whisked back to their comfy Vegas hotels, just in time for a night of drinking and gambling.

My friend redeemed himself a little by being likewise disappointed in the Skywalk experience, though his disappointment was less acute than mine. We managed to get back to Phoenix by late Friday evening (after retracing the 14 miles of bad dirt road), and flew home very early Saturday.

En route on American Airlines I once again browsed the Sky Mall catalog and wondered if I could get a volume discount on those solar-powered talking Bibles. They'd make great Christmas gifts, huh?