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, December 19, 2007

Why Can't We Have A Passenger Rail System Like Europe's?

Every time I go to Europe, as I did with my family in late November, I am reminded anew how reliable, comfortable, and frequent the rail systems are there. Notice that I didn't say cheap, because rail fares are expensive in Europe. Be that as it may, their passenger rail services are a marvel.

Even as a student way back in 1973 when I first went all round the Continent by trains it was fast, convenient, and an absolute pleasure. My initial encounter with European railroads began upon landing in Brussels. I was amazed that the airport (in 1973) had frequent and direct rail connections to the two big Brussels rail stations.

Once at Brussels Gare Centrale I spent 30 minutes learning to comprehend their posted schedule boards, and I've been tooling around by train in Europe with ease ever since. With no foreknowledge, I was able to quickly devise schedules to get from Brussels to Lucerne to Milano to Firenze (Florence)--and I was jet-lagged doing it. Over the next few weeks I figured out the train systems of Italy, France, Switzerland, Spain, and Germany just as quickly.

Thirty-four years later the rail systems in Europe have improved dramatically. TGVs speed across France with the frequency of Manhattan subways. The EuroStar is a far more civilized and comfortable way to get between London and Paris than battling the demons at Heathrow and CDG airports.

Happily, our recent week traveling by DB (Deutsche Bahn) around Germany confirms that the German rail network is as modern and reliable as any in Europe. And a tremendous bargain, too, if you buy one of the family railpass options, as we did, through RailEurope.

Arriving at Frankfurt Airport we completed the formalities of entering the EU and were following the signs to the airport train station less than 15 minutes after stepping onto the jetway. Or I should say, train stations, since there are two at the Frankfurt Airport, one in the basement for local services in the greater metro area, and a separate one at ground level for ICE trains (Inter-City Expresses).

ICE trains in Germany look a lot like French TGVs: bullet-shaped and integrated standard trainsets, with identical driver compartments at each end. Often two trainsets are coupled together and move as one train. Each trainset has two first class cars; the remainder of the train is configured as second class. Both classes are very comfortable. There is a light meal and bar car mid-train which is always open.

At 300 KPH (about 185 MPH), ICEs are not as fast as TGVs. However, they are every bit as comfortable and reliable, and the schedule frequency is astonishing. Hourly ICE service between major German cities is the norm, such as between München (Munich) and Nürnberg.

We hopped on and off ICEs all over Germany between Köln (Cologne) and Salzburg in Austria, and all were dead on time save one, and it was ten minutes late arriving but made up the delay before reaching our destination. The convenience and reliability of the schedules became ingrained pretty quickly, and we came to depend on the rail system again, as we used to when we lived there. This led us to muse again on how much we would miss the dependable German rail service once we were back home.

By standardizing on trainsets and schedules, DB has created an interchangeable and reliable equipment fleet, much the same way that Southwest Airlines has done in the USA with its single aircraft type (737s). That's where the similarity ends. Whereas Southwest provides a single cattle class, DB's ICE trains, and its similar ECs (Euro-City international trains), offer two very comfortable classes of service.

First class seating aboard ICEs is configured 1-2, with a variety of seating arrangements. For instance, there are three private compartments in the second first class car of each standard ICE trainset; other seats are arranged in rows, with the center rows facing each other over a table with folding wings for working.

Wireless Internet and mobile phone services are standard aboard ICE trains. We saw lots of business men and women chatting on their phones and working on their laptops.

European train schedules are as easy to read and understand in 2007 as they were when I first encountered them in 1973. Very little has changed, and that's good, because the system was and is simple and near-perfect.

Stations have two types of train information boards: electronic ones with info on all upcoming trains in the next few hours, and large format printed "arrivals" and "departures" schedules for all trains which are posted prominently in many conveniently located places inside stations. Schedules also tell which track each train will be arriving on; station track assignments are standard for the duration of the train schedule period.

Each track platform posts graphic maps of the cars of each train arriving on that track throughout the day. The individual train maps show where the first and second class cars will be on each train (because trainsets are also standard from day to day), and also the trackside location of each car when the train stops (track locations are usually marked A, B, C, etc. overhead).

For instance, we had seat reservations on several trains, and we were able to see exactly where, say, "Car 32" would be stopping (e.g., track location D). Then we would go to location D and stand there until the train arrived. Our car would always stop exactly where the map had indicated.

Speaking of seat reservations, we bought ours in advance for the trains we knew we'd be riding. This was to be certain that we had four first class seats together for our family of four rather than take pot luck upon boarding. Except in busy travel periods, almost every train has 40-60% unreserved seats available, and they are open to who gets them first.

In 1973 DB used little chits of paper to mark reserved seats, but these days it's all computerized. Above or beside each seat is a small LCD screen showing whether the seat is reserved and between what two cities. You are free to take one of the reserved seats, but it must be vacated if the person holding the reservation shows up.

Oddly, seats reservations are cheaper if bought in Germany, whereas railpasses purchased stateside provide great savings over in-country rail tariffs. We paid $11 per seat reservation in the United States; the same reservation in Germany costs €3.50 (about $5.25).

Our first class railpasses were $245 apiece for adults and $158 for each child. There are many options; we chose 4 days within a month solely within Germany. Knowing we'd be in Germany for 8 days, and just in Deutschland, this was a fine option for our trip.

We realized what a bargain the railpasses were on the last day when we decided to take the train from Frankfurt to Köln and back via Mainz and Koblenz along the Rhine River to see the castles. We obtained schedules for the trip in both directions from a helpful DB representative at the Frankfurt airport ICE train station, and she printed it out for our reference. On the paper were the first class prices to Köln and back, which is just an hour away by ICE: almost $200 round trip per person! I calculated that we saved about $1,800 in rail fare during our eight days in Germany by buying the railpasses for the four of us.

Our DB railpasses also allowed us to travel to Salzburg in Austria and to Basel in Switzerland, since both cities are on the borders of those countries. Because of this liberal option, we traveled one day to Salzburg from München, a beautiful trip through Alpine territory in under two hours each way.

As I said above, we quickly took for granted the convenience, reliability, and comfort of the inter-city rail services in Germany. By day 7 we were shocked and incensed to see a ten minute delay posted for one of our trains (that train made up its time and arrived on schedule).

Our recent experience incrementally updated our Euro-rail knowledge, but there was nothing dramatically new. European rail networks have worked well for decades. They have been continuously modernized.

Though not cheap, rail services in Europe are better, faster, and more convenient than ever. Trains are a better option than flying in both comfort and reliability for distances up to 300 miles, and maybe a bit more. Trains are more efficient, less polluting, and carry more people than airplanes do, too.

It's too bad that we don't have the political will to build similar rail network solutions here in America. Population densities in many areas east of the Mississippi warrant it.

Where necessary, Europeans have found ways to build entirely new rail lines for their high speed trains to separate them from freight rail traffic and highway grade crossings. We need to do the same.

Recent plans for new high speed inter-city rail corridors have been gaining favor, so perhaps it's finally dawning on us that we need high speed rail options to get us out of the crowded airways and back on the ground. I hope we emulate the better qualities of the European rail systems, and that we do it fast.

It can't happen fast enough for me. On our recent trip, my family thoroughly enjoyed every rail journey in Germany, and we never once missed flying. I dream of having similar frequent, high speed, reliable, and convenient rail travel options in America.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

To Europe & Back: Flying Business Class Doesn't Guarantee A Stressless Journey

Flying to Frankfurt with my family over Thanksgiving week was supposed to be fun and easy. After all, I had spent a ton of money and miles on getting all four of us into business class on American Airlines and British Airways. By investing in a premium cabin I hoped for a fairly painless experience over and back. Though some pain was involved after all, we did make every scheduled segment, and these days I count that as a blessing.

So what went wrong? As usual, some controllable and some uncontrollable circumstances.

Partly it was the planning, especially for the return flights.

Going over was straightforward: Raleigh to Chicago; then O'Hare to Frankfurt.

Munich was our REAL destination, but AA doesn't fly to MUC, so we bought Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) First Class rail passes, about which sublime rail experiences I will happily share in a future blog entry.

However, the routing was a bit tortuous on the return: Frankfurt to London Heathrow on BA, connecting to AA to O'Hare and then home to RDU from Chicago.

Too, British Airways' early morning departure from Frankfurt meant we'd have to travel from Munich to Frankfurt a day early and stay overnight at an airport hotel. That added complexity and cost, but my wife and I are good at turning lemons into lemonade; we made the most of our forced march one day early to Frankfurt, which I will share in the future blog entry on rail travel within Germany that I mentioned above.

We had to accept the unusual routing (BA to LHR, then AA to ORD) because even my Executive Platinum status + EP upgrades + a good deal of money were not enough to get four business class seats returning. I prudently made reservations many months in advance, yet this was the best schedule AA could manage.

American promised that the LHR code-share connection from BA (arriving at Terminal 1) to AA (departing from Terminal 3) was routine and legal. I had my doubts despite their assurances, but accepted the itinerary. So I have no one but myself to hold accountable for the modicum of stress and uncertainty that ensued.

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, the flight over the pond:

We had no trouble with the American RDU/ORD flight; it was a three hour, thirty minute connection. Lucky my kids enjoyed running around the Admirals Club for those hours.

When we finally boarded AA 84 ORD/FRA, I was at first encouraged to see that the 767 in service that evening had been fitted with AA's new business class seats. However, the new seat experience was unpleasant, the details of which I described in the previous blog entry, q.v.

AA 84 is a two-class flight with no first class cabin, and, knowing this, I anticipated that our flight attendants would give priority only to those of us in business class. But I was sadly mistaken.
Rarely have I experienced a more surly and inattentive on-board crew in a premium cabin on AA or any airline. I was reminded of the terrible attitude of United Airlines flight attendants back in the 1990s when I was a 1K flyer with UA. The constancy of United flight attendants' rotten customer service finally drove me away from UA altogether, and I have not been back since.

I couldn't help wondering if I was seeing the beginning of a similar trend with the AA 84 FA crew or if we just got a bad bunch. Even my wife, who is no complainer, commented on it to me about halfway to Frankfurt. We could not get the crew to refill even the water for us or our children, let alone fetch another glass of Champagne. Every time we waved or rang the call bell, we were ignored. I had to go up into the galley to beg some help. There were no apologies, just unsmiling, glum looks accompanied by sluggish, half-hearted response.

By the time we landed in FRA, we were glad to put the terribly uncomfortable new business class seats and the surly crew in our rear view mirror. Both the faulty architecture of AA's new business cabin and the living dead on-board crew left a bad impression that will be remembered when I book future business travel overseas.

On the return legs, despite my trepidation, British Airways did a good job until we hit the tarmac at Heathrow.
I was able to get all our boarding passes the afternoon prior to our 7:45 AM departure, which allowed us to sleep in a precious few minutes more.

On the fateful morning we braved the thoroughness of Frankfurt airport security and followed the signs for BA 901 to London Heathrow. And followed the signs, and followed more, and followed, until I thought we had walked halfway to England.

Finally approaching the gate, we ran the gauntlet of a second security point, this one even more invasive than the initial one.

Because we were not sitting together (BA does not allow pre-flight seat assignments for AA code share passengers, so it's pot luck when you check in), I approached the rather severe-looking lady manning the podium and attempted to explain our predicament.

"VAT IS IT YOU VANT?" she barked, obviously having passed her fascist customer service course with honors.

I tried again to explain.


I gave up, wondering if BA knew how they were being represented in Frankfurt to their business class customers.

Despite the rude agent, the flight boarded on time and left the stand early. En route the crew was delightful, and the 757 comfortable. Over central London we were slowed down for traffic and circled twice, then went straight in.

Wow! I thought. We might even get to the gate early, and that would help us with our 85 minute connection window. I knew it was not going to be quick getting from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3, despite AA's assurances, and I wanted a head start.

But we didn't get one. After landing 15 minutes early, we sat on taxiways for 40 minutes waiting for a gate to open up. Even BA, it seems, doesn't have the clout at Heathrow to meet its own schedules. I was sweating with worry about our connection by the time the door was finally opened, and we took off at a run for the inter-terminal connection bus, all our luggage in tow (we never check any bags).

After completing the marathon distance of the entire length of a Terminal 1 finger, we approached the escalator up to the connection bus point. Suddenly clanging bells went off all around us. I thought someone had entered a secure area in error.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a fire alarm throughout Terminal 1, and immediately the police were everywhere, and people were stopped from entering the escalators, including us. Upstairs, everyone was evacuated, and voices could be heard shouting.

It was at that juncture that I gave up all hope of making our connection. The fire alarm, whether signaling a real emergency or not, would surely stop us for an ungodly period of time from reaching the connection bus to Terminal 3, now so tantalizingly close at the top of the stairs. I resigned myself to an alternative plan: finding the nearest AA connection desk once in Terminal 3 and devising a new itinerary to get home to Raleigh.

As suddenly as it had begun, however, the alarms stopped. A total of 15 minutes had passed, though, and we were down to less than 45 minutes to get to our O'Hare flight. We were the first to be allowed up the stairs, and we flew through the now empty terminal corridors to the bus stop.

We lucked out: a bus was just preparing to leave, and in a few minutes we were entering Terminal 3--where we had to endure the third security point of the morning so far.

Thus slowed a bit, we caught our breaths and then followed the endless signs to our gate in Terminal 3, which routed us through the teeming Terminal 3 shopping areas. Maneuvering through the multitudes, we high-tailed it to our gate, and were there met with a fourth security point, this one the most invasive of any so far.

While each piece of luggage was meticulously searched, we watched our flight being boarded just ahead. I muttered something about the idiocy of having to endure four security points, and things slowed down even more. I shut up.

After a very long delay for inspection of every dirty sock, we were deemed safe to travel and joined the swelling ranks of Chicago-bound passengers on AA's 777.

Once on board and putting our bags overhead, we knew right away that we had a good crew. Three different flight attendants crowded us with offers of help, and then plied us with boarding Champagne and orange juice. They were all smiles and laughed with us as we summarized our harrowing odyssey from BA in Terminal 1. No sooner had we tumbled into our seats than the doors were closing, and we were pushing back. We made it, and it was a small miracle that we did.

En route to O'Hare the crew coddled us and made us relax. They anticipated our every need, and those of our kids. It was a great way to be headed home, and I wish I had that AA crew with me on every flight--the antithesis of the crew on AA to Frankfurt a week earlier.

Our flight arrived on time, and we cleared customs and immigration fairly quickly in the international terminal at O'Hare. A short inter-terminal train ride later we re-entered security and went through the fifth security screen of the day, this one compliments of TSA. Our connection to Raleigh was on time and uneventful, the best kind of ride.

Our experience demonstrates that booking business class or first class seats mainly helps to ease the pain inside the aluminum tube. Sometimes, though, not even then, as in the case of the ill-humored crew we endured during the long hours to Frankfurt. A special check-in line and a dedicated premium class lounge both contribute to a better experience, but things get dicey in other respects.

A business or first class boarding pass doesn't speed things up at multiple security points overseas, nor does it provide any shortcuts to long and difficult inter-terminal connections.

Despite the unavoidable stress and rush of the airport experience trying to make a flight, those few hours of relaxation on board in a bigger, more comfortable seat make traveling in business or first well worthwhile.

Just remember to be on your game again when the door opens at the gate.