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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Epiphany In London

In the late seventies I became a management consultant, and with that decision, I began to travel frenetically. At the time I thought of consulting as a temporary job.

A lot has happened in the thirty years since, mostly good, but I never lost the feeling that it was just a temporary job. It certainly wasn’t a career. Don’t get me wrong. There have been many rewarding aspects to the work. I’ve seen the world on consulting assignments. Sometimes the money has been good. I’ve met some of the most interesting people on the planet on consulting projects.

Nonetheless, consulting requires travel away from home a minimum of five days a week, every week. Sometimes, like the recent gig I signed up for in London, you must commit to being away from home and family for a month.

Regular readers will know that early last week I flew to London for just that job, leaving my wife and two young kids behind. But the London project did not work out for me, and I’m back. Why I am back may be worth knowing to you if you travel constantly, as I have for three decades, especially if you have a family at home and care about them.

I arrived in London last Tuesday morning. By Wednesday morning I had not slept since Sunday night due to worry and concern over being away from my family exacerbated by jetlag. I suddenly became aware that I was excruciatingly unhappy.

Had I known that I would be so miserable being away from my family, I would never have accepted the gig, of course. In earlier years before my wife and I had children, I wouldn’t have given such an extended absence from home (27 days) a second thought.

Suffering from severe sleep deprivation, I discussed the situation with my lead colleague on Wednesday morning early. We both agreed that it would not work for him or for me, and it wasn’t best for the client. Though we had client intro and fact-gathering meetings scheduled last week, the analysis didn’t officially begin until Monday the 11th, and there was time to replace me.

I have always loved consulting work per se, and I still do. But suddenly I realized while sleepless in that London Hilton room that I just can’t be away from my kids for a month without going home.

I didn’t know how strongly I felt about that until I got to London and could not sleep. If you read my blog often, you will remember my post a couple of weeks ago entitled, “Dread.” The dread I felt was about more than subjecting myself again to being beat up in the travel system; it was especially about being away from my kids.

The consulting firm I’d contracted with also muddied the waters the week previous to my travels when they called me out of the blue with a second offer—and then suddenly withdrew it—to lead a consulting project for a new railroad client in Florida. When they offered it, I expressed my strong interest, citing my expertise in rail and deep experience with white collar reorganizations, which is that company’s issue.

I also emphasized my strong preference to remain in the United States so that I could be home every weekend with my family. The U.K. work was strictly business process mapping, and while I do have lots of that experience, so do many others. The rail/reorg experience combo, however, was a much different and rarer requirement. I therefore agreed to the London gig reluctantly, which I realize now—too late—didn't help matters.

I’m not making excuses or pleading for forgiveness. I made a commitment to go work in London for a month, and I backed out once I got there. The politest thing I can say about my action is that it was “inconvenient” that I experienced the epiphany once there, instead of before I left, that being with my kids is more important to me than being absent from them for a month.

It was certainly inconvenient for them to have to scramble for a sudden replacement, and it was an extremely costly decision for me, since the consulting firm will not now reimburse me for any of my substantial expenses to get there, to reside in London at a Hilton, and to get home.

Be that as it may, last week’s extraordinary experience is a life-changing turning point. I don’t want to be away from my family that long ever again. This is a revelation to me. It may seem obvious to others, but it wasn’t to me, until now.

I am completely at peace with my decision last week to come home. Even in immediate hindsight, I recognize that it was foolish of me to think I could be away that long. Old habits die hard. I thought I could do what I’d been doing for thirty years, and I can’t, not any more. Having my kids has changed everything.

A little background is in order to put this into sharper perspective: I took off about half of 2007 because I could afford it (for awhile). I wanted to see what life would be like at home every week. Honestly, I didn’t know.

I found the adjustment to being at home difficult at first last year. Though my wife and I have a strong bond, I frequently felt like a stranger in the house. Her frantic routines to balance her professional career as a research sociologist and our two kids’ school and extracurricular activities were constructed of the necessity to act as a single parent during the five days each week that I had been gone for years. Frankly, from Monday to Friday each week I was in the way and unappreciated for the first few months.

Gradually, my wife and I retooled child responsibilities such as after-school activities (soccer, basketball, swim team, piano lessons, Chinese lessons, etc.); meal preparation for breakfasts and dinners; doctor appointments and emergency response to child sickness; homework monitoring and assistance; and coaching the kids in their own daily chores (bed-making, garbage-emptying, table-setting, dishwashing, pet feeding and pet care, yard work, etc.). I took over the myriad of tiny but persistent headaches, like keeping the vehicles licensed, inspected, maintained and filled with fuel. Home repairs and upkeep also fell to me. And so on.

Over time my wife became far happier, and so did I! I found the rhythms of our new routines suited me, to my great surprise.

I have especially enjoyed the immense amount of time spent with both my kids. Our son is in the third grade (age 9), and our daughter starts Kindergarten in the fall (age 4). I love every minute I am with them! They fight to have me lie down with them each night and to talk before they drift off to sleep. Their sleep problems and behavior issues, while low-grade, have all but disappeared with me home. My wife is not over-stressed and grouchy any more; she is, instead, happy. Two weeks ago I was here when we taught our daughter to ride her bike without training wheels.

I’d been missing all these things, and many more, by being away all week, every week. But just exactly what I was missing was abstract to me until I stayed home and immersed myself in my family’s lives. I could justify being away, despite my own persistent stress and a nagging feeling that I was missing something important, because it wasn’t concrete for me until I became involved.

Why I didn’t see that the last six months of 2007 had changed me I don’t know. It seems obvious now.

Thus I should not have agreed to take the gig in London because of the long absence. I had become much more “normal” than I realized during my time at home last year, and it took a kick in the teeth like going to London and facing four weeks without them to come to grips with it.

Even though I will keep my hat in the consulting ring (for stateside travel only), I intend now, with the sharpened focus of my needs gained suddenly from the experience this week, to look hard for something interesting locally.

I’ve written often since I began this blog about my desire to stop flying so much, because the whole experience can be so difficult these days. Looking back on every post now, I can see my blog was borne of this need, and I am just reaching the point in my journey where the end may be in sight.

This blog’s header, lamenting how airlines routinely rob us of it, says, “Time is all we have… .” I finally grasped last week in London that I want to spend more of the time I have remaining on this rock with my family rather than alone in some hotel room. That knowledge was worth the price.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

EOS Rocks!

Last week I described how I came to select EOS Airlines to ferry me across the pond to London, an odyssey which took place Monday of this week. One never knows whether reality will stand up to marketing hype, especially with airlines, but my EOS experience from JFK to London Stansted Airport (STN) came close to passing that test.

JFK, of course, used to be everybody’s gateway to Europe from the East Coast, and Lord knows I came to know the place all too well from the early seventies into the nineties. However, as service on most airlines using Kennedy deteriorated over the years, and as newer, more convenient gateways developed (e.g., ATL, and now even my home airport of RDU), I used JFK less and less for overseas flights. So I admit to being curious about transiting my old stomping ground and seeing what the Port Authority’s decades-long improvements look like and if they function well.

I was also interested in trying one of London’s alternate airports, Stansted, to see how it compares to the madhouses of Gatwick and, especially, Heathrow.

Since flying EOS requires first getting to JFK, I began my journey on American Eagle from RDU. Even with a half hour in the RDU penalty box prior to takeoff (the usual flow control delays at Kennedy), AA Eagle arrived on time at 4:00 PM. I was surprised and pleased, since my flights on other carriers to JFK in the past couple of years have routinely been late summer, fall, winter, and spring.

Eagle flights to JFK all use gate 31 at AA’s mid-concourse complex, which is part of Terminal 8. This was my first time through it since it opened, and though the walk was very long (gate 31 is as far from the main terminal as one can be), I was impressed with the sleek structure. The soaring architectural nuances of JFK Terminal 8 are highly reminiscent of United’s O’Hare terminals, which were styled after America’s magnificent railroad stations built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I was pleasantly surprised to find my luggage waiting for me at the carousel when I arrived. The long walk from gate 31 notwithstanding, I am conditioned to expect a delay in retrieving my bags from AA and every U.S. airline at JFK.

Luggage in tow, I was out the door to try JFK’s Airtrain connection to Terminal 4, home to EOS Airlines. No complaints about the train itself, but it seemed odd that passengers have to leave Terminal 8, walk across the street and down a bit to find the elevators up to Airtrain. There was a fairly good flow of people coming and going, as one would expect in late afternoon at Kennedy, yet only one of the extremely slow hydraulic elevators was operating. This caused a delay and big crowd of people waiting to get to the Airtrain platform.

Airtrain egress at Terminal 4 to the check-in podiums was easier, and I found the secluded EOS check-in counter without difficulty. This was my first time in Terminal 4, which, unless I am mistaken, is a new structure which replaced the venerable IAB (International Arrivals Building) at JFK. I have a lot of fond memories of flights from and to the IAB on carriers like Sabena and Swissair in the 1970s, but I don’t miss the place. The building was pushed beyond its capacity for years.

The EOS experience began with the smiles and service-oriented attitudes of the good folks at the podium. My bags were swiftly checked and boarding pass issued, and I was introduced to my EOS “personal assistant,” Alita, who would accompany me through security and to the lounge. The line for security snaked back dozens deep, but Alita was able to bypass the queue and into a security screen portal reserved for crew, staff, premium cabin, and elite passengers.

Through this process, Alita cheerfully helped fill the usual bins for my overcoat, laptop, computer bag, and pocket contents/shoes. We were on the other side in no time.

EOS uses the Emirates Air lounge at JFK for two of its three daily flights. Alita stayed with me all the way inside the Emirates Lounge before bidding me adieu and reminding me that the gate was just a few steps away downstairs.

From stepping off my AA Eagle flight at distant gate A31 in Terminal 8 to sitting down in the Emirates Lounge inside Terminal 4 took exactly one hour. I noted that it was just 5:00 PM, an hour and forty-five minutes before departure, plenty of time to put some food into my empty stomach (I had skipped lunch). I knew from past experience that Emirates lounges serve abundant and delicious meals (see blog posts from April, 2007), and I was right.

After helping myself to a glass of always-satisfying nonvintage Veuve Clicquot, I toured the spacious lounge and took special note of the buffet just being set out. No less than 16 entrees were available, divided half and half into Western cuisine and Middle Eastern selections. Another 20+ chilled items were available, too, including smoked salmon and large shrimp, plus desserts such as chocolate mousse.

I chose the Butter Chicken over saffron rice and couscous from the Middle Eastern entrees, having discovered when flying Emirates in 2007 that both are delicious. In retrospect, I’m glad I did, as the EOS fare in flight was just OK. The Emirates spread was definitely the gustatory highlight of the evening. Had I saved my appetite for the EOS dinner, I would have been sorry.

Happily digesting, I strolled the huge Emirate Lounge, thinking, yes, at least a few airlines still care! Emirates certainly does, and EOS gets to tag along at JFK. Free wi-fi was available, too, something not found in many other airline first/business lounges. For instance, BA’s lounges at Gatwick don’t have it.

At 6:15 PM, a boarding announcement was made for EOS flight 2, and I walked the short distance to my gate below the lounge. Boarding was fast and efficient, and EOS passengers were greeted warmly and personally by the gate staff and the on-board cabin crew. Mine was a relatively late booking, and the only seat available was in a last row-window, 12A.

My first impression on boarding was that the plane, a 757 fitted with just 48 completely lie-flat seat pods, was a little shopworn. Getting down the narrow aisle, even with just my briefcase, required care. The big seats, each window and aisle slightly offset from each other to allow window seat travelers access to the aisles, take up a lot of room. The offset seat configuration guarantees a good deal of personal privacy to everybody, but they still feel a bit crowded in this single-aisle aircraft.

The seats themselves appear to be similar to the first or second generation completely lie-flat 180 degree seats that British Airways pioneered in First Class. That’s a compliment; the early BA seats were, and are, very good. Thus EOS is providing a real First Class seat and accompanying privacy at about half the price of most airlines “retail” business fares.

As I said, the plane and the seats were a bit tattered. For the price, though, about one-third of full fare First Class on the London routes, I’m not complaining. But I was still surprised that the interior wasn’t in pristine condition.

Flight attendants scurried up and down in the familiar pre-flight premium cabin drill to welcome each passenger and to take their coats. Pretty soon they were also carrying trays of plastic glasses with boarding cocktails. Choices were limited to water or tropical juice with vodka.

Champagne was not available; I know because I asked. This was a departure from decades of experience flying “sharp end” (as Martin Amis called international first class in his book, Money). Some people will scoff at my traditionalist criticism here, but, to me, nothing says “Welcome aboard!” like a glass of real French Champagne, and airlines seriously committed to the standards of premium service will serve it in real glass, not plastic.

Still, the pomegranate juice with vodka, or whatever the juice was, was good. Looking at the plastic glass as I imbibed, though, cheapened the experience for me. It’s the little things that count, and I consider it important to set the right tone for the flight on boarding. You only get one chance to make a good first impression.

The flight was booked full, I’d been told, but I lucked out: Seat 12B adjacent to me remained open, and looked to be the only empty seat on the flight.

The flight attendants promised Champagne after takeoff, and I eventually got it. We departed on time at 6:45 PM, and after the usual wait for our turn on the runway, got off the ground about 7:20 PM. My Champagne arrived about 8:00 PM, with no explanation for its delay, and only after I had stopped a passing FA to ask where it was.

A Fujitsu personal video unit was delivered to me earlier than the Champagne, and I was happy to see that it contained dozens of recent movies. The unit reminded me of the one that Amtrak has been renting for a couple of years. It comes with a long-lasting battery and has a very quick response to commands, unlike some systems.

EOS FAs also brought a Bose noise-cancelling headset for my use with it, and I was glad to note that it was the more comfortable (and more expensive) “over the ear” model rather than the smaller “on ear” type that AA loans out to its first and business customers en route.

EOS has no on-board screens tied to the Air Show software which is routine now on most airlines. I was surprised that I missed the Air Show moving map. I guess I have come to expect it on long flights.

Canapés were offered as starters, and I was startled to have them served not on a plate but on a tiny paper cocktail napkin left on the armrest of my seat. No silverware was offered, and the canapés were messy. Using my fingers was awkward. I didn’t find any of them very tasty, either.

The main course was served in due time, and it was forgettable. Checking my notes, I did not write down what it was, and I don’t remember, except that it was mediocre. Thank goodness for the Butter Chicken over saffron rice and couscous from the Emirates Lounge.

A few other observations: The crew was very nice but at times seemed a little uncertain about their on-board service. The toilets were somewhat worn and not fancy, but roomy, and they were numerous enough to meet customer demands with no lines. The amenity kit contained the standard items one needs, such as good eye shades, ear plugs, socks, toothbrush and toothpaste.

The flight was really all about the great seats. Having said that, I was able to sleep only fitfully for just over three hours. I found my seat, when in the completely flat position, needed to be carefully adjusted to meet the bench seat in front so as to match up just right. The wrong adjustment caused my feet to be slightly higher or lower than the main seat, which caused discomfort. Otherwise, I enjoyed the seats very much.

At 6:00 AM London time, the pilot announced we’d be landing in 45 minutes, which was close to an hour earlier than scheduled. We actually landed just after 6:30 AM, and I had my luggage and was through Customs and Immigration by 6:50 AM. Stansted is small and manageable and feels un-crowded. It was a stress-free arrival, and groundside EOS personnel were available all the way through to the luggage carousel to provide advice and assistance. EOS staff presence and help from check-in through to luggage retrieval was a real delight. Not even Singapore Air does that routinely.

By 7:25 AM I was aboard a National Express bus for Baker Street, not far from Edgeware Road in Central London, but that’s a story for next week, along with my impressions of the disappointing Hilton London Metropole hotel.

EOS Airlines wasn’t perfect. No airline I’ve yet flown on is. But for the extremely reasonable fares they charge to enjoy their version of international first class service, EOS rocks! I will definitely be using EOS again in the future, and I recommend the airline to anyone without qualification.