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, March 27, 2008

Triple Jeopardy—And Holding My Breath

What's worse than having to fly into or out of O'Hare on any given day? That's bad enough by itself, lowering one's odds of being on time either way.

How about having to chance it during an early spring snow storm like the one we are having right now (Thursday afternoon, March 27th)? As I gaze out the picture windows of the American Airlines Admirals Club lounge between the H and K councourses here at O'Hare, where I write this lament in real time, all I see is white. And lots more seems to be falling as the evening approaches.

So that's double jeopardy, right? ORD is a crap shoot under the best of circumstances, but in the snow?

Well, for me today, there is a third level of airline hell to contend with:

My American Airlines flight 1792 ORD/RDU is an MD-80. And as you probably know, yesterday AA dumped over 300 of its flights due to FAA-mandated inspections of its MD-80 fleet.

Today's AA operations doesn't seem much better, either. A lot of MD-80s are still out of service on American, and many that are flying are dreadfully late.

Including mine, which, so far at least, has not been cancelled, as so many have today. My flight is, however, pushing 3 hours late, or so the AA systems claim. Once carded for a 4:35 PM departure, it's now posted for 7:01 PM.

But who really knows when or if it will fly? Not AA. The Executive Platinum desk says AA's systems have slowed down to a snail's pace due to all the calls and computer traffic generated from the MD-80 SNAFU and the snow in Chicago.

AA information systems anomalies in this over-heated environment have led agents to advise caution when giving updated flight information. "It's hard to tell for sure," said one to me, "You'd better keep checking back with us."

Except that I can't get through to AA on the phone any more, and the line at the Admirals Club agent desk is long and slow-moving. The AA monitors at O'Hare and are sluggish or just plain wrong, too, so I can't count on them for accurate, let alone up-to-date, information.

I am surrounded by people here in the Club calling spouses, loved ones, and business colleagues who are waiting hither and yon for their arrival. The message from everyone to everyone is the same: Don't expect them any time soon tonight—or at all this day. Flight after AA flight is falling from the departures board here at Chicago as the snow sets in and ATC slows down arrivals (and thus departures).

It's almost 6:00 PM in Chicagoland, and the snow is flying. Everywhere the deicing trucks are hosing off control surfaces. It'd be a pretty site if we all didn't have to get home.

Last night I made a "safety" reservation at the Hilton O'Hare for just this contingency. I booked a room in case my flight was cancelled due to snow or no airplane so that I'd have a place to lay my head tonight before trying again in the morning. But I had to cancel before 4:00 PM CT to avoid paying for a room I might not use (over $300), and now I am exposed with no hotel room if this flight cancels. I was forced to make that choice because AA could not tell me with any certainty whether my flight would operate before 4:30 PM.

Gotta run. Will report what happens...


11:45 PM ET Postscript:

Just arrived home. My flight did indeed make it to RDU, albeit 188 minutes late.

Horribly late or not, I beat the odds of triple jeopardy, nothing short of a minor miracle.

Much of the flight was bumpy, but the exhausted AA flight attendants were remarkably cheerful and served everybody in both cabins something to drink. This despite the captain's advice to them to remain seated. Everyone on board was grateful to the flight attendants.

I'm home and relieved to be here. But I sure empathize with all those people back at O'Hare who were left when American canceled their flights and left them with no backup plans. Victims all, and maybe they will at least rate a brief report on CNN or its replicate cable media.

But by the weekend, forgotten victims. Media attention, if any, will not lead to either recompense for the mass misery or to root cause analysis and subsequent prevention by the private or public sector.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Red-hot Saskatchewan
Part 2

Picking up my story from last week extolling the charms and wonders of Saskatchewan, I found myself in tiny Rocanville, a town in the far east of the province on a recent bitterly cold night in early March. The daffodils had been blooming in profusion in Raleigh for a month when I arrived, but this part of Canada had yet to see the ground beneath the snow, let alone a flower.

My client had made a reservation for me at the humble but friendly Rocanville Motel. I lavished attention on the two small dogs belonging to Gail, the friendly woman who owned the place, as she went through her check-in routine with my MasterCard (“No, not too many folks ‘round here take American Express—sorry about that!”).

Gail’s friendly little mutts shivered incessantly, whether from excitement or the cold, I knew not, but I opined at least from the freezing air, as the thermometer plummeted with the setting sun to well below zero. The wickedly frigid temps penetrated even the well-insulated motel office.

“That’ll be $49.50, and you’re in room 14 around back,” Gail said, smiling, “It’s just around the corner, but I’d advise driving. Mighty cold tonight.”

She need not have worried. Allergic to deep cold as I am, I’d left my little Hertz Toyota Matrix running outside with the heater going full blast, intending to drive to my room even had it been adjacent to her office.

“Does that rate entitle me to use the Concierge Lounge?” I asked, attempting humor.

“What was that?” she said. My joke escaped her, and I was embarrassed.

“Well, come on into the office here tomorrow morning for coffee anyway,” she said. “There are no restaurants open in Rocanville before 8:00 AM, and I know you’ll want to get going real early.” I’d asked her to call me at 5:15 AM.

I was awfully relieved to find room 14 pre-heated and with a strong fan pumping hot air in at a good rate. After shoving a couple of towels under the door to prevent outside arctic air seeping in and ruining the warm and cozy comfort of my domain, I put out my Dopp kit for ablutions and opened the tiny slivers of soap for a morning shower. Was it just the previous evening I was enjoying the luxury of the Hilton O’Hare Airport Hotel?

Yet the Rocanville Motel met my needs in most regards. Sure, the room smelled faintly (permanently?) of cigarette smoke, and the bed was a bit lumpy. But I slept well, awoke early, had a hot shower, and was ready to greet the day by 6:00 AM, feeling none the worse for wear.

A wall of polar air hit me as I cracked open the door. However, the Toyota Matrix started right up, even at 30 below zero, and I let it warm up for 20 minutes before driving around to the office for the promised coffee and a quick check-out.

Truth is, I’d stay there again. More truth: In Rocanville, I’d have to. It’s the only motel for miles around.

The day that followed was memorable, spent with my gregarious and knowledgeable Saskatchewan friends. I learned that Saskatchewan is often the brunt of jokes in Canada as a backwoods empty place full of nothing more than wolves (and it does have many), bears, moose, coyotes, and deer. And that the province is characterized by its many “indigenous people” (whom we call Native Americans) who often live in poverty close to nature toiling in subsistence farming.

One colleague told me the story of relatives from Toronto who asked him seriously what Saskatchewan was like, saying: “I went through there once—nothing there.”

While Saskatchewan sometimes gets little respect from urbane Toronto dwellers, and while some of the notions about the province seem to be true, that’s far from the whole story.

Saskatchewan people are genuinely nice. Living out there surrounded by miles and miles and miles of nowhere, nothing but plains and snow and cold, they must be, and are, survivors and good neighbors to each other. They support each other in all the ways we Americans glorify and revere about small town and rural American life in the early 20th century. Those ideals are practiced routinely among the good people of Saskatchewan.

The province is the breadbasket of Canada. Those miles and miles of plains may bring howling wild winds and bitter cold in winter, but they bring oceans of wheat and other grains in summer, enough to feed the nation and have plenty left over for export around the world.

And then there are the potash mines dotting the entire province, a commodity now practically as valuable as gold. And of course the real gold mines, and the diamond mines up north of Saskatoon, and the Chinese race for the oilsands, not taxed heavily in Saskatchewan as they are in neighboring Alberta. Oh, and there are oil wells everywhere. I saw too many to count on my drives through the province.

No wonder that the locals there are excited. Over and over I heard that Saskatoon and the province are “on fire” with the rich promise of natural resources.

Later that morning, as we were traipsing around in the deep snow along the Canadian National Railway main line in the middle of nowhere exploring options for adding storage tracks for my client’s products, a CN freight train came by blowing its horn for a small crossing. It was so bitterly cold that the air horns would not work properly and sounded like a moose shrieking in pain.

The day warmed up a bit later; the high temp (at noon) was 8 below zero.

The tiny community of St. Lazare, just across the provincial border into Manitoba, is 100% French-speaking and hasn’t changed much (so they tell me) since the 1700s. At its beautiful school (Ecole) students are taught solely in French.

Just west of St. Lazare, I saw indigenous people somehow living off the land in extremely modest shacks. I was told there are many Finnish people and Germans, too, dotting the landscape at distant intervals. People are used to having lots of space around them out there. I don’t blame them; I found the openness and natural beauty of the land invigorating!

In fact I was sorry to leave for the two and a half hour trek to Regina for my flights to Chicago. To do so, I employed a number of very well-engineered gravel road short cuts back to Canadian Highway 1, the main east-west artery across the country.

At Regina airport, I met more really nice people at Hertz, then Northwest, and finally at the extremely thorough security check-point. I was selected for the full pat-down and 100% luggage search, and it was carried out with good humor, dignity, and civility.

Before heading to the gate I noted the spotlessly clean bathroom. Airport rest rooms are overused and not known for their cleanliness, but even here Saskatchewan made a final good impression.

Musing on the good people to our north, I enjoyed the return flight in one of NWA’s new Embraer 175 regional jet, relaxed in the roomy comfort of their first class cabin (see full description in last week’s post below).

Arriving at MSP, I was taken aback at the requirement to clear U.S. Customs and Immigration exactly as if I’d just arrived from Bangkok, after which I had to run the TSA security gauntlet to re-enter MSP. Good Lord! What has the world come to? The security screen in Regina was far more thorough than the TSA screen. Why jump through that hoop again? And why do Americans have to endure the formalities of customs and immigration coming from Canada? Aren’t they our cousins?

Late that evening I found myself once more enjoying the good care of the Hilton O’Hare Airport Hotel. Nice as the O’Hare property is, I judged that Gail’s good care of me 24 hours earlier at her unpretentious Rocanville Motel measured up nicely in customer service and meeting the basic requirements of any hostelry: safety and security, a comfortable environment, good bed and bath facilities. The overnight experience in both properties was therefore remarkably similar.

And they are alike in another way: The Hilton at O’Hare doesn’t have a Concierge Lounge, either.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Exciting Saskatchewan
(Part 1)

Last week’s work began with two interesting but enervating days in Illinois, both cold. Tuesday found me in downstate Illinois in whiteout snow conditions as I drove from Chicago to Springfield to Danville and back to Chicago. Altogether I put over 740 miles on my Hertz rental car in 40 hours before spending Tuesday night at the Hilton O’Hare Hotel.

Exhausted from long days in deplorable weather conditions, I checked in for a short 7 hours at the Hilton O’Hare. Riding up in the elevator, I pondered the odd circumstances that usually lead me to book in at the O’Hare Hilton: delayed or cancelled flights.

In this case, I’d chosen the property because I had a very early flight the following morning. The O’Hare Hilton is simply the most convenient hotel at the airport. One’s flight is a short walk across the street (unless you are aiming for the International Terminal).

Looking down from my luxurious top floor room, I reflected that I’ve never had time to take in and appreciate the virtues of the place. The O’Hare Hilton maintains high standards of management and service in spite of the teeming hordes that cycle through its rooms. Its facilities are first rate; all my stays have consistently been pleasant and relaxing, albeit brief. Maybe I can sojourn there for a future business week and get a proper feel for the place. Despite the brevity of my visit last week, I slept well and enjoyed the tranquility and quiet of my room.

Early Wednesday morning I boarded my Northwest flight to the Twin Cities for a connection on to Regina (YQR), Saskatchewan. NW honored my Continental Platinum status and kindly upgraded me on all four legs to and from Canada, despite its being, technically, an international itinerary. My flight in first to MSP was therefore very comfortable.

The NW flight MSP to Regina was aboard one of the new Embraer 175, an RJ on steroids. Entering the first class cabin, I was surprised to find the plane was fitted with either 15 or 18 F seats (I didn't make a special note) configured 1-2 (one seat on the port side, 2 seats on the starboard side). In coach, it was 2-2.

The surprisingly roomy first class cabin sported large overhead bins on the starboard side (I could turn my bag the long way with ease), but tiny bins on the port side fit only for coats (not even a small laptop bag could be accommodated—I saw several people try). The same overhead bins were installed in coach,, but a little smaller on the starboard side and a little bigger on the port side.

The Embraer 175 had large, very comfortable F seats. Once airborne, NW flight attendants provided great service, too, with cinnamon pita chips, pistachio deluxe nut mix, and other delicious snacks. It wasn’t a meal, but it was appreciated, especially compared to what AA offers in first (a pretzel mix).

I was oddly excited to look out my “A” seat window as we glided in for landing to get a good look at Regina, Saskatchewan’s provincial capital. I’d never been to Saskatchewan in my life, despite trips to most other Canadian provinces. What would it look like?

It looked damn cold and barren out there, a bleak landscape of flat terrain covered with ice, snow, and the odd manmade feature—the latter spaced far apart. At first I wondered if we were in the wrong place. Where was Regina? Surely it would be a sizable burg visible in the crystal-clear sunshine reflecting with blinding intensity off the frozen snow.

Then the plane gently banked, and Regina hove into view. My initial impression was a flashback to one of the Star Wars movies where Han Solo is landing on an alien sphere with a city sticking up in the middle of nothingness. Regina indeed looks out of place. It’s as if a perfectly civilized and leafy Ohio small town had been uprooted, trees and all, and plunked down on the face of the moon.

The city looks mostly square from the air, and it is defined by its many trees and buildings, all feigning well-mannered normality. However, where the trees abruptly end (and they do end abruptly), the Great Plains of the north fan out forever in all directions beckoning the harsh, deep cold of severe Siberian fronts to rush over the flat land, with winds whipping and howling, and with snow blowing, enveloping everything in white.

These images came and went quickly as the plane hit the runway and taxied to its gate. We were warned it was quite cold out, and indeed it was: below zero near noon. The sun was brilliant, blazing off the snow, and it made for an odd juxtaposition with the penetrating chill.

Hertz gave me a Toyota Matrix, a small car I’d never heard of, though I’d reserved a full-size four-door. At first I was peeved, but the little car soon pleased me. The Matrix was fun to drive, peppy, managed excellent gas mileage, was quite warm (an essential feature), and, importantly, started right up the next morning in 30-below-zero temperatures. (Of course it did take 30 minutes before any heat was felt in the Matrix’s passenger compartment the following morning, but I waited out the slow warm-up in my room.)

Despite my instinctive aversion to very cold environments, I was immediately rewarded with the warmth of the Canadian people from the moment I stepped off the airplane. The Canadians are a great society, and I enjoy all my visits to their beautiful country. Everybody at the airport was nice, and that experience continued without fail with every person I encountered, even including the total luggage-and-personal search I endured when I checked in the next day for my return flight to the United States.

I set off east along Canadian Highway 1 in my Toyota Matrix to drive two and a half hours to tiny Rocanville. Next week I’ll complete this tale, and here’s a preview of my overall impression: Saskatchewan is a hidden jewel of a place, with wonderful people who still know what it means to be neighbors, beautiful wild countryside with nature still mostly intact, and the province is on fire with opportunities for its people.

Safe travels home to your family.

Monday, March 03, 2008

2008 Travel Highs & Lows To Date

ORD Hilton Zip Check-in kiosks will also print your boarding pass

Checking in for a recent overnight at the venerable and convenient Hilton O'Hare, I noticed for the first time that the Hilton Zip Check-in kiosk has an option allowing you to check in for your flight. You can check in for virtually any airline at O'Hare.

Since I had an early morning flight the next day to Canada, I used it to print my Northwest boarding passes, which included the option to enter my passport number and avoid doing it at the NW counter.

This is a great common sense service which I'd never noticed. Thank you, Hilton! Is this available at every Hilton with Zip Check-in kiosks? If not, it should be.

Hilton London Metropole–don’t bother

This Hilton property near Paddington (225 Edgware Road, London) was my brief place of residence in early February when it hit me that I should go home and be with my family (see previous post). OK, so I didn’t stay a month, but it didn’t take long to become irate and then weary of the place.

My so-called deluxe room (upgraded on account of my Hilton Diamond status) was not very. After waiting two hours for it in the pitifully-small Concierge Lounge, I was surprised to find the room tattered and worn. If the room I occupied could be classified “deluxe,” then the regular rooms must be the size of broom closets.

Towels were small and thin, perhaps to appropriately match the room size and the threadbare carpet. The showerhead leaked badly into a broken drain plug in the bath.

The overall effect was a dreadful dreariness, reminiscent of East German hostelries in the 1970s.

I was shocked that Hilton could get away with such third-rate, third world charms and still charge $360/night (whoopee! about half the rack rate, thanks to my client’s clout in negotiating a corporate rate, but still…), plus another $24/night for Internet connectivity.

American Airlines new Business Class seats are still uncomfortable

Going home from London I flew on one of AA’s 777s outfitted with their new Business Class seats, about which seats on one of their 767s I had written an unflattering review last November. But this was my first 777, and I hoped somehow that they’d be better.

They weren’t.

Even on the roomy 777, the seats are laid out in claustrophobic pods and feel very crowded. Here are my handwritten impressions at the time:

Terribly hemmed in. Can’t move. No place to put anything. Even the little shoe cubby holes are not deep enough for shoes, nor tall enough to accommodate both shoes. The seat slope when “flat” is too steep, and makes it impossible for the window seat guy to get over you. Feel sorry for anyone with window seats or the middle one in the center. Trays are poorly designed and insufficient.

In summary, the seats are the poorest design I’ve ever seen, especially for the full $6600 fare (round trip), beating even Delta’s horrible BusinessElite seats. 100% of people I’ve spoken to who’ve tried AA’s new business seats hate them and mourn the loss of the old seats, which, while they would not fully recline, were far more comfortable and roomy.

New Delta SkyMiles Award Travel redemption program to offer three tiers

If you’re a Delta frequent flyer, perhaps you got the email about this, too. Three tiers? Do you reckon the third tier will be a TRIPLE mileage requirement now for a guaranteed seat, replacing the double mileage?

With this announcement, Delta has taken dissembling to a new level. Their opening sentence reads: “We’ve heard you loud and clear.” And the third sentence makes me want to puke: “You’ll soon enjoy…”

What kind of dolts do they think can’t see that they are trying to spin this further dilution of the FF program to be a customer-oriented response?

We all know it’s a crock. Instead of treating us like intelligent beings by explaining that they HAD to do it for their own reasons—to make money—which is a fine reason, Delta put BS language in their message like they are doing us a favor by responding to our requests. It’s the worst kind of hypocrisy, and it doesn’t engender trust or respect for the people talking to us as officials from a significant travel partner. Why can’t they just say something like this:

“HEY, YOU! YEAH, YOU, OUR BEST CUSTOMER. We’re changing the rules on you because we want you to pay more for free seats. It’s our damn program, and we’ll do what we want to with it. You signed up for a 60-day window for unilateral changes when you agreed to join our program. So we played by the rules, albeit the rules we created. If you don’t like it, you can stick it in your ear.”

I might not like their tone, but I couldn’t fault them for candor. I’d even respect that and put my loyalist Delta hair shirt on again.

But I’d still berate Delta copywriters for being so ignorant that they didn’t even know to hyphenate the word “hard-earned” in the second sentence.

American Airlines, Continental, & AirTran beat the odds

Ten flights on AA, CO, & AirTran in February were all good experiences and close enough to being on time that I'm not going to nit-pick about it.

My family was with me on four of those segments, and that made it even better. Nothing's worse than schlepping your kids and all their stuff plus your own bags between connections when the inbound plane is late and the outbound gate is so far away that it's in the next county over.

My wife's native good luck must have helped, but, hey, she wasn't with me on those other six flights, so I have to thank these three carriers for beating this winter's delay odds for me.

On the road to not be on the road

Oh, I forgot to mention that I have found an interim solution to my work-versus-travel conundrum (see previous blog post on my epiphany in London):

I have a temporary consulting assignment that's just a 2-hr flight away from Raleigh and allows me to be at home Fri-Sat-Sun. I'm giving it a whirl and will report between now and April on whether my family life can remain in balance doing this.

Meantime, I make a 2-day trip to Regina, Saskatchewan this week, which should make for an interesting blog report. Here's a precursive tidbit: Northwest serves Regina out of MSP with several flights a day using Embraer 175 aircraft which even have a small First Class section. I'm aiming for one of those few "F" seats so I can see what it feels like to fly first on an RJ.