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, April 24, 2008

Road Trip!
(Well, OK, Road Trip II)

Regular readers will recall my post last year describing how I defied the tyranny of air travel and drove a Hertz car 900 or so miles from Raleigh to Chicago, and then back home again! The long overland journey required my full attention and was slower than flying, but it surely thwarted the airlines and airports from working their usual misery on me. The nice Toyota Avalon provided by Hertz boasted more comfortable seating than domestic airlines' first class, too.

So, reflecting on my fond memories of the 2007 road trip, I jumped at the opportunity last week to make another, albeit, shorter drive: Raleigh to York, Pennsylvania, a distance of 386 miles. I was scheduled to facilitate a meeting in York on Friday morning, and to attend a get-together the night before.

This, I thought, would be a snap. A quick run up I-95, scoot around Washington, D.C. on I-495, rejoin I-95 north to Baltimore, and dash up the last 80 miles on I-83 direct to York. Far better to drive, I thought, than to fly RDU to BWI and rent a car. Heck, I'd already flown to Chicago early on Monday morning and returned Wednesday from O'Hare. Those flights (on AA) had gone off OK, but why push my luck? Stay out of the air, I thought, and relax while listening to NPR. Catch up on the nonstop gabbing about presidential contenders.

After an early Thursday morning conference call, I left Raleigh in my wife's Camry just after 10:00 AM, trusty new Magellan GPS suckered to the dashboard. The day was gorgeous, sunny and cool, and the traffic was mild. I zoomed north and reached the Virginia border in one hour flat.

That's when I hit the first trouble. The first small town north of the border, Emporia, Virginia, was a notorious speed trap in the pre-Interstate days (1950s) when U.S. 301 was a main north-south route between the Northeast and Florida. I sped past the first exit for Emporia reminiscing about how the narrow two-lane highway wound its way through every tiny burg in the old days and how great it is nowadays to fly along at 70 MPH on I-95.

Suddenly I saw nothing but red tail lights ahead. I slammed on the brakes just in time and came to a full stop. No indication; now warning; no nothing. Just stopped, with the traffic barely creeping in fits and starts. So much for the wind in my hair, I thought.

Time spent waiting in crawling traffic, much like time on hold on the phone, does not pass at the usual velocity. Time slows way down. Minutes seem like hours. At least when left on phone hold, you can just hang up when you've had enough. When stuck in traffic on an Interstate highway, one has to resort to craftier means of escape.

I noted with some irony that traffic was flowing along nicely on old U.S. highway 301, which could be seen through the trees off the Interstate, and suddenly 55 MPH on that ancient artery didn't seem so bad. I crept toward a merging lane to my right, the northbound I-95 on-ramp from the last Emporia exit. When I finally reached the ramp, I pulled off the highway and onto the right shoulder, and then reversed slowly and carefully up the ramp with my 4-way flashers on.

If caught backing up the wrong way on the ramp, I figured to explain to the local constabulary that upon seeing the stalled traffic I had changed my mind about entering I-95 (not the whole truth, but certainly not a Bill Clinton parsing of the facts). Anyway, it was worth a citation to get out of the parking lot and on my way.

I had no trouble completing my escape maneuver, however, and in minutes I was tooling along U.S. 301 past the traffic jam. I rejoined the Interstate about 20 miles north, and was pleased to have the road virtually all to myself, having left a massive volume of cars knotted up miles behind me. For all I know, they are there yet.

Washington's Virginia suburbs hove into view in the early afternoon, and I imagined this would be an ideal time of day to sneak past the city and avoid DC's legendary traffic snarl-ups. But I was wrong.

Traffic slowed, and slowed some more, until it was barely moving at city street speeds as I approached the I-395/495 interchange. Things improved briefly on I-495, the west side beltway, but then congealed at several interchanges short of I-95 north to Baltimore. I kept looking at the time, about 2:00 PM, and thinking how truly horrible it must be traversing these miserably congested yet majestically constructed thoroughfares during morning and evening rush hours.

A brief period of fairly fast driving once on I-95 north came to an adrupt halt at the I-83 interchange. 45 minutes went by while creeping from one Interstate to the next. Even after merging onto the new highway, I made very slow headway until I was well clear of Baltimore's northwest suburbs.

I arrived York, Pennsylvania at 4:45 PM thanks to exceeding the speed limit by a wide margin on those few highway spaces where velocity was at my discretion. Truth be told, even pushing the Camry to 75-80 MPH, I was never a leader. Instead, I was barely moving at what law enforcement officers call the "speed of traffic." Cars were literally flying past me.

My return trip the next day (Friday) was marked by many similar fits and starts: bombing along over 70 for most of I-495 south, then stalled in a miles-long traffic jam in northern Virginia, finally speeding up again for no apparent reason, then slowed down again before Richmond.

Just when I thought I was in the clear back in North Carolina, I got word of a major accident (an over-turned tractor-trailer with its load strewn across I-95) 10 miles ahead of my location (I was just south of Weldon). Thus I left I-95 at the very next exit for a meandering path on local roads the last 90 miles to Raleigh. The drive home took an hour longer than the drive to York.

You get the picture: There is no way to beat the devil getting anywhere in this great country of ours any more. Sure, driving is a nice change from flying. You feel more in control even if stuck in traffic. If nothing else, it's nice to have an alternative to the thugs at the airports once in awhile. But our country's three hundred million souls are dependent upon their automobiles, and the Interstate systems are over-taxed.

Despite the sometimes harrowing traffic conditions and the need to stay super-alert, I enjoyed this road trip as much as I did last year's to Chicago. I did indeed get caught up on all the latest gossip about presidential wannabees, and I had the chance to reflect quietly while driving. I intend to look for more opportunities to substitute driving for flying, and also to take the train once in awhile.

Lastly, I am very pleased to report that my wife's Camry averaged 31.9 miles per gallon going north and 30.9 MPG coming home. It was a hot day last Friday, and I used the A/C the entire trip, which undoubtedly cut the mileage.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Delta & Northwest:
Nothing Will Be The Same

Wistful is the adjective that best describes my feeling when the merger of Delta and NWA was announced this week. For me, it was akin to the sadness one feels when hearing that a dear old friend, long suffering from a terminal illness, has at last succumbed.

I expected it, of course. But as one of Cormac McCarthy's characters, an elderly gentleman, said in McCarthy's great novel, CITIES OF THE PLAIN, when asked what was the hardest lesson he'd learned in the world after eight-some years:

"Maybe it's just that when things are gone, they're gone. They aint comin back."

I know that as tattered and torn as customer service has become at both Delta and Northwest airlines in recent times, the merger will wreck what little remains of their once-proud identities and respective company ethos. And it isn't coming back. Nor will it be replaced with something better. New, maybe, but not improved. Delta's and Northwest's best days are behind them now.

After flying 5.2 million miles on Delta, and racking up a lesser but considerable number of miles on Northwest, I can confidently characterize both airlines' service, past and present. In the old days, the mid-seventies through the late eighties, Northwest Orient, as it was then called, and Delta had a solid reputation for good service on the ground and in the air. Both carriers were proud of their heritage and their service, and you knew it when you flew them.

People cared at both airlines. When you reached someone on the phone at a reservation center, they felt a strong bond with their employer, they were well-informed, and they were empowered to make discretionary decisions customized to fit your travel snag or situation.

When you approached a check-in counter at the airport, people smiled and welcomed you. They were imbued with a sense of self-confident professionalism, and they radiated appreciation for you as a customer and a person. They sincerely wanted to help you, and more often than not, they were able to and did.

The same professional pride was in evidence at the gates and on board the planes. You were treated with respect and dignity whether you were a regular weekly flier in the first class cabin or a first-time flier in a center seat in the back of the plane.

I remember being on many a Delta flight during the era when it was the choice of the stars: Jane Fonda gently brushing by me as we boarded at LAX for Atlanta; John McEnroe fidgeting in the first class galley; Maria Shriver sleeping across the aisle en route to Los Angeles; Ray Charles hugging the L.A. gate agent to thank him and then laughing as he boarded his flight; James Brown swaggering like a bantam rooster in the Newark Crown Room; Little Richard charming a pretty woman seated next to him; Minnie Pearl loudly insulting her husband in front of me all the way to Nashville; and wonderful Buddy Hackett seated next to me extolling the virtues of the Duke Rice Diet all the way to Raleigh.

When was the last time you saw a celebrity on board your Delta or Northwest flight? For me, it's been more than a decade.

I recall many a 747 ride in First Class in the Northwest Orient glory days before Business Class was invented en route to Tokyo or beyond, and to Amsterdam or Paris, when the service and personal attention to my comfort and well-being rivaled anything Singapore offers today. And, like Swissair, Northwest would call me after I'd arrived home to inquire about the experience and how it could be improved.

Nobody from Northwest or Delta phones me any more except for the dreaded robo-call: "Your flight to Detroit tomorrow has been cancelled. Contact a Northwest [or Delta] representative for rebooking. [CLICK.]" And good luck getting through, even on the elite lines.

Airline mergers have a long track record of going off the rails. When the dust finally settles in two or three or four years, the Delta widget will be hanging all over the place, but I fear the once-great customer service culture it heralded will have gone with the wind.

So, yes, I shed a tear or two this week. I've enjoyed the privilege of some mighty fine experiences on both Northwest and Delta. I respectfully salute the professionals who made those companies what they once were. But like Cormac McCarthy's old gentleman said, when it's gone, it's gone.

And it aint comin back.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Apologies to Joe Brancatelli for stealing his line (AA-holes). It's the most apropos description of American Airlines managers, and I thought it was worth repeating: AA-holes.

In addition to cancelling over 1,000 flights, American’s phone systems suffered a complete meltdown today with the tidal wave of inbound traffic. I tried to phone the Exec Platinum line for over an hour, and each time went through a lengthy menu process before being put on hold to music for about 5 minutes, after which I was transferred to a busy signal. I'd hang up and try again. And again, and again.

I was trying two phones simultaneously, my cell and a landline. I finally got through, and they assured me that my flight tomorrow was operating. All RDU-bound flights from ORD before and after had been cancelled, the very nice agent in AA's Connecticut rez center said.

An hour later AA’s automated call system rang my cell to say my flight tomorrow had been cancelled. The message stated that I should contact an agent for rebooking (i.e., I was not automatically rebooked on anything).

To be honest, I wasn't surprised. I don't think the agent in Connecticut was lying to me. I believe her systems were giving her bad information.

Assuming that's true, think of the irony: Thousands of people trying to get through and being turned away by a busy signal for hours. When they finally reach a real person who works for AA, the company's official agent gives out wrong advice because American's systems don't have the right information.

Consider that this is happening even on its super-elite Executive Platinum desk lines: can't get through, and when you finally do, get bad info. What further proof do we need that American doesn't care about its customers, not even its very top customers?

Knowing, finally, that my flight was cancelled, I again tried to reach AA on two phones simultaneously for another hour (over 80 tries) before finally lucking out and getting a real person. He offered a morning flight on an MD-88 but advised that “it will probably be cancelled; I don’t know why it shows still operating.”
I said, no, thanks, so he put me on two AA Eagle RJs connecting through Louisville from O’Hare.

Louisville! The connection’s a sheer coincidence, apparently. There’s an Eagle flight in from ORD just an hour before another Eagle flight is scheduled to RDU. So that’s my Thursday plan now.

In light of this reprise of AA's March fiasco, and with demonstrative proof that they didn't learn anything from either experience AND don't care about their customers, I've pondered whether I should stop flying on American.
But if I dump AA, who do I then fly on to Chicago from Raleigh?

AA and UA and Southwest have the only nonstops to Chicago from RDU. Southwest is an uncomfortable cattle car operation with managers who systematically manipulated FAA inspectors and ignored safety concerns that might have killed a planeful of their customers. They are also notoriously late into and out of Midway week in and week out.

Too, Midway Airport is out of the way for my Chicagoland clients (read: long drive in bad traffic for me).

United is worse than AA—most of the time—and they don't even PRETEND to care about their customers.

I am real tired of connecting (on DL, NW, CO, you-name-the-carrier). Not only is connecting a terrible time-killer, but I can’t trust the connections any more. And it doubles the pain, especially if I don’t get an upgrade.

So I will reluctantly stay on AA, knowing full well their senior managers are fools and imbeciles who hate their customers and routinely disregard safety-related maintenance to save a few bucks, even if doing so risks killing some of their clientele and employees.

Just like every other airline’s management.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

48 Years of Flying

Tomorrow, April 4, will be my 60th birthday, and 48 years ago tomorrow, I took my first flight at age 12. The year was 1960.

On that momentous day all those years past, I boarded a Piedmont Airlines DC-3 at Raleigh/Durham Airport and flew 78 miles east to Kinston, North Carolina. I was so excited the night before that I could not sleep.

Entering the door of the plane, I recall having to walk up what seemed like a steep slope to find my row and window seat since the DC-3, on the ground, sat on a small tail wheel with its nose tilted up. As the engines roared up to takeoff speed at the end of the runway and we gathered speed bumping down the runway, the fuselage suddenly straightened up as the tail lifted off. Then, effortlessly, the reliable old Douglas gently ascended into the late afternoon sky and banked east.

It hooked me, already an incurable traveler by train, into a half century of flight around the world. In fact I've been around the world in first class so often that I've lost count. I think it's 18 times (10 eastbound and 8 westbound), but I am not absolutely sure any more.

I had the lucky privilege to fly 3 segments on the British Airways Concorde in the 1980s, and I distinctly remember the debilitating hangover from the 1970 vintage of first growth Bordeaux I drank at Mach 2 because I didn't want to waste it.

Happy memories of 747 upstairs lounges and superb service burble up into my brain from experiences on PanAm, TWA, Varig, South African Airways, British Air, Swissair, Malaysian, Sabena, Qantas, Singapore, Emirates, Air France, and many others in the glory days. Horrible memories, too, including relatively recent experiences which have been documented in this blog.

But on that first flight in 1960, it seems to me that everything went just right. The Piedmont flight attendants, then called stewardesses, were attentive and friendly; the seat was cushy and comfortable; and we flew not far off the ground. I recognized landmarks below as we passed over familiar territory. I think I was served a Coca-Cola. For me it was better than any Dom Perignon I have since imbibed aloft. We descended slowly and kissed the tarmac of my hometown airport with hardly a bump in gathering twilight.

I took my son on his premier flight at age 3 months, and that was to London, and he sat in his car seat in Business Class. Why did it take me so long to fly?

In the 1950s, which we had just left behind in April of 1960, flying was a luxury. Air travel was extremely expensive, and only the rich and serious business people could generally afford it. It would be decades yet before becoming the commodity bus travel it is today.

Too, passenger train service was still a great option. Local trains ran most places in the 50s, and crack streamliners were widely advertised by the railroads in newspapers and glossy magazines like LIFE, LOOK, SATURDAY EVENING POST, and NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. Railroads ran coast-to-coast Pullman cars (sleepers) on such famous trains as the New York Central's 20th Century Limited (New York to Chicago) and the Santa Fe's Super Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles). Flying by air was considered exotic, not to mention more expensive than a Drawing Room in one of those Pullmans.

My grandfather in Raleigh used to take me out to the old RDU airport in the 1950s to watch big Eastern Airlines Lockheed Super G Constellations come drifting majestically in. Their huge triple vertical stabilizer tails looked like antlers on the wrong end. I even remember how to distinguish the original Connie (round windows) from the later, more modern Super G model (square windows). It was exciting in a deeply visceral way to watch those massive four-engine airplanes take off, with a great roar of supercharged power driving the giant propellers.

Reflecting back over those 48 years in the air, I see now that the best experiences were probably when I was young, eager, and more forgiving. But I am trying to recover that youthful enthusiasm and spiritual resilience. As my wife reminds me, it's not so bad. After all, I'm still here, and safe, and generally get home every week when I am scheduled to.

Now if I could just get that upgrade on American this afternoon on my MD-88 flight to Raleigh from Chicago O'Hare.