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.

My Photo
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, May 29, 2008

"But this is a CHEESE SHOP!"

My favorite Monty Python episode, for those old enough to remember the venerable and wickedly witty British TV show, featured the hilarious Cheese Shop skit. John Cleese, overcome by hunger after reading boring old Sir Robert Walpole (de facto first Prime Minister of England), enters a cheese shop for a bite, eagerly anticipating the consumption of its wares.

However, after asking for a score or more of cheeses, the names of which he impressively rattles off without breaking a sweat, the owner, played by Michael Palin, informs Cleese that in fact he doesn't have any cheese to sell.

"But this is a CHEESE SHOP!" exhorts an exasperated Cleese.

"Oh, yes sir! The finest in the district!" replies Palin, an insane grin on his face.

At which point Cleese threatens to shoot Palin if he doesn't provide him with the sole product his place of business ostensibly purveys.

I often feel as frustrated about air travel on the so-called "majors" in 2008 as Cleese did about not finding cheese in a cheese shop. The majors continue to shrink their capacity, taking away more of the very service they are in business to sell.

It's bad enough that there are few meals or snacks on board these days, and a dearth of pillows and blankets (excepting Continental), and that flights are chronically late 24/7/365, no airport excepted. But now, with capacity cuts, there is EVEN LESS of that poor service to endure and later complain of! What are they thinking?

And, even more absurd than the Monty Python skit, airlines like American are now tacking on extra charges for basic services like checked luggage, including the first bag. That's tantamount to the cheese shop owner charging customers extra for the plastic tray, wrap, and paper bag in which to package the cheese (if they had any to sell).

What's behind this shrinking trend? The people who run the majors believe that they are not able to directly pass along their rapidly rising fuel costs to their customers in the form of higher fares. They are afraid that customers won't fly their airline if they do, or not fly at all.

Honestly, it's a mystery to me why they are unable to muster the corporate courage to do that. The nation's gas stations and oil companies do it with impunity. Gas prices go up almost daily now, sometimes a dime a gallon.

Yes, car travel is down a bit because of it, but we are still buying a lot of gas. Would air travel diminish considerably if fares rose as fast as gas prices do? Perhaps, but capacity is being removed even without major fare increases. At least with fare increases the remaining flights would be profitable. Why nickel-dime us with stupid schemes like charging for the first checked bag? Why not be honest about it and just increase the fares?

I believe that business and leisure air travel, once a privilege and a luxury, is now a necessity. The premise that raising fares to cover costs will drive away a vast number of customers (that is, actual shrinkage in overall demand for air travel) is outmoded.

The other fear among the majors is losing business to competitors like Southwest and Jet Blue based on significant differentials in cost per available seat mile (CASM). But that cost delta has been narrowing. If the majors ever close the gap, they will be able to nimbly raise fares and promptly recover their costs, just as oil companies and gas stations do.

Until then I remind readers of the excellent and thorough New York Times analysis of the airline industry a couple of years back in which an authoritative economist described commercial air carriers in this country as merely "cash accumulators for other constituencies." He meant, of course, that airlines take in great mountains of cash but just redistribute it to their vendors and creditors.

With puny fare increases in sluggish response to rising costs, the majors chronically operate at low, or no, margins. They just collect a lot of cash and pass it along. That picture of the industry is still valid today, unfortunately.

And their response to date continues to be the wrong one, that is, providing less and less cheese in their cheese shop.

Where is John Cleese when we need him?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

May, Month of Respite

I realized this morning that I have not written anything about travel since late April. Good Lord!

This blog was created to relieve travel stress, and when I am not traveling, I normally don't write. I am not traveling right now, not much anyway. I am resting again, as I did this time last year.
It's all part of my grand plan to gradually wean myself away from the air travel maelstrom that defines going to the airport in America today. Maybe to semi-retire, but especially to stay home more and be with wife and kids (I have two young ones). That's what life is all about, really. There is no quality of life playing the airport/airline game.

Truth be told, it's not just the air travel hell. I have toiled away as a consultant for 30 years and counting, and I have worked for my share of boutique consulting firms, most of them owned by highly-driven individuals with elaborate, uncataloged eccentricities. In fact some of those owners have personalities that border on pathological. But, being a good open-minded and tolerant democrat, I am not much bothered by their peculiarities. Unless they fail to put the client's interests ahead of their own.

Regardless of business calling, one must drive forward by a set of professional values. We all do, whether we realize it or not. Values are what we live by; values define us.

As a consultant, I live by this simple principle: Always do what's right for the client first, no matter what.

There are times when my interpretation of what's best and right for the client differs significantly from that of the consulting firm owner. Usually I can figure that out early in a relationship, and that's just what happened to me recently.

And that's why I chose to politely exit, and why I am here at home, not traveling, with no income, and loving it. Life is too short to work for people I perceive to be greedy and arrogant fools, and I try not to do it.

This isn't a revelation I discovered as I got older. I have lived my sixty years pretty much that same way. Over the years, though, I've gotten better at reading people, and my trigger point is more finely tuned now than ever.

So I am not flying these days, though that's about to change. I have two upcoming trips that will put me at the mercy of the airlines again, one to New Orleans in late May, and another to London in June. The London jaunt looks to be horrendously expensive, even more so than my short stint there in February.

Until then I content myself with the rewarding physical labor of yard work, taking my kids to you-name-it (soccer, piano lessons, Chinese class, swimming, ad infinitum), cleaning up the house and my home office, routinely doing the family laundry, eating healthy meals, taking long bike rides on Raleigh's greenways, catching up on movies I've missed on DVD, and reading a few good books. In other words, things you can't do much of holed up in some hotel on the road.

Staying at home is really a great way to relax and rest the mind, and I feel wonderful!