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.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

CLEAR Conscience, and A Preview

After two weeks in a remote wilderness area of Montana, with no cell phone coverage and extremely limited dial-up email once every 2-3 days, I sheepishly admit that it's darn nice to be back on a high-speed connection. One forgets that dial-up, which we all started on, is sooooooo sloooooooow, no matter what the dial-up connection speed. I could hardly even check my messages via primitive webmail, let alone use Outlook to download messages to my laptop or use the Internet to write a blog post.

I pride myself on not becoming an email/Internet junkie who can't be without his daily fix. Same with my blankety-blank cell phone. However, this year, on my family's annual trek to the Montana wilderness, I missed my connections more than ever before. Can this be a good thing? I noticed my father-in-law, who's in his late seventies, was also anxious to dial up to get his email (unlike the younger John McCain, who doesn't like to use "the email"), so maybe it's not just me.

I'll be writing about our experiences getting there and back from Raleigh in the next few days, which include flying Southwest nonstop into Denver and driving 1600+ miles to Montana and back across Colorado and Wyoming.

But this morning, my first back in Raleigh, I just want to add a short, happy footnote to my previous blog entry (the formatting of which went inexplicably wrong and could not be corrected) regarding CLEAR.

Regular readers may recall that I signed up for CLEAR in anticipation that it was reaching critical mass and would soon be worth the annual fee to speed me through certain airports. However, my application was held, pending an in-person vetting session at one of its designated airport clearing stations.

Then a CLEAR laptop was stolen which contained information on thousands of applicants like me who were waiting to be approved. I received an email from the company explaining that the computer had been recovered and that my personal data had not been compromised. However, their negligence eroded my confidence. I decided that CLEAR needed to mature a bit longer before I became part of it, and I called them to cancel my pending application and get a refund.

The CLEAR personnel I spoke with could not have been nicer. They explained that my credit card had not yet been processed, and thus there was no refund to be made. Instead, they confirmed my verbal cancellation with an email, and that was that. I was impressed with their crisp efficiciency, and also noted that I did not have to wait long for a real person when I phoned. When CLEAR gets its act together, I will consider another shot at joining.

Look for my extended report on Southwest, DIA, Denver and environs, Wyoming, Montana, and sundry impressions of life on the road by next Wednesday.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Random Disgruntlements

Some weeks travel challenges come at you from every which way. I offer these tidbits as proof of my present discontent:


If ever I might have considered taking an intercity bus to avoid a trip by air, that possibility was closed off forever after reading this report in today's business news:

Greyhound scraps ads after Canada bus beheading

By ROB GILLIES, Associated Press Writer

Wed Aug 6, 6:17 PM ET

Greyhound has scrapped an ad campaign that extolled the relaxing upside of bus travel after one of its passengers was accused of beheading and cannibalizing another traveler.

The ad's tag line was "There's a reason you've never heard of 'bus rage.'"

Greyhound spokeswoman Abby Wambaugh said Wednesday a billboard and some tunnel posters near a bus terminal in Toronto are still up and would be removed later in the day.

"Greyhound knows how important it is to get these removed and we are doing everything possible," Wambaugh said. "This is something that we immediately asked to be done last week, realizing that these could be offensive."

Vince Weiguang Li, who immigrated to Canada from China in 2004, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of 22-year-old carnival worker Tim McLean. He has yet to enter a plea.

Thirty-seven passengers were aboard the Greyhound from Edmonton, Alberta, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, as it traveled at night along a desolate stretch of the TransCanada Highway about 12 miles from Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. Witnesses said Li attacked McLean unprovoked, stabbing him dozens of times.

As horrified passengers fled the bus, Li severed McLean's head, displaying it to some of the passengers outside the bus, witnesses said.

A police officer at the scene reported seeing the attacker hacking off pieces of the victim's body and eating them, according to a police report.

Wambaugh said the ads only appeared in Canada and that some in Ontario and western Canada have already been removed. About 20,000 inserts of the Greyhound ads were scheduled to be put into an Alberta Summer Games handbook but they stopped the presses.

Well, bad as flying is, I've never had someone seated next to me try to cut my head off. Yet.


Generally I like Amtrak, despite some bad experiences on late intercity trains. In that supportive vein, my family and I planned a trip by train to Washington, DC from Raleigh over Labor Day on Amtrak. I booked the business class seats on line and paid for them.

But Amtrak forces customers to appear at an Amtrak station to pick the tickets up in person. Reason: to counter terrorism. Who knows who might be lurking on the Internet buying Amtrak tickets? Better make sure each and every one is on the up-and-up by making them trek to a station during opening hours.

Can you imagine what it would be like if the airlines made us do that? It would make the current airport chaos seem staid by comparison.

So I drove down to the Raleigh Amtrak station at 11:30 AM, having consulted the Amtrak schedules to be sure I would not be approaching the ticket counter at train time. Amtrak's current budget woes have cut into staffing at all stations, you see, and employees at stations often must close the ticket windows when trains arrive to load baggage and passengers, and so on.

I planned my trip unwisely. I found the Amtrak Miami-New York train "Silver Star" sitting in the station, a mere four hours late. I first had to wait at the street crossing for the train to load and leave (15 minutes), and then to wait inside at the ticket window for another half hour while the over-worked Amtrak station agents divvied up the offloaded bags to waiting customers on the platform.

While waiting, I chatted with an Amtrak conductor who had just arrived. He looked beat, unable to hide his weariness. Upon discovering my rail background (I used to work for a railroad), the man confided that even in business class my family and I could expect long delays in both directions, and perhaps endure the trip in ratty cars with malfunctioning A/C. Amtrak has practically no budget for maintenance, and most of its equipment is tired and worn out.

I told him that I'd noticed the two Amtrak locomotives on the Silver Star looked bad, as did each of the 8 cars behind the engines. He said the short train did not actually need the enormous power of both engines, but that two were dispatched anyway because of frequent breakdowns caused by poor maintenance, due, in turn, to insufficient money to keep them up properly.

Lastly, the conductor mused that despite the uncomfortable cars, long delays, and broken-down locomotives, that "$4 per gallon gasoline has filled every seat on every train these days."

The irony is that this sudden, dramatic increase in ridership comes just when Amtrak is least prepared to handle the business. Congress and the current administration continue to gut Amtrak, so things aren't likely to improve soon. I just hope we get lucky on our Labor Day weekend trip to the town where such assinine decisions continue to be made.


Late last month I broke down and registered myself in "CLEAR" to see if it really helped to speed me through certain airports. I also felt the system, or something like it, has gained traction and has some of the feel of inevitability about it. So I jumped in and enrolled.

At the end of the online registration, I was informed that I'd have to present myself in person at one of several airports to complete the enrollment process. I was planning to do that next week.

Those plans are off now. Here's the email I received today from Clear CEO, Steven Brill:

August 6, 2008

About your clear account

Dear William Allen,

We take the protection of your privacy extremely seriously at Clear. That's why we announced yesterday that a laptop from our office at the San Francisco Airport containing a small portion of your pre-enrollment information (but not your Social Security number or credit card information) recently went missing. And we were prepared to send you the appropriate notice yesterday morning detailing that situation.

However, the laptop was recovered yesterday just before that email went out. And, we have determined from a preliminary investigation that no one logged into the computer from the time it went missing in the office until the time it was found. Therefore no unauthorized person has obtained any personal information.

We are sorry that this theft of a computer containing a limited amount of your personal information occurred, and we apologize for the concern that the publicity surrounding our public announcement might have caused. But in an abundance of caution, both we and the Transportation Security Administration treated this unaccounted-for laptop as a serious potential breach. We have learned from this incident and we have suspended enrollment processes temporarily until all pre-enrollment information is encrypted for further protection, which means you cannot complete in-person enrollment at this time. We will let you know as soon as you can.

The personal information on the enrollment system was protected by two levels of password protection, but Clear is in the process of completing a software fix - and other security enhancements - to encrypt the data, which is what we should have done all along, just the way we encrypt all of your other data. Clear now expects that the fix will be in place within days. Meantime, all airport Clear lane operations continue as normal.

The data in question included a limited amount of your personal information, but did not include any credit information, including credit card numbers. And it did not include your Social Security number. And of course, it did not include any biometric information, such as your fingerprint or iris images which are only supplied during the second, in-person enrollment process that takes place at the airport. All of that data is already encrypted and not stored locally at any enrollment center or Clear lane.

As you may know, our Privacy Policy states that we will notify you of any compromise of your personal information regardless of whether any state statute requires it. This letter is a good example of our policy: no law requires that we notify you of this incident because our investigation of the recovered laptop revealed no breach. But we think it's good practice to err on the side of good communication, especially when, in this case, we did make a mistake by not making sure that limited portion of information was encrypted.

Please call us toll-free with any questions at 866-398-8151. Again, we apologize for the confusion. We look forward to welcoming you to a Clear enrollment center just as soon as we've reopened enrollment.


Steven Brill

Clear CEO

Note especially this phrase:

"We ... have suspended enrollment processes temporarily until all pre-enrollment information is encrypted for further protection, which means you cannot complete in-person enrollment at this time. We will let you know as soon as you can."

So even though they have had my $128 one year dues since mid-July, and that the clock is ticking on my first year membership (without, so far, any benefit from the service), I am prevented from completing the in-person enrollment due to their own negligence.

Congratulations, Clear. We never even held hands, and already I don't trust you.

Tomorrow I will be phoning them for a full refund.


For many years--in fact, for over twenty years--I have had no trouble finding First Class or Business Class fares to Asia at 40-60% off the absurd retail prices. Sometimes these were around-the-world fares (called ATW or RTW fares). Once in awhile one could find special trick first or business fares that required stopping somewhere for a day en route (usually somewhere nice, like Nadi, Fiji). Many times the cheaper fares in the front cabins were supposedly capacity-controlled but could be purchased, if one asked and prodded, right up until a few days before departure.

Those and many other quirky variations seem to have evaporated, however. I'm trying to put together an itinerary at the end of the year to travel to Vietnam, Thailand, and Guangxi Province in southern China, and I'm getting nowhere. Even bucket shop business class quotes are coming in at over $5,500 round trip and require a number of legs in coach.

Bottom line: This trip might be cancelled. Reason is that I cannot, ever again, suffer the misery of coach on long trans-Pacific flight legs, regardless of carrier or routing.

That's my bizarre travel news week, then. Perhaps you can understand why I feel a bit dusgruntled: the bus is definitely OUT now; Amtrak's on a slippery slope; Clear proves careless; and Asia never seemed so far away.

I am off to Montana Saturday via Southwest Airlines to Denver, and then a leisurely, if long, drive up through Wyoming to Red Lodge and Nye. We usually fly direct to Billings or Bozeman, but this year Northwest, Delta, and United wanted almost $700 round trip to those places from RDU for nonrefundable tickets when we looked in January. We booked Southwest instead on a nonstop to DIA for far less than half that.

That money could have gone to NW, DL, or UA. I wonder if their Billings and Bozeman flights will fly with empty seats this weekend.