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, March 24, 2009

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Since my last post I made a short weekend trip to New Orleans, and I used Delta miles to do it. I didn't plan it that way, but that's the way it worked out.

Several months back several of us established the trip date, and I then started the boring process of trolling for fares on the Internet, looking at all the direct airlines sites (Southwest, AA, Delta, Continental, and others) as well as the other portals (Orbitz, Hotwire, Expedia, Travelocity, and more). Such a time-consuming pain it is to assure oneself of the very best deal between city pairs.

There were no exceptional bargains, not even in this down travel market, and so I turned to award-travel options. At the time I checked, Delta was requiring double miles for coach on the dates I needed to travel but just "saver" miles for first class, so it was a wash in terms of miles required, and I booked myself on Delta in first.

It's just two short flights of an hour each to get to New Orleans from Raleigh on Delta through Atlanta, and coach would have been fine. But, still, I was happy to be flying up front as I approached RDU that morning. Less stressful.

At the new RDU terminal, where Delta has relocated, I was pleased again to have a first class/elite line to cut a minute or two off my wait at the security check. After passing TSA's scrutiny I asked the first Delta rep I saw for directions to the new Crown Room. Oh, sorry, might be completed by June, but nothing open now. Hmmm, the new RDU terminal opened last year, and when it did, American's new Admirals Club was open, but not the Crown Room?

No matter. It was still breakfast time, so I opted for one of the new restaurants which proudly advertised itself as the provider of eastern North Carolina barbecue (for lunch and dinner) and biscuits (for breakfast). This appealed to my eastern N.C. roots, and I ordered their biscuits and sausage gravy.

I should have known it would probably not live up to eastern North Carolina traditions of cuisine when I learned that everyone working there was from Ethiopia (I know because I asked them). My great fondness for Africa and Africans notwithstanding, I doubted they would be steeped in biscuit-making.

Sadly, I was right. The biscuits were inedible, and the gravy gluey and tasteless. Both had been supplied by some institutional purveyor of generic frozen food. Only the word "barbecue" in the establishment's name evoked the mouth-watering memory of good food from Down East.

Although I threw the plate of biscuits in the trash, I thoroughly enjoyed chatting up the folks behind the counter. We talked about Africa (I used to live and work in South Africa) and its complex but fascinating challenges and opportunities. None, however, desired to return when I asked whether they preferred life here or there.

Still hungry but wise to the false come-ons of RDU's new eateries, I wandered down to the Delta gate and waited. And reflected on the experience: The shiny new restaurants are no better than the old beat-up places; nothing has really changed despite the new trappings of the just-opened terminal.

To my happy surprise, the flight was on time boarding, and in no time we were over ATL and in the usual conga line to land. Even on a sunny day at noontime, and with a reduced schedule, Delta, the Atlanta Airport, and the FAA cannot make the system work.

Then I'd sure hate to fly on a day with clouds, I thought! Again, it felt like old times. Nothing, apparently, has changed. So much for Delta's promises to make its mega-hub a model of efficiency.

We landed late, and I rushed to catch my connection. Out of breath, I made it just in time. En route down the entire length of ATL Concourse A, I passed the longest line I have ever seen at the mid-concourse "customer service" area. It meandered almost up to gate A15 (folks familiar with ATL airport will appreciate how long THAT is). There must have been many misconnects already, yet this was a nice sunny day and barely past noon.

After getting settled in my seat on the MSY flight, I noticed that the plane's door was open well past departure time. We waited because...well, I don't know for what reason; Delta never told us. Eventually my plane reached New Orleans, having lost about 35 minutes off its schedule. I nonetheless counted myself lucky that I was traveling on a bluebird day. God knows what bad weather would have caused to Delta's apparently ultra-fragile operation!

Once again the experience getting to New Orleans from Raleigh--supposedly just too short flights of an hour each with a one-hour connection through the ATL hub--seemed all too familiar: ATL not functioning even in the best of weather and at relatively slow mid-day times; barely-made or missed connections (I made mine, but hundreds of other did not); no courtesy communications during a long gate delay; no en route explanation of what had occurred at Atlanta; and another half hour of my life lost because they couldn't honor their own extremely padded schedule.

Delta promised to become a better operation after the bankruptcy and the NWA merger, but it seems like the same old tired and inefficient operation to me. I should have counted myself lucky, however, for the worst was yet to come going home.

A persistent rain set in the following day (Saturday) and lasted until Monday. No thunderstorms, and no hail or wind or tornados, just a large frontal system full of slow, drenching rain all weekend that covered much of the South and the Southeast. It was so routine that the rain didn't even earn a mention on the frenzied cable channels hungry to magnify even the smallest weather event into the next Katrina.

So I didn't consider the possibility of a delay en route back to RDU. Delta never called or emailed (my contact info is all up to date in their system), either. It wasn't until Sunday morning when I arrived at the airport that a gate agent let me know that my MSY/ATL flight was running very late and might cause me to miss my connection to Raleigh. He put me on a priority waitlist (for coach, not first class) on a flight that was also late but still at the gate, and advised me to run!

And run I did, first through security and then to the gate, where they were calling my name as they cleared the last stragglers onto the flight. I didn't even wince at my middle seat assignment in coach even though I had paid for a first class award seat.

A few minutes later the gate agent came on board with the final paperwork and gestured to me to move up front. Turned out one first class passenger had failed to show up, and she had noticed that I had an "R" class of service on my ticket (domestic first class award). I was very grateful to her and wish I'd had the presence of mind to get her name.

Our flight to ATL was the usual speedy 60 minutes. By the time we pulled into Gate B32 I had perused my old standby, the hard copy American Express Executive SkyGuide, and I knew there were two flights to RDU scheduled earlier than my actual connection.

Checking the monitors on leaving the aircraft, I saw the first possibility was at gate A13 and already boarding. I ran down the length of the "B" concourse, down the long escalator and boarded a subway for "A" that was standing there with its doors open.

Too bad it just kept standing there. After five minutes I elected to walk to Concourse A, as did many others. Once again this felt like deja vu all over again: The ATL airport has not been able to improve the automated concourse subway operation for years, and it's apparently gotten worse. I easily beat the train to Concourse A, and beat feet to A13.

Overbooked! she said when I got there. Sorry! No way to get on a standby list, either.

So I walked briskly back to the Concourse A escalator to try the subway again, this time to Concourse E, there to wait for the next possible flight to RDU. Once again I noticed the very long line of misconnected Delta passengers waiting to get to one of the so-called "customer service" podiums, this time snaking back even farther than I'd seen the line two days earlier in the same spot. The end of the line was nearing the gate I'd just left, A13!

I broke through that endless line of miserable people and stopped in briefly at the A17 Crown Room. I hoped to get on a standby list for the next flight (the RDU flight leaving from Concourse E). However, when I got upstairs, there were nearly 20 people in line ahead of me and just two clearly over-worked and exhausted-looking agents trying to rebook other Elite Delta customers like me.

I knew I was licked, and left. Down at the bottom of the escalator, I encountered another stopped subway with open doors, and packed to the gills. It's a darn long walk from Concourse A to E, but I got as far as Concourse C before I finally boarded another stopped subway train. I was too tired not to wait.

I did wait, too. After about seven or eight interminable minutes, the doors closed, and we moved sloooooowly down to D and finally to E. Jeez, can't the ATL people get even the people-mover subways to work?

Trying the Concourse E Crown Room, I got lucky and had a short wait. They put me on the waitlist for the RDU flight, and I traipsed all the way down to the very end of Concourse E in hopes I'd get on.

At the last minute I was called, and I was handed an aisle seat in coach. Once again I made no complaints about the downgrade; I just boarded the flight and took my seat. This time they left me in coach.

As we pushed back from the gate, the senior FA made two peculiar announcements: "First," she said, "Everybody on this plane should thank their guardian angel for being on this flight, because there are NO seats to Raleigh on ANY flight from Atlanta until Monday afternoon! You'd be STUCK HERE if you had not gotten on this flight!" (This was Sunday afternoon.)

"Second," she belted out in case any of us were hard of hearing, "We don't ever serve anything in coach on this short flight to Raleigh because, well, it's too short! But usually we serve drinks in first class. Not today! The captain has said it's gonna be too rough, and we have to stay in our seats until we get to Raleigh. So if any of you need to go to the toilet, do it NOW! And if you need something to drink, say so NOW!"

Not old Delta, for sure, I thought, shaking my head. I must have flown hundreds of times between RDU and ATL on Delta in the last 35 years, and until Leo Mullin took over, everybody in coach got served a beverage and peanuts, and up front we usually got a light meal as well as two or even three beverage services.

The very light chop we subsequently experienced taking off and achieving altitude out of ATL and the tiny intermittent bumps en route to Raleigh were nothing to require the entire flight crew to stay seated for. Delta FAs used to serve in air a darn sight rougher than anything we experienced that Sunday afternoon.

But not any more. I have come to expect poor or no in-flight service on Delta to and from ATL, but I never heard it excused so brazenly as I did that Sunday!

Same old, same old, then. Nothing has changed or improved with the "new" Delta from its previous crippled, Leo Mullin-induced incarnation. I wish I could raise the Delta I knew from the dead, but I might as well wish for the resurrection of the Egyptian Pharoahs. I'm afraid the only thing left of the Delta I knew is the widget.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Short Stories

This week I will make my first trip to the Raleigh/Durham International Airport since arriving home on a plane January 3rd. I am flying to New Orleans for the weekend to visit old friends, to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary, and to scatter the ashes of another old friend who died too young. Bill Parry loved New Orleans, and some of his remains will, well, remain there.

The interval between flights, about ten weeks, is the longest I can recall since I began consulting back in the seventies. While this marks another milestone for me in gradually transitioning off the road, I expect to do more consulting--and hence more traveling--when the economy picks up. Meantime, I have the time to marvel at some of the small ironies of travel.

For instance, when I planned this week's trip, I used Delta SkyMiles, and I had no trouble at all getting free seats. But I was originally going alone. About 45 days ago I began trying to find seats for my wife and two kids so they could join me in New Orleans. After all, the airlines are bombarding me with email offers for cheap flying. Please! they plead. Please fly with us! We are practically giving the seats away!

But of course not to every destination, and rarely when you really want to go. Certainly not to New Orleans this weekend, even weeks in advance. I looked at Southwest first: nothing cheap there. It would have cost me over $300 round trip each. It didn't make sense to spend over $900 for a short 2-day weekend.

Searches on Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, and Hotwire, as well as on many individual airline websites, yielded no better fares. Even though Mardi Gras is well and truly behind us, there's no cheap way to get to NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) for the weekend.

Ditto for rental cars in the Crescent City this weekend. I finally snagged an AAA discount with Avis, but the weekend rates there are still high.

Is it just me, or have rental cars rates skyrocketed even as air fares and hotel rates have come down to earth? Because I could not find reasonable rates for upcoming trips to the Twin Cities, to Billings, to Jackson Hole, or to Denver, either. I worked hard looking every which way for rental cars in those places, and I was agnostic about the brand. Still no luck, and since the little guys were as expensive as the others, I eventually reserved cars with Hertz and Avis.

I had a similar experience looking for cheap air fares to the same cities: MSP, BIL, JAC, and DEN. Even Southwest was expensive to Denver, at least by comparison to last summer's trip there with my family. After AA announced a big sale last week, I finally settled on $210 (per person) round trip tickets RDU/DEN in August for my family of four. But the rental car for two weeks will cost more than the air fare!

We will drive again from Denver to Montana through Wyoming to spend almost two weeks with my wife's parents in the astonishingly beautiful Beartooth Mountains close to Absorakee. Because of our afternoon arrival in Denver, the trip by car to Montana requires an overnight stay, and we have already found that hotels en route are cheaper than last summer. But not the rental car.

And to close this week, I want to relay two recent travel stories sent to me by friends who are still on the road. The first one took place in rural Kansas and speaks for itself as my pal describes his hotel in an email to me:

"Made it here to [name withheld to protect the innocent], KS--there are few words that can describe this place. This is the high end hotel of the town (I could have stayed at the $23/nite place down the block). It is the first hotel room that I ever had that was limited to having 2 light bulbs (2 60 watters)--so reading is not an option.

"My cell phone does not get any reception, so I can't call home--hopefully [my wife] will notice that I am gone. I just had my supper at the town's high end restaurant (a Pizza Hut)--it may be the only fare in town.

"In the morning I have drive about 17 miles to another town where the plant is--I was told that this would take about 40 minutes. Not due to heavy traffic volume but I have to drive on back roads where the road signs are not posted--it will be an opportunity to see how well the GPS works that I got X-Mas.

"Have a great evening--am using the computer to help illuminate the room."

A couple of days later (last night) I got a call from another friend who'd flown the night before to St. John, Nova Scotia from Chicago. Due to arrive at 9:30 PM, his plane touched down at 2:30 AM. He had a breakfast meeting at 5:30 AM with a project team and went nonstop until 10:00 PM that night. Needless to say, he was brain dead. He asked at one point, "Why do we do this to ourselves?"

Well, exactly, and coincidentally the same night I got this email from another friend and former consulting colleague answering my own similar question:

"Retirement [from consulting] is the answer.....I've been away from "it all" for over a year now and do not miss it one bit. None of it! Especially because the quality of road life went down so far so fast. Road living like we had in Newark or even Des Moines disappeared long ago....replaced by minimal per diems and crap hotels.

"Call me some time....but, not when I'm with my grandson. Nothing is more important than my time with him."

While his point of view has appeal to me in my situation, "retirement from consulting" is currently an oxymoron since the consulting industry is not even fogging a mirror in this economy. Many consultants aren't working. Here are some current stats on the professional services industry (a big part of which is consulting):

Business Professional Services is seeing its

worse contraction since 1950:

* Job loss in February = 180,000

* Total job loss since December 2007 =

1.1 million or -5.9% of payroll

* Total job loss since October 2008 = 570,000

I suggested to one colleague that if things get any worse we should organize a new firm to be named with a tip of the hat to the Great Depression:

Pencil Cup Consultants, LLC.