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, August 26, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In the many months since my last post I have kept my nose to the grindstone in Raleigh and haven't done much traveling. My family and I drove from Raleigh to New Orleans in April close to Easter, and I thought I would miss the pain of flying.

I rediscovered that going the Interstates route is not much better than flying in one respect: The Interstates may weave through the countryside at ground level, but drivers are stuck in the tube and almost entirely removed from the the highway experience of yore. The old U.S. routes passed through tank town after crossroad after podunk speedtrap, spanning the continent in all directions. Remember quaint little Mayberry? More recently the movies "Cars" is based on the same premise; that is, that if you get off the Interstate and slow down a little, there's a lot of interesting places and people out there in the hinterlands.

Thus did we take occasion en route to NOLA and back to discover the backwoods two-lane blacktops of parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Tenessee, Louisiana, and Florida. In rural upcountry north of New Orleans, for instance, we came across an eclectic museum of touristy kitsch that charmed us for an hour. I walked away with a huge preserved alligator head bigger than my own noggin (and arguably more attractive) for what I thought was a pittance of a price.

The Gulf coasts of Mississippie, Alabama, and Florida did not yield as much of interest, being all over-crowded (this was just prior to the BP oil disaster). I did, however, get a good feel for why the strip is dubbed the Redneck Riviera. After creeping along between hundreds of ill-placed and badly timed stoplights from one over-developed (and often shabbily-developed) beachfront burg after another for a couple of hundred miles, we decided it wasn't going to get any better, and we drove inland. My opinion: We fouled our nest along the Gulf Coast beaches by ugly development long before BP put the oilslick icing on the cake.

Later when I locate my copious notes on the trip I will share experiences in some of the hotels along the way: all cheap and decent!

A few weeks later I took my family by air to San Francisco for a long weekend. To my great consternation the trip (in coach on Delta) went so well that I have no scribbles to mark the complaints I usually pile up. The rental car (Hertz) was OK and reasonably-priced, and the hotel (a Hampton close to SFO) was also extremely accommodating. Jeez! What's the world coming to when you have a near-perfect trip?

In early August my family and I flew Delta again (but this time in First Class) Raleigh to Billings, Montana. Once again I was happily surprised that the experiences on all flights were excellent. And once again when I locate my notes I will post a more comprehensive report with specifics.

In-between these positive trips, however, my sister Foy flew from RDU to Florence, Italy to visit our cousins living there, and her experiences were not so good. Foy is a very experienced traveler, and loves it. She is also a person naturally inclined to make lemonade from lemons when she gets them, so I was pained to read her report.

Here is what Foy wrote, with her preface:

"[I want to tell you about] a recent experience I had flying with American Airlines Flight 0235 on Wednesday, May 19, 2010. Though I’ve worked as a city planner and business consultant/systems analyst, I’m not familiar with intricate workings either of the airline industry or airline business models. I traveled to Europe [see full account below] this spring and was deeply saddened by the events that occurred during the flight. I’m tired of hearing that the air industry is simply a “broken system” with no hope of improvement. Some of my thoughts for moving forward toward more pleasant and healthy air traveling experiences are included [in the below report]."

Foy's full report:

Some thoughts on moving forward toward more pleasant and healthy air traveling experiences:

1. I think that localities are missing a wonderful opportunity to involve themselves with flyers passing through their airports. When I enter an airport, any airport I’ve ever been to, the entire experience is so disconnected from the geographical community in which it resides that all airports seem to make up one large, isolated and remote business entity instead of a real place near real cities. If chambers of commerce and civic organizations sent trained local residents to offer services like current information, airport diagrams, and regional maps to airport visitors, I think the rewards in terms of goodwill would be lasting and ultimately recoup the costs. It’s truly amazing what a different and lasting impression it can make to weary travelers when they emerge from an airport gate in a new place and find a friendly, smiling face offering to help instead of being pushed forward in the midst of a crowd of strangers. Local high schools could also offer civics classes to study the relationships between people who pass through airports and the local communities. Students could get credit for going to the airports to query passengers about what works and doesn’t work when they travel, then outline ideas for how airports can rearrange things or provide a more supportive environment. Their findings could be forwarded to local city and county councils.

2. I could be a better consumer of airline services if I understood what I get when I purchase an airline ticket. Is an airline ticket a contractual agreement between the airline and myself to provide specific services? Does it include parameters like getting to my destination “within a reasonable period of time”? If I miss a connecting flight because the previous one is late, what happens to my seat on that flight? Is it sold? If it is, is it sold for what I paid for it or more? Is there a website that clearly spells out my rights as a passenger or do I have any rights? I know that the airlines have many and powerful lobbyists. Is anyone lobbying for me?

3. I fly on many different air carriers; so joining an “air club” with one airline wouldn’t serve my needs. Instead, I’d like to join an organization similar to AAA but for flyers, perhaps something called Air Travel Association, that could book flights, then follow them as they unfold, and be a proactive go-between for both travelers and airlines. They could provide a presence in airports that offers weary travelers a clean place to recoup, with comfortable seating and reasonably priced concessions.

4. As more flights and travelers go farther and farther, there are health consequences that can ultimately impact everyone in an airport. Are there studies of travel fatigue? If there are, what steps can be taken to offer support for people who are sick or vulnerable? Why aren’t airports required to maintain and staff first aid stations? And there are many, many stressed people in airports. I’d like to see a safe haven provided in airports for people with health, including mental health, issues.

5. Airports are no longer places that we simply pass through. We're often in them for long periods of time, yet the designs still reflect short distance travel. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if a fire broke out at one of the many gates where there are so many people waiting that there’s barely room for everyone to stand.

6. Air travel is continually changing; thus, I need all the good and helpful current air travel information I can get. I’m confused about why people today think they have to leave any concern for the welfare of humanity at home when they travel. After the recent episode with Steven Slater, it’s clear that both airline personnel and passengers regard each other skeptically. We’re all here together whether we’re sitting in a paid seat on the aircraft or behind a counter at a check-in point. We already know about declines in services due to a shrinking world economy. I’d rather hear about how other people have found solutions for making air travel a more civilized and positive experience. Is there one central web site where airline employees can partner with flyers to exchange creative ideas that would help both parties? Here’s one of mine: Why do the airlines provide a special check-in desk for people who belong to their “club” or travel first class? Often there’s no one in the line in front of those desks while other passengers wait and wait to check in at other desks. Shifting first class and club members to check in at individual airline clubs would streamline the process for everyone.

7. I’m willing to pay for additional services that make my trip faster and more comfortable. Perhaps prepaid cards could be made available to speed up purchases for things like golf carts carrying concessions that can help me get to other parts of the airport quickly. I'm willing to pay for a safe and clean reclining chair with space underneath for locking up valuables where I can lie down and sleep safely for a few hours when flights are delayed for long periods.

8. I want to be part of a solution that makes air travel convenient, safe, and a pleasure. Are there rankings of airports that include things besides the statistics regarding “on time” flights—things like how easy it is to navigate, how clean the airport is, what information is available, variety and pricing of food, what facilities are available for children, the elderly and other special needs groups, average ages of travelers, how many business versus pleasure travelers? Are those studies available on the web? Does Consumer Reports gather air travel statistics? I certainly want RDU International Airport, the closest to my home, to be the best, most responsive airport in the country, maybe even famous in the world, so that people will want to come here often and stay to visit, but I need to know more about who comes here, what they need and want, and how we compare to other airports before I can support change.

9. Clear and helpful signage, especially digital signs that can give passengers timely updates, especially those relating to security, is low cost and would save airport employees a lot of time answering repetitive questions.

10. I believe that there are amazing, intelligent minds in the world today that can study the human body in the space provided by an aircraft and develop a comfortable, ergonomically correct seat. Perhaps a contest can be held internationally or a network television show can offer a large sum of money to the person who creates the winning design. This is the 21st century. I know we can do better. The person who wins this contest will not only be rich, but a hero.

11. Beauty and art are restorative but underused assets and can often be found at little cost. If local art, including school children’s creations, were regularly displayed in airports, it would give travelers a welcome distraction during wait times. Changing exhibits could also provide observers with impressions of and connections to local communities.

12. Finally, courtesy and kindness are free and some of our greatest weapons in the war to bring back civilized air travel. I grew up in the rural south during the 1950s when all of human activity was not just focused on profit. While folks often lived simple lives with little or no disposable income, we all wanted more than just individual survival. No matter how little people had, they always shared, offering sincere hospitality, which, of course, is a low cost activity. We all knew that a simple smile could help anyone in a difficult situation. There was always a desire to make the world a better place. We also recognized that learning from and about visitors was broadening; it raised our consciousness and provided remote communities with a new way of perceiving the world. Yes, the economy is bad relative to recent years, but when we work together toward common goals like improved air travel conditions, we can go forward in a better way.

Details of the return experience:

Wednesday 19 May 2010
American Airlines Inc - Flight AA 0235
Rome Fiumicino Airport
Rome, IT

10:00 AM

Terminal 5

New York John F. Kennedy Int'l Airport

New York, NY, US
1:40 PM

Boeing 767-300/300ER

Wednesday 19 May 2010
American Airlines Inc - Flight AA 4403
New York John F. Kennedy Int'l Airport
New York, NY, US

3:50 PM

Raleigh-Durham Airport
6:15 PM


I've flown to and from Europe on various airline carriers five times during the last eleven years. All of the overseas flights included connecting domestic flights to Raleigh-Durham Airport, the closest one to my home. Not one of the overseas flights arrived in time to make the connecting flights.

Though I was not in good health this year, I traveled from Rome to JFK in New York on American Airlines in May. As passengers gathered at the departure gate, the airline reported that the plane, scheduled to depart at 10:00 AM local time, was delayed getting to Rome by one and half hours, not because of the Icelandic volcano, but because it had been "switched out" in New York. So everyone involved with Flight 0235, including the AA personnel, knew when the plane arrived in Rome that it was going to be late arriving back in New York City. Boarding began at 11:15, and the plane closed its doors soon after. The plane then sat at the gate for an additional hour and a half before taxiing to a runway and taking off. At one point the pilot came on the PA to say that he was waiting for “his turn” to come up before moving the plane to a runway. The flight was due into JFK at 1:40 PM EDT and arrived at the gate at 3:30 PM EDT. My connecting flight left JFK for RDU at 3:50 in another terminal; so I missed the connection.

During the Rome to New York flight, passengers asked the AA staff what arrangements were being made for connecting flights they would miss as the originating flight, 0235, would arrive too late to land, claim bags, go through customs, recheck bags, then get to domestic terminals. The AA flight crew was defensive and avoided contact with passengers. In fact, they eventually made an announcement on the loud speaker that they knew nothing about rescheduling any connections. This made clear to all of us that we were totally on our own to solve the problem how we would get to our destinations.

By the time I cleared customs at JFK, it was 4:00 PM EDT. I approached an AA flight attendant in the airport to ask what arrangements had been made for me to get to RDU. She was astonished that I assumed any arrangements had been made, typed information into her computer, then told me that all the flights to RDU were full until one that left at 10:05 PM arriving close to midnight. I’m not sure how many hours I had been traveling at that point, but I was not in good health. I called my husband in Raleigh who informed me that he had consulted the AA website when he went to work that morning and was immediately aware that the Rome to JFK flight was going to be badly delayed. He called his travel agent, who booked a flight on Delta airline that left JFK at 7:30 PM. I then turned to the attendant and asked how to get to the Delta terminal. She pointed to a sign that said “airbus”. I quickly took my bag and followed signs to ground transportation where I waited for a bus. No bus to another terminal came. I tried to ask for information inside the terminal at an information desk, but there was a long line of people waiting to talk with the one attendant and I was afraid I’d miss the bus when it came. Eventually, some airport maintenance workers passing through the area explained to me that airbus is actually a train that runs between terminals. I found the extremely crowded Delta terminal and learned that I’d have to pay $25 if I didn’t want to carry on my luggage. So I paid the additional baggage fee and took the flight.

When I found the gate for the Delta flight, there were four planes being boarded there simultaneously. No desk displayed a flight to RDU; no attendant was available to confirm that the gate hadn’t been reassigned. I sat next to an elderly couple who had also been on AA flight 0235. They had risen at 3:00 AM local time to make their connection to Rome. The wife was so fatigued that she was stuttering and appeared on the verge of needing medical assistance. My Delta flight did arrive at RDU on time. American Airlines has not reimbursed us for the connecting flight nor for the additional baggage fee. I can’t help but wonder what happened to my seat on the connecting domestic flight. Was it sold to someone else? I didn’t give permission for it to be sold. If it was, was it sold for more than I paid for it?

End of Foy's report.

I thought Foy was ill-treated, and it all seemed unfortunately familiar.

Next time (and much sooner than months from now) I will provide more details about our trips these past few months and I will muse on the future.

Until then, safe travels.


Anonymous Judy Guffey said...

I’m willing to pay for additional services that make my trip faster and more comfortable. Perhaps prepaid cards could be made available to speed up purchases for things like golf carts carrying concessions that can help me get to other parts of the airport quickly. I'm willing to pay for a safe and clean reclining chair with space underneath for locking up valuables where I can lie down and sleep safely for a few hours when flights are delayed for long periods.
Oh, how I wish. Upcoming Africa trip has me in SFO after a redeye from HNL for 12 hours. Then at Heathrow for 8 hours after a redeye. I'm sure I'll get a day room at SFO...maybe the yotel at Heathrown I remember 12 hours in Singapore that were delightful! Why can't they all be like that. BTW.....great to see you blogging again.

8/27/2010 9:40 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

About 3 years ago, my wife and I were returning from Milan, Italy to RDU. I had a feeling we should get to the airport early. When we checked in with Delta, we were informed our scheduled flight to JFK would be late due to a delay of the incoming aircraft at JFK. We were already re-booked on an on-time flight to ATL, with a connection to RDU. Bottom line: by getting to the airport, we were able to benefit from Delta's proactive reaction to a delayed departure.

8/28/2010 7:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WIll -- know the China visa fee is steep, but it's simple reciprocity. We charge as much, make folks take off work for in person interviews, fingerprint, mug shot our tourists from many countries.

When I visited VietNam 2+ years ago I used a Vietamese travel agency for a few nights (beginning and end) hotel and they arranged a visa on arrival ... cheap ($25?) and hassle-free! The agent was waiting for me before customs, at 2 AM, and had me through formalities in 10 minutes.

Love your blog, best,


11/13/2010 3:27 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home