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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Things Bugging Me Now

A miscellany of recent travel issues and experiences make me ponder the meaning of life on the road, including my premier encounter with the TSA's latest advance in security screening, the controversial show-all body scanner.

The unintended consequences of high-tech security screening: traveler delay & tedium

Sunday afternoon, October 24, at Raleigh-Durham Airport (RDU), my hometown air terminal, I discovered TSA had installed the brand-spanking-new full body scanners at security.

No problem, I thought. I am not embarrassed for some TSA person in a distant room to see me naked through to the bones.

But I was dumbfounded to discover how slow and inconvenient the new process is. Now I must add belt removal (yes, EVERY time) to my excursion through the TSA security portal. And every last thing in my pockets, including ballpoint pens from my shirt pocket, boarding passes, Kleenex tissues, gum, throat lozenges—literally everything must be removed. And, of course, shoes, outerwear, and the clear plastic bag with small quantities of creams, fluids, pastes, and ointments.

Having been stripped to just my clothes and underclothes, and with the pile of my personal stuff languishing on the belt after being X-rayed, I was directed to step into the new scanner, to turn ninety degrees with feet planted on the little foot marks painted on the floor of the scanner’s interior (so that I was unable to watch my belongings on the belt), and to raise both arms high.

The scanner then made a cheap sci-fi movie noise as it moved up and down. After a short interval, a TSA person wearing headphones authorized me to step out of the scanner. The delay, they told me, was due to waiting to receive a verbal OK from TSA staff manning the scanner monitors in a remote location that my body looked safe to fly.

Only then was I allowed to retrieve my many belongings from the belt: briefcase, laptop, suitcase, shoes, belt, wallet, keys, cell phone, loose change, money clip, boarding passes, tissues, and the odd lozenge or gum. Slowly I put everything back into its proper place: belt on trousers, various stuff in appropriate pockets of pants and shirt, shoes on feet, laptop in briefcase; toiletries in suitcase, jacket on body.

Yes, it’s a tedious, time-consuming process. Strangely, even the newest-of-the-new high technology (the spiffy full body scanner) has the unintended consequence of making our passage of the security portal slower and more aggravating than it ever has been. I predict longer lines and wait times at busy periods unless TSA is staffing these gates with more personnel to account for the slower individual transaction time.

Traveler speed and convenience through the airport security barrier are not part of TSA’s mission, only safety.

Have visas become profit centers?

My family is planning a trip to China and Vietnam soon, and we naturally applied for visas to both countries. I knew already that the Chinese Embassy requires would-be visitors to show up in person to apply for a visa, or to hire a surrogate agent if that’s impractical. Of course it IS impractical for 99.99% of us who don’t live close to their embassy in Washington. Agents charge a modest fee per passport. The one we use, called the Assistant Stork, specializes in helping Americans seeking to adopt from China, and charges $50 for one visa, dropping to $35 per passport for two or more. In other words, not too bad.

What I DIDN’T know is that China charges $140 per visa for Americans, while charging only $40 per visa for most other nationalities. In other words, visas are a profit center for the Chinese Embassy. Strangely, single entry and multiple entry visas are priced the same, which makes me wonder why anyone would ever ask for a single entry after finding out the price. Vietnam visas are more reasonable.

Altogether, therefore, for our family of four, including the agency fee, visas to China and Vietnam cost over $1,000. And that’s before we spent the first dollar on airfare. OK, we ARE four people, but I think that’s a lot to fork over just for the right to enter their countries. I would think it makes the cost of international travel out of reach for many Americans.

Not all airline club privileges for Amex Platinum Card holders are created equal

Like many travelers, I suppose, I dropped my Delta and American club annual memberships when my Amex Platinum Card granted me entry to them. But we Amex interlopers are not allowed full and equal membership privileges after getting into some clubs.

For instance, both Delta Sky Clubs and AA Admiral Clubs offer free wifi Internet for members, in both cases offered by the same provider. Amex Platinum Card holders will find the complimentary wifi works just fine for them in the Delta clubs, but not at the American Airlines clubs. There, one has to enter one’s Admiral Club number to gain access to the network.

Thanks for making me a second class citizen at your clubs, AA. With every visit to your clubs, I remember that inconvenience, and yes, it is influencing my booking decisions. For instance, this week, I chose Delta to a market well-served by AA.

Checking handguns: Who knew how simple and routine it is?

Without going into details, I’ll just say that I had a first-in-a-lifetime opportunity to check a handgun at my home airport. My carrier, Delta, like every other U.S. airline, is very happy to let passengers travel with weapons as long as they are in checked luggage and meet certain conditions (e.g., must be in a locked case approved by TSA). To my surprise (surprise because I never before needed to bring a gun with me), the information is on most airline websites if you look, and TSA has posted rules and regulations as well.

I read all the rules, and I complied, but when my wife dropped me off at RDU for my flight, I still asked her to park somewhere close by until TSA and Delta had cleared the luggage containing my pistol. Frankly, despite the helpful info I had read, I feared I might be arrested for bringing a handgun into an airport.

But it went like clockwork. Delta issued me a special form to sign, and they notified TSA. I then took my bag to a special TSA door for testing. TSA personnel had me stand behind a line while they checked my bag and its contents with special equipment. I was then cleared to leave while the bag went through additional screening that I was not allowed to witness.

And when I arrived at my destination, the bag popped out on the conveyer belt with everyone else’s overdue luggage—to my very great relief.

Delta devolves

I mentioned this in a recent post, but I must repeat how galling it is that Delta has stopped making on-board announcements prior to arrival for connecting gates at hubs like Atlanta. Arrival gate and connecting gate info was very useful, especially for tight connections due to late flights.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Raleigh to Pisa the Hard Way (the joys of connecting through Paris Charles de Gaulle)

Before my Air France 747-400 from Atlanta shuddered to a stop at Paris CDG's 2E concourse, the helpful AF cabin staff had instructed me how to make my connecting flight to Pisa (PSA) in Terminal 2G at 10:00 AM. I walked off the plane at 8:10 AM, confident that almost two hours was surely enough time to make it. It wasn't that easy.

The flight attendants had pointed me to a map of the CDG airport, showing me how “close” the 2G terminal (where my connecting commuter flight departed for Pisa) was to terminal 2E. Unfortunately, the scale of the map was exaggeratedly simplified, and, anyway, the map’s God’s eye view of the airport was scaled to about the distance of the space shuttle when orbiting the earth and looking down on Paris, so naturally everything looked close together.

In fact Charles de Gaulle is humongous and sprawling; both the cabin crew and naïve me underestimated the distances between terminals.

Even getting from my gate to passport control in the cavernous terminal 2E consumed 15 minutes after a long walk, a shuttle train, and another long walk. Signage was poor, too. I had to stop twice to confirm I was still headed in the right direction. I am used to this at other big airports, like Heathrow in London, but CDG 2E seemed to be especially difficult to traverse.

Signage was again an issue at passport control. I was greeted by exceptionally long lines of travelers moving at a snail’s pace to open windows. After 10 minutes in a line that had moved perhaps ten feet, I noticed in the center of the massive room an agent letting people into a faster-moving queue. Now worried that I might not make my connection, I broke ranks and made my way to her position. The agent said, “Are you connecting?” When I showed her my connecting boarding pass and replied in the affirmative, she remonstrated me for not being in her special “for connecting passengers only” line in the first place.

Alas, I could see no sign that indicated that’s what her special queue was for, but I didn’t argue. I accepted that some things are unknowable and rushed down the velvet ropes to my place at the end of the line, now only 25-30 persons from the front instead of a hundred or more.

This line, too, though designated for close-connecting passengers, inched along slowly, albeit faster by far then the regular ones. God help the poor people who had arrived only to see Paris, thwarted from their goal by the understaffed French passport control point.

Where is Terminal 2G?

After waiting in the special “connecting” line for 20 minutes, I finally cleared the area at 8:55 AM, 45 minutes after deplaning. With just 65 minutes to make my connection at a different terminal, I was mildly panicked. Like a rat in a maze, I was directed first downstairs from passport control to baggage claim (which I had no need of, as I always carry on all my luggage), then a long walk to the customs declaration area (I rushed through the green zone with nothing to declare and wasn’t stopped), then out the security doors to battle my way past the hordes of meeters-and-greeters. Beyond the crowds I found another escalator up to the 2E departure area where, I had been told, I should look for the N2 bus to terminal 2G.

Why would they label the shuttle bus N2 when it moves between terminal 2E and 2G? You’ll have to ask the French for the nugget of logic behind that decision; I couldn’t fathom it, and my French is inadequate these days to make the inquiry. After running through the 2E departure concourse almost to the very end from where I had come up, I finally spotted the sign for bus N2 and the door—but the door was blocked as defective. I rushed back to the previous door, and came out finally to the cool, crisp Parisian morning air and spotted bus N2 just arriving up ahead. It was now 9:05 AM.

Standing adjacent to the bus stop was a throng of people waiting to get to terminal 2G that appeared to be at least two times the capacity of the bus, and I thought for a second that I would have to wait for the next bus. But because I had come through the wrong door, I was ahead of the bus stop, and the N2 bus stopped beyond its stop location just as I reached it. I was first on board.

OK, that’s unfair, as obviously many folks had been waiting, and apparently for a long time judging from the grumbling I heard in English. But somehow every person managed to squeeze in, and packed like a Tokyo commuter train, we wobbled off to terminal 2G.

The bus took a leisurely 10 minutes to reach tiny terminal 2G, but I was relieved that I had a fighting chance to make my connection. My watch showed 9:15 AM as I waited for the bus to disgorge its passengers. We all ran inside, and I followed folks I took to be veterans because they looked like they knew where they were going.

It was the right decision. Coming into 2G immediately to the left is the security portal (yes, I had to re-enter security) for people like me who already had a boarding pass in hand. Though the security staff was slow and inefficient, I made it through in about 5-6 minutes and headed up the long escalator to the departure waiting area.

Reaching the 2G waiting area inside security, I was again confronted with hordes of people milling around. No seats available anywhere. The area reminded me of the Delta/Comair commuter terminal at Cincinnati, though a different shape. First thing I did was to check a monitor to see if my flight was boarding. I thought surely my 10:00 AM departure would be boarding.

It was now 9:30 AM. Despite the marathon I had run, with some dead-ends along the way, I had made it to my connecting flight 80 minutes after deplaning from my inbound international flight. But, after all that anxiety, the monitor showed my flight was 40 minutes late.

Oh well, I thought. What else is new? Might as well sit down for awhile. Knowing I was entitled to entry into the Business Class lounge (if there was one), I walked the length of the hall before finding some Air France customer service staff manning a very busy desk who I presumed would give me a lounge entry card.

What? No Business class? But Cook Travel ASSURED me there was Business on this flight!

After waiting my turn, I showed my ticket receipt and boarding pass for the CDG/PSA flight showing Premium Affaires as the class of service (Affaires is the Air France Business class designation) and politely asked for directions to the lounge.

The young lady furrowed her brow and said dismissively, as only the French can, “But you are in ECONOMY. You are not ENTITLED to use the lounge.”

Not possible, I retorted. My ticket says “Affaires” and “Premium Affaires” which are Business class.

“But there is no BEEZ-NESS class on this flight, sir,” she replied. “The plane is very small, only an Embraer 145 commuter jet with all ECONOMY seats.”

My heart sank. Just like flying all those stinking Embraer commuters that AA uses back in the States, I thought.

I realized in a nanosecond, too, that Cook Travel had well and truly bamboozled me, first doing a bait-and-switch by selling me a $4000 ticket in Business class after saying it would be $2600, and then claiming the Paris/Pisa legs were in Business class when they were actually just crummy commuter flights leaving from an over-crowded, distant terminal. So I paid all that money for a ticket that really only included Business on the two overseas legs between the States and Paris.

I decided to cut my losses and showed her my inbound Air France Business class boarding pass. At least I could wait out the delay in the lounge. But that cut no ice with her, and she wasn’t going to let me in the Business class lounge because I was just a peon now riding in coach like every other gypsy and backpacking student. Forget about the fact that AF had invited me to the terminal 2E arrival lounge for a shower and breakfast—but, oh, wait, you have a close connection, so maybe next time…

About to give up, I asked if my Delta Platinum Elite card had any juice, holding it out for her. To my surprise, she said, “Oh, OK, why didn’t you tell me?” and gave me the code for the lounge door, which is self-serve.

The lounge in 2G would be modest, I thought, but I never imagined it to be as small and over-crowded as I found it. It was like the rest of the terminal: wall-to-wall people. I lucked out by entering just as one person left, and I grabbed his seat, the only empty seat in the place. Leaving my luggage to hold it, I went for a Coke and a croissant. The croissant was shameful (consider: I was in Paris) and the Coca-Cola warm, but I consumed both for sustenance, and settled down to try to read a book.

Impossible. The din, the claustrophobia, the lack of order and cleanliness, and the constant shuffling of patrons drove me out. Also a factor in my leaving was that lounge service personnel were nowhere to be seen. The place was a mess, with overflowing trash containers and the remainders of food and drink piled up everywhere. There was no toilet, either. I found a seat near the ramp leading down to the commuter gates to wait out the remaining delay.

By then I was sweaty, tired, and POed that I’d been gypped by Cook Travel. But I remained calm, and finally my flight showed boarding on the monitor. After walking the long distance down the ramp, down stairs to the gate, and out on the tarmac to the plane, at last I boarded the plane and took 3A on the one-seat side, small but important recompense for having to fly in economy after paying Cook Travel for Business class.

An Embraer to Pisa

Air France allowed us to gate-check our carryon luggage just as in the States, which was a relief. They told me that such flights are considered domestic for country-to-country segments wholly within the EU and therefore rules for luggage are more flexible.

Sleep overtook me for most of the 1 hour, 40 minute flight, but I do recall a modest beverage service. Otherwise the flight was unremarkable. On landing at Pisa Airport (PSA) I collected my bag planeside, and a bus took us across the tarmac to the terminal.

Walking inside the Pisa Airport I was struck by old memories of Central American airports: the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds; the shabby, rundown feel; the accumulation of dirt and dust; the peeling paint and general state of disrepair; the subtle air of organizational chaos, as if the officials running the place had lost control but pretended not to notice. I liked it!

In the boisterous arrival hall, I noticed a rail ticket window and joined the queue. Pisa Airport had, I knew, its own two-track rail station, with connecting and direct service through Pisa Centrale to Florence, just 84 kilometers away. I bought two one-way tickets (one for the return) for a mere € 5.80 each (less than $ 8.00) and paid a small commission, then proceeded to find the train.

I owe a fine for not validating my ticket

Just outside the airport terminal I located the tracks with a train sitting there, the 12:43 PM departure, direct to Florence (that is, not requiring a change of trains at Pisa central station). Exhausted, I climbed aboard and stowed my luggage in the overhead rack. My car soon filled up with other travelers, many of them English-speakers. We left on time and soon had cleared Pisa altogether.

The conductor made his rounds, and upon entering our car I was the first he asked for tickets. I showed him mine, and he handed it back, saying “No valid” or some such words. When I pressed him, he struggled in English to get across that I had failed to validate the ticket in the little yellow machines by the station platform back at the airport. I then showed him my receipt from the airport ticket vendor.

The conductor smiled and said, “No matter. You must pay five Euro fine. You no stamp ticket at station.” And he whipped out his fine receipts and began writing one for me.

At this point I was exhausted and already angry over being screwed by Cook Travel. I saw this conductor's action as a mild extortion of foreigners who’d just landed at the Pisa airport and didn’t know the rules. I had not seen any signs saying the ticket had to be validated, and the ticket vendor had not mentioned it. Later I looked at the fine print on the back of my ticket and did find a reference to it, but it never occurred to me to look for that when I bought the ticket.

Now I’d only paid € 5.80 for the ticket and this guy wanted me to hand over another € 5.00 in fines. I decided I wasn’t going to pay it. So I told the conductor, “NO! I won’t pay it! This is extortion.” Everyone else in the car, especially those who understood English, suddenly got real quiet and stared at me and the conductor. The conductor grimaced, obviously unused to protestations, holding his pen in mid-air above the half-written fine receipt.

“Then you will have to get off the train,” he finally stammered, after a long silence.

“Fine, I will. Please stop the train,” I retorted. We were flying along at what felt like close to 100 MPH.

“At the next station!” he shouted, frowning, moving on to the next ticket-holder. I watched him move through the car, collecting a fine of € 5.00 from many of the foreigners who, like me, didn’t know about the validation process. He didn’t notice as we came to the next station that I moved veeery slooowly to get my bags down. By the time I got to the door in the center of the car, I mad missed my opportunity, and the doors slammed shut and the train began moving again.

Furious now, the conductor ran up to me and howled: “OUT! NEXT STATIONE!”

And at the next station, a very small town I don’t remember, I did get off. It was 2:00 PM exactly.

At 2:09 PM the next train for Florence stopped, and I got back on, determined to do the same thing as long as I had to, until I got to Florence.

But the very nice conductor who came to check my ticket on that train merely punched the ticket and moved on. She didn’t care that it wasn’t validated, she told me (I asked her), because all conductors punch the tickets so they can’t be used again. Why, then, was I harassed on the previous train? I asked her. She shrugged and said, “To get the fine.”

Full disclosure notice: Friends who travel often in Italy by rail have since told me that the Italians are obsessive about validating their tickets and that the conductor's conduct in fining me was normal. I believe them, but why then did the second conductor, and another conductor on my return train a week later, not give a flip about whether the ticket had been validated? Ah, the mysteries of travel! Like why the French designate the shuttle bus between the 2E and 2G terminals "N2," some things are not knowable.

Florence at last

I arrived Florence at 2:25 PM, about nine minutes later than I might have. But I didn’t have to pay the blasted fine that would have doubled my fare.

Firenze SMN (Santa Maria Novella), the main Florence train station, lives in my memory as a fine and beautiful place when traveling to and from Florence in the seventies and eighties and even in the nineties. But my first impression on arriving was much like that of the Pisa Airport: Firenze SMN seemed a bit seedy, ill-kept, rundown, and dirty. It bothered me because I love the old lady, and I wondered if it was just my exhaustion after the long trip.

I made my way to the taxi stand and had to wait almost 20 minutes for a taxi at 2:30 PM on a Tuesday afternoon—and there was no one in front of me. Turns out Florentine taxi drivers have been resisting efforts to expand the license pool of drivers, and there’s a dearth of taxis in the city as a result.

When I finally reached Borgo San Frediano one block south of the Arno (not a long drive from the station) it was 3:00 PM and I was € 11.00 poorer for the short cab ride. Still, I had reached my destination and was very glad to be reunited with my cousins.

Next time: reflections on Florence, Tuscan cuisine, gettting Euros, and the trip home.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Sad News

My cousin Aubrey, whom I visited on short notice in late September, died earlier today in Florence at home.

He was a good man and will be missed.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Florence on Short Notice

Florence and surrounding Tuscany have always held special places in my heart. My first trip overseas, in fact, was to Florence in the summer of 1973. I was visiting Italian-American first cousins who’ve been there since the 1950s and became part of the fabric of the city.

That first experience was memorable and sweet. I couldn’t get enough of the beauty, culture, architecture, history, and food of Firenze and Toscana. And most everything I learned came from the generosity and spirit of my second cousin, Aubrey, a tireless bon vivant and gourmand.

In addition to sharing with me his encyclopedic knowledge of the art in the Uffizi and his broad historical perspective on the structures of Florence from the ancient Porta Romano to the relatively modern Duomo (well, modern for Florence; the Duomo was completed in 1436), Aubrey took me to every nook and cranny of the city. That first trip only whetted my appetite, and I kept going back to visit the city, the Tuscan countryside, and my cousins.

We frequented the little-known trattorias and osterias in the back streets of Florence and in the rural countryside of Tuscany. I never had a bad meal, though I never developed Aubrey’s taste for tripe. Usually we ate like kings, surrounded—no, engulfed—by history and incomparable art and architecture.

My grandmother (my mom’s mother, born in 1882) visited Florence late in life (she lived to be 104), her first visit out of the United States. After my cousins proudly took her on a tour of the city’s best features, she described Florence as “mighty medieval and dilapidated” with her jaw set firmly in a disapproving scowl.

My impressions of the city, however, couldn’t have been more different from hers. I fell in love with Florence, and my cousins fueled my passion for it with their own infectious love of their hometown.

Late to start my international adventures (I was 25 in 1973), I went on to visit scores of countries on every continent except Antarctica. But during the seventies, the eighties, and into the nineties, I returned often to Florence. Firenze was the start of it all for me, and I owe my cousins, especially Aubrey and his mother Jane, a world of thanks for opening up the world to me.

In mid-September I received word that Aubrey, now 56, has been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer that is already beyond treatment. I dropped everything and made plans to visit him in Florence one last time.

I spent a week with Aubrey in late September, and I am very glad I went. He felt well enough to get out at least once, but mostly we sat around his apartment on Borgo San Frediano, the street one short block south of, and parallel to, the Arno, and reminisced about all we had done and seen over the past four decades.

Trip Planning

Now that I am back home in Raleigh I’ve been reflecting on the trip itself, that is, the travel elements (air and rail) and the experience of being in Florence again. With less than a week to make arrangements, I was able to book flights and other travel plans, but at a significantly higher cost than if I’d been able to make reservations weeks or months in advance. I first checked flights to Pisa because PSA has competition and is a short train ride from Florence, but I also looked at possible flights to Rome and Milan.

Looking at the expensive prices of economy tickets available on short notice (less than one week out), I decided to check Business class fares, especially those available through consolidators. Orbitz quoted Iberia/AA in Business through Madrid at about $4400, so I figured there must be even lower business fares.

Sure enough, one of Joe Brancatelli’s recommendations, Cook Travel, came up with a $2600 round trip fare in Business class on Delta RDU/JFK/PSA using the Delta 767 nonstop JFK to Pisa. I was delighted and emailed my acceptance, in the meantime courteously cancelling three other tentative reservations in Business being held for me by some of Cook’s competitors.

Hoodwinked by Cook Travel

A day later came back an email from Cook Travel informing me that they couldn’t get the Delta flights after all, and offering only a $3980 round trip in Business using Delta and Air France in its stead.

Having cancelled my alternative reservations and with less than a week remaining before my travel date, I had no other options. I needed to get to Florence to see my cousin.

The Cook Travel bait-and-switch cost me almost $1400, $2600 quoted versus $3980 charged, plus adding the hassle of an extra leg in each direction (the AF/DL itinerary was RDU/ATL/CDG/PSA instead RDU/JFK/PSA). Extra flights add time to a trip and increase the risk of missed connections, and who wants either?

Cook Travel vehemently denied the bait-and-switch tactic and promised to “make it up” to me in my next booking. In the face of facts they were incensed that I had even suggested a lack of professionalism.

Time did nothing to assuage their bad attitude: When I email Cook Travel early this week to ask what they would do to “make it up” to me, I got no reply.

The Eastbound Trip Begins

Going to the AF website the day before the flights enabled me to check in (after entering all my passport details) and to print all 3 boarding passes at home (good), but not to change my seats (bad). The seats had been selected for me without input from me (bad). I found by calling AF that their customers cannot not change seats within 30 hours of the first AF flight on account of being under “airport control” (bad).

I was, finally, able to get the seat on the overseas flight Atlanta/Paris CDG flight I wanted (good), but only by going to the gate in Atlanta way early and standing in line a long time (bad). Thus through patience and perseverance I was able to change to seat 4F, the lone center seat in the nose of the AF two-class 747-400. Air France customer service didn’t impress me on this matter.

After passing security at RDU in a jiffy, I tried the new Delta “Sky Club” (goodbye to the Delta Crown Room brand) and then later the E concourse business class lounge in ATL. Both had free T-mobile wifi and were comfortable enough.

However, I was surprised that Delta, now claiming to be a Big League international carrier, still serves no Champagne, not even cheap American stuff, in their best and only Business class lounge at their biggest hub. Makes no sense to me from a branding and marketing POV, especially since the old Delta is well and truly gone. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Delta has stripped out the big McKinsey video screen technology at all its gates. I didn’t think I would miss them announcing upgrades, weather, boarding, and connecting gates, but I do.

No more on-board announcements, either, of arrival gate and connecting flight gates, a real bummer if your flight is late and the connection time narrow. When I asked a flight attendant why they weren’t announcing gates any longer, she said I could log on to the Delta website for free using the on-board wifi to find out my gate. That, of course, supposes that every passenger has a laptop with him or her. I did have my laptop, and I checked my connecting flight’s gate and found it was wrong when I got to Atlanta. (Ditto for the connecting return flights from JFK to ATL: the website info was wrong.)

Air France Experience

AF681, ATL/CDG, boarded 60 minutes ahead of its departure time, which I thought was a fine idea. Boarding the 747-400 and turning left into the nose (my favorite section of my favorite aircraft), there were four Business class rows (17 seats). Just behind the forward door were another 21 seats, for a total of 38 Business seats. There was no First class on AF681.

Questioning why there were just two classes on the Air France 747-400, I was told by the purser on board that AF has international First Class service now only on its new A380s and its 777s. I was not able to verify that, but both my flights over the pond had only two classes—well, OK, three classes on the A340 from Paris to JFK, if you count the enhanced economy class right behind Business.

Seat 4F is in the center at the rear of the 747-400 nose section, the ideal seat because there is no seat on either side or in front of it. Luggage stowage for 4F is in the bottom of the center console that holds papers, magazines, and sometimes flowers (a weird but ingenious storage area).

The gracious Air France staff took my jacket at once and hung it in the forward closet behind the nose cone. No boarding Champagne or cocktails could be offered, they said, until the doors closed and locked. I took the time to fiddle with my AV system and the infinitely-variable seat. I also went through the cheap plastic Air France amenity kit and found, at least, the minimum one needs in a premium class for an overnight flight: disposable socks, a decent eyeshade (some are too hot or don’t block the light well), and earplugs. I threw away the useless skin cream but retained the toothpaste and brush.

Refreshments were promptly offered as soon as the door closed, a choice of a half-full glass of Champagne, orange juice, or water. A half glass wasn’t enough for me, and I had to ask for a refill, which also came promptly. The Champagne was tasty (Lanson Black Label Brut NV) but warmish; it had no doubt lost its chill after sitting too long in the glass waiting to be served during the long boarding period.

A cost-cutting measure in AF Business: Two standard “one size fits all” glassware, a small one and a medium size one; no more stems or flutes or other specialty glasses.

The overstaffed cabin crew in Business (when have we last seen that?) was consistently polite and attentive, a minor miracle considering there seemed to be 8 or more people (with so many, there is usually a bad apple among them).

I observed that the flight had just 4 empty seats in Business; I didn’t check the back of the plane. The 747-400 is equipped with a huge toilet on the starboard side behind nose and a not-so-big one on the port side. Both stayed cleaned and well-serviced throughout the flight, which was almost 8 hours.

We pushed back at exactly at 5:50 PM as scheduled and were miraculously airborne at 6:25 PM.

The meal service started swiftly after takeoff, beginning, as always, with beverages. I tried small tastes of the several, supposedly carefully-chosen reds and whites and found them to be mediocre even by American standards, let alone French, so I went back to the Lanson Champagne. You can never really go wrong with real Champagne, and I enjoyed every drop.

The modest AF menu called the meal “Lunch” (Déjeuner), which I took be lighter fare than a full dinner. Honestly, I didn’t expect much, but it was surprisingly good, fresh-tasting, and in just the right portions. A small crab mayonnaise appetizer was remarkably delicious, and the main course I selected, Duck À L’Orange, was moist, tender, and as good as I’ve had in any American restaurant. Counting dessert, there were five courses, and they all came at just the right times, with the sorbet at the end the perfect finish.

Perhaps it all seemed so good to me because my expectations were low (most Business class meals are a cut above cafeteria food—if you are lucky). Whatever the reason, I have nothing but good things to say about Air France on-board cuisine in Business.

Sated and sleepy, I settled in for a nap, hopefully a long one of several hours to minimize the coming day’s jetlag. I’d been careful to restrict my thirst for fine Champagne to a few glasses so as not to let alcohol interfere with my rest.

And therefore alcohol had no part in my ensuing discomfort. It was the seat. AF’s current generation of Business class seats are very narrow and horribly uncomfortable. In this regard they are much like everyone else’s Business class seats, but somehow I expected more.

No matter how I adjust the seats’ infinite variations of up, down, and sideways, I could not sleep much. The cabin gradually became hot and stuffy as well, which added to the low-grade misery.

A bright note, however: The seat did vibrate, or rather massage up and down the middle on my back. Thus I was able to work out some of the kinks in my back brought on by the architecture of other parts of the seat, a relief.

The massage action lulled me, finally, into dreamland. I awoke knowing we must be close, because I heard dishes and glasses being arranged in the galley just behind me, a sure sign breakfast was coming. I skipped it and took the opportunity to splash some water in face and brush my teeth. Then squeezed my feet back into my shoes somehow (why do feet swell several sizes on overnight flights?) and read until we landed at 7:50 AM local time in Paris.

CDG being so large, it took us 20 minutes to find our gate at Terminal 2E. I walked off the plane at 8:10 AM, headed for my connection flight to Pisa (PSA) in Terminal 2G at 10:00 AM. I thought almost two hours was surely enough time to make it.

But I was wrong. [To be continued.]