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 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.]


Anonymous J Gufey said...

I contacted Cook for business or first class trip to southern Africa. Contacted them twice online. Never got a response. Maybe that was a good thing!

10/08/2010 3:12 PM  

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