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.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Getting There Was Half the Fun

In the days when the great North Atlantic ocean liners steamed between Europe and New York City, getting there was indeed half the fun.  Voyages lasted fours days to a week, and those who could afford a First Class stateroom made lifetime memories hobnobbing  with counts, baronesses, the occasional crown prince, and top business tycoons while feasting on unending courses of Sevruga and Beluga caviar from the Black Sea, the finest French pâté, and bottomless cases of Krug, Bollinger, and other Premier Cru Champagnes.  John Maxtone-Graham's 1972 The Only Way To Cross is the definitive tribute to the era of trans-Atlantic steamer service from the 1840s to the end in the early 1970s.  Maxtone-Graham's tome captures the magic of the times; it is factual, witty, and utterly fascinating.  If, like me, you have spent decades being unceremoniously herded into narrow aluminum tubes that hurtle through the air with minimalist service en route, you will read it and weep.  (Amazon sells used copies of The Only Way To Cross for as little as $4.00 delivered; I highly recommend it.)

The enigmatic Henry J. Tillman is credited with quipping that "The saying 'Getting there is half the fun' became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines."  Boeing's 707 and 747 certainly killed the Atlantic ocean liners, and travel comfort and style has never been the same since.  Not even Singapore Air's vaulted First Class service is worthy of a comparative description.

These days my air travel wishes are severely practical:  Just get me and my family there in one piece and on the advertised, with minimal hassle at the airports.  As little as I now ask, it doesn't often happen.  But it did recently on bankrupt American Airlines through two of its hubs, and over the busy Thanksgiving week, no less.  This seemingly mundane accomplishment is worth a tip of my hat in gratitude.

For our week in St. John, I booked AA from RDU through Miami to St. Thomas (STT) going out, and STT/JFK/RDU returning.  The only trouble on the entire trip was at home before we left.  I could not get the system to print out one of our four boarding passes for the second leg (MIA/STT).  Oddly, the system checked us all in and printed all four boarding passes for the first leg, but only three boarding passes for the second leg.  A phone call to the Exec Platinum desk didn't get the job done, either.  I had to wait until we were through security at RDU and in the Admirals Club before an AA agent could coax the last boarding pass to print.

The staff at the Admirals Clubs in both RDU and MIA were cordial and helpful, as were the gate agents in both airports and the on-board crews on both legs.  Both flights were over-booked, and yet both left on time and arrived early (to MIA) or on time (to STT). 

En route every coach passenger was served twice.  The seats on the 737 to Miami (10CDEF) were very cramped, and row 10 had no window, but the friendly flight attendants and early arrival more than made up for the temporary discomfort.

By contrast, we were in the "Main Cabin Extra" section (years ago AA called it "More Room Throughout Coach") between MIA and STT in seats 13CDEF with loads of leg room.  Again, the friendly on-board staff and keeping to the schedule made the flight a pleasant experience.

Homeward bound on the Sunday after Thanksgiving after a wonderful week on St. John, I was concerned that bankrupt American's operation might melt down, especially since we were connecting through JFK, notorious for slowdowns and misery.  Happily, AA 404 was dead on time leaving St. Thomas and arriving Kennedy, with more friendly service en route.  I noted that our international 757 had sleeper seats installed up front, though we were once again ensconced in the Main Cabin Extra seats in row 16.  Our coach seats were plenty roomy, however, and our kids enjoyed a movie on the way to New York.

It's been some time since I was in American's refurbished Terminal 8 at JFK, and I was impressed.  The concourse feels good, and the enormous Admirals Club boasted a fine, friendly staff who catered to our kids.  The place was extra clean, too (always noticed, and always appreciated).

Our last leg, JFK/RDU, was on a tiny Eagle RJ (AA 4423), but it, too, left and arrived on time, despite the usual interminable JFK runway wait to take off (obviously time built into the schedule).  I breathed a sigh of relief when we bumped down at RDU, and reflected how amazing it was that we had four such good flights. 

Going to the islands and returning home, I was reading The Only Way To Cross, inevitably inviting comparison between old and contemporary modes of travel.  Our four-flight jaunt was a cattle car service in contrast to the pre-jet glory days of ocean travel in luxury and leisure.  Getting there sure isn't half the fun any more, yet I felt gratified, satisfied, and content that the air service operation functioned as expected on this trip.  When I get the basics these days, that's enough for me.  


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