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.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Economy Comfort and Other Little Travel Provider Fibs

The experience of travel exposes each of us, of course, to the vagaries of reality.  I don't know about you, but ofttimes the travel services advertised or expected are not what I get.  

To most modern flyers, for instance, it may seem petty of me to gripe about the diminution of aircraft (from full-sized jet to RJ) now in service on Delta between Raleigh and New York.  After all, it's just a smaller airplane, right? 

True, but that's not the full story.  Since at least the 1960s through the early 2000s, airlines serving RDU and the New York area airports supplied 727s, 737s, DC-9s,  MD80s, and even occasionally 757s for the route.  The flights then were full of business customers, just as today.  The short one-hour service was never fancy, but it was comfortable.  

Frequently, we were connecting to international flights and had paid a great deal of money for the privilege of flying in First or Business Class.  The "premium" experience started in the domestic First Class cabin at RDU when we boarded the plane, so that it was seamless.  Even in economy, the planes were roomy and the seats tolerable.  It gave us comfort to think our money was well-spent.

Not any more, though.  Tiny, tinny, and tired regional jets now ply the route to the Big Apple from Raleigh.  The crews are typically third-party contractors, and it often shows.  RJ crews are more likely not to show up or to be late to the gate.  So your flight's late and you miss a connection?  They still get paid.  

Though Delta has announced future 2-class refits to some of its regional jet fleet, their RJs out of RDU offer one class of service: cramped.  If you bought an international First Class or Business Class ticket, forget about it.  You are just one sardine wedged tightly into the can until you get to your international flight at JFK, no matter how much you paid.  You don't even rate a free cocktail en route to New York.  The seats are small and close together.  City bus service is more comfortable.  

RJs fly slower than full-size planes, too, so the trips take a bit longer than they ever have.  Flights using RJs have a tendency to be late and never really catch up on their schedules.  When service disruptions caused by weather or ATC occur, airlines typically begin cancelling RJ flights first because each RJ impacts a relatively smaller number of passengers than a full-sized jet.  

Altogether, RJ flights are not comfortable and have eliminated every bit of fun in flying.  Put in context, therefore, my complaint is valid.  I don't mind flying RJs to smaller markets like Omaha, but between Raleigh and New York, they are a sour note.  Give us back full-sized jets to New York, please!  

Full-sized aircraft are no guarantee of comfort, either.  At JFK for a recent Delta flight to London Heathrow with my family, I had used my Platinum privileges to reserve four seats in  Delta's "Economy Comfort" section of coach. I snagged the best seats in Economy Comfort, too, on the bulkhead starboard side right behind Business Elite.

However, the trouble with Delta's Economy Comfort is that often it's not.  Sure, the first few rows of coach seats are called Economy Comfort.  But Delta has so many airplanes on international routes that it hasn't converted all of them to true Economy Comfort, which they define as having four inches more "seat pitch" (distance between seats for better legroom) and four inches more recline.

Certainly the Economy Comfort seats on our 767 to Heathrow didn't live up to those standards, nor did the Airbus coming home (Amsterdam/Detroit, an old Northwest plane and route).  Those seats didn't feel as if they were any more distant between rows  than the infinite number of rows of economy behind us stretching to the rear of the aircraft.  

Having made two round trips in Economy Comfort on Delta's 777 aircraft between Atlanta and Johannesburg, I know the difference.  Those long-haul 777s make a 16-hour nonstop flight ATL/JNB, and the distance between Economy Comfort rows lives up to the advertising claim.  Being in Economy Comfort seats rather than regular coach seats makes those long flights less hellish.

The other Economy Comfort service elements on our flights to Heathrow and back from Amsterdam did not differ any from the rest of coach: the same mediocre food trays, the same insipid white wine from a milk carton (I called that wine "roach killer" and asked for a Heineken instead).  However, the movie selections were free for us, and I am not sure whether the ordinary coach passengers had to pay for theirs or not.

Same lack of truth in advertising with the Heathrow Express train from the airport to Paddington Station in London:  Overall, it's not really that fast.  Yet they charge as if it is truly an express service.  It's an expensive option.  Once you follow the endless signs to the underground passages and then walk through the long tunnels, it's usually a connection train that awaits you.  That train isn't always standing at the platform and often involves a lengthy delay waiting for a train to arrive.  Once there, the connection train takes Heathrow Express passengers to the central Heathrow station where all must get off and find the real Heathrow Express train on another platform reached through further tunnels.  

When finally there on the actual platform, another wait is required if a train isn't present (as often is the case).  Once on board, yet another delay occurs waiting for the train to depart while stragglers arrive.  Finally underway, the Heathrow "Express" eventually surfaces to daylight to join the busy track network into London and becomes, well, just another passenger train headed for Paddington.  As such, it experiences slowdowns and delays like every other train (it's not treated special just because of its name, "Express").

So why do people use it?  Well, I do because it's still cheaper than a taxi, and the London Underground connection from Heathrow into town is hard for me to find.  I haven't found a good alternate option to Heathrow Express.  But I resent paying a premium for the train that claims to be an "express" when in fact it can take an hour start to finish to get to Paddington.  I would prefer they choose a more modest name, such as "Heathrow Connection" even if it's still expensive.  

Point being, it's a mistake to automatically put one's faith in travel providers to live up to their claims of service. Especially not the airlines.  It's a dice throw every time you board a plane to see if you get what you booked.  In the case of "Economy Comfort," Delta uses the word "comfort" indiscriminately and hopes you don't notice that it's often actually not any more comfortable than the rest of coach.  At least I didn't have to pay extra for it; many folks did.


Anonymous Jeremy said...

There is actually already a slower service called "Heathrow Connect" that costs significantly less, and is only about 10 minutes slower. Depending on your arrival terminal, you still may need to take the shuttle to get to the main Heathrow 1/2/3 station, and get the Heathrow Connect there. You have to carefully buy the correct ticket (the staff will try to get you to buy the much more expensive Express ticket), but it's around £10 instead of £30. The disadvantage is that it has a few stops enroute and takes besides taking longer to get to Paddington, runs less often than the Heathrow Express.

The Picadilly Line tube is even cheaper and quite easy, I don't agree that it's difficult to find... just look for the ubiquitous Underground signs or ask for help. It's just quite slow (about an hour IIRC), and not nearly as comfortable seating. It potentially takes the same amount of time as waiting for the Heathrow Connect service, and also has the advantage of more direct destinations in central London.

4/15/2013 9:07 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Many thanks, Jeremy. I will try one or both services next time.

4/16/2013 9:33 AM  

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