I got a good belly laugh when reading that UA is improving its first class food on domestic flights (see http://online.wsj.com/articles/united-airlines-to-serve-up-improved-food-on-domestic-first-class-flights-1408629602).

This absurd decision by the airline’s so-called “management” is hubris with a capital “H”. Most business flyers loyal to United would beg the airline to spend its money making right its operation and drastically improving its schedule reliability ahead of serving a few more chilled sandwiches or pouring mediocre Prosecco.

My son, at age fifteen and a half, has shown himself for six months on a Learner’s Permit to be a safe and careful driver. That’s mostly around Raleigh, naturally, with few opportunities to get a feel for the open road.

Like me, he is also a jazz fan (though, unlike me, he is extremely proficient on two musical instruments, piano and trumpet). So it was a no-brainer that the two of us would drive rather than fly when we decided to visit friends in New Orleans. While there we would attend the Satchmo Summer Fest at the end of July honoring the jazz legacy of NOLA native son Louis Armstrong. Seemed like a fine package: lots of miles on my son’s driving log, see six or seven states at ground level for a change, hear a lot of great music, catch up with some good friends, eat some fine food, and just chill.

20140730_131457

In theory that would give my son 900 miles of Interstate driving experience between Raleigh and the Crescent City, and another 900 home. But yikes! That seemed like a long way to drive. The only real anxiety I harbored was the necessity to traverse Atlanta. Going through Atlanta, with its horrid congestion, cannot be avoided, just as traveling north from Raleigh to the Northeast cannot avoid going through the D.C. metro nightmare.

We set off at midday from Raleigh, starting late owing to a business meeting I was part of until noon, and I calculated we would reach Atlanta around 6:00 PM, the middle of rush hour. Thus going via I-85 was out, because that would necessitate piercing the city north to south at the worst possible evening hour.

Instead, I directed my son to take a slight detour east on I-40 to I-95 south, then I-20 west from Florence, South Carolina in order to attack a mere 14 miles of the SE corner of the I-285 beltline around Atlanta. I steeled myself to suffer the stop-and-go traffic there.

My son did the preponderance of wheel time, and to my astonishment, speeds around that corner of the Atlanta beltway stayed above 50 MPH. South of Atlanta on I-85 we maintained 70 MPH (the posted limit) without trouble and crossed the Chattahoochee River into Alabama by 7:15 PM Eastern (close, but still not in the Central time zone).

In the small town of Lanett, Alabama we stopped to refuel and grab a bite. I spied a Days Inn by the Interstate exit and decided to ask about their rates. $50 including tax for a nonsmoking room with two double beds, I was told. Did they take AARP or AAA cards? I asked. Nope, one rate: $50, including tax, for any room.

I plunked down the money, and we slept soundly that night. The room was clean, quiet, roomy, beds were comfy, good cable TV variety, and the A/C worked well. Okay, the shower pressure was pathetic, but we managed. Nowhere I know of in Raleigh where one can find a room like that for fifty bucks, all in.

Next morning we arose very early and drove across the exit to a Waffle House for–what else?–waffles. Delicious, cheap, and the waitresses all called us “honey.” After leaving and passing through Montgomery to reach I-65 south to I-10, my son asked if we could make a 10 mile detour to Florida since it was so close. He wanted to be able to tell his friends that he’d driven in seven states instead of six (NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, and LA). I accommodated him by navigating off I-65 at Atmore, Alabama to reach the Florida panhandle, and we were soon barreling along I-10 west crossing one bayou after another.

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By 1:30 PM we were in New Orleans, well, actually in Harahan, on the Mississippi River levy where some of our friends live. 920 miles from Raleigh, a bit longer than it might have been had we stuck to the more direct I-85 route, but anything to avoid downtown Atlanta.

Enjoying Champagne at Bayona

Over the next few days we dined twice at Bayona in the Quarter (thank you, Susan Spicer, master chef!) and listened to fine jazz performers like Don Vappie and his Creole Jazz Serenaders playing a set on the outdoor stage and Ellis Marsalis performing at Snug Harbor. Early Saturday morning came too quickly, but we were on the road for Raleigh by 6:15 AM Central.

Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders

Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders

Thirteen hours later we pulled into our driveway at 9:15 PM Eastern. We had driven 861 miles straight through from New Orleans, averaging 66 MPH, stopping only for gasoline, toilet breaks, and food. We mostly set the cruise control at 66 or 71, 1 MPH over the speed limit. Most of the way was at 70 MPH. It was a Saturday, and we lucked out with light traffic everywhere. Never happens over such a long drive, but it did that day. My son came home with 1914 total miles on his log (counting the local mileage in New Orleans while there).

The "Peachoid" in Gaffney, SC.   Frank Underwood, where are you?

The “Peachoid” in Gaffney, SC. Frank Underwood, where are you?

Total gas cost was $281, plus $50 for the one hotel night, equals $331 in direct costs. I didn’t count food because we had to eat whether we flew or drove. Flying would have been over $1000 for the two of us plus parking at RDU airport for six days at $14/day.

The most enjoyable elements of the road trip were time spent alone with my son and seeing the countryside close up. There’s something about covering the earth at ground level that doesn’t leave gaps in my psyche like flying over at 33,000 feet does. There’s a continuity of place, from home to destination and back, on the road that just feels right. It’s impossible, and frankly undesirable, to make trips like this one every time. But once in awhile it is good for the soul.

The horrific murder of 298 innocent people aboard Malaysia Airlines MH17 over Ukraine instantly made the skies over that former Russian republic unsafe to traverse. Until the moment the missile exploded into the 777 fuselage, travelers on MH17 were confident of their safety, as I would have been had I chosen that route from Amsterdam to K.L. Watching the first bodies arrive at Eindhoven Airport was unbearably sad, as was reading this story in the Singapore Straits Times.

A few days later rockets landed close to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, and suddenly it wasn’t safe to fly to Israel.

How quickly the places that we take for granted are safe aren’t. These incidents made me reflect on countries around the globe I’ve visited as a businessman or as an interested traveler that I would not go to today…or at least not until things settle down politically.

I was already committed to a trip to Egypt in early 1998 when 62 people, mainly tourists, were massacred at Luxor in November, 1997. I went anyway because I had to; on arrival, I found Egypt’s tourist and business environment to be as dead as Adam’s housecat. Our two kids, ages 15 and 11, have been asking my wife and me for several years to take them to see Egypt’s antiquities and rich history. No way I would expose my family to the political uncertainty that exists there today.

Ditto for many places in the Middle East and Central Asia (Afghanistan or Pakistan? No, thanks!), nor do I wish to conduct business in Russia these days.

My wife and I traveled extensively in Thailand several times B.C. (before children) and always intended to make that beautiful country, with its wonderful people, great climate and scrumptious cuisine, a high priority location to take our kids to visit. Now, though, Thailand’s current political upheavals make us unwilling to expose our children to potential danger.

In 1992 I was fortunate to travel over a great deal of Venezuela in the company of someone who knew the country and its people well, albeit sometimes in rustic accommodation. We camped, for instance, under the tropical stars (and amid the mosquitoes, more numerous than stars), on the banks of the incomparable Orinoco River and fished its delta for the aggressive Caribe Piranha, which we grilled and found delicious. I came to love the country and its people, but I wouldn’t go to Venezuela now.

When I lived and worked in South Africa, I traveled often to surrounding countries in Africa’s Southern Cone on business and for pleasure, including to Zimbabwe. I found Zim to be enchanting, even its most mundane corners, and the people warm and always welcoming. Then, as now, Robert Mugabe ruled with an iron hand. But in 2014 economic conditions are so desperate and political oppression so pervasive that I would not risk a trip to Harare or Vic Falls.

Some countries seem always to have been dangerous, and they remain so. I would love to visit Congo and the Central African Republic, but many African nations’ politics are too unsettled, certainly including those two nations. I have friends who’ve worked in the oil and gas industry in volatile African places such as Angola, but they had 24/7 security forces protecting them with machine guns, and they had to live in razor-wire-encircled compounds reminiscent of Southern prison farms.

Perhaps the world’s poster child of chronically unsafe countries is Somalia, yet I have friends who lived there when the family was posted to Mogadishu in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps in the sixties. It was not a hardship post then. Because of Somalia’s unique position directly on the horn of Africa, it has the longest coastline on the continent at 1,880 miles. But we’ll probably never get to experience the surf there or to make a deal to import its seafood, frankincense or myrrh.

Of course there are a few places, like Myanmar (I prefer its original name, Burma), which I visited when it was unstable in the early nineties, that are now okay to visit. Burma was cheap then, too. Now, however, Myanmar has become fancy and sterile by my standards of adventure. It’s lost its real-world charm. Just check out some of the “Roads Scholar” tours to get an idea of the deluxe accommodations on offer. Still, for business purposes, the country’s openness and safety are positive for the Burmese people.

Mozambique, Laos, and Cambodia–places I’d never go 20 years ago–are now also business and tourist destinations that have moved to the list of safe places. Like Burma’s turnaround, that’s a good thing.

Yet new or increased political volatility continues to depress business travel to more and more countries. Honduras began to destabilize in 2009 and is now lawless. Neighboring Guatemala and Nicaragua are dicey, too. Even traveling to parts of Mexico is not wise.  No one knows whether our neighbor to the south can sustain its law and order.

I wonder, Is the list of lost places growing faster than the list of safe ones?

————————————————————————————————

For reference, here is the list (current as of July 25, 2014) of places U.S. carriers are either prohibited to fly or warned may be hostile:

PROHIBITED – Ethiopia, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Ukraine

POTENTIALLY HOSTILE – Afghanistan, Congo, Egypt Sinai Peninsula, Iran, Kenya, Mali, Syria, Yemen

Think back to that Psych 101 class in your sophomore year of college, and dust off the high-falutin’ theory of cognitive dissonance. Outside of the New Yorker I haven’t seen it used much lately, but it’s the term that sprang to mind when I read about the potential for undetectable weapons and/or explosives being secreted onto airplanes that’s behind stringent new TSA screens, especially overseas.

As a reminder, “cognitive dissonance” is the mental stress and pain one experiences when holding contradictory beliefs or values at the same time. In the case of flying, we have all come to rely on the convenience and reliability of being able to catch a flight from virtually anywhere to anywhere on earth. Commercial air service, because it is first and foremost a safe way to travel, has come to be a defining characteristic in how we work and play, so commonplace and accessible that the usual put-down that flying is now “like a bus service” is actually a great compliment. We take frequent and safe air service for granted, like we do clean air, a constant source of electricity, and clean running water.

Like the utilities that have become necessary for maintaining our everyday existence, how could we live without air service? It has become extremely valuable to our way of life. That’s one side of the dissonance.

The other side of the new cognitive dissonance is the top-dog human value of remaining alive. The abject horror of plunging 33,000 feet to be atomized on impact with the earth into nothingness is a contemplative nightmare that infinitesimally low crash statistics have, until now, kept at bay. Every time we very frequent flyers walk down a Jetway to a plane, we hold two boarding passes, one of paper with our seat number, and the other a virtual pass of surety that we will be walking off whole and vertical at our destination. If we didn’t believe flying was safe, none of us would fly again.

Personally, the specter of undetectable devices in the hands of malicious passengers that might bring down a plane fills me with dread. But it’s still all about statistics, and the stats are good for now. I can resolve my own cognitive dissonance of flying on the basis of confidence that effective counter-measures can and will be developed to keep planes safe. So far, so good. I intend to keep on flying.

I just hope that my faith in the system to keep flying safe isn’t like the old joke about the guy who fell from the top of the Empire State Building. As he plummeted past the 59th floor, a woman stuck her head out of a window and yelled, “What’s it like?” “So far, so good,” he said.

Joe Brancatelli long ago coined the adage: “Once a trip starts bad, it goes bad the entire time.” Turns out Joe was mostly right! Last week I made a trip to San Francisco from Raleigh that seemed to start well, but quickly took a turn for the worse. And then another. And yet another. And so on, until…well, you get the idea. Here’s what happened:

The best alternative available when I booked RDU/SFO was on AA via LAX. I was curious to sample the RDU/LAX nonstop so took it and ended up in First Class on that leg. Service en route was reminiscent of NYC/West Coast transcons, and it lulled me into a false senses of tranquility and security.

On arrival at LAX, my troubles began when I discovered that the connection to SFO was almost two hours late. I had coordinated to meet up with a buddy flying to SFO from EWR and was going to share his private car into the city, but that killed my plan–or so I thought at the time. Since I was also overnighting at my friend’s pad in Pacific Heights, I figured I would now have to find an alternative place to rest my head.

I went to the LAX Admirals Club and started researching hotels near SFO Airport. To my surprise, everything was booked. I finally started calling individual properties to see if I could snag a last minute room. A front desk staffer at one of the Hyatts told me I wouldn’t find anything because there was some sort of Google convention underway.

He was wrong, though. I found two properties in downtown San Francisco with a few rooms. One was priced at $654 per night, and the other was $832 per night. I figured I would end up sleeping on the floor at SFO rather than pay those rates.

Resigned to a night of misery and discomfort, I boarded my delayed flight. The pilot scooted us up the California coast quickly, and we arrived just past midnight. A text message awaited me saying that my buddy’s flight was even later than mine and would not arrive SFO until 1:03 AM, thus solving my need for a hotel room and ride into the city. But it meant we wouldn’t get into the city until after 2:00 AM.

I decided to wait inside security for my friend’s plane to land and happened to notice that the same AA flight SFO/ORD I was booked on the following Saturday night, an 11:30 PM departure, was boarding and posted to depart at 12L30 AM. When I casually asked the gate agent if this was an anomaly, she said, no, this flight was delayed every night one to two hours due to late inbound airplanes and crew and because SFO was doing nighttime construction on runways which delayed late evening departures.

That prompted me to check the history of that AA flight number on FlightAware.com. Sure enough, it had not been on time in 10 days. Checking AA’s schedules for my ORD/RDU connection, I could see that I wouldn’t make it. I phoned AA reservations and explained my dilemma. They agreed, and said if I missed my connection in Chicago on Sunday morning that it could be Monday before they could get me to Raleigh due to full flights. My only option, they said, was a connection 14 hours earlier on Saturday leaving at 9:30 AM and going through DFW. This would ruin my planned day of leisure in Napa, but having no choice, I took it. I met my friend’s plane shortly after one in the morning, and we went into the city.

My tale of woe with AA was to continue, however. Turns out my return flights were also wrecked. AA called my cell at 3:48 AM Saturday morning (which was plugged in recharging near the bed where I was sleeping) to say the 9:30 AM was more than 2 hours late, causing me to miss my connection in Dallas. I frantically called AA just before 4:00 AM to reschedule yet again and was put on an SFO/DFW flight at 8:10 AM instead. That necessitated me staying up to shower and then paying $65 to a car service at 5:30 AM to get me to the airport by 6:00 AM (my friend has planned to drive me to save money, but not at that hour).

The AA rez agent at the Exec Platinum line that morning at 4:00 AM was on the verge of tears because she said she’d been dealing with similar problems all night. She also commended me for calling immediately to look for other flights because she said almost everyone on the 9:30am flight was going to misconnect. I got one of the last seats on the 8:10am departure. There were no aisle seats available at the last minute, so I opted for a bulkhead window seat.

Thinking I wouldn’t get breakfast in coach, I decided to eat something before the flight. The Admirals Club at SFO wanted $5.41 for a plain bagel. The same bagel was just over three bucks outside the club. Even the bartender advised me not to buy it in the club.

At gate 57 for the 8:10 AM flight to DFW, the agent announced the flight was overbooked (no surprise since many folks on the 9:30 AM flight had been moved, like me, to the earlier flight). Once we boarded, an Executive Platinum flyer plopped down in the center seat next to me. He was fuming mad and acting belligerent. I figured he, like me, had been inconvenienced, and, worse, had had to take a center seat assignment since nothing else was available. Probably he’d lost his First Class upgrade on the later flight, too. But it took me aback when he literally assault me.

I was in 8F, the bulkhead window seat because, as I mentioned, no aisles were available. The guy in the center seat 8E, a very large man, tried to shove my arm off the armrest and to put his hairy legs (he was in shorts) in my already crowded space. When I pushed back to demonstrate that I was going to maintain my half of the miniscule armrest, he took his Bose noise-cancelling headset case and threw it on the floor by his feet as hard as he could. He had a tantrum like a baby. He then tried again to shove not only my arm but my entire body as hard as possible against the bulkhead—-all this while we were at the gate in SFO during the boarding process. He wouldn’t engage me in conversation when I tried to reason with him, so I pushed back until I regained my personal space including my half (the back half) of the armrest. He continued to push against me as hard as he could until the plane pushed back, at which time he fell asleep. I have no idea what his problem was, but it was a miserable 3 hours, 45 minutes to DFW. the jerk never once uttered a syllable.

Our plane left SFO on time but arrived DFW late with no explanation from the crew. We arrived at gate D29. My RDU connection was by then 55 minutes from departure and at C31, as far away from D29 as you can get. I rushed over on the train, stopping only to pick up a turkey sandwich to eat on the next flight. En route via the train my cell phone rang with a message from AA saying the gate had changed to C10, but I had just gotten off the train at the C21-39 gates. I got back on the next train and took it to the C1-20 gates and ran to C10. Just as I got there the gate agent announced the departure had changed gates AGAIN, this time to C37. I ran back upstairs and got the train going the opposite direction back to the stop for gates C21-39 and ran down to C37. Miraculously, despite the lost time, the plane boarded quickly and buttoned up by 2:55 PM, scheduled departure. However, the bags didn’t move as fast as we humans. The had been staged at C31 originally and were then moved to C10. Then they had to be moved again back to C37. We left 30 minutes late for RDU and didn’t make up so much as a minute on the thousand miles en route. Like the first flight, the cockpit crew never made an announcement after explaining that the bags caused the delay.

And to this series of bungled flights, AA provided this little cherry on top: They charged me $30.09 for the Main Cabin Extra seat 8F on the SFO/DFW flight wherein I was cramped, uncomfortable, and set upon by the seething fury of the miscreant in the center seat 8E.

The following day I found the email complaint portal at AA.com under Customer Service and sent them a complaint. Less than a day later they credited my account with 15,000 AAdvantage miles. Frankly, I’d rather their flight operations had gone smoothly. The stress and misery of their bad flights didn’t equate to 15,000 miles.

My first flight was in 1960 from Raleigh to Kinston, NC on a Piedmont DC-3.  I was 12 and didn’t have much need for luggage, but I do remember that I had a modest carry-on flight bag given me by the airline (I think I still have it). I didn’t check anything, and the flight bag had a shoulder strap and no wheels (well, no bag had wheels then).  I was welcomed aboard and threw my little bundle in the open rack above my seat.

Piedmont DC-3

Fifty-four years and several thousand flights later, I still prefer not to check my luggage.  A lot of folks are like me in that regard, or at least it appears that way at the TSA screen and on board.  However, unlike me, almost every flier these days brings a roller bag to the airport.  I still prefer to lug mine on my shoulder, which makes me an anachronism.

It’s true, of course, that most of today’s carry-on takes the form of roller bags, some the first gen two-wheel jobbies, but, increasingly, the four-wheel version that pivots in any direction, like your bag on a pair of roller skates:

gucci four wheel diamante carry-on suitcase_2

That’s not me, though.  I never moved on to any type of luggage with wheels after my first flight, not even when some entrepreneur came out with folding luggage trolleys, the precursor to built-in wheels. Remember those?  They were all the rage before roller bags and cluttered up overhead bins even worse than the current all-in-one models:

foldable-luggage-trolley

So now the whole progression of carry-on luggage evolution is clear:

Larson wheel cartoonicon_arrow_right_green_clip_art_9471foldable-luggage-trolleyicon_arrow_right_green_clip_art_9471Tommy-Bahama-Retreat-II-21-Wheeled-Carry-On-Upright-P14980878icon_arrow_right_green_clip_art_9471Zero_Halliburton_Classic_Polycarbonate_Carry_On_4_Wheel_Spinner_Travel_Case_Silver_Main_1__32989.1397745956.1280.1280

Rolling luggage is fine and dandy; I’m not knocking it.  For reasons buried somewhere deep inside my genetic code, though, I still prefer to sling my bag’s strap over one shoulder while the other shoulder is bearing the considerable burden of my over-stuffed briefcase, which contains my big laptop.

Sure, I’ve tried a bunch of roller bags over the years.  For instance, Delta graciously awarded me a snooty, cutting edge Hartmann roller bag when I hit one of my five million mile marks with them, but it mainly sits in the dark of a closet, pining to be tossed into an overhead. Every time I take a roller bag somewhere I feel like, well, like everybody else, like I have somehow lost a part of my identity and individuality.  I always go back to my two tried-and-true pieces, pictured here:

20140624_090330-My existential luggage dilemma 1

One is a typical Hartmann suit bag designed, I’m guessing, in the late eighties (charcoal color) in those air travel Stone Age days before wheels were married up to luggage.  It appears to be made of some kind of rugged carpet–not very pretty, but it’s virtually indestructible.

The other (the blue one) is a very old and very durable Henley soft-sided canvas bag that will expand or contract to hold whatever is demanded.  Its durability is legendary, only topped by an Atlas leather bag (which I could never afford in my early years of consulting).

These are the ones I carry most often going anywhere, for work or pleasure (one or the other, of course, never both together).   People in TSA lines look at me funny because my luggage doesn’t look like theirs:

carryon at security line.jpg

The fact that I am physically carrying mine is a curiosity.  I get a few smirks.  I don’t care, but I have sometimes wondered why I alone am shouldering my bag in the writhing lines of rolling luggage snaking through security or crowding the boarding door.

Suddenly, though, maybe my carry-on strategy is the right one.  As the airlines seem poised to crack down on carry-on that doesn’t comply with their exact measurements of 22 x 14 x 9 (see my earlier post), they use the dreaded luggage cage to test potential offenders:

luggage cage.jpg

Most roller bags are either rigid or not very flexible.  They either fit or they don’t fit, and many just don’t fit.

My two shoulder bags, happily, are both supple and will squeeze down to fit perfectly in the cage.  The Hartmann bag is technically two inches too wide, but experience shows that it will compress nicely and without forcing it into the airline test devices.  The Henley is like a jellyfish and will fit itself into the shape of any airline cage.  It, too, is technically too big (high by one inch), but a little push when placing it into the bars will ensure it lines up at or below the rim.

Most roller bags can’t do that, and the new-fangled four-wheelers seem more rigid than ever.

Of course both my over-the-shoulder bags technically violate the standard 45″ linear limit, but there’s no need to be concerned about that. The airlines don’t have time to measure and calculate whether a bag exceeds 45 linear inches.  If it passes the cage test, it’s going on the plane as carry-on.

Because my bags are now uncommon and definitely not any type of roller bag, airline personnel seem more forgiving even if the top of one peaks over the edge of the cage or bulges a bit.  It’s like a free pass, almost an acknowledgement that anyone who still uses sheer body strength to defy gravity should be rewarded with some bin space on board.

Or so it seems to me.  Whatever is the reason, my bags have not been rejected yet.

Immediately after writing my previous post I flew Delta to Billings, Montana from RDU through Salt Lake City and snapped this photo at my connection gate, proof positive that Delta isn’t enforcing its own carry-on policy (at least not at SLC):

 

Image

My own carry-on bag was considerably smaller but still technically illegal by one inch.

 

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