Who is Will Allen, anyway?

GoTriangle, the regional transit authority for the Research Triangle area of central North Carolina, recently did a short profile on me because I serve on the GoTriangle Board of Trustees. It occurred to me that readers might be interested in knowing a little bit of my background, so here it is:

Planes, trains, buses: all in this board member’s wheelhouse

GoTriangle Board Member William A. Allen III knows firsthand what it’s like to steer a city bus full of passengers safely to their destinations. As a law student at the University of North Carolina in the early 1970s, he worked as a bus operator for Chapel Hill Transit.

“It was my part-time job,” Allen recalls. “I got up really early in the morning before class, and I drove buses for a few hours. Then I went to class, and I would come back and drive again. I usually ended up putting in 30 or 40 hours a week.”

Attending law school and working a physically and mentally taxing job might drain the energy of many people, but Allen says he has always thrived on work, whether paid or not. His first job at age 12 was working for The News & Observer, he recalls.

“I would get up every morning at 4:30 and deliver the papers in my neighborhood by bike, which I had to do 364 days a year, every day except the day after Christmas,” he says. “I did that for a couple of years. I have had a job ever since doing something.”

Born in Kinston, North Carolina, to a teacher and a lawyer, Allen graduated from NC State University with a bachelor’s degree in politics while working three jobs to pay his bills. As a college student, he was interested in sustainable issues, taking the first environmental course offered and attending the first Earth Day in 1970.

Driven by a strong interest in railroads, he began work for the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, now known as CSX, as a telegraph operator and a dispatcher trainee. Seaboard offered him entry into management training, but he declined, knowing he planned to attend law school. However, a couple of years into law school, he realized the profession was not a good fit for him.

“I didn’t like it, and so I became a businessman, and I had a number of businesses that were very interesting,” he says, noting that his first venture was founding his own charter flight business in Ohio.  

Selling charter flights to Europe to students, faculty and staff at all of the major universities in Ohio eventually landed Allen a lucrative job managing European student flights returning to the U.S. So he sold his business and moved to Munich, Germany, to begin a two-year stint, and that’s when the transit bug bit him hard.

“I really enjoyed my job and got to know a lot about commercial aviation,” he recalls. “I didn’t own a car the entire time I was there – I just used public transit in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and other places where I was organizing flights from. I used the trains all the time, and that sold me even more on public transit in trains. So when I got back here I was pretty much convinced that that was what we should do in this country.”

When he returned from Europe in 1977, he started a business that exported live baby eels (called elvers) to Japan which are grown out in aquaculture ponds there. The business flourished until China and Japan signed a trade agreement that cut demand for U.S.-sourced elvers.

“My business collapsed overnight,” Allen says. “I ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal as a victim of that trade pact, and I decided in 1979 to go into management consulting. At the time, I thought of management consulting as a temporary job, and 35 years later I was still doing it.”

Over the next three decades as a consultant, Allen found joy in process reengineering work, which he describes as aligning Fortune 500 business processes with their business strategies.

“I did it for many, many industries, everything from mining to food processing to insurance, but I was especially interested in – and lucky to be able to work in – two industries I already knew a lot about,” he says. “One was commercial aviation – I did a lot of work for airlines – and then, a lot of work for the rail industry. My clients included the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the Norfolk Southern and others, and I did a lot of work for rail shippers as well.”

Flying out of his home base in Raleigh every Sunday night to travel to Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia and South America and returning every Friday night eventually took a toll on his personal life, he says. “I was married early, and I’m afraid my marriage only lasted about four or five years,” he says. “My first wife got tired of me not being here all the time. We had no kids. We divorced.”

About eight years later, he met Ruth Heuer, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, sociologist and demographer, who like him enjoyed traveling. They married in 1995, had their first child when he was 50 years old and then adopted their second child from China. Becoming a father prompted him to quit consulting work so he would not be gone from home five days a week.

“I decided in late 2008 to take a big risk and get off the road – even though it would curtail my earning capacity – and see what it was like to be a stay-at-home dad,” he says. “I wanted not to repeat what I had seen a lot of my colleagues in consulting do, which was to be an absent father and to be, if not estranged, at least kind of a stranger to their children.”

Being at home, he says, he reconnected with his community and soon began volunteer work that eventually led to elected office. He worked for former President Obama’s election campaign and then began co-chairing the Passenger Rail Task Force for the Raleigh City Council, advising on major rail issues. He was involved in recommending the location of Raleigh Union Station and the optimal route for Southeast High Speed Rail to enter Raleigh from the north.

“I got involved in my neighborhood because I just couldn’t stay not busy; I like to work,” he says. “I organized my neighborhood into a neighborhood association, and that led to me attending the Hillsborough Citizen Advisory Council meetings, and then pretty soon I was elected vice-chair and then chair for eight years.”

In 2011 and 2013, he was elected to chair the Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council, and as the Raleigh City Council appointed him to more and more committees, he got even more involved in local communities. Eight years ago, when he saw the GoTriangle board had an opening for a City of Raleigh representative, he asked then-Mayor Nancy McFarland to appoint him.

“I thought it would be the perfect fit, and it has because of my life-long commitment to public transit,” he says, noting that he is not anti-automobile. “I believe people should have choices. I like to drive, frankly. But I think that people ought to have choices about what they do. And we have to start providing choices to get away from our utter dependency upon the private automobile.”

As a board member, he says his strength is his expertise in rail, and he is excited about integrating all modes of transit into a regional network with commuter rail as its spine.

While he is enthusiastic about the arrival of commuter rail and a connected transit network, he says obstacles in its path remain to be overcome.

“We talk a lot about regional transit, but we need to actually be regional,” he says. “We need to think regionally. We have to act regionally, not just talk about it. We need to be fully committed to it, and that means that all three counties and the larger area, too.”

On a personal note, he says as a board member and former essential worker, our operators and mechanics are always on his mind and he appreciates the work they do. He wants them to know that he values their opinions and is open to answering any questions they may have about the board’s goals. “The drivers, the mechanics, they make up the majority of our workforce, and frankly I want them to be happy,” he says.

Disorder in the sky

May 26, 2021

I’m not a nervous flyer. But the current state of flying has me with a metaphorical death grip on my figurative armrest. Pandemonium—or at least confusion and disorder—in the sky right now is unlike anything my sixty years of flying experience has prepared me for.  I am talking about the uncertainty of international and domestic travel planning which I’ve written about again and again recently (nothing has improved since), and now, in one fell swoop, Belarus has upset the sanctity of commercial flyovers with the downing of a plane for wholly political reasons.

When I read about the Ryanair plane being forced to land on the whim of a dictator, my mind went immediately to the great many countries unfriendly to Americans that I have overflown at one time or another—if not outright hostile, at least ones I’d prefer not to land in: Iran, Zaire (now Congo), Saudi Arabia, Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya (when Gaddafi ruled it), Russia, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Oman, and Mozambique. 

I guess I should add Belarus to that list, too, as I’ve more than once looked down from 30,000 feet onto Belarusian land as we passed over.  This week’s action there opens Pandora’s box for other countries to do the same—a troubling precedent.  Just one more jolting departure from the heretofore predictable norms of flying commercial.

Which brings me back to contemplate the utter confusion and unpredictability of all matters related to planning international travel in the pandemic crisis environment.  Nothing is certain any more.  I’ve moaned constantly this year about my struggles to plan several upcoming trips to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, a place I’ve routinely visited for 31 years with no travel drama.  I still don’t have answers to my questions posed through official channels to the South African embassy in Washington regarding basic requirements for entry like travel insurance for possible quarantining.  The fact that I am fully vaccinated holds no water for South Africa or for any country I want to fly to.

Here in the US of A, a half century of dependable rules guiding travel are in flux. Despite the strong comeback in leisure travel (predicted to be at or near 100% of 2019 numbers this summer), business travel—the principal source of airline profits until Covid hit—is at 20-25% of 2019 numbers and expected to lag for at least another year.  That inverts what I call the “revenue value spectrum” in the airline industry, meaning leisure travelers are now in the catbird seat with airline marketing departments, biz travelers not so much.

The corollary to the present upside-down passenger numbers is that the cosmic dearth in airline seat supply (caused by airlines grounding aircraft and crews during the pandemic) compared to the surging demand for seats is giving airlines leisure fare pricing power for the first time since 1978’s deregulation.  In other words, leisure fares are soaring.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the airlines don’t price leisure fares well above cost until business travel begins to return. I am therefore glad I bought my tickets well in advance; doing so got me ahead of the fare rises.

If leisure travel continues to far outpace business flying, that could be one good thing for hard-bitten frequent flyers like me because we’ll be competing for first class upgrades against a smaller number of elite travelers.  Maybe I’ll actually get to use some of the 40-odd 500-mile upgrades up to now lying useless in my American Airlines AAdvantage account.

The current chaotic environment could also be good for me if the airlines lower front cabin fares to attract the fewer biz flyers out there even as they raise coach fares.  I’d bite on paying for first class if sharp end prices fall.  However, that’s sheer speculation (and hope) on my part based on reason, and airfare levels aren’t set by logic.  Delta’s fares RDU/JNB six to nine months out are an example of that inflexibility.  Even “Premium Select” (Delta’s version of Premium Economy) remains $800 more than United’s in the market, and the Delta One business cabin fare is in the stratosphere. 

Constancy of air travel norms like safety, security, and reasonably narrow fare ranges has been the bedrock of my business and leisure travel decisions.  I require reliable predictability of those elements to guide my planning and to control my costs, without which my confidence wanes.  Though I can’t always quantify the precise risk tipping point that governs my choices regarding personal wellbeing and affordability, what’s been happening lately in the airline world gives me pause.  When will air travel stabilize?  I wish I knew.

Thank God for in-flight alcohol!

May 18, 2021

On my first flights this past weekend in 11 months—the longest interval I can remember being grounded in fifty years—Delta Air Lines killed me with kindness start to finish RDU to Minneapolis and back. 

Well, truth be told, a Blood Mary or two served on board augmented my good feelings, about which more later.

Since Americans seem to believe that the pandemic is somehow over now, with normalcy magically returned like throwing a light switch, I expected the Raleigh/Durham and MSP airports to be crowded and airplanes to be packed. 

When I booked in first class some months back, however, I didn’t choose to be up front in anticipation of full planes.  I was using up Delta e-credits and decided to splurge on first class because it seemed like free money. 

Also because, like I said, it’s been nearly a year since I flew anywhere, so why not treat myself?  In retrospect, I’m glad I did.  Seated in 1B going and returning heightened the rich experience of good feelings.  My real time notes follow:

Delta 710a departure RDU/MSP, an A320 aircraft. (2 hr, 23 min flight). Arrived RDU 5:00 AM.

Airport was very crowded, however, including parking deck. Even level 3 had few empty spaces. Terminal was a beehive everywhere.

To entice travelers back, RDU Airport Parking was offering special deals on “Premier” (close-in) parking, but the bargain required me to reserve a space 24 hours in advance, which I forgot to do.  My $10/day drive-up rate was close and cheap enough.

No curbside bag check any longer due to Covid.  Inside at the Delta counter, I was surprised to find a long queue and bedlam checking bags even in the “Priority” line.  Good thing I got there two hours early at 5:00 AM, I thought.

Only one, then two, and finally three staff at Delta Priority check-in for bags.  An extended family of five with grandma in a wheelchair traveling coach and clearly without any priority status nevertheless inserted themselves and their great many pieces of checked luggage in the Priority queue. Another family with seven pieces of checked luggage and two small boys also slowed down the process, especially with just a single check-in counter open at first.

The queue at Priority check-in grew ever longer. It felt like an interminable wait, but was really just 15 minutes for me. I practiced deep breathing to de-stress since I hate waiting in lines. When I finally reached the counter, though, the Delta staff greeted me with enthusiasm and made sure my luggage got Priority tags.

At the security screen—by then 5:20 AM—I found very long lines except at TSA PRE-Check. The agent, sitting behind large Plexiglas screens, motioned me to insert my drivers license into machine readers, something I hadn’t seen before, and I placed my boarding card on a scanner.  It didn’t seem to take as long as when agents manually inspected my documents in the pre-pandemic era. 

Nothing has changed at the x-ray machine stations that I could determine, and I was through security by 5:28 AM and looking for the Delta SkyClub to see if it was open early on that Saturday morning. 

Sure enough, the SkyClub had opened 4:45 AM (changing soon to 4:30 AM, I was told). Really good selection of food, both hot and cold.  The turkey sausage, egg & cheese English muffin was particularly tasty.  I also enjoyed blueberry yogurt and fresh fruit.   

The club was super-clean, constantly wiped and tended to by SkyClub staff.  The Delta people were full of warmth—and smiles, I assume, beneath their masks.  They seemed to be genuinely happy to see passengers again.  Not crowded at all.   I stayed for nearly an hour of quiet relaxation.  Newspapers seem to have been discontinued, my only criticism.  The toilet was absolutely spotless.

Boarding began at 6:35 AM, a short walk from the SkyClub, with wheechairs, kids, and those “needing assistance or a little more time” being called first, followed by active duty service folks. As usual, scads of people took advantage of that opportunity, after which FINALLY First Class was allowed on. Then the hordes. The plane was jammed.

Appeared to be as much weight in carry-on as in human mass, and with the usual long delays as people tried to find their seats, even though coach was boarded back to front to mitigate such slowdowns.

Everyone on my flight wore masks with no complaints.

I didn’t hear if Delta Elite and Comfort+ pax were boarded after first class because I was already on the plane by then.

Lots of college kids returning home judging by sweatshirt logos and bright young faces (impossible to hide even half-hidden behind masks).

Curious feeling flying for the first time in nearly a year.  A nostalgia gripped me of air travel before the world changed forever.

No boarding drink in first class as the flight attendants were busy greeting and handing out cleaning wipes. 

I took two vodka mini-bottles with me in case they aren’t serving booze up front at all, held in reserve to be used after we were off the ground.  I had never in my entire life brought my own liquor on board a plane until that morning.  Service on my June, 2020 flights via American Airlines, also in first class, had been minimalist affairs, and I wanted to be prepared in case Delta had also adopted a similar dismal policy. 

The airlines claim BYOB is a federal offense (unless it’s already in your belly before boarding), so I discreetly kept the tiny bottles secreted in a plastic bag in my jacket pocket.  In my mind, they were for emergency use only.

The plane left 40 minutes late due to a balky redundant nav system that died when power was cut unexpectedly twice to the plane, a glitch triggered by a bad electrical cable connection.  Maintenance finally cleared us to fly anyway.

Once airborne, two flight attendants swiftly circulated through the first class cabin taking orders, which included drinks and snack boxes.  I heard the fellow across the aisle order Champagne (okay, Prosecco).  It lifted my spirits to hear the FA affirm she had it.  Delighted, I ordered a Bloody Mary when it came my turn and promptly forgot about the mini-bottles in my jacket.

Two Bloody Marys later, and after sampling the snack boxes, I was feeling pretty fine and utterly relaxed.  The FAs came around with constant offers of other snacks and beverages, not to mention a hand-written note from the flight leader thanking me for five million miles of loyalty to Delta.

She got the seat (1B, not 1A) and my name (Allen, not Anderson—my middle name) wrong, but I love the sentiment!

I dozed for an hour and felt great as we made our approach to Minneapolis. On the ground, I was pleased to find that the “Priority” tags on my checked luggage worked: Mine were the first to arrive on the belt, with no wait at all.

Delta’s service in the waning pandemic was far better than I imagined it might be: no ascetic and meager offerings.  Leaving MSP airport relaxed and refreshed, I thought:  Thank God for alcohol on airplanes!

“Mr. Sunshine and Hope”

May 10, 2021

“Mr. Sunshine and Hope” – That’s the sobriquet my friend Joe Brancatelli sardonically tagged me with for planning these sixteen trips over the next ten months:

  • Minneapolis (MSP) in May to our son’s college graduation (family of four)
  • Billings, Montana (BIL) in June/July (just me)
  • BIL again in July (my wife and daughter)
  • Newark (EWR) in July (me and a friend en route to Africa)
  • Johannesburg and Skukuza, South Africa (JNB, SZK) in July/August (a friend and me)
  • Nashville (BNA) in August (taking daughter to college)
  • Fargo, North Dakota (FAR) in August (three family members to a wedding)
  • Topsail Beach, NC (driving, not flying) in September (three family, two cousins, one friend)
  • New Orleans (MSY) in October (my wife and me)
  • New York (JFK) in October (my wife and me to visit NYC)
  • Johannesburg and Skukuza, South Africa (JNB, SZK) in October/November (me and my wife)
  • BNA at Thanksgiving (our daughter flies home from college)
  • BNA at Christmas (our daughter flies home from college)
  • Overseas trip somewhere (Italy? France? Spain? Portugal? South Pacific?) over Christmas/New Year’s (family of four)
  • Newark (EWR) in February (me)
  • Johannesburg and Skukuza, South Africa (JNB, SZK) in February/March (me, a friend, three cousins)

In the face of so much present travel uncertainty, Joe isn’t as optimistic as I am that all those trips will pan out, and he could be right.  But, hey, if you don’t plan anything, then nothing happens for sure.  Me, I’m slogging through, knocking down roadblocks, and figuring to go on as many as I can.

More and more flights are in flux, as I chronicled last time, but I can deal with that and similar challenges like rental car prices skyrocketing and hard-to-book hotels.  It’s getting Covid-19 test results within the required time requirements that has me worried at the moment.

Now that Covid is “going away” in the public mind, suddenly here in Raleigh it’s hard to find anywhere that will guarantee test results (PCR test) returned within 72 hours as required by South Africa and for travel to Europe.  As listed above, my first trip abroad is in late July, two months away, but I’m already checking for how to get the precise required testing and results done.  Sounds simple and straightforward, yet so far, it’s been infuriating for “Mr. Sunshine and Hope” to figure it out.

I thought a logical place to pose the question of where to get tested that would return results within 72 hours was the RDU Airport Authority. after all, RDU has a great website showing impressively-detailed requirements for the USA and countries around the world. My hopes were dashed when my chief RDU contact embarrassingly admitted that the airport hadn’t considered that question.

Looking next at the county health department, I found a URL that shows test locations for today and is updated daily.  PCR tests are free, too, with results claimed to be back “usually” in one to two days. 

However, the county’s drive-thru clinics have become a moving target with test sites in decline as fewer people opt to be tested.  I bookmarked the county as one option, though, assuming the sites are still operating in late July, but continued looking for more certain testing options.

Several friends told me that pharmacies are testing, so I called around to major chains and independently-owned drug stores.  True, every place I spoke to confirmed they are taking CV-19 nose swabs, but none do actual PCR testing.  In every case, the pharmacies wait for a daily pickup by LabCorp, which transports the swabs to its central laboratories for testing.  In every case, the pharmacists told me they could not guarantee I’d get results back within 72 hours of my flights.

Thinking that if I went directly to LabCorp itself the results would come sooner, I tried to reach them by phone, with little luck.  Local LabCorp offices exist only to take blood samples and such, which are then sent off.  Lab technicians working there referred me to the company website or to my primary care physician for a test order.

Since I am enrolled in a “concierge” medical practice, I was able to get an answer quickly from my doctor: No Covid-19 referrals for travel testing; only for coronavirus symptoms.  I guess I could claim I have a cough, slight sore throat, or have been around somebody known to have had Covid, but even that white lie is a bridge too far for me.  So, a dead end, and back to the LabCorp website to see what those options are.

The site for LabCorp’s Covid-19 tests offers an at-home PCR kit, and claims results are available “1-2 days from when your sample is received at the lab.”  Cost is either $119, or zero if these criteria are met:

  • Experiencing mild symptoms
  • Exposed to someone with COVID-19
  • Live or work in a congregate setting
  • Asked to get tested by a healthcare professional, contact investigator, or public health department.

The fee option ($119) lists “Travel” as a reason for paying if none of the criteria are met.  I was thinking of ordering a LabCorp kit this month (not waiting until late July) to see how long the results take to get back and in what form. 

Importantly, I also wanted to confirm that LabCorp verifies that the results are mine and not someone else’s since “at home” infers the devious possibility of a surrogate test subject.  Assuming LabCorp simply takes my word that the nasal swabs come from me and not someone else, I couldn’t help but wonder how easy it might be to fool the airlines. 

I was curious to see how the results are stated as tied to me.  Would the wording be something like “to the best of LabCorp’s knowledge” the test results are mine?  If so, does that equivocation and implied doubt void my results being accepted by an airline for international travel?  Being the obsessively detailed guy I am, I began to think it’s worth $119 to find out.

But before spending over a hundred bucks, I dug deeper into Covid testing requirements to enter South Africa (my first overseas destination) to be sure at-home tests are accepted.  Couldn’t find anything on the United Airlines website about it (I’m flying UA’s new nonstop to Johannesburg from Newark), so I discovered the relevant official South African government sites and poured over several pages before finding the answer at this URL:

Are home PCR tests allowed, which are sent to a testing laboratory? No, PCR tests must be performed by a certified medical practitioner.

Bummer!  Back to square one, which is the county health department mobile clinics.  Like gypsy caravans, they keep moving from place to place. So I’ll have to hunt down the nearest one—assuming they are still operating in July—three days before my international flight.  I hope that a county health department nurse qualifies as a “certified medical practitioner” in the eyes of South African officials.

At the same South African government site I also found this troubling statement pertaining to travel insurance:

What are the requirements for travellers travelling to South Africa by air? All travellers landing at these airports must present a PCR test which is not older than 72 hours from the time of departure from the country of origin to South Africa.  Furthermore, the international travellers should possess a mandatory travel insurance which is supposed to cover the COVID-19 test and quarantine costs.   All these travellers will be subjected to COVID-19 screening on arrival. Those who present COVID-19 symptoms which include elevated body temperatures and flu-like symptoms, will be required to take a COVID-19 test which should be covered by the travel insurance. Should the test results come back positive, the traveller will be subjected to mandatory quarantine, which will also be paid for by the traveller or the travel insurance.  

Another surprise.  I had been assured and reassured several times that travel insurance was not required to enter South Africa.  Another $300-500 if it turns out that I indeed must carry the insurance, so say quotes from Travelex and Travel Guard (AIG), the two big insurance carriers in the travel industry. 

I thought to check with American Express to see if it’s already covered by my Platinum Card, but after waiting nearly 20 minutes for an “Amex insurance team” representative, I gave up. So much for 45 years of loyalty; American Express couldn’t be reached to answer a simple question about travel insurance.

It finally dawned on me to call the South African Embassy in Washington to clarify whether the travel insurance is required at all. A very helpful, experienced (since 2001), knowledgeable, and friendly consular official engaged me in a lengthy discussion. He thought the website must be out of date. We subsequently exchanged email messages so he could make inquiries with officials back in South Africa, and I hope to hear from him in a day or two.

Whatever, I’m still going on all these trips unless the airlines pull the rug out again.  I intend to earn the “Mr. Sunshine” moniker Joe stuck on me.

The (travel) times they are a-changin’

April 27, 2021

The post-pandemic travel recovery period has begun.  In fits and starts, anyway.  Or so it seems to me based on my observations and recent personal experiences scheduling travel.  With apologies to Bob Dylan, the times they are changin’ and my careful travel plans along with them.

Delta reshuffles its schedule, and then reshuffles it again, with multiple negative effects

Like many travelers, I accumulated a number of e-credits when Covid-19 hit and eviscerated my trips already in place for 2020.  For my canceled Delta itineraries, the airline originally promised—back when no one could see the end of the big sick—that the e-credits would be good through the end of 2022, which was a relief to me. 

But when I began to rebook travel this year using those credits to offset the 2021 fares, I discovered that new tickets to which the e-credits were applied had to be used by 12 months from the issue date.  The original “good through 12-31-22” period was gone if I had to change the new ticket for some reason. 

And that’s a problem because I did have to change three of the tickets—one twice—because Delta keeps redoing its schedules trying to predict market demand.  I had flights bought and paid for partially with e-credits to Minneapolis in May, to Billings in June, and to Fargo in August that had to be totally recreated with different itineraries on account of Delta’s moving schedules.

Frustratingly, I found that it was not possible to make the changes myself online for the impacted trips.  Delta forces travelers to call, and wait times are routinely 4+ hours (so proclaims the recorded announcement).  My status as a Platinum Elite member kicks my calls to a Delta system that gives me the option to have a rez agent call me back within one to four hours.  Rather than wait on hold for four hours, of course I accept that choice, but sometimes the Delta system malfunctions, forcing me to call again.  At which time it recognizes that it hasn’t called me and responds with a message that I’ll be called soon and hangs up.

Maddening.  But eventually—so far—the Delta system has returned my calls, which then involved a long session with a reservation agent to fix my travel plans to approximately what I wanted. 

Adding to the complexity, in two cases I used Delta’s Regional Upgrade Certificates, a Delta Platinum benefit that I’d selected for 2021. They are only good for first class upgrades when the Delta system says so, which is usually when there are lots of unsold first class seats.  Those certificates are devilishly hard to redeem, which made it difficult for the rez agents working on two of my changed trips to find replacement flights that qualified.  No good using such a certificate for, say, RDU to Atlanta—a one hour flight—when the Atlanta to Salt Lake City leg is in coach with only center seats remaining.  That’s a big waste of the certificate, and who wants to sit in row 33 in a center seat on a four hour flight?

Thus, another complication when Delta keeps changing its schedule—and I doubt the changes are over yet for the summer and the fall.  Yet the clock keeps ticking on my “one year from date of issue” deadline for using the ticket value in which is subsumed the original “good through the end of 2022” e-credits.  Delta’s shell game may get my money after all.

This is no fun, a complete waste of my time when schedules are repeatedly altered for the airline’s convenience.  A prime example that the times they are a-changin’.

Rental car lunacy

The pandemic hit rental car companies hard, just it did other travel industry sectors, resulting in fleet decimation and a failure to replenish cars.  Now, finding a rental car is a struggle, and prices are in the stratosphere if cars are available at all.  I’m paying over $100 a day for a vehicle at MSP to drive to our son’s college commencement in May and more than that in Fargo for a weekend family wedding in August.

I almost didn’t find a car available at all in Billings in late June and early July; even the few economy cars shown were over $200 per day.  And I need a vehicle for two weeks.  Jeez, for $2800 I could nearly buy a clunker. 

Searching the Costco Travel portal—often the cheapest prices for rental cars, I’ve found—yielded no better prices at BIL for the period, nor did the Capital One travel portal or the Amex travel portal.  Certainly nothing when making direct inquiries with Hertz, Avis, Budget, and Alamo, despite trying multiple discount codes. Even with a hefty credit from my Amex Platinum Card account applied, I was looking at $1098 for 14 days, but since that was the cheapest I found, I groaned and booked it. I thought to myself that I’ll never grumble again about high rental car prices after the summer of 2021.

But then Delta changed my flights into Billings (see above) and gave me no option except to go two days earlier than planned.  When I subsequently tried to change my Amex-reserved rental car to pick up 48 hours earlier, it said no cars were available at any price.  Gee, thanks, Delta.

Complaining to someone who grew up in Billings about this situation led to the news that a used car dealer in Billings sometimes rents cars.  I called the company and felt fortunate to reserve a car for $44/day all-in for the two weeks.  Still not ideal, as I arrive on a Sunday when the dealership is closed, so I have to overnight in Billings and pick it up Monday morning.  Also, the car I get is unstipulated.  I just asked it not be a compact or economy.  But, hey, I got a car at a reasonable rate, so I’m happy. Never had to do that before.  Yep, the times they are a-changin’.

Getting to Newark from RDU isn’t cheap

UA’s fares from RDU to EWR are not competitive with other carriers serving the route, an incidental finding when booking several upcoming trips to Johannesburg on United’s new nonstop from Newark.  Incidental because I originally booked on United from RDU through to JNB in premium economy on a great intro fare.  Then I learned that UA was offering a deal in business class in their newest Polaris cabin configuration on the 787 to be used EWR/JNB. The biz fare is good only from Newark, however, not from Raleigh.  I bit on the deal and thus needed to connect RDU/EWR using separate tickets. 

That’s when I realized that United charges a lot more than Delta or American to fly me to Newark.  First class, for example, for the date and arrival time I needed to connect to the Johannesburg flight, is around $650 on UA and about $200 less on DL and AA.  Main cabin economy fares are similarly disparate.  $650 is a lot of money for just a one hour flight.

I booked Delta, leaving myself plenty of time to walk between EWR terminals.  I even found a relatively cheap mileage award in first and used some of my many Delta frequent flyer miles to pay for the ticket. 

Some weeks later, naturally, Delta notified me of another schedule change (see first above) which would have made me miss my UA flight to Jo’burg. With no reasonable alternative schedules to reach Newark that didn’t require waiting 8-10 hours for my connection, I redeposited the mileage into my SkyMiles account and again checked United and American schedules and fares. 

Having learned my lesson that airline schedules are particularly mercurial this year, I booked UA because I could link the domestic ticket to the international one with United in both directions.  However, I paid a premium for the United ticket.  In normal times—where by “normal” I mean pre-2020—I would have taken my chances with Delta or American on cheaper flights.  But the times they are a-changin’.

American Express Platinum DEPARTURES magazine is departing

At least that’s my surmise after receiving this gayly-printed double-sided poster with the latest DEPARTURES magazine. Note it says “We’re moving beyond the printed page so we can share more unexpected and candid perspectives with you more often” which is marketing drivel for “We saw a way to save money after we couldn’t sell enough ad space to keep printing and mailing this expensive beast of a magazine.”

Personally, I never liked the rag and used it as a door stopper, so I won’t miss it.  However, I disdain the hypocrisy of American Express language and resent the company insulting my intelligence.  Why can’t they just admit that no one reads it and that the advertising base won’t cover printing costs any longer?  I suspect the demise of the printed version is another casualty of the times as hard copy publications go the way of the dodo, a decision accelerated by the pandemic.   

The poster’s front side shows nearly forty years of DEPARTURES typefaces, once again hammering home that the times they are a-changin’.

“It’s always something!”

April 14, 2021

That was the catchphrase of Roseanne Roseannadanna, the SNL Weekend Update character Gilda Radner made famous in the 1970s: “It’s always something!”  Then she would go on to say, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”  Uproarious and nutty, yes, but this week I kept thinking how right she was as I struggled to coordinate the many interrelated moving parts of a trip I’m planning for five people (including me) to South Africa’s Kruger National Park next February and March.  Early last year I touched on the complexities in a post called “Travel planning is never done,” but I barely scratched the surface.  Here’s my checklist of items to get right for this trip so far:

  1. Choosing how many nights to stay in the Kruger.  Usually I plan for 12 nights because that puts the trip at about 15 days in total, counting travel, and it’s hard to be away longer than that.
  2. Choosing the right time of year to go to the Kruger is critically important.  I avoid major South African holiday periods like Christmas and Easter, and I always consult the SA school calendar, too, to dodge long breaks when families like to flock with their kids to the Kruger National Park.
  3. Although I can do it myself online, I usually book accommodations in the Kruger through an independent service.  They get a commission from South African National Parks (SANP), so using them is free to me, and the service has access to Kruger reservations 11 months in advance, whereas if I do it myself, I can only book 10 months out.  To get the optimal “perimeter” and “riverside” bungalows near the fences with the best views, I have to book 11 months in advance.
  4. However, which of the 12 Kruger “restcamps” I reserve, the type of accommodation in each camp (Bungalow? Guest house? Family cottage? Luxury safari tent?), and the location of the accommodation within each camp (as I said above, perimeter and riverside are best) are decisions entirely up to me and require a good deal of knowledge to optimize game-viewing and sightseeing opportunities.  Therefore, I must carefully plan the day-by-day itinerary for the 12 nights (or whatever number of nights I’ve decided upon) based on my 30 years of experience visiting the Kruger. The booking service is indifferent to my choices, but they do know how to get the very top accommodation I ask for, which is another reason I use them instead of doing it myself.
  5. Until the pandemic abates, I’ve got to plan where and when to get a Covid test before we leave so that results are not more than 72 hours old by the time of my first flight.
  6. Balancing airfare options Raleigh to Johannesburg versus schedule options Raleigh to Johannesburg means prowling airline websites 330 days in advance (usually, the max time fares and schedules are loaded) to look for bargains and reasonable times en route.
  7. If the flight I ultimately select is scheduled to arrive Johannesburg from mid-morning on, then I have to choose a hotel for one night near the airport because there are no local flights between Johannesburg and Skukuza Airport (SZK) in the Kruger that leave after noon.
  8. Oops! If I’ve chosen a flight that arrives JNB airport later than mid-morning, which necessitates having to stay a night in Jo’burg, then I have to readjust my departure date backward by a day and start the planning over.  Like Roseanne Roseannadanna says, “It’s always something!”
  9. Oops! Moving my departure date might change the fare, especially if it’s on a busy U.S. travel day to connect, like a Sunday, Monday, Thursday, or Friday.  Heavy business travel domestically can diminish favorable international fare classes for my connecting flight to Johannesburg.  “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
  10. Gotta watch the American holiday periods, too, in order to get the best fares.  If I have inadvertently backed up to a busy period, then I have rebalance everything again, including the Kruger booking dates.  “It’s always something!”
  11. If I chose a hotel near the Johannesburg airport, then I have to build in courtesy bus travel time to my calculations for the following morning when I need to get back to JNB airport for the internal flight to Skukuza.  If I stay in one of the two airport hotels, then I can simply check out and walk to the terminal through the carpark complex without having to wait for a shuttle bus.  But sometimes the airport hotels are too expensive, so I have to compare prices before making a decision, especially when other folks traveling with me might be (and usually are) more price sensitive than I am.
  12. Oh yeah, I must buy separate tickets on SA Airlink (flyairlink.com), too. Airlink is the private air carrier that has a monopoly on flying to the Kruger (SZK airport).  Airlink doesn’t partner with U.S. carriers, so I can’t buy a through ticket from Raleigh to Johannesburg to Skukuza.  This ticket has to be bought by itself and becomes a critical success factor for the entire Kruger trip.  SA Airlink only schedules two 50-seat ERJs between Jo’burg and Skukuza each day, a factor that can complicate the entire planning process if both flights are fully booked.  In which case, oops, I have restart the entire planning process of international air and Kruger accommodation booking around when Airlink flights have space.  I can see Roseanne Roseannadanna shaking her huge, hideous hairdo and screeching, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
  13. SANP requires that visitors to any national park, including the Kruger, either pay what’s called a “daily conservation fee” or purchase an annual “Wild Card” to cover the conservation fee.  Depending on how many nights I am staying in the Kruger, the Wild Card is usually the most cost-effective option, but if my traveling companions opt only for 5-8 days in the park, then sometimes it’s cheaper to pay the daily fee.  I have to consider the circumstances of each person traveling with me to calculate which means of paying the fee to recommend to them—another time-consuming task.  If a Wild Card, I must sign in with lots of detailed information (DOB, passport, address, etc.) to purchase the card and get a PDF of proof to show in the park.
  14. Avis and Budget have a monopoly on rental cars at little Skukuza Airport, and renting a vehicle is another critical success factor since the Kruger is a DIY safari (visitors drive themselves entirely, one reason the Kruger is a bargain compared to nearby uber-expensive private game lodges that provide safari vehicles and guides).  Part of my planning process includes comparing prices between Budget and Avis at SZK airport, which is absurd since both firms operate from the same tiny kiosk at the same tiny airport.  Experience has shown, though, that price differences for the very same vehicle can sometimes occur.  And there’s another “oops” here if for some reason no cars are available for the days I need, which again forces me to start all over again.  “It’s always something!”
  15. A small but important detail is remembering to renew my International Driver’s License at AAA before I leave the States and advising all traveling with me to do the same.  It’s just $20, but without it, Budget and Avis in South Africa won’t rent to me or my companions.
  16. I’m pretty obsessive about checking that all passports don’t expire for at least six months after return travel date, too, because that can ruin a trip.  Airlines will turn away customers holding passports that expire less than six months after the return.
  17. I always check my WHO vaccination record (the little yellow booklet) to ensure everything is up to date, and now I include my CDC Covid-19 vaccination card.  I remind others to do the same.
  18. Malaria meds are a good idea when visiting the Kruger, and I call my physician for a prescription well before leaving.
  19. Where and how to get a Covid test at or near Skukuza on the way home is a new wrinkle, and also complicates things.  I recently phoned the doctors’ office at Skukuza—the only Kruger camp that has a doctors’ office—to see if they are doing tests.  Yes, they assured me, but the medical staff has contracted with an outside lab which only picks up the test swabs Monday-Friday.  Test results are sent by email and text “usually within 24 hours,” they advised.  The Monday-Friday testing limits therefore imposes a new factor: that I book Kruger accommodation to be at Skukuza camp the last two days of the trip, and those two days must be on week days to ensure we can get tested and get the results back as required by the CDC before boarding our flights home.  Oops!  That means juggling the entire Kruger trip to ensure we are at Skukuza on the last two days, which must be week days.  Again, I may have to go back and start the entire process again around this new critical success factor.  I hear Roseanne Roseannadanna laughing, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
  20. Double-checking the South Africa visa requirements is another routine precaution.  Just to be sure, I research this at the US State Department site for foreign travel as well as at the South African sites.
  21. I’ve learned the hard way to take only new, crisp U.S. currency to exchange for South African Rand on landing.  Having local cash is essential for tips and sometimes for buying gas, groceries, and so on in the Kruger, as the Wi-Fi connections to credit card machines in the Kruger are wonky and fail intermittently.  Without Rand, I might go hungry for a night, and I can’t get cash unless my American bills are brand new and clean with no wrinkles or markings.
  22. Plug adapters and cell phone chargers are essential everywhere, the Kruger being no exception.
  23. I always advise my fellow travelers to buy an international cell phone data plan good for South Africa before leaving to avoid really, REALLY expensive local rates. 
  24. Sunscreen, baseball-style hats with brims, long-sleeve shirts and pants, and bug spray are also a good idea for me, as I burn easily, and the worlds’ bugs seem to like me.
  25. I always bring along good noise-cancelling headphones for those looooong flights (16 hours), too, along with extra batteries.

And that’s just the start.  Roseanne Roseannadanna would have had a field day mocking the variables and complexities!

For example, United Airlines has been offering low-low introductory fares in Premium Economy from RDU to get folks to book the airline’s first-ever nonstop to Africa (EWR/JNB).  UA has also been offering a bargain basement business class fare to Johannesburg, but only from Newark, not from Raleigh.  If I or my traveling buddies choose to fly in biz class, that requires booking a third air itinerary RDU/EWR to connect to UA.  This is doable, but complicates travel planning for this trip even further.

For the trip next February and March, five of us are traveling together, two singles (me and another fellow) and a family of three.  It was hard getting the Kruger camp accommodations right due to one, one, and three traveling together.  Some of the most desirable bungalows have only two beds, necessitating a fourth bungalow for those camps, but the booking service, despite my clear instructions, assumed we would want to save money and put two in a bungalow sharing (1, 2, and 2) without discriminating who might or might not want to bunk with whom.  I twice had to correct the bookings, spelling out exactly who would occupy which bungalows and specifying four bungalow bookings, not three, in two camps for certain nights. 

All of which confirms: “It’s always something!  If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”  Despite the unending challenges, it sure is fun to plan.

Three terrific Tennessee hotels

April 6, 2021

On a recent college visit road trip to Sewanee (University of the South) in Tennessee where our daughter may go to school next year, we stayed in two Best Westerns and a big Hilton.  We also visited a legendary ancient hotel in Nashville to take in the atmosphere.  Our first Best Western was a dud, its shortfalls I illuminated last week, but the other three properties—each perfectly-suited for serving its unique niche—left us wanting to return.

A BETTER BEST WESTERN

After our disappointing stay at the dreary and absurdly-named BW “Royal” Inn in Chattanooga, I was apprehensive about the following two nights at another Best Western, this one in little Winchester, Tennessee. My concerns disappeared after arrival.  Check-in was polished, friendly, and swift at a real front desk (no bulletproof glass). I noticed right away that the property was clean, well-kept, modern and even boasted 6 EV charging stations (two per stanchion).

The room was spotless and comfortable, as well as quiet. The following morning heavy frost on a chilly morning (34° F.) blanketed our windshield and hotel roof.

A surprisingly good breakfast spread capped our upgrade to a large room with kitchenette (full stove and fridge) and a great shower (water pressure I only dream of at home). Heck, without my glasses, the modest place was almost like a one-story Waldorf!

And for train lovers like me, you can hear CSX freight trains blowing all night for a crossing in nearby Dechard on the old Louisville & Nashville rail line between Nashville and Atlanta.

I fell in love with that unassuming Best Western, so much superior to the dump in Chattanooga.  A friend reminded me that the BW chain’s U.S. properties tend to wide quality variation due to a great deal of management discretion by individual owners and insufficient brand oversight.

The clean and affordable Winchester hotel caters to the construction trade, with big trucks galore down the parking lot Monday to Friday.  At the end of the work day, the guys and gals lit up charcoal grills on the far side of the parking area adjacent to a muddy field and cooked their steaks while enjoying cans of beer from beat-up old coolers and smoking cigarettes.  I enjoyed taking in that tableau of pure Americana.

A HUGE & IMPECCABLE HILTON

Still on our college visit trip, we stopped one night in Nashville. Our beds were at the giant Hilton Nashville Airport. It was an extremely comfortable, operating-room-clean, modern property, with a fine staff, even if sitting soullessly adjacent to thoroughfares, as the second picture below attests.

Everywhere at this big property—almost 400 rooms—the staff at all levels were smiling and spontaneously helpful.  I interacted with managers, front desk clerks, housekeepers, and wait staff in both the bar and the restaurant and experienced friendly and professional attitudes all round.  What a great difference the human touch can make, especially in such a big hotel as that one.

Our room (1303) was extraordinarily quiet and conducive to rest.  Bed comfort was superb, and we slept well.  The next morning’s breakfast pancakes with bacon and maple syrup were as delicious as my hard-to-beat standard, the perfect pancakes served at the Hay-Adams Hotel on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC. Although, I admit, the view of the White House from the Hay-Adams restaurant beats the BNA Airport Hilton’s of the interstate (a small nit).

The Hilton’s size and meeting rooms make it a natural meeting and conference property, and its close proximity to the Nashville Airport certainly attracts steady business as well (in normal times, of course, when we can travel freely, hopefully soon returning).  Based on my observations, I’m sure it has a reputation for efficiency and cleanliness, too.

THE UNMATCHED HERMITAGE HOTEL

It’s unfair to contrast the BNA Airport Hilton and the Best Western in rural Winchester, each well-suited to satisfy specific hostelry niches, with the soulful, tranquil, and historic Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville near the Tennessee State Capitol.  We didn’t spend a night there, but did enjoy the graceful mood of the old palace in the lobby bar.  There I enjoyed house-made deviled eggs topped with chef’s recipe Tennessee chow-chow relish, complemented perfectly with a glass of heavenly Justin cabernet.

The Hermitage boasts one of the deepest bourbon lists anywhere. Note the one and two ounce prices on the single page I photographed of the bourbon and Tennessee whiskey menu.  And that’s just one page. The Hermitage keeps an entire menu book of such local bourbon, many pages more like the one shown.  Not a bourbon drinker, I chose not to partake of those rare distilled spirits, though I wondered whether the 1993 Buffalo Trace would knock my socks off or just dent my Amex card.

The elegant Hermitage ambiance was the highlight of a very pleasant afternoon we spent walking around downtown Nashville. Like the Hilton and Best Western, I recognize the unique lodging niche the Hermitage fulfills.  It’s a one-of-a-kind Nashville luxury property steeped in history and holding its own in the 21st century. 

The Best Western, Hilton, and Hermitage, each so distinctly different from one another, impressed me as places I’d happily rest my head and relax. Next time I have a reason to be in Nashville, I hope to splurge on the Hermitage for least a night or two.  Truth be told, though, I liked all three hotels.

Not the best Best Western

April 1, 2021

First night out on a recent college visit road trip to Sewanee (University of the South) where our daughter may go to school next year, we stayed in Chattanooga. We chose the Best Western Royal Inn because it was dog-friendly and close to Rock City on Lookout Mountain, a dramatic overlook of Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee which my wife and daughter wanted to see.  Despite the regal appellation, however, the property seemed anything but “royal.”

Yeah, it’s called the Best Western ROYAL Inn, but my doubts blossomed while waiting to register inside the claustrophobic, phone booth-sized “front desk” area, as this wide angle photo memorialized:

Royal, my butt, I thought, as I viewed the formal attire hanging on the slouching frame of the haggard Alabama smoker checking in ahead of me.  Nothing royal about it, and situated in what looked like a high crime area next to a Wal-Mart literally on the wrong side of the tracks (CSX trains run day and night nearby). Lots of empty Jack Daniels and cheaper liquor bottles strewn along the connecting muddy driveway to the Wal-Mart. Gutters smell like a Marseille pissoir.

Check-in in broad daylight was behind a security window with bulletproof glass. The old lady on duty claimed it was due to the pandemic.

“You installed this inner city, bank-style security screen just in response to Covid?” I asked, raising my eyebrows (the only facial expression visible with my mask on).

“Well, you know,” she said resignedly, and shrugged.

I didn’t know, actually, but something insincere about the woman’s overly-pleasant demeanor stopped me from badgering her about it. I could tell it would do no good. I figured she was used to dealing with all kinds and probably had an emergency call button just under the counter to summon the police for whiners like me. Only AFTER she had charged my Amex card, naturally.

Still, it stuck in my craw that room and tax came to $147.12 + $20 pet fee (we brought our dog because our dog-sitter was unavailable).  So I couldn’t help asking her what justified that premium price for such a low-class place in a rundown neighborhood.

“SPRING BREAK!” came her quick reply with a toothy grin (the old lady was maskless behind the thick glass).

“Yeah,” she went on, “That no-name place across the street is charging $308 a night this weekend, AND THEY ARE NO BETTER THAN WE ARE!  Heck, YOU got a discount!” 

(I provided my AAA number for the unquantified discount.)

No better than we are?? Quite the accolade, I thought.

And Spring Break? I’m pretty sure Chattanooga doesn’t have a sunny beach on the ocean, though maybe the Tennessee riverfront attracts some.

But I decided not to push my luck further. I just smiled and gave her my credit card through the security slot at the bottom of the bulletproof glass.

Pet-friendly rooms, it turns out, have no carpet. The shiny fake hardwood floor made our room even more sterile than the threadbare dive it already was.

Oddly, the room wasn’t supplied with hand towels, either.

But our dog liked it, and, hey, it was ROYAL!

United eats Delta’s lunch on price to Johannesburg

March 23, 2021

As I mused last week over fancy wining and dining aboard U.S. airline flights overseas in the heyday of premium service—surely the maximum service one could dream of while hurtling through the stratosphere at Mach 0.85, my trip down luxury flying’s memory lane reminded me of the minimum I’ve come to long for on a plane: a modicum of comfort without stress.  For me these days, premium economy fits the bill.  With inconsequential differences in PE cabin comfort and space between United and Delta, it was a no-brainer to recently book UA when DL’s fare was 50% higher.

Sure, I enjoyed classy comestibles and libation served in the front cabins of North American airline flights plying international routes in the era from the 80s to the early 2000s.  I feel real lucky to have been there/done that. Pawing through my remaining menu memorabilia, I found more exquisite offerings of wine and food on foreign airlines, including Sabena, Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, British Air, Swissair, Air New Zealand, QANTAS, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Thai Air, Malaysia Air, Japan Air, Singapore Air, Varig, and South African Airways.

That was then.  Today, international premium economy seats and service are adequate for my needs. 

Of course I opt for international business class whenever I can get into it, either for money or miles or loyalty or just a lucky upgrade.  Business class is not as deluxe as the sharp end services of yore, but the privacy, service, and sleeper seats are superb.

Nonetheless, premium economy is my long-haul flying mainstay.  PE is comfortable and private enough, even if the service can be a tad like cattle class (Air New Zealand, Delta).  Or sometimes exactly like economy (United).  Although premium economy service can also tilt in the direction of business class (Cathay Pacific, Singapore). 

I don’t care that much about those service nuances as long as my premium economy seat is a bit wider than coach, has more pitch (legroom), reclines enough that I can doze, and is in its own cabin right behind business for an easy exit at the arrival gate. All those elements are true of every premium economy I’ve tried so far. 

It’s not that I ignore other aspects.  Naturally, I value safety because, well, who doesn’t want to arrive in one piece?  I think it’s reasonable to expect not to be killed or maimed when stepping inside a jet-propelled aluminum/carbon-fiber tube to go someplace. 

Schedule reliability and convenience, network reach and partnerships, competitive fares, and helpful customer service are also factors to be considered.  After those basics, most PE offerings are good when I fly abroad.

No airline has won more of my PE business for price and comfort over the past few years than Delta.  So when I recently looked for premium economy fares from Raleigh to Johannesburg for two upcoming trips—my first international journeys since the pandemic lockdown began—I was surprised to find that Delta’s ticket cost was $800 more than United’s—making Delta 50% more expensive.

Which made me ask myself, Is Delta’s PE, which I’ve come to like, worth such a big price difference?  After all, most premium economy seat size, pitch, and placement vary only slightly. 

To find out for sure, I checked dimensions on seatguru.com for the UA 787 configuration to be used on United’s new nonstop EWR/JNB and compared to the PE stats on Delta’s new A350 planes being introduced to replace 777s on its longstanding nonstop ATL/JNB. 

On those two aircraft, UA’s PE, which it calls Premium Plus, boasts seat width of 19” and pitch of 38” in a 2-3-2 configuration (7 across versus 9 across in coach), while Delta’s PE, named Premium Select, offers 18.5” seat width and 38” pitch in a 2-4-2 configuration (8 across versus 9 across in coach).  Both DL and UA premium economy seats are in their own cabins sandwiched between business and economy.  (Every other airline’s PE can be seen at seatguru.com as well, such as Cathay’s and Singapore’s 19.5” width and 38” pitch.) 

Thus, I confirmed that seat comfort on both UA and DL are about the same.  What about service? 

On the two flights to Johannesburg (United and Delta), I know from experience that Delta’s PE service is skimpy, but consistent, whereas United’s PE service in other markets is reputed to be nearly nonexistent.  UA flight attendants working the middle cabin (PE) can be hard to find, so say some reviews.  So not a lot of difference between carriers.

Schedules?  About the same.  Both United and Delta nonstop arrive Johannesburg late afternoon, and both Newark and Atlanta have good connecting flights to the over-water plane.

That leaves only price as a differentiator.  United is pushing its new nonstop entry from Newark—presumably filling the USA/Johannesburg nonstop niche left when South African Airways went belly up—pegging the RDU/EWR/JNB roundtrip fare in premium economy a bargain at just over $1600.  Delta, however, has not competed, with its RDU/ATL/JNB roundtrip fare in PE holding at a steady $2400+. 

The $800 difference made it an easy choice for me to go with United despite its reputed lousy service because United and Delta PE offerings are neck and neck in seat comfort.

Hence, United, an airline I’ve avoided like the plague since the early 90s for its protracted abysmal service, gets my business on two upcoming trips over Delta solely on the fare chasm, despite my peon status as a “general” (non-elite) member of the United MileagePlus program versus my lofty elite status as a Delta Lifetime Platinum with 5.5 million SkyMiles. 

I do love Delta, and I really, REALLY don’t like United, but, hey, saving sixteen hundred dollars for the two trips is like getting a third one for free.  Even if it’s on crummy old United.

When sumptuous service was standard on U.S. airlines

March 17, 2021

Last week I admired international first class menu cover art from airlines around the world in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, but stopped short of turning the page.  This week I take a look inside the menus at what U.S. airlines were offering up front by way of food and drink in those glory years of overseas long-hauls.  For the moment, I’ll focus just on what our own American carriers presented to their top customers to compete for their trade on flights outside the United States.

Even though I was aboard on all those flights, looking back surprises me.  How quickly I’ve adjusted to less than the best.  I guess that North American airlines have largely succeeded in dumbing down my expectations of fine and elegant wining and dining when I’m fortunate enough to snag a seat in today’s Business Class cabin.  Admitting, that is, that my baseline for comparison is pre-Covid; post-Covid sharp end service is yet to be revealed.

During that period, Delta, Northwest, United, and American vied for premium customer business by offering spectacular food and drink in what was then rightly called “First Class” before Business Class was invented.  Offerings were equal to or better than those of vaunted Singapore Airlines. 

My most astonishing discovery—which I’d totally forgotten—was that Delta was pouring Krug Champagne on its flights across the Pacific.  Krug!  And a vintage Krug, no less, one-upping the nonvintage brut Krug on Singapore.  Not even Concorde served me Krug.  Yet here it is on the wine menu from the airline that grew from spraying cotton fields in the South:

Krug wasn’t the only fine Champagne Delta was doling out in First Class in that era.  Taittinger Comtes de Champagne is a luxury blanc de blancs cuvee (100% Pinot Chardonnay grapes) I enjoyed aboard DL87 Los Angeles to Hong Kong in September, 1994:

In my flying experiences it was exceedingly rare to see the beautiful hand-painted flower bottle of Perrier-Jouet “Belle Epoque” Champagne, which is among my favorites.  I was happy to see it on my Delta flight, which I believe was one of many comfortable rides on Delta’s MD-11s across the Pacific:

Praising the Champagne—my fave adult in-flight beverage—I did not intend to give short shrift to Delta’s dining options on many of those same flights.  At one point the airline featured delightful entrees from Bayona, famed New Orleans chef Susan Spicer’s French Quarter jewel of a restaurant where I’ve feasted many times over the decades.  Bayona is a veritable garden of earthly delights, with many scrumptious creole dish options.  Seeing a Susan Spicer dish on the menu en route to Taipei came across as especially exotic, made even more so by seeing the dual description in Chinese characters. 

Note, too, the Sevruga caviar option on the facing page left.  I enjoyed a second serving!

On a homeward flight from Hong Kong, Delta outdid itself by offering Sevruga caviar and goose liver pate as appetizers, followed by lobster bisque.  Tough choice, so I had all three.  I remember relishing the three appetizers in multiple portions and then forgoing the entrée and dessert for fear my arteries would burst.  Accompanied by either Krug, Taittinger, or Perrier-Jouet.  Take that, SQ!  Food and wine at 35,000 feet doesn’t get much better.

Such spreads weren’t only available trans-Pacific. From Germany, Delta in First Class made sure Sevruga caviar was on even the lunch menu, as shown below (from Munich, I think).

Delta coughed up some serious money to put top-quality Beluga caviar (from the Black Sea) on offer as an appetizer on another flight over the Atlantic, along with lobster medallions and scallops.

Delta wasn’t the only airline offering classic New Orleans fare from famous French Quarter chefs on flights in the Far East.  Northwest bragged about its grilled salmon with “oriental mustard glaze” from the Crescent City’s Windsor Court Hotel.  I had to read it several times as I pondered what seemed an oxymoron of a recipe combining Cajun New Orleans culinary with an East Asian sauce.  But then it clicked:  New Orleans cooks have made mouth-watering, cross-cultural cuisine for centuries—and flavorful sauces are quintessential to both South Louisiana and the Orient.

Northwest was always a classy outfit with a great sensitivity and respect for Asian cultures.  The same First Class menu, given to me on a NW flight from Seoul to Tokyo, featured the Windsor Court description four languages, including English (above), with separate pages (below) in Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.

Some other airlines did the same, as this Canadian Airlines First Class menu from a 1994 flight Bangkok to Hong Kong illustrates.

United over the big Pacific was, like Delta, mindful that it was competing against monster service from Cathay, Japan Airlines, Singapore, and others.  UA tended to put on the dog to win business on those routes, serving Dom Perignon and, in my memory, always keeping my glass topped off with fully chilled Champagne.  At that time United senior FAs twice slipped me an entire bottle of Dom to go in a bag as I left the 747 front cabin, once arriving in Tokyo, and on another occasion in Hong Kong.

In what struck me as a paradox, United also offered Chandon on the same page as Dom, the California version of bubbly by the Dom maker.  Who, I wondered, would choose Chandon over Dom? No contest!

United was thoughtful in presenting caviar correctly as its own course and not an appetizer, and it paired luxury Black Sea Beluga fish eggs with ice-cold vodka in the Russian tradition.  Very nicely done, I always thought, and I remember plenty of Beluga was stocked for those of us who wanted seconds.  Or even thirds.  After all, caviar isn’t fattening.

I remember that American Airlines mostly brought up the rear in the race for international First Class food and drink.  This menu, which I believe came from a European flight, at least shows a caviar offering.  However, AA has crammed everything onto facing pages—a slap in the face to style—and the mention of caviar is cavalier, with no distinction of source (Caspian, Sevruga, Beluga, etc.), as well as being lost among the list of appetizers. 

Heck, even the “warm nuts” comes before caviar.  Not very classy for First Class overseas.  On the other hand, I recall that few fellow passengers opted for black fish eggs, and the flight attendants were more than happy to bring all the leftovers to me for finish off, which prompted me to donate my chateaubriand entrée to the galley for their dining pleasure behind the curtain.  My generosity was rewarded again later with both a hot fudge and a butterscotch sundae.