Capricious COVID-19 trip costs

June 24, 2020.

Three months into safe, but dreary pandemic confinement, preserving my sanity requires that I have a travel adventure to look forward to. I’ve decided to head back to the Kruger National Park in late January and early February, 2021. 

Planning the trip is nearly as exciting for me as making the journey, and I’m a master at making the arrangements.  Given the devaluation of the South African Rand against the U.S. dollar and the long shutdown of all leisure and business travel to South Africa—including to the Kruger—I expected travel costs to have declined.  To my surprise, however, almost no prices have changed.

Well, except for one big one: Delta’s business class fare to Johannesburg has dropped precipitously from Raleigh/Durham, as I will explain.

The COVID-19 lockdown began just a few days after I returned March 13 from my umpteenth visit to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The Kruger became one of my favorite places on the planet after my first trip there in 1991. I always miss it the moment I leave and usually return every 18-24 months for one or two weeks.  But this time I am going back just 11 months after my last trip because quarantine has taken its toll on me.

(I’ve lost count of how many trips I’ve made to the Kruger and have written extensively about many of those trips at my Allen on Africa blog.  See here for pictures and narrative of my March, 2020 trip, including the spectacular variety of wildlife.)

AIRFARE RALEIGH TO JOHANNESBURG

Since air is usually the most expensive component, I start by checking fares, being agnostic about dates until I ascertain the best deals.

On Delta I was able to get $2,900 round trip RDU/JNB in their decent Premium Economy cabin going on the DL nonstop ATL/JNB and, astonishingly, returning in business class on Air France from Jo’burg to Paris CDG and then connecting to Delta’s nonstop CDG/RDU. 

That’s really cheap for premium cabins.  I think I paid $2,300 and change for Premium Economy in both directions for my March, 2020 flights on Delta. And Delta’s business class fares for the same late winter period were over $6,200.  So the same fare (PE going and biz class returning) was around $4,850 on Delta last year.  That’s nearly a two grand price drop.

Another option was to route myself on Delta to Amsterdam and then SkyTeam partner KLM to Johannesburg.  That was $4,100 in business class both ways, but the $1,200 difference gave me pause.

When I pointed out the Delta/KLM joint fare, Delta offered to match it using the direct ATL/JNB flight—in other words, to discount their inviolable Business fare on the nonstop for the first time ever, to my knowledge.

In coach, RDU/JNB was as little as $887 round trip on AA connecting to Qatar, and about $990 on Delta.  Roughly the same on other airline partnerships.

I opted to go with the Premium Economy out, Business Class return fare and had it held while I checked other trip costs.  I was pretty heady about the great Delta fare and hoped to find more bargains.

OVERNIGHT HOTEL COSTS IN JOHANNESBURG

Delta’s nonstop from Atlanta gets to Johannesburg in late afternoon, too late to connect to Skukuza.  Being stuck until the next morning requires a one-night layover in Jo’burg. A lot of hotel options are offered around the JNB Airport, but I prefer the convenience of just walking 8-10 minutes to the City Lodge OR Tambo International Airport since it sits on top of the airport car park garage. 

When I checked for late January, 2021, rates at the City Lodge were the same as always before COVID-19: $110/night.  No discount on account of the pandemic or exchange rate, but it does include an enormous breakfast.

Okay, a huge breakfast, but no bargain overall. 

AIRFARE JOHANNESBURG TO SKUKUZA

Delta only gets me to Johannesburg, so I must book a separate air ticket from JNB to Skukuza (SZK) Airport, the gateway to the Kruger Park. I found that SA Airlink, which has a monopoly flying ER-135 airplanes on the JNB/SZK route, is exactly as last year at $267 cheapest, up to around $330 (both round trip). 

Unlike South Africa National Parks, which quotes accommodation prices in South African Rand, SA Airlink shows fares in the currency of the country booking the itinerary, in my case, of course, dollars.  Since the Rand is so low against the dollar right now, I wondered if domestic SA Airlink fares shown in Rand are lower.  But I couldn’t test my thesis quickly, so accepted the $267 fare.

Again, though, no bargain compared to before the pandemic.

RENTAL CAR RATES IN THE KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

Then I needed to reserve a rental car for driving in the Kruger, and Avis has a monopoly there.  Rates at SZK airport were quite reasonable for January, 2021. I chose $170/week all-in for a small SUV/van (a Toyota Avanza, which I always try to rent), the low cost due to the depressed R17.32 = $1.00 exchange rate. 

That’s about $25/week cheaper than I paid in March for the same car, so no great savings there, either.

KRUGER ACCOMMODATION COSTS

Kruger accommodation rates were about the same as last year at the equivalent of $110/night for a deluxe perimeter (by the fence) or riverside-river view single bungalow. That means SANP (South African National Parks) has raised rates to account for inflation and currency devaluation.

Well, again, no savings.

BOTTOM LINE

The upshot is that I’ll pay about the same overall cost for my Jan-Feb, 2021 Kruger trip as I did for my Mar, 2020 visit.  The only difference is that my ride back home next year will be more comfortable in Business Class than Premium Economy was this past March (and it wasn’t bad).

A CLOSER LOOK AT DELTA’S BUSINESS CLASS FARES TO JOHANNESBURG

After Delta offered to match the Delta/KLM $4,100 fare round trip in Business on their connecting nonstop ATL/JNB, I decided to dig deeper to understand Delta’s sudden discounted Business Class pricing strategy to Johannesburg.  For as long as Delta has flown to Jo’berg, fares for Business have been sky-high in money or award travel costs, such as last year’s 960,000 SkyMiles for a round trip RDU/JNB in Business. (I didn’t bite.)

It sure looks like RDU catches a break with $4,100 round trip.  The lowest biz class from Atlanta round trip on the same nonstop flight to Johannesburg is over $6,200.

I checked Business Class to JNB from Orlando and from New Orleans and found they are also $4,100—the same price as from RDU.

Looking even harder at the discounted fare from Raleigh, I discovered that, officially, the DL biz class fare round trip is just $2,100, but Delta adds a $1,829 “luxury surcharge” plus 12 different taxes to get it to $4,100.

Made me wonder why Delta doesn’t just increase the fare rather than add a bogus luxury surcharge.

I’m guessing it’s because if a big company’s corporate travel department negotiates a discount on the Delta biz fares, then Delta probably claims the discount is only on the base $2,100 fare and will not discount the “luxury surcharge”, resulting in a smaller discount on the total for large corporate customers.

Naturally, I’m glad I found a good deal for this particular trip, though that doesn’t happen often.  I don’t know how anyone these days can navigate such volatile airline fare structures.  It’s a maddeningly unpredictable and illogical landscape. 

When can I fly safely?

Screen Shot 2020-06-14 at 1.45.54 PM

If I squint real hard, I like to imagine that’s me standing at the very top of the stairs above.  I am ready to go again!

But when?

That is, when will it be safe to fly? As I wrote last week, my first four CV19-era flights left me fretting that it’s still not all that safe to fly.  Many unknowns persistent, and medically-proven facts are in short supply to delineate flying risks. An objective decision about flying is, as yet, impossible.

Meanwhile, our daughter, a rising high school senior, needs to schedule college tours this summer and fall to several universities that require flying.

She is also hoping to travel with her classmates in Latin language studies to Italy at the end of the 2020-21 school year. That’s next summer, but will it happen?

Our son, a rising college senior, needs to schedule his flights back to school in Iowa, and our family is anxious to reschedule our own flights to attend his senior piano recital.

My wife and I had a glorious trip planned to Morocco to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, flying via Paris on Air France, which we look forward to rescheduling in 2021, but when?

Friends in New Orleans and in Tampa await my visits after April flights to see them were canceled.

I am behind on a journey planned to Olympia, Washington via Seattle.

An open invitation to catch up with an old colleague in Sonoma also awaits, but when?

It’s nearly impossible right now to put together another two weeks in South Africa to take friends to the Kruger National Park, and that was planned for February, 2021.

The biggest annual transit and land use conference, Rail-Volution, which I’ve attended for six consecutive years, canceled its September event in Miami this year.  I was going, and now I wonder if I’ll be able to fly to the conference in 2021.

It’s the uncertainty of it all that has me flummoxed.  Disregarding the White House fantasy that the pandemic is behind us, it’s widely and reliably reported that novel coronavirus cases and deaths are still on the upswing in the USA.  South Africa’s largest health insurance provider, Discovery, which also operates in the UK, is forecasting the pandemic’s direct effects potentially lasting into 2022.

Point being, no one knows yet when it will be safe to fly again.

I hope those people pictured on the air-stairs brought lunch.

I’m staying home for now

June 10, 2020.

What I witnessed along the way during my recent four-day, 2,200-mile road trip Raleigh to Iowa and back, and what I observed at three airports and on four long flights Raleigh to and from Billings, Montana, left me conflicted about traveling again so soon in this vaccine-less period of the novel coronavirus.  It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I went; I shoulder personal risk responsibility for deciding to make the trips, risks I thought were balanced by the need and want to go.

Now that the journeys are behind me, and admittedly based entirely on my personal experiences, I’m not so sure the risk-reward ratio was favorable. I am frankly surprised at my own angst reflecting on my choice to go.

Who knows what is the right choice?  The coronavirus threat, due to the nature of its stealthy asymptomatic spread, makes my risk perception existential and hard to process.  Is my desire to return to pre-CV19 normalcy so strong that I, perhaps like many Americans, am interpreting the risks subjectively, and thus inaccurately?  If I and many fellow citizens are operating in a fantasy of denial, then it’s going to be very, very ugly for me and for all of us if we travel and mingle too soon.  That’s my worry. 

Heightened risk was concerning even on the road trip.  Every time I grabbed a gas pump handle, pushed my credit card into a reader, shoved a gas station door handle, or entered a rest stop toilet, I wondered who had touched what before me.  I tried to use disposable gloves and wipes and such, but it’s literally impossible not to come in contact with multiple surfaces.  Even using the squeegees to clean my windshield made me uneasy.

The same apprehension accompanied overnight hotel stays. I hoped the housekeeping staff had not been sick and had thoroughly cleaned rooms between guests. But I had no firm proof of either.

Experts on CV19 advise avoiding the “three C’s” – closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact situations like up-close conversations.  Yet that’s the very definition of air travel, and all four of my planes were full to the last seat.  Too, all three airports (RDU, DFW, and BIL) were crowded—not necessarily everywhere, but we were definitely packed in as usual at the gates being used for the few flights being operated. And all of us routinely, unavoidably brushing up against strangers frontwards, backwards, and side-to-side when boarding and deplaning.

It felt unsafe to be packed into full flights as if nothing was wrong, wearing only a flimsy mask.  Though masks are a proven deterrent to spreading the virus (Spain has already made mask-wearing mandatory pending a vaccine), sitting in such close proximity to one another on flights with only a mask is unlikely to protect me absolutely from the virus.

In hindsight, I think using the airplane lavatories greatly heightened the risk of contracting the disease.  The mask wasn’t much protection in that tiny and cramped space. No amount of hand washing and careful use of paper towels to touch door latches and other surfaces voided the risk of coronavirus spread via shared airplane toilet use.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not averring that airports and flights are back to normal.  Statistics indicate air traffic in April of 2020 was 96% below April, 2019.  Even now (June, 2020) I realize that airlines are running half or less of their pre-coronavirus schedules, with average load factors of around 40-50%.  Delta, Alaska, and JetBlue have pledged to keep some seats empty to promote on-board social distancing as well.

But it’s the full flights on other airlines, including American and United, that give me pause. 

And not even Delta, Alaska, and JetBlue have a risk-reduction strategy for common lavatory use. Nor do data exist to support the degree of safety of keeping center seats empty.

When 511 epidemiologists were asked by the New York Times when they expect to fly again, only one in five felt confident about traveling by air this summer (expressed in percentages):

THIS SUMMER3 TO 12 MOS.1 YR.+NEVER AGAIN
Travel by airplane204437<1

A separate NYT article, in attempting to answer the question, Is it safe to fly again?, reported uncertain conclusions, such as “none of [what airlines are doing to reduce risk] is consistent. And it’s unclear whether the measures are enough.”  Former American Airlines CEO tough guy Bob Crandall didn’t mince words.  He called the suggestion that onboard infection is unlikely “nonsense, since atmospheric inhalation is the primary means of transmission.”

 Not reassuring, any of it. 

Except for a week on the ocean in a private beach house that’s an easy two-hour drive from Raleigh, I do not have any further travel plans by air or road on my calendar.  Period. That’s a lifetime first for me.  I’m always on the go.

But cases are rising in the USA.  Given the uncertainties and the eye-opening experiences on my recent two trips, the risk of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus while traveling feels too high.

There it is: the unknown, the existential monster in the closet fighting with my will to do what I want to do.  I suspect that many of my fellow Americans are fighting the same internal battle to either accept the harsh facts in the scientific data or to throw caution to the wind and pretend everything is like it used to be. 

As Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141): ”The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”  Survival is a personal choice, and I’ve made mine: I’m staying home for now.

Flying in the time of CV-19

Flying in the time of CV-19

When I returned from Africa in March, the COVID-19 shutdown was still a few days away. Three subsequent air itineraries to Tampa, to New Orleans, and to Minneapolis were all scrubbed on account of the pandemic crisis.

It wasn’t until the very end of May that I braved another flight. I wrote these notes below in real time as I made the journey with my wife and daughter from Raleigh (RDU) to Billings, Montana (BIL) on American Airlines via DFW.

My principal takeaway from the experience of flying for the first time since the shutdown? Uncertainty.

Uncertain risk at airports and on board planes, a risk which exacerbated by packed airports and airplanes as if everything was normal.

But it’s not normal. Because of the unseen viral menace, flying is scary.

Here’s how it happened, from end to end, exactly as it happened.

GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
Ordered an Uber Friday night for 450am pickup Saturday for our 700am departure RDU/DFW. Wanted to be sure to be there early in case of temp checks, other delays. 

UberX was on time at 450am. Driver was chatty, a New Yorker with 7 siblings from Queens. We were masks; he didn’t, explaining that he didn’t need to because he’d had COVID-19 in January while visiting his family in NYC and doing contract driving for healthcare workers. 

Said his brother, age 54, also had it and was on a ventilator for a week, is now okay, but weak. This was all disconcerting, felt a little like a sci-fi film being with a guy who’d been sick with the deadly disease. He talked nonstop to the airport and drove very fast.  I checked the Uber app once at RDU, and it claimed our driver had been rigorously screened and was well. I hope so…

Left home 450am, arrived RDU 505am.

CHECK-IN AND SECURITY 
We checked in online Friday as usual and so proceeded directly to the security portal. Hardly anyone at the airport, but busier than the visit I’d made to RDU just to see what it looked like 3 weeks ago. And now the Pre line has thankfully reopened. No queue in the regular line, however, both because of the hour (by then 510am) and because of so few flights departing (see photo of anemic arrivals and departures). TSA now behind plastic barrier; scanned my own boarding pass, but still had to hand my drivers license to agent and remove mask for ID. 

No temperature check and no mask requirement signs posted. Some travelers among the few going through security not wearing masks. Most were.

AT THE GATE
Few places were open along the walk to our gate, but Bruegger’s Bagels was. Gate area somewhat crowded for the single flight to DFW (or anywhere), but people spread out. 

We are in first class and boarding passes say the usual “Group 1” but I expect American will bypass its usual process and board rear to front. We will see.

BOARDING
I was wrong to think the boarding process was changed. The usual Concierge, then Group 1 (first class), etc. Flight is oversold and completely full. So, so glad I opted for first class. The usual sardine class. This cannot be safe despite everyone being told face coverings are mandatory. Alarming. 

Everyone, first class included, was issued a “snack bag,” which is pathetic: a bag of pistachios and a small bottle of water. I asked the front cabin FA if that was all first class cabin would get, he said, yep, but maybe some beverages. No more boarding drinks, however.

Looks like you don’t get anything in first class any more except a bigger seat. Can’t even get a Bloody Mary. 

The usual crowding in the aisle during boarding. Zero distance between people in the conga line to find their seats.  Every freaking seat full. I’m depressed if this is the new level of flying. 

IN-FLIGHT
Couldn’t understand why every seat was full except the starboard side two seats in the first row of first class. Got my answer when one of the flight attendants sat in the aisle seat for takeoff and climbout. She was still there 20 minutes after takeoff. 

Looks like AA has eliminated two front cabin seats to accommodate more spacial separation for the cabin crew. Fewer first class seats for us flyers to compete for, but given the low-grade service now offered, maybe it doesn’t matter, except symbolically. 

If they don’t at least offer beverages to first class, I won’t fly AA again until pre-Covid service levels resume, if ever they do. It was bad enough before. 

[20 minutes later]

The new AA drill in first class has been revealed: beverages on request, but customers have to ask. Nothing offered proactively for flights under 2,200 miles. Over 2,200, meals in first are served all at once to limit FA back–and-forth movements, but you still have to request a beverage, whether water or something stronger. 

I asked for a Bloody Mary (hey, I’m on vacation), and it came in a plastic glass, which I expected. No limes, though, which I didn’t anticipate, as such small extras are not catered any longer for “safety” (?)–another cost saving, no doubt under the guise of ensuring our health. 

No limes, for God’s sake? A Bloody Mary without a lime is not civilized. Pitiful.

Minimalist enough for first class. Coach gets nothing, however. Well, except the same tiny water and bag of nuts we got in first (see photo above). And if this flight wasn’t 2 hrs, 30 mins and 1,000 miles, then no nuts, either. Not in coach or first. 

We left the gate 30 minutes behind schedule due to a maintenance light in the cockpit of this newish 737, an 800 series, I think. What spectacular irony if this Boeing product went wonky like the MAX planes and smashed into the dirt, all of us aboard instantly dissolved to dust while safely wearing masks and me imbibing a lime-less Bloody Mary in heavy coronavirus air service sacrifice mode. At least I would have gone down in first class with a stiff drink in my hand. How humiliating it would be to die like that in row 44 with naught but a minuscule water bottle.

A bit later, I politely asked for a 2nd Bloody Mary and got it from the cheerful young flight attendant. I think he was happy to hold sufficient seniority to be working and to get paid. Thousands of layoffs in his profession loom on the near horizon, it seems. Hopefully, I will doze off before I finish the repeat order. I laid off alcohol this week because I had too much work. Nice to relax now. 

Even better, the flight attendant found some shriveled lime pieces for my 2nd drink, likely long aged, when I bemoaned the incivility of a Bloody Mary without citrus overtones. The itty-bitty lime slices could be a year old, but now, at least, if we go down screaming, I’ll be meeting my maker in style, with head held high. 

I always feel more optimistic after a cocktail, so I’m going to stop complaining about the dearth of service in first class. 

That is, until the buzz wears off.

Truth is, something I’ve recognized in myself for years: if the airlines give me a comfortable seat with reasonable space sideways and frontways and a couple of adult beverages and don’t kill me, then my basic needs are met. 

Forgot to mention in boarding that there were no restrictions whatsoever on carryon. The 1 bag + 1 personal item rule remains. At least on AA.

One more late observation is that a microscopic squirt of Purell is included in the “snack bag” hidden at the bottom. Not edible, but thoughtful. 

CONNECTING AT DFW
We made up the lost half hour and then some to land at DFW 848am CT. Allows ample time to get from D20 to B2 for our flight to Billings, which boards at 1015am. 
How many times have I connected at DFW over the past four decades? Surely over a hundred. Dallas/Fort Worth is always wall-to-wall packed.

Though not so much today, I was still surprised at the airport terminal foot traffic, especially given what I gather is AA’s greatly reduced schedule. Lots of folks here even so. See shots of crowded AirLink train and pedestrian congestion in the B terminal. 

The Admirals Club in the B terminal is open, not sure about other clubs. Most retail places are open and crowded. 

My conclusion so far from RDU and DFW is that the airports and airlines are operating on a business-as-usual basis other than requiring masks and on sub-normal frequencies. So much for the coronavirus. Pandemic? Wear a mask, and keep in truckin’!

DFW/BIL – THE PLOT SICKENS
Embraer 175, a “big” regional jet with 1-2 seating in first, 2-2 in the back. 

On AA.com we had selected the 3 seats in row 1 when we booked. But we were told at the gate that row 1 had to be kept open for flight attendant social distance safety because of the row’s proximity to the forward door jump seat. 

Yet the flight attendant up front admitted that when AA booked such E-175 flights full that they would assign even the three first row seats despite the dictum not to. So if it suited the airline to endanger the flight attendant for a few extra dollars, well, then…

Okay, but the gate agents didn’t keep us together, and I had to argue to get us two seats in row 2 and one in row 3. Once we boarded, the gentleman in 2A kindly switched with my wife in 3A so we could be together again.

Repeated announcements at the gate and on board stressed that NO SERVICE AT ALL, neither food nor beverage, would be available on this flight “temporarily” (with no direct reference to the virus), so buy your own or do without. 

Even in first class? I asked the forward cabin FA once we found our seats on board.

She sternly said she would provide first class customers with drinks “only if asked” once airborne. No boarding beverages, not even water. 

Why no service on this particular flight? I asked.  Due to its duration, she replied.  I let it go because it would have been a no-win argument. 

However, I considered pointing out that Dallas to Billings is 1,084 miles compared to 1,061 miles Raleigh to Dallas, a flight which warranted at least a “snack bag”, shockingly meager though it was. 

So why didn’t American even provide a bottle of water for folks to pick up at the gate as they boarded on this longer flight? I put it down to typical airline “down the rabbit hole” insanity.

Certainly not the flight attendant’s decision. Although her attitude needed improvement. 

We had heeded the warning and obtained an apple fritter and some pretzels before boarding. So much for the 57,500 miles per person I spent to be in American Airline’s classless first class: “Here’s your whole lot of nothing. Hope you enjoy it ’cause we aim to do our best to make your flight with us a great experience. Have a nice day.”

Once in the air, the forward FA disappeared with her personal water bottle to the back of the plane to socialize with her companion. I had to ring the call button to get anything for the three of us. She seemed annoyed to have had to traipse all the way back to first class and that we needed anything, despite a conversation she and I had at the gate about us wanting drinks after takeoff. Like I said, poor attitude. She obviously had not listened.

Perhaps most Covid-era air passengers just hunker down and resign themselves to getting nothing despite having paid in dollars or miles the same steep price for first class as before the crisis when, up front, we all got some sort of food and lots to drink. 

After getting us drinks, she scurried rearward again to hang out with her cabin mate. We never saw her again until almost to Billings. 

Good riddance, I thought, but then what’s the big deal about keeping the first row empty on account of social distancing to benefit the forward cabin FA if she is never there except for takeoff and landing?

This is only my second flight since lockdown, and I’m already getting real tired of American’s hypocrisy justified around COVID-19. 

They haven’t reduced fares a penny, nor reduced AAdvantage awards a mile.

They stuff people onto planes until full, including (of course) center seats, with every row already scrunched uncomfortably close together.

They board same as always, with people literally touching each other as they crowd the gate podium, the aircraft aisle, and as they brush by those already seated.

AA can’t even throw first class a water bottle or keep to their own rules about when to provide a “snack” and when not to.

I see this for what it is: American using the pandemic crisis to their own AAdvantage (misspelling intended).  Their only sop to the deathly pandemic is making face coverings mandatory. 

Gotta wonder how Concierge Key and Executive Platinum customers are taking this crummy attitude and abysmal service. 

For me as a lifetime frequent flyer it’s another nail in the airline loyalty coffin. Customer service differentiation gone the way of the Dodo.  I intend to try Delta, JetBlue, and Alaska to compare. Forget United with its sewer service. 

I don’t expect to be showered with Bollinger R.D. Champagne on those or any carriers, just to feel I’ve achieved fair value for the premium I’m willing to pay in exchange for a better product and service.

ARRIVING IN BILLINGS
Exiting BIL airport security, National Guardsmen are taking everyone’s temp, mandatory. I wondered that good were the temperature checks if one of us had contracted the stealthy virus en route due to the incessant close contact with strangers in the airports and on full flights. Had CV-19 infected us, none would show symptoms for up to 14 days.

Inside Billings security, a few wore masks, and I saw people crowded together as normal at a small food retailer.

Outside security, almost no one wearing a mask. I guess the coronavirus scare was all fake news. 

Picked up our Alamo Rental Car which I reserved through Costco at a discount, a new Jeep Cherokee. Car rental counters across from the BIL luggage carousels were pretty busy, and, again, no one wore masks. Lines marked on the floor indicated appropriate social distancing, but were mostly ignored.

POST-FLIGHT REFLECTIONS
I was suprised at my feeling of relief as we walked out of the Billings Airport terminal to the rental car lot. I didn’t realize how tense I’d been since entering the RDU terminal.

Pandemic road trip

Our son, a junior at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, had to drop everything and abruptly leave when the country shut down in March.  Just as did all university students nationwide.  So he flew home with his laptop and the clothes on his back, leaving his dorm room with all his stuff.

Over the past several weeks his college has been scheduling students to return in carefully orchestrated, socially isolated waves to collect their things and vacate the dormitories for whatever the fall semester brings.  Our son was given a three-hour window (9:00 AM until noon) on a Saturday recently to get his things and clear out his room, and he and I agreed to go together.  He was given only a week’s notice to get there, 1,103 miles from Raleigh.

Though our son has routinely flown to and from college via Minneapolis to reach Decorah in northeast Iowa, I was leery of getting on an airplane yet, especially given the fluidity of airline spacial separation policies in this uncertain time.

Not only that, but airfares were priced as if planes were full.  No matter how I played with dates, Delta’s fares were $600-900 on both direct and connecting itineraries, their pricing system apparently biased on near-term proximity to flight dates, and not on load factors.  I was reading that planes were running near empty, yet Delta fares were set as if things were normal and planes full.  Whatever the cause, it was a big disincentive to fly Delta, the only carrier with nonstop flights, and connecting airline pricing was no better.

Besides this, we knew we would need a vehicle to remove boxes and bags.  I could have rented a car at MSP, but the sky-high airfares blunted my appetite for flying.  We decided instead to drive our Toyota Sienna van and make it a four-day road trip with three overnights.  Eleven hundred miles is an 18-hour drive.  I put together an itinerary of 14 hours from Raleigh to Galesburg, Illinois the first day, overnight at a Best Western on the Interstate, then the final four hours Galesburg to Decorah the second day.  That would give our son the afternoon to visit friends in nearby Rochester, Minnesota (90 minutes from Decorah and home to the Mayo Clinic and Hospital) for some much-needed socializing after living under a rock in Raleigh for over two months.  The drive to Galesburg would seem like 13 hours after gaining an hour when we hit the Illinois border (Central Time).

Then a night at an AirBnB in Decorah run by two retired Luther College professors and literally across the street from campus.  The third morning we would clear out his dorm room, move it to yet another retired professor’s home (by pre-arrangement) until the fall, and then start back to Raleigh not later than noon.  I planned to keep the pedal to the metal for a good eight or nine hours from Decorah to the west side of Indianapolis so that we would be positioned for the final push the fourth day back to Raleigh.  That was a Sunday, and our son had a final exam scheduled for 8:00 AM Monday.  I wanted to be home by 6:00 PM Sunday in order for him to be well-rested for the following morning’s final.

The following is the four-day, 2,200-mile road trip reports I wrote in real-time, with apologies for the length of this post:

Road trip Raleigh, NC to Decorah, IA – Thursday, May 14 (day 1)

Young Will and I embarked this morn on the 1,100-mile road trip from Raleigh, North Carolina to Decorah, Iowa to collect his belongings from his college dorm room.  Like all students across the nation, Will was told to abandon his things and to go home immediately in March when the shutdown began. His college is now allowing students back at intervals on a strict socially isolating schedule to remove their stuff.

So today he and I began that journey. We drove 911 miles in 14 hours counting slowdowns in rain and stops for gas, food, toilet breaks, and to stretch a bit. And through North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Left Raleigh at 455am Eastern Time and arrived at the Best Western Hotel in Galesburg, Illinois at 601pm Central Time. We drove 5-7 mph over the posted speed limits whenever circumstances permitted, a cheat law enforcement seems to forgive in the U.S.

The Google map on my phone gave us a route via I-40 to Winston-Salem, then north to Virginia on I-77 to the far western tip of the state past Rural Retreat to Abingdon, then NW to Wise and into and through the heart of Kentucky on mostly non-interstate highways. So far west in Virginia that we bypassed West Virginia entirely.

In Virginia, I-77 North and I-81 South merged and ran due west as one road for a few miles before diverging in the direction of their designated compass points. Is there anywhere else in the system where you can drive north and south simultaneously while heading west, or something like that?

Routed through Hazard in Kentucky coal country where we passed a number of derelict coal tipples served by rail; the ladder tracks were half removed amidst coal spills. That part of Kentucky looked bleak and dirt poor, the antithesis of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle area.

Emerging from the hard times subsistence of folks in the hills and valleys of central Kentucky to the relatively prosperous, suburban Ohio River region from Louisville and Danville to Georgetown and Cincinnati seemed like a different world.

Somewhere in rural Kentucky, an FM radio station broadcasts Christmas music 365 days a year. I usually tune it in when I pass through, but I missed finding it today.

Then to Indianapolis where heavy rain fell for most of two hours as we crept along in stop-and-go traffic around the southern side of the city to reach I-74 West, our route for the remainder of the trip in the WNW direction to Galesburg.

I was disheartened to see that roads are crumbling everywhere, not just in the mountain hollows of Kentucky. With the exception of I-40 in NC, the many Interstates we traveled on today need rebuilding. That need, of course, predated COVID-19. So where was and is the political will and commitment to fix them? Good roads aren’t a partisan issue; good roads are a core American value.

To my astonishment, truck and car traffic was heavy everywhere along our 911 miles, and congested in several places, such as north of Winston-Salem to Tobaccoville, in western Virginia, all around Indianapolis, and along the entire the I-74 Illinois corridor from Danville to Champaign-Urbana to Bloomington-Normal to Peoria to Galesburg. A steady stream of big rigs was seen everywhere. You’d never know we are in the midst of a pandemic and the worst economic downturn in modern history.

Gas stations, truck stops, and rest stops are open, and so are their (very unclean) restrooms. But no one, customer or staff, was wearing a mask except me. I saw a mask hanging from one employee’s neck as she made change for me at a filling station. Will and I did a lot of serious hand-washing at every stop.

The Best Western Galesburg, our home tonight, sits forlornly adjacent to I-74.  Truck noise is incessant. It looks and feels past the time it rightly earned the certification the brand name implies.

Oh, never deluxe, of course, Best Western hostelries were always modest, but squeaky clean, a place you’d take your family without hesitation.

Don’t get me wrong; this property doesn’t have scary giant spiders or bothersome bedbugs, and it’s as clean as it can be made, I think. It’s just a bit rundown, outdated, and worn out: Outside doors to the building’s interior hallways don’t lock at night, the lock on the patio door to our room was busted (I found a way to secure it), some door fittings are loose, the HVAC in-wall unit rattles and groans, the little fridge sighs and hisses, one meager soap bar sits in the bathroom, the TV remote doesn’t function, and so on.

Now that I think about it, nitpicky stuff that only I would probably notice after a literal lifetime staying in hotels worldwide.

On the plus side, room lighting is bright, which gives the Best Western an edge over even the fanciest Marriott. Water pressure is good, too, and the beds are firm. At least we HAVE a refrigerator. Free parking here as well, and plenty of it, a fact that may not entirely be due to the pandemic. I don’t think this hotel gets a lot of love.

But I paid just $69 (senior rate) for a pretty big room with 2 queen beds for 2 occupants (bumped up to $78 when burdened with various Illinois taxes). So why am I griping?

Tomorrow we drive the remaining 200 miles in about 4 hours, with luck, aiming to reach Decorah just before noon. It’s already been a great road trip with my son. But, then, any time I spend with him doing anything is memorable.

Iowa, the heartland (day 2 of road trip Raleigh to Decorah, Iowa)

Gorgeous 4-hour drive this morning from Galesburg, Illinois northwest to the Quad Cities (Rock Island, Moline, Davenport, and Bettendorf), then across the mighty Mississippi River into Iowa on extremely busy I-80 before turning north of US Highway 61 (think: Bob Dylan) to navigate through the northeast quadrant of the state leading to Decorah. We skirted Dubuque and then traversed mainly rural state roads through one pastoral farming community after another, hugging the west side of the Mississippi along much of the way. The spring planting has begun on the Great Plains here.

The very rural route took us through downtown Luxembourg, Iowa with a lovely Catholic Church set upon a hill as the village’s centerpiece. Before that, we passed through New Vienna, which boasted an equally impressive Roman Catholic church for such a tiny burg. The next town was Guttenberg. Think there could be a Germanic influence?

We paralleled the Mississippi River near Gutenberg, Iowa, with Wisconsin on the east side.

I love seeing Iowa farms on the Great Plains, the heartland. These tough, agrarian lifestyles are the foundation of America.

We arrived at our destination of Decorah, Iowa just before noon to a spacious AirBnB room in the home of two retired professors across from the Luther College campus. The refrigerator was full of water, juice, milk, and carbonated beverages, and the huge bathroom included a bidet and a gigantic shower. There is also a big deck and wine to savor. Young Will and I are living in high cotton tonight!

This afternoon while Will visited his college friends in Rochester, MN, I walked the Luther College campus and admired a large Norway Maple near the college bell, with the beautiful Center for Faith and Life in the background. 

This is a wholesome region.

Tomorrow morning we remove Will’s stuff from his dorm room and store it by former arrangement with another retired professor close to the school. Then we start the long journey home not later than noon so that we can reach a Hilton Hampton Inn on I-70 east of Indianapolis at Greenfield, Indiana by 10pm. That’s Eastern Time, so we lose an hour; it’s a nine-hour drive. That will ensure an early Sunday morning launch for the final nine hours to Raleigh by late afternoon so that Will gets a good night’s rest before a final exam scheduled for one of his courses at 800am Monday.

This trip is a great experience for us both. Nothing beats a road trip.

Clearing out the dorm room & starting the journey home (day 3)

Will and I couldn’t get into his Luther College dorm room until 900am. When we did, it took 90 minutes to pack everything into three groups: stuff to be stored at the home of an ex-professor until the fall semester, things to go home with us, and bits to be returned to the college, such as keys, then headed home to Raleigh. That was around 1130am.

Before leaving Decorah, however, we stopped at the Whippy Dip soft ice cream store for a “tornado” milkshake. The one-off, locally-owned Whippy Dip has been a Decorah tradition for generations.

Before long we were passing beautiful Iowa farm country again, nicely tilled and planted.

We again drove directly adjacent to the Mississippi River, which we paralleled south to I-80 at Davenport, Iowa. 

In one town, we passed a graveyard directly by a big feed mill: life and death cheek-by-jowl on the prairie. I believe that was just outside New Vienna, Iowa.

Crossing the Mississippi on I-80 from Iowa east to Illinois, we were again surprised at the heavy traffic.

My observations today reconfirm that life doesn’t appear to be much changed in the hinterland due to the pandemic. Warranted or not, folks in the rural areas don’t seem overly concerned about their chances of catching the virus. We stopped a number of times for gas and food, and I saw one person wearing a mask. No one at the Whippy Dip had a mask except the staff. There are signs posted, and people are politely distancing a bit, but the parking lots of shopping areas are crowded, and lots of cars and trucks ply every road. It looks like people are quietly going about their business.

Tonight we’re staying in a Hilton Hampton Inn 15 miles east of Indianapolis off I-70. I was happy that Hilton’s ‘digital key’ feature was available at this hotel, which enabled me to check in online, choose a room, and go directly to it on arrival, bypassing the front desk. My phone works as the digital key to unlock the room. No staff contact required.

Judging by the empty rooms showing when I chose ours online, and the empty parking lot, I would guess occupancy to be 10-20%. But it’s a Saturday night, the least busy night of any week for most hotels, and thus hard to gauge the negative effect the coronavirus has had on bookings.

Tomorrow I’ll check out online and get a receipt by email. No human contact at all. We pick up a breakfast bag to go on the way out in lieu of the usual hot breakfast served at all Hampton Inns.

Ten and half hours of driving starting at 800am should get us back to Raleigh, with luck, by 630pm. Hoping Sunday on the Interstates will not be congested.

This continues to be a memorable journey for father and son. I’m enjoying the time with Will immensely.

Final leg Indy to Raleigh (day 4)

Leaving the Hampton Inn this morning, I glanced at the GPS navigation on my Samsung smartphone. 10 hours, so said Google. And we were off.

However, I wouldn’t advise taking I-70 east of Indianapolis to get to anywhere, as it’s a construction site for nearly 100 miles to the Ohio border, with the speed posted at just 55 mph with lots of one-lane sections.

The slowdowns were a pain, but at least Indiana is making the investment to rebuild the Interstate. Lord knows America’s roadways need refurbishing.

How many states did we traverse? Nine, I guess: North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and since young Will drove to Rochester to see friends, we have to add Minnesota.

Our Toyota Sienna van averaged 22 MPG going 65-75 MPH. Not great, but it’s a big vehicle, comfortable to drive, good visibility, spacious, stable, and quiet.

Left the hotel at 748am, arrived home 600pm on the dot, 606 miles in 10.25 hours. That’s an average of 59 MPH, not bad with the four stops we made for fuel, food, and bodily functions. Especially considering the astonishing volume of traffic everywhere today.

Total mileage from Decorah to Raleigh was 1,119. Going there was 1,109.  So just over 2,200 miles round trip. Good thing I had the Sienna serviced before we left. It performed flawlessly, reinforcing my faith in Toyota’s reliability.

A quick comparison of all-in accommodation cost for 3 nights: Best Western, Galesburg, IL (Thu-Fri), $78: Airbnb, Decorah, IA (Fri-Sat), $76; Hilton Hampton Inn, Greenfield, IN (Sat-Sun), $98. Outside big cities, one can still find bargains in America.

Traffic everywhere looked like pre-virus normal, as I’ve said every day. But today’s drive was the most eye-opening. Car traffic was extremely heavy along our entire route through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Trucks, too, of course, but I expected that.

In places we stopped, most faces were bare. I saw no one in West Virginia wearing a mask, for instance, save one Sheetz gas station cashier. The first southbound rest stop on I-74 in North Carolina was wall-to-wall people, and we saw just one person other than me wearing a mask. I have nothing but my personal observations to go on, and I sure didn’t take a poll, but I think people are in denial. Pandemic? What pandemic?

Young Will and I conversed and laughed between long intervals of silence. I let him lead on subjects we talked about. He has a vicious sense of humor and had me guffawing at his ironic observations regarding poor drivers.

I’d programmed the navigation to avoid tolls, and so Google led us through the back roads of West Virginia from Charleston in order to skirt the tolled West Virginia Turnpike. Will and I took great pleasure in experiencing rural areas of the state we would otherwise have missed. Lots of derelict coal mines and railroads and tiny hamlets, including the Virginian Railway bridge in Deepwater, West Virginia. That railway disappeared in the 1950s, so the bridge was probably last painted 65 or 70 years ago. (For a bit of Deepwater history, see here.)

Home, young Will spent time playing the piano after he unpacked, his first opportunity to hit the ivories since Wednesday night. Altogether, a memorable and productive road trip. We accomplished our mission. After nearly 40 hours of driving over 4 days, though, it was nice to quietly walk with our dog around the neighborhood after dinner.

 

Are airlines over?

Empty center seats and possibly empty rows, quick tests, “health passports” and temperature checks at airports.  I am reading lots of possibilities that might impact the future of flying, and none of it is pretty.

Nor is it likely to be cheap. The devil is in the details, of course, and I’ve begun to think about how some of this might work.

The pervasive risk uncertainties associated with densely-packed airplanes (and there are no other kinds that make money) in the pandemic era—travel risks both existential and real (it’s hard to tell which is which anymore)—combined with the steep and apparently long-term world economic collapse have forced me to consider whether airlines are over.  Airports, too, for that matter, since they exist only to funnel passengers to and from airplanes.

Will I want to risk flying crowded airplanes again?  Except for Delta, which has pledged (for now) not to book any flight at more than 60% capacity, airlines have so far failed to maintain safe spaces between passengers.  Even so, who can say with statistical certainty what my risk is of being exposed to the virus when keeping folks apart on planes?

Even if the airlines make such seating distance permanent, won’t that double or triple fares?  Because I’ll have to subsidize the empty seats or the airlines won’t be able to make money.  Assuming that is true, will I be able to afford the much higher fares? (Fellow blogger Carol Pucci has an interesting perspective on what we might see.)

Will anyone be able to afford such high costs, especially if the global recession persists?  And if not, then perhaps the commercial aviation profit model that worked so well for investors before the pandemic is dead and gone.  Hence, my question, Are airlines over?

Before dismissing the possibility that airlines won’t be viable private sector entities any longer, I need to look at mitigation factors under consideration, including “Heath passports”, airport temperature checks, and fast testing.

Since most airfares are currently (a) purchased weeks or months in advance and (b) nonrefundable, what happens when I suddenly develop a slight fever associated with a 48-hour bug or common cold (quite normal for all of us from time to time) that isn’t Covid-19 that causes me to be refused entry at the airport “temperature check” screen? Will the airline refund my money or give me a voucher equal to the full value of the fare?

If not, why not? How could I possibly know when I paid way ahead of time that I’d have a fever the day of my travels?

For that matter, suppose I come down with Covid-19 just before I fly. Of course, I didn’t expect to get it or want to get it, and I took reasonable precautions to avoid contracting the deadly virus, but I still got it.  Should I be financially penalized for something over which I had no control?

Mild cold or the coronavirus, the point is there is no way to know I’d have a fever when I bought the nonrefundable ticket weeks or months in advance, and if the airlines insist that I’ve lost my money, then why would I ever risk paying to fly again?

Similarly, what happens if I come down with a fever at my destination the night before my return flight? Will I be allowed to fly home at no extra charge once my body temp drops below 100.4°?

If so, that implies I will be stuck somewhere paying for extra hotel nights until my temp falls (assuming hotels let me in with a fever). If that is the new reality, then once again I ask:  Why would I EVER again risk buying an air ticket if I knew I might not be allowed to fly home if I got a slight fever while away?

Suppose authorities institute a so-called “health passport”. Will that be a required document like a valid photo ID to fly? If so, who issues it, and what constitutes proof, and how long is it good for?  What does “health passport” even mean?

Will I be required to register my health passport in the airline rez system record before being allowed to purchase a ticket?

And, anyway, what the hell good is a “health passport” if I come down with a fever the night before my flight? Doesn’t that moot the underlying rationale for a health passport?  Having such a document doesn’t guarantee 24/7/365 good health.  In theory, it’s just a snapshot of proof that I didn’t have Covid-19 when the “passport” was issued, or perhaps proof that I had the disease at one time and was showing antibodies at the time the “passport” was issued, even though such resistance is known to fade over time.

Lastly, if other passengers on my flight have unknowingly contracted Covid-19 and are contagious, but not showing symptoms, which is how this damnable virus works, then why would I ever risk flying even with mitigation factors in place?

Even if so-called “quick tests” for the virus become a standard airport mitigation element, such assessments are so far prone to a disturbing percentage of false results.  Thus, health risks persist.

Have the airlines thought through these implications?

If the airline profit model no longer works in the post-pandemic world, then airlines as we have known them could indeed be over.  What then?  Air travel is a public necessity, so perhaps the government will step in to nationalize air service.

How would that look?  The railroads shed passenger trains in 1971 to be run by the government in an entity called Amtrak.  And that hasn’t worked out so well.  Will we have something similar?

If so, perhaps it could be called “Amsky” or “Amfly” or “Govwing” or “Fedair”.  No matter the name, if that happens, I foresee a fierce yearning on my part for the good old days when I bitterly complained about the crummy service I experienced on one former private airline or another around the world.

RDU Airport abandoned

Out of curiosity more than need—not to mention having plenty of time on my hands right now—I drove out to the Raleigh-Durham Airport on Saturday, May 9 (2020) to have a look around.  I had read that RDU traffic was down 97% since mid-March, and that drastic decline was impossible for me to comprehend from afar.

What I witnessed was startling, even though I was forewarned: an airport all but abandoned. Empty parking decks, no cars dropping off or picking up at curbside, a trickle of passengers at check-in counters (none at all at Delta), no TSA lines whatsoever at the security screen, and silent, inert baggage carousels devoid of luggage.

Much as I have whined and griped over five decades about how poorly airlines have treated me, I miss traveling by air, and I miss airports, the portals to the world, especially my home terminal, RDU.  Going there portends, for me, thrilling adventure to other places.

Home indeed: My first flight was from Raleigh-Durham in 1960.  The airport has been critically important both to my career as a management consultant and to satisfy my yen for travel.  That’s sixty years of flying—an astonishing realization, even to me.

I recently learned that RDU celebrated 75 years of commercial flights in 2018, during which time it grew from 1,160 to 11.6 million annual passengers. The first commercial flight landed at what was then Raleigh-Durham Army Airfield on May 1, 1943, an Eastern Airlines DC-3 aircraft going to Florida.  So I’ve been flying out of RDU for 60 of its 77 years of existence.

Unhappily, however, I wasn’t embarking to some exotic place, or even to prosaic Cleveland, this past Saturday. I just wanted to see the familiar place in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown.

Driving into the airport, I noticed only the close-in parking garages are open, and every floor appeared to be bare when I got close enough to see them.

20200512_144521

A single car appeared to drop off someone.

20200509_133437

Inside, the terminal was eerily quiet, like a cathedral on a weekday, with only a few passengers checking in for a United flight leaving soon, and no customers at AA or DL.

20200509_133032

20200509_133021

The TSA Pre lane was closed altogether, but it did not matter because there were no queues at security.

20200509_132248

20200509_132556

Having heard that public restrooms are closed at some gas stations, I checked out the RDU toilets (well, at least the men’s side) and found them open.

On the lower level I found the dearth of activity around the inactive luggage carousels discouragingly tomb-like.

20200509_132237

20200509_132225

In January, Raleigh-Durham boasted ten airlines and 400 daily flights to 57 nonstop destinations, including 5 international cities.  Now the information board shows an anemic flight schedule.

20200509_132156

Back upstairs at the check-in counters, I asked the lone Delta agent on duty how many flights DL was operating from RDU at present every day: two to Atlanta, one to Minneapolis, one to Detroit. Before the pandemic, Delta was the busiest airline at Raleigh-Durham, having more than doubled service since 2010, as well as adding 19 additional destinations and more than 25,000 weekly seats.

20200509_132933

Will RDU and other airports recover?  The challenges pile up:

  • How to guarantee safe social distance in an inherently crowded place designed specifically to move millions of people in close proximity to one another on and off planes
  • How to properly clean airport spaces that become identified as hot spots while continuing to operate efficiently
  • Whether airlines will choose to keep passengers on planes sufficiently separated
  • How to board and “deplane” in a safe and timely manner to maintain adequate passenger distance
  • How to manage social distancing in airport food and retail stores
  • And, perhaps most troubling, whether people will be able to afford to return to the skies in the aftermath of this historic worldwide economic catastrophe.

RDU on Saturday reminded me of the abandoned grand rail terminals of the 1970s and 80s. Some were partially revived, others were repurposed, but for most of the great old train stations, the fall from grace and glory was permanent. Leaving me to ponder whether some airports may not survive this crisis.

 

Future fares in flux?

I’ve been thinking—wondering, really—about airfares after we all start flying again. Until ten or fifteen years ago, caprice is the word that came to mind when I pondered how airlines set airfares.  They didn’t always make sense.  Airline capacity modeling on which fares were based still then involved a goodly amount of human judgment to tweak rules in the calculating software.

quantum mechanics - Liberal Dictionary
Setting airfares in the old days before complex computer programs took over the job would have made Einstein weep.

That was prior to today’s fare calculations using complex algorithms.  A.I.-based airfare formulas now routinely optimize profit margins based on highly sensitive demand and supply rules and models free of most human override that take into account every variable imaginable, including city-pair routing, time of year, day of week, hour of day, airplane type and model, fuel and other variable cost factors, airport reliability factors, competitive factors, direct versus connection options, same-flight booking history, proximity to flight date, customer stratification as booked real-time, weather and wind patterns, and on and on and on.

Setting airfares became a highly specialized and refined software science thanks to big advances in sophisticated computing capabilities coupled to statistically predictable variables.  That predictive accuracy relied on the law of large numbers fed by data derived from the histories of thousands of daily flights.

Before the COVID-19 shutdown, the number of planes worldwide in the air at any given time averaged close to 10,000, carrying 1.3 million people. In late January, 2020, the number of daily commercial flights was about 112,000 according to flightradar24 stats, with load factors hovering around 80%.  Lots of large numbers there to grease the wheels of the airfare software.

However, worldwide daily commercial flights dropped to around 30,000 by the end of April with near zero load factors.  That’s a 65% reduction in flights, pretty dramatic, but it’s the load factor drop of 90+% that throws a monkey wrench into accurate statistics.  The law of large numbers doesn’t work without large numbers, after all.

Sans the certainty of sharply accurate predictive modeling, pegging fares is like juggling bowling balls in the dark.  Which makes me think that airfares after the coronavirus crisis will be in flux until demand returns to January, 2020 levels.  And of course no one knows when, or even if, that will happen.

Out of curiosity, I made a cursory search of current pandemic-era fares in a few markets out of RDU.  For instance, on Kayak and Orbitz for RDU/SEA in May, June, July, August, and October, every day I tried came up the same pre-pandemic fare levels of $330-370 or so in coach round trip in that market except in May when it was twice or three times as much.

Why such a premium for near-date flights when all load factors are virtually nil (I write this in late April)?  I can only assume it’s because some airline airfare algorithm insensitive to reality is jacking up prices for any flight that is soon, a software decision based on the long-held airline conviction that if I have to fly tomorrow, I’m going to by-god pay a huge premium.  Even if the flight would otherwise go empty without my butt in a seat.

All domestic test fares came up with similar results.  No need to look at international fares since most overseas flights, and even to Canada, are now forbidden.

As things begin to morph back to normal, will airfares be higher or lower?  I wish I knew.  No one does yet.  So we wait.

Nothing I can do about it right now, so I baked salmon and asparagus for the family.

20200420_144339

Will style return?

Will flying post-pandemic be the end of style and class?  Will on-board service notch down again in all cabin classes like it did following previous economic setbacks (the dot-com bust, 9/11, the Great Recession)?

Heck, forget about comfort:  Will even some level of tolerable flying return?

I don’t know.  No one yet knows, but it’s a pretty sure bet that flying won’t be as agreeable (poor word choice unless in first or business) an experience as it was before.

Trouble is, I don’t have any specific answers; I only have explicit questions.  Reading through the prognostications of scribblers like this one only raises more questions.

Only thing I know for sure is that until there is a vaccine, these are going to be very difficult times to be flying.  In the meantime, changes—whether short-term or long-term remains to be seen—will add more angst to flying.

KEEPING US APART?

How will airports, already so crowded before the pandemic, be able to cope with having to keep passengers at a minimum of five feet distant from one another?  Where will the necessary space be created from airport drop-off points to check-in counters and bag drops to security to airport retailers to boarding gates?  Will airports have to be rebuilt to accommodate all the space required to keep human beings apart?  Or airport occupancy restricted like at grocery stores?  If so, how will that work to ensure not missing a flight?

Not to mention airport clubs.  Will lounges go the way of the dinosaurs?

Will barriers and personal protective gear (masks, gowns, plastic hoods) proposed for all airport and airlines employees make flying even more oppressively impersonal than it has been?  How far will this distancing go between staff and customers?  Why even have customer-facing staff at airports?  With today’s technology, could not check-in, security, and boarding all be automated using video monitoring and robotics aided by A.I.?

Could not cabin crews, too, mostly be replaced by robotics and artificial intelligence?

Once we are on board, will the current distancing continue?  Will middle seats be kept empty?  Is that enough to make a difference when seat pitch (distance between rows) is only 31 inches or so?  Does that mean that only every other row can be occupied to ensure the minimum five feet of separation?

Or will something like this Italian company’s cabin layout and seat design be tried?  Looks expensive to me, even assuming it would create more than an illusion of safe distancing, and might be comfortable, too, but we know all too well that airlines don’t like to spend money on seat comfort and unproven concepts.

Assuming that conventional cabin layouts remain the norm, however, if flyers must be kept separated by five feet or more, then current seat capacity will be drastically reduced, perhaps by more than half.  Won’t that drive airfares through the roof?

And what about restrooms, both at the airports and on airplanes?  How will that work?  Everybody has to go, sooner or later, and lavatories cannot be sterilized between each use.  Isn’t the health value of keeping customers apart mooted if folks are exposed to each other’s germs via the toilets?  Of course, this problem is exacerbated once on board because of the dearth of aircraft lavs, coupled to very small size.

Between flights, how will planes be disinfected to ensure the next to board are not exposed to lingering microbes inadvertently deposited on seats and tray tables by flyers who just landed?

PRE-FLIGHT HEALTH SCREENING?

Already Emirates is piloting a program to perform fast blood tests on every passenger before they are allowed to board their flight.  Where does this lead?  Perhaps every passenger will be required to be tested before being allowed to enter an airport.  Will we need a health certificate to fly?  Are the eugenics in the sci-fi flick Gattaca becoming a reality?

IN-FLIGHT SERVICE CHANGES?

Already, flight attendants on most airlines are wearing gloves and masks and only providing minimal levels of service using disposable cups and utensils.  Will this lead to virtually no service, even in First Class or Business Class?

Wearing a mask throughout the flight doesn’t seem so bad, but will we be restricted to our seats and not allowed to get up at all to stretch, even on long flights?  Perhaps business class amenity kits will come now with face coverings, or at least eyeshades that double as face masks.

Will some of the current carry-on restrictions, such as limiting flyers to a small briefcase or computer case become permanent?  Airlines have consistently lost or damaged or delayed my bags every time I have checked luggage, and I don’t want to start now.  I’ve been very careful to use only legal-size carry-on bags and to pack light.

If boarding from rear to front becomes the norm to ensure separation, won’t that kill early boarding for premium and elite passengers?  Okay, with load factors around 10%, priority boarding is right now superfluous, but will these practices last when the crisis abates?

Will FAs ever again be able to hang our coats and jackets in first class?  It’s a small courtesy, but meaningful, and quite helpful to those of us who wear suit jackets when traveling on business.

Will U.S. airlines ditch domestic first class and copy Euro carriers’ practice with all-coach seating, but not sell center seats in the first few rows, calling those “business class”?  In the United States, domestic first class seats are not only wider, but they are pitched with more distance between rows.  Sitting in a coach seat 31 inches from the row in front is cramped and uncomfortable even if the adjacent seat is empty.  And, anyway, it is not five feet away from the person sitting in front of me and behind me, as I mentioned already.

SYSTEMIC CHANGES TO FLYING?

With demand in the dump, will airlines keep lots of airplanes mothballed in order to cut capacity so they can keep charging through the nose?

Are frequent flyer programs now well and truly dead?  If so, then are airline-affiliated credit cards with their bonuses now worthless?

Will there be new airline start-ups that take advantage of the grounded aircraft in perfectly good condition and well-trained cockpit and cabin crews who have lost their jobs?

Will I be able to use nearly two thousand dollars of e-credits that Delta has stuck me with after canceling four itineraries?  They say they are good through the end of September, 2022, but who really knows what flying will be like then?

If the small joys that make flying tolerable are eliminated, will that leave nothing except getting from point A to B while being kept separated at the airport and on airplanes? If these are to be the measures, I will reluctantly reassess what I’ve been saying that I can hardly wait to fly again.  This sounds like a sterile hell to me.

Quarantine wanderlust

Reviewing for the umpteenth time pictures and stories from my trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park in early March, I am already thinking of going back to the Kruger next February.  The confinement shock I encountered since getting home obliterated the immediacy of joyful remembrance of the experience. The images now seem unnaturally remote in time despite occurring less than a month ago.

Okay, I am afflicted with wanderlust.  I always have been.  I loved going on trips to places I’d never been when I was a kid, usually, of course, with my parents and siblings.  But with money earned from delivering newspapers and cutting grass when I was 12 years old in 1960, I took a train by myself from Raleigh to New York and back in 24 hours. Didn’t tell my parents or grandparents (with whom I was visiting) where I was going.  They thought I was indulging my love of trains by hanging out with railroad friends in Raleigh.  Oops!  I waited to tell them about that trip at age 12 until I was an adult.

Walked all over Manhattan from Penn Station between trains, and then barely made it back to get aboard the southbound Seaboard Air Line Railroad “Silver Meteor” returning to Raleigh.  I took the below picture of the same train’s round-end observation car in Raleigh in 1965.

Silver Meteor at Raleigh, circa 1965 (Original)

That was only the first time I did that trip alone.  In those pre-Amtrak days (before 1971), train travel was fun, and the Raleigh-NYC round trip ticket (in coach) was $36.  I continued taking the Seaboard to New York for a decade, off and on.  Here I am below sitting in the cab of a Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 electric locomotive in the bowels of Penn Station when I was 15.

0017654-R40-E948

And here’s what Penn Station’s main concourse looked like in the 1960s through the lens of my trusty Kodak Retina Reflex SLR camera.

0017654-R40-E944

By the summer of 1964 I had planned and executed a cross-country train trip that took nearly three weeks: Raleigh-Atlanta-Birmingham-New Orleans-Houston-Grand Canyon-Los Angeles-San Diego-L.A.-San Francisco-Salt Lake City-Denver-Kansas City-St. Louis-Chicago-Washington-Rocky Mount (NC).

Before Amtrak, railroads each proudly ran their own sleek streamliner trains. I planned the trip to take me on as many railroads and as many famous trains as possible, including: Seaboard Air Line’s “Silver Comet”; Southern Railway’s “Southerner”; Santa Fe Railroad’s “El Capitan”; Southern Pacific Railroad’s “Coast Daylight”; Western Pacific Railroad’s “California Zephyr” (with the Denver & Rio Grande Railway and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad); Union Pacific Railway’s “City of St. Louis”; Baltimore & Ohio Railway’s “Capitol Limited”; and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad’s “East Coast Champion”.

On that 1964 trip (I was then 16), the picture below is of me at Williams Junction, Arizona, gateway to the Grand Canyon, holding up the tail sign for the Santa Fe “Super Chief”, the famous all-first class train between Chicago and Los Angeles, as the train was switching Pullman cars.

Will with Super Chief drumhead (June, 1964)

Point is, I have been traveling steadily since I was 12 because I like to.  I am insatiably curious about people and places.  Extended isolation doesn’t suit me.  Of course I have adapted to our shared coronavirus reality, like we all have, but I want to plan a trip somewhere when it’s over, and then go!

Right now, though, I can’t even yet make plans for air, hotel, rental car, or anything else.  As Joe Brancatelli reminded me, it makes no sense. There is nothing to book now that is reliable because we don’t know:

  • When countries will lift their quarantines (or even when individual states will do so)
  • What airlines will fly where (assuming all survive)
  • How much anything will cost

Granted, it’s a mistake to book anything now, so I wait.  And wait.  And wait.

But the instant that it’s possible, I will be booking flights again.