Delta calms the curmudgeon

A curmudgeon? Me? I’ve resisted wearing that term for years when complaining about errant travel services, especially those provided by the airlines, because my complaints were and are justified.  Airline service does suck most of the time, and it has for decades. Lately, though, Delta has soothed my disgruntlement, at least in the airline’s operational execution.

Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes, and it is correct.  Since I’ve spent more time in Delta cabins than other carriers (over five million miles and counting), Delta Airlines has been a frequent target of my rants against poor service. In years past, Delta has failed me time and again in connections, schedule-keeping, seat comfort, in-flight niceties, upgrade promises, the shell game of loyalty program awards, and sometimes cleanliness. (Never in safety, else I wouldn’t be here to write this.)

In terms of frequent flyer awards, the SkyMiles program is now a pathetic husk of earlier, more honest manifestations, but I’ll to stick to commenting on revenue flying today. Five recent Delta flights to Vancouver from Raleigh and return have soothed the savage beast in me. How shall I praise, rather than condemn, Delta? Let me count the ways:

Number 1. At the RDU Airport Sky Club, Delta personnel greeted me like an old friend.  Well, we are friends.  After many decades of flying Delta, I do know lots of staff, at least those who haven’t retired.

I noted the place was spotless and looked brand new.  The club had just the previous week been expanded, nearly doubling in size—the extra room overdue, as the Club is often bursting with members. New restrooms, too. Nice.

20190905_070146
Just the expansion of the Delta RDU Sky Club

Enjoying a bagel and glass of orange juice by the bar, I discovered the Sky Club is now offering glasses of Dom Perignon for $39 or 1,950 miles ($0.02/mile). Or patrons can buy an entire bottle for $200 or 10,000 SkyMiles.  That may be a better value than trying to use SkyMiles for flights. SkyMiles in exchange for one of man’s finest elixirs?  Hmm. I didn’t bite, but it’s classy, and I liked it.  Sends the right message, I thought.

20190905_070246

Number 2.  Delta upgraded me on two of the flight legs to Vancouver (RDU/ATL and SEA/YVR), then offered me the opportunity to pay $282 to upgrade on the ATL/SEA flight, which is 5.5 hours.  Bonus offer was to upgrade my wife at no extra charge ATL/SEA and SEA/YVR, thanks to my Platinum benefits.  Thus, for $282 we both were in First Class, though my wife was in Comfort+ for the 55-minute flight RDU/ATL.  I thought that was a fair price for 5 First Class seat legs.  .

Number 3.  The Atlanta to Seattle flight was a 757, and every seat was full.  The airplane fairly groaned under the weight on takeoff.  Delta veteran Flight Leader Kimberley Southerland (or Sutherland) ensured every one of us in First Class enjoyed several drinks, a large breakfast, and snacks, all the while treating us like royalty.  Kimberley’s individual touches based on personal preferences were more like the attendant service up front aboard Emirates or Qatar. It felt like an international business class service rather than a cheek-by-jowl 757 milk run across the country.

20190905_152013
The incomparable Delta Flight Leader Kimberley Southerland leans in to care for one of her First Class charges on the 757 Atlanta to Seattle

Number 4.  Between planes at Sea-Tac, I was delighted to find the Seattle SkyClub spacious, elegant, and gushing with good food on offer. The clam chowder was tantamount to fine dining in a waterfront restaurant—and I wasn’t even hungry after the transcon flight.

20190905_135709
The Seattle Sky Club is so large that I couldn’t get a photo of it all.

The club was quiet with plenty of seating, and smiling staff were constantly picking up and spiffing up the place, too.  All very professional, the way it should be.  I could have used the AmEx Centurion Lounge or one of three Priority Club lounges, but the Delta SkyClub was so comfortable that my wife and I never left.

Number 5. Returning on a Wednesday, I was not upgraded to First Class, nor could I have even purchased seats up front, as the flights were fully booked.  But I had secured complimentary Comfort+ seats and was happy to have them.

My flight connection in Seattle looked dicey due to rain both in Vancouver and SEA, prompting me to ask Delta if I could stand by for different flights to RDU through MSP rather than through SEA.  My request was immediately granted, and I was upgraded from Main Cabin to Comfort+ on both flights—a miracle, considering that both YVR/MSP and MSP/RDU were showing overbooked.  The Delta agent at the gate in Vancouver whispered that my five million miles had been a factor in obtaining better seats.  Both seats were aisles, too; no middles.

20190911_145342
The familiar view of endless rows on my Delta 717 (MD-80) between Minneapolis and Raleigh. My seat was 10B, an aisle right behind First Class.

Only glitch was clearing U.S. Immigration at YVR.  Though I am Global Entry, Canada requires American citizens to bring the physical Global Entry card or else be stuck in a long queue of peons.  When I argued that no other country on earth requires the card, that my Global Entry status is electronically part of my passport, the agent merely smiled and pointed to the long line.  Sulking, I made it through after 20 minutes only to be shown to Global Entry kiosks, half of which were out of service. I still have no idea why I was made to wait.

But none of that was on Delta.  That was my ignorance of the peculiar Canadian practice. I haven’t traveled up there for many years and just didn’t know.

At least for that itinerary, my karma was not compromised by Delta. Things went very smoothly, and I arrived at both ends of the journey relaxed.  If only this was an everyday experience.  And don’t get me started about how Delta has gutted SkyMiles awards.

Advertisements

Delta upgrade uncertainties

Who knows any more whether I’ll get upgraded on paid tickets (that is, not award tickets)? Lifetime Platinum guarantees nada, and I understand that.  I am not a Diamond flyer these days despite forty-plus years of fierce loyalty to Delta, as evidenced by having flown more than five million miles since the frequent flyer program started tracking mileage, and many more miles previous to that. While I am not happy about the current revenue-based priority over loyalty-based upgrade policy, I acknowledge Delta’s prerogative to make the rules.  It’s just that these days I can’t be sure what those rules are or how they work.

This morning, for instance, I started the check-in process for my wife and me to fly Raleigh to Vancouver tomorrow.  Both are steep Main Cabin fares.  Because Delta changed the outbound itinerary a few weeks ago to keep me on mainline Delta flights and not on WestJet, it’s three legs now: RDU/ATL, ATL/SEA, and SEA/YVR.  When Delta made that change, there were no Comfort+ seats remaining on any of the three flights, so my wife and I grabbed seats in Main Cabin.

Another wrinkle is that my wife is flying on a different Delta record locator because she goes home three days earlier than I do, leaving me to attend a big annual transit conference in Vancouver.  However, my wife’s record locator and mine are cross-linked in the Delta system.

Checking in, I was surprised, therefore, to find that I had been upgraded to First Class on two of the three legs, Raleigh to Atlanta and Seattle to Vancouver, but that my wife had not been, despite the cross-linked record locators and her being my traveling companion on the outbound flights.  I was surprised, too, that I had been upgraded without notice.  Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I expected an email or text notification of the better class of service.

Of course only one of us being upgraded meant we were not seated together on two of the three flights. Call me crazy or just plain romantic, but I enjoy being by my wife on trips, and tomorrow is going to be a long travel day.  Reverting to old school booking methods, I called the Delta Elite line to see what could be done to get my wife and me side by side again, even if it meant downgrading me back to crummy old Main Cabin.

Naturally, the Delta system had already assigned another passenger to my Main Cabin seat next to my wife on those two upgraded flight legs, so getting my original seat wasn’t going to work.  Perhaps this is a flaw in the Delta system, or maybe not.  After all, who in their right mind asks for a downgrade from First to Coach?

The helpful Delta agent, though, pointed out another option: I could pay to upgrade myself on the longest leg, Atlanta to Seattle (five and a half hours), for $282, thereby making my wife eligible for a complimentary companion upgrade.  Thus it would cost an extra $141 each to upgrade across the country.  Thanks to a relatively low load on the flight out of Seattle, she could also get upgraded to Vancouver to sit with me.  The only snag was the heavily booked short flight Raleigh to Atlanta, not available in First for either a paid or companion upgrade.

For one hour I decided we could sit apart, and the agent confirmed the rest of the upgrades, some free, some not.  So we are set for tomorrow, with five of our six seats in First Class for the long ride to the Canadian West Coast.

Pleased with the outcome, I nonetheless wonder why there was no predictability or guarantee of the final plan until less than 24 hours before departure.  I was not notified that I had been upgraded on two of the three legs; I didn’t know my wife had not been moved up front with me on those flights until I looked; and I didn’t know I could upgrade both of us (one paid, one free) for the longest flight plus the last one for an amount that didn’t make me wince. Seems like every Delta itinerary I fly has elusive, asymmetrical upgrade opportunities that I must adapt to in the dark.  It’s hard to manage my itineraries without exercising a consistent strategy based on known, predictable variables.

That said, I acknowledge the reason may lie merely in my inability to grasp the rules of the game.

No juice, but flying freedom

Last Sunday morning I ran into an old friend at breakfast who used to work the gates for Delta at RDU for over 25 years, retired now.  He greeted me saying how he fondly remembered ushering me on to so many Delta flights over decades, and always in First Class. I laughed and replied that despite having flown five and half million miles on Delta and being Lifetime Platinum, I sure didn’t fly in First Class these days.

He grinned and said, “Neither do I.”

Much has been written decrying the steep devaluation of frequent flyer awards through gigantic increases in mileages required.  But to me, the highest value of the frequent flyer loyalty programs was being able to get routine upgrades to First.

In the eighties I bemoaned the degradation of domestic First Class service, but defended the cabin’s great value as at least a much-needed “escape from coach.”  I argued that First Class had declined so badly that the fare designator “F” should be realistically replaced with “NC” for “Not Coach.”

Maybe no longer worthy of the First Class name, “Not Coach” was and remains far preferable to Sardine Class.  Thus why I viewed the ability to get into First Class as the top privilege of the loyalty programs, not the free flights.

Truth is nowadays, however, even paying a higher Main Cabin fare on Delta, I am lucky to get a seat in Comfort+ with my Platinum privileges.  Every year I get into the front cabin on fewer and fewer flights. The upgrade opportunity spelled out in the Platinum list of goodies is illusory if it almost never happens.

Nope, the only Delta flyers who get bumped up front with regularity are the super elites, and as we all know, some of those levels are unpublished. I don’t even try to keep up with the hidden elite descriptions any longer. After all, there are so many Delta levels that they fill up First and spill over into Comfort+ (itself an illusory “privilege”—heck, they are just narrow coach seats with free drinks—that is, nothing special).

The same phenomenon is true on American Airlines, where I accumulated a mere million-plus miles and hold Lifetime AAdvantage Gold status.  Gold status on AA is meaningless except for accessing advance seat assignments (but not Main Cabin Extra chairs) and not having to pay for checked bags.

And forget about the Catch-22 of AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades.  I have 36 of those 500-mile upgrade certificates banked in my AAdvantage account, and I have not been able to use one in over five years.  They just sit there, all 36 of them, mocking me for my stupidity in booking American.

Why? Because as a peon Gold I never get to the top of the upgrade list.  Many Executive Platinums don’t even get to the top of the list before all the First Class seats are gone, let alone an AAdvantage Platinum, so a Gold is always sucking wind.

Gold upgrades don’t even exist except on paper.  We AAdvantage Golds are the unicorns of the airline loyalty programs, name-only sops to having flown just a paltry one million miles.

My decades of flying millions and millions of miles mean nothing to U.S. carriers any more. They changed the loyalty rules by parsing them to death, which of course they can do.  So why should I book my old favorites?

Despite the overwhelming logic that airline loyalty programs are nearly worthless, it has been hard for me to book away from Delta and American.  Out of habit, I always check them first.  Shame on me for being so foolish.

But slowly, gradually, I have moved to Southwest, JetBlue, even awful Frontier here in the States.  When booking overseas, I have flown on Emirates, Qatar, Air New Zealand, Hainan, South African Airways, China Eastern, KLM, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and Latam Peru.

These alternative airlines have of course been utterly indifferent to my status on DL or AA, and the experiences have varied from sublime (Qatar) to miserable (Latam).  Nonetheless, I do love the existential feeling of flying freedom, untethered from the now-meaningless promises of forty frequent flyer program years.

I intend to keep exploring new airline options. Being able to choose a carrier for reasons other than frequent flyer miles is its own reward.

Delta-WestJet woes

The biggest annual transit conference is taking place in Vancouver this year. I signed up to go and checked airfares on various carriers.  All comparable, so I opted for Delta because my SkyMiles Lifetime Platinum status comes with small perks like advance seat assignments and possible upgrades.  But booking through Delta.com, I hit a brick wall on the flight leg to YVR on Delta partner, WestJet.

First, a little perspective: I haven’t had much business reason to go to Canada.  Don’t get me wrong; I really like and admire the Canadians from what I’ve read and heard about the country and their way of life.  I just know the best options to fly to the rest of the world because I’ve worked in so many places overseas.

But, oddly, not to our next-door neighbor, Canada.

Or, as one of my colleagues who has often worked in Calgary calls it, “Cold Mexico.”

Matter of fact, during my long consulting career I had just one Canadian client, and that was near Regina, Saskatchewan. Getting there and back constituted my sole round trip flight to the Great White North in over 35 years of consulting.

Which explains why I lack experience with Canadian airlines, especially those that partner with U.S. carriers.  Like WestJet, a titular Delta partner.

So when I saw that Delta.com was offering me a good schedule and fare RDU/LAX/YVR on the outbound, with the Los Angeles to Vancouver flight on WestJet, it didn’t set off any alarm bells.  I thought it was just like all those other “Operated by” notes that are shown on airline booking sites.  Every mainline carrier has contracts with smaller carriers, as for ubiquitous commuter jet routes, and that’s what I thought WestJet was.

And when I book through Delta.com with itineraries that include little-known “Operated by” carriers, those flight legs are transparent to me in the sense that I can select the seats I want on the “Operated by” airlines just the same as selecting seats on the mainline flight legs.  And I can stand by for upgrades on those rinky-dink airlines just the same as on mainline Delta flights.

But not on WestJet, as I found out the hard way.

As I finalized my flights on Delta.com, no asterisk or bold “SPECIAL NOTE!” warned me that if I assented to buy the itinerary with one or more WestJet legs that I would be unable to get seat assignments or to stand by for upgrades—not even to Comfort+, let alone to First Class.  I only discovered that fact after I had bought and paid for my ticket.

Why wouldn’t Delta.com let me choose my seat on the WestJet flight?  I didn’t know, but I was in a great hurry to get back to work and had to leave my itinerary purchased and confirmed for, but with no seat assigned on the LAX/YVR flight.

A couple of weeks later I finally had time to get back to it. I phoned the Delta Elite line.  The experienced rep tried to get a seat for me on the LAX/YVR WestJet leg using her special powers, but she was also flummoxed: no dice.

In frustration she called WestJet directly, waited on hold for 17 minutes, and was told, finally, that Delta passengers, no matter their elite level, had no juice on WestJet whatsoever and could not get seat assignments until the day of the flight at the airport.  Which of course would mean center seats in the last row.  No upgrade possibility, either.

The Delta Elite line rep was as stunned as I was to learn this. Luckily—and that’s all it was: luck—she took pity on me and allowed me an “exception” (no extra fare) to change my outbound routing to Delta flights—three legs instead of two, but all Delta flights, nonetheless.  By then, however, all the Comfort+ seats were gone, and I had to settle for Main Cabin seats.

Well, at least I have seats now.

Before it was canceled, the WestJet flight even had its own unique Record Locator code different from Delta’s, which caused confusion and lost time finding the WestJet itinerary in their computer when my rep finally got through to the WestJet agent after the long wait.  According to the Delta Elite rep, the PNRs were not even cross-referenced by number.  Some partnership, I thought.

It seemed crazy for Delta to partner with an airline that would not even normalize its passenger computer records, let alone allow its best customers to choose seats or to stand by for customary upgrade possibilities, yet show the WestJet flights on Delta.com as if they were the same as all other Delta flights.  A Google search quickly brought up this eloquent 2013 blog post by marketing professional Sam Fiorella which described pretty much the same experience I had.  Here are selected excerpts from Mr. Fiorella’s narrative:

How I Lost My Earned Benefits

WestJet does not recognize the loyalty and status earned by the thousands of dollars spent with Delta, and so does not offer the benefits promised to Delta’s Medallion members.

For example, when the flight is operated by WestJet, we cannot view seats, select a seat, or even check in online because the flight is operated by a code-share partner. We are also unable to do this on the WestJet site because it’s a Delta-issued ticket.

We can’t even check in at the airport kiosks and so are forced to queue up at the airport customer service counters in order to be manually checked in and assigned a seat.

I’ve spent up to 45 minutes in WestJet customer service queues at the Toronto airport, just to check in –  something that I could have done in seconds online or at a Kiosk if the flight was operated by the airline I purchased the ticket from.

Adding insult to injury, because we can’t pre-select a seat or digitally check in – for free or for a fee – we’re sent to the land of misfit toys: middle seats and last-row-by-the-washroom seats.

Once we finally get our boarding passes to the worst seats on the airplane, we cannot access priority lanes or early boarding benefits earned by our status and loyalty with Delta because the boarding passes are issued by WestJet which, again, doesn’t recognize our status. In short, we’re being penalized. The promised benefits that were to be extended to loyal customers who have spent thousands of dollars with Delta, aren’t available.

In fact, WestJet seems to consider Delta customers less valuable than its own customers who purchased the lowest possible ticket fares. Those customers are afforded the option to view online seat maps, purchase an upgraded economy seat, and check in online. Even pay-for-service options are not made available to customers of WestJet’s “valued partner airline.”

That happened in 2013?  Six years ago?  And yet Delta has done nothing in six years to fix this situation. That’s inexcusable customer treachery.

In other words, about the norm for a U.S. airline.

Lesson learned: Never book Delta-WestJet.

Singapore Air 1980s First Class myths

Don’t ask me why, but this week I suddenly recalled my initial First Class experience aboard Singapore Airlines.  I cannot pin down the year, either 1988 or 1989.  ’89, I think. Reminiscing reminded me that the marketing hoopla didn’t match the experience.

In the late eighties and early nineties I often bought around the world (ATW) First Class tickets using the Star Alliance carriers, which included Singapore Airlines.  Going in either direction the First Class ATW fare was then a pittance at $5024 for travel in the northern hemisphere, including taxes and fees.  Rules were simple: Must travel in the same direction (eastbound or westbound). Backtracking not allowed unless making a connection that necessitated going backward.  Which meant no stay-overs in cities that required backtracking.

Dipping down into the southern hemisphere, such as to Johannesburg and then back up to Europe, cost an extra $500 at the time, making the ATW First Class fare $5524, something I did more than once.

But I digress.

At the time I was engaged by a consulting client that made patented industrial strapping and fastening machinery with facilities all over the world.  Based in Chicago, the company wanted me to stop in their Bay Area office, then at their Singapore factory, and also in Frankfurt and Hamburg.  On my own time en route I wanted to attend an Aviation Week & Space Technology (AW&ST) commercial aviation conference in Hong Kong. So the First Class westbound ATW ticket worked out well:  First, United RDU/SFO, then Singapore flight 1 SFO/HKG (in the 1980s, not even a 747 could make SFO/SIN nonstop).

After my 4-day AW&ST conference in Hong Kong over a weekend, continue on SQ1 HKG/SIN to visit the client factory in the city-state.  Thence Singapore Air from Changi to Frankfurt, a flight that stopped en route at Bangkok.  Visit the client facilities in Frankfurt and Hamburg (via a fast drive up the Autobahn), and then United FRA/ORD, where I would stop to report to my client on the visits in San Francisco, Singapore, and Germany. My final flight home would be UA ORD/RDU.  Total time away: just over two weeks.

I have no memory of the United flights RDU to SFO.  At the time I was a UA top tier flyer (I believe this was the pre-IK era), and such trips were routine.

But I sure remember the Singapore flights starting with SQ1 flight SFO/HKG because, though I had by then flown around the world in first class on a number of carriers, I had for some reason never done it on Singapore Air.

Oh boy!  The famous Singapore Girls!  The advertising hype made SQ flights in First Class sound as close to heaven as a human could experience without shuffling off the mortal coil. I was excited that I would finally be pampered in loving embrace of the best airline service on earth at the time!

Image result for 19080s singapore girls
Singapore Girls on the march in this early 1980s Singapore Airlines advertising photo

The first shock of reality came when I entered the Singapore Air First Class lounge at SFO Airport.  It was not exactly shoddy, but it was rundown, shopworn, over-crowded (too small), ill-lit, too warm, and under-catered.  The meager foodstuffs on offer were on par with UA’s Red Carpet Clubs of that 1980s period—which is to say, pathetic—and the beverage selections were pedestrian at best.  I was immediately put off by the dim, claustrophobic atmosphere and warm California bubbly rather than real French Champagne.  The place lacked elegance. It was a jarring feeling, like hearing a discordant note at the beginning of a symphony and wondering what might come next.

I soon found out.  There was an abrupt call to board First Class about an hour prior to departure.  I was told the gate was a very long walk from the club, so I promptly started off.  Sure enough, it took about 20 minutes to reach the gate.

On arrival I could see that economy class boarding had commenced some time before, resulting in a chaos of bodies thronging the boarding gate door.  I joined the masses, expecting to be rescued and escorted to a short, civilized queue for elite First Class passengers.

But, no, I had to make my way down the jet bridge in the crowd lunging for the 747. I could almost hear the groan of the big plane as it engorged its multitudes.  When I finally reached the airplane’s sharp end, I was, at last, acknowledged and escorted to my chosen seat, 1A.

International First Class cabins at the time were not yet fitted with lie-flat sleeper seats, but the big reclining lounge seats were enough for me to rest in on long flights.

20190807_105747-AIR NZ 747 1980s First Class
This is Air New Zealand’s 747 First Class in about the same era (late 80s). Singapore’s 747 First Class cabin was very similar.

A chilled glass of boarding Champagne was brought quickly at my request, and my mood settled a bit.  I could stop thinking about what a hash Singapore had made of the lounge, the long walk, and the confused boarding procedure.

However, I was startled to be served not by a lovely Singapore Girl of my fantasies, but by a stocky, not-so-young fellow who looked as if he aspired more to sumo wrestling than to proving Singapore Air was the best thing flying.  I soon realized this man was the steward who cracked the whip up front, the sole male among the young girls who began to flit around other boarding First Class passengers to help with coats and luggage and Champagne and such.

I remember taking off nearly an hour behind schedule.  The delay was attributed to delays boarding, which struck me as sloppy and avoidable. Was this typical SQ operational excellence? And why, then, had we been called to board so early? However, I had no meetings planned in Hong Kong the following morning, and so relaxed.

20190807_111508-SINGAPORE AIR 1980s First Class Dom Perignon
Taken from a 1980s Singapore 747 on-board wine menu in my collection of airline menus. I prefer the non-vintage Krug which Singapore also served, but not on this particular flight.

Pretty soon the various trolleys bearing food and drink came wheeling around, portending the long and famous Singapore First Class meal service.  Upon reaching me, however, the smiling Singapore Girls were put off their stride when I elucidated that my nutritional needs consisted solely of a never-empty glass of Krug or Dom Perignon and huge dollops of Beluga Black Sea caviar on toast points with onion.  I did not want or care for the other courses, I politely explained.

This prompted the sumo steward to approach me.  With a surly tone and sour expression, accompanied by lots of hand-wringing, he told me that Singapore Air did not have sufficient quantities of Russian caviar for everyone in First Class to have more than one serving.  I replied politely that I completely understood, but begged that he and the other flight attendants please let me know when all other First Class passengers had been served caviar to their hearts’ content and thence to allow me another serving.  He grunted, which I took to be assent.

After that, the lavish First Class meal service proceeded to unfold for more than an hour, with luxe wines poured like the 1982 Chateau Talbot pictured (1982 was the finest Bordeaux vintage in decades).  In lieu of a second serving of caviar, I ordered a smoked salmon appetizer and began to think of sleep. I never got another caviar serving and assumed it had run out.

20190807_111526-SINGAPORE AIR 1980s First Class Talbot
Taken from a Singapore 747 on-board wine menu in the 1980s in my collection of menus. The 1982 Bordeaux was among the top vintage of the century, though Talbot is not a First growth.

As the meal service was cleared and after-dinner drinks were sipped, I decided to explore the First Class cabin and to locate the lav before napping.  I was especially curious to see how all that grand foodstuff was so perfectly prepped in the galley, and so I headed that way.  A curtain was half-drawn to the galley, and I proceeded by it, intending to thank the crew for their fine meal service.

To my shock and dismay, I surprised the First Class flight attendants, all of whom were clustered around several of the First Class food carts and trolleys.  There was the fat older male flight attendant surrounded by his bevy of Singapore Girls, and all were gorging themselves ravenously on Beluga Black Sea caviar from four full tins of the stuff.  It was a set piece of expensive gluttony, with every one stuffing themselves on caviar.

Upon seeing me, the chubby steward let out a squeal that sounded like the swine he was and immediately turned bright red in the face.  The young women dropped their eyes and their arms in shame.  No one said a word.  I stood staring with a frown for a long moment, then returned to my seat.

My anger at their lies flashed first, but it quickly passed.  Reflecting, I realized that these young Singaporeans were probably very underpaid and overworked by the airline. Such secret greedy consumption was likely one of the few perks they could wangle.  The ugly truth of Singapore’s advertising hypocrisy had been suddenly revealed, and I felt sorry for the young crew.

Within a minute or two the portly steward came to my seat with an entire heaping tin of Beluga caviar and toast points and two bottles of Dom Perignon, one opened, which he used to refresh my glass, and one unopened, which he helped me to squirrel away in my luggage.  I was thereafter pampered and treated like a king all the way to Hong Kong.  I never reported the incident to the airline.

My onward flight four days later from HKG to SIN went well, but the SIN/FRA flight did not.  That flight made a stop in Bangkok, and it was the monsoon season.  BKK Airport was flooded with torrents of rain.

I had checked my bag because the several business suits, shirts and ties packed for the two week trip made it too big to carry aboard.  For reasons never explained by the airline, the tarmac crew at BKK must have removed my bag from the belly of the 747 and laid it on the flooded runway during the stop.

Why? Who knows? Perhaps an underpaid and nearly drowned bag handler pulled my bag in error and then shoved it back in.  Perhaps my bag fell out by accident.  All I know is that when I retrieved it from the luggage carousel in Frankfurt, my bag was completely soaked through.  It was so wet that it appeared to have been dunked into a bathtub full of water.  My suits, shoes, shirts, and ties were ruined.

And there was no Singapore staff whatsoever to help me or to complain to at Frankfurt.  So much for the much-heralded Singapore First Class royal treatment.

Since the airline had let me down, I went through the Frankfurt airport staff, who generously arranged for me to phone (at the airport’s expense) SQ in Singapore.  The airline’s people I spoke to acknowledged that I was shown as a First Class paying passenger, but they denied that my bag could have been soaked and called me a liar.  Luckily, an English-speaking senior FRA Airport manager confirmed that my luggage had been damaged by the airline, not by me.  His Germanic certainty and stern tone carried weight. But Singapore Air had seriously dropped the ball.

I left for my business meetings, quickly buying a new suit, shirts, ties, and pair of shoes. After three months of wrangling with Singapore Airlines via several letters and phone calls, I eventually received a check for about $1800, an amount which failed by a mile to cover the replacement cost of the luggage and contents.  I remember the letter from Singapore accompanying the payment was rude and accusatory, reeking of superiority and self-righteousness, demonstrating an utter lack of responsibility for their service failure.

Thus the myth of Singapore Airlines being the pinnacle of First Class flying was debunked on that trip.  I did book the airline in First Class after that, but only when I had to, and I never again checked a bag on SQ.  And I always made sure I got all the caviar I wanted the first time around.

LaGuardia’s perennial madness

Last weekend my wife and I had the misfortune to fly in and out of New York LaGuardia Airport to visit friends. It was an ugly reminder how overcrowded and stressed LGA remains. Heck, flying there sucked in the 70s, and nothing has changed in almost five decades. Sheer madness of sloppy operations utterly free of customer care remains the rule.

The flying part of arriving wasn’t too bad because it was an early morning departure from RDU. LGA flight operations get a reset every night, and we landed around the inflated schedule time. Once on the ground, though, we needed to get into Manhattan from Queens, and using public transit from LaGuardia Airport in the nation’s biggest city is a challenge.

First, we had to pick our way through the construction mess to find the right bus stop (Q70 SBS).  Then wait (in the rain) for a bus that ought to come every 10-15 minutes, but comes only twice an hour.  When the bus finally arrived, it was already jam-packed, and was rushed by a gaggle of people. It only boarded by the center door (the driver refused to open the front door).

20190718_143528
The joy and serenity of the over-capacity bus from LGA to the subway stop

People scrunched in until we couldn’t move, and still some people were left behind—and rightly angry—and that was only at Delta (Terminal C).  The bus was supposed to stop at American, but it was pointless because it was already beyond capacity.  It lumbered along for 20 minutes or so until finally disgorging almost everyone at the Roosevelt Ave subway stop.

Developing nations do a better job of airport public transit than New York.  It was absurd.

Flying out a few days later was worse, however.  The temperature was a searing 100 degrees as we arrived before 2:00 PM for our 4:30 PM departure to Raleigh.  After getting through the TSA PRE security screen, we rushed to the gate of a 2:30 PM departure to see if two seats were available.  Not a chance in mid-summer, so we waited in the over-crowded Delta SkyClub to wait for our 4:30 PM flight.

Well, it was scheduled to depart at 4:30 PM.  After a 40 minute delay for the inbound aircraft trying to taxi to gate D06 after landing, the plane was emptied, boarded, and the boarding door closed at 4:51 PM.

20190721_162937
The joy and serenity of waiting to board at the Delta LGA D gates

Then we sat at gate D06 until 5:10 PM due to the long line waiting to takeoff with no room in the queue for additional outbound flights.

We eventually taxied and arrived at the end of takeoff line at 5:18 PM. I was disheartened to see that the takeoff queue wrapped around the perpendicular landing runway apron in a loop with at least 40 aircraft ahead of us. I thought how insane the airport was to over-schedule.

At 5:37 PM we finally made it to old AA hangars next to the landing runway. Our pilot announced a minimum one hour taxi delay for all LGA outbound flights and that ATC has stopped his filed air traffic route to RDU, so was waiting for an alternate route as we sat in the slow conga line of airplanes.

20190721_185653
The all-too-familiar sight of the interminable LGA takeoff queue

From Karachi, er, that is, I mean, LaGuardia, we were finally off the ground at 5:51 PM (scheduled departure from the gate 4:30 PM), and we landed RDU at 6:58 PM, though an incompetent Delta jet bridge operator delayed us further, and we didn’t leave the terminal until 7:16 PM.

The horror of LGA was a reminder of all the bad flying juju that haunted me for decades. I needed a drink! Maybe two.

So, at last en route in a Delta Comfort+ seat, with LaGuardia thankfully disappearing in the rear view mirror, I asked for two G&Ts to relax.

But I couldn’t even get a double gin and tonic. The Delta flight attendant said he only had one more gin and wouldn’t give it to me.

Whaaaat???!! You won’t give me a double because you only had two in your cart? Even though I paid to be in Comfort+?

I looked up into First Class immediately in front of us, and they were being served all the drinks they wanted.

You know, that’s the airline’s problem. After waiting in misery on the runway at LGA, and with five million miles on Delta, and having paid to be in Comfort+ which proclaims that it comes with free drinks, I could not even get a second mini-bottle?

That’s not cool.

What if I’d said to Delta when I made the reservation that I couldn’t quite pay everything they wanted for the second fare because my wallet didn’t have enough money right then?

But, no, of course I paid what they demanded.

So they cheat me on the back end out of a lousy stinking mini-bottle of booze?

It’s the nickel-dime stuff like this that drives me absolutely bonkers.  Especially after enduring the hell that is and always has been LaGuardia.

Hyperloop hype

Last week I attended a breakfast meeting led by a reputable regional transportation advocacy organization representing Research Triangle area businesses titled, “The Possibility of a Hyperloop Future.” It was presented by Virgin Hyperloop One at the snazziest venue around, the Umstead Hotel on the SAS campus in Cary.

I know, I know.  My first thought was, Who doesn’t love a carnival sideshow?  After all, it is not a proven technology, and it has funding strategies no better than tried-and-true mobility modes.  That said, I believe it bears watching as a means—one day perhaps—to augment air travel, rail, and bus.

And anyway, tech hype ahead of its time isn’t always bad.  Even when it eventually fizzles, it stimulates the imagination.

Image result for virgin hyperloop one

First, some level-setting information from The Virgin Hyperloop One website:

“Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation that moves freight and people quickly, safely, on-demand and direct from origin to destination.

”Passengers or cargo are loaded into the hyperloop vehicle and accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube.

“The vehicle floats above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.

“Virgin Hyperloop One systems will be built on columns or tunneled below ground to avoid dangerous grade crossings and wildlife. It’s fully autonomous and enclosed, eliminating pilot error and weather hazards. It’s safe and clean, with no direct carbon emissions. Watch this video to get an idea of how hyperloop works.

“We estimate that the top speed for a passenger vehicle or light cargo will be 670 miles per hour or 1080 kilometers per hour. That is 2-3 times faster than high-speed rail and magnetic levitation trains, and 10-15 times faster than traditional rail. The average speed vehicles will travel vary based on the route and customer requirements.

“Virgin Hyperloop One vehicles are propelled using a linear electric motor, which is a straightened-out version of a conventional rotary motor. A conventional electric motor has two primary parts: a stator (the part that stays still) and a rotor (the part that moves or rotates). When voltage is applied to the stator it makes the rotor spin and do the work of, say, spinning a power drill. A proprietary linear electric motor has the same two main parts, however, the rotor doesn’t rotate but instead moves in a straight line along the length of the stator. In the Virgin Hyperloop One system, the stators are mounted to the tube, the rotor is mounted to the pod, and the pod straddles the stators as it accelerates down the tube.

“We’re energy-agnostic. Our system can draw power from whichever energy sources are available along the route. If that means solar and wind, then the entire system is 100% carbon free.

“Capital and operating costs will range widely based on route and application (passenger, cargo) but third parties have concluded that the capital and operational costs of a hyperloop system could be two-thirds that of high-speed rail.”

By the way, Elon Musk is also pursuing hyperloop technology.

Here are my impressions on the hyperloop hoopla from last week:

Overall, while this technology should be watched as a future transportation mode, it is, in my opinion, too far ahead of proof of concept to take seriously now.

For example, how a hyperloop vehicle is made to curve in a reasonable radius while moving in a near-vacuum tube has not been worked out, let alone demonstrated, a fundamental mechanical flaw.

The briefing was really a sophisticated and polished sales pitch by Virgin. That statement, however, doesn’t diminish its value to learning about the technology.

Pitch included the proposition that we haven’t invented a new form of transportation in over 100 years, so it’s time to innovate. Didn’t quite imply rubber-tired transport, rail, and air are so 19th and 20th century quaint as to be nearly useless. In fact, the documentation in the handout states that “Hyperloop is not intended to replace existing ;’traditional’ transportation networks such as highway, bus rapid transit, intercity rail, and air travel [note no mention of light rail, which have me pause]. Evidence shows that generally the introduction of high speed surface transportation complements and enhances existing transportation networks. They do this by alleviating congestion via mode shift; allowing for better connectivity to certain systems (such as air travel) to accommodate suppressed demand for both passenger and freight services; and providing the general public with more choices in the manner in which they travel … .”

Consistent with the brochure narrative, the idea was presented verbally as “complementary to commuter rail” in the Raleigh-Durham corridor with “portals” (stations) at Raleigh downtown, NCSU, RDU, RTP, “Durham near Duke”, Chapel Hill. No mention of Cary either verbally or in the regional map included in the brochure.

Image result for virgin hyperloop one
Note the hyperloop tube is linear.  How to curve has not been been worked out.

Big ugly tubes were shown all above ground in the renderings, but below ground is also possible as inferred by showing renderings of possible underground portals (stations).

They didn’t say so, but I believe they were showing above ground tubes both for reduced cost (cheaper than underground) and especially so that the service can use existing interstate rights of way (center and side) to avoid having to purchase private rights of way.

They didn’t get into feasibility or cost/funding, though the website, as I said above, suggests that “capital and operational costs of a Hyperloop system could be two-thirds that of high-speed rail.” Nailing down the true cost of HSR depends upon many factors, but may be somewhere in the range of $80-150 million/mile, assuming funding sources are available.

The presenters averred the system with 28-person pods running at 671 MPH can carry 10,000 passengers/hour/direction. When you do the math, that’s a 28-person pod launched every 10 seconds to achieve that max capacity. (Okay, shove ’em in! Quick now! Keep ’em moving! Hurry!)

Portals (stations) can be “as close as ten and as far as 100 miles apart.”

The fact that Congress won’t even fund rebuilding our crumbling highways and bridges, with money for transit scarce and super-competitive, was ignored. No slide in the presentation addressed where the money might come from for Hyperloop except to refer to the need for “partners”.

One person asked if Hyperloop might be able to utilize an old rail corridor between Raleigh and Richmond (called the S-Line) to connect Charlotte and Raleigh to Richmond and Washington. I couldn’t help wondering if the questioner was ready to abandon the proven technology of rail for this shiny new thing.  Especially since we have for decades lacked the political will to acquire owner S-Line from the CSX Railroad and to build higher speed rail along it between Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, and Charlotte.

My misgivings aside, the answer to that question was yes, if we built Hyperloop along the S-Line, then folks could do Raleigh to DC in 30 minutes and, it was also mentioned, Raleigh to Atlanta in 45 minutes. At those speeds, and making other assumptions, such as reasonable ticket costs, Hyperloop would sure beat the pants off the huge hassle of flying to Washington.  Flights RDU/DCA on American, for example, are a nightmare, most especially coming home from National.  Flights are often cancelled or at least much delayed, even on bluebird days.  Of course, higher sped rail trains could be a practical ad proven solution along the same S-Line corridor.

As stated above, the Hyperloop system works on vacuum low pressure inside the tube + electro-magnetic propulsion + magnetic levitation to achieve motion and speed. All electric.

Their only video dates to 2017 at the Virgin Hyperloop One test facility in the desert near Las Vegas, but only got to 192 mph after a number of trials. No videos of testing since 2017, which struck me as inauspicious, though the brochure says “as of December, 2018, a full sized pod reached a speed of 240 MPH on their 0.3 mile DevLoop test track near Las Vegas.”  A short 0.3 mile linear test track suggests a great deal more testing needs to be done.

The brochure was customized for our region and includes example routes and benefits which show Raleigh to Chapel Hill in 9 min, 27 sec (top speed of 358 MPH and average of 187 MPH) and Raleigh to Durham in 8 min, 51 sec (top of 314 and average of 181). The table and narrative do not mention Durham to Chapel Hill, but at those speeds, one could travel between Chapel Hill and Durham by backtracking via Raleigh in a total of 19 minutes, which is faster than driving during peak times.

Hyperloop hype is impressive; the reality less so.  The drumbeat for pursuing hyperloop’s unproven technology in my area goes on, as in this interview with Virgin Hyperloop One’s CEO, which was released today.  For now, though, I hope my community stays focused tackling funding challenges and building out regional solutions using conventional bus and rail systems on the ten year horizon we’ve set for ourselves in the Research Triangle. And for me personally I think the smart strategy is to keep up my airline elite statuses and forgo investment in hyperloop companies.