I traveled over the latter half of December, 2015 with my family to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.  Starting in the 1980s I worked off and on in Hong Kong and Singapore, and I used to visit Malaysia and Thailand with my wife.  We grew to love those places.  Though we regularly travel the world with our kids, somehow we had not been back to those four SE Asian nations in 18 years.

Over the next few posts I’ll provide observations of our impressions of those cities and countries that we knew so well from the perspective of an 18-year absence. This first narrative, a long one, starts in the middle, documenting my family’s journey from Singapore across Malaysia to Koh Lipe, Thailand.  I composed this in real time while it was happening or just after so that I would not forget the details.  This story captures the allure of travel to me: the exotic, the unexpected surprises (good and not-so-good), elements of uncertainty, all-in-all a challenge to one’s ability to adapt to changing situations.

For those who care, the mobility sequence is walk, taxi, walk, bus, walk, train, walk, car/pedestrian ferry, walk, taxi, walk, sleep, walk, taxi, walk, speed boat ferry, walk, speed boat ferry, walk, long-tailed boat taxi, wade, walk, motorbike taxi, walk.

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View of the Singapore subway extension from our Bayview Hotel window. Luckily they stopped work by 6pm daily.

We left the Bayview Hotel, Singapore on Dec 23 at 500am by taxi, exactly as planned, to give us lots of buffer to get across the busy causeway from Singapore to Johor Bahru, Malaysia to catch our 830am train from J.B. to Butterworth in far NW Malaysia.

The taxi arrived Woodlands (where the causeway is located to Johor Bahru) at 530am. Driver charged SGD32 (about $22); I paid him SGD50 in gratitude for being reliable and coming so early (I’d coordinated the early pickup with him the previous day). It was a huge gratuity, but what goes around comes around. I put my remaining Singapore dollars in my wallet to be changed later (about US$100 equivalent) to Malaysian Ringgits.

We had hoped to take the 730am shuttle train across the causeway to Johor Bahru Central Train Station (which in Malay is called JB Sentral), but the rail ticket office didn’t open until 800am, making it impossible to take the train (??), forcing us to the only remaining option across the causeway from Singapore to Johor Bahru: bus.

Confusion reigned with poor signs as we tried to figure out where and how to find the causeway bus because hordes of Malaysians were streaming into Singapore for work.  As I said, it wasn’t signed well and seemed wrong, so we backtracked, and I asked some Singaporean immigration officials. They smiled and agreed it looked wrong, but said to go against the tide of foot traffic anyway.

So we did and followed a baffling labyrinth of dimly lit stairways and overhead corridors that appeared endless. A tropical downpour suddenly dropped buckets on us and everyone going the other way, leaking through the flimsy overhead palm leaf canopy covering the long skyway or blowing in on us laterally, adding to the confusion.

Of course at that hour it was also dark. The heat and humidity were suffocating, and I was laden with 2 heavy shoulder bags because I’d decided against a wimpy roller bag. Overweight and 67 with a bad Achilles heel, I realized how foolish that decision had been. Though I was sweating like a galley slave, I had no strength problem carrying the load. Thank God for thrice weekly sessions with my trainer.

A Dr. Seuss narrative of nutty pathways pales by comparison to the dim and grim florescent corridors, hallways, stairs, and pedestrian bridges we traipsed. At some point we cleared Singapore immigration, but we never saw Malaysian immigration.

Following the pedestrian pathways down to the ground again, we crossed several roadways and medians and came to a line of buses. I boarded the nearest one. It was full, but where was it going? The driver looked at me like I was an idiot when I asked him if it was the bus to Johor Bahru. He just glared and demanded SGD1 each. Sweat was pouring off me, and I had bags and family in tow; no wonder the driver took me for an imbecile, or possibly just a madman. I paid up and found seats in the back of the bus, hoping for the best.

We were not sure where the bus was going, and it was still raining cats and dogs. The driver ground the gears and lurched forward, soon joining a busy line of traffic, but to where? We had no idea where we were driving to and couldn’t see much through the misty windows except blackness and wetness. It seemed like the bus was crossing the causeway, but in the dark and heavy rain and against a sea of headlights coming at us, I couldn’t tell a damn thing about where we were headed.

The bus suddenly halted, and the door opened. We had utterly lost our bearings, but we followed the crowd ahead of us who had left the bus through more ups and downs and corridors and bridges until finally reaching what appeared to the Malaysian immigration screen.

Or I hoped so, anyway. The sterile hall had all the charm of a North Korean prison, a somber mood amplified by the darkness, 100% humidity, and rain. After getting our passports stamped, we followed our noses through more twists and turns and long walkways reminiscent of a bad dream after eating too much fiery curry.

We never had the slightest idea where we were going, and no signs helped because there were none. We finally saw one that read JB SENTRAL, our destination, which gave us hope. After crossing an elevated roadway, we entered a strange, high-ceiling building filled with vendors selling food. Walking around disoriented, I turned to Ruth and said I thought this might be JB Sentral train station simply because of the absurdity that it might actually be that.

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Johor Bahru (Malaysia) Central Train Station, which we reached…somehow.

Pretty soon I saw a sign for rail tickets, and we realized we had indeed somehow reached our goal. It WAS the train station, and I asked at the ticket counter where our train #2 to Butterworth would board. A nice ticket lady garbed in an Islamic Hajib pointed me to Gate B across a wide concourse.

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JB Sentral ticket counter.  Last time I was at the Johor Bahru train station (18 years ago) it didn’t look anywhere near this modern.

I squinted up at two huge flatscreen train information signs, one for arrivals and one for departures. Each displayed nothing more than the time, which was at least accurate.  Had I not inquired, I would have had no idea where the train boarded.

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The large information screens at JB Sentral (Johor Bahru train station) with, well, no information.

It was by then almost 730am, and our train departed at 830, so I set off to find a money changer and buy breakfast.

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Advertisement for our Malaysian Railways train 2 from Johor Bahru to Butterworth.

There were no open foreign exchange offices in the station for me to acquire more Malaysian Ringgits; good thing I had ordered $100 in each of four currencies before we left as a hedge against just this sort of problem (Hong Kong dollars, Singapore dollars, Malaysian Ringgits, and Thai Baht). My modest supply of Ringgits allowed us to purchase breakfast.

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Malaysian Railways ad with map of the country and the rail line Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai, Thailand.

Food was plentiful, if unfamiliar (small homemade halal donuts, for example, with the consistency of rubber and no flavor whatsoever). We eventually bought what would have to pass for breakfast at the station’s KFC, which was doing a land rush business selling desserts imported from Italy at eight in the morning.  I decided to go with the surreal nature of it all, and we sat to munch and wait for our train.

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Italian halal-certified desserts for sale at KFC in the Johor Bahru (Malaysia) train station.

At last we boarded just before 830: Car S4, Seats 11ABCD.

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Malaysian Railways train 2 waits for us to board at Johor Bahru station.

Unfortunately, this was a row with NO WINDOWS, so we moved back to row 10 and begged for people to trade with us. They did because most passengers wanted to sleep and avoid the sun coming in the windows. The conductor was polite but unwilling to assist in relocating us.

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Our seats on the Malaysia Railways train with no windows (we traded for the row behind).

Most of the train was freezing cold, our car less so because the A/C was wonky.  While other cars were frigid, ours was merely very cool.  Every car had two unisex lavs, one with a traditional Asian squat toilet and the other with a Western sit-down toilet.  I was surprised to get a choice.

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Instructions on how to use Western sitting toilets.

The dining car lady had caked-on eye shadow, an Adam’s apple, and a very deep voice. She didn’t strike me as the usual modest Muslim woman. She didn’t wear a scarf, either, unlike all of the Malaysian women aboard. She kept undesirable music playing at a loud volume all day.

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The strange and uncomfortable fold-up seats in the stark dining car aboard Malaysia Railways train 2 Johor Bahru to Butterworth.

People kept closing blinds on their windows which made viewing impossible except at our row.  At one one I walked to the rear of the train for a better view of the passing scenery.  I was happy to see the excellent condition of the one-meter gauge rail corridor with its concrete ties and well-maintained roadbed.

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Malaysia Railways keeps the rail corridor in good condition, which makes for a smooth, comfortable, and safe ride.

The dining car had good visibility but uncomfortable seats that folded up plus that loud and troubling music already mentioned. It was a long 13-hour adventure riding to Butterworth, during which time we bought the dining car lady out of ice and instant noodles.

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The delicious instant noodles for sale in the dining car of Malaysia Railways train 2 Johor Bahru to Butterworth.

We had hoped that traversing Kuala Lumpur by train would provide us with interesting views of the capital and largest Malaysian city, but most of the rail journey through K.L. was underground or in trenches. We caught a fleeting glimpse of the famous Petronas twin towers, but little else.

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Kuala Lumpur Central train station: busy, modern, impressive.

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Kuala Lumpur Central train station.

Mostly from South to North across the entire Malay Peninsula we saw a lot of jungle punctuated by endless palm oil plantations. Malaysia produces a good deal of rubber, papaya, and other agricultural products, but palm oil is king.

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Malaysia palm oil plantations, as far as the eye can see, line much of the rail corridor.

We arrived at Butterworth’s new train station an hour late in the dark just past 10pm. Exhausted, we endured another long walk up many steps and across more circuitous pedestrian bridges to reach the ferry to George Town on Penang Island. The ferry required archaic silver Malaysia coins no longer in regular circulation, which were dispensed at a special machine. We’d hoarded old Malaysian coins all day on the train in anticipation of this ridiculous ferry fare. It was just a pittance of a fare, too. The ferry folks had an employee monitoring the coin slot turnstiles instead of just taking money and letting people through. Would-be passengers with the wrong or incorrect change were admonished to return to the special machine to acquire the correct change in the outmoded coins. It was an incredibly stupid procedure.

After enduring the late train, long walk, and tortured fare process, we missed the ferry and had to wait. Ferries to George Town only run every 40 minutes after 10pm.

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Aboard the dismal 11:15 pm ferry from Butterworth to George Town on Penang Island.

We finally reached George Town, Penang island well past 11pm. I approached the “Teksi” stand and found an Indian version of Sydney Greenstreet from Casablanca who charged us 12 Ringgits (about $3) to drive us at 10mph to the Muntri Mews hotel. As we glided at a snail’s pace along the old streets of George Town, our driver regaled us with stories of Penang island and assured us that, though the British claimed to have founded the place, Malay fishermen and their families had resided on Penang for centuries before the Brits arrived. His own family had moved there from India 6 generations ago.

George Town is in Malaysia, of course, but Muntri Street definitely had an exotic Arab or Indian feel to it. Reading up on it we found that the street had indeed been the center of upper caste Indian life in earlier times. The Muntri Mews Hotel is a gorgeously restored property true to that era and bills itself as a “flashpacker boutique” that blends luxury of today with the grandeur of yesterday. Ruth and I fell in love with it immediately. I am certain it will be the premier property of this trip.

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Muntri Mews Hotel, George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia in daylight (it looked much different at midnight the previous evening).

We put the kids to bed at once and went out to explore George Town since we had only a few hours in the town. We soon came upon a weird open-air Chinese nightclub just before midnight and enjoyed two large Tiger Beers in another surreal experience until closing time at 1230am. Two alternating Chinese chanteuses belted out Chinese rock songs while garbed in Christmas getup amidst gaudy Christmas lights. You just can’t make this stuff up! We left laughing at the absurdity of it all.

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Our beautiful room at the Muntri Mews Hotel, George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia.

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The modernized bath room with luxury features galore at the Muntri Mews Hotel.

Next morning Ruth went out early just before 7am and tracked down ferry tickets to Langkawi for cash (paid in dollars, about $66, because we never found a money changer to get Malaysian Ringgits). Turns out we were very lucky to have gotten any tickets on the 830am ferry on Christmas eve, as it was almost sold out.

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Breakfast is included and unexpectedly delicious at the Muntri Mews Hotel, George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia.

We showered, repacked, woke the kids, and had a quick breakfast at the Muntri Mews Hotel (delicious), and then another Indian taxi to the ferry dock. there we followed yet another labyrinth of walkways to board a claustrophobic ferry which was freezing cold for the entire 3 hour trip. It did not appear to have sufficient life jackets for the couple of hundred passengers even though heading out into the open ocean. I identified the nearest exits in case of sinking and instructed the kids where to grab life jackets, just in case.

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Our speed boat ferry from George Town (Penang Island) to Langkawi with not enough life jackets but super-charged air-conditioning.

The ferry left George Town very late and didn’t arrive Langkawi until nearly noon. Despite the ninety-plus outside temps, we were bundled up like Eskimos on the ferry and shivering.

By positioning myself close to the main ferry hatch before we docked, I managed to snag my bags in the arrival chaos and get off first. By the time Ruth and the kids joined me, I had located a man who claimed to be selling ferry tickets to Koh Lipe island (R118, about $27 each). First, though, I had to stop at a money exchange business to convert my remaining Singapore dollars to Malaysian Ringgits to pay for the next ferry.

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The Langkawi (Malaysia) ferry terminal is as busy as any good-sized airport because boats are the primary means of transport to and from the island.

It was reportedly a Muslim holiday (now Christmas eve), and we had been warned that no money changers would be open, but the Langkawi ferry dock was a madhouse of people going places, so every business was open, Islamic holiday or not.  The man who claimed to have ferry tickets then took us to a strange outdoor travel office across from the main ferry dock entrance where an old Muslim lady sold us the ferry tickets. That used up most of my Ringgits. She told us to be back there at 100pm sharp to be escorted to the dock for the 230pm ferry. It was 1230pm already, so we rushed to find something to eat.

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The very busy food court with many Asian cuisines (and some Western) for sale, none good, but all adequate, and with extremely friendly staffs.

We spent our remaining Ringgits on lunch at the ferry dock food court (all local cuisines and absolute bedlam) and afterwards to buy six batik scarfs at bargain prices. We rushed back to the ferry ticket lady at 110pm, who turned us over to an old Indian man with a sour disposition. Grunting and complaining, he walked us back across the busy ferry terminal arrival street to the back of the very same food court we’d so hurriedly left 15 minutes before!. There we handed over our passports to some ferry people to copy details and just waited. At just past 2pm, one of the ferry staff people told the (by then) huge crowd of us to follow him to Malaysian immigration and the ferry.

More madness and long queues ensued at a woefully under-staffed, two-person Malaysian immigration desk to have our passports properly stamped for leaving Malaysia and then to follow a queue to the dock. Once there, however, no boat! The ferry arrived at 235 (due in at 130p) and unloaded its passengers. We then boarded and had to give up our passports again into a canvas bag to be given back on Koh Lipe. I strenuously objected and was scolded. I reluctantly threw in our four. I still didn’t like surrendering our passports, something we NEVER do.

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Speed boat ferry from Langkawi Island (Malaysia) to Koh Lipe Island (Thailand) was similar to the speed boat from George Town to Langkawi, but not as cold, and again spare of life jackets.

The ferry from Langkawi to Koh Lipe left late sometime after 300pm (another claustrophobic boat, this one with almost no life jackets at all and a rudimentary dip-and-pour toilet). We arrived Koh Lipe to an offshore dock around 4pm Thai time (an hour earlier than Malaysia) after a 2 hour ride.

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Long-tailed taxi boats to transport speed boat passengers to Koh Lipe from the offshore floating dock to shore where one must leap over the side onto a rocky bottom and wade to the beach.

Following long delays and lots more confusion on the crowded floating offshore dock, we transferred to Thai long-tailed boats to get to shore, but the 10 meter boats were too big to make it all the way to the beach. We therefore had to jump over the side onto the uneven rocky bottom and painfully (for me) walk to shore. I was indignant, but sucked it up. We grabbed our luggage which had been haphazardly tossed onto the hot sand and next waited in another chaotic queue to retrieve our passports from the ferry staff.

We were then instructed to fill out Thai arrival forms and wait in yet another long queue for Thai immigration processing at a makeshift beachfront facility. This took 90 minutes, characterized by more mass confusion and world class inefficiency. As I fumed and cursed under my breath in the blazing tropical sun, I could hear and see revelers at a bar next door enjoying cold beer and air conditioning.

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The beachfront Thai immigration facility on Koh Lipe Island where everyone endures an agonizingly long and very hot wait to legally enter Thailand.

Why the ferry people held our passports between Langkawi and Koh Lipe is a mystery. Anyone wishing to skulk off after getting his or her passport back without waiting for Thai immigration could easily have done so. I thought about doing it myself.

While waiting, I bought ferry and van tickets back to the mainland and to Hat Yai (Thailand) train station for our overnight train trip to Bangkok Dec 27 (this was a Dec 24). They took US dollars in payment at a decent $/Baht rate.

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Typical 3-wheel motorbike taxi on Koh Lipe.

Finally we cleared immigration and took motorbike taxis to the Zanom Sunrise Resort, arriving before 6pm on Christmas eve, our two day odyssey finally over. We’ve been relaxing ever since.

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View from the beachfront bar at the Zanom Sunrise “resort” on Koh Lipe island, Thailand, “resort” being a relative term, about which more later.

In a recent post I described with ebullience the delightful experience of flying Cathay Pacific’s marvelous Premium Economy JFK to Hong Kong.  This was originally an itinerary planned on Delta, but changed at the last minute to Cathay due to Delta rez system’s maddening, multiple, involuntary seat reassignments (described here). My onward flight Hong Kong to Singapore might have therefore been on Cathay had I not first booked DL, but, as it was, Delta doesn’t fly between HKG and SIN, and I thus had booked on Jetstar several months in advance.

Jetstar Dreamliner

It’s just a 2.5 hour flight to Singapore, so I chose the least expensive (nonrefundable, of course) fare I could find using Jetstar’s online engine: a mere $135 one way, priced and paid for on my Amex card in Hong Kong dollars.  This low price included the extra cost of 20 kgs of checked luggage per person and a hot meal, both selected from a menu of additional services presented when I made the booking.

Though usually I carry on all my bags, I couldn’t find Jetstar’s carryon policies online and purchased the checked luggage option as an insurance policy. My decision to buy meals was driven by the time of day (late afternoon flight) and traveling with my wife and two kids.  It’s never a good idea to risk one’s children going hungry flying into dinnertime.

Jetstar, I knew, was the low cost carrier owned by QANTAS, and my expectations of its service were accordingly low.  Like Air Asia and other Asian LCCs, Jetstar charges a la carte, and I had visions of hellish service like that attributed to bare bones, mean-spirited RyanAir.  Perhaps not expecting much contributed in part to the reasonably happy experience my family of four enjoyed with Jetstar.

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Arriving at Hong Kong Airport’s Terminal 2 to check in, I noticed that Jetstar had several flights posted, including ours to Singapore and an earlier departure to Hanoi, but the actual check-in counters were not shown.  I asked the friendly airport information staff which counters would be used for Singapore, and they could not tell me.  Their uncertainty was more surprising to them than to me, and it took the better part of an hour for them to verify where to check in.

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Later I found out the source of their confusion:  Jetstar is actually four separate operations, each one an independent company:  (1) intra-Japan/international Japan, (2) intra-Vietnam/international Vietnam, (3) intra-Australia/New Zealand/international Australia/NZ (to HNL), and (4) international Asia (based in SIN).  We were flying the latter Jetstar manifestation.  Looking at it from the passenger point of view, it seems overly complex, but Qantas has their reasons for walling off each carrier, each one legally separate for tax, joint venture, and contract reasons.

Since all four airline operations share the same name and logo, Hong Kong airport staff was understandably baffled trying to identify one Jetstar from another. They finally grasped, as I did, that each carrier was unique, but we still had trouble confirming what counters would be open to check us in to Singapore.  Meanwhile, the Vietnam version of Jetstar began checking in for the Hanoi flight.

When the counters began checking in for our Singapore version of Jetstar, it was a fast, efficient, and friendly process.  I was impressed.  I had a printed version of my receipt in hand, but counter agents found our four reservations simply by my passport and handed me four boarding passes.  I asked about carryon allowances, and they gave the green light to take on all we wanted and were astonished that I chose not to check the 80 kgs of luggage that I had paid for.

After clearing immigration, we found the downstairs boarding gate with a bus that would take us to the plane parked out on the ramp.  Jetstar is too cheap to pay for a Jetway.  We waited in a very long line to board the bus, but again Jetstar gate staff did a great job of walking the queue to check every person’s boarding pass and to match it to their passport.  A mark was made on the boarding passes that would verify our identity as staff at the door let us through to get on the bus.

I guess Jetstar didn’t fancy the added expense of a second bus, somehow shoehorning close to 180 passengers onto a single vehicle, a sardine-like feeling that was the low point of the entire Jetstar experience. Qantas is reputed to go out of its way to remind its Jetstar passengers that there are no perks if you didn’t pay for any.  Sadly, there were no perks for sale to exempt passengers from the jammed-in crowding of the tarmac bus ride, or else I might have sprung for the option.

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Once on the ramp, embarking upon the all-coach Airbus A320 was surprisingly orderly in the old-fashioned manner of walking up a boarding stair. We found our seats in row 6 quickly, and there was plenty of overhead space for all our bags.  Most people had checked their luggage, which meant little competition in the compartments.

The plane departed slightly behind schedule and was 10 minutes late at the gate in Singapore (a real gate—no ramp parking cum bus ride this time).  Again, I was pleased with Jetstar.  En route hot meals were handed out based on who had ordered in advance, and we were surprised to find them very tasty.  I was able to pay for a beer on board for five Singapore dollars (about US$3.50), a Dester (actually a malt liquor) brewed on Sarawak. On board service was friendly, fast, and efficient, much like the ground staff had been, and the cockpit crew kept us informed of our progress.

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Overall, Jetstar service was fine and good value for the cheap fare we paid.  Yes, it was a cattle car, not by any means the Cathay Pacific experience which I raved about.  However, no complaints except for the hard seat which would have been painful to endure on a longer flight.

Welcome to the new world of flying? Before trying Jetstar, I thought that I’d prefer the American full service airline model that doesn’t price everything a la carte. That said, more and more U.S. airlines seem to be drifting in that direction, parsing economy compartments into separate fare buckets that push those who pay the least to back of the plane and condemning them to little, if any, service unless they pay for individual perks.  In the sense that Jetstar’s one class service treats every passenger the same, I now think it’s a model I prefer to the one that Delta, for instance, is moving to.

Panam 747 at JFKOnce flying sharp end meant something more than a lie-flat bed and a walled-off compartment for the duration of a flight.  Gone from today’s premium cabins in the sky are lively conversation and social interaction.  Those humanizing exchanges were encouraged when First and Business Class compartments were arranged in an open configuration where passengers could see and speak to each other, like the 747 Pan Am First Class compartments in the pictures.

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Panam 747 First Class 02

 

The 747 aircraft was originally laid out in the early 1970s with an upstairs lounge for First Class passengers (there was no Business Class then) and configured with conviviality in mind.  These designs were refined and matured into the 1980s before the upstairs lounges were eliminated and stuffed with more seats.

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Panam 747 upstairs lounge-01

Okay, so the seats did not recline into a fully flat position, but I never had trouble snoozing on those flights, even on long international legs.  My first flight on Singapore Airlines in the 1980s was a nonstop 747 San Francisco to Hong Kong (and from there onto Singapore), and I slept like a baby in their comfy First Class chairs after consuming my fill of Dom Perignon and Beluga caviar.

Point being, the cabin layouts, including the design and placement of the First Class seats, were focused on being able to get to know your neighbor if you both desired to talk rather than the social sterility of modern premium cabins where virtually no contact at all occurs between and among passengers.

Who might be worth talking to?  I remember conversing with almost all my seatmates and others in First Class over decades, most just businessmen like myself.  All were interesting, some fascinating.

Sometimes my fellow passengers included the rich and famous, too, like four-time Oscar winner Sammy Cahn, David Frost, the namesake Tissot watch heir, Buddy Hackett, Jane Fonda, John McAvoy, Elizabeth Dole (when she was Secretary of Transportation), and others.  I met them all in First Class.

These experiences were interesting and enriching and occurred because in First Class the airlines configured their cabins and service in a deliberate spirit of pizazz, fun, and congenial sociability. Take Sammy Cahn, for instance, the man known as Frank Sinatra’s songwriter and composer of such well-known tunes as “Let It Snow!”  Mr. Cahn proved to be a true gentleman and great raconteur.  We spent a six hour United 747 flight JFK/LAX (the 6:00 PM departure) in the upstairs lounge together drinking real French Champagne (which in the 1970s UA was still serving), with Mr. Cahn recounting one story after another about his life in New York and then in Beverly Hills.  He said he couldn’t bring himself to sell his brownstone walk-up in Manhattan, and he always went back to New York to ground himself because Hollywood “was so phony.”  Mr. Cahn told me that he had paid $25,000 for his house in Beverly Hills, and that he thought that was a fortune when he bought it!  “But now,” he said, shrugging, “You can’t get a cup of coffee in Beverly Hills for that.”  This was 1978.  Mr. Cahn had me in stitches.

It was, amazingly, the same flight that David Frost was on.  Mr. Frost had asked for one of the two center seats in the back row of First Class–the only two center seats, for those who recall the standard layout–because, he told me, he could smoke cigars in that row and nowhere else.  I was still smoking cigarettes then, which is why I was in the row across from him (the last two rows in First on 747s were smoking rows).  He and I struck up a lively conversation after boarding when the FAs brought around Champagne because I told him how much I had admired TW3 (“That Was The Week That Was”) when he hosted the sassy, impertinent, and politically-incorrect weekly show on NBC in 1964 and 1965.  I reminded Frost of the song they had sung on the show after the Selma troubles, “Everybody Votes in Selma, Alabama!” which caused Frost to howl with laughter and spill his Champagne. Turned out he loved TW3 and thought it was some of his best work.

After that I couldn’t shut him up (and didn’t want to).  He said he had just come back from the funeral of the Rolling Stone’s Keith Moon in London.  Mr. Frost told me about all the contemporary era celebrated folk he had hobnobbed with at the funeral.  I guess remarking to him in detail about TW3 made me an instant insider with him.  At any rate he was genuinely fun to be with, and it was Mr. Frost who pointed out Sammy Cahn on the flight.

Mr. Cahn was sitting in the very first row of First Class on the left side of the 747’s pointy end and had boarded ahead of me (guess Cahn was a nonsmoker).  Frost went up to pay his respects, and when he came back to his own seat across the aisle from me, I asked who he was talking to.  Frost’s eyes got real big, and he said in a reverential tone, “Oh, that’s Sammy Cahn!”  Frost went on, whispering (for the first time—Frost’s voice was loud and boisterous until then), about what a great honor it was to know Mr. Cahn.

As soon as the 747 was in the air and the seat belt sign dinged off, I jumped up and made a beeline for the circular stairs just behind me to the upstairs lounge.  I already knew that in the First Class upstairs lounges of TWA, PanAm, and United of the time that it was first-come, first-served, with limited seating, and as far as I was concerned, there was no place more like heaven on earth than the bubble lounge in a 747.  Whenever I flew cross-country and overseas, if I could wangle my way onto a 747, I would park myself in the upstairs First Class lounge and never leave except to nap.  At the time a flight attendant was dedicated solely to the First Class lounge upstairs, and she would not only serve Champagne (or any damn thing you wanted), but would serve full meals up there rather than in the seats downstairs if you preferred.

So I made myself comfortable, having beat even the dedicated FA up there by 30 seconds or so, and asked for a bottle of Champagne.  She brought it in an iced bucket and put it on the table.  I began to imbibe.  Not a minute later up walks Sammy Cahn, the second passenger to reach the lounge.  I introduced myself and told him how much I enjoyed his songs, rattling off a title or three, and I told him I thought he lived in Los Angeles, so why had he been in New York.

That started it.  Turns out he loved Champagne, too, so he joined me at my small table (like a cocktail lounge table), and a beautiful six hour friendship ensued.  We drank two bottles of Champagne together, and he told stories, jokes, and even hummed a few tunes.  David Frost came up, too, and sat with friends at another table, and the two men would quip back and forth.  We all ate dinner together up there, and by the time we made the approach to LAX, the magic of conviviality had infused us all.  It was a party atmosphere in the upstairs lounge, with several flight attendants and the United captain joining us (but not drinking).

Mr. Cahn was so nice that as we walked out of the terminal together he offered me a ride to my hotel.  I declined, but I wish now I hadn’t.

There were other memorable flights with other luminaries. Of course such occasions were not common, but the point is that they happened because we all shared the same space in an open cabin which allowed interaction.

Sadly, I contrast those rich experiences with the sterile loneliness of today’s First and Business cabins: a Dilbert-like land of beehive cubicles that guarantee separation and privacy. I lament the loss of gregarious conversation.  The pictures included here are from a recent 777-300 international flight in Business Class.  Note the lack of distinguishing identifiers; you cannot even tell what airline it is, and it doesn’t matter.  They all sport the same look and feel now, as if one is flying on a hospital ship.  The nurses (FAs) come around with antiseptic efficiency every so often to take your temperature and to change your bladder bag.  If you take your glasses off, it’s impossible to tell one set of flight attendants from another. The whole First/Business experience has become predictable, hygienic, and bleak.

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Naturally, I am aware that airlines have responded to what their corporate soothsayers claim are market forces that define the cabin and service we get. And they say it’s seclusion and separation that today’s premium passengers want for their seven or eight thousand dollars in Business.

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So be it.  But I miss the contact with my fellow man hurtling through the stratosphere inside a jet-powered aluminum and carbon fiber tube. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed flying recently to Asia in Premium Economy, which is laid out in a conventional open cabin, more than I have ever enjoyed the cold, dehumanizing pods of today’s Business and First compartments.  Yes, you can sleep horizontally in those cubes, but let’s face it:  There is no magic to flying up front any more.

 

 

 

I’ve run out of superlatives thinking about how to describe my recent experience flying in Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy cabin to Hong Kong and back.  I had to dust off my copy of Rodale’s 1361-page The Synonym Finder to look under words like “best” and “premier” in hopes of creating a more exhaustive list of ways to praise Cathay Pacific for making 16 hour journeys in the stratosphere not just tolerable, but comfortable, even memorable.  I never thought I could say such a thing about an experience flying 16 hours in coach, but there it is.  Frankly, I was stunned at how good the seats and service were.

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How did Julie Andrews describe herself as Mary Poppins?  “Practically perfect in every way!” That sums up how I feel about Premium Economy on Cathay Pacific.  Here’s a closer look at the moving parts that make Premium Economy such a superior product compared to what other airlines are offering:

Check-in

  • A dedicated Premium Economy check-in counter, supplemented by the Business Class check-in counter if a line develops for PE; check-in took less than 3 minutes in each direction.
  • Two pieces of luggage checked free and weighing an extra 5 KG (to 25 KG).

At the airport past security

  • The one bit that could be improved: no lounge access (Lufthansa, for example, allows lounge access to PE passengers for a reduced fee)

Boarding

  • A separate roped-off line for PE customers, who board about the same time as Business and ahead of standard economy.
  • I found boarding to be stress-free, simultaneous with Business, allowing time to get settled in before the hordes in sardine class board.

The Premium Economy cabin

  • Right behind Business and therefore easy to get on and get off.
  • A separately enclosed cabin from economy with 34 PE seats, 8-across instead of the 9-across in standard economy on 777-300 planes (7-across on the A330 pictured below versus 8 in standard economy)

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The seats

  • 38” pitch and 19.5” width versus 32” pitch and 18.5” in standard economy; that extra inch of width doesn’t sound like much, but it is!
  • The numbers alone don’t tell the tale; the PE seats are much more padded and cushioned and “sitable” than standard economy. Sitting comfort is very important for such a long flight.
  • The seats also provide a far greater sense of privacy than standard economy. I didn’t get the usual feeling of claustrophobia in my Cathay PE seat.
  • Partly, that is because each seat has separate (not shared) arm rests.
  • One seat across has been removed, too, making the PE cabin on the standard Cathay 777-300 aircraft 8-across rather than 9-across in standard economy.
  • The seats have amazing recline as well. Cathay says it is 8” but it feels like more.
  • The PE seat size and comfort are the key to making Cathay’s Premium Economy uniquely superb. The seats are as comfortable as a domestic first class seat, maybe better, certainly at least comparable.
  • All PE seats have foot rests.
  • The back of each seat has a small tray for holding smartphones or tablets and a USB port for recharging electronics.
  • Unique around-the-ear noise-canceling headphones are provided. They are not Bose but function at least as well.  I found them to be easy to wear for long periods while providing clarity of speech and sound.
  • A blanket and comfortable, cushy pillow are provided. The pillow is the ideal size and cushiness for the seat’s headrest, as if it was custom-made for it.
  • Cathay provides a big, tilting media screen and lots of entertainment options at every seat.

The service

  • Welcome drink (I chose Champagne over juice and even got a top-off).
  • The meals are much better meal than standard economy, reminiscent of Business Class meal service.
  • A small amenity kit with essentials like eyeshades and ear plugs.
  • During the 16 hour flight, Cathay FAs come around often offering water, snacks, and asking if PR passengers need anything.  For instance, on our flight to Hong Kong, my kids gradually ate up all the instant noodles on hand in the galley, thanks to the flight attendants repeatedly coming by to ask if they were still hungry.

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What it’s not

  • No lie-flat seats as in Business Class.
  • The meal service in PE is certainly better than the back of the plane, but it is served all at once, not the course-by-course service you get in Business Class.
  • The Champagne doesn’t flow endlessly, as in Business, but alcohol is available throughout the flight for those who want it.

What it is

  • Extremely comfortable seats spaced sufficiently far apart front to back and side to side to induce serenity and composure.
  • Calm and serene are not descriptors I have ever before associated with long-haul economy. There’s a reason the back of the plane is called cattle class.
  • Premium Economy should not include the word “economy.” It is in a class by itself, and it’s priced that way.  Fares are pegged above standard economy, but thousands less than Business Class, even when Business is discounted.

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It would be inaccurate to compare Cathay’s Premium Economy to, say, Delta’s Comfort+ (formerly Economy Comfort).  Cathay’s PE is so far superior to Delta’s offering as to be in an entirely different class (as I said above).  It would therefore be unfair to Cathay and its customers to contrast the two services as if they were equivalent.  They are not.

The same can be said for American’s Main Cabin Extra.  MCE is in no way comparable.  Though AA has announced an improved International Premium Economy product, full rollout is indeterminate and will surely take months, if not years.  Well, at least American has a plan, whereas Delta has nothing.

While our homegrown airlines dither, Cathay’s PE service is available on all their aircraft in its full glory right now and has been since early 2012. Flying Cathay Pacific in Premium Economy to Hong Kong was the best travel decision I’ve made in years.  I’ll be choosing Cathay now whenever they are going my way: serenity over agony.

I’ve written recently here and here about Delta’s flagging interest in loyalty to its elite flyers because, well, because it doesn’t have to be loyal any more.  With little competition in many markets, and having shrunk its flight schedule and seat supply to starve demand, Delta is filling every seat and charging whatever it wants.  So who needs loyalty?  Delta’s new theme song should be “We’re in the money!” (listen here as sung by Ginger Rogers in the Busby Berkeley film, Gold Diggers of 1933).

Close on Delta’s heels, American is taking similar steps by raising fares after reducing available seats for sale and by devaluing the once-great AAdvantage frequent flyer program. 

For example, my wife, who works for a Research Triangle nonprofit with federal contracts, had to fly on short notice one day recently to Washington (DC) from Raleigh, a distance of just 255 miles.  Yet her RDU/DCA fare was $902 on American (a whopping $1.77 per mile).

One could be forgiven for assuming that must be a first class fare, or at least Main Cabin Extra.  Nope, Main Cabin Extra seats were extra at $23 (each way) when I checked for her. And in the next section of “Preferred Seats” behind Main Cabin Extra, seats were available for purchase at $14 each way.  After paying $902 to fly 255 miles, the best AA saw fit to give her was a seat way in the back of the plane.

That was flying up to DC. On the way back she was in the only available seat that wasn’t designated as a Preferred Seat (exit row was an additional $15), and she certainly was not given a Main Cabin Extra Extra seat near the front of coach.

American’s message is clear:  We don’t care how much you pay; whatever it is, it isn’t enough; we can always find ways to charge you more.  And more, and even more.  Why?  Because we CAN! [Cue music: “We’re in the money, we’re in the money!”]

As for the AAdvantage program, much has been written lately about how the devaluation of the miles is imminent.  My own experience is that it may have already happened, at least in part.  Here are some of my observations after recently testing available AAdvantage awards in Business Class for dates in February, May, and August 2016 to Nairobi, Johannesburg, Madrid, Milan Malpensa, Hong Kong, Sydney, Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and Singapore:

  • Most of what is available online through AAdvantage is automatically routed through LHR to British Airways. But BA tacks on absurd fuel charges, even for “free” award travel seats, such as $1500 round trip RDU/NBO.  It’s not much better to other locations, either, begging the question of why anyone would ever use BA to anywhere.
  • No matter how I formulated the online request, all AAdvantage awards to Africa and to Europe (other than to the UK) are shown on BA through LHR, so you can’t escape their fuel charges. I would have thought that I could book AA direct to MXP, at least, but it is not visible. AA has the award seats walled off except for BA, so you have to call an agent to help.
  • There were a few AA/AA (as opposed to AA/BA) flight segments shown to MAD, but they are always AAnytime awards and cost double.  All saver awards are connecting to BA and thus charge the fuel premium.
  • I could find no saver awards to HKG (100% AAnytime, or double mileage).
  • No awards to either BKK or SIN at all; requests always said “no flights these cities” or some such language.
  • Award requests to JNB at least processed, but then said no seats available even for double miles in business or first.
  • Awards to SYD were available at saver mileage rates, at least.
  • AA serves many European destinations direct, of course, as does OneWorld partner Iberia. Yet every request I tried to a European destination automatically routed through LHR on AA/BA. 
  • It seems the only way you can get the non-BA connections is to call. So I did. The very nice agent tried hard to find award seats on AA flights for less than AAnytime mileage without success.
  • Another major irritant: Most of the business class itineraries displayed online had at least one major segment in coach, not business.  I had to scroll through many possible itineraries online to luck out with all international segments in business class on both AA and BA, and I had to be very observant on both outbound and return itineraries to avoid a coach segment.
  • The nonstop RDU/LHR flights AA178/179 never showed up as having business class award seats available on any date I tried to European destinations. If I were to use those flights for saver or anytime business class, I’d have to fly in the back of the plane between Raleigh and London in both directions.
  • Finding nothing online even through London to Sri Lanka (Colombo) and to Nairobi, I again phoned the AA elite line to ask for help. Both Qatar and Etihad are AAdvantage OneWorld partners with robust schedules through their respective hubs in Doha and Abu Dhabi and with lots of premium cabin seats connecting to all over Asia and Africa.  Yet the AA agent was not able to use my miles on either Qatar or Etihad to Sri Lanka or to NBO.  Instead, she said the AAdvantage “rules” state that award travel to Sri Lanka must be only on Cathay Pacific through HKG, a much longer distance from Raleigh and at great expense in miles.  Oh, and the schedules didn’t work for reasonable connections, either. 

My takeaway after this frustrating research:  Given how the AAdvantage program is already so rigged that it’s all but worthless, will it really matter if it is devalued? 

With its frequent flyer program a shell game that we suckers always lose, and its fares rising faster than Donald Trump’s poll numbers, American Airlines, like Delta, now seems to offer little to business travelers.

I said that I would book away from Delta, the carrier I was loyal to for over five million miles (I have a mere million-plus miles on AA). But, hey, if AA is no better, then I’m running out of options. United?  Forgedaboutit!  UA was so bad that I quit them cold turkey in the mid-nineties even though I was a 1K flyer. It sure doesn’t look like they improved since.

Domestically, Alaska, Southwest, and Jet Blue will get more of my business when possible.  Overseas, it will be a lot easier to book away from the big three greedy US carriers, and I will. 

In fact tomorrow I fly AA only as far as JFK where I connect to Cathay Pacific to Asia, money that might have gone to American. I’m learning!

In a recent blog post I documented how Delta had lost $10,000 of my money on a single international itinerary after dumping my carefully selected Economy Comfort seats four times over several months.  I should have expected, I guess, equal misery for domestic itineraries.  Sure enough, last week all my family’s seats were lost a mere two days after booking four Delta tickets RDU/LAX/SFO/RDU because of an insignificant flight number change (not a real schedule change).

This is yet another example of Delta knocking out seats when there is any kind of change at all, in this case merely a flight number change.  Since we are traveling in March on this particular itinerary (a college visit trip to the West Coast), I am still entitled to complimentary Economy Comfort seats for me and my family, and I had selected seats to keep us together.  Yet the flight number change triggered Delta’s robot IT system to dump all our EC seats, and we were placed in seats way back on the plane.  Though I went into the Delta record online at once to change us back to Economy Comfort, only a few seats were left, and I was just barely able to get four seats together for my family in the last row.

When I phoned a Delta supervisor to inquire whether Delta was planning to improve or eliminate its robotic software doing this to every itinerary when even the teensiest change occurs, I was told that the airline will never go back to real human beings making such decisions and that the system in place is now fully in charge.  The supervisor explained that when itinerary changes occur, the software logic “roams” the airplane, looking first to find suitable seats for people with disabilities, then assigns seats to persons with infants, then to children traveling alone, then to “certain special individuals” which I took to mean Air Marshalls flying incognito, and finally assigns whatever seats are left to Diamonds and Platinums.  The system is supposed to match preferences like aisle seats, but if none are available, it may assign windows or centers.  However, if an Elite flyer, even a Diamond, is traveling on the same record as a non-Elite passenger, then the software’s default logic assigns seats according to the customer with the least status, pulling everyone on the same record down to that lowest level.

After all those groups have been satisfied, then the system assigns seats to award seat flyers, to “general” Skymiles members (those with no elite status), and to customers not even enrolled in the frequent flyer program.  In other words, buying your ticket way ahead of time may get you a reasonable fare and your initial choice of preferred seats, but it no longer guarantees you a good seat on Delta if there is an itinerary change.

The software logic does this every time there is any change at all.  This means that those logic classes above will always get preferred seats ahead of Elite flyers if there are itinerary changes even if they booked at the last minute and had initially selected poor seats.  Thus Delta Elite customers who bought early with the expectation that their initially-selected preferred seats would be honored are penalized by the software if any itinerary changes occur.

When I observed to the supervisor that this makes seat assignments virtually worthless, she reluctantly agreed, but stated cheerfully, “You can always buy up to Comfort+ which will guarantee your reassigned seat will at least be in the Comfort+ section.”  I guess she doesn’t realize that the fare difference between the new “Main Cabin” and “Comfort+” categories is often a couple of hundred dollars or more.  Between Raleigh and Billings, for instance, the Delta fare delta between Main Cabin and Comfort+ is $180 round trip.

By the supervisor’s logic I could guarantee myself even more peace of mind if I just paid for First Class.  Or better still, I could call NetJets.

Delta is reportedly working to improve the automated robot system, but there are no promises that the system logic will ever be as good as a human’s, and the airline won’t say when improvements might take place or exactly what they may be.

This is stupid.  We cannot even count on keeping our seats any longer?  This corporate decision to save money through blanket automation effectively waters down one of the elemental benefits of air travel: a confirmed seat assignment.  This smacks of a Ryanair trick.  If Delta’s automated system is going to do this on every single itinerary, and it appears that it will, then Delta customers are always going to be well and truly screwed, strengthening my resolve to book away from Delta entirely.

To make matters worse, I ran into more IT problems on Delta when I purchased a ticket recently RDU/BIL.  My Billings itinerary straddles the magic May 15 cutoff date when Delta implements its policy and fare changes that make getting into Economy Comfort seats (to be called Comfort+ after May 15) an “upgrade” for Diamonds and Platinums rather than the benefit it is today.  I leave Raleigh on May 13 and return May 16.  On the outbound, I was able to select Economy Comfort seats, but on the two homebound flights I was forced to click the “upgrade” button.

But the online system didn’t work, causing me to spend a lot of time on three long phone calls trying to get the “upgrade” button functioning correctly so I could be considered for an “upgrade” to Comfort+.  After those exasperating calls, none successful, I finally spent 51 minutes on the phone with another Delta supervisor.  By then I was exhausted and asked her to just please upgrade me into first class and be done with it.  Here’s what I learned from that waste of time:

  • Neither she nor anyone above her in the rez offices “is empowered to upgrade customers into first class any more” on either domestic or international flights.
  • The Delta system is supposed to automatically allow me as a Platinum to select Comfort+ seats immediately on the two homebound flights of my May 16 BIL/RDU itinerary after I paid for my ticket, but that functionality isn’t working. Therefore the supervisor was going to “override the system” to put me in Comfort+.  She is empowered to do that, she said, but not to upgrade me to First. That sounds to me suspiciously like the current first class upgrade benefit will end for flyers who don’t pay for a Comfort+ seat.
  • When I checked the itinerary the following day, I was still in the back of the plane and still unable to check the button for an “upgrade” to Comfort+. I didn’t call again because I was too frustrated.  The third day after the call I checked once more and saw that I had finally been assigned Comfort+ seats, which I changed to ones I preferred.  Of course if there is a subsequent itinerary change, the Delta robot will kick me out of the seats I selected.

I also called American Express to cancel our Delta SkyMiles Amex Platinum credit cards. As Joe Brancatelli explained in a recent column, the value of frequent flyer programs, including especially SkyMiles, is now significantly diluted by hefty boosts in mileage requirements for awards.

So, what good are the miles “earned” from the associated credit card? Heck, whether purchased or award travel, I can’t even count on keeping the seats I select on Delta flights anymore and have to pray that I will be “upgraded” to Comfort+ for travel after May 15.

Bottom line for me, as I have said several times, is to book away from Delta even domestically now.  We know that Delta is going to keep taking things away from its Elite customers, with the result of making life on the road more expensive, ever harder, and less comfortable.  Delta execs just don’t care anymore because they don’t have to, at least not as long as they can sell every seat at whatever price points they decide. The core lesson here is that Delta now runs over people and wants us to pay for what it once told us that we could have for free.

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For forty-five years I have been loyal to Delta, and I assumed it was more or less reciprocated.  I was stupid to think they’d uphold their end of the bargain.  It’s clear now that Delta never saw it as a promise, as their new policies (see here and here) for 2016 make clear.

But I digress.  The quo I expected for my quid was that Delta would continue the few perks that meant the most to me:

  • Complimentary upgrades to first class on domestic flights.
  • Complimentary access to their version of premium economy, which Delta first called Economy Comfort and has recently renamed Comfort+.
  • Complimentary premium economy upgrades for friends and family when on flying with me on the same record (up to eight travelers).
  • Complimentary checked luggage.
  • Early boarding after first class.
  • Club lounge privileges.

Used to be that I would routinely get upgraded to first, but in recent years, even as a Lifetime Platinum with five million miles, I get in the very back of the upgrade queue.  There are so many Diamonds that even they don’t routinely get an upgrade. Add in ever more stringent upgrade rules about which economy fares are eligible, and my chances narrow even more. Heck, my friend Bill McW here in Raleigh has amassed an astonishing seven million miles on Delta, and he never gets upgraded, either.  So that perk, while still technically on the books, has been watered down to nothing for me:

  • Complimentary upgrades to first class on domestic flights.

The free club privileges I used to enjoy are long gone.  As a Flying Colonel on Delta, I always had access to the exclusive Flying Colonel rooms before the Crown Room was invented. That free access continued for very frequent flyers until SkyClub replaced Crown Rooms at Delta and the Northwest WorldClub lounges.  Now even my Amex Platinum Card only allows one person in (me), so I cannot take friends or family into the club without paying:

  • Club lounge privileges.

For 2016 Delta has totally rejiggered its economy class fare structure by parsing it into three broad categories (see the comparison chart here):

  1. Basic Economy – the cheapest fare. Meant to compete with LCCs like Southwest.  No frills except for elite flyers, and no upgrades even for them.
  2. Main Cabin – a range of economy fares like we’ve always been used to, but bumped up considerably in many markets. Can only “upgrade” (Delta’s new verb, replacing “access”) to Comfort+ after buying a ticket, and the actual time when the “upgrade” is made is vague.
  3. Comfort+ – Delta now sells its premium economy as an entirely different fare class and claims it’s an upgrade even though on domestic airplanes they have reduced the seat pitch from 4” more than the rest of the cabin to just 3” better than the back of the plane.

Testing fares in one market (RDU/BIL) for all three summer months of 2016, I was unable find any Main Cabin fares at delta.com for under $526 round trip, and Comfort+ was $707 every single day on all flights, a $181 premium over what is already a very high fare, especially up to nine months out.  For my family of four to fly Raleigh to Billings, it would now cost over $2800 in C+ whereas this past summer the total cost was a thousand dollars less than that for four people. Therefore my takeaway from the changes is that the parsing of the cabin both diminishes my ability to “upgrade” to Comfort+ and pushes up the average fare:

  • Complimentary access to their version of premium economy, which Delta first called Economy Comfort and has recently renamed Comfort+.

Oh, and I cannot “upgrade” my family to Comfort+ any more, either, eliminating another important perk:

  • Complimentary premium economy upgrades for friends and family when on flying with me on the same record (up to eight travelers).

I’m tired of being pushed again and again farther back on the plane. I am stripped now of every decent perk save early boarding and free checked bags.

I could tolerate coach when the seating was right behind first class, and I could get an aisle seat. That way I could be less cramped and get off the plane reasonably fast. Since, as I said, Platinums rarely get upgraded to first anymore. I learned to tolerate sitting in the back. But now they push me way back.

The way I see it, I flew over five million miles on Delta, and all I got was the stupid luggage tag.

Of course my complaints fall into the category of primal scream therapy because loyalty doesn’t matter.  You want to fly first?  Pay for it.  You want premium economy?  Pay for it.  As Joe Brancatelli reminds us, airlines care less and less about loyalty on a year-to-year basis now because they don’t have to cater to their most frequent flyers in a market where people are paying what they are asking and every seat is full on every flight.

And it’s sure obvious that they care almost nothing about lifetime loyalty now.  My disgruntlement with Delta, including the feeling of utter powerlessness that accompanies a lifetime of loyalty being unrewarded, is met with a shrug of indifference from the airline, not even a reply email.

Since there’s no way to fight back, I conclude that it’s all about airfare guerilla tactics now.  Just like what I did switching from Delta to Cathay to go to Asia (see previous post).  That cost Delta $10,000 in fares on one itinerary.  More importantly, it gave me peace of mind, and I am now actually looking forward to the trip on Cathay to experience their Premium Economy cabin, which by all accounts is far superior to Delta’s.

It’s all about attitude adjustment.  Better to pay for a service you want on the schedule you want than to keeping chasing ephemeral perks and ever-devalued frequent flyer miles (an entirely different topic).

Gotta wonder, though, how Delta will respond when (not if) the air travel market collapses again, as it inevitably does periodically in the economic cycle.  Will they come offering a basket of goodies to lure back my business?  Probably.

But by then maybe I will have found satisfaction in independence.

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