Instead of being up in the air on my way to somewhere exotic on Father’s Day this year, I was solidly on the ground in the prosaic small town of Spencer, North Carolina at the N. C. Transportation Museum operating the largest steam locomotive running in America, the Norfolk & Western J class 4-8-4 number 611.  Clichéd though it sounds, being at the throttle of the big steam engine was the thrill of a lifetime!  Even in one hundred degree heat on the Summer Solstice (June 21), It was a joyous experience, made more so because it was so unexpected.

Will at the N&W 611 throttle (6-21-15)

So what is an N&W J class engine?  Here are some quick facts, with thanks to Wikipedia:

“Norfolk & Western Railway’s J class steam locomotives were a class of 4-8-4 locomotives [4 small pilot wheels to guide the loco through curves, 8 large driving wheels, and 4 trailing truck wheels to support the boiler] built by the N&W’s East End Shops in Roanoke, Virginia between 1941 and 1950. The first batch, numbered 600 to 604, were built in 1941–42 and were delivered streamlined. In 1943, 605–610 were delivered without shrouding and lightweight side rods, due to the limitations on the use of certain materials during the war; due to these distinctions, they were classified J1. But, when N&W showed the War Production Board the reduced availability numbers because of this, the Board allowed the J1s to be re-fitted as Js with the lightweight rods and shrouding in 1944. The last batch, 611–613, were built in 1950, all streamlined. The Js were built and designed completely by N&W employees, something that was uncommon on American railroads. The total cost for building 611 was $251,544 in 1950 (equivalent to $2,441,000 in 2015).

“The first Js had 275 psi boilers, 70-inch driving wheels, and roller bearings on all wheels and rods; after about 1945 boiler pressure was raised to 300 psi. Calculated tractive effort was 80,000 pounds – the most powerful 4-8-4 without a booster. The 70 inch drivers were small for a locomotive that was to pull trains at over 100 mph. To overcome this, the wheelbase was made extremely rigid, lightweight rods were used, and the counterbalancing was precise. As delivered, the Js had duplex (two) connecting rods between the primary (second) and third drivers, but in the 1950s Norfolk and Western’s engineers elected they could do without these. 611 and at least one other Class J were rebuilt with a single connecting rod. The negative effect of the J’s highly engineered powertrain was that it made the locomotives sensitive to substandard track. Its counterbalancing and precision mechanics were so modern that it was joked that the J’s top speed is only limited by the nerves of the engineer. Judging by their performance in hauling a 15-car 1050-ton train at speeds in excess of 110 mph over Pennsylvania Railroad’s “racetrack”, the Fort Wayne Division, while on loan, it is hard to dispute that claim.”

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All J class locomotives burned coal but were highly efficient.  The 611, the last J operating, still is.  Black smoke, which indicates incomplete coal combustion, was and is regarded as an embarrassment by engineers, and the 611 is usually seen ejecting white smoke, which consists mostly of water vapor from condensed steam.

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The N&W 611 locomotive weighs 494,000 pounds, and the tender comes in at 395,250 pounds, for a total weight of almost 873,000 pounds. For comparison the newest 747 series, the 8F, is rated empty (net of cargo) at 466,000 pounds.

20150621_154701-Sott Lindsay in the 611 cab

Yet, with a half million pounds under me in the cab of the 611, the big engine responded nimbly and rode comfortably on the track. I had just 22 minutes at the throttle of 611, so I wasn’t in charge of the beast very long, but I felt an immediate affinity with it.

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I’ve always had a knack for operating large machines and had several opportunities to exercise that ability in a series of part-time college jobs. I drove big city buses through Chapel Hill’s narrow streets with ease when at UNC. I mastered driving a semi-tractor hauling an oversized Cat D9 on its flatbed trailer the first time I took it out, even backing it up down a narrow muddy track.

I astounded one of my airline clients in the 1980s by acing all my landings at the old Hong Kong airport on its super-short runway that jutted out into the bay in their 747 simulator (any chimpanzee can take off a 747; the hard part is landing one), and I flew a real 727 once.

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But operating the 611 steam locomotive was uniquely different. I felt totally comfortable in control handling the throttle and engine brake, like a natural extension of my body and spirit. The 611 is a sweet machine. I had the strange feeling that I’d done it before.  The 5,100 horsepower generated in the boiler is a palpable presence. It was a lightning-charged thrill, but oddly comfortable, like it was a part of me. As a longtime admirer of this famous and historic machine, frankly I never dreamed I would have an opportunity to be at its throttle. How even more surprising to find that running it brought such joy.

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A quick look in the cab in this 12 second video.

The N&W 611 drives by in this video.

The big steam locomotive approaches in this final short video.

Business travelers’ decades-long distrust of airline management runs deep for good reason, and this week’s airline news reports of some overseas carriers’ intent to shrink carry-on bag size maximums (see, for example, here) bring yet another slap in the face.  The trade organization IATA (International Air Transport Association) is recommending a max carry-on limit of 55 x 35 x 20 cm (21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches).

Such dictums are always sugar-coated in customer service improvement language, and this one is no exception.  IATA claims it will give every passenger a chance to share the overhead and underseat space on board.

Of course they didn’t ask their customers, not even their biggest spenders, that is, us business flyers. No, they just decided unilaterally what was “right” based on no facts, no data, and no statistically accurate public opinion surveys.  As usual, the airlines dictate, and they expect us to touch our forelocks and grovel.

The airline industry brought the carry-on crisis on themselves when they started charging hefty sums to non-elite customers for every bag checked.  The fact that most carriers are none too swift about bag retrieval at destination merely adds to the frustration of travelers waiting for a half hour or better at the luggage carousel.  Many people decided while fuming there not to part with all those shekels on their next flight and packed their belongings into carry-on bags instead.  Anybody with half a brain could see that coming, yet the geniuses that run the world’s airlines did not.

So this is a problem of the airlines’ own making, yet they want to foist their problem off as an unfunded mandate onto their customers.  How is that fair?  Of course, it is not.  Why should we pay for their failure to plan and manage their own operation?

To be perfectly clear, the shrinking carry-on is NOT a domestic U.S. airline issue. This one…so far…is strictly an international initiative.  The key words, though, are “so far.”  You can bet that American air carriers will follow suit sooner or later if this catches on overseas.  So let’s try to think through the implications and consequences should that occur.

First, most U.S. carriers allow carry-on to be up to 22 x 14 x 9 inches now (for one matrix of current standards, see here).  The new standard of 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches is 21.5% fewer cubic inches than the current standard.  Especially egregious is the reduction in depth from 9 inches to 7.5 inches.  I cannot find any 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 bags on Amazon.  Maybe they are there, and I just missed them.

Second, I don’t want to throw away my perfectly good and very expensive carry-on luggage that doesn’t meet the new dimensional criteria just because of a mercurial management decision based on no facts or polls whatsoever.   I guess I can store it for my next Amtrak journey or tramp steamer voyage.  There is no carry-on restriction for American train travel.

Third, I would have to buy four new carry-on bags, one for me and one each for my wife and two kids.  That won’t be cheap.

Fourth, once I have paid the piper for 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inch carry-on bags, who is to say the airlines won’t shrink the carry-on maximum size limits even further?  Will I have to buy MORE and SMALLER bags in the future?

Fifth, will the flight attendants and cockpit crew be given a pass?  We’ve all seen their carry-on bags, and I’d be surprised if they even meet the existing dimensional standard, let alone the new 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 limit.  If the rules don’t apply to airline employees, how will that go down among those of us who are paying their salaries? (If only their carry-on bags were as small as Barbie’s…)

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Sixth, the new dimensions have shrunk by 21.5% measured in cubic inches.  Does that mean if I pack for five days now that I will have to chuck out a day’s worth of clean clothes? Which means my five day trip just shrank to four?  That is, assuming I can even find a carry-on bag that’s just 7.5″ deep.  Some expanding file folders are bigger than that.

Seventh and lastly, I wonder how the luggage industry feels about the new smaller dimensions.  After all, they were not consulted any more than we the traveling suckers were.  Presumably, therefore, bagmakers are just as confused as we are.  They will have to retool their factories and develop production schedules based on forecast demand for that new, smaller bag size.  They may decide to hedge their bets and not make too many bags, an action which would drive up prices on the few new bags manufactured.  After all, there are millions of their brand new carry-on bags out there for sale right now that are instantly obsolete under the new standard and will never be sold to savvy flyers.

So what’s next, or what’s the alternative?  One airline strategy might be to simply keep the current standard dimensional maximums and charge for each piece of carry-on just like they do for luggage carried in the belly.  That would not be hard to accomplish, and I am sure they’d make exceptions, as they do now, for elite flyers.  If carry-on cost as much as regular checked bags, I imagine a lot more people would opt to check their luggage, thereby freeing up a lot of overhead bin space.  A few statistically accurate surveys could determine whether my surmise is accurate.

Otherwise, what is their end game?  I don’t think they have one.  Airline management doesn’t have a good track record of considering the unintended consequences of their actions.  But sooner or later, maybe we’ll only be allowed to carry on board our smartphone.  And, you know, as phones get ever larger (think iPhone 6 Plus), the airlines could institute a dimensional size limit even on them.

Sound crazy?  Well, who ever thought we’d see a tiny 7.5 inch luggage depth limit?

Way back in the ancient days of the 1970s when I first began renting cars every week, I recall just a few prices at Avis and Hertz and National.  First was the so-called walk-up rate per day for each class of car, which I always viewed as sort of an MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price).  In other words, a price to use as a reference point while trying to negotiate down.  Getting a lower rate meant having access to either government or corporate discounts.  Things weren’t too strict then, and I could usually talk an agent on the phone into a rate cheaper than full retail, and it was never questioned when I picked up the car.

Over the years rental car rates were parsed and sliced until an infinite number of rates became the rule.  Getting a modest discount was almost assured, but really significant discounts could only be had if one had a big company’s secret CPD (corporate program discount?  I was never sure of the acronym’s meaning).  This was a negotiated rate that was almost always 25-40% off walk-up rates.  Despite rates being on an endless sliding scale, there was a certainty that the rate structure moved steadily from top to bottom.

This plethora of rates really took off with the Internet.  I can’t recall the last time I talked to a rental car company agent on the phone.  One would think that the Internet would bring an even more stately and structured approach to rental car rates than ever before.  Now, though, confusion seems to reign when trying to snag a reasonable rate.  It seems, in fact, like a crap shoot every time I am on the hunt for a good rate.

A good example is my recent experience lining up a rental car (a minivan) in Seattle for a week in July.  Checking with both Hertz and Avis, and using two CPD numbers from very large U.S. companies that I have stored in my online rental car accounts, both companies quoted about $1050 for a 7-day rental (including all taxes) when I chose the online option that says something like “select a rate that my company has negotiated.”

Wow, I thought! Over a grand for a car, even a minivan, seems high.  So I started again at hertz.com and this time stipulated the same car and rental week period but did not click the box that said “select a rate that my company has negotiated.”

That time Hertz (and later, Avis) produced a rate of about $530, all in, about half the corporate rate that the supposedly cheaper CPD number produced.  Naturally I booked the lower rate at once.

However, I decided to dive deeper into the murky waters of rental car rates to see if an even better deal awaited me at Sea-Tac.  After all, I had just saved $520 in two minutes.  I checked Hotwire, Priceline, Orbitz, Hipmunk, and Kayak for a minivan at the same dates at SEA.  I also tried a couple of peer-to-peer outfits like Flightcar.com.  What I found amazed me.

Everything was more expensive than the non-corporate rate at Hertz and Avis.  Rates for minivans ranged from $817 per week (all in) to as much as $1700 (again, with all taxes and fees).  Flightcar rates were among the highest.  Nothing even came close to $530.

While I am delighted to have landed a great rate for my vehicle, the research results seem counter-intuitive to me.  First, I would have expected the non-corporate rates at the two flagship rental car firms to be higher than the corporate negotiated rates which were supposedly discounted.  Second, I would have expected Hertz and Avis rates to be generally higher than any other firm because, well, they are the big boys in the industry, with a lot of presumed overhead.  Third, I expected to find at least one rate comparable or lower than the one I booked.  Fourth, I expected the peer-to-peer firms to be very competitive with established companies based the old-school car rental model.

So why the seemingly anomalous results?  I don’t know.  Maybe it was just the timing of my searches, the location, the dates, or the vehicle type.  If I had time I’d spend several hours testing car rental quotes for several different car classes in several locations several months out to see if I get the same general range of rates.  Regardless, it just points to how erratic car rental rates can be.  The staid predictability of rate structures prevalent 40 years ago is long gone.

In the wake of the tragic Amtrak crash this week just north of downtown Philadelphia, everyone is talking about what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and what are the implications for Amtrak’s future.

Amtrak crash in Philly May 2015Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Those grounds will be covered ad nauseum, and I won’t add to the cacophony of reports related to the accident, except to say that Positive Train Control (PTC, a computer-controlled system that prevents trains from overspeeding and from proceeding through red signals) works and would have been operational on that stretch of track in Philly had Amtrak been properly funded.  Period.  End of story.

So who is to blame for the root causes of underfunding that led us to this accident?

I think we all are.

We have allowed Amtrak to be the whipping boy of every Congress since its creation, and those doing the whipping are folks we elected and reelected to represent us.  Amtrak has been woefully under-valued and underfunded since its inception.  It was the unwanted, red-headed stepchild even in 1971, expected by the Nixon administration to quietly die within a few years. Amtrak was starved of money and attention as it was born based on the assumption that it would never survive.

Forty-four years later nothing much has changed.  For almost half a century Amtrak has been berated, scorned, attacked, and short-changed by politicians on the premise that it has consistently failed to earn its keep.

Expecting Amtrak to make money—or at least not to lose money—is ridiculous.  The fact is that passenger train networks are not profitable anywhere on earth—not when all infrastructure costs are properly factored in.  We should no more expect Amtrak to make a profit than we should expect a fish to ride a bicycle.  Not gonna happen, not now, not ever.  Which means that all the bloviating in Congress against Amtrak is a waste of time and energy.  Just not value-adding.

Key lesson here:  Passenger rail will always, ALWAYS need subsidies.  If we as a nation don’t like that, well, then we don’t have to have passenger rail service, be it local, regional, intercity, or interstate.

My suggested Amtrak solution is drastic, but simple:

  1. Kill Amtrak as a whole, and bury its name, never to be used again, rest in peace.
  1. Reorganize Amtrak’s parts into whatever regional elements make sense to states and cities that decide themselves that they need passenger rail service. The key here is to let them decide.  The NEC (Northeast Corridor Washington-NYC-Boston), for instance, could be organized as the NEC Railway, or call it the Boondoggle Railroad.  Whatever you like, but not Amtrak, never again Amtrak.  Regional systems like Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Milwaukee, NYC-Albany, Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte, and so on could be forged on some basis.  The devil will be in the details, as always, but I’m confident regional authorities could be worked out.  Ditto for intra-California, intra-Texas, intra-Florida, and other rail services wholly within one state.  And so on.  But it wouldn’t be Amtrak. Never again Amtrak.
  1. Long distance trains like NYC-Chicago, NYC-Florida, and the various routes from Chicago to the West Coast may or may not survive. If they do, regional authorities and individual states would have to decide how to partner to take on full responsibility for the costs and work out how to pay for the trains.  But it wouldn’t be Amtrak.
  1. In all cases, organize the passenger rail services knowing that subsidies will be required: smaller subsidies for NEC trains, probably, and pretty big subsidies for long distance trains. I don’t know whether the federal government would be involved or not; that is a significant devil among the details.  I just know this needs to be done and that for it to work, government at some or many levels—local, state, regional, and perhaps federal—is going to have to pony up perpetual subsidies to pay for the services.
  1. The taxpayers benefiting most from the services need to say “amen” to subsidizing the passenger trains. It’s my belief that they will because they understand the value of services close to home.  For example, fiscally conservative voters in my home state of North Carolina have for a long time, and continue to, support ongoing subsidies for passenger rail services that link, for example. Raleigh to Charlotte.

That’s it, my solution:  Put Amtrak out of its misery, and parse its network into whatever regional systems can attract the political will to guarantee adequate funding so that we never have to stint on a safety system like PTC again.

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Note from the author on May 19, 2015:

Since writing this post, it has come to light that the FCC shared responsibility with Amtrak for the absence of operational PTC on two of the four tracks in the accident area, including the track that Amtrak 188 was traveling on at the time of the crash.  FCC had not provided Amtrak with a radio frequency required to make PTC work on two of the tracks, but had for the other two.  Go figure.

This doesn’t change the fact that Amtrak is and has been severely underfunded because the mood of the country has come to fear and loath any manifestation of central government.  I am all for passenger rail, but I no longer believe that Amtrak is a vehicle for success.  It will never outrun its critics.  Local subsidies, at least, stand a chance in this harsh environment.

At the same time I lament the death of good public transportation policy at the federal (national) level where, I continue to firmly believe, it belongs.  My blog post reflects the unhappy reality that Americans no longer value such national public policy.  This is the reality of our time, and I don’t see a sea change on the horizon to restore what once was.  I am merely suggesting a way to make passenger trains work rather than see us lose them altogether, because that’s where I see us headed.

Following the airline industry’s finer and finer parsing of classes has made me wonder where it will end.  Suites Class, First Class, Business Class, Delta One, Economy Comfort, and Main Cabin Extra are just some of the terms being bandied about to entice travelers to pay just a wee bit more for (supposedly) a tiny bit more service and comfort.  Of course if you pay less, you also get less.  I got to thinking about Extreme Fare Class Parsing, and here are my ideas for what we have now and what we might see in the future:

Suite KYA Class (long-haul international only) – Pitch off the scale, service unlimited.  Chilled bottles of Dom Perignon positioned even in the lavatories at seated levels for easy reach, Krug Vintage 1998 served with Beluga, Ossetra, and Sevruga caviar starts eight-course dinner.  We’ve all seen the photos. Private butler with English accent.  If you have to ask about the fare, you can’t afford it.

First Class – Pitch 84” or better, real lie-flat seats, service not bad, but the salmon can be a bit dry.  Though the fare is steep, forget about caviar.  French Champagne is served, but only nonvintage bruts, and catered with only a small number of bottles per flight, so drink up quickly or switch to red.  Fares usually not over $20,000 (one way, of course). Boarding after KYA Class.

Business Class – Pitch 70” or thereabouts, lie-flat seats–sorta–but at a weird angle, too close to the guy next to you, and impossible to really sleep in.  Seat mechanisms often broken anyway, so who cares if they are uncomfortable when “flat”? No French Champagne, but Spanish Cava is served (usually a bit warm and sometimes not bubbly) in flimsy plastic glasses with the airline’s cheery logo; salmon “patty” is at least pink and bears a resemblance to real salmon, and a few cashews and peanuts are served warm as if that constituted real luxe.  Fares not more than ten grand one way.  Boarding after First if the gate agents remember to announce it.

Economy First Class – Pitch 36”, and, well, it’s as good as it gets in coach.  Right behind Business Class and with free movies (when the AV system works) and complimentary drinks, albeit the same cheap swill they call wine in the rest of economy and usually served from milk cartons.  Decent pitch, but still nine across on widebodies, so seats are very claustrophobic.  Less uncomfortable if you are missing an arm.  Seats go back a bit more, but then your neighbor cannot lower his or her tray table and will curse you.  Fares full fare coach (outrageous) plus a big premium to get in the seats.  Ambien extra.  No special boarding.

Economy Comfort Class – Pitch 34”, similar to Economy First Class but less pitch.  You probably wouldn’t notice because of the discomfort side to side, so go for it!  It’s still better than what’s behind you.  Same tired meal and beverage service as EFC, but the movies you really want to see cost $5.95 each.  Fare premium over coach still stupid.

Economy Sux Class – Pitch 31”, the usual uncomfortable and cramped coach seat, with the same minimal service.  Elementary school kids get better and more wholesome snack choices.  Bring your own antacid for indigestion.  Fare ridiculous, but at least you don’t have to pay a premium.

Cattle Class – Pitch 21”, a new saver class with no legroom and no room side to side, as seats are arranged 12 across on widebodies, 9 across on narrowbody aircaft.  Once in, you are there to stay for the duration.  Service nonexistent, but you do get the same safety briefing as everybody else.  No carryon allowed; checked bags charged at $100 each per thousand miles traveled and not guaranteed to be on your plane, nor the next one.  Not recommended for large people, or even medium-sized people. Fare 20% below full fare economy.

Galley Cart Class – No pitch; seated on galley carts as rolled up and down aisles.  Can be wet and uncomfortable.  Wear moisture-proof pants.  Lots of getting up and down and standing in aisles while carts are in use.  Not allowed to share aisle space with Aisle Class (see next). Get to board last with some of the lesser classes and to store carryon under the seats of those in Cattle Class.  No service, so bring own food and water, though allowed to salvage scraps from returned food.  Fare 30% below full fare coach.

Aisle Class – Pitch irrelevant, as there is no seat; standing space only as galley carts permit.  Sometimes marketed by airlines as “Vertical Seats”  Not allowed to sit on carts or jump seats, but leaning against bulkheads is permitted.  Wear comfortable shoes for long periods of standing.  No service, so bring own food and beverages.  Safety not guaranteed, so must sign liability release form.  Proof of insurance required in the event of inadvertent injuries to airplane cabin, other passengers, or crew during turbulence.  Fare 40% below full fare economy.

Jump Seat Class – Pitch irrelevant, as seat only available when FAs are not seated for safety reasons.  Not permitted to stand in aisles or sit on carts when occupied by Aisle Class or Galley Class customers.  May scrounge leftover food when available, but otherwise, no service.  Must sign same liability release as Aisle Class passengers.  Fare 45% below full fare coach.

Overhead Bin Class – Vertical pitch 21”.  A good choice for smallish people who like to sleep in the fetal position and don’t mind pitch black dark spaces for hours on end.  Allowed to board before Cattle Class in order to claim empty overhead bins and to store carryon under the seats in Cattle Class prior to those folks boarding.  Not a good choice for the claustrophobic individual, as latches do not open from the inside.  Recommend customers wear extra-capacity Depends to prevent accidents and leaks through to those below.  Fare 47% below full fare coach.

Lav Class – Pitch irrelevant; seat available only on takeoff, landing, and between uses; expected to clean toilet and change paper.  Recommend bringing own disinfectant and wearing rubber galoshes to assure personal hygiene.  Also rubber gloves.  Allowed to lean against bulkhead when lavs occupied, but not to stand in aisles or sit on carts.  Fare 48% below full economy.

Belly Freight Class – Pitch irrelevant; comfort variable depending upon size and shape of cargo and luggage which are to be used as seats; expected to bring flashlights and heavy down parka as compartment is pressurized but not heated.  Recommend wearing NFL-certified football helmet to prevent injuries from flying luggage and belly freight.  Air carrier not responsible for back or neck injuries or broken bones.  Fare is a whopping 49% below full coach.

Wheel Well Class – Pitch irrelevant, but you get a unique view on takeoffs and landings.  Required to bring an arctic down parka and down pants certified to 100 degrees below zero and own oxygen supply sufficient to last through duration of flight at 34,000 feet.  Must supply own safety harnesses to counter gravity pull from open wheel well. Airline not responsible for frostbite to extremities, nose, ears, or face.  Airline not responsible for delays causing oxygen supplies to run out short of destination.  Saturday stay in wheel well required.  Fare is a generous 50% below full fare economy.

My previous post related a sad tale of Delta’s version of Chinese water torture when flying to New Orleans from Raleigh on a real (that is, not an upgrade) first class ticket.  I promised to tell the story of the return, too, which was the final bit of mud in my eye.

Though I enjoyed my time with friends in the Crescent City, it stormed and rained buckets every day and night.  The Tuesday morning of my MSY/ATL/RDU flights portended more of the same.  Weather radar at 6:00 AM showed a particularly bad line of thunderstorms moving east towards New Orleans from Baton Rouge, and though my flight to Atlanta wasn’t scheduled until 9:15, I decided to rush to the airport and stand by for the 7:15 AM departure to get out ahead of the storms.

FIRST CLASS?  HA!  YOU AIN’T GOT NO FIRST CLASS TICKET!

After clearing the TSA Pre-Check line I made a beeline to the Delta Sky Club and asked if there were any first class seats available on the 7:15 AM flight.  Yes, the agent, an older gentleman, told me, but I would not be able to upgrade to one of those seats on my ticket.  I expressed surprise, inasmuch as my ticket read “F” in the fare class.  I didn’t need an upgrade on an F fare, I said.  He stated imperiously that it did not mean anything because I had originally bought a coach ticket.  But, I retorted, I paid a great deal of money afterwards to change it to a true first class fare.

The guy didn’t appear to like me arguing with him and clicked away slowly without making eye contact.  Scowling, he finally said he could NOT put me on either the 7:15 AM or the 8:15 AM departures for ATL in F, but he could get me a center seat in coach back in an upper-twenty-something row on either flight.  Or I could wait for my scheduled 9:15 AM flight and hope the airport was not closed by then due to bad weather.  This entire conversation took some 10-15 minutes due to the agent constantly pecking away at the computer and having no sensitivity to the fact that the 7:15 AM flight would soon be closing.

OH, WAIT!  YOU DO HAVE A FIRST CLASS TICKET AFTER ALL.

His attitude was off-putting, and I decided it was best to end the conversation.  Walking to the back of the Club out of earshot of the agent at the desk, I phoned the Delta Elite line and explained what he had told me.  The agent paused a moment to examine my record and then pronounced him dead wrong.  She said of course my fare entitled me to a confirmed first class seat if one was available.  However, she said, the 7:15 AM flight has just closed a minute before and couldn’t be reopened.  She apologized profusely and put me on the 8:15 AM flight–still an hour earlier than my original departure–and also put me in F on an earlier connecting flight ATL/RDU.  She assured me the desk agent in the Club would be notified of his error.  I hoped Delta would at least do that, and maybe even give him a demerit or two.  He lacked competence and commitment to customer service, and I didn’t feel sorry for him.

Once on the 8:15 AM airplane, I could see the dark gray thunderheads looming on the horizon and prayed nervously for an on-time departure.  My wish was granted:  The captain had us at the end of the runway just as two enormous lightning-filled clouds enveloped the airport in a giant U.  We took off due south through the opening of the U in the storm with flashes of lightning on both sides, and we were soon winging our way in smooth, high-altitude air towards ATL.  I checked when I arrived Atlanta, and the 9:15 AM flight was indeed held on the ground long enough so that I would have missed my original ATL/RDU connection.

Thank goodness I thought to phone the DL Elite line.  I should have phoned them first.  Lesson learned.

Several months ago I booked a six day trip to New Orleans on Delta in mid-April (from RDU, my home airport), and I paid a pretty penny for the privilege of flying there in coach.  As a DL Five Million Miler and Platinum, I grabbed the best seats I could right behind first class when I bought the fare, and hoped that when the time came, I would be upgraded.

Then my commitments shifted under me unexpectedly. I’ve been involved in many months of transit planning as part of a team here in my neck of the woods, and I’d planned this trip to visit old friends in the jazz world to coincide with the crescendo of planning exercises that would end two days before my departure.  Didn’t happen.  The culmination of the transit planning work was rescheduled for the day after my departure. I had to be here for the meetings, and so I called Delta to rebook my outbound flights for two days later, making it a four day trip instead of six.

Of course the fare went up by quite a bit because it was only a month out by then, and I also had to pay the dreaded change fee.  I was able to use up my American Express Platinum Card $200 annual airline credit in one fell swoop to reduce the pain of those dollars flying out of my wallet faster than Delta’s jets zip to ATL.  I grabbed the best seats remaining in coach, of course, but my choices were limited by then.

Two weeks before my departure I checked for better seats in coach online at Delta.  Opening my record, I was offered a full “F” fare upgrade for just over $150.  Of course I had a lot of money invested in the fare at that point, so the difference to get to first class had shrunk.  Usually I do not succumb to such offers because they aren’t worth it, but for just $75 each way, I bit.  Better to have confirmed first class seats with no anxiety about waiting for an upgrade.  I paid the extra money and selected the seats I wanted on all four segments (1B).

On departure day I was in a lot of meetings and was dropped late at the airport while still talking on a 90-minute conference call about transit.  I didn’t even hang up through the TSA screen, just threw my phone in the dog bowl and sent it through the x-ray machine while 25 people babbled away in the ether.  My call didn’t end until I had boarded and put my luggage away.  Hanging up exhausted, I was greeted by a chirpy, eager-beaver flight attendant who exuded happiness and made it clear that she was there to make my flight the best ever.  Did I want a drink, she asked.  Yes, I said, a Bloody Mary. “With a lime, of course,” I emphasized.

“Oh, we’re out of limes,” she told me, because “we used them all up coming up from Atlanta!”

“No limes?” I groaned, as if I’d just received news of my 401K tanking again. “How on earth could Delta not have LIMES?  It’s not as if I’d asked for Beluga caviar.  They are just LIMES!”

Okay, I admit I was enervated and a bit overwrought.  I kept thinking how I’d paid $150 for a first class seat but could not even get a drink with limes, a common commodity.  I mean, what was the world coming to?

My happy-pill-taking FA was not going to let me down, however, and she went through a bunch of alternative liquors she could get me. I settled on Dewer’s on the rocks.  She literally leapt back to the galley and poured what looked to me like two mini-bottles of Dewer’s over ice into my glass (I could plainly see her from 1B).  Thrusting the cold glass into my hand, she beamed at me to await my verdict.  “MMMMMM!,” I uttered, as upbeat as I could, after taking the first sip.  She beamed even more and focused on other passengers in the first class cabin.

As we taxied out to the runway, the sweet-natured flight attendant brought me another Dewer’s on the rocks, again appearing to be a double shot (filled to the brim).  Ordinarily I am not a big drinker, stopping at two, or three at the most, but what the hell, I thought.  I was starting to relax, especially because my seatmate in 1A was a real raconteur, hailing from the Florida panhandle and himself matching my intake of hard liquor while regaling me with stories of menacing alligators and other swamp denizens he’d encountered.  I hardly ever get even the time of day from my flying companions these days, so it was a novelty to enjoy such a great conversation with someone who loved to talk and was good at telling colorful stories.  I polished off the second (double?) Dewer’s by the time we reached the runway’s end.

It was there the captain announced that Atlanta had ordered a ground stop and that we’d be sitting on the tarmac for “30-60 minutes.”  I began to realize that I was more than a little tipsy, but since I had a two hour connection in ATL, I didn’t fret over the delay.

Just then the happy FA came up from rear galley and proudly showed me an entire glass full of limes she had “rescued” from the back of the plane.  “Now you can have that Bloody Mary you craved!” she blurted out.

Sounded like a fine plan to me, though it was dawning on me that my speech was a bit slurred as I gabbed with the Floridian about shrimp nets and crab pots and which hull design was best for inshore fishing (I prefer a modified deep vee, such as a Boston Whaler Montauk, about the most perfect boat ever made).  I noticed again two bottles of vodka were disappearing into the Bloody Mary mix with the limes festooned around the perimeter of the glass.  The FA plonked it down with a flourish on my tray table, taking the empty Dewer’s glass, and I obliged her hospitality by chugging down half of it in no time.

An hour later we were still sitting on the runway at RDU, and I had polished off a second Bloody Mary, though by then I was too blotto to know or care whether she had put one or two bottles of vodka in the mix.  I just knew it was time to stop.

At the 90 minute mark, the fellow in 1A also stopped drinking because neither of us could talk and understand each other.   Our mouths weren’t forming words real well.  I realized then that the plane was going to be canceled or delayed so long that I could never make my connection…unless it, too, was delayed by a long time.  I may have been drinking heavily, but I had been constantly checking both my flights on Flightstats.com and Flightaware.com on my Samsung Galaxy (which I had plugged in to renew its juice).  I also called the Delta Elite line several times.  All indications were that both my flights were on time.

It was a very weird Kafkaesque moment when the DL Elite agent told me that my RDU/ATL flight was on the ground in Atlanta and that I would have no trouble making my connection ATL/MSY.  “it is?” I said, sarcastically. “Then what flight am I sitting in here at RDU?” I concluded Delta’s computers were fritzing out.  Even being pretty much dead drunk, I knew I was in trouble then, because I could see the cancellation of my flight in the headlights.

Sure enough, after two hours sitting on the runway, the captain said they were going to the barn—back to the gate—and there to await instructions.  As he started the engines, I managed to get a Delta Elite agent on the phone again and rebooked my flights for the next morning.  Thank God I had a confirmed first class fare booked!  She said there were zero coach seats because tens of thousands of folks were stranded in Atlanta.

At first she tried to persuade me to stay with my flight because she promised it would, sooner or later that night, fly to Atlanta.  And would Delta pay for my hotel room once there? I asked.  “Oh no!” was the answer, “Not when it’s not our fault [weather]. But I could get you on a flight to New Orleans at 8:55 AM in first class if you go.”

“Why in the world would I do that?” I retorted (plastered, yes, but I wasn’t stupid). “There will be zero hotel rooms because of the mass strandings, and I’ll be sleeping on the floor of the Atlanta airport terminal all night.”

“Well,” she said, “If you want to leave RDU on a 6:00 AM flight tomorrow, you can still connect to the 8:55 AM flight in ATL, all in first class because you have a first class ticket.”

Naturally I took that deal as the best plan.  I was just getting the agent to confirm my seat assignments as the plane’s door opened, finally back at the gate, and I walked off with luggage, out of the terminal, and took a cab home.  Paying $35 for a taxi was better than sleeping in the ATL airport or paying for an expensive hotel room near ATL.

Of course I was hurting pretty badly by then.  No food, just hard liquor (I usually drink wine or beer), and exhausted and looking at having to get up before 4:00 AM—hungover, no doubt—for my 6:00 AM flight.  I gobbled down some calories as soon as I walked in the door of my house and then tried to print my boarding passes for the next morning’s flights.

But the Delta system wouldn’t let me.  There they were in plain sight on my screen, the two first class seats that Delta had rebooked for me the following morning, but their system would not even let me check in.

Once again I phoned the Delta Elite line, this time waiting for 16 minutes on hold due to the tens of thousands of poor travelers stuck in Atlanta because of the thunderstorms over the field and all trying desperately to reach a DL agent to get themselves rebooked.  When finally the weary-sounding voice of the agent came on the line, she was very sympathetic—bless her heart—and said she’d have my record unlocked in a jiffy.

Except that she didn’t.  Neither did her supervisor, nor even her supervisor’s boss.  Like me, they could see that I was rebooked and had my seats, but they could not check me in or free up the system to let me print boarding passes.

This went on for about an hour, and by then it was past 10:00 PM.  I was spent and already feeling awful—hangover headache and too tired to keep moving.  The agents all three said they’d documented my record and to go to the counter in the morning when they opened at 4:00 AM to get checked in and receive my boarding passes.  They would keep working on it, they promised.  I gratefully hung up and dropped into bed.

At 3:30 AM the following morning I arose and showered, feeling like a bus had run me down, but I managed to get in the car as my wife—a saint!—drove me to RDU again.  I arrived at 4:15 AM and went promptly to the first class/DL Elite line.  A very nice agent greeted me with cheer and assured me my travails of the previous night were past because he was going to have my boarding passes to me in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

I wish he’d been right.  55 minutes after I had presented myself at the DL counter, with the help of two other counter agents, one a supervisor, and an unseen manager on the radio somewhere else, my boarding passes were finally issued at 5:10 AM. I was by then a nervous wreck  Not one agent had any clue why my record was locked up, though they could clearly see it.  Finally the unseen manager on the radio guessed that the night managers the previous evening might not have removed me from the long-delayed flight.  Sure enough they had not.  I was showing as having “flown” on that flight.  It took 20 minutes for them to untangle that snafu—theirs, of course, not mine—and finally print my boarding passes.

By the time I got through the long TSA Pre-Check queue (yes, too many people are now allowed in Pre-Check, making it as slow, almost, as the regular security line), and ran to my gate, the flight was boarding.  I was relieved but perplexed at the bizarre screw-up and and trying to brush off the accompanying anxiety.

RDU Pre-Check queue

RDU Pre-Check queue (and there were just as many waiting behind me)

I had only a Coke Zero on each of my two flights to New Orleans—no alcohol!  When I arrived in Atlanta, the hordes of travelers who’d been there since the night before made the concourse almost impossible to traverse.  I was glad I’d paid $150 extra for the assurance of first class seats.  Had I not, I would never have reached New Orleans to see my friends.  As it was, my six day trip, which had been cut to four, was now three days and a bit.  I made the most of it.

But when I went to the New Orleans airport for my return flights to Raleigh, Delta put me through the wringer again.  I mean, why limit the pain to just one half of the trip when you can do it both ways, right?  I’ll explain next week.

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