Is flying Delta Air Lines in domestic first class automatically better than a seat in the slowly improving Comfort+ cabin right behind First? Maybe, probably, but I am finding that with enhancements to Comfort+ and depending upon type of aircraft assigned, the differences are shrinking. So no easy answer.

Regarding airport clubs, where there’s an American Express Centurion Club or Priority Pass Club, are those lounges better than Delta’s SkyClub? In my experience, it depends on where I am and where I need to be at any particular airport.  In other words, no pat answer here, either.

Back to class differences, on a recent flight RDU to Seattle on the daily Delta nonstop (DL2556, leaves at 0705), the airline had assigned one of their newest and spiffiest 737-800 aircraft to the six hour flight.  My upgrade to first didn’t happen, but I had a bulkhead seat in Comfort+ immediately behind First.

Delta has reconfigured most of its planes now with a minimal divider to separate the forward cabin from coach, just a translucent ceiling panel and a flimsy curtain.  Without a hard wall between the classes, those in the Comfort+ “bulkhead” row immediately behind the last row of first have unlimited legroom.  Sure, the side-to-side (width) is still as cramped as ever, but the spatial impression in front is a spiritual as well as a physical relief.

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Hardly any separation any more between First Class and Comfort+ on Delta airplanes.

Boarding was smooth, and service after takeoff in Comfort+ was fantastic.  FAs came through five times with beverage and snack service on the almost six hour flight, killing us with kindness each time.

Which reminds me of the recent report that it is five times harder to become a Delta flight attendant now than to gain entry to Harvard. The positive attitudes of Delta cabin crew has certainly skyrocketed in the last few years, and every one on our flight to SEA struck me as someone I’d hire.

Taking advantage of the complimentary beverages in Comfort+, I jokingly asked for Champagne and was surprised to be immediately served a properly ice-cold glass of dry Prosecco, bubbling just the way it should.  Ah, an echo to the golden age of flying!  And in coach to boot, I thought.

The screens and cinema selection on the gleaming new 737-800 were outstanding.  I watch almost two movies between snacking, drinking, reading, and dozing.  Before I knew it, we were descending on final into Sea-Tac.  My initial disappointment at not being upgraded dissipated right after boarding at Raleigh. I was astonished to find myself, well, content at being in the Delta premium economy cabin.

Was it the type of airplane?  The cabin crew?  The fact that I was in the row right behind First Class? Something else?  Probably all that, but that’s what constitutes a happy experience: Not any one thing, but the existential satisfaction of the whole.

Later that day I flew a Delta 717 “shuttle” flight SEA/LAX.  There’s one scheduled every two hours.  Also in Comfort+, also in a bulkhead seat, also with a great crew eager to please.  All good, but after all, only a quick and routine flight between two busy cities.  That said, it was a darn sight more comfortable than any Eastern Airlines Shuttle flight that I often, in days of old, endured between Washington, NYC and Boston.

Returning home on December 24 from LAX to Raleigh, I was confirmed in First Class on the Delta nonstop (only about five hours) and was feeling pretty smug about it.  Ah, comfort and no stress, I thought.  After my great flight to Seattle in Comfort+, this would be the icing on the cake, and getting home just in time for Christmas.

And yet, it was just okay, not anything special, somehow missing parts of that existential satisfaction of the whole I mentioned above.  The seat was wider and more comfortable than any in Comfort+, and the Prosecco just as cold and fizzy.  We were served a good breakfast and bombarded with service from the smiling, good-natured front cabin staff.

What was missing? Little things. Perhaps it was the plane itself, an older and somewhat tired 737 that day with very tiny screens and a poor IFE system.  The cabin had that shopworn look that I’ve become accustomed to on American Airlines aircraft, as if they couldn’t quite hide its decline into shabbiness.

Okay, I admit I see things differently on airplanes than most other people.  Be that as it may, when I walked off the Jetway at Raleigh, I remember thinking that the experience going west had been more pleasant in Comfort+ overall than being in First Class on this flight.

My takeaway is that every flight has its mysteries and uncertainties to be revealed.  I just never know until the flight is done. Of course I will at all times strive for a seat in First, but I now know that Delta’s Comfort+ can be a pleasant sanctuary almost equal to the front cabin.

Back to the subject of club and lounge choices, I could have entered the Delta SkyClub on my AmEx Platinum Card, but since there was also an American Express Centurion Lounge between me and my connecting gate, I opted for that, even though Delta has greatly upgraded (in my opinion) their SkyClubs in the recent years, a process that continues, with better ambiance and dramatic improvements to food options.

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SEA AmEx Centurion Lounge even provided free leather luggage tags with engraved initials.

Just the same, the SEA Centurion Lounge puts the SkyClub to shame.  It is classier, has tastier and more interesting choices in nourishment, and boasts a bar that looks and feels like a real bar.  It’s easy to forget you are in an airport at a Centurion Club.  I believe that American Express is achieving a sense of exclusivity and elegance in its airport clubs that makes them a cut above the SkyClubs and Admirals Clubs.

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SEA Centurion Lounge offers a proper bar selection, all complimentary.

Arriving at Delta’s new home at LAX, Terminals 2 and 3, which are being extensively renovated (and desperately need it), it was back to Delta SkyClubs in both. Delta gave up long-held Terminal 5 because the alleys there are always congested from LAX Terminals 4 and 6. Also the LAX north-side terminals 1 (Southwest), 2 (now Delta), and 3 (now Delta) offer easy access (short taxis) to the longer north-side runways which the airline and its partners use more often.

To assure passengers make connections between terminals and to partner flights in the Bradley International Terminal next door to Terminal 3, Delta shuttle buses operate between and among all three terminals. The shuttles have an additional advantage in keeping passengers airside without having to endure another security screen. That alone is a huge benefit of connecting at LAX via DL flights and its partners.

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Delta shuttle buses at LAX whisk customers between Terminals 2, 3 and Bradley International. Note Delta SkyTeam partner Air France A380 taking off for Paris CDG on the north runway.

I first spent time at the LAX Terminal 3 SkyClub, which is the old TWA Ambassador Club (I was a member in the 80s and 90s). I later took a Delta shuttle bus to the Terminal 2 club because it has showers (the old Air New Zealand lounge), and I needed one before my overseas flight. The excellent food at both Delta SkyClubs surprised me, and the happy and attentive staff in both clubs was good to experience.

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Scrumptious, fresh-made Thai Chicken Red Curry Soup brought around on trays at Delta SkyClub LAX Terminal 3, one of the club’s many happy surprises.

Feeling fresh and in clean clothes after the long day, I took another Delta shuttle bus from Terminal 2 to the Bradley terminal to wait almost five hours for my international flight.  I was delighted that I never left the sanctity of TSA security from RDU, a once-and-done experience all the way to my destination overseas, thanks to Delta’s system for keeping me airside at LAX.  I thank the well-informed SkyClub staff for advising me on that trick.

Bypassing the usual airline check-in counter experience at Bradley (outside security), I did not have a hard copy of my international flight boarding pass.  However, I had checked in online and had an e-copy on my phone.  That proved quite sufficient when I eventually boarded, another new experience for me.  I don’t recall ever before skipping that trip to the international check-in counter, after which enduring another security screen.

No AmEx Centurion Lounge exists at Bradley (or anywhere yet at LAX), and there are no Delta SkyClubs at Bradley, either, but I found a Priority Pass Lounge: the KAL Lounge, which is also the SkyTeam lounge.  By contrast to the pleasant experiences earlier in the day at the Centurion Lounge at SEA and the two Delta SkyClubs at LAX terminals 2 and 3, the huge Korean Airlines Lounge was over-crowded and proved oddly to be overheated  Nonetheless, it was far superior to be in it rather than outside in the main concourse, the usual zoo.

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The KAL Lounge at LAX, also a Priority Pass Lounge, was too hot and overcrowded, but I was happy to be there.

The KAL Lounge offered the normal unlimited food and drink. I grabbed a nice California Cab and walked out onto the large terrace that overlooked the central Bradley concourse to escape the heat.  There I contemplated the enormous video screens constructed to appear nearly 3-D in several directions.  They reminded me vaguely of the billboard blimps in the dystopian movie, Blade Runner. Well, I thought, it is Hollywoodland, after all.

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View from the terrace of the KAL Lounge at LAX Bradley Terminal of the central concourse and giant screens.

It was cooler and uncrowded on the terrace, with a good view of similar balconies leading from other airline clubs around the perimeter of the central concourse.  Not ideal surroundings inside the stuffy and stuffed lounge, especially compared to the other clubs that day,

Okay, not perfect, but it was relaxing on the lounge porch.  I refilled my red wine a time or two and helped myself to sushi and finger food on offer as flight time approached. I reflected with relief that my Priority Pass membership to many hundreds of airport lounges worldwide (comes with AmEx Platinum Card, just as does membership in AmEx Centurion Lounges and Delta SkyClubs) had rescued me there at LAX Bradley from a long and dreary wait down below among the throngs without access to clubs.

In sum, all the clubs had their points.  Even the least of the three, the KAL Lounge, was a superb refuge from the incessant drumbeat of airport stress.  True enough, but I will be even more pleased when American Express Centurion Lounges, where the existential satisfaction of the club experience is realized, are widely available.

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Back in August I jumped on an Air New Zealand fare sale on the carrier’s once-weekly flight between Los Angeles and Rarotonga, Cook Islands.  Rarotonga and the Cooks are little known in America, though it’s a favorite New Zealand tropical getaway. I wrote about the place in a post here.

I intended to book the airline’s Premium Economy roundtrip, but curiosity got the better of me, and I upgraded to Air NZ’s Business Class returning. The fare difference of several hundred dollars on the way home made sense when I discovered the 777-200 aircraft on the LAX/RAR route are now equipped with NZ’s newest lie-flat seats in Business rather than the carrier’s old cradle-style Business seats.

Why pay extra?  I wanted to compare the comfort, space, and service of each class.  Regular readers will know that I have flown international first and business class services on most airlines worldwide since the 1970s, but Premium Economy is relatively novel to me.

So what’s the verdict? The experience of testing both classes was worth the money. Based on my personal criteria, I would choose to fly again in Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy over Business Class.

The reason? NZ’s lie-flat Business Class, the premier service option, is fine and dandy, but the extra space, comfort, and service in PE was sufficient to provide me with all I needed for long flights, including restful sleep.  The premium to get into the front cabin isn’t justified to me, despite the excellent service to be enjoyed there.

Air New Zealand PE is so good, compared to lie-flat Business, that I can easily imagine the airline eliminating Business Class entirely on some routes like LAX/RAR in favor of just two classes: PE and economy.

That said, things didn’t get off to a propitious start on Air New Zealand 19 from LAX to Rarotonga on December 16.  Bradley International Terminal has long been overcrowded, with the result that LAX has created “temporary” remote boarding stands way down at the west end of airport between the runways. Temporary since 2001, that is.

When real gates at Bradley become saturated, flights are assigned to those remote boarding stands, and passengers are bussed to the planes. To load buses, flyers are herded to the extreme northwest corner of Bradley, essentially the terminal basement, where a shabby, ill-lit, makeshift warehouse-store-size area that opens directly to the tarmac has been set up with podiums reminiscent of Costco checkout counters.  The podiums are labeled as gates, which of course they are not, but they serves to screen passengers before allowing them out on the tarmac to buses. It’s a third world experience.

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Look like fun?  NOT!

After enduring the Wal-Martish, almost penal colony aura of the cavernous and ugly space around gates 136 to 141 at the NW lower corner of Bradley LAX, NZ19 boarding (to buses) commenced. Air New Zealand agents called Business Class first, then Premium Economy, and we dutifully boarded the bus, relieved at least that we’d get to the plane ahead of the unwashed.

Wrong!  Our bus sat on the tarmac until it was packed to the gills: Business Class, Premium Economy, and sardine class travelers crushed together in a triumph of egalitarian execution. Incongruously, a food truck parked on the tarmac adjacent to our idling bus, something I’ve never seen at an airport anywhere, beckoned late night workers (it was after 10:00 PM by then).

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Food truck on the active LAX tarmac.  Wonder if the driver was screened.

Only when not a single additional stroller or baby seat or bag or body could be shoved into the bus did the doors close. The vehicle shimmied and groaned as it ground slowly to the far western end of LAX to the “temporary” gate stand adjacent to our aircraft.  Other buses, likewise packed, followed.

The buses vomited out their throngs onto a dystopian, harsh concrete ramp up a menacing, shadowy incline to a flimsy, narrow jet bridge, a cinematic scene from the film noir genre.  The experience sent shivers through me.  Many of the youngest children sensed a vague threat in the darkness and shadow and began to wail in fear. I flashed on pigs being whipped up a ramp into the slaughterhouse. Ah, LAX paradise!

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The creepy ramp of dark shadows at the remote stand at LAX

The relief of finally reaching the airplane door was palpable. I remarked to an Air NZ staffer herding us that it was a shocking welcome on board. He leaned in close and hissed through gritted teeth to me, “Dehumanizing indeed, and it’s been this way for SIXTEEN YEARS!”

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Little kids cried in fear as we made our way up the unwelcoming ramp to the plane at LAX

Nice people as New Zealanders are, staff feigned happy talk, but it was a total horror show boarding, and not even a pretense of differentiation among classes of service.  Only when we stepped on board did some passengers peel away to Business Class while the rest of us found our seats in Premium Economy or coach.  I felt sorry for Business Class customers who deserved better treatment for the fares they had paid.

Any advantage I had in securing my carryon by being boarded ahead of other passengers had been lost in the chaos just described. I had paid $10 extra for a bulkhead seat in Premium Economy, but the forward compartment over my seat contained a roller bag, and the PE cabin was already nearly full, including the overheads. Guess I should have waited to board the bus last so as to be first off and up the creepy ramp.

I found overhead space, but it was far enough behind me to be a nuisance when I needed access to my bag.  I would later spot an Air NZ flight attendant going into that roller bag in the overhead compartment directly above my bulkhead seat.  I was not amused by her capture of what I viewed as my precious space.  I contemplated asking her for my $10 back.

A “welcome on board” glass of Champagne to sooth my soul would have been nice. I expected at least a NZ bubbly, if not the real thing.  After all, Cathay routinely serves boarding Champagne in their PE cabin (see this post).

It never came.  Air NZ flight attendants were frantically helping customers find their seats.  I couldn’t get anyone’s attention.  Up in Business Class, though, I could see eager hands grabbing for Champagne flutes then being brought down the aisle, to my envy.

We pulled away 35 minutes behind schedule, but the captain informed us it would be a short 8.5 hours to Rarotonga once airborne and we would arrive on time. I dozed on takeoff, glad the madness of LAX was finished.

As soon as I dropped into my PE seat I found that it was plenty wide enough for comfort and for privacy from my seatmate. I also noted the seat bottom was well-padded for comfort, and I figured out the tricky leg rest mechanism.  The heavy blanket and large pillow were boons to slumber, too, as were the complimentary headphones, which appeared identical to the ones provided in Business.  The seat’s comfy angle of recline contributed to relaxation as well.

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My bulkhead PE seat (on the right) on NZ19 LAX/RAR

Forty minutes after takeoff smiling, energetic Air New Zealand flight attendants began making up for the omission of boarding service by bringing around trays of Champagne and orange juice.

Served in plastic glasses, though, and a bit flat and tepid. Obviously the crew had poured as many as possible on climb-out and let the stuff sit until it lost its fizz and warmed to cabin temp.  I flashed on the Cathay PE Champagne served in real glasses, perfectly chilled and quite bubbly.  I knew I had been spoiled.

Nonetheless, I downed my cup in one gulp and glanced up to grab another.  The FA noticed my look of dire need and promised me a second serving would be “the good stuff from behind the iron curtain!” He winked and nodded towards Business Class.  Soon he was back with a real glass of real French Champagne, cold and fizzy. I savored that one slowly and properly.

The meal was eventually presented in several courses.  Not nearly as lavish as Business Class, but with tasty enough options. Entrees were inexplicably much delayed. When I was served another real glass flute of real French Champagne from the front cabin without asking, I didn’t complain.

The movie selection was good, and the screens in PE of excellent resolution and size.  I tried hard to watch the 1966 Paul Newman movie “Harper” but couldn’t keep my eyes open.  The Air NZ Premium Economy seat had the right soporific design elements.  Despite attentive flight attendants in the PE cabin throughout the night, I slept soundly.

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Looking over the PE cabin on NZ19 LAX/RAR

I awoke for a two course breakfast (one cold, one hot), which was good and hit the spot, after a satisfying sleep.  Soon we were on final approach to Rarotonga Airport.  I kept thinking what an easy and relaxing flight it had been after such a frenzied beginning at LAX, to which I attributed the great seat design combined with good cabin service.

Returning RAR/LAX on NZ18 in Business Class six days later included use of the modest but superb Air NZ lounge airside at Rarotonga Airport.  It’s a tiny airport to begin with, and I was therefore surprised to find a club at all.  I was glad to have the oasis of calm to wait in and even more pleased to discover the finger food and cheeses were delicious.

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Air New Zealand lounge at Rarotonga Airport

When boarding time arrived for our 777-200 the lounge manager announced that we were to follow her to the gate, which was just outside the door.  The airside space at the RAR Airport is small, so it was a short walk to the gate agents, who checked passports and boarding passes (again) and showed us to the planeside stairs (no jetways at RAR).  It was an easy, relaxed process, just the way it should have been done, so much better than the craziness at LAX outbound.

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Looking from the Air NZ lounge at RAR into the entirety of the tiny airside waiting area

On board a flock of flight attendants in Business Class greeted us with big smiles and showed us to our seats, immediately returning with trays of Champagne and orange juice. Once my luggage was stowed in the large overhead compartments, I settled into seat 2A, the first row window-side seat.  The Champagne was again not very chilled and almost flat, but I said to hell with it and drank up two glasses anyway.

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Air New Zealand 777-200 flight NZ18 on Dec 22 ready for boarding on the tarmac at Rarotonga

Note I did not say bulkhead or window seat.  Air New Zealand’s lie-flat Business seats adjacent to windows are angled sharply away from the windows so that passengers face the aisle, not the bulkhead.  It was difficult and uncomfortable from that strange position to turn to look out the window.

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NZ18 Business Class seats face the aisle in a herringbone pattern

Aisle seats are also angled sharply facing forward towards the aisle, but in the opposite direction from the window seats in a herringbone pattern so that no one is exactly looking at anyone else, though a glance left or right will catch another passenger’s eye when they are seated.

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NZ18 Business Class showing angled seats on opposite aisle

I don’t like this kind of angled seats.  The NZ ones are similar to the design of Virgin Atlantic’s Business Class (Upper Class—see my review here).  The seats feel a bit cramped and somehow too close to one’s neighbor, which I grant is an odd description considering that Air NZ Premium Economy seats are in reality closer together than those in Business.  And yet I prefer the PE seat configuration.

We were soon airborne and bound for Los Angeles, and the grand service began.  The evening meal came, as always in every airline’s Business Class, in several courses. It was all superior to the food in PE, even if awkwardly served on the large tray that pops up at the flick of a button.  Awkward because of the odd way the food portions were placed counterintuitively lengthwise on the tray, not because of flight attendant inadequacy. All good, though, including hot tea to finish.

Air NZ’s new biz seats have little ability to recline because of the bed mechanism.  At the touch of another button, the entire seat flips over with a soft “pop” sound and becomes a flat surfaced bed on which the FAs unroll a slim but comfortable padded mattress. Passengers then crawl up onto the flat surface, which is rigid and incapable of any nuances in recline (it’s binary: either flat or a chair, as you choose).

It slept well, though I found it nearly impossible to prop myself up to watch a movie (I was hoping to finish “Harper”).  Finally I gave up and drifted off to dreamland.

While I made an early morning trip to the head, the FAs unmade my bed without asking.  It was time for breakfast, so I didn’t complain.  Soon I had several more courses of the usual cold and hot breakfast items one expects in airplane front cabins.  By the time we touched down at LAX I was feeling sated and rested.  I had even managed to finish watching “Harper” while enjoying breakfast.

In summary, both Business and Premium Economy on Air New Zealand were excellent: comfortable, spacious enough, with service well done.  You can’t go wrong with either one, but if you want to stretch your dollars, I recommend the substantial comfort and spatial bump to PE above regular coach.  Usually that economy-to-PE fare difference won’t break the bank, and by comparison to Business fares, PE is a bargain.

Though I routinely employ the Amazon app on my Samsung smartphone to order and purchase an array of useless junk, I’ve shied away from large buys like airline tickets except on my laptop. That is, until now.

Last week I attended a two-day transit conference in Richmond and didn’t think I’d need my computer.  I’d already seen the Cathay Pacific super-sale offer that dropped like a gift from the heavens on Black Friday. Cathay’s eye-popping roundtrip deals to Hong Kong and beyond in Premium Economy were as low as $1,184, and in Business starting at $3,187, all priced the same from any U.S. gateway city.

The enticement to spend a few lovely days in Hong Kong again and to ride there and back in Cathay Pacific’s superb Premium Economy cabin for so little money excited my wife and me, but with a kid in 9th grade, we remain tethered to the school calendar and just couldn’t find dates that would work. Though the fare sale extended through the following Wednesday, my wife and I failed to hit pay dirt after spending the weekend feverishly comparing calendars. So I drove up to Richmond Monday afternoon with my cell phone and no laptop, certain that we weren’t going to Hong Kong on this sale.

Meantime, I spread the word hither and yon among my friends about Cathay’s extraordinary sale and the world-class service we had experienced with the airline over the 2016-17 Christmas-New Year’s holiday in Cathay’s PE cabin.  The wide date range for outbound travel allowed on this fare sale (January 1 to May 23) and liberal return policy (up to six months from date of departure) persuaded a number of folks I alerted to buy tickets on Cathay for no reason except to experience Hong Kong and to see what Premium Economy was like on the way there and back.

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Cathay Pacific Premium Economy seats are widely spaced front and sides, and they recline comfortably for sleeping.

Most of those friends who bought passage during the sale were already aware of Cathay Pacific’s great business class comfort, privacy and top-notch service. They were also impressed with the ultra-low three grand fare in business.  However, none had before flown Premium Economy aboard any carrier, let alone in CX’s superior compartment.  They took my word that it was grand and bought tickets to satisfy their curiosity about PE while enjoying all the charm and food delights that Hong Kong has to offer at a very reasonable fare.  One told me he couldn’t NOT go at those prices!

By the time I reached the Marriott in Richmond on Monday afternoon, my phone was constantly buzzing with questions from friends and colleagues interested in leaping on the great Cathay deal before the clock ran out on Wednesday. Sharing their thrill was not quite the same as the exciting prospect of booking my own trip, but I was resigned that we couldn’t go this time.

Then Tuesday afternoon my wife emailed with a tiny travel window that would work for us.  Her plan, however, required leaving on the very last day of the outbound travel range, May 23.  My calendar showed May 23 to be the date of the regional transit authority’s Board of Trustees meeting.  As a Board officer, I’m honor-bound to attend meetings, which begin at noon.  Allowing for time to get to RDU airport, fly to JFK, and then get to our gate after the Board meeting meant that we could only book a late evening Cathay flight JFK/HKG.  Was there one?  Even if so, it seemed unlikely that Premium Economy seats would be available on the last flight on the last outbound legal date of the fare sale. Our temporary joy was dashed.

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Cathay Pacific Premium Economy cabin is small and intimate.  Also not large screens.

Crestfallen, I opened the Cathay sale site on my Samsung S7 browser and scrolled through all the departures available on May 23.  And there it was: CX889 JFK/HKG, departing at 21:55 (9:55 PM) on May 23.

But were there Premium Economy seats remaining at the dirt-cheap sale price on the last flight on the last allowable outbound travel date?  Scrolling around with my fat fingers on the tiny screen I determined that, yes indeed, PE seats at $1,1,84 round trip were available.  I hit the “book” button for two seats with trepidation, my digit swaying nervously over the itty-bitty screen.

Boom! Cathay accepted the booking and asked for payment.  Did I dare give it my credit card over the loosey-goosey Marriott guest wifi?  Well, hell, I thought, I had no choice because I wasn’t going to get home to my computer until the time had expired on the Cathay fare sale. I could either do it or let the sale pass.

But I wouldn’t do it on an open wifi network.  Careful to keep my browser window active, I turned off the wifi radio on my smartphone in order to conduct the credit card processing via the cell phone network rather than the Marriott guest wifi, which I suspected was as holey as Swiss cheese. Steadying each finger, I punched in my account number and other data, and Cathay issued the ticket, my first-ever via a smartphone. Pretty soon an e-ticket email arrived for both of us.

Our flights stop in Vancouver in both directions, which will mean being trapped in a brightly-lit, glass-walled box in the middle of the night for 90 minutes inside security while the plane is serviced and boarded there.  That’s not going to be fun, but since this was the sole schedule that worked for us, and since we are paying next to nothing to fly 16,142 miles in comfort, who’s complaining?

And, happily, there have been no reported dishonest charges on the credit card I used to purchase the Cathay tickets via my smartphone.

I’ve always tried to own up to my errors on the exceedingly rare occasion when I’ve been in the wrong (my wife has a contrary opinion to both assertions). In that spirit, I humbly admit that after I badmouthed Delta Airlines in my previous post just before Thanksgiving, the gate staff at Raleigh/Durham and at Minneapolis/St. Paul airports came through with upgrades for me, my wife, and my family on RDU/MSP and again on MSP/RDU. Thank you, Delta gate agents!  I had to eat Delta crow for Thanksgiving, but it was worth it.

Let’s hope they don’t lose their jobs for being nice.  In helping me, RDU and MSP airport gate personnel violated their employer’s ironclad rule that one companion traveling with an elite member, and one only, may qualify (if seats are available) to be upgraded with the elite member from Main Cabin (Basic Economy flyers are entitled to nothing, not even an advance seat assignment, regardless of elite status). Usually the upgrade, if available, is to Comfort+, and, once in a blue moon, to First Class.

I had booked the earliest RDU/MSP flight, a 6:00 AM departure, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, usually the busiest air travel day of the year, which meant my chances were slim for an upgrade even had I been traveling alone.  As my wife and daughter were with me on the same record, and because of the one-companion-and-only-one upgrade rule, what chance did I have of escaping the mid-cabin row 17 that read on our boarding passes? None, I thought.

However, a lifetime of flying has taught me that it never hurts to ask.  Thus I spoke to the RDU gate agent about 5:00 AM when she opened her podium.  I was candid in saying that I was aware that three on a record disqualified me from the upgrade scrum. She smiled politely and said she would see what she could do. Just asking her satisfied me; nothing ventured, nothing gained, after all.  I relaxed and joined my wife and daughter and fully expected to be sitting in row 17.

My surprise was genuine when the gate agent called me just before boarding to inquire whether we would mind being split up in seats 1D, 2B, and 3D in First Class. It is fair to say, in fact, that I was nonplussed, but I recovered quickly and stuttered that split seat assignments were fine. And so it was that we enjoyed the comfort and service—breakfast even—for the 2 hour, 20 minute ride up to the Twin Cities.  I had a Bloody Mary to celebrate once we boarded and promptly nodded off until the meal service began.

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Delta’s refurbished A321s include 5 rows of First Class (20 F class seats–more chances to upgrade), mood lighting, and bigger in-seat screens.

Delta that morn had assigned a newly refurbed A321 to the flight with all the new interior mood lighting and controls.  It was a fun experience that forced me to reflect on how Delta is investing so much more in technology and service than AA or UA while at the same time instituting death by a thousand cuts upon its more frequent flyers.  But if you can manage to somehow get into a front cabin seat on even a nondescript domestic flight, Delta is inching towards making the experience better than what I’ve called it since the 1980s; that is, a mere escape from coach.

Coming home was a different story. Our Saturday-after-Thanksgiving MSP/RDU departure was scheduled for 8:20 PM, Delta’s last nonstop of the day on that route.  The Minneapolis airport was throbbing with holiday travelers going home. The area around MSP Gate G12 was already congested when we arrived a good 75 minutes before flight time. I figured lightning couldn’t strike twice on the same itinerary, but what the heck, I asked just the same.

This time the gate agent was just shy of brusque as he informed me that upgrading more than two on a record was against the rules, thrusting my Main Cabin boarding passes (again, in row 17) back to me. No matter; we had enjoyed the unexpected upgrades flying up. I found my wife and daughter to wait for the Sky Priority group to be called.

Just before boarding, the same gate agent who had seemed officious tapped me on the shoulder.  When I turned to see who it was, he was smiling and handed me three new boarding passes in the bulkhead row of Comfort+ immediately behind First Class (seats 10A, 10B, and 10C).  “Think of it as early Christmas present,” he said, and I thanked him profusely.

Once again we delighted in the flight, another refurbished A321.  In fact, because Delta has removed the physical bulkhead that used to separate First from Economy, we enjoyed extraordinary legroom under the First Class seats in front of row 10. The newly designed overhead compartments were also capacious enough to hold two roller bags plus heavy coats we’d worn in anticipation of frigid Minnesota temps (it was 14 F. when we arrived the day before Thanksgiving).

The front-to-back comfort was, for once, really there in Comfort+, even the “plus,” thanks to the bowling alley-length legroom despite the distinct discomfort in width.  And the service, too, was great.  The First Class flight attendant came back to make sure we had plenty of premium snacks and beverages.  My wife and I thought it rude to decline her gracious offers and thus imbibed and munched all the way to Raleigh, where we arrived a whopping 30 minutes early.

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No bulkhead between First & Economy on Delta’s refurbished A321s means lots of legroom for those lucky enough to snag a seat in Comfort+ Row 10.

Grateful thanks again to the great Delta ground staff at Raleigh/Durham and Minneapolis/St. Paul.  I certainly hope you are not penalized, let alone terminated, for treating your most loyal customers like human beings by breaking the rules.  Please persist in that customer sensitivity as you climb the ladder at Delta.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Delta sent a cheery email with an upbeat headline: Big News: Complimentary Upgrades Are Expanding.  The short embedded message read: “Starting April 1, 2018, you’ll be eligible for Unlimited Complimentary Upgrades to Delta One on all domestic flights. You’ll be notified of your Complimentary Upgrade within hours of your departure time.”

I took it at face value.  After all, no asterisks or small print appeared to spoil the supposed happy news.  Good old Delta, always doing nice things for Five Million Miler Lifetime Platinums like me.  This Delta One upgrade goodie on top of being eligible for domestic First Class and Comfort+ with no catch?

Of course there’s always a catch, which I learned of on Tuesday when I checked in for my family’s flight on Wednesday RDU/MSP at 6:00 AM.  I am traveling with my wife and 14 year old daughter.  Plenty of Comfort+ and First Class seats were still available even on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, usually the busiest travel day of the year, and my status as a Lifetime Platinum hasn’t changed.

The Delta system asked me as I was checking the three of us in whether I wanted to upgrade to Comfort+ for $29 each, or $87 altogether—on top of paying a steep fare of more than $400 each for the short round trip Raleigh to the Twin Cities, tickets I had purchased months before.

I recalled that Delta doesn’t allow comp upgrades for more than two (the elite flyer plus one other person), not even to Comfort+, and thus I expected to pay for my daughter’s Comfort+ upgrade.  But I didn’t expect to pay for all three.  I phoned the elite line to help me understand.

Turns out that Delta has a marvelous Catch-22 rule built into its upgrade program:  If more than two are on the record, then Delta doesn’t recognize even the Five Million Miler for upgrades of any kind, not even to Comfort+, which is why the system asked me to pay for all three Comfort+ upgrades.  It is blind to my status if my wife and daughter are both on the record with me.

The nice Delta agent offered to divide me, or me plus one other, out of the record which would have signaled the Delta system to “see” my status and perhaps offer an upgrade.  However, that leaves the third traveler—either my wife or daughter—stranded in a single seat somewhere back in coach.

Of course we might lucky and find three seats together if I paid $29 each way for the single traveler to be in Comfort+.  But there’s no guarantee of that, and you don’t know until you agree to divide out the records and try to seat everyone together.  By then it’s too late to revert to the original threesome if no seats are available for the single upgrade.  That’s not a risk I wish to take when my family is traveling together, especially not on the busiest travel day of the year.  I get the Delta message: Don’t travel with your family if you want upgrade perks.

So we will remain together seated tightly-confined way back behind Comfort+, where Delta has assured me and my family of an uncomfortable start to our Thanksgiving holiday.

Why are window shades drawn on most domestic flights now?

Used to be in summer months at sun-drenched airports like Phoenix that airlines sometimes asked passengers to close the window shades when departing.  I could understand that.  One summer I consulted for an insurance company in Houston and experienced 68 straight days of temps at or over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

But now it seems airlines routinely close the shades on every flight at every airport between flights year-round.  One airline manager told me it was because it saved the carriers money on cooling the planes.

You’d think passengers would open the shades on boarding, or at least to do so once the flight was underway, but most do not in my observation.  I’ve flown in broad daylight on planes which kept most shades drawn gate to gate.  On a recent 57-minute midday Delta flight RDU to ATL, every passenger in first class kept the shades down, most watching the IFE offerings.  The cabin was gloomy and claustrophobic.

Has the experience of flying become so banal and routine that no one wants to see outside?  Has the magic of flying disappeared?  What happened to the federal regulation that required window shades to be up for takeoff and landing?

Perhaps the ubiquity of screens has turned us all into zombies: smartphones, tablets, laptops, in-flight entertainment systems. I hardly ever see anyone reading a book on planes now. Eyeballs are on one screen or another, rarely twitching sideways to take in the magnificent earth landscape from 35,000 feet outside the window.  When I inquire about their lack of interest in what for me is the awe-inspiring real world, people look at me curiously and rarely have a response. They look away, as if they’ve encountered the village idiot.  I find the void of flying curiosity and excitement depressing.

Why do I have 34 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades in my account (and growing), but I can never use them?

I am consistently upgraded 30-50% of the time on Delta, but on AA it never happens. With only 1.24 million miles recorded on my AAdvantage account, I remain a mere Lifetime Gold who doesn’t have much juice with American Airlines any more.  Gone are the years of being an Executive Platinum—and even if I was still an EP, there are two elite levels above that now at AA.  So I sometimes find myself number 24 on the upgrade list for even a half hour flight RDU/CLT.  Gate agents tell me that most Executive Platinums are rarely upgraded, so what chance does a Gold have?

If I can never use the 500-mile upgrades, then why do they keep accumulating?  They are no good at all.  Why doesn’t American allow me to pay for a confirmed upgrade at perhaps two times the mileage required?  I would.

For example, the normal 500-mile upgrades required for SFO/CLT is five. I would gladly pay 10 to get out of coach, because as I have repeatedly said since the 1980s, domestic front cabins are no longer first class anyway, but merely an escape from coach.  I have said since 1986 that, to be honest with customers, airlines should change the fare code designation from F to NC, meaning “not coach”.

Instead, I have to pay to get into domestic first class.  Which I sometimes do on long flights, such as CLT/SFO, because even AA’s domestic so-called premium economy seats (Main Cabin Extra) are tiresome and tedious for more than an hour or two.

Yet those 500-mile upgrades keep on building up in my AAdvantage account, a mirage worth nothing.

Why is the experience of flying 12-14 hour flights on Emirates in ordinary economy so superior to five hour transcons on American and Delta in coach in their so-called premium economy sections (Main Cabin Extra on AA, Comfort+ on DL)?

The Gulf carriers (Emirates, Qatar, Etihad) claim they don’t need a genuine premium economy (not a phony section like AA’s MCE, but genuine premium economy like Cathay Pacific—see this post) because their coach cabins are so good.  I can personally attest to the fact that 14-hour flights in coach on Emirates, an airline on which I hold no elite status, were noticeably more comfortable and overall stress-free than mere five hour flights on Delta or American in their supposed PE seats.

What made Emirates memorable, I believe, were subtle and cumulative differences:

  • On entering the Emirates airplanes, the flight attendants were numerous, cheerful (obviously happy), eager to help, and accommodating. On my first 14-hour flight, I had an aisle seat, but it was in an area with families.  I asked during boarding if it was possible to move once the plane was off the ground.  To my surprise, the cabin crew pointed me to several bulkhead aisle seats in the next section to choose from immediately and then helped me move my luggage.
  • As usual, coach travelers brought many large bags on board, yet somehow the copious overhead compartments on Emirates planes absorbed every piece. I cannot say why, since overhead space often runs out on DL and AA overseas flights using the same or similar aircraft.  I watch FAs helping many coach passengers stow their luggage overhead, and perhaps they are simply well-trained and efficient at it.
  • Coach passengers were given small but sturdy “welcome aboard” zipper bags containing essentials, such as earplugs, eyeshades, toothbrush, and toothpaste. Mine also had lip balm and men’s cologne. It was a nice gesture.
  • Beverages were offered to all coach passengers while boarding, and drinks were topped off by watchful, smiling FAs. Their care and attention felt genuine, and I was pampered by several flight attendants.  They wanted to know where I was from and going to.  Because there were so many, they had time to chat and warmly get to know passengers.  It was a very human experience, not the usual cold machine-like routine of boarding by American carriers with cattle prods.
  • Seats were no wider or had any more pitch (in my estimation) than on AA or DL, but they did feel more comfortable while sitting. I cannot explain why. Economy seats are not big and are often hard to sit for many hours, but the Emirates seats were easy to tolerate for 14 hours.
  • The IFE systems worked well and had many choices. I thought the selection of movies and other entertainment was sufficient to satisfy anyone’s tastes for several days.  The screens were not huge, but neither were they tiny.  I used my own noise-canceling, around-the-ear headphones, but I have to do that on American and Delta flights, too. Emirates did provide on-ear headphones to every coach customer.
  • Beverage and food services were offered multiple times, with snacks and drinks (both alcoholic and non) available self-service at several locations between cart services.
  • The meals actually tasted good. Certainly not business class or first class quality, but certainly better than the standard prison rations doled out like playing cards on long Delta and American flights overseas—or not provided at all on most domestic flights.
  • Pillows and blankets were available and comfortable. smiling flight attendants were quick to give out additional pillows and blankets to any who wanted more.
  • Flight attendants fussed over passengers throughout the long flights. They were always available and invariably polite, friendly, and helpful.
  • Emirates noticed that I had a long layover in Dubai, prompting FAs to bring me several food coupons in generous amounts to use at the airport while waiting. Who ever heard of a U.S. carrier offering such a courtesy, especially proactively?
  • Cabin crew was available to chat and respond to requests at every galley location. FAs often asked if they could get us anything not already on the self-service counters. Crew members also circulated through the cabins regularly, attending to requests and offering assistance.
  • As everyone knows, lavatories on long-distance flights get a lot of use and frequently show it in the most disgusting ways. On Emirates, however, attendants in the coach section constantly monitored and cleaned lavs, often replenishing supplies.  Thus trips to the toilets were pleasant by comparison to experiences on other airlines.

Overall, the answer as to why the experience was better on Emirates is elusive and subjective.  I left four long Emirates flights (plus one short one) feeling rested and sanguine, even the 14 hour flights. I remember the experiences as fun, easy, without stress, even though the coach chairs on board were probably not much different from those bolted into any other airplane.

Yet I find myself walking off five hour Delta and AA flights feeling tired, even irritable, relieved the ordeal is over. Truth be told, I often dread those transcon flights in coach, and I have to steel myself to endure them.

I credit the great Emirates experience to the small differences listed in aggregate, most especially the many opportunities for a friendly human interaction with the warm, professional on-board Emirates staff.  They made me feel at home from the first moment I stepped on their planes, through the airport connection process, and right up to leaving their planes at my destinations.  What was it?  Well, it wasn’t sterile or robotic.  I think what made the difference was attitude.

In my October 13th post, I shamelessly confessed to being travel-selfish and determined to take my wife and daughter to Europe during the Easter/Spring Break period when everybody else also wants to go to Europe.  Nonetheless, I finally gave up on Europe due to the high ticket costs and set my sights instead on an ultra-cheap Qatar Airways fare to Bangkok.  However, my trip planning didn’t end there.

Qatar was enticing me with an $1100 fare RDU/BKK that seemed irresistible and unbeatable. I was ready to jump on that fare as fast as a duck on a June Bug (as we say in the South).

The fare was in coach on Qatar, of course, not even Premium Economy, since the Gulf carriers have yet to leap onto that particular cabin class bandwagon, but I’ve survived Emirates in plain old coach halfway around the globe.  For such an astonishing bargain on a holiday trip with my wife and teenage daughter, I will endure economy class.

But before hitting the “buy” button at qatarairways.com, I was alerted to a new European fare sale via Aer Lingus, and I couldn’t resist a last ditch search for reasonable prices to fly to Germany.  Though the Irish airline tickets were quite reasonable, the sale only extended to the end-of-year holiday period, not to Easter.  I made a calendar entry to remind myself to try Aer Lingus again for a business trip in May, and I expect it will be in their business class cabin.

Thus I turned back to Qatar, then hesitated again. Always seeking a better class of service for the same or not much more money, I searched many travel websites to compare economy, premium economy (PE), and business class fares RDU to Bangkok, as well as to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, our actual destinations.

These days one can be driven mad by the myriad and complexity of fares between any two cities on fixed dates, let alone mixing and matching city-pairs using flexible dates.  It’s like playing three-dimensional chess. Soon I was lost in that game.

Delta alone has four pricing levels that apply just to domestic first class connections to their versions of PE and business class on partner airlines like China Eastern, not to mention the uncountable fare levels that apply in coach, and all airlines have what are called “married connections” that connect one “dog” flight to another to yield dirt-cheap fares that they figure bargain-hunters will go for.  It takes a lot of time and patience to sift through so many airlines, partners, connections, cabins, and possible dates.

Before too long my efforts uncovered a RDU/BKK premium economy fare not on Qatar but on China Southern on their long-range 777-200 JFK/CAN (Guangzhou) flight priced at $1500 round trip from RDU, just $400 more than flying in coach on Qatar.  I wondered if the PE (premium economy) on China Southern would be any good and found this video, a review of CZ 300 JFK/CAN, among other critical commentary. It pointed to a comfortable China Southern seat but inferior service compared to, say, PE on Cathay Pacific.

And the China Southern deal didn’t even offer frequent flyer miles. Worse, there was an overnight layover in Kunming, China (KMG airport) returning which would cut a day off our already short week in Thailand.

Kunming, Kunming, I thought.  It rang a bell. Kunming is in Yunnan Province, southwestern China just above Myanmar (Burma), and I recalled a friend’s trip to Yunnan and Kunming some time ago that he and his family had raved about.  Cursory research made me realize that we might enjoy seeing Kunming even more than another (of many wonderful) trips to Thailand.  That steered me to check fares there.

Knowing that China Southern is a Delta partner led me to persistently search delta.com. That process ground me down in a hurry, but finally revealed a $1505 fares RDU/KMG in premium economy on the itinerary RDU/DTW/PEK/KMG (internal China leg on Delta partner China Eastern).

To my surprise and delight, I found that Delta’s connecting flight DTW/PEK is to be fitted by Easter, 2018 with Delta’s brand new PE cabin. It would not be the discomfort of so-called “Comfort+” service currently offered on most of Delta’s international flights, a lousy way to fly, in my opinion.

Comparing the China Southern PE fare (also $1500) to Delta/China Eastern, the schedules to KMG were similar, and I opted to take my chances with Delta’s new PE, partly out of curiosity, and partly because of the poor reviews of the China Southern PE service JFK/CAN.  I wanted to fly Delta one way and China Southern the other for comparison of their PE products, but both $1500 fares are solely round trip on one carrier or the other: no splitting.

Flying on Delta, we would get miles, too (though they aren’t worth much these days).  For only fifteen hundred dollars each in real premium economy!  I jumped on that Delta PE fare as fast as a hound dog on a pork chop (as we also say in the South).

The nonrefundable tickets are now booked and paid for, so we’re going to Kunming during Spring Break.  It fits our budget (max of $1500 round trip each), and it suits our yen to journey to a place new to us.  It comports with a travel schedule which we must adhere to, selfishly or not, thanks to the tyranny of the public school calendar.

We aimed for Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary via Germany and ended up 4.857 miles away (as the crow flies) in Kunming and surrounding Yunnan via Beijing.  After the colossal time sink spent looking for deals, I am pleased, of course, that it’s over.   However, now that we are locked in to these tickets, I fully expect the airlines to announce deep discount Spring Break sales to Europe starting immediately.

Okay, I admit that all travel is selfish.

Nonetheless, I am shamelessly disappointed that I can’t find “reasonable” fares to Europe over Easter. Not even with five days of flexibility to work with. Why not?  Principally because my travel dates are siloed in Easter week, one of the most expensive holiday periods of the year, and so my search for a “reasonable” airfare to Europe came up with zilch.

Mine is an especially selfish admission, given that current airfares to Europe from major gateways like NYC, ORD, IAD, and BOS are reportedly the cheapest in decades, that is, as long as you have a lot of date flexibility, and as long as you live near one of those major gateway airports.

But with a high schooler still at home I remain a slave to the tyranny of the school calendar and have no such flexibility.  Our daughter has a Spring Break which coincides with Easter, and only within those beginning and ending dates can I plan family vacation travel.

Living in Raleigh, not a big gateway city, also narrows my chances of finding bargain fares, even with two direct flights RDU to Europe every day (to LHR and CDG).

Then there’s my “bad timing” problem:  We aimed to fly to Munich in order to get connecting trains to Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary, but Air Berlin is defunct as of this week, and that’s impacting fares to Europe, particularly to and from Deutschland. Lufthansa and other carriers serving Germany are ecstatic and have jacked up fares. Of course that may not last, but it is a present factor.

Oh, and while I am blabbering guilt, one more thing: My definition of what is a “reasonable” round trip fare from RDU to Munich is entirely subjective and therefore also selfish:  a thousand bucks, more or less, seems like a fair amount to visit the Old Country again.

I mean, who doesn’t love Europe?  I fell for the Continent’s uncountable charms way back in 1973 the first time I winged across the Atlantic. My journey began from JFK on a Sabena World Airways 747.  The flight landed in Brussels during the magnificent fury of a northern European storm.  I recall nervously taking note of the exits as we descended through the extremely low ceiling, tossing and turning wildly in the wind, mentally calculating how fast I could bound from my aisle seat to the door should the big plane smack down hard on the ground, as I thought likely.

The Sabena pilot masterfully landed the jumbo jet perfectly centered on the runway, if a bit hard, leaving me with an indelible memory of my welcome to the Continent.  I’ve been hooked on Europe ever since.  In later years I had the great good fortune to work in Western Europe and England over a series of years, and I have gone back frequently ever since to visit friends, family, and favorite places.  I’ve always been able to find fares from RDU that didn’t break the bank.

Until now. My definition of a reasonable fare—at or under $1,000 in coach, or frequent flyer awards at or under 60,000 miles—eludes me for a trip in late March to early April, 2018. Forty-three years after my first trip, airfares to Europe hover in the $1,400-1,700 round trip range during the Easter period when I selfishly want to go.

And that’s not even for premium economy. PE fares are kissing $2,000. Taking my wife and daughter would cost $4,500-6,000 just to fly 4,500 miles to Munich from Raleigh.  By comparison, we are flying 6,603 miles to Rarotonga (Cook Islands, in the far South Pacific) at Christmas for the same $2,000 per ticket in premium economy, and Qatar and Emirates have ongoing sales which include fares of only $1,100 in coach to fly 9,023 miles to Bangkok and even less for the 8,051 miles to Johannesburg.

As I said, we do have some date flexibility even during the busy Easter holiday period, and I searched every combination within five days either side of our optimal dates.  No joy.  Everything is $1,400-1,700 for itineraries of 12-15 hours.

Online searches sometimes yield slightly cheaper fares (to as low as $937-1,132), but those itineraries involve 22-36 hour travel durations with overnights between connections in both directions.  An example is using Turkish Air to Istanbul and then backtracking to Munich with overnight connections.

Even American Airlines shows long itineraries requiring overnight connections (e.g., through LHR going, and PHL returning) for its cheapest Easter fares. The overall times for such flight combinations require nearly two days in each direction, cutting almost four days off a seven-day trip.  Which is, of course, ridiculous.  Searches on Delta.com failed to yield any better results.

The same disparities in trip times showed up in award travel searches on American and Delta.  AAdvantage requires a minimum of 30,000 miles one way—60,000 round trip—for award travel to most places in Europe in March and April.  I found plenty of options at the 30,000 mile one way level for three of us, but they all required overnight stays or long connections, making the itineraries 20-30 hours rather than the usual 12-14 hours.

However, checking for just one award ticket, the AA.com site would show a reasonable connection on some days over Easter with a total of about 15 hours travel time origin to destination.  Trying the same dates for two award tickets reverted to the very long trip times.  So I put one such single person award on hold, and then tried again on AA.com for an identical award travel itinerary.  I was successful in booking the second award ticket.  I infer from this experience that AA won’t allow more than one award ticket per reasonable itinerary, but I fail to comprehend the logic of such a prohibition.

Perhaps the airline wishes to discourage award travel by not making it easy for families to fly together on reasonably-timed itineraries.  But I suspect they would say the software logic that blocks more than one award seat on flights keeps award seats open to more would-be travelers.  If so, the unintended consequence is to encourage single travelers at the expense of couples and families.

I even phoned AA’s elite line and asked for help booking award seats in my flexible date range over Easter RDU/MUC.  I lucked out with a wonderful agent who was committed to find three seats for me, no matter what it took.  Loved her spirit!  However, after spending 40 minutes looking at every possible combination of partner airlines and possible connecting cities (e.g., Berlin, Madrid, London, Helsinki), the American agent couldn’t make anything work.

One insight gained from that long call was that AA’s best RDU/MUC connection was through Philadelphia in both directions, but the Airbus widebody used on the best PHL/MUC flights had zero award seats available, despite being nearly empty of bookings almost six months in advance.  I had wondered why that preferred connection showed up when I looked at paid tickets on AA.com, but never showed when looking online for AAdvantage award seats, not even for one person.

As a courtesy to me, my business travel agent (Steve Crandell, owner of Discount Travel in JAX) also spent a good deal of time looking for my definition of “reasonable” fares (about $1,000 each round trip RDU/MUC).  Nada during Easter.  Perhaps there will be a fare sale for travel in March-April, he said, but nothing announced so far, confirming that what I saw online is also what travel agents see.

Well, it is over a big holiday period; it is from a non-gateway city; and I am looking for flights to a German city just when a lot of capacity has vanished (Air Berlin).  After striking out entirely, our family gave up on Europe this time and decided instead to fly to Bangkok on Qatar Airways in March and April for a total of $3,300 round trip for three tickets.  We will have a grand time there and north up in Chiang Rai.

But of course I will never be finished with Europe. Stubbornly clinging to my selfish definition of a “reasonable” airfare limit to Europe, and with so many other headwinds, I simply chose a more cost-effective destination for this particular trip.

On a recent four-flight Delta Airlines itinerary RDU to Denver for the annual Rail-Volution transit conference, I opted to upgrade all the way.  It was a suit-and-tie business trip that also required traveling with my laptop, and I didn’t feel like schlepping a heavy roller bag plus my thick laptop bag four times back into the no-man’s-land of coach.  Relief from pain and stress, I thought, awaited me, with the certainty that I’d board first (well, after those needing “extra time”) and be comfortably seated and treated.

My expectations weren’t shattered, but I noticed for the first time in several years that Delta’s service was a bit wobbly.  Maybe I’ve been lucky, but it seems to me that Delta has done a reasonably good job since swallowing Northwest being on time and providing uniform service on the ground and in the aluminum tube. Knowing what to expect is important for my karma when flying.

I admit to being hyper-sensitive to small variances in the execution of any form of service after a 39 year career spent driving out inconsistencies from manufacturing and service processes while consulting for more than 100 clients, all Fortune 500 companies. Not to mention millions of miles in the air to get to their workplaces all over creation.

RDU/ATL

The RDU Sky Club was busy for a Saturday morning. I moseyed on down to the gate 45 minutes before flight time to be sure I was among the first in line.  Even in First Class, my bulkhead 1B seat meant I’d have to find overhead space for both my bags, and boarding first meant I’d get first dibs on that storage.

We boarded the MD90 on time (35 minutes before scheduled departure). Even with the usual full flight, plenty of time to get situated and to enjoy a pre-flight beverage in First Class.

When I checked the overhead compartment immediately above my seat, I was none too pleased to find a flight attendant had shoved her suitcase there, taking valuable space, but I still got my two bags stowed quickly on the other side of the aisle and sat quickly to allow others to board, my suit coat in hand.

The two Delta flight attendants up front had not greeted me or met my eye on boarding, but now I strained to get their attention to take my coat.  And to place a drink order.

Didn’t happen.  They were too busy chatting and acting silly with the cockpit crew, with the result that the entire First Class cabin was completely ignored until five minutes before departure. I had to gesticulate wildly to get my suit coat hung up, and when my seatmate asked for a cocktail, he was smugly rebuffed that it was “too close to departure” to serve anything.

Of course the young flight attendants had dawdled for a half hour doing nothing up to that moment, so their excuse for no service was an obvious lie and was heard throughout the small premium cabin.  The people around me murmured unhappily that they couldn’t even get a Coke Zero.  My seatmate grumbled that he had paid for First Class and was disappointed.

The front cabin crew might as well have brought drinks around late, because the flight was 10 minutes behind schedule pushing back (no reason obvious or given). Nonetheless, we arrived at our B concourse gate in Atlanta on time.  The one hour flight was almost as forgettable to me as I am sure we customers all were to the indifferent, self-centered cabin crew.  I had to wave frantically again as we taxied to the gate to get an FA to retrieve my jacket, a service that flight attendants have always politely performed in first class without having to be asked.

I was disappointed to discover that the ATL B25 Sky Club—long ago the Eastern Airlines Ionosphere Club—is closed.  A giant new Sky Club above the center of B has replaced it and the chronically-overcrowded B10 club as well. The new club’s staff carried out their duties perfunctorily, maintaining perfect poker faces.  If the Delta Sky Club desk folks were enthusiastic, they did a wonderful job that Saturday concealing their gaiety.

As I exited the club later, I glanced at the five people working the desk again and noticed the same dead expressions. Not exactly the picture of welcome or “Come fly with us!” or “Thank you for paying oodles of money to our company.” I wondered if they had just been given pink slips.

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Delta ATL B-concourse Sky Club staff was a glum bunch

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Delta ATL B-concourse Sky Club

ATL/DEN

Walking to my departure gate for my flight to Denver, I noticed the new (to me) boarding pedestals at some ATL gates for boarding.  Looks like Delta’s endgame could be no-staff, all-electronic self-boarding at gates. (Joe Brancatelli said UA is testing them at CLE, and that he had joked about them on Twitter. Only an airline consider signs on poles an “improvement.”)

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New Delta pedestal self-boarding – note Premium pedestal standing alone near gate door

Once at my gate, I dutifully lined up behind the Premium pedestal to board like a good little boy, number four in the First Class queue, and worried that I hadn’t been quick enough to get there and might not find any overhead space again in First Class (another MD90, and another bulkhead 1B seat).  The pedestals are somehow demeaning and ridiculous to me, mimicking a similar arrangement used for years at Southwest.  I don’t like those, either.  The process is dehumanizing.

I was also bummed that the inbound flight was still “deplaning” (Is that a real word?) when I arrived at the gate because that often signals a delay, and I was even more put out after an announcement that our plane had a mechanical that would precipitate an indeterminate delay. We were invited to sit.

But even with a First Class boarding pass, I dared not sit down, else risk losing my pathetic fourth place in line. Confirmed in First Class, but still stressed; I chuckled to myself for foolishly feeling so pitiful. Wearing leather business shoes (my colleagues call them “Board room shoes”) that are not comfortable for long walks or standing indefinitely, I groaned, then grinned, and tried to read to wait out the problem.

We got lucky: just a half hour delay. It was never explained what was broken, which nagged at me a bit (I hoped the wings were still intact), but I was glad to be boarding.  The gate staff had cheerfully kept us informed of the (usual) creeping delay (ten minutes, then another ten, etc.), and the agents didn’t make any snarky PAs like, “Mechanics have arrived with duct tape, and we should be underway shortly.”

However, the first class folks ahead of me in line had crammed their luggage into my overhead space atop seat 1B just as I feared, forcing me to again use the bins on the opposite side of the aisle.  When an ancient couple toddled aboard to seats 1C and 1D with four big pieces to put away, they were incensed that I’d had the temerity to take “their” storage.  No flight attendant came to help, so I found room over seats behind them and apologized, not attempting an explanation that overhead space is strictly first come, first served. They would not have understood.

At least the ATL/DEN cabin crew was a hoot. The lead FA kept us in stitches with his funny and upbeat announcements, and he came through during the late boarding process to apologize to everyone in First Class that no pre-flight beverages would be offered on account of the tardy flight.  He promised, instead, double drinks once in the air, and he wasn’t joking about that! He did, though, immediately whisk away my coat and hang it up. Once above the clouds, we also got a nice meal, much to my surprise.  All in all, the simple but sincere humanity demonstrated by this cabin crew restored my sense of general good will toward Delta en route to Denver

DEN/ATL

Going home to Raleigh from Denver, though, I encountered more gate agents uninterested in answering questions, but they did board the plane on time 35 minutes before departure.  Stepping through the doorway of the aircraft, I encountered—but was not greeted by—another set of apathetic flight attendants working the front “premium” cabin.

Young and chatty, the two FAs at the boarding door acted like paying customers were invisible as we boarded, and they ignored the First Class compartment completely while on the ground, even though, as in Raleigh on my first flight, there was plenty of time to serve drinks.  Once again the cabin crew did not take my suit jacket until after the door was closed. One First Class class passenger had to take his coat to them to get it hung.

I kept thinking, Why did I waste upgrades to witness such indifferent service and bad attitudes? The two flight attendants were unfriendly and lazy. They jabbered together laughing instead of coming through the cabin, wearing their indolence like a chevron for all to see.

Once in the air, drinks came quickly and with a smile that none in First Class could have taken as genuine, replacing the complacent faces and inaction at the gate. But the cold mood toward that crew was already calcified among First Class patrons. I was glad to leave the plane in Atlanta, karma jangled.

ATL/RDU  

When I selected a First Class seat on the Atlanta to Raleigh flight online, I had been delighted to discover that this was the 757 that made up the relatively new Raleigh-Paris (CDG) nonstop.  This would mean I could try out (for the hour it takes to fly between Atlanta and Raleigh) the Delta One international business class seats on the single-aisle aircraft.  I was definitely curious to test seat comfort and cabin ambiance.

With a tight connection, I double-timed it to the departure gate, arriving mere minutes before boarding was due to start, only to find no aircraft at gate A11.  Immediately, I knew we’d be late, and thought this was odd, since the plane is on the ground less than 90 minutes at RDU before its scheduled departure to Charles de Gaulle. Looked like the RDU/CDG flight could be late as well, I thought.

The gate agent told me in a very upbeat manner that the aircraft was to be ferried over from the hangar and was due “any minute—no worries!”  She assured me our flight wouldn’t be late.  I knew she was either woefully ignorant or dissembling.  No matter, the effect was still the same: another chink in Delta service.

That particular agent was soon relieved by another woman possessed of a far more sour demeanor. She evidenced a great fondness for her P.A. microphone, making me think she might have been missed her calling as a late night boozy lounge singer. Again and again the agent repeated the news—plain as day to anyone who cared to look out the picture window behind her—that the plane was not there but soon would be.  “It’s almost here,” she dourly said, over and over.

But it wasn’t almost there. The plane was finally wheeled up over a half hour behind schedule, after which the cockpit and cabin crews had to be rounded up (they has wandered off from the gate) before boarding could commence.  The gate agent continued her squealing P.A. announcements, adoringly gasping the mike with both hands, as if she was about to belt out a tune.  I didn’t enjoy any of it, and my feet hurt as I stood (first in line this time) waiting to clamber on board.

First down the Jetway when at last boarding began, I turned left at the corner from the boarding door of the 757 in eager anticipation of experiencing the international business class cabin. But when it came into my field of view, a feeling of disharmony overwhelmed me.  The cabin’s over-sized sleeper seats in a 2-2 configuration were angled in toward the windows.  I flashed on a living room with far too much furniture. The atmosphere bordered on claustrophobic, and it was difficult to get down the narrow aisle and to get wedged into the seats. I had chosen 4A (window, back row), but as I shoved myself into it, I regretted it wasn’t an aisle, which would have been less confining than the window seats.  One plus: three windows on my side.

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Though late, the flight was comfortable and service okay. I couldn’t do much except sit in that tight space with the seat walls and dividers towering all around me, like being in a very narrow mountain valley.

Due to the crucial need to turn the aircraft to board for Paris soon after arrival, I expected a sense of urgency when our late flight reached the RDU gate, but once again, Delta surprised me with a glitch: no ramp guys to guide us in.  We waited another five minutes at RDU Gate C1 for ramp personnel, who weren’t moving too fast when they finally clustered in formation.  By then I knew the poor folks headed to Paris that day were going to be pretty late boarding, and I was happy to put my back to Delta for a while.

Perhaps I am being too picky.  But I do have fifty-seven years of flying behind me, and I have lived through the decline and steep fall of airlines like United.  I noticed the same small service faults occurring at those carriers before the plunge into service hell. I never expected Delta to be perfect (or any carrier), and I hope these experiences were just bad luck on my part.  But so many little things going wrong at once is not a good signal.

I was in Denver this past week for the annual Rail-Volution transit and land use conference, my fourth at this extremely valuable get-together of public transit planners and operators, urban land use specialists, and public mobility policy experts.  Preparing for my trip, naturally I made plans to get between the remote Denver airport and downtown using public transit.  In the past I have rented a car or used taxi and shared ride services for the same trip.

Halleluiah! I thought, as I planned.  No more expensive tollways in a rental car. That is, if the train actually worked.

It did.  I was delighted with my public transit train experience both arriving and departing.  In fact, I was astonished at how quick, convenient, and cheap it was to use the new train that connects DEN Airport to the city of Denver.

DIA, as it’s known to locals—DEN to you and me—was first studied in 1980-83, and the site 25 miles east-northeast of downtown Denver was initially funded in 1989.  After huge budget overruns—at $4.8 billion, almost two billion more than forecast—the gigantic new field opened twenty-two years ago (in early 1995) to replace venerable Stapleton Airport. This followed the debacle of its rogue luggage handling system, which famously chewed up some bags and sent others flying through the air.

DIA’s 33,500 acres make it the largest airport landowner in the country by a good margin.  Today’s six non-intersecting runways will eventually be expanded to twelve non-intersecting runways, and the airport will still have 17,000 acres remaining for expansion.  Now that’s good long-range planning for the future!

You’d think that spending nearly $5 billion and having the foresight to acquire enough land for 100 years of airport growth would have included a public transit link to get the long 25 miles into central Denver.  But no, nothing.

Finally, though, 21 years after opening, the airport has a commuter train operating to Denver Union Station.  Service began in April, 2016. Better late than never.

The University of Colorado A-Line train (naming rights were sold to UofC for five years at $1,000,000 per year) is operated by RTD (Regional Transportation District), the huge transit agency that handles all Denver-area public transportation.  The “A” in A-Line refers proudly to service to the airport.  In this political era of desert-like public infrastructure spending austerity, the project needed a layer-cake approach of P3 (Public-Private Partnership) funding to agglomerate the $2.3 billion total cost (or thereabouts—cost reports vary), which at $96 million per mile actually isn’t bad these days.

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The trains make the 24-mile journey between DIA and DUS (newly refurbished Denver Union Station in the heart of downtown) in 37 minutes at a reasonable fare of $9.00 (half that for seniors) departing in both directions every 15 minutes.  Convenient and cheap.  But reliable, safe, comfortable, doable?  The answer to all, with one or two minor glitches, is a resounding “yes.”

Here is my experience in minute detail from real-time notes I took.  Rereading this, I find it remarkable:

Left my room (879) at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel at 0531

Checked out of  Sheraton (the Rail-Volution conference hotel) at 0534

Arrived 16th St. Mallride stop at Court St across from the Sheraton at 0537

16th St. Mallride bus (free bus ride on 16th St. since 1982) picked up at Court St at 0541

16th St. Mallride bus arrived Wyndott St for walk to DUS (Denver Union Station) at 0550

Arrived DUS A-Line commuter train to airport platform at 0554

A-Line train departed DUS at 0600

A-Line train arrived DIA 2 mins. early at 0635

EXACTLY 58 MINS FROM HOTEL TO AIRPORT

Lingered on platform for 5 mins to take pictures

Arrived TSA Pre line at 0644

Through security at 0648

Arrived gate A30 for 0745 Delta departure at 0657

HOTEL ROOM TO DEN AIRPORT GATE IN 1 HOUR, 26 MINUTES USING PUBLIC TRANSIT

COST: $9.00 ($4.50 SENIORS OVER 65)

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The majestic Westin Hotel at DEN from the A-Line train platform

Can’t beat that time and money bargain in 2017 in Denver.  My notes re the transit trip:

  • A chilly 43 F. this morning with a stiff wind. Felt like 23.  I imagine the same trip in midwinter could be brutal and would require considerable layers of cold-weather clothes and outer garments.
  • From the A-Line platform at DIA, one must take a looooooong, [breath] loooooooong escalator (think London Tube station-long escalators) up to the airport entrance. It’s a five-story, flippin’ wind tunnel like I’ve never experienced. And that morning fierce wind blew, making the long escalator ride frigid. I cannot imagine what that ride must feel like in mid-winter. Even dressed in a suit coat, I was shivering halfway up, and it was only 43 F.

5-story escalator

  • The airport station has only four ticket machines, two that take cash, and two for credit cards. There were lines at the cash machines, and one of the two credit card machines was broken.  The other was having a tough time reading the stripe on cards.  Why would they have such great service, and yet cheap out on the ticket machines and not keep them operable?  Seems short-sighted, and doesn’t send a good signal to first-time users that Denver is serious about welcoming visitors.

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  • The Denver Airport station is in a gulf hollowed out below the Westin Hotel, with a swooping, artistic roof that covers some, but not all, of the train platform. Well, sort of a roof—designed and rendered more for art than for function.  It is dramatic, like having an overhead sculpture as you approach the trains on the platform, but it is wide open to the elements, and even today at just 43 degrees, the wind is whipping through the funnel of the man-made gully and cuts through you.  What must this feel like in February?  It makes me cold just thinking about it.

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  • Ditto for a similar swooping “roof” over the train platforms at Denver Union Station. The city spent $200 million to spiff up the gorgeous 1908 train station, but the platform “roof” treatment, though beautiful and in the same motif as DEN Airport, is entirely for appearances.  When the snow flies and the winds howl down from the Rockies, no sane person would dare linger on the platforms waiting for the A-Line trains. Would I be so anxious to make my way on foot with my roller bag and laptop bag from hotel to the 16th Street Mallride bus to DUS and then from the train platform at DEN through the wind tunnel escalator?  I don’t know, but the thought doesn’t excite me as much as this week’s lovely experience in mild weather.  Maybe I am envisioning a nonevent because the airport may close during extreme weather.
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Free “Mallride” bus service on 16th Street connects Denver Union Station to the rest of the CBD

Okay, so the A-Line train service may be challenging in small ways.  Still, I give RTD credit for launching and executing a long-overdue connection from the airport to the heart of downtown Denver.  It has some teething problems (I haven’t even mentioned the fact that every at-grade rail-highway crossing has 24/7 flaggers due to persistent software glitches), but the trains ran on time for me, and I am confident such minor systemic issues will be worked out.

Meantime, as I said above: Halleluiah! If you are headed anywhere in the Denver metro area connected to the big RTD transit network of light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and regular bus services, cancel your Hertz or Avis reservation, and take the A-Line train instead.

@RideRTD

@RTDDenver

@LightRailDenver

@DENAirport