Travel planning via the Internet has become, for me, de rigueur, mostly replacing the once-common practice of making 800 calls to my favorite airline, hotel, and rental car partners to book. Lately I’ve been wondering if the transition to cold technology over the warmth of interacting with a real person would ever be complete.  I hope not, and based on a recent trip last week, I don’t think so.  That is, not unless travel providers close off every means to access their services via a real live human being.

Back in the early 1980s I was already recognized by some airlines as a valuable customer.  Eastern Airlines, for instance, hooked me up with their hush-hush “Commuter Desk” phone numbers that reached special agents in Chicago, Boston, and a few other locations.  Usually, each of EA’s Commuter Desks were staffed by just two dedicated agents who seemed to work 24/7.  They dispensed god-like powers to rebook me out of jams, even the worst snarls and cancellations due to weather or ATC delays at ORD, LGA, or anywhere.  Commuter Desk agents would even rebook me on OA (Other Airlines) as a last resort—anything necessary to get me to my destination or to get me home.  That highly personalized service, combined with my invitation-only (at first) membership in the Eastern “Executive Traveler” program that provided free space-available upgrades to First Class, guaranteed my loyalty and kept me flying on EA until their collapse in 1991.

Ditto with Delta.  DL made me a member of the invitation-only (at first) Crown Rooms and bestowed upon me the accolade of “Flying Colonel,” an honorary program long since lost to history. While access to a Delta analog to the EA Commuter Desk was elusive, somebody at Delta nonetheless always had my back, as evidenced by calls I’d routinely get from Delta reps on weekends assuring me that a looming cancellation or significant delay had been “fixed” for my ticket.  I was rarely grounded or delayed when flying Delta in the 1980s. That personalized service sealed my loyalty to Delta, leading me to earn 5.3 million miles and still counting.

In the late 1970s British Airways had me permanently coded in their system as a frequent flyer via the cryptic message “passenger previously mishandled” to signal any gate agent that I was to be upgraded and coddled at every opportunity, including BA lounge privileges at JFK and LHR even when flying in economy.

My favored hotels (mostly Hilton and Hyatt) also rewarded me with personal touches, including overbooking properties for me when necessary and routine upgrades to suites and lounge floor rooms even before frequent stay programs were launched.  Avis made me “Presidents Club” and would pick me up at airport terminals and drop me off when I returned their cars, calling first to make sure I knew where to meet the car.

Those glory days are mostly gone, of course, crowded out by cost-cutting and the sterile Internet of travel.  But a recent family wedding trip from Raleigh to northern Minnesota reminded me that the human touch isn’t dead yet.

Using the Internet (AA.com) months in advance, I booked my family of four on American Airlines AAdvantage award tickets RDU/MSP.  We could not get on the same flights, however, due to limited award seat availability, necessitating three different itineraries, with two of us connecting through LGA, one through DCA, and one through PHL.  A pain, but we all were scheduled to arrive in the Twin Cities within the same hour.

However, the day before departure, terrible storms were forecast throughout the Northeast, and AA sent me a text with a warning that our flights might be impacted.  After reading the message, I immediately phoned one of the Elite desks—I am a Lifetime Gold at American; I admit that having even lowly Gold status helps when talking to a real person at an airline—and I asked if we could all be rebooked together on the same alternate flights to avoid the predictable delays and cancellations that would hit the Northeast airports the next day.

I struck up a cordial conversation with the reservation agent just to be friendly, and I humbly acknowledged that these were mere 25,000 mile award travel tickets, and thus I didn’t expect success to my request.  The agent and I clicked, and she generously rebooked us RDU/MSP through DFW to avoid the bad weather.  Furthermore, she found seats in the same row near the front of the plane just behind Main Cabin Extra, which was already full.

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RDU/DFW on AA was full, but somehow a reservation agent managed to get us on and all seated together, thanks to the human touch.

I could never have done that via the Internet.  Naturally, I thanked her profusely, and the next morning our flights to DFW and then to MSP were comfortable and went off without a hitch.

The day before our return I phoned AA again.  Though we had no weather delay notifications, I wanted to try to get us together on the same flights, as we had been able to do going out.  The itinerary for my daughter and me was on the following day, requiring an overnight stay at an MSP hotel, while my wife was traveling the same day.

Once again I chatted with the AA agent and acknowledged that these were the smallest travel awards on the AAdvantage chart, but, I said, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  The agent and I hit a chord, and soon he had us all booked on the same-day flights, avoiding the cost of a hotel.  He even seated us together in the same row of Main Cabin Extra because of my Gold elite status.

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The generous space between seats in Main Cabin Extra, thanks to a kind AA rez agent.

His kindness left me speechless, but I soon found my voice and thanked him enthusiastically before hanging up.  Once again, the human touch of speaking person-to-person had succeeded in a travel outcome not possible via a computer.

On the same trip I suddenly needed a room for several nights in Fargo, North Dakota.  Our extended family was hosting too many people in their homes to comfortably accommodate everyone.  I was surprised to find hotel prices in the Fargo (ND)-Moorhead (MN) area at every Internet portal to be a minimum of $100-120 plus tax per night.  This included the Microtel (by Wyndham) in Moorhead which was ideally situated for our needs.  Someone had mentioned the Microtel had $75 rooms, so I phoned the hotel direct.

After a few minutes of polite conversation, I was able to snag a $80 room rate at the Microtel that included two queens, free wifi, and the hotel’s hot breakfast for everyone.  I was dubious that we’d get much for $80, but the rooms and the property were spotless, friendly, plenty spacious, and comfortable, and the breakfasts above average.  It was a great bargain, again because I had interacted with a real person.  No Internet rates at the Microtel for that period were below $100 per night.

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The friendly, clean, comfortable, and inexpensive Microtel (by Wyndham) in Moorhead, Minnesota.  Free wifi and hot breakfast, too, for just $80  night.

Not to say that I could live without Internet in my travel planning and execution these days.  For example, we picked up a Hertz van at MSP that I’d reserved, and Hertz sent me a text with the location for pickup that enabled me to bypass even the Gold screen.  I walked directly to the car, which was exactly what I wanted, and I drove out.  Simple, fast, easy, all because we avoided human contact and relied entirely on the machine.

Leaving the MSP airport and the Twin Cities area at 1:00 PM on a Friday afternoon, we encountered bumper-to-bumper backups on I-94 North.  It’s a 3-4 hour drive from the Cities to Fargo-Moorhead, and a family dinner awaited.  The Google map directions on my Samsung S7 Edge soon had us on alternate routes to bypass the worst of the traffic jams, and we made it to the old homestead in time.  Again, this was thanks to the GPS and mapping technology built into my smartphone combined with the Internet: very useful indeed.

Returning to Minneapolis four days later, we ran into another traffic delay on I-94 South and neatly avoided it via a Google Map detour route without even asking for it.  No personal touch could have helped with that like the machine software did, for which I was extra grateful. I don’t suffer being stuck in traffic well these days; perhaps I never did.  The route detour saved my sanity as well as time.

As long as travel providers continue to allow us ways and means to reach real people to solve travel conundrums not conducive to automation, I will be at ease with the transition to technology-based travel planning.

Though perhaps it’s not a transition so much as it is an integration of the personal touch with machine-based solutions.  That’s my wish, anyway.

Sophistication of travel-related online portals and via our many smartphone travel services apps continues to evolve and improve—all well and good—but, personally, I would hate to see real people in the travel planning process eliminated entirely.

Heck, I’ve got thirty-four 500-mile upgrades banked in my AAdvantage account that American’s automated upgrade system never lets me use because there are so many Executive Platinums ahead of me on every flight.  Once in a while, though, a real person working for AA ponders their system’s Catch-22 and overrides it to put me in First Class. A computer lacks the empathetic discretion of a personal touch like that.

Recent air travel news prompted me to ask: Why?  A lot of whys, actually.

Why, oh why would a well-known TV personality and writer of a slew of best sellers who is reputedly worth at least $8.5 million and who is a frequent flyer ever buy a coach ticket?  Yet that’s what Ann Coulter did, a wealthy woman famous for taking no prisoners and being a sharp thinker.  While it’s true that she bought a supposedly upgraded seat in what Delta markets as their premium economy cabin (called Comfort+), it’s STILL coach, and we all know it.  Although you can see the first class cabin from there without squinting.

Why wouldn’t a rich and famous person like her simply buy a first class ticket?  This was just a domestic flight, after all, not a pricy international business class.  The fare difference is a rounding error compared to her annual income, and airfare is a fully deductible expense, assuming she was traveling on business.  I don’t blame her, frankly, for being upset about being moved from the seat she chose, but that brouhaha is a distraction.

The real question remains: What was she doing in coach to begin with?  Had she purchased a first class ticket and then moved to a different first class seat from the one she selected, would it have mattered?  Maybe, but are there really any bad seats in the front cabin?

Who in their right mind would CHOOSE to fly in ANY PART of the coach cabin these days if money was no object?  To my mind, she brought this on herself and deserved the embarrassment of having Delta refund her the paltry thirty dollars—THIRTY DOLLARS!—she paid for the “privilege” to fly in Discomfort+.  Geez!  Much ado about nothing.

As if that wasn’t laughable enough, why, oh why would any airline dignify her craziness with a pompous and hypocritical statement like the one Delta issued:

“We are sorry that the customer did not receive the seat she reserved and paid for. More importantly, we are disappointed that the customer has chosen to publicly attack our employees and other customers by posting derogatory and slanderous comments and photos in social media. Her actions are unnecessary and unacceptable.                   

“Each of our employees is charged with treating each other as well as our customers with dignity and respect. And we hold each other accountable when that does not happen.

“Delta expects mutual civility throughout the entire travel experience.”

Oh, brother, Delta, please spare me the sanctimonious corporate swoon as you unconvincingly feign to have your commercial feelings bruised on account of being entirely undeserving of reproach. As if an airline could shed a tear from the hurt of being disparaged.

Overlong whining in your proclamation as well:  As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, methinks thou protest too much.  While you and your winged ilk self-righteously pretend to treat your customers “with dignity and respect,” too often our utter misery in the sardine can seats your marketing prodigies call comfortable is masked by our fear of being blackballed as a “security risk” if we complain and by our fierce determination to act civil not to you, but to our fellow prisoners crushed with us into your all-too-narrow aluminum tubes.

Why, oh why did our Congress abandon its duty to protect the American consumer and allow the consolidation of U.S. airlines to just three majors (four, if you count Southwest)?  The result?  United Airlines, the worst of the worst, with a reputation lower than whale dung that drifts to the bottom of the ocean, “posted a profit of $818 million in the most recent quarter, ending in June, up 39 percent compared with last year. Sales rose, too, as more customers booked flights with the carrier…” This despite the infamous incident of beating 69 year old Dr. Dao into unconsciousness and then dragging him off a plane three months ago (you can see the video embedded again in this NYT article here).

The other airlines aren’t doing so poorly, either, according to all reports.  With little or no competition in many markets now, fares have skyrocketed. Why? Because with no regulation and no competition, the airlines can charge as much as they like. I just (reluctantly) paid $544 for a round trip coach ticket RDU/MSP in mid-August to take my son to college, leaving early on a Thursday and returning early Sunday morning—not exactly peak travel periods.  It was the least expensive fare I could find on these off-travel days/times in a mundane market, a ticket that used to cost just under $300.

Why, oh why have Americans opted for price over comfort, with no balance, no compromise?  Apparently, no airline seat is too cramped and inhumanly tight side to side and front to back to cause the average American to cry “Uncle!” or to emit even the slightest whimper of protest.  Where are the minimum federally-mandated standards of seat width and pitch?  Indeed, where is the simple outrage?  Anyone who has flown on a Canadair CRJ knows the 2-2 seat configuration should long ago have been banned.  Compare two hours smushed into one of those torture chambers with two hours on an Embraer ERJ in the usual 1-2 configuration.  Close-fitting?  Absolutely.  Agonizing?  Not to me. Yet the CRJs ply the skies daily, sowing torment, and I hear no one complaining.

In the same vein, why, oh why do we succumb to ever-trickier airfare pricing schemes? Joe Brancatelli pointed out in his JoeSentMe column on Bastille Day and the L.A. Times ran a story the same day (see here) about UA considering a new program to buy back tickets from passengers and resell them to people willing to pay more. Delta has had its own version of this hat trick (see the same LAT article).  These programs are currently voluntary, but will they morph into common practice that those who pay the least are never guaranteed a seat until the door closes?  Why not?  Nothing has stopped the airlines from unbounded flimflammery up to now.  Don’t believe me?  Check the current value of your favorite frequent flyer programs.

If all these things are true, then why, oh why do we keep heaping these buckets of misery on ourselves? Perhaps because we used to love to travel, or because we have to fly for any number of reasons.

Or, if you’re like me, because you still do love to travel by air despite the pain and suffering, no matter the death by a thousand cuts, and even while paying through the nose for the wretched travails of contemporary flying. Because going places and meeting new people and seeing how they live, work, and play are among the most exciting and mind-expanding experiences of life.

And also because, in America, there are big tradeoffs in time among the few mobility alternatives to air: Highways are congested and slow, and the voting public hates high speed trains, or even slow ones, so Amtrak service is too Spartan to be taken seriously. Flying becomes the least-worst alternative, which is a sorry state of affairs.

After the wheels touch down at your destination, how do you leave the airport?  Never have we had so many choices before: rental car, black car service, taxi, Uber/Lyft, ZIP Car/Car2Go, limousine, and public transit.

Wait, did I say public transit?  Airport transit connections have been commonplace in Europe for decades, but in America?  Or in Asia?

Well, yeah.  Things are changing.  When the demands of management consulting made me a road warrior in the 70s, I headed straight for the Avis or Hertz counter after landing.  The thought of taking public transit from any American airport never entered my mind because few such options then existed.

Now, though, public transit connections from U.S. airports are growing. SmarterTravel lists so many I couldn’t keep count (https://www.smartertravel.com/2012/08/07/best-u-s-airports-for-public-transportation/), although their facts are wrong about Salt Lake City.  SLC Airport has had excellent light rail connecting service to downtown from the airport for several years.

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Utah Transit Authority light rail from SLC Airport to downtown Salt Lake

Asian public transit is also improving.  In the old days, when my 747 landed at Hong Kong, I made a beeline for the taxi queue.  Now there’s a fast and frequent airport train service that goes to Kowloon and Central that I prefer over taxi service (http://www.hongkongairport.com/eng/transport/to-from-airport/airport-express.html).  I’ve tried both the train and the taxi, and the train is a lot cheaper unless you have three or four in your group traveling together.  And it’s almost always faster and less stressful than the horrific traffic snarls in Hong Kong.

Singapore also has good subway service from Changi airport, though you have to be sure you’re in Terminal 2 or 3 and find your way to the basement station (http://www.changiairport.com/en/transport/public-transport.html).

Regardless of destination—Europe, U.S., or Asia—public transit options, when useful, give me one more mobility choice, and that’s good.  Last week I mentioned the great light rail service at MSP Airport that connects to almost everywhere in the Twin Cities region.  Often I can avoid a rental car altogether by taking public transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul, supplementing when I must with a car-sharing service like Uber.

I did the same in San Francisco last October, taking BART into the city from SFO, and then using Lyft, Flywheel, CalTrain commuter rail, and MUNI buses to get where I needed to go. Using those modes avoided having to rent and park a car.  It was wonderful!

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BART train at SFO Airport to San Francisco CBD

Last time I flew into Salt Lake City, I used light rail from the airport to connect to the FrontRunner commuter rail train to travel south to Provo.  I had a meeting at BYU, not far from the Provo station. My hotel provided a shuttle to get me back and forth to the rail station.  Again, no rental car.

A new electric commuter rail “A Line” runs now between DIA and downtown Denver where great connections can be made to the citywide bus and light rail transit network. I’ll be there in September for a conference, and once again, thank God, I won’t have to rent a car, and I will not have to fret about parking a car.  Best of all, by not having to drive from the Denver airport, I won’t have to worry about which toll roads I accidentally enter that ding me for exorbitant charges (https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/electronic-toll-collectors-generate-expensive-surprises-for-rental-car-drivers-052715.html).

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The new commuter rail line between DIA and central Denver

If you got excited when I mentioned limousines as one mobility possibility to take you away in style from your destination airport, then you may be sad to learn that Etihad just announced no more limos for premium customers (http://www.etihad.com/en/about-us/etihad-news/archive/2017/etihad-updates-to-ground-and-inflight-services). Kind of a bummer to lose that perk, even though I never used it.

Okay, no fancy stretch limo or driver in livery, but I am still a happy camper because public transit options from more airports give me just that: another option. Transit provides an additional mobility choice at the airport, and if it is frequent, fast, and reasonably inexpensive, then it’s a useful option, too.

Every business trip has its own special set of mobility requirements, of course, and I can’t always use public transit as a result. But when I can, I do, and I don’t miss my rental car.

The anticipation of attending a three-day transit workshop in Minneapolis last week delighted me in many ways beyond the content of the event itself: a nonstop flight (rather than enduring a connection) of reasonable duration (just 2.5 hours); the prospect of using one of our country’s best-integrated, most frequent, and best-networked public transit systems (rather than the bother of driving and parking a rental car); and the fun of trying out a new (new for me) hotel brand, the AC By Marriott.  My pleasurable expectations were fulfilled, save for the flight home.  Many business trips are an endurance contest, start to finish, whereas as this one was just short of a joy all the way. How often can we say that about traveling?

An unexpected amusement at the outset of my journey: The recent RDU Delta Sky Club renovation included the whimsical addition of five pictures of native North Carolina food and drink: Lance Nabs (the famous crackers were founded in Charlotte and still made there), Cheerwine (the very cherry soda founded in Salisbury, NC a century ago), Mount Olive Pickles (from, well, Mount Olive, NC), Texas Pete Hot Sauce (founded in Winston-Salem) and Krispy Kreme Donuts (founded in Greensboro).

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All well and good, but where, I wondered, was the picture of Pepsi-Cola?  After all, Pepsi was founded in 1898, and my Great-Grandfather, attorney Alfred Decatur Ward, incorporated and patented Pepsi-Cola for the inventor in New Bern, NC.

I was quite pleased with the RDU Sky Club in other respects, too.  It now has roughly twice the interior space of the old one, and the décor is sunny and light, and the atmosphere quieter than, say, any of the horribly-overcrowded Sky Clubs at MSP, my destination.

Once at my gate, I mused as I waited to board about the spacious and sunny feeling of the concourse, too.  It feels so serene compared to the claustrophobic nature of low-ceiling airport terminals like Charlotte and Philly.

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The plane was the usual despicable, way-too-small RJ that airlines often dispatch these days instead of real aircraft, but I had been notified two days earlier that my upgrade request cleared, so I breathed easy as the massing crowd began to circle the gate to board.  I was reminded that airline employees, not usually paragons of sincere kind-heartedness, privately disparage those who wait close to the boarding area as “gate lice.”

I settled into my one-side seat 1A and dozed until takeoff.  On climb-out I was surprised to be offered a cold breakfast.  I accepted and was soon sated, glad I had scheduled myself on a morning flight.

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After dining I snoozed and read until the wheels went down for landing.  Looking out the window I caught a magnificent view of the Minneapolis CBD and fumbled with my phone to get a quick picture.

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Normally I pay close attention to my arrival gate at any airport because I have to figure out how to navigate to the rental car shuttle, but knowing I was taking light rail transit from the heart of MSP Airport, I didn’t even take note of our gate when the plane parked.  Instead, I looked overhead for the sign directing me to the light rail station in the basement and followed the excellent signage to the subterranean platform for the train into downtown Minneapolis.

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So what is light rail, or LRT (light rail transit)?  It is an all-electric fast train that runs on tracks in its own exclusive corridor. In the Twin Cities it operates at ten minute intervals for 20 hours a day so that you don’t have to consult schedules.  Just show up at a station, and a train is never more than 9 minutes away.   Once riders near bus or LRT lines know the routes and connections, they rarely have to drive again.  The secret of an integrated system like that of the Twin Cities Metro lies in network strength and frequency.  Both equate to freedom from having to drive and park.  The more robust the frequent service transit network (“frequent” transit meaning service at least every 15 minutes), the more likely it’s going where you need to go.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul the buses and trains are all-weather, too, and always have been, even when streetcars were the way to go, as this picture from the Metro operations center shows:

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And they were always frequent, too, as seen in this old State Fair photograph:

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Transit guru Jarrett Walker is fond of saying that “frequency is freedom” and Metro lives by that mantra, as advertised everywhere:

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Back to my easy transit odyssey from the MSP Airport to downtown Minneapolis:  I had already obtained and activated an all-day pass through the first-rate Metro Transit app on my phone, so I just boarded the train and enjoyed the ride.

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The Twin Cities Metro Blue Line light rail is above ground everywhere but at the airport.  One of two LRT lines, the Blue Line carries an amazing 30,000 weekday riders between the Mall of America where there are excellent BRT and regular bus connections and Target Field in downtown Minneapolis with many more transit connections, including the Northstar commuter rail line and the Green Line LRT to the University of Minnesota and to St. Paul (which carries an astonishing 40,000 weekday riders).

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I got off at the Hennepin Ave station and was immediately asked by a smiling Metro Transit customer service rep on the platform where I was going. When I told her the AC By Marriott Hotel, she walked me to the corner and pointed the way.  A block later I was standing in front of the hotel.

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Or at least I thought I was. The building proudly announced it was the AC, but I could not locate the entrance, and the street-level windows were all curtained, which made peering in impossible.  Where was the entry?  I tried a nondescript door which looked like a service entrance and found myself inside a vestibule with another door to what, as I squinted to look in, might be a lobby.

But the door was locked.  I noticed a squawk box and pushed the button to call someone.  When I announced myself as an arriving guest, the interior door slid open.

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It was not a reassuring first impression of this newish brand (new for me, at least) of Marriott.  Taking the measure of the interior space, which was quite dark compared to the sunlit street, I spotted what I thought could be the front desk, though it was modest by most hotel standards.  As my eyes adjusted to the shaded environment, I saw two smiling young women beckoning me forward.  In no time they had me checked in and assigned to a room, even though I had arrived just past noon.  No rigmarole about room availability or arriving early; they gave me my key and pointed me to the lifts.

As I surveyed the lobby and adjacent bar and breakfast area, I was struck by how trendy, modern, hip, and chic the minimalist furnishings and décor were.  All blond woods and some stainless steel, but the woods had won the day by far.  The public spaces looked and felt expensive, arty, relaxed, cool, and classy.  Huh! I thought.  I never associate “class” with any Marriott hotel brand.  “Turgid,” maybe.  But the AC lobby felt, by contrast, European, unlike any Marriott I’ve ever seen.

Upstairs in the room my initial impression was mixed: Like the lobby, a Euro-minimalist design with a lot of wood, but only one window to the outside world.  However, as the room seeped into me, I realized that I liked the unique hardwood floors very much, and also the room’s dark wood and natural colors. Bathroom and shower were also spiffy, with lots of glass and a rain shower head.

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Back downstairs in the lobby/bar area, I asked the doorman why the front doors were locked. Locked 24/7 to keep street riffraff out, he cheerfully told me, and the elevators worked only by key card to any floor, again to keep out undesirables.  He apologized for my trouble getting in and slipped me an elite pass to the free evening drinks and modest buffet in the lobby. Later, the barman would also comp me a drink for no reason except that I chatted him up and told him how much I liked the upbeat modern design of the hotel.

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By contrast to the breezy AC atmosphere, I stopped at the nearby Marriott Renaissance for drinks with colleagues the following night, and I realized that I loathed its cookie cutter pretentiousness.  Didn’t much like the Renaissance’s $131 bill for one round of eight drinks, either. Over sixteen bucks per drink for the usual beer and wine made me like the AC even better.

Asking around, I learned that the AC hotel brand was created by a Spaniard, Antonio Catalan, in 1998. Senor Catalan envisioned more casual, Spanish-styled properties, which tend to be less formal, but modern in flair. He sold the chain to Marriott in 2011.

Marriott seems to have done well with AC in the US by not monkeying around with the concept, even though Marriott is reputed to be indifferent to its properties these days. Some observers view Marriott’s strategy as creating brands to pump rooms into markets and then to sell everything by marketing Marriott Rewards and Marriott generically.

Be that as it may, the AC was a refreshing change.  It made me feel young and made me think of words like “pizzazz” and “zest.” It exuded a relaxed, understated elegance without self-importance.

Returning to the airport by the same efficient and fast Blue Line LRT, I ran the TSA gauntlet and found my way to the nearest Delta Sky Club.  It was claustrophobically over-crowded, but I needed some fluids and a snack.  I stayed long enough to sample the buffet, but the human congestion drove me out to another Sky Club nearer my gate.  Finding that one SRO as well—and looking very messy, like a bar after the big game was over, I didn’t stay.  My wait at the gate was more pleasant than the club though the airport was mobbed everywhere.

No upgrade awaited me that night, and on yet another dreaded RJ.  Sure, I had a seat in the so-called Comfort+ rows that claimed to be a few generous inches more spacious front to back than the rest of coach, but the four-across seats in the slender CRJ tube are equally cramped whether just behind the first class curtain or in the last row.  The large guy seated next to me in the window seat of row 6 was a Diamond also denied an upgrade, and he was rightfully glum.  As we were both very frequent flyers, we toughed it out for two and half hours to Raleigh without complaint, shoulder to shoulder with zero room between us, both uncomfortable as hell.  It was the lone unpleasant experience on an otherwise remarkably tranquil trek.

The Law of Unintended Consequence impacts all our decisions and actions in ways we didn’t expect, no matter how well-meaning or poorly-contrived the original rationale.  If laptops and tablets and e-book readers disappear from airplane cabins (on flights from Europe and the Middle East to begin with), we may find that it’s a mixed blessing.

The chest-beating, hair-pulling, primal-scream consternation of business flyers reacting to the pending loss of laptops and tablets on board flights from Europe can be heard around the globe.  Like many business people, I have spent a good deal of time recently thinking about the dire implications of not having my laptop with me on the road.  Bottom line:  It’s a nonstarter.  I require it.  My laptop is a precious extension of my brain—and ofttimes more useful. Its value to business pursuits is irreplaceable.

Heck, we should complain; never has it been more “mete and right so to do” as I recall the 1928 Episcopal prayer book words in the Liturgy. Not having an electronic device at hand in flight can be detrimental to productivity; not having a laptop at all on a business trip is nearly fatal to achieving the trip’s mission in the first place. Much ink is currently being spilled on this subject.

But what about the more trivial pursuits that a tablet or laptop sitting on an airplane tray table provides access to?  Will we miss those recreations quite as much as studying complex spreadsheets, or sweating over PowerPoint bullets, or updating Outlook Calendar?

For instance, more than once on an airplane I have innocently glanced over at an open laptop next to me in the compressed spaces of coach and seen video porn running on the screen.  This occurred with the viewer, my seatmate, uncomfortably close to begin with in those inhumanly cramped spaces, so rapt with attention to the sweaty contortions of the naked participants onscreen, that he (and it’s always a guy watching) was oblivious to being in a most public place where anybody could watch along with him.

For some reason it’s always the fellow in the center seat watching pornography on a plane.  By choice, I am always in an aisle seat, so I can turn away.  But on one such flight I noticed the woman in the window seat observed what was playing and turned bright red and remained frowning and flushed throughout the flight.  She turned to the window and never looked back until we landed.

Who can blame her?  I am no prude, but seeing such things in a confined space where escape is impossible always makes me feel slightly unclean, especially since contact with my fellow passenger’s body is unavoidable in such close quarters.  I won’t miss such chance encounters with boors when laptops are banned on board. No, not at all.

A happier impact of eliminating laptops will be to see tray tables shorn of the familiar black clamshell devices, making it far easier for customers in center and window seats to get out to reach the lavatories.

Speaking of trips to the rear lavs in economy, returning to one’s seat up the aisle is the best way to comprehend the ubiquity of electronic devices on board flights: Nearly everybody has one going.  Small as they are, tablets and laptops in aggregate must account for a fair portion of overhead and underseat space on flights.  Perhaps when we are forced to travel that much lighter, so will the cabin spaces be less cluttered, leaving sufficient room for everyone’s belongings at our feet or in the compartments above our heads. (Okay, maybe I’m dreaming.)

On the other hand, if Marx was right when he wrote in the 19th century that religion was “the opiate of the people,” then surely Netflix and Amazon Prime movies and TV shows are the opiate of the 21st century flying public, keeping them nicely sedated during today’s horribly claustrophobic and often-delayed flights.  Yes, you can stream movies and TV shows on your smartphone, but it’s tedious and suboptimal, isn’t it?  Only a video screened on a tablet or laptop makes the flights, well, fly by.  So what will stress levels be like when no passenger has a suitable device to placate the troubled soul by watching a movie?  I can almost feel the in-flight tension rising just contemplating the ban.

The prospect of a passenger blowing a fuse because not properly medicated through immersion in some meaningless, escapist motion picture tripe (exactly the type I like) does worry me.  Remember when airlines routinely gave out playing cards to anyone who asked? And plenty of current magazines were stocked on board?  Even in those less stressful times when flights were not always completely full and seat spacing followed humane measures of legroom, airlines knew that a passenger’s mind occupied playing cards or reading a magazine was less likely to cause trouble. Gin rummy, anyone?

Speaking of reading, will passengers now go back to bringing aboard books made of paper when e-book readers are given the boot along with tablets and laptops?  Personally, I never kicked that habit, especially since Amazon sells used books for a penny plus $3.99 for shipping.  I take books on every flight, read them, and then give them away.  They don’t require batteries and never malfunction unless my bookmark falls out.  After e-devices vanish from airplane cabins, I hope to see more folks heads-down, buried in a good novel or perhaps a Civil War history (or, if you are from the South, a tome about the so-called “War of Northern Aggression”).

Another advantage of paper over e-devices is that books don’t take up much room in overhead compartments or in luggage. Call me a Pollyanna, but I am always looking for ways to optimize airplane cabin overhead space.

Of course, some folks just enjoy cruising the Internet or catching up on email by connecting their electronic device to in-flight wifi. The service isn’t cheap. I’ve often wondered whether on-the-go wifi was a decent revenue stream for the airlines.  Whether it’s a money-spinner or not, I don’t foresee as many passengers opting for that purchase to connect their smartphone as for their laptop or tablet. Will the ban cause airlines to discontinue in-flight wifi due to shriveling fees?  Will anyone care?

We will soon see how the e-device cabin prohibition falls out to us business travelers.  I didn’t consider the ancillary consequences until the ban loomed close at hand.  All this thinking has given me a headache.  Whatever happens, though, I am sure that frequent flyers will adapt to the changes, intended and unintended, as we always have.

Heck, let’s just move on.  Your next drink in the Club is on me.

The recent brouhaha with United Airlines, followed by the mysterious death of a giant rabbit on another UA flight, got me reflecting on the way I’ve been treated in the air since the 1970s when I began flying frequently.  Has the experience from start to finish really changed that much?  Yes, it has, I concluded upon reflection, although I’ve never had occasion to ship a big rabbit, much less had one expire on an airplane.  But I have witnessed a steady decline in service with a corresponding rise in stress.

Flying used to be simple: Buy a ticket through a travel agent or by phone directly from an airline, then relax and enjoy the trip. The issuer (airline or agent) would mail the physical ticket to me, sometimes delivering it in person. Easy. Stress-free, as long as I remembered to keep the ticket with me at all times, since tickets could be converted to cash and airlines would not let you check in or fly without a physical ticket.

Heck, up until the early eighties I couldn’t even get a seat assignment in advance and never worried about it.  Seats were assigned at the gate using little stickers pulled from a master sheet containing all the seat numbers for that particular flight’s type of plane. Even in the seventies, airlines had computers, of course: big hulking CRT monochrome monitors with ancient software running somewhere on huge IBM mainframes in Atlanta or New York or London communicating (not very fast) over Ma Bell phone lines. But the systems often broke down or just froze up—at least at RDU—and gate agents relied on my handwritten ticket as proof that I was legitimately booked on the flight. No panic, no stress.

In airline back offices somewhere, the computers were keeping track of my flying then, because I started to get recognized for my loyalty even in those dinosaur days before frequent flyer programs existed.  If you were a regular on Eastern, for instance, they’d make you an “Executive Traveler” and give you free upgrades to First Class.  Not always, but whenever First wasn’t totally booked with paying customers.  It was totally in the discretion of the gate agent and based on “first come, first served” at the gate.  I was (and still am) obsessively early, and so I was usually first on the ET upgrade list at Eastern. At the time I was often flying to NYC LaGuardia and loved those Eastern Airlines 727s on the route: so comfortable, even in coach. Again, no stress, not even when flying in the back.

The ET program was fair, too. Upgrades were awarded based on time of check-in at the gate, not miles flown (they had no way to track that precisely then) or amount paid. Famed UNC basketball coach Dean Smith was often booked on the same flight, but he was chronically late arriving, by which time I already had my upgrade in hand. Coach Smith would scowl when passing me perched in First as he lurched unhappily back to his coach seat, garment bag over his shoulder.  Sometimes neither of us got an upgrade, and we’d sit together in coach.  I recall that even in the back it was pretty comfortable, and the service was good.

Delta at first didn’t have a similar systematic upgrade program, but they somehow recognized me as a regular customer and made me a “Flying Colonel.”  That status gave me free access to Delta Crown Rooms, which were then free and small, open only to invited guests like Flying Colonels and VIPs.  Delta soon thereafter would give me upgrades even without a formal list.  However, flying in coach, as on Eastern, then was fine, not cramped and uncomfortable like it is now.

During the same period I was flying quite a lot from JFK to London (LHR), and British Airways wanted my business.  The other choices on the route were mainly PanAm and TWA.  BA offered me complimentary upgrades to either First Class (rarely) or (more often) to their earliest version of business class, which was a section of coach just behind First Class in which BA would leave empty seats between passengers and provide free alcohol and better meals.  How did they know to do that when I checked in?  The BA computer, ancient as it was, had me tagged with a special code, “passenger previously mishandled,” which alerted the counter to give me upgrades.  I quickly abandoned PanAm for British after that and often flew the only subsonic daylight flight to London, BA178, at the time an extremely comfortable first generation 707.

Flying wasn’t luxurious or romantic in the seventies and eighties (except, occasionally, in First Class), but it was much more than merely tolerable: comfortable, friendly, reliable.  United’s old catchphrase “Fly the friendly skies” had real meaning in those decades.

What has changed?  In a word: trust.  The bond between and among customers and airline staff at all levels from reservation agent to ticket counter to gate agent to cockpit and cabin crew to baggage handlers was tight and honest.  We all trusted one another.  Now not even multi-million milers are immune to mistreatment and mistakes.

As trust has withered, so has civility—on both sides, not just airline employees—and more’s the pity. These days we arrive at the airport with guerrilla mindsets.

Who’s to blame? Certainly the airline companies are not managed the way they used to be and bear most of the responsibility for the embattled nature of flying nowadays. They have nickel-dimed us to death, charging for seat assignments, luggage, food and nearly every amenity except using the toilet (possibly next?). They enticed us with frequent flyer programs and then devalued them shamelessly while lying to our faces using weasel-words that no one believes. They have crammed seats so close together that no sane person dares to recline his or her seatback for fear of inciting a riot.

Airlines overbook their flights, over-schedule at airports already well beyond capacity (e.g., DCA, LGA, etc.), and run slip-shod operations that chronically fall behind their own schedules even on bluebird days. When airline-caused delays occur, airline staff are trained to explain them away with more lies; they were masters of “alternative facts” long before that sad term was coined.

On board, finding harmony in the claustrophobic aluminum tube that necessarily defines a device meant to pierce the sky at a high rate of speed has always been a challenge.  These days the grind and the stress have made flights tense for all aboard the tiny arks.  The ratio of passengers to FAs has worsened, leading to hurried, often incomplete service.  Meals have been mostly eliminated. Passengers suffer in the cramped misery of too-small seats set too close together. As the mutual trust between flyer and FA has eroded, flight attendants too often look for the slightest provocation from a passenger to take punitive action.

No one deserves the Nazi tactics of the recent UA event. That said, we flyers, especially frequent flyers, bear some of the blame for expecting airlines to provide more than just bus service.  After all, who expects Greyhound to be more than what they are? Riding a bus was never dreamy. Flying, once viewed as something deluxe, has become a far less savory experience than taking Megabus, let alone cruising in the relative calm and humane comfort of an Amtrak train.  More often than not, “dread” is the emotion most people now associate with flying.

Something has to change.

 

Recently I passed another natal day, a sobering reminder that I’ve seen a lot of summers (69 years on the planet).  My first sensation on awakening, as always, was deep gratitude and love for my parents.  Their hard work and kindness got me off to a great start in life.

My lifelong love of travel, though, came to me without a parental pedigree.  What, I pondered on my birthday, have been the big changes I’ve witnessed traveling the world and America these past seven decades.  Change has been a constant in my life, as constant as travel, and I am comfortable with it.  However, I struggle sometimes to understand some of it.

No sooner had that question floated into my brain than the morning news presented a stark example:  The new Berlin Flughafen (airport) is currently five years late and at least $5 billion over budget.  This Bloomberg story is just one of many telling the sad tale.

Reading it, I was mystified to grasp what has happened to German efficiency, something I thought was hardwired into the culture, leading me to reminisce about my time among the Teutons. The year and a half that I lived in Munich in 1975-76 was a very happy experience, and as the time approached to leave, I considered making Munich my permanent home. I really liked the Germans and their country.

It was then a mere 30 years after WWII. In those days I’d still hear the Horst Wessel Lied (Nazi anthem) being sung by 50-something men coming out of beer halls drunk late at night, men who’d fought for Hitler in their teens and early twenties and had perhaps been among the throngs at the infamous Nuremberg amphitheater Nazi party rallies called by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, “the cathedral of light”.

At the time hearing that infamous melody was very creepy to me, raising the hairs on the back of my neck, and I would cross the street to avoid them.  But now I don’t think those men missed the Nazi era as much as, fueled by strong Bavarian lager, they were remembering their shared experience as soldiers in battle when very young men.  The bonds developed under fire are universal and lifelong, regardless of flag or cause.  Some of the men who’d been raised in Nazi Youth groups and fought on the Eastern Front befriended me when I lived there.  They would somberly raise a sardonic toast on April 20 to thank God that Hitler’s birthday was no longer a national holiday.

Everything in Germany worked in 1975-76: the trains, the trams, the post, the Gesundheitamt (health department), the Polizei.  The ordilessness that the Germans were famous for ruled everything, down to the exact time each day when the street sweepers would be on each Straße (street). Everyone drove the precise speed limit in town and as fast as possible on the Autobahn. Everybody used their turn signals and drove on the right on the Autobahn (huge billboards warned: “Rechts Fahren!” Meaning “drive right!”) and wore their seat belts (I was stopped by the police only once when I lived in Deutschland, and that was on the Autobahn near Nuremberg in 1976 for not wearing my seat belt). Every damn thing worked down to a gnat’s behind.

Now, I thought, it’s 42 years after I lived there! And 72 years after the war ended. So of course Germany has changed.  Just the same, how could they so botch the construction of a symbolic airport in their capital and landmark city, Berlin?  I never imagined their deepest core value to obsess to perfection–the epitome of Germanness: making sure that everything worked, by God!–would ever dissipate. To me, it’s as shocking as if the British were to suddenly outlaw cricket in favor of American baseball.

Back for a visit several years ago I traveled Frankfurt to Munich to Nuremberg and back on many high-speed ICE trains (Inter-City Express).  Many of the trains were late, and some were even canceled due to labor, track, equipment, or unspecified reasons.  It was as if I was in Italy where such glitches are the norm, but never in Germany!  Even some of the buses, trams, and S-Bahn commuter trains in Munich were late, unheard-of in the 1970s.

An American friend who worked two weeks in Hamburg in the 1980s told of staying at The Atlantic, a very fine hotel. In those days the airport bus would stop at the corner by The Atlantic and was scheduled to come about every 25 minutes. Every time he was in the room over those two weeks he would look out to see how early or late the bus was running.  He was amazed to observe that the bus was never early and never late. It pulled up at exactly the minute the schedule had, not a minute before or after. But today no bus runs there at all.

The Berlin airport isn’t the only tardy German scheme. The Hamburg opera house in Hamburg was six years behind schedule. The “Stuttgart 21” rail project was first proposed in 1995 and is now projected to be completed in 2021, if ever. Lack of precision seems a systemic German problem in the 21st century.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that such undesirable changes must be balanced against Germany’s achievements in the past fifty years.  The country integrated the impoverished East Germany while maintaining its stellar growth and EU primacy in economic strength—a feat nothing short of a miracle.  In 2015 alone, Germany absorbed 1.1 immigrants, the most of any EU country except Turkey (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36169684).  Musing on my birthday, I concluded the German culture maintains deep-rooted strengths of compassion, mastery of industry, and devotion to hard work.  These values are more admirable than efficiency alone, and I need to cut the Germans some slack.  I am confident that German efficiency remains in their nature.  It will be back.