Everybody knows the first three words of literary genius Alexander Pope’s famous rhyme, “Hope springs eternal” from his work, An Essay on Man.  I never thought the great man’s poem would pop into my brain while I was trolling for a Delta SkyMiles award ticket, but it did.

The now-hackneyed phrase is often used out of context of the second verse, which goes like this:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never is, but always to be blessed.

Those three words of the lead stanza of Pope’s ditty, written 1732-34, were skimmed off and became a proverb almost at once.  The entire work goes much deeper. Hardly as superficial as the single phrase “Hope springs eternal,” An Essay on Man has been interpreted as man affirming faith in his deity.

In the sharp words of the second verse, Pope is scolding mankind for not appreciating what we are already blessed with (“Man never is”), instead forever pining to be blessed with whatever it is we hope for.

Pope’s humbling second stanza words came to mind, oddly, this week when I searched for a Delta SkyMiles award ticket from Raleigh to New Orleans in November over four days to visit an old friend who is about to buy the farm (her way of describing dying from cancer).  Not much hope sprang from my breast as I began fishing at the Delta website, especially because I was using my sister’s gift of all the miles in her SkyMiles account. It was a meager 23,000 miles.

With so few miles to work with, I had reason to lack hope and assume the worst, that is, no way could I find an award ticket to the Crescent City. Delta has, after all, slashed the value of frequent flyer miles and jettisoned its award charts from public view.  Though I appreciated my sister’s generous gesture, I didn’t begin looking with much confidence.

Contrary to all my assumptions, however, plenty of SkyMiles award travel itineraries RDU/MSY were showing for the week I needed for just 19,000 miles roundtrip, plus $11.20 in taxes.  I was able to book the exact dates and nearly the exact times that I preferred. Frankly, I was shocked.

Another revelation awaited when I chose my seats—all in main cabin because this was the cheapest award travel mileage ticket on the route:  Delta’s upgrade robot had automatically upgraded me to Comfort+.  The bot even got all but one of the four seat assignments correct (aisle in the bulkhead row).

Delta’s IT department seems to have been busy improving their auto-upgrade systems to account for customer preferences.  Or maybe I just got lucky with the seats.  The main point is that I was upgraded to Comfort+ on the least allowable mileage award for main cabin travel.  (Delta’s system even asked me if I wanted to be placed on the first class upgrade queue, though I am not holding my breath on that one.)

The ease with which I was able to book the travel I needed with such paltry mileage got me curious, so I started testing other city-pairs, such as RDU/SEA.  The least miles for an award ticket to Seattle was 23,000, and a goodly number of award itineraries came up in my searches across a spectrum of dates.

Astonishing, I thought, which brought Mr. Pope’s poem to mind, that is, the second stanza about how we all hope to be blessed while never appreciating that we already are.  I’ve groused about Delta’s diminution of its SkyMiles program and its high-handed disappearing act with the award charts because, by all appearances, it was a big fat devaluation, pure and simple.  It was that, and we all know it.

Nonetheless, I admit that my assumption about their program overhaul being all bad was wrong.  SkyMiles is definitely not transparent any more on the macro scale that it used to be.  However, individual city-pair searches can reveal reasonable mileage award value, depending, I am sure, on dates.  For instance, I didn’t check, but I doubt I’d find any 23,000 mile round trip itineraries RDU/SEA on offer around Thanksgiving.

For 19,000 miles round trip on my first try, I’ll take it, and, yes, I feel blessed that the renovated system worked for me…this time.

Only this time?  Well, perhaps I am not yet ready to affirm my faith in the SkyMiles gods. I guess Pope was right after all, because I already find myself hoping rather than trusting that SkyMiles will work for me the next time I need to book award travel.

“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” ― Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it” ― Thomas Jefferson

“The sun doesn’t shine up the same dog’s a– every day.” ― Old Southern aphorism, to which the common retort in the South is “Amen, brother!”

Luck, chance, Providence. Whatever, luck was with me most of last week when I flew Delta RDU to Milwaukee and back.  Things didn’t look good at first, but improved dramatically as my itinerary unfolded, culminating in the last leg kissing the tarmac at Raleigh before Delta’s big systems crash Sunday night. Looking back, all three quotes above were proven correct.  Luck was with me, and I am sure glad I don’t have to fly on Delta this week.

My journey began midweek with a 5:00 AM flight to Atlanta, requiring a strident and unwelcome 3:15 AM alarm.  I’d been working until almost midnight, so I was cranky as I drove to RDU and navigated the airport’s new highfalutin tiered parking—tiered pricing, that is, depending on the “convenience” of the area in the garage.  I was sorry to see Raleigh’s airport, once focused on its users, put on airs to justify raising daily parking prices again. Thinking about it, the bile rose in my throat as I found a spot and locked the vehicle.

RDU’s TSA Pre line at 3:55 AM was a breeze.  These days so many people are Pre members that the queue gets long during the day, and sometimes I duck under the rope to the regular line if it’s significantly shorter.  Last week, though, I was through security in less than five minutes.

The SkyClub at Raleigh opens at 4:15 AM, but with a five o’clock flight, what’s the point?  I skipped it and went right to the gate.

There, Lady Luck smiled on me the first time with a First Class upgrade.  Since my flying fell off a few years ago, I now have to depend on my Lifetime Platinum status for sharp end access on Delta. Even after logging over five million Delta SkyMiles, upgrades have become rare. Tired and sleepy, I particularly savored this one, and I relaxed.

After boarding and ordering a Bloody Mary as a soporific, I mused foolishly on how big the MD-88 seemed compared to the ever-present CRJs used on many flights these days.

And I am ashamed to admit that I became pettily irritated that no limes had been catered for my Bloody Mary.  The First Class FA told me “Delta doesn’t provide limes at ‘out stations’ like RDU” despite my insistence that Delta has provided limes at RDU since 1960. He claimed they never did and didn’t believe me.  Maybe it was his calling Raleigh/Durham an “out station” as if my home airport was an uneven mud field in Papua New Guinea that got under my skin.

Sipping my Bloody Mary and stupidly pouting that it was naked without a proper lime, I pondered another triviality; that is, how much I dislike the common practice now of most airlines, including Delta, of closing every window shade at gates “to save energy” (translation: saves the airline money from not having to cool the plane at gates).  Most passengers do not open the shades, and most FAs do not enforce the FAA rule that window shades must be open for takeoff and landing.  Thus more and more flights are made blind with most shades down. I have always enjoyed looking out the windows as we fly.  Even after all these years flying amazes me.  Why, I wondered, have people become so jaded?

I shouldn’t have dropped my guard so early.  Business flyers stay fully armored with shields up until deplaning at destination because, of course, with the airlines, anything can and does happen. I could see from my perch in seat 1C right into the cockpit.  Well before the boarding process was completed, I knew we had a problem. Maintenance guys were scurrying in and out, conferring in not-so-hushed tones with the captain.  He and the first officer soon announced some unknown electrical malfunction was going to delay us, but he didn’t yet know for how long.

Bad luck had followed good luck, and the vodka began to burn in my throat as I cataloged my options if I missed my connection in ATL.  A quick check on Kayak, FlightAware, FlightStats, and Delta.com wasn’t promising.  Flights throughout the day to Milwaukee were full.  My silly, petty thoughts of a few minutes before were replaced with a mental menu of decisions to pursue to get me where I needed to be. I began to make calls to Delta’s Elite line and to punch the tiny virtual keyboard on my Samsung with my fat fingers.

So, I thought, as I worked the possibilities to beat the system, I got up at 3:17 AM for this stress?  Sitting in First Class on a flight that doesn’t make its connection is only marginally better than hunched down in the center seat of the last row of economy by the lav.

We pushed back from the gate an hour late, and by then, following Thomas Jefferson’s advice that one’s luck improves with hard work, I had backup itineraries in place if I missed my connection.  However, my luck turned again: I made my flight in Atlanta, if barely. I high-tailed it to the connecting gate, miraculously on the same B concourse, and there found another happy surprise: a second First Class upgrade.  My luck had improved once more.

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Delta’s B Concourse in Atlanta

The connecting flight arrived Milwaukee on time, and the return flights MKE to Raleigh connected through Detroit with some touch-and-go issues, but no trip-shredding delays. Delta’s big systems crash, which soon after shut down the entire airline’s operations worldwide, gave Cormac McCarthy’s quote new resonance for me: “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” If I had been forced by the first delay to travel the following day instead, and to return a day later, I might have been among the hordes of Delta passengers stranded.

Regarding that disaster, from which the airline has yet (as of this writing) to fully recover, here’s a video Delta posted on its website of CEO Ed Bastian.  This was a calamitous disruption, yet Mr. Bastian’s statement struck me as ambivalent more than as conciliatory, certainly not the customer-focused message it might have been:

http://news.delta.com/ceo-apologizes-customers-flight-schedule-recovery-continues

Hope your luck holds!

Anatomy of a 1935 railroad timetable

The author Rex Stout, creator of the peerless private detective duo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, wrote his masterpiece “The League of Frightened Men” in 1935.  In the tale his character Nero Wolfe, a denizen of Manhattan, admonishes a client that “You had better run, or you’ll miss your train.”  Stout then has Wolfe add this stern observation on the subject of possibly missing one’s train:

“It occurs to me that no publication either before or since the invention of printing, no theological treatise and no political or scientific creed, has ever been as narrowly dogmatic or as offensively arbitrary in its prejudices as a railway timetable.”

It’s no wonder that even the brilliant and successful Rex Stout harbored such a cold, unsympathetic feeling for railroad timetables in the first half of the twentieth century. The option for on-demand, inter-city mobility by private automobile didn’t yet widely exist. Everyone perforce traveled by train, and thus all rail passengers were in thrall to the services defined in timetables. Travelers marched inexorably to the beat of the timetable. Another character in the same Rex Stout novel alludes to this 1935 reality when he quips that an article should be written on the subject called “The Tyranny of the Wheel.”

The need for predictable, reliable railroad scheduling and safe, dependable operation, after all, was the impetus for the establishment of standard timekeeping and time zones across the country in the post-Civil War 19th century.  Too, the rhythm of departures was driven by the need to optimize the carrying capacity of the rail corridors on which trains moved; the station-by-station schedules published in timetables were the formal documentation of that carefully analyzed operational pulse.  Every public timetable was correlated to the internal company timetable over the same route.

The same capacity optimization need exists today in a mostly freight train era. Every railroad operates according to its TSP, or Transportation Service Plan, which is just as carefully planned to match the capacity of the rail networks with the timing of freight trains—and the occasional Amtrak train—on the corridors.

Thus, in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century when passenger trains defined the way people moved, timetables were a necessity for efficient railroad operation in addition to being a convenient marketing and informational tool for the traveling public to know what trains went where and when.

Over time, the public railroad timetable became much more than mere schedules. The ubiquitous timetable evolved into a uniquely American art form, chockablock full of fares, accommodation descriptions, each train’s consist of cars, travel advertisements, diner menus and prices, and various admonishments, with fine print, footnoted arcana detailing station stop rules and conditions.  It’s a cornucopia of information specifying how we traveled.

Beginning right after World War I and through the Roaring Twenties and 1930s Depression Era, timetable covers were often printed in two or more colors, the better to attract the public’s attention by differentiating each rail company’s identity more sharply.  This trend included the establishment and marketing of distinctive railroad logos and slogans which became familiar to the traveling public, such as the Great Northern Railroad mountain goat, the Pennsylvania Railroad keystone, and the New York Central’s “Water Level Route.”

It was a marvelous time in American and rail history, and the public timetables documented that era for eternity equally as much as Egyptian pyramid hieroglyphs did that ancient period of human history.  I will explore and highlight some of the stories embedded in public railroad timetables in words and pictures through intermittent posts like this one to allenontravel.

I’ve chosen to start with a cursory look at the Great Northern system timetable for the summer of 1935 because it was in use contemporaneously with the publication in August of that year of the Rex Stout novel I quoted from above, “The League of Frightened Men.”  The term “system timetable” means the thick booklet lists every passenger train operated throughout the entire GN network, which in 1935 covered many routes and trains between the Pacific Northwest and Chicago (reached via close-tied Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad).

The cover grabs one’s attention right away in its bold red and black, GN goat logo, and a reminder that Great Northern is the “Route of the EMPIRE BUILDER” which is “Completely Air-Conditioned” to guarantee hot weather comfort aboard.  At the bottom of the front page in drop-out white lettering against a black background is the simple statement “GLACIER NATIONAL PARK” to emphasize the spectacular natural beauty of the American West through which its trains passed.

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Inside the fold a full page, two-color advertisement was devoted to describing the luxe and excitement of traveling on the Empire Builder, the GN’s premier train between Chicago, the Twin Cities, and the Pacific Northwest, taking note of piercing the Glacier Park, and including a God’s eye photo looking down on happy, well-dressed families with kids reveling in the comfort of the Builder’s “Luxury Coaches.”

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Note the careful itemization of decision points important to discriminating would-be summer, 1935 travelers: low rail (coach) and sleeping car (Pullman) fares—lower than before (it was the middle of the Depression, after all); lower dining car prices; the comfort of A/C (a luxury in the 1930s); the importance of a clean and quiet environment (read: no coal soot or cinders penetrating the sealed, air-conditioned cars); the many places reached (Glacier Park twice mentioned, along with several Pacific Northwest cities, Alaska, and California).   Clearly, Great Northern’s marketing and art departments were as fully engaged with timetable design and content as was the transportation (operating) department with basic schedules.

All this interesting data, and we haven’t even opened the timetable to the first inside page yet!

Rex Stout’s grievance against timetable tyranny was widely felt at the time and nothing new.  American humorist Will Rogers, who died on August 15, 1935, the day after Stout’s “The League of Frightened Men” was published, took a dig not at the rigidity of schedules, but at the inherent complexity of the timetables themselves, with this quote:

“There are two things I don’t care how smart you are, you will never understand. One is a psychiatrist’s court testimony, and the other is a railroad timetable.”

From time to time allenontravel will unravel the mysteries and wonders of public rail timetables up to about 1970, covering elements such as:

  • Schedules and footnotes, including mainline varnish (the nickname for a railroad’s best trains) and branch line mixed trains (meaning mixed freight and passenger service—usually just a coach or two)
  • System maps, including elevations, and a list of cities served indexed to timetable pages
  • Fare types and tables by class, such as Pullman sleeping care rates
  • Train consists, including accommodation choices (the term “consists” was used as a noun by railroads to mean a car-by-car description of each train’s accommodation type and services, such as Pullman sleepers, diners, lounges, and coaches)
  • Travel highlights: what’s along the line worth seeing and stopping for, including side trips
  • Dining car sample menus and prices
  • Railroad general office list of manager names, titles, and locations
  • Offline connecting schedules with other railroads
  • Advertisements for land, for freight shipments, for sending rail tickets by telegraph, etc.
  • And much more…

Indeed, so much and so varied information packed into a single system timetable leaves no doubt that Will Rogers and Rex Stout were accurately describing the general public sentiment of the time.  If all you wanted to know was what trains went from A to B, then timetables could be daunting.

But not to us, as we will see in my occasional posts on the subject of railroad timetables.

 

Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) is my home airport and has been my flying base for more than a half century.  I have literally circled the globe many times beginning and ending at RDU.

RDU airport

I’ve watched my airport grow from a big town/small city aerodrome for central North Carolina in the 1950s to the remarkably robust regional airfield it is today. RDU now has about 400 daily flights (that’s just over 200 in and 200 out per day) operated by nine airlines: Delta, American, Southwest, United, Alaska, Allegiant, Air Canada, Frontier, and JetBlue.

The many choices now offered, including partnerships like JetBlue’s with Emirates (which I used and enjoyed earlier this year), is good for me in this new era where I am detaching from loyalty to one or two carriers.  My five-plus million miles on Delta and over a million on American don’t count for much anymore. The big three airlines have severely devalued award travel and important perks like upgrades. I feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of flying these days: I get no respect!

Rodney Dangerfield 3

Rodney Dangerfield could mine a bottomless pit of “No Respect!” jokes from the agony of flying in 2016.

So what’s a dyed-in-the-wool frequent flyer to do?  I’ve been addicted to acquiring miles since American launched the AAdvantage program in 1981.  I joined immediately and still have the flimsy plastic card AA sent me 35 years ago.  My AAdvantage number is one of the original with all digits and no alphabetic characters.

It’s hard to kick the frequent flying habit, but RDU’s many services are making it a lot easier.

It wasn’t always so at RDU. Growing up, my parents would often take me to Raleigh/Durham Airport because airplanes and the prospect of flying excited me.  There, I’d watch for hours as the curvy, sleek Eastern Airlines Lockheed Constellations (called Connies) with their distinctive three vertical stabilizer tails floated down onto the runway and pulled up close to the short fence that then separated the tarmac from the parking lot.

Eastern Airlines Connie

The square windows on this Connie indicate it’s a “Super G” model

RDU did not offer a lot of choices then in airlines or destinations.  Today, RDU is a big place, and it feels like it.  Raleigh/Durham is expected to break through the ten million passenger mark in 2016, and it is planning for a lot more growth in the future (see the airport’s 2040 plan: http://vision2040.rdu.com/).

In fact, May 2016 saw record numbers for Raleigh-Durham International Airport: 514,217 total passengers, a whopping 15.3 percent increase over May 2015. Of those, 12,976 were international, up from 9,198 last year, in part attributable to Delta’s new 757 nonstop service to Paris CDG, which debuted May 12.

According to RDU figures, the top RDU carriers in May 2016 (enplaned passengers) were:

Delta: 150,113

American: 138,095

Southwest: 105,942

United: 60,400

While it’s true that those four airlines account for the majority of RDU seats, the other five carriers are growing their services, giving me more choices.

RDU boasts 40 nonstops, including nonstop flights to London (AA to LHR), Paris (DL to CDG), Cancun, and Toronto.  Nonstop flight destinations to the West include SFO, LAX, SLC, LAS, PHX, SEA, and DEN (three airlines serve Denver nonstop: United, Southwest, and Frontier).

Delta Airlines is aggressively expanding its non-hub destinations from RDU, too.  DL has announced three daily flights to Newark (starting in November) which will compete with UA, nonstop flights to DCA (which will be welcome competition to AA, currently the sole carrier RDU/DCA), and nonstop service to Fort Myers, Florida over Christmas.

When I groused about that Florida Gulf Coast service being on a stinking RJ, Joe Brancatelli pointed out brightly that it’s still better than flying on two RJ flights to get there, AND it avoids a hub connection!  Such is the beauty of a nonstop flight.

According to the Centre for Aviation (CAPA), “securing long-haul routes is a lengthy and challenging process” and the “competition to gain additional service is fierce.”  RDU is doing well by that measure with its aforementioned nonstop DL 757 service to Paris, its longtime AA nonstop to Heathrow (a 777 before the Big Recession, but still a widebody 767, usually full every day), and nonstop flights to every major western city except San Diego.

All of which is great for me.  I can still fly on Delta or American when I choose—and I will, especially on the nonstop flights that bypass hubs—while United, Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier, Alaska, Air Canada, and Allegiant flights give me other options.  Altogether, the large number of daily flights, the wide variety of nonstop destinations, and the diversity of carriers free me from the shackles of loyalty that have kept me bound to one or two carriers for over three decades.  Thanks to the many choices available at RDU, I am finally liberated.

 

 

 

Not that I think American Airlines is perfect these days; far from it!  But I thought the chaotic aftermath of the US/AA merger was mostly over, at least until this week.

On a same day Raleigh-Washington-Raleigh AA itinerary (Tuesday of this week), I experienced multiple glitches that harken back to the bleakest of the bad old days flying: a cascading series of screw-ups that felt too much like flying on United at their worst—and that’s not a compliment.

I signed up for a one day transit “Leadership Visit & Field Trip” to Alexandria, Arlington, and Crystal City to hear from transit planners and elected officials there how Northern Virginia’s smorgasbord of transit modes (commuter rail, metro, bus rapid transit, and ordinary bus) has worked out to give folks choices in mobility and for economic development (Transit-Oriented Development, or TOD).  I wanted to take the train, but that would have required an overnight stay, and other commitments in Raleigh forced my hand, making me choose to fly.

American had the best options for nonstop RDU/DCA services, and the cheapest, so I selected flights leaving at 6:00 AM going up and departing Washington Reagan at 7:30 PM for home.  The fare was about $270 round trip, but AA offered me a YUP fare on the return flight to first class for $20 more, so I took it.  Both legs were on RJs with small first class cabins.

A week before my flights I checked the online itinerary because I needed to email a copy to colleagues to coordinate our trip.  I was surprised to find my seats had been changed, as had the flight numbers and times in both directions.  I also noticed that I was in coach on the return leg.  I selected the best seats I could get on both legs. Puzzled as to what had happened and why I had not received an email notification, I called my AA elite line.

After a few minutes rummaging through the record, the agent said that American had changed both flight numbers, changed the times of both the RDU/DCA and the DCA/RDU flights, and had replaced the two-class RJ on the return to a single class RJ, hence pushing me back to coach.

Okay, I said, then kindly refund the premium I had paid (about $20) for the YUP fare.  I was told the YUP fare doesn’t work that way.  Once purchased, it is not refundable even if American Airlines yanks the plane and replaces it with a coach-only aircraft, as they did with me.

“Oh, then it’s always a gamble when you choose a YUP fare?” I asked, trying hard to be polite.  I was told that yes, that’s correct.  Once AA has my money, they are not obligated to provide me with the service I paid for or to refund the difference between first class and coach if the airline changes its aircraft.

“That’s because YUP is a special type of fare,” she said.

“Yes, it certainly is,” I replied. “It’s a bait-and-switch fare that always favors the airline.”

The agent demurred in silence.

To the other issue, that is, why I wasn’t informed of the changes to flights numbers, times, seats, and class of service, the agent said that AA’s system “tried to send you an email, but it was rejected. Check your spam folder, and allow AA emails to get through.”

I told her that I had faithfully received hundreds of similar emails from American, including recent ones related to different itineraries, but that I would certainly check my server settings.

And I did.  I looked at my spam filters and junk mail folders at Network Solutions and found nothing related to American Airlines.  That left me wondering why I had not received the emails.

On the day before my flights, I tried to check in online, but AA.com would not let me complete the process, each time returning a message that said online check-in was not possible and to check in at the airport.  I wasn’t looking forward to getting up at 3:30 AM to be there at 4:00 AM so I could get my boarding passes printed at the airport, so once again called American’s elite line.

This time the agent who answered had an “Aha!” moment, telling me that the reason I had not received any email notifications and wasn’t able to check in online was because AA had not fully reissued my ticket when they changed the flight numbers, the times, the aircraft, and my seats.  She spent 10 minutes working to confirm that the ticket was, finally, reissued, and said that I would now be able to check in online, no problem.

When I asked her why I was told by the first agent that it was my email’s spam filter, she was baffled.  “No, definitely our fault,” she graciously admitted, “Not your email’s fault.”

I was driving when I learned all this, so could not immediately go to online check-in.  Later, when I did, AA.com returned the same error message and refused to let me check in.  So I called a third time.

The agent I then spoke to had no idea why I couldn’t check in online and said I’d just have to be there extra early and have an airport agent do it.

The following morning, therefore, I arose at the ungodly hour of 3:30 AM and was parked and standing at the AA ticket counter at 4:00 AM.  That agent had no trouble issuing my boarding pass and laughed when I told her I couldn’t do it online.  “I don’t see anything in the system that would prevent it,” she said.

I told her that I had paid for a YUP fare on the return leg that was now no good and asked to use it on the RDU/DCA leg instead.  That flight was still using a two-class airplane.  No, I couldn’t, she said, because I was number 12 on the upgrade list behind a slew of people who had paid more.

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The RJ first class compartment I couldn’t sit in

Oh, well, I thought, no big deal.  Guess I’ll sit in coach and wonder why I was so stupid as to pay for first class.  What else could go wrong?

I was going to find out that evening on the way home.

When the transit leadership tour ended, I was just one Metro stop away from DCA, so managed to get there by 4:15 PM and to stand by for a 5:12 PM AA departure to Raleigh.  My YUP fare basis bumped me up to number 4 on the standby list, but the flight was so overbooked that American had to accommodate a number of confirmed passengers on later flights, and not a single standby made the flight.

I was left with no choice except to slouch in the dungeon-like sub-level of DCA Gate 35X, a place with a grim, Third World feel to it, insufficient A/C, excruciatingly loud announcements too garbled to understand, and far too few seats for the waiting hordes.  The Gate 35X sub-level, with its five doors leading to buses that transport passengers out to the aircraft parked on remote ramps, reminded me of 1950s Greyhound and Trailways bus stations in eastern North Carolina.  The close proximity of so many bodies in such a small space, reeking with sweat in the unremitting heat and near-100% humidity, broadcast a palpable collective loss of dignity.  I didn’t know if I could make it another 90 minutes until my 7:35 PM flight boarded.

By seven o’clock I was pacing in anticipation of escaping this inhumane environment when I noticed the monitor suddenly show that my flight was delayed 20 minutes.  No explanation (of course).  Ten minutes later, the monitor showed my flight to RDU was delayed 35 minutes.

Having been through countless creeping delays, I called the AA elite line to get the facts.  Would the flight be canceled?  If not, what time was it really leaving, and why the delay?  I didn’t think I could hold off much longer in the sublevel of Gate 35X, the waiting room of hell.

The agent on the phone clicked and clicked away on her keyboard before sighing and telling me that she had no idea why the plane was late or when it would leave.  I asked where it was coming from, and she clicked some more, to no avail.  Her system would not tell her the inbound aircraft or flight number.

I then tried both the Flight Aware and Flightstats apps on my smartphone, but the sites reported conflicting information, and neither one seemed logical.  I surmised that the AA system was providing bad data: garbage in, garbage out.

In desperation to get accurate information, I asked for and got the American Airlines ground staff manager of the sublevel at Gate 35X.  She was visibly addled but at least able to tell me that the inbound aircraft was a flight from BDL (Hartford).  That enabled me to watch the monitor and again query Flightstats and Flight Aware.  Things looked to be getting worse.  Both apps indicated that I was in for at least a 90 minute delay.

No explanation was given for the creeping delays by the polite but utterly clueless sublevel Gate 35X staff, nor did they know when the flight would actually leave.  I felt sorry for them (and me).  The manager actually said, “I don’t know, but this happens all the time.  I never know why.”

I called the AA elite line again, armed with the BDL information, but received no better idea why the delay was occurring or when we might leave. The telephone agent said she did not have the information from her system.  By now it was almost 8:30 PM, an hour past scheduled departure time.

Suddenly, without explanation or apology, our flight was called on the garbled PA system.  We boarded a bus at 8:30 PM, and when it was chockablock full of humanity, we trundled off into the darkness.  The bus approached one RJ and stopped, but then we sat on the tarmac with no explanation until almost 9:00 PM.  Suddenly, the bus started moving again: Guess that wasn’t our plane, I remember thinking.  It was pitch dark.  Soon we slowed and stopped by a different RJ, the door opened, and we finally boarded at 9:05 PM.

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The bus that sat on the tarmac in the dark for 20 minutes with no explanation

Our plane then sat on the runway until 9:45 PM before taking off.  While sitting there, our captain announced that he didn’t know why we were being held since they would not tell him the reason for the delay.  He was perplexed, he said.

We arrived RDU at 10:26 PM, nearly two hours late.  My flight had been scheduled to depart DCA at 7:35 PM and to arrive RDU at 8:45 PM.

Waiting for the Jetway to arrive at RDU, I chatted up the cockpit crew and flight attendant to understand what really happened.  Turns out it was indeed the aircraft and crew that had come in to DCA from BDL  They told me that:

  1. The plane had a mechanical problem in Hartford and took a one hour delay there.
  1. By the time the airplane reached DCA airspace the field itself was closed because of lightning close by, and they circled for 40 minutes before being allowed to land.
  1. They were ready to have us board and were baffled as to why our bus sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes.
  1. The flight deck crew was also in the dark about the reason for the delay taking off at DCA.

It certainly appears that no timely and accurate information about AA flight delays is transmitted to anyone in the real world of flying: not to gate agents, not even to gate managers, not to elite line agents, not to passengers, and not even to flight crews!  I couldn’t piece together what was happening from the best apps available, either (Flightstats and Flight Aware).

These things happen, I know, but they are a lot easier to grit out when I know why things are happening and what to expect.  AA failed completely to provide even simple facts to anyone in service delivery.

The total absence of basic information related to the long delay was the crescendo of an experience already marred by the earlier errors, defects, and problems in the itinerary mentioned above, Overall, so many things went wrong that I wonder whether AA is improving or degrading. After this mess, I will try to book away from AA until they clean up their basic operation.

Flying to Montana recently in a breezy mood, I found myself thinking about Joe Brancatelli’s occasional “Nobody asked me, but…” reflections on air travel and the airline business (which Joe in turn took from the famous 1940s-1960s sports writer Jimmy Cannon–see https://www.amazon.com/Nobody-asked-but-world-Cannon/dp/0030153816). Suddenly a number of ironies having to do with flying dawned on me. With apologies to Joe and Jimmy Cannon for cribbing their shtick, I offer these questions:

Why are airplanes so cold in the summer, but airlines have removed all blankets except in first class? I see people boarding clad in nothing but shorts, thin tees, and going sockless in sandals, and then clutching themselves and shivering at altitude. On both flights going to Billings I had to ask the flight attendants to ask the captain to add heat to the cabin.

Why can’t I discern any real difference between Delta’s “main cabin” back-of-the-bus cheapest economy seats and their much-vaunted “Comfort +” seats just behind first class? Delta says they are much better and charges a lot more for them, yet I just don’t feel more comfortable. After all, they are just as narrow and cramped as the ones in the back.

Why are there only two lavatories for 120+ coach passengers on narrow body aircraft–a ratio of more than 60 to 1–but the ratio is 16 to 1 in first class? That seems to be a huge imbalance to me. Do airlines think coach passengers’ bodily functions are different from those of folks seated in first class?

And why can’t coach passengers near the front of the plane use the forward lav? Are they not as trustworthy as first class passengers?

And why is one of the two aft lavs always occupied by someone for half the flight? Are they primping or praying in there? Have they no sensitivity to their economy colleagues clutching their groins and hopping up and down outside the door?

Certainly I understand why airlines ask people not to open or to eat peanut products when someone with a peanut allergy has announced his or her presence on board. But why, then, do airlines still serve milk products, wheat products, and meat products in the presence of passengers who are lactose-intolerant, gluten-intolerant, or are vegetarians?

For that matter, why do airlines serve alcohol around alcoholics or caffeine products around Mormons or products with pork when Jews or Muslims are on board?

Why is flight attendant luggage always stored in the compartment over my seat no matter which row on board I am assigned?

Why is my hub connecting gate always close to my arrival gate when my inbound flight is on time or early and when I have two hours to connect, but always as far away as possible when my flight is late and with just 30 minutes of connection time?

Why, too, are many hub airport moving sidewalks broken between the distant connecting gates as I frantically run to my second flight? This happened twice to me recently, once at London’s Terminal 3, where over half the moving sidewalks were inoperable, and again recently at MSP trying to get from gate G21 to gate F15, about as long a distance as one can expect at that airport, where two-thirds of the moving sidewalks were not working.

Why am I always on a plane with a defective pressurization system when I am suffering from congested sinuses or a bad head cold?

Why is it that I can pay $1130 for a round trip on Emirates Air halfway around the globe to Sri Lanka, with free stopovers in Dubai and The Maldives, but American Airlines charges $960 round trip Raleigh to Washington, a distance of just 300 miles?

Why is it that my 14 hour flight on Emirates in coach, an airline where I hold zero Elite status, is a far better experience than flying on American Airlines, where I am a million miler and Lifetime Gold, in the Main Cabin Extra section for 7 hours to London?

Why is it that Delta and American have so devalued their frequent flyer programs but still clog my mailbox with their branded credit card enticements lauding the benefits of those same FF programs? They have no shame.

Why is it that Delta takes pride in “upgrading” me from “Main Cabin” to “Comfort +”? Oh yeah, I forgot: No shame.

Why is it that when I really, really need to recharge my smartphone that I’m on a plane with no charging receptables?

While I find that the E170/E175 airplanes are more comfortable than the first gen CRJs, why is that the overhead compartments are no bigger than on the original CRJs, but the airlines won’t pink-tag luggage on these newer aircraft?  This makes it impossible to find enough O/H space for everybody’s carryon.

Why is it that when I read this list of questions to my wife that she thought I was just bitching and moaning when I thought I was being funny and ironic?

Airline food.  Just the two words strung together used to conjure up an angst of uncertainty if I was flying in coach.  Was I hungry enough to risk the intestinal challenge of another cardboard meal? These days I don’t have to ward off any such troubling feeling since very little is served in domestic economy.

Not that the prospect of a meal or snack in domestic first class made my mouth water.  I tasted enough mediocre or just plain bad food riding in sharp end to be wary of what would be plunked down on my tray table at 33,000 feet up.

Fifty-six years of flying has yielded some memorable consumption of airline comestibles and libations—good and horrible—and I thought it might be fun to reminisce about just a few of my favorite memories.

Who can forget Eastern’s peanuts aboard an L-1011?

At the modest end of the snack scale, every airline used to serve peanuts, and some still do, but I never had any better than on my first Comair flight (now South African Airlink) between Johannesburg and Skukuza in 1991.  The nuts were perfectly roasted with just the right amount of oil and salt, and they were fresh, with a mouthfeel crunch of perfection.  Free ice-cold Castle beer (brewed in South Africa) was the ideal complement in flavor, too, and that was in coach.  Comair was and remains a single class carrier.

Makes my mouth water just seeing an open tin of caviar, this one from a Thai flight.

At the top end of the snack and appetizer scale, Singapore Airline’s caviar in first class on board its SFO/HKG/SIN 747 in the late 1980s was the most scrumptious I’ve ever tasted anywhere.  Good Russian and Iranian Beluga and Sevruga caviars used to be the pinnacle of fare in international first class cabins, and I was fortunate enough to sample quite a lot over the years.  Singapore’s was my favorite, and I learned to ask for seconds and thirds and to eschew the other pre-entrée food features so I could concentrate on the fish eggs.  Singapore served the proper accompaniment beverage, too: Champagne, the finest luxury cuvees from Dom Perignon and Krug.  One can never have too much Krug.

The only Champagne that can compete with Krug for my palate is Bollinger R.D.

The most gauche meal moment in an international first class cabin occurred on a TWA 747 from JFK to London in the early 1980s.  I was in my then-favorite seat, 1A, in the nose of the plane.  For an appetizer the Teeny-Weenie (the old TWA nickname) cabin crew brought me a bag of Combos, the cheese-filled pretzel snack.  The rest of the meal was downhill from there, and they claimed no Champagne had been catered.  Budweiser was served in cans.  I’ve had tastier food and drink at the Durham Bulls ballpark.

TWA thought it was was fine to serve these bags in first class on 747s to London.

I’ve been very lucky these many decades to have flown in the first class compartments of most of the world’s airlines: Pan American, TWA, Delta, American, United, South African, Cathay Pacific, QANTAS, Singapore, Malaysian, Varig, Swissair, KLM, Air France, Luthansa, British, Sabena, Emirates, Qatar, Asiana, Korean, Hainan, Thai, Air Tahiti Nui, Eastern, Braniff, Continental, British Caledonian, and on and on.  I cannot recall them all, nor can I remember every meal in first class on their flights.  But my memory is of very few bad experiences in first class.

Seeing this image makes me long for another sip of this magnificent Bordeaux, the ’82 Latour.

A special highlight of cuisine and wine was on the BA Concorde in both directions JFK/LHR in 1989.  I expected the Dom Perignon, of course, but I was happy to find excellent vintages of Chateau Latour, one of my favorite Bordeaux.  The wine steward was pleased to let me rummage through the many bottles in his cabinet to find my second choice vintage, 1982.  He apologized for being out of the 1970.

The BA Concorde interior was 2-2 and not wide by today’s premium cabin standards, but the on-board wines and meals on offer will never be surpassed.

What I ate on the Concorde is a fuzzy memory because I wouldn’t waste a drop of the precious ’82 Latour, and, after all, the time to London was so short.  I focused on making the bottle contents disappear rather more than dining.

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Virgin Altantic chefs in their Johannesburg lounge served this perfect ostrich steak!

Recently some of the best victuals served up by airlines has been on the ground in their toff lounges before or after a flight.  For instance, I was astonished at the perfectly prepared ostrich steak and accompaniments in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class lounge in Johannesburg just a few weeks ago.  The sweet memory of that delicious meal will stay with me, made all the more remarkable because it was plated up by their chef in a remote corner of the world a long way from Virgin’s London base of operations.  The South African pinotage I selected from the Virgin lounge menu proved to be the impeccable complement to the ostrich, too.

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The Virgin Atlantic Upper Class lounge in Johannesburg.

Virgin isn’t the only carrier that’s upped its groundside game, nor is it new.  Qatar’s enormous business class lounge at its home airport offers top-rated cooked-to-order food in a number of cuisines, and all are good.  I especially enjoyed the South Asian curries there.

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Cathay Pacific’s elegant first/business lounge in Bangkok always has delicious foods on offer.

Cathay Pacific’s first/business class lounge in Bangkok presents an eye-popping array of mouthwatering cold and hot foods appropriate to the time of day, each as elegant as the gorgeous décor of the lounge itself.  Yet I am told the bill of fare in the Bangkok lounge is nothing compared to Cathay’s lounges at its home airport, Hong Kong.  I can only imagine!

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Delta’s SFO SkyClub offers an extensive breakfast buffet.

Delta Airlines is aggressively improving the foodstuffs on offer in its many SkyClub lounges, which double as business class lounges for Delta international flights.  The new SkyClub in SFO had an impressive and excellent breakfast buffet on offer when I was through there one Saturday morning recently.

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“Morning Meal” aboard my 1989 BA Concorde flight JFK to London.

Truth is, airline lounge breakfast buffets and on-board breakfasts are hard to get wrong. I seem always to enjoy the morning meals best, regardless of airlines.  Even American, which hasn’t inspired me recently on lunch or dinner flights, always presents a nice spread for breakfast.  Overseas airlines provide more variety of breakfast cuisines, too, which keeps my palate interested.  I especially like Asian noodles and hot soups for breakfast.

The current trend to feed us on the ground in lounges is one I hope all airlines continue to tinker with. There’s no reason that five-star meals aren’t routinely possible, like the one I so eagerly devoured in Virgin’s Johannesburg lounge.  Recent experiences like that one and the tasty coach class meals I enjoyed on an Emirates A380 make me hopeful that my gut reaction to the term “airline food” will turn from sour to sweet as time goes by.

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