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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why are window shades drawn on most domestic flights now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, I admit that all travel is selfish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RDU/ATL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Delta ATL B-concourse Sky Club

ATL/DEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEN/ATL

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

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

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

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

ATL/RDU  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A-Line train departed DUS at 0600

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

EXACTLY 58 MINS FROM HOTEL TO AIRPORT

Lingered on platform for 5 mins to take pictures

Arrived TSA Pre line at 0644

Through security at 0648

Arrived gate A30 for 0745 Delta departure at 0657

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

COST: $9.00 ($4.50 SENIORS OVER 65)

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

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

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

5-story escalator

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

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

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

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

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

@RideRTD

@RTDDenver

@LightRailDenver

@DENAirport

Oktoberfest 2017 in Munich is about to begin (September 16-October 3)!  Its name belies the fact that most of the big annual beer festival occurs in September, with only a few days in October near the end.

Anyone lucky enough to be staying in Munich during those two weeks and four days must have made hotel arrangements many months in advance and paid through the nose.  Rates over Oktoberfest skyrocket.

What is the draw?  Think of Oktoberfest as the state fair of Bavaria (“Bayern” in German), but one focused on consuming oceans of beer and rivers of wine, punctuated by Bavarian favorite foods of wurst, pretzels, roast chicken, and pickled herring sandwiches.  It’s a true bacchanal!

While working in the US-European student charter flight business in 1975 and 1976, I lived in Munich.  I loved München!  The vibrant and cultured city stands out as a jewel among all the places I’ve been, and my memories of Oktoberfest are some of the happiest and most vivid of my life.

In 1975 I had a pretty good Minolta SLR. It was always loaded with Kodak slide film which I used to take pictures of that Oktoberfest.  The slide film was slow (meaning it required a lot of light), and since most of the Oktoberfest action takes place after dark, my nighttime photos are blurry. But you can definitely get the idea of the wild, happy mood.  The first four pictures below are in the Hofbräuhaus Festhalle at night when the band is playing, and everyone is laughing and singing.

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The next several photos were taken during the day of the Oktoberfest grounds.  The festival is held at Theresienwiese, a park in Munich just four blocks from where I lived in Munich in 1975-76. Theresienwiese is often used for such Munich events, including the lesser-known Frühlingsfest (Spring Fest), which features delicious bock beer.

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The final picture is of the crowds at night taken from the second floor balcony of the Hofbräuhaus Festhalle.  Even blurred, it’s easy to grasp the energy of the festival.

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The gigantic beer halls (Festhalle) for each of the beer brewers at Oktoberfest are temporary, constructed at Theresienwiese and then taken down after the fest is over every year by the “big six” Munich beer breweries (Hofbräu, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Löwenbräu, Augustinerbräu, and Paulaner—see here).  It is a great spectacle with (in my opinion) the world’s greatest lagers poured in copious quantities every day and night.

People get knee-walking drunk there with impunity and try to steal the huge glass beer steins used at Oktoberfest.  This affords law enforcement types wishing to perfect their skull-cracking skills a unique legal opportunity. In 1975, I saw Bavarian police beat the stuffing out of many a would-be thief trying to make off with a souvenir.  In my many observations, it was often a very inebriated Aussie absconding with a beer stein who got the brunt of the Polizei battons.  Having forfeited reason to alcohol, they always tried to fight back rather than to meekly crumple.

One of the great Clouseau/Pink Panther movies—some of the funniest films of all time in my book—took the bumbling French inspector to Oktoberfest looking for a bad guy in Munich. The scene filmed there is actually very accurate in feel as well as being hilarious.

Oktoberfest is a madhouse for two weeks, attracting six million visitors each year from all over the world.  That makes it an attractive target for terrorists, and German officials have been increasingly concerned in recent years over the threat of terrorism at the festival (among many, see this article).

Nonetheless, Oktoberfest should be on everyone’s bucket list.  I recommend booking hotel accommodation a year ahead and traveling into and out of Munich by train from another City to avoid higher airfares. There are literally hundreds of Oktoberfest videos offering advice on what to do and not do there, so many that I couldn’t find one that seemed optimal, though I enjoyed this one. Note her advice to go early to get in and to avoid the Hofbräuhaus Festhalle after one obligatory visit.  Personally, my favorite Munich beer is Spaten, but with such great lagers it’s a hard to choose a best one.

In closing, here is some Oktoberfest music to put you in the right mood . Hokey?  Maybe, but great fun! Go with it, and it will make you happy!