Oh, to be in First, not Coach

Last weekend I flew to LAX on a Delta frequent flyer award ticket, picked up a Hertz car, and drove south to Oceanside so that I could spend some time with my 87 year old cousin, who is in declining health. She and I have been close since 1964 when she hosted me during my epic cross-country train trip.

I was then 16, and it was my first trip to California. In the ensuing 55 years, I’ve lost count of the scores of times I have flown to California, LAX in particular.

As this was a sudden and unexpected trip, I carefully weighed flying options. Airfares are of course more expensive when you have to go on short notice, and I needed to balance travel dates against other commitments.

San Diego is only 40 miles south of Oceanside, versus 97 miles distant from LAX, but SAN airfares were more expensive by half or more than LAX fares for the dates I needed, as was Long Beach.  Settling on Los Angeles International, I eventually booked a low mileage award on Delta that required a connection through Detroit outbound, but put me on the nonstop LAX/RDU flying home.

My Delta Platinum status allowed me to immediately select seats in Comfort+ on all three flights, and I checked the boxes to stand by for First Class upgrades, though I had little expectation of sitting up front on a low mileage award ticket.

On arrival to RDU Airport at 4:30 AM Saturday for my flight, I was very happily surprised to learn that the Delta system had upgraded me on DL578 RDU/DTW to seat 3B. Very much appreciated, especially with a ruptured disk that was causing great pain in my left leg. I was shocked to see that I was number one on the upgrade list, too.

Limping from the back pain, I boarded earlier than even First Class. The A320(OW) plane appeared to have been fitted with a new cabin.  As usual these days, all the window shades were down, and I quickly opened row 3 shades on both sides before taking my seat.  The huge overhead bins oddly would not stay open without weight (luggage) placed in them. Lacking three hands, I had to fight the constantly re-closing bin door with my elbow in order to lift my bag in.

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The view from 3B on the A320(OW) to Detroit with the shades all closed, as usual.

I asked for a Bloody Mary to anesthetize my back pain, but the flight attendant didn’t listen to my request to bring it with no ice. She was awkward and not so nice about replacing it   No limes catered, either, something I always think is basic.

The vodka soon relieved my back pain a bit, as the 1 hour, 19 minute flight left early.  I dozed contentedly and comfortably most the way to Detroit.

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Took the DTW Airport train to the A18 SkyClub to await my flight to L.A.  Delta has done a good job most places in considerably upgrading the clubs, though some spaces seem impersonal and out of scale.  That club, however, is just right. Not too big, quiet and relaxing, with understated wood tones, indirect lighting, paintings, and furnishings.  Enjoyed the ambiance and a Coke Zero before walking the short distance to gate A12 for LAX.

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The cozy DTW A18 SkyClub.

While waiting to board, I received notice from Delta.com that I had been upgraded again. Maybe it’s my Lifetime Platinum 5.3 million miles that did it. Whatever the Delta capacity control and marketing algorithms did, I sure appreciated the upgrade to a more comfy seat on the nearly five hour flight.  More space to stretch out to abate the relentless leg and hip pain.

On that 737-900ER (739) aircraft to L.A.. The system assigned me 6C in the last row of First, which seatguru.com warned was a limited-recline seat.  I was delighted to find it reclined just fine, and I was able to nap en route.

I mentioned that the upgrade came through automatically on my phone, with no announcement. I guess human discretion by gate agents is no longer required or allowed. Not even an announcement made or a screen to show the lucky few who made the upgrade list.  Just scan the original boarding pass, and a new one is printed, discreetly.  Then, happy trails!

Once again, I was number one on the upgrade list. 5 seats has been open in F on the RDU/DTW flight with a queue of 12, and only 3 seats open in F on DTW/LAX with a queue of 15.

Wonder why this works for me on Delta but never, never, never on AA. Perhaps because I’m Lifetime Platinum on Delta (5.3 mm miles) and only Lifetime Gold on American (1.4 mm miles).

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Delta 737-900 First Class cabin with 24 seats and all the shades closed.

Boarding, I again noticed all the window shades closed. I opened them on both sides of row 6, just as I had on the earlier flight. It was a big first class cabin for a 737, with 24 seats.

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Delta 737-900 after I opened the window shades to make the cabin feel welcoming. This may be only a domestic flight, but those seats are very comfortable, so much more than any in coach.

We left Detroit dead on time and arrived LAX at 12 noon, 15 minutes early. En route I watched an unexpectedly fascinating documentary called “Scotch, the Golden Dream,” which I highly recommend to aficionados of single malt like me. Meanwhile, the lone FA up front killed all 24 of us with kindness, bringing not only full meals, but repeatedly refilling drinks and water from wheels-up to landing.  I kept thinking how nice it was to be in First Class, even more appreciated since I did not expect or hope for it.

Of course the two flights to Los Angeles were on Saturday, not normally a big travel day for Delta Diamonds who usually crowd the upgrade queues.

Monday’s flight home to Raleigh was a different story. I checked in online for my Delta nonstop LAX/RDU to find no upgrade. In fact I was number 17 on the upgrade list, with just 2 open F seats available.  No chance, I thought.  I was back in peon class with the rest of the great unwashed.

Well, almost.  I snagged an aisle seat in the last row of Comfort+, Delta’s third class in the no man’s land between cattle class and first.  I had a good book to read, though, and my Bose noise-canceling headphones to watch movies across country. I was hoping to sleep some of the way, too.

Travelers in Comfort+ get three inches more pitch (distance between rows), plus free alcohol, and a snack tray is whisked through the cabin a couple of times.  Otherwise, one’s bottom is planted on the same narrow and claustrophobic chair as installed in the rest of economy.  Uncomfortably close to one’s neighbor and not conducive to relaxing.

Having been spoiled by Delta delivering a good domestic F product two days before, sitting in Comfort+ was a big letdown even though on just one flight.  A free drink really doesn’t make up the difference in comfort and privacy.

Enduring the sardine-style packaging of humanity, I began to wonder what the “+” in Comfort+ is meant to represent.  Plus what?  The very term “Comfort” is by itself laughably ironic even without the superfluous, absurd “+” sign added.

Maybe Delta marketing geniuses thought the “+” would distract flyers from the meaningless term “Comfort”.  It is edgily insulting to say “Comfort-PLUS”; it feels like Delta is playing us for fools.  A more honest description would be “NQC” for “Not Quite Coach” section, or perhaps “FDE” for “Free Drinks Economy” section. or maybe “MPBNW” for the “Mo’ Pitch But No Width” section.

I call the hypotheticals “sections” to avoid the pretense of the term “class” for Comfort+.  Not much classy about it, really.

Okay, I’ll shut up.  I will take the product because it is slightly better than the back of the plane.  Just saying somebody got paid handsomely to come up with the phony term “Comfort+” and is probably still employed at Delta.

No matter how much lipstick you put on that swine, though, it can’t compare to the comfort and serenity—thanks to private space side to side as well as front to back—of first class. Thanks, Delta, for the upgrades. Much appreciated.

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The marvelous Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue in Manhattan is an icon of New York City  Its vast public spaces are truly grand, inspiring, and unforgettable. The Oyster Bar & Restaurant, located on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal, is an icon within an icon. It is perhaps the most recognizable and beloved seafood eatery in the country. Starting in the 1960s when I was in high school, I happily dined there more times than I can remember, most recently this past summer.

A little history:  What became the Oyster Bar was first opened as the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant. Although Grand Central Terminal officially opened on February 2, 1913, its opening was celebrated one day prior, February 1, with a dinner at the restaurant, arranged for more than 100 dignitaries and guests.  Thus, the Oyster Bar has been part of GCT since the beginning.  For more than a century it has been a convenient and popular restaurant option for folks passing through Grand Central via train, for visitors to the station, and for people working in the Midtown East area.

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Grand Hall of Grand Central Terminal.  The Oyster Bar is in the level below.

According to Wikipedia, Rafael Guastavino designed the Oyster Bar “[b]ased on the Catalan vault, he created the Guastavino tile, a ‘Tile Arch System’, patented in the United States in 1885, which was used for constructing robust, self-supporting arches and architectural vaults using interlocking terracotta tiles and layers of mortar. His work appears in numerous prominent projects designed by major architectural firms in New York and other cities of the Northeast. Guastavino tile is found in some of New York’s most prominent Beaux-Arts landmarks and in major buildings across the United States. It is also used in numerous architecturally important and famous buildings with vaulted spaces.”

His arched and vaulted ceilings covered in terracotta tiles became emblematic of the Oyster Bar experience.

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Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Grand Central Terminal, Manhattan

In fact, the restaurant is famed as much for its unique architecture and location as for its food.  Its prime location in the heart of a busy train terminal allowed the restaurant to flourish because of a constant customer stream, heavily patronized as it was and is by both locals and transients. The archway in front of the restaurant is also famous for an acoustical quirk making it a whispering gallery by which someone standing in one corner can hear someone standing in the opposite corner perfectly no matter how softly they speak.

I’m a shameless collector of rail and airline menus as a memory of dining experien,ces, good and terrible when traveling, and so this summer I asked the Oyster Bar’s management if I could keep one of that day’s menu. The Oyster Bar prints new menus daily and dates them, as you can see from this photo:

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Back home in Raleigh, I recently ran across a 1977 Oyster Bar menu which I kept during a period when I used to dine there often, the early days of the Carter administration. I lived in Munich and managed the European operations for a large NYC-based student charter flight company 1975-76. My job took me back periodically to New York for meetings, and I always dined at least once each visit at the wonderful Oyster Bar. On this occasion in 1977, I was in Manhattan to negotiate terms of an overdue bonus.

The very next year, in 1978, under Alfred Kahn’s leadership, Congress passed the airline deregulation act, enacted partly due to fear of an industry debacle like the Penn Central Railroad collapse. The thriving student charter flight industry that I had so deeply been part of vanished quickly thereafter, but it sure was fun and like the wild, wild West in 1975-77.

Forgive me, for I digress.  Take a gander at the May, 1977 Oyster Bar menu and compare the prices between then and July, 2019, 42 years later.  Note the basic menu style and format have changed very little in four decades.  Still the big OYSTER MENU herald with three main columns announcing Appetizers, Raw Bar (oysters), and Today’s Catch.  The same layout, but a vast difference in prices.

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Wow, raw oysters then were 38, 42, 50, and 65 cents each (“Per Piece” on both menus), but now are $2.75 to $3.95 each.  From cheapest then to most expensive now, that’s a difference of more than ten times. Even from most expensive then to least cost now, a difference of 5.5 times.

Raw clams have never been as popular as raw oysters, although I love clams almost as much.  In 1977 Littlenecks went for 34 cents each and Cherrystones for 39 cents.  Today both are priced at $2.15 apiece, 60 cents less than the cheapest 2019 oyster, or about 5.5 times more expensive than 1977.

Other items haven’t become that much more expensive.  In 1977 lobsters were $8.65/pound, but have risen to $30.95 in 2019, only 3.4 times as costly. Lobsters have always been dear, even in season, as both these menus are.

Clam chowder—Manhattan or New England—has always been a mainstay.  In 1977 a bowl was $1.25.  Nowadays, the New England chowder will set you back $8.50, nearly seven times what it was then.

Maryland soft-shell crabs were $9.95 in 1977, compared to just $32.95 today, merely  3.3 times more.

Another menu staple, broiled Bluefish filet, has risen from $5.95 to $26.95, four and a half times as much. Bluefish still holds a top spot on the “Today’s Catch” list, too.

Broiled whole flounder went up more than bluefish at $29.95 today versus $4.95 then, a six-fold increase.

Like soft-shelled crabs and lobster, wild salmon was always expensive, with Columbia River King Salmon going for $9.50 in 1977 compared to Alaska Red King Salmon $34.95 in 2019, a price jump of 3.7 times.

In 1977 restaurateurs had not yet adopted the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp” cocktail, and thus the menu lists “shrimp cocktail” for $3.95.  The “jumbo” shrimp cocktail on the contemporary menu goes for $22.05, making it 5.6 time most costly.  Gotta wonder if that extra nickel on the peculiar price is a royalty payment to the marketing genius who came up with (and probably trademarked) the “jumbo” shrimp moniker.

On the back of the older menu the Oyster Bar impressively lists “American White Wines” in mostly single digit prices, though the David Bruce Chardonnay was $28.60. Apparently in 1977 management supposed Americans would drink only whites with seafood.  No vintages at all, but note the stars for awards at various California wine fairs.  A few champagnes appear, too.

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1977 Oyster Bar wine list on reverse side of menu

The 2019 Oyster Bar wine menu is a separate book with expensive reds, whites, and Champagnes.  The backside of the menu lists only beer and cocktails, with the usual mixed drink and spirits suspects.  Personally, I liked the 1977 white wine list, and I would not have trouble finding a modern David Bruce Chard for $28-35, though I can’t comment on the quality compared to what the label was offering 42 years ago.

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Just part of our meal.  More oysters came later, and key lime pie

My wife and I enjoyed a bottle of a modest Cava with our feast at the Oyster Bar on July 18 of this year, yet even with a generous tip for the outstanding service, the bill came to just $188.14.  That isn’t peanuts, but for fresh shellfish for two in a gorgeous bastion of Midtown Manhattan restaurants, including wine and service, not bad, not bad!  Especially in such a beautiful setting.  We can hardly wait for the next time.

Hyatt or Airbnb in Vancouver?

Vancouver is one of the world’s loveliest and most livable cities. That is, if you have lots of money.  Housing costs are second highest in North America (after San Francisco), but Vancouver is 50th in income, resulting in—on average—more than 30% of income going to pay for one’s residence.

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Nice view of the Vancouver harbor from one of the Hyatt’s 34th floor meeting rooms while attending the 25th Rail-Volution transit conference.

Planning to attend the annual Rail-Volution transit and land use conference to be held in Vancouver, I wondered how those stats would impact my accommodation costs and whether a short term rental would be cheaper, but just as comfortable and convenient, as a hotel.  Going out two days early before the conference hotel rate kicked in enabled me to set up an experiment to find out which was a better choice for business, both quantitatively (costs) and qualitatively. 

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My Airbnb condo in Vancouver (22nd floor)

Turns out the choices were equally good. Through Airbnb I booked a 22nd floor one bedroom condo with a stunning view of downtown, for the first two nights, and then moved to an 18th floor room at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver, the official conference hotel for Rail-Volution, for four nights.

Costs were nearly the same: US$263/night including all taxes and fees at the Hyatt (conference rate, mind you) and US$251/night all-in through Airbnb. Only difference was prepayment required for Airbnb.

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SkyTrain station to downtown Vancouver is just outside the YVR Airport international arrivals.
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SkyTrain from the airport was very convenient, quick, comfortable, safe, reasonable.

Parking was not necessary and therefore not compared, thanks to the superb Vancouver transit network.  The very convenient SkyTrain (called the Canada Line) station just outside YVR Airport international arrivals goes directly to the city center, and it was an easy three or four block walk from there to either the Airbnb location or to the Hyatt, both on Burrard Street (the main drag) in the CBD. I walked most places thereafter because central Vancouver is, well, so walkable, and I took transit buses and trains to places more distant. Thus I had no need of a rental car or place to park one.

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My better three-quarters, who accompanied me for the first two days, relaxes on the terrace of our 22nd floor Airbnb condo in downtown Vancouver. Note Hyatt in the background.

Checking into the Airbnb was a breeze.  I received a text number for the host in advance and let him know when leaving the airport on the SkyTrain from the airport.  It was a Thursday afternoon.  He met me in a coffee shop in the building and took me up to the flat, demonstrated how to use everything, how to lock up, and ways to get in and out of the building using an electronic key fob.

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Night view from our Airbnb condo with Hyatt in the distance

The condo was immaculate, comfortable, well-furnished, with every amenity of a hotel room plus a few more, like a kitchen and a washer-dryer in the small but adequate pantry. As the pictures indicate, the small terrace—just big enough for two to sit comfortably—was perfect for relaxing and city-gazing with a glass of wine.  The bed did its job admirably well, as did the shower.  HVAC was minimal because Vancouver is usually cool and often rainy, but this was a hot period.  Plenty of fans and an in-window AC unit did the trick to keep things at the right temp.

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Oops! No Airbnb? But that’s our entrance!

Getting in and out of the building required some unexpected furtive moves because the building has a “NO AIRBNB” policy, something I was not aware of until arrival. Egress and ingress discretion therefore meant using a different elevator to a convenient side or back door rather than entering or leaving via the main entrance which passed a desk staffed with watchers.  I didn’t care, and it was not a problem.  The place was perfect, and I would stay there again if returning to Vancouver on business.

Had I wished to cook for myself, directly across Burrard Street was an urban two-story grocery, and next to that an elegant wine store (alcohol isn’t sold in grocery stores in Vancouver). Lots more nearby services and stores lined the downtown streets.  I felt completely at home in the Airbnb condo and frankly hated to leave it.  Bit I did, of course, and rolled my luggage about four blocks up Burrard to the Hyatt.

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Hyatt Regency Vancouver on Burrard Street.

Checked in to the Hyatt Regency Vancouver Saturday about noon after I pre-registered online and asked for 1230p. Got an email at 1130a saying my room (1818) was ready. I have become spoiled with this kind of good service from Hyatts.

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Hyatt Regency Vancouver room 1818, very spacious, clean, comfortable.

The Hyatt Regency Vancouver is a grand 34-floor hotel: spacious, clean, updated rooms and bathrooms.  I was impressed at how neat and well-maintained the public spaces and elevators were.  On getting to the room, I was wowed at its size, so much roomier and more open than most, especially considering it was just a cookie-cutter double with two double beds.

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Dim desk light, but modern and attractive.

Two nits were immediately apparent about room 1818:  First, it was too dark. Not enough lights. Desk lamp was attractive, but provided insufficient illumination. May not be evident from the photo, but only illuminated about 40% of the table space, making it impossible to read anything on the right side of the desk.  Ditto for other lamps except for the bathroom, which was blindingly lit.

Second nit was that the supposedly double beds were too narrow to sleep two adults. Looked like 1.5 single bed size. Appeared to be typical euro doubles, which Joe Brancatelli says are about 20cm narrower than US doubles.  Maybe because it’s Canada?  That aside, the beds were extremely comfortable to sleep on.

Great staff, though! Example: Pouring rain the following morning, but the very friendly concierge guys instantly provided me an umbrella to walk a half block.  When I tried to return it, they to keep it as long as I needed it.  I did.

34 floors, but only one ice machine, and that’s on the 4th floor. However, the 4th floor ice room has three or four standard hotel ice machines, side-by-side.

Which was best?  They were equal, in my opinion.  I loved the Hyatt, as I have always loved well-run, well-maintained hotel properties where I have probably laid my head more often than at home since I was an adult.  I am a veteran hotel denizen; it’s in my travel blood..

But the urban Airbnb I rented was a surprisingly good alternative to the Hyatt.  Surprising to me because I just like hotels, and this particular Hyatt combined a lot of great qualities, including a very friendly, sincere staff radiating authentic Canadian warmth and hospitality inside the tight, well-kept property.  High praise for both in terms of cost and livability.  I’d happily stay at either next time.

Delta calms the curmudgeon

A curmudgeon? Me? I’ve resisted wearing that term for years when complaining about errant travel services, especially those provided by the airlines, because my complaints were and are justified.  Airline service does suck most of the time, and it has for decades. Lately, though, Delta has soothed my disgruntlement, at least in the airline’s operational execution.

Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes, and it is correct.  Since I’ve spent more time in Delta cabins than other carriers (over five million miles and counting), Delta Airlines has been a frequent target of my rants against poor service. In years past, Delta has failed me time and again in connections, schedule-keeping, seat comfort, in-flight niceties, upgrade promises, the shell game of loyalty program awards, and sometimes cleanliness. (Never in safety, else I wouldn’t be here to write this.)

In terms of frequent flyer awards, the SkyMiles program is now a pathetic husk of earlier, more honest manifestations, but I’ll to stick to commenting on revenue flying today. Five recent Delta flights to Vancouver from Raleigh and return have soothed the savage beast in me. How shall I praise, rather than condemn, Delta? Let me count the ways:

Number 1. At the RDU Airport Sky Club, Delta personnel greeted me like an old friend.  Well, we are friends.  After many decades of flying Delta, I do know lots of staff, at least those who haven’t retired.

I noted the place was spotless and looked brand new.  The club had just the previous week been expanded, nearly doubling in size—the extra room overdue, as the Club is often bursting with members. New restrooms, too. Nice.

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Just the expansion of the Delta RDU Sky Club

Enjoying a bagel and glass of orange juice by the bar, I discovered the Sky Club is now offering glasses of Dom Perignon for $39 or 1,950 miles ($0.02/mile). Or patrons can buy an entire bottle for $200 or 10,000 SkyMiles.  That may be a better value than trying to use SkyMiles for flights. SkyMiles in exchange for one of man’s finest elixirs?  Hmm. I didn’t bite, but it’s classy, and I liked it.  Sends the right message, I thought.

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Number 2.  Delta upgraded me on two of the flight legs to Vancouver (RDU/ATL and SEA/YVR), then offered me the opportunity to pay $282 to upgrade on the ATL/SEA flight, which is 5.5 hours.  Bonus offer was to upgrade my wife at no extra charge ATL/SEA and SEA/YVR, thanks to my Platinum benefits.  Thus, for $282 we both were in First Class, though my wife was in Comfort+ for the 55-minute flight RDU/ATL.  I thought that was a fair price for 5 First Class seat legs.  .

Number 3.  The Atlanta to Seattle flight was a 757, and every seat was full.  The airplane fairly groaned under the weight on takeoff.  Delta veteran Flight Leader Kimberley Southerland (or Sutherland) ensured every one of us in First Class enjoyed several drinks, a large breakfast, and snacks, all the while treating us like royalty.  Kimberley’s individual touches based on personal preferences were more like the attendant service up front aboard Emirates or Qatar. It felt like an international business class service rather than a cheek-by-jowl 757 milk run across the country.

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The incomparable Delta Flight Leader Kimberley Southerland leans in to care for one of her First Class charges on the 757 Atlanta to Seattle

Number 4.  Between planes at Sea-Tac, I was delighted to find the Seattle SkyClub spacious, elegant, and gushing with good food on offer. The clam chowder was tantamount to fine dining in a waterfront restaurant—and I wasn’t even hungry after the transcon flight.

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The Seattle Sky Club is so large that I couldn’t get a photo of it all.

The club was quiet with plenty of seating, and smiling staff were constantly picking up and spiffing up the place, too.  All very professional, the way it should be.  I could have used the AmEx Centurion Lounge or one of three Priority Club lounges, but the Delta SkyClub was so comfortable that my wife and I never left.

Number 5. Returning on a Wednesday, I was not upgraded to First Class, nor could I have even purchased seats up front, as the flights were fully booked.  But I had secured complimentary Comfort+ seats and was happy to have them.

My flight connection in Seattle looked dicey due to rain both in Vancouver and SEA, prompting me to ask Delta if I could stand by for different flights to RDU through MSP rather than through SEA.  My request was immediately granted, and I was upgraded from Main Cabin to Comfort+ on both flights—a miracle, considering that both YVR/MSP and MSP/RDU were showing overbooked.  The Delta agent at the gate in Vancouver whispered that my five million miles had been a factor in obtaining better seats.  Both seats were aisles, too; no middles.

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The familiar view of endless rows on my Delta 717 (MD-80) between Minneapolis and Raleigh. My seat was 10B, an aisle right behind First Class.

Only glitch was clearing U.S. Immigration at YVR.  Though I am Global Entry, Canada requires American citizens to bring the physical Global Entry card or else be stuck in a long queue of peons.  When I argued that no other country on earth requires the card, that my Global Entry status is electronically part of my passport, the agent merely smiled and pointed to the long line.  Sulking, I made it through after 20 minutes only to be shown to Global Entry kiosks, half of which were out of service. I still have no idea why I was made to wait.

But none of that was on Delta.  That was my ignorance of the peculiar Canadian practice. I haven’t traveled up there for many years and just didn’t know.

At least for that itinerary, my karma was not compromised by Delta. Things went very smoothly, and I arrived at both ends of the journey relaxed.  If only this was an everyday experience.  And don’t get me started about how Delta has gutted SkyMiles awards.

Delta upgrade uncertainties

Who knows any more whether I’ll get upgraded on paid tickets (that is, not award tickets)? Lifetime Platinum guarantees nada, and I understand that.  I am not a Diamond flyer these days despite forty-plus years of fierce loyalty to Delta, as evidenced by having flown more than five million miles since the frequent flyer program started tracking mileage, and many more miles previous to that. While I am not happy about the current revenue-based priority over loyalty-based upgrade policy, I acknowledge Delta’s prerogative to make the rules.  It’s just that these days I can’t be sure what those rules are or how they work.

This morning, for instance, I started the check-in process for my wife and me to fly Raleigh to Vancouver tomorrow.  Both are steep Main Cabin fares.  Because Delta changed the outbound itinerary a few weeks ago to keep me on mainline Delta flights and not on WestJet, it’s three legs now: RDU/ATL, ATL/SEA, and SEA/YVR.  When Delta made that change, there were no Comfort+ seats remaining on any of the three flights, so my wife and I grabbed seats in Main Cabin.

Another wrinkle is that my wife is flying on a different Delta record locator because she goes home three days earlier than I do, leaving me to attend a big annual transit conference in Vancouver.  However, my wife’s record locator and mine are cross-linked in the Delta system.

Checking in, I was surprised, therefore, to find that I had been upgraded to First Class on two of the three legs, Raleigh to Atlanta and Seattle to Vancouver, but that my wife had not been, despite the cross-linked record locators and her being my traveling companion on the outbound flights.  I was surprised, too, that I had been upgraded without notice.  Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I expected an email or text notification of the better class of service.

Of course only one of us being upgraded meant we were not seated together on two of the three flights. Call me crazy or just plain romantic, but I enjoy being by my wife on trips, and tomorrow is going to be a long travel day.  Reverting to old school booking methods, I called the Delta Elite line to see what could be done to get my wife and me side by side again, even if it meant downgrading me back to crummy old Main Cabin.

Naturally, the Delta system had already assigned another passenger to my Main Cabin seat next to my wife on those two upgraded flight legs, so getting my original seat wasn’t going to work.  Perhaps this is a flaw in the Delta system, or maybe not.  After all, who in their right mind asks for a downgrade from First to Coach?

The helpful Delta agent, though, pointed out another option: I could pay to upgrade myself on the longest leg, Atlanta to Seattle (five and a half hours), for $282, thereby making my wife eligible for a complimentary companion upgrade.  Thus it would cost an extra $141 each to upgrade across the country.  Thanks to a relatively low load on the flight out of Seattle, she could also get upgraded to Vancouver to sit with me.  The only snag was the heavily booked short flight Raleigh to Atlanta, not available in First for either a paid or companion upgrade.

For one hour I decided we could sit apart, and the agent confirmed the rest of the upgrades, some free, some not.  So we are set for tomorrow, with five of our six seats in First Class for the long ride to the Canadian West Coast.

Pleased with the outcome, I nonetheless wonder why there was no predictability or guarantee of the final plan until less than 24 hours before departure.  I was not notified that I had been upgraded on two of the three legs; I didn’t know my wife had not been moved up front with me on those flights until I looked; and I didn’t know I could upgrade both of us (one paid, one free) for the longest flight plus the last one for an amount that didn’t make me wince. Seems like every Delta itinerary I fly has elusive, asymmetrical upgrade opportunities that I must adapt to in the dark.  It’s hard to manage my itineraries without exercising a consistent strategy based on known, predictable variables.

That said, I acknowledge the reason may lie merely in my inability to grasp the rules of the game.

No juice, but flying freedom

Last Sunday morning I ran into an old friend at breakfast who used to work the gates for Delta at RDU for over 25 years, retired now.  He greeted me saying how he fondly remembered ushering me on to so many Delta flights over decades, and always in First Class. I laughed and replied that despite having flown five and half million miles on Delta and being Lifetime Platinum, I sure didn’t fly in First Class these days.

He grinned and said, “Neither do I.”

Much has been written decrying the steep devaluation of frequent flyer awards through gigantic increases in mileages required.  But to me, the highest value of the frequent flyer loyalty programs was being able to get routine upgrades to First.

In the eighties I bemoaned the degradation of domestic First Class service, but defended the cabin’s great value as at least a much-needed “escape from coach.”  I argued that First Class had declined so badly that the fare designator “F” should be realistically replaced with “NC” for “Not Coach.”

Maybe no longer worthy of the First Class name, “Not Coach” was and remains far preferable to Sardine Class.  Thus why I viewed the ability to get into First Class as the top privilege of the loyalty programs, not the free flights.

Truth is nowadays, however, even paying a higher Main Cabin fare on Delta, I am lucky to get a seat in Comfort+ with my Platinum privileges.  Every year I get into the front cabin on fewer and fewer flights. The upgrade opportunity spelled out in the Platinum list of goodies is illusory if it almost never happens.

Nope, the only Delta flyers who get bumped up front with regularity are the super elites, and as we all know, some of those levels are unpublished. I don’t even try to keep up with the hidden elite descriptions any longer. After all, there are so many Delta levels that they fill up First and spill over into Comfort+ (itself an illusory “privilege”—heck, they are just narrow coach seats with free drinks—that is, nothing special).

The same phenomenon is true on American Airlines, where I accumulated a mere million-plus miles and hold Lifetime AAdvantage Gold status.  Gold status on AA is meaningless except for accessing advance seat assignments (but not Main Cabin Extra chairs) and not having to pay for checked bags.

And forget about the Catch-22 of AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades.  I have 36 of those 500-mile upgrade certificates banked in my AAdvantage account, and I have not been able to use one in over five years.  They just sit there, all 36 of them, mocking me for my stupidity in booking American.

Why? Because as a peon Gold I never get to the top of the upgrade list.  Many Executive Platinums don’t even get to the top of the list before all the First Class seats are gone, let alone an AAdvantage Platinum, so a Gold is always sucking wind.

Gold upgrades don’t even exist except on paper.  We AAdvantage Golds are the unicorns of the airline loyalty programs, name-only sops to having flown just a paltry one million miles.

My decades of flying millions and millions of miles mean nothing to U.S. carriers any more. They changed the loyalty rules by parsing them to death, which of course they can do.  So why should I book my old favorites?

Despite the overwhelming logic that airline loyalty programs are nearly worthless, it has been hard for me to book away from Delta and American.  Out of habit, I always check them first.  Shame on me for being so foolish.

But slowly, gradually, I have moved to Southwest, JetBlue, even awful Frontier here in the States.  When booking overseas, I have flown on Emirates, Qatar, Air New Zealand, Hainan, South African Airways, China Eastern, KLM, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and Latam Peru.

These alternative airlines have of course been utterly indifferent to my status on DL or AA, and the experiences have varied from sublime (Qatar) to miserable (Latam).  Nonetheless, I do love the existential feeling of flying freedom, untethered from the now-meaningless promises of forty frequent flyer program years.

I intend to keep exploring new airline options. Being able to choose a carrier for reasons other than frequent flyer miles is its own reward.

Delta-WestJet woes

The biggest annual transit conference is taking place in Vancouver this year. I signed up to go and checked airfares on various carriers.  All comparable, so I opted for Delta because my SkyMiles Lifetime Platinum status comes with small perks like advance seat assignments and possible upgrades.  But booking through Delta.com, I hit a brick wall on the flight leg to YVR on Delta partner, WestJet.

First, a little perspective: I haven’t had much business reason to go to Canada.  Don’t get me wrong; I really like and admire the Canadians from what I’ve read and heard about the country and their way of life.  I just know the best options to fly to the rest of the world because I’ve worked in so many places overseas.

But, oddly, not to our next-door neighbor, Canada.

Or, as one of my colleagues who has often worked in Calgary calls it, “Cold Mexico.”

Matter of fact, during my long consulting career I had just one Canadian client, and that was near Regina, Saskatchewan. Getting there and back constituted my sole round trip flight to the Great White North in over 35 years of consulting.

Which explains why I lack experience with Canadian airlines, especially those that partner with U.S. carriers.  Like WestJet, a titular Delta partner.

So when I saw that Delta.com was offering me a good schedule and fare RDU/LAX/YVR on the outbound, with the Los Angeles to Vancouver flight on WestJet, it didn’t set off any alarm bells.  I thought it was just like all those other “Operated by” notes that are shown on airline booking sites.  Every mainline carrier has contracts with smaller carriers, as for ubiquitous commuter jet routes, and that’s what I thought WestJet was.

And when I book through Delta.com with itineraries that include little-known “Operated by” carriers, those flight legs are transparent to me in the sense that I can select the seats I want on the “Operated by” airlines just the same as selecting seats on the mainline flight legs.  And I can stand by for upgrades on those rinky-dink airlines just the same as on mainline Delta flights.

But not on WestJet, as I found out the hard way.

As I finalized my flights on Delta.com, no asterisk or bold “SPECIAL NOTE!” warned me that if I assented to buy the itinerary with one or more WestJet legs that I would be unable to get seat assignments or to stand by for upgrades—not even to Comfort+, let alone to First Class.  I only discovered that fact after I had bought and paid for my ticket.

Why wouldn’t Delta.com let me choose my seat on the WestJet flight?  I didn’t know, but I was in a great hurry to get back to work and had to leave my itinerary purchased and confirmed for, but with no seat assigned on the LAX/YVR flight.

A couple of weeks later I finally had time to get back to it. I phoned the Delta Elite line.  The experienced rep tried to get a seat for me on the LAX/YVR WestJet leg using her special powers, but she was also flummoxed: no dice.

In frustration she called WestJet directly, waited on hold for 17 minutes, and was told, finally, that Delta passengers, no matter their elite level, had no juice on WestJet whatsoever and could not get seat assignments until the day of the flight at the airport.  Which of course would mean center seats in the last row.  No upgrade possibility, either.

The Delta Elite line rep was as stunned as I was to learn this. Luckily—and that’s all it was: luck—she took pity on me and allowed me an “exception” (no extra fare) to change my outbound routing to Delta flights—three legs instead of two, but all Delta flights, nonetheless.  By then, however, all the Comfort+ seats were gone, and I had to settle for Main Cabin seats.

Well, at least I have seats now.

Before it was canceled, the WestJet flight even had its own unique Record Locator code different from Delta’s, which caused confusion and lost time finding the WestJet itinerary in their computer when my rep finally got through to the WestJet agent after the long wait.  According to the Delta Elite rep, the PNRs were not even cross-referenced by number.  Some partnership, I thought.

It seemed crazy for Delta to partner with an airline that would not even normalize its passenger computer records, let alone allow its best customers to choose seats or to stand by for customary upgrade possibilities, yet show the WestJet flights on Delta.com as if they were the same as all other Delta flights.  A Google search quickly brought up this eloquent 2013 blog post by marketing professional Sam Fiorella which described pretty much the same experience I had.  Here are selected excerpts from Mr. Fiorella’s narrative:

How I Lost My Earned Benefits

WestJet does not recognize the loyalty and status earned by the thousands of dollars spent with Delta, and so does not offer the benefits promised to Delta’s Medallion members.

For example, when the flight is operated by WestJet, we cannot view seats, select a seat, or even check in online because the flight is operated by a code-share partner. We are also unable to do this on the WestJet site because it’s a Delta-issued ticket.

We can’t even check in at the airport kiosks and so are forced to queue up at the airport customer service counters in order to be manually checked in and assigned a seat.

I’ve spent up to 45 minutes in WestJet customer service queues at the Toronto airport, just to check in –  something that I could have done in seconds online or at a Kiosk if the flight was operated by the airline I purchased the ticket from.

Adding insult to injury, because we can’t pre-select a seat or digitally check in – for free or for a fee – we’re sent to the land of misfit toys: middle seats and last-row-by-the-washroom seats.

Once we finally get our boarding passes to the worst seats on the airplane, we cannot access priority lanes or early boarding benefits earned by our status and loyalty with Delta because the boarding passes are issued by WestJet which, again, doesn’t recognize our status. In short, we’re being penalized. The promised benefits that were to be extended to loyal customers who have spent thousands of dollars with Delta, aren’t available.

In fact, WestJet seems to consider Delta customers less valuable than its own customers who purchased the lowest possible ticket fares. Those customers are afforded the option to view online seat maps, purchase an upgraded economy seat, and check in online. Even pay-for-service options are not made available to customers of WestJet’s “valued partner airline.”

That happened in 2013?  Six years ago?  And yet Delta has done nothing in six years to fix this situation. That’s inexcusable customer treachery.

In other words, about the norm for a U.S. airline.

Lesson learned: Never book Delta-WestJet.