For flights Raleigh to Hong Kong in mid-December of 2015, I paid Delta Airlines for four tickets priced at more than $10,000 on February 15, a full ten months before our trip.  I knew I was giving Delta a helluva float, but I was determined to have my pick of the best seats in Economy Comfort.

By buying the tickets so early, I did indeed get the exact seats I wanted on the Delta long-haul flights of almost 16 hours.

Mission accomplished!

Or so I thought.

Delta, however, apparently didn’t get the memo wherein they promised to keep their end of the bargain, which was very simply to honor my seat selections.

You’d think Delta would hold up their end if for no other reason than in appreciation of my 45 year flying record of 5,323,000 miles.  No.  Didn’t happen,

Instead, Delta’s automated system of adjusting itinerary changes (i.e., change of aircraft and schedules) suddenly, as explained in my preceding post, dropped all my carefully selected seats and assigned new seats at random by computer. This happened not once but repeatedly. Each time I frantically tried to reclaim the preferred seats I’d picked in February, and each time some of the seats were gone.

The chronic nature of these chaotic seat changes finally got to me.  Why should Delta have my my money for almost a year, yet not honor my seat selections?  I started looking for the first time at alternative airlines to transport my family to and from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok.

That’s when I discovered that not all premium economy seats are alike.  In fact, I learned (thanks to a tip from good friend and travel writer Joe Brancatelli) that the offering on Cathay Pacific, the premier air carrier to Asia in my opinion, is far superior to Delta’s Economy Comfort.  Cathay’s premium economy is 38 inches of pitch and 20 inches wide (better in both degrees than Delta), with upgraded meals and other very nice perks that Delta EC doesn’t have (see this video for the amazing difference).

Furthermore, I was pleased to compare schedules and see that Cathay is just two flights to get there (RDU/JFK on OneWorld partner AA, then JFK/HKG nonstop) compared to Delta’s three flights (RDU/ATL, ATL/NRT, NRT/HKG).  Cathay’s schedule would also get us there at 2:50 in the afternoon rather than after 9:00 that night.  We would arrive home sooner, too, on our return legs.

In the end, though, it was the superior Premium Economy service that sold me on Cathay.  Comparing Delta’s very good Economy Comfort service to Cathay’s super Premium Economy cabin was not a close call.  It’s true that the CX fare was higher than DL, but that didn’t surprise me this close to December (I had purchased the Delta tickets many months earlier). After securing a Cathay itinerary for our dates, I had my Delta tickets refunded (which Delta allowed due to multiple involuntary schedule changes).

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I am very excited now about flying in Premium Economy on Cathay!  No, of course it isn’t Business Class, and we’ve set our expectations realistically.  But everyone I’ve spoken with who has used Cathay’s PE service raves about how much better it is than Delta, United, and American premium economy offerings.  They’ve all said that Cathay PE is their number one choice, hands down, among airlines serving Asia.

I also feel a bit sheepish that I didn’t know the premium economy service on Cathay was so much better than Delta.  My complacency, which I attribute to satisfaction with the Delta product, was broken, ironically, by Delta itself.  By constantly kicking out my hard-won seat selections on their long-haul legs, Delta forced me to abandon the status quo and look around for other ways to fly to Asia.

So Cathay gets my ten thousand-plus bucks instead of Delta.  I am delighted to have chosen Cathay Pacific Airways, and I look eagerly forward to a fine experience flying with them to Asia.  I hope it will the first among many more on Cathay to come.

My family of four has been planning a trip to Southeast Asia for several years.  As our kids have grown older (now 16 and 12), we decided this would be the year we showed them Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.  Of course getting there from Raleigh/Durham would mean long flights to reach the other side of the world (literally).

As a Delta Lifetime Platinum, my traveling companions and I are granted complimentary access to Economy Comfort seating.  EC is Delta’s version of Premium Economy, consisting of the first few rows of coach.  The seating is just as uncomfortably narrow as every other row of coach, but the spacing (seat pitch) is said to be 4 inches greater, and the recline of EC seats is claimed to be 4 inches better than regular coach seats.  Entertainment (movies, etc.) are free, and the alcohol is supposed to flow, well, like wine.

On flights over an hour or so up to three hours, my experience is that EC is slightly more comfortable than ordinary coach, but on long overseas legs, such as the 14 hours of flying ATL to Tokyo, enduring the flight in EC seats is far superior to the torture back in sardine class.


Since one can only select Economy Comfort seats if they are available, the wise traveler books early to assure seats are open.  In my case, that is, booking not one but four seats, with the need to keep all four seats together on each of multiple flight legs, it behooves me to book extra early.

And that’s exactly what I did:  For outbound flights RDU/HKG in mid-December, I bought our tickets on February 15, a full ten months before our trip.  This made Delta a bit over $10,000 richer, and me poorer by the same amount.

The itinerary was RDU/ATL/SEA/HKG out, and BKK/NRT/ATL/RDU return.  I was delighted to book Delta’s Seattle/Hong Kong nonstop flight (who wants to change planes in Narita?), and I was even happier to get very good Economy Comfort seats on all six flights.  When it was done, I breathed an audible sigh of relief (so my wife remembers).  Thank goodness the flights and seats were secured.  One big worry behind us.

Or so I thought.  Delta didn’t care and has been tormenting me at regular intervals ever since.


Just eleven days after putting over ten grand on Delta’s ledger, I got a notice that the carrier had changed our outbound itinerary to RDU/LAX/SEA/HKG.  Okay, I figured, putting us on the nonstop Raleigh to L.A. flight was not bad—until I saw that Delta had dumped every seat on every flight, both out and return.  Luckily, I was able to respond to the notice quickly (not always possible when we are busy), and I managed to reacquire all but one of the good seats I’d chosen when I’d first booked and paid for the flights.  Whew!  I could relax again, yes?  No.


I checked our December flights out of idle curiosity (and perhaps motivated by a tinge of paranoia) in early July and did not find any changes.  But on July 10 I received a notice that our itinerary had once more been modified.  Suddenly we were flying RDU/MSP/SEA/HKG outbound, because the nonstop SEA/HKG flight had moved up 2.5 hours earlier than before.  Checking our seats, I found that all my carefully selected selections on all legs were gone.  Frantically, I went through each flight and chose as many of the same seats as I could, but this time some of the bulkhead seats were not available, forcing me to move my family back a row.  Okay, still in EC, but not as comfortable as the seats I had.

This time I called Delta’s Elite line to complain and to ask, What gives?  The agent I spoke with was professional and genuinely polite.  Her sympathies, however, were constrained by her inability to promise that it wouldn’t happen again.  She explained that Delta’s systems routinely and automatically eliminated pre-existing seat selections for the slightest one-minute schedule change, even if the aircraft type, flight number, or routing had not changed.  She further explained that their system should not have dumped my selections on flights that had not changed, but she had no explanation for why it had happened, nor could she assure me that it would not occur again.

On this dismaying news, I began to think that I should not have booked on Delta.  After fifty years of flying, and more than forty on Delta (with over five million miles to show for it), I thought I’d have at least the privilege of permanent seat selections.  I also began to regret that I had given them more than ten thousand bucks to use for ten months before they had to provide anything in return for it.  Foolish me.


Over the summer I got into the habit of checking the December flights weekly, looking for more surprises.  In early September I received another “Delta Messenger” email with a big outbound itinerary change:  RDU/MSP/SEA/NRT/HKG.  It appeared that Delta had dropped its nonstop flight Seattle to Hong Kong, forcing us instead to connect through Tokyo (SEA/NRT and NRT/HKG).  Nerves on edge, I once again went through each flight to select new seats.  I was partially relieved to discover that only our outbound seats had been affected (even those on the same domestic flights as before).  Seats selected on the return flights BKK/NRT/ATL/RDU were intact and unchanged.  However, the best seats on the Seattle/Narita and Narita/Hong Kong flights were gone, and I had to take what I could get.  Once again I phoned the Delta Elite line, and once again a very polite and patient agent told me that there was absolutely nothing they could do to help me.  I began to wonder why they were there at all if they could not do anything.


Barely more than a week later came another Delta Messenger email with another radical itinerary change on the flights out:  RDU/ATL/NRT/HKG.  So now it appeared we had been changed to connect through Atlanta instead of MSP and SEA to get to Narita; no explanation why.  Leaving a meeting I was attending, I responded to the notice within 5 minutes of receipt, but no matter.  All the decent EC seats on the Atlanta/Narita nonstop were taken, and I had to select the back row of EC to get four seats together for my family.  Another call to Delta was a carbon copy of the others:  Can’t help you, but we sure appreciate your many decades of loyalty and the fact that you were dumb enough to lend us ten grand for ten months, interest-free.  Oh, and it very well could keep on happening because December is still three months away.  Good luck!


I could get a refund—a full refund—from Delta.  I asked them.  Before doing that, I’d want to make sure that I could book alternate airlines at reasonable fares.  Checking several air carrier sites directly and, I found fares as low as $2159 (compared to our $2540) round trip, but they were in ordinary (sardine class) economy.  The cheapest premium economy fares start at $3336 per person (Cathay and partner AA) if booked now for the December dates.  No comparable fares.

(But it is tempting to spend the extra $796 per person to fly on Cathay.  After all, Cathay’s premium economy is 38 inches and 20 inches wide, with upgraded meals and other very nice perks that Delta EC doesn’t have (see this video for the amazing difference), and it’s only two flights to get there (RDU/ORD, ORD/HKG) compared to Delta’s three.  Multiplying that fare difference times four, however, means paying $3,184 more, a deal killer.)

Of course we could take the refund and not make the trip, but we have prepaid for hotels in Hong Kong, in Singapore, on Koh Lipe island in Thailand, and in Bangkok.  More importantly, this trip will seal a lifetime memory in the kids, and that’s more important than my frustration at being helpless and jerked around by Delta.

Nonetheless, the question remains, Why does Delta torment me so?  I believe the answer is simple: because it has a much stronger commitment to making money than to real, sincere customer service.  Delta Elite CS agents are well-trained to be polite and knowledgeable, but they have been stripped of the discretionary decision-making such agents once had to make things right for customers.

In other words, Delta torments me because Delta can.


On a recent seven flight jaunt to the west coast and back (all on Delta), I had an opportunity to use and observe Delta’s “Early Valet” service that debuted this summer.  On the whole, I was favorably impressed, I came away with these thoughts and observations:

  • The service, which is free, involves Delta gate staff marking some carry-on bags with special Early Valet luggage tags and then taking the bags onto the plane before boarding begins and placing them in the overhead compartments directly above the owners’ assigned seats.

20150827_141737-Early Valet

  • When the bags are tagged, the gate agent writes the flight number and seat number on the back to ensure they are placed above the seats (as shown in the above photo).
  • The gate agent then moves the bags close to the boarding gate door, and when all have been assembled, he or she makes several trips down the Jetway with one, two, or three bags at the time to place them in the overhead compartments (as shown below).


  • Watching the process, it seemed clumsy, but effective.  Over time, perhaps, assuming Delta continues the service, they’ll work out the kinks and make it more efficient.


  • Early Valet was offered on three of the seven flights:
    • RDU/LAX – no
    • LAX/SEA – YES
    • SEA/SLC – YES
    • SLC/BIL – no (but this was an RJ)
    • BIL/MSP – no
    • MSP/ATL – YES
    • ATL/RDU – no
  • Presumably, Delta believes that boarding a few bags in advance will improve overall boarding time.  Certainly all seven flights I was on were full, with no empty seats, and thus all were candidates for the service–though, as I said, only three of the seven flights offered the service.


  • As far as I know, Delta has not said what criteria it uses to decide which airports and which flights will offer Early Valet.
  • The Early Valet process doesn’t yet have a standard operating protocol, or so it seemed.  At LAX a gate agent made an announcement that the service was available “for a limited number of bags” for customers who so volunteered to use it.  I was quick to discern what she was talking about and offered mine immediately.  Slowly a few other customers figured out that Delta wasn’t going to shred their bags and brought their luggage forward.  When she had about a dozen pieces–all roller bags, by the way–she stopped taking more.
  • The LAX gate agent then made a second P.A. that gave me a chuckle. She warned folks using Early Valet that “the service does not continue on arrival. Passengers have to get their own bags down from the overhead and off the plane.”  It sounded as if some customers who had previously used Early Valet assumed that the luggage fairy would carry their bags from the plane at the flight’s destination as well as loading them at the origin airport!  However, I did not hear that heads-up again at the other two airports, one more indication that SOPs for executing the service are not yet in place.
  • I was impressed that the service was egalitarian.  It was not offered just to First Class or only to Elite customers, but to everyone equally.  In today’s flying world of highly parsed customer service, such equality is rare.
  • At least that was my first and second impression (flying from LAX and later out of SEA).  On the third leg (out of MSP) where the service was offered, the gate agent did not make any public announcement, but instead walked around quietly to families with children and to flyers obviously aged or infirm, offering the service only to them.  She collected enough bags that way to fill her quota (assuming there is one), and I stood by the gate lamenting that my roller bag was not among those rumbling down the Jetway as she made several trips to place them overhead their seats.  Still, I approved that the service wasn’t strictly for premium/elite flyers.
  • I asked the agent who handled the bags at LAX if she was part of the regular gate staff, but I did not get a clear answer.  She seemed to be a floating staff member who moved from gate to gate wherever the service was offered to supplement the usual over-worked gate staff.  However, I could have misunderstood her.  The reason for my question was to learn whether the Early Valet service required extra labor or could function with existing gate staffing.
  • In summary, I quickly got the hang of Early Valet and liked the service.  My bag was properly placed directly over my assigned seat, and I was able to sally forth onto the plane unburdened by the usual sea anchor on wheels behind me.  When I first read of it, I was mildly dismissive and unimpressed, but I was wrong.  Now I hope Early Valet lasts and is mimicked by other air carriers.

Last week’s post explained how Hertz left me in the lurch in Seattle without a car at all for two and a half hours despite having made the reservation three months prior, and a crazed Gold counter agent taunted me to boot (see here).  Having purged my soul of Hertz’ evil mischief through my writing, I thought I was done with the pain and suffering they’d caused me.

I was wrong.  The same day I posted the story I received a letter in the mail from an insurance claims specialist informing me that Hertz in Montana was charging my American Express card for damages to a different rental car I had rented at the Billings airport the week following my horrible experience with Hertz at the Seattle airport.

At this point a little background is in order.  Why would I rent from Hertz again the very next week after what happened in Seattle?  Had I not learned my lesson about Hertz?

Explanations are rarely simple.  I had reserved both rental cars from Hertz at the same time, one for a week in Seattle and another for the following week in Billings.  My wife and I were taking our kids to Washington to celebrate our 20th anniversary and then to spend a week with her parents in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area near Nye, Montana.  We’ve spent a week with them every summer for 22 years, and since Nye is 90 miles from Billings, every year I’ve rented a car from Hertz at the modest Billings Airport.

I’ve had 22 years of hassle-free experience with the nice folks who staff the Hertz counter at Billings airport, but just the same, the prospect of another experience with Hertz caused me to look into renting from a different agency.  However, rental cars sell out at Billings in July, and when I checked two other companies, nothing was available. So I did what I had to do and let my reservation with Hertz at BIL stand.

Most summers in Montana I rent a minivan so that we can accommodate my wife’s parents and our family of four in one vehicle as we take in the gorgeous vistas of the Stillwater Valley in and around Nye, Dean, Fishtail, and Absarokee, Montana.  Hertz at the Billings airport had a brand new Toyota Sienna ready for me upon arrival, exactly what I had reserved.  Vehicle inspection at BIL is done by the renter, as usual, and we looked over the van parked in the small Hertz lot before driving off.  Not a scratch or a dent was evident.


We were impressed with the comfort and handling of the new Toyota Sienna.  It was quiet and a joy to drive, both peppy and responsive, with excellent visibility, and it met our needs to haul around six family members for our week in the mountains.


The following Saturday we drove the 90 miles back to Billings and returned the car.  We walked around the vehicle and inspected it from every angle before leaving it in the small Hertz parking area.  My family and I could see not a ding, dent, or scratch on the car.  Other than a layer of dust, the Sienna was in the same fine condition as when we picked it up.  I took the keys and the contract to the Hertz counter in the small Billings airport and closed out my contract.  We headed for the TSA line.

In hindsight, I realize that I should have taken lots of pictures when we picked it up and when we returned it.  Next time I rent a car, I will.  The letter I received claimed that Hertz had found “scratches” on the car caused by me, though they could not tell me where on the van, and no photos were attached.  I phoned the claims representative, a very nice woman in Utah near Provo, and I explained that this was an error.  We had inspected the car and found no damage.  I asked for evidence of damage, and I told her how it was Hertz’ word against ours, since no one was in the parking lot to inspect the car when we left it.  If damage was done after we left, I said, that is on Hertz, not me.  I politely but firmly stated that I would be opening a dispute for any charges with American Express and ask that the charges not be paid.

The claims agent was professional and calm, and she said she would obtain descriptions of the alleged damages and pictures, after which she’d get back to me.  She phoned me a couple of days ago to say that the folks at Hertz in Billings could not locate photos or specific damage descriptions, and that they had decided to close the claim against me.  Naturally I breathed a sigh of relief to avoid expending a lot of non value-adding energy to resist a false charge.  What a waste of time having to address the bogus claim.  At least, I thought, that was behind me.

No such luck.  The next day I received an email from the claims agent saying that Hertz had changed their minds again and would be proceeding with the charge.  I contacted her again at once to protest and to ask what the heck was going on, after which yet another email arrived with a letter attached affirming for the second time that the claim has been closed:

Re: Damage Incident With: Overland West, Hertz System Licensee, Billings, Montana
Our Claim Number: 48xxxx

Dear William Allen:
This letter is to inform you that the above-referenced claim has been closed. No further action is required from you.

Though naturally relieved once again, I now have no more faith in the Hertz people in Billings than I do in the Hertz staff in Seattle.  No more Hertz.  I just booked several cars with Avis for trips coming up in the next few months.

What, I wonder, is to become of Hertz?  Is this the new car rental industry paradigm?  Will Avis and National and others follow Hertz on its march to the bottom? Car rental rates continue to surge (especially the onerous taxes), and we need competition to provide price-sensitive renters with choices. It’s a tired model anyway, even if familiar. Why do we have to deal with Hertz and its ilk at all?  Wouldn’t it be great if a novel business paradigm sprang up to challenge the car rental firms, like Uber has done for taxi services and Airbnb has done for the accommodation trade?

The name Hertz used to be synonymous with excellence.  It was such a gold-plated brand that Avis, number two in the car rental game, had to devise a clever ad campaign to compete (see here for a brief overview).  That rivalry started in the 1940s after World War II ended and was raging over much of the five decades of my world travels.  I regularly rented from both companies and still did through last month.  But after what happened to me and my family in Seattle in July, I won’t be reserving any cars again with Hertz, at least not until I read that they have fixed their fundamental problems.

Here’s the story:  My wife and I were spending a week on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and we took the kids with us.  Our 6:00 AM departure from RDU required a 4:00 AM wake-up, so by the time we got to Sea-Tac after connecting through LAX, we had been up for 12 hours and were exhausted.


Arriving on the shuttle at the huge Seattle Airport offsite rental car facility on Saturday afternoon in mid-July about 3:30 PM, I hurried down to the Gold board to locate my minivan, which I had reserved three months earlier in April.  My name was absent.  Usually the big Hertz Gold boards are full of car assignments, but there was no need to check it twice that day because only a few names were listed at all.  I should have guessed then that I was in trouble.

Perplexed, I went to the adjacent Gold counter downstairs (the main reservations counters are upstairs), which was manned by one person, with my wife and kids in tow.  Two and a half hours later we left in a Hertz vehicle, though not the one I had reserved.  What I experienced was almost word for word this famous Seinfeld skit about a car rental company from a 1991 episode, the key lines of which are:

Jerry: I don’t understand. Do you have my reservation?

Rental Car Agent: We have your reservation, we just ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the reservation.

Rental Car Agent: I think I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don’t think you do. You see, you know how to *take* the reservation, you just don’t know how to *hold* the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them.

Except that in my case the counter agent was a moron, and he was itching for a fight.  I was very tired from the long trip and lack of sleep, and I was upset because we had commitments in Olympia, Washington 90 minutes south.  I also had my wife and two kids with me, and I was protective of their well-being. I had fulfilled my duties in reserving the car, but Hertz had not fulfilled theirs.

Unlike the Seinfeld episode, the demon-possessed Hertz agent claimed that they had no cars at all, not even the compact that Jerry ended up with.  He could not tell me, either, how long the wait would be.  The nutty counter agent intimated, though, that it could be many hours, and the guy seemed to take pleasure in goosing my frustration.  He then easily provoked me into a heated argument during which I asked what happened to Hertz, once the greatest car rental agency in the world.  When I raised my voice to make that point, the agent threatened that he could have me arrested if I wasn’t “nicer” because “we are in a federal building.”  Doubtful that the ugly pile of concrete and steel miles from the airport was actually under government jurisdiction, I nonetheless took his threat seriously, since I knew he had the power to cancel my reservation–arguably a worse fate than spending the night in the hoosegow.

After an hour I chose to seek out a manager upstairs to complain about both the absence of my reserved van and the insane Hertz employee downstairs.  Two managers, a man and a women, explained that the agent down below had contacted them to say that I was a trouble-maker, and the two remonstrated me to wait my turn.  In other words, they didn’t believe me and had no better explanation for why I did not have a car or when I might have one.  Checkmate!

So I prowled the entire rental car complex, asking for a car to rent–any car–at every agency. Nothing. They all bragged about hoarding cars for customers holding reservations.  Too bad Hertz didn’t understand that critical business premise to their industry, I thought.

Spiritually defeated, I went back downstairs and dejectedly sat, mute, awaiting the car, whenever it might come.  I sent my family to get soft drinks and a quick snack.  The madman hired by Hertz to interface with their best customers like me, however, wasn’t satisfied that he had beat me.  He came out from around the counter and engaged me in conversation, repeatedly attempting to antagonize me.  I didn’t take the bait, and I asked him not to speak to me, just to leave me alone.  He kept it up, though. When I raised my voice to repeat that he should “stop antagonizing me and not speak to me,” he claimed I was the one causing trouble.

I left to go upstairs again to seek out the managers and got a call from my wife, still down there, saying the Gold counter idiot had gleefully informed her that he had canceled our reservation and to “have a nice day.”

This time my discussion with the two managers went differently.  It began poorly because they were very defensive about their cuckoo employee, who they said had just called them to report I was the one causing a ruckus.  I was humble, and my tone and explanation sounded that way, calm and flat.  I asked the manager to please review the video from their downstairs cameras to verify facts.

Long story short, they did study the video of the lunatic downstairs, after which one of the managers apologized profusely to me and quickly found a car for us.  No, it wasn’t a van, but neither was it Jerry Seinfeld’s Ford Escort compact.  It was instead a new Dodge Durango SUV with all the bells and whistles.  Though we really needed the extra seats in the van, I would have accepted even Jerry’s Ford Escort at that point.


I had already instructed my family to come upstairs after the nutcase had told my wife that he’d canceled our reservation.  Now I asked the apologetic manager to please keep us away from their psychotic employee.  He did so, bringing the car to a distant location and offering to carry our bags to it.  The manager also took $100 off the rental as a token apology from Hertz.  While I appreciated the discount, I just wanted to leave by then, having waited more than two and a half hours and having been subjected to the worst customer service representative I think I have ever seen.

It’s hard to fathom that this event could happen in a developed country, let alone in America and at Seattle. But it did, and Hertz squandered 45 years of loyalty in one afternoon.  How can I ever trust them again?

When I booked flights on Raleigh to Salt Lake City that had me on mixed airline segments, I had my doubts that it would work.  The first flight was US Airways to Washington Reagan, then on American segments DCA/DFW and finally Dallas to Salt Lake (I had booked an award travel ticket and had to take whatever weird schedule I could get to avoid paying double miles).

Coming home the website had me on US Airways again, first SLC/Philly, and then PHL/RDU.

Everybody knows that US Airways gobbled up AA and is now trying to digest its big meal, but since they are still running the two operations independently (until October, 2015–see Joe Brancatelli’s report on the US-AA reservation systems merger here), I feared that my inter-airline itinerary would have me chasing my tail as I moved between carriers at different airports.

Happy to report that I was mostly wrong.  When I booked the itinerary I had experienced the minor aggravation of having to phone US Airways directly to obtain seat assignments on the US segments, but that took just 3 minutes.

Then a day before my outbound flights, I got the usual check-in email.  The first flight was operated by US Airways, not AA, and I was happy to see a link in the AA email that redirected me to the proper US Airways site for check-in.  I soon had the boarding pass for my first flight (RDU/DCA on US) and was ready to print my two other boarding passes (on AA flights DCA/DFW and DFW/SLC).  But, try as I might, I could not figure out how to access and print the AA boarding passes even though the check-in email had come from  Every time I tried, I was told that I needed to check in on AA (I was already checked in on the US segment).  It was maddening, like the classic Abbott & Costello “Who’s on first?” routine.

Finally it dawned on me that I might be able to trick AA into letting me check in and print my boarding passes for the two American segments if I bypassed the email and went instead directly to “My Trips” on the site.  Nothing doing!  Once I pulled up my itinerary via that method, it put me int the same loop as the check-in email by redirecting me to US Airways (which would tell me I was already checked in) but never let me check in for the two American flights.

I gave up and phoned one of the AA elite lines. Up to then it had been a matter of pride to figure it out on my own.  To my chagrin, the very nice elite customer service agents were also stumped.  After conferring with several colleagues and her supervisor, my agent admitted they had no idea how to get around the problem and suggested I get to Raleigh/Durham airport early enough that I would have time to go to the AA counter in person and have them issue my boarding passes.

So that’s what I did.  Arriving two hours before my first flight (US Airways RDU/DCA), I explained my problem to the AA agents at the main check-in counter.  They, like the elite line agents, had never encountered the problem.  They informed me that I was not checked in at all on the American system, but they quickly remedied that and printed my two AA segment boarding passes.  That was a relief, but I anticipated other murky problems before me. I asked them, for example, how to connect at Wash National (Reagan) between my inbound US flight and my outbound AA flight.  They didn’t know and suggested I ask the RDU US Airways gate agents.  They would surely be able to tell me, said the AA counter staff.

One thing the hybrid itinerary process got right was to show my TSA Pre-Check status on the US Airways boarding pass.  I was glad to see my trusted traveler status data had transferred over as I avoided the long general lines at the RDU security screen and had merely a tolerable wait to get through the Pre-Check access point.

Reaching the US Airways gate, I immediately inquired, as I had been instructed, how to transfer from my inbound US flight and my outbound AA flight at DCA.  They had no idea and suggested I ask a Washington National gate agent when I walked off the plane.  The flight to DCA was on time and easy.  On arrival at Washington I did indeed inquire with the gate agent as to where to go to get my AA flight to DFW.  She had no clue and suggested I try the US Airways service desk not far away,  Getting there wasn’t easy, though, as the concourse was jammed.  It was as busy as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and I had to fight a sea of fellow travelers to reach the US Airways desk.  Sure seemed like a lot of travelers for a Thursday morning.  I noticed as I made my way there that the flight information screens did not list my flight, an omission which concerned me.

After waiting a bit to see a Customer Service agent, she pecked at her keyboard and smiled while telling me that I was in luck!  My connecting AA flight was only a few gates down the same concourse (it could have been much more distant, she said).

And indeed it was close by, but with a three hour layover.  However, I noticed at the same gate that an earlier DCA/DFW flight was just boarding.  Though I was holding single digit aisle seats in Main Cabin Extra on both the later AA flights, I preferred to get to DFW (and then to SLC) earlier than the flights I booked.  So I politely asked the AA gate agent if I could stand by for the earlier flight she was working, but stipulated that I’d stick with my later flight if the only seats available were middle seats (in other words, I’d be okay with an aisle or window).

Remember that I was flying on award travel free tickets, so I didn’t expect any real priority.  Pretty soon, though, she handed me a boarding pass for 26D, an aisle seat near the back to the 737-800, and I was on my way.  Every seat was full, and the claustrophobia was like a weight everyone could feel bearing down on us, but I toughed it out for the three-plus hours to DFW.  En route I found that there were no USB recharging outlets for my phone at 26D, just a 120V outlet, and it did not work.

At Dallas I did the same thing: I took note of a much earlier connection DFW/SLC and stood by at the gate.  DFW was as much a zoo as Washington National had been (even the restrooms were SRO), so I was glad to be waiting in the sanctuary of gate A8 at the very end of the concourse.   Late in the boarding process I was informed that I could get on the flight, but the only remaining aisle seat was 30D, the very last row on another 737-800 (AA’s standard domestic aircraft these days).  I took it at once, acting on my lifelong credo that it’s always better to get where you’re going earlier.  The photo below was taken from 30D.

20150709_190224-The view from 30D on AA DFW-SLC 08-Jul-15

The good news was that nobody was sitting behind me and the lavs were real close; the bad news was that I had to wait for everybody to get off before I could (18 minutes).  I don’t think in 55 years of flying (1st flight was 1960) that I have ever been seated in the last row. When I flew every week (and often several times a week) for over three decades, my favorite seat was always 1A, which I invariably got on every flight for years I was routinely upgraded). Oh, how far I, the once mighty road warrior, have fallen: from 1A in the front row to 30D in the last row!

In the way-back of the plane, I endured another near-thousand mile flight for over about three hours, and I didn’t even complain about the babies on board. I counted 7 just in the last 10 rows. The chorus of their howls and screams was diminished somewhat by the Kleenex tissue that I rolled up and stuffed in my ears.  I “zenned” out (nee zoned).

Returning from Salt Lake City two nights later on a redeye was easier to make work because both segments were on US Airways.  Once again, though, the check-in email came from because I had booked the tickets through te American portal.  Once again there was a button embedded in the email to push that redirected me to the US Airways reservation system to be checked in, and once again I was able to check in and print my boarding passes easily and quickly.  And once again the US Airways boarding passes included the TSA Pre-Check banner to speed me through security.  No muss, no fuss; it all worked well despite the process straddling two airline reservation systems.

Everything else to get me from Salt Lake City back to Raleigh worked as advertised, too. I won’t dwell on the tired and shabby nature of SLC Airport’s Terminal A and the dearth of electrical outlets so serious that some travelers had brought their own extension plugs!  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a picture to prove it:


Philadelphia had the same problem: no plugs to recharge smartphones. No doubt about it:  Both the US terminals at SLC and PHL desperately need to be brought up to 21st century standards. Philly’s facilities reminded me of B movie cellblock scenes with its dingy furniture, naked concrete, and harsh fluorescent lights.

But the staff was super-friendly, and the background music was 1950s-60s rock’n’roll and R&B.  Hmm-mm!  I never knew the Supremes and Marvin Gaye could pick a sleep-deprived guy up so well after being squeezed into a narrow coach seat all night.  The Philadelphia airport seemed to be a throwback in a lot of ways, at least the US Airways concourses.

As I was humming along with the good music, waiting for my last flight and reflecting on how somehow AA and US had made my hybrid flight itinerary work between two rez systems, I noticed yet another airport anachronism, a pay phone!  And it still worked (I tried it)!


Instead of being up in the air on my way to somewhere exotic on Father’s Day this year, I was solidly on the ground in the prosaic small town of Spencer, North Carolina at the N. C. Transportation Museum operating the largest steam locomotive running in America, the Norfolk & Western J class 4-8-4 number 611.  Clichéd though it sounds, being at the throttle of the big steam engine was the thrill of a lifetime!  Even in one hundred degree heat on the Summer Solstice (June 21), It was a joyous experience, made more so because it was so unexpected.

Will at the N&W 611 throttle (6-21-15)

So what is an N&W J class engine?  Here are some quick facts, with thanks to Wikipedia:

“Norfolk & Western Railway’s J class steam locomotives were a class of 4-8-4 locomotives [4 small pilot wheels to guide the loco through curves, 8 large driving wheels, and 4 trailing truck wheels to support the boiler] built by the N&W’s East End Shops in Roanoke, Virginia between 1941 and 1950. The first batch, numbered 600 to 604, were built in 1941–42 and were delivered streamlined. In 1943, 605–610 were delivered without shrouding and lightweight side rods, due to the limitations on the use of certain materials during the war; due to these distinctions, they were classified J1. But, when N&W showed the War Production Board the reduced availability numbers because of this, the Board allowed the J1s to be re-fitted as Js with the lightweight rods and shrouding in 1944. The last batch, 611–613, were built in 1950, all streamlined. The Js were built and designed completely by N&W employees, something that was uncommon on American railroads. The total cost for building 611 was $251,544 in 1950 (equivalent to $2,441,000 in 2015).

“The first Js had 275 psi boilers, 70-inch driving wheels, and roller bearings on all wheels and rods; after about 1945 boiler pressure was raised to 300 psi. Calculated tractive effort was 80,000 pounds – the most powerful 4-8-4 without a booster. The 70 inch drivers were small for a locomotive that was to pull trains at over 100 mph. To overcome this, the wheelbase was made extremely rigid, lightweight rods were used, and the counterbalancing was precise. As delivered, the Js had duplex (two) connecting rods between the primary (second) and third drivers, but in the 1950s Norfolk and Western’s engineers elected they could do without these. 611 and at least one other Class J were rebuilt with a single connecting rod. The negative effect of the J’s highly engineered powertrain was that it made the locomotives sensitive to substandard track. Its counterbalancing and precision mechanics were so modern that it was joked that the J’s top speed is only limited by the nerves of the engineer. Judging by their performance in hauling a 15-car 1050-ton train at speeds in excess of 110 mph over Pennsylvania Railroad’s “racetrack”, the Fort Wayne Division, while on loan, it is hard to dispute that claim.”


All J class locomotives burned coal but were highly efficient.  The 611, the last J operating, still is.  Black smoke, which indicates incomplete coal combustion, was and is regarded as an embarrassment by engineers, and the 611 is usually seen ejecting white smoke, which consists mostly of water vapor from condensed steam.


The N&W 611 locomotive weighs 494,000 pounds, and the tender comes in at 395,250 pounds, for a total weight of almost 873,000 pounds. For comparison the newest 747 series, the 8F, is rated empty (net of cargo) at 466,000 pounds.

20150621_154701-Sott Lindsay in the 611 cab

Yet, with a half million pounds under me in the cab of the 611, the big engine responded nimbly and rode comfortably on the track. I had just 22 minutes at the throttle of 611, so I wasn’t in charge of the beast very long, but I felt an immediate affinity with it.


I’ve always had a knack for operating large machines and had several opportunities to exercise that ability in a series of part-time college jobs. I drove big city buses through Chapel Hill’s narrow streets with ease when at UNC. I mastered driving a semi-tractor hauling an oversized Cat D9 on its flatbed trailer the first time I took it out, even backing it up down a narrow muddy track.

I astounded one of my airline clients in the 1980s by acing all my landings at the old Hong Kong airport on its super-short runway that jutted out into the bay in their 747 simulator (any chimpanzee can take off a 747; the hard part is landing one), and I flew a real 727 once.

20150621_154835-611 nose, the bullet

But operating the 611 steam locomotive was uniquely different. I felt totally comfortable in control handling the throttle and engine brake, like a natural extension of my body and spirit. The 611 is a sweet machine. I had the strange feeling that I’d done it before.  The 5,100 horsepower generated in the boiler is a palpable presence. It was a lightning-charged thrill, but oddly comfortable, like it was a part of me. As a longtime admirer of this famous and historic machine, frankly I never dreamed I would have an opportunity to be at its throttle. How even more surprising to find that running it brought such joy.


A quick look in the cab in this 12 second video.

The N&W 611 drives by in this video.

The big steam locomotive approaches in this final short video.


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