When I booked flights on AA.com 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 AA.com 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 AA.com.  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 AA.com 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 AA.com 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:

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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)!

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Business travelers’ decades-long distrust of airline management runs deep for good reason, and this week’s airline news reports of some overseas carriers’ intent to shrink carry-on bag size maximums (see, for example, here) bring yet another slap in the face.  The trade organization IATA (International Air Transport Association) is recommending a max carry-on limit of 55 x 35 x 20 cm (21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches).

Such dictums are always sugar-coated in customer service improvement language, and this one is no exception.  IATA claims it will give every passenger a chance to share the overhead and underseat space on board.

Of course they didn’t ask their customers, not even their biggest spenders, that is, us business flyers. No, they just decided unilaterally what was “right” based on no facts, no data, and no statistically accurate public opinion surveys.  As usual, the airlines dictate, and they expect us to touch our forelocks and grovel.

The airline industry brought the carry-on crisis on themselves when they started charging hefty sums to non-elite customers for every bag checked.  The fact that most carriers are none too swift about bag retrieval at destination merely adds to the frustration of travelers waiting for a half hour or better at the luggage carousel.  Many people decided while fuming there not to part with all those shekels on their next flight and packed their belongings into carry-on bags instead.  Anybody with half a brain could see that coming, yet the geniuses that run the world’s airlines did not.

So this is a problem of the airlines’ own making, yet they want to foist their problem off as an unfunded mandate onto their customers.  How is that fair?  Of course, it is not.  Why should we pay for their failure to plan and manage their own operation?

To be perfectly clear, the shrinking carry-on is NOT a domestic U.S. airline issue. This one…so far…is strictly an international initiative.  The key words, though, are “so far.”  You can bet that American air carriers will follow suit sooner or later if this catches on overseas.  So let’s try to think through the implications and consequences should that occur.

First, most U.S. carriers allow carry-on to be up to 22 x 14 x 9 inches now (for one matrix of current standards, see here).  The new standard of 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches is 21.5% fewer cubic inches than the current standard.  Especially egregious is the reduction in depth from 9 inches to 7.5 inches.  I cannot find any 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 bags on Amazon.  Maybe they are there, and I just missed them.

Second, I don’t want to throw away my perfectly good and very expensive carry-on luggage that doesn’t meet the new dimensional criteria just because of a mercurial management decision based on no facts or polls whatsoever.   I guess I can store it for my next Amtrak journey or tramp steamer voyage.  There is no carry-on restriction for American train travel.

Third, I would have to buy four new carry-on bags, one for me and one each for my wife and two kids.  That won’t be cheap.

Fourth, once I have paid the piper for 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inch carry-on bags, who is to say the airlines won’t shrink the carry-on maximum size limits even further?  Will I have to buy MORE and SMALLER bags in the future?

Fifth, will the flight attendants and cockpit crew be given a pass?  We’ve all seen their carry-on bags, and I’d be surprised if they even meet the existing dimensional standard, let alone the new 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 limit.  If the rules don’t apply to airline employees, how will that go down among those of us who are paying their salaries? (If only their carry-on bags were as small as Barbie’s…)

Barbie-Careers-Airplane-Pilot-Dolls--pTRU1-18228118dt

Sixth, the new dimensions have shrunk by 21.5% measured in cubic inches.  Does that mean if I pack for five days now that I will have to chuck out a day’s worth of clean clothes? Which means my five day trip just shrank to four?  That is, assuming I can even find a carry-on bag that’s just 7.5″ deep.  Some expanding file folders are bigger than that.

Seventh and lastly, I wonder how the luggage industry feels about the new smaller dimensions.  After all, they were not consulted any more than we the traveling suckers were.  Presumably, therefore, bagmakers are just as confused as we are.  They will have to retool their factories and develop production schedules based on forecast demand for that new, smaller bag size.  They may decide to hedge their bets and not make too many bags, an action which would drive up prices on the few new bags manufactured.  After all, there are millions of their brand new carry-on bags out there for sale right now that are instantly obsolete under the new standard and will never be sold to savvy flyers.

So what’s next, or what’s the alternative?  One airline strategy might be to simply keep the current standard dimensional maximums and charge for each piece of carry-on just like they do for luggage carried in the belly.  That would not be hard to accomplish, and I am sure they’d make exceptions, as they do now, for elite flyers.  If carry-on cost as much as regular checked bags, I imagine a lot more people would opt to check their luggage, thereby freeing up a lot of overhead bin space.  A few statistically accurate surveys could determine whether my surmise is accurate.

Otherwise, what is their end game?  I don’t think they have one.  Airline management doesn’t have a good track record of considering the unintended consequences of their actions.  But sooner or later, maybe we’ll only be allowed to carry on board our smartphone.  And, you know, as phones get ever larger (think iPhone 6 Plus), the airlines could institute a dimensional size limit even on them.

Sound crazy?  Well, who ever thought we’d see a tiny 7.5 inch luggage depth limit?

Way back in the ancient days of the 1970s when I first began renting cars every week, I recall just a few prices at Avis and Hertz and National.  First was the so-called walk-up rate per day for each class of car, which I always viewed as sort of an MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price).  In other words, a price to use as a reference point while trying to negotiate down.  Getting a lower rate meant having access to either government or corporate discounts.  Things weren’t too strict then, and I could usually talk an agent on the phone into a rate cheaper than full retail, and it was never questioned when I picked up the car.

Over the years rental car rates were parsed and sliced until an infinite number of rates became the rule.  Getting a modest discount was almost assured, but really significant discounts could only be had if one had a big company’s secret CPD (corporate program discount?  I was never sure of the acronym’s meaning).  This was a negotiated rate that was almost always 25-40% off walk-up rates.  Despite rates being on an endless sliding scale, there was a certainty that the rate structure moved steadily from top to bottom.

This plethora of rates really took off with the Internet.  I can’t recall the last time I talked to a rental car company agent on the phone.  One would think that the Internet would bring an even more stately and structured approach to rental car rates than ever before.  Now, though, confusion seems to reign when trying to snag a reasonable rate.  It seems, in fact, like a crap shoot every time I am on the hunt for a good rate.

A good example is my recent experience lining up a rental car (a minivan) in Seattle for a week in July.  Checking with both Hertz and Avis, and using two CPD numbers from very large U.S. companies that I have stored in my online rental car accounts, both companies quoted about $1050 for a 7-day rental (including all taxes) when I chose the online option that says something like “select a rate that my company has negotiated.”

Wow, I thought! Over a grand for a car, even a minivan, seems high.  So I started again at hertz.com and this time stipulated the same car and rental week period but did not click the box that said “select a rate that my company has negotiated.”

That time Hertz (and later, Avis) produced a rate of about $530, all in, about half the corporate rate that the supposedly cheaper CPD number produced.  Naturally I booked the lower rate at once.

However, I decided to dive deeper into the murky waters of rental car rates to see if an even better deal awaited me at Sea-Tac.  After all, I had just saved $520 in two minutes.  I checked Hotwire, Priceline, Orbitz, Hipmunk, and Kayak for a minivan at the same dates at SEA.  I also tried a couple of peer-to-peer outfits like Flightcar.com.  What I found amazed me.

Everything was more expensive than the non-corporate rate at Hertz and Avis.  Rates for minivans ranged from $817 per week (all in) to as much as $1700 (again, with all taxes and fees).  Flightcar rates were among the highest.  Nothing even came close to $530.

While I am delighted to have landed a great rate for my vehicle, the research results seem counter-intuitive to me.  First, I would have expected the non-corporate rates at the two flagship rental car firms to be higher than the corporate negotiated rates which were supposedly discounted.  Second, I would have expected Hertz and Avis rates to be generally higher than any other firm because, well, they are the big boys in the industry, with a lot of presumed overhead.  Third, I expected to find at least one rate comparable or lower than the one I booked.  Fourth, I expected the peer-to-peer firms to be very competitive with established companies based the old-school car rental model.

So why the seemingly anomalous results?  I don’t know.  Maybe it was just the timing of my searches, the location, the dates, or the vehicle type.  If I had time I’d spend several hours testing car rental quotes for several different car classes in several locations several months out to see if I get the same general range of rates.  Regardless, it just points to how erratic car rental rates can be.  The staid predictability of rate structures prevalent 40 years ago is long gone.

In the wake of the tragic Amtrak crash this week just north of downtown Philadelphia, everyone is talking about what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and what are the implications for Amtrak’s future.

Amtrak crash in Philly May 2015Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Those grounds will be covered ad nauseum, and I won’t add to the cacophony of reports related to the accident, except to say that Positive Train Control (PTC, a computer-controlled system that prevents trains from overspeeding and from proceeding through red signals) works and would have been operational on that stretch of track in Philly had Amtrak been properly funded.  Period.  End of story.

So who is to blame for the root causes of underfunding that led us to this accident?

I think we all are.

We have allowed Amtrak to be the whipping boy of every Congress since its creation, and those doing the whipping are folks we elected and reelected to represent us.  Amtrak has been woefully under-valued and underfunded since its inception.  It was the unwanted, red-headed stepchild even in 1971, expected by the Nixon administration to quietly die within a few years. Amtrak was starved of money and attention as it was born based on the assumption that it would never survive.

Forty-four years later nothing much has changed.  For almost half a century Amtrak has been berated, scorned, attacked, and short-changed by politicians on the premise that it has consistently failed to earn its keep.

Expecting Amtrak to make money—or at least not to lose money—is ridiculous.  The fact is that passenger train networks are not profitable anywhere on earth—not when all infrastructure costs are properly factored in.  We should no more expect Amtrak to make a profit than we should expect a fish to ride a bicycle.  Not gonna happen, not now, not ever.  Which means that all the bloviating in Congress against Amtrak is a waste of time and energy.  Just not value-adding.

Key lesson here:  Passenger rail will always, ALWAYS need subsidies.  If we as a nation don’t like that, well, then we don’t have to have passenger rail service, be it local, regional, intercity, or interstate.

My suggested Amtrak solution is drastic, but simple:

  1. Kill Amtrak as a whole, and bury its name, never to be used again, rest in peace.
  1. Reorganize Amtrak’s parts into whatever regional elements make sense to states and cities that decide themselves that they need passenger rail service. The key here is to let them decide.  The NEC (Northeast Corridor Washington-NYC-Boston), for instance, could be organized as the NEC Railway, or call it the Boondoggle Railroad.  Whatever you like, but not Amtrak, never again Amtrak.  Regional systems like Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Milwaukee, NYC-Albany, Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte, and so on could be forged on some basis.  The devil will be in the details, as always, but I’m confident regional authorities could be worked out.  Ditto for intra-California, intra-Texas, intra-Florida, and other rail services wholly within one state.  And so on.  But it wouldn’t be Amtrak. Never again Amtrak.
  1. Long distance trains like NYC-Chicago, NYC-Florida, and the various routes from Chicago to the West Coast may or may not survive. If they do, regional authorities and individual states would have to decide how to partner to take on full responsibility for the costs and work out how to pay for the trains.  But it wouldn’t be Amtrak.
  1. In all cases, organize the passenger rail services knowing that subsidies will be required: smaller subsidies for NEC trains, probably, and pretty big subsidies for long distance trains. I don’t know whether the federal government would be involved or not; that is a significant devil among the details.  I just know this needs to be done and that for it to work, government at some or many levels—local, state, regional, and perhaps federal—is going to have to pony up perpetual subsidies to pay for the services.
  1. The taxpayers benefiting most from the services need to say “amen” to subsidizing the passenger trains. It’s my belief that they will because they understand the value of services close to home.  For example, fiscally conservative voters in my home state of North Carolina have for a long time, and continue to, support ongoing subsidies for passenger rail services that link, for example. Raleigh to Charlotte.

That’s it, my solution:  Put Amtrak out of its misery, and parse its network into whatever regional systems can attract the political will to guarantee adequate funding so that we never have to stint on a safety system like PTC again.

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Note from the author on May 19, 2015:

Since writing this post, it has come to light that the FCC shared responsibility with Amtrak for the absence of operational PTC on two of the four tracks in the accident area, including the track that Amtrak 188 was traveling on at the time of the crash.  FCC had not provided Amtrak with a radio frequency required to make PTC work on two of the tracks, but had for the other two.  Go figure.

This doesn’t change the fact that Amtrak is and has been severely underfunded because the mood of the country has come to fear and loath any manifestation of central government.  I am all for passenger rail, but I no longer believe that Amtrak is a vehicle for success.  It will never outrun its critics.  Local subsidies, at least, stand a chance in this harsh environment.

At the same time I lament the death of good public transportation policy at the federal (national) level where, I continue to firmly believe, it belongs.  My blog post reflects the unhappy reality that Americans no longer value such national public policy.  This is the reality of our time, and I don’t see a sea change on the horizon to restore what once was.  I am merely suggesting a way to make passenger trains work rather than see us lose them altogether, because that’s where I see us headed.

Following the airline industry’s finer and finer parsing of classes has made me wonder where it will end.  Suites Class, First Class, Business Class, Delta One, Economy Comfort, and Main Cabin Extra are just some of the terms being bandied about to entice travelers to pay just a wee bit more for (supposedly) a tiny bit more service and comfort.  Of course if you pay less, you also get less.  I got to thinking about Extreme Fare Class Parsing, and here are my ideas for what we have now and what we might see in the future:

Suite KYA Class (long-haul international only) – Pitch off the scale, service unlimited.  Chilled bottles of Dom Perignon positioned even in the lavatories at seated levels for easy reach, Krug Vintage 1998 served with Beluga, Ossetra, and Sevruga caviar starts eight-course dinner.  We’ve all seen the photos. Private butler with English accent.  If you have to ask about the fare, you can’t afford it.

First Class – Pitch 84” or better, real lie-flat seats, service not bad, but the salmon can be a bit dry.  Though the fare is steep, forget about caviar.  French Champagne is served, but only nonvintage bruts, and catered with only a small number of bottles per flight, so drink up quickly or switch to red.  Fares usually not over $20,000 (one way, of course). Boarding after KYA Class.

Business Class – Pitch 70” or thereabouts, lie-flat seats–sorta–but at a weird angle, too close to the guy next to you, and impossible to really sleep in.  Seat mechanisms often broken anyway, so who cares if they are uncomfortable when “flat”? No French Champagne, but Spanish Cava is served (usually a bit warm and sometimes not bubbly) in flimsy plastic glasses with the airline’s cheery logo; salmon “patty” is at least pink and bears a resemblance to real salmon, and a few cashews and peanuts are served warm as if that constituted real luxe.  Fares not more than ten grand one way.  Boarding after First if the gate agents remember to announce it.

Economy First Class – Pitch 36”, and, well, it’s as good as it gets in coach.  Right behind Business Class and with free movies (when the AV system works) and complimentary drinks, albeit the same cheap swill they call wine in the rest of economy and usually served from milk cartons.  Decent pitch, but still nine across on widebodies, so seats are very claustrophobic.  Less uncomfortable if you are missing an arm.  Seats go back a bit more, but then your neighbor cannot lower his or her tray table and will curse you.  Fares full fare coach (outrageous) plus a big premium to get in the seats.  Ambien extra.  No special boarding.

Economy Comfort Class – Pitch 34”, similar to Economy First Class but less pitch.  You probably wouldn’t notice because of the discomfort side to side, so go for it!  It’s still better than what’s behind you.  Same tired meal and beverage service as EFC, but the movies you really want to see cost $5.95 each.  Fare premium over coach still stupid.

Economy Sux Class – Pitch 31”, the usual uncomfortable and cramped coach seat, with the same minimal service.  Elementary school kids get better and more wholesome snack choices.  Bring your own antacid for indigestion.  Fare ridiculous, but at least you don’t have to pay a premium.

Cattle Class – Pitch 21”, a new saver class with no legroom and no room side to side, as seats are arranged 12 across on widebodies, 9 across on narrowbody aircaft.  Once in, you are there to stay for the duration.  Service nonexistent, but you do get the same safety briefing as everybody else.  No carryon allowed; checked bags charged at $100 each per thousand miles traveled and not guaranteed to be on your plane, nor the next one.  Not recommended for large people, or even medium-sized people. Fare 20% below full fare economy.

Galley Cart Class – No pitch; seated on galley carts as rolled up and down aisles.  Can be wet and uncomfortable.  Wear moisture-proof pants.  Lots of getting up and down and standing in aisles while carts are in use.  Not allowed to share aisle space with Aisle Class (see next). Get to board last with some of the lesser classes and to store carryon under the seats of those in Cattle Class.  No service, so bring own food and water, though allowed to salvage scraps from returned food.  Fare 30% below full fare coach.

Aisle Class – Pitch irrelevant, as there is no seat; standing space only as galley carts permit.  Sometimes marketed by airlines as “Vertical Seats”  Not allowed to sit on carts or jump seats, but leaning against bulkheads is permitted.  Wear comfortable shoes for long periods of standing.  No service, so bring own food and beverages.  Safety not guaranteed, so must sign liability release form.  Proof of insurance required in the event of inadvertent injuries to airplane cabin, other passengers, or crew during turbulence.  Fare 40% below full fare economy.

Jump Seat Class – Pitch irrelevant, as seat only available when FAs are not seated for safety reasons.  Not permitted to stand in aisles or sit on carts when occupied by Aisle Class or Galley Class customers.  May scrounge leftover food when available, but otherwise, no service.  Must sign same liability release as Aisle Class passengers.  Fare 45% below full fare coach.

Overhead Bin Class – Vertical pitch 21”.  A good choice for smallish people who like to sleep in the fetal position and don’t mind pitch black dark spaces for hours on end.  Allowed to board before Cattle Class in order to claim empty overhead bins and to store carryon under the seats in Cattle Class prior to those folks boarding.  Not a good choice for the claustrophobic individual, as latches do not open from the inside.  Recommend customers wear extra-capacity Depends to prevent accidents and leaks through to those below.  Fare 47% below full fare coach.

Lav Class – Pitch irrelevant; seat available only on takeoff, landing, and between uses; expected to clean toilet and change paper.  Recommend bringing own disinfectant and wearing rubber galoshes to assure personal hygiene.  Also rubber gloves.  Allowed to lean against bulkhead when lavs occupied, but not to stand in aisles or sit on carts.  Fare 48% below full economy.

Belly Freight Class – Pitch irrelevant; comfort variable depending upon size and shape of cargo and luggage which are to be used as seats; expected to bring flashlights and heavy down parka as compartment is pressurized but not heated.  Recommend wearing NFL-certified football helmet to prevent injuries from flying luggage and belly freight.  Air carrier not responsible for back or neck injuries or broken bones.  Fare is a whopping 49% below full coach.

Wheel Well Class – Pitch irrelevant, but you get a unique view on takeoffs and landings.  Required to bring an arctic down parka and down pants certified to 100 degrees below zero and own oxygen supply sufficient to last through duration of flight at 34,000 feet.  Must supply own safety harnesses to counter gravity pull from open wheel well. Airline not responsible for frostbite to extremities, nose, ears, or face.  Airline not responsible for delays causing oxygen supplies to run out short of destination.  Saturday stay in wheel well required.  Fare is a generous 50% below full fare economy.

My previous post related a sad tale of Delta’s version of Chinese water torture when flying to New Orleans from Raleigh on a real (that is, not an upgrade) first class ticket.  I promised to tell the story of the return, too, which was the final bit of mud in my eye.

Though I enjoyed my time with friends in the Crescent City, it stormed and rained buckets every day and night.  The Tuesday morning of my MSY/ATL/RDU flights portended more of the same.  Weather radar at 6:00 AM showed a particularly bad line of thunderstorms moving east towards New Orleans from Baton Rouge, and though my flight to Atlanta wasn’t scheduled until 9:15, I decided to rush to the airport and stand by for the 7:15 AM departure to get out ahead of the storms.

FIRST CLASS?  HA!  YOU AIN’T GOT NO FIRST CLASS TICKET!

After clearing the TSA Pre-Check line I made a beeline to the Delta Sky Club and asked if there were any first class seats available on the 7:15 AM flight.  Yes, the agent, an older gentleman, told me, but I would not be able to upgrade to one of those seats on my ticket.  I expressed surprise, inasmuch as my ticket read “F” in the fare class.  I didn’t need an upgrade on an F fare, I said.  He stated imperiously that it did not mean anything because I had originally bought a coach ticket.  But, I retorted, I paid a great deal of money afterwards to change it to a true first class fare.

The guy didn’t appear to like me arguing with him and clicked away slowly without making eye contact.  Scowling, he finally said he could NOT put me on either the 7:15 AM or the 8:15 AM departures for ATL in F, but he could get me a center seat in coach back in an upper-twenty-something row on either flight.  Or I could wait for my scheduled 9:15 AM flight and hope the airport was not closed by then due to bad weather.  This entire conversation took some 10-15 minutes due to the agent constantly pecking away at the computer and having no sensitivity to the fact that the 7:15 AM flight would soon be closing.

OH, WAIT!  YOU DO HAVE A FIRST CLASS TICKET AFTER ALL.

His attitude was off-putting, and I decided it was best to end the conversation.  Walking to the back of the Club out of earshot of the agent at the desk, I phoned the Delta Elite line and explained what he had told me.  The agent paused a moment to examine my record and then pronounced him dead wrong.  She said of course my fare entitled me to a confirmed first class seat if one was available.  However, she said, the 7:15 AM flight has just closed a minute before and couldn’t be reopened.  She apologized profusely and put me on the 8:15 AM flight–still an hour earlier than my original departure–and also put me in F on an earlier connecting flight ATL/RDU.  She assured me the desk agent in the Club would be notified of his error.  I hoped Delta would at least do that, and maybe even give him a demerit or two.  He lacked competence and commitment to customer service, and I didn’t feel sorry for him.

Once on the 8:15 AM airplane, I could see the dark gray thunderheads looming on the horizon and prayed nervously for an on-time departure.  My wish was granted:  The captain had us at the end of the runway just as two enormous lightning-filled clouds enveloped the airport in a giant U.  We took off due south through the opening of the U in the storm with flashes of lightning on both sides, and we were soon winging our way in smooth, high-altitude air towards ATL.  I checked when I arrived Atlanta, and the 9:15 AM flight was indeed held on the ground long enough so that I would have missed my original ATL/RDU connection.

Thank goodness I thought to phone the DL Elite line.  I should have phoned them first.  Lesson learned.

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