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.

Several months ago I booked a six day trip to New Orleans on Delta in mid-April (from RDU, my home airport), and I paid a pretty penny for the privilege of flying there in coach.  As a DL Five Million Miler and Platinum, I grabbed the best seats I could right behind first class when I bought the fare, and hoped that when the time came, I would be upgraded.

Then my commitments shifted under me unexpectedly. I’ve been involved in many months of transit planning as part of a team here in my neck of the woods, and I’d planned this trip to visit old friends in the jazz world to coincide with the crescendo of planning exercises that would end two days before my departure.  Didn’t happen.  The culmination of the transit planning work was rescheduled for the day after my departure. I had to be here for the meetings, and so I called Delta to rebook my outbound flights for two days later, making it a four day trip instead of six.

Of course the fare went up by quite a bit because it was only a month out by then, and I also had to pay the dreaded change fee.  I was able to use up my American Express Platinum Card $200 annual airline credit in one fell swoop to reduce the pain of those dollars flying out of my wallet faster than Delta’s jets zip to ATL.  I grabbed the best seats remaining in coach, of course, but my choices were limited by then.

Two weeks before my departure I checked for better seats in coach online at Delta.  Opening my record, I was offered a full “F” fare upgrade for just over $150.  Of course I had a lot of money invested in the fare at that point, so the difference to get to first class had shrunk.  Usually I do not succumb to such offers because they aren’t worth it, but for just $75 each way, I bit.  Better to have confirmed first class seats with no anxiety about waiting for an upgrade.  I paid the extra money and selected the seats I wanted on all four segments (1B).

On departure day I was in a lot of meetings and was dropped late at the airport while still talking on a 90-minute conference call about transit.  I didn’t even hang up through the TSA screen, just threw my phone in the dog bowl and sent it through the x-ray machine while 25 people babbled away in the ether.  My call didn’t end until I had boarded and put my luggage away.  Hanging up exhausted, I was greeted by a chirpy, eager-beaver flight attendant who exuded happiness and made it clear that she was there to make my flight the best ever.  Did I want a drink, she asked.  Yes, I said, a Bloody Mary. “With a lime, of course,” I emphasized.

“Oh, we’re out of limes,” she told me, because “we used them all up coming up from Atlanta!”

“No limes?” I groaned, as if I’d just received news of my 401K tanking again. “How on earth could Delta not have LIMES?  It’s not as if I’d asked for Beluga caviar.  They are just LIMES!”

Okay, I admit I was enervated and a bit overwrought.  I kept thinking how I’d paid $150 for a first class seat but could not even get a drink with limes, a common commodity.  I mean, what was the world coming to?

My happy-pill-taking FA was not going to let me down, however, and she went through a bunch of alternative liquors she could get me. I settled on Dewer’s on the rocks.  She literally leapt back to the galley and poured what looked to me like two mini-bottles of Dewer’s over ice into my glass (I could plainly see her from 1B).  Thrusting the cold glass into my hand, she beamed at me to await my verdict.  “MMMMMM!,” I uttered, as upbeat as I could, after taking the first sip.  She beamed even more and focused on other passengers in the first class cabin.

As we taxied out to the runway, the sweet-natured flight attendant brought me another Dewer’s on the rocks, again appearing to be a double shot (filled to the brim).  Ordinarily I am not a big drinker, stopping at two, or three at the most, but what the hell, I thought.  I was starting to relax, especially because my seatmate in 1A was a real raconteur, hailing from the Florida panhandle and himself matching my intake of hard liquor while regaling me with stories of menacing alligators and other swamp denizens he’d encountered.  I hardly ever get even the time of day from my flying companions these days, so it was a novelty to enjoy such a great conversation with someone who loved to talk and was good at telling colorful stories.  I polished off the second (double?) Dewer’s by the time we reached the runway’s end.

It was there the captain announced that Atlanta had ordered a ground stop and that we’d be sitting on the tarmac for “30-60 minutes.”  I began to realize that I was more than a little tipsy, but since I had a two hour connection in ATL, I didn’t fret over the delay.

Just then the happy FA came up from rear galley and proudly showed me an entire glass full of limes she had “rescued” from the back of the plane.  “Now you can have that Bloody Mary you craved!” she blurted out.

Sounded like a fine plan to me, though it was dawning on me that my speech was a bit slurred as I gabbed with the Floridian about shrimp nets and crab pots and which hull design was best for inshore fishing (I prefer a modified deep vee, such as a Boston Whaler Montauk, about the most perfect boat ever made).  I noticed again two bottles of vodka were disappearing into the Bloody Mary mix with the limes festooned around the perimeter of the glass.  The FA plonked it down with a flourish on my tray table, taking the empty Dewer’s glass, and I obliged her hospitality by chugging down half of it in no time.

An hour later we were still sitting on the runway at RDU, and I had polished off a second Bloody Mary, though by then I was too blotto to know or care whether she had put one or two bottles of vodka in the mix.  I just knew it was time to stop.

At the 90 minute mark, the fellow in 1A also stopped drinking because neither of us could talk and understand each other.   Our mouths weren’t forming words real well.  I realized then that the plane was going to be canceled or delayed so long that I could never make my connection…unless it, too, was delayed by a long time.  I may have been drinking heavily, but I had been constantly checking both my flights on Flightstats.com and Flightaware.com on my Samsung Galaxy (which I had plugged in to renew its juice).  I also called the Delta Elite line several times.  All indications were that both my flights were on time.

It was a very weird Kafkaesque moment when the DL Elite agent told me that my RDU/ATL flight was on the ground in Atlanta and that I would have no trouble making my connection ATL/MSY.  “it is?” I said, sarcastically. “Then what flight am I sitting in here at RDU?” I concluded Delta’s computers were fritzing out.  Even being pretty much dead drunk, I knew I was in trouble then, because I could see the cancellation of my flight in the headlights.

Sure enough, after two hours sitting on the runway, the captain said they were going to the barn—back to the gate—and there to await instructions.  As he started the engines, I managed to get a Delta Elite agent on the phone again and rebooked my flights for the next morning.  Thank God I had a confirmed first class fare booked!  She said there were zero coach seats because tens of thousands of folks were stranded in Atlanta.

At first she tried to persuade me to stay with my flight because she promised it would, sooner or later that night, fly to Atlanta.  And would Delta pay for my hotel room once there? I asked.  “Oh no!” was the answer, “Not when it’s not our fault [weather]. But I could get you on a flight to New Orleans at 8:55 AM in first class if you go.”

“Why in the world would I do that?” I retorted (plastered, yes, but I wasn’t stupid). “There will be zero hotel rooms because of the mass strandings, and I’ll be sleeping on the floor of the Atlanta airport terminal all night.”

“Well,” she said, “If you want to leave RDU on a 6:00 AM flight tomorrow, you can still connect to the 8:55 AM flight in ATL, all in first class because you have a first class ticket.”

Naturally I took that deal as the best plan.  I was just getting the agent to confirm my seat assignments as the plane’s door opened, finally back at the gate, and I walked off with luggage, out of the terminal, and took a cab home.  Paying $35 for a taxi was better than sleeping in the ATL airport or paying for an expensive hotel room near ATL.

Of course I was hurting pretty badly by then.  No food, just hard liquor (I usually drink wine or beer), and exhausted and looking at having to get up before 4:00 AM—hungover, no doubt—for my 6:00 AM flight.  I gobbled down some calories as soon as I walked in the door of my house and then tried to print my boarding passes for the next morning’s flights.

But the Delta system wouldn’t let me.  There they were in plain sight on my screen, the two first class seats that Delta had rebooked for me the following morning, but their system would not even let me check in.

Once again I phoned the Delta Elite line, this time waiting for 16 minutes on hold due to the tens of thousands of poor travelers stuck in Atlanta because of the thunderstorms over the field and all trying desperately to reach a DL agent to get themselves rebooked.  When finally the weary-sounding voice of the agent came on the line, she was very sympathetic—bless her heart—and said she’d have my record unlocked in a jiffy.

Except that she didn’t.  Neither did her supervisor, nor even her supervisor’s boss.  Like me, they could see that I was rebooked and had my seats, but they could not check me in or free up the system to let me print boarding passes.

This went on for about an hour, and by then it was past 10:00 PM.  I was spent and already feeling awful—hangover headache and too tired to keep moving.  The agents all three said they’d documented my record and to go to the counter in the morning when they opened at 4:00 AM to get checked in and receive my boarding passes.  They would keep working on it, they promised.  I gratefully hung up and dropped into bed.

At 3:30 AM the following morning I arose and showered, feeling like a bus had run me down, but I managed to get in the car as my wife—a saint!—drove me to RDU again.  I arrived at 4:15 AM and went promptly to the first class/DL Elite line.  A very nice agent greeted me with cheer and assured me my travails of the previous night were past because he was going to have my boarding passes to me in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

I wish he’d been right.  55 minutes after I had presented myself at the DL counter, with the help of two other counter agents, one a supervisor, and an unseen manager on the radio somewhere else, my boarding passes were finally issued at 5:10 AM. I was by then a nervous wreck  Not one agent had any clue why my record was locked up, though they could clearly see it.  Finally the unseen manager on the radio guessed that the night managers the previous evening might not have removed me from the long-delayed flight.  Sure enough they had not.  I was showing as having “flown” on that flight.  It took 20 minutes for them to untangle that snafu—theirs, of course, not mine—and finally print my boarding passes.

By the time I got through the long TSA Pre-Check queue (yes, too many people are now allowed in Pre-Check, making it as slow, almost, as the regular security line), and ran to my gate, the flight was boarding.  I was relieved but perplexed at the bizarre screw-up and and trying to brush off the accompanying anxiety.

RDU Pre-Check queue

RDU Pre-Check queue (and there were just as many waiting behind me)

I had only a Coke Zero on each of my two flights to New Orleans—no alcohol!  When I arrived in Atlanta, the hordes of travelers who’d been there since the night before made the concourse almost impossible to traverse.  I was glad I’d paid $150 extra for the assurance of first class seats.  Had I not, I would never have reached New Orleans to see my friends.  As it was, my six day trip, which had been cut to four, was now three days and a bit.  I made the most of it.

But when I went to the New Orleans airport for my return flights to Raleigh, Delta put me through the wringer again.  I mean, why limit the pain to just one half of the trip when you can do it both ways, right?  I’ll explain next week.

I admit up front that I am just a lowly Gold on American Airlines these days (since I am not flying all the time like I used to).  Everyone knows that AA Gold privileges are just marginally better than those enjoyed by the odd turnip farmer who has never flown in his life and turns up at the airport to hop a ride to DC to lobby his Congressman to continue farm subsidies for turnips.  So, right off the bat I will say that I don’t expect much anymore, certainly not the privileges I used to enjoy as an Executive Platinum when AA was really AA and not US Airways cloaked in the once-proud American Airlines brand.

Nonetheless, when I spend $1156 plus change to take my 11 year old daughter to San Francisco from Raleigh (RDU) on a father-daughter trip over her Spring Break, I expect things to run pretty smoothly.  After this build-up, you’ve probably guessed that they didn’t.

Well, at least we did get there and back in one piece. And we didn’t lose our luggage because we had only two small carry-on pieces.

Things started well enough.  To my great surprise my daughter and I were both upgraded (using AA’s expensive upgrade points, of course) from RDU to ORD, our connection airport.  It was an early morning flight on Sunday, and I guess most Executive Platinums in the Triangle area had sense and were still sleeping.  I was pleased to have two seats up front and to enjoy breakfast en route to O’Hare.

Turned out AA was just teasing me before the big letdown.  The next three segments were all in coach and not any fun.

The misery began with a six hour layover that Sunday morning at O’Hare.  When I booked our flights months before, AA had a timely mid-morning ORD/SFO connection with an mid-afternoon arrival, allowing plenty of time to get to our hotel and then relax with friends who had offered to pick us up and invited us to dinner in Pacific Heights.  However, AA dropped the mid-morning flight from its schedule, leaving an early afternoon flight as the sole option.  It was a long six hours in the Admirals Club.

Of course, one less flight option to San Francisco meant much higher demand, so there were no upgrades on that flight to SFO for the likes of me.  I resigned myself to sit in coach, and we trudged tiredly to our gate after the mind-numbing six hour wait.

Once we boarded, I discovered that we had bad seats to boot.  AA charges Golds now for Main Cabin Extra seats, but I had managed to get row 10, first row on the 737-800 behind MCE, which I thought would be comfortable.  Trouble was, AA’s website didn’t indicate that there is no window in that row on the left side (737-823 series aircraft). It felt like being locked in a closet, very claustrophobic. My daughter had been looking forward to seeing Chicago on takeoff and San Francisco on landing, but that wasn’t to be.

Once again, I resigned myself to the five hour flight locked in a closet and waited for boarding to complete. At least the closet lights were on, I thought, which was better than being in the dark.

When finally the plane was buttoned up, the pilot announced that our aircraft was being taken out of service due to a maintenance problem. He asked us to sit quietly (my daughter and I locked in the closet of row 10) while AA tried to find a replacement airplane.  I called and told our friends in SFO to forget about picking us up or having dinner.

After about an hour, American did find a replacement airplane but would not say when we might get to San Francisco.  Still we sat on the plane, a nightmare for my daughter and me. We were already terribly exhausted.

Finally our captain announced a gate where a replacement 737-800 would soon be landing, and they let us off to march down the concourse.  So after suffering a six hour layover at ORD because AA eliminated their mid-morning connection and what would be a two hour delay because American can’t keep their aircraft operational, we had a five hour claustrophobic flight locked in a damn closet to look forward to.  The cherry on top was that we would have no one to pick us up when we arrived as originally planned. It would cost me $80 to get a car into the city.

We waited for the replacement plane to land and unload its passengers, baggage, and crew.  Finally we re-boarded, and I wasn’t surprised to find that row 10 on the new plane, also a 737-800, had no window, just like the broken airplane.  Still locked in a closet, I thought.  I had tried to get different seat assignments when we were waiting between planes, but was told nothing was available, period.  Bummer.

Once underway (finally), the captain (same cockpit crew) announced that we had significant tailwinds and would make up about 30 minutes, so we reached SFO a mere 100 minutes or so late.  En route, the very nice cabin crew took pity on my daughter and gave her a choice of free goodies.  It didn’t make up for the long delays or the claustrophobia, but it was a kind gesture just the same.

Coming home, I checked and found the same 737-800 aircraft type assigned to our SFO/ORD and ORD/RDU flights.  Since I had grabbed the same seats in row 10 on all four segments not knowing row 10 lacked a window on the left side, I tried in vain to change to a different row.  Unavailable, I was told.  Once at the SFO Admirals Club, I asked again.  Just before we left the club for our gate, an agent brought me two seats in different rows, but I knew I could swap to keep my daughter and me seated together.  (Of course I had asked about upgrades, but was told we were numbers 23 and 24 on the upgrade list for the flight and that just one seat up front was available.)

I had noticed on the flight out that the seats in coach were the modern “slim-line” design and that they seemed very uncomfortable.  I also noticed that because every one of those very skinny seats had a big LCD screen built into the seatback, AA had been forced to place the electronics boxes which controlled the flatscreens on the floor, thereby taking up valuable and scarce underseat storage and leg room.

In fact there are two electronics boxes per row per side so that only the center seats in each row have the usual width and depth of storage and leg room space under the seats.  Thus seats A, C, D, and F in each row are considerably narrower under those seats.  That means AA has robbed two-thirds of its coach seats of underseat space.  Good thing we had so little carry-on luggage and were allowed to board in the “Priority” group because it’s now impossible to stow anything other than a small bag under those seats.  I could hardly even get my feet and legs under the seat, so large was the electronics box.

We were very glad to have been able to move back a row, though, because at least we had windows on both sides.  I noticed once again that the left side seats ABC in row 10 had obscured views.  My daughter and I endured five hours in the air to Chicago in the cramped space of row 11, during which time my back began to ache from the uncomfortable slim-line seats.  Even my 11 year old daughter complained about the seat’s discomfort.

At O’Hare we had a three hour wait this time (again because of schedule change which had occurred since I bought the tickets), and the ORD/RDU flight was due in at midnight rather than 9:00 PM as originally planned. Our final leg was a carbon copy of the previous two: uncomfortable skinny seats on 737-800 airplanes with no underseat legroom and in the locked closet of row 10.

We landed, bleary-eyed and aching and feeling like prisoners held in solitary, a minute before midnight.  My wife had offered to pick us, bless her soul, but arrived at midnight to find us stranded on the tarmac with no ramp agent to guide us in.  AA had insufficient RDU ground staff to handle all the late arrivals just ahead of us.  The final insult was to sit there with the terminal so tantalizingly in sight for another 20 minutes before reaching the gate.  When the door finally opened, I was never so glad to get off an airplane.

In retrospect, it felt like the drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture: the accumulation of many small pains that summed into misery.  I cannot fault the AA flight attendants for any of the problems.  At least on the four flights to and from San Francisco, FAs were universally upbeat, helpful, and kind–light years better than the dragon ladies on United flights. That said, the overall experience was bad.

It was especially disappointing after flying more than a million miles on American Airlines (well, actually many more than that, but a million since they started counting, anyway) over four decades.  Perhaps if I had paid less for our passage I would be less critical.  For almost $1200, though, I did not judge the experience as either comfortable or approximating value for money.

As an AA Million Miler, I enjoy lifetime AA Gold status, but I have a friend who didn’t make it to a million miles and, like me, does not fly as much as he used to (he’s an ex-consultant).  He grew up in London, but lives here in Raleigh, where he owns a solar business, and travels several times a year RDU/LHR via AA173/174, the nonstop flights that connect Raleigh to London, to visit his family.

American has offered him Gold elite privileges for a year for $649, and he asked me if it’s worth it.  He views snagging a more comfy seat in the Main Cabin Extra section of economy on AA’s 767 nonstops to and from London as the primary benefit of Gold status, a privilege that was gratis when MCE seating was first introduced.

Good question, I thought.  After doing some research and thinking about it, here’s what I told him:

“I checked the AA website. Normally, RDU/LHR in Main Cabin Extra is an additional $130 one way, so being Gold gets you a 50% discount, which is a $65 savings one way, or $130 round trip savings per trip. At that rate you’d break even at 5 RDU/LHR round trips (650 ÷ 5 = 130). 

“But of course as Gold you get other perks, like a free checked bag and somewhat earlier boarding in addition to the 50% discount on MCE seating in advance (and it’s complimentary for Golds within 24 hours of the flight if any MCE seats are left then).  You also receive a 25% mileage bonus if that’s important to you.  Lastly, and not easily quantified, American Airlines Gold status and higher elite levels usually give you preferential treatment though the elite desks when unexpected disruptions occur.”

To recap, measuring the value of paying for Gold status at AA will differ by individual travel patterns, distances, and frequencies, but for Raleigh-London, at least, it’s a wash after five round trips.  For those who want to dig into this question a bit more, comparison charts for all three AA elite levels can be found here.

 

 

As a boy growing up in the 1950s on the edge of a small eastern North Carolina town, I had immense freedom to explore the world of nature around me.  Of course it was a different era, one of innocence compared to now, but even still, my parents were tolerant and permissive of my desire to dive into the real world and discover it for myself.  Wild animals, plants, birds, and insects were abundant then in bucolic eastern North Carolina.  Untamed fields and woods were within easy biking and walking distance for an energetic boy like me.

Not that I had to venture far afield from our house to encounter wildlife.  It was then common to come across large Snapping Turtles, along with other turtles and many varieties of snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads, in our back yard.  Birds of many species were prevalent, too, and lots of mammals.  It was paradise for a boy who loved nature and the outdoors.

My parents never knew what wildlife to expect in the house: snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, turtles, birds, Flying Squirrels, insects of all types.  I knew to keep poisonous snakes outside and to be careful handling them.  My brother and I once kept a Copperhead in a 55-gallon drum for a week or so, and it was like watching coiled lightning as it sprung over halfway up the sides of the barrel trying to strike us.  We came to understand it would never tame, and we soon released it back into the wild, albeit a good ways away from where we lived.

Every type of creature fascinated me.  I spent many long hours studying insects in books and in the fields and woods nearby.  I loved hunting and fishing as much for the experience of being in the real world as for any fish or game I bagged.  Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my love of nature and some of the expertise I gathered about it as a youth would stay with me for a lifetime.

When I grew to manhood those experiences became dormant memories.  My livelihood from consulting was derived across the globe in many different countries, but almost always in dense urban areas where nature had been eradicated or at least severely minimized.  I missed the natural world and often felt I needed to be be back in touch with it.

In 1991 a consulting gig in Johannesburg led me to Africa for the first time.  Less than a month after I arrived in South Africa, I found the Kruger National Park (see here).  After that I went back to the Kruger–or to similar wildlife national parks in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana–almost every weekend and holiday until the consulting project concluded.  I have returned to these wilderness areas in southern Africa, and especially to the Kruger, again and again in the intervening 24 years.    My family and I just returned on January 1 from another two weeks cruising around this marvelous territory.

kruger_national_park_map

Why do I endure flying in coach tens of thousands of miles so often?  I have written before about returning to the Kruger (see this post from May, 2014), but I could never, until now, completely understand just what was drawing my soul to it.  On this most recent journey, it finally hit me:  Because the Kruger is magic to me!  I never come back without a significant replenishment to my spirit.  Experiencing it there is more real and true to me than the urban activities I engage in here in Raleigh every day in the interest of advancing civilization.  Oddly, traveling many thousands of miles to spend time in the Kruger National Park is, for me, like a time warp back to my childhood enjoying the simple pleasures and wonders of nature of eastern North Carolina in the 1950s. God bless the South Africans for preserving that significant piece of wilderness for now and future generations.  Like I said, magic.

 

 

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