Author: William A. Allen III

Hyperloop hype

Last week I attended a breakfast meeting led by a reputable regional transportation advocacy organization representing Research Triangle area businesses titled, “The Possibility of a Hyperloop Future.” It was presented by Virgin Hyperloop One at the snazziest venue around, the Umstead Hotel on the SAS campus in Cary.

I know, I know.  My first thought was, Who doesn’t love a carnival sideshow?  After all, it is not a proven technology, and it has funding strategies no better than tried-and-true mobility modes.  That said, I believe it bears watching as a means—one day perhaps—to augment air travel, rail, and bus.

And anyway, tech hype ahead of its time isn’t always bad.  Even when it eventually fizzles, it stimulates the imagination.

Image result for virgin hyperloop one

First, some level-setting information from The Virgin Hyperloop One website:

“Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation that moves freight and people quickly, safely, on-demand and direct from origin to destination.

”Passengers or cargo are loaded into the hyperloop vehicle and accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube.

“The vehicle floats above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.

“Virgin Hyperloop One systems will be built on columns or tunneled below ground to avoid dangerous grade crossings and wildlife. It’s fully autonomous and enclosed, eliminating pilot error and weather hazards. It’s safe and clean, with no direct carbon emissions. Watch this video to get an idea of how hyperloop works.

“We estimate that the top speed for a passenger vehicle or light cargo will be 670 miles per hour or 1080 kilometers per hour. That is 2-3 times faster than high-speed rail and magnetic levitation trains, and 10-15 times faster than traditional rail. The average speed vehicles will travel vary based on the route and customer requirements.

“Virgin Hyperloop One vehicles are propelled using a linear electric motor, which is a straightened-out version of a conventional rotary motor. A conventional electric motor has two primary parts: a stator (the part that stays still) and a rotor (the part that moves or rotates). When voltage is applied to the stator it makes the rotor spin and do the work of, say, spinning a power drill. A proprietary linear electric motor has the same two main parts, however, the rotor doesn’t rotate but instead moves in a straight line along the length of the stator. In the Virgin Hyperloop One system, the stators are mounted to the tube, the rotor is mounted to the pod, and the pod straddles the stators as it accelerates down the tube.

“We’re energy-agnostic. Our system can draw power from whichever energy sources are available along the route. If that means solar and wind, then the entire system is 100% carbon free.

“Capital and operating costs will range widely based on route and application (passenger, cargo) but third parties have concluded that the capital and operational costs of a hyperloop system could be two-thirds that of high-speed rail.”

By the way, Elon Musk is also pursuing hyperloop technology.

Here are my impressions on the hyperloop hoopla from last week:

Overall, while this technology should be watched as a future transportation mode, it is, in my opinion, too far ahead of proof of concept to take seriously now.

For example, how a hyperloop vehicle is made to curve in a reasonable radius while moving in a near-vacuum tube has not been worked out, let alone demonstrated, a fundamental mechanical flaw.

The briefing was really a sophisticated and polished sales pitch by Virgin. That statement, however, doesn’t diminish its value to learning about the technology.

Pitch included the proposition that we haven’t invented a new form of transportation in over 100 years, so it’s time to innovate. Didn’t quite imply rubber-tired transport, rail, and air are so 19th and 20th century quaint as to be nearly useless. In fact, the documentation in the handout states that “Hyperloop is not intended to replace existing ;’traditional’ transportation networks such as highway, bus rapid transit, intercity rail, and air travel [note no mention of light rail, which have me pause]. Evidence shows that generally the introduction of high speed surface transportation complements and enhances existing transportation networks. They do this by alleviating congestion via mode shift; allowing for better connectivity to certain systems (such as air travel) to accommodate suppressed demand for both passenger and freight services; and providing the general public with more choices in the manner in which they travel … .”

Consistent with the brochure narrative, the idea was presented verbally as “complementary to commuter rail” in the Raleigh-Durham corridor with “portals” (stations) at Raleigh downtown, NCSU, RDU, RTP, “Durham near Duke”, Chapel Hill. No mention of Cary either verbally or in the regional map included in the brochure.

Image result for virgin hyperloop one
Note the hyperloop tube is linear.  How to curve has not been been worked out.

Big ugly tubes were shown all above ground in the renderings, but below ground is also possible as inferred by showing renderings of possible underground portals (stations).

They didn’t say so, but I believe they were showing above ground tubes both for reduced cost (cheaper than underground) and especially so that the service can use existing interstate rights of way (center and side) to avoid having to purchase private rights of way.

They didn’t get into feasibility or cost/funding, though the website, as I said above, suggests that “capital and operational costs of a Hyperloop system could be two-thirds that of high-speed rail.” Nailing down the true cost of HSR depends upon many factors, but may be somewhere in the range of $80-150 million/mile, assuming funding sources are available.

The presenters averred the system with 28-person pods running at 671 MPH can carry 10,000 passengers/hour/direction. When you do the math, that’s a 28-person pod launched every 10 seconds to achieve that max capacity. (Okay, shove ’em in! Quick now! Keep ’em moving! Hurry!)

Portals (stations) can be “as close as ten and as far as 100 miles apart.”

The fact that Congress won’t even fund rebuilding our crumbling highways and bridges, with money for transit scarce and super-competitive, was ignored. No slide in the presentation addressed where the money might come from for Hyperloop except to refer to the need for “partners”.

One person asked if Hyperloop might be able to utilize an old rail corridor between Raleigh and Richmond (called the S-Line) to connect Charlotte and Raleigh to Richmond and Washington. I couldn’t help wondering if the questioner was ready to abandon the proven technology of rail for this shiny new thing.  Especially since we have for decades lacked the political will to acquire owner S-Line from the CSX Railroad and to build higher speed rail along it between Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, and Charlotte.

My misgivings aside, the answer to that question was yes, if we built Hyperloop along the S-Line, then folks could do Raleigh to DC in 30 minutes and, it was also mentioned, Raleigh to Atlanta in 45 minutes. At those speeds, and making other assumptions, such as reasonable ticket costs, Hyperloop would sure beat the pants off the huge hassle of flying to Washington.  Flights RDU/DCA on American, for example, are a nightmare, most especially coming home from National.  Flights are often cancelled or at least much delayed, even on bluebird days.  Of course, higher sped rail trains could be a practical ad proven solution along the same S-Line corridor.

As stated above, the Hyperloop system works on vacuum low pressure inside the tube + electro-magnetic propulsion + magnetic levitation to achieve motion and speed. All electric.

Their only video dates to 2017 at the Virgin Hyperloop One test facility in the desert near Las Vegas, but only got to 192 mph after a number of trials. No videos of testing since 2017, which struck me as inauspicious, though the brochure says “as of December, 2018, a full sized pod reached a speed of 240 MPH on their 0.3 mile DevLoop test track near Las Vegas.”  A short 0.3 mile linear test track suggests a great deal more testing needs to be done.

The brochure was customized for our region and includes example routes and benefits which show Raleigh to Chapel Hill in 9 min, 27 sec (top speed of 358 MPH and average of 187 MPH) and Raleigh to Durham in 8 min, 51 sec (top of 314 and average of 181). The table and narrative do not mention Durham to Chapel Hill, but at those speeds, one could travel between Chapel Hill and Durham by backtracking via Raleigh in a total of 19 minutes, which is faster than driving during peak times.

Hyperloop hype is impressive; the reality less so.  The drumbeat for pursuing hyperloop’s unproven technology in my area goes on, as in this interview with Virgin Hyperloop One’s CEO, which was released today.  For now, though, I hope my community stays focused tackling funding challenges and building out regional solutions using conventional bus and rail systems on the ten year horizon we’ve set for ourselves in the Research Triangle. And for me personally I think the smart strategy is to keep up my airline elite statuses and forgo investment in hyperloop companies.

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What’s in a name (when flying)?

Shakespeare famously opined in his play Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” He wrote those words in 1594.

That was a fine, fair, and true declaration for the late sixteenth century before airplanes (though President Trump might argue that airports existed then), but does it hold up in the TSA world of flying 18 years after 9/11?  I recently had reason to worry about what was in my name and why that mattered to government authorities responsible for screening air passengers when my name showed up misspelled on an international ticket.

I remember in the years prior to 9/11 when tickets were not checked against IDs.  All the airlines cared about then was that a warm body showed up to occupy a seat and handed over a ticket proving revenue had been collected or that frequent flyer miles had been deducted.  If the name on the ticket wasn’t yours, well, so what?  Welcome on board!

Sure, there was a security screen then, but it was focused on x-raying luggage for metal objects like guns and knives as well as the usual walk-through metal detector to ensure nothing dangerous was concealed on one’s body.  But nobody checked the names on tickets to see if they matched photo IDs, let alone to see if one’s name was spelled correctly.  I could have flown on a ticket that read “Donald Duck” at that time and been waved onto the jet bridge.

Well, those days are long gone, of course. Now the photo ID has to be certified just so even for domestic flights, and for flying abroad the name on one’s passport has to be letter for letter what is on one’s ticket. And according to the government, no exceptions. Ever. Period. Go suck an egg if you don’t like it.

So what’s wrong with this international reservation I got from my travel agent some weeks ago on an itinerary that includes flights on Delta and South African Airways (all on the same record locator):

“Travel Reservation to SKUKUZA, SOUTH AFRICA for WILLILAM ANDERSON ALLEN III”

I admit that it took me a couple of weeks of staring at it with a vague sense that I was missing something before it suddenly struck me like a bolt of lightning that there was an extra “L” in William. Yet my Delta SkyMiles number was in the record, and the itinerary showed up in my Delta.com account and in the FlyDelta app.  Somebody at the agency had mistyped my first name.

No big deal, I thought. Must happen all the time.  This is a small typo easily remedied by asking Delta as the issuing carrier to remove the offending extra “L” from my first name.  It’s not like asking that the name on the ticket be changed to a different person.  It’s just a tiny, insignificant clerical error.

Thinking it was that simple, I called the Delta Elite line, and the answering agent cordially thanked me for flying almost five and half million miles before asking what she could do for me.  I asked her to pull up the rez, and then I challenged her to find the spelling mistake in my name.  She enjoyed the game and cheerfully played along.  After a minute of muttering, she declared herself defeated.

When I pointed out the extra letter, she immediately saw it, and then laughed.  So, I asked, Can you please fix my first name in the record? She said, apologetically, that I’d have to go through my travel agent since the error was theirs.  But why? I asked. Isn’t this easy as pie to fix?

No, unfortunately not, she told me.  The entire ticket, she said, must be reissued, including the South African flights from Johannesburg to Skukuza and back.  The travel agent would have to call a special desk at Delta, and the entire reservation would have to be scratched and rebuilt.  She averred that doing so might jeopardize the SAA segments JNB/SZK/JNB because the discount fare code might not be available again once the reservation was dropped.  Nonetheless, it had to be done, she said, politely.

For one lousy extra “L” in my first name—not even my surname? I lamented. Yep, she said.

Well, what if I just left it as-is? I asked.  Surely TSA and the folks in South Africa would let me fly anyway.  Heck, they probably wouldn’t even notice it, just like I didn’t at first.  After all, I said, it’s just one letter and not in my surname.

Nope, she said, every single letter in the name on my reservation has to match precisely the name on my passport.  She went on to say that a computer would try to match the name on my passport to the name in the Delta and South African Airways computers, and would kick it out.

Frustrated by the time sink this had already cost me, and dumbfounded that one extra letter could cause such a stir, I contacted my travel agency. The owner is a longtime friend I’ve done business with for many years.

After relating the entire story, I asked for his advice.  He told me about several incidents with missing middle names and such on international reservations where passengers had been allowed to fly.  But he couldn’t think of a case with a misspelling.  He promised to contact Delta and South African Airways.

A few days later he brought word of what he’d learned from each airline.  Delta would re-issue the ticket to correct my first name and would honor the fare and schedule (an elusive discounted fare available on a single day that I quickly grabbed in newly-offered premium economy on the ATL/JNB route early next year).  But it would be a time-consuming pain to re-issue the ticket.

Since Delta said they could not help with the SAA legs (even though Delta had allowed the SAA flights on their record locator), he had been forced to separately contact South African Airways.  SAA was not very helpful. They told my friend that the flight SZK/JNB on the return was now completely booked so that not only were no discounted fares available, but not even any seats.  They did offer an earlier flight SZK/JNB which had four discounted fare seats, but SAA wouldn’t guarantee availability until the existing reservation was canceled and the ticket re-issued.

In other words, a lot of trouble, and some uncertain risks, and possibly added costs.  My friend the agency owner thought I should leave the ticket as-is. He didn’t think TSA would keep me from flying over one lousy letter in my first name.

Maybe not when I leave RDU, I told him, and maybe not when Delta checks my passport against the record at the gate, but what about South African Airways in Johannesburg, and SAA again at Skukuza airport, and Delta personnel in Jo’burg when I check in for my flight home?  That seems to me to multiply the risk gates I have to pass through with a misspelled name, greatly raising the odds against me.  If even one person strictly interprets the rules that every letter of my name on the ticket must match every letter of my name as it appears on my passport, then I am sunk.  I could be stuck in South Africa, or even stuck at RDU before leaving the ground.

My friend had no answer to that.  Therefore, I asked him to re-issue the tickets, putting me on the earlier SAA flight SZK/JNB coming back, if need be.

That’s where it stands at the moment.  I await word from him that it’s done.

Maybe I come across as an obsessive worrier over something that seems, on the surface, trivial.  While I agree that this is absurd on its face, I cannot fight TSA.  Their rules don’t bend much, if at all.

Mainly, I think the two airlines are being absurdly inflexible about a simple misspelling correction.  What is reasonable about requiring that entire reservations be cancelled and re-issued to eliminate one letter in a first name?

Why do the airlines and governments make something so simple so hard? Even Shakespeare, were he writing today, would perhaps be jaded enough to write: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, if spelled correctly, by any other name would smell as sweet, if also not misspelled.”

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I don’t usually ask readers to relate their experiences or to give their advice, but I hope you will comment on this:

Has a simple name misspelling ever happened to you on an international itinerary?  If so, how was it handled?

If not, what would you do in this case? Would you leave it and hope for human reason along the way at the various airport security screens to override the technicality?  Or would you have the ticket re-issued, even at the risk of incurring additional costs?

Flying in the not-so-new millennium

Astonishingly, we are halfway through 2019, which is the twentieth year of the “new” millennium. My first flight in 1960 was forty years before the twentieth century ended, a sobering reality. Which led me to ponder how flying has changed through my particular (peculiar?) lens in the new century compared to the one I was born in.

So, here are my top-of-mind lists of flying differences from the old century to this one.  I don’t aver these lists are comprehensive, but they do represent flying elements important enough to bubble up for me:

20th CENTURY OLD

Relaxed security – Showing up at the last minute was no problem in the latter decades of the twentieth century.  North Carolina Governor (1961-64) Terry Sanford when he later became President of Duke University was famous for arriving at the Raleigh/Durham airport literally minutes before his plane was to depart and running to board.  I’ve done that myself, though not routinely or by choice.  I sure don’t do it now.

Smoking – Cigarette smoking was allowed in the rear of the plane.  Even cigars were okay on some carriers, such as in the back row of First Class on United 747s. I was on a JFK/LAX 747 flight with David Frost in the late 70s where he smoked Cuban cigars all the way across America.  Could you smell it throughout the plane?  Absolutely, but in those days, nobody much complained about tobacco smoke.

Unlimited checked bags – Who cared then how many steamer trunks you brought and checked?

Gradual use of Jetways at all airports, not just small ones – I remember when jet bridges were a novelty.

Cheap and nearby airport parking except at big cities – These days at RDU I am happy to find a pricey parking place in a close-in deck at all.

Weekend deals on rental cars were for years so good that I rented every weekend for pennies.  Avis and Alamo weekend rates were cheaper than driving my own car and parking it at the airport all week.

Propjets on thin routes – I used to fall asleep to the soothing drone of the propellers.

747s and Concorde – I greatly lament their loss: the glamour, romance, glitz, luxe, comfort, speed.

Everyone dressed up to fly – No man would think of boarding a plane unless dressed in a coat and tie, even on weekends, except maybe on a nonstop to Hawai’i.

Caviar and Krug in International First Class – Endless quantities of Beluga and Sevruga Black Sea caviar were served, all washed down with vintage Krug, not that plebian Dom Perignon swill.

Hub flying – All of a sudden, hubs everywhere, with vanishing point-to-point flights.  Hope you like connecting!

LCCs – Low cost carriers proliferated, with fast turns and cheap fares which Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) perfected on the West Coast, but Southwest copied the model and reigns supreme.  (PSA was purchased by US Air to gain California market share, which US Air then squandered after foolishly abandoning the quick turns and friendly service that PSA was famous for.)

 

Image result for pacific southwest airlines smiley face planes
PSA airplanes were painted with smiles, and the service confirmed the attitude.

Deregulation (1978). Then mergers spelled the demise of so many once-proud airlines: Eastern, TWA, Braniff, Pan American World Airways, Continental. PSA, Piedmont, National, Aloha, Northwest Orient, Ozark, Allegheny, Western, and on and on.

Decline in service, especially schedule reliability and in-flight

Evolution of Business Class paced decline of real international First Class.  For example, “Club Class” started in 1979 on British Airways as a tip of the hat to frequent BA customers by simply not assigning center seats in coach just behind First Class and offering free drinks. PanAm’s version was called “Clipper Class” and both soon escalated to a real cabin, better chairs and service.

Pre-frequent flyer loyalty programs – For example, Eastern’s Executive Traveler program (called ET) was by invitation only and offered routine space-available free upgrades to First Class based on who got to the gate soonest.  Several times at RDU in the 1980s I beat out UNC Basketball Coach Dean Smith on sit up front by simply getting my name on the ET upgrade list ahead of him.  He would glower at me relaxing in First Class as he slouched dejectedly back to coach. Delta’s Flying Colonel program, also by invitation only, offered use of secret airport lounges.  Eastern’s Commuter Desk 800 number, an independent benefit from the ET program, could get me out of any flying trouble anywhere.  The Eastern Commuter Desks were staffed by 2 or 3 rez pros who were authorized by the airline to do anything to get their best customers out of trouble.  It was perhaps the best perk I ever had from any airline.  Eastern Commuter Desk personnel were the airline’s most powerful loyalty tool.  And they were funny and nice, too.

Heyday of Frequent Flyer programs – The mileage bonuses in the programs’ early days of the 1980s were wild!  In 1987-88 on Delta alone, I think I accumulated over a half million frequent flyer miles.  Combined with generous awards that were most always available. Nice memory in contrast to today’s arid frequent flyer world.

Codeshares – an idea that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t (then and now).

Lie-flat sleeper seats in Business Class – The end game of what began as a coach seat with the adjacent one left empty.

When International First Class was a flying Barcalounger – In the 70s and 80s before Business Class was mature, International First Class seats were just big, cushy chairs with a lot of recline.  I remember loving the First Class compartment on Sabena 747s JFK/BRU and on Air New Zealand 747s LAX/NAN long before I ever heard of a sleeper seat.

747 upstairs lounges exclusively for First Class – There was nothing finer.

Image result for sabena 747 first class in 1976

Flipping CRJ-50s everywhere – I need say no more. The first generation of fifty seaters were agony to fly in.  Though I will give the CRJ the airplane egalitarian award for misery: Every seat was equally uncomfortable.  I still avoid them, though many have, thank God, been retired.

Advent of airline computers to finally take over seat assignments – Remember the stickered seat assignment cards that gate agents had? It made gate agents the literal gatekeepers of comfortable seats, their often fickle choices of where you sat disconnected from loyalty or revenue realities.  If the gate agent didn’t like you, you were getting a center seat in the back, and it didn’t matter how much money you spent, how often you flew, or whether you were pals with the airline’s president.  You were going to be miserable.

 21st CENTURY NEW

9/11 security and anxiety – TSA still seems like the doorway to a police state to me.

Death of frequent flyer programs – We all know this story well.  Woe is us.

It’s an RJ world – Okay, many of the newer models are more comfortable than the first gen of hateful CRJ 50 seaters, but still an uncomfortable ride. And you have to “gate check” carry-on, too.  Bummer.

The tyranny of tiered elite loyalty programs based on revenue has killed free upgrades for most of us.  I’ve watched many an Executive Platinum on American turn away in shame and disappointment from the monitors announcing upgrades.  As a less-than-zero Lifetime Gold in the AAdvantage program, my 36 banked 500-mile upgrades mock me for foolishly buying and earning awards that can never be used.

Paying for seat assignments if you are not elite on the major airlines, and paying for them anyway on some airlines.

Paying through the nose for checked bags unless you are an elite, one of the biggest airline scams of the modern era.

Segmentation of fare bases – Basic economy, main cabin, slightly better coach with 3 inches of extra seat pitch, first class.  What a racket!  Those poor basic economy folks are treated like scum: no advance seats, pay for bags, board last and sit in the tail.  I’m surprised airlines don’t charge them to use the lavatories.

As competition has shrunk, huge fare differentials at both hub and little cities – Such as Fargo, Billings, Greenville (SC), Minneapolis, Newark.  It’s sometimes cheaper to fly to a distant overseas city than to Houston Intercontinental.

The dehumanization of comfort in coach as row spacing (pitch) and seat width declines evermore.

The Premium Economy phenomenon – On overseas legs, the slow maturation of Premium Economy becomes the new Business Class while Business has largely murdered International First.

Spiraling, no-sense airfares, especially in international Business (examples: Delta One to Johannesburg–$10.518 versus $1054 in Main Cabin; Cathay Pacific “sale” price in PE to Hong Kong-$2700, hardly a bargain).

Window shades down from gate to gate – This trend was started by the airlines several years ago routinely asking passengers on arrival to close the shades to keep the interior from overheating in the summer when the A/C wasn’t on between flights.  Unfortunately, the practice has accelerated as it paralleled the tendency of a lot of passengers to bury their noses in devices: smartphones, tablet, laptops.  I’ve noticed many do not even bother to look out the window for takeoff and landing now, their focus instead on the tiny screen.  Jaded, they seem to take for granted the marvel of flying, as if it was a transit bus to and from work.  I have long preferred aisle seats so I can get up and down easily, but these days I often ask for a window so that I can control the shade.  I still like to watch the skies.

Sure, there’s more—a lot more.  But that’s a good start.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Those wretched “saddle” seats that airlines have been toying with for a decade already, an idea that just won’t die. I’ve adjust to a lot of discomfort flying over the last 60 years, but this is the limit for me.  Since I can no longer afford to routinely fly international business class, I am grateful to escape coach in Premium Economy whenever possible.

In Sweden, some activist teens condemn flying for its impact on climate change.  Time will tell if this is an anomaly or a trend, an existential dilemma for our time.  Perhaps the teens would compromise and ride in an airline saddle seat if doing so cut their individual carbon emission share by more than half.  Just a thought.

Why I fly

I flew on business for decades. As a management consultant for forty years, I was on planes to somewhere and back every week. It was a necessity, part of the bargain when I committed myself to that profession. I knew it when I started.

Unlike some, however, I viewed the constant travel by air as bonus more than onus. Why? Because I love flying, and I love going places.

Not because of the frequent flyer miles. When I started in the 70s, frequent flyer programs hadn’t yet been invented. I just loved flying and experiencing places other than home then. I still do.

Why do I so love to travel, so enjoy flying? I’ve thought about that question all my life.

When I was young, I was passionate about trains. Something about the romance of where they came from and where they were going, and the marvel of the rail network. Steel rails mysteriously connected everything to where I stood. I spent a lot of time at train stations in awe of trains and railroads from the time I was a babe in arms.

At age 12 I was going alone by train from Raleigh to New York and back without my parents’ knowledge, tickets paid for with my own money earned from my paper route. I planned my own three-week trip across the country entirely by train in 1963 when I was fifteen, and in 1964 I took that journey without parents or adults in tow.

Concurrently, I discovered airplanes. As a kid, I convinced my very patient parents to take me many times to the Raleigh/Durham Airport. I was entranced by the majestic four-engine Eastern Airlines Lockheed Constellations that came and went at RDU in the 1950s. I could identify an original Connie (round windows) versus a Super G (square windows) by the time I was nine or ten. And I knew the difference between a DC-6 and a DC-7, too.

My first flights came at age 12 in 1960 on a Piedmont DC-3 and a Piedmont Fairchild F27 propjet—modern for the time.

But flying was expensive, and I had to pay for college and grad school. My first overseas trip—to Europe on a Sabena Belgian World Airways 707—had to wait until I saved enough money in 1973. I was already 25 and itching to go abroad. I’ve been making up for lost time ever since. I’ve flown mil-lions of miles on more airlines than I can remember to every continent but Antarctica and so many times around the world that I lost count.

But, again, why? Why did I do it, and why do I do it still, just as enthusiastically now as on that first magic DC-3 flight in 1960?

American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay famously wrote in “Travel”:

“My heart is warm with the friends I make, And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, No matter where it’s going.”

The last line in that poem riveted me when I first read it in high school. That was exactly how I felt.

Why does her poem still excite me to get going? Maybe it’s partly due to another Millay quote:

“The longest absence is less perilous to love than the terrible trials of incessant proximity.”

Do I become bored and stale staying always in one place? Maybe. Even probably, but that’s still not my only motivation to fly.

Partly, it is because I love flying itself. Soaring up into the sky temporarily defeats the tyranny of gravity and, at the same time, makes me appreciate the sheer loveliness and grandeur of the earth. Things on the surface look better from way high up in the air, excepting the odd hideous zinc smelter.

Another reason: I love discovering and exploring new places and people, of learning how people live and trying to understand the prism through which they experience their world. Making new friends in other places, some from there, some travelers like myself from different faraway places, has always been richly gratifying. Some of those friendships have lasted a lifetime. Experiences in distant lands have ofttimes been unlike any I would have had at home. How can we understand our own existence if we do not grasp the principles and values by which others measure theirs?

Too, I still jump on planes with zeal because certain places call me back again and again, some due to fond memories (Italy; Germany), others for my love of the natural world (Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness of Montana; South Africa’s Kruger National Park; the canyons, mesas, mountains, and vistas of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado), and some to reaffirm friendships.

Whether picturesque or grungy, I also love port cities (e.g., New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cape Town, San Francisco, Rio, Seattle, Los Angeles).

Furthermore, and God help me for confessing it, I have always loved hanging around airports and train stations. They fascinate me, even the ugliest. I know that’s uncommon, but places that exist solely so people can congregate to travel are exciting to me.

Another factor is that I love airplanes themselves, from the wretched original 50-seat Canadair RJ to the 100-seat Anglo-French Concorde to the magnificent Boeing 747 (all models) to the Airbus A380. Planes are enchanted things that routinely defy gravity to speed us great distances. When I see an airplane landing or taking off from the ground, I am always envious that I’m not on board.

To be candid, I must acknowledge (and as many posts on this blog confirm) that I simultaneously love and loathe the varied airline service offerings. But even my rants against the worst of them cannot keep me away. I love to hate the in-flight cabin experiences I sometimes have, but I still love flying.

Lastly, going away from the familiar and coming back engenders renewed gratefulness for home. At least it does for me. Leaving and returning fosters appreciation for the monotony of daily life because flying to places far away are rarely dull, are not routine, and hardly humdrum. My travels by air, spaced at intervals, keep me balanced. Travel keeps me from going stark raving mad, bringing to mind another Edna St. Vincent Millay quote:

“It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it’s one damn thing over and over.”

We hear from childhood that life is short. What we don’t learn until adulthood is that it goes by faster and faster with each passing year. I always yearned to experience life fullest, to see every possible manifestation of life on this dazzling blue orb. As I move into my seventy-second year, I am grateful that airplanes have made my dreams come true.

Elusive Delta premium economy fare to Johannesburg

An old friend I’ve known since Kindergarten wants to join me in early 2020 on my next jaunt to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.  My friend, not a frequent flyer, trusted me to find that perfect balance of comfort, cost, and convenience that will make the long trip bearable to both our bodies and our wallets. I found it, too, in Delta’s new premium economy on the carrier’s nonstop Atlanta-Johannesburg flight (DL200/201), albeit just barely.

Knowing after 28 years of ferreting out bargains to South Africa that it’s never too early to look at options from Raleigh/Durham to Johannesburg and then on to the little Skukuza airport in the Kruger Park, I began poking around on websites scarcely within the 330-day window for advance booking. Because Delta’s nonstop from Atlanta to Jo’burg is a convenient way to get there (just two flights to get to JNB), I looked at delta.com among other itinerary and airline possibilities.

As a baseline, I began by checking the old way to getting to South Africa: flying through Europe.  The fares on some carriers RDU/JNB were lower than $1400, but the all-day European layovers were brutal, and it also killed another day that we might be having fun in the Kruger.

I also tested Gulf carriers, including Qatar Air using oneworld partner fares with AA from Raleigh to Johannesburg, a routing I have done in business class, but never in coach.  I found that Qatar economy fares were not big bargains, and the total travel times were not better than the European-stopover routings.  Ditto for Emirates, which partners with Jet Blue.

South African Airways had a decent schedule and competitive coach fares with its partner, United, RDU to Dulles, then IAD to JNB to SZK (Skukuza, the jewel of an airport in the Kruger), but I tend to shy away from flying economy on airlines on which I hold zero elite status.

Still, SAA fares were comparable to what I subsequently found on Delta in Main Cabin; that is, about $1500 to JNB, or about $1750 round trip all the way to Skukuza. The SAA schedule into Johannesburg also allowed a same-day morning connection to Skukuza, another advantage over Delta and other carriers.  That was mighty tempting.

On Delta, I initially checked fares for late January outbound, returning about 12 days after. Delta.com was showing only Main Cabin, Comfort+, and Delta One classes for January departures. Fares in Main Cabin were reasonable at around $1500 RDU/JNB.  With no competition, South African Airways consistently charges about $300 round trip JNB/SZK, so the total would therefore have been $1800 or so to get to Skukuza and home again.

(By the way, I always check business class fares, too, but as nearly $11,000 round trip RDU/JNB on the dates I needed, booking Delta One was a nonstarter.)

Now I admit without shame that flying in a cramped Delta coach seat to Africa is not fun.  It is a challenge of endurance for 16 hours.  Though hellish, I have done it, and I can do it again.

However, I was counting on my Lifetime Platinum status to grant me and a companion (my friend) complimentary Comfort+ upgrades on DL200/201 ATL/JNB/ATL.  Flying Comfort+ doesn’t make the economy seats any wider, but at least there is 3 inches more between rows, and I have a strategy for enduring that long flight in Comfort+.

The prospect of those extra 3 inches in Comfort+ tilted me a bit to Delta from South African Airways, though SAA’s same-day morning connection at JNB to Skukuza made the comparison with SAA a hard choice.

Why not premium economy? Because I knew that the 777-100LR aircraft used on the route had not been updated with Delta’s “Premium Select” premium economy product, and somewhere I had read that the Johannesburg planes would be among the last to get the interior cabins refreshed.  DL200/201 are money spinners as presently configured. After all, Delta is the sole American carrier with a nonstop to Johannesburg; only South African Airways flies competing nonstops from the USA.

But then my friend alerted me to his preference to leave a month later, departing RDU in late February and returning in mid-March.  Having pretty much settled on a Delta itinerary, I waited a few days so that our return date in March was within the 330-day maximum for advance booking,

To my surprise, the outbound and return dates on delta.com showed a fourth class of service available on DL200/201 ATL/JNB: Premium Select.  Fares in premium economy were $2000 RDU/JNB, which included Comfort+ on the RDU/ATL legs.  A $500 round trip difference struck me as about right for the extra difference in comfort and personal space.

Okay, Delta’s premium economy service is lackluster compared to, say, Cathay Pacific, but the seats are undeniably far better than coach (see my post on Delta’s Premium Select), and so I grabbed two seats for me and my traveling buddy at that fare.

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Delta Premium Select (premium economy) seats on an A350 DTW/PEK

Out of curiosity, I checked the next day for the same itinerary, and the Premium Select fare had gone up to $2500.  The fare had risen $500 literally overnight.

The RDU/JNB premium economy fare has been $2500 ever since for those dates. I’ve checked delta.com from January to April, 2020, and the Premium Select fare is always $2500.

What happened?  Who knows?  Perhaps I came across the one day in eternity when Delta’s new premium economy fares were loaded into the system at a relative bargain price for the nonstop to Johannesburg, after which the gods of Delta revenue management decided to goose the fare $500.

When I checked other origin cities, such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Washington, Premium Select to JNB was (and is) priced at $2500 or a few bucks more. Only NYC/JNB through ATL on the nonstop is slightly higher at $2700, and, oddly, MIA/JNB through ATL is $2272 in PE. Why Miami to Johannesburg in premium economy is cheaper by $230 than flying from Raleigh is another mystery.

Talk about elusive! I’m fortunate, of course, to have snapped up a fare on the single day it would be $500 below the price of forever-after, but I am perplexed that the lower, reasonable fare vanished in 24 hours.  The $2000 fare I purchased is a $500 difference over Main Cabin, a fair value cost, in my opinion.

At $2500, though, the current premium economy fare is almost $1000 over Main Cabin, which is not good value for the product. I wouldn’t have paid that much and so would have chosen either South African Airways’ attractive same-day morning connection at Johannesburg to Skukuza or Delta in Comfort+ with a one-night layover in Johannesburg before going on to Skukuza. Chances are, I would have chosen convenience over comfort to go with SAA, with greedy Delta the loser.

Rome’s Hotel Canada is an elegant joy

Rome’s 19th century Hotel Canada exudes my kind of quiet, understated elegance, comfort, and tranquility. More like a boutique property, it has just 72 rooms, all beautifully appointed and maintained with period furnishings. The hotel occupies part of an 1870 palazzo in Rome’s historic district. The place has the solid feeling of permanence and grace that I associate with the finest old English hotels.

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The discreet front entrance of Rome’s Hotel Canada respects the posh residential neighborhood.

These pictures show off my room, the view from my terrace, and the public areas on the ground floor, all confirming that the Hotel Canada in Rome ain’t a Marriott in Missoula!

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Even the front desk at Hotel Canada is elegant.
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The wonderful vintage birdcage elevator at Hotel Canada.

Hotel Canada is a Best Western affiliate, but it’s Roman to the core. I love it for its beauty, comfort, and lack of pretension. Also because it is unique, not a chain hotel, despite being affiliated with one.

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My room at Rome;’s Hotel Canada
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My room and the terrace at Hotel Canada.
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Hotel Canada interior rooms look down from the terraces onto expensive Roman flats.

The dining room has a huge breakfast spread with every imaginable morning food item. It was included in my rate, as well as complimentary afternoon drinks and snacks in the equally elegant bar, all of which I enjoyed reaching on the ground floor via the marvelous, ancient birdcage elevator.

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The elegant bathroom in my Hotel Canada room.
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The hand-painted ceiling in my beautifully appointed and well-kept room.

I never tired of the old birdcage elevator, a prism through which I flash on an earlier time in my life. In 1975-76, when I lived in Munich and worked all over the Continent, my company maintained a flat in Brussels in an ancient building with a similar birdcage elevator. I was very happy in that job (Manager of European Operations), a magic period, and I was regularly in temporary residence in that beautiful old Brussels apartment building. I used it as a base for our busy student charter flight operation in and out of Brussels.

Somehow I associated the Hotel Canada’s slow but reliable birdcage lift with the potpourri of memories I have of that place and era: bitter cold early mornings at the gritty Brussels train station open air bars watching Belgium businessmen with leathery faces in heavy wool topcoats chain-smoking harsh Gauloises cigarettes while gulping down multiple shots of cheap brandy on their way to work, the endless fields of brilliant red poppies blooming along the tracks of the train to the Brussels airport, the breathtaking beauty of the Grand-Place de Bruxelles with its medieval guild halls and the exquisite escargot served in the grand plaza’s outdoor cafes.

And many more fond memories. All reminding me why I like to travel in the first place.

But I digress. Why is a Roman hotel called “Canada,” for goodness sake? For a fascinating answer, see here.

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The breakfast buffet area at Hotel Canada.  The huge breakfast was included in my room rate.
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Just part of the gorgeous lobby and public areas, including a bar.

Getting there is easy from Roma Termini (main train station). I took a cab to the hotel for €6. I had planned to walk, as the hotel is easily doable on foot from the station, but I had a nasty fall on my right knee in a dark passageway a couple of days earlier at the Villa il Poggiale in San Casciano (near Florence), so I was temporarily limping.

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4th floor map showing the room layouts.

No one on either a business or a leisure trip will be disappointed in this hotel. What a bargain at $120/night including a huge breakfast buffet!

I miss Rome’s marvelous Hotel Canada. I don’t often say that about a hotel.

Unique Peruvian hotels

On a recent trip to Peru with our daughter over Spring Break, our arrangements were bundled in order to assure optimal entrance times and a guide at Machu Picchu.  My job was limited to making air reservations to Lima and return, which I wrote about last week.

The bundling included hotel reservations in Lima, Cusco, and Aguas Calientes (at the base of Machu Picchu). I had no oversight, or even visibility, until we walked into each property. I had to forget the consistency of a Sheraton; every Peruvian hotel had its own character. Here are my real-time notes:

TAMBO PERU 2 HOTEL, LIMA

Our Lima Airport airport-to-hotel transfer rep met us just outside immigration as planned. Forty-five minutes after leaving the airport, we arrived at our hotel in Lima’s tony Miraflores neighborhood near the Pacific Ocean. The drive was tortuous, but fascinating, through the thriving beat of late Friday night traffic.

I guess the fellow who made the hotel arrangements for us in Lima inadvertently set my expectations at a high level. Because our hotel, the Tambo Peru 2 (of three in Lima), was a letdown. I’m pretty sure a photo of this place appears in the dictionary under the entry “charmless”. Nothing about the physical property is endearing, though the staff is friendly and helpful.

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That said, the Tambo Peru 2 is perfectly safe, clean, and serviceable. It just isn’t the level of hotel that I thought we paid for.

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View from our sole room window at the Tambo

The following morning, after a forgettable breakfast at the hotel (included), we had a taxi drop us in downtown (old town) Lima at the Plaza San Martin. The elegant old Gran Hotel Bolivar was our first stop.

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Main lobby at the Gran Hotel Bolivar

Not the fine hotel it once was, but still a beautiful building in the grand early 20th century colonial style. Its faded glory certainly eclipsed that of the Tambo 2 Hotel. .

Back at our hotel later that day, we walked around the Miraflores streets nearby. I was surprised to spot the Mercure Hotel Lima just around the corner.  After our fine experience at the Mercure in Vienna  in January, I was wishing we had been booked there. The Tambo was clean and safe, but nothing extra whatsoever.

TERRA ANDINA HOTE, CUSCO

The Terra Andina is a grand old building, formerly a large private residence, now converted to a hotel. It’s conveniently located close to Plaza San Pedro, the big local market. Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de Armas (the main square) are with reasonable walking distance.

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The hotel is fine, but with the sort of idiosyncrasies that tend to bedevil non-chain properties. Like ’em or hate “em, the Hiltons and Marriotts of the world have standardized the things that ensure our comfort. Our impressive modern-looking shower in the Terra Andina, for instance, dribbled only a pathetic stream of tepid water and never got hot. The mattresses were uncomfortable thick foam that got terribly hot in the night, as did the too-thick foam pillows. The bedside lights were inadequate for reading. The room safe wasn’t bolted down and could have easily been carted away by a thief.

Also, the buffet breakfast didn’t impress me. My wife and daughter found it perfectly acceptable, however, so what do I know?

I have long ago come to take such basic creature comforts for granted in hotels. Even Days Inn does a better job in delivering those basics than the Terra Andina. But, of course, the Andina makes up in unique charm what it lacks in the details.

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Terra Andina covered courtyard

HANAQPACHA INN HOTEL, AGUAS CALIENTES

We enjoyed a super deluxe hotel in Aguas Calientes…well, okay, a slight exaggeration. Maybe even an outright lie.

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View from our window at the Hanaqpacha Inn Hotel

At least we have a view now. The hotel initially assigned us a room in the back of the building with no windows at all and only a single dim bulb working. The only other room light was broken. It resembled a forgotten dank storeroom more than a hotel bedroom. I politely but firmly explained our unwillingness to accept that accommodation, resulting in being switched to one of their best rooms on the front. This one has stunning views , such as of the hotplate on the table in the one-room flat across the alley, and at no extra cost!

 

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That is the Hanaqpacha Inn Hotel entrance on the right just beyond the smiling man

Deluxe? Not. All kidding aside, though, this is exactly the kind of modest, but clean and safe hotel that my wife and I would have researched and selected for ourselves. The reason I’m grousing is that for this trip, to make it special for our daughter, we opted to let a tour operator arrange everything, and, just like my disappointment in the Lima hotel, we were led to believe this property was much better than it is. It’s a matter of setting expectations.

I looked up the property. The Hanaqpacha Inn Hotel (perhaps management felt two descriptors would attract double the custom), for several dates, including this week (Catholic Holy Week, which is high season). Rooms for two with breakfast were consistently $39/night, for three (2 adults and 1 child), $49 nightly including breakfast. I’m pretty sure a tour operator would get a discount below those public rates.

The Hanqpacha is fine and dandy at those price levels. In addition to breakfast of some sort, the wifi works well, and the amazing shower (lots of hot water and torrential water pressure) almost redeems the dismal location. The staff is super-nice, too, and, to repeat two important base elements of any hotel, it is safe and clean. I just feel we aren’t getting what we paid the tour operator for.

BACK AT TERRA ANDINA, CUSCO

Not sure what we did to deserve this nice suite (208) at the Terra Andina hotel here in Cusco, but it sure was a great surprise to be already checked into it last night when arrived exhausted from the day of climbing at Machu Picchu and then the train and van rides.

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Photos don’t do the 2-room suite and luxury bathroom (with huge tub and separate glass shower) justice. Still has the same uncomfortable foam mattresses, but the hot water works well in this room, and with plenty of pressure.

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Maybe it was the nice tip I left the staff here before we departed for Aguas Calientes. I think I reported how great the hotel staff is here, nice enough to overcome my nits and make me want to return. So I rewarded them.

IN SUM

All three hotels in Peru were fine because they were safe and clean.  As I said about the property in Aguas Calientes, all three were exactly what my wife and I might have selected for ourselves, which is how we ordinarily plan our trips (that is, we arrange most everything). We just didn’t get what we paid for, a different issue.  The hotels were fine for holiday travel, but probably not for most business travelers. Each property was a total surprise, a nice contrast from the predictable monotony of major chain hotels,