The (travel) times they are a-changin’

April 27, 2021

The post-pandemic travel recovery period has begun.  In fits and starts, anyway.  Or so it seems to me based on my observations and recent personal experiences scheduling travel.  With apologies to Bob Dylan, the times they are changin’ and my careful travel plans along with them.

Delta reshuffles its schedule, and then reshuffles it again, with multiple negative effects

Like many travelers, I accumulated a number of e-credits when Covid-19 hit and eviscerated my trips already in place for 2020.  For my canceled Delta itineraries, the airline originally promised—back when no one could see the end of the big sick—that the e-credits would be good through the end of 2022, which was a relief to me. 

But when I began to rebook travel this year using those credits to offset the 2021 fares, I discovered that new tickets to which the e-credits were applied had to be used by 12 months from the issue date.  The original “good through 12-31-22” period was gone if I had to change the new ticket for some reason. 

And that’s a problem because I did have to change three of the tickets—one twice—because Delta keeps redoing its schedules trying to predict market demand.  I had flights bought and paid for partially with e-credits to Minneapolis in May, to Billings in June, and to Fargo in August that had to be totally recreated with different itineraries on account of Delta’s moving schedules.

Frustratingly, I found that it was not possible to make the changes myself online for the impacted trips.  Delta forces travelers to call, and wait times are routinely 4+ hours (so proclaims the recorded announcement).  My status as a Platinum Elite member kicks my calls to a Delta system that gives me the option to have a rez agent call me back within one to four hours.  Rather than wait on hold for four hours, of course I accept that choice, but sometimes the Delta system malfunctions, forcing me to call again.  At which time it recognizes that it hasn’t called me and responds with a message that I’ll be called soon and hangs up.

Maddening.  But eventually—so far—the Delta system has returned my calls, which then involved a long session with a reservation agent to fix my travel plans to approximately what I wanted. 

Adding to the complexity, in two cases I used Delta’s Regional Upgrade Certificates, a Delta Platinum benefit that I’d selected for 2021. They are only good for first class upgrades when the Delta system says so, which is usually when there are lots of unsold first class seats.  Those certificates are devilishly hard to redeem, which made it difficult for the rez agents working on two of my changed trips to find replacement flights that qualified.  No good using such a certificate for, say, RDU to Atlanta—a one hour flight—when the Atlanta to Salt Lake City leg is in coach with only center seats remaining.  That’s a big waste of the certificate, and who wants to sit in row 33 in a center seat on a four hour flight?

Thus, another complication when Delta keeps changing its schedule—and I doubt the changes are over yet for the summer and the fall.  Yet the clock keeps ticking on my “one year from date of issue” deadline for using the ticket value in which is subsumed the original “good through the end of 2022” e-credits.  Delta’s shell game may get my money after all.

This is no fun, a complete waste of my time when schedules are repeatedly altered for the airline’s convenience.  A prime example that the times they are a-changin’.

Rental car lunacy

The pandemic hit rental car companies hard, just it did other travel industry sectors, resulting in fleet decimation and a failure to replenish cars.  Now, finding a rental car is a struggle, and prices are in the stratosphere if cars are available at all.  I’m paying over $100 a day for a vehicle at MSP to drive to our son’s college commencement in May and more than that in Fargo for a weekend family wedding in August.

I almost didn’t find a car available at all in Billings in late June and early July; even the few economy cars shown were over $200 per day.  And I need a vehicle for two weeks.  Jeez, for $2800 I could nearly buy a clunker. 

Searching the Costco Travel portal—often the cheapest prices for rental cars, I’ve found—yielded no better prices at BIL for the period, nor did the Capital One travel portal or the Amex travel portal.  Certainly nothing when making direct inquiries with Hertz, Avis, Budget, and Alamo, despite trying multiple discount codes. Even with a hefty credit from my Amex Platinum Card account applied, I was looking at $1098 for 14 days, but since that was the cheapest I found, I groaned and booked it. I thought to myself that I’ll never grumble again about high rental car prices after the summer of 2021.

But then Delta changed my flights into Billings (see above) and gave me no option except to go two days earlier than planned.  When I subsequently tried to change my Amex-reserved rental car to pick up 48 hours earlier, it said no cars were available at any price.  Gee, thanks, Delta.

Complaining to someone who grew up in Billings about this situation led to the news that a used car dealer in Billings sometimes rents cars.  I called the company and felt fortunate to reserve a car for $44/day all-in for the two weeks.  Still not ideal, as I arrive on a Sunday when the dealership is closed, so I have to overnight in Billings and pick it up Monday morning.  Also, the car I get is unstipulated.  I just asked it not be a compact or economy.  But, hey, I got a car at a reasonable rate, so I’m happy. Never had to do that before.  Yep, the times they are a-changin’.

Getting to Newark from RDU isn’t cheap

UA’s fares from RDU to EWR are not competitive with other carriers serving the route, an incidental finding when booking several upcoming trips to Johannesburg on United’s new nonstop from Newark.  Incidental because I originally booked on United from RDU through to JNB in premium economy on a great intro fare.  Then I learned that UA was offering a deal in business class in their newest Polaris cabin configuration on the 787 to be used EWR/JNB. The biz fare is good only from Newark, however, not from Raleigh.  I bit on the deal and thus needed to connect RDU/EWR using separate tickets. 

That’s when I realized that United charges a lot more than Delta or American to fly me to Newark.  First class, for example, for the date and arrival time I needed to connect to the Johannesburg flight, is around $650 on UA and about $200 less on DL and AA.  Main cabin economy fares are similarly disparate.  $650 is a lot of money for just a one hour flight.

I booked Delta, leaving myself plenty of time to walk between EWR terminals.  I even found a relatively cheap mileage award in first and used some of my many Delta frequent flyer miles to pay for the ticket. 

Some weeks later, naturally, Delta notified me of another schedule change (see first above) which would have made me miss my UA flight to Jo’burg. With no reasonable alternative schedules to reach Newark that didn’t require waiting 8-10 hours for my connection, I redeposited the mileage into my SkyMiles account and again checked United and American schedules and fares. 

Having learned my lesson that airline schedules are particularly mercurial this year, I booked UA because I could link the domestic ticket to the international one with United in both directions.  However, I paid a premium for the United ticket.  In normal times—where by “normal” I mean pre-2020—I would have taken my chances with Delta or American on cheaper flights.  But the times they are a-changin’.

American Express Platinum DEPARTURES magazine is departing

At least that’s my surmise after receiving this gayly-printed double-sided poster with the latest DEPARTURES magazine. Note it says “We’re moving beyond the printed page so we can share more unexpected and candid perspectives with you more often” which is marketing drivel for “We saw a way to save money after we couldn’t sell enough ad space to keep printing and mailing this expensive beast of a magazine.”

Personally, I never liked the rag and used it as a door stopper, so I won’t miss it.  However, I disdain the hypocrisy of American Express language and resent the company insulting my intelligence.  Why can’t they just admit that no one reads it and that the advertising base won’t cover printing costs any longer?  I suspect the demise of the printed version is another casualty of the times as hard copy publications go the way of the dodo, a decision accelerated by the pandemic.   

The poster’s front side shows nearly forty years of DEPARTURES typefaces, once again hammering home that the times they are a-changin’.

“It’s always something!”

April 14, 2021

That was the catchphrase of Roseanne Roseannadanna, the SNL Weekend Update character Gilda Radner made famous in the 1970s: “It’s always something!”  Then she would go on to say, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”  Uproarious and nutty, yes, but this week I kept thinking how right she was as I struggled to coordinate the many interrelated moving parts of a trip I’m planning for five people (including me) to South Africa’s Kruger National Park next February and March.  Early last year I touched on the complexities in a post called “Travel planning is never done,” but I barely scratched the surface.  Here’s my checklist of items to get right for this trip so far:

  1. Choosing how many nights to stay in the Kruger.  Usually I plan for 12 nights because that puts the trip at about 15 days in total, counting travel, and it’s hard to be away longer than that.
  2. Choosing the right time of year to go to the Kruger is critically important.  I avoid major South African holiday periods like Christmas and Easter, and I always consult the SA school calendar, too, to dodge long breaks when families like to flock with their kids to the Kruger National Park.
  3. Although I can do it myself online, I usually book accommodations in the Kruger through an independent service.  They get a commission from South African National Parks (SANP), so using them is free to me, and the service has access to Kruger reservations 11 months in advance, whereas if I do it myself, I can only book 10 months out.  To get the optimal “perimeter” and “riverside” bungalows near the fences with the best views, I have to book 11 months in advance.
  4. However, which of the 12 Kruger “restcamps” I reserve, the type of accommodation in each camp (Bungalow? Guest house? Family cottage? Luxury safari tent?), and the location of the accommodation within each camp (as I said above, perimeter and riverside are best) are decisions entirely up to me and require a good deal of knowledge to optimize game-viewing and sightseeing opportunities.  Therefore, I must carefully plan the day-by-day itinerary for the 12 nights (or whatever number of nights I’ve decided upon) based on my 30 years of experience visiting the Kruger. The booking service is indifferent to my choices, but they do know how to get the very top accommodation I ask for, which is another reason I use them instead of doing it myself.
  5. Until the pandemic abates, I’ve got to plan where and when to get a Covid test before we leave so that results are not more than 72 hours old by the time of my first flight.
  6. Balancing airfare options Raleigh to Johannesburg versus schedule options Raleigh to Johannesburg means prowling airline websites 330 days in advance (usually, the max time fares and schedules are loaded) to look for bargains and reasonable times en route.
  7. If the flight I ultimately select is scheduled to arrive Johannesburg from mid-morning on, then I have to choose a hotel for one night near the airport because there are no local flights between Johannesburg and Skukuza Airport (SZK) in the Kruger that leave after noon.
  8. Oops! If I’ve chosen a flight that arrives JNB airport later than mid-morning, which necessitates having to stay a night in Jo’burg, then I have to readjust my departure date backward by a day and start the planning over.  Like Roseanne Roseannadanna says, “It’s always something!”
  9. Oops! Moving my departure date might change the fare, especially if it’s on a busy U.S. travel day to connect, like a Sunday, Monday, Thursday, or Friday.  Heavy business travel domestically can diminish favorable international fare classes for my connecting flight to Johannesburg.  “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
  10. Gotta watch the American holiday periods, too, in order to get the best fares.  If I have inadvertently backed up to a busy period, then I have rebalance everything again, including the Kruger booking dates.  “It’s always something!”
  11. If I chose a hotel near the Johannesburg airport, then I have to build in courtesy bus travel time to my calculations for the following morning when I need to get back to JNB airport for the internal flight to Skukuza.  If I stay in one of the two airport hotels, then I can simply check out and walk to the terminal through the carpark complex without having to wait for a shuttle bus.  But sometimes the airport hotels are too expensive, so I have to compare prices before making a decision, especially when other folks traveling with me might be (and usually are) more price sensitive than I am.
  12. Oh yeah, I must buy separate tickets on SA Airlink (flyairlink.com), too. Airlink is the private air carrier that has a monopoly on flying to the Kruger (SZK airport).  Airlink doesn’t partner with U.S. carriers, so I can’t buy a through ticket from Raleigh to Johannesburg to Skukuza.  This ticket has to be bought by itself and becomes a critical success factor for the entire Kruger trip.  SA Airlink only schedules two 50-seat ERJs between Jo’burg and Skukuza each day, a factor that can complicate the entire planning process if both flights are fully booked.  In which case, oops, I have restart the entire planning process of international air and Kruger accommodation booking around when Airlink flights have space.  I can see Roseanne Roseannadanna shaking her huge, hideous hairdo and screeching, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
  13. SANP requires that visitors to any national park, including the Kruger, either pay what’s called a “daily conservation fee” or purchase an annual “Wild Card” to cover the conservation fee.  Depending on how many nights I am staying in the Kruger, the Wild Card is usually the most cost-effective option, but if my traveling companions opt only for 5-8 days in the park, then sometimes it’s cheaper to pay the daily fee.  I have to consider the circumstances of each person traveling with me to calculate which means of paying the fee to recommend to them—another time-consuming task.  If a Wild Card, I must sign in with lots of detailed information (DOB, passport, address, etc.) to purchase the card and get a PDF of proof to show in the park.
  14. Avis and Budget have a monopoly on rental cars at little Skukuza Airport, and renting a vehicle is another critical success factor since the Kruger is a DIY safari (visitors drive themselves entirely, one reason the Kruger is a bargain compared to nearby uber-expensive private game lodges that provide safari vehicles and guides).  Part of my planning process includes comparing prices between Budget and Avis at SZK airport, which is absurd since both firms operate from the same tiny kiosk at the same tiny airport.  Experience has shown, though, that price differences for the very same vehicle can sometimes occur.  And there’s another “oops” here if for some reason no cars are available for the days I need, which again forces me to start all over again.  “It’s always something!”
  15. A small but important detail is remembering to renew my International Driver’s License at AAA before I leave the States and advising all traveling with me to do the same.  It’s just $20, but without it, Budget and Avis in South Africa won’t rent to me or my companions.
  16. I’m pretty obsessive about checking that all passports don’t expire for at least six months after return travel date, too, because that can ruin a trip.  Airlines will turn away customers holding passports that expire less than six months after the return.
  17. I always check my WHO vaccination record (the little yellow booklet) to ensure everything is up to date, and now I include my CDC Covid-19 vaccination card.  I remind others to do the same.
  18. Malaria meds are a good idea when visiting the Kruger, and I call my physician for a prescription well before leaving.
  19. Where and how to get a Covid test at or near Skukuza on the way home is a new wrinkle, and also complicates things.  I recently phoned the doctors’ office at Skukuza—the only Kruger camp that has a doctors’ office—to see if they are doing tests.  Yes, they assured me, but the medical staff has contracted with an outside lab which only picks up the test swabs Monday-Friday.  Test results are sent by email and text “usually within 24 hours,” they advised.  The Monday-Friday testing limits therefore imposes a new factor: that I book Kruger accommodation to be at Skukuza camp the last two days of the trip, and those two days must be on week days to ensure we can get tested and get the results back as required by the CDC before boarding our flights home.  Oops!  That means juggling the entire Kruger trip to ensure we are at Skukuza on the last two days, which must be week days.  Again, I may have to go back and start the entire process again around this new critical success factor.  I hear Roseanne Roseannadanna laughing, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
  20. Double-checking the South Africa visa requirements is another routine precaution.  Just to be sure, I research this at the US State Department site for foreign travel as well as at the South African sites.
  21. I’ve learned the hard way to take only new, crisp U.S. currency to exchange for South African Rand on landing.  Having local cash is essential for tips and sometimes for buying gas, groceries, and so on in the Kruger, as the Wi-Fi connections to credit card machines in the Kruger are wonky and fail intermittently.  Without Rand, I might go hungry for a night, and I can’t get cash unless my American bills are brand new and clean with no wrinkles or markings.
  22. Plug adapters and cell phone chargers are essential everywhere, the Kruger being no exception.
  23. I always advise my fellow travelers to buy an international cell phone data plan good for South Africa before leaving to avoid really, REALLY expensive local rates. 
  24. Sunscreen, baseball-style hats with brims, long-sleeve shirts and pants, and bug spray are also a good idea for me, as I burn easily, and the worlds’ bugs seem to like me.
  25. I always bring along good noise-cancelling headphones for those looooong flights (16 hours), too, along with extra batteries.

And that’s just the start.  Roseanne Roseannadanna would have had a field day mocking the variables and complexities!

For example, United Airlines has been offering low-low introductory fares in Premium Economy from RDU to get folks to book the airline’s first-ever nonstop to Africa (EWR/JNB).  UA has also been offering a bargain basement business class fare to Johannesburg, but only from Newark, not from Raleigh.  If I or my traveling buddies choose to fly in biz class, that requires booking a third air itinerary RDU/EWR to connect to UA.  This is doable, but complicates travel planning for this trip even further.

For the trip next February and March, five of us are traveling together, two singles (me and another fellow) and a family of three.  It was hard getting the Kruger camp accommodations right due to one, one, and three traveling together.  Some of the most desirable bungalows have only two beds, necessitating a fourth bungalow for those camps, but the booking service, despite my clear instructions, assumed we would want to save money and put two in a bungalow sharing (1, 2, and 2) without discriminating who might or might not want to bunk with whom.  I twice had to correct the bookings, spelling out exactly who would occupy which bungalows and specifying four bungalow bookings, not three, in two camps for certain nights. 

All of which confirms: “It’s always something!  If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”  Despite the unending challenges, it sure is fun to plan.

Three terrific Tennessee hotels

April 6, 2021

On a recent college visit road trip to Sewanee (University of the South) in Tennessee where our daughter may go to school next year, we stayed in two Best Westerns and a big Hilton.  We also visited a legendary ancient hotel in Nashville to take in the atmosphere.  Our first Best Western was a dud, its shortfalls I illuminated last week, but the other three properties—each perfectly-suited for serving its unique niche—left us wanting to return.

A BETTER BEST WESTERN

After our disappointing stay at the dreary and absurdly-named BW “Royal” Inn in Chattanooga, I was apprehensive about the following two nights at another Best Western, this one in little Winchester, Tennessee. My concerns disappeared after arrival.  Check-in was polished, friendly, and swift at a real front desk (no bulletproof glass). I noticed right away that the property was clean, well-kept, modern and even boasted 6 EV charging stations (two per stanchion).

The room was spotless and comfortable, as well as quiet. The following morning heavy frost on a chilly morning (34° F.) blanketed our windshield and hotel roof.

A surprisingly good breakfast spread capped our upgrade to a large room with kitchenette (full stove and fridge) and a great shower (water pressure I only dream of at home). Heck, without my glasses, the modest place was almost like a one-story Waldorf!

And for train lovers like me, you can hear CSX freight trains blowing all night for a crossing in nearby Dechard on the old Louisville & Nashville rail line between Nashville and Atlanta.

I fell in love with that unassuming Best Western, so much superior to the dump in Chattanooga.  A friend reminded me that the BW chain’s U.S. properties tend to wide quality variation due to a great deal of management discretion by individual owners and insufficient brand oversight.

The clean and affordable Winchester hotel caters to the construction trade, with big trucks galore down the parking lot Monday to Friday.  At the end of the work day, the guys and gals lit up charcoal grills on the far side of the parking area adjacent to a muddy field and cooked their steaks while enjoying cans of beer from beat-up old coolers and smoking cigarettes.  I enjoyed taking in that tableau of pure Americana.

A HUGE & IMPECCABLE HILTON

Still on our college visit trip, we stopped one night in Nashville. Our beds were at the giant Hilton Nashville Airport. It was an extremely comfortable, operating-room-clean, modern property, with a fine staff, even if sitting soullessly adjacent to thoroughfares, as the second picture below attests.

Everywhere at this big property—almost 400 rooms—the staff at all levels were smiling and spontaneously helpful.  I interacted with managers, front desk clerks, housekeepers, and wait staff in both the bar and the restaurant and experienced friendly and professional attitudes all round.  What a great difference the human touch can make, especially in such a big hotel as that one.

Our room (1303) was extraordinarily quiet and conducive to rest.  Bed comfort was superb, and we slept well.  The next morning’s breakfast pancakes with bacon and maple syrup were as delicious as my hard-to-beat standard, the perfect pancakes served at the Hay-Adams Hotel on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC. Although, I admit, the view of the White House from the Hay-Adams restaurant beats the BNA Airport Hilton’s of the interstate (a small nit).

The Hilton’s size and meeting rooms make it a natural meeting and conference property, and its close proximity to the Nashville Airport certainly attracts steady business as well (in normal times, of course, when we can travel freely, hopefully soon returning).  Based on my observations, I’m sure it has a reputation for efficiency and cleanliness, too.

THE UNMATCHED HERMITAGE HOTEL

It’s unfair to contrast the BNA Airport Hilton and the Best Western in rural Winchester, each well-suited to satisfy specific hostelry niches, with the soulful, tranquil, and historic Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville near the Tennessee State Capitol.  We didn’t spend a night there, but did enjoy the graceful mood of the old palace in the lobby bar.  There I enjoyed house-made deviled eggs topped with chef’s recipe Tennessee chow-chow relish, complemented perfectly with a glass of heavenly Justin cabernet.

The Hermitage boasts one of the deepest bourbon lists anywhere. Note the one and two ounce prices on the single page I photographed of the bourbon and Tennessee whiskey menu.  And that’s just one page. The Hermitage keeps an entire menu book of such local bourbon, many pages more like the one shown.  Not a bourbon drinker, I chose not to partake of those rare distilled spirits, though I wondered whether the 1993 Buffalo Trace would knock my socks off or just dent my Amex card.

The elegant Hermitage ambiance was the highlight of a very pleasant afternoon we spent walking around downtown Nashville. Like the Hilton and Best Western, I recognize the unique lodging niche the Hermitage fulfills.  It’s a one-of-a-kind Nashville luxury property steeped in history and holding its own in the 21st century. 

The Best Western, Hilton, and Hermitage, each so distinctly different from one another, impressed me as places I’d happily rest my head and relax. Next time I have a reason to be in Nashville, I hope to splurge on the Hermitage for least a night or two.  Truth be told, though, I liked all three hotels.

Not the best Best Western

April 1, 2021

First night out on a recent college visit road trip to Sewanee (University of the South) where our daughter may go to school next year, we stayed in Chattanooga. We chose the Best Western Royal Inn because it was dog-friendly and close to Rock City on Lookout Mountain, a dramatic overlook of Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee which my wife and daughter wanted to see.  Despite the regal appellation, however, the property seemed anything but “royal.”

Yeah, it’s called the Best Western ROYAL Inn, but my doubts blossomed while waiting to register inside the claustrophobic, phone booth-sized “front desk” area, as this wide angle photo memorialized:

Royal, my butt, I thought, as I viewed the formal attire hanging on the slouching frame of the haggard Alabama smoker checking in ahead of me.  Nothing royal about it, and situated in what looked like a high crime area next to a Wal-Mart literally on the wrong side of the tracks (CSX trains run day and night nearby). Lots of empty Jack Daniels and cheaper liquor bottles strewn along the connecting muddy driveway to the Wal-Mart. Gutters smell like a Marseille pissoir.

Check-in in broad daylight was behind a security window with bulletproof glass. The old lady on duty claimed it was due to the pandemic.

“You installed this inner city, bank-style security screen just in response to Covid?” I asked, raising my eyebrows (the only facial expression visible with my mask on).

“Well, you know,” she said resignedly, and shrugged.

I didn’t know, actually, but something insincere about the woman’s overly-pleasant demeanor stopped me from badgering her about it. I could tell it would do no good. I figured she was used to dealing with all kinds and probably had an emergency call button just under the counter to summon the police for whiners like me. Only AFTER she had charged my Amex card, naturally.

Still, it stuck in my craw that room and tax came to $147.12 + $20 pet fee (we brought our dog because our dog-sitter was unavailable).  So I couldn’t help asking her what justified that premium price for such a low-class place in a rundown neighborhood.

“SPRING BREAK!” came her quick reply with a toothy grin (the old lady was maskless behind the thick glass).

“Yeah,” she went on, “That no-name place across the street is charging $308 a night this weekend, AND THEY ARE NO BETTER THAN WE ARE!  Heck, YOU got a discount!” 

(I provided my AAA number for the unquantified discount.)

No better than we are?? Quite the accolade, I thought.

And Spring Break? I’m pretty sure Chattanooga doesn’t have a sunny beach on the ocean, though maybe the Tennessee riverfront attracts some.

But I decided not to push my luck further. I just smiled and gave her my credit card through the security slot at the bottom of the bulletproof glass.

Pet-friendly rooms, it turns out, have no carpet. The shiny fake hardwood floor made our room even more sterile than the threadbare dive it already was.

Oddly, the room wasn’t supplied with hand towels, either.

But our dog liked it, and, hey, it was ROYAL!

United eats Delta’s lunch on price to Johannesburg

March 23, 2021

As I mused last week over fancy wining and dining aboard U.S. airline flights overseas in the heyday of premium service—surely the maximum service one could dream of while hurtling through the stratosphere at Mach 0.85, my trip down luxury flying’s memory lane reminded me of the minimum I’ve come to long for on a plane: a modicum of comfort without stress.  For me these days, premium economy fits the bill.  With inconsequential differences in PE cabin comfort and space between United and Delta, it was a no-brainer to recently book UA when DL’s fare was 50% higher.

Sure, I enjoyed classy comestibles and libation served in the front cabins of North American airline flights plying international routes in the era from the 80s to the early 2000s.  I feel real lucky to have been there/done that. Pawing through my remaining menu memorabilia, I found more exquisite offerings of wine and food on foreign airlines, including Sabena, Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, British Air, Swissair, Air New Zealand, QANTAS, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Thai Air, Malaysia Air, Japan Air, Singapore Air, Varig, and South African Airways.

That was then.  Today, international premium economy seats and service are adequate for my needs. 

Of course I opt for international business class whenever I can get into it, either for money or miles or loyalty or just a lucky upgrade.  Business class is not as deluxe as the sharp end services of yore, but the privacy, service, and sleeper seats are superb.

Nonetheless, premium economy is my long-haul flying mainstay.  PE is comfortable and private enough, even if the service can be a tad like cattle class (Air New Zealand, Delta).  Or sometimes exactly like economy (United).  Although premium economy service can also tilt in the direction of business class (Cathay Pacific, Singapore). 

I don’t care that much about those service nuances as long as my premium economy seat is a bit wider than coach, has more pitch (legroom), reclines enough that I can doze, and is in its own cabin right behind business for an easy exit at the arrival gate. All those elements are true of every premium economy I’ve tried so far. 

It’s not that I ignore other aspects.  Naturally, I value safety because, well, who doesn’t want to arrive in one piece?  I think it’s reasonable to expect not to be killed or maimed when stepping inside a jet-propelled aluminum/carbon-fiber tube to go someplace. 

Schedule reliability and convenience, network reach and partnerships, competitive fares, and helpful customer service are also factors to be considered.  After those basics, most PE offerings are good when I fly abroad.

No airline has won more of my PE business for price and comfort over the past few years than Delta.  So when I recently looked for premium economy fares from Raleigh to Johannesburg for two upcoming trips—my first international journeys since the pandemic lockdown began—I was surprised to find that Delta’s ticket cost was $800 more than United’s—making Delta 50% more expensive.

Which made me ask myself, Is Delta’s PE, which I’ve come to like, worth such a big price difference?  After all, most premium economy seat size, pitch, and placement vary only slightly. 

To find out for sure, I checked dimensions on seatguru.com for the UA 787 configuration to be used on United’s new nonstop EWR/JNB and compared to the PE stats on Delta’s new A350 planes being introduced to replace 777s on its longstanding nonstop ATL/JNB. 

On those two aircraft, UA’s PE, which it calls Premium Plus, boasts seat width of 19” and pitch of 38” in a 2-3-2 configuration (7 across versus 9 across in coach), while Delta’s PE, named Premium Select, offers 18.5” seat width and 38” pitch in a 2-4-2 configuration (8 across versus 9 across in coach).  Both DL and UA premium economy seats are in their own cabins sandwiched between business and economy.  (Every other airline’s PE can be seen at seatguru.com as well, such as Cathay’s and Singapore’s 19.5” width and 38” pitch.) 

Thus, I confirmed that seat comfort on both UA and DL are about the same.  What about service? 

On the two flights to Johannesburg (United and Delta), I know from experience that Delta’s PE service is skimpy, but consistent, whereas United’s PE service in other markets is reputed to be nearly nonexistent.  UA flight attendants working the middle cabin (PE) can be hard to find, so say some reviews.  So not a lot of difference between carriers.

Schedules?  About the same.  Both United and Delta nonstop arrive Johannesburg late afternoon, and both Newark and Atlanta have good connecting flights to the over-water plane.

That leaves only price as a differentiator.  United is pushing its new nonstop entry from Newark—presumably filling the USA/Johannesburg nonstop niche left when South African Airways went belly up—pegging the RDU/EWR/JNB roundtrip fare in premium economy a bargain at just over $1600.  Delta, however, has not competed, with its RDU/ATL/JNB roundtrip fare in PE holding at a steady $2400+. 

The $800 difference made it an easy choice for me to go with United despite its reputed lousy service because United and Delta PE offerings are neck and neck in seat comfort.

Hence, United, an airline I’ve avoided like the plague since the early 90s for its protracted abysmal service, gets my business on two upcoming trips over Delta solely on the fare chasm, despite my peon status as a “general” (non-elite) member of the United MileagePlus program versus my lofty elite status as a Delta Lifetime Platinum with 5.5 million SkyMiles. 

I do love Delta, and I really, REALLY don’t like United, but, hey, saving sixteen hundred dollars for the two trips is like getting a third one for free.  Even if it’s on crummy old United.

When sumptuous service was standard on U.S. airlines

March 17, 2021

Last week I admired international first class menu cover art from airlines around the world in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, but stopped short of turning the page.  This week I take a look inside the menus at what U.S. airlines were offering up front by way of food and drink in those glory years of overseas long-hauls.  For the moment, I’ll focus just on what our own American carriers presented to their top customers to compete for their trade on flights outside the United States.

Even though I was aboard on all those flights, looking back surprises me.  How quickly I’ve adjusted to less than the best.  I guess that North American airlines have largely succeeded in dumbing down my expectations of fine and elegant wining and dining when I’m fortunate enough to snag a seat in today’s Business Class cabin.  Admitting, that is, that my baseline for comparison is pre-Covid; post-Covid sharp end service is yet to be revealed.

During that period, Delta, Northwest, United, and American vied for premium customer business by offering spectacular food and drink in what was then rightly called “First Class” before Business Class was invented.  Offerings were equal to or better than those of vaunted Singapore Airlines. 

My most astonishing discovery—which I’d totally forgotten—was that Delta was pouring Krug Champagne on its flights across the Pacific.  Krug!  And a vintage Krug, no less, one-upping the nonvintage brut Krug on Singapore.  Not even Concorde served me Krug.  Yet here it is on the wine menu from the airline that grew from spraying cotton fields in the South:

Krug wasn’t the only fine Champagne Delta was doling out in First Class in that era.  Taittinger Comtes de Champagne is a luxury blanc de blancs cuvee (100% Pinot Chardonnay grapes) I enjoyed aboard DL87 Los Angeles to Hong Kong in September, 1994:

In my flying experiences it was exceedingly rare to see the beautiful hand-painted flower bottle of Perrier-Jouet “Belle Epoque” Champagne, which is among my favorites.  I was happy to see it on my Delta flight, which I believe was one of many comfortable rides on Delta’s MD-11s across the Pacific:

Praising the Champagne—my fave adult in-flight beverage—I did not intend to give short shrift to Delta’s dining options on many of those same flights.  At one point the airline featured delightful entrees from Bayona, famed New Orleans chef Susan Spicer’s French Quarter jewel of a restaurant where I’ve feasted many times over the decades.  Bayona is a veritable garden of earthly delights, with many scrumptious creole dish options.  Seeing a Susan Spicer dish on the menu en route to Taipei came across as especially exotic, made even more so by seeing the dual description in Chinese characters. 

Note, too, the Sevruga caviar option on the facing page left.  I enjoyed a second serving!

On a homeward flight from Hong Kong, Delta outdid itself by offering Sevruga caviar and goose liver pate as appetizers, followed by lobster bisque.  Tough choice, so I had all three.  I remember relishing the three appetizers in multiple portions and then forgoing the entrée and dessert for fear my arteries would burst.  Accompanied by either Krug, Taittinger, or Perrier-Jouet.  Take that, SQ!  Food and wine at 35,000 feet doesn’t get much better.

Such spreads weren’t only available trans-Pacific. From Germany, Delta in First Class made sure Sevruga caviar was on even the lunch menu, as shown below (from Munich, I think).

Delta coughed up some serious money to put top-quality Beluga caviar (from the Black Sea) on offer as an appetizer on another flight over the Atlantic, along with lobster medallions and scallops.

Delta wasn’t the only airline offering classic New Orleans fare from famous French Quarter chefs on flights in the Far East.  Northwest bragged about its grilled salmon with “oriental mustard glaze” from the Crescent City’s Windsor Court Hotel.  I had to read it several times as I pondered what seemed an oxymoron of a recipe combining Cajun New Orleans culinary with an East Asian sauce.  But then it clicked:  New Orleans cooks have made mouth-watering, cross-cultural cuisine for centuries—and flavorful sauces are quintessential to both South Louisiana and the Orient.

Northwest was always a classy outfit with a great sensitivity and respect for Asian cultures.  The same First Class menu, given to me on a NW flight from Seoul to Tokyo, featured the Windsor Court description four languages, including English (above), with separate pages (below) in Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.

Some other airlines did the same, as this Canadian Airlines First Class menu from a 1994 flight Bangkok to Hong Kong illustrates.

United over the big Pacific was, like Delta, mindful that it was competing against monster service from Cathay, Japan Airlines, Singapore, and others.  UA tended to put on the dog to win business on those routes, serving Dom Perignon and, in my memory, always keeping my glass topped off with fully chilled Champagne.  At that time United senior FAs twice slipped me an entire bottle of Dom to go in a bag as I left the 747 front cabin, once arriving in Tokyo, and on another occasion in Hong Kong.

In what struck me as a paradox, United also offered Chandon on the same page as Dom, the California version of bubbly by the Dom maker.  Who, I wondered, would choose Chandon over Dom? No contest!

United was thoughtful in presenting caviar correctly as its own course and not an appetizer, and it paired luxury Black Sea Beluga fish eggs with ice-cold vodka in the Russian tradition.  Very nicely done, I always thought, and I remember plenty of Beluga was stocked for those of us who wanted seconds.  Or even thirds.  After all, caviar isn’t fattening.

I remember that American Airlines mostly brought up the rear in the race for international First Class food and drink.  This menu, which I believe came from a European flight, at least shows a caviar offering.  However, AA has crammed everything onto facing pages—a slap in the face to style—and the mention of caviar is cavalier, with no distinction of source (Caspian, Sevruga, Beluga, etc.), as well as being lost among the list of appetizers. 

Heck, even the “warm nuts” comes before caviar.  Not very classy for First Class overseas.  On the other hand, I recall that few fellow passengers opted for black fish eggs, and the flight attendants were more than happy to bring all the leftovers to me for finish off, which prompted me to donate my chateaubriand entrée to the galley for their dining pleasure behind the curtain.  My generosity was rewarded again later with both a hot fudge and a butterscotch sundae.

First class menus as art

March 9, 2021

After five decades of international front cabin flying, I reckon the pinnacle came in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s before real First Class was eclipsed by Business Class on most airlines.  I didn’t get to do it often, but I count myself lucky to have occasionally tasted—both figuratively and literally—what was on offer in global First Class during that era.  I appreciated the superior services on several levels, including the creativity and art—or the lack thereof—appearing on the wine and food menus presented to me on board.

As I wrote last week, those flights created rich experiences in my memory.  Pandemic solitude has given me time to look back and savor those recollections. I’ve poured over the menus initially on the basis of “curb appeal” before cracking the covers.  Arguably, well-conceived menu covers should create expectation and anticipation of delicious things inside.

I guess I wasn’t surprised to find that the three major U.S. carriers—Delta, United, and American—didn’t seem to value menu cover art design.  With one exception: Delta did produce some artsy work briefly, just before it gutted its international First Class cabins in favor of solely Business Class offerings.  Of the big three, United’s menu covers won the most-drab award (so downright ugly that I decided not even to include it). The UA menus were also the flimsiest and smallest, printed on glossy, thin paper and prone to smearing.  Just shy of despicable, the pieces seem like a marketing afterthought. 

Slightly less dreary came American Airlines menus, festooned with its logo in case I forgot on which airline I was flying (though I appreciated the toucan backdrop), like this example from a Miami-Caracas A330, if I recall correctly:

To be fair, AA, like Delta, at one point suddenly showed a flare for art on its menus, though, sadly, it didn’t last:

Delta came in third from the bottom, in my opinion, showing little creativity, but at least prone to a penchant for color and heavier cardstock.  The filigree edge look, though, somehow made me think of the 1960s and 70s, years I recall with gaudy designs in poor taste.

For a brief period, maybe a year or so, Delta upped its menu game with colorful designs that made me want to open and read, like this one:

Back in the day, Northwest had great service in First, too, as this pretty menu exemplifies on my flight between Singapore and Narita:

Canadian Airlines was not to be outdone flying overseas, either, as this highly attractive, Asian-themed menu proclaims from a 1994 flight in First Class on the carrier between Bangkok and Hong Kong:

One of the most elaborate, largest, and heaviest menus came from Varig’s First Class aboard 747s in the early 90s.  Note at the time Varig briefly partnered in a code share with Delta, acknowledged by the discreet Delta logo adjacent to the home airline logo at the bottom right:

Another impressively hefty and classy set of menus came from South African Airways in the 80s and early 90s before their decline, like these beauties:

South African Airways tended to vary its menu look more often than most carriers, as this alternate set of First Class bills of fare prove:

The original Swissair (not the reborn Swiss Air) had a holistic view of how to package their First Class services everywhere in the world they flew.  Their reputation for elegant and refined First Class was well-deserved, as their beautiful menus hinted:

Back then British Airways was a proud—some groused smug—airline that catered to those who sought the best in comfort and sophisticated forward cabin amenities, including wining and dining.  The simple style of these menus implied luxury:

British Airways freshened its menu designs from time to time, but hewed to elegance, like these from BA009 London-Bangkok-Sydney:

Air France from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Beijing in First Class on a then-new 777 presented me with this surprisingly uninspiring menu cover, though what was inside excited my salivary sense.  I expected something with more pizzazz from the French:

Even KLM, known for its pragmatic Dutch everyman approach to minimize distinctions of class, had Royal Class, which was roughly equal to First Class without calling it that, and their menus reflected grace:

Trans-Pacific air routes teemed with great First Class choices.  Air New Zealand, small though it was, was a gracious host on long-haul flights, with beautiful menus like these between Sydney and Los Angeles:

Hardly any carrier on earth could match the stylish flourishes of Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, with up front menus like this 1994 beauty:

But the fabulous South Korean carrier Asiana gave Cathay a run for its money and made me a loyal customer on unforgettable flights with menus like these between L.A. and Seoul:

Of course Singapore Air was a master in marketing its First Class to Asia and no slouch in sharp end service once on board, either, as this wine menu teases:

Malaysia Air had spectacular First Class service in those days aboard its 747s, though I was careful not to book the airline’s flights that stopped in Tokyo.  Those NRT legs catered to Japanese smokers, with Malaysia, I believe I recall, the last carrier to ban on-board cigarette smoking.  This dinner menu is enticing, but Malaysia also boasted one of the great pre-flight lounge fine dining experiences at Kuala Lumpur, even better than Virgin Atlantic’s famed Upper Class lounge meals:

Japan Airlines service and trappings have always impressed me with understated panache and polish, most especially in the front cabin.  The cover photo on this menu alone created a certain calm ambiance for the long flight to Narita:

Emirates and Qatar are the epitome of great airline service even now with primarily Business Class premium services.  Back when every Emirates long-haul had true First Class, the airline killed me with kindness and top-notch meals and wines, even if the menu blatantly bragged on its Dom Perignon Champagne with a crass photo of the bottle.  Still, I never go wrong flying in the front cabins of Emirates or Qatar:

If I am honest with myself, I can’t remember a more whimsical—bordering on inane—subject matter post than this one: airline menu art!  And yet it was great fun to critique the history of overseas flights in First that once, not so long ago, presented super-fine comestible and libation offerings to sharp end customers.  So much glee to write, in fact, that next time I plan to look inside menus and to comment on the imagination and quality of food and drink. 

Flying was on the menu

March 2, 2021

Being stuck at home this past year has provided ample time to sort and declutter piles of travel files collected over fifty-plus years of flying.

Some stuff was just junk and got recycled. But not all was worthless; well, at least, not to me.

I came across a large cache of memorabilia of international flying starting in the 1980s when I could first afford First Class overseas.  For reasons that perplex my wife—who thinks I’m crazy, anyway—I brought home quite a number of wine and food menus from some of those wonderful flights.

Looking back over those testaments to the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, I realize international First Class service reached a zenith that has never since been equaled or eclipsed.  Even in the immediate post-9/11 era, while U.S. airlines drastically retrenched, most overseas carriers continued to provide superior sharp-end service.  The worldwide decline in front cabin service standards, in my opinion, occurred somewhat later as most First Class cabins were replaced by improved versions of Business Class.

Recently, I began cataloging and admiring the menus I’d brought home over that 20+ year period.  I have over 100, as seen in the picture below.  The ones on the table are just the International FIRST CLASS menus, including two British Airways Concorde flights. The lowly business class menus are on the chair seat.

Maybe, I thought, I should blog about some of those experiences.  After all, I remember a lot of those often spectacular meals.  I especially remember the caviars (Beluga, Sevruga, Osetra, Iranian, and Caspian) which EVEN DELTA was serving in the 90s.

I distinctly remember the fine red wines and the Champagnes, vintages like the Dom Perignon 1980 on Concorde in 1989.

And on a bunch of menus, I made notes to myself about the food and drink.  For example, one famous label French white I described as “Horrible! Like drinking ditch water.”

But my wife’s reaction, and that of a professional journalist friend whose opinion I trust, to my saving the menus was the same:  Why?  Meh!

This is where my expectations and levels of anticipation about flying differ from most folks.  To me, the nuanced experiences of GETTING THERE has always been as important as arriving. The menus deeply thrill me with multiple layers of happy remembrances.  And thus I may soon write about some of those flights and the memories they conjure.

Flying was on the menu

Being stuck at home this past year has provided ample time to sort and declutter piles of travel files collected over fifty-plus years of flying.

Some stuff was just junk and got recycled. But not all was worthless; well, at least, not to me.

I came across a large cache of memorabilia of international flying starting in the 1980s when I could first afford First Class overseas.  For reasons that perplex my wife—who thinks I’m crazy, anyway—I brought home quite a number of wine and food menus from some of those wonderful flights.

Looking back over those testaments to flying in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, I realize international First Class service reached a zenith that has never since been equaled or eclipsed.  Even in the immediate post-9/11 era, while U.S. airlines drastically retrenched, most overseas carriers continued to provide superior sharp-end service.  The worldwide decline in front cabin service standards, in my opinion, occurred somewhat later as most First Class cabins were replaced by improved versions of Business Class.

Recently, I began cataloging and admiring the menus I’d brought home over that 20+ year period.  I have over 100, as seen in the picture below.  The ones on the table are just the International FIRST CLASS menus, including two British Airways Concorde flights. The lowly business class menus are on the chair seat.

Maybe, I thought, I should blog about some of those experiences.  After all, I remember a lot of those often spectacular meals.  I especially remember the caviars (called out in various menus as Beluga, Sevruga, Osetra, Iranian, and Caspian) which EVEN DELTA was serving in the 90s.

I distinctly remember the fine red wines and the Champagnes, vintages like the Dom Perignon 1980 on Concorde in 1989.

And on a bunch of menus, I made notes to myself about the food and drink.  For example, one famous label French white I described as “Horrible! Like drinking ditch water.”

But my wife’s reaction, and that of a professional journalist friend whose opinion I trust, to my saving the menus was the same:  “Why?”

This is where my expectations and levels of anticipation about flying differ from most folks.  To me, the nuanced experiences of getting there has always been as important as arriving. The menus deeply thrill me with multiple layers of happy remembrances.  And thus I will soon write about some of those flights and the memories they conjure.

Not in every case, but on some I remember:

  • The order of service,
  • Whether the cutlery was silver or cheap metal,
  • Whether the glassware was crystal or shoddy glass,
  • The FA attitudes (genuine or contrived),
  • Whether they kept my water glass full (and my Champagne),
  • Whether the silverware and crystal was laid out correctly,
  • Whether the napkin was linen or a cheap and disgusting cotton-polyester,
  • The nuanced flavors (or not),
  • Whether what was supposed to be hot was hot and whether cold was cold,
  • The presentations,
  • The quantities,
  • Whether I was asked if I wanted second servings,
  • Whether the cabin crew tried to rush me for their own convenience,
  • The olfactory excitation—especially the wines,
  • The artistry and quality of the dining and wine menus itself (many are indeed things of beauty in and of themselves),
  • The variety and selection of wines – for example, Asiana in the 1990s in First Class offered no less than four luxury cuvee Champagnes to choose from—and that was just the Champagnes on offer, and
  • Whether the FAs offered me an entire bottle of wine or Champagne to take with me on arrival (UA several times gave me an unopened bottle of Dom as I left one of their trans-Pacific 747s).

That’s just off the top of my head.  As I browse the menus, rich memories are stirred of sharp-end experiences, albeit ephemeral—just a few hours of flying that, to me, are as much fun as where I am going. 

Or a disappointment.  I noted the little things in cabin service up front, too: 

  • Whether I was greeted by name,
  • Shown to my seat,
  • Assisted with carryon,
  • Immediately offered a glass of Champagne,
  • My jacket whisked away and hung (and brought back just after touchdown, neatly folded, and sometimes brushed and pressed),
  • Whether the Champagne was a fine one and poured in front of me (a sure sign of pride and care, as opposed to filling a line of glasses in the galley),
  • Whether the Champagne was properly chilled and fizzy, and
  • Whether the purser or chief FA came by to speak (I never cared whether the Captain came by, as he wasn’t invested in cabin service).

All those recollections come pouring back as I look through the menus, some vivid when I read my notes scribbled onto menus about the flights. 

I could always tell if the service was truly spectacular or if the FAs were just acting out parts.  Singapore, for example, with grand marketing about superior service, certainly offered expensive wines and food, but their lovely and polite cabin crews somehow never came across as sincere and confident in what they were doing.  SQ service seemed stiff and rote as opposed to the unaffected charm and poise of senior British Airways flight attendants.

The pinnacle of BA professionalism shone aboard Concorde, which I flew JFK to LHR and back one lucky week in late 1989.  I took along a camcorder and have a lengthy DVD record of the entire trip, which I’ve often thought of posting to YouTube. Passengers were given this binder as a keepsake:

The short three and half hours across the Atlantic was hardly sufficient for a deep dive into Concorde’s wine treasures, though I gave it the old college try.  I remember being gleefully knee-walking drunk by the time I stumbled off at Heathrow and glad not to be working the next day.  Here are two photos of the menus and some of the memorabilia from those flights:

I have scaled back my international front cabin expectations these days to be appropriately low of Business Class, let alone when sitting in mid-cabin Premium Economy or sardine-class Coach.  Armed with such a realistic Zen attitude, I am always shocked and humbled when I find superb and sincere service in, say, lowly coach on Emirates.  No, not the hoity-toity luxuries presented to me in seat 1A of yesteryear, but, hey, no regrets.  I have great memories of the way things were.

Reliving some of those memories, I’ll use the menus to muse about frivolous but fun stuff like which ones were the most artful and which ones were just plain ugly, a discussion of caviars (never a bad one to my palate), thoughts on good and not-so-good wines way up in the sky, and perhaps the correlation of food quality served versus dishes described in print.  And so on.  After all, if I can’t really go anywhere exotic right now, why not enjoy happy reminiscences of past trips?

Grounded, the second year

February 23, 2021

If I’d been able to see into the future 12 months ago that I’d still be mostly grounded now, my spirit may not have survived the year undamaged.  While I’ve enjoyed a few excursions, they’ve been mostly terrestrial. Since arriving home from a South African journey last year (just a few days before the shutdown), I made just one round trip by air (four flights, with connections), and even though that was in First Class, I didn’t feel safe enough to try it again.

A year of no flying, but for that one itinerary.  That’s the least I’ve been in the air since the 1960s.  Hence my enthusiastic travel planning, often chronicled here in my blog (q.v.), so as to be ready to get back on the road when this dark period is over.  Also, my pondering—some might say brooding—over what flying might be when we do get back on the road.

Looking forward: air travel uncertainty

Does a sea change in flying await us when the post-pandemic new normal comes?  No precise analog exists to compare to in the history of commercial aviation which is, after all, only 107 years old and had not matured by 1918’s flu pandemic.    

In my mind, fragmentation, if not downright disintegration, of pre-COVID air travel norms and expectations looms as the world’s airlines pick up the pieces of the disaster that has befallen the industry. In no particular order, here are some of the questions about future air travel rattling around in my head:

  • Will there be fare hikes to make up for the huge Covid-19 losses?  Lately, I’ve been searching flights and fares on every airline in the markets from Raleigh to Minneapolis, to Billings (Montana), to Seattle, and to Johannesburg, among many others, and fares seem to be all over the place.  Not the usual tight bands of prices.
  • Direct or connecting flights?  I read that airlines will be more dependent upon hubs to return to profitability and skew away from the point-to-point trends of 2019.
  • Matching flight supply with demand when fliers return to the airports?  Too few seats to meet demand will of course drive up what I have to pay, especially in city-pair markets with little or no competition.
  • Which carriers will survive?  The conventional wisdom is that if United or American failed (the two weakest big U.S. airlines financially) that a stronger carrier will gobble up the remains and protect those exposed to future bookings bought and paid for.  But I was working in Australia when Ansett Australia imploded and was liquidated in 2002, leaving ticketholders with no recourse.  The collapse correlated to 9/11, a terrible moment for the airline business, and not without comparison to now.
  • To what places will I be able to fly?  Airlines may very well cut back on marginally profitable routes to recoup profits, coupled to travel hurdles to countries slow to vaccinate its people, and there are many places I’d like to go that may no longer be reasonably accessible.
  • Health passports, testing, vaccination, and mask requirements? Speculation fails me in this regard, as so many competing virtual health passports jostle for becoming the standard. For now, I’ll take my hard copy vaccination record when I travel along with plenty of KN95 masks.
  • Airport and security screen protocols?  This is a more existential than concrete worry on my part, but history after upheavals like COVID tells me that traversing airports and TSA barriers isn’t likely to get easier.  Although my status in the Trusted Traveler program may help.
  • Will airline alliances and partnerships still matter?  SkyTeam, oneworld, and Star are only functional when all the partners achieve a threshold of financial stability, reach, and consistent operational and service excellence.  Those calculations will need reaffirming as “normal” comes back.  Over the decades, I’ve benefited from all those inter-airline allegiances in fares, scheduling convenience, and service reliability.  My trust in those elements was earned from years of flying over the globe.  I wonder if I can still be sanguine about the smooth transitions I experienced stepping off one alliance airline’s flight and onto another’s airplane once the pandemic effects abate.
  • What kind of on-board service can I expect in the aftermath due to both cost cutbacks and health concerns? Not that service before the coronavirus was stellar (except up front).  But at least I could buy a snack and a mixed drink or beer to accompany my complimentary water or Pepsi.  These days even the usual First Class beverage service up front is suspended.  If I am sitting in 1A, I’d like to be offered a G&T and a basket of fruit and nuts to choose from even if I turn it down.  Even more true on overseas flights.
  • Will seat comfort become ever more Spartan?  Again, the airlines were already approaching torture in seat design before the virus.  Now that they’re broke (again), I don’t trust them not to “justify” the installation of chairs that reach new levels of torment.  If so, I will fly only when I can afford (or luck into) the front cabin.

Looking way out, I’m no fan of this idea

This recent article speculates that windowless airplanes could be in my future.  I read it in horror.  One of my fundamental joys of flying is looking out from on high. I always try to get a window seat to places that intrigue me: beautiful cities, or ones that are just plain fascinating. Over mountains and oceans and deserts.  The view from my perch way up in the sky is magic, MAGIC!

Okay, center seats on international flights aren’t adjacent to windows, but if I am stuck in one, at least I can SEE through the windows not far away on either side of the fuselage.  I’d like to poll the passengers on the recent United 777 flight out of Denver that experienced a calamitous engine failure whether they would have preferred not being able to observe the flaming, wobbly starboard engine.  It was a scary sight, but I’m betting no one would have wanted to be in the dark of a windowless airplane during those tense moments when the plane returned to land safely at Denver.

And even if you don’t care to look out a window, who wants to risk being bombarded with big-screen advertising for 16 hours on both interior walls of the plane?  Because I know that’s what every airline will do if we let them void our right to see the world from above.