I recently spent four nights in Pittsburgh for the annual Rail-Volution transit and land use conference (the best transit get-together of the year).  It gave me a glimpse as to how the post-industrial city is faring, and provided insights regarding Delta’s domestic operation.

My first flight was on one of the new Delta A321 planes RDU to ATL. Just as mentioned in the recent DL quarterly call report, the aircraft had five rather than four rows of First Class seats, meaning 20 to sell rather then the MD80’s 16.

Of course with 25% more seats up front it’s a challenge for the one FA staffed in First Class to serve everyone with the same care and attention as before on short flights like the 54 minutes Raleigh to ATL. Those four extra passengers mean a lot of hustle for the lone flight attendant.

Mid-flight she got some temporary but timely help from the FAs in the back, just enough to goose premium cabin service up to my perception of an ordinary level of care and feeding. It struck me that Delta anticipated the issue and developed a standard rhythm to front and rear cabin in-flight staffing to accommodate the four extra seats.

I was upgraded at the gate for the flight, which gave me a perfect four out of four comp (Platinum) upgrades on that itinerary to PIT and back. I’d already been upgraded to First on the other three segments several days in advance.

Frankly, that is why I chose Delta over AA or others. I certainly don’t always get upgraded on Delta, but I can’t snag an upgrade on AA despite having nearly 40 (and growing) 500-mile upgrades banked in my AAdvantage account. That’s been true for four years on AA: zero upgrades.

As a Lifetime Platinum on Delta I get Comfort+ seats complimentary as soon as I buy. So even if no upgrade to First, then at least I am more comfortable in coach than on American, since AA will not upgrade me without paying as a Lifetime Gold to Main Cabin Extra, dooming me to one of their wickedly uncomfortable slimline seats on the 737-800 fleet. Sorry, no go.

I checked AA. DL, and other airline fares RDU/PIT for the itinerary. The main cabin fares (never basic economy) were within a $20 range, so it was easy to choose Delta. There was also no appreciable difference in times among carriers serving the route that might have otherwise persuaded me not to use DL.

Boarding the Delta flight, I was reminded again that every window shade is closed as a matter of policy, and many people don’t open them at all. Continues to be a concern to me, as it makes for such a depressing and claustrophobic cabin.

Both flights went well, and I arrived PIT airport early.  Attending a transit conference, I was given a transit pass for the duration, so chose to take the 28X Airport Flyer public transit bus into the city.  Took about 50 minutes during the early afternoon period, but it was comfortable and dropped me within two blocks of the Wyndham Grand Hotel being used for the Rail-Volution conference.

The hotel has THE view of the city, located as it is at the point where the the Allegheny River and Monongahela River unite to form the Ohio River.  You never know what room will be assigned at a conference, but I lucked out with room 1914, which had a spectacular view of the three rivers, the point, and the steep bluff on the far side.

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A walk around downtown confirmed that Pittsburgh certainly has changed for the better. I consulted there often in the 1980s for several divisions of Westinghouse (including Transportation Division that made the automated Atlanta Airport “people mover” train) and for other industrial and mining companies. I vividly recall the bleak winters of black snow from all the soot in the air then and the grim, Dickensian look and feel of the city. The best part of my weeks at the time was heading to the airport on Fridays to escape Pittsburgh.

It doesn’t feel that way now. It feels 21st century modern, cool, hip, and full of energy.

A footnote to those 1980s trips in and out of Pittsburgh airport: Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Airways, nicknamed Agony Airlines, had just recently changed its name to USAir to escape its bad rep. It couldn’t, though, and soon was called Useless Air by those of us forced to fly it. In snowy, frigid mid-winter weather USAir would often land at PIT and park way out in the tarmac because all its gates were full and its operations snarled up. The pilots were ordered to shut down the engines, including the APU, so that the planes were dark and without heat. Soon the interior would be an icebox. There we would sit without light in the freezing cold for as long as 2 hours waiting for a gate. No amount of complaining–and there was plenty of yowling–would cause the pilots to risk losing their jobs.

Of course this would occur for me late on a Sunday night as I was flying into the city to consult for the week.

In addition to the pain and suffering, I would still have to rent a car once in the airport and drive the 23 miles in snow and wind into the city. Thanks to USAir, I often didn’t get to my hotel until one or two in the morning. But I still had to present myself at breakfast to the consulting team at 6:00 AM Monday morning on three hours sleep and then work until 10:00 PM Monday.

There were few other direct flight options then, but I switched to TWA even though I had to leave earlier Sunday to connect using two flights. It cut my weekends at home to about 35-40 hours.

Leaving to return home four days later, I woke up spontaneously at 2:50 AM before my 3:00 AM alarm went off and checked out of the Wyndham Grand at 3:12 AM.

No trouble getting a Lyft car for $29.35 within three minutes of request and arrived airport at 3:40 AM (no traffic).  To my surprise, TSA was open, so I went immediately through security using my Delta app boarding pass.  It said “Pre” but the Pre line wasn’t open.  Nonetheless, the TSA staff gave me a special plastic card so I didn’t have to remove my shoes and belt, a relief.

Then, of course, I had to take the train to the remote concourse and gates at PIT (an “X” pattern with arms A, B, C, D).  McDonald’s opened at 4:05 AM, allowing me to get an unhealthy but delicious biscuit. More eateries were also open, unlike early mornings at other airports.

I had time to roam the concourses a bit. It was looking just a bit threadbare, but not too bad. Lavs were very clean and well-kept. Joe Brancatelli reminded me that once 600 USAir flights a day landed and took off at PIT, and they’ve had to close one or two of the terminals.

The airport and retail personnel were uniformly very friendly and cheerful, darned impressive at 4:00 AM. The facility also boasted quite an array of retail and food shops around the central core of the “X”.

Saw an Admirals Club (makes sense since this was the USAirways hub), but no Delta SkyClub or other airline club.

Happy observation: Every escalator (of many) and every moving walkway was working, unlike JFK terminals.  My overall impression: Pittsburgh Airport is now underutilized, but well-staffed to maintain respectable American standards of functionality, appearance, and cleanliness.  Bravo, PIT!

The two Delta flights back to Raleigh were exemplars of operational excellence.  Both boarded 35-40 minutes before flight time and pushed back on time or early.  Both arrived early to their respective destinations (ATL, then RDU).  Flight attendants were universally cheerful and efficient.

I tend to gripe and complain about Delta management’s indifference to their customers, but what can I say when I get upgraded on all four flight segments, and every one operates on time or early?  It made my life a lot easier on this nonstop business trip, as I had board and committee meetings all day after getting home following four full days of conference workshops and meetings.  I’ll try to conjure up a strong image of this overall experience next time everything goes wrong on a trip.

 

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Doha’s Hamad International Airport is ground zero for Qatar Airways, and it is impressively sprawling and modern and huge. But with Qatar now flying to over 150 cities (like, who knew Qatar serves Cardiff, Wales?), HIA just doesn’t have a enough gates. Consequently, even long haul flights like our A350 Philly-Doha often get parked on a tarmac stand. This is my fifth time connecting through Hamad, and my ninth Qatar flight, and I think only twice did the inbound flight pull up to a gate.

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The iconic giant teddy bear at Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar

Parking on a stand wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for Qatar daytime temps often exceeding 100° F. The desert heat whacked us hard as we struggled down the antiquated airstairs with our carry-on luggage.

The buses waiting on the ramp to take us to the terminal were greenhouses on wheels, as hot or even hotter inside than on the tarmac. No amount of A/C can tame the ferocious Middle Eastern sun burning through all that window glass. I was lucky to be one of the last to board our special “Business Class passengers only” bus, and thus minimized being cooked as the bus waited to fill.

Apart from the heat and the bother, there is the intrinsic delay caused by using stands rather than gates.  Qatar Airways’ customer base counts on being able to reliably connect to and from all those 150 places.  Parking on the ramp always means a long time to deplane and enplane, and thus threatens connection integrity if the inbound flight isn’t on time.

Once inside the HIA terminal, all transfer passengers were required to go through a TSA-style screening before being allowed to find their connecting gates–or, in my case, the respite of the Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge. Recalling from past trips that all pockets must be emptied, I put everything in a carry-on bag before we landed. Off come belts, watches, and shoes, too, at the security screen.

On previous trips, the premium cabin crowd (Business and First Class) joined any line to endure the security gauntlet, a leveling glitch in the “I’m elite, and you’re not” parsing of airline customers.  But no more. I was directed to an area catering only to Business and First Class passengers. Those lines were far less crowded, and therefore faster and less stressful, though unlike TSA PRE-check, we still had to remove belts, shoes, and watches.

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Entrance to the two-story escalator to Qatar Business Class Lounge at HIA is guarded by a hall monitor who diligently scans boarding passes to keep out the riffraff.

Finally I walked past Hamad Airport’s iconic giant teddy bear and took the airport’s two-story escalator to the Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge. Boarding passes were officiously scanned at the bottom. Keeping out the hoi polloi, I thought, until I heard a uniformed Qatari scolding a gentleman about my age that oneworld Business Class flyers who are on carriers other than Qatar Airways are NOT allowed in the lounge, regardless of top elite level. This fellow showed his Executive Platinum AAdvantage card in addition to a Business Class boarding pass on another oneworld partner, but he got nowhere. I smiled to myself.

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One view of the massive Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge at HIA.

Of course if that fellow was an American Express Platinum Card holder, then he was also in possession of the indispensable Priority Pass card, which gets passengers into hundreds of airport clubs worldwide (though sadly not at RDU).  Priority Pass works at the Al Maha Transit Lounge at Hamad International near what the airport calls the Teddy Bear Area. And with the Priority Pass, it doesn’t matter if you flew in Coach or Business: You are still welcome.

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Another view of the massive Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge at HIA

Speaking of coach, I walked back into the Economy Class cabin on the Qatar A350 en route into Doha and tried out several empty seats. It’s sure not Business Class, but those Qatar coach seats were discernibly more comfortable and spacious front-to-back than on U.S. carriers, and they reclined more, too. That said, they are no wider than any other airline’s coach seats.

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Part of the suite of “quiet rooms” in the Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge at HIA

I wolfed down a tasty Norwegian smoked salmon sandwich in one of the Business Class Lounge dining areas before retiring to the quiet rooms to wait out my connection. The lounge is phenomenal in its many amenities (e.g., two large areas for showers) and offerings of food (at least two large dining areas, and I think I missed a third one on the upper level) as well as being larger than many U.S. regional airports.  Except for Emirates in Dubai, I’ve never seen its equal.

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Every gate area is jam=packed with passengers, as is the terminal areas between gates. The teeming multitudes reminded me of the ATL hordes and that’s not a compliment.

Given how crowded the Hamad airport terminal is with all the places Qatar now serves around the globe, I was glad to have the lounge to hide out in for a few hours.

Not enough gates; not enough room even in a humongous terminal; and still adding to its worldwide network: How, I wonder, is Qatar Airways planning for Hamad International to cope with its organic growth?  It’s already bursting at the seams.

My American Airlines RJ190 from RDU was chock-a-block full, and the upgrade list was 32 names long for 3 available seats. Though I am traveling on an AAdvantage frequent flyer Business Class award Raleigh-Johannesburg that cost me 180,000 miles, AA stiffed me on flying up front on their milk run RDU/PHL, but I did get a comfortable Main Cabin Extra bulkhead seat (5D).

Being a Lifetime Gold meant I got to board in the Priority lane, but at the lowest Priority level–Group 4–so that by the time I reached my seat, all the overhead space was gone. So much for “priority” and too bad for all the peons allowed on board AFTER me.

On arrival to the claustrophobic, ancient B concourse at Philadelphia (see photo), I couldn’t move in the congested hallway. Then my Qatar flight wasn’t even listed on the departure board. I stopped an electric cart driver to ask where to find my gate. Maybe it’s missing from the display because Philly doesn’t know where Doha is, I thought.

Business Class passengers flying Qatar Aireays are allowed use of the British Airways premium lounge at Philadelphia. But so are Aer Lingus, Iceland Air, and of course BA passengers. Thus the lounge is SRO (see photo).

Discouraged at the throngs, I walked to the adjacent American Express Centurion Lounge where my Platinum Card privileges extend to entry.

But not today. I was met by a brutish, well-dessed bouncer who extended his arm out to stop me, demanding to know if I was 3 hours or less from my departure time. I admitted that I have a 3 hour, 20 minute layover. Too bad, he smiled toothily, as he forbade entry. So much for my Amex Platinum Card privileges.

I returned to the BA lounge and eventually found a place to sit in the back by the toilets in an area adapted for laptop users. My spirits improved considerably when two very kind and enthusiastic young ladies, one a Filipina and the other from Africa, who work in the club insisted I try the well-chilled Piper Heidseick Champagne, along with a bowl of cashews and a smoked salmon sandwich (I tipped them $5 each; they were shocked, as apparently gratuities are rare). I’m on my 2nd glass as I write this, and hope I don’t fall asleep before my plane boards.

Then a 12.5 hour flight aboard a Qatar Airways A350 to Doha, where I’ll connect to Johannesburg. But in seat 2A in Business Class, I’ll be treated like an emir!

My American Airlines RJ190 from RDU was chock-a-block full, and the upgrade list was 32 names long for 3 available seats. Though I am traveling on an AAdvantage frequent flyer Business Class award Raleigh-Johannesburg that cost me 180,000 miles, AA stiffed me on flying up front on their milk run RDU/PHL, but I did get a comfortable Main Cabin Extra bulkhead seat (5D).

Being a Lifetime Gold meant I got to board in the Priority lane, but at the lowest Priority level–Group 4–so that by the time I reached my seat, all the overhead space was gone. So much for “priority” and too bad for all the peons allowed on board AFTER me.

On arrival to the claustrophobic, ancient B concourse at Philadelphia (see photo), I couldn’t move in the congested hallway. Then my Qatar flight wasn’t even listed on the departure board. I stopped an electric cart driver to ask where to find my gate. Maybe it’s missing from the display because Philly doesn’t know where Doha is, I thought.

Business Class passengers flying Qatar Aireays are allowed use of the British Airways premium lounge at Philadelphia. But so are Aer Lingus, Iceland Air, and of course BA passengers. Thus the lounge is SRO.

Discouraged at the throngs, I walked to the adjacent American Express Centurion Lounge where my Platinum Card privileges extend to entry.

But not today. I was met by a brutish, well-dessed bouncer who extended his arm out to stop me, demanding to know if I was 3 hours or less from my departure time. I admitted that I have a 3 hour, 20 minute layover. Too bad, he smiled toothily, as he forbade entry. So much for my Amex Platinum Card privileges.

I returned to the BA lounge and eventually found a place to sit in the back by the toilets in an area adapted for laptop users. My spirits improved considerably when two very kind and enthusiastic young ladies, one a Filipina and the other from Africa, who work in the club insisted I try the well-chilled Piper Heidseick Champagne, along with a bowl of cashews and a smoked salmon sandwich (I tipped them $5 each; they were shocked, as apparently gratuities are rare). I’m on my 2nd glass as I write this, and hope I don’t fall asleep before my plane boards.

Then a 12.5 hour flight aboard a Qatar Airways A350 to Doha, where I’ll connect to Johannesburg. But in seat 2A in Business Class, I’ll be treated like an emir!

I’m off to South Africa to visit the Kruger National Park again. Last there about two and half years ago, so am overdue for a visit. I try to get back to the Kruger every two years. I never tire of being in the park with the African wildlife, and I like to keep updated on incremental changes to infrastructure, rules, conservation practices, and procedures that come with time.  Readying for the trip, I got a jolt of ugly reality this morning when I phoned American Airlines to inquire about a long-withheld upgrade.

As I explained in early February, I burned 180,000 AAdvantage frequent flyer miles this trip to travel in Business class on oneworld partner Qatar Airways to get to Johannesburg, connecting to Qatar’s gateway cities in the US, of course, via American Airlines. What I didn’t know then was just how mean American Airlines was in dispensing the AAdvantage award travel.

AA agents have advised me for seven months to keep calling to see if an award seat opened on my initial leg from RDU to PHL, which is on a 2-class RJ.  I dutifully phoned again and again, perhaps 20 times altogether, but no dice.

But then today a candid and well-informed American Airlines agent told me why the RDU/PHL leg never opened in First class for me.  It is because the original agent back in February “charged” me 30,000 miles for one way Raleigh-Philly in coach using AnyTime pricing, and then charged another 150,000 miles for the Business class award on Qatar and AA for PHL/DOH/JNB/DOH/JFK/RDU. The agent today finally explained clearly that I can never get upgraded on the RDU/PHL award because it is strictly in Coach, even though charged at the highest possible AnyTime (30,000 miles) award level in that market.

(Of course my 36 banked 500-mile upgrades are worthless to help as well (I asked), as they are always worthless on AA, a classic Catch-22.)

Turns out that AAdvantage partner award travel to South Africa on Qatar in their world-class Business cabin was priced at a reasonable 150,000 miles all-in from Raleigh (RDU) to Johannesburg round trip when I sought to book the trip seven months in advance.  But my outbound route will be Raleigh-Philadelphia using AA on a separate AnyTime award for 30,000 miles, then Philly-Doha-Johannesburg (Qatar), returning Jo’burg-Doha-JFK (Qatar), then JFK-RDU (AA), all allowed in Business class for 150,000 miles.

The agent who originally booked me never explained the 180,000 miles was 150 + 30.

New York (JFK) was not my first choice of connections coming home. Qatar did their part by ensuring award seats in business were available from Philadelphia to Doha going, then Doha-Jo’burg-Doha, and finally Doha to Philadelphia returning.  But American Airlines said back in February that they could not clear me for award travel on the short domestic leg from Philadelphia to RDU returning, not even in coach.  That’s why I ended up traveling Doha-JFK and JFK to Raleigh.  American said award coach seats were available JFK/RDU, but not PHL/RDU.  (Note: the itinerary originally had me returning through Boston, but AA moved me to JFK some months ago on account of reshuffling their BOS/RDU connections.)

No award seats at any level seven months in advance in the Philadelphia to Raleigh market?  Yet Qatar is honoring their partnership agreement for award travel. Knowing how stingy American Airlines has become with award seats, it sure makes it hard for me to book AA when I have a choice.

It is easy to forget how low British Airways has fallen in the airline pantheon after having studiously avoided the carrier for nearly two decades. I have only memories of fine flights on British in better years.  Last week, however, I was jolted back to the harsh reality of today’s despicable BA when I was charged for advance seat assignments even though I’m traveling on a hefty Premium Economy fare.

Time was, I loved to fly up front on British Airways. BA conjured superb service in the sharp end of the carrier’s many 747s, and the airline could rightfully crow about the virtues of one of the best premium cabins in the sky.

Not any longer.  First went the incomparable Concorde. (I have a long video I made of a BA Concorde JFK/LHR flight that I need to upload to YouTube; it depicts service that seems like a dream now). Then first class was diminished or replaced on many flights in favor of BA’s cramped, outdated business class seating, and the airline has been in a race for the bottom ever since.

BA’s avarice came back to me as I planned a trip in late January from Raleigh/Durham to Vienna for my wife and me to attend an orchestra concert in which our son, a college sophomore and gifted pianist, will be performing. I opted for the American Airlines nonstop—finally again up-gauged to a 777—to London Heathrow, and then connecting to oneworld partner British Airways LHR/VIE and back.   The AA cabin on that RDU/LHR aircraft will be configured with the airline’s new Premium Economy seats, and I decided to spend extra in order to try it.

Booking the flights almost five months early meant I had my pick of the best PE seats on the American Airlines segments, RDU/LHR and LHR/RDU.  Being an AAdvantage Million Miler Lifetime Gold didn’t hurt, either.

But when I attempted to grab seats on the British Airways codeshare flights (LHR/VIE and VIE/LHR), I was directed by AA.com to the BA website, and there got a shock.  British Airways didn’t give a whit about how much money I paid for the Premium Economy fare or how many loyalty miles I had accumulated.  Turns out that BA doesn’t allow anyone access to an advance seat assignment without paying, not even Premium Economy and Business Class customers unless traveling on a full fare (which no one ever pays, of course),.

That prompted me to look deeper into how BA gets away with it.  I found that once-great British Airway is the only carrier on earth to charge premium class customer for advance seats. And BA has been doing this for 9 years.

The British Airways online seating chart indicated a range of prices for advance seats from a low of $18 (back of the bus) to $27 (most other economy seats) to a high of $39 per seat (exit row with extra legroom). And that’s for only the 2.5 hour flight between LHR and Vienna.

Grudgingly, I blew $108 for 4 seat assignments (4 X $27) after paying the fat Premium Economy fare on AA/BA.  Seemed like a lot for a married couple who want only to guarantee sitting together and sometimes holding hands.

Further research yielded more bad press for British Airways.  Their intra-Euro flights operated on A320 aircraft like London-Vienna reportedly have no legroom and abysmal service.

This new information in hand, I decided we need a modicum of comfort. I returned to the BA website and paid another $12 per seat, per flight to move my wife and me to the exit row on both flights which have extra legroom. Ka-ching, another $48 for British Airways.

Altogether, then, the advance seats alone added $156 to my already-stiff Premium Economy fare, and the BA seats certainly won’t be anything like PE-comfortable.  For $156, hopefully tolerable, but nothing more.

With a moldy, antiquated business class product (“Club World”) only slightly better than Ukrainian Air and woefully behind almost every other carrier, including Aeroflot, British Airways shamelessly piles on more misery by making Business Class and Premium Economy passengers pay for advance seat assignments. BA’s contemptible attitude to customer service makes them a lousy and unequal oneworld partner to American Airlines. My decades-long boycott of the carrier is back in place.

With apologies for not posting a report yesterday, all continues to be well here. Most of Raleigh never lost power because the storm was pretty much a nonevent in Central North Carolina.  Sure, we got some modest 45 mph wind gusts and a bit of rain (see my measurements below), but Raleigh got lucky.

Yet 100 miles NE, E, SE, S, and SW, an epic catastrophe is still unfolding. 96 of 100 NC counties are under emergency orders due to water.

It is forecast to continue raining through Tuesday. Worst of all, NC rivers are now projected to crest Thursday or Friday, the Cape Fear River at nearly 30 feet above flood stage. Many areas in and around Fayetteville were ordered to evacuated yesterday. Similar dire flood conditions exists elsewhere.

Parts of I-95 flooded and the road is shut down in most of the state.  NCDOT is suggesting a detour for I-95 drivers way west through Tennessee and then back east in Georgia. Most roads in eastern and southeastern North Carolina remain impassable due to flooding and are closed.

Yes, Raleigh was spared the worst of it, but much of eastern North Carolina will be a long time–perhaps years–recovering from the massive flooding. It’s too early to know how badly the coastal barrier islands were battered. Early reports are that a lot of beachfront properties were severely damaged. We will know more when people are able to access the beaches.

Having grown up in eastern NC, and with family and friends scattered all over from New Bern to Morehead City/Atlantic Beach to Emerald Isle/Swansboro to Topsail Beach/Figure Eight Island to Wilmington and its many beaches, I am suffering from survivor’s guilt this weekend and haven’t felt much like writing.  The long-term storm damage is devastating.

Rain in Raleigh at our house so far:

Thu to Fri night (about 36 hrs) = 2.0″

Fri night to Sat morning = 1.5″

Sat morning to Sun morning = 1.3″

Total to date = 4.8″

It’s overcast in Raleigh with a steady drizzle today (Sunday).

 

 

I am writing this early (noon) because the power is likely to go out later today.  Winds from Flo have gradually arrived to Raleigh starting about daybreak, but luckily are intermittent and moderate gusts rather than a sustained blow. Gusty periods were punctuated by near calm with hardly any wind at all until late morning, but even now the in-between winds are not strong.

The predicted 5-10 inches of rain is not happening, at least not by midday.  In fact it has hardly rained at all.  Just the odd shower.

Meanwhile, just 130 miles away in eastern and southeastern North Carolina a catastrophe is underway as the storm unleashes up to 30 inches of rain and 90 MPH winds as Florence crawls slowly across the region. Here was the 11am track:

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The Neuse River in New Bern overflowed its banks before sunset yesterday and has flooded downtown:

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Raleigh is lucky..

With Florence dithering off the North Carolina coast tonight, the usual uncertainty about what a hurricane will do prevails among professional weather forecasters.  No question it’s pounding the NC beaches north and south of Wilmington, but here in Raleigh, practically nothing.

Surf City Pier before Hurrican Florence

The Surf City Pier on Topsail Island north of Wilmington takes a beating late today before the sun set. Likely this structure will be gone by morning.

Well, almost nothing in Raleigh.  Whispers of wind, then a slight gust.  Some spats of tropical showers.

I want to shake my fists at the skies and yell, Come on, then! Give me all you’ve got, for God’s sake!

Sorry, it’s been a long week, and a lot of us are suffering from storm anticipation fatigue. Here is the way one cartoonist portrayed our collective angst:

Hurricane Florence cartoon 9-13-18

The Raleigh/Durham Airport is open, but warns that Friday could see a lot of cancellations depending upon what Florence does. As of 9:00 PM ET Thursday, tomorrow looks like this at RDU:

  • Air Canada: No flights on Friday.
  • Alaska: No flights on Friday.
  • American: A few early flights on Friday, then no flights through early Saturday.
  • Delta: Operating a near normal schedule Friday.
  • Frontier: No flights on Friday.
  • JetBlue: Limited flights on Friday.
  • Southwest: No flights on Friday.
  • United: Limited flights on Friday

No one really knows, though, because Hurricane Florence is not expected to move much for the next few days:

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We’ve had concerned friends and family calling from all over the country.  They’ve all been inundated with news reports that Florence is poised to unleash disastrous wind and rain damage all over NC, including Raleigh, much like the cartoon depicts above.  I assured them that Raleigh is not under water, still has power, and no trees have yet pierced the roof.

So what really gives with these reports of hurricane trouble and woe?  One friend posited that it seemed to be an orgy of Fake Weather News, characterized by ridiculous exaggeration and hyperbole.

I get what he’s saying, and I’ve thought about that, too, this week.  But I think the hurricane news disaster frenzy is unintentional, and, to a large extent, almost unavoidable.

With seven decades of experience with hurricanes, I realize how elusive accurate hurricane forecasting remains. It shouldn’t be, you’d think, but it is. Everything about hurricanes defies science. PhD meteorologists can’t accurately predict their track even when the storms are right under our noses, as Florence is right now, and those learned pros don’t get the force right, either. Just today, for example, the National Hurricane Center said Flo would strengthen when it got close to land, and yet it weakened.  They have repeatedly gotten most things about Florence wrong, and that’s the best forecasting our country has to offer.

Another problem is the timing of reports.  Most things posted online are based on forecast data at least a few hours old, and since hurricanes are so volatile, by the time we read something, it’s already way wrong.  That phenomenon is even worse for storm news that gets printed in the newspaper.  It’s seriously in error by the time we read it.

It isn’t like reporting on what a president said yesterday or on a vote in Congress.  Weather reporting is elusive and time-sensitive.  Weather reporting is always about what was, not what is. So it’s never correct.

Then what are news sources to do?  The National Hurricane Center is a prime source, and everybody goes to it.  But the hurricane doesn’t care about NHC forecasts.  The storm does what it does, more often than not making fools out of the most experienced of meteorologists using the coolest tech and software models available.

The result is mass confusion.  I imagine that news outlets have a love/hate relationship with hurricanes.  Dramatic weather events sure grab eyeballs, but unless you are watching the storm in real time, the information is almost instantly out of date.

Too, perhaps catastrophic hurricanes like Katrina in New Orleans and Maria in Puerto Rico have inadvertently ratcheted up our collective expectations, establishing a hunger for incessant disaster reporting that news media seek to feed.

Maybe.  But when the wind stops blowing and the skies clear off, the thrill dies, and the media moves on, with little follow-up coverage of the unexciting hard work of good people cleaning up and rebuilding.

I just hope that, when it’s over, Trump doesn’t come to North Carolina to toss out paper towels.

It appears that Raleigh may have dodged the bullet, as Hurricane Flo seems to be taking a southerly course after kissing the southeastern coast of North Carolina below Wilmington on Friday.  Here is tonight’s 8:00 PM track:

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Raleigh may be spared as a result, receiving only gusty winds and perhaps 3-5 inches of rain, depending upon how far the outer storm bands rotate when it stalls on the NC coast. The relief is almost palpable here in central North Carolina, but the frenzied buying at grocery stores has only barely diminished.

Lines at the liquor store this afternoon, however, were back to normal, and I give the ABC staff full marks for restocking the shelves since I was there last night.

Though Raleigh may hardly feel the hurricane, the NC coast is likely to get pounded with wind-driven rain, 12-20′ storm surges, and severe beach erosion from the heavy surf before, during, and after the event.  Inland areas close to the ocean may see up to 30 inches of rain, which will cause severe flooding.

It’s probably good not to relax too soon despite the new hurricane track forecast.  After all, Raleigh to Wilmington is a mere 129 miles in a direct line on I-40, which isn’t very distant. And Florence remains powerful and dangerous. Earlier today an airplane measured 83-foot waves near the storm’s eye.  While I am not expecting any such ferocious water beyond the coast, a fickle turn northward could once again put us in the bull’s eye of the wind and rain.

Just when I thought Hurricane Flo was going to track north, the 11:00 AM NHS map showed the storm veering south again and aimed directly at Raleigh.

Then tonight’s 8:00 PM track looks similarly ominous for central North Carolina:

cone graphic

Depending on where the storm comes ashore, reports are warning that Raleigh could get 10-20 inches of rain.  Some forecasters say up to 30 inches, a dismal prospect.

So I braved the crazed shoppers at Harris-Teeter again this afternoon and snagged a bunch of just-restocked bananas, as well as butter, milk, and eggs.  Sure, we might lose power, but it’s better to have food than not to have it.  With the two loaves of wheat bread purchased last night, we now have the ingredients for French Toast.

A long queue tonight at the ABC Store (state-controlled seller of distilled alcohol products) in Cameron Village showed off some Raleigh folks’ brilliant hurricane planning. After all, liquor doesn’t go bad and needs no refrigeration, the perfect companion when the lights go out for a week and 30 inches of rain pours through the holes in your roof.

20180911_193500- ABC STORE

My cousin who abides in Norfolk sent this interesting meteorological analysis based on European models.  Friends familiar with the Euro models verified better accuracy compared to American forecasts.  The fact that Florence has tracked south again since last night lends credence to the hurricane track theory posited by “WX Risk” in his video, though his is at odds with the National Weather Service.

Of course there is a cacophony of advice on surviving the hurricane from every possible media source.  I perused several dozen articles today and didn’t find anything I didn’t already know.  One piece suggested checking car windows to make sure they are closed.

Really?

So far the best advice has come from a New Orleans friend who survived the long and deep trauma of Katrina.  She suggested laying in a good supply of old booze favorites, plus a bottle of something exotic and new for inventing a “Flo Cocktail” for all our friends—preferably high octane, she mused, so we can cheerily chirp “Whatever!” at everything Florence brings.

Thus inspired, I plan to go back to the ABC Store tomorrow to look for something weird and wonderful.  We already have a goodly supply of single malts, rum, and gin.

Most Raleigh schools and universities and businesses today announced closures, some starting at once, none closing later than Thursday afternoon.

Amtrak canceled most trains coming anywhere south, but that’s hardly surprising any more.  If a whisper of wind blows or a drop of rain or flake of snow falls, Amtrak stops operating.  Shameful, really.  Once upon a time trains reliably ran through any kind of weather.

The waiting is as stressful as the storm’s fury itself.  Hurricanes often defy forecasts just before colliding with land, so tomorrow’s supposed track could look quite different.