Monday, January 30, 2006

Acela on the Weekends

Amtrak announced this weekend that it will introduce a new pricing system for Acela and Metroliner trains beginning in early February. Currently Amtrak offers two fares for these trains--peak and off-peak. The new system will add what we might call a "peak-peak" and an "off-off-peak" fare, one very expensive, the other quite affordable. So, instead of two fares, there will now be four. The off-off peak fares, not surprisingly, will apply to certain weekend trains, and the peak-peak fares, I suspect, will apply to rush-hour trains on weekdays.

For those of us with flexible travel schedules, this is a wonderful opportunity. One-way Acela fares between DC and Boston, for example, may now cost as little as $150.00 on Saturdays. And if you're not aware, Amtrak already allows--and will continue to allow--the use of "Discounts" on off-peak Acela fares. That means that I can ride the Acela between DC and Boston (on a Saturday) for $128.35 one way ($151 minus my 15% Student Advantage Discount).

Amtrak is making these changes to maximize profit on the Northeast Corridor. The off-off peak fares will enable them to fill empty weekend trains, and the peak-peak fares will allow them to extract more money from passengers riding the very popular weekday Acela (and in particular, early morning and early evening) routes. If you feel like splurging, upgrade to first class for $94 each way. Ouch!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Addendum to Ben's post on Delta Uniforms

Here are the pics:

Now, I kinda like this uniform (maybe it's the hot woman modeling it)...

...but below is the real version...what were they thinking? Ben was does look like a raincoat. And the matching hat...what a joke.

The Boeing 787

Boeing Commercial Aircraft is currently developing its next airliner, the 787, in response to airlines' demands for a more passenger- and environmentally friendly aircraft. Launched a few years ago as the 7E7, the plane will use 20% less fuel than current widebody aircraft and will feature a spacious cabin unparalleled by today's existing models. It will essentially be an updated 767, a successful model that has been in use for domestic and international routes since the early 1980s. Similar to the 767, the three 787 variants will be designed to carry 210-250 passengers (787-8), 250-290 passengers (787-9), or 290-330 passengers (787-3).

Through extensive research, Beoing determined that passenger anxiety with flying increases dramatically once they enter the airplane cabin, undoubtedly due to the cramped nature of the plane entrance and the number of personnel crowding the area. The 787 will feature a spacious entry "lounge" with a high ceiling, making the passenger transition from jetway to aircraft much smoother. Cool blue ambient lighting, enlarged passenger windows, and spacious divisions between cabins will also serve to enhance the passenger's experience.

Boeing's 787 is somewhat of a response to the launch of the Airbus A380, a two-leveled monstrosity that is designed to transport as many people as possible (up to 800!) at once. Boeing wisely chose to develop a smaller aircraft (one that is more similar in scale to existing widebodies), a move that will undoubtedly please more airline customers. Production will begin this year, with certification in 2007 and deliveries beginning in 2008. Continental and Northwest have already ordered the planes, and other US airlines will surely follow once production is underway.

The fuselage is very similar to the 767, although the nose and wings will feature a more streamlined, swept design. While cruising at speeds exceeding those of today's fastest airliners (Mach .85) and at ranges exceeding 8,000 nautical miles, the plane will use 20% less fuel than existing models.

Passengers will be greeted with a spacious, domed lounge upon entering the plane, a feature designed to minimize passenger anxiety and discomfort associated with the cramped nature of flying.

Enlarged windows are another major revolution of the 787's design:

Transitions between business and coach class cabins will no longer be limited to a simple curtain as on planes today:

Fashion in the air

Delta isn’t the first to think that clothes make the airline. Between 1965 and 1974, designer Emilio Pucci created a series of uniforms for Braniff stewardesses. The outfits were known for their color and for their accessories featuring, at various times, hats, gloves, and umbrellas.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Sartorial Solution?

MSNBC reports today that Delta--purportedly penurious, if bankrupty reports mean anything--has enlisted Australian fashionista Richard Tyler to design new uniforms for its flight attendants. The color? Bright red. I, for one, can think of better uses for that money, but at the same time, I'm completely in favor of an aesthetic upgrade. One wonders, though, if the flight attendants might have preferred a slight raise or fewer hours. They might be overworked and underpaid, but hey, at least they LOOK fabulous, right? Well, I'm not so sure. The uniforms look a bit like raincoats, and the matching hats (I swear!) make the women look like old biddies heading off to a garden party. Jessica Tandy died years ago, but apparently Miss Daisy lives on aboard Delta Airlines--and who better to guide us to safety after a crash?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Beware the bait and switch

American Airlines began its “More Room in Coach” campaign in 2000, giving all travelers an ample 33-35 inch seat pitch compared to the usual 31-32 inch pitch in most coach class cabins. American was the airline to fly, and I stocked up miles accordingly though the AA credit card. Awkward connection through Dallas? No problem, I thought, if I could stretch my legs.

I can stretch no more. Three years later American added more seats, and its planes became just as cramped as those of other airlines. What to do with the tens of thousands of frequent flier miles I’ve been hoarding? I suppose I can fly business class now.

At first, I seethed at the gall American had to hook me as a loyal customer. But they had their reasons. Not enough new customers flew American to fill the planes to capacity. The old model, more seats that are sometimes full and sometimes not, generated more revenue.

It’s too bad, though, that American became more like other airlines. With the trunk carriers more alike, the airlines that stand apart, like JetBlue or Southwest, are in a better position to win customer loyalty.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

An Unholy Alliance

Perhaps no partnership more offends our travel sensibilities than Amtrak's alliance with Greyhound. I call it the "marriage made in hell." If you've ever booked a trip on Amtrak's website, you've probably noticed that for certain itineraries you have a choice between the train and a Greyhound bus--or, in sadder cases, you have no option but the bus, because Amtrak's trains bypass many small towns. It used to be that you could book both your "to" and "return" trips on a bus, but Amtrak now requires that at least one segment be booked on a train.

In any case, Greyhound buses pick up and drop off passengers at Amtrak stations. The problem is that station agents have no clue when the buses are coming, if they're running on time--or in certain cases, if they're coming at all. My hometown has both a bus and train station, and on certain routes the bus is supposed to leave the Greyhound station and then collect passengers from Amtrak. And on return trips, the bus is supposed to drop the Amtrak passengers off first. But on a recent trip, the driver decided that he didn't have time to stop at the Amtrak station and proceeded directly to the bus-station, leaving me stranded and the cab driver I had called to meet me quite pissed.

Two weeks ago, my friend John stepped off the bus at the Amtrak station, expecting to be able to fetch his bag from beneath the bus and hop in the car with me. But the driver informed him that there were too many bags on-board to ferret his out of the pile--and made John re-board and ride on to the Greyhound station (I, the dutiful friend, followed behind in my car and waited fifteen minutes for John to find his bag).

Back in December, I was forced onto a Greyhound bus to DC after Amtrak's Crescent train (see my last post, "The Crawling Crescent") was delayed more than 10 hours. We left twenty minutes late and then lost nearly an hour more after the driver got lost and missed one of our stops. Finally arriving in DC, the driver decided--despite what the itinerary dictated--to stop at the Greyhound station before going to Union Station. I then sat on the bus for twenty minutes, which time included a shouting match between a passenger and baggage handler over whether the baggage handler was an "idiot" for not allowing the passenger to fetch his own bag from below the bus. An unpleasant exchange, to say the least.

By the time we arrived at Union Station, we were almost two hours late, and I had to hail a cab (rather than ride the metro) to Reagan National Airport, adding fifteen dollars to my day's expenses. As it turned out, my Delta flight was delayed, culminating in one of the worst travel days ever (see "The Squeaky Wheel"). But back to my main point: although Greyhound serves an important function in the United States, and while I realize that for some people it's the only affordable mode of travel, other companies aiming for respectability (like Amtrak) should shy away from partnering with it. The company gives too much latitude to its drivers, who in turn serve their own and Greyhound's interests, not Amtrak's or any other business partner's. Amtrak's handling of the partnership is equally disgraceful. Agents at Union Station have no clue when buses depart or arrive, and they make no effort to help passengers, even those whose itineraries include segments on Amtrak trains. I've heard time and again, "We don't know what Greyhound's doing; that's up to you." Well then, don't partner with them--don't advertise their timetables in your brochures and don't book trips for them on your website! A plague on both your houses!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Song vs. Jetblue

A friend of mine emailed me yesterday to tell me about his recent experiences on Jetblue Airways and Song. I have flown Jetblue myself, but never Song, so it is interesting to hear from the perspective of someone who has flown both airlines...

"I am sad to see Song go away; I had a great flight, and the embedded TVs were touch-screen with a whole host of multimedia options (mp3s, tv channels, movies, games, etc). The flight attendants were funny and lively. JetBlue, by comparison, felt like my last trip on US Airways. The flight attendants were capable, but generally seemed discouraged with life. Plus, the TV screens were smaller (though the pilot mentioned they would be upgrading by the end of the year). I will give them credit for actually giving us snacks, and also giving us several options for those snacks. But overall-- I thought there wasn't a whole heck of a lot separating JetBlue from other carriers except for their generally-lower airfares."

There you have it. I myself was quite pleased with Jetblue's service when I flew across the country from Boston to San Jose, California back in December. However, I do agree that the flight attendants on Jetblue are nothing out of the ordinary, and their television screens do not feature touch-screen technology. I am glad to hear that the airline is doing well enough to be upgrading to larger, more advanced options, even when their main competitor is going out of business in the near future. The snacks options on Jetblue are quite nice, however. We were given about 6-7 options of chips/crackers/cookies at the beginning of the flight, and a "snack pack" near the end of the flight, which featured cheese spread, crackers, cookies, and a number of other items.

Either way, I am still impressed with the luxuries offered by low-cost carriers these days. AirTran's XM Satellite Radio is nice, and a personal TV on Song or Jetblue isn't too shabby, either.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Cell phone usage in the skies...

This information may be a little dated, but it is still an issue known to many of us who fly the friendly skies...

Cell phone usage is currently prohibited on all domestic commercial flights. Most think it's solely because cellular phone signals would interfere with cockpit communication with air traffic control on the ground. However, as reported by CNN about a year ago, some believe that a better incentive to keep cell phones off in the skies is that widespread cell phone usage in airplanes would wreak havoc with cell phone communication on the ground. For these reasons, the FCC and FAA are slowly considering the proposal with hesitations.

It doesn't take too much imagination to realize why this may be so. When one is on the ground talking on their cell phone in a stationary position (as they should be, as I highly discourage cell phone usage while driving a car), that person is, from what I understand, using one or a very few local cellular towers to broadcast the cell signal. From the air, traveling at speeds of over 500 miles per hour, and at an altitude exceeding 30,000 feet, using the same cell phone would simultaneously use multiple signal towers on the ground. Therefore, widespread cell phone usage could clog up the networks on the ground, simply because those in the air are hogging the signals being broadcast from the towers.

Now, this has never been tested empirically, so I am skeptical as to whether this would be an issue or not. However, I myself am happy to turn my phone off on the plane, knowing that I won't be bothering anyone else sitting nearby. After all, do I want to face the likely possibility that my flight will be accompanied by a cocky businessman across the aisle, screaming into his phone over the background noise of the air circulation and his own ringing ears from the pressure changes?

Although recent cell phone designs have been shown not to interfere greatly with air traffic control communication in the cockpit, I for one am a strong proponent of maintaining the ban on cell phone usage in the air.

And, as I saw on an episode of A&E's "Airline" recently, you will be thrown off the plane if you refuse to turn off your cell phone.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Crawling Crescent

Although none of Amtrak's long-distance routes wins awards for on-time arrivals or departures, one train--the Crescent operating between New York and New Orleans (20 Northbound, 19 Southbound)--used to perform fairly well, rarely arriving more than an hour late into my hometown. But Katrina changed all that. Once Amtrak restored service to New Orleans, the Crescent's delays became mind-boggling. On a good day, the train arrived three or four hours late; on a bad day, it might be 9 or 12. And on really bad days, the train never arrived. One explanation for this is that freight service transporting materials to rebuild the Big Easy combined with regular freight service to create chronic congestion. Another possible explanation--though one I haven't confirmed--is that the rails haven't been completely repaired, meaning that trains must travel much more slowly over them--to avoid both derailment and injuries to workers repairing the lines.

Recently the delays have become less preposterous. But today I read that a CSX train derailed north of Meridian, Mississippi, forcing Amtrak to cancel the Crescent between New Orleans and Atlanta. When the Crescent originates in Atlanta (as it did in the days following Katrina, before full service was restored), it typically arrives ontime to its destinations in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. Some rail critics, armed with information like this, argue that all train service should become regional. I disagree with this position and will explain why in a future post.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Rulebook of Cabbies

As a quick diversion from our usual talk concerning the ins and outs of airplane travel, I thought I'd give a few tips that I learned about riding urban taxis. Most of this information comes from experiences in Boston, but hopefully it is applicable elsewhere.

1) To hail a taxi in a busy area of town (where there are plenty of taxis driving in either direction), give some thought as to where you are going, and hail a cab on the side of the road that will more directly take you to your destination. Otherwise, the cabbie may feign avoiding illegal turns and take you on a roundabout tour of the city to reverse the direction from that which the traffic was moving on the side of the road where you were picked up.

2) To hail a cab, do not pay attention to the light on top of the car. Although a darkened light is supposed to signal "hired" and a lighted cab is supposed to alert "available for hire", it doesn't work that way. Whenever you see a cab approaching, step out into the street and hold up your arm until they either signal that they are stopping for you, or they pass you.

3) NEVER, EVER step into an empty cab that is directly behind a stopped, empty cab. That unhired driver will get pissed, try to block your chosen, hired cab, and likely chase you down the road until your cabbie makes some aggressive maneuvers to lose the mad-angry cabbie. This applies at any gas station where more than one cab is gassing up, and also at the airport.

4) On that note, use a taxi stand correctly. Go to the first available cab in the line. Let the driver help you place your bag into the trunk, and tell him/her outside where you are going, and repeat that once you are inside the car.

5) If you are being dropped off at your destination and have items in the trunk, the cabbie will most likely step out of the car and remove the items from the trunk before accepting money. If he does not, open your back door WIDE OPEN, ask to pop the trunk, hand him/her the money (or else he will get pissed), remove your items from the trunk (after asking him to pop the trunk, if needed...and don't EVER leave the car unless the trunk is popped), THEN close the rear door. Otherwise, you may no longer have your items.

6) If you drop your cell phone in the cab, and realize that you did so after letting the cab go along its way, call your cell phone immediately. Ben has experience with this...he got his phone back on New Years Day 2005 in this very manner. Hand the cabbie an extra 20% tip for taking the time to drive back and, especially, for answering the phone in the first place.

7) NEVER, EVER let any of your personal belongings, except your feet, touch the floor of a cab. Remember, cabs are most useful when drunk out of your mind at night. Many people use them for that reason, and don't know how to signal when to take a "pit stop" to empty their stomach. That's why cabs smell like car rid the air of vomit.

8) If the cabbie needs to stop to fill up, make sure he or she stops the clock for the duration of the fill-up. Otherwise, you'll be forced to argue your way out of an expensive fare, on top of being asphyxiated by the smell of fresh gasoline inside the car, as cabbies invariably fill up with the car engine still running, against safety regulations.

9) Talk to your cabbie, or at least try to do so. This will make the experience more fun, and they are generally pretty agreeable because they want a good tip. In many cases, I have found that a personal connection with the cabbie (even by simply asking him or her where they have been that night, or if it's busy) so that they are less likely to cheat you. Act alert, on that note. This is especially the case in Boston. Ask them where they are from (usually Haiti or Boston, at least). Discuss politics with them. Have them agree with you that anal sex between two men should be perfectly well as gay marriage. If they know how to do business, they will usually agree, and provide some interesting stories about their personal experiences, in some cases.

10) If you are drunk, need to get home, and are not sure how much money you have in your wallet (this has happened to me a few times), pull out your wallet upon entering the car, and after letting them know your destination, tell them you only have x amount of dollars. They will take the quickest route and give you a break if you are upfront with them. Whatever you do, do not wait until you arrive at your destination to try to shortchange them. If that happens, and the cabbie seems pissed, ask to drive you to the nearest ATM, hand them the money, and then walk your own ass from the ATM to your destination.

Happy cabbing, everyone!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Worth Waiting For

In addition to obsessing over travel itineraries and frequent flier miles, I follow professional golf, men's and women's. Yesterday, while awaiting my delayed flight to Salt Lake City in Reagan airport, I spotted Nancy Lopez--arguably one of the top five female golfers of all time--and Rosie Jones, the most prominent lesbian currently playing competitively (she finished among the money leaders last year--her retirement year!)on the LPGA tour.

Not wanting to make a scene or be a boor, I quietly approached them with a pen and paper and got their autographs. I'm kicking myself, though, for failing to buy a women's golf magazine--their signatures would have looked much nicer upon it than upon the crinkled piece of paper I grabbed from my backpack.

My flight to Salt Lake was delayed an hour and fifteen minutes, as were many other flights leaving Reagan Yesterday. For most of the morning yesterday, flights were unable to land at Reagan due to thick fog--creating a real backup at the gates. The situation was exacerbated--for Delta at least--by thunderstorms in Atlanta yesterday afternoon. Fortunately I made my connection in Salt Lake (many of the planes were delayed out of Salt Lake because a large fraction of their passengers were coming from the East Coast)and arrived in San Francisco on time at 10PM.

I flew first class from Salt Lake to San Francisco and was pleasantly surprised to find flight attendants pouring wine from full-sized bottles (instead of the miniatures one finds in coach). Unfortunately, the wine tasted like rubbing alcohol, so I transitioned to Canadian Club and soda. Most pleasing, I discovered my beloved SunChips, which have been conspicuously absent from my last few flights, even aboard first class. I hope this means they aren't gone forever!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

An Alert and a Trick

Due to restructuring, Delta has had to reschedule a pile of already booked itineraries. This onerous task is left up to a computer. Once a passenger has been reassigned, he receives an email outlining the new itinerary. Should you receive one of these emails, examine it closely, because in certain cases your itinerary might have changed dramatically--or, in my recent case, preposterously.

According to my original itinerary for an upcoming trip, I was supposed to arrive in Atlanta at 5:30 AM (that's right, I fly red-eyes!) and then hop a DC-bound plane at 6:30. But when Delta's computers altered my itinerary, I found myself arriving at
6:18 and departing for DC at 6:30--a whole 12 minutes to make my connection. When I dialed SkyMiles Customer Service, the agent lamented the occasional glitch in the computer and quickly moved to place me on a later flight to DC.

But seizing a golden opportunity, I asked instead to be flown into a different airport--one much closer to where I live. Was I insane to ask this? Absolutely not. If Delta causes a change in your itinerary due to mechanical problems or restructuring (but, alas, not weather), the rules say that you're entitled to change your destination within a 100-mile radius at no cost to you. So, Delta's mistake, far from inconveniencing me, saved me a nightmarish busride from DC to my hometown.

This story underscores an ongoing theme of this blog: you must complain, whine, argue--or sometimes, simply ask--when an airline screws up or reneges on its end of the bargain. You'll be amazed at what can happen.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Jetblast from the Past #01 - Delta Airlines Liveries

Here's a look at Delta though the past few decades...

A nice DC-4 in the 1940s...

A Curtiss C-46F Commando in the 1950s...a cargo plane...

A Delta DC-6 in 1967...

A Convair 880-22-2, a 4-engined turbojet (1967)...

1976...a Lockheed L-1011 widebody trijet. These planes were state-of-the-art during the 1970s, as well as the main competitor for the three-engine Douglas DC-10, which was purchased by many other United States domestic airlines throughout the 1970s-1980s. This paint scheme was popular through the 1990s, and even into the early 2000s, on Delta aircraft...

2004...a Boeing 757-200 series of aircraft, in the livery previous to that adopted for today's aircraft...

A Boeing 767-400 series in Delta's newest livery...

Thanks to for the photos.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Watch Where You Sit

Have you ever boarded an airplane, taken your seat and then wondered why in the hell you chose such a bad location? I certainly have. I once booked a seat in front of the exit row, meaning I couldn't recline (the person in front of me sure could, though, and did!) one inch on a cross-country flight.

Well, there's a way to obviate this maddening situation. Before selecting your seat, visit You'll need to know the type of aircraft on which you'll be flying. Armed with this info, select an airline and aircraft type from the left-hand menu. You'll find, for every aircraft, a color-coded map showing good, bad and in-between seats. Also listed are the aircraft's amenities.

If you've already booked your seat for an upcoming flight, don't fret. Certain airlines, including Delta, now allow you to change your seat at any point before the flight--simply access your itinerary on the website using either your confirmation code or your SkyMiles PIN Number. It's that simple. If your carrier doesn't offer such online access, try calling their 1800 number. You'd be amazed what those agents can do for you. And if all else fails, you can always try to switch seats the day of your flight.

So, unless you're booking at the last minute, there's no reason to end up in the loser's seat. A little planning can make a huge difference!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

the genius of Saarinen

Ordinarily I wouldn't discuss architecture on this blog, but the works of Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen deserve attention. While he designed other works such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Kresge Auditorium at MIT in Cambridge, my personal favorite work of Saarinen would have to be Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia (just outside of Washington, DC). Completed in 1962, when commercial jet travel was still in its infancy, the main terminal building truly captures the excitement and grace of flight with its gentle curves and swooping roof. The building is massive and something akin to what one would see depicted in an episode of The Jetsons.

The original building was extended on either end in the 1990s to reach the length as shown above. Remaining faithful to Saarinen's original artwork, the designers of the expansion artfully blended the extensions into the original structure such that the old and the new are almost indistinguishible. A view of the rooftop gives away the newly constructed ends.

The control tower is a work of art in itself, resembling a jewel from a gaudy ring or a hat worn by a cocktail waitress at a retro lounge.

Upgrades to the airport, including improvements to the separate concourse buildings and the replacement of the airport's antiquated (but at the time of construction, ultra-modern) people mover system, termed "lounges", which utilize large-tired vehicles to transport passengers from the main terminal to their concourse. Rarely would one have an opportunity to face moving aircraft at eye level, as these vehicles share the apron with taxiing aircraft.

Other airports around the country pay homage to Saarinen's Dulles design. One that comes to mind immediately is Boston-Logan International Airport's Terminal C, which serves US Airways, Jetblue, Continental, United, and others. Below is the ticketing area, which sports a swooping ceiling not unlike that of Dulles...

It's too bad that Dulles is an absolute bitch of a place if you are unfortunate enough to have to fly through it. It takes what seems like an eternity to get from your parked car to your gate.

1962 was also the year of the opening of TWA Terminal at Idlewild (since renamed JFK) International Airport in NYC. Also designed by Saarinen, it resembles a bird about to take flight.

Like Dulles, this terminal was ahead of it's time. However, a large clock hanging from the center of the ceiling is reminiscent of what one would find in a large passenger train terminal. After TWA folded, the building sat vacant for a few years, but it is currently planned to be integrated with another existing terminal for use by Jetblue. I am not sure if it is currently under construction, though.

I feel that people underappreciate these buildings. A person's main objective at an airport is to get in and out (flying out, that is) as soon as possible. However, one should put into perspective the feeling about airline travel when these buildings were originally opened. Flying on a jet airplane was a new experience, a luxury for most people. These buildings certainly express that excitement and enthusiasm for the future of air travel.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Freedom is Dead

Well, Independence Air, that is. The once highly touted budget airline flew its last flight to White Plains, NY on Thursday. The Washington Post had a good article on the Dulles-based airline, chalking up its demise to rising fuel costs, rock-bottom, low-profit fares and increasing competition from the major carriers. In the short term, Independence Air's downfall might mean higher fares out of Dulles, though it appears JetBlue might move in to pick up the slack and further expand its successful service.

Fortunately, post-Sept. 11th rules ensure that passengers currently holding tickets for IA flights won't be left stranded. For a fifty dollar processing fee, they can be (must be) accommodated by other airlines. Of course, they will fly standby, but that's a lot better than swallowing the price of the ticket whole.

IA's disintegration teaches us that budget airlines aren't immune to the ills of the airline industry. By trying to undersell the major carriers, they can sometimes pull the rug out from under themselves. In related news, Delta recently announced that it will terminate Song in May and convert its airplanes into standard Delta flights with full first-class cabins. Too bad my upcoming trip to San Jose can't be aboard one of those planes! Ok, I'll stop pouting.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Give 'em a chance

A few words of introduction...I'm Evan, a friend of Ben who has been asked to contribute to this blog. Being an enthusiast of the commercial aviation and airline industries of the past and present, many of my entries will concern my flying experiences, as well as historical aspects of the airline industry. Being a resident of Boston, where one has the opportunity to travel by train, trolley, plane, bus, subway, taxi, or Zipcar, on a daily basis, I will also offer a few tidbits about public transportation in the Greater Boston area from time to time.

Today's topic: AirTran Airways

I know what some of you are thinking: "Isn't that the airline that crashed into an alligator-infested swamp and killed a bunch of people? It isn't safe; I won't fly it."

I regularly hear the above argument, and I must say I get tired of it, since I fly AirTran on a regular basis. The truth is that the accident of ValuJet Flight 592 in May of 1996, which killed 110 people as the plane caught fire and plunged into the Everglades, happened 10 years ago, under a different organization and company name, with a different fleet of planes, and under different (more lenient) rules and regulations regarding the transport of hazardous materials, which was determined to be the cause of the Flight 592 disaster (improperly loaded oxygen canisters). Much has changed over the years...

I flew ValuJet in 1997, roughly a year after the accident and the brief grounding of the company's planes. With the crash fresh in my head, I was less than relaxed while I flew from Atlanta to Newport News, Virginia aboard one of the airline's aging one-class cabins. I was seated at the front of the cabin, facing a large image of a cartoon plane (the company's mascot) mounted on the front cabin bulkhead. The flight attendants wore navy blue shorts and polo shirts while handing out stuffed ValuJet airplanes to the kiddies. The plane was much louder than I expected, this being my first flying experience, not to mention that my perceptions of flying were limited to those I had seen depicted in movies or on TV.

Well, a lot has changed since then. Faced with a tarnished reputation due to the 1996 accident, the airline merged with Air Tran Airways in 1999 and assumed that company's name, adopted a new paint scheme for its planes (based on the old merging Air Tran Airways livery...see pictures below), and gave the airline a more "dressed-up" look, including assigned seating, a two-class cabin, and flight attendants dressed in formal uniforms. However, the company still operated a dilapidated fleet of 30+ year-old DC9s and 1st-generation Boeing 737-200s. I remember contemplating bringing earplugs on some flights, as the experience at the rear of a DC9 (a tail-mounted twinjet) is similar to taking off in a rocket. I remember that, on one flight, there was a short in part of the lighting system, something that isn't very comforting as one is traveling at 33,000 ft in a pressurized tube at 550 MPH. I won't even go into the poor condition of the seating.

Over the years, the airline continued to change its image. Gone are the old DC9s (the only major airline in the US that continues to operate them with regularity being Northwest) and 737-200s. In 1999, AirTran was the launch customer of the state-of-the-art Boeing 717, a descendant of the hugely successful DC9 and MD-80 series aircraft. The 717 boasts a cabin with the some of the largest overhead compartment space per passenger among modern aircraft, as well as being the first aircraft designed to use 100% fresh air, as opposed to recirculated air, throughout the cabin. Recently, the airline has been acquiring a number of slightly larger Boeing 737-700 aircraft as well. The most recent luxury the airline has offered to passengers is XM Satellite Radio on all of their planes, during a time in which luxuries on other airlines (extra seat pitch on American Airlines or DirectTV) are slowly being taken away due to financial hardships. It is amazing to see how far the airline has come along in the last 10 years, escaping an almost definite demise due to a poor safety reputation (a fate that Eastern Airlines experienced in the early 1990s) and growing, improving, and becoming one of the industry's most successful carriers, in an age where many major carriers are operating under Chapter 11 protection. AirTran continues to make annual profits.

The most recent time I flew on AirTran was 2 days ago, on a direct flight from Newport News/Williamsburg Int'l Airport in Virginia to Boston. As usual, I was not disappointed by the service, the XM Satellite Radio (an audio jack on every armrest is compatible with most personal headsets - they are also available for free), and the extremely quiet ride on the 6-month old (as we were told) Boeing 717. So, think beyond the checkered past of the company, and give Airtran a try when flying one of their many (and ever increasing number of) routes.

A look at the planes through the last 10 years...

A ValuJet DC9-32; these flew as below from 1993-1999.

An ex-ValuJet AirTran DC9-32; these 30 year-old planes were replaced by B717s starting in 1999.

An Air Tran Boeing 737-200, in the old livery used prior to the merger of Air Tran Airways with ValuJet...

A new Boeing 717-200, a descendant of the popular DC9...

A Boeing 717 in the new livery...

A brand new next generation Boeing 737-700, in new livery...

The Squeaky Wheel

Instead of boring your friends and family with nightmarish travel stories, use those rhetorical skills to persuade "customer service" agents to give you free stuff. You'll be amazed at the concessions you can win. After a recent long-distance trip aboard Amtrak's Coast Starlight train (beautiful--I couldn't recommend it more), I phoned Amtrak to complain that the train lacked its promised first-class parlour car. After apologizing profusely, the agent mailed me a $100 voucher for future Amtrak travel. Delta recently did the same after a mechanical problem delayed my flight to California, forcing me to pay for an expensive cab ride.

Helpful hint: when you phone Amtrak or an airline, don't waste time talking to agents who can't give you what you want. If you're lodging a complaint, typically you need to do so with someone from customer relations or customer service. They can give you free stuff and do things with your future itineraries that other agents cannot. Beware of one thing, though: in most cases, airlines will compensate you if delays are mechanical, but if they're weather-related, you're screwed. More on how I learned that lesson in a future post.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

All That Glitters Isn't Silver

Many people strive for academic or occupational accolades. I, on the other hand, strive to accumulate airline miles and flier privileges. My dreams recently came true when Delta crowned me a "Silver Elite" member. Not gold or platinum--did Delta consult Plato when contriving this program?--but silver. Perks include priority check-in and seating, but what everyone wants most are the complimentary first-class upgrades. Given my low position in the elite hierarchy, imagine my surprise when I received such an upgrade for my first post-coronation flight from Atlanta to Austin.

So how was it? Well, the extra legroom and absence of crying babies was enjoyable, but beyond these amenities little else proved to be "first class." Ok, there was free alcohol, which I gluttonously imbibed at 11AM (breaking, not for the first time, my no drinking before noon rule), but no meals or special snacks. We munched on the same snacks served in coach, except we got to grab them in handfuls from a big basket instead of having them handed to us on a "Good goes around" napkin. My "lunch" included Lance "cheese" crackers and peanuts. I'm not certain if Delta has discontinued its use of SunChips, but they certainly weren't offered on this flight.

Then this morning I discovered more bad news. My upcoming flight from Atlanta to San Jose, California lacks a first-class cabin. That's right: "restructuring" claims another perk. I can't say that the privileges are completely worthless. I still have priority access to exit-row seating, but risking one's life to evacuate a burning plane falls well short of "elite," I assure you. Guess it could have been worse: had I accumulated 50,000 miles last year instead of 25,000, they would have conferred "gold" status upon me. Talk about getting shafted.


This is my first post and first foray into the blogosphere. Let me quickly explain what I hope to accomplish here. In recent years I've done a lot of traveling aboard planes, trains, buses and taxis. I've amassed some interesting stories and helpful hints. I hope to share them with you and to solicit yours in turn. I'm looking for travel stories, both good and bad--not what you did once you arrived or who you met, but what you experienced in transit. Perhaps you learned where never to sit aboard a train or plane; or perhaps you learned a trick or two about obtaining special services from stubborn staff. I'll commence over the next few days by sharing some of my recent tales, and over time I'll dig deeper in my memory to produce harrowing Greyhound stories, Amtrak nightmares and the like. Here's to a New Year and a new blog--