Thursday, April 27, 2006

Delta Woes and Wackiness

Two AP articles from the past week give further pause to Delta loyalists. First, a computer glitch at ATL led to a bomb scare that shut down the airport for two hours, costing cash-strapped Delta over a million dollars and probably the patronage of many customers.

Second, Delta asked its employees to VOLUNTEER to clean its increasingly grungy planes. In an effort to boost company and passenger morale, Delta asked everyone from executives to flight attendants (not sure about pilots) to pitch in and refurbish the airline's deteriorating fleet. How long before they ask customers to lend a hand? After all, waiting for takeoffs can be so tedious. Why not spend the time vacuuming, dusting and scrubbing dried vomit off carpets and upholstery? Perhaps Delta could redo its standby list to prioritize customers willing to don latex gloves and disinfectant.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Flight From Hell

Be sure to check out this first-hand account of a recent Denver-bound United flight aboard which a crazy man attempted to access the cockpit. No word yet on precisely what happened, but given that a high-ranking official ordered two fighter jets to accompany the plane during its descent into Denver, it must have been pretty serious. No one was injured, and the writer praises United for handling the situation well. Still, it's pretty damn terrifying.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I'm Still Standing

Airbus has pitched a new plane design to several Asian carriers that would have passengers stand during ENTIRE short-range flights. Instead of a seat, passengers would "enjoy" a padded backboard and a harness. Although no carriers have bought the design just yet, they must be tempted, since it permits airlines to cram more than 800 people aboard flights that typically hold only 500. Reminds me of a rollercoaster ride, but hey, if passengers are willing, we'll stand for it.

Monday, April 24, 2006

It Ain't Paris, But...

The Inn at Riverbend, a new bed and breakfast in Pearisburg, VA offers scenic views and first-class service. Patrick and I stayed there this weekend and enjoyed delicious breakfasts--quiche yesterday, french toast today, along with homemade chocolate chip scones and fresh fruit--and an elevated view (from the "Jessica" room, named after the owners' daughter) of the New River. Most enjoyable, from my view, were the sights and sounds of the countless freight trains that wound their way along the river along the Norfolk and Southern line. Nothing beats falling asleep and awakening to the distant yet distinct hum of an approaching engine.

Located in Southwest Virginia, approximately thirty minutes west of Virginia Tech along Route 460, Pearisburg boasts gorgeous scenery, a real "old town" feel--if one goes for that kind of thing (I might if I were more butch and less skittish around big trucks and large men in hats and boots)--and a recently opened, but critically acclaimed, restaurant called The Bank, whose chef migrated to VA from Las Vegas. Unfortunately we lacked a reservation and missed the fine cuisine, but since Patrick will be moving to the area soon, I'm sure we'll make a return trip. Planes and trains won't get you there, but a slightly stressful drive down Interstate 81--alongside trucks galore--and a pleasant ride west on 460 will. Bring your bible, though--there's a church for every person!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Through the Ceiling

The AP reported yesterday that American Airlines is once again raising its fares. USAir quickly matched the hike, and United and Northwest may follow suit. If you plan to travel this summer, expect airfares double or triple what you paid last year.

Fortunately, I don't plan to do much flying this summer, because with fuel prices rising and airlines trimming their domestic capacity, these hikes will be more than temporary.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Business Class on the Cheap

Last week Maxjet Airways launched non-stop service between Washington Dulles (IAD) and Stansted, a burgeoning budget airline hub located in a suburb of London. Maxjet already operates between New York and Stansted and plans to begin service from Boston this summer and from San Francisco at a later date.

One might wonder whether room exists for Maxjet in an already competitive DC-London market. By offering relatively inexpensive fares aboard their all-business class planes, Maxjet hopes to lure business passengers away from other airlines while simultaneously tempting passengers who, faced with business class fares of $5000-$8000 aboard Delta and United, would otherwise ride coach. Some analysts find this business strategy shrewd, while others speculate that it will fail because most people ride business class using miles (or have their companies, which enjoy cozy relationships with the legacy carriers, pay for it) and because most coach passengers want the cheapest fares--however atrocious the on-board service and comfort level.

According to the Washington Post story linked above, Maxjet currently flies at about half capacity but claims to be headed in a profitable direction. One thing is for sure: they're offering the best deal in business class hands down. I priced a trip from Dulles to Stansted for this coming fall--when I plan to do some research in London--and found fares as cheap as $800.00. Compare this to the $650.00 dollar coach fares I turned up aboard Continental, United and other airlines. Surely I'm not the only one who would pay an extra $150 for a better seat, better service and much better food (beef tenderloin on demand!).

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A rewards program Thurston Howell VIII could love

Emirates frequent flier program offers what is probably the world's most extensive list of honorifics, according to this article in the New Yorker. Some of the titles include: "Al-Haj (denoting a Muslim who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca), Archbishop, Archdeacon, Baron, Baroness, Colonel, Commander, Corporal, Count, Countess, Dame, Deacon, Deaconess, Deshamanya (a title conferred on eminent Sri Lankans), Dowager (for a British widow whose social status derives from that of her late husband, properly used in combination with a second honorific, such as Duchess)."

Amtrak, this blog's favorite means of luxury travel, cannot compete with the international and very British flair of the Emirates program. Nevertheless, Amtrak offers and impressive list of titles, heavy on military titles such as Chief Petty Officer and Chief Warrant Officer. Amtrak also offers a list of suffixes not found in the Emirates program, which the New Yorker recommends to the great-great-great-grandson of the Jim Backus character on “Gilligan’s Island."

Friday, April 07, 2006

Sleeping Bag(gage)?

Fed up with the lack of blankets on airplanes operated by cash-strapped airlines? Tired of adjusting the napkin-size blankets that are only sometimes made available? Poshair has the solution to your comfort problem--the airplane sleeping bag. More like a sack, it's composed primarily of polyester and, according to Poshair's promotional materials, will make you the envy of fellow passengers. Whether it will be popular with airlines and transportation safety officials, who might question the ease with which a cocooned passenger could escape a burning aircraft, remains unanswered. I don't know about you, but rarely am I consistently hot or cold aboard an airplane. Typically, I waver back and forth, making a zip-up mummy bag a tad cumbersome. That said, if it's cozy and makes a cramped seat slightly more comfy, I'd give it a try.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Pampered on the Red-Eye

Can anything short of a first-class upgrade (even that has its limitations) make a red-eye flight tolerable? JetBlue, which lacks a first-class cabin, hopes so. The company has begun a spa service aboard its cross-country, red-eye flights. Passengers will enjoy an array of products, including lotion, earplugs and sleep-masks. JetBlue believes these luxury offerings will give them a leg-up in the increasingly competitive domestic market. It's an interesting turn of events, since the industry trend has been toward eliminating, rather than adding, special services--with the exception, of course, of on-board entertainment. Problem is, on-board entertainment doesn't fit the bill on a red-eye flight, so perhaps these bedtime amenities will serve as suitable substitutes. These changes indicate a bit of desperation on the part of JetBlue, which recently reported its first earnings loss. At the same time, it demonstrates continued original thinking and market savvy--something the legacy carriers could use a bit more of.

Monday, April 03, 2006

United Airlines: BOS-->DEN-->BOS

I just returned to Boston last night from a week-long getaway to the Colorado Rockies. I was there for an HIV vaccine conference (compliments of the boss) in Keystone, CO, which is a small ski resort town about 90 minutes west of Denver. This also happened to be my first time flying United Airlines, which flies multiple direct flights between Boston Logan International Airport and Denver International Airport.

Both of our flights were on time and arrived at the destination early. There isn't much to say about the flight going to Denver, except that it was incredibly smooth. We were near the rear of a 757, which isn't my idea of a comfortable plane in the first place - narrow (6 seats abreast) incredibly long, which certainly gives one the feeling of being inside a tube. However, given that caveat, the flight was pretty good, with nice service (two Jack Daniels and Cokes). They have limited XM Satellite Radio at every seat, which is a huge disappointment after experiencing Airtran's full XM service offering. I tuned into channel 9 during our taxi and takeoff because we were told that air traffic control communications were being broadcasted at that channel. That turned out to be pretty lame, since all I heard were a few mumbles in the typical Boston accent and our engines beginning to roar as soon as the ATC operator stated our flight number and "clear for takeoff". I guess the only value to that feature would be if something had gone wrong, such as a runway incursion, which happens to be a common occurence at Logan Field...quite an accomplishment for our wonderful airport.

Being a 4-hour flight, we were shown a movie - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire...I passed on that opportunity and instead read Douglass Shand-Tucci's The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture (an interesting read, to say the least...basically a 350-page gossip column of gay Boston/Cambridge from 1850 onwards).

So we landed at Denver International Airport 4 hours later, and were welcomed to a huge, modern terminal set in the middle of a relatively flat, desolate plain (desert? I couldn't decide what to call it...we did see a few tumbleweeds). This is where the fun began. Like Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Denver features a system of moving the public by means of an underground subway. The subway is almost identical to that used at ATL, but this one is "cuter", for lack of better words. A little xylophone ditty plays over the loudspeaker as the subway train arrives, and a fake choo-choo track plays as the train enters the station. This certainly makes the kids squeal. Once on the train, the ditties continue, this time some weird calliope-sounding music that harkens back to the wild west. Weird (and yes, I laughed out loud and eargerly anticipated the next stop just to laugh at the music, which changed at each station...I have a simple mind).

Denver's terminal is beautiful...not even 15 years old, the Jeppesen Terminal features a tentlike roof and beautiful fountains...an imposing edifice in the middle of nowhere (the airport is a ways outside of the city). I was especially impressed by the cleanliness of the place...certainly something that Boston should strive more to follow. But, then again, how can one expect Boston, the city of pigeons (the "flying rats") and sewage-infested rivers, to be clean?

I could go on and on about the beautiful scenery and quaint mining towns along the I-70 corridor as it ascends the Rockies and crosses the Continental Divide through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels before descending briefly into the Keystone area. However, I will spare you (and myself from the typing) and refer anyone to my other blog for pictures and happenings throughout the week.

Yesterday did not go as smoothly as our trip out to Colorado. We were stuck in horrendous traffic while descending the mountains into Denver and barely made it to the airport. However, we got there in time with 10 minutes to spare, and all was OK. The subway ride to concourse B was just as fun as before (I really got a kick out of that music...you'd have to hear it to understand). Denver Airport is all about public art installations, one of which is a series of metal propellers lining the subway tunnel wall on the outbound tube. So, western calliope music, fluorescent blue tunnel lighting, and 5,280 (= one mile, for "mile-high city") little spinning propellers made for a somewhat surreal experience.

We were once again on a 757 going back, but my friend Bree and I noticed that our tickets were of a different color than everyone else's. It didn't take too long to realize that we were seated in United's Economy Plus section, which has 5 extra inches (36" versus the standard 31" seat pitch) of legroom for more comfort. Apparently all of United's 757s (except for their "premium service" 757 planes used for JFK-SFO and JFK-LAX routes) have these "Economy Plus" seats from rows 8-15 (check out Seat Guru). I must say, I do like United's seats (even the ones with tight legroom) due to their adjustable head support flaps on the headrests. The only drawback to our seats in row 13 (yes, unlike Airtran, which doesn't have a row 13 because of the "unlucky 13" syndrome, United does have a row 13) was that they had no window...another reason to check out Seat Guru before booking seats.

As on the flight out to Denver, we were offered snack boxes on the return trip (a feature of all flights over 3.5 hours). Instead of alcohol, I decided to partake in a snack box, of which there were four choices: jumpstart, minimeal, quickpick, and rightbite. I chose the quickpick, which was a collection of junk food - baked cheese snacks, beef jerky, chips and salsa, a chocolate chip cookie, trail mix, etc. I don't know whether it was worth the $5 (on Jetblue the snack packs were far better and were free), but I guess it satisfied me at the time. It's a shame that this is what in-flight service has come to; gone are the days of being offered a meal on a flight, even as short as a trip down the East Coast.

Service? Bitchy! At one point I politely asked a flight attendant for the time. She told me it was ten past seven. Now, I had just spent a week in Mountain time, and we had just jumped an hour the night before for adjusting our clocks, so, naturally, I felt the need to ask for a clarification. "Eastern time?" Her reply, "You just asked me for the time, right? I just told you. Anything else you need?" There's another incentive for flying budget airlines - they tend to have nicer flight crews. What do these people on Northwest, United, and Delta have up their ass, anyway?

Overall, my flying experience through Denver was pretty good, and I wouldn't say that I was disappointed with United as a whole. The planes were nice and they operated according to schedule (our returning flight turned out the be just shy of three hours due to a tailwind). There was some pretty bad turbulence when crossing the plains/midwest (apparently those areas were hit by severe storms yesterday afternoon/night), but that doesn't bother me unless it knocks a cup of soda in my lap (which almost happened yesterday) or knocks my head into the window (something I have never experience, but Ben has met that pleasure once).

All went haywire once we landed at Logan last night just a few minutes after 10PM. The plane was stuck on the tarmac because Logan was experiencing a ground stop at the time (due to those storms out west?) and all gates were occupied. Once we were inside the terminal, we found out that there were too many flights coming and going that there were not enough baggage handlers and baggage carts to meet the demand...it took another 1/2 hour to claim our luggage. Then there was the extremely long taxi line at Terminal C...another manifestation of typical Logan Sunday night traffic. So, we decided to take the T...but more trouble came along our way. The buses got backed up at the MBTA station and it took a good solid 20 minutes or so for one to pick us up. In the end, I did not walk into my apartment until midnight on the dot. That was a really sucky way to end the day.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Train Stories

Be sure to check out Marcel's diary on Trainblog recounting his experiences aboard Amtrak. He tells a tale of woe about an aborted trip on the Coast Starlight--in which he ended up aboard a bus. He appears, remarkably, to be keeping his wits about him amidst the chaos.

His most recent post describes the Cascades train, which I considered riding last fall when Patrick and I traveled aboard the Coast Starlight from San Jose to Vancouver, WA. Marcel describes it as worn, rocky and in need of repairs, but it provides many scenic views en route to Vancouver, BC. Apparently Marcel continues to enjoy full-scale dining service, but he links to another passenger's account of the simplified dining service recently put in place aboard the Sunset Limited and other trains. The menu remains much the same, and to my delight, the passenger describes the food as only slightly less tasty.