Air travel update

March 10, 2020

The illness and subsequent death of a close relative caused me to take two last-minute round trips by air from Albany to Oklahoma City in the last few weeks.  No flights were available on my preferred carrier, Southwest, so I flew on American (first trip down) and Delta (first trip back and both legs of second trip).  Each of these carriers offered noticeably less legroom than Southwest, which, combined with the latter’s free checked bag and free ticket change policies, means my loyalty to Southwest (though that airline has slipped in some areas) will continue where its schedules and fares are competitive.  Cabin staff on both American and Delta were courteous and professional, and I liked the selection of snacks on Delta, which included almonds that made me forget about the peanuts most airlines offered before concern with allergies caused them to be banned.

Beating the checked bag fees

I learned that there is way to check a bag for free on American and Delta – so long as it is small enough to qualify as a carry-on, and so long as you are willing to carry it to the gate where you will board your initial flight.  Apparently the number of passengers trying to avoid these airlines’ checked baggage fees has grown so large that bin space for carry-ons has become scarce.  To alleviate boarding delays and recriminations, both American and Delta offered free checking of my bag from the boarding gate to my ultimate destination (which required a change of planes on each flight) for free.  While there may be some flights on which this service is not offered, for me it will be worthwhile when flying these carriers in the future to take my chances that it will be, rather than pay the $30 one-way bag check fee.

A rude awakening

When I booked my flight on American, I was offered (as I am when booking on Southwest) text notifications in case of flight delays or changes.  As you can see below, early on the morning of my flight, I received a reminder of the unchanged departure information regarding my flight.  Given my relative’s condition, my phone was left on all the time, and when I heard the text alert, I grabbed the phone and was wide awake.  Not a good way to start a long day.


The American web site had a customer feedback page, to which I sent the following message, after identifying my flight number and travel date:


To American’s credit, I received an e-mail response within a day, though it seemed to me a little generic, and possibly machine-generated.  While it did use my name, and it contained a reference to the nature of my complaint, it did not promise any specific action, and it certainly offered me nothing for my inconvenience.  At the foot of the email, I was invited to take a survey.  After saying a I was pleased with the timeliness of the response, I was asked, and answered, the following:


In retrospect, I would have checked “Other,” and written in “all of the above.”  After sharing the above with relatives and friends, I suggested that the result of my survey response would not be pursuit of my  complaint about the late-night notification problem but, if anything, urging the customer service department to tweak their auto-response algorithm to produce more personalized responses to complaints. They all agreed.

Missing bereavement fares

Because both of my trips were booked at the last minute, the fares I paid were exorbitant; so high that, were I not comfortable financially, I would not have been able to attend my relative’s funeral.  I realize that high last-minute fares (which are booked by people who have to travel) allow lower fares for those who can plan ahead.  The airlines realize this too, but used to offer bereavement discounts for those who could provide proof they were traveling for specific reasons related to the death or illness of a loved one.  Bringing back these fares, even if the qualification requirements would have to be somewhat onerous to prevent abuse, would go a long way to helping the airlines’ reputation, which in most cases could stand improvement.  The only thing worse than being squished like a sardine in a middle coach seat with no legroom is to realize that the person on each side of you paid two thirds less for his or her ticket than you did.

S*#!-hole country

August 7, 2019

I recently returned from a trip that took me by air to three Latin American countries – Panama, Argentina and Costa Rica (I also visited Uruguay, but by boat). At one airport on my trip, after 12 wearying hours of traveling, including seven straight hours in a coach seat, I was directed to a huge, dingy arrivals hall without air conditioning (and it was hot), where I waited over 40 minutes with hundreds of other tired, hot travelers to have a disinterested bureaucrat stamp my passport without asking me a single question. After another wait of 40 minutes (in a room also without air conditioning) for my luggage, I finally was able to go outside to look for a cab. One nowhere near the front of a long line of licensed cabs called out to me, so I got in. When I told him where I was going (a hotel near the airport, not the urban center) he cursed me and tried to hold me up for an exorbitant fixed fare, though local law requires cabs to use meters. When I threatened to report him if he didn’t turn on the meter, he acquiesced, muttering “it’ll be the same.” Of course, it wasn’t – it was just over half what he initially had asked for.

Can you guess the airport at which this scene took place?  If you guessed JFK in New York upon my return, you’d be right.  The three international airports in Latin America that I experienced were all modern, air conditioned, and the entry procedures were efficient and quick.

Smart governments know that good airports are huge economic drivers, and can shape visitors’ attitudes toward a place by the initial impressions they instill.  The local leaders who pushed through the renovation of the Albany International Airport a few decades ago knew this, and I believe their good work has paid off.  The Port Authority of NY and NJ, which runs the JFK airport, has promised a new JFK.  It can’t come soon enough.



End of an era

July 11, 2018

USA Today reports that Southwest Airlines will soon stop serving its iconic peanuts, in deference to those with allergies. I only hope this heightened awareness of the needs of its customers with allergies will extend to those sensitive to the fur of so-called “support” animals, as well as those whose migraines can be triggered by screaming babies. I’m not holding my breath.

Once every 30 years is enough

September 2, 2016

I recently met some friends for a long weekend in Chicago.  One of them, a big sports fan, suggested we attend a game at Wrigley Field.  I thought it might be interesting, knowing that Wrigley is an older park with, presumably, lots of history.

The last time I attended a major league ball game was in the 1980s, when I lived in New York City, and I recall paying less than $5.00 for general admission to both Yankee and Shea stadiums.  Though I’m not a big sports fan, my occasional visits to these venues were relaxing and enjoyable.

I know prices have gone up in the last 30 years, but the inflation attending sporting events appears to rival that attending college tuition.  A reserved seat near the third base foul pole cost $75.00, and afforded only a distant view of the diamond.  Three hot dogs and three bottles of water set me back $37.00.

Worse than the prices was the experience.  We were seated below a speaker that blared “music” every time there was a lull in the action (which was about 80% of the time) at ear-splitting volume.  After hearing “Who Let the Dogs Out” a dozen or so times, I agree with those who, in a poll, rated it one of the top 20 annoying songs, according to Wikipedia.  Blaring a snippet of “What’s Up Chris” every time Kris Bryant came to bat might have been clever once, but I tired of it the fourth or fifth time.  There was a little bit of the traditional organ music, but not nearly enough.  The new electronic scoreboards were more geared to displaying commercials than useful information (thankfully, the original scoreboard remained and was my primary source of information).  There was really nothing  (except for some statues of players outside) that I could see that called attention to any of the history or traditions of the stadium.  Even the ivy wall had been defaced by panels placed in it for the sole purpose, apparently, of displaying commercial messages.

Though we were unable to stay until the end of the game because of the need to catch early flights the next day, the part of the game we saw was pretty good, and we learned later that it went 13 innings, past midnight, and that the Cubs won by one run.

The urban location of Wrigley field presented an opportunity for owners of nearby properties.  Many of the houses and other buildings that afforded a view of the field had been outfitted with elaborate bleachers and other amenities.  Next time, I may try one of those. Or, if I want the best views, the ability to tune out the noise and the ability to use the copious down time productively, I’ll watch on television.

The rest of the trip offered many enjoyable things.  An architecture tour by boat on the Chicago River was interesting and fun.  The Art Institute is one of the world’s leading museums.  Less famous were the Driehaus Museum, a restored Golden Age mansion (be sure to check out the exterior of the Richardson-inspired mansion housing Mr. Driehaus’s business diagonally across the street) and the nearby Bloomingdale’s Home store, which us to house a Shrine Circus and has restrooms that have been nationally recognized as among the best.  The Cloud Gate (known to locals as “The Bean”) and the rest of Millenium Park are worth a visit.  Though I’d been to Chicago before, there’s still a lot I haven’t seen.

Chicago earns praise from me by offering a single seat ride on its transit system from each of its commercial airports to its downtown.  The transit system, which we also took to and from the ball game, was clean, efficient, not too crowded, and easy to use.



An airport that gets it

October 14, 2015

BCN, or El Prat, in Barcelona, Spain is my new favorite airport.   Instead of competing announcements, background music and CNN, it offers almost complete, blissful silence, relying on passengers to read the monitors to obtain the information they need.  And that information is doled out gradually and systematically — you’re led from security to your concourse, but gate information appears only shortly before boarding begins, allowing customers more time to shop and eat, and keeping the gate areas from becoming overcrowded with passengers booked on multiple flights.  Top that off with convenient, low-cost bus service direct to the center of the city, and you’ve got a winning travel experience and a good start to an international trip.

Too loud and too sweet

August 12, 2015

I just returned from a trip to, among other places, Las Vegas, and I was very bothered by the volume of sound in several places I visited.  While I may be over-sensitive, I can’t believe that ear-splitting sound levels are good for the health of either the patrons or the employees of these loud establishments, and I question whether they are good for the bottom line.  When time permits, I’ll look for studies, but I find it hard to believe that sound levels I find uncomfortable to be present in are enjoyed by anyone.  Loud noise in other public places has become endemic — in addition to the dreaded airport CNN monitors, about which I’ve previously written, I often find televisions — usually competing with other background music — blaring in restaurants and bars.  In an age when everyone has a smart phone or other device that allows them to listen to whatever they want, is it really necessary for airports and other public places to bother those of us who prefer silence?

My trip exposed me to another of my pet peeves — screaming babies on airplanes.  Ear plugs are not a complete solution; what also would help would be to ask families who travel with young children, in exchange for the preferred boarding and the ability to bring infants along for free they now get, to sit in the last few rows of the plane.  It astounds me that Southwest, the airline I usually fly, will require a “Customer of Size” to purchase an extra seat if he or she intrudes on the space of one other passenger (the cost of which is reimbursed if not every seat on the plane is taken), while a screaming infant can terrorize dozens of people with impunity.  If the airlines really care about the comfort and well-being of their customers, they will pay more attention to the screaming baby issue.  I for one will gladly shift my patronage to any airline that does.

Further on the theme of too much, why is everything over-sweetened?  I have read that a can of regular Coke contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar, which seems objectionable on health grounds.  Why not offer an alternative containing about half as much sugar, which might be more pleasing to adult palates and less objectionable than artificially sweetened alternatives, most of which also are cloyingly sweet.  Reduced sugar drinks would appeal to those watching their calories and would result in good public relations for their makers, something the soft drink industry could use right now.

Oscar Wilde admonished “everything in moderation, including moderation.”  Time to return to the time when moderation is the general rule and not the exception.

Advertise one price, charge another

April 4, 2014

You go into the supermarket, pick up a piece of cheese marked $1.99, and take it to the register.  The cashier scans the item, and a total of $2.05 appears, though you know the cheese is not subject to sales tax.  Your indication of surprise does not evoke a response from the cashier, so you pay the requested amount, take your cheese and your receipt, and leave.  At home, you look at your receipt, see the cheese correctly listed at $1.99, and then you see an item labeled “property tax recovery fee,” in the amount of six cents.  You call the store’s consumer inquiry line, where a representative explains that the “property tax recovery fee” is a government mandated tax.  You don’t buy this, so you send a letter to the store chain’s headquarters, where you receive a response referring you to a notice that, in microscopic type, is posted at the store entrance.  Among other things, the notice states that the store reserves the right to add to the price of your item “applicable taxes and governmental fees, whether assessed directly upon you or upon the store.” I suspect you would feel taken advantage of, as I did when I received similar treatment upon receiving my first bill from Consumer Cellular.

In addition to the taxes that they are required by law to bill to their customers, which are not the subject of this post, cell phone carriers are allowed — but not required — to charge fees to recover certain of their costs, including taxes and fees they have to pay various government entities

In the course of examining the Consumer Cellular web site, which I did pretty thoroughly before signing up, I did not notice any indication that fees would be added to the quoted plan prices (I do concede that a link to the customer service agreement, a lengthy document in which the right to collect such fees is buried in a long paragraph, appears on Consumer Cellular’s web site).  My first Consumer Cellular bill contained, in addition to a line listing the usual taxes, a line entitled “Surcharge & Other Charges.”  I contacted customer service and, after an initial exchange of e-mails, received a call from a representative who insisted those charges were government mandated taxes.  After I did some research that indicated the contrary, I wrote to the CEO of the company about both the misinformation given by the rep and the inadequate advance disclosure of those fees, and received back an unsigned letter  itemizing what costs the fees were intended to cover and enclosing a copy of the customer service agreement.

In a world in which the imposition of such fees is allowed, I was very disappointed in the way Consumer Cellular chose to implement them.  My former carrier, Verizon, clearly indicated in its pricing information that the amounts quoted were exclusive of taxes and fees, and its invoices clearly explained that the items listed as fees were not required to be imposed by the government.  Even though I found the imposition of  the fees distasteful, at least Verizon did it openly and conspicuously and with reasonable notice to prospective customers.  My present carrier disappointed me by disclosing its practice to impose such fees far less conspicuously. And I disappointed myself by not getting a firm answer to the question of what total I would be paying  — inclusive of everything — before signing up with a new carrier.  

In this caveat emptor, bottom line, MBA driven world, companies are shifting responsibility for covering business expenses to their customers and employees.  The number of occupations in which the expectation of a tip is communicated to customers is constantly expanding, as are the number of bills for various services that include “fees” that are meant to look like mandated taxes but are not.  And employees are being asked to contribute more to the cost of their benefits, even when their wages are being reduced or held steady.  Government protection against these abuses of power has been inadequate, so it is up to each of us to resist when we can, and complain when we can’t.

Hooray, TSA!

December 18, 2013

For many, many, years, the TSA treated all air travelers alike, subjecting each to the same security screening procedures. Just recently, I was pleased to see that I was selected for the new “Pre-check” program that let me, a somewhat frequent flyer who has no criminal record and never did anything to compromise travel safety, to breeze through the line without taking out my laptop and liquids, and without taking off my shoes, belt and “light” jacket. I understand that eligible travelers can either pay to enroll in the program or, like me, be selected for it on an ad-hoc basis (I was told that being selected for one flight does not guarantee selection for future flights). Either way, it makes sense, both to the traveling public and to an agency with limited resources, to deploy those resources where they are most likely to discover safety threats. While some may say that this targeting of resources is “discriminatory,” especially if it is perceived to be directed at certain ethnic groups, it simply makes no sense to apply the same procedures to different passengers who present objectively different risks. I applaud the TSA for this common-sense move that will benefit all travelers and increase safety.

Of course, implementation of the new policy is not perfect. Recently, I booked a trip with a companion. Though we were on the same reservation, only one of us was selected for pre-check, making it basically useless, since the other would have to go through the full screening. I called the airline about this, and was told to contact the TSA. I left a comment on the TSA web site, but I did not receive a meaningful individualized response. Overall, though, Pre-check is a step in the right direction.

Noise in public places

August 23, 2013

A while back, I wrote about the US Airways-sponsored blaring of CNN, in competition with the airport’s background music, at the Philadelphia airport. I recently encountered a similar problem at a gambling casino. Here, in edited form, is the complaint I sent to the casino’s management:

“I write to complain about the undoubtedly unhealthily excessive volume of “music” emanating from the new lounge, which sonically collided with the loud music playing above the main casino floor to create a perfect storm of unbearable cacophony directly above the area in which I was playing. How an establishment that has spent millions of dollars to create an appealing and controlled visual environment can allow such auditory chaos is beyond my comprehension.”

I will share any response I receive addressed to this issue.


August 4, 2012

I recently visited Charleston, SC for a professional conference. Although I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city, I very much liked what I saw. Although Charleston had a nice waterfront, an aquarium, museums and lots of high end restaurants, its big draw is its historic residential district. I was told that the city has a strong historic preservation code, and I saw for myself an active Historic Charleston Foundation, which ran two great shops, from which purchases were free of sales tax due to their not-for-profit status. The city also had a residential permit parking system, necessary to attract owner-occupants to older areas.

It is clear to me that Albany’s historic neighborhoods, if upgraded to the level of those in Charleston, also could drive the economic engine of tourism. People like seeing block after block of old houses if the district has maintained its integrity and is safe and near hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. Could Albany emulate Charleston and achieve some measure of success as a tourist destination because if its historic residential areas? The success of local house and garden tours suggests it may be worth a try.

Incidentally, in the second trip department, I had some spare time my last day, and opted to save about $35 by taking a city bus from the tourist district to the airport. The service was direct, in the sense that it did not require changing buses, but the route was meandering and slow. However, I got to see some non-tourist areas of the city in air conditioned comfort.