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.

Second trip follow up

July 24, 2012

I recently wrote about my plans to take the airport train from Jamaica, New York to JFK airport (https://capitolview.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/second-trips/); here is the promised follow-up.  On my outbound trip, upon arriving at the mezzanine in Penn Station (the level from which Long Island Railroad trains run), I saw a ticket machine, and I purchased a one-way off-peak ticket to Jamaica for $6.25 with a credit card.  A nearby monitor showed the next train leaving in a few minutes; knowing that most if not all LIRR trains stop at Jamaica, I quickly found the departure gate, where a sign confirmed that the train did indeed stop there.  Within a half-hour from the time my Amtrak train arrived in Penn Station (late, of course, and, by the way, the onboard wi fi worked very poorly), I was in Jamaica.  Getting to the airport train required going up an escalator and buying a $5.00 Metrocard.  People were leaving the train through the same turnstiles those entering were using, creating a few stand-offs.  Although airport trains were supposed to be running every 10 minutes, I waited longer, but the train eventually came and the short ride to the airport was uneventful.  Signage was good, and, as long as you know the terminal you are looking for, you should be able to navigate the system with the information provided, at least if you speak English.  As I predicted, the worst part of this service is the need to change in Jamaica, where you must go to a different level platform, and where there are no porters to help the disabled or overwhelmed.  I was travelling light and am relatively able-bodied, so it worked out well for me.  I was at my terminal well within an hour after leaving Penn Station.

Coming back, the trip also worked out well, except that I had to walk outside a little bit (in the rain) to reach the train station serving my JFK terminal..

Overall, I give this service a B-.  The cost is very reasonable ($5.00, plus subway or LIRR fare) and service seems frequent and reliable.  The combined trip, at least the two times I took it, was quick, and being out of traffic and the delays it can cause in the New York City area is a huge advantage.  The big knock, as I anticipated, is the hassle of changing trains, buying two tickets, and having to navigate two separate transportation systems.  However, if your circumstances allow you to manage the logistical and physical challenges, this is a very nice way to get to the airport.

My destination airport, Arlanda in Stockholm, Sweden, offered a much nicer option – the Arlanda Express, a first-class train that travels directly from the terminal to the downtown Central Station in about 20 minutes (it’s a 30 mile trip).  It was expensive (almost $40 each way, though those traveling with companions could take advantage of a 2-for-1 summer offer).  Direct bus service for $15 also was available.  Arlanda is a relatively new airport, and the railroad link was not added as an afterthought, so direct comparison may not be fair.  Better to compare the train to JFK with some of the direct airport to center city transit links in this country, where the need to change trains leaves it wanting, though still worth considering.

Airline response

April 15, 2010

Unlike the conglomerate parent of Hellman’s Mayonnaise, which did not favor me with the courtesy of a reply to my e-mail, the airline that is the subject of the preceding post responded to my letter, in pertinent part, as follows:

The convenience fee of $14.00 per passenger only applies when using our booking services (website or reservations call center). You can avoid this fee by booking in person at any of our airport locations. A segment fee is defined as one take-off and landing. This is a mandatory fee that all airlines charge.

OK, I’ll give them the segment fee, even though saying all airlines charge it doesn’t explain what it’s for or by whom it’s mandated. However, I’ve never seen (and that includes on the web site I used to book the travel, though it may well be buried somewhere in there) a fee for booking over the internet. I believe I did see a mention of an extra charge for booking by phone, which makes the undisclosed (or at least the disclosed with much less prominence) fee for using the web ste surprising.