A recent Time Union article highlights the opening of a bike path connector between the Corning and Helderberg Hudson paths. I rode the connector a few times before it officially opened, and it’s a big improvement for people going from one path to the other (or, in my case, from Rensselaer over the Dunn Memorial Bridge to Delmar, a trip I often take). I am sure at least some of the anticipated economic improvement for the South End will result from this project, and I hope that residents of the area as well as others support it and, most important, use it.
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.
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.
I was shocked when the New York Times exposed the abuses by Long Island Railroad employees of their disability benefits, as well as provisions of its labor contracts that no sane company would accept . Now, perhaps less surprisingly, the New York Post reveals egregious time and leave abuse, allowing some individual employees to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime for hours they didn’t work. While some of the workers were able to retire before facing disciplinary action and recoupment of the stolen funds, the taxpayers who subsidize the railroad — already victimized by the railroad’s paying the crooked employees for hours not worked — will continue to pay their crookedly inflated pensions. If the abuse can’t be stopped (I give Governor Cuomo credit for trying to stop it, albeit belatedly), a big step toward curbing it would be to disallow overtime hours to be part of pension calculations.
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.
This recent New York Times story about the rapid decline in the value of taxi medallions, due to competition from Uber, Lyft and the like, portrayed the purchasers of the medallions in a sympathetic light. Many are immigrants struggling to enter the middle class, willing to work hard to achieve the American dream.
My reaction to the story was reflected in many of the readers’ comments (usually the best part of any Times story) who recounted taxi drivers refusing to pick them up because of their race, or refusing to take them to an outer borough. I remember coming home more than once from an exhausting business trip, laden with luggage, and being refused a ride to where I lived at the time, in Brooklyn Heights.
While I do have sympathy for those rule-abiding driver-owners who lost their investments, I have no sympathy for the all-too-many drivers who viewed the oligopoly conferred by their medallions as a license to engage in predatory behavior. Karma, as they say, can be a bitch.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about some annoyances I encountered while staying at hotels. Last night, at a fairly upscale hotel associated with a casino in the northeast, I encountered a few more.
When I entered the room, the bed had been turned down, chocolates had been placed on it, and the radio had been turned on. I turned off the radio, and didn’t notice that the alarm had been left on by the previous guest. My blissful sleep was rudely interrupted by the alarm at 6:00 a.m., long before my intended hour of waking. I don’t think it’s incumbent upon the hotel guest to figure out whether the alarm clock in a hotel room (of which there are infinite confusing varieties) has been armed; that should be an item on the housekeeping check list, especially when a housekeeper is tasked with turning on the same radio as part of the hotel’s turn down service.
Were it not for the rude awakening I experienced, I would not be writing this. But as long as I’m ranting, this hotel had a loose faucet in the bathroom sink that no housekeeper could have missed while cleaning the room. The room, recently (and apparently expensively) renovated, also had a paucity of soft surfaces, such as drapes and rugs. While I was on the phone, I sounded like I was in an echo chamber, and noises from the hallway and other rooms were quite audible. The heavy doors also clanged loudly when closed by guests.
I do not envy the jobs of hotel housekeepers, whom I’ve heard work to a very tight schedule and sometimes encounter the messes left very inconsiderate guests that make their jobs more difficult and increase the pressures on them. However, I think they are the crucial eyes and ears that must be trained to look for certain things, and correct or report them, before the room is released to a guest. Management, please take note.
The delays occasioned by traffic jams, red lights and other things that slow our automotive travel are a major source of frustration to most of us. As individuals, we can mitigate this frustration by choosing our home and work locations, and the times at which we work. We may be able to telecommute, walk or bike, or take public transit (which has its own frustrations). But in today’s automobile-dominated society, most of us have to use the private automobile for most of our travel, much of which must be done on a rigid schedule.
We deal with this frustration with fancy sound systems, luxury seating and blue tooth connections that allow us to use some of our automotive downtime productively. However, those measures do not address the tremendous waste of oil-based fuel and its concomitant pollution. Government, on behalf of us all, can do more to manage traffic and its related delays, but in our geographic area it has largely failed to act.
While I was driving down Washington Avenue in Albany recently, hitting red light after red light, my frustration triggered some early memories — from the 1960s — of driving up and down avenues in Manhattan with my father, watching each light turn green as we approached it. My dad explained to me that the lights were timed so that you would rarely have to stop, if you maintained a steady speed at or around the limit. I am aware of nowhere in our area that employs this proven (and by now, probably more affordable), technology.
Another local failure, on the part of the Thruway Authority, is its lagging behind the Mass Pike in eliminating toll plazas at exits and entries to its highways, with all tolls being tallied by gantries over the road that read E-Z Pass transponders without the need for cars to slow down (a few such gantries do exist on the Thruway, most notably near the Harriman exit, but they have not replaced the toll plazas at the entries and exits). Although the demolition of the toll plazas and barriers on the Mass Pike is not complete, travel time savings already have been noted.
While we now do have electronic signs on many of our primary roads advising of travel time to various points, these signs do not offer alternatives when delays are indicated, and in most cases no alternatives exist. While information may reduce frustration during times of congestion, expenditures aimed at reducing congestion would be a better use of taxpayer funds.
Money spent on reducing traffic congestion, as well as on things like bike paths and libraries, benefits everyone by making the area a more attractive one in which to live. Unfortunately, in New York, “everyone” is not a special interest, which may be why government under-spends in many of these areas.
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.
This recent Times Union story shows the persistence of unrealistic, grandiose thinking in relation to our local Amtrak station. The proposal to study spending $20 – $30 million, and who knows how much time, building an aerial tramway to transport a few hundred people a day across the Hudson, in all likelihood at significant public expense, is another example of the thinking that got us the present bloated, cavernous station that leaks money and water, and whose large outdoor clocks never tell the same time. Here’s something to try first, if there’s really a need for an alternative to the existing taxicab service most railroad passengers use (there is):
Realign the two bus routes that serve the station so they both stop at the same place on East St. for trips in each direction. Coordinate bus schedules with train schedules. Have a covered walkway from the station exit to the bus stop. Sell one way or round trip bus passes at the railroad ticket windows or at nearby kiosks. Have “Amtrak connect” schedules printed up that show when busses leave the station for popular downtown destinations and when they return, with a large map on the back showing the locations of bus stops and downtown landmarks.
If the above does not work, thousands, not tens of millions, will have been wasted. Then you can say “I told you so,” and try the gondola.