Travel as Solace

A person needs at intervals to separate from family and companions and go to new places. One must go without familiars in order to be open to influences, to change. ~ Katharine Butler Hathaway

Seattle

My summer has been one of change and unspeakable loss. I was wondering how I would cope, but I have challenged myself to travel a minimum of once per month, but with the condition that the trip must have a real purpose related to one of my careers. I threw myself into planning my trips and I’m finding myself away from home more than once per month, which is perfect, because I don’t want to be alone at home to dwell on the past. The process of planning and booking is also an activity that keeps my mind occupied.

My first purposeful trip as a solo traveler is this week. I will be traveling to Seattle, Washington, my first trip to the Pacific Northwest. In addition to sightseeing and wine tasting, one of the activities I have planned is to fly on my first seaplane to Victoria, British Columbia. I can’t wait to share this trip with you. I hope you will continue to follow my blog as I take my first step into a positive, purposeful future.

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Southwest Airlines PVD-MCI 5 July 2009 by VPP

Southwest Airlines Trip Details

Sunday, July 5, 2009:

WN 825 B737-700 departing PVD at 3:05 p.m. arriving BNA at 4:35 p.m. Open Seating, Got 11C

WN 393 B737-700 departing BNA at 5:25 p.m. arriving MCI at 7:00 p.m. Miss connect

Total Trip Cost: $389.70, Completely Refundable
Actual Airfare: $344.19
Actual Miles Flown: 1,398
Yield: $0.246 per mile (Business Select)
Taxes & Fees: $45.41, 11.6% of ticket price

Actually Flown

Sunday, July 5, 2009:

WN 825 B737-700 departing PVD at 3:05 p.m. diverted to SDF at 6:15 p.m. Open Seating, Got 11C

WN 214 B737-700 departing SDF at 7:00 p.m. arriving MDW at 7:15 p.m. Open Seating, Got 12D

WN 936 B737-700 departing MDW at 9:30 p.m. arriving MCI at 10:50 p.m. Open Seating, Got 11C

Actual Miles Flown: 1,473
Actual Yield: $0.233 per mile

Ordinarily, flying on Southwest is so darned simple,  it borders on boring….if it weren’t for the fact the crews are, for the most part, really fun-spirited.

But this is a great airline and a really great story, if you are curious how an airline performs when things go wrong, like the weather. Fortunately, they performed so well, I didn’t get a chance to see what happens when there’s a total meltdown.

Our travel manager secured the this ticket spur of the moment. I became aware of an emergency, last-second trip I had to make and WN came to mind first. I asked for Business Select as I like the product. Our travel manager checked me in and I got an A1 boarding position…SWEET!

At Providence, I checked luggage as I had a long trip…ultimately headed to Napa for the better part of 6 to 8 weeks.

I grabbed a bite to eat and then went to board. I was not quite the first person on as the “blue card” (minors, people that needed extra time, etc.) were allowed to board first, but I did get the best seat in the house, 11C on a B737-700.  With the best seat in the house and drink coupons in hand, I was ready for the trip!

The flight was perfect and normal…until I noticed we were nowhere close to landing and the pilot said, “Folks, if you look off to the left side of the aircraft, you will notice a huge storm…and unfortunately its right over Nashville and the airport is closed, so we’re going to hold…they are telling us 25 minutes.” 25 minutes came and went and the pilot came on and said he had enough fuel to circle another 20 minutes…but then we’d be looking for an alternative place to land if we could not reach Nashville.

Twenty minutes came and went and off to Louisville, KY we went…and the magic and genius of Southwest starts here.

On the way, the flight crew made it “fun and OK” and reassured everyone we’ll be fine. We arrived at Louisville and the crew asked everyone to remain on the aircraft and if possible, seated, as we could be released FAST.

So we were there about five minutes…and then the Lousiville ground crew came on and said, “Anyone going to Kansas City, we need you off the airplane, we’re going to re-route you.”

So I deplaned…and with skill and precision, the agent said, “Don’t worry, your luggage will be in Kansas City when you get there, sorry for the problems, here are more drink coupons.” The agents also had trouble generating new Business Select boarding passes with A1 – A15 numbers…they instead had B46…and the agent took the time to write on the boarding passes, stamp them, and instructed me to talk to the ground people when I got to Chicago-Midway.

I took my seat, we left….EASY flight…with the time zone changes, we “landed before we left.”

Once at Chicago-Midway, the ground crew was great…and made sure I had boarding position A5…where I grabbed the best seat in the house again, 11C. I had one drink coupon left…and I used that…and we landed at MCI ahead of schedule and…lo and behold, there were my bags!

How about that?

Folks, great airline…GREAT airline! I feel wonderful about being able to fly them. The detractors just don’t get it, no matter how they try to convince me they do.

And while it’s purely anecdotal, I run into more people like a gentleman I did during this trip, who is a national sales manager for an automotive company, and who just enjoys flying Southwest so much more over anyone else.

And to see they manage well through “crud” when it happens…very impressive.

Every trip I take, I become more and more impressed with Southwest Airlines. I’ll be flying them again and again.

The New Delta Airlines, They Love To Fly And It Shows by VPP

The New Delta Airlines, They Love To Fly And It Shows!

Okay…when I relay this story and this trip report, it’s going to sound like we’re talking about Nordstrom’s….I’m not. I’m talking about a story that was Delta Air Lines. And I’m still in a bit of shock and disbelief myself over it. It’s such a good story…and it’s an airline…so I thought I should take a moment and share it with you, the readers.

For a few weeks, I had been working to get meetings set up for my team in Charleston, SC and Roanoke, VA to introduce our new East Coast Manager to them. Our East Coast Manager is flying Delta, mostly because of her schedule and the fact it fits her timing well. So, we booked her on Delta, LGA-CHS on one PNR, CHS-ROA, both of us, on another PNR and then ROA-LGA on yet another PNR.

The date came, June 16, and we were to fly to CHS. Now, we all know, late spring, early summer, the weather in the south and Midwest is one, big, potential thunderstorm in the afternoon and evening. So, getting where you are going in the a.m. is critical. We did just that, scheduled our manager our of LGA (which I affectionately refer to as “LaGarbage”) first thing, non-stop on DL 6553. As my flight was leaving EWR on CO, our manager texted me and said, “delayed.” I took off, landed in CHS….and she was further “delayed.”

To make a long story short, she never made it to CHS…and it took 5 hours before DL fessed up and said, “The flight is cancelled, mechanical.” The story doesn’t end there….

Our manager FINALLY found someone to help her and re-booked her the next morning…by passing CHS and heading straight to ROA. The idea being, “okay, we missed that meeting, let’s not miss again.” So, back to LGA went our manager…and she boarded a flight to ATL, in first class, and arrived exactly nine minutes late…at the T gates. The connecting gate, where I was, was D32….and if you know ATL, even with a very efficient train system, that’s a haul. But make that trek she did…only to get to gate D32, both doors open, the gate and the airplane, and was denied boarding, “Sorry, it’s 10 minutes before departure, we won’t put you on, FAA regulation.”

Now that is just OBSCENE! And wrong…and a lie. It’s NOT an FAA regulation!

Be that as it may, we took off, without my sidekick, and went on….we never made it to ROA…but that too is another story, which ended well, by the way, courtesy of some GREAT UA Express customer service.

Meanwhile, our manager had to get back to LGA and for the week, never made it anywhere.

In any case, I was livid…and I made sure our professional travel manager knew about it. She promptly wrote DL and relayed the story…and was given….$400 in vouchers and an apology. When our travel manager asked for my thoughts, I said, “UNACCEPTABLE! The product did not perform, no one got where they were going, we lost money on hotels, cab rides and not to mention, lost time, doing nothing, getting NOWHERE!!”

I was truly outraged.

So, our travel manager (who owns this blog for the record) wrote back….and lo and behold! Delta agreed! And refunded our money!

Now, forgetting for a moment we had to write back, this is just outstanding and, in my world, unprecedented. Truly, unprecedented!

Long story short….I’ll book Delta with confidence…for myself and our traveling team. They clearly love to fly, and it shows!

TRI-CVG-LGA on Delta 24 April 2009

DL 6027 TRI-CVG 615P-720P seat 12A EMB-145
DL 1218 CVG-LGA 800P-1005P seat 3B First Class 737-800

This trip was flawless.  I arrived at TRI about an hour before my flight, reprinted my boarding pass at the kiosk, and passed quickly through security.  I spent about 15 minutes in the TRI Business Center, aka our lounge, except without food.  Apparently most of the power outlets in there are not operational anymore, as I tried three cubicles, no go.

We boarded quickly, pushed back about 10 minutes early, and were airborne about five minutes early.  In-flight service was by request only.  We landed at 7:01 pm, 19 minutes earlier than scheduled, which gave me a quick 15 minutes in the Delta Sky Club in Concourse B at CVG.  My snacks included a glass of Chardonnay, chicken salad, chickpea salad with yogurt drizzle, and mixed nuts.

When I arrived at my gate, the plane was already boarding.  When I arrived at my seat, there was a pillow, blanket, and mini bottle of Dasani.  The flight attendant took my pre-departure drink order and I had an Amstel Light.

We pushed back early and departed about 10 minutes past scheduled departure.  In-flight services consisted of a full beverage and snack basket service and Delta television, which included “How I Met Your Mother,” “Big Bang Theory,” and “Delta Destinations.”  The snack basket contained Twix® bars, Biscoff cookies, Pretzel Crisps®, and peanuts. I had two of Delta’s signature margaritas made with tequila and Rande Gerber Midnight Bar Collection MixWe landed at 9:37 pm, 28 minutes early, which might be a record into LaGuardia!

The Frequent Flyer’s Quagmire by VPP

The Frequent Flyer’s Quagmire
Exactly what do you, as a frequent flyer, give up when “status” trumps all else?

I wish, after reading various frequent flyer blogs, I had a quarter for every time I’d read about someone going on a “mileage run” otherwise known as taking needless trips, needless stops, and generally going out of their way in search of frequent flyer miles, “Elite Qualifying Points,” or some other reason to just spend time frivolously, padding the frequent flyer account. For that matter, I wish I had the time I personally wasted doing “mileage runs.” I, too, am guilty of flying from Providence, RI, to Miami, FL, via Houston. In my past life as an employee of the pharmaceutical industry, I did it. I will say I saw a “mileage run” posted the other day that basically took someone from Miami up to Boston, through Chicago and Seattle on their way to Santa Barbara. And I’ve known at least one person who went to Anchorage and one to Milan, Italy, and their stay was less than four hours. The one person who flew to MXP reported being hassled because no one could quite comprehend why he had just landed and was ready to head back to the States. I wouldn’t necessarily have hassled the person from a security or drug running standpoint. Instead, I would have wondered (and hassled) “Why would you waste your most precious commodity you own, time, on something so silly?”

So, there are two questions that come to my mind. First is, “Exactly where are a person’s values when they spend time like this?” and the second is, “When we buy air transportation, exactly what are we buying?”

The first question, for me, is easy.

I know in my life, there are many things replaceable and at least one thing that is not. I can get cars, clothing, money, houses, books back…etc. One thing I know I can’t get back is TIME. Time is finite. The number of heartbeats a person has, the amount of time to enjoy the company of a loved one, of a friend, is finite. It’s not replaceable. It comes and passes but one time. This alone leads me to the conclusion the concept of a “mileage run” is silly. The fact I would miss time with my wife, with loved ones, with my friends, doing something I want to do, is enough to quash the short sighted idea of a “mileage run.” At least one that involves multiple time zones and airplanes.

And for what reason do frequent flyers do those “mileage runs?” For that all mighty “status” that gives them the ability to get that first class seat, or the emergency exit row seat, or the bonus frequent flyer miles. All the while, two things happen. The first, and perhaps saddest, that person loses valuable time. Time that is irreplaceable. Time that they can never get back.

The second, and perhaps, in a strange twist, they surrender and accept a transportation product that is not just imperfect, but often flawed. The “mileage run” flies in the face (if you’ll pardon the pun) of what a person is actually buying: transportation! When I read these blogs and stories, I invariably ask, time and time again, “Are these people buying frequent flyer miles or are they buying transportation?” I dare say, frequent flyer crazies have lost sight of the reason to spend money with an airline!

Southwest Airlines (WN) exploited this and exposed airlines first in the 1990s when their “legacy” cousins had silly and stupid pricing policies, supported by a lack of competition as well as a public that was all too happy to purchase a subpar product, in the name of “status and frequent flyer miles.” WN took their legacy cousins to the hoop, simplified the product, made the value proposition of the product quantifiable, and actually thumbed their collective noses at the big boys. I for one am glad. I love the airline, but that’s not what this piece is about.

With nothing other than a GREAT positioning, WN made their place in aviation known and felt: ”You are buying a seat, a means of getting from point A to point B” and then they over-delivered. Suddenly, they are first in domestic passengers emplaned, and getting bigger and better. And those legacy cousins of WN who don’t understand or believe that “international travel is in their sights,” I would warn you not to be naïve.

And then there are other carriers, carriers like Midwest Airlines (YX) and Icelandair (FI) who, with a very small and very limited reach offer a product, often vastly superior, to their Goliath-like cousins. For less money than nearly any competitor, a person can fly FI from BOS/JFK/YYZ to many points in Northern and Western Europe. In the case of YX, from MKE or MCI, a person can get to a number of places and for the same price, if not a lesser price. My trips on FI and YX include a much more personalized service: better food, better drinks, better seats, better everything. Let’s face it, these little guys MUST work harder to provide a better value proposition, since they can’t compete with “global networks” and frequent flyer alliances. They understand, at the core of their existence, a very good, if not excellent product, must exist. Therefore, they are selling a transportation product, not frequent flyer miles.

And with WN? Oh my goodness, a person can purchase and have a better product in many ways. In fact, I believe the boarding process WN has is the best in aviation. The seat pitch, when you must fly coach, is very good. And let’s not forget, as opposed to a “Barbie Jet” or a God-forsaken CRJ (otherwise known as “Satan’s Chariot”) you get a REAL airplane with space, a friendly and fun crew, and perhaps most importantly, none of those insane $150 change fees.

Yet, my brothers and sisters out there, when offered the choice, opt to fly their Goliath carrier in search of that added segment, or those bonus miles, in hopes of getting that first class seat. And I for one, do NOT get it. It’s almost like they say, “I know it’s more segments, harder to get there, a lesser product, but I’m buying frequent flyer miles, not transportation!” Think about it, for goodness sake.

Now to be sure, I appreciate loyalty. I am a loyal and loving fan of Continental Airlines and I do try to fly them. And I’m loyal to Southwest Airlines and to Icelandair. So I understand loyalty. And I understand “status.” I happen to be a Platinum member of Continental’s One Pass program. I fly enough, I’m elite on DL and US as well, and this year, there’s a good chance I’ll make, in addition, WN’s “A-List” as well as FI’s “Saga Silver” program. So I get that.

And, to take it one step further, “status” does enter into my mind when purchasing. But it doesn’t cloud my vision. Is making Platinum on CO something that I want to do? You bet it is, but will I fly from PVD to FLL via ANC to do it? No way.

Here is a brief list of things travelers, customers, and employers lose as a result of this idea that status trumps all things in air travel.

TIME– The ultimate loss. The traveler him or herself loses valuable time. The employer does too as well. I wonder what an employer would think of their employee flying from BOS to MIA via DEN? Think it’s absurd? Think again. It happens. I read about people doing this type of crazy thing ALL the time. Again, I feel worse for the traveler, him or herself who places this silly value above their time. And I feel for the family and friends as well.

PRODUCT QUALITY – Here’s the thing I’m certain travelers DO NOT realize: “When you put ‘status’ and frequent flyer points as your reason to buy, you surrender, to an airline, the demand for a high quality product. What you are essentially saying is, “I’ll take the points over the actual product.” And folks, WHAT are we buying here? A seat? Air travel? Or frequent flyer points?

MONEY – OK, so if you need to fly SEA-LAX and can do it for roughly the same price via MCI that you do direct, see the rationale above, and remember, “Time is money.” I really wonder, “Is it really less expensive?” I also wonder, “How many people spend more money (and time) flying their “favorite” airline to get the points or be upgraded when they can save both time and money and fly another airline? How many times does a traveler pick an airline that is charging $20 more for the points as opposed to the time of the service? I would be frightened to know that stat. (The airlines, of course, bank on it.)

Truth is, I could go on, but I think you get the point. The “price you pay” for “status” and frequent flyer points is very, very high. Can we put a price on a commodity such as “time” that is irreplaceable? I think not. And is it really a good deal to surrender product quality in the name of “points?” Apparently, for some it is, I would argue, “NO WAY!” And finally, if you lose time and product quality, are you really saving money? I think not.

Are there times when a “mileage run” can make sense? Certainly. For example, if I were within 2,000 miles of getting to CO Platinum, it were December, and I had no more trips planned, might I try to go see my mother in Kansas City and thereby generate the 2,000 EQMs? Certainly. Provided the timing and price made sense. I will assure any reader, I’ve skipped flying my favorite airlines and flown carriers I’m a “nothing” on in order to save time and money. And I’ve skipped my normal carriers, like CO or WN domestically, to fly a carrier I love, like YX. In fact, as I type this I’m on an YX flight from SFO-MCI. Might be my only YX flight this year and I’m sacrificing a couple thousand points and segments I would have received flying CO through IAH, or UA through DEN. But I’m saving my time and frankly, getting a vastly superior product. I can’t put a price tag on my time and being in a clean, comfortable “Signature Seat” makes my time that much more enjoyable, even with the knowledge I very well could miss Platinum on CO.

Finally, because of how I value time and money, I will say, “status,” while important to me, is actually down the list in my reasons I buy air travel. As time is my first and most important commodity, I’m not afraid to “put my money where my mouth is” and buy first class service or fares that are instantly upgradeable, thereby not being at the mercy of those hard to snag “unlimited, complimentary upgrades.” In fact, when I travel more than four hours on an airplane, for the most part, I won’t accept sitting in coach, because without some space, I can’t work. Therefore, I pay the price. And because of that, “status” suddenly becomes less valuable. But in my world, “time” is the one commodity that is priceless. And “product quality,” or the “value proposition” offered is not far behind.

In summary, I find it strange, almost bizarrely troubling how frequent flyers place values on their priorities. It always makes me pause and want badly to really understand how that “extra segment” or that “extra 10-hour trip from CLT-MXP via DCA & PHL” is more important than time with loved ones.

But in the ultimate twist, it really makes me struggle to understand why travelers will accept a subpar product, and endorse it, in search of the almighty segment or frequent flyer status.

14 March 2009: SFO-CVG-TRI

DL 1836 SFO-CVG 11:34 am – 6:55 pm 737-800 Seats 1C and 1D

Wow, this flight was almost a mirror image of my outbound flight except for aircraft type, which is how it should be – consistent, reliable, and comfortable. We pushed back on time and were airborne by 11:45 am. Upon reaching 10,000 feet, we received our hot towel, beverage, and meal service. The meal choices were the same as the outbound, so we chose the ribs again instead of penne pasta with eggplant tomato sauce. It was just as good this time as the first time. That chocolate mousse cake is RICH. We also spent the flight watching satellite TV as we were not interested in the movies, and I worked on my trip blog (I will let you know when it’s posted nationally!) We had plentiful beverages served throughout the flight.  During the last hour, the flight attendant came around with the snack basket and more beverages.  We landed about 10 minutes early and John walked me halfway to the A concourse! Our inbound plane was his LGA outbound plane, lucky guy!

DL 6138 CVG-TRI 8:05 pm – 9:08 pm EMB 145 Seat 12A

Not sure why as it was about half full, but this flight departed about 20 minutes late. However, flight time en route was only about 35-40 minutes, so we still managed to arrive a few minutes early. The flight attendant offered a water only beverage service “due to the short duration,” but it was better than nothing! The funny part about this segment was our arrival at TRI. There was a crowd of about 75 people at baggage claim, which is a rare sight at little TRI. It seems that there was an NAIA track and field event being held locally and of course, the start of NASCAR week, which meant more inbound travelers than usual on a Saturday evening, and three flights (DL, NW, and US) had arrived around the same time. Now that was some “excitement” for sure!