Damn Annoying: Traveling the US by Air


Here I am.

Winging my way back from a long business trip – I left 10 days ago, and with any luck, will finally stumble home some time in the wee hours Wednesday.

The experience was a whirlwind tour of the best and worst airports, airlines and aircraft the friendly skys have to offer. Perhaps there is something of value you can find in this. Otherwise, I just spilled ~1,300 words from seat 1A for naught.

First leg: Continental from LaGuardia: We leave November 10 – damned daylight savings day. Our early 6:35am flight becomes 5:35 am – an ungodly hour to travel, even with the bonus “fall back” hour. Paranoid I would arrive late, I get picked up extra early, and dropped off at La Guardia for Continental flight 633 to Dallas by way of Houston a little after 4am.

The Continental desk is a mess – there is a huge line, except for those who got an online boarding pass. I selected seats on the phone with an agent, but I do not recall the suggestion to print boarding passes (That might have been helpful). Because the tickets were booked via Orbitz, the upgrade to 1st class is $857. No thanks.

Without the printed boarding tickets, we must endure this l o n g line. Despite being there 90 minutes before the flight, I begin to wonder if we are going to make the plane.

If this an attempt at behavior modification, to encourage people to print e-boarding passes, it may have backfired. I make two mental notes: 1) Always print out the boarding pass; 2) Don’t fly Continental anymore.

45 minutes later, we are at the desk. We pay $20 per bag. I ask about the upgrade to 1st class (the machine says $150), but the harried agent suggests we can do it at the desk. We breeze through security, but at the gate, they tell us its $857.

Fuck Continental.

At least I reserved an emergency aisle, so the 3 hour flight has extra leg room. Reiterate the don’t fly Continental mental note. (Flight quality B+, Check in experience F)

We get to Houston, a quick switch to an Embarcadero Expressjet for the 55 minute hop to Dallas. Straight from the airport to the new Cowboys stadium – a gorgeous public facility, a fitting shrine to the religion that football is in Texas. We are in the 1st level above the field, corner of the end zone. Spectacular seats for about $100 on stub-hub. I spend most of the time there marveling over the building, eating junk food, and staring at the cheerleaders’ tight white short shorts and even tighter asses. I even manage to watch some football – the Cowboys romp the Seahawks, 37 – 17.

Second leg: By Thursday, we are done with Dallas, and head to Austin on Southwest (2877). They are a reliable workman’s airline – efficient, reasonably priced, well run. You could do a whole lot worse than Southwest. 35 minutes later, we are in Austin. (A minus check in, B plus flight)

Third leg: At the end of the day, my partners and I part ways – they go back to respective offices in NY and Boston, and I go on to Detroit for a book fair presentation for Bailout Nation. American Airlines is the carrier for this flight. At the desk, the electronic kiosk offers me an upgrade to first class for $45 to Dallas, and $90 to Detroit. I figure its not worth it just for the 35 minute ride to Dallas, so I don’t select that, but pay for thee upgrade to Detroit (2.5 hours plus). But the bag is $20 without both legs, and if the kiosk warned me of that, I might have paid the $25 difference. (AA loses points for that)

On the plane, I immediately regret the missed upgrade (693). Seat 30F is the smallest coach seat I have ever sat in. I am practically kissing the seatback in front of me – and its not even reclined. Simply awful. (Check in B-, flight F)

Well, the first of several 1st class rides are coming up, and I tough it out.

I make the connection, and its okay. The food was terrible, the seats fair. For 1st class, flight 2204 was not even aspirational luxury. No wonder the legacy airlines are getting their asses kicked.

The next morning, I give a speech to a room full of business people, real estate agents, auto management, and other authors. I sign books afterwards, and then . . .

Fourth leg: . . . its off to the airport 3 hours early. I have a 1st class ticket for the 5 hour flight from Detroit’s ironically oversized airport (whoever planned this must have been wholly unaware of the decades long decline in the American auto industry) to San Francisco, courtesy of the Detroit Book Fair.

My assumption that the 1st class Northwest ticket gains me entrance into the sky lounge is proven to be too optimistic. Northwest only grants access to international 1st class ticket holders. I politely inquire what we can do, and she offers me a $50 one day pass, but does not tell me what it gets me. I decide against it, as there is but 90 minutes to the flight.

All I can think of is that announcement they make when landing: “We know you have a choice in air travel…”

Strike Northwest from my list of preferred carriers.

The seats are pretty good, the food okay (they serve two options, and by the time they got to seat 5C, there was only one choice left.   (Check in/Sky lounge D, flight B+)

Fifth leg: My WSJ panel on Tuesday had been canceled, so I change my Virgin America flight online from Wednesday to tonite. Its a seamless, easy process.

The trip home (VX24) was the best leg of all — Seat 1 A. Everything Virgin America is shiney new and well thought out. I can only find a few things to nit pick about: The Virgin Upper Class lounge is $35, but it includes showers, Wifi, unlimited food, and booze.  (A party bargain for next Saturday night). They even tell you they will get you in time for your flight.

Its delightful — except for two things: Its outside security, so after all that niceness, you have to fight your way thru the serpentine lines. Oh, and, the hostess forgot to call me when it was time to go. I leave the lounge at boarding time, and Ack! My heart drops when I see the security line. Luckily, I make it with 15 minutes to spare.

Virgin America is the first flight where my ass touches leather. Big adjustable seats, free in flight WiFi, power for the laptop, an excellent meal (mushu chicken and eggplant — it was surprisingly, very good). Even the stewardesses are uncommonly hot looking. Sure, the entertainment system crashed twice — not very encouraging at 33,000 feet. But just about everything else was fine to excellent. (A- airport, A+ flight).

Rather than whine, let me make these suggestions to Sir Richard Branson regarding small tweaks to his airline:

• Serving dinner at 4pm local time is wrong. 6pm is the earliest you should

• For a $1500 ticket holder, the $35 is kinda adding insult to injury. Build it into the fare.

• Put the Lounge on the other side of security.

• Since you know who is sitting in what seat, why not save my music/entertainment  preferences? Rebuilding that every flight is a waste.

• Make the Upperclass lounge ticket good for the arrival airport also — that’s where I more likely to want to shower — AFTER the flight.

• I hate movies on plane where they are edited — it would be appreciated if it was disclosed if it is edited or unedited (i.e., ruined).

All told, it was a very productive trip, but I am really looking forward to tonite — sleeping in my own bed, next to my own woman . . .

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