Wednesday, September 17, 2014

PanAm Really Knew How to Take Care of Their Passengers.

Today's travel stories in the newspapers and on the internet are all about the discomforts of flying: check-in procedures; security hassles; additional fees for changes, for cancellations, for checked bags or for two or three additional inches of legroom; crowded planes; $10 bags of trail mix replacing actual meals; and on and on. For all us ordinary folks who ride in the back of the plane, flying has become an ordeal.

 Ah, but 75 years ago, for a select few flying was an absolute pleasure. Here's a look at how people with enough money for a first class ticket were treated on one of Pan American's famed Clippers … actually a Boeing Model 314s. These magnificent airplanes first went into operation in 1938 and carried passengers literally around the world for just four years, until 1941 when the entire world was engulfed in war.

 Boeing built just a dozen of these big planes exclusively for PanAm. They were referred to quite appropriately as "flying boats" since they took off and landed on water.

The Clippers were big and slow -- gross weight of 42 tons, top speed of only 200 miles per hour -- but they cruised at 19,000 feet and had a maximum range of just over 5,000 miles. It took a crew of 10 to fly the plane and look after as many as 74 passengers. Meals were served at tables and seats converted to real beds. It's hard to imagine, isn't it, that these planes first went into service more than 75 years ago.

Those pleasant and comfortable amenities make all the difference. They're why I much prefer spending two days in an Amtrak sleeping car to six hours on an American Airlines flight. Rail travel is, in fact, the only civilized way for travel that's left to us. If you can get up and stretch your legs … if you're served a nice meal at a real table … if you can nap when you feel like it … or sleep through the night in a real bed … then your trip has  ceased to be an ordeal; it has become a journey.

In some ways, we haven't progressed a whole lot over these past 75 years, have we?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pro-Football: Three Strikes ... and Out!

 I was once a big football fan. That was a long time ago, though … almost 50 years, in fact, when I followed the Miami Dolphins back in the days of Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick and the Dolphin's undefeated season in 1972.

But, gradually over the years since then, the game has changed and today it's a multi-billion dollar enterprise operating as a world unto itself. The players are bigger and stronger and faster, and when one of them gets hurt, they cart him off the field and run someone else out there to take his place. (Tip of the hat to the late Andy Griffith.)

A lot of them get hurt permanently. The National Football League has finally, belatedly, even grudgingly owned up to the fact that literally thousands of former NFL players have suffered serious, debilitating concussions on the field. How bad is it? Statistically, it's generally agreed that 30-percent of NFL players have or will have brain damage. But not to worry. The league has pledged $765 million to help the players and their families … so let the games continue. They, who are about to suffer cranial trauma, salute us.

 Then, of course, the character issue. No sense going into the Ray Rice incident except to say that when the TV cameras were rolling and Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league had not seen the video of Rice decking his then-fiancé in the elevator, the expression on his face told us all that wasn't true.
The game has become too violent and the violence is glorified, not controlled. The players are superb athletes on Sundays, but, inevitably, some are just thugs the rest of the week. Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens punched a woman unconscious in an elevator. Aaron Hernandez, formerly of the New England Patriots, is in jail without bail charged with not one, but three murders. Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers has been charged with domestic abuse, but continues to play. And D. J. Peterson of the Vikings is facing accusations of child abuse. There are more we know about and, doubtless, others we don't. 

Finally, the moguls of football have turned the game into a relentlessly over-hyped spectacle. Kevin Dupont of the Boston Globe reminded us in a column the other day that, by definition, a football game lasts 60 minutes. So why, he asks, did last week's game between the Patriots and the Miami Dolphins last for three hours and 17 minutes? The answer is, of course, periods of no action, many of which are conveniently long enough to allow various sponsors the opportunity to sell us something. According to Dupont, viewers of that game were subjected to no fewer than 77 commercials plus 30 promotional spots flogging other network programs and official NFL merchandise.

Sorry. I've had enough. There are only a couple of weeks left in the baseball season, and then I'm going to spend the winter happily counting the days until Spring Training begins.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What's the Point of Pointless Rules?

My wife has a wonderful expression whenever circumstances conspire to make life a little more difficult than it needs to be.   She says, "They're sprinkling tacks in your path."

Case in point: A postcard from the Maui DMV showed up a few days ago reminding me that my driver's license expires at the end of next month. The notice also informed me that every dozen years or so, the law says you have to jump through some extra hoops in order to renew your license. It said I still have to fill out a form and pass the eye test, but this time around I also have to come up with some extra documentation: 

- To prove my identity, a passport or a valid drivers license with photo.

- To prove I am or was employed, my original Social Security card but, since I'm a geezer, my Medicare card will do; and …

- To prove I actually live where I say I do, two documents that were mailed to me - an electric bill, for example. 

So last week I went to the County of Maui's Service Center, took a number, filled out the form, and waited for over an hour until I was called. I passed the eye test and laid out the necessary documents in front of the clerk: Passport - check. Medicare card - check. Current water bill - check. Recent State Farm bill for Auto Insurance - GONG!  

Me:   What's the matter?
Clerk:  We don't accept car insurance bills as poof of residence.
Me:   But see? It was mailed to the address which is where I say  I live.
Clerk:  I know.
Me.   Then why isn't this acceptable as proof of residence?
Clerk:  (wearily) I have no idea.

See? Someone got to the DMV before I did that morning, waited until I drove up, and sprinkled tacks in my path. Fortunately, the clerk said my old driver's license had my address on it and she agreed to accept that. A good thing I had a passport, she said, because the driver's license could not be used as both proof of identity and proof of residence.

Me:   Why not?
Clerk:   (wearily) I have no idea.

Anyway, I left the DMV with a new albeit temporary driver's license and stopped off on the way home at the local pharmacy for the various medications I'm taking on my upcoming trip. Since I'll be gone almost a month, I will need more than the normal 30-day supply for several of them. The clerk was apologetic:

Clerk:   I'm sorry, but the insurance company won't authorize an additional supply for these three prescriptions.
Me:      Why not?
Clerk:   They said they approved more than a 30-day supply when you were traveling in April.
Me:      What has that got to do with this trip?
Clerk:   (wearily) I have no idea.

I hate those damn tacks!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Two More Amtrak Trains Offer a Fall Colorful Ride.

I'm sure there are veteran train travelers out there who will disagree, who will have their own particular favorite train for viewing the Fall colors. But for my money, acknowledging the Adirondack as Number One, my next two choices would be the Downeaster and the Cardinal.

(Yes, yes, I know … I've omitted the Maple Leaf and the Vermonter and either one would make a grand choice. I just think the Adirondack is more scenic and the Downeaster and Cardinal are special in their own ways and for different reasons.)

For one thing, the Downeaster has five roundtrips every day, departing from Boston's North Station and running northeast through New Hampshire and up into Maine, where it stops at Old Orchard Beach, Portland and Freeport before terminating in Brunswick. In all, it's about a three-and-a-half hour ride. The beauty of the multiple departures is that you can make it a day trip, starting from Boston and going up to Old Orchard Beach or Portland, have a nice lunch, and head back … all with incomparable Fall colors of New England in both directions. And, of course, you can start from up north, too.

As you regulars know very well, I really like the Cardinal. It is, at least in my opinion, the most scenic of all Amtrak's eastern trains, originating from either Chicago or New York, it's route takes it over the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, across the Shenandoah Valley, and through the New River Gorge (photo above). It's a gorgeous ride anytime -- I confess, however, I have not done this ride in the winter -- but taking the Cardinal in the Fall will certainly ratchet the experience up several notches.

Of the several trains mentioned here, the Cardinal is the only one that is an overnight ride and I have had some friendly arguments with other train travel aficionados as to which is the better direction for the best scenery. Personally, I prefer the westbound train, but I guarantee you'll be delighted either way.

One final note: remember that the Cardinal runs only three days a week, the westbound train number 51 departing from New York on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and train number 50 heading east from Chicago on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

And, yes … for the umpteenth time, the Cardinal should be a daily train!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Amtrak Trains Offer Great Viewing for Fall Colors.

In another week or so, folks back east will be enjoying those wonderful crisp Fall days when the trees have turned color. Over the next few days, I want to recommend three Amtrak trains that provide the unique opportunity to relax in comfort and have magnificent views of the Fall foliage pass by right outside your window.

 Number One on my list is the Adirondack, shown here running alongside Lake Champlain. This train operates daily in both directions between New York City and Montreal and it passes through lovely countryside virtually the entire way. It's a beautiful trip any time of the year, but really special in the Fall … and right from the get-go.

For the first two hours or so after departing Penn Station, the northbound Adirondack runs along the eastern bank of the Hudson River, first passing almost literally through the middle of he infamous maximum security Sing Sing Prison. Then, a few minutes later, over on the western bank of the river, you get a nice view of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

 Albany, New York State's capital city, arrives about two-and-a-half hours into the ride and, an hour later, right around noon, the Adirondack stops at Saratoga Springs. This is where New York City upper crust vacationed in the latter part of the 19th century. And near here, in October of 1777, General John Burgoyne army of nearly 6,000 British and Hessian soldiers was routed by an American force led by General Horatio Gates. Historians consider the Battle of Saratoga a turning point in the Revolutionary War. 

The Adirondack's next stop of particular interest comes around 1:15 p.m. It's the little town of Ticonderoga, so named for the imposing stone fort that still stands overlooking Lake Champlain. Fort Ticonderoga was captured by the Continental Army and its guns were transported through the dead of winter on sleds hauled by oxen more than 300 miles to Boston where they helped end the British occupation of that city. If you have the time, both Saratoga Springs and Ticonderoga are worth an overnight stop.

After leaving Ticonderoga, and for the next six hours, the Adirondack continues to head almost due north, and if you're traveling around the middle of October, take it from me, you'll be dazzled by the countryside absolutely ablaze in color. 

As a big bonus, from September 25 through November 4, Amtrak will be adding its dome car to the Adirondack consist. This classic car will be on the northbound train every Monday, Thursday and Saturday; and on the southbound train on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. There will be no dome car in either direction on Wednesdays.

One final bit of advice: If you have a choice, take the northbound train because more of the run is during daylight hours. Heading south, especially in the Fall when the days get shorter, that very pretty stretch south from Albany along the Hudson River into New York City will mostly be at night. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Recline Rage" Incidents Are an Increasing Problem for the Airlines.

A week or so ago, I posted about an altercation on a United flight that occurred when a guy slipped little devices called the Knee Defender onto his tray table supports. They prevented the woman seated directly in front of him from reclining her seat, thus preserving what little legroom the male passenger had. Unfortunately, the lady took umbrage, there was a heated exchange, and she doused the guy with a cup of water. The flight was diverted to Chicago and the two people were escorted off.

 Since then there have been at least two more similar incidents of recline rage. Both involved the very same Knee Defender and, in each case, the flights were diverted and the recliner and the reclinee were presumably booted from the plane.

(Incidentally, I had no idea how common it is for planes to be diverted. According to aviation sources, in the 12-month period ending June 30th, almost 15,000 flights operated by U.S. airlines were diverted. That averages out to almost 41 a day, although only a handful of those are the result of problem passengers. The rest are because of some minor issue causing the captain to "err on the side of caution".)

 The average amount of space between rows for all U.S. airlines is 32 inches, with Jet Blue and Virgin America offering the most with 35 inches. Spirit Airlines is at the opposite end of that spectrum, giving their passengers all of 28 inches between rows. Ironically, Spirit is a profitable operation which just goes to prove that price is what people care most about. Not me. I'm just too old and tired and cranky to sit for five-plus hours with my knees up under my chin to save $40 on the air fare. 

Of course I can't resist taking this opportunity to note that legroom is definitely not a problem for those of us who choose to travel by train. Seats in coach class on Amtrak are at least as large as the first-class equivalent offered by the airlines. And, as you can see, there's plenty of room to stretch out.

Getting back to the recline-or-not-to-recline issue, there are two U.S. airlines that don't have to deal with the problem at all. Seats on Allegiant Air and Spirit simply do not recline … at all. Not an inch. Allegiant did away with reclining seats eight years ago and Spirit followed in 2009. They did it, of course, to reduce the legroom by a half inch or so between rows, making it possible to squeeze one more row of seats into each plane. Six more seats times the number of planes in the fleet times the number of flights in a day and -- to once again quote the comment attributed to the late Senator Everett Dirkson, " … pretty soon you're talking real money!"

Slice and dice any way you want, but the fact is, to make a few extra bucks, the airlines are deliberately inflicting discomfort on their paying customers. Show me another industry that could get away with that!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Life in Economy Class Ain't What It Used to Be.

My first ride in an airplane happened when I was eight or nine. It was in an American Airlines DC-3, the flight lasted about 20 minutes, and I threw up. 

I haven't cared too much for flying since then, although over the past 52 years I've probably flown from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland 200 times, and that's five hours each way. I did go through a stretch during most of the 1970s when I was in the Honolulu City administration and flew first class quite a lot. As my wife says rather tartly, that was back "when you were somebody" and the airlines routinely upgraded me to first class. 

 Flying is still OK if you're riding up front in First Class, but for those of us who customarily ride in what my father referred to as "steerage", it's just no fun any more. I make no claims as to being expert or even especially knowledgable about the workings of the aviation industry or how they price their product, but two things rankle me. 

First, much of what's been taken from us economy passengers -- from that precious extra inch of leg room to what was once-upon-a-time a reasonably decent meal -- has been used to sweeten the experience of those people sitting up front in First Class. In fact, those are the people the airlines really want … really care about. We're there to fill up the back of the plane and pay for the fuel and a lot of the overhead. Think not? Look at the advertising for any of the major carriers. Then tell me those TV commercials and beautiful print ads are not designed to lure the business traveler who gets to fly First Class as a perk of his or her employment.

I love to ask people to guess what a first class airline ticket to Europe costs, let's say from Los Angeles to London. When I tell them the one-way first class fare can be as much as $12,500, they think I'm kidding. I'm not. Chicago to London is less: $7500. From Chicago to Paris, American says it'll cost you $9700 … that's an additional $2200 for a flight that's only about a half hour longer than their flight from Chicago to London.

OK, OK … I know that you can shop around and find better deals, because it's crazy to spend almost TWENTY FOUR DOLLARS A MINUTE  to fly first class, no matter how fancy the food you get and how many free drinks they give you. But I took that American flight from LAX to London last year and both first class and business class sections appeared to be nearly full. 

And, yes, I understand that there are people riding in first class who have gotten a deal and have paid less … and I know that there may be some people who have used their Aadvantage miles … and no doubt there are people with so much money it doesn't matter what their seats cost. But it's the people riding in first class who are traveling on business that cause me heartburn, because as far as I know their ticket is a deductible business expense. And that means you and I are subsidizing all those business travelers sitting up there in those big, wide seats, with all that legroom, about to sip a little more of an excellent Grand Cru from the Côte d'Or and dig into that filet mignon (medium rare).

I confess I do tend to dwell on that a bit … back there in Row 38, with my 10 inches of leg room, my turkey wrap and my plastic cup of ginger ale.