A lounge, a lounge, my kingdom for an airport lounge!

June 28, 2022

Why is it that I can no longer count on airport lounge access when I need it most? I admit it is not as weighty a question as Shakespeare posed for his Royal Majesty Richard III regarding his kingdom for a horse in the heat of battle, but it does give me pause in my 62nd year of flying.

After all, since I began weekly flying on business in the 1970s, I’ve been a member of one or more airline or airport lounges.  It made sense.  Sudden cancellations and long delays have always been a dreary part of commercial aviation, so it didn’t take me long being on the road to realize the value of having a private place to wait out the misery of such events. 

Over the decades I paid and paid for access to the Eastern Airlines Ionosphere Club (to which I was a lifetime member—I thought it was for MY lifetime, not Eastern’s), the TWA Ambassador Club, the United Red Carpet Lounge, and the American Airlines Admirals Club.  I don’t regret a penny of the expense.  It was money well spent. 

Sometime in the early 1980s Delta made me a Flying Colonel, which gave me access to then invitation-only Delta Crown Rooms.  Now I am a 5.5 million miler in the Delta SkyMiles scheme of things, which makes me a Lifetime Platinum.  But neither that nor my old Flying Colonel status cuts any ice with Delta when I turn up at a Delta Sky Club.  For entry, Delta only cares about my American Express Platinum Card and day-of-travel boarding pass.

That’s been just fine when flights were on time and connections reasonably short.  Delta’s 2022 chaos, however, has meant a flurry of schedule changes, including an itinerary in late August to Ljubljana, Slovenia for me and my wife.  We are connecting on Air France (Delta codeshare) through JFK to Paris CDG, and the AF flight leaves at 7:30 PM.  Then Delta canceled our afternoon flight RDU/JFK that would have made a three-hour connection and rebooked us on an RDU/JFK flight that arrives in New York at 11:30 AM.  That’s an eight-hour connection.

We will be on vacation, so my immediate reaction was that we will just pass the time in the Delta Sky Club.  Delta’s recent access limitation of three hours, though, is a bit unclear.  It says: “Beginning June 1, 2022, guests will be able to access Delta Sky Clubs anytime within 3 hours of their scheduled departure time (and connecting customers can continue to access Clubs at any time prior to departure).”  I figured that meant that even an eight-hour connection will qualify for entry.  A call into Delta clarified that, yes, access is assured no matter how long the connection—a big relief.

That got me thinking, however.  How long before that rule changes, too?  If connecting passengers are likewise restricted, what then?  Would we, in this case, have had to wait until 4:30 PM (three hours before our flight) to get in? 

Thinking through alternatives, as an Amex Platinum Card holder, my wife and I could use either one of the Priority Pass Clubs in JFK Terminal One or the American Express Centurion Lounge there.  But checking my Priority Pass app for allowed lounges gave me pause, as did the Centurion Lounge rules:

  • Air France Lounge – open 0945-2230 daily, but access “may be restricted” 1330-2200 due to space constraints.  Also restricted to a “maximum 3-hour stay.”  Maybe we could stay for three hours and move on—unless it was too crowded to begin with.
  • Korean Air Lounge – open only 0830-1200 daily.  Wouldn’t meet our needs for an eight-hour wait from 11:30 AM until 7:30 PM.
  • Lufthansa Business Lounge – open 0930-2245 daily, which would work, but, again, only for a “maximum 3-hour stay.”  Maybe, like the AF lounge, we could stay for three hours and move on, like gypsies.
  • Primeclass Lounge – open 0930 until 2330 or 0100 daily, but only for a “maximum 4-hour stay” and “may be restricted due to lounge capacity constraints.” 
  • Amex Centurion Lounge – open 1130 until 2030, which is perfect for us, but reading on, I see that admittance is only “within 3 hours of the departure time stated on your same-day, confirmed boarding pass.”  I’ve been to this lounge, and it’s high-class and super fancy.  But not to be enjoyed for more than three hours.

Truth is, who wants to spend even three hours in an airport lounge?  Elegant or not, I certainly don’t yearn to.  But there will be days when weather delays, ATC slip-ups, airline operation blunders, long layovers, or other complications force us to seek cover in a cloistered and insensitive airport somewhere on the planet.  I prefer to know my options before getting to the airport, yet widely varying restrictions on lounge entry make for uncertain strategies.

South African domestic airlines

June 21, 2022

Welcome to the first day of summer—and ceaseless domestic flying horrors!  I’m averting my gaze from the cascading cancellations here in the U.S. to look way south at what’s happening to domestic flying in South Africa, a place I often visit and have since 1991.

When I first worked and lived in South Africa in 1991, South African Airways (SAA) was healthy and solvent.  The carrier dominated domestic routes in South Africa as well as long-haul international (Europe, USA, etc.) and short- to medium-haul inter-African routes, such as to Harare, Zimbabwe, and to Windhoek, Namibia.  A few small carriers, like then-tiny Comair, nipped at SAA’s heel on thin domestic routes like Johannesburg to Skukuza (Kruger National Park), but SAA clearly had the competitive advantage on lucrative routes like Johannesburg-Cape Town.

Over the thirty-plus years since, SAA has collapsed several times due mainly to corrupt and shoddy management.  It’s now being liquidated and supposedly revived again as strictly an international carrier.  It has been brought back from the dead so many times that I call SAA the Alitalia of the Southern Hemisphere. 

SAA’s domestic routes are long gone, including those operated by a subsidiary called SA Express—also now in liquidation. 

In recent years the aforementioned Comair expanded to operate both a domestic airline in British Airways livery and a low-cost domestic carrier named Kulula.  The BA and Kulula flights dominated the main South African city-pairs the way SAA used to.  Recently, though, Comair’s two brands also sank out of sight and are now being liquidated, with little hope for the ticketholders to be reimbursed (at the back of the creditor line, as usual). 

Naturally, South Africans, as well as foreign tourists, have a keen desire to fly between cities now that the pandemic has (mostly) abated.  The demise of SAA, SA Express, and the Comair duo has left a void of opportunities for new or existing airlines to fill.  That seems to be happening.  Although details about some SA airline fares, policies, and conditions are hard to ascertain, here’s what I know so far:

First, although I could not verify it except inferentially, domestic air routes in South Africa are granted only to airlines that can prove 75% or higher local ownership. The ones listed below meet that test.  Wikipedia lists South African airlines, but some are primarily charter or very small niche players. 

LIFT is the newest carrier and describes itself as SA’s most flexible airline.  The carrier operates three A220s strictly Johannesburg-Cape Town (JNB/CPT) with five round trips seven days a week from 700am until 700pm.  Reminds me of the old Eastern Airlines Shuttle Washington-NYC, except with far fewer flights.

After trolling the website, I conclude that LIFT offers three fare levels based on checked and carry-on luggage (none to two) and a few small perks.  Doesn’t allow any carry-on over 7 kg (16 pounds), so essentially tourists with their inevitable luggage would have to opt for the higher fare level.

The lowest one-way fare JNB/CPT with one checked bag is around $62.50, and with two checked bags and extra legroom about $190.

LIFT was established in late 2020 and commenced operations in December. The name was selected by the public following the hoopla of a social media campaign.  The carrier is a joint venture between former Kulula CEO Gidon Novick, a former Uber executive, and aircraft leasing company Global Airways.  Since Kulula is in liquidation, I can’t help but wonder about LIFT’s future with the Kulula former CEO at the helm.

Further information here and here.

Fly Safair operates a fleet of 22 737s, with more on order. FlySafair offers food and drinks for sale on board. It was the first airline in South Africa to offer credit card payments aboard flights.

Fly Safair seems to fly to 8 domestic airports, but, maddeningly, their website returns multiple “undefined errors” which then show blank screens for flight and fare searches, making it impossible to determine what the fare levels and conditions are.  For JNB/CPT, Google Flight search shows $147 to $162 one-way fares on Fly Safair but doesn’t show restrictions on carry-on, checked luggage, etc.

This carrier seems to have the heft to meet a lot of domestic demand.  Further information here and here.

CemAir is another domestic option, a small airline.  See here and here.

However, it may have a checkered safety record for airworthiness (see the Wikipedia article). 

Their website shows service to 12 mostly small domestic markets, apparently with turboprops.  Many of its aircraft are in use all over Africa, so hard to tell for sure.  Fares look very reasonable, such as one-way JNB to Hoedspruit for about $101.  CemAir appears to be a small niche airline.

Airlink is the current domestic airline champion in my eyes.  Certainly, it is the one I am most familiar with, as I’ve used the airline often between Johannesburg, Skukuza (SZK, in the Kruger National Park), and Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP), and Cape Town (CPT). 

My flights have been universally good on Airlink over decades.  Fares are reasonable, service reliable, safe, friendly, and efficient.  On-board complimentary service is remarkable.  For short flights, like the 50 minutes from Jo’burg to Skukuza, a beverage and sandwich or snack are offered, including beer and wine. 

Most Airlink planes are Embraer (models 135, 140, 170, and 190) with 1-2 seating.  Here’s how the Wikipedia article describes Airlink history, which is accurate from my own long experience:

  • An airline based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Its main business is to provide services between smaller, under-served towns and larger hub airports.
  • It has since expanded to offer flights on larger, mainline routes. The airline has an ever-expanding network of over 60 routes across 50+ destinations.
  • In January 2021, it became the second-largest carrier in Africa by the number of flights, and third-largest by the number of seats.
  • In 1995, SA Airlink officially launched at a gathering of important guests, including Queen Elizabeth II. Later that year, the airline aligned its branding with that of South African Airways.
  • In 1997, SA Airlink further strengthened its partnership with South African Airways and joined both SAA and South African Express in a strategic alliance. This alliance and partnership created the biggest airline network in Africa. The alliance was governed by a franchise agreement, which saw SA Airlink adopt the “South African” brand identity and become South African Airlink.
  • In 2006, South African Airlink exited the strategic alliance with South African Airways and entered into a franchise agreement, dropping the “South African” branding from their name, but retaining a similar color scheme. SA Airlink introduced its unique Sunbird logo as part of the new branding.
  • In February 2008, SA Airlink successfully completed the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) and was placed on the IATA registry with code “4Z”.
  • In 2020, SA Airlink changed its name from SA Airlink to Airlink. The change was made to distinguish the company as an independent airline.
  • Airlink ended its 23-year-old franchise agreement with South African Airways in the early part of 2020. It has been operating and issuing tickets under its own 4Z ticket stock instead of South African Airways’ SA code since then, and signed its own interline agreements with six other carriers.
  • In late 2020, Airlink unveiled a new livery, dropping any similarities to the South African Airways brand and incorporating the Sunbird logo set against sunrise colors as the main focal point of the new tail insignia.
  • In January 2021, Airlink became the third-largest carrier within Africa by the number of seats offered and second-largest by the number of flights scheduled. This is mainly due to Airlink’s use of lower-capacity aircraft and the opening up of new markets due to the decline of South African Airways.

Back to me.  The Airlink website has evolved to an efficiency that puts many U.S. airlines to shame.  It is easy to use, with transparent fares and rules.  I used to have to go through a travel agent to book Airlink, but for several years I’ve booked myself and others with ease and confidence.  Airlink accepts all major credit cards.

Airlink seat assignment is easy and free, too.  The carrier has reasonable and comprehensible carry-on and checked baggage policies.  I’ve taken many, many people to the Kruger National Park via Airlink flights JNB/SZK, and the airline has never once charged for the excess luggage many have carried with them.

Airlink is by far my favorite domestic SA carrier for all those reasons.  If we had an Airlink analog in the United States, I’d be flying it routinely for its low fares, efficient operation, courtesy, great service from check-in through deplaning, and for their simple, few rules.  If you’re old enough to remember Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) on the West Coast, that’s what Airlink is like. If you get to South Africa, I recommend booking Airlink if it goes where you need to fly internally.

You Ain’t Going Nowhere

June 6, 2022

Way back in 1967 when Bob Dylan was nursing himself back to health after a motorcycle accident, he wrote the famous song titled above. Thanks to the sky-high cost of everything travel this summer, I’ve concluded that Dylan is right: I ain’t going nowhere.

No trips to Montana as we usually do every summer: RDU/BIL fares in late July are $1018-1633 and in late August $614-901.

No trips to New Orleans: July flights are $606.  My friends who live there are pining for our company, and we theirs.

No trips to SEA: $766-1273 in late July.  One of my oldest and best friends has invited us to visit repeatedly. Thank goodness she is flying to North Carolina in August for a week at the beach instead.

I thought maybe my wife and I could take the train to New York for a weekend.  Until I discovered that Manhattan hotels are out of sight.  Ugh!

(“You Ain’t Going Nowhere!”)

Well, we are going to Slovenia and Croatia in September for two weeks, flying Delta codeshare (Air France flights) in premium economy, tickets I bought at what seems now like bargain-basement fare levels: $1609 per person.  I had to scrounge for that fare and lucked out because it was a codeshare.  Looking at flying Delta mainline to Paris, then Air France to Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport (LJU) was considerably more for nearly the same schedules. 

But the Delta website would not sell me that fare.  It balked each time I tried to complete the purchase.  I took a screen print of the details and called a Delta agent.  Even she had difficulty issuing the ticket but got it done.

The $1609 fare sounds good until I compare it to what I paid on United in premium economy for Raleigh-Newark-Johannesburg with an open jaw return Cape Town-Newark-Raleigh in February-March, 2023: $1690. This means that for $81 more than flying 4,629 miles to Slovenia I can fly 8,138 miles to South Africa. Both itineraries are in comfortable Premium Economy cabins. Doesn’t make sense to me.

So the flights RDU/LJU were “cheap” (sort of), but the Hertz rental car at Ljubljana, a minuscule NW Polo, is $100/day, and I was lucky to get it.  Avis and Budget were sold out except for a “luxury” car that wasn’t really luxurious for over $200/day.  No-name brands also sold out.

Not that all fares this summer are outrageous.  I found RDU/Roatán (Honduras) for under $600 almost any day for months and Belize City for not much over $600.  San Jose, Costa Rica can be reached many days this late summer and early fall for as little as $370.  Go figure out why the demand for those great places is low.  I am not going to those countries right now, either, but I looked out of curiosity to compare airfares.

Another surprise was discovering Raleigh to Malta, a place steeped in history I’ve always been curious about, for $1088 during the summer months.  But, like Central America, I don’t want to go there this summer.  Why can I fly 4,973 miles (if it was direct) to Malta for less than it costs to fly 2,060 miles to Billings, Montana?

I can’t get it out of my head: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere!”

Oddly, Dylan wasn’t the first to record his own song.  I can still hear the Byrds crooning “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on my favorite of their albums, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in 1968.  You can listen to it and sing along with the lyrics:

  • Clouds so swift
  • Rain won’t lift
  • Gate won’t close
  • Railings froze
  • Get your mind off wintertime
  • You ain’t goin’ nowhere
  • Whoo-ee! Ride me high
  • Tomorrow’s the day
  • My bride’s gonna come
  • Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
  • Down in the easy chair!
  • I don’t care
  • How many letters they sent
  • Morning came and morning went
  • Pick up your money
  • And pack up your tent
  • You ain’t goin’ nowhere
  • Whoo-ee! Ride me high
  • Tomorrow’s the day
  • My bride’s gonna come
  • Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
  • Down in the easy chair!
  • Buy me a flute
  • And a gun that shoots
  • Tailgates and substitutes
  • Strap yourself
  • To the tree with roots
  • You ain’t goin’ nowhere
  • Whoo-ee! Ride me high
  • Tomorrow’s the day
  • My bride’s gonna come
  • Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
  • Down in the easy chair!
  • Genghis Khan
  • He could not keep
  • All his kings
  • Supplied with sleep
  • We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep
  • When we get up to it
  • Whoo-ee! Ride me high
  • Tomorrow’s the day
  • My bride’s gonna come
  • Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
  • Down in the easy chair!
  • You ain’t going nowhere!

I think it’s time to dust off that Byrds CD and give it a listen.  I’ve got plenty of time this summer because, you know, I’m not going anywhere.

What will business travel look like now?

May 16, 2022

A month ago I humorously mused about more apt descriptors to label airline international “business class” cabins in light of the ongoing sea change in travel patterns.  Since then I’ve been watching, trying to discern a focused trend, as I mulled how this metamorphosis might shape business travel for frequent flyers like me in more ways than just the name of seats up front.  I keep wondering, What will business travel look like now?

It’s not like I haven’t lived through big travel upheavals before. Though long ago now, I vividly recall the “Reagan Recession” of 1981-82. I was a young consultant flying all over the country for clients when suddenly I was sitting at home for months, unemployed because consultants are an easy cost to cut.  But when I hit the road again, nothing much had changed in the business travel bubble.

That era was the dawn of frequent flyer programs, too.  American Airline’s AAdvantage program launched on May 1, 1981.  I still have my original flimsy 1981 AAdvantage card.

Then came the stock market crash of 1987, which I weathered well (I was never out of work for a moment).  I seem to recall that airlines cut a lot of service for that one, and frequencies were slow to return, which made for tight flight reservations and a bump in fares.  Plenty of reasonable hotel rooms and rental cars, though. 

I barely felt the recession of 1990-91 despite reading at the time, I think, how airlines were redefining their business travel.  I don’t believe my flying experience altered much through the 90s. Airline credit cards came into their own in that decade.

However, 9/11/01 ushered in a transformation in business travel.  Elite levels among frequent flyer programs were honed to incent and reward high mileage business travelers above all others.  I vividly recall how cutthroat and competitive flying became after 9/11. The fun of flying was gone.  Fares seemed to skyrocket, and it became hard to get a bump up to first class on domestic flights solely on the basis of elite level.  Hotel nightly charges and car rental rates shot up.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 accelerated the devolution in business travel for high-frequency flyers. One day I realized that if I wanted a seat up front that I would need to start paying for it because the airline points programs no longer guaranteed an upgrade even for the highest elite levels.  And service, already suffering, got much worse: meals in coach—and often in first—eliminated; no drinks other than water in the back became the norm, and cutbacks in the sharp end, too.  Perks were shorn from airline, hotel, and rental car top customers faster than wool from a sheep at an Irish county fair.

The years from 2009 through 2019 saw the airline industry go from deficit to riches and from making money putting butts in seats to making much more money pushing phony points through credit card tie-ins.  It felt to me like airlines merely paid lip service to their business customers, placating eroding customer satisfaction levels with slick marketing claims of rich and wonderful benefits. 

But there was no “there” there in most domestic service offerings, though—thanks to competition—real improvements did slowly come to international business and premium economy cabins.  The cherry on top of the comprehensive devaluation of airline service to business travelers was the complete overhaul of the major airline points programs, which institutionalized and made permanent the massive value erosion that had been quietly happening since 9/11.

Then Covid hit in 2020 for two long years, followed now by the Ukrainian invasion-caused inflation shock of 2022.  The devastation of airline service accompanied the general misery, as we all know, and business travel collapsed entirely for a long while.

So what is business travel becoming? Despite data points indicating business travel is likely to remain in decline, I haven’t yet concluded a permanent lower set point.  Dominating my thinking on this issue are:

  1. What appears to be a permanent shift to more work from home;
  2. The potential for long-term oil supply problems, resulting in ever-rising jet fuel prices;
  3. Steep inflation in all sectors of the economy, which will show up in higher airfares equally as much as jet fuel costs impact airfares;
  4. Chronic shortages and higher costs in all airline functional operations, including cockpit and cabin crews;
  5. Marked declines in hotel industry services and standards, accompanied simultaneously by huge rate surges; and
  6. Prolonged car rental inventory shortages, again accompanied by spiraling rates.

In short, it’s a vicious and ugly cycle of misery we are living through, and I can’t see the end.  If airline past practices portend our future—and I’ll stick to projections of the airline industry—then we business travelers can expect more cuts in service, such as:

  • Fewer first class seats as more economy seats are added to accommodate more leisure customers.
  • No first class seats on smaller aircraft, though on some carriers or planes the British Airways practice of leaving a middle seat open in the first few rows of economy may be designated “premium” service.
  • Declines in seat pitch in every class; expect Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit types of discomfort in coach.
  • More and narrower seats across the hull in coach, and possibly even in first class domestic (such as 2-3 replacing today’s 2-2 configurations).
  • Further declines in food and beverage offerings in whatever premium cabins remain, probably culminating in the total elimination of service on some flights and aircraft.
  • Fewer and fewer perks for even the highest elite levels; elite levels become moot when the customer focus is on the leisure traveler.  Over time I see the elimination of the lowest elite levels as they become meaningless and eventually even of the highest elite levels.
  • Higher and higher award travel point thresholds; possible elimination of award travel at all for premium classes, restricting “free” seats to coach.
  • Charging even top elite customers for seat assignments, no matter the fare or class level.
  • Charging even top elite customers for checked luggage, though possibly discounted when compared to what non-elite customers pay.
  • Fewer city-pair frequencies in general.
  • Higher fares in all classes, but especially in premium classes.  That’s exactly what Delta is already doing internationally in many markets to both premium economy and business class fares.
  • Dynamic, permanent, and often outrageous “fuel surcharges” indexed to jet fuel market price fluctuations at origin and destination.
  • More restrictions on airline club entrances; charging for food and beverage in clubs, regardless of elite or fare levels; higher annual club fees; permanent closure of clubs in all but largest airports.
  • Few or no upgrade opportunities for elite flyers on account of fewer overall premium seats and the devaluing of elite customers in general.
  • Entirely automated check-in at counters and seat assignment and boarding at gates as airlines eliminate airport classes of employees; few or no upgrade or seat change opportunities will accompany the removal of employees; discretionary changes in flights, seats, upgrades, and so on will vanish.
  • Elimination of elite and general 800 lines—or any phone reservation services—in favor of fully automated online (software-driven) AI interactions when making or seeking to change reservations. Airlines will retire many thousands of employees currently engaged in such person-to-person services.
  • Travel agent fees will rise dramatically, as agents become the only experts who can deal with airlines, both through interpersonal and Internet capabilities not available to the public, not even to top elites (who will be systematically ignored or are going away, anyway). Travel agencies will be a growth business for the first time since the eighties, thanks to the airline industry’s drive to austerity and radical personnel eradication. Business travelers will flock back to travel agencies.

A grim picture overall, but many of these service changes are certainly coming, and perhaps soon.  I’m determined not to fret over it.  Instead, I plan to enjoy the best services I can while I can.  All I really want these days from an airline is safe transportation in reasonable comfort and relief from pain while trapped in their aluminum and carbon fiber tubes hurtling through the air.  As long as I can find a premium economy, domestic first class, or international business class seat going where I want to go at a price that won’t break my bank, then I will fly.

Lying to myself

May 9, 2022

I swore, in print, that I was done with United Airlines. And yet here I am again, booking on UA. As Joe Brancatelli has repeatedly said, this is why it never pays to swear off an airline. Too many factors.  In this case, one primary (money) and two secondary reasons (just me flying, and I don’t expect much from any Premium Economy cabin).

Last week I endured a five-hour double hernia surgery that I knew was going to knock me on my, er, keister.  Though outpatient and performed expertly using high-tech robotic devices and minimally invasive techniques, chronic post-op pain, slow recovery, and lack of mobility were predictable.  Thus I’d been planning my work and travel limitations around it for months, leaving a long restorative runway time to avoid things like lifting my carry-on bag into overhead compartments. I don’t even have domestic flights booked for the spring and early summer.

Before surgery, I feverishly worked to tie down two big trips (Europe and South Africa) to lock in airfares I could live with, and I managed to accomplish both. Business Class spaciousness seemed warranted to ensure against bodily discomfort after being cut.  However, the recent big airfare run-ups tied to spiraling oil prices nixed that possibility, leaving me instead to sift through Premium Economy fares that hadn’t quite caught up to the astronomical surges in sharp end seats.

At least, that’s what I hoped. After days of checking airline site after airline site (the best fares are almost always hiding at individual airline websites rather than showing on aggregator seller URLs), and by varying both city-pairs and travel dates this way and that, I finally found some acceptable (to me) pricing.  One (to Europe) I discovered on my own on an Air France codeshare with Delta, and the other (to South Africa) my amazing travel agent uncovered lurking at United.

Admittedly, I at first biased my searches away from American/British Airways and distant from United Airlines.  BA in Business (Club World) persists in offering nasty old seats in a cramped layout. Despicably, then British charges huge sums even for seat assignments up front, and certainly in Premium Economy.  It’s a far cry from the glory days of the Concorde, and I just can’t fly British Airways in any class these days.

Having endured three truly awful experiences on United in their supposedly vaunted Polaris Class to and from South Africa in the last twelve months had me cursing UA, too.  That left me looking at Delta and its partners.  For a trip in August and September, I paid $1600 per person for my wife and me to fly RDU to Ljubljana, Slovenia on Air France (Delta domestic US) in Premium Economy for 12 days. Surprisingly to me, it was cheaper to fly direct to Ljubljana (LJU) than to, say, Frankfurt and then take the train.

I suspect the codeshare fares to LJU in the Delta system were slow to update because I could not get the tickets to issue online and, after three tries, had to call a Delta agent to do it for me.  Even she had trouble; the process took fifty minutes. My precautionary screenshots of the fare basis and itinerary details from delta.com cinched the deal.

Looking for business or premium economy (PE) seats to Johannesburg next February and March was far harder.  After checking most carriers serving JNB, including Kenya Airways, Qatar, Emirates, Turkish, and Ethiopian, I was about to give up.  Fares up front were $5500 and way higher; PE on carriers that offered the service was nosing above $3000.

Then Steve Crandall, owner of Discount Travel in Jacksonville, dangled $1700 at me for Premium Economy in Feb-Mar 2023 to Johannesburg, with a return from Cape Town so I can spend three days and nights in Cape Town after nine nights in the Kruger National Park. But that price was available only on UA. Gulping hard, I booked United because it was half what Delta was charging for RDU/JNB alone.

Yes, United. Because the savings tops my hatred of the airline and because it’s just me flying. I don’t have to worry about UA screwing my friends or family when it’s just me, and that was a big factor in my decision.

Business Class on United was $4312, a factor of 2.5× the PE fare—too much for me to justify, even if far less than the $7500 Delta wanted or similar figures on other airlines.

For reasons I can’t explain, UA fares have recently been far lower than any other airline to South Africa, not just lower than Delta’s.  $1694 (UA PE) versus $3440 (DL PE) was a no-brainer. Especially since United’s $1694 fare is for an open jaw: RDU to JNB, with the return from CPT. Delta’s fare is more than double and only to JNB and back.

United can’t disappoint me as much in PE, either, because literally all they offer is the seat, and Delta in PE doesn’t do much, if any, better. It’s just the seat, not the service. Thus, my expectations are extremely low compared to Business Class on either carrier. Or, for that matter, on any carrier.

So, yes, I lied to myself about United.  I’d rather go than stay home, and for such a comparatively low fare, I will fly United again.  Well, at least I will this time.

Travel planning is a waste of time

April 27, 2022

Way back in 2018 Joe Brancatelli wrote a brilliant column called “Travel is a waste of time” listing many of the time-killing hoops we have to jump through to fly anywhere. It made me laugh, but also hit me hard in the solar plexus because it was so true.  I remember thinking, How could it get any worse?

In hindsight I was naïve. That was a full two years before the madness of chaotic Covid travel requirements (tests, tests, and more tests, not to mention vaccine documents, travel insurance to cover possible quarantining, mask misery, etc.).  All that rigmarole added time and more money required to get tested, convert results to digital formats to be uploaded, and submit the docs electronically to the airlines.  When the airline software hiccupped, as often happened, more time was wasted.  Hell, there was hardly any time left on a trip to get work done or to have fun.  Assuming we were allowed to travel at all, of course.

Now airfares are skyrocketing due to the soaring cost of oil, goods, and services.  Crippling inflation caused by Putin’s Ukraine folly has made travel planning a dog’s breakfast.  Reasonable airfares (I define “reasonable” as fares comparable to what I paid in 2019 for the same or similar city pairs) have vanished for flights this summer, fall, and even 330 days out (the max in the future that airfares drop).  I can’t find anything resembling a bargain compared to pre-Covid fares to Montana, Minnesota, Seattle, Slovenia, or South Africa.  I’ve spent hours researching fares and routes without success so far.

Forget about the travails of travel itself.  Just the advance travel planning has become a tortuous, dreary waste of time.

For instance, Delta’s Premium Economy (called Premium Select) RDU/JNB for travel in Feb-Mar, 2020 was $2380 round trip when I booked in mid-2019 but is now $3413 for flights in Feb-Mar, 2023—a 43% increase. 

Thirty-four hundred dollars for Premium Economy is close to what some Business Class fares were in 2019 for the same route.  Comparing Delta’s 2022 RDU/JNB PE fare of $3413 to last year’s United PE fare of $1702, that’s 100% more than United was charging in 2021.

Google Flights has become my barometer for gauging fares.  It’s a good tool, especially in its calendar mode showing fares in the class selected for every day within a month.  Not perfect because some carriers are either not shown (e.g., Qatar, Emirates) or can be elusive (e.g., Kenya Airways).  Also, Google Flights doesn’t show specials that airlines like KLM reveal only when searching on their proprietary sites.  But still, Google Flights shows trends if you watch it often enough.

For example, I have been keeping daily track of business and premium economy fares RDU/JNB for Feb-Mar, 2023.  The lowest business fares had been hovering just under $4,000 for a week or so. On Friday of last week, I noticed that most carriers had suddenly raised fares to $4400-5000 in that market for far-off dates in February and March next year.  Only AA/BA fares were still under four grand at $3950 round trip.  No fan of British Airways, I nonetheless booked those flights and held them for 3 days as a hedge.  Sure enough, yesterday AA and BA raised the RDU/JNB fare in business to $4800 for the dates I wanted, a 20% one-day increase.

Midnight Monday night was my deadline for getting the $3950 fare, and in a moment of frenzied foolishness, I had it issued.  Tuesday morning I visited the American and BA travel portals to grab seats and realized that three of the four overseas legs were operated by British Airways (LHR/JNB, JNB/LHR, and LHR/JFK).  While AA allows me to freely choose seats in business class, BA wanted $130-180 per seat assignment, which would add nearly $500 to my fare. 

Damned greedy British Airways.  I could barely justify paying $3950, and I’m sure not forking over another $500 to BA just for seat assignments which cost the airline nothing, especially not in business class.  I am still within 24 hours of the ticket issuance, so I had the sale voided, and I will get a full refund.

Still, that leaves me with no itineraries to any of those places I plan to go, and I’ve so far invested scores of hours of research looking for reasonable fares to Montana, Minnesota, Seattle, Slovenia, and South Africa. Compounding my problem, without the air itineraries locked down, no way I can book the rest of the trip details: hotels, car rentals, connecting flights in South Africa to my destination beyond Johannesburg (Skukuza), train travel within Europe, and so on. 

Travel planning used to be fun.  Finding good fares, booking hotel bargains, and suddenly discovering free car rental upgrades made the anticipation of the trip itself all the more exciting.  Now, though, I dread putting together itineraries.  None is simple or straightforward anymore.  Every plan has become a minefield of uncertainty and hidden costs.  The joy of journey anticipation has deteriorated into relief that the pieces are finally in place at best and, at worst, a source of intense stress and worry due to the cost and trouble of planning.

Joe Brancatelli’s 2018 maxim that “travel is a waste of time” is truer than ever and now encompasses the entire planning process.

What’s in a name?

April 12, 2022

If the past two pandemic years have taught us anything, it is that we don’t have to fly all over hell’s half-acre to get stuff done, and done well.  Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams, and the like have made working from home productive.  The result of which, I think, is a new norm: fewer people traveling by air on business than previously.

So I’ve begun to wonder if the descriptive term for the international pointy end flying cabin—“Business Class”—is now anachronistic.  Maybe not all at once, but like a slowly leaking tire, travel for business in what is now called Business Class will soon deflate.  Bygone, defunct, obsolete, dead: pick your word; it’s time to rename.

I live in Raleigh. It’s a thriving area of central North Carolina, part of the Research Triangle area that includes Durham and Chapel Hill.  Jobs galore are moving here, such as when Apple announced last year 6,000 new positions. And that’s just one example. We are blessed with prosperity and good quality of life.

High tech, high-quality office space abounds in these parts.  Yet my wife, a 20+ year white-collar employee, hasn’t worked in her office in the Research Triangle Park, a 20-minute commute in good traffic from Raleigh, since April 2020.  She conducts or participates in multiple large-group video meetings all day, every day, and she hasn’t missed a beat since the lockdown commenced.

Ditto for me.  In my role as a member of the Board of Trustees for the regional transit authority (GoTriangle) and in carrying out responsibilities for other civic and community organizations, I Zoom all the time. I never heard of Zoom before March of 2020.

For the seven years through 2019, I traveled on business annually to transit conferences and transit learning opportunities in Washington (several trips), Pittsburgh, Denver, Salt Lake City, Twin Cities (several trips), Dallas/Ft. Worth, San Francisco, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vienna—to name the ones I remember. 

During Covid, however, I instead attended eight conferences online and only one by air (to South Florida once).  Admittedly, I didn’t enjoy the virtual conferences nearly as much as being there in person, nor was I able to network with others face to face, but I’d be lying if I said the online events lacked value.  And participating from home sure saved the public sector organizations I represent a ton of travel dollars—that’s tax dollars not spent.

Coming out (we hope) of the Covid era, my wife and I have little need now to travel on business. Just like many Americans.  If we’ve all learned to make remote work effective, and if working partly from home becomes SOP, then I am convinced that a goodly number of everybody’s routine pre-pandemic business trips by air will decline.  If I’m right, then, like I said, the name “business” class becomes archaic. 

Certainly, too, the astonishing rise in oil prices will goose already frightfully steep international Business Class airfares to ever-higher levels, making business travel in Business Class even less an attractive option versus conducting business virtually.

If already low business travel demand sinks further, then I wonder who will be paying those astronomical fares to fly up front going overseas.  Affluent leisure travelers, I’m guessing. 

If so, then airlines will sooner or later come up with a new moniker for Business Class that accurately reflects the non-business customers occupying those comfy lie-flat seats.  Here are a few of my off-the-cuff renaming suggestions:

  • Top Class
  • Sharp End
  • Front Cabin
  • Elite Cabin
  • Premium Cabin
  • Exclusive Class
  • High Class
  • Finest Class
  • Suite Class
  • Exceptional Class
  • Gold Class
  • Platinum Class
  • Diamond Class
  • Special Class
  • Luxury Class
  • Best Class
  • Superior Class
  • Quality Class
  • Easy Class
  • Comfort Class
  • Rest Class
  • Escape Class
  • Relaxation Cabin
  • Indulgence Class
  • Resort Class
  • Leisure Class
  • Delight Cabin
  • Clipper Class (used by PanAm way back when)
  • Ambassador Class (tip of the hat to TWA’s Ambassador Clubs)

And a few more—perhaps too cheeky—ideas for renaming the forward cabin:

  • FU Class
  • Bite-Me Class
  • Conceit Cabin
  • Arrogance Cabin
  • Haughty Class
  • Snooty Class
  • Smug Class
  • Snub Class
  • Snob Class
  • Me-Proud Cabin
  • Limousine Cabin
  • Country Club Class
  • Lack-of-Humility Cabin
  • Far-Out Class
  • Not-Coach Cabin
  • Least-Worst Class

Kidding aside, my favorite new term for the international forward cabin is the old one: First Class.

Yeah, I know some airlines (e.g., Emirates, QANTAS, Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa) offer First Class on some routes now, but nothing prevents the carriers that offer only “Business” Class from renaming their product First Class. Delta is a step ahead of that game, already calling their front cabin Delta One, clearly inferring First Class.

What should we call it on other airlines now that business travel is ephemeral?

With thanks to readers for these suggestions:

Connoisseur Class – Used by United about 1990. Pan Am had trademarked it, so United had to buy it. (Corey Clinger)
Envoy Class – US Air. I always wondered if it was really Envy Class! (Corey Clinger)

A seat in Siberia

April 5, 2022

After 5.5 million miles on Delta over fifty years, I’ve learned to loathe seats in the rear of the coach cabin, and none do I fear more than center seats way back there.  That’s why I eschew the low fares marketed as “Basic Economy” on Delta and other carriers.  Yet last week I found myself sitting in the center seat of the last row of a 757: seat 45B, which is arguably the lousiest seat on the plane.  My worst nightmare realized, I nevertheless came away with a survival story about flying in the back of the bus.

When my wife flies by herself, she frequently buys Basic Economy fares.  This often works out okay flying Delta because even her lowly SkyMiles Silver elite status will usually reward her with a decent seat assignment, though not until the day she is traveling.  On four recent Delta segments, she was in two Comfort+ seats, one roomy exit row seat, and one seat two-thirds of the way back.  Three out of four were aisle seats, too.  That last one was a center seat.

Still, for her, the savings in buying Basic Economy outweigh the risk of a seat in Siberia. 

Unlike me.  Even with certain lifetime elite privileges (Platinum on Delta; Gold on American), I always stick with Main Cabin because I want the best seat I can get—aisle, if possible—and I want that seat to be close to the front so I can be off the plane quickly.  Especially important if I am connecting, but also nice when I get to my destination.  Since I never check bags, I can make haste when we land, bypassing the crapshoot of the luggage carousel (appropriately shaped like a roulette wheel).

But last Thursday, the last day of March, I was returning to Raleigh from Fort Lauderdale in the aftermath of a severe weather front that passed over the east and southeast.  Flights were disrupted everywhere with the usual cascading effect on planes and crews being out of sequence. 

I knew it would just get worse as the day went on. Connecting through Atlanta would double the odds of a disruption.  When I realized that I was going to get to FLL Airport by about 2:30 PM for my 5:12 PM flight to Atlanta, I thought maybe I should try to stand by for earlier flights.

On arrival at Fort Lauderdale Airport at 2:34 PM, I looked at the monitor and saw Delta had a 3:18 PM flight to ATL.  Not much time to get through security and to the gate, but it never hurts to ask.  The Delta elite line was short, and soon I was chatting with a counter agent with forty years at Delta.  She looked at my fare basis, my five+ million miles, and said she could indeed put me on standby for the 3:18 PM flight. 

But she couldn’t guarantee good seats, as the flight was full.  I had great Comfort+ aisle seats confirmed on my original flights FLL/ATL and ATL/RDU.  Though I hated to give up that comfort and security, I gulped hard and decided it was better to stand by than to possibly get stranded later.

I rushed through security and made it onto the 3:18 PM flight as a standby: window seat 43F on a 757.  Two rows from the back of the long plane.  I hadn’t been in a window seat in economy class in many years. 

My elite status at least allowed me to board with Main Cabin, which gave me a shot at overhead space for my bag.  Sure enough, I snagged one of the last empty bins, and it was just ahead of my row.

I figured the day’s stormy weather would keep the seat belt sign lit the entire 90 minutes from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta due to turbulence.  That meant we could expect no service and no going to the lav.  Therefore, I made a beeline for the toilet after stowing my bag.  It was convenient since I was near the back galley.  Later, I was glad I did.

Being in a window seat meant absolute control of the shade.  Another small consolation.  As I’ve moaned a number of times in my blog posts, window shades are often pushed down for entire flights on every row these days, as passengers now live on their phones.  I find it depressing to fly blind.

Apparently, the joy and magic of floating above the clouds like modern gods are absent from the emotional ranges of today’s travelers. Creatures typically with the attention span of goldfish, they’d rather watch inane 22-second TikTok videos of cute puppies, or obsess over Twitter, than reflect in awe of the earth’s magnificence from 33,000 feet.   

It was a bumpy flight for sure with no service at all for the ninety minutes FLL/ATL.  No surprise there.  My mind was already on the challenge of making the standby connection in Atlanta. 

FlightAware informed me that my flight would arrive at ATL gate E16 at 5:06 PM and that my connecting flight would depart from gate A19 at 5:46 PM.  Forty minutes isn’t a long time to connect between any flights in Atlanta, let alone the great distance between Concourses E and A.  Made worse when seated in row 43 just two rows from the back of a 757. 

We blocked in as predicted at 5:06 PM.  I was off the plane, finally, at 5:22 PM, sixteen minutes after arrival.  I hoofed it from gate 16 near the far end of the E concourse to escalators down to the “plane train” spine that connects the seven Atlanta concourses (T, A, B, C, D, E, F).

I stepped off the underground train at 5:36 PM, 14 minutes after leaving my inbound aircraft, and rushed to gate A19, thankfully near the top of the long escalator.  The ATL/RDU airplane was another 757 and was posted on time to depart at 5:46 PM.  All things considered, I was surprised I’d made it in time.

When I approached the gate agent at 5:41 PM—just five minutes before scheduled departure—she said she hadn’t yet cleared any standbys.  I concluded my chances weren’t too good. It appeared most folks had already boarded by then.  Oh well, I had my confirmed seat on the later flight, so I’d spend three hours in a Sky Club.

As I was musing, I heard my name being called in a loud shrill voice over the PA:

“ALLEN! Last call for boarding!  ALLEN!” 

I returned to the desk and asked if she meant me (lots of Allens in the world). 

“YES!  Please come on!  Hurry up!  But you’ll have to check your bag, as there’s no overhead space remaining!”  Her glance had me pegged as the village idiot who had never been to an airport, let alone on an airplane.  I didn’t mind; at least I was on the flight, and maybe I’d get lucky with an aisle seat.

I scanned my flimsy standby paper, by then crumpled and torn, and the gate printer coughed up seat 45B.  Last row center: the worst seat on the big plane.  

The gate agent put a tag on my bag and instructed me to leave it at the end of the Jetway.  I did as I was told and boarded.  Seat 45B was the sole empty seat, so far back I thought I had already walked halfway to Raleigh by the time I reached row 45. 

Once again figuring that the flight would be turbulent, I made a stop in the lav before taking my seat. The dreaded center seat. 

Nonetheless, I was surprised that I had plenty of legroom (I’m short) even if I had zilch for room on either side. No one was sitting behind me, of course, though I’m pretty sure I could hear the toilet flushing through the bulkhead wall. 

I settled in and took a deep breath. I think I might have mumbled a prayer for patience. The plane was already pushing back, a small benefit of boarding dead last.

The flight to RDU was just 50 minutes.  I got a small bottle of water and counted myself lucky.  My request for a Diet Coke was met with a look of disbelief as if I’d asked for Dom Perignon served in crystal.

On arrival at the RDU gate, it took those of us in the last row 20 minutes to get off.  By the time I reached the luggage belt, bags were being dumped, and I was soon out of there.

As folks in Minnesota are wont to say, “It wasn’t so bad!”  I got home three hours earlier than my confirmed itinerary, and time is all we have in life.  I was happy to stand by and grateful even for the worst seat on the Raleigh flight to gain those extra three hours.

Although, had I been upgraded to first class on my original booked flights, I might have hesitated to take those seats at the back. In which case, I would have missed this great adventure in sardine class.

Lufthansa Über United

March 29, 2022

On my third trip from Raleigh to South Africa since late July using United in business class, I reported on February 8th  how UA bungled my itinerary yet again.  In short, I had to scramble, with my travel agent’s great assistance, to reissue my return. I ended up on Lufthansa from Johannesburg to Frankfurt and there connected on United back to Newark.  Little did I realize that United’s screw-up would lead to a great experience on Lufthansa—far better than on United.  Here are my real-time notes as that rejiggered itinerary home unfolded, contrasting Lufthansa JNB/FRA with my connecting flight FRA/EWR on United:

JOHANNESBURG TO FRANKFURT ON LUFTHANSA

Great from start to finish on the Lufthansa 747-8 in business for 10.5 hours Johannesburg to Frankfurt. I was thrilled to fly in a 747 again because so few are still in service, and the 8 series is the newest. I’m afraid with oil prices soaring, thanks to Putin’s Ukranian misadventure, that airlines will choose to ground their four-engine planes, principally the now-scarce 747s and more numerous A380 double-deckers.

I was in seat 7K, a window. I didn’t think I’d like the double business seats, but I found the product perfect and plenty private.

Service began with pre-flight boarding Champagne, water, and OJ served in real glassware (no plastic).  Once airborne, a real honest-to-God printed menu was brought to us with quite a good selection of food and drink.

Then the drink cart came in the fine old style. After we had drinks and nuts, dinner options were selected, followed by a tray meal with entrees and later a separate service for dessert or a selection of cheeses, with after-dinner drinks if one chose. I stuck to the delicious Champagne and cold water, though I sampled their South African red out of curiosity (just above average).

Then slept for seven hours. The selection of movies was on par with United, which meant average. But the Lufthansa noise-canceling headphones were far superior to United’s. I noted the two-pronged plug on the LH phones was just like United’s, meaning one large and one small prong. Thus I had to put away my Bose phones once again since the Bose plugs do not fit, and Bose has no adapter.

90 minutes prior to landing, a filling breakfast was served with two choices, and the FAs were attentive for both dinner and breakfast, coming around often to ask if we wanted more or different. I felt they valued my business.

The captain left the seat belt sign off the entire flight once at cruise and never asked us to keep it fastened. Though Lufthansa makes a big deal of requiring KN95/N95 masks, no one enforced that rule that I observed. Everyone works masks, of course, just not all KN95/N95.

I was suffocating while trying to sleep and pulled my mask down below my nose. I wasn’t bothered about it by anyone.

Toilets were spotless. The cabin was spotless. In Lufthansa fashion, we pushed back dead on time and landed early.

Forgot to mention checking in at Lufthansa in Jo’burg. Their website seemed so strict and hard to comply with about Covid tests and vax cards, but they just took a quick look at the electronic Covid test results and printed my boarding passes. Took 5 minutes once the counters finally opened about 315p or 330p yesterday for the 740p departure last night.

I also should mention that the boarding process at Johannesburg for the large plane (which was full) was orderly and efficient. Very well-trained gate staff handled the many wheelchairs and children and others “who need extra time boarding” extremely politely and well, after which Groups 1 and 2 (First Class and Business Class) boarded promptly.

I wish I could fly Lufthansa in business on every flight.

CONNECTING IN FRANKFURT

In Frankfurt, I was impressed again by German efficiency and cleanliness in directing us to and through a very thorough security screening (it felt better than TSA).  Then walked to the Z gates for the United flights home.

En route, I was directed to stop at a queue where United reps checked my vax and covid test results and put a sticker on my FRA/EWR boarding pass.

I found the Lufthansa Senator business and first-class lounge by gate Z15 before returning to Z22 for my flight later.

The Senator Lounge required my vax card before entry, which I thought was wise. No vax card, no entry, regardless of nationality or how much the ticket cost.

However, the queue to get in was chronically backed up and quite slow (see photo below) because of vax card checking. Many would-be patrons are apparently unprepared and have to dig for it.

Excellent high-quality food and drink were on offer in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge, so I had breakfast of scrumptious scrambled eggs that a fine restaurant would envy. Also French patisserie-quality fresh croissants. So buttery and flaky that I could have eaten ten!

Bravo, Lufthansa and Frankfurt airport! Beat the pants off United Airlines.

Now on to Newark on my United.  Lufthansa has made this a great trip so far.

UNITED FROM FRANKFURT TO NEWARK

I’m booked on UA961 FRA/EWR scheduled for 1105am departure. However, the inbound aircraft is UA960 EWR/FRA and is late. I’m worried about my tight connection in EWR (self-connecting on Delta with a two-hour window). In case I don’t make it, I have backup rez on JetBlue on a later EWR/RDU flight.

Sure enough, the aircraft turnaround at Frankfurt was slow and chaotic.  Getting everyone off the plane alone took a long time. 

Boarding required walking down a long, steep stairwell; no ramp or moving sidewalk to the jetway.  I had two carry-on pieces, as always, since I don’t check luggage.  It was a struggle.

Entering the airplane I noticed the flight attendants were scurrying madly this way and that.  I was barely greeted, but I knew where my port-side window seat 9A was located and got my bags stowed,

Looks like I may miss my connection to Delta at Newark. The delay creeps on with no time estimate for pushback.

Several breathlessly screechy and rude announcements were soon made by the chief Flight Attendant on UA 961 FRA/EWR as boarding continued. She just declared a longer delay because, she said, in an exasperated voice, “I’ve just got too much going on!” She didn’t specify what.

She threatened several times that people could go to jail for not wearing their masks, including when eating and drinking, saying take a sip or a bite then promptly put masks back on. By contrast, the Lufthansa FA had made a similar announcement in a civil, businesslike, and respectful tone.

Then the FA announced 50% of the toilets are broken on this relatively new 787-10: only the port side lavs are working. I am glad my seat is on the port side. Half the toilets aren’t working? What does that say about United maintenance?

All the headsets in business were the old ones (dated 2019 on the headset) with two even-sized plugs that don’t work in the new Polaris headset outlets. The FAs have since found the newer ones (dated 2021) with two different size plugs for most people. Eventually, flight attendants came through slinging the cheap headsets with the correct plug sizes, but not collecting the old ones.

After the door finally closed, the captain announced another delay due to “still loading cargo” which is the same BS they attributed to our long delay going over. I gave up hoping to make my Delta flight.

It was clear from the mood set by the cabin crew that our flight, even in vaunted Polaris Business Class, was going to be anything but relaxing.  I just hunkered down in my cushy Polaris seat and could hardly wait to get off this plane and away from United.

And so it wasn’t (relaxing).  The photo below of the nuts and two glasses of Champagne illustrates the highlight of the flight. I drank both, though the wine was room temperature. United flight attendants seem to hate their jobs, and they sure like to spread around their personal misery.

Such a sloppy operation and crass on-board experience compared to the on-time, professionally perfect Lufthansa flight. I’m greatly relieved this was my final United flight. I hope I can use up the miles I’ve accumulated on partners like Lufthansa. United is despicable, an embarrassment to what used to be American principles of efficiency and pride. Screw ’em.

Dubai Expo visitors support Ukraine

March 23, 2022

With my wife and daughter, I was in Dubai last week attending the Dubai Expo 2020, a modern world’s fair delayed until now due to Covid.  Among the many impressive Expo country pavilions, none was more moving than Ukraine’s. The outpouring of support for Ukraine and its people was heartening, especially in a place that is tacitly backing Putin’s invasion.  I took the photos inserted here showing the thousands upon thousands of notes supporting Ukraine posted on nearly every available surface in their pavilion.

Though I’ve connected through DXB in the past, this was my first trip outside the airport. Our daughter wanted to attend the Expo over her Spring Break, and Emirates Air was offering great airfares, which we took advantage of.  The Expo was spectacular, and I wish I could recommend it.

Too late, however, I realize that we should have canceled this trip.  Because, just as our Emirates flight was pushing back from JFK, I learned this shocking news:

The UAE is not condemning Russia against Ukraine.  It’s UAE, North Korea, Russia, and Belarus in the “special military action” camp. 

The National, the newspaper mouthpiece for the ruler’s family in Dubai, has been ordered not to call it an invasion.

Emirates is one of the few airlines that continues to fly to Russia.

Word is that Russian oligarchs—who have long enjoyed safe-haven status in Dubai—are busy moving more assets to Dubai to avoid the sanctions. 

All this makes it appear the UAE is looking at this as a financial opportunity to corner the Russian kleptocrat market.

I’m told that most of the rest of the Arab world was quick to line up against the Russians. They’ve never forgotten how the Muslim people of Chechnya were treated.

I see now that it was a bad idea to visit Dubai while Russian troops are bombing hospitals and grinding Ukraine into dust. I believe in American democratic ideals and reject UAE’s unprincipled support of Putin’s tyranny. Except for this post highlighting the swell of support for Ukraine evident in the country’s Dubai Expo pavilion, I won’t be making reports from and about Dubai or Emirates Air. I cannot laud either in light of UAE’s despicable political position regarding Russia and the invasion of Ukraine.