Archive for the ‘Air travel’ Category

Delta does it again, but why?

July 31, 2008

I wish someone could explain this to me. Delta Air Lines again has upped its fee for checking a second bag on domestic flights, from $25 to $50 each way. Of course, they’re blaming the cost of jet fuel. (Second bags on international flights remain free. For now.) Delta’s luggage fee is now the highest among the six biggest US carriers. (My darling Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge a thing for the second bag.)

This collection would now qualify for fees (from 2001 archive)

This suitcase collection would now qualify for fees (from 2001 archive)

So here’s what I don’t get. According to a Bloomberg News story, Delta reported that fewer than 20 percent of all passengers check a second bag and “declined to say” how much additional revenue the new fee will generate. But it can’t be all that much, right? Could it even come close to CEO Richard Anderson‘s current compensation package of $11.3 million, as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution? Yes, that’s more than Eleven Million Dollars, or roughly 2.3 million second pieces of luggage. I know, small potatoes in the corporate world, right?

So why bother, what with all the bad press Delta has gotten from this announcement? Is it 1) We’ll take what we can get? 2) There’s no such thing as bad press? 3) We’re laying the groundwork for something? Now what would that something be?

Wessel's MBA (Master of Bicycling Activities)

Wessel's MBA (Master of Bicycling Activities) (Click to ENLARGE)

I don’t have an MBA, though Wessel does, and he doesn’t get it either. (Granted, his MBA is a Master of Bicycling Activities from the University of Okoboji in Milford, Iowa, so that doesn’t really reflect on his business acumen. But you should see his leg muscles!)

One of my favorite consumer books from last year was “Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day — And What you Can Do About it,” by Bob Sullivan. Well, I think Bob needs to write the sequel, “How ‘Fuel Fees’ Rip You Off Every Day,” and what they’re hiding.

Happy travels.

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Delta is ready — with more fees

July 17, 2008

It seems superfluous and redundant to rail against escalating add-on fees imposed by airlines, but how can I not?

Another additional fee?

And they're charging for baggage too.

For those of you in the dark (including Delta customer service reps, you’ll later see), Delta, US Airways and American Airlines are going to charge their “valued” award-miles customers money for using their “free” tickets. Delta’s fees start Aug. 15. I’m not sure about the others. For Delta, it’s $25 domestic and $50 other. The stated reason? Fuel surcharges, of course. They’re not charging *all* customers extra, mind you, only the valued ones.

Remember, all you dividend-miles holders, these miles are not “free.” They are what you earned and are part of a huge marketing scheme that has pulled in much revenue for the airlines and its legions of partners.

Something that really put me into a tailspin was some customers’ reactions to the surcharge in this article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Delta is based in Atlanta). One called it “a little unfair” and another said, “I don’t like the thought of having to pay it, but it’s part of what’s going on.”

Whatever happened to: We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!”?

An interesting thing happened today when I was researching this. To back up, yesterday I sent an email to Delta customer service using their cumbersome process to complain about the new fees.

I got a form email back addressing not the upcoming fees I’d complained about but others I didn’t even know existed. Like, if you reserve less than three weeks out, you pay $100. Nice way to take advantage of valued customers in need of a flight.

Delta plane gets supplies in Salt Lake City

Delta plane during layover in Salt Lake City

Initially, when reading Delta’s email, I thought the new fee structure had changed. When I called customer service to check on it, the rep didn’t know about the Aug. 15 fee at all! She put me on hold twice and finally declared there was no surcharge. She was in Jamaica, so I thought maybe the news hadn’t traveled south. She transferred me to a supervisor, upon my request, who happened to be in Salt Lake City and totally on the ball, but even she didn’t know about the fees starting Aug. 15 — until I told her, that is. So I guess Delta values its poor employees about as much as it does its customers.

Luckily, my favorite consumer travel journalist and blogger Chris Elliott jumped right on Delta and other airlines about new fees, as I expected he would.

So did the always topical Michelle Higgins in this Practical Traveler column in the New York Times. What Michelle presented was particularly illuminating. For people who rack up miles mostly through their credit cards (like I do) she broke down the card fees and how long it takes to amass miles. For folks using their awards for domestic flights, they could potentially lose money. I use miles only for international flights. Deducting the card fees and new airlines surcharges, I’ll likely pay about $200 a ticket. But because I use the miles for flights that cost more than $500, and usually closer to $800-plus (like from North Carolina to Norway this summer), it’s still worth it financially if not spiritually for me to stick with what I have.

You should do your own calculations. As Michelle mentioned, it might save you money to switch to a no-fee card that gives you cash back.

Meanwhile, I’m sticking with my favorite airline — Southwest — whenever possible.

A flight fit for a queen

July 1, 2008

Who says air travel has lost its elegance? On our 20-minute flight recently from Bodø on the mainland of northern Norway north to Svolvaer on the Lofoten archipelago, the flight attendants wore white gloves. Now isn’t that quaint, I thought.

Diane, a.k.a. Lady Di, in front of a 40-seater Widerøe airplaneWe were flying with Norwegian airline Widerøe, on a 10-row, 40-seater puddle-jumper. No one was allowed to sit in the front two rows. After everyone was on board, a group of official-looking men and women arrived. One man was wearing a secret-service type earpiece. I asked the Norwegian woman next to me who the VIPs were but she didn’t have a clue.

After the pilot made an announcement in Norwegian, she turned to me and said, “It’s Sonja, the Queen of Norway.” I thought she was pulling a naive tourist’s leg, but she assured me it was no joke. Earlier, I was told by many Norwegians that the royal family uses public transportation and likes to hobnob with the common folk.

The pilot then made an announcement in English about our late takeoff, starting with “Her majesty, ladies and gentlemen, we have a few minutes delay.” This cracked me up.

I was tempted to ask for an autograph, but not knowing how crass this would appear, I restrained myself. The passengers were acting nonchalant — until we landed. We weren’t allowed to disembark until Sonja was whisked away, so everyone watched, leaning over the aisles to peer through the little windows.

First, a guy on the ground walked up with a red carpet, which he unfurled onto the runway at the bottom of the airplane stairs. Unfortunately for him it was a very windy day and the carpet kept flapping up. Very embarrassing! Finally Sonja stepped onto it and walked a few feet next to a waiting car.

For you fashion mavens, she was wearing a proper-looking beige pantsuit with subdued scarf, overcoat and large sunglasses. Her entourage left in an Audi sedan led by police with a small motorcade following. According to our taxi driver, she was staying right there in town. “Everyone knows she is here,” he said. Apparently she visits Lofoten occasionally for hiking and the great outdoors.

In case you’re wondering, though King Harald V was not with Sonja, he did meet up with her a few days later for a tour in the far north, which was extensively covered on Norwegian television. The royals might mingle with the masses, but they also create quite a stir everywhere they go. Count me among the stirred.

By the way, on our royal-free flight back to Bodø the next week, nary a white glove was in sight.

Your time is up at Air France

May 29, 2008

Mon Dieu! It’s bad enough that airlines keep us on hold interminably. But I’d rather be on hold than not be able to speak with anyone. Air France has a new policy this year that if the agents’ telephone queue is of a certain length, a caller is disconnected after holding for 30 minutes! (Yes, they warn you.)

Over the course of several days I tested the Air France reservations line about five times. Once I got through quickly, twice I got a recording saying the wait time would be four minutes (I didn’t stay on to check) and twice I held for 30 minutes before the call was disconnected. (Of course I was multitasking.)

Customer Service, not our priorityThis is what you could call ANTI-customer service. I asked Air France media relations rep Karen Gillo about the policy. Her answer: “I’m pretty sure we don’t have a policy that says people will be cut off.” Mais oui, I countered, which she later confirmed. I asked how many operators the airline uses and when do they turn on that blasted disconnect message, and of course she said, “we don’t answer proprietary questions.”

This issue came up when I tried to reserve seats for an Air France flight from Oslo to Paris. Had I been paying better attention instead of multitasking, I would have heard the *one* recording in the beginning that in-Europe flights can’t get seat assignments until check-in. (Dangit, I’d known that for years and forgotten.) While I was holding for 30 minutes the message was never repeated.

I know what you’re thinking: go online, you idgit. Well, guess what? I did, and there was absolutely no place that said “make a seat assignment.”

Poor Karen spent two days trying to figure out why that option was missing, passing along all sorts of misinformation before concluding it was because the seat-assignment option was blocked, it being impossible to make one from Oslo to Paris.

So why didn’t the website just say that, I asked? That would have saved, like, an hour of my time. (Not counting writing this.)

“That’s an issue with the software,” she said. “I sent a suggestion to the web people about that.” Karen said she’d let me know if they fix it. (My eyes are rolling.) Feel free to help Karen along by making your own suggestion using Air France’s online form. That is only for comments about their online service. I can’t find a general customer-relations email. If any of you can, I’ll post it here.

As I kept telling Karen, this is not about me (well, a little), but about all the other Air France customers going through the same thing. No computer option; no phone option. What’s a customer to do? Choose a different airline.

When the heck is Southwest going to start flying overseas anyway?

When Delta dozes (and Wessel doesn’t)

May 8, 2008

Delta sent Wessel and me information via email (they called him also, but not me!) about a change in our flight schedules from Durham, NC, to Oslo, Norway next month.

“We have bolded the affected flights,” it read. Only one flight was in bold, from Atlanta to Newark, and it was only a 10-minute change. We’d booked this trip months in advance, and these kind of changes are quite typical. No biggie. I noted it and went back to work.

Unfortunately, Delta and yours truly were dozing on the job, but wide-eyed Wessel caught another, much bigger change that was not highlighted but should have been.

On the final leg of our journey home in late June, instead of our original flight leaving at 4:50 p.m. from Cincinnati to Durham it was now scheduled to depart at 3 p.m. And guess what time we were arriving into Cincinnati from Paris? At 3 p.m. Argh….

I called Delta for the low-down. Turned out the 4:50 p.m. flight had been scrubbed.

The representative, who then put us on a later flight, was not the least bit apologetic.

Me: “How did this happen?”

Delta: “The automated system put you on it.”

Me: “Well it doesn’t have very good software, then. Isn’t a human being ever involved?”

Delta: “Yes, they manually put it in a queue for review.”

Me: “So the reviewer dropped the ball?”

Delta: “Yes, I guess.”

Me: “And why wasn’t that big change highlighted on our email?”

Delta: “It was just an oversight.”

Me: “A pretty big one, I’d say.”

Delta: (nada)

So …. I guess I should have just come out and said: Can you please just apologize so I’ll feel better? But I didn’t, and she didn’t, and I just don’t get that.

The flip side to that is when I called Verizon or maybe it was American Express recently about a minor issue and they apologized so many times that I finally said, “please stop apologizing, it’s OK.” Of course their response came out of Customer Service Interaction No. 5.247 on page 184 of the manual.

Note to Big Business: We consumers don’t need a string of rehearsed apologies; we just need one or two that are heartfelt.

Meanwhile, I have a message in to Air France media relations about some of their disappointing customer-service policies. More on that coming up.

Which airport line would you choose?

April 14, 2008

RDU - Raleigh Durham International AirportOur local airport, Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) just became the seventh in the country to sign up for a new TSA (Transportation Security Administration) program that I think is oh so ridiculous. So does a TSA officer I spoke with before flying to Washington recently. It’s called the Diamond Self-Select Lane program.

The deal is that now some security-checkpoint lines are marked for the level of traveler — “expert,” “casual,” and “family.” Why not call the lines “I’m so savvy,” “I’m so slow” and “We’re those annoying people with kids.” Bottom line about the lines: people will go where the line is shorter. The security guy I (anonymously) chatted with said he and his co-workers think the self-selection system is useless.

Wessel and I didn’t get to witness the new lines firsthand because the program is in effect only in Terminal C and we were in Terminal A.  Get this: at RDU, there are two Terminal A buildings, one Terminal C building and NO Terminal B. What a joke. The good-for-nothing self-select lines are not in A, apparently, because the A checkpoint space is severely cramped.

An interesting local aside: while I was chatting with said TSA employee, he went off on a little tirade railing against the airport director and how “he won’t let us make improvements, even though we’d pay for them. He doesn’t like us messing with his airport.” He said the TSA wanted to take over a store space next to the checkpoint area in order to expand, on the TSA’s dime, but the director wouldn’t hear of it. According to this employee talking about Terminal A: “We have the worst security setup in the country.” Hmmm, guess I’ll pass that little nugget on to the local paper, just in case they care.

Dear Abby: My spouse left me behind

April 3, 2008

Yesterday I was sitting on a Delta flight from Cincinnati to Seattle on the window side of Row 28A completely annoying my seatmatesAn annoyed Diane way back in coach because as soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off I popped up to visit the loo and see what Wessel was up to. And I do mean up. My dear spouse was upgraded to first class, leaving little old me behind, way behind, in coach. If the tables were turned would I have done the same thing? You betcha. All is fair in love and airplane seat assignments.

You’d think that me being someone who often writes for travel publications would have a gazillion frequent-flier miles. But in fact I don’t chalk up half as many as Wessel, who goes to Europe for work several times a year. I get more miles using my related credit cards than I do for flying. (Hence my saying: “I’m not spending money; I’m earning miles!”)

So now Wessel is a Delta big-time customer, while I’m a nobody. I can’t even manage to get published in Delta Sky, my favorite in-flight magazine, although last year I did get an exceeding complimentary rejection note from executive editor David Bailey.

Anyway, on the first leg of our flight from Durham, the ride was so rough that drinks weren’t served. Or so we were told. Turns out that first class folks got juice and coffee while the minions in coach were served nary a drop. Safety be damned when it comes to the elites. On the second flight, Wessel got a full breakfast, while we got nada, and free headphones, while ours went for $2. No thanks. It’s always eye-opening to see how the other half lives.

Diane's reward - A view of Mount RainierBut — not that it’s a competition — I happened to be on the side of the plane that gave a full view of Mount Rainier (active volcano in the Cascade Range).  Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. I mean, sorry about that, hon!

Have ticket, will travel the world

March 3, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published March 2, 2008, in the Boston Globe) 

From Di’s eyes: A round-the-world trip is just the thing to kick off a law career and is much more interesting and educational than the typical week in the Caribbean. Here’s to great jobs and a wonderful life for these two young adventurers!

WHO: Andrew Hass, 26, of Acton, Mass. and Lauren Hager, 25, of Sacramento, Calif.

WHERE: Around the world.

WHEN: Nine weeks from August to October.

Andrew Hass and Lauren Hager; CLICK TO ENLARGEWHY: The friends, fellow law students at the University of Miami, decided to reward themselves for finishing school and the bar exam by taking a trip. “Most students do, but not like this,” said Hass, who attended Boston University for undergraduate studies.

WITH A MAP AND A WISH LIST: “We basically sat down with a map and alternated places we wanted to go,” Hass said of their planning. They booked what’s called a Blue Ticket through the Student Travel Agency. “If you keep going in the same direction you can get great fares,” said Hass, who paid about $4,500 for all his flights. They visited 11 countries, starting in Peru and then going to Argentina, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Israel, Russia, Mauritius, India, China, and Japan, spending four days to a week in each. Their luggage was lost – and found – twice.

PLOTTING IT OUT: “We got our tickets first, and once we knew where we’d be, we scheduled budget hotels and hostels,” Hass said. In harder-to-navigate countries, such as India and China, they set up personal tours and drivers. By the end of the trip, they’d seen many of the world’s great sites, including the pyramids at Giza, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China, as well as glaciers, deserts, oceans, and mountains. “Our top three places as far as activities and overall fun were Peru, South Africa, and Japan.”

Andrew Hass at Machu Picchu, Peru; CLICK TO ENLARGEANDES FANS: “Machu Picchu is an experience in and of itself,” Hass said. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, up this winding road. It’s so magnificent and breathtaking.” Their favorite view of the ancient ruins was from Putukusi Mountain. “It was a three-hour hike to the top and you had to go up hundreds of feet of wooden ladders, straight up, without a rope or a net. It was quite a rush.”

GREAT FRIGHT: From their favorite hostel, the Ashanti Lodge in Cape Town, the adventure seekers booked a cage dive among great white sharks. “It was quite an experience,” Hass said of being surrounded by sharks. “They throw chum in the water and the sharks dive at it with their jaws open. It was scary and awe-inspiring.”

Andrew Hass at the Great Wall of China; CLICK TO ENLARGESECOND WIND: By the time they reached Japan, after fleeing a typhoon in China, they were ready to get home, but the country invigorated them. “We spent a night in Tokyo, then took the trail to Kyoto. Our hostel was typical Asian budget. You sleep on the floor, and low on amenities, but not in a bad way. It really catches the local flavor.” They spent a somber day touring Hiroshima. “Even 60 years after it happened, it really hits you.” On a lighter note, they were thrilled to attend a major league baseball game. And Hass traveled all the way to Japan to discover he actually liked sushi.

SUSPENSEFUL JOURNEY: Because they left the country a few days after taking the bar exam, they didn’t know their outcomes. “Lauren found out she passed when we were in China,” said Hass, who was in suspense until he returned home – to good news.

Love at Logan’s luggage carousel

February 14, 2008

Would you believe that the most romantic place in the world is the Wessel & Diane at Delta luggage carousel where they met a year earlier; CLICK ON PHOTODelta baggage carousel at Logan Airport in Boston? Well, it was for me, anyway. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I feel compelled to reprint this ditty, which ran on Jan. 7, 2007, in the Boston Globe to commemorate five years of my Where they Went column in the Globe travel section. I selected my 10 favorite columns and gave updates on them. Here was the final entry, referring to the column I wrote on March 16, 2003. Here’s what I said:

“Most of the trips I’ve highlighted have been from several days to several weeks long, but one lasted less than 24 hours. That was Wessel Kok and Frans van Dinther’s whirlwind visit from Boston to Lake George, N.Y., Frans & Wessel on Lake George in front of Hotel Sagamoreand back for a mere afternoon of ice-skating on the lake. I had by happenstance met the two Dutchmen at the Delta baggage carousel at Logan Airport, when Kok, working and living in the area, was there to pick up van Dinther. The fact that they drove five hours each way to skate around a big, bumpy lake in freezing weather still amuses me. But that’s not why their story remains my favorite. It’s because it became my story, too. After I interviewed Kok we started dating. We’ve been married for two years, and that indeed continues to be a wonderful journey.”

Well, now we’ve been married three years and today is our five-year anniversary of meeting. It’s been an adventure in so many ways, but since this is a travel blog, let’s keep it to that. Here’s some of the places we’ve traveled to since meeting, with me writing away and Wessel snapping photos: Ecuador, Indonesia, Chile and Argentina, England, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, California, Colorado, Arizona, Florida, New England, the US East Coast, and of course all over North Carolina, where we live. This year’s itinerary will take us to several US states, including Colorado, Texas, Vermont, and Florida; and to the Netherlands, as Wessel & Diane make a shadow heart at the beach; CLICK ON PHOTOusual. Our big trip will be to Norway in June. Our favorite mode of transportation is by bicycle, one of the things we connected over right off.

So, Happy Valentine’s Day to my favorite travel partner and the best life partner I could imagine. Lieve, jij bent mijn nummer 1! Jij bent mijn ideaal. Jij bent de beste!

A little Valentine’s Day update: After I posted this I saw that Wessel had put little messages to me in the Snap! photo function, which you can see when you move your cursor over the photos. Very sweet and sneaky. Which reminds me to add that this blog has been a labor of love between us!  

What? You say my flight left two hours ago?!

January 24, 2008

On a Saturday, while visiting DC, I argued with friends Vicki Ritterband and Lauren Markoe that using third-party booking services added built-in problems. They didn’t believe me. I also said companies treat you better when you book directly through them. My pals weren’t buying it. So when Vicki had a big problem the next day with her United Airlines flight, booked through Travelocity, I thought I’d be doing the “told-you-so” dance. Well, it turned out it was mostly just one of those things, so I had to remove my dance shoes. Still, there are ways the mix-up could have been avoided.

The background: Lauren lives in DC. For a gal-pal weekend, Vicki, who lives in Newton, Mass., flew down from Boston on a Friday night, landing in Dulles Airport without a hitch. (I drove up from North Carolina.)

The drama: Just before Lauren pulled out of the driveway to take Vicki to the airport on Sunday, Vicki called United to check on the What do you mean my flight left two hours ago?flight status, something everyone should do. Much to her surprise, the customer service rep told her it had left two hours earlier. “What do you mean my flight left two hours ago??” Vicki kept saying. Flights might leave five, even 10 minutes early, but not two hours. To their credit, United scrambled and got Vicki on a US Airways flight (they have a partnership) leaving from Reagan Airport. The new location was actually more convenient, though Vicki’s stress level was sky high.

What happened: By calling Travelocity and United the next day, this is what I learned. More than a month before Vicki traveled, United changed the DC-to-Boston schedule by several hours. Travelocity said it emailed Vicki about the change. Vicki said she never got the email. So the flight that left “two hours early” was actually a different flight number with a new, earlier schedule, and Vicki was booked on it — unbeknownst to her.

The lessons: Always check your flight, in both directions, online or the phone before you leave on a trip, especially if you booked more than a few weeks out. In this case, Vicki also could have signed up with United’s automatic alert system, called EasyUpdate. As for Travelocity, I think the company should not only email but also telephone customers about major changes like this. It’s all automated and easy to do, and they had all Vicki’s contact information. In the end, Travelocity could have gone the extra mile, United in fact did, and Vicki lucked out!