Info ~ travel musings for the masses

I recently listened to an account given by a business traveler about a cancelled flight on her way to a client engagement. The airline essentially told all of the passengers, “if you want to fly with us, the next flight is tomorrow morning”, sending most of them home for the rest of the day. The business traveler then told me about her company’s business travel policies, she books via a booking portal (Concur, Egencia, etc. are all examples) and that she must book the cheapest flights for the earliest arrival, regardless of airline. Such policies sound harsh, but they are quite normal. For this particular traveler, luck was on her side, as the airline that she was flying that day, was actually the airline she has status with. She called their elite line and was quickly booked on the next available flight to get her to her destination.

This begs the question, should employers encourage employees to have status with an airline? Status perks go beyond bonus miles and upgrades, there are usually dedicated phone lines for customers, most airline customer service agents are encouraged to go above and beyond for elites, and for a number of programs, there is the waving of some fees.

I get why companies want their employees to use a booking portal, they get a small amount of the transaction dollars paid back to them and since they are billing the travel, those small increments can add up. But by telling your employees to book whoever is cheapest, regardless of status, I think they may be doing them, and their clients, a disservice. Sure, there is a minority of travelers who abuse their travel privileges to fly certain carriers but I doubt it is anywhere close to being the norm and I don’t think it should discourage allegiance to an airline.

The bottom line is always money, but it seems companies are looking only at a small portion of the bottom line. What if an employee had been able to get on an earlier flight for free because of their status, getting a few extra billable hours in on-site at the client. Shouldn’t those dollars be accounted for when making travel policy decisions? What about being able to take a later flight to stay on-site a little longer to help a client with something? Now you’ve made some extra cash and you have impressed the client.

What I think happens is that the travel agent companies and their booking portal buddies get together and build a real fancy PowerPoint, wowing their potential clients. Employers see potential profit and some travel agent “benefits” without understanding that what those travel agents are doing is acting on behalf of the employee, when the employee may be sitting at the airport staring at their gate, stranded.

There are three major airlines in the U.S., Delta, United, and American. There is also Southwest, which a lot of corporate booking portals now include in their results, but they open up a whole new can of worms when it comes to irregular operations and not being able to put you on another carrier. Companies could have their employees choose an airline to be loyal to and maybe a back up for when schedules/prices are a little better and the employee then flies that airline when possible. The employee benefits, and in the long run, so does the employer.

Recently, during an import of some photographs off of my camera’s SD card, I ran into an issue where Lightroom 4 seems to hang during the import. What seems to have led to this is the fact that the computer went to sleep during the initial import. About a third of the photographs made it into the catalog but the rest did not. Now, when trying to import, I get the following.

Lightroom 4 Hung Up on Import

As you can see, the import bar is halfway completed but no photos are actually being imported.

One of the things I noticed is that Lightroom creates the temporary folder for the photos on the target disk, but only one photo is copied there. The rest of the import then does nothing. After quitting the import and then attempting to close Lightroom, I have to “Force Quit” in OS X, which then throws an exception.

My suspicion is that the issue is with Lightroom and I am missing a simple fix in all of my searches. I have tried repairing the target disk, repairing permissions on my computer’s hard drive, removing the Lightroom preferences file, and importing from a different disk. All lead to the same above result.

If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them!

From Gerald Lynch’s piece at Gizmodo:

Offline downloads are perhaps the most often requested, “holy grail” feature of TV and movie streaming services, and while Netflix may be the leading provider, it’s Amazon and its Prime Instant Video service that’s become the first to offer it. Netflix however remains firm in its stance that it’s not going to offer offline downloads through its mobile applications, even in the face of competition from its rival. But why?

According to Neil Hunt, Netflix’s Chief Product Officer, Netflix users won’t be able to handle the complexity the added choice will bring.

“I still don’t think it’s a very compelling proposition,” said Hunt, speaking to Gizmodo UK at the IFA tradeshow in Berlin.

As I write this at 34,000 feet over Montana, all I can say is, I don’t buy it.

The biggest use case for downloaded content is air travel. Airlines have been extremely quick at installing WiFi and some of these systems even offer streaming content, but basic WiFi service is still the norm and just about every service out there that I have seen blocks streaming content from Netflix, Amazon, etc. On top of that more airlines are moving to a model where streaming movies and TV hosted on an onboard server are paid content only. The recourse for customers is to download that content before a flight.

About six months ago I made a comment on Twitter about how I wished Amazon would allow downloads of video content on non-Fire devices. There was, and still is, a large amount of video content that I would like to enjoy and now I can, even when flying. Add people who don’t want to eat up their data plan or don’t have access to an LTE network from time to time and the number of those who could benefit from downloads starts to increase dramatically.

The argument that downloads would be too complex seems to me to be a cop-out. An easy way to avoid the discussion. People will take notice and eventually Netflix will have to offer downloads or some variant of them.

The Man Who Flies Around the World for Free

Rolling Stone did a feature on Ben Schlappig, creator of One Mile At a Time, and it’s definitely interesting. In typical Rolling Stone fashion, I am sure it was edited and in some cases sugarcoated to make the story more intriguing (I for one have never heard of “the Hobby”), but it’s a good read. There is tons of insight into the frequent flier community, including this:

Early editions of Petersen’s magazine featured stories on deals from obscure carriers; instructed fliers on how to duck airline countermeasures; and showed readers how they could win a thousand free miles by subscribing to magazines like Esquire. By 1993, Inside Flyer had 90,000 readers. Two years later, Petersen took the community online as FlyerTalk.

And this:

For some, the game has evolved from a wonkish pastime into an ends-justified obsession with beating the airlines — less Rain Man, more Ocean’s Eleven. While the game’s traditional methods remain technically legal, these Hobbyists — imagine them as the Deep Web of the Hobby — use tactics that routinely violate airline terms and conditions, techniques that can span a gradient from clever and harmless to borderline theft. (Schlappig concedes that he pushes the rules but insists he is careful not to break any laws.) Take the practice of “hidden-city ticketing” — booking your layover as your final destination, like buying a ticket from Point A to Point C, then sneaking away at B — or “fuel dumping,” a booking technique that confuses the price algorithm to deduct the cost of fuel from a ticket, often at an enormous discount.

I decided to read the Flyertalk thread that talks about the article and it was painful. A lot of personal attacks aimed at Ben and his story made it hard to read. I’ve only met Ben a few times and he’s a nice guy, I don’t agree with everything he writes or the idea of pushing credit cards on readers to receive the sign-up bonus, but I am a little jealous that he gets to fly around to really cool places and do it in premium cabins and makes a living from it. I think anyone who is a frequent flier and says they aren’t jealous of some of Ben’s travels is lying to themselves.

For me, doing a full time schedule of around the world travel, even in premium cabins, sounds good on the surface but is something I would probably really struggle with. I like having somewhere to come back to, a base of operations. But I would definitely love to fly premium cabins to exoctic locales more than I do currently.

After our move to Portland last year, I decided to match my United 1K status to Alaska Airlines. At the time, there were rumors that Alaska was matching top tier statuses from other airlines with their Gold 75K status, so I gave it a shot. A few weeks after submitting the match I received my credentials in the mail and sure enough, Gold 75K was what they gave me.

Since then I have not had much of an opportunity to fly on Alaska. Most of trips early in the year were to places they don’t fly or where their prices were not competitive. But recently Alaska Airlines has started offering flights between Seattle and Milwaukee and it has been perfect for my work trips. The flights are operated by Skywest using Embraer E-175s, a regional jet that doesn’t feel like a regional jet. They can hold normal sized carry-on bags in the overhead bins, they have tall ceilings, and for most carriers, they have a first class cabin.

My first trip on Alaska’s new Skywest E175 service was a return from Milwaukee to Seattle on the second day the flight operated. I had been upgraded to first class shortly after booking. The only seats available were the set of two in the bulkhead. Not my favorite seats, but I was not going to complain. At the airport, there was an agent helping customers use the kiosk as well as two agents helping at the counter to check bags and print boarding passes. All were very friendly and seemed excited about the new service. I arrived with a little more than an hour until boarding but with PreCheck, I was through security and at the gate very quickly. Not much more waiting and they were already announcing boarding for families with children under two and those needing extra assistance. Then active duty military were called and first class. Walking onboard I got a good whiff of “new plane smell” which, I have to say, is like new car smell just a bit more expensive.

The flight attendants had already placed small Dasani water bottles at every seat and were greeting passengers as they boarded. They both seemed excited about the new planes, the new service, and just happy to be there. It was refreshing. The plane did not take long to board and we pushed back from the gate right on schedule, the captain telling us it would be right at four hours until wheels down in Seattle. I was actually seated next to a pilot who explained that for the first few days of service, Alaska and Skywest were flying an extra crew to operate the return flight just in case there was a storm or other delay that would cause the original crew to time out and cancel the flight. He was gracious and answered all of my questions about the E-175 and the Skywest service for all of the different carriers. It seemed like he enjoyed his job and was happy to be able to fly the E-175 for multiple carriers now.

Shortly after takeoff the flight attendant visited each passenger, asking them what they wanted to drink and whether or not they would be having dinner. I asked for an Alaskan Amber and mentioned that yes, I would be having dinner. I expected to hear choices for dinner but none were presented. A short time later and the Alaskan Amber and plastic ramekin of nuts was delivered (the nuts had been heated). A little while later and the dinner was placed in front of me. The meal consisted of a sandwich, in this case chipotle chicken, a salad, and a cookie. The meal was ok. I am not a fan of those sandwich rounds used for the bread but other than that, it was fine. I will say that I found the portion to be a little small for a flight of four hours. United, on Chicago-Portland in first, serves a large portion meal followed by an ice cream dessert.

On the next flight I took, Seattle to Milwaukee, the meal was a similar sandwich and salad affair but the sandwich was a “Cuban”. I put it in quotes because it had pickles, cheese, and ham but that’s about where the similarities between what I ate and a what Cuban sandwich is end.

Let’s talk about the seat for a minute. It’s a simple first class seat with a power outlet for each passenger. The headrest is adjustable and the recline is nice. Other than that, it’s a basic seat. There is also supposed to be WiFi and streaming entertainment but neither of these have been available on any of the flights I have been on, though I am told it is definitely coming.

Overall, Alaska’s E-175 offering is a great option to get from the Pacific Northwest to Milwaukee. The food leaves a little to be desired but it’s non-stop from Seattle (I do wish it left a little earlier) and the operation seems to be pretty solid. I have taken thes flights between Seattle and Milwaukee about 5 times so far and the only inconsistency I’ve noticed is in the flight attendant service. I think this will work itself out once they are used to operating for Alaska on the E-175s, but there were a few times where the crew did not know how to operate some of the equipment or handle the service. Definitely nothing that is a deal breaker for me. I am just happy to have another option where I do not have to connect through Chicago.


The WNYC Data News Team is looking for the longest possible NYC subway ride.

The MTA website says it’s a 38-mile trip from 241st Street in the Bronx to Far Rockaway, but we think we can do better. We found a route between those same two stations that covers over 148 miles of track. It uses every subway line at least once and requires 45 transfers.

There are a couple of subway lines in New York City that I never had the chance to ride during my time working there. I plan to fix that though. Now, go see if you can find a longer route!

United Pilot Disposes of Live Ammunition in Toilet

You can’t make this stuff up. From Aviation Herald:

A source had told The Aviation Herald that the aircraft was enroute, when the captain discovered that he was still carrying ammunition consisting of 10 bullets in his luggage, the ammunition not being permitted to be taken into Germany. The captain therefore decided to get rid of the ammunition and disposed of the ammunication into a waste bin. “Unfortunately” a passenger lost her ring in flight, the flight attendants assisted in the search for the lost ring and also checked the waste bins. A flight attendant thus discovered the bullets, dutifully brought and reported the bullets to the captain, who now decided to ultimately get rid of the bullets and dumped them down the toilet. Later the flight attendant inquired again about the bullets, the captain realized that she would file a report, explained the situation to her and informed ground.

Just poor choices all around from the pilot. He could have saved everyone a lot of headaches had he just reported the bullets initially and paid the fine when he arrived in Germany.

I needed to buy a last minute ticket for work recently and Delta was the only option left that had seats and a schedule that matched what I needed. After I bought the ticket, Delta gave me an option to buy-up to first class. The price was right and I had wanted to compare what I had read about Delta’s first class product being great to what I had experienced on United, so I purchased the buy-up.

Time to examine the hype.

The App

For work travel, I rely heavily on airline iPhone apps to keep me updated and to do basic maintenance on my reservations (change seats, make reservations, etc.). The first thing I noticed using the Delta app is just how clunky it is. Sure, picking a seat is relatively easy, but making a booking in the app is a frustrating process. The app does validation before you submit a flight search and will pop up an error if your origin and destination are the same. So, if you need to reverse your search, you have to put in a third airport code to be able to switch the origin and destination without error. There are quirks like this throughout the app. It is the same thing for flight information as well. Some items are clickable and lead to more info, but there is no visual way to know that an item has that feature without clicking on everything so you end up sitting there, hitting random parts of the screen, looking for what you want. Compared to United’s app, which is powerful, yet relatively easy to use, Delta’s app seems to need some serious work.

The Trip

Before traveling, I had added my known traveler number to the reservation and on check-in received PreCheck. Knowing I have PreCheck allows me to show up at Portland’s airport about an hour before boarding and have plenty of time to grab a cup of coffee and do some work before getting on the plane, so that’s what I did. I walked up to the security area, opened up my mobile boarding pass and saw an orange icon indicating that my flight had been delayed. Knowing that an agent would be able to help me at the gate, I proceeded through security.

Making it through security, I look at the delay one more time and realize I will miss my connection because of it. I proceed to the gate and get in line to speak with the gate agent. An agent comes over and asks if I need something, to which I reply, “I believe my flight to Minneapolis is delayed and I will miss my connection”. She says, “I am closing out this flight and I’m not working that flight, walk down the hall and there are phones where you can call Delta”. Ok, that makes sense, so I walk down the hall and sure enough, there are phones. They’re all taken by people trying to fix their plans as well but there is a sign with a 1800 number so I dial it. The prompts ask if I am in the airport and when I reply yes, the wait is no more than 2 minutes to speak to an agent. The agent tells me that she cannot find any options on the same day but that she will see if she can find something on another carrier. A few minutes later she tells me my only options are to spend the night in Minneapolis or take a redeye via Atlanta. I ask if the hotel in Minneapolis will be covered to which she replies, “you would need to ask the agents in Minneapolis”. I am not willing to take that risk so I ask her to explore the American Airlines flight to Chicago that is showing an F seat for sale. She can’t find it. I run to the AA gate to see if they will simply sell me the seat (I’d refund the Delta ticket). Nope, they just cleared a standby into it. Sorry.

Back on the phone I accept the redeye option, simply because I was not comfortable spending the night and trusting that Delta would take care of the hotel (there was weather that night in the area). Well, time to head home because I have another nine hours before my new flight leaves. Here is what I originally booked (red), versus what I was rebooked on (navy).

Nine hours later I was back at the airport for the red-eye to Atlanta. I had hoped to review the meal options on the original flight but the delay squashed that idea. Now my goal was to get as much sleep as possible but I knew that would be a challenge. Onboard there was a bottle of water, a small pillow, and a blanket at the seat. The seat pitch was pretty standard but what I noticed was the lack of an adjustable headrest on the seat. It seems that most of the Delta domestic fleet is the same, missing the adjustable headrests that you can manipulate to rest your head to one side. The flight attendants come by asking if passengers would like anything before we take off. I order a whiskey and water, a nightcap if you will, and it’s quickly delivered.

The safety video comes on. It’s cute but man is it lengthy.

The pilot makes a quick announcement that he won’t be making any other announcements until our descent into Atlanta and that our flight time will be four hours (OUCH!). A few minutes later and we’re in the air. I put on an eye mask and attempt to get some sleep, but, to be honest, it didn’t go well. The seats are comfortable but there is not a lot in the way of lumbar support and without an adjustable headrest I can’t really lean one direction. The entire flight was spent with me readjusting to try and get comfortable and I ended up getting maybe 1-2 hours of sleep.

We landed in Atlanta on time and that gave me about 35 minutes to use the restroom, brush my teeth and make my connection. I walked from concourse A to concourse B and made it to the gate right as they were starting to board. I looked for a coffee shop nearby but there was nothing, the upside being I could try the much touted Starbucks coffee that Delta serves in first.

Legroom in First on the Airbus A320.

Onboard the flight attendant greeted everyone with a friendly “Good morning!”. She then came around first class asking if we would like anything before takeoff. A few minutes later and I was tasting the coffee. It wasn’t bad. Not great, but drinkable, which says a lot about airplane coffee. The taste was much more of what you expect in coffee and less of that metallic and chalky taste you sometimes get from airplane coffee. I was in the bulkhead seat on the Airbus A320 and found the legroom to be fine. There is a little cut out for your feet and that makes it comfortable. If I was a little taller the legroom would have been tight.

There was no overhead entertainment so the safety demo was done by the flight attendants and it went by much faster than the video shown above. A short time later we were in the air.

It was a quick flight to Milwaukee so the only service was beverages and a snack basket (I had a banana and some Biscoff cookies, if you were wondering). I tried to use the Delta Studio streaming entertainment but could not get it to work. Every time I connected I received a screen like below and could never get to the list of shows.

Failed attempt to try the streaming entertainment

An hour and half later and we were on the ground in Milwaukee and I was on my way to work.


Overall, there was nothing about the experience that blew me away making me want to switch permanently to Delta. The boarding process was just as chaotic as United’s, with people blocking the boarding lanes 15 or 20 minutes before the flight is scheduled to board.

Boarding. Just as chaotic as on other carriers.

The way the delayed flight was handled left a lot to be desired. I didn’t want to go into details above but the agent was not proactive in finding other options and I had to suggest a number of things. She also insisted on putting me in coach until I pushed back about being in first class. I am not an elite on Delta so I wonder if that had something to do with it.

For flying a relatively old fleet, the Airbus I was on is 23.3 years old, Delta does a pretty good job keeping the interiors clean and well kept. I didn’t see any panels loosely hanging or build ups of dirt and grime anywhere. The lavatories on both flights were the cleanest I have ever seen on an airplane.

I was happy to finally get to try Delta on a mainline flight in first. I am planning a few more flights on them since some of their schedules to certain destinations are better than what United offers. I am also flying Alaska back to Seattle at the end of this week and hope write a review about their new E-175 service as soon as I can.

Last week, United announced that they would be moving their p.s. (Premium Service) operation from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport. At first, I scratched my head, then I watched the flood of posts about how this is a terrible move, then I read rebuttals that it is a genius move. As with most things, the reality is somewhere in the middle.

Snowy morning at Newark.
United will cease operations at JFK in October of 2015 and move the p.s. flights to Newark. This means there will be no more service at all for United at JFK. This was done via a slot swap with Delta, basically trading landing rights at each airline’s hub. United has said that this will help boost connecting traffic via Newark from the west coast, especially the European destinations served only out of Newark and United’s only flights to India. The move will also give business class customers a flat-bed seat from the west coast to those same destinations.

With the addition of p.s. service at Newark Liberty, United customers flying on transcontinental flights to and from Newark in the BusinessFirst cabin will, for the first time, enjoy flat-bed comfort for their entire journey when connecting to and from flights across United’s extensive trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific networks.

As Seth points out, there are some huge operational benefits as well, including having 757-200s with more BusinessFirst seats at their disposal. It also frees up some Airbus and Boeing planes to operate other routes rather than doubling up on New York service as United was doing previously.

These aircraft are also occasionally serving Hawaii and other domestic destinations as the older 752s are being retired out of the fleet. By putting all of them into the same pool of potential aircraft it is possible to shift capacity much more easily.

The rest of Seth’s analysis is worth a read too, as usual, he’s level headed and reasonable when it comes to reporting aviation news.

At first, I had very mixed feelings about the move. Terminal 7 at JFK where United operates is a prime example of how bad an airport experience can get. Terrible security lines, no real amenities in the terminal, and at times, a lot of overcrowding all made me despise the experience. But, JFK is convenient for a lot of Brooklyn, Queens, and the rest of Long Island. I took a few red-eyes from the west coast to be at our offices around the Brooklyn area and it was a really quick transfer. I find the transfer from Newark to Manhattan to be about as long as the one from JFK to Manhattan and sometimes Newark is faster, depending on traffic and which way your cab driver decides to go. Also, Newark has come a long way in terms of amenities. It’s clean and for the most part well lit and while I am not a huge fan of the OTG changes, the food options are still much better than what is available at Terminal 7 at JFK. The one big downside of moving things to Newark is the United Clubs. I do not use them a lot, but every time I do they are packed. As in, can’t find a seat packed. It is usually around the time of the west coast and European departures but I have also seen it that crowded early in the morning. If United does something to help alleviate the crowding issues, there is not much left to say about this not being a good move.

Just think about it. You live in San Francisco but have a meeting in Hartford, Connecticut. With this move by United you can now fly in BusinessFirst overnight and catch the early morning flight to Hartford at Newark, rather than having to drive from JFK up that way. Or, if you are catching a European connection, you can now get the BusinessFirst experience rather than a domestic first class seat, all the way from your origin to your destination. Still don’t want to trek to Newark? There are always the flights out LaGuardia.