First Class is now un-American

On our return flight from Denver last Saturday, the woman across the aisle coughed so many times I lost count before I had a sip of my complimentary beverage. Another woman ten rows back had a speaking voice so loud you wondered how she could hear herself think. And then there were the backpacks, so… many… backpacks. Nothing wrong with carrying your stuff on your shoulders, except when walking down the aisle and the slightest turn of the hips gives me a not-so-gentle whack as I sit in my aisle seat. Which pretty much confirmed what I already knew.  I should’ve flown First Class.

Heads up, weary travelers.  If your brand of travel abroad is a first-class seat, you’d better book one while you can.  American Airlines (AA) just announced they’re removing those premium seats in favor of several more in Business Class. Why? Because nobody wants them.  It’s not rocket science.  Airplanes need to be full (like, 97% full) or airlines don’t make money.  If a class of seat doesn’t interest a passenger the airline will find one that does.  Put the champagne on ice, flight attendants.

Even if dropping the very best seats makes good business sense, it doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.  I’ve never deliberately flown First Class but I still get to walk down their aisle on the way to the cozier confines of Cattle Economy.  As I do, I steal a glance to the left and to the right.  What are they wearing?  What are they drinking?  Most importantly, what are they talking about?  After all, these are America’s movers and shakers.

Except they’re not anymore, now are they?  Tell me who (or “what”) you see the next time you pass through First Class.  The domain of the rich and famous is now diluted with passengers who simply rack up enough frequent flyer miles.  Thus, next to the woman in the stylish suit with the glass of Pinot Noir, wrapping her important business call, you have the young tattooed character in tank top, shorts, and sandals, slurping a Rockstar energy drink while obliterating his latest Call of Duty foe.  No wonder these seats aren’t selling anymore.

My kids don’t believe me but there was an era when people dressed up to travel.  When I was young I wore a suit and tie on airplanes, as spiffy as a Sunday morning in church (although church attire has changed too, sigh…).  Instead of a palm-sized bag of peanuts in Economy, you still got something of a meal.  Flying was, back then, a classy step above other forms of travel.

Just because I can – and knowing American’s about to crash the party (poor choice of words) – I decided to book a first-class ticket to London for Thanksgiving.  Get me to jolly ol’ England the day before (so I can overcome jet lag before the big meal) and have me back in my own bed by Sunday night.  I know, I know, it’s practically Halloween already but guess what?  There are still plenty of first-class seats for my un-American Thanksgiving. They’re just a little – ahem – pricey.

My least expensive option on AA is $6,054, which includes two stops, choice of seat (but isn’t every first-class seat equally wonderful?), free baggage, and a full refund if I have second thoughts (which I will).  My most expensive option is $12,966, with identical terms as the first option except this ticket is nonrefundable.  Huh?  Whatever.  Even the least expensive option is more than my annual grocery bill.  Let’s not book this trip after all.  Let’s have turkey at home instead.

You can see where this is headed.  Next thing you know AA will get rid of First Class on all of its flights.  Then passengers will lose interest in Business Class so that’ll have to go too.  Premium Economy will be the last to fold, until all we’re left with is a planeful of Cattle Economy, every row and every seat.  But given the attire and attitudes of passengers these days, isn’t Economy a perfectly-fitting shoe?  As a friend described it, air travel these days is effectively a Greyhound bus with a couple of wings.

I just ran another itinerary on the AA website.  I can visit my son in Dallas over Thanksgiving, flying First Class, for just over $1,000 roundtrip.  That’s a bargain compared to London and I can get my turkey from a smoker (delicious!)  Maybe I’ll splurge.  After all, there may come a day when my grandchildren ask me, “What’s ‘First Class’?”

Some content sourced from the Fox Business article, “American Airlines ditching first class…“.

Changing Planes

My wife & I are boarding more flights than usual as we anticipate our upcoming relocation to South Carolina. “More than usual” deserves context I suppose, since so many of us skipped airports altogether the last couple of years. Flying is different now – some ways better, others not so much (and unquestionably more expensive). Regardless, I was happy to learn our favorite choice of airline before AND after the emergence of COVID just earned the label “world’s best” for 2021. Care to guess which one?

I already gave you the subtlest of hints in my blog title.  With mathematics at least, the world’s best airline is also known as “an incremental change in a variable”, which makes its logo – the triangle – a fitting symbol.  Its slogan is the uber-confident “world’s most trusted airline” but I prefer one of its older ones:

Maybe Delta Air Lines is your airline of choice too.  If not, you’re wondering where your favorite ranks among the world’s best.  I’ve never heard of Cirium (have you?) but the data-mining company spends its days converting 300 terabytes of aviation performance metrics into annual best-in-class rankings. (300 TB meant nothing to me until I crunched a few numbers.  A ten-page Word doc is about 2 MB  By my calcs Cirium is sorting through five million pages of data.  I’d say their rankings are legit, wouldn’t you?)

Let’s end the suspense.  Here are the top ten airlines measured by “operational performance”, for 2021:

  1. Delta (“Platinum Award” winner)
  2. Alaska
  3. American
  4. United
  5. Spirit
  6. Frontier
  7. Southwest
  8. JetBlue
  9. Air Canada
  10. Allegiant

Delta should put a lot of stock in this win, and not just because 9 of its 10 aircraft arrived on time in 2021 (10% better than second-place Alaska).  It’s more about the impact of the passenger experience to the result.  Is the boarding process efficient?  Is the flight crew rested and available?  Is the aircraft properly maintained? How is baggage handled? How are unruly passengers dealt with (a more recent trend)?  Every one of these details number-crunches to a measure of on-time arrivals.  And no one does it better than Delta.

I may be biased but my own experiences seem to back up the numbers.  My wife & I have flown Delta several times since 2019 (including a trip to Europe) and every one of those journeys met or surpassed our expectations.  I’m not saying Delta goes over the top to gain customer loyalty (though a warm chocolate-chip cookie would help).  They simply do what I expect.  Arrive on time and make the journey as pleasant and efficient as possible.  Is that too much to ask?

Sadly, my affection for Delta is bolstered by my dissatisfaction with its competitors. I’m surprised to see American and United make the top five.  My family and I have had several lousy experiences with American, including delayed or canceled flights and could-care-less customer service agents.  Meanwhile, United may know how to arrive on time, but their coach seats should be labeled “cattle class” (not unlike Spirit and Frontier).  Drop down the tray table and open your laptop.  I challenge you to type comfortably.

Southwest could’ve been higher in Cirium’s rankings but I’m sure their logistical issues last year contributed to the number.  Scores of their canceled flights were attributed to “weather challenges” during an unprecedented upheaval in the workforce.  I’ll forgive the bald-faced excuse.  When Southwest is running on “all engines” their brand of customer service is second to none – which keeps me coming back for more.

From my days in corporate America, I remember an equilateral triangle as the symbol of a successful company, giving balance to customers, employees, and shareholders.  Looks a lot like the Delta logo, doesn’t it?  More than just a nod to the Greek letter (Delta) or a throwback to its origins in the Mississippi (“Delta”, that is).  Even the dictionary definition of delta belongs in the conversation. Positive change befits operational excellence.

If my wife & I were relocating to Salt Lake City or Atlanta (or one of Delta’s other hubs), we’d be changing planes and flying more often with the “triangle”. Just this week my wife enjoyed another Delta flight she described as “perfect except for a few inconsiderate passengers” (which seems to be the norm these days). Delta celebrates one hundred years of passenger flights in 2029 so it’s safe to say they’re guided by experience.  The Cirium ranking is just a numbers-crunching confirmation of what I already know.  Delta is ready when I am.  Or, to put it mathematically, Δ = (S)atisfaction + (L)oyalty.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “The world’s best-performing airline has been revealed”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #18

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

Today’s section of the symphony could’ve, maybe should’ve used a stand-in pianist.  Bag #18 – of 21 bags of pieces – assembled a little more than half of the piano’s top lid.  I show the structure on its side in the first photo because that’s how I built it, from the ground, er… desk up.  I imagined myself as a tiny mason, building a wall brick-by-little-brick, working right-to-left, then over to the right again.  You – my faithful reader – could’ve handled this part of the construction easily.  In Lego terms, it’s a wall made with various lengths of rectangle pieces.  That’s it.

Not a wall, but part of the hinging piano lid.

Know what I love about this adventure? (which is rapidly coming to a close!) You don’t always see what’s coming.  I knew I was building the top lid, but it was hard to see how it fit the piano until I set it on its side when I was done (second photo).  More to my point, I have three bags of pieces remaining.  One is the remainder of the piano lid.  One is the free-standing bench for the pianist.  Which leaves… you see? I still have no idea what’s coming.

Running Build Time: 13.0 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Leftover pieces: None!

The top lid rests in its future location.

Conductor’s Note: The story behind Louis-Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is more interesting than the piece itself (seriously).  At the somewhat tender age of 24, Berlioz fell in love with an Irish Shakespearean actress, who kept him at bay until she finally agreed to be his –  seven years later. Maybe the length of Berlioz’s pursuit extinguished the flame because the romance didn’t last.  But Berlioz wasn’t left empty-handed.  He composed the Symphonie fantastique to depict the idealized version of his Irish lover. I just didn’t find his music fantastique.

Window Addressing

My wife and I just returned from a trip to Boston. On the flight home, we took our seats as usual: she at the window and me in the middle. It was a peaceful journey, save for the rather chatty woman across the aisle. But then, as we began our descent into Denver, behold an uncomfortable moment. A glare of sunlight through my wife’s window struck Chatty Woman in the eyes, who immediately turned and snapped, “CLOSE THAT WINDOW!” I just smiled from the middle seat and assured her the glare would move on momentarily (which it did). Chatty Woman gave me a stare and a huff, and turned away. Gee, nice to meet you too.

I’ve touched on the dynamics – er, politics – of airplane passenger seats before, in Flight of the Humble Bee (a taste of first-class), and Center Peace (life in the middle seat), but I always thought window-seat dwellers were far enough to the left or right to escape judgment. No longer. In fact, more than ever the spotlight shifts to them.

Let’s review the powers held by the different seats on the plane. The aisle seat, some would argue, commands the most power because a) the occupant controls the freedom of all others on his/her side of the row, b) the occupant has the easiest access to everyone else and everything else on the plane, and c) the occupant can lean or leg into the aisle as he/she pleases (a power move in itself, albeit a weak one).

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The middle seat [or in larger planes, middle seats. To you, the occupant of the middle seat in a row of 5+, you have my utmost sympathy] has powers inversely proportional to the aisle and window seat occupants. That is, the more empathetic your seatmates with your middle-seatedness, the more likely you’ll get perks (i.e. the use of both armrests, requests to the flight attendants, the window shade setting to your preference).

Speaking of the shade, that my friends, is the power-play of the window seat. Whether the shade is up, down, or somewhere in the middle is entirely up to the occupant (or occasionally directed by the flight attendants). Once upon a time the window shade was a minor prop; only down when the shared overhead movie screens (or sleeping passengers) demanded dark. Today? Every mobile phone, tablet, reading device, laptop, and in-seat movie screen is photophobic. Light sensitivity abounds.

Here’s the change in dynamic you’re not aware of. The passenger in the window seat is not the person he/she once was. Before, people chose the window seat to enjoy the high-skies views, or more importantly, to keep their geographic bearings or avoid the claustrophobia of a closed-up cabin. Today, people choose the window seat to control the shade, for optimal lighting of all those handheld devices.

To further complicate the matter we have the Boeing 787 airplane, which replaced the window shade with electrified gel sandwiched between panes of glass. The gel darkens or lightens depending on the amount of applied current. Cool tech, but also a compromise of power for the window seat occupant. The flight attendants (as they deem necessary), can darken all of the windows during sleeping hours or movie time or even hot days. Might want to check the type of aircraft before you board your next flight.

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I suspect if “CLOSE THAT WINDOW!” persists, the airlines might jump at another opportunity for profit. Someday you’ll find yourself choosing a seat in the “light” or “dark” section of the plane, with a fee placed on one or both types of seats. Not a fan. Then again, if the airlines would sequester crying babies, cell-phone talkers and other audibles into a soundproofed section, I’ll be the first one on-board.

Some content sourced from the 9/18/19 Wall Street Journal article, “The Showdown at the Window Seat”.

chagrin

A year or so ago I left my Kindle e-reader in an airplane seat pocket when I deplaned.  Those seat pockets contain just a few things – an in-flight magazine, a plastic card that describes safety features, and the timeless airsickness bag.  So there’s plenty of room to lose an e-reader in there.  Does that sound like an excuse?  Well imagine my utter frustration and disappointment – my chagrin – when I did it AGAIN this past weekend.  Same drill.  I stowed my Kindle in the seat pocket along with some magazines before takeoff.  I did all of my reading in-flight.  And then in my haste to deplane, I took the magazines and left the Kindle.

photo - chagrin

There’s an interesting dance you do when you realize you’ve left something on an airplane.  It typically begins when you’re unpacking your bags.  You take out the clothes and bathroom stuff and then you get down to the little things.  About that time you start to wonder when a particular item will surface.  Laptop – check.  iPod – check.  Kindle – oh no, not again.  You double-check (okay, you triple-check) your suitcase and your carry-on.  You tear your car apart to make sure it didn’t slip between the seats on the way home.  And then after you’ve bounced around the bedroom cursing at the walls, you resign yourself to the fact that your Kindle is now in the hands of Delta Airlines.  Or one of its enterprising employees.

Delta has a promising process to claim “lost articles”.  You go on-line and fill out an official-looking form.  You describe the lost article to prove it’s yours.  And then you wait.  And wait.  After three days I got an email reply.  It started positively enough. “Dear Mr. Wilson:  The search continues… “.  But the paragraphs that followed are collectively referred to as “form letter”.   It was painfully obvious Delta was not going to drop everything to unearth my Kindle.

My theory on the current whereabouts of my Kindle has two endings.  In one, a Delta “cleaner” finds my Kindle and pockets it; or gifts it to his/her child; or stocks the nice little black market he/she has going on the side.  In the other, Delta doesn’t have enough employees to clean the seat pockets after every trip so my Kindle just continues on to the next destination.  To the person who got my seat after me, I say “you’re welcome”.

Here’s a great invention inspired by my Kindle-down experience.  It’s a wireless “leash”: a band that goes around your wrist with a removable Velcro button that can be attached to small personal items (i.e. Kindles).  When the wrist band and the Velcro button are far enough apart, the band beeps and you realize something is not right.  Not bad, huh?

In my defense for having abandoned my Kindle twice, a laptop is too big for the seat pocket so at least a portion would be visible.  iPods and mobile phones are too small to risk putting in the seat pocket and forgetting about.  But a Kindle?  The perfect size.  Small enough and flat enough to disappear into seat pocket oblivion.

This story will have an ending, happy or not.  Remember, according to Delta, “the search continues”…