Water Vampires in the Sky

I am in the midst of a 12,000 mile airplane journey. As ever, I am impressed by the arid conditions aloft. Most passengers can suck down a liter of water on a cross-country flight without needing to micturate. After a journey like this, I myself end up with sandpaper skin, hangover eyes, and a blood-spewing nose.

I would think there might be some competitive advantage for an airline that could offer customers something better than the Gobi in the sky. I would also think flight crews would be willing to bargain through their unions to have working conditions that don’t leave them looking like Imhotep.

Why hasn’t this problem been solved, for example through strategically-placed atomizers? I suspect the answer is weight. Water is 8 pounds per gallon, and the fuel to carry that extra weight is costly. I suppose somewhere in the airline industry there is a green eyeshade type who has figured out that sucking the water out of all the passengers actually lightens the plane and thereby saves fuel.

But still…aaacck, water, water, please, water…

More on the Pursuit of Unhappiness

Last year I wrote about discovering that American Airlines had a better club hidden inside the airport club which I had previously thought was the only club there was. My excitement at entry to “the next level” faded when I began to wonder “Is there a better club inside the club that is inside the club, and why haven’t they let me in?”.

There is apparently such a next next level, and Stanley Bing has summited at this “Concierge Key” status. In a lovely bit of drollery, he describes this airline rewards program for the most elite of elite American Airlines fliers. As far as he can tell, the only reason to want to get in is that it’s hard to get in:

I’d have to say that the Concierge Key Club is just a somewhat cynical trick played by American Airlines to seduce individuals who are shallow and foolish enough to be impressed by membership in a Club whose only benefit seems to be that other people don’t belong to it. Not that I want to be ejected, mind you. I mean, when you get right down to it, the fact remains that I am Concierge Key, and most of you are not. That’s something, I guess.

Hotel Nudge

Hotels are willing to pay me if I accept less frequent maid service. I approve.

Two of the last three hotels I’ve stayed in have offered me something I hadn’t seen before: a chance to opt out of daily maid service on environmental grounds (or allegedly those: I’ll get to that).

For some time now, lots of hotels have let guests leave their towels on the rack if they don’t want them replaced, or leave a note on the bed if they don’t want the sheets changed. But until now, it’s been a little difficult to ask that one’s room not be made up. (Leaving a “do not disturb” sign up all day inconveniences the housekeeping staff, who must keep checking in case you later remove it and do want your room made up. Telling the desk you don’t want maid service takes effort, and the message may well be lost.) There’s no reason in the world I need my sheets changed or my bathroom cleaned every day, and during a stay of a few days I rather like being able to leave my stuff all over the floor, bed, and desk knowing that I’m not forcing someone to move it or clean around it.

However, as always when someone offering a good or service changes its customary shape, the details matter a lot. In particular, if the hotel is saving money, I want a piece of the action. Continue reading “Hotel Nudge”

In Air Travel, Everyone Subsidizes Everyone

A NYT Times letter writer is upset that business and first class airplane tickets can be claimed as a business expense, meaning that all the people trapped in coach are subsidizing the fats cats sipping champagne in the front of the plane. I fly over 100,000 miles a year every year, only buy coach tickets and have a bad hip that becomes swollen and painful when I am kinked up in a small seat. I therefore have a fair claim at being outraged at this apparent inequity.

But I’m not.

Yes, even though making something a business expense does not make it free, there is some indirect monetary transfer from coach cabin passengers to business and first class passengers through the tax system. But there is also a substantial transfer in the other direction. The people at the front account for 40-50% of airline revenue. If they all flew coach, the airlines could only be financially viable by raising coach ticket prices for everyone. This is thus a case where wealth really does trickle down to the rest of us. And before those of us who buy coach tickets get too indignant, we should remember that we ourselves are subsidized by taxpayers who never fly at all but have contributed indirectly for decades to federal government bailouts and loan guarantees for the airlines.

More generally, the too-clever-by-half “airplane as economic microcosm” angle is getting overworked in the media, maybe because many journalists are frequent fliers. At a surface level, the three different classes of service in airplanes seem the perfect metaphor for the current inequality in American life. But no matter where we sit on the plane, we all arrive at our destination at the same time, experience any turbulence in equal measure, and care equally whether the whole thing crashes and burns. Airplanes are therefore much more like the way the country used to be than the way it is now. In the skies, we are still all in it together.

Is that a gun in your baggage, or are you just glad..

Take it from someone on a plane: guns in *checked* baggage are not a security threat. The mental metonymy that makes them seem so is a liberty threat, and one that I hope our institutions will forestall.

I fly a lot. I’m writing this (thanks to in-flight Wi-Fi) on a plane soon to land at LAX.

Yet I agree with Robert Poole at Reason’s blog: the gun that tumbled out of a checked bag at LAX is no threat to me.*  How could it be? Yes, it should have been packed unloaded (which is apparently the law): there’s always a chance that a gun could accidentally fire, at risk to the plane, if some idiot leaves the safety off.  But a little reflection makes clear that there is no way a gun in checked luggage could conceivably be used in a hijacking—except if we assume some Mission: Impossible level of crazy plotting. And if we care to assume that we can think up much more plausible ways of executing in-air violence successfully.

I hope Poole is wrong that politicians will use this as an excuse to give the TSA more authority. One of the central purposes of a representative democracy, not to mention one that makes use of experts, is to save us from random synapses that don’t represent real reasons.

Here’s a textbook case illustrating the principle.  The only question is which chapter of the textbook we’ll put it in. Representative and expert democracy will work exactly as they ought to here. Or they won’t.

*To the literalists in the peanut gallery:  I realize that a gun in a checked bag flying out of LAX is by definition no threat to a flight arriving into LAX. But one might expect me to be scared in general at the prospect. I’m not and I shouldn’t be.

Flying on 9/11

I fly twice today on the dreaded date (It’s already 9/11 in England, despite what the post time says above), from London to Chicago and then on to San Francisco. I’ve had this routing and schedule before and was sad to see that there are more unsold seats today than usual.

I didn’t book on this date to make a point, but because 9/11 happened to fall on the day when I want to travel. Everyone who doesn’t fly today who wants to or needs to is giving something up. Granted, on the individual level the losses are usually small, one less day with loved ones here, one less day of vacation there. But collectively, the loss is larger than those infuriating lines in front of the security scanners at our museums. Ten years on, too many of us are still giving in and giving up and we can’t keep doing that and consider ourselves a free people.

As they say over here: Keep calm and carry on.

and p.s. today could be a good date to get a better deal on your airfare.

FOOTNOTE: As I changed planes in O’Hare airport, an airline employee came to the ticket desk, picked up the microphone and belted out a soaring rendition of the national anthem. A silent crowd gathered and then erupted in applause at the end…a wonderful tonic that overcame whatever anxieties the travelers carried with them.

Yeah that’s me at the Under the Gun tattoo parlor…

Every person has a secret vice. Some people emit global-send tweets of racy pictures they intended to reach merely one inappropriate recipient. Others have drug or gambling issues. My vice is less extreme, but sometimes more annoying. Through an ineffectual combination of parsimony and disorganization, I make cockamamie travel plans vulnerable to implosion. Continue reading “Yeah that’s me at the Under the Gun tattoo parlor…”

The Pursuit of Unhappiness

I fly enough that it became sensible about a decade ago to buy an ongoing membership in my preferred airline’s “club”, which offers peace, quiet and free coffee away from the crush in the terminal. At one of the airline’s hubs, the club was remodelled a few years ago, bringing in very nice furniture, more space, high-quality computer terminals and wi-fi throughout. Travel through the hub became very pleasant for me, and I would sometimes even leave early for the airport to have an extra half hour in the club before a flight. I was perfectly satisfied. But then… Continue reading “The Pursuit of Unhappiness”

No-fly list

Why I’m not flying Virgin Anything ever again.

Virgin America has now joined mine; I will never fly that airline (or either of its sister Virgins) again.

This post is written from the KLM Lounge at JFK. I’m here as a Delta flyer, though my flight actually has an Alaska Airlines fight number. (Gotta love modern air travel; since it’s a KLM lounge, no, the nice lady at the desk can’t do anything with my boarding pass.) The flight will get me to Los Angeles sometime after midnight.

The flight I was booked on was the Virgin flight scheduled to depart at 1:29 and arrive around 4pm. Unfortunately, the airplane for the previous, 11:30 flight had an electrical problem, so they put the passengers from that flight on what would have been the 1:29 aircraft while they tried to fix the broken plane. When that didn’t work, instead of reassigning the plane due out at 5:15 to the 1:29 flight, they left that one undisturbed and cancelled the 1:29. First Class and “Main Cabin Select” passengers were accomodated; everyone else was S.O.O.L., since the 5:15 was the last flight of the day.

We were all sent back through security to the ticket counter to be taken care of; why the gate clerk couldn’t help us was never made clear, but it turned out that their computers were down, and a single clerk at the ticket counter was stuck trying to manually handle a widebody-full of frustrated, stranded passengers.

The deal was – it emerged after more than an hour – that Virgin was generously offering to waive the cancellation fee for anyone who wanted to try to book a flight on another airline. Or they offered a $15 meal vocher and some sort of hotel voucher for anyone willing to wait for a Virgin flight tomorrow.

Which flight tomorrow? Sorry, they weren’t sure, since their computer system was down, and the one clerk was overwhelmed. (Meanwhile, three clerks were busily checking people in for the remaining flights.)

But – as I discovered by calling the Virgin reservations line – the 7am, the only one early enough to get me to UCLA in time to teach, was booked. And since this counted as a mechanical problem, the airline had no obligation to ask for volunteers to take the bump, allowing those of us who had to get there today to do so. Having waited two hours without actually getting to the clerk, I gave up.

And – this per the reservation-line supervisor – Virgin apparently has a policy against re-booking its stranded victims on other airlines.

With a little help from my friends, I found the Alaska flight, for a mere $550. (There’s a rumor that if I’d moved faster I could have gotten an earlier JetBlue to Burbank. The only consolation is that I didn’t check a bag, so I didn’t have to collect it and then check it back in.) The difference between the last-minute one-way fare and the price of half a booked-a-week-in-advance roundtrip comes out of my hide. They’re “sorry for any inconvenience.”

I’ll say they’re sorry. They’re about the sorriest airline I’ve encountered since Allegheny adopted USAir as an alias. I’ve enjoyed WiFi at 35,000 feet, but never again. Spread the word.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Has there ever been a better way to avoid work that reciting this bromide? It sounds like real common-sense homey wisdom, comes trippingly off the tongue, and raises the fear of all the things that could go wrong if we go turning over rocks and stirring things up.

Look how well it’s working for Southwest Airlines, after all.  Nobody died when the one plane came unstitched, and all the others were racking up revenue miles; what’s not to like?