Sunday, November 23, 2014

Business Travel

So, I had occasion recently to travel to San Francisco on business. There was a time in my professional life when I enjoyed trips like this, but over the years they have lost quite a bit of their appeal. Co-workers that don't travel are known to make statements pointing how much better it would be to travel than to be stuck at a desk, but they should ride a few miles in seat 37E before making such judgments. And there is no 1:1 match between travel hours and desk hours.  I'm not saying that there isn't great benefit to the changes of place and scenery, mind you; I'm saying that it is not a cost-less transaction.

I am going to share an account of a recent trip as an example.

In any event, this time around it was going to be two solid days of travel to attend what was scheduled to be a six hour meeting. Time is on your side on the outbound trip, through, because there are early departures heading west and you gain another three hours as you traverse the time zones, so I figured I'd squeeze in a few time-filler meetings into the early afternoon, too.

It is, after all, corporate HQ, and I've worked with quite a few people out there for years and never met them in person. I figured I could get someone to tour me around to meet people.

I planned the trip with an outbound flight on Tuesday, since the important meeting was on Wednesday, and the return trip on Thursday rather than taking the red eye Wednesday night. Those are wicked bad if, like me, you can't sleep on an airplane.

The return trip would be the opposite of the outbound (well, duh!), by which I mean it would be a late morning departure and a very late evening arrival back at home. As you can infer from the above, I prefer an early morning departure when I have a choice. The reason for the later departure on the return leg is that I have far less control over my transportation to the airport than I do at home. In San Francisco, I would be dependent on BART, which is the acronym by which their subways/trains operate, and I have never learned how to predict how often the airport-bound trains run. Leaving a little later takes off some of the time pressure.

The nice thing about departing early from home is that the TSA line is often brutally short, so you don't have to budget in a lot of time. You would also think the parking garage would be empty early in the morning, but such was not the case this time around. The Monday travelers all got there before me.  I climbed the ramp all the way to the top floor which, being exposed to the weather, ought to come at a lower price.

The open spot that I was eventually able to find met me with bracingly cold wind chills. I didn't have a thermometer, but I estimate the temperature was hovering somewhere around five below Fairbanks, Alaska.

As predicted, though, the TSA line was in fact just about as short as could ever be hoped for, which is to say "non-existent." Seeing nothing but wide open lanes, I took the shortest, most expedient line, a decision for which I was soundly chastised. I was informed by the agent performing the ID check that I had used the "wrong line."

I turned and looked behind me, only to see absolutely no one there, and no other check gate that I could have arrived at through following a less efficient path. No, all lines led to her, and there was no one in any of the lines.  Apparently I was supposed to go through the empty mouse maze rather than take the shorter VIP line, even though I was the only one there.

You really have love the demeaning, lockstep mentality of federal agencies.

The fun had just begun, though. As I was getting ready to remove my belt before walking into the peep-show booth, one of the agents told that removing the belt would be unnecessary. Well, to be fair, his exact words were "you should be alright."

It was foolish of me to fall for such a squishy statement. Sure enough, the agent that greeted my after the peep-show asked whether I was wearing a belt. It was patently obvious what was about to happen.

Yep. The Grope.


Once at the gate, I took a look at my boarding pass and was delighted to see that I would be boarding in Group 2. That was important because it drastically improved the odds that there would be room in an overhead bin for my luggage. Now that airlines charge at least $50 to check a bag, it is not surprising that no one checks a bag unless they absolutely have to. Because we would be flying in a small, old, creaky MD-80 (aka "Mad Dog") that was designed before the time when checking baggage was viewed as something akin to having a root canal, bin space would be at a premium.

Since I normally get stuffed into Group 4 or higher, it was welcome news indeed to find myself in a much better group. Note, however, that while one could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that Group 2 would be the second group to board, airlines these days have more preferential boarding groups than Baskin-Robbins has ice cream flavors.

For some unknown reason, we boarded late. Figures - I had a pretty tight turn in Dallas and wouldn't be able to absorb too many delays.

All went well, though, as I scored both adequate bin space and a very pretty female companion in the seat next to me. Between the generous group assignment and the attractive travel companion, I should have known that things were most assuredly not going to continue to turn out as well.

Karma simply doesn't like me that much.

We pushed back from the gate ten minutes late, but I wasn't worried. They can usually make up some time in flight. Ah, here's the captain on the PA getting ready to tell us that the delay will ultimately not matter because they can just burn a little more fuel:

"Good morning, folks. Sorry for the late departure. We can usually make up the time enroute, but we're going to be flying into some strong headwinds today. We might be a few minutes late"

Sigh. The stress ratcheted up a notch.

At least we were away from the gate and taxiing, though, and with our close proximity to the runway, it shouldn't have taken long to get to the runway.

That's why I got quite suspicious when I noticed that we had been taxiing around in circles for twenty minutes, I've flown enough to know that isn't normal, and I was keenly aware of the time slipping away. Eventually the captain came back on the PA and explained that they were driving around trying to warm up the plane, which had been sitting out all night in temperatures as low as the North Pole of Pluto, which had presumably caused the flap position lights to not operate correctly. A few minutes later, they were.

Off we went.

I suppose it isn't all that surprising to have problems like this with the ancient equipment that they use for this route. Look at this thing, resplendent in its peeling paint and obvious corrosion:

I would NEVER leave the hinge of a flight control with corrosion like this:

Once at altitude, the slide into Karmic punishment continued with the coffee cart. As the service cart came down the aisle, my Pavlovian responses were triggered by the smell of hot coffee coming my way. I stared at that cart and measured its progress like a lion watching a gazelle stroll towards the water hole.

Finally it was my turn. As the male flight attendant took my order, one of those eerily prescient moments that I suffer from now and then flashed through my mind:given my visceral need for my morning shot, they surely will be out.

They were. No more than five drops poured into my cup.

They eventually were able make another pot, and were actually so apologetic about my brief wait that they even gave me a refill after I gulped down the first one. Hmm, maybe things were going to be okay after all, even though an on-time arrival was out of the question.

The dice were rolling across the felt at this point - I would either make my connection or not.

The flight crew made up as much time enroute as they could, and tried to make up even more with a slam-down arrival at DFW followed by very energetic braking to make the earliest possible taxiway.

Looking at my watch, it looked like I had 20 minutes to get to my gate for the next flight which would be just as they were starting to board. I might still make it in time to board with Group 2. Again, that was important. When it comes to getting on the plane, it doesn't matter what group you're in if you're late. A good boarding group is like a door prize: you must be present to win.

But there we were, taxiing in with plenty of time and everything looking good until...... we stopped.

We stopped!

I knew exactly what was coming next.

"Well, folks, we did all we could to get you here quickly, but there is no gate open for us."

We sat there for twenty minutes.

On the plus side, connecting flight gate assignments were made over the PA as we waited for the gate. We would be deplaning at gate A33, and my next flight was departing from gate A37.

That couldn't be any better! I'm always reluctant to connect through Dallas because the place is notorious for gate changes. And because they have at least four terminals, your connecting flight can be miles away. Having to only go four gates in the same terminal, well, that's a lottery winning level piece of luck. When paired with Group 2, it should have been a cakewalk.

I was pretty far back in the plane, though, and those two cups of coffee had run my mood though its normal course. My caffeine-fueled mood starts at exhilaration and inexorably works its way to crankiness, which is where it was when I had to wait patiently (or at least give the appearance of such) for the people who did NOT have connecting flights to lackadaisically grab there stuff and amble up the aisle as if they were listening to Mendelssohn's wedding march or a funeral dirge.

I had already missed the beginning of boarding time by the time I got off the jet, but with only four gates to go, at least I wouldn't be in danger of missing the flight entirely.

As I came out of the jet way and quickly got my bearings, I couldn't help but notice that I was already at the desired gate, A37.

Whaaaaaattttt? What happened to arriving at A33 and ambling on over to A37? And where was my plane??

The San Francisco flight had been moved to gate C11, and I had about four minutes to get there.

That was not good news. I would have to get to the end of Terminal A, go up an incredibly long escalator, catch the monorail to ride over to Terminal C, and find gate C11.

I arrived at the gate out of breath from my exertions (no running, though, as that really isn't seemly when dragging a suitcase) and rushed down the jetway only to some to a screeching stop at the end of a line of people that were still waiting to embark.

I stood there for another twenty minutes as the line did not budge an inch.

That gave me plenty of time to stew about the inevitably having to gate check my bag and deal with baggage claim in San Francisco, when I was wondering just how it can take so damn long for people to sit down.

That last part was the caffeine talking.

Maybe. The adrenaline released during the hectic arrival may have contributed.

As I finally got on board (they delay was for a mechanic to fix a 'seat problem', whatever that means), one of the flight attendants took pity on me. There was no more open bin space to be had back in coach (not surprisingly), but she would let me use some space in first class.

Well, at least one of us was having a good trip!

Hey, speaking of stress, did I mention that I lost my cell phone the day before the trip? Yep. A three day trip with no texting, no email, no internet, etc.

It can be done, of course. People used to do it all the time. And you can go can swim with your left arm tied behind your back:  it's possible, but it's not a great deal of fun.

Monday, the day I lost the phone, had not been a great day. It was to be the only day that I would have to drive to work for two solid weeks due to the business trip and a week of vacation next week, so naturally it snowed, thus ensuring I wouldn't have to miss out on a lengthy winter commute.

I leave early enough in the morning to blaze the trail for the salt trucks and plows in order to avoid the inevitable traffic snarls as thousands of people that seemingly just learned how to drive the day before hit the roads (and each other), but it's still a pretty stressful drive. I would have preferred not to have to do it.

I ended up doing it twice.

I hadn't realized that I couldn't find my phone until after I had already gotten home from the office. A number of increasingly thorough house searches hadn't found it, so the only thing left to do was to return to the office to look there.

It was not there.

As frustrating as Monday had been, at least I was able to console myself with the thought that I would have a relaxing Tuesday - all I had to do all day was sit in an airline seat - how bad could that be?

As we've seen, it hadn't been completely distress free. Fortunately the flight to San Francisco was okay. I had only been able to score a middle seat, but it was towards the front of the plane and had the few inches of extra leg room that they try to sell to the people crammed in between more densely packed seats in the back. It's a cynical business practice, but they're struggling to make ends meet now that everyone has started avoiding the expense of checking their baggage. Just watch: it's just a matter of time before they start charging for carry-on bags too.

We're pretty much left to our own devices when it comes to trip planning, from the selection of airline and hotel all the way down to strategies for getting from the airport to the city. This is how I found myself riding on the creaky old jets of the aging US Airmerican fleet versus the typically nicer 737s of Southwest, my personal airline of choice. It came down to price: $700+ for Southwest, $350 for US Airmerican. It's not my money, per se, and no one really gives a fig in the big picture, but travel expense comes from the business unit's annual expense fund and you wouldn't want to come up short towards the end of the fiscal year - there is definitely value in face-to-face meetings and they are a resource to be jealously guarded.

As such, I broke myself of the habit of taking a taxi (roughly $50) and taught myself how to use the subway. It's called BART in the Bay Area, and it only costs $10. I use it when time and baggage allow.

It's a healthy walk from the arrival gates to the BART station, but I got lucky and got there just as a train was pulling in. There's only one line that runs down as far as the airport, so it's impossible to get on the wrong train. You can see it in the lower left corner:

I would be going to Montgomery St., and I remembered it as being a roughly twenty minute ride. I also remembered that it was fairly important to emerge from the correct set of stairs lest you find yourself on the wrong side of a busy street.

Bingo, there it is!

It's a big place!

As part of my private tour, I got to visit the outside of my boss's boss's office. The view is substantially better than that of my own office, which overlooks a parking lot, but other than that it was somewhat less spacious/palatial than I would have imagined. Although, if you consider that my ranking in the hierarchy would have me sitting in a cubicle rather than in a closed door office if I was an inhabitant here rather than in low-rent Ohio, well... things are different when office space costs are measured in the hundreds of dollars per square foot.

I can do without the view, using that math.

My hotel room, on the other had, actually was palatial. As I said, we do have quite a bit of latitude on hotel selection, but the pickings are slim in San Francisco. It is a year 'round tourist attraction, in addition to being rife with other corporate offices, so rooms command a premium. It was hard to find open rooms at all, much less low cost digs. This one was the lowest I could find (they discount it on account of the not-very-comfortable Murphy bed) at $360 per night. That price is a strong inducement to return home on the red eye flight rather than spend an extra night, but because I am unable to sleep on an airplane, the Murphy bed seemed the better choice.

The slightly inferior bed was the price to pay for a large room with a decent view. This is Union Square:

I didn't see it at first - it was the infernal racket it made ALL NIGHT LONG that made me look for it: they are building a new subway line, and they are working 24/7 to do it. I don't know what the actual purposeful function of this gizmo is, but whatever it does involves making quite a bit of racket.

I am an early riser by nature, but remove three hours from my circadian Rolex and you will find up awake and ready to go at ungodly hours. Thankfully, hotel rooms come with free coffee service, of a sort.

At that time of night, there isn't much to do other than read and enjoy the mechanical rhythms of subway digging machines,

With plenty of time on my hands, I figured it would be easy enough to find alternatives to the hotel's $25 omelet for breakfast. I didn't have my phone with me, of course, but I was able to use my very limited data plan on my iPad to Yelp for a 24/7 diner. It wasn't hard to find one. In fact, I found two, and both were less than a block from the hotel. Of the two, I randomly picked the Pinecrest.

In my never-ending search for decent corned beef hash, I optimistically selected the Pinecrest's offering. It was.... disappointing.

Still having hours to go before my first meeting, I took the other direction around the block back to the hotel and checked out the second diner. They had their menu posted on the window, and I was gratified to see that their #1 specialty was "The Best Corned Beef Hash in The City."

Lucky me! I wasn't leaving on the red eye, so I could try it the next day!

While still not as good as what I make at home, it was far above the average offering, There were actual chunks of meat in there, and the green onions added a bit of zest.  This place will be my go-to for future breakfasts when I'm out that way.

The meetings all went very well, and there were no problems at the hotel other than the frustration of having no less than three room keycards crap out on me. It was especially frustrating when I first tried to get on the elevator to the 11th floor, only to be stymied by a new system in which you enter the number of the floor you want to go to, then insert your keycard to prove you have the right to go there. There are no buttons inside the elevator cab, a fact a learned when my keycard refused to work in gaining access to the floor I needed. I just jumped in with another group (thus proving the futility of this over complicated technology that seems to be searching for a problem to solve) and got as far as the sixth floor before being ignominiously returned to the lobby. This happened repeatedly during my two day stay, and each time I had to return to the front desk for a new card.

My hopes that the return flights would go better than the outbound legs were dashed almost immediately. The first flight was scheduled to provide a slightly longer gap than the one hour window I had in Dallas to change planes on the way out, so I opted to check my luggage through in order to not have to deal with it if things got tight on the turn. As I found out on the outbound leg, it is hard to run between gates while dragging a bag. The odds were on my side this time, I figured, as it would be unlikely to face delays yet again, but I opted to place it safe.

Past performance is not an indication of future performance, but it is also no guarantee against it.

The jet back to Dallas was a 767, which is a 2-3-2 wide body. I was way back in row 37 where I new it would be a wobbly ride, but it didn't seem all that bad for so long as the seat next to me remained vacant. As it got closer to the time when they close the main cabin door, I still had an empty seat next to me. That's a great boon as legroom back that far in the plane is very tight. With only me in the row of two seats, it a much easier to spread out. In situations like these, the last few moments before they close the door are fraught with stress as late arrivals trickle down the aisle, each and every one of them a potential wrecker. I dodged all of the bullets, though, and breathed a sigh of relief as we were pushed back from the gate.

My relief was short lived. Moments after being pushed back, we were pulled right back in. There are only two reasons that I can think of for this. The first, and least likely, being the late arrival of a seat mate, and the second being a maintenance problem. A maintenance problem would be virtually guaranteed to cause another late arrival into Dallas, so the idea of a row companion was actually the more attractive option, despite its innate abhorrence.

It was, in fact, a problem with the airplane, but it was cleared up in just a few minutes. What a relief! We even landed in Dallas a couple of minutes ahead of schedule. Care to guess what happened then?

Too easy, right?

Yep. We taxied off into a vast wilderness of concrete where we parked for 15-20 minutes waiting for our gate to be open. Which, given that there was still an hour to go before I needed to board the next flight, left plenty of time to cross over to another terminal (again). A delay would be a great inconvenience, although if it stretched out too long there may have been an increased risk of incontinence brought on by my failure to plan an airborne potty trip before landing - I got caught out by an early start to our landing approach that force the illumination of the "Stay In Your Damned Seat!" light. It would also eat into the time I had hoped to use to get a bite to eat, since I had had enough of the beef jerky I carry on long trips to keep the hunger panes at bay.

Ain't air travel grand? So much to worry about, so many eventualities to plan against. It could have been worse: the guy sitting behind me missed his connection while we were parked there waiting.

His own fault, really: even if we had gotten to the gate on time, he only had 15 minutes to get to his next flight and most of that would have been spent in the slow motion parade from the back of the plane to the exit. Who books connections that close together?

What a rookie. (Says the guy who was in the same situation slightly more than 48 hours ago.)

Then the shouting started. "Get moving! We're going to miss our flights! Hurry up - what's taking so long??!"

Self important jerks. (Says the guy who was thinking the exact same thing slightly more than 48 hours ago.)

So for me, it all worked out fine. I had plenty of time to choke down a hideous $9 pizza before we started boarding right on time and without a single gate change. Imagine that! The last (and most important) leg was going to be just fine.

Well, by "we started to board" I meant 1st class. They were no sooner heading down the jetway when the PA chirped up with the very last thing I wanted to here: "we're going to stop boarding, the crew has called for maintenance. There's a problem with the airplane."

That has never been good news. Even if all they do is reset a circuit breaker, the paperwork is a good half hour delay. Worst case? I didn't want to think about it. Overnighting in Dallas was the last thing I wanted to consider.

After a half hour of no news, we were informed that there was a brake problem, but they had no idea how long it would take to fix. At this point, there were only two things I was sure of: there would eventually be a gate change as they moved us to a spare airplane, and they would lose my luggage in the process.

Neither of those proved true, though. After an hour wait (they seem longer when you don't know if it's going to be one hour or twelve), we clambered in board and headed home.

The final score does not speak in favor of using the lower cost alternative for future trips. out of four flights, US Airmercan Airlines had four maintenance delays.

There's an old trope that's nearly as time-honored as air travel itself, and it still holds true today:

Time to spare? Go by air!


Chris said...

I enjoyed this very much. Not in a Schadenfreude kind of way, but in the sense of taking some comfort in shared experiences. I fly commercially maybe five times a year for work. In the last two years, I have not had a single trip where all has gone as planned. I have been stranded at O'Hare for 24 hours, driven from western New York to Newark (about 5 hours) to make a connection to Europe on time because of cancelled flights, and cycled through multiple bookings and cancellations just in the process of getting home. I was a speaker at a conference in Washington DC last year and never even made it (in defiance of Murphy, it was the rare luxury of being "stranded" at home).

In surrender, I've set a low bar for what constitutes a "win" in air travel: just get me there on the same day I'm supposed to be there. The airlines are running about 50% against this relaxed criterion for success. It seems like they are running with fewer and fuller flights, with no margins for error, and hoping that everything will just work out. We all know that it won't, though. And, when it doesn't, the disruption just propagates outward like ripples in a vast airborne puddle of misery.

You know it's a crummy day in Terminal Purgatory halfway across the country from home when the thought, "huh, if I had flown myself in the Cherokee, I would be there by now" steals through your thoughts.

Steve said...

"Just watch: it's just a matter of time before they start charging for carry-on bags too."

^ Many already do! (Low-cost carriers, at least).

I can certainly sympathize. This month, I've already managed to endure an 8-hour delay for snow, being stuck overnight at ORD because we circled for 55 minutes after landing before a gate opened up, and a lost carry-on (yes, really) bag. I do enjoy traveling itself but dealing with the TSA and general masses is... less than enjoyable, to say the least.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Post a Comment