Tag Archives: airlines

American Airlines

Nickel and dining seems to be the new way for airlines to make money. I don’t know how widespread the practice is, flying from DC to my LA layover was my first ever domestic flight. Maybe all the national airlines do it.

First is the overhead compartments. The pilot mentioned repeatedly that it was a full flight so we were required to keep our winter jackets with us. Like airline seats aren’t cramped enough. Next time get planes that have bin space for every seat in the house.

The in flight entertainment was some move I really wasn’t interested in. That’s common enough. What also is common is have a guide of what movies are going to be shown. We were told there that information was available I in the sear backs, but my row didn’t have anything but safety cards and a few rough looking magazines. But that all wouldn’t bother me so much if AA didn’t want to charge for the headphones. I’ve never been on a flight where you need to pay for the headphones. At least they had the sense to try and spin it that passengers are given the option to use their own headphones. I had that option when you weren’t shaking folks down for a few bucks.

Even after the movie that I didn’t want to watch the entertainment didn’t get much better. The showed NBC shows like The Office, complete with commercials. I have to deal with commercials at home and now on a flight? Also why couldn’t they play 30 Rock? That’s the best show NBC has had in years.

They plane has wifi! That’s pretty awesome right? Well I thought the same until I saw how much it cost. What is this, the year 2000? If you offer wifi you offer free wifi. It should be against the law not to
Speaking of six hours, I figured that a 11 AM flight would offer something in the way of lunch. Seriously, it’s a six hour flight. I could have gotten a bite at the airport for a fraction of the cost of the food on the plane. That’s right, I said ‘the cost of the food on the plane.’ Everyone else I’ve flown on had included something to eat. LOT hooked us up with cookies for an hour hop. But not AA. If you want a tasteless looking sandwich and a bag of chips be ready to shell out $10. For that price I could have gotten a gargantuan burger and fries at Five Guys before leaving. And that would be enjoyable. Of course I’m no rich guy so I passed on lunch. But at least there was complimentary soda or juice. You know, the bare minimum of service.

I really wouldn’t mind this sort if stuff from Southwest or RyanAir. But AA is behaving like a budget airline without passing savings in to customers or even admitting they’re not top tier anymore.
I’m lucky because I bought my ticket through a website. My second leg from LA to China is on China Southern and they give two free checked bags. AA is forced to comply with that although with a sign at the gate boasting ‘First checked bag free!’ I feel like they wish they didn’t have too.

I know it’s hard for the airlines these days. Maybe this is the new normal. Between trimming back freebies, cutting flight attendants pay to when the planes are only actually flying, to overbooking flights, American carriers just aren’t that nice anymore.
If it wasn’t for the mileage rewards no one would willing fly these legacy carriers and now I see why.

The view was awesome though.

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Three Days Late. Two Hundred Dollars Short.

It hasn’t been the smoothest of weeks over here. I’ve been impatiently waiting for my invitation letter from China. That’s right I’m moving to China. Wuxi to be exact. In fact I should be there right now. But before I can leave I need to get my affairs in order.

I bought my ticket from Air China a little over a month ago once I was offered the position. The plan was to leave on January 26. That should be plenty of time do everything. My employer needed an FBI background I that he could bring to the Chinese authorities to prove I’m not criminal. I expressed mailed that during the holiday season. It wasn’t my fault, it just so happens that’s when I was offered the job and I sent it out as soon as possible.

It finally got there and my boss went through all the hoops, he’s an American who’s been there for over a decade and knows the game, and got my invitation letter. I’m officially welcome by the Chinese government! It may be a formality but it’s still kind of cool.

He express mails the paperwork back to me so I can go to the embassy, I still need a visa. He used EMS, which is the USPS overseas branch. The letter was dropped in the mail January 11, just over two weeks to get here. No one can screw that up right?

Wrong. Six days later it is returned to the office as undeliverable. What? After reconfirming my information and knowing it was EMS not him who screwed up, my boss sent it off again on January 18.

The days are passing. Him and I are in constant communication about the status of the parcel. I’m concerned. I need these papers to arrive so I can go to the embassy to get my visa. With this invitation letter it’s just a rubber stamp but the last day it can arrive and I make my flight is January 24. I can’t wait for the mail and get to the embassy in DC in the same day. It’s delivered pretty late where I am out in the boondocks.

Since it was express mail my boss was told it would take three to five days to arrive. Perfect. At the higher end it’ll still be here on the 23rd and I’ll have plenty of time for the visa.

Come January 21 I wrote telling my boss it hadn’t arrived. Since Wuxi is thirteen hours ahead he went down to the EMS office on the 22nd and raised hell. They guaranteed it would arrive on time for me. This let me relax.

On the 23rd, still no parcel. In fact when I used the USPS tracking system all it would say is that the parcel was processed in China, nothing else. Terribly frustrated I called the USPS customer service trying to find it. I’ve dealt with people who have attitudes before, but this woman took the cake. Holy hell she was rude. I could hear her rolling her eyes and basically not giving one concern about my plight. Forget the fact that the EMS branch of USPS is about to cost me hundreds of dollars, she made me feel like I was ruining her day. I guess working in a call center does that to you.

The 24th came, do or die. I crossed my fingers, maybe USPS botched the tracking info. They already screwed up with the mailing twice. I made the long walk to the mailbox. It was snowing and winding and miserably cold. The mailbox is about a quarter mile away from the house, and I felt every single step. I opened the mailbox, there were a bunch of different envelopes. Excited I grabbed the pile and started to flip through them.

And nothing for me. Just a bunch of junk mail My heart just bottomed out. I wasn’t going to China anytime soon.

The first thing I did when I got back was call the Chinese embassy in Washington. Maybe there was some way they could give me a temporary work visa (I didn’t want a tourist visa) and I could finish it up in China. That wasn’t happening. Even thought she wasn’t able to help me, the wonderful woman who works the visa office phones was so considerate listening to my problems. She seemed to take it as a personal failure that USPS is slower than molasses and the Chinese government has immigration rules that she can’t tweak to help someone.

Then I called Air China. If I can’t get a visa I’ll bite the bullet and pay the money for a changed ticket. Better than wasting all the money on a flight I won’t be on. I was on the phone with another lovely lady for an hour. Dead serious. She tried so hard to find me another flight to put me on. The problem was, and I don’t know if it’s Air China or all carriers, is that a change of ticket means I must fly on the same routes that I originally bought. Since I was flying DC to LA to Beijing to Wuxi, that was the only path I could take. Air China runs a bunch of DC to NYC to Beijing to Wuxi flights, but I couldn’t get on one of those. We finally found a flight that would work, but there was a seventeen hour layover in Beijing. Air China offered to put me up in a Beijing hotel for free so I wouldn’t be camping in the airport for more than a half day. Who am I, a rock star? This wasn’t their fault. They were nothing but professional and kind to me the entire time.

Unfortunately the hotel they could put me up in was not right next to the airport and I’d have to get there myself. And I would be landing the first day of Chinese New Year. And I would be carrying two bags plus a carry-on. And I have no friends who can help in Beijing. And I don’t speak Chinese at all. And I’d be super jet-lagged from. I can think of rougher entries into a country, but not too many. I felt bad because she worked so hard, but I had to turn down the offer. She didn’t seem to mind, in fact she told me that’s what she would do in my situation.

Somehow in dealing with Air China with their aim to please the customer and me being frustrated and confused, both of us missed the most obvious solution. Why don’t I just cancel the ticket and buy a new one? So if I end up flying DC to NYC, no worries. It was such a ‘duh’ head slapping moment when I finally thought of it. I mentioned it to her and I could hear on her the same ‘why didn’t I think of that yet’ tone that I found pretty funny. So I canceled the flight, and now I’m waiting for my refund.

After canceling the flight I looked for another one. I wanted to use Air China because of how great they were to me. But unfortunately for them I was able to find a different carrier that would get me there cheaper than the Air China flights I saw. So I booked with them. In the end the new flight was only $50 more than my original ticket and the cancellation fee was $150. Instead of leaving January 26, I leave February 10 which isn’t a ton of time to wait. I’ll be able to see a few friends who I haven’t seen yet due to lack of time. It’s not a total loss. And my boss said I’ll be reimbursed for the extra costs.

The moral of the story as I learned talking to USPS on multiple occasions is that when overseas, express mail only guarantees three to five day delivery AFTER clearing customs. They might not tell you that at the EMS office, but it’s the truth. So make sure you give them at least an extra week for any time sensitive materials. Or just use FedEx or UPS.

The Unfriendly Skies

This is the fourth part of the Peace Corps vs Bolivia saga.  You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.  There’s one more chapter I need to write sometime during this holiday season.

It was a normal day. I went to work at the school, did my trainings with the teachers, and was eating dinner watching the telenovela with some friends. Unexpectedly our regional director popped into the restaurant/guesthouse I lived in. He told me I had an hour to get my stuff together, we were going to be consolidating in Tarija. It was strange that he was there in person, but not strange we were consolidating. We’d do this just about ever other week because of security scares. Normally it came over the phone though.

He left and headed south to pick up some other volunteers, he would grab me on the way back. My friends asked me what was going on. I lied to them. I told them that there was a conference in Tarija I had to be at for the next three or four days. They never asked me why the regional officer came down at eight PM instead of calling; probably chalked it up to the crazy gringos.

I put my important things together, passport, computer, toothbrush, and a change of clothes and waited to leave. There was a nagging sensation in the back of my head that something was wrong this time, but we’d done this so many times before I thought they were just being nice and giving us a free ride. I told my coworkers I’d be back in a few days and we’d go over the plans for the new garden. That didn’t happen. I never saw them again.

Peace Corps stashed us in the guesthouse we would always use in Tarija. They told us not to leave, but forget that. This was our city and we weren’t scared of anything. We took it as a holiday. All the volunteers were together for the first time ever and that was cause to celebrate. So for three days we slummed around Tarija; buying things we couldn’t find in the villages, using the internet, going to restaurants and bars and clubs, the normal things we would do.

Finally a message came down from our main office in Cochabamba. We were to relocate to Bermejo, a town about four hours south, right on the Argentine border. Was this getting more serious? Should we be concerned? Will they try to slip us out to Argentina since we’re so close? Lots of questions needed to be answered.

But of course there was a problem. Another round of bloqueos was planned for the day so we had to leave at o’dark thirty in the morning to make it through before the protesters came and shut the roads down. The dozen of us pile into cabs we scambled to find and paid out the nose for. We were getting reimbursed so money really wasn’t an object to us. PCVs are notoriously cheap unless the company is paying the tab.

We arrived in Bermejo and checked ourselves into the hotel that the bosses had reserved for us. Again another four days of nothing. Eating and drinking, what else could we do? Another message from Cochabamba, conference call time for us. Living in the far south of Bolivia we were the most remote of the volunteers. Unknown to us, by this time all the rest of the volunteers in the country had been moved to Cochabamba. So there we were, an island of American foreign policy just drinking beer in the sunshine.

The country director gets on the conference call. She tells us that a plane is coming for us to bring the whole lot of us to Cochabamba. Wait a second, since when did this backwater border town have an airport? And why can’t we just go to Argentina? Most of us were hoping for the nice government per diem to take a proper vacation. I still sigh that we missed the opportunity to enjoy delicious wine and butter-tender steaks courtesy of the US taxpayer.

Well Bermejo did have an airport of sorts. The next day after the conference call we gathered our baggage and piled into cabs again. At least the drivers knew where were going. We pulled up to a tiny airstrip. There’s a single man waiting there with a set of keys. He unlocks a padlock, we dip through the chain link fence, and then he pulls out a bottle of wine and waits for us to leave so he can go home. We’re sitting and waiting for an hour or so thinking about this nonsense when there’s this loud drone. Our eyes follow our ears and what do we see? A C-130 making a landing approach. No one’s in the control tower, there’s nothing at all that makes this look like a working airfield. The runway looks like the length of a football field.

Somehow the pilots stick the landing. No sense in turning of the engines, the ramp is let down, we pile on with our stuff and we’re moving even before everything’s sealed up again. For the twenty or so of us, there was a lot of room. Most folks decided it was nap time and made themselves comfortable. One person asked the crew where we were going. Peru they said. What? Aren’t we just going to Cochabamba to be with the rest of the volunteers? These pilots are idiots.

We begin our descent into Cochabamba. No problems landing, we hop on out into the terminal. Who greets us? All the other volunteers. It was like being a millionaire rock star coming off a private jet to adoring fans. By fans we mean people we hadn’t seen since we finished training, for some that was almost two years.

But there’s nobody else in the airport. I know Cochabamba isn’t exactly an Atlanta style hub, but still it’s a ghost town. Then it clicks with us, the pipeline bombing. There’s no fuel for the planes. So the whole air system in Bolivia is shut down. PC called in a whole bunch of favors and scored a military plane from outside the country and got in touch with the right people to open up the Cochabamba airport just for us.

The Bolivian Peace Corps staff herd us back onto the plane. They’re staying behind in case things cool down. There’s lots of work that needs to keep on keeping on. And they’re getting paid for it. We’re just a bunch of shmuck volunteers, it looks real bad if something happens to us.

We take off once again. What used to be a cavernous hold is now packed to the brim with dirty, sweaty, stinking bodies. It was like sauna crossed with eau de toilette if that meant literal toilet bowl water. And flying over the Andes can get pretty bumpy. More than one person got sick. Overall, I’d give the flight a D-. The only reason they scored that high is we didn’t crash.

We landed in Lima to be greeted by the American ambassador in Peru and the Peace Corps Bolivia country director. What happened next is another story.

Aeroflot Russian Airlines

Aeroflot is the major Russian airline flying international routes into and out of Moscow. Generally, that’s all you should ever need to know about them because flying on Aeroflot isn’t the most wonderful trip you’ll ever take.

To begin with, your flight will not leave on time. When I landed in Sheremetyevo for my long, long, incredibly long and boring twelve hour layover, I was trying to find my way to the proper terminal. A nice Russian lady working at the information desk called me over to help. She asked for my boarding pass which I promptly provided and pointed me in the right direction. ‘You just go through security over there, down the stairs and wait. Your flight will be late of course.’ And then off I went. I knew Aeroflot has a pretty bad track record of taking off on time. I read somewhere than less than one out of four flights leaves on time. But to see a representative say it so snidely almost as if she meant ‘Yeah they’re a bunch of bums. You’re flying on them and I work for them. We’re all in this together right?’ made me laugh. One of the highlights of my time in the airport.

Now the plane has finally arrived and it’s time to board. I hope you brought some in flight entertainment with you. You won’t find a whole lot here. The planes aren’t the newest so there are only a few TVs set up near the front of the cabin and the flight attendants will pass out headphones to plug into your armrest. They’re not that large and even if you can see them, you’ll find almost all of the movies shown are dubbed into Russian. There may be subtitles, there may not. No worries you tell yourself. In the seat pocket there is a very thick magazine that looks interesting. And I’m sure it’s very interesting. You’ll find some nice pictures. But you’ll also find that it’s all in Russian as well. Every piece of reading material other than the emergency procedure chart is only in Russian. And this is on a flight from Moscow to Washington DC. They know some Americans are on the plane. They know it’s an eleven hour flight. I guess they just don’t care.

Can’t let the hammer and sickle go to waste.

But it’s not all doom and gloom with Aeroflot. For starters they have one of the coolest logos in the world. It just looks awesome. The food on the flights is pretty good as well. Decent fish dishes are pretty common, but if they offer you the chance to eat pancakes, grab those. They’re rolled blini that can be filled with cheese or meat. Proper Russian food and quite excellent. Unfortunately they only serve free wine and beer with lunch, not dinner on the long flights. So grab it while you can.

Wikipedia says Aeroflot is one of the most profitable airlines in the world and is 51% owned by the Russian government. I think this government ownership allows Aeroflot to fly trans-Atlantic flights that are only half full or so. Or maybe all their real money comes from flying domestically and to former Soviet states, the trans-Atlantic flights are there for prestige more than anything. Either way one great thing about Aeroflot is that you’ll have lots of room. I’ve flow on them round trip America to Russia twice and on every one of the four flights I’ve had the entire row to myself. If you’re traveling with a buddy, it might be a good idea for you to book your tickets separately. The only people I saw sharing a row were obvious couples. The chance to spread out and lie down on such a long flight is definitely a perk. And finally Aeroflot can be cheap. I booked with them and dealt with those long layover was that it saved me close to four hundred dollars compared to the next lowest fare.

I would fly Aeroflot again in a heartbeat. I’m glad I own a Kindle and brought that with me on the plane. If I didn’t I might have a much different opinion of the company. The only real downside I personally faced was the long layover in Moscow. Eight or twelve hours is far too much. Especially in an airport like Sheremetyevo.