Categorized: Travel

Overbooking Flights, Involuntary Deny Boarding, Contract Carriers, and Other Terms Airline Passengers Don’t Understand

Overbooking flights seems counterintuitive to novice flyers. Most people consider it unthinkable to miss a flight so they can’t fathom why an airline would literally bet that some percentage of passengers will not show for their flights.

The reality is that “things” happen. Passengers will arrive late at the airport, connecting passengers will misconnect from an arriving flight, passengers take an alternate flight (elite passengers often change for free, while casual passengers can do so for a fee), and passengers might score upgrade to another cabin. In other words, a flight’s seating chart can change a lot. But in some cases, more passengers than expected show up. When that happens the airline will ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation. I did this a few times—most memorably around Labor Day weekend some years ago—and scored some travel vouchers. In those cases, we were denied boarding at the gate, well before any passenger boarded the flight.

In a few cases, I have seen passengers ask to deplane after we’ve all boarded. But this is not due to the number of seats being overfilled. It’s due to weight restrictions. Small planes, like those used by Express carriers, can only carry so much weight. If a flight is overweight, passengers will have to deplane—in exchange for compensation—in order to meet the weight restrictions.

But if there aren’t enough volunteers, some passengers will be involuntarily denied boarding. That’s what happened this weekend on a United Express flight where a passenger was forcibly removed by airport security. The videos that other passengers captured and shared are hard to watch, and United has twice (kind of) apologized for the violent incident.

The incident has cast blame squarely on United Airlines. Some in China have accused United of racism against the passenger because he was Chinese, while others are threatening a boycott. But it seems like United is not the only party to blame. I see at least three other parties that are responsible for this incident getting out of hand.

  1. The flight was apparently operated by Republic Airlines, a contractor that operates as United Express. I’ve had bad luck with these Express flights, where they are so concerned with on-time departures that they will leave before all the passengers have arrived from incoming flights. Also, not one news story has referred to Republic Airlines nor has its CEO apologized. It’s possible that is because Republic personnel were simply following United’s procedures for denying passengers boarding and calling airport security when a passenger refused to deplane.
  2. The ground crew boarded the flight and then began deplaning passengers. This is puzzling. Gate agents should know that there are more passengers than the aircraft can carry. They should have waited until there were enough volunteers to take another flight before assigning seats to passengers who will have to be denied boarding. The only reason I can imagine for the ground crew doing so is that the flight was overbooked because it was in fact overweight. They didn’t know about the weight situation until everyone boarded the aircraft.
  3. One airport security guard seemingly overstepped his authority. Reports indicate that two airport security officials came onboard and asked that the passenger deplane. The incident became violent after a third security official arrived and physically removed the passenger. I don’t want to characterize law enforcement or security guards in a general way, but there are certainly some that will go too far in “doing their jobs.”

In the public’s mind, however, this incident is all United’s fault. As I’ve said before, airlines and cable companies are among the most publicly hated companies, and no one gives United the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.

To recover from this, United and other airlines might have to stop overbooking flights and deny boardings. This might seem unthinkable, but at the moment, public opinion needs something to change its mind. Otherwise, imagine the palpable tension and fear the next time you’re waiting to board your flight when an agent announces that a flight is oversold.

The public understands fear much more clearly than they do the logic behind overbooking flights.

When Clouds Go Dark

During my frequent flying days, I was a fan of Mobiata’s FlightTrack mobile app. As the name suggests, the app tracked your flights, including delays and cancellations, as well as more routine information such as departure gate information and updated arrival times. I liked it over the other apps, even the free ones, for two reasons:

  1. It used to synchronize with TripIt, which meant that as soon as you booked your flight and forwarded your email confirmation to TripIt, FlightTrack would begin tracking your flights.
  2. Each notification would be accompanied by the familiar airplane cabin chime.

Last week, Mobiata announced that FlightTrack and their FlightBoard apps would stop working after February 28. They are “sunsetting” both apps and are apparently joining the mobile development team at Expedia to work on all-in-one travel app that could include FlightTrack’s functionality. While Mobiata can’t reach out and delete the apps from my phone, the apps will stop working because, on March 1, they will shut down the servers that FlightTrack and FlightBoard use to get flight data.

Mobiata’s shutdown made think about how many of my mobile apps I use that rely on a developer’s cloud server to work. As I suspected, it’s a lot. Here are the just apps on my iPhone’s home screen that communicate with a server and why.

iPhone Home Screen Feb 2017

  1. iCloud, including my calendar, contacts, email, messages, web browser bookmarks and tabs, photos, music, and activity to share with my friends. I also need a server to use Maps.
  2. Dark Sky to get its hyperlocal weather data.
  3. Paprika to synchronize my recipes across devices and the web browser bookmarket to quickly add recipes.
  4. Bankitivity to synchronize transactions between my desktop and iPhone applications.
  5. OmniFocus to synchronize tasks, projects, and contexts across desktop, iPhone and iPad applications.
  6. Deliveries to synchronize package tracking across devices and get delivery tracking data.
  7. Day One to synchronize journal entries across devices.
  8. Drafts to synchronize text clippings across devices.
  9. Dropbox to access files on my Dropbox.
  10. Downcast to fetch podcast episodes and synchronize across devices.
  11. Untappd to fetch beer data and post my check-ins and notes.
  12. At Bat to stream baseball games and fetch news.
  13. Bus NYC to fetch realtime bus and subway data.
  14. Transit to fetch nearby bus and subway data and to plan routes.
  15. Citi Bike to fetch data on bike and dock availability, posting my trips, and fetching account information.
  16. 1Password to synchronize my 1Password keychain across devices.

For each app listed above, my phone is communicating with a different server to post and fetch data. No wonder I need an unlimited data plan.

But what’s even more alarming is the prospect of a server going dark. It’s not so much that the server will fail. Any cloud computing platform is designed to mitigate collapse, such as an extended outage or a hardware failure. But no server is designed to keep running after the developer has ceased to do business: because the developer couldn’t pay their server bills (e.g., Everpix), because the developer couldn’t raise funding (e.g., Avocado) to keep operating, or because the developer died.

At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, it’s not a matter of if these cloud services will go dark, it’s a matter of when. And when it does happen, each app and the data contained within it will go dark, just as the lights in the developer’s office and their Amazon AWS account.

Understanding The Matrix

The Matrix series of films was a rare combination of complex storytelling and a financially successful film franchise, but an even more richly opaque Matrix is ITA Software’s Matrix Airfare Search.

In the right hands, the Matrix Airfare Search can be a very powerful tool for finding flights at the right price. Like the better known search engines such as Orbitz, Expedia, and Kayak, the Matrix allows you to search with a flexible date range, restrict airlines, and even select nearby airports for an origin and destination.

However, the Matrix also offers powerful tools for frequent travelers, such as restricting a search by an alliance, forcing connections at specific airports, and searching for available flights with availability in certain fare booking codes. I used it frequently during my mileage running days before earning elite status and, more recently, multi-city bookings became much more difficult.

Once you’ve used the Matrix, you might be ready to move on to the advanced functions it offers frequent flyers. Google, which owns ITA Software and its Matrix Airfare Search tool, published a guide for the advanced routing codes that will search for flights using a variety of criteria. I recommend checking it out. However, if you feel like you need a basic primer on using the advanced routing codes, the folks at Upgraded Points list tips for finding the right flight using the Matrix.

Both guides are very long and detailed, but knowing how to maximize the potential of this flight search tool could help plan the right itinerary for you. It helped me when I used to care more about flying frequently.

Virgin America, or Why Airline Mergers Suck

Earlier this week, Alaska Airlines successfully bid to acquire Virgin America—every startup’s favorite upstart airline.

Though the airline struggled to turn a profit since it launched in 2007, it offered a compellingly different experience than the network carriers and other low-cost carriers. This was one of the first airlines to offer an in-seat food and beverage ordering system. On my maiden flight in 2010, I remember ordering a few cans of 21st Amendment IPA while watching some recent episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Virgin America was also distinct because of their purple mood lighting, the aromatically filled cabins, and their Euro-hip inflight safety video.

Now with Alaska Airlines acquiring the airline, those distinct features will apparently be gone. Earlier today, Virgin America dispatched a message to members of its Elevate loyalty program. It reassured them that nothing dramatic would change on Virgin America over the next several months, but that’s only because mergers such as these take a long time to clear regulatory hurdles and because, you know, mergers are hard.

Please know that you will not see any changes during the next several months – and potentially until the end of the year – until the merger receives regulatory and shareholder approval. Furthermore, there will likely be no significant changes to your flying experience for as many as 18 months or more while the two airlines merge into one. Until the transaction is officially approved – typically a process that can take upwards of six months – both airlines will continue to operate independently and there will be no changes to our flight schedules, the Virgin America product and guest experience, Elevate Status levels or your ability to earn and redeem points.

With that, we can say goodbye to another friendly flier. From this press release, it’s not hard to see Virgin America morphing into Alaska Airlines, much like United Airlines morphed into Continental Airlines after their 2009 merger. And I probably won’t be happy with the result.

Santa Clarita to Moorpark: the Metrolink Open-Jaw Ride

As my month-long stay in Southern California drew to a close, I felt motivated to ride once more before returning to the late-January version of New York City, where cycling can often be an unpleasant experience. A couple of days before I left, I mapped a ride for my last full day in town.

Map: Santa Clarita to Moorpark

The ride started at the Metrolink station in Santa Clarita, followed the roads along the Santa Clara River west to the Ventura Harbor, and looped back east to finish in Moorpark. The start and end points took advantage of Metrolink’s generous bicycle policy that allows passengers to bring bicycles on to rush-hour, peak direction trains, and also the idiosyncratic schedule of Metrolink’s Ventura County line. The forty-minute ride from Vincent Grade to Santa Clarita costs only $6 for the morning segment, but in the afternoon, the Ventura County line only sends its LA-bound trains from Moorpark.

Also, at 92 miles, the ride is tantalizingly close to a century.

Metrolink Open-Jaw: Santa Clarita to Moorpark

There’s a lot of different terrain covered in this ride:

Santa Clarita to Castaic Junction. This segment goes through the suburbs of the Santa Clarita Valley through Saugus and Valencia along the bicycle paths lining the Santa Clara River.

Castaic Junction to Fillmore. For nearly 20 miles, you ride along the wide shoulder of CA-126, through the heart of the Santa Clara River valley. Looking at the Strava heat maps, it certainly looks to be a popular cycling route in the area. There are mountains on either side, a few rolling hills as you wind along this route, and plenty of farms in the distance.

Apres Hallows Wedding Ride to Santa Clarita

Fillmore to Santa Paula. Most of this ride happens on Bardsale Avenue and South Mountain Roads. I enjoy this particular stretch because not only do you ride along the Santa Susana Mountains and Santa Clara River, you also pass alternating patches of oil fields and citrus groves that are vital to the regional economy.

Apres Hallows Wedding Ride to Santa Clarita

Santa Paula to Ventura on Foothill Road. This stretch of road includes a significant amount of climbing but comes with the reward of sweeping views of the Ventura-Oxnard basin, the Pacific Ocean, and even the Channel Islands. It was one of my favorite sections from the New Year’s Day Kickoff Century ride.

Kicking Off 2016 with a Century

Ventura to Port Hueneme on the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route. After passing through downtown Ventura, you ride on very flat roads that comprise the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route from the Ventura Harbor to PCH (CA-1) just north Point Mugu. As you follow the coast, you pass a number of marinas and other signs of coastal living.

Metrolink Open-Jaw: Santa Clarita to Moorpark

Port Hueneme to Camarillo. South of US-101, this segment includes more farms. My favorite moment was riding on Santa Rosa Road next to a vast field of cilantro that I first found by smell.

Camarillo to Moorpark. This final stretch of the ride, north of US-101, goes through the suburban terrain of Santa Rosa Valley and Thousand Oaks rising over Las Posas Hills, overlooking the Tierra Rejada Valley, on Moorpark Road before descending to the Simi Valley and the city of Moorpark.

This particular ride took me significantly longer than I had expected. It had rained the day before, and there was a lot of debris on the road. Over the course of the day, I had three flat tires, including two on a ten-mile stretch between Santa Clarita and Fillmore. Also, since the construction on CA-126 I encountered last April continues, I had to dismount and walk my bike on the soft, muddy shoulder for about a mile. There was no room for me to pedal with automobiles traveling about 60 MPH zooming past me. I estimated that I lost about 90 minutes due to these setbacks.

I arrived at the end of the ride just after 4:00 PM, in time for Enegren Brewing to open its doors for the day and with plenty of time to catch the 4:57 PM train from Moorpark.

Metrolink Open-Jaw: Santa Clarita to Moorpark

But I didn’t have to rush. My mother came to meet me, and we took our time driving back from Ventura County.

Getting Off My Butt, On the Saddle

My extended stay in Southern California comes to an end this week, as I return to New York late Thursday just in time to teach a Friday morning, film history class at Pratt. In terms of my own physical activity, it couldn’t come at a better time, as my Apple Watch is keen to remind me.

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Ironically, I am significantly less active in the mild climes of Southern California than in the less hospitable December weather of New York.

IMG_5106

Much of this is because I have been staying in the suburbs, and it’s been hard getting in any casual exercise, such as bike commuting or walking around the neighborhood. But it was unseasonably warm in New York this December… to the point where it was as warm on Christmas Eve as on Independence Day in 2015.

One way to mitigate my lack of daily physical activity is to plan and take some long-distance rides. This month, I rode two.

Why 2015 Was the Best Year in the US since 2009

Get out your perpetual calendar and look forward to 2020. That’s because in five years, we will experience a similarly awesome year as 2015.

Two thousand fifteen was the best year ever because major US holidays fall on days for maximizing vacation time around the summer and mid-winter holidays.

The colloquial summer season in the United States, when most everyone plans their vacations and such, starts on the Friday before Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day. In 2015, the unofficial summer season was as long as it could be: a full sixteen weeks.

  • Memorial Day is always the last Monday of May. In 2015, Memorial Day was on May 25, which meant that the colloquial summer started on the earliest possible date, Friday, May 22.
  • Labor Day is always the first Monday of September. In 2015, Labor Day was on September 7, which meant that colloquial summer ended on the latest possible date, Monday, September 7.

For fans of summer like me, this was much better than 2014 when summer ended on September 1, and better than 2010 when summer started as late as Friday, May 28. Those years sucked!

It was also great because Independence Day, July 4, occurred on a Saturday. Most everyone I knew observed it on July 3, granting many workers a comfortable three-day weekend.

The winter holidays were similarly charmed. This past year Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, December 24 and December 31, respectively fell on Thursdays while Christmas Day and New Year’s Day fell on Fridays. That allowed many workers to have two successive four-day weekends! Take three days off in between, and you could have had with eleven consecutive days off. Not a bad way to end this great year.

I first noticed this in 2009, and I looked forward to it every year since. Usually, these kind of years occur every seven years or so, but we have two leap years coming: one in 2016 and another one in 2020. That will accelerate the frequency of this kind of year.

It will happen again in four short years: in 2020. That’s plenty of time to plan an extended summer vacation or midwinter getaway. Or both.

Happy new year, everyone!

Gardening Leave Bears Little Fruit

Pardon my silence over the last three weeks. I was asked to take an unpaid gardening leave for two weeks, and I stayed away from the computer as much as I could. And after my digital sabbatical was over, the beginning of the semester loomed on the horizon. Between the two, I stopped posting on this site.

I should have said something about it, but I was surprised as anyone that I would take such an extended leave from posting.

Before starting my leave, I planned to a bunch of awesome things, although tending to a garden was not one of them, including:

  • Visiting my friend Joe in Maine. He works there during the summer, and invited me to spend some time in the summer resort town of Northeast Harbor. Having never been before, it sounded like paradise.
  • Join my friend Steve in Baltimore as he watches a baseball game at a thirtieth different ballpark. Over the last three years, Steve leveraged all the spending his business generates into frequent flyer miles. Those miles allowed him to travel to a bunch of different cities to watch a baseball game at every current major league ballpark. His last stop was on August 17, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. He’s not sure whether he’s going to do the International League or the Pacific Coast League next…or whether he’ll ever attend another baseball game again.
  • Hit the beach. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been going to the beaches around here, and it’s pretty easy to bike to many of the beaches around here.
  • Organize my living and working space. Since I switched to the other side of the Newtown Creek, I’ve been uninspired to unpack the boxes I used to carry and hold my possessions. Going on cleaning and organizing binges used to be an embarrassing indulgence.
  • Go to Block Island or somewhere similarly exotic. As well as bikes and trains work together, bikes and ferries work even better. I had considered doing something like riding my bike out to Montauk and then catching the ferry to Block Island. But I could never find a time to do that.

As is the case with most of my grand plans, I did very few of these. Yes, I did go to the beach once, and I did go to Baltimore to watch the Mets play at Citi Field South Camden Yards with Steve and a few friends. But I didn’t visit any new places, such as the northeastern coast of Maine or one of America’s “Last Great Places”. Instead, I did a few familiar bike rides.

  1. Biked to Peekskill. This was a Monday ride that turned into an opportunity to enjoy dollar-oysters at the Peekskill’s Brewery. It however started as a coin-toss ride. My friend Brian and I rode the Westchester and Putnam county trails to Carmel, then rode on NY-301 to the junction with US-9. There we flipped a coin. Heads: we turned right to Beacon; Tails: we turned left to Peekskill. Since neither of us had a coin, I asked Siri to do so. At first, it gave us a smart-ass response: “You’re never going to believe this, but the coin landed on its edge.” We flipped again, Siri said “tails,” and we headed south to Peekskill. I’m considering making this a formal club ride, calling it something like “Heads Beacon, Tails Peekskill.”
  2. Biked to Philadelphia. I am planning to write a dedicated post about this ride. In the meantime, suffice to say that I had planned to ride all the way to Baltimore, over two days, to meet my friend Steve for that game at his thirtieth major-league park. However, after riding 97 miles to Philadelphia in 95°F heat, I decided it would be better to ship my bike back to New York and take a bus to Baltimore. The ride did serve as a testing ground for my canonical route to Philadelphia.
  3. Biked to Amagansett. Like the aborted ride to Baltimore, this was supposed to a Babylon-to-Montauk ride. On the same day as this ride through the Hamptons, our house was hosting a BBQ—a DreBQ as we call it out here. Since I didn’t want to miss the party, I aimed to return to NYC on the 3:30 PM train out of Montauk, which would put me in NYC by 7:00 PM. A couple of mechanical issues delayed our group’s progress so I bailed in Amagansett to catch that Montauk train along its westbound route. Until we had those flats, after the first half of the ride, we were due to finish the whole 92-mile course in about six hours.

And since returning to work, I assembled syllabi for three classes:

  1. Media Technologies at CUNY Queens College
  2. Media Criticism, also at Queens College
  3. Latin American Film, a new class at Pratt Institute

With the long summer break and my own gardening leave behind me and the semester beginning today, I recognize that I didn’t completely “turn off” during the break or do something completely unfamiliar. But I did do things that I enjoy and do pretty well.

And, yes, I’ll resume posting to this site again.

The Best Time to Travel

If March is “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” August represents another transitional month if you’re in the academic game. The beginning of the month treats us as gently as a lamb, but the end of the month beats us like a rented mule. However, the month of August also has the reverse effect on travel. As the kiddies go back to school at the end of the month, it becomes a lot easier to travel, especially par avion.

  • Airports become more pleasant. You begin to see fewer over-burdened families clogging the airport lines and more experienced business travelers zipping through security checkpoints and boarding areas.
  • The weather at most places begins to cool significantly. The heat waves that make most people too grumpy to do anything begin to dissipate in late-August. New Yorkers begin returning to our heat island around this time and stuff begins to happen again. It’s the same in Europe, they tell me.
  • Airfares drop from the stratospheric prices over the summer. It’s been years since I’ve flown to California over the summer because it costs about $500-$600 for a domestic flight to LAX this time of year. That’s double the usual fare. I still don’t get how people afford European summer vacations at these nutty prices.

As happens at this time of year, the off-peak travel season is nigh, and airlines have been discounting airfares for fall travel. That’s great because, as we all know, early fall is the best time of year to travel. Over the last month, several airlines began discounting flights between New York and Los Angeles, the markets I travel most frequently, to some pretty reasonable levels. Because I wasn’t deliberately tracking these fares, I don’t have exact figures, but I recall that it started with the LCCs and ULCCs.

  • Virgin America started a fare war with $300 round-trip fares, between JFK and LAX, for travel between August 25 and November 18.
  • Spirit Airlines offered a $260 fare, which shouldn’t even count as a discount because they will add fees for carry-on luggage and printing your boarding pass.
  • Sun Country did something similar, but every time I’ve searched their fares in the past, there was a ridiculously long layover in Minneapolis–St. Paul. It wasn’t worth it.

Then things got more interesting as the legacy carriers got involved, and these guys know how to wage a fare war.

  • American Airlines and US Airways began offering flights between LGA and LAX, with a connection, for $238.
  • American lowered the price on tickets on their own stock to an even lower price: $216. That is about as cheap as I’ve ever seen a non-mistake fare between NYC and LA.
  • On Wednesday morning, American offered two fares, LGA-DFW and DFW-LAX, that when combined could zip you across the country and back for $150.

I implored friends and family to take advantage of these fares, especially when it dropped to $150, because there’s no way that fare was going to stick around long. And it didn’t. By Wednesday night, that fare had evaporated and flying between LGA and LAX, via DFW, cost $370 round-trip.

On Thursday morning, I saw that United matched American’s aggressive pricing and offered its own $150 round-trip fare, between LGA and LAX via Chicago-O’Hare.

I couldn’t resist and booked a trip in mid November. Although September and October are the best months to travel just about anywhere, they’re also among the best months to be in the city.

I’ll head west as the temperatures begin to drop.

Getting the Gunks Out

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Last year, I observed Bastille Day by riding to Philadelphia for a weekend with Sarah. We were met by two of my oldest and dearest friends, who travelled from Washington, DC, to meet us. I was never into doing “couple’s weekends,” but this one was easily one of the best weekends of my life. At the time, I regarded the weekend—consisting of a bike ride, perfect weather, a Bastille Day party, and some great exploring—as perfect.

Then it all fell apart. Sarah and I split shortly thereafter. To their credit, my DC friends still reach out occasionally to ask how I’m doing, but I am still reluctant to connect with them: it feels like I was expelled from the couples club, and I am too embarrassed to come around without a current membership.

For this year’s Bastille Day celebrations, I wanted to do something similarly epic to last year’s trip, but it seemed foolish to again ride to Philadelphia. My friend Brian, who I do a lot of long rides with, had a birthday this week, and we planned a three-day trip to New Paltz to ride around in the Shawangunk Range:

  1. Riding 80 miles to New Paltz
  2. Riding 70 miles around the Gunks
  3. Riding 30 miles to Beacon

Because you might someday want to do something like this, here are some details about the ride.