Monday, June 2, 2014

Flying through.... hits and misses

HALLIE EPHRON: We're all on the road these days, passing through various and sundry airports. Usually it's that same old, same old, and you're just lucky to get where you're going without a delay. But every once in a while I get pleasantly surprised.
For example, kudoes to the smarter-than-your-average toilets in United's new Terminal B at Logan - they don't flush while you're sitting on them. And those Dyson hand dryers are a trip.

Favorite airport sign: In Milwaukee, you emerge from TSA screening to the RECOMBULATION AREA.
Security with a sense of humor - now that's something in short supply.

Appleton Airport with its 8 gates was pure bliss. Extra points for excellent bratwurst, the perfect way to say good-bye to Wisconsin.

And recently for some reason I have started to get tickets marked TSA Pre-Check. Bliss, getting to keep my shoes on and zip through the short line.

O'hare, on the other hand, is an airport that's just too big for its own good. Even with an hour between flights there's not enough time to get from one end of the airport to the other... and why should you have to when you're not even changing airlines?

So what are you thumbs up and thumbs down travel experiences lately in airport.

RHYS BOWEN: I'm glad you asked, Hallie, as I'm in the middle of a long trip and have already experienced the good, the bad and the very ugly. The latter was London Heathrow where the immigration officials have been on go-slow for a while now. We stood for an hour and a quarter in a line that snaked back and forth and then out of the area door, while there were TWO desks open to process travelers.. Disgusting.

My least favorite airports in US? Denver because
there is 1 security line for every airline. Dallas because it takes hours to walk between
gates. O'Hare because my flights are always being delayed or canceled for snow, thunderstorms, etc etc. Ditto San Francisco experiences delays and cancellations when there is wind or fog as they close one runway.

Oakland, on the other hand, is terrific. And I too now have TSA preapproval which makes the experience much more pleasant.

LUCY BURDETTE: Okay, Hallie, if you want to see a smart toilet,
you must go to Japan. Their toilets are heated, with multiple settings for bidet and other washes which I will not detail:). On the other hand, they also have stalls with "Eastern" toilets--basically holes in the ground. And your thigh muscles had better be in good shape, if you get my drift...

We came back through customs to the US in Dallas. They were so friendly and kind and efficient. I said to John: "somehow these people have missed the in-service grouch training that the customs people in the JFK airport all have!"

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I am in LOVE with TSA Pre-check. It makes me so happy it is almost ridiculous.

Now. Here's the bad. I am also blissfully happy when I get Boarding Group one, and I pay for it. You know, to make sure I get overhead space.

So you get to the boarding time, and they call over the PA:  "Please, we are now boarding our super-duper Global customers. Next our double priority customers." (Or whatever they call them), "And now, first class." Pause pause.

About a MILLION people get on.
Then they say: "Now boarding our platinum customers, and our diamond customers."

Pause pause, a million more people get on.

I HAVE PAID FOR GROUP ONE, I think, How can there be PRE-ONE?

"Now boarding our emerald customers," she says. "And then, our ruby and sapphire customers". Pause.

"Followed by priority/premier boarding."


"And now we are happy to board our group ones." Why is there something higher than ONE??
Just saying.

(And! What's the difference if you walk down the blue boarding lane as opposed to the general boarding lane? It all goes to the same place.)

HALLIE: My mother used to say that about eating the food that I'd spilled my milk all over... eat it, it all goes to the same place.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hank, that is so funny. I get group one
when I fly American AND buy my ticket with my AA Mastercard. Otherwise I pay for it. And then I think, who are all these other people who get on FIRST????   And the blue boarding lane! Sometimes I just want to be rebel and run down it!

TSA Precheck is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now I'm just 
afraid that everyone will find out you can pay to get it (assuming you're not a KNOWN criminal.) So, shhhh.

Favorite airport? I have to say I love DFW, because I never have to change planes there:-)  I do miss flying into Gatwick when I come to the UK, which I did for years until Heathrow built T5 and American moved their flights to Heathrow to compete with BA. But American flies into T3, not the glamorous T5, and that is no fun at all...

HALLIE: So what are your thumbs-up/thumbs-down travel experiences? Does anyone know what IS the deal about walking down the blue boarding lane? And Shhhh, don't tell anyone about pre-check. Please.


  1. I don’t travel nearly as much as you ladies, but it seems to me that whenever I do fly, the switching planes at whatever airport always mean a mad dash to the terminal farthest away from where I got off the first plane . . . and with not nearly enough time to manage the switch, even if you’re running.
    Checked luggage has turned into a horror that I desperately try to avoid.

    Air travel simply isn’t much fun any more . . . .

  2. Many hearts for TSA Pre-Check! I *sailed* past a looong line at security, at 5:00 a.m., in New Orleans last month.

    Best part? My husband, who is a youngster, doesn't have it. The envy is killing him. Ha ha.

  3. Best travel experience ever? I was traveling home alone from West Africa with a very sleepy three-year old, leaving Mali at 11 pm. Somehow the Air-France employee Russian wife of a Malian friend of my husband got my son and I first class seats. He zonked out. I got champagne and great comfort all the way to Paris.

    And yes, love TSA pre-check. Although I probably wouldn't pay for it...

  4. A brief interruption with my apologies. Joan Emerson, you win the copy of Harley's new book. Send me a note, please! barleykw (at) appstate (dot) edu

  5. I don't do very much traveling at all, and when I do I try to avoid flying. My problem here is that I can't remove from my mind how much fun it used to be, so now I'm just all snarly about it.

    Travel now means, to me, by car with Donald and Harley, or by train.

    But the thumbs down experience comes from the last time I flew. My very small suitcase was approved in the terminal for carry on, but when I was boarding, the airline personnel dis-approved it and whipped it away to be checked. And of course, it didn't make it to the same destination at the same time as I did.

    Thumbs Up experience - a train ride to and from North Carolina to DC with Molly and Noel Weston. Those hours FLEW by as we chatted non-stop (literally).

  6. Hey, hey! We mystery writers should investigate why these TSA pre-checks are suddenly appearing on our boarding passes this spring traveling season. I think it's a conspiracy to identify and profile "women of a certain age". Are they implying we're no longer "dangerous dames of mystery"? (Although I'm grateful for the convenience.)

    LOL, Hank! Since American Airlines merged with US Air those rich 10% precious-stone passengers showed up out of nowhere and butted into boarding lines to push all us 90% Group Ones to the back of the line. I believe we need a protest movement. I will not let my birthstone, topaz, go unnoticed in this tasteless flaunting of emerald, sapphire, ruby and diamond.

  7. My wife loves to travel, especially to Europe. She got herself a "Global Access" designation from Homeland Security (by way of American Express) which lets her avoid all immigration lines on her return from abroad. She sticks her hand under something -- presto, she is recognized as a non-threat. Also, she says the TSA-pre check comes almost automatically on domestic flights now.

    Me, I hate travel. Everything. Planes, airports, taxis, all those people bumping into me -- yikes!

  8. Group one? Me, I'm happy NOT to be in the dreaded group 4. If you're 3 or higher, and have a relatively small carry on bag, there's usually a spot to squish it into.

    I do laugh when "first class" is about the fifth group to be called.

    For a while I was seeing a lot of people traveling with "therapy" dogs... Terriers. Toy poodles.

  9. Sorry, that last comment was me... on TSA YES, old age does have its occasional perks.

    And I confess, whenever I can I'd much rather take a train.

    Edith, I got upgraded (magically, somehow) to 1st class exactly once and wouldn't you know it was a 3-hour flight and wouldn't you know I'd already bought myself a sandwich to at on the plane.

  10. Catwriter, is THAT what happened? Grr.
    I asked the gate person, "How do I get to be in those groups?"
    She said: "It's a mystery."
    I thought--that is the DUMBEST answer I have ever heard.
    I kind of looked at her, like, are you kidding me? I am a PASSENGER and I just asked you a real question.
    She must have realized I actually wanted to know, so she said "You have to fly a lot."
    Well, DUH.
    I felt like saying: I DO fly a lot, but on JETBLUE, honey.
    I didn't say that though, I just boarded.

  11. I agree - flying isn't fun anymore! I hope I never have to do it again.

  12. Hank, you are hilarious. Airlines must have a level for every gemstone out there.

    I don't travel that much - and I try not to fly. Not because I hate it, it's just a pain. The last time was to Orlando (2010?). Pittsburgh was okay - as was Orlando, very nice people. Just a hassle. And I WILL NOT do that full-body scan thingie. My favorite memory was the TSA guy when we went to Disney in 2008 (very nice) who asked my son - then 6 who the guy behind him was. My son said, "Um, that's my dad" in this voice that you know he was thinking "geez dude, how dumb are you?"

    I so wanted to take the train to Lancaster this coming weekend for my son's taekwondo tournament, but martial arts equipment is on the no-no list and The Boy is competing with broadsword. Have to do the train some other time I guess.

  13. Hallie I'm with you and take th train whenever possible.

    My best travel experience was flying Virgin First Class and going to the first class lounge at Heathrow (this was thanks to hubby's business trip and paid for by the Jim Henson Company). And then on the plane there is an actual bar and you can get massages and manicures! Heaven.

  14. When we went to Tanzania last fall I magically had TSA Pre-Check, and have had it since. I thought it was because we gave the airlines our passport data, but my husband didn't get it, so I'm not sure that was it.

    I'm with Kaye--flying used to be so much fun. Everyone dressed up, it was an occasion, and everyone was treated with respect, both airlines personnel and passengers. The only people who did not respect others back in the day were smokers--because, seriously, how did moving one row back make any difference in such a small space as a plane? So happy when smoking was outlawed in-flight.

    Now we're lucky if our fellow passengers are dressed at all, or wearing real shoes, or not eating smelly food, or being smelly themselves (I sat across from someone with a clear aversion to soap and water on a 10-hour flight home from Australia once).

    I have a theory about the airlines charging for checked luggage, too. They are squeezing every possible dime out of us, as well as discouraging passengers from using the cargo hold so they can cram as much commercial cargo in there as possible. Which means we are fighting for every square inch of overhead and underfoot space, while trying to eat an overpriced bad sandwich with someone's head in our lap.

    It's enough to make a girl mad, isn't it?

  15. The last flight I took (a United Express, puddle jumper) the flight attendant spent the entire flight sitting the back using his cell phone. Did not make me feel like I was in good hands.

    And why does it have to be so cold? Just sking.

  16. Fly out of Kalispell with its 4 gates and 2 minute security check and you're wonderfully spoiled! Not to mention the lake and mountain views!

    I must applaud the trend toward airport restaurants having actually decent food you can eat there or take on the plane. But badly as I felt for the man next to me on the Atlanta-Salt Lake flight whose connection had been late and kept telling me how hungry he was, I kept the extra half of my sandwich to myself. Because I had still another flight to go and you never know ...

  17. Oh, the food thing.

    Can we just talk about smelly food? DO NOT bring chinese food or tuna salad on airplane, right? It smells DISGUSTING and doesn't it just seem like common sense? No hardboiled eggs, either.

  18. We just came back from a long weekend in the Baltimore, MD area. Going we were on Southwest Airlines and, for some wonderful reason, had a TSA Pre on our tickets.
    That is SO wonderful!!!
    Sadly, the return trip was Airtran and we did not have it. Just the usual cattle call line up.

  19. I get wonderful service from human beings with compassion and a sense of humor when I fly Southwest. Also 2 free checked bags. They don't go everywhere, but I highly recommend them for the places they do go.

  20. Except for two trips to Hawaii in the last few years, I fly Southwest Airlines, mainly because of the two free bags. However, they do seem to be friendly, too. My dislike about Southwest is no assigned seat, as I tend to stress about that. I sometimes pay for the early bird boarding pass so I can get an A ticket, but for an upcoming trip in September, I've decided to just get on early and sign in.

    I agree with those of you who have little affection for O'Hare Airport. Worst travel experience ever for me. Snarky AA representative told me "good luck" in making my connecting flight on the other side of the airport. I didn't, and I had to pay for a hotel for my son, his friend, and me. Delta actually gave us food coupons. American, nothing. Last time I've flown them. Miami is also on my list of terrible airports. When flying on to Key West, you get on a shuttle that takes you to the ends of the Earth, prompting me to ask if we were going to be on the shuttle all the way to Key West. And, Miami is just an ugly airport with few amenities or places to eat.

    My favorite airport is my local (2 hours away) one in Louisville, KY, as the parking is easy, and everything seems to go smoothly there. I used to like Detroit when I went through there to D.C. simply because of an egg breakfast sandwich that was delicious there. Honolulu is a good airport because, well, it's in Honolulu.

    Hank, you are so funny about the pre-boarding. I am always amazed at the large amount of passengers that board in front of my prized A pass, leaving me to feel not quite so special.

    I want a TSA pre-check! I guess flying a couple of times a year isn't enough to qualify.

    My friend that I have been tripping with (couldn't resist saying it that way) the last few years likes to drive. So, I fly over her way to Virginia, and then, we drive. One time, we took the train from Williamsburg to D.C. and back, and I loved that.

  21. Favorite airport: We had a long layover at Charles de Gaulle on our way back from Tanzania. The last time I'd been there the Delta terminal was bland and vanilla, but the new and improved terminal is amazing.

    First, it's sparkling clean, and well-designed, with beautifully crafted leather settees scattered around. Then the cafes and coffeeshops are wonderful, with delicious, REAL food offerings. And then the shopping! They have a dozen or more designer shops, including Hermes, so if by some miracle you have a few grand left from your travel money you could buy a lovely scarf or handbag as a souvenir.

    But the very best part of this terminal are the restrooms. They are blindingly clean and bright, with state o' the art fixtures in white and tangerine, and some of the best mirrors I've ever seen. Also, the stall doors go all the way to the floor, and high enough you don't have to worry that someone will reach over the door to yank your hung bag away. I took photos, because it was so incredible. Is that weird?

  22. HOw about electrical outlets? I scout for them instantly...and it is so wonderful to find a waiting area full of them..

  23. The Jungle Reds don't have a clue about the cruelest torture of plane travel--because you all are skinny. You'll have to imagine the challenge I face, getting my cornfed-Missouri frame into the tiny seat and buckled up. I'm not up to the extender-seatbelt yet, thank god. But oh, the envy I feel for the 1st class folks in those nice roomy chairs. Makes me want to channel Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids (best airplane scene ever).

  24. The Jungle Reds don't have a clue about the cruelest torture of plane travel--because you all are skinny. You'll have to imagine the challenge I face, getting my cornfed-Missouri frame into the tiny seat and buckled up. I'm not up to the extender-seatbelt yet, thank god. But oh, the envy I feel for the 1st class folks in those nice roomy chairs. Makes me want to channel Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids (best airplane scene ever).

  25. Love travel stories! I am of a certain age (& have been given the TSA pre-check the last few times), and I am of a certain size (just making it without an extender belt), and I use Southwest for all the reasons stated above (& pay for the A designation).

    My husband and I got bumped up to first class on our way to Ireland because they had Air Marshals who had to sit in economy for some reason. We arrived pampered and fed -- while the kids were grumpy and hungry.

    There is NOTHING in the world like Japanese toilets. They sing.

  26. On smelly food: my favorite thing to bring onboard is an orange. Just peeling it frehsens up the place.

  27. Hank, no hard boiled eggs? tee hee hee hee

    The seats are uncomfortable even for a small person, can't imagine a tall or wide person cramming in...

    And Southwest makes me nutso with no assigned seats. We are flying with them this summer and my hub was delighted to hear I'd paid for an A designation. Now I'm afraid it will mean nothing, just like Hank's Group 1...

    One more thing about Japan--the trains are FAST and ALWAYS on time. And at the end of the line, a crew of ladies in pink uniforms hurries on and cleans it up completely. It's miraculous!

  28. I used to travel with a woman friend who was 6'2" and over 200 pounds. It was torture for her to sit in most airline seats because she could barely squeeze her long legs into the amount of space allotted, front to back, let alone side to side. We both wondered how men, many of whom are a lot taller than she is, could possibly cram themselves into plane seats. And that was 15 years ago.

    There are only so many exit rows.

  29. Am I the only one who's flown on a plane with bathrooms in the MIDDLE of the plane? Much worse than hard boiled eggs or chinese food, the door right across the aisle outgasses every time it opens or closes. I try to notice the seat maps more carefully now.

  30. My worst experience was probably getting stuck in transit due to the Icelandic ash cloud a few years ago. The airline gave us a $50 hotel voucher to stay in a hotel room for a few hours sleep before they got us on another flight, AND we later learned that our luggage had made the connect flight -- and that we could have, too, if only the airline staff had better information!

    I keep considering doing TSA pre-check, so this blog post has convinced me to do it already!