Here I am.

Winging my way back from a long business trip – I left 10 days ago, and with any luck, will finally stumble home some time in the wee hours Wednesday.

The experience was a whirlwind tour of the best and worst airports, airlines and aircraft the friendly skys have to offer. Perhaps there is something of value you can find in this. Otherwise, I just spilled ~1,300 words from seat 1A for naught.

First leg: Continental from LaGuardia: We leave November 10 – damned daylight savings day. Our early 6:35am flight becomes 5:35 am – an ungodly hour to travel, even with the bonus “fall back” hour. Paranoid I would arrive late, I get picked up extra early, and dropped off at La Guardia for Continental flight 633 to Dallas by way of Houston a little after 4am.

The Continental desk is a mess – there is a huge line, except for those who got an online boarding pass. I selected seats on the phone with an agent, but I do not recall the suggestion to print boarding passes (That might have been helpful). Because the tickets were booked via Orbitz, the upgrade to 1st class is $857. No thanks.

Without the printed boarding tickets, we must endure this l o n g line. Despite being there 90 minutes before the flight, I begin to wonder if we are going to make the plane.

If this an attempt at behavior modification, to encourage people to print e-boarding passes, it may have backfired. I make two mental notes: 1) Always print out the boarding pass; 2) Don’t fly Continental anymore.

45 minutes later, we are at the desk. We pay $20 per bag. I ask about the upgrade to 1st class (the machine says $150), but the harried agent suggests we can do it at the desk. We breeze through security, but at the gate, they tell us its $857.

Fuck Continental.

At least I reserved an emergency aisle, so the 3 hour flight has extra leg room. Reiterate the don’t fly Continental mental note. (Flight quality B+, Check in experience F)

We get to Houston, a quick switch to an Embarcadero Expressjet for the 55 minute hop to Dallas. Straight from the airport to the new Cowboys stadium – a gorgeous public facility, a fitting shrine to the religion that football is in Texas. We are in the 1st level above the field, corner of the end zone. Spectacular seats for about $100 on stub-hub. I spend most of the time there marveling over the building, eating junk food, and staring at the cheerleaders’ tight white short shorts and even tighter asses. I even manage to watch some football – the Cowboys romp the Seahawks, 37 – 17.

Second leg: By Thursday, we are done with Dallas, and head to Austin on Southwest (2877). They are a reliable workman’s airline – efficient, reasonably priced, well run. You could do a whole lot worse than Southwest. 35 minutes later, we are in Austin. (A minus check in, B plus flight)

Third leg: At the end of the day, my partners and I part ways – they go back to respective offices in NY and Boston, and I go on to Detroit for a book fair presentation for Bailout Nation. American Airlines is the carrier for this flight. At the desk, the electronic kiosk offers me an upgrade to first class for $45 to Dallas, and $90 to Detroit. I figure its not worth it just for the 35 minute ride to Dallas, so I don’t select that, but pay for thee upgrade to Detroit (2.5 hours plus). But the bag is $20 without both legs, and if the kiosk warned me of that, I might have paid the $25 difference. (AA loses points for that)

On the plane, I immediately regret the missed upgrade (693). Seat 30F is the smallest coach seat I have ever sat in. I am practically kissing the seatback in front of me – and its not even reclined. Simply awful. (Check in B-, flight F)

Well, the first of several 1st class rides are coming up, and I tough it out.

I make the connection, and its okay. The food was terrible, the seats fair. For 1st class, flight 2204 was not even aspirational luxury. No wonder the legacy airlines are getting their asses kicked.

The next morning, I give a speech to a room full of business people, real estate agents, auto management, and other authors. I sign books afterwards, and then . . .

Fourth leg: . . . its off to the airport 3 hours early. I have a 1st class ticket for the 5 hour flight from Detroit’s ironically oversized airport (whoever planned this must have been wholly unaware of the decades long decline in the American auto industry) to San Francisco, courtesy of the Detroit Book Fair.

My assumption that the 1st class Northwest ticket gains me entrance into the sky lounge is proven to be too optimistic. Northwest only grants access to international 1st class ticket holders. I politely inquire what we can do, and she offers me a $50 one day pass, but does not tell me what it gets me. I decide against it, as there is but 90 minutes to the flight.

All I can think of is that announcement they make when landing: “We know you have a choice in air travel…”

Strike Northwest from my list of preferred carriers.

The seats are pretty good, the food okay (they serve two options, and by the time they got to seat 5C, there was only one choice left.   (Check in/Sky lounge D, flight B+)

Fifth leg: My WSJ panel on Tuesday had been canceled, so I change my Virgin America flight online from Wednesday to tonite. Its a seamless, easy process.

The trip home (VX24) was the best leg of all — Seat 1 A. Everything Virgin America is shiney new and well thought out. I can only find a few things to nit pick about: The Virgin Upper Class lounge is $35, but it includes showers, Wifi, unlimited food, and booze.  (A party bargain for next Saturday night). They even tell you they will get you in time for your flight.

Its delightful — except for two things: Its outside security, so after all that niceness, you have to fight your way thru the serpentine lines. Oh, and, the hostess forgot to call me when it was time to go. I leave the lounge at boarding time, and Ack! My heart drops when I see the security line. Luckily, I make it with 15 minutes to spare.

Virgin America is the first flight where my ass touches leather. Big adjustable seats, free in flight WiFi, power for the laptop, an excellent meal (mushu chicken and eggplant — it was surprisingly, very good). Even the stewardesses are uncommonly hot looking. Sure, the entertainment system crashed twice — not very encouraging at 33,000 feet. But just about everything else was fine to excellent. (A- airport, A+ flight).

Rather than whine, let me make these suggestions to Sir Richard Branson regarding small tweaks to his airline:

• Serving dinner at 4pm local time is wrong. 6pm is the earliest you should

• For a $1500 ticket holder, the $35 is kinda adding insult to injury. Build it into the fare.

• Put the Lounge on the other side of security.

• Since you know who is sitting in what seat, why not save my music/entertainment  preferences? Rebuilding that every flight is a waste.

• Make the Upperclass lounge ticket good for the arrival airport also — that’s where I more likely to want to shower — AFTER the flight.

• I hate movies on plane where they are edited — it would be appreciated if it was disclosed if it is edited or unedited (i.e., ruined).

All told, it was a very productive trip, but I am really looking forward to tonite — sleeping in my own bed, next to my own woman . . .

Category: Travel

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

43 Responses to “Damn Annoying: Traveling the US by Air”

  1. Transor Z says:

    Great post about the cowgirls’ asses, Barry. Next time more about that and less about the travel stuff. Thanks.

  2. beaufou says:

    Who got you those seats at the Cowboys game? Mauldin? [BR: No we got them thru stub hub]

    Unless you get first class, traveling by air seems to always be a little aggravating, it probably has more to do with the “no-control over time” factor than anything, plus they sometimes crash and you die.

  3. impermanence says:

    If I was Barry Ritholz, I might find a couple of things to be thankful for… equal amount of good and bad in everything.

  4. SINGER says:

    you may very well be “Barry Ritholz”… HE on the other hand is “Barry “Ritholtz”

    disproportionate lack of everything in nothing!

  5. Bruce in Tn says:

    Madden has extra room on the bus…

  6. philipat says:

    First Class on US domestic flights is a joke. I can atke a 3 hour flight in Asia (Say, Singapore to Hong Kong) on one of the many fine Asian carriers and get a flatbed seat in BUSINESS.

    When did the “Service” economy stop providing any service? And yes,the US is the only place in the world where an F ticket does not get you into a lounge for free. I was, fortunately, able to get lounge access because at the time I was doing RTW flights 6 yearly in F and had a Star Alliance Star Gold card which DOES get you in to a Star Alliance airlinr F lounge.


  7. Get even: naked short the stock ;)

  8. Jojo says:

    Heh. Coincidentally, read this airline rant earlier today:
    FRED Columns

    Air John Dillinger
    American Airlinies: World’s Worst Airline
    November 6, 2009

    American Airlines is the only penitentiary I know that doesn’t just sit there stolidly on the ground. No. It has to fly around and inflict itself on the innocent everywhere. It’s every bit as dismal as Sing Sing, though, combining the elegance of a wrestler’s armpit with the curiosity of having the thieves on the outside, at corporate, and the prison matrons on the inside. I’d rather fly in a Dempster Dumpster piloted by a drunk, since dumpsters usually leave on time and are not owned by pickpockets.

    It’s the world’s worst airline. And I’ve flown Aeroflot during the days of the Soviet Union. American has the morals of a Wall Street gangster.

  9. franklin411 says:

    That’s because most foreign airlines are state-owned. Go capitalism! =P

  10. GB says:

    Did you hear the goldman swine flu vaccine thing yet?

  11. Andy T says:

    Continental check in’s in Houston are normally pretty great. I find that with super early morning flights, most airlines are just understaffed. I’ve seen United Flights out of Houston where there is only ONE person behind the counter. The line is horrific. Then, as the half hours pass by, more agents show up and the lines shrink exponentially. It never pays to be early or timely these days–just be late and negligent along with the masses….

  12. HarryWanger says:

    Barry, I hear you, man. Detroit to Seattle last evening = nightmare. I fly often, very often and go out of my way to never, ever fly Northwest/Delta. It’s impossible to upgrade, unlike most other airlines, and the flight attendants are pretty damn rude. But there I was stuck with this shitty airline and a 5-hour flight.

    And yes, my wife and I deplaned in Detroit, my home town, and were immediately struck by the gigantic airport with no one in it. Next week off to Minneapolis again on my old favorite, albeit bankrupt airline, Sun Country. Always an upgrade and 1st class drinks the second you sit down.

    BTW: Drove through the old neighborhood in Detroit – wow! Burned out house after burned out house with a lot of vacant land in between. A come back in Detroit? Not in our lifetimes.

  13. Chief Tomahawk says:

    How could any visit to Detroit not include a stop at Bogart’s Lounge for a refresher?!? Well, not recommended for those who are married. ($10 Tuesdays are ‘low level’ chaos…)

    But, there is the Motown Museum which covers the label’s hits created/recorded between 1959-1972. To think, when Barry Gordy sought to borrow $1,000 from his parents to launch, one of his own sisters voted no because the first Grammy won brought in hardly any money. Thereby the parents reduced the loan to $800. And the rest is history.

    By the way, every Motown recording from ’59-’72 was made in the garage of the “Hitsville USA” house, which had a dirt floor until remodeling in ’62, when wood was put in.* Songs were then mixed in the attic of the house next door, which had been specially built to duplicate the sound effect of a tiled bathroom. [* The Martin Luther King "I Have a Dream" speech was given in a downtown Detroit theater before his journey to DC to deliver it; Motown Records recorded it in Detroit and that's the version one hears to this day when they see the video footage from DC; the Motown Museum tour guides are the source for that trivia.]

  14. donna says:

    Love love love Virgin. United is not bad. American has been on my shitlist for YEARS since taking six hours to get us from San Diego to L.A. for our Ireland trip in 2000, then stranding us overnight in JFK on the trip home getting in too late to even catch a taxi to a hotel, after the nightmare that was trying to get through Heathrow. Got in from Ireland to Heathrow three hours before our transfer flight, and didn’t make it through security, so we were stuck on the last flight out. I’ll NEVER go through Heathrow again, and never fly American again.

    JFK was a kick though, in that time before 9/11 — an entire airport to ourselves, with almost no security around. Gee it was fun!

  15. stanleybdavis says:

    Living overseas, I’m quite happy to avoid the US domestics. I avoid them whenever they can. They make public transit look good.

  16. huxrules says:

    Feel like I should defend Continental on this one. BR you’re a technical guy- why didn’t you check in online? Most major airlines allow you to check in 24 hours in advance. You can buy first class upgrades online as well. Continental will even e-mail a pdf of your boarding pass to you. The fact that you checked in at the counter and made you ticket on the phone ?!?! What is this 1992?

    But I will have to agree – La Guardia is a crap place to fly out of. Especially at that hour.

  17. huxrules says:

    Also – how did you like Austin?

  18. philipat says:

    f411 @That’s because most foreign airlines are state-owned. Go capitalism! =P

    Actually that’s not true, the very best airlines IMHO, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are both private Companies and publicly lsited.

    Even if they were Government owned, given the quality of service on a longhaul flight, I’d stay with the socialists thanks.

    It never ceases to amaze me why Americans continue to put up with such terrible service. Probably because there is no choice, they are all as bad as the other and on domestic routes there is no choice. If you really believe in capitalism and free markets, open up US domestic routes to foreign competition so that, for instance, Singapore Airlines could fly from SIN to LAX and then on to JFK with domestic rights. SIN is open skys so reciprocal through rights are no problem. In this way, the US consumer would get to see what service means and it would be the very best thing for the consumer. I for one will continue to avaoid US carriers unless it is absolutely impossible. Which brings us back to those US domestic sectors!!

  19. super_trooper says:

    I suggest you spend some time at flyertalk to learn more about optimizing your flight experience.

  20. torrie-amos says:


    What would you say the mood was across the land?


    BR: Mixed

  21. Kekepana says:

    Actually, Philipat, Singapore Airlines is 54.48%-owned by Temasek Holdings. Temasek is, in turn, owned by the Government of Singapore and functions as one of Singapore’s Sovereign Wealth Funds. All that said, Singapore Airlines is my favorite airline. I just wish I could fly with them more often. U.S. domestic carriers are the pits.

  22. danm says:

    Nice try.

    Virgin America is piggybacking on the incumbents. It’s much easier to make money when you’re the new kid on the block and the others have supported the infrastructure.

    On top of that, they’ve probably created their busines on credit bubble low rates. How can the others encumbered with legacy compete against that?

    I am so sick of people railing against public and rooting for private without proper analysis. People don’t realize what the socialization of airlines has done for them.

    If this industry had not been subsidized for decades, we would not have the thousands of routes we currently have, and Americans would not be able to travel as cheaply as they do.

    It would still be like in the 1950s with only the top 5% traveling by air.

  23. danm says:

    The big problem in the Western world today, is everyone thinks they are entitled to be treated like royalty when they’re frigging middle class full of debt net worth negative.

  24. says:

    15,000 hours and liking the ex in ex-airline captain. If you think the economy and the fed suck they took lessons from the airlines.

    NetJets/FlexJets or drive!

  25. davefromcarolina says:

    You didn’t even mention the dumbshow known as “airport security.” TSA stands for “Totally Stupid Administration.”


    BR: Yes, it is Security theater. But its become quick and painless. . .

  26. danm says:

    When you subsidiz and industry, you can expect a lot of supply, but low quality.

    That’s what we’ve got. Why is anyone surprised? Because people have been fooled by a semblance of capitalism and are totally blind to facts.

  27. danm says:

    And now that our credit society is being reshaped, do you really think it’s going to get better unless we inject even more capital into airlines?

    Maybe more capital will fall from the sky (no pun intended). Maybe not.

    Industries to go through a shakeout over the next decade:

    1. Airlines: not profitable over the long term. Highly susbisidized and high cost.
    2. Car industry: second leg to come as households go from 2 or 3 cars to 2 or 1.
    3. Health care: Rest of developed paying 3000$ per capitla while US is broke and paying $5500+ per capita. Writing on the wall, government is going to look at ways to cut costs.
    4. Insurance companies. When health care shakes out, insurance cos will lose business. Ouch.
    5. Consumer products: bankruptcies and M&A.
    6. Media: 2nd leg to come with more loss of advertising dollars with consumer shakeout.
    7. Pro sports: after shakeout in all of the above, advertising revenues will drop and pro sports will lose funding.

    We are in the first innings.

  28. MorticiaA says:

    Dave: here are a few other options for what TSA stands for –
    1. Takes Scissors Away
    2. Thousands Standing Around

  29. DeDude says:

    How many of your pilots were drunk ?

  30. ews says:

    Why people don’t fly SWA exclusively is beyond me.

    I’m lucky b/c in Chicago and we have an entire airport not named O’Hare dedicated to SWA that has nonstops everywhere you could possibly want to go (except Atlanta). You will never pay more than $600 for a roundtrip flight ($900 if you really want the “business select” option), even if you book the day before, and in most instances will pay well less than $400. You can cancel and rebook flights at will without penalty (yes you get “credit” but this is basically monopoly money if you fly often enough), their online and check-in systems are incredibly simple, they don’t charge for bags.

    Cons: They don’t have first class. You need to remember to check in online exactly 24 hours before your flight to ensure you get “A” group and an orderly boarding proces (which isn’t much to ask of a modern businessperson in today’s blackberry/iphone world).

  31. Chief Tomahawk says:

    I’m surprised BR’s rear didn’t touch leather on Southwest. I thought they had an advertising campaign about two years ago that their gift to their customers was leather on every seat from now on…


    BR: You may be correct — but it was so early, and so quick a flight, it didnt register!

  32. KrisK says:

    do you own Virgin stocks by any chance?

  33. dniederman says:

    Arg Barry that sounds awful. I used to fly a lot here are two tips that worked well for me:

    #1 Amex Black Card, yes annual $400 fee is super steep but it gets you into airport lounges for American/Continental/Delta which, IMO, can earn you back the fee in a few visits, especially when the lounge has a shower.

    #2 I once utilized an airport concierge for my wife and two kids when they were visiting nyc. The cost as I recall was only ~$100 and the service consisted of a polite, be-suited assistant who helped my wife with the kids/luggage, whisked them past security and into the airlines 1st class lounge (she held neither 1st class ticket or amex platinum). Probably saved her at least 3o minutes plus significant stress. If you want the name of this firm just shoot me a line.

    Love the blog.


  34. h00t22 says:

    Barry, even with what you experienced, Continental is one of the best domestic airlines. Plus, you don’t fly enough to make an accurate comparison.

  35. Gilgamesj says:

    Maybe the USA should build some highspeed railroads: obama gets some jobs, its green! and generally more comfy than airlines. Get those shovels!

  36. Charles says:

    “Why people don’t fly SWA exclusively is beyond me. I’m lucky b/c in Chicago and we have an entire airport not named O’Hare dedicated to SWA”

    Because most people aren’t that lucky. I have never lived in a city that Southwest served within 50 miles of my home.

    Generally I prefer Continental. If you fly enough to get elite status, they are one of the smoothest operations around. Virgin America is nice and has some great routes from SFO, although you’re right about those entertainment systems crashing. I never fly USAir or American, and United is just annoying with the surcharges for everything.

  37. ews says:

    But Charles, most people ARE that lucky.

    I’m not going to do the math, but I suspect 85% of the US population (excl. AK/HI) live within 50 miles of an airport serviced by SWA. That you don’t is irrelevant.

  38. rg2009 says:

    I’m not surprised by your experience on Northeast Airlines. They’re on my own “no fly” list. I just had too many consistently bad experiences with them. I pay more to avoid them when possible.

  39. bergsten says:

    I have a sneaking suspicion that the airlines have actual departments whose sole job it is to sit around and figure out how to make passenger’s lives more miserable.

    For a while it seemed that United was boarding planes from the front to the back. The alleged explanation was that, this way there was some overhead space left for the forward-sitting passengers. What this actually accomplished was to make boarding totally chaotic and miserable.

    And the “24-hours-to-the-dot” ahead limit on printing out boarding passes. Why?
    And, it’s 2009 and their crappy software can still double books seats.
    And they will happily move you from a delayed flight to a canceled flight.
    And now they charge for luggage, curbside check-in, snacks, meals, headphones, blankets, pillows, and for all I know, air (which isn’t outside-circulated as much and thus there’s way more chance of infection).
    And they pull back from a gate with a known broken plane and count it as “on time departure.”
    And their frequent flyer programs are more deceiving and “full of small print/exception lies” than even Congress.
    And the “entertainment systems” are usually partially or completely broken and in any event have more commercials than content.
    And if you dare to complain, they throw you off and claim you’re a terrorist.
    And the employees are even more miserable than the passengers if that’s possible. The pilots are so pissed off they fly right past the damn airport.
    And First Class is now worse than “cattle” in the Airplane movies.
    And ticket pricing and restrictions rival the best torture of the Inquisition.

    And that’s all on a good day.

    To misquote Harry Chapin, “it’s got to be the getting there not the going that’s good.”

  40. kaleberg says:

    Actually airfares are extremely cheap. The price for flying from New York City to Los Angeles has been about $300 if you shop around, since the 1930s. (That’s nineteen-thirties, not a typo.) Of course, in the 1930s you flew on a roomy prop plane and stopped every five hundred miles or so to fuel up. Now you get crammed into a 29″ aisle but you can fly cross country non-stop.

  41. jse17 says:

    In the context of travel jargon, let me offer the following. When one arrives home after a difficult and extended journey, go for it immediately if not sooner. Never forget that the train wears out long before the tunnel!