Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Janet and I just came back from our first out of area travel since September. This trip was back to a familiar and much-loved destination, San Diego. In addition to visiting our grandkids I scheduled a sidetrip up to Santa Barbara so I could get a tattoo, and that meant for some unusual travel arrangements. It was an interesting experience, mostly positive but with a few notable downers.

Flying sucks. There is no nicer way to put it. That isn’t an attack on the flight crews…they are doing their best…most of the time. It starts with the schedules. Trying to keep up with flight schedules for the past past month has been like riding a roller coaster without the safety bar in place as airlines try to take advantage of increasing demand and the return to their fleets of the 737-Max airframe. This is particularly noteworthy with airlines like Southwest and American who rely more than other airlines on the 737-Max for longer haul domestic flights…in fact two of our flights with Southwest for this trip were aboard 737-Max planes. All airlines to some extent or another have been impacted by the uptick in demand, and none of them have managed it gracefully. Rather than seamlessly adding flights here and there to meet the additional load, airlines have taken to completely retooling their fleet ATO (Air Tasking Order…fancy government term for schedule) on a daily basis. Yes, daily. This manifests itself in unprecedented confusion and frustration for travelers as non-stop flights they ticketed months ago are rescheduled, then cancelled, only to be rescheduled yet again.

Airlines are swapping equipment to get more capacity on popular routes, meaning those premium exit row seats you paid extra for are now middle seats far in the back. If you did book a flight with stops, that Goldielocks connection you worked so hard to find…not too long and not too short…is gone, replaced by either a laughably short 30 minute layover, or a 12 hour lag in a connecting airport with virtually no services and the most uncomfortable seats imaginable. Non-stop flights are being traded around for routings with two and three stops and arrivals a day later than the original schedule. It’s no wonder people are freaking out and acting like crazed lunatics.

Once you board your plane, you find that airlines are back to flying full capacity…no more empty middle seats or any attempt at social distancing. Masks are still required and flight crews are still limited to very restricted cabin service, the later because airlines continue to use the excuse of social distancing to limit service even as they pack planes to the limit. Other than one quick pass through the cockpit for snacks (a small pack of pretzels) and a second pass for a very limited beverage service consisting of four non-alcoholic choices, the flight crew on our flights spent their time sitting in the forward and aft galleys trying to keep themselves busy. Because we were wearing masks throughout the flight, we were instructed not to engage the flight crew in conversation. When they came through to take our drink order they held up a placard depicting the four drink options with a roman numeral listed below each. To order, we were instructed to hold up the number of fingers corresponding to our selection on the placard. If it weren’t for the fact that I didn’t like ginger ale, I would have ordered it just because it was number 1. Think about it.

Pilots continued their pre-COVID practice of keeping the fasten seat belt signs on for most of the flight. Total time in the air for two cross-country flights: ~10 hours. Total time we were free to move about: ~1 hour. Total time in turbulence: about 15 minutes per trip and it was less bumpy than what we experienced on the train. Given how advantageous this is to the airlines it wouldn’t surprise me to see these practices continue for the forseeable future. To their credit, none of the flight crews we encountered made any effort to hold people with three-hour bladders in their seats while the fasten seat belt sign was on, except during take off and landing, so at least there was that. On the up-side, despite being treated like livestock by the airline, I didn’t observe any of the outrageous behavior on the part of passengers the media has been gassing about lately. That’s not to say it isn’t happening…but I didn’t see any of it. Most of our fellow passengers were just happy to be traveling again.

After a sucky cross-country flight, Amtrak was luxury travel by comparison which says volumes about flying. Because Amtrak isn’t. Luxury that is. As with the airlines, Amtrak has resumed full capacity service but continues to limit passenger in-transit services. I sprung for business class seating on the Pacific Surfliner from Santa Barbara where I got my tattoo, to San Diego where I visited my grandkids. Amtrak’s business class was only marginally more costly than standard seating and in addition to the extra room, business class offered premium services like free checked bags and a service attendant in each business class car “dedicated” to supporting the passengers with drink, snack, and lunch service.

Apparently, even though Amtrak felt it was safe enough to remove passenger capacity restrictions, they did not feel it was safe enough to resume the premium services that go with purchasing a business class ticket. They did not permit checked baggage, and though we did have a “dedicated” attendant in our business class car, she spent her time “dedicated” to sitting on her bottom with her nose buried deep in her cell phone. The one time I asked for something during the six-hour trip I was directed down to the café car. OK no problem…I can do that, but then don’t sell me a ticket priced to include premium services that you don’t provide. That minor annoyance aside, rail is definitely more comfortable even on a full train with a snotty service attendant than flying.

This was the most pleasant surprise of the entire trip. Ordinarily I get a rental car for transportation between our kids’ house and the airport. I decided for this trip I could take quite a few Uber rides and still be ahead of the game given the $700 a rental car was going to cost. If you missed my post about rental cars you might want to check it out before your next trip. Prices are outrageous and availability extremely limited. Janet and I have used Uber a time or two in the past and had no issues with it, so for this trip we utterly relied on it. I am now a huge fan.

OK to be fair, Uber is not without its issues, but we didn’t experience any of those. Rides ordered in advance showed up at the appointed time, and rides ordered on demand arrived as timely as local traffic conditions permitted. The Uber app kept us apprised of our ride status with a fairly accurate countdown timer showing any change to our pick-up time, and a dynamically updated graphic display of the car’s location. The app gave me info about the driver, their Uber history and rider ratings, and the passenger and luggage capacity of the available cars as well as price differences so I could order one that best met my needs.

Once my order was accepted by a driver, the app gave me the color/make/model and tag number to look for at the designated pick-up point. The Uber drivers we encountered were courteous and they operated cars that were clean and in good repair. None of the bothersome “your engine is about to explode” or “your tire is flat” dashboard idiot lights I see all too frequently on licensed and registered taxis these days. Also the Uber app makes the transaction convenient and cash-free. You charge the fare and any tip you choose to leave (after the ride) to your form of payment on record. The one downside to Uber is you need decent cell service to use it.

What’s Next
Of all the modes of transportation on this trip, Uber was the best. Other than riding in my son’s car next to my grandson. Nothing beats that! If I have one thought to share about travel it is this: aside from having to wear a mask, for better or worse domestic travel is pretty much back to pre-pandemic normal. Our next trip will be international, but aside from the requirement for COVID testing coming and going, I don’t expect it to be any different from this trip. Vacation travel is one time it ain’t about the journey…it IS about the destination. COVID hasn’t changed that!

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