Tuesday, June 29, 2010

United Baggage Mishandling

I don’t know what is it about baggage handling that seems to be so difficult for United Airlines, but there is something that they just don’t get.

This is the recognition that passengers like to travel with their bags, and can get a touch shirty if they are separated; particularly if the separation is utterly and completely inexplicable.

Like last week.

My bag was checked from Frankfurt to Winnipeg, travelling via Chicago. It arrived in Chicago, and I gave it to the tender care of a disinterested United employee to transfer. Now I know that I had an overnight stop (arriving on June 23rd at 2100, departing on June 24th at 0940), but the bag was tagged, and there appeared to be no issue when I handed in my bag.

We were finally reunited on June 27th late in the evening, some seventy-two hours since we parted company.

Seventy-two hours.

Needless to say, while my bag was AWOL I got a touch excited from time to time about the issue, and tried phoning to find some update. A silky-smooth computer tried in vain to answer my questions, but after a while I just said “agent” to everything, as I needed to talk to a human. Which I did, and very kind and soothing they were too. Clearly their scripts had a number of Soothing The Client options, and Ahmed (“I am in India, Sir”) was particularly adept at their use.

They were, however, completely and utterly useless at explaining how, in this post-Talibanic world of completely-over-the-top security, a bag can remain “lost” for four days in a major international airport.

I was advised that “There is a huge backlog in Chicago”; well, that’s all right then; who knows what will happen by the time that the summer really starts. “There are seven miles of conveyor belts between the international terminal and the domestic flights, Sir”; fascinating, but a bit irrelevant. “The weather in Chicago is terrible”; so what?

The question is a simple one. What on earth happens to bags that go astray? Do United’s employees simply gaze at them with periodic malevolent chuckles? Do they enter some parallel yet invisible universe? We all know what they do to musical instruments, but does this sense of institutional mischief extend to the more dull and mundane suitcase? Are the rings around Saturn really composed of errant Samsonite luggage?

Or is the problem simpler and more worrisome. Has United, in its potentially futile efforts to balance its books and make a profit, spent its energy on increasing sales and passengers while simultaneously cutting back on its staff thus ensuring that there are too few employees to handle the business? I don’t think that this is a million miles from the truth.

I remember one airline CEO explaining to a meeting of their significant agents that they knew exactly the size of an airline that would make sense in today’s market; their route structure, aircraft size, staffing levels and revenue requirements were relatively simple. However, this business model would fail to generate sufficient revenue for their current and future pension liabilities.

The airline, a major player in North America was stuck. They could not shrink to the size that the market demanded and were forced to reach for unsustainable revenues. Needless to say, they eventually had to merge with another, and today their historical issues have been moved further along the chain.

And this is the truth about the airline industry today. The past liabilities, accrued during two decades of unbridled expansion fuelled by cheap money, cheap oil and an environment of Growth has left big, big headaches. Until the carriers can sort out these major problems, and the American airlines are not alone in this dilemma, there will never be a logical aviation industry.

Deregulation did bring some major benefits to many, but it is sobering to note that at the time that President Carter unleashed this demon, seven airlines carried 72% of the country’s travellers. In 2010, four airlines carry over 85% of North American travellers. And with the merger of United and Continental, this relentless concentration of airlines (or "rationalisation" as some of the apologists for this rampant behaviour would say) will simply continue.

I do think though, that despite their issues, looking at resolving the simplest of tasks, keeping passengers and their bags together, should be a priority. I know bags go astray, but in my case, with United it is roughly 10% of the time, and that is not funny.

Employees like Ahmed (”I am still being holding, Sir”) do not resolve anything. They only increase the frustration of those who truly believe that United doesn’t give a damn about customer service.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

French Highways!

AVIS were probably a little surprised when they get their car back yesterday; if, of course, global beomoths can be “surprised”

I had picked up the car in London on Wednesday last week, driven to my little house in the south of France to deliver a couple of pieces of furniture left to me by my father, and turned round to zoom back to Caen, and the ferry back to Blighty. Nearly 2,600 kilometres all in all; thank heavens for Unlimited Mileage.

The French highway system, it must be said, is wonderful; fast (130 kms/hour is the official limit), well maintained, reasonably direct and well-supplied with good rest-stops, it is a wonderful place for a driver. One will always be told by friends about “faster” journeys, and it has to be agreed that Google Maps, while probably pretty accurate according to some algorithm or other, take little notice of the Parisian rush hour.

However, the journey was great, conversation with my friend Clive (the MD of a great English tour company, Discover the World) was non-stop, and all in all the expedition achieved its end. And as a cherry on that particular cake, we were the second vehicle off the ferry, completely by chance, through immigration and customs and on to the M27 within ten minutes.

The ferry was good. It was an interesting and comfortable way to make the crossing from France to the UK, but I remain only loosely convinced. Certainly, if one were travelling between England’s South West, and Normandy, it would make some sense, but it is pricey, £205 for the car plus us compared with £58 on Eurotunnel, and that before the bar and restaurant bills. Well, one has to pass the six-hour crossing somehow, and although fairly enthusiastically priced (£22.50 or £28.00 for the two buffet choices, or a rather uninspiring cafeteria) the food was pretty good, and passed an hour or so. Perhaps one of their longer, overnight routes might make sense, but Brittany Ferries didn’t quite do it for me.

And so back to London, and now en route back to Chicago; I am travelling with Lufthansa via Frankfurt, and very good they are too.

There is much to do at home. With my frequent European jaunts this year coming to an end as my father’s estate is concluded, I will again turn my attention to business.

The travel industry has changed beyond belief in the past few years, and one has to examine it closely to see where one’s place is in the rapidly changing environment. From economic to political upheavals, to the rapidly changing distributive framework and the concomitant shifts in the relationships between agents, suppliers and customers, there is much to cogitate.

And I think, much for me to comment upon!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Somewhere in France

It is a strange feeling, but I don’t actually know where I am.

I am in France, that much is for sure, but exactly where eludes me. It was dark and raining last night when we stopped; the first hotel was full, and the second, apparently called the Hotel Ageris Orleans, had two rooms left. So I must obviously be in Orleans. Nominally it is a hotel on the banks of the Loire, but that sounds a lot more romantic than it is.

We checked in by poking Clive’s credit card into a machine outside the front door, and finding that a room would cost €39 for the night, with an additional €5 for breakfast. And what fine value for money it is. A clean, comfortable room, if a touch on the Spartan side, BBC on television and a jumbo bag of peanuts in the vending machine that substituted for dinner; all in all, we are doing well.

The journey is to take some furniture that my father left to me when he died to my house in the south of France. A house in France sounds glamorous, perhaps conjuring images of whitewash, a distant, azure sea and buckets of wine. The wine is accurate, but the house itself, the Maison de Bouef, is an old butcher’s shop in a small unprepossessing town in the Languedoc called Esperaza. It lies, 1085 kilometres (according to Google maps) from Calais, and Orleans is on the way.

We left London at about noon, headed to the Channel Tunnel, stopping briefly at John Lewis to pick up some duvets, and off to The Continent. Eurotunnel is brilliant; we were booked on the 1750 crossing, but arriving considerably earlier were put onto the 1630 train with neither fuss nor penalty. Airlines take note.

The actual journey takes only about thirty minutes, and then we were in France; launching confidently into their wonderful highway system, I was immediately ensnared in a detour; the road to Paris tauntingly heading away from our highway inaccessible across a sea of road-mending equipment. The incorrect highway surged north, and after about ten kilometres I spied a minute sign that said (in small black letters on a bright orange background) “Deviation A 16”. Vaguely recalling that this was the road to Paris, I swerved across two lanes of traffic and whizzed through a small roundabout to now head east. A further ten kliks, another minute sign had us hurtling back the way we came, although now west and south, until we once again intersected the highway and tacking appropriately pointed our car toward the French capital.

We were anxious to pass it in the evening, and not get stuck in traffic in the morning; the Parisian rush-hour can last the bulk of the day, and we have many miles to cover. We got there in good time, and keeping our eyes peeled out for signs for “Bordeaux” and “Nantes”, which were, in the way of things, intermittent and set up apparently at random, sailed around the city and away to the south.

Then it got a touch peculiar. France is a very large country indeed. Not like Canada, of course, but there are seriously large swathes of farmland, and the highway sped through them; seeking the solace of an hotel room, and finding none to hand, we were some 120 kilometres from Paris when Orleans came into sight. The area by the highway, indistinguishable from any other mess of big-box stores, motels, chain restaurants and road-works, was deeply confusing. The car took on a life of its own as it sung around barricades and roundabouts before screeching to a halt at the Hotel Ageris where I now sit.

But not for long; it is time to head south (through Limoges and Toulouse) and off to the Languedoc.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Of London and Food

The past few weeks have been rather busy, and to those who have contacted me wondering why I have been silent, I thank you! One of the peculiarities of blogging is that one writes, and has absolutely no idea if there is anyone listening; fortunately, and encouragingly, there seem to be a few of you out there!

Since I wrote last, I have bought a hotel, the Bear Country Inn in Churchill, started a complete revamp of the part of my business that operates polar bear-watching tours in Churchill, travelled to Denver, Toronto and Chicago, met some wonderful people and eaten some extraordinary meals.

And it is about food that I wanted to write today.

One of the best parts of travelling is the ability to sample a huge variety of restaurants. This benefit should, of course, be balanced with the opportunity to sample a wide variety of different exercise opportunities, but let's leave that alone for the moment.

And so it was that my friend Joseph and I toddled off to dine at Simpson’s in the Strand. At first he wasn’t too keen; Simpson’s, you see, is one of London’s most venerable institutions, and one that we had both frequented thirty and actually forty years before. It was the sort of restaurant that parents took one to to instil some kind of British Pride and appreciation for the country’s tradition. The worry now was that as such Britishness seems to be on the wane, the restaurant might have turned into some sort of theme park for American tourists.

We needn’t have been concerned; it was wonderful. A beautiful panelled dining room, whose carpets, it has to be said were showing signs of age, reflected some of the more glorious days of the past. The food, of which the roast beef and lamb, carved table-side could be considered the signature dish, was splendid, and the service was excellent. We congratulated ourselves on our choice of dining establishments, and followed the meal with a short walk to the Garrick Club, of which Joseph is a member, and over a couple of reflective glasses of wine, contemplated life, the universe and everything.

Simpson’s was in complete contrast to Ravel’s, a favourite little restaurant of mine near Belsize Park, where we had recently dined. Joseph writes considerably better than I, and I shall leave the description of our dinner there to him and a subsequent review he wrote as one of a brilliant series of reviews that he writes for a north London paper.

Belsize Park is a fabulous location, just far enough from the tourism lunacy of the West End, but close enough to be in the centre of the action within ten of fifteen minutes on the redoubtable Northern Line. It is one of a number of small communities within London that make the city so endlessly interesting. As a visitor to London, staying just a little further out than tourism-orthodoxy might suggest is rewarded by an intimate glimpse of real life in London. Close by is one of London’s arterial highways, the Finchley Road; it is an ugly street, it has to be said, and certainly not a centre of night-life nor really anything much except some pretty bland shopping, and four lanes of traffic heading toward (or from) the northwest. However, stuck among this uninspiring landscape is the finest Indian restaurant that I have ever had the opportunity to visit.

Eriki’s is absolutely superb; recommended by an Indian friend-of-a-friend, off we toddled last night to dine. Now I have had many an Indian meal at a wide variety of restaurants ranging from the barely edible to the stupendous. I have enjoyed curries in North America, Europe and India, and know that by and large, the UK’s offerings are pretty good; this, however, was without a shadow of doubt the finest.

The atmosphere was great, the decor interesting and the food perfect. I shall most certainly return.

And now, the morning after, I find myself on a train, heading north to Leeds for lunch. I am doing this because my cousin Penny, a rather brilliantly talented artist who lives in the wilds of Lancashire, often comes to London for lunch when I am around; I really enjoy her company, and today, with a little time on my hands, it only seems fair to head north to see her for once. When she comes south, we always lunch at a great little place near King's Cross station called 6 St. Chad's Place, and let it be said that we lunch with great enthusiam; today we will see what Leeds has to offer.

It’s all go.