Tag Archives: travel

Language wrestling: the sport of international travelers

Ever been in a foreign country and trying fairly competently (or not) to speak to someone in the local language, only to have the other person reply in English?  Perhaps you even reply to their reply in the local language again, but when it’s their turn they insist on going back to anglais.

The back and forth exchange can continue for quite some time, but usually one party or the other eventually throws in the towel and concedes.  I call this ‘Language Wrestling’, and I play to win.

Look, speaking a language that’s foreign to you but local to where you are takes as much guts as it does technical skill and practice.  But as long as you’re willing to look and sound like an idiot (I’m happy to do both), then this can be good fun and you’ll likely improve your language proficiency to boot.

The hardest language wrestling matches to win are those fought against service personnel (waiters, hotel employees etc.) on their own turf, in mid-range establishments frequented by plenty of tourists.

I guess you can’t blame these folks; many probably wish they were doing something else, and their limit for enduring butchered requests for the exact same product or service probably ended about 10,000 times before you showed up that day with your phrase book vocabulary.

My tip to win a language wrestling match in these cases is to throw your audience off by starting a dialog having nothing to do with where you are.  So as you’re about to order dessert, ask in the local language if the waiter can settle an argument about ‘whether Night Rider is still in re-runs in this country.’   That might just throw them off enough that you have a chance of winning at least one round.

I’ve found that employees in higher-end establishments – the very people who are often college educated and fluent in English (and generally several other languages)- will usually back down pretty quickly during a language wrestling match.  Sometimes they won’t switch to English at all.

Hold on, though.  I don’t consider this a true language wrestling win, because usually this is sort of a “pity forfeiture.” The front desk manager at the Paris Intercontinental probably attended the Sorbonne (or maybe the Hotel School at Cornell) and likely speaks and writes English better than many native English speakers.  But they learned in management training that’s it’s good practice to humor bumbling tourists who can later tell their companions, “See, honey?  I just asked for a 2nd room key, and she understood me!”

The real and fairest language wrestling battles are fought long and hard on the street (asking for directions) or in restaurants that are frequented primarily by locals and which have only local-language menus.  And then there’s that most challenging and intimidating battlefield of all: the dreaded local language phone call.

A few tips: know your opening, cold.  Be prepared to literally understand only half of a local language reply (and hope that context can fill in the rest; credibly fake it to your mono-lingual traveling companions if you can’t).  When you’re about to panic and break down, go back to your primary sound bite again, a la “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Eventually you may just wear down your target and score a point.

Good luck on your next match.  HOOrah.

Time to auction flight slots & clamp down on flight time padding

Last May, the DOT dropped a proposal to auction landing slots at New York’s 3 airports.   I think this was a huge mistake.

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to sit on the tarmac of JFK, Newark, or La Guardia for 90+ minutes waiting to take off on a clear, beautiful day, you can understand my frustration.  Airlines routinely schedule more takeoffs per hour than these airports can accommodate, therefore making it impossible that all scheduled flights can take off on time.  Delays are 100% guaranteed in this case.

According to a 2009 report from the Partnership for NYC, flight delays cost the regional economy more than $2.6 billion in 2008, including $835 million in fuel.  Importantly, this takes into account the padding that airlines put into schedules. (more on that in a minute)

Everyone knows what happens when the pilot comes on to cheerily announce something like “There’s a little traffic jam this morning in NYC!  Looks like we are number 19 for takeoff, which might happen in about 40 minutes.”  There’s an audible grumble, and some people worry if they’re going to make their connections.

But here’s the thing: if you polled every person on that aircraft at that exact moment,  offering them the option to pay $50 to take off right away, there’s no doubt that some would eagerly accept and others would decline, preferring to accept the delay.  Rather than having everyone inconvenienced, the people who value the specific takeoff time the most will pay for it.  Airlines should be figuring that out in advance and pricing seats accordingly. Instead, they are transferring the ‘cost’ of higher tickets into a cost of wasted time (and fuel, and productivity). This is econ 101: price the scarce resource so that demand falls to meet its supply.

Opponents to auction pricing say that it’s antiquated air traffic control technology and a lack of experienced air traffic controllers that’s to blame, not runway congestion.  Other opponents may have a more hidden agenda: it is assumed that if takeoff slots were auctioned/rationed, then airlines would start flying fewer, larger jets and reduce smaller, regional jet service.  Less regional jet service means inconvenience for congress people (and their constituents) who want frequent service to regional airports close to them.

Opponents also point to alternatives to increase capacity: opening up underutilized military airspace, for example, or investing in on-board navigation systems that can give pilots more maneuvering options than ground-based radar allows.

But regardless of the underlying reasons and regardless of the possible long-term solutions, two facts remain clear: 1) flights can’t take off at the rate that airlines schedule them, and 2) airlines aren’t pricing these flights to take this into account, in order to shift some demand to less busy times. Side note: It’s worth noting that Mayor Bloomberg supported auction pricing, to his credit.  Not surprising, given his very sensible approach to congestion pricing for cars in Manhattan (a measure which was also struck down but which I strongly supported).

I have another gripe: the practice of airlines to massively pad their schedules so that their on-time performance record doesn’t suffer from their addiction to over-scheduling.  I routinely fly a 2 hour route from LGA to Charlotte that has at least 40 minutes of padding in the schedule.  I’ve been on JFK-Europe routes that sat on the ground for 90 minutes before taking off, yet arrived well before schedule.

Besides wasting time and fuel, padded schedules are highly misleading and distort on-time performance measures.  It’s akin to reducing a product’s base price but then adding hidden fees to the final price.  The airlines are, in fact, already penalized for this practice since flight crews and cabin crews are often paid based on scheduled, rather than actual flight times.  But clearly they find it more expedient to incur this cost rather than to shift flights to times when they can actually depart shortly after leaving the gate.

Since the DOT started requiring airlines to report their on-time performance, surprise! they’ve tried harder to be on time. (it’s the old “What gets measured, gets done” theory of management) What’s more, the airlines turned this into a marketing opportunity:  You can be sure that whoever is in the top few performers will be talking about that in their ads the next year. So it’s unfair and misleading that airlines can simply ‘lower the bar’ on performance by padding their schedules.

My proposal is that airlines be forced to publish their schedules based on actual flight time + no more than a single digit percentage.  Some allowance is reasonable since there will be variations based on headwinds and unpredictable ground conditions, but consciously overbooked takeoff slots don’t fall into those buckets.  A less favorable alternative approach would be to penalize airlines when on-time tables are calculated, by discounting their reported on-time performance by the relative disparity in their scheduled flight times vs. actual flight times.  Either way, this would put more pressure on airlines to stop scheduling flights when they know the airport is congested and facing almost certain system-wide delays.

It’s high time for the airlines to stop pretending that there is no cost to their over-scheduling of flight slots.  Auction pricing would be an efficient way to take care of this.  It’s also time for airlines to stop artificially manipulating their on-time performance with wasteful and misleading schedule padding.

Virgin Atlantic’s “Premium Economy” Class: Skip It.

My partner Paul and I recently went to London for a long weekend and for the first time for us both, we flew Virgin Atlantic. Neither of us sleep very well on planes, so we generally try to fly business or first (using frequent flyer miles) when we travel internationally. We’d be the first to admit it: flying premium class internationally is part of the vacation for us; it’s not something we do everyday, and it’s a nice way to kick off the holiday in a special way.

Virgin offers 3 classes of service between NY and London: Economy, Premium Economy, and Upper Class. We didn’t have enough miles for Upper Class (and it wasn’t available, anyway), so we chose Premium Economy. My guess is that Premium Economy was introduced because so many companies stopped being willing to pay for Business. It’s a way to give business travelers a little more comfort than economy while still keeping an eye on the bottom line. While we weren’t expecting this to be a true business class, we figured that as the middle class of a 3 class international flight on a high quality airline, it would likely be fairly close to Business Class. Mmmm…not so much.

The Premium Economy seating configuration was 2-4-2 on the outbound 747 and 2-3-2 on the return A-340.  This is loads better than the 3-4-3 layout (brutal!) or 2-4-2 layout in each respective aircraft’s economy cabin, but tighter than a typical Business Class cabin would usually be (2-3-2 or 2-2-2) on comparably-sized aircrafts. Here’s how we’d classify additional amenities of the service, focusing on comparison to a typical business class vs. economy class:

Special Check-in/boarding: Very nice. Because the Premium Economy cabin is about the same size as a Business Class cabin would be, the experience here is about the same. The 3 or 4 dedicated Premium Economy check-in counters at JFK and Heathrow had only short lines, and we were able to board at our leisure before Economy was called.

Seat pitch: Fair. A step above economy for sure, but we definitely felt like we were sleeping in a severely upright position. No comparison to how much you can lean back in Business Class.  Anyone much taller than my average 5′-10″ height would have been really uncomfortable. We slept so poorly that we arrived exhausted in London and lost half a day taking a 3 hour nap.

Seat controls: Basically the same as economy. One button to lean back, another which was purportedly for lumbar support, but seemed to do nothing.

Seat foot rests: Poor. Foot rests in Premium Economy do not extend outward from your own seat (as is usual in business class), but rather are only a hard ledge which extends downward from the seat in front, like the footrests you’d find on a Greyhound bus. Paul, with his short legs, loved it…I found it unusable and irritating.

Seat power: Fail. Virgin somewhat apologetically explains that Premium Economy seats come with DC power that you can use with a special adapter for laptops. They sell those adapters (as available) for a jaw-dropping £69. No thanks. We didn’t have an adapter, but I looked for the outlet anyway; I couldn’t find it. Neither did I see a single other passenger on either the outbound or the return flight who seemed to have any device plugged in. Either the outlets aren’t there, or they’re so inconvenient that they might as well not be. Considering that Virgin America offers true 120V AC power in each seat, I think Virgin Atlantic needs to step it up here.

Entertainment hardware: Ok. Individual, decent-sized screens were in the seatback in front of each seat. This was ok but not great: Paul found them too far away and too small. And strangely, when I peeked back in economy, I saw that they had ‘swing up’ screens from each seat, which is the typical model for first class or business class. So I think Premium Economy got the short end of the stick on this one.

Adequate (but not great) entertainment hardware; quirky UX

Adequate (but not great) entertainment hardware; quirky UX

Entertainment content: Really strong. Excellent selection of on-demand movies and TV series (even if a lot of them were British comedies I had never heard of). The video controllers had some software quirks that made them tricky to use (Paul had the same problem); I think they need a better UX person to give them a hand. But overall, no complaints.

Main meal: Poor. Essentially an economy meal in every way. 3 choices of main dish (including one vegetarian), no options for appetizer or dessert. Everything was served at once on a single tray. Wine was served in a glass so small that we jokingly called it the ‘thimble’.

Wine selection: Poor. Two options (just one white and one red) of Spanish wines which were fair but no better than what we’d expect in Economy on an international flight. In a cabin this small (50 people or so at 100% capacity) there should have been more choices.

Snacks/beverages: Outbound: pretty poor, but then again, most people were sleeping. On the return, it was great. It seemed that every 15 min. they were coming through the cabin with juice, ice cream, fruit, water, etc. Very nice. Although I did miss the fresh/warm chocolate chip cookies which even US airlines offer on first class coast-to-coast travel.

Amenity kit: Fine. Had the basics of toothbrush, toothpaste, earplugs, and eye patch. Lacked any sort of premium lip product, facial mist, hand lotion, etc. (which was fine; I rarely end up using those when they’re offered, anyway). Virgin does point out that the kit comes with a “Stylish Pen.”  Uh-huh.  And they’ve pulled off one rather clever feat: they claim they’ve designed the kit to “compliment” [sic] the seat and service.  “Hey!  This seat is brilliant!” I suppose each kit is meant to exclaim when opened.  “And this service is perfectly divine,” it might continue.

Writing is one way to pass the time, since you won't be able to sleep in these seats.

Writing is one way to pass the time, since you won't be able to sleep in these seats.

Pricing/use of miles: For sure, we spent fewer miles roundtrip (55,000) then we would have in Business Class (most airlines require 80K+ for business class transatlantic, and in fact some airlines require more than 55K even for economy). But the odd thing here was the high fees: we paid $450 each in “taxes, surcharges, and misc. fees” for the trip. The fees for Upper Class were only about $500, suggesting most of this must be fixed, per-segment charges.  I don’t know that I’ve ever paid such high fees when using miles. (and no, this was not the ‘miles plus money’ offer, which requires even higher payment)

All in all, we were glad we weren’t packed like sardines into economy, but Premium Economy left a lot to be desired. Virgin would probably counter that the “expectation is in the name” (and the lower mileage requirement) so we shouldn’t have been expecting anything close to Business Class amenities. We weren’t (quite)…but the gap between Premium Economy and Business still surprised us. So just don’t kid yourself that the ‘middle’ class on a 3 class international flight is going to necessarily be close to traditional business. Next time, we’ll probably postpone our trip or save our miles until we have enough for a true Business Class experience so that we can – yawn – get some decent sleep before we arrive.

Better than economy, but just barely

Better than economy, but just barely