Difficult to do a travel podcast without talking about this month’s incidents on United and American Airlines. The videos that hit social media were damning, but as more of the facts came out, the stories around each incident became more complex. On a much lighter note, we also talk about the explosion of food tourism, called by some “The Bourdain Effect” after Anthony Bourdain’s TV travelogue series. Also, listener suggestions for visiting the Budapest baths, and compliments on the terminal improvements at San Francisco Airport (SFO). All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.
Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #129:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, taking a breather after a week of what I like to call “stupid travel” — Mon, Tues in Charlottesville, VA, flying out Tues night to San Francisco by way of Charlotte because, well, that’s the way the connections worked. Spent Weds in San Francisco complete with a 4-5pm meeting which meant I got to SFO too late for the last reasonable flight to Detroit (I gave up red-eyes for Lent many years ago), so instead I caught the 7pm SFO-ORD flight, getting into ORD at 1am. Which meant I had to turn around the next morning, head back to ORD for a mid-morning flight to Detroit for an afternoon meeting in Ann Arbor. As we were driving out of DTW for Ann Arbor, I began to get texts from American that our return flight home was already delayed by thunderstorms at ORD. Later, looking out the window of the meeting room in Ann Arbor, I watched the rain bucket down. The delay made more sense. And it wasn’t a huge thing for me other than extending an already long week of travel by a couple of hours — I had nothing planned that evening other than going to bed. Twitter followers should be pleasantly surprised by the lack of bitch tweets.
- And, I really didn’t think I could complain if this was the only delay in six flights that week. Although I did help my cause by connecting through Charlotte instead of ORD for my flight from Charlottesville to San Francisco. The ORD-SFO flight would’ve been an hour shorter, but the probability of making that connection, I think, would’ve been significantly lower. So instead, discretion being the better part of valor, I booked the connection through Charlotte in spite of the longer total trip duration and the incredibly long walks I typically have through that airport. The regional flights come into Concourse E which just goes on forever — 35 gates just in that concourse — while my connecting flights seem to always go out of Concourse A. Which means I’m usually race-walking the length of the airport even with an on-time arrival and a 60-minute connection time. However, on Tuesday night, my CHO-CLT flight got in early, I had a 90-minute connection time, and my flight went out Concourse B, which meant I had more than enough time to score some Carolina BBQ and a tall-boy beer — a good luck trifecta which probably helped my patience with the Detroit delay two days later.
- Bridge Music — Memories (infiniti loop) by Vidian (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: TheDice
- First up, thanks to Robert Fenerty for sending along Budapest travel ideas. My wife’s parents were refugees from the 1956 uprising, so I’ve been to Hungary a few times — the first in 1989 when it was still Communist, and then the last time was 11 or 12 years ago. So it’s been a while. On of Robert’s suggestions is heading to the Gellert Baths — “My favorite,” he says, “Ornate lions dump water into the pool and you can stand beneath the lions.” I hit the Gellert Baths my first or second trip to Hungary. There wasn’t really any English spoken then by folks — mostly German or Russian — but I had done a “Hungarian on Tape” language course, had about a hundred word vocabulary, and so was able to manage buying a ticket and finding the locker room. Watching the old guys around me — and it was just old guys — I figured out that I was supposed to strip down and tie this little white apron around my waist and head in. You did feel like you were walking into the 1890’s. High ceilings, the spouting lions, old guys playing chess in the pools. I loved it. I told my son that’s it’s kind of a Hungarian onsen. We were both a little disappointed though when we saw on the Gellert website that the dress code had changed in four years ago — no more single sex pools, no more aprons. It’s now co-ed with bathing suits required; as the website says “all bathers are expected to cover the most important gender essentials”.
- Chris Christensen sent in a quick note about the Munich airport — “Munich does have its own brewery,” he said, “but it’s outside of security”. Lotta good that did me.
- And continuing on that riff from the last episode, wondering how travel guides are coming up with their top 10 airports, I have to say that SFO is not getting the credit it deserves. I think they’re doing the best job of any major US airport to remake themselves on the fly. First they build a new international terminal, then they rebuilt Terminal 2 into something that I think rivals Hong Kong or Singapore. They’ve done a great job renovating Terminal 3 — opening up what used to be an overcrowded Newark-live cave into a bright, high-ceilinged concourse with wide walkways — and now they’re tearing down Terminal 1 to completely rebuild that. So in, what, 10 years SFO will have completely rebuilt the passenger-side experience focusing on what travelers need — no water slides or luxury shops, but reasonable security, a great selection of restaurants and bars, lots of seating and workspace, and what was, at least last week, screaming fast 5 GHz WiFi. Perceptions always lag reality, but I’m hoping that SFO starts getting some well-deserved love from the airport ranking lists.
- One of the podcasts on my subscription list is Men In Blazers, a soccer (or football) podcast. Toward the end of each show, the two hosts, Roger Bennett and Michael Davis, quickly review products that they’re putting in their Amazon Emporium for a little fund-raising. One thing that Michael Davis put it caught my ear — compression socks. He said he’s started using them on NY-to-LA flights and loves them. I started using them on international flights after a flight home from Hong Kong in United economy had my legs swelling and stiffening up to tree trunks. I wasn’t the only one. There was another guy laying on the floor by one of the exit doors elevating his legs until a flight attendant shooed him off. I couldn’t bring myself to lie on an airplane floor — at least not without a sanitized mat — but after that I started flying in compression socks. Not something that I’ve ever seen make a Top 10 travel tip list — it’s not the most exciting tip — but I swear by it. Maybe I’ll sneak it in on my next list.
- And it wouldn’t be a complete Following Up segment without some beer comment, so thanks to eTuk Denver who tweeted “Mark, next time you’re in Denver we will personally take you on one of our Beer tours for all the hours of entertainment provided.” Thanks guys! I’m glad you enjoy the podcast and look forward to taking you up on that offer. From their website, it looks like the eTuk guys do beer tours through Denver’s RiNo or River North Art District. The Drink Rino website says they “have the largest concentration of craft beverage manufacturers in the United States, with 15 craft breweries, cideries, wineries and distilleries in a one mile radius.” Yes, it sounds like my kind of neighborhood.
- And if you have any thoughts, questions, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org — you can use your smartphone to record and send in an audio comment; send a Twitter message to mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
- Bridge Music — Sunset Boulevard by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: Siobhan Dakay, unreal_dm
Airplane Fight Clubs
- I purposely don’t try to do instant Twitter “hot takes” on the news. The near-instantaneous outrage that flares up on Facebook and Twitter often isn’t justified when all the facts work their way out days later. And the United Airlines dragging incident and the American Airlines stroller incident seem to be following those patterns.
- The April 9th videos of the Chicago aviation police dragging a bloodied semi-conscious passenger down the aisle of a plane are awful. But reading the police report released two weeks later on the 25th add facts not in the video — that when an officer tried to get the passenger out of his seat, the passenger “started swinging his arms up and down fast and violently” and that this flailing knocked off the officer’s hands causing the passenger to fall and hit his mouth on the armrest. And that after running back on the plane a second time yelled “”I’m not getting off the plane. Just kill me. I want to go home,” Not exactly the Rosa Parks mantle that his lawyer claimed for him at the press conference announcing his lawsuit.
- Now, United, actually Republic — it was their flight to Louisville operating under the United Express banner — completely screwed this up in so many ways — trying to go cheap on the incentives for volunteers, involuntarily bumping passengers already in their seats, not figuring out another way to get the deadheading crew to Louisville, and then escalating to the police — which then led to the passenger escalating. The three other passengers who were involuntarily bumped took the high road — grudging got off the plane so as not to inconvenience their fellow passengers and to follow what everyone understands are the post-9/11 rules — once you pass through the plane door, you obey the airline and the crew or else.
- Unfortunately, for some crew, this expectation of being unquestioned oracle of right and wrong leads them to demand passengers to “respect my authority” first rather than try to de-escalate. The American Airlines incident that happened last weekend — a conflict between a flight attendant and a mother of two with oversized strollers — shows again that escalation between, in this case, the flight attendant trying to load the plane and a mother trying to bring 1 or 2 oversized strollers onto the plane instead of gate-checking them. The conflicting demands between “respect my authority” and “the carry-on rules don’t apply to me” collide. It later comes out that the “hot take” on this — the flight attendant hit the mother and child with the stroller while trying to take it from her — wasn’t true (no one was hit), but the rapid escalation — mother yelling, threats between the flight attendant and some First Class passenger who inserted himself — is everyone’s fault. It’s an unwillingness for someone to step back, swallow hard, and sacrifice their ego.
- The lawyer for the United Airlines passenger said in his press conference that airlines have been “bullying” passengers. I don’t know that he’s completely wrong on this. Spirit and Ryanair seem to have built their brand around treating passengers rudely. But the passenger treatment of mainline airlines has eroded in the name of operational efficiency — packed planes, reduced leg room, flight attendants yelling at boarding passengers to hurry up and sit down so the flight can leave. Earlier this week the American Customer Satisfaction Index reported that the airline industry as a whole remains in the bottom third of those the ACSI tracks. “Customer satisfaction has never appeared to be a goal for airlines,” their analysis said. “”Compared to other industries, the financial return on passenger satisfaction is not much of an incentive.” As the airline industry as consolidated into an oligopoly of 4 main carriers in the US and 3 global alliances — Star Alliance, OneWorld, and Skyteam — there aren’t many alternatives. Most of us shrug and bear it; a few lash out.
- Interesting to see, though, United’s latest efforts to bury this PR nightmare is a pay-out to the bloodied passenger and an announcement that they’ll now offer up to $10,000 for voluntary rebookings. And Southwest, who’ve been completely untouched by this, saying they’ll eliminate overbookings by June.
- Bridge Music —Dawn at the Top of the World ft. copperhead & Robert Seikawitch by Ivan Chew (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.
The Bourdain Effect
- That’s how travel wags are explaining the explosion of food tourism — people wanting to recreate experiences from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Not that it’s anything new — people have been going to South Philly forever and flipping a coin between Pat’s and Geno’s cheese steaks or going to Detroit for a similar dance between American and Lafayette for coney dogs.
- It’s more that it’s flipped around today — it’s used to be that you’d come to Chicago to visit family or see a Cubs game, and, by the way, queue up at Gino’s East for deep dish pizza. Now, it’s booking a table at Alinea, perennially in the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list, and then booking flights, a hotel, and checking the Cubs schedule. Food is now a main draw with restaurants becoming travel destinations in their own right. Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that is regularly #1 on the World’s 50 Best list has taken this to what is currently the most extreme — they’re doing a pop-up restaurant in Tulum, Mexico; $600/seat and they sold out — 5,000 seats in 3 hrs.
- Regular listeners know that I’m not immune to this. We have a group of 3 couples — the guys, we all went to college together — that are Exhibit A of this trend. One wife found a lunch opening at the French Laundry on OpenTable, booked it, then told us, and we all immediately booked a weekend in Napa. Finishing that lunch, we asked ourselves, “What’s our next 3-star?” My wife booked the kitchen table at Alinea, and the other two couples flew into Chicago.
- Travel experts explain this, saying food is one of the main travel experiences that can’t be digitized — even though a lot of people try. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been eating at an upscale restaurant and the guy next to me whips out a big Nikon DSLR, stands up and shoots his plate. Over a 10-course meal, those guys are working some calories.
- But of course, you can’t digitize taste. And you can’t save it. You can only experience it in the moment. And actually, that moment isn’t just about taste — it’s the whole experience — whether you’re having a 3-star lunch in Napa or Paris, your first taste of durian at a roadside stand in Singapore, or a Chicago hot dog at the Weiner Circle at 2 in the morning.
- One of my favorite travel memories with my father was many years ago when he and I went down to Cabo for a week. Charlie Trotter, one of the early high-end chefs in Chicago, had opened a restaurant in the One and Only resort between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. I had eaten at Trotter’s in Chicago many times and had even worked a shift in the kitchen — I won it in a charity auction; it was a great experience, but it was real work — so I wanted to check out this new place. They had just opened. The management was all down from Chicago and they were shaking things out. The starter courses were great, but my dad’s main course wasn’t hot. I flagged down a manager and asked him if they could heat up it up. Away went both of our plates. Hey, mine was fine; you just need to heat his up. The manager quickly came back. Nope, we’ll re-make your dad a new dish, and since he can’t be expected to watch you eat, we’ve taken yours and will re-make yours too so we can serve them at the same time. And while you’re waiting, here are a couple more appetizer dishes. My dad and I looked at each other and started nibbling at the new appetizers. And then we finished them. And then our main courses re-arrived hot and fresh. My dad looked over the table at me and said, “You know, I’m not really that hungry anymore”. I stared him down — “After what they just went through, you’re going to eat that dish, all of it, and enjoy it”. Complete role reversal. We would replay that scene and laugh about it for years afterwards; way more than we’d look at pictures of us outside the Giggling Marlin.
- And now that we’re gearing up for our trip to Hungary next month, my wife is running through the list of top Budapest restaurants. I’m looking forward to that, but I also remember up a steep narrow sidewalk in Szentendre a little lángos stand — deep fried bread rubbed in garlic with a bit of cheese on top. It didn’t make Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Budapest episode, but I’ll be searching for it all the same.
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #129
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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