Crappy vs. Crappy: a study in cross country flying with Continental and Delta

I’m not going to bitch and moan about the price of oil in today’s post. But I WILL SAY THIS: if P Diddy can no longer afford to fly private, we Regular Joe Schmoe Americans are all royally screwed. The hopes and dreams of even upgrading to Business or First Class are dissolving before I can even try to make them a reality. So I’m posting “Just Diddy”‘s video message because a) it’s hilarious and b) it doesn’t get more eloquent than, “Gas prices are too muthafuckin high.” Relish that before you read on to my more mundane bit of blathering below.

Considering I’ve flown to LAX twice in the past two months, I decided to do a compare and contrast report on the two flights (well, four really), since I flew out of two different airports on two different airlines from NYC. Now, my memories of Continental are going to be a tad fuzzier since they happened in late May. But I’ve still managed to retain the important stuff. And hey, maybe this will actually help someone make a decision on which airline to choose. But nothing takes away from the fact that Coach/Economy/3rd Class/Basic all amounts to Crap Travel. It’s not fun to fly, generally speaking, and if you have more than a two-hour flight it gets tiresome preeeeetty fast. I prefer road trips myself, especially when I can stretch out and take a nap without worrying if my arm or shoulder is bumping into a complete stranger and if s/he or his/her spawn will have to use the bathroom while I attempt to “sleep” sitting up with my mouth open at a generous 95 degree angle.

(Okay sorry, but remember Compare and Contrast homework from elementary school? Anyone? The whole point was that you had to remember that in comparing, you were to find simliarities and in contrasting, you were to find differences. Anyone? This feels sort of like a book report in that sense. With curse words.)

Both trips took place over a holiday weekend, so I’m really gauging things from a high pressure situation. Most airlines can barely keep you on time on a Wednesday at 9pm, much less 5pm on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. Airlines have decreased the number of available flights so as to get chock full bodies in seats on every flight, maximizing the usage of precious, expensive-as-gold jet fuel.

In May, I flew over Memorial Day weekend on Continental. I had to fly out of Newark for that one – one of their hubs. Since I work in Midtown, I thought it’d be easy enough to walk down to Penn Station so I could catch a NJ Transit train over to Newark. It turned out to be the equivalent of twenty blocks, dragging a suitcase behind me in the hot sun. There must have been a thousand people in line for tickets by the time I got there.

There was only one train leaving within the hour that was stopping at Newark. So I crammed on and it was a mad scramble for a seat. Who I don’t understand are the people who insist on trying to have a leisurely sit-down on a train where people are standing in the aisle in order to get to the same destination, and they get huffy when people are pushed up against them. I sat next to a man with hardly any room between us, and sure enough I-Gotta-Have-A-Seat Suzie comes barging through and forces me to squish over. She got so fed up at having our hips and upper legs touch that she got up and moved five minutes later to cram next to a window seat beside some poor gent. I just wish she would have thought about that before she sat down but….whatever.

We finally arrived at Newark and I got to my gate just fine. My memories of the terminal are really poor, which is actually a good thing for Continental, because the Delta terminal at JFK was horrid. More on that later. What I do remember is that the seats on Continental were really, really small.

The sad view in Economy.

The sad view in Economy.

These must have been former French planes and/or the planes are 100 years old, because honestly, even in today’s tight-airplane-seat age, these were not built for anyone who has anything extra on his or her body whatsoever. If you’re a woman like me, you sometimes sit at an angle if you don’t have anyone sitting between you and the other person, so you can cross your legs or whatever. Or you have hips. What I’m saying was that the seats were exceedingly uncomfortable. This particular airplane had not been updated with having more than one TV screen hanging down every three or four seats, and you’ll watch what they tell you you’re gonna watch. What an airline chooses to show is hardly ever good AND suitable for all ages.

The upside, however, is that Continental still serves meals for free (although after having paid hundreds of dollars for your ticket, it’s already been paid for), which is nigh on extinct in the airline world.

I also remember my flight being two hours delayed. I forget the reason why, but if anyone tries to tell you that Newark has better air traffic than JFK, they are dead balls wrong. Between sitting at the gate, inside the plane and then on the tarmac for takeoff, we were nowhere close to being on schedule. I ignorantly held out for a better return flight.

Unfortunately, my redeye was also delayed and jam packed. Apparently it’s all the rage for New Yorkers to take a redeye because there was not an empty seat to be found. This time, I was seated at the window next to an older Asian couple. They spoke softly to one another in their native tongue but after a time, I could tell that for whatever reason, my presence was disturbing the woman next to me, who was stuck in the middle seat. I could fathom no earthly idea what could have bothered her about me. I do not hog the armrest, I don’t dare go to the bathroom in that situation unless it’s an emergency, I stared out the window (keeping my right arm and eyeballs to myself) and I said nothing. But her tone of voice suggested she was irritated.

You and me and everyone else on here, lady, I thought.

I finally dozed off. I woke up a short time later and started a bit when I realized that it was now the older man sitting next to me and the woman was in the aisle seat. Coincidence? I think not. Did I smell? No, I’d showered that day. What was the deal? I gave up worrying about it, since I didn’t have to listen to her nag at her husband in her annoyed tone of voice. But still, I did wonder…One of life’s greater mysteries.

Because my flight was delayed out of LAX back to Newark, instead of coming in at 6am and handling mild traffic on NJ Transit back into Manhattan (where I would then pick up the subway), I was now in full-blown, rush hour morning traffic. To add whipped cream to this delicious, frothy brew, the trains going into Manhattan were also delayed; due to what, I’m unsure. To add to the fun, they did not properly demarcate which tracks held the trains going into Manhattan. The announcements over the loudspeaker were confusing and garbled. If a NJ Transit employee hadn’t been standing on the platform, I definitely would have missed the train that came along which was not supposed to be on the track going into Manhattan. But going it was.

When you fly in and out of New York City, you have to take into account how much time or money you’re willing to invest in getting to and from the airports. Even if you got a flight for free, if you were going to take a car service or a cab both ways, you’ll be shelling out anywhere from $60 to $100. More, if you live in Manhattan and you tip somewhat decently. It’s $15 to get a NJ Transit ticket, but it took me two hours to get home from Newark to Queens. Priceless.

Overall grade for Continental: C+

Flying to LA over Labor Day weekend had a different feeling to it. Perhaps it’s because it signifies the end of the summer instead of the beginning. Maybe because I was going into LA there were less New Yorkers on the flight. Whatever the reason, the overall experience flying to LA on Delta was a bit better – with a few exceptions, of course.

Since my flight was out of JFK, I ordered a recommended car service from a friend. They quoted me $30 to get to JFK on Friday morning. Not too bad. Twenty dollars cheaper before tip than going from Manhattan, and there are no bridges to cross. I felt like a winner already.

The cab service came a few minutes after 9 and despite the driver’s loud hacking noise he made every thirty seconds, the ride was smooth and we didn’t get held up in traffic. He dropped me off at the terminal and when I said, “Thirty, right?” he stared at me and said, “Thirty? Thirty dollars to get to JFK?” I replied, “Yeeeeeah….that’s what they told me over the phone.”

Acting like he was doing me a gigantic favor and letting it slide, he says to me, “Thirty-three.” Hm, I had no idea this was a negotiation. Did he think the three extra dollars would protect him should I give him a crappy tip? I did not see how three dollars would change his life. But I was peeved that he felt it was a negotiation and that he did not keep consistent with what I was quoted over the phone. It remains to be seen whether I use that car service again.

I checked in smoothly and got to Security, where I removed my flip flops and put them in a bin, along with my little zip-up jacket and purse. Standard protocol for 2008 when flying in the domestic United States. I only had to wait for one person to get through Security before my turn.

The gentleman in front of me put his entire laptop briefcase in a bin and stood there wondering why the Security guards were getting feisty with him, when he left his bulky leather jacket and boots on. I stood there with a bored expression on my face, because anyone who has flown since 9/11 knows that this is S.O.P. Where did this guy come from? But then I felt bad when the woman snapped at him, “Hell-OOO, you have to take the laptop out and put it in its own bin. Take off your jacket and shoes!” I don’t think he spoke English very well. Finally, the guard who watches you walk through the metal detector let me go ahead of him, since my things had made it through the X-ray machine long before me. I hoped the man made it through without being strip searched but I had my doubts. I get nervous walking through the detector even when I know 100% that I have nothing metal on my person. The Security guards at airports are only too happy to pull you out of line and go through your things one by one, interrogating you about anything and everything they deem relevant before you step foot on an airplane and fly the sunny skies.

After gathering my things, it was time to figure out where I would get a bite to eat before the long trip. The first place I passed was a Dunkin Donuts. I needed zero seconds to pass that one up. Being in an airport is an extension of my trip or vacation, so I try not to frequent anyplace that I could go to on any given day of the week. The exception is McDonald’s, since they’re everywhere and sometimes, they really are that much more convenient. But there was nothing to be found. I walked through this empty terminal (it sorta felt like that Stephen King movie The Langoliers, where time stood still and you couldn’t hear or taste or smell anything) and only found a map of the terminal maze, showing me where I was and where I was headed, which was to Gate 8. Gate 8 was at the end of a cul-de-sac of other gates, not anywhere near to something that sold more than bottles of water and keychains.

I got to Gate 8, realizing that somehow I had passed up anything resembling food. I turned around and walked halfway back down this poorly developed terminal, finally coming across the “food court” that was stashed away on the side of the hall. I saw the Starbucks first, heading there as if I were in a desert and it was my oasis. I should mention that while I am not a diehard Starbucks freak, that I do enjoy some of their stronger, sugary espresso drinks. But I don’t boycott them based on their having a corner on the coffee stand market. I also found a Burger King in operation that had some of their breakfast sandwiches ready to go. I ordered a sausage and egg “Croissanwich” and soon discovered how inferior it was to a certain other fast food place that sells delicious breakfast sandwiches. I’ll leave it at that.

While it is probably not the fault of Delta itself that its terminal is so shabby and lacking at JFK, one of the biggest airports in the country, it still didn’t go along with their revamped image. I’m just saying. When I boarded the plane, I was delighted to see that I was on an updated plane that had TV screens in each headrest, so we could each tune in to our own thing. Blankets were handed out to each person without our having to ask (points for that), and I had even managed to snag a flight where there was no one in the middle seat. So both the lovely, British woman in the aisle seat and myself quickly piled our lady things on the middle seat and had more room to spread out, which was bottom line fantastic. Having that extra room to cross my legs or sit at an angle while I leaned up against the window on my blanke for some shuteye was a real treat.

In between napping, reading and solving Sudoku puzzles, I watched six commercial-free episodes of sitcoms, from The Office to How I Met Your Mother and The Bill Engvall Show (which, I have to say, was pretty good!). Unfortunately, they did ask that you pay for the HBO movies, which were $5. If they had been $2, I might have caved. But five bucks just for watching a selection on a cross-country flight? I’d rather stare out the window, thanks.

But Delta did score points with having their safety instructions done on-screen so you didn’t have to crane your neck to watch someone in the aisle do the seatbelt dance while listening to someone over the PA. I enjoyed that bit. It wasn’t overly corny so they had clearly shelled out some dough to make sure people could watch without cringing.

The flight attendants came around twice on the flight, which also earned a couple more points. However, everything was a la carte unless you could settle for two small cinnamon cookies and your free drink. Alcoholic beverages with real liquor cost $7, my chicken sandwich that I ‘sauced up’ (that’s what the menu said!) was $8 and they also had Pringles and Peanut M&Ms for sale. I bought the M&Ms and was happy I got the large package. That was worth $2, in my estimation.

My baggage came pretty promptly and my friends and I even saw three of the Pussycat Dolls waiting for their luggage at the baggage claim, including the lead singer Nicole (if you click on that hyperlink, she’s the girl with the long hair, too much makeup/tranny looking one – much prettier in person). I have no idea why they were on a commercial Delta flight, but oh wait! If Diddy isn’t flying private, they probably aren’t, either. They have nowhere near the personal wealth of that guy. How he has amassed his riches is beyond me but he’s a self starter and a fighter….and cocky as hell. Maybe that’s what it takes. If being arrogant is the case, then I’ll always be poor.

The overall experience from JFK to LAX was a B+. I have to distinguish it from my return flight.

I double checked to make sure my flight was on time before I got to LAX for my return. The green On Time lit up my iPhone on Delta’s website. Perfect. I get to the Delta check-in terminal and go up to the self-serve kiosk. Despite the numbers of my e-ticket I punched in, it baldly declared that no e-ticket could be found. Sorry, mate – out of luck. Guess you’re not flying.

Fuck.

I started getting a little anxious, wondering how I would butt in front of someone who had already checked in properly and was just dropping his/her bags. Luckily, I jumped in at the right time. The ticket agent didn’t say anything but was able to find my ticket easily and printed a boarding pass. No explanation why it wasn’t found. Still, I didn’t believe it to be a good omen. I wish I had been wrong.

At LAX, you have to drag your own bags over to another line to drop them off for X-ray screening. Deduct a point. I preferred the conveyor belt at JFK that whisks your bags away without you wondering where on earth it’s going and who’s handling it.

So after waiting in line and dropping it off, I went through Security without any hangups. Since LAX is so huge, however, getting down to my gate was a bit more of an ordeal. I will say, however, that the terminal is much better outfitted for lots of travelers, with more than one large bookshop/souvenir/snack shop available. Points to LAX for that. I browsed for a couple of books, got a gigantic bottle of water for the flight (since 6oz over the course of six hours was not enough on my way out) and some See’s toffee. I can’t resist those Toffee-ettes. Yum. Perfect for a long flight, since the almond pieces had protein and some fat and would keep any real hunger at bay.

Finally getting to my gate, it turns out my flight was delayed by a half hour. Great. Then the ticket agents at the counter announced that if you didn’t have a special code on your boarding pass, you needed to check back in with them. They were calling all sorts of people’s names and upgrading and grabbing people out of stand-by, etc. I could tell it was going to be a full flight. I stood in line to re-check in, since I didn’t see the magic code that declared me safe with a seat on the flight. A tiny, elderly Asian woman ran to the counter. She wasn’t deigning to stand in line, because after all, her question was much more important. Maybe she thought that she’d earned a cut in line (or multiple) since she was old. I glared at her. I was satisfied to see the ticket agent tell her to calm down and have a seat and that everything with her ticket was fine. I could tell that others in the line were unhappy she felt so entitled but there was nothing to be done. My turn came and turns out I had the magic code on my ticket so I was safe. I triple checked that I hadn’t been placed in a middle seat and waited to board.

When we finally boarded and I got to my seat at the middle of the plane, I cursed loudly to myself when I saw I would be sitting in the aisle seat with a small child at the window and her mother in the middle. The only way it gets worse than that is if you’re in the middle and one person has a baby in his or her lap. But I immediately knew my entire flight could only achieve a B at BEST because of my fellow passengers.

The woman had not yet pulled down the armrest between hers and my seat, leaving me to be Boundaries Girl. So while she helped her daughter settle in, I quickly pulled it down to give us the illusion we weren’t sitting hip to hip, as well as to give me access to my headphones jack. Maybe she wasn’t thrilled to have me next to her, either. I can’t say. But I noted immediately I was sitting behind her husband and their other two children. Thankfully they were both potty trained and older. Side story: Once, when I was on a very crowded holiday flight, I was sitting next to a father with a baby in his lap, while his wife and two other small children sat in front of us. The kid in front of my seat barfed mid-flight, and it dripped all over my things underneath the seat. Isn’t that fun? I had to hand over the plastic bag that had been holding my books, covered in child vomit, to the very unhappy and frowning flight attendant. I wanted to say to him, “It’s my stuff that’s been spewed on! Don’t I get a coupon for another flight or something?” To make matters worse, the father and the small baby happened to be up from the seat at that point, so he had no idea that his other spawn had purged a Happy Meal on my things. That flight clearly got an F.

Back to the flight at hand. The male flight attendant ran up and down the aisle giving out the last few remaining blankets to needy passengers and then lifted his hands palms out, saying, “That’s it, that’s all we have.” How does a large 757 run out of blankets before everyone has even boarded? Big points lost there, Delta. Then come to find out, not only was my headphones jack completely screwed up and would not hold the jack in place, but I received nothing but the Weather Channel on my personal television screen. Everyone else was enjoying the free Trivial Pursuit and working channels. Not me. AND, this flight had a different selection of inflight movies but they charged $6 apiece! I was appalled. I resigned myself to a good old-fashioned flight of “sleeping,” reading and playing Sudoku.

Okay I also listened to my iPod, which I had thankfully charged. But I was miffed that my one seat was the broken one: 33F. Next time I will make sure I sit in an even numbered seat. (I’m weird like that.) So Delta lost big points on that one, as well, pulling my current experience down to a flat C. I prayed the woman and her daughter wouldn’t have to get up to use the restroom much but I knew it was futile to hope for that.

The airline staff came around twice on the flight to serve refreshments, the same as my outbound flight. Same video safety song and dance on-screen, etc. The little girl at the window thought the window shade was the most fun toy she’d ever discovered and shrieked with delight as she opened it, closed it, opened it, closed it. I don’t know which was worse – her acting like this was a jungle gym or the mother VERY loudly saying, “SHHHHH!” every ten seconds. I jammed my headphones into my ears, praying the music and the sound of the jet engines would drown some of this out.

To my relief, the little girl fell asleep quickly at the beginning of the flight. But I knew that would mean she’d be wired for the second half of the flight. Why am I always right? It’s quite tiring.

This time around, I chose the fruit and cheese plate for $6. It came with a large wedge of cheddar, a smaller wedge of Brie and one of smoked Gouda. Can I say something here? Smoked Gouda rocks. It has risen on the cheese scale for me. It was quite delicious.

Smoky, tantalizing Gouda

Smoky, tantalizing Gouda

I also had some grapes, two pecan halves and two dried apricot halves – the exact same amount as pictured on the menu. Not three pecan halves, just two. I put one dried apricot in my mouth and quickly spit it back out. It tasted like it had been sitting out on the carpet of someone’s apartment for a year. The opposite of delicious. Take away one point. The rest was pretty good, despite having to shell out actual cash for it.
When the mother and her child finally awoke, the mom decided to listen to her headphones – so naturally she tried my headphones jack, which not only didn’t work, anyway, BUT if I had been using it, I know she would have assumed I had taken hers, instead of her looking to see that the jacks are to the left of each seat and not to the right. Moreover, she would have heard whatever channel I had on my TV set and it wouldn’t have matched hers. So she attempts to stab her headphones into the jack multiple times before I turned to her and said, “Try the one on the left. That one’s broken.”

She stared at me a second before saying, “Oh.” Then she found that I was right and thanked me.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the rugrat to need to use the bathroom. I had to gather up both my books, plastic cup, iPod and put away my tray table for her to get out. Her and every other child in my immediate vicinity all had to go at the same time. There was another mother with her two children sitting behind me. These were the kinds of kids who put their hands completely around the back of my headrest, pulling hard, as they slinked out into the aisle. So two kids times two trips to the bathroom equals at least eight times that my headrest was yanked and the back of my seat kicked as the little dear lambs buckled themselves back into their seats. You would think I would be more understanding, since I was a child myself and I’m certain I annoyed someone at some point in my life with my small bladder, but I have no patience or empathy as a single adult with no children.

(Speaking of airplane seatbelts: does it really matter if we’re strapped in during light turbulence? On my flight out to LA, we were approaching some very slightly bumpy air. I had my legs crossed and was relaxing sans ceinture when the captain came on to announce that we needed to buckle up. I strapped the thing back on and didn’t feel any immediate sense of safety. Maybe it just prevents you from becoming decapitated on something as you crash down into the mountains or river.)

After the Pee Brigade finally did their thing, I settled back in, sending up silent pleas for no more bathroom trips. Didn’t happen. Towards the end of the flight, right as the flight crew was telling everyone that we needed to sit down, shut everything off, sit upright and stare into space like a zombie for the next thirty minutes as we attempted to land, the girl and her mom had to go yet again. I didn’t even look at her when she said, “Excuse me.” I just sighed, got up and made it clear that I wouldn’t be sitting aisle on a long trip again. I am a camel and can hold it, so I will be at the window from now on.

Towards the end of the flight, the captain came on to inform us sarcastically, “Due to the severe clear weather in New York, we’re being asked to do a holding pattern before we can approach the airport. Seems everyone has decided to depart at the same time.” Fortunately, we only had to take one turn around Pennsylvania before we went in for the landing but not before the entire cabin groaned.

We finally landed, after I must have checked our flight progress on-screen (that function worked) about twenty times throughout the entire flight. We taxied for what seemed to be about 25 minutes and finally exited. Unfortunately, Baggage was delayed and after they switched the belts twice and not informing us which carousel our things would be coming out on, I fiiiiinally picked up my suitcase.

Overall grade for Delta: B-/C+

(I’d say the difference between Delta winning and Continental losing is about as close as Michael Phelps winning the butterfly race.)

It is no fault of Delta’s that there was an accident on the Van Wyck or that my taxi driver yelled at me for daring to use a credit card to pay for my $40.00 fare from JFK to Astoria, to which I snottily replied to his barrage of chastising that it was credit card or nothing and then, “I just want to get the fuck out of here.” I am not a moody person and don’t easily get into a grouchy mood. But by midnight on Sunday after an entire day of travel, I was thoroughly exhausted and just wanted to get into my apartment. After hearing once more that I absolutely had to inform a taxi driver that I was using a credit card, even if it looked like he takes them by the touch screen in the back of the cab, I slammed out of the car and in a huff I arrived at my door.

I think it’s safe to reiterate my original point: that traveling Coach is a crapshoot. Sometimes the airport itself will lend more problems to your travel woes. The bottom line is that traveling out of Newark or JFK is going to give a person different pros and cons, and it’s up to you to decide whether you’d rather spend more time or money to get to your final destination and back again.

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Comments

  1. Ha!! Wow. Sounds like a good times! I too have had my share of horrific flights – one, which I think tops my list, was a business trip to Kansas City in butt cold winter, a storm, AND a medical emergency landing somewhere way off course (a dude had 4 double Jack’s before we took off, went to the bathroom and had a heart attack mid-flight. One of the flight attendants actually had to “shock” him with the defrib. machine, which I had a nice view of). I was traumatized when we finally got to Kansas City at 4am. Oh yea, we had a business meeting at 7am that following morning and we had to drive an hour to the hotel after gathering our baggage and other co-workers to get our rental car. Needless to say, we all got about 30 minutes of sleep & no dinner. Ahhhh, America’s friendly skies.

  2. I can’t top witnessing a flight attendant use a defib machine. That nightmare trip absolutely beats any of mine, including having my stuff vomited on by a kid.

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