Sunday, February 15, 2015

Mark Gerchick and the Brave New World Aloft

Full Upright and Locked Position: An Insider’s Guide to Air Travel, By Mark Gerchick.  Norton: 368 pages paperback, $15.95

Mark Gerchick’s new book about airlines is must reading for anyone who flies.
For people planning a vacation for 2015, Gerchick’s chapters on fares and frequent fliers will help you do better in the cat and mouse game between cash hungry airlines and price-conscious travelers.

For ticketed passengers, information on airline schedules, delays, luggage processing, pilots, health conditions aloft and airline security will help you have a better - - or less bad - - flight.
For travelers serving a life sentence in coach, Gerchick offers a view of life in business class, flying chartered jets and the over-the-top world of first class on international flights.

Gerchick has worked in aviation all his life, starting with a summer job at Westchester County Airport when he was a teen.  He was Chief Counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and a staffer to the Secretary of Transportation.  He is now an aviation consultant.
But experience does not an author make.  Full Upright and Locked Position is compelling, often witty reading.  Gerchick carefully organized countless facts in the text, with some clarifying repetition.  He presents these squadrons of facts in a clear, mostly jargon-free and congenial writing style.

The book’s main theme is that a desire for financial stability and profitability drive nearly every airline decision.  Airlines use data on past flights and supercomputers to determine how many flights to schedule and to price seats as economy, super economy or business class. 
Data and computing power give airlines an almost supernatural ability to find every person’s “dammit price,” “as in, if the fare goes up just another few bucks, we’re cramming the kids in the backseat, dammit, and driving the ten hours to Grandma’s.”

Airlines have discovered that they are not selling “just a flight.”  “Airlines,” Gerchick explains, are “selling a bundle of separable, flight-related services. . . “  When my father joked that a bargain airfare “might not include the wings,” he was on to something!

Airlines charge bag fees, snack fees, drink fees, seat assignment fees, ticket change fees and fuel surcharge fees.  In 2010 and 2011, Gerchick says, checked bag and ticket change fees generated nearly $6 billion, more than all airline net profits in those years!
According to Full Upright and Locked Position, each time the price of fuel
increases by a penny, the fuel bill for all US airlines increases $175 million!
Since this book appeared in 2013, fuel prices have plummeted and airlines are jamming more people into skinnier seats.

In a recent conversation, Gerchick said “In public statements, airline CEO’s are emphatic that they will not lower fares with lower fuel prices.”  Passengers have little leverage to share these savings; airline flights are already nearly full and airlines have no incentive to charge less.
Gerchick observed, with a smile in his voice, “Airlines have a new term for tighter seating: ‘densification.’”  “Airlines,” he continued, “are creating a new product, selling space by the inch; they have made legroom a monetizable product.”

Pricing and legroom illustrate a key concept that any traveler will encounter.  Even with recent fare increases, airline fares are still, adjusted for inflation, much lower than they were in what people recall as the golden age of aviation. 
But airlines no longer sell all seats at the same price.  “If you are willing to suffer,” Gerchick says, “you can pay less.” 

At book’s end, Gerchick looks at aviation trends.  Airline mergers could increase fares in the future.  The Federal government is likely to continue to press airlines to make airline fares as transparent as possible with fewer “gotcha fees” as a ticket is purchased.  An FAA overhaul of air traffic control could shorten travel times, improve safety and save fuel.
Despite the emphasis on profitability, Gerchick recognizes that frontline airline people try to do their best for the traveler.  The last story in the book, about a Southwest pilot helping a distraught parent, is likely to make you cry.
Note: WW Norton's website shows this book available in both hardcover and paperback.  The hardcover design looks like this:

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Five Things We Like about Syracuse in the winter

Syracuse on a winter's dawn.  Photograph courtesy of Wainwright Photography

Syracuse has a reputation for being snowy.  But when we visited last weekend, there were only flurries and we found the city to be a lively place in mid-winter.  Here’s five things we enjoyed:

Albert Bierstadt's painting Nevada Falls
on display at the Everson Museum
Photo courtesy of the Museum
1.      The  Everson Museum of Art: The Everson in downtown Syracuse was designed by I.M. Pei; it was the first museum he designed, opening in 1968.  According to architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, Pei's success with the Everson likely won him a subsequent commission to expand the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C.
We went to the Everson intending to linger in its superb collection of American paintings.  And the paintings did not disappoint.  The collection includes Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom and a stunning landscape by Albert Bierstadt, Nevada Falls. 

The surprise in this museum is its ceramic collection.  I started into the collection to be a polite guest.  But in just a few steps, I was swept away.  The Everson’s ceramics cover a wide range of human experience.  Many pieces are functional, such as a Sumerian bowl from antiquity or Anasazi pottery.  But lots of other pieces are art for art’s sake, often with a sense of fun.  A recently created set of pieces shows a man shot from a cannon, including the cannon with a cloud of smoke, the flying man and his trampoline.
Scarab Vase, 1911 by Adelaide Alsop Robineau
Porcelain, photograph courtesy of the
 Everson Museum of Art

Self-Sufficiency, by Lois Hennessy, 2002
Bisque clay, watercolor, string, wood and knitting needles
photograph courtesy of the Everson Museum of Art
The Museum staff is informative and friendly.  An added treat was hearing a pianist rehearsing some of Chopin’s music in the Museum’s Hosmer Auditorium.
The Residence Inn at Armory Square is a new hotel
on the north edge of the Armory Square district
2.      The Residence Inn at Armory Square: After leaving the Museum, we found traffic like New York at rush hour.  I had checked Syracuse University’s website, to see if a game was scheduled.  It appeared there wasn’t but I was wrong: Syracuse’s men’s basketball team was playing Miami of Ohio.

Amazingly, the Residence Inn at Armory Square had a reservation when I called them a few days before. 

This new hotel shares a building with a Courtyard.  Rooms are bright, offer a full kitchen and feel roomy.

Staff at this Residence Inn are capable and welcoming.  They offered us a room that was likely to be quiet if there was post game revelry and gave us good information about the Armory Square neighborhood. The complimentary breakfast coffee the next day was hot and strong!

3.      KittyHoynes: Armory Square is a redeveloped neighborhood, whose character is influenced by a treasure trove of historic buildings.  In an old hotel building across the street from the Residence Inn is Kitty Hoynes, an Irish pub.  We had delicious fish and chips and a Reuben, along with perfectly made Manhattans and perfectly poured Guinness pints.  The fish and chips included an aircraft carrier-sized piece of perfectly fried haddock.  The Reuben had a perfect mix of sauerkraut, lean corned beef and melted Swiss cheese.
Kitty Hoynes is in a building that used to house the Crown Hotel
4.      Downtown architecture:  Armory Square is a delightfully walkable.  Beyond Armory Square, downtown Syracuse has much fascinating architecture and history.  For example, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, now housing the Mission Mexican Restaurant, is likely to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. 

Before you hit town, contact Downtown Syracuse or the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and ask for a copy of the pamphlet, Historic Downtown Syracuse Walking Tour.  This full colored publication offers sharp color illustrations of nearly 70 historic buildings.  Each building is keyed to a clear, easy to follow map.

5.      Wegman’s Supermarket: On our way home, we made a pilgrimage to Wegman’s.  It’s certainly a fun place to shop. A current favorite is the nearly oil can-sized can of de-caf coffee.  The store’s mini-chocolate chips and pizza are also appealing.

Since first posting this article, I learned from Nikita Jankowski, at the Syracuse Convention and Visitor's Bureau, that there is a website which lists the high points of each season in Syracuse.  The list can be found at . 

This photograph of ice skating at Clinton Square
shows another fun winter activity in Syracuse and it shows the architectural riches found in down town. 
Photograph courtesy of Wainwright Photography