Wednesday, February 24, 2010

$50 of Bad Publicity for US Airways

Long ago, or so I am told, there was a time when negotiating air travel logistics was a kinder affair. The airlines were pleased to have your business, and an airplane, to borrow a phrase from Three Guys Named Mike, was your home in the air. It is true that there weren't as many flights back then, and the flights took longer. However, one thing was for certain: the customer was valued by the airlines. Sadly, I was born well after this romantic period of commercial aviation had ended.

I'm more familiar with the air travel industry that does not focus on making passengers feel appreciated or even on getting passengers comfortably to their destinations. Today's airlines seem to be singularly focused on squeezing as much money as possible out of their customers and on achieving goals that will sound good on a billboard such as "#1 on time airline."

Nothing illustrates these points better than my recent experience with US Airways.

A recent work trip to State College, Pennsylvania ended uncharacteristically early, so I attempted to return home 2 hours prior to my scheduled flight. There wasn't a problem changing my first flight, but when I arrived at Philadelphia, I was told that I would have to pay $50 if I wanted to get on and earlier flight to Boston. I asked to go on standby, but since the flight was not sold out, the company's policies did not allow it. A courtesy transfer to an earlier flight was equally out of the question. This was regardless of the fact that I had Star Aliance Gold Status via United. I tried hanging around the gate with my sad-puppy-dog-eyes, but even that didn't work. The earlier flight took off carrying only 57 passengers, and I was still on the ground.

To the credit of the gate agent, she did attempt to upgrade me several times using different techniques, and she never lost her patience with me as she explained the policy to me. I got the feeling that she shared my frustration with the policy because it limited her ability to help customers.

The policy still seemed counter intuitive because the primary function of an airline should be to transport people in an efficient manner. Having not received a satisfactory explanation for this policy, I decided to take the matter up with the customer service counter. Unfortunately, when I arrived there I encountered a brusque man with less personality than a recorded message.

He repeated the policy with disinterest and offered no insight into the reasoning behind it. He even answered a call from his earpiece while talking to me. Sensing that I was getting nowhere with this drone, I headed back to my gate.

When I arrived, I saw an older man yelling at the gate agent to whom I had previously been speaking. He was yelling about the ugly business that US Airways was conducting and was intent on letting everyone passing by know about it.

When I encounter a scene like this, I'm always curious, but usually keep my distance. However, something was different this time, and I couldn't help but get involved. Maybe it was because the gate agent had honestly tried to help me, but mostly I think it was because of the man himself.

If I close my eyes and imagine an "airport yeller," I see someone whose priorities are very different from my own: a businessman in a tight suit wound up on too much caffeine spouting things like, "Do you know who I am?" and "I can have you fired for this!" This person feels that by berating someone, they are fulfilling some unwritten job requirement.

The man who I encountered definitely did not fit this mold. He was wearing casual clothes, and something about his face told me that his outburst was not born of greed but rather of a simple desire to get home to his family.

Since we had both been on the brunt end of US Airways' policies, I somehow felt that we were on the same team. This unspoken connection emboldened me to do something that I've never done before; I cautiously approached him.

I introduced myself and asked him what was going on. He told me that his name was Eddie and that his incoming flight had been delayed because of a security based ground stop in Philadelphia. Even though US Airways was aware of the delay and knew that Eddie would arrive within minutes of the flight's scheduled departure time, they did not hold the flight for him.

Eddie, a frequent traveler like me, informed me that this practice isn't uncommon with US Airways; they strive to make as many on time flights as possible, even if this means abandoning passengers who are delayed for security reasons and who can still make their flights within a reasonable window of time. All of this effort is not to provide the best possible travel experience to their customers but rather to be able to claim the title of "#1 on time airline."

As a result, Eddie and countless others have missed their flights because of a marketing campaign.

Eddie and I agreed that policies like this don't make sense. However, if US Airways could explain the reasoning behind the policies, I'm more than willing to publish the explanation here on my blog.

Eddie was given a first class ticket on the next available flight, and he asked the gate agent, at whom he had long since stopped yelling, to be nice to me and to try to get me on the next flight as well. A manager came over and was able to make my Star Alliance status register in the system, and I was able to get on the same flight as Eddie.

Before we boarded, Eddie and I talked about how the airlines don't care about inconveniencing their customers and how $50 is a steep price for what used to be a customary courtesy.

When I told Eddie that I have my own travel blog, his eyes lit up. He knew that US Airways had just bought themselves $50 worth of bad publicity.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Herwig's Austrian Bistro: A Shrine to Bacon

When I think about all of the places that I've visited, only one place triggers a Pavlovian response. Mention of State College, PA has that effect on me, and this is in large part due to Herwig's Austrian Bistro.

My fondness for bacon is not a secret. Regular readers of Graham's Travel Blog will recall that I have gone on at length about Norwegian Club Sandwiches and that one of my few travel regrets involves not purchasing a tube of bacon as discussed in Sweden: Food in Tubes, Fika and Assault.

Given my affinity for bacon, it should be no surprise that one of my favorite places in the world is basically a shrine to bacon.

Aside from the bacon, there are two things that really set Herwig's apart from all other restaurants: the food and the employees. Both of these elements come together at Herwig's in a way that keeps me coming back whenever I'm in town.

I've been to Herwig's several times, and I try to order something different on each trip. So far, everything that I've sampled from the brautwurst to the schnitzel to the Tyrolean Gröstl (potato hash with assorted meats), has been delicious. The menu, which is written out on a large blackboard, changes daily so that the freshest ingredients can be used. The staff prepares just enough of each dish that they think they can sell in a day, so they do run out of popular dishes. Those who arrive early are rewarded with the best selection.

Bacon is an important flavoring agent at Herwig's, and it finds its way into many of the dishes. In fact their motto is "Herwig's Austrian Bistro, where bacon is an herb."

Meals at Herwig's are typically large, and cleaning your plate is highly recommended as the cost of a to-go box is high. Smaller portions are available, and it's not a bad idea so that you can save room for one of their amazing desserts. The dessert selection changes regularly and can include such temptations as chocolate bacon cheesecake, chocolate dipped bacon and even maple brittle/bacon ice cream. Bacon-free desserts are also available.
For the record, eating the chocolate dipped bacon (with hazelnuts) or chocolate bacon cheesecake can be life changing experiences, but I'll pass on the bacon ice cream next time. The food is enough of a reason for a visit, but the people really make Herwig's shine.

At its core, Herwig's is a family affair that consists of wife Gundi at the cash register, son Bernd in the back making desserts and giving customers a hard time and, of course, Herwig himself.

If you ask for a smaller portion when placing your order, don't be surprised if Gundi asks you for your AARP card. This humor is the type that you can expect from all of the staff, and it tickles me to no end.

Bernd often entertains guests with puppet shows, well meaning health tips and the dispensation of to-go boxes...for a price. When a guest fails to finish their meal and declares the desire to take their food home, a game ensues as follows:

1. Bernd's eyes light up.
2. Bernd fetches a styrofoam box and a large wooden paddle.
3. Bernd balances the box on the paddle and tosses it to the customer.
4. If the customer can catch the box before Bernd hits them with the paddle, they can keep the box and take their leftover food home.

I've only seen this game take place once, but I'm guessing that the customer would get to keep the box even if they get hit. This may sound slightly barbaric, but it is all in good fun. Some say that Bernd is a bit of a jerk, but I don't see it that way. Of course, I nearly always clean my plate, but he did make me wear the chicken hat of shame once.

At last, we come to the ever charming Herwig. When he's not preparing food in the kitchen, he wanders about the tables delighting diners with stories about how he's been searching for the best winter tomatoes or telling the story of the pig that turned his daughter into a vegetarian. It should be noted that Herwig remembers that this particular pig tasted delicious.

The food and the people make Herwig's a resturaunt that I've recommended often and one to which I will continue to return. The only problem is that Herwig's is so darn hard to get to. If you ever have a layover in State College, you need to get a better travel agent. I understand that franchising opportunities exist, but even with the same food, Herwig's wouldn't be Herwig's without Herwig, Gundi and Bernd.

Of course, if a Herwig's opens in the Boston area then you can be sure that I'll be one of their first customers. If your travels take you anywhere near State College, PA, and you're a fan of bacon, then you owe it to yourself to visit Herwig's Austrian Bistro.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

No Coffee At Starbucks

It was 5:30 am at the Boston-Logan International Airport and Starbucks was out of coffee. OK, that's not strictly true because they were making espresso, but the drip coffee machine was out of order.

I had just made my way through the security line, and, with coffee and a blueberry scone on my mind, I got right into another line outside of Starbucks. I did find it mildly odd that the line had only a few people in it, but being that I had yet to completely wake up, I didn't see this as significant. I also failed to connect this with the unusually large number of coffee cups from McDonald's in circulation that morning. Taken together, I should have known that something was amiss, but I just had enough mental energy to focus on getting coffee that morning; nothing else seemed to register.

I placed my coffee mug on the counter and the following conversation ensued:
Me: I'd like a decaf coffee please.
Barista: We're all out of coffee.
M: Uh, you're Starbucks. What do you mean you're all out of coffee?
B: The machine is broken.
M: Uh, OK.

At this point, I scratched my head and wondered off to seek other breakfast options. The only other option open at the time was McDonald's, which explained all of the McDonald's coffee cups that I had noticed. Unfortunately, I don't like their coffee. There was an au bon pain nearby, but it was still in the process of opening.

I left the area and returned just as au bon pain was opening. The coffee that I bought there was smoother and much more pleasant than the typically over-roasted Starbucks coffee.

This poses the obvious question - why was Starbucks my first choice? In a word, habit. Since Starbucks is just about everywhere, I frequent them more often than I care to admit, and I can't recall the last time that I had au bon pain coffee.

The next time that I have a choice, you can be sure that I'll pick au bon pain for my morning brew (and morning pastry). To top it off, the coffee even costs less at au bon pain. For a 12 ounce cup, you pay $2.05 at Starbucks versus $1.70 at au bon pain. If you can handle the coffee at McDonald's then the cost of a cup of coffee goes down to $1.39.

In sending me away that morning, Starbucks sent me to find something better and has effectively lost some of my business. If I was the only one that to whom that happened that morning, I think that Starbucks would be fine. The fact remains that many people were forced to find other coffee that morning, and I'm sure I'm not the only one whose eyes were opened in more ways than one by coffee that day.

I can only assume that the sending customers away when they are out of drip coffee reflects Starbucks Corporate Policy, and this disappoints me. I have been to several independent coffee shops and encountered this sort of situation, and it always results in the offer of an Americano, usually at the same price as a brewed coffee.

Had Starbucks done the same, they would have kept me as a customer even if it cost them an extra few cents to do so. This was clearly an opportunity for Starbucks to build some goodwill and expose their customers to a drink that they might not have otherwise tried.

I'd like this story to remind Starbucks that no company is big enough to be able to treat their customers like they don't matter. If this type of behavior continues, their customers will just find something better (and cheaper) around the corner.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Crows of Syracuse, NY

I have never been afraid of crows, but a recent experience made me very thankful that I have never seen the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Birds.

I was visiting Syracuse, NY, on business, and I was walking back to my hotel after a long day at work; I was exhausted, and I just wanted to go to sleep. On that cold and calm night where I wanted nothing more than to be safe in my bed, I looked up. I'm not exactly sure why I looked up at that point, but I'll never forget what I saw.

It was mid January, so all of the trees should have been bare, yet they all seemed to bare some strange dark fruit about the size and shape of a papaya. I continued to walk, puzzled by this sight. Just as I was beginning to piece things together, I heard the telltale caw of a crow, and I spun around to see a murder of about 200 crows take flight from a nearby tree.

"Okay," I thought to myself, "they are just crows." Then I did the math. With about 15 trees in a one square block area and each tree housing 100-200 birds, there were roughly two thousand crows crowded around where I stood. That's a whole lot of eyes that could be staring straight at you, a sight that will likely cause a twinge of concern for anyone but the most dedicated bird watchers.

After safely making it back to my hotel, I decided that there must be some reason for such a large concentration of crows. Clearly a little investigation was in order. Asking the hotel desk jockey proved to be as fruitless as usual, so I went to sleep.

The next morning I asked several people about the crows, but they were new to the area and didn't know much about it. It wasn't until 4:30 am on the morning of my departure that I began to get some answers.

On the way to the airport, I offhandedly I asked my taxi driver, "What's up with the crows?" Within minutes, I had my the bulk of information.

About 5 years ago, the nearby town of Auburn had a terrible crow problem. The town had resorted to shooting the birds until animal rights activists put a stop to the practice. In search of a non-lethal solution to their crow problem, the town of Auburn opted for pyrotechnic cannons, which, while they won't kill the birds, will create a noise that crows simply can't stand. The town of Auburn had solved its crow problem, but the crows did not simply disappear?

The crows had to go someplace, and the surrounding towns, including Syracuse, are now their home. Crows are found in these areas year round, but during the fall and the spring, they gather in eerily large numbers, and they are a great annoyance to many residents.

The mess that crows leave beneath their roosts is nearly universally despised, and I'm told that if you hear a large rape of crows approaching, it is best to seek shelter because their droppings can come down like rain.

In addition to the many haters of crows, there are those that love the crows, such as Holly, my taxi driver and a self described "feeder of crows." Some of her family members think she's crazy to feed crows, but she has no plans to change her behavior anytime soon.

As for me, I don't mind crows as long as they don't wake me up too early and if they refrain from using me for target practice.

I will admit that the experience of encountering such large group of crows was more than a little unsettling at first, but the more that I watched them, attempted to photograph them and talked about them, the more I realized that they were as much a part of what makes Syracuse a unique place as the buildings, restaurants and people. Hopefully, when my travels to take me back to Syracuse, I'll get another chance to see and appreciate the crows.

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