Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dear United Airlines: Please Stop Trying to Kill me. Thank You.

Hey United.

It's me. Lincoln. You may know me as the passenger who spent a bit more than $15,000* with you in 2013, and another $6,000 or so for the first quarter of 2014 on high-yield, full fare tickets. I'm also the guy that believes you've** attempted to kill him at least twice in the past two months with a third "near miss".

Please stop; I rather like living.

I keep meaning to write a letter -- and in fact, have several drafts written -- but I haven't sent it because I keep hoping that I'll have ONE trip pass without incident and I can go "eh, just a fluke" and forget about this. But United's operational reliability keeps getting worse. 

The first incident, United 3466 in November was a bit of excitement when the aircraft abruptly slammed back to the ground after becoming airborne -- that one was announced as a "computer issue" but later I learned it was an air speed sensor failure. That's not something important, is it? Our crew didn't need to know the aircraft's speed for safe flight, did they? And of course one would believe that this kind of critical sensor may be confirmed operational before passengers are boarded, much less hurtling down a runway, right? And it's not unreasonable to expect a supervisor be available after an aircraft is deplaned with a bunch of whip-lashed passengers... oh, apparently, it is.

Then we get to United 3890 -- this time the first week of January. It's not really reassuring when the captain announces "Ladies and gentlemen, in about 10 minutes we will be landing normally, however..." especially when that "however" includes the phrases "no brakes" "bumpy landing" and "lost hydraulic system pressure" and after landing the announcement "do not evacuate" is made. While sitting on an aircraft, on the runway and surrounded by emergency vehicles precious little information was forthcoming -- and it was a little disturbing to hear "Mommy, what's that fireman doing to the wing" from a young child several rows behind me. After we were towed from the runway to the gate -- unable to get there under our own power, and escorted by Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting vehicles -- once again, no apologies were offered, no nor was a supervisory representative available.

Though less immediately life-threatening, United 821 earlier this week -- which apparently blew an engine gasket and was leaking fuel "at an unacceptable rate" -- but this wasn't discovered until the aircraft had been fully boarded (and later tests after an unsuccessful repair attempt filled the cabin with the wonderfully pungent and offensive aroma of unburned Jet A fuel). That flight was deplaned and ultimately cancelled. It should be noted that UA821 was the first flight of the day for that aircraft, so I'm somewhat baffled that the fuel issue was not discovered or mitigated prior to passenger boarding. In this case, at least, the excellent (and former Continental) agents and supervisory staff acted quickly to mitigate the inconvenience -- and shuttled me onto a flight departing just a few minutes later.

Those three incidents alone are making me (and no doubt my friends and loved ones) question if the new United has a vendetta against me -- or just inadequate maintenance oversight. I trust you can understand my concern.

But when United isn't dealing with major maintenance/safety issues you're flinging me around space with little regard to aircraft condition or this thing we refer to as a "schedule" -- with dirty aircarft and broken amenities (inflight WiFi would be awesome -- if it worked on more than 25% of the aircraft that have been equipped).

Since the beginning of October 2013, I've flown 34 discreet flights -- virtually all of them have been delayed; in many cases delayed more than an hour. While cancellations and delays are understandable when the weather is poor -- they aren't really explainable on days with beautiful weather nationwide.

But some of United's other recent greatest hits include.

A dog running loose in the cabin: Need I say more?

Loosing An Aircraft: Yep. At Charlotte, a flight was delayed because the employees couldn't locate the airplane. It had supposedly been towed to the gate from an overnight maintenance check. But clearly there was no aircraft at the gate. Not really sure how you misplace an airplane, but you did it.

Loosing my luggage for 3 days of a 4 day trip: I showed up but my luggage didn't. I was promised it would be on the first flight of the next day. Nothing. And agents at the baggage service office told me that no one had been able to get through to the Baggage Resolution Center for three days -- but only the baggage resolution center can authorize reimbursement for expenses. Yeah. I'm eating the cost for clothing for the 2nd (and 3rd) days of a meeting on top of a $1200 ticket. (A supervisor ultimately authorized the expenses, but I'm not hopeful I'll see a reimbursement anytime soon)

Blaming Me for United's Poor Planning: Oh, you missed your connection because we didn't have anyone to drive the jetway for 20 minutes? Well, that's the FAA's fault because we don't control the jetways (unadulterated BS) and its [my] fault for not having a longer connection (even though it was offered, sold, and booked by United and exceeded United's published minimum connection time).

I could go on -- and honestly, I'm wondering why I continue giving United my business. I guess I'm just honestly hoping it gets better. I long for the days of Continental Airlines -- courteous, helpful staff, a "do right by the flyer" attitude, excellent on time completion rates, clean, modern, and comfortable aircraft. And I can't think of the last time my luggage failed to arrive promptly. I was hopeful that with Continental policies, senior management, and systems migrating to the old United. Sadly that seems to not be the case.

Rachel and I have a trip to London to celebrate our 3rd anniversary booked on United in March. I am hopeful but not expectant that it will be without incident.


(Of course, the above is entirely my own opinion and impression, and does not proport to be the opinion of my employer, or anyone else.)
* - Roughly 40 cents per flown mile. Based on United's latest Form 8K filed with the SEC, it appears the average is about 13 cents per mile
** - Including flights operated by United and under United's direction as United Express.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Cleveland Orchestra: Franz Welser-Most Conducts Mozart, Wndmann, and Beethoven

Mozart: Symphony No. 38 ("Prague") in D major, K.504
Widmann: Teufel Amor; Symphonic Hymn after Schiller
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op 58 (Yefim, Bronfmam, piano)
Franz Welser-Most, conductor. 

Tonight's concert was an interesting concert -- no doubt in part due to the orchestra's impending flight south for the winter. Likewise, it was interesting comparing my seat for this week's concert, at virtually dead center, versus last weeks house left experience -- but with that centrism comes a small loss of intimacy with the musicians; I don't think the difference was that significant.

Mozart's Symphony 38 ("Prague") bad a delightful beginning to the concert but seemed as if it were being treated a bit too delicately by Mr. Welser-Most, particularly the first movement which had festive undertones but seemed more a wallflower than a willing participant in the goings on. The second movement was likewise measured and delicate but smoothly flowing, reminding me in some places of the precision of a ballet and the third movement was a dignified frenzy that was enjoyable but passed on the ballet ambiance from the second movement.

For the 25 minutes of enjoyment the Mozart brought, Jorg Widmann's Teufel Amor was 30 minutes of musical agony. Sounding like a lumbering swamp creature that just would not die while lumbering around an entirely atonal environment, it could not have been over fast enough. While I am not a fan of Mr. Widmann (and quite frankly wish the orchestra would stop programming his works and perhaps try another young composer) his other pieces at least have the advantage of being relatively short minimizing the suffering inflicted upon the paying audience.

Following intermission, certainly the most enjoyable piece on the program was Yefim Bronfman's interpretation of  Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4... From a 35 minute piece, the first movement was the meatiest at about 20 minutes, and may be best described as the evolution of a romantic relationship between piano and orchestra -- from the tentative and restrained words of a first date to the more comfortable later stages to completing each others thoughts. The later movements were a bit more passionate and empotional outbursts.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Cleveland Orchestra: Franz Welser-Most and Julia Fischer: Brahms Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 2

Brahms: Tragic Overture, Op. 81
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (Julia Fischer, violin)
???: 3rd movement from Sonata in G (Julia Fischer, solo violin)(Encore)
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73
Franz Welser-Most, Conductor.

Despite United Airlines best attempts to both kill me and leave me naked over the past two weeks -- long story -- my clothing and I survived. And I  made it into Severance Hall for a delightful concert, although slightly under the weather from a bug I no doubt acquired at one of the airports I passed through.

My seat for this evening was in the front of  Box 19 -- much further "house left" from my usual perch, and given the horseshoe design of Severance Hall, also much closer to the stage then I believe I've been in a very long time. While in was concerned this would affect the acoustical balance, that effect was barely noticeable. What was noticeable was the incredible intimacy one has with the orchestra -- peering over the violinists shoulders -- if you will.

This angle provided a bit more immersion -- and with it a heightened sense of the minute details that come together to make for a delightful concert.

Ms. Fisher's performance of Brahm's violin concerto was technically excellent, but the first movement was somewhat lacking in the "passion" department -- and passion is what makes the Cleveland orchestra so compelling -- this recovered, however, by the third movement and with a festive, gipsy-ish flare that I find hard to resist.

Leaving the hall, it seemed like the question on everyone's mind was "who was the composer for the encore?" -- no one (including yours truly) had an answer better than "It started with a P", but that didn't dampen its reception -- and time seemed to stand still while she was playing.

While I am wary of "all the same composer" programs -- and I need not hear any more Brahms for a while -- the program concluded with a captivating performance of his Symphony No. 2 with a variety of orchestral colors and flavors -- from the bold introduction and tender ending of the first movement and irresistible sentimentality of the cellos in the second movement, to the pastoral colors giving way to drama of the third movement, and finally the festivities lurking amongst the fourth movement.