Chris Barnett on Business Travel
The Good, the Fast, the Slow and the Stinky
October 30, 2014 -- I've been flying a series of short hops lately, playing the role of a modern-day Willie Loman, just trying to survive the rigors and annoyances of life on the road.

Here are some snapshots (no selfies) that could be helpful, possibly even amusing, for those of us who have traded Loman's beat-up Chevvy for commercial flying. I promise you nothing more than the good, the fast, the slow and the stinky.

Pop quiz: Name the best chief executive among the men who run the remaining legacy carriers. If the yardsticks are friendly employees on the ground and in the air, pro-active and responsive passenger service, fair pricing, all-around in-flight comfort and smooth flight experiences, Alaska Airlines' low-profile boss, Brad Tilden, would get the nod.

Unlike his contemporaries at the merged legacy carriers, Tilden doesn't shoot of his mouth or boast to Wall Street about how he's going to pump up profits with more fees. He doesn't fight with unions or tick off his workforce. He doesn't jam more seats onto his Boeing 737s to generate more revenue or obsess about ways to shave costs at the traveler's expense.

While airline corporate culture these days is shockingly toxic--I chat up ground and in-flight troops every chance I get--Alaska Air check-in counters at its Seattle hub and in San Francisco have helpful "rovers" working the lines. They meet and greet passengers like their old friends. When I asked one especially cheerful rover why he was in such high spirits, his answer was straightforward: "We're Alaska Airlines."

Both legs of my recent SFO-SEA roundtrip were a throwback to when flying was fun. Clean planes. Enough legroom (a better than industry standard 32 inches) to be productive. Pilots who take to the mike to tell you what's happening and apologize for delays. The for-sale food menu was appetizing and reasonably priced. Even the flight attendant's pitch for the airline's credit card was intelligently scripted and unobtrusive.

Fourteen-year old JetBlue Airways continues to dazzle with far and away the most generous coach legroom of any U.S. airline--at least 32 inches and as much 34 inches. The airline has easy-to-navigate in-seat entertainment, congenial cabin crews and a new, intelligently designed flat-bedded business-class section on flights between its New York/Kennedy hub, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But for all those well-deserved bouquets, here's an equally well-deserved brick tossed in JetBlue's direction. Checking in flights in San Francisco is an exercise in frustration. Why? Because JetBlue only has 14 SFO departures a day and its ticket counters are not consistently staffed. I learned that when a technical glitch with the online process forced me to check in personally for a recent SFO-originating flight

I showed up, along with 25 other passengers, at the JetBlue ticket counter promptly at 4:30 p.m., the posted "opening" time. No humans were in sight. Five, ten, 15 minutes later, still no ticket agents.

About 4:47 p.m.--Yes, we were all watching the clock!--three JetBlue counter agents arrived with coffees in hand. They immediately disappeared behind a door. About five minutes later they emerged, bored and unsmiling, did their setups and started motioning people up to the counter.

"Not very professional," grumbled a passenger named Susan who had been standing in the maze of roped off lines since 4:15 p.m.

Meantime, at SFO's futuristic Terminal 2, Virgin America had 12--count 'emó12--crimson-dressed ticket agents at its check in counter. At 6 a.m. no less. Every check-in counter was staffed. There were no lines and I checked in with a garment bag in one minute and 15 seconds. Yep, I timed it. Got my boarding pass with an unexpected Pre-Check designation and a mile-wide smile.

That's the good news from this San Francisco-based carrier, but here's the even better news. On both legs of the roundtrip to Los Angeles, Virgin America ticket agents offered me an earlier flight and an aisle seat at no extra charge. That saved me three hours of hanging around an airport. Imagine, convenience, comfort and no additional fees from an airline today.

"Imposter Air" may be a better name for Alligiant Air because, like Spirit Airlines, the designation "ultra low fare carrier" is specious. When you tote up all their mandatory surcharges ($15 to $50 for a carry-on bag and a mandatory fee for using the Web site, for example), your final Allegiant fare may be double the original quoted price. Or even higher than that.

So why did I book Allegiant from Oakland to Eugene, Oregon, when I know better? Because the $45 special online fare that morphed into $116 roundtrip was still an astounding 80 percent lower than the $495 quoted from United Express to fly an uncomfortable regional jet.

But there's no free lunch in domestic air travel regardless of what you pay and to what airline you pay it.

It was impossible to reach an Allegiant reservation agent to clarify a travel policy and I gave up calling after four tries. In Eugene, where the counter is staffed by outsourced workers, I had to drum my fingers while waiting for an agent to look up from her paperwork and answer a simple question. Allegiant's seats are so tight--30 inches of legroom with no recline--that you cannot lower a tray table and work. Need some caffeine? Bring your own. Allegiant is a coffee-free airline except for the canned cold coffee it sells.

Still, I was primed for all those inconveniences. What I wasn't anticipating was a horrible odor in the lavatories of the MD-82. Each lav was equipped with a spray deodorizer that didn't make a dent. Plus, when I walked to my seat in the back of the plane, a flight attendant was spraying the two rear lavs and the area just outside the doors. One bathroom smelled like an outhouse. (I got the lowdown on new aircraft toilet technology, but let's save that for another day).

I called Oakland Airport to check if Allegiant saves money by refusing to empty its honeybuckets between flights. I was told that the service is covered in the landing fees and there's no extra charge for draining the lavs.

An airport official later called back to say an Allegiant staffer would contact me with an explanation. Eight days later, no call. Maybe callbacks cost more...

Research assistance by Veronika Torgishova

This column is Copyright © 2014 by Chris Barnett. is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.