Sunday, August 12, 2018

Gutter Ballet

Most of you who know me, or read my posts, know that I am a capitalist through and through.  My thoughts and opinions on various topics usually side with management or Wall Street.  In this case though, I'm departing from the norm.

By now, you have probably heard of the story from Friday, August 10, and the theft of a Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 from a Cargo/Maintenance stand at Seattle/Tacoma Airport by a "disturbed and disgruntled" Horizon Air employee.  I won't go into the story of the joyride around the skies of Puget Sound either, that's been covered.  Nor will I paint the employee as disturbed, disgruntled, or suicidal.  It is still FAR too early to to start guessing.  What I will do in this post though, is go through the turmoil the front-line employees face at not only Alaska Air Group (AAG, the parent company of Alaska Airlines and it's regional subsidiary Horizon Air), but at other airlines as well.  I'm also going to touch on the subject of suicide.  It's more of an epidemic in this country than opioids, the Mexican cartels, or porn (yes, the Governor of Utah says porn is an epidemic).

As I stated above, normally I take the side of management in airline employee relations.  In this case, especially against AAG (and JetBlue Airways, my friends there tell me the almost exact same horror stories), I am firmly on the side of the employees.  Thanks to a management that is hyper-focused on its costs - perhaps at the expense of it's employees well-being - Alaska and Horizon employees work in a stressful environment.  AAG has been battling with Delta Air Lines and it's massive new Seattle hub.  Alaska Airlines, itself still integrating Virgin America, a merger which some industry watchers feel is a costly, badly-timed, and poorly-executed merger, went to the negotiating table with it's various unions in order to come up with a plan to cut costs further that would allow the merger to go through.  Work rule changes were adopted, and the cost-cutting became so micromanaged that AAG's flight attendants were instructed to stop offering the popular Biscoff cookies as a snack.  Passengers and Flight Attendants alike came close to a revolt, and the airline capitulated.

If you listen to AAG's earnings calls or read their SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) filings, the company's Board of Director's and Executive Management will do ANYTHING to keep the stock price from falling.  That is simply all they care about, employees and services be damned, as long as Wall Street is happy and the JD Power awards keep coming in.

BUT..the JD Powers awards reflect only what the passengers opinions are, not the airlines' employees.

AAG's employees (whose unions appear to be impotent in helping their members) bear the brunt of the cost-cutting actions.  Several colleagues at AAG have come forward and told me of their woes at AAG.

"We get those shiny JD Powers awards, and instead of bonuses like at Delta, we are given Positive Space passes instead.  How will positive space passes feed my kids?"  - Alaska Customer Service Agent, Seattle.

The positive space passes might be great for the bright eyed interns who work for nothing and are gaining experience while in school, but it does not cut it for someone trying to feed their family to pay the bills (a stark contrast to Delta Air Lines, who in 2017 awarded it's employees $1.1 Billion in profit-sharing).

"Mandatory Overtime is killing us.  I come home with my paycheck not showing the correct amount of hours as OT, sometimes none at all.  We get worked to the bone by the powers-that-be, and we love our work, but we also need to get paid for it." Horizon Ramp Agent, Boise.

Stations all over the AAG system do it.  Some use it to good effect and keep the operation humming nicely, and the employees happy.  Others, like at the hubs, not so much.

"I was sent to training in Seattle.  I had told about my health issues to the trainers and they said it wouldn't be a problem in the training rooms.  2 days later I was on a flight home to SLC for a flareup of my Chron's disease.  My boss back home was surprised but was under orders to reassign me to a non customer-facing position."  Alaska CSA/Ramp Agent - Salt Lake City.

AAG trainers and their superiors are known for churning and turning their training classes, usually with a few dropouts or burnouts.  There have been cases of AAG employees reaching out to AAG HR for physical, medical or mental help.  All AAG did was give them the Employee Assistance Hotline number and never bothered following up.  A few have tried committing suicide, but thank God they survived.

"I was struck by a debilitating disease and my superiors promised my position would stay the same and once I was better, they would make whatever accommodations necessary to aid in my return to work.  Not only did I get my diagnosis, but I found out I was pregnant as well.  Once they found out, I was out of their picture." JetBlue Systems Controller, Orlando.

It's amazing to think some of these supposedly beloved companies are this harsh on employees.  Or is it?  I've worked at JetBlue as well, and let me tell you.  It doesn't surprise me in the least.  These airlines that are under pressure need to wake up and realize their medically challenged folks need to be looked out for.

Now, I watched the press conference the other day with leaders from AAG, Horizon, and the Port of Seattle.  Only briefly did they gloss over the Employee Assistance Program.  A single sentence.  That's it.  Done.  Next Question.

Depression and Suicide are an epidemic in this country, and no one is willing to have a frank and honest conversation about it.  Thousands of us suffer and fight the demons in silence.  I've fought them since I was about 15 years old.  The silence must stop and we need to speak up.  Us airline folk tend to stick together, especially during the hardest times, but we don't have to fight alone.  If anyone ever needs to talk, I'm always around.  You see tons of posts from blissfully ignorant and pseudo-helpful folks claiming they will listen if you need to talk and then post the number to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, but who better to listen to you than a real friend or cohort who knows exactly what you're fighting with?  I'm not saying the NSPH is a bad thing, far from, it has helped many people overcome and get help.  It might have done a world of good for Rich, instead he may have only seen one way out.  We don't know.  I refuse to paint him into any corner until the investigations are complete.  My condolences to his family and friends, and to my friends at AAG.

For airlines like AAG and JetBlue, it's a race to the bottom, quite literally, into the gutter.  The dance the employees make to keep up appearances and keep the flights on-time and profitable, and bags onto the carousel within 20 minutes, is at best, a ballet on razor blades.  To my dearest friends in the trenches, keep up the fight, and make Brad Tilden, Robin Hayes, and their respective Boards of Directors LISTEN.

Friday, July 27, 2018

April in Athens: A luxurious stay at the Hilton Athens

Photo credit Athens Hilton

My apologies to Chairman Sinatra for altering the title of his iconic tune, but I was in Athens, in April, and it was unbelievable.  On this trip, I was fortunate to stay in the historic Athens Hilton, and in two different types of rooms.

Having arrived to the hotel after a 5 hour trek from my Mom's village in Central Thessaly, with no less than a plainclothes police escort from the outskirts of Athens all the way to the front door.  To say it was epic would be a gross understatement.

Having my bags taken directly inside by the speedy and sharp bellhop, I said my goodbyes to my cousin and headed inside.  Gave the agent at the counter my passport and credit card, and she looked me with a huge smile and told me she couldn't check me in, and I would have to proceed to the elevators and up to the Executive Floor and check-in there.  So off I went, hoping my bags would be on their way up behind me as well.

Depositing me on the Executive Floors with a distinctive ding, the elevator closed behind me as I sauntered over to the desk and presented (again) my credentials.   The classically gorgeous concierge checked me in rapidly, explained the hours and activities in the Executive Lounge and directed me to my room, which thankfully was not too far away.

Shortly after getting myself situated in this amazing 1 King room with this AMAZING view of Athens and the Acropolis in the distance, there was a knock on my door.  It was the bellhop with my luggage.  Arranging it just so in the closet, (not to mention showing me how to get into the closet and use it!)  he told me if I needed to get and clothing items pressed, they could be done in 3 hours.  Awesome.  I told him I do have my suits than could use an airing out and freshening up, but i have to dig them out first.  He said no problem, take my time and just buzz the Executive Concierge for pick up.  Excellent!

Photo credit Athens Hilton
The room was nicely spaced out, with the bed tantalizing close to the balcony door, at an angle just right for falling asleep with the Acropolis in the distance as the last thing you see before closing your eyes.  The bathroom was completely marble, with a bathtub that was decently deep (enough for my large frame and be comfortable), and a separate, walk-in rainfall shower.  Believe me, this room is worth every last silver Euro of the nightly rate.

The Executive Lounge was nice as well.  Bright and airy, with a great assortment of refreshments during the off hours, and great breakfast in the morning and hors d'oeuvres served in the evenings.  Oh, and did I mention endless supplies of Orange Fanta?  No, not that bland kind you get back in the States, the Greek version, as quite a few people can attest, is a whole different animal, MUCH tastier.  I ended up with a stockpile in my room of somewhere between 15 and 20 bottles...

Photo credit Athens Hilton
Due to a screwup in booking that was completely this author's fault, I had to scramble at last minute to find another room at the end of my 4 days stay for an additional night.  The Executive Floor was completely booked that final night, so I got myself the standard City View 1 King Room.  Laid out just as nicely as the Acropolis View lodgings, these rooms are on the other side of the hotel, facing the City, and if you're on the right side, the US Embassy.

Photo credit Athens Hilton
Up on the top floor is the world renown Galaxy Bar, voted one of the "World's 10 Best Rooftop Bars" by Premier Traveler Magazine, an award most decidedly deserved, with some unbelievable incredible views of the Acropolis, nee ALL of Athens (and a good chunk of Attica in general) to be had, especially from Sunset onwards.

Just off the Main Lobby downstairs is the Byzantino Restaurant, prices are typically high, considering it is a hotel restaurant after all, but from the 2 breakfasts I had, the food was fantastic, even though it was your standard buffet breakfast fare.  They had a few traditionally Greek items, but i would've liked to have seen more.  Other than that it was not a bad place to start one's day.

In closing, the Hilton Athens is your typical high-end Hilton, however, it's history and legacy put it at the top of the heap with the Hilton International hotels.  The Acropolis View rooms are worth their slightly higher nightly rates, and you are mere minutes from major attraction, historic sites, ancient ruins, and some AMAZING hole in the wall establishments with the absolute best in Greek dining.  Plan your stay here the next time you have a few nights in Athens, you won't regret it.

**All photos authors own except where credited.

Friday, July 13, 2018

5 Years old and growing!

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this blog taking off like it did, or having the staying power and relevance it does.

When I started this blog back in 2013, it was with the intention of making this a springboard for my opinions in Travel, the Airline Industry, and Luxury.  I dropped the Luxury bit real quick and focused on everything travel related.  It was a very slow start, the first posts were averaging a total of about 20-50 reads.  Pitiful really, but hey, you have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk.  

When I shut down my first agency, Vintage Travel, and started working for Egencia (I refuse to say I worked for the third party contractor, I represented Egencia, not them, to the folks on the phone), my posts started gaining traction, but still, maximum reads were in the 250-300 range.  At the time I was thrilled, as I thought I was finally on the uptick.  More and more entries were made, and by the time I left Egencia to start my second, and final at home travel agency, the Gold Standard Travel Co., I was drawing around 500 reads per post.  Having never been at that level, I was thrilled.  Then I met author, thespian, and all around great guy Thorman Hulse, and he helped me hone my writing craft.  I owe a HUGE amount of gratitude to Thorman, without him, I more than likely would've given the writing game up for dead, especially since i was getting no support from my wife at the time.  So Thorman, if you get a chance to read this, thank you, dear sir, from the very bottom of my heart.  I owe you and Kathy immensely for the friendship and support.

The jump happened when I was caught up in the self-made implosion of the fly-by-night scam airline SkyGreece.  I was working for a shady faux travel agency in Salt Lake City and I had been watching with growing alarm that planefuls of travelers were stranded in Athens, Greece, Budapest, and Toronto, due to the grounding of this airline's sole aircraft.  I managed to help get a few travelers back across the Atlantic home, and followed up and got caught up in the unfolding drama of this scam.  My following write up of the drama  (The Perils of Pride)  caused a windfall of reads, and then kept bringing them in, averaging about 1100 to 1200 reads per post.  That post, along with a writeup I did on the actual downfall of the first airline I ever worked at, TWA (Setting the Record Straight), boosted my daily readership higher.

It wasn't too much longer after that, and after a bitter and bloody divorce, I was invited to become an Agent with the American Automobile Association (AAA).  It was no secret I had wanted to be an agent for them since I first became an agent back in 2009.  From what I know, I was the 3rd or 4th Agent in Utah hired by AAA to help them open up their Travel operation in their huge new Member Service Center in Clearfield, Utah.  Thanks to several trips and multiple postings every quarter, and support from quite a few folks in AAA's Travel Dept, my postings have reached more people and further away than I ever imagined, so a HUGE shout out goes to my incredible employer, and my amazing and fabulous clients.  Thank you, one and all, for making this blog reach an average of 25,000 reads per post!!  Another huge shout out to 2 people in my own office, Rolene and Angela, for pushing me when needed, and pulling the reins in as well, you have shaped me as an agent and I look up to you too and consider you both mentors in every sense of the word, and hopefully that has come through in my posts since being hired in 2016.

Well, that was the first 5 years, let's spin the globe and see where the next 5 will take the Jetsetting Globetrotter.  Thank you, one and all! 

Shortly before the beginning of FL310, on top of the Acropolis with my Dad.

5 years of refinement as a Travel Agent, photo credit AAA.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Flying Blue: Business Class on KLM's Boeing 747-400

How often can a guy get lucky?  I seriously thought my first and only time to get on the fabled Boeing 747-400 was last September with Delta.  I was fortunate enough to snag the last seat on the final domestic 747 flight, thinking I had flown on my only flight on the Queen.

You should've gone to La$ Vega$ and put money on me.

Originally, this trip to Greece didn't even have me on the 747.  At all.  My routing was Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, overnight there, then the next morning do Los Angeles - Seattle - Paris - Athens, with the return 3 weeks later doing Athens - Amsterdam - Detroit - Los Angeles, overnighting there again, AFTER a segment on Delta's new long haul flagship, the Airbus A350-900.  Well, by the time the end of March had rolled by, my ticket for this trip had been subject to not 1, but 5, that's right, count them, 5 schedule changes.  Each change getting worse and worse and my arrival time into Athens going well past midnight.  Ugh.  So I got on the horn with Delta and told them, I don't want another schedule change, and while I'm at it, get me off as much Delta metal as you can, just for putting me through those changes before.  The poor agent was horrified, but we ended up with a decent schedule.  Leaving from Los Angeles, I was to go nonstop to Amsterdam then onwards to Athens, all on KLM, and returning the same way.  Beautiful.  The agent made the final change and confirmed the flights.  Turns out, the Los Angeles segments were on the Queen herself, the Boeing 747-400.  I was happier than Hugh Hefner in a Strip Club.

So the time for my trip FINALLY came.  Off I went on an overcast morning from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles on the hot rod Canadair Regional Jet 700 (or CR7 to us avgeeks).  As I was on American Eagle (American Airlines' regional operation), we arrived at the double wide trailer sized commuter terminal smack in the middle of the sprawling complex LAX is.  No biggie.  Until you realized how much luggage I had with me...

Fast forward 24 hours.

Having been dropped off at the iconic and much-filmed Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) (you can see it in Die Hard 2, Die Hard, Commando, etc. etc.), with my mountain of luggage, I shagged a luggage trolley and made my way to the KLM check-in counter upstairs.

"My apologies, Mr. Andritsakis, but it seems we have given your Economy Comfort seat away.  We have a few seats at the very back of the plane, or one last seat open in Business Class on the Upper Deck.   Which would you prefer?"   advised the harried agent after he realized the system goofed.  I told him I wouldn't mind the Upper Deck at all.  "Very well, sir, also, since you'll be in Business Class, I'll check all your bags for you all the way to Athens, and you also have access to the OneWorld lounge just inside security until departure."  Bonus. now I don't have to pay the extra baggage charge for my 3rd suitcase, nor do I have the pay the excess weight charges, either. This trip was starting off just right.

Why would KLM have use of the OneWorld Lounge when they are a full-fledged member of SkyTeam you ask?  Well, it's simple.  The TBIT only has a few lounges, and Korean Air has one, but it's small, noisy, and most of the time cramped.  So, KLM, and the other airlines not in OneWorld, sensing they don't want to lose their premium cabin passengers at such an important gateway as LAX, struck up agreements with the airlines that have the lounges, and sure enough, at that time of the day, this lounge was full of KLM, Aeroflot, and other SkyTeam passengers.

After a great breakfast and preflight mimosa in the club, I headed down to the gate, insomuch as for me to get my inner avgeek satisfied by watching planes until boarding.  I got a few good shots with my phone, and before I knew it, it was time to board.  The gate staff had us line up behind several boarding group signs, and Lord have mercy on your soul if you tried to board before your group, as I saw while waiting behind the Group 1 sign.

My ride for the day was KLM's Boeing 747-400 PH-BFL, named the "City of Lima".  Delivered to KLM from Boeing on May 12, 1991, this Queen is the 888th 747 off the line.  Stepping inside, you really can't tell, though.  KLM, as European as it is, keeps their fleet up to snuff.  OK, so the Business Class isn't a suite, nor is it single seat with aisle access AND a window, but, that being said, my seat was spacious and amazing to my 6'1", 400 lb frame.  I was far more comfortable in this seat than I was in Delta's 747-400 DeltaOne seat several months earlier.  No offense to Delta, but GOD those seats, once I was in the lie-flat mode, felt like a narrow coffin.  But I digress.

So on board I went, hang a right after greeting the gorgeous Dutch Flight Attendant, passing the oddly laid out Economy Comfort section (including my long since re-assigned seat 16A), and on up the staircase to the Upper Deck.  down the aisle I go and get myself situated in 71K (shoes off, and wearing my KLM issued socks from the quaint amenity kit), the very first window seat on the starboard side.

Before we knew it, we were getting the pushback out into the alleyway behind the TBIT, and we were on our way.  Being early afternoon, there were a few Asian, domestic, and European flights already queueing up for departure on LAX's North runways.  One by one they departed, and soon enough it was KLM 602's turn, and we were hurled aloft by the power of those 4 GE engines, over Playa Del Ray Beach and the Pacific Ocean before a leisurely left turn and high angle climb Eastward towards Europe.

The dinner service promptly began once we had leveled off somewhere between LA and Las Vegas.  The lovely Flight Attendant brought my seatmate and I our pre-meal warmed nuts and beverage service, where I decided to try KLM's signature drink, the "Flying Dutchman".  This amazing concoction was developed for KLM by legendary Dutch distillery Bols, who blend their amazing blackberry schnapps with gin and a splash of lemon juice and simple sugar.  An amazing cocktail to start the journey off right.

The appetizer course came and I chose the cauliflower soup, thinking it was cold.  Well, it wasn't and hit the spot with an amazing taste that left me asking for more later on in the flight (my daughter Susie would've emptied the plane of it had she been with me!).  The main course was a selection between cheese fragottini with grated Swiss Chard over it, chicken teriyaki with rice, or a beef stew over ratatouille.  I picked the fragottini, and was not disappointed.  For inflight dining, and a pasta dish no less, it was not over cooked and slightly al dente, which is the way I like it, with plenty of cheese to satisfy the heaviest of turophiles.  Out of the several choices I had for dessert, I picked the unlisted pecan pie tart that the flight attendant recommended.  Not quite to Deep South standards, but it was delicious nonetheless.  Once the dinner service was over, I laid out my seat to the full flat position, polished off one glass of Perrier while I was brought another, popped my earbuds in, turned on the Stephen Coonts audiobook I was listening to, and was lulled asleep by the 4 GE engines droning on yards away and below me, aimed for the bohemian paradise of Amsterdam.

About 7 and a half hours later I woke up, not groggy, not lagged, but remarkably refreshed, even though I was completely flat.  I opened my window shade to look out and sure enough, it was still night over the Atlantic, with a full moon in all its glory higher up in the heavens.  I took a look at the map on the screen and we were only 2 hours away from touchdown.  No sooner had I turned my head and reached for my Perrier, the flight attendant came by for the breakfast order.  They had a choice between a turkey, ham and cheese wrap, apple pie a la mode, or granola-topped yogurt.  Since I was on vacation, and I couldn't care less about making my arteries scream, I chose the turkey, ham, and cheese wrap, accompanied by a bowl of fruit, several croissants and a plate of cheese and jam.  Oh, and let us not forget the amazing Dilmah Tea (served straight black, of course).

With breakfast cleared, I reclined a bit and watched the map and gazed out the window as the sun rose over Western Europe.  A few twists and turns put us into the approach pattern for Schipol Airport and sooner than I would've liked we had a featherlight touchdown and quick taxi to the gate.

Overall,  KLM's Business Class is a fantastic way to cross the pond.  Thanks to the mistake made by the LAX ground crew, I got to experience it, and in nothing less than the grand dame herself, the iconic Boeing 747.  From what I have seen of newer planes, even though they are single seat window and aisle access seats, the new layouts seem almost...what's the word...antiseptic and bland.  The 747 and her iconic upper deck allow for the Premium classes to have their own space, without intruding past the other Economy or Economy Plus sections.  In the 747, KLM has a small Business Class section forward of the L1 entry, an oddly laid out galley that is parallel to the length of the cabin wall (this must make it MUCH easier for the crews), with Premium Economy in that space between the L1 and L2 entries, the main Business Class upstairs, and standard Economy in the 3 cabin sections from the wings aft.  The inflight service is fantastic, living up to the famed hospitality of the Dutch, with a storied and historic carrier that spans the globe.  The 747-400's days are sadly numbered, and are being replaced by newer, more efficient Boeing 777's and Airbus A330's and A350's.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

**All photos my own except where noted**

Sunday, May 13, 2018

(Ancient) History In The Making: 4 Unforgettable Days in Athens, Greece

Last year it was announced that the ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) were going to hold their annual Destination Expo for 2018 in Athens, Greece; I was skeptical.  I travel to Greece somewhat frequently (ever since I was a kid), and it was one thing as a kid I never noticed much aside from wanting to horse around and play with my cousins, it was another thing to be an adult and hearing what the Greeks said about the Americans under their breath.  But, that was then.  I registered for the Destination Expo (DE) with an open mind and signed up for several excursions during my stay.

Photo Credit Athens Hilton
So April finally made it's way around, and I left the US on April 2nd, and after an overnight in Los Angeles, and another overnight on a gorgeous KLM Boeing 747, I arrived in a very sunny Athens, Greece on the afternoon of April 4, and like always happened in the past, was picked up by my cousins and taken to my mom's village in Central Greece, in the mountains between Trikala and Kalambaka (home to the Monasteries of Meteora).  I spent 8 incredible days reconnecting and  hanging out with my family.  Then it was time to get down to Athens for the DE.

Having left Trikala in the morning, and after 5 different tolls (seriously, what is up with the toll roads?), we finally made it to the Hilton Athens by 2PM, and the bellman grabbed my suitcases and inside I went after a semi-tearful goodbye to my cousin.  What can I say, I'm a softie with this side of the family.  They've always been there for us.

Check-in was interesting.  I went to the front desk, gave my passport over, they looked me up, and told me they couldn't check me in, since I had a reservation on the Executive Floor.  So, I was directed to the elevators, and up to the 11th Floor I went to finally check in.  They had me in a 1 King Executive Room with an Acropolis View (at the ASTA DE Group Rate) room, and lemme tell ya, the room did NOT disappoint.  Seriously, how many people can say they fall asleep overlooking the Acropolis and Parthenon every night?  Suffice it to say, that first night was pretty amazing.

Day 1 of the DE was Saturday, April 12.  After breakfast and registration, where I was handed my credentials, along with DE program and AWESOME lanyard from Aegean Airlines, I was set up for a half-day Flavors of Athens: Fun Food Walking Tour put on by Athens Insiders, an Athens based tour operator that creates bespoke experiences not just in Athens, but around Greece as well.

So off we went, onto the motor coach that dropped us off just past Syntagma Square in the literal heart of Athens.  Our first stop was this cool little bakery that I had unknowingly visited the day before for some of the best tiropita (cheese pie) in the city.  Our tour guide came out with a box of mini tiropites and explained the history of the bakery, why she chose this one, and all about tiropites.

After a short walk a few blocks down, our next stop was a kafenion (coffee shop) that specializes in Bougatsa, a custard filled pastry popular in the northern part of Greece and the island of Crete.  Along with the flaky pastry, we were given demi-tasse cups of potent Greek Coffee, an offshoot of Turkish Coffee, although in my opinion, slightly more potent.  After drinking the majority of the coffee, I flipped my cup over and let the leftover grounds cool for a little bit before I tried my hand at fortune telling by reading the patterns of the grounds in the cup.  Not the expert older members of my family are in tasseography, I laughed it off with the rest of the group.

Back on the uneven streets of Athens, our lovely guide took us around to several different shops to see their wares.  First up was a fruit and nut shop that had some of the freshest fruits I have smelled in a long while.  After that we passed by an Olive shop that had buckets of freshly brined olives and gallons of olive oil for sale.  We stopped for a second here and the shop owner and guide explained the different types of olives and where they came from, and got to try a few.  I was impressed as this little shop was one of the few places outside Sparta that had Spartan olives, a slightly drier more bitter olive (but oh so tasty, I eat them by the handful back home!).

After that little stop, we made our way to the Varvakios Market where there are huge halls full of purveyors of the freshest meat, seafood, and produce in Greece.  Make no mistake, this place is huge.  But you better wear shoes, as it gets slippery in places (especially around the seafood stalls!).  Freshly slaughtered pigs, lambs, chickens and ducks were hung in stalls, huge King Prawns and Octopus were put on ice...and people, there were tons of people everywhere, just going about their daily business and buying food for their household.  I seriously liked the place, and can't wait to go back and hang out in one of the ouzeries for a shot of ouzo and some choice cuts of charcuterie.

Speaking of charcuterie, our next stop was at the oldest meat market in Athens, the Miran Pastourma shop, operating from the same location since it opened in 1922.  Our group was welcomed with open arms and led to the back where a table was set up for us with shots of Tsipouro, and trays of various cuts of meat, cheese, olives, and rye husks.  To be honest, I think this was one of the best meals ever, and something I'm quite used to as my own family eats like this for lunch more often than not.  The next time I come to Athens, I'm bringing my family here first before our trek to the village!

The 4 hour tour went by far too fast, and almost too soon, it was time to head back to the hotel.  Climbing aboard the motorcoach and relaxing with more tiropites on the way back to the Hilton was a great way to unwind before the rest of the night's festivities.  With the last tiropita packed away I made my way up to my room to freshen up and get ready.

The Hilton was gracious enough to host a poolside party that night, complete with copious amounts of food (when Greeks cook, they cook to feed entire armies), rivers of wine and ouzo, and a fantastic atmosphere where us Travel Agents partied hard.  Well, most of us, anyways, lol.  Struck up several good conversations that lasted well into the night.  Afterwards, I made my way up to the world renowned Galaxy Bar to check out the view from there and have a drink.  Not feeling tired, I hopped a cab and went to the Infinite Fox Heavy Metal Bar in the city and hung out there, soaking in some great hard rock and classic metal until the wee hours of the morning.

Sunday turned out to be just as amazing as Saturday was.  The first event was a guided tour of the Acropolis Museum.  This museum is absolutely breathtaking and fascinating.  Our guide took us throughout the entire museum, and, since she is an archaeologist as well, explaining the excavation progress of the ruins that are directly underneath the museum.  There is a glass floor pedestrians walk on that goes right over the excavation into the museum that is absolutely breathtaking.

After the museum, it was a short walk down to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the official kick off for the 2018 ASTA Destination Expo. Speakers included US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt; Greek Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura, amongst others representing ASTA, FedHATTA, and the City of Athens, with both the US and Hellenic National Anthems being played by the Hellenic Navy Band and Greek Soprano Anastasia Zanni.  It was a great way to kickoff such a prestigious event.  I even had the pleasure of meeting Minister Kountoura on my way out of the Odeon (I hope someone can find the pic of me and her!).

We were bussed to Syntagma Square afterwards and sheparded into one of three hotels for lunch.  I was hoping for the Grande Bretagne, as I have a fondness for the history of it, but I ended up at the NJV Athens Plaza, which in itself is an amazing property as I was about to find out.  We started with drinks and hors d'oeveurs in the Explorer's Bar before lunch in the Parliament Restaurant.  And what a  lunch it was!  Most hotels offer guests some sort of rubber chicken entree, but here we were munching away on an amazingly luxurious lunch that included sole and veal.

After that amazing repast it was back to the hotel for the trade show, allowing me the chance to meet with a few suppliers that I didn't have appointments with the next day, making to note to stop by Emirates and Aegean Airlines no matter what.

Seemingly finished with the trade show, I went up and changed into my suit and tie for the amazing reception held at the Zappeion, smack in the middle of the National Gardens of Athens.  Pulling up (along with our police escorts) we were treated to the full red carpet treatment and band playing outside, welcoming us in to 4 different  anterooms lined with vendors and purveyors of some of Greece's most amazing wines, beers, coffees (of which I had a few), and other amazing finds.  Once all of the buses arrived, we were led into the Peristilio, smack in the center of the Zappeion, with its open air roof, made for an amazing centerpiece for tonight's festivities.  Aside from yet another AMAZING display of some of the best food Athens has to offer, there were several great performances that night by bands,
dancing troupes, and again with Anastasia Zanni and her golden voice.
A fabulous night all around.

Monday rolled around and after breakfast I ended up back at the trade show, stopping at several vendors that I missed the day before. After that were the B2B one on one appointments that were set up with various suppliers beforehand to learn more about products and services as they would apply to our specific clients.  Lasting 10 minutes each, I had one from the start at 1:00PM all the way to 4:30PM, however, I did skip a few for a break in between.  This is where I met a good majority of some amazing folks who are at the forefront of turning Greece around and you can tell by how fine tuned they were into coming up with bespoke offerings and services.  I left the appointments with a handful of suppliers I'm going to heavily use with my particular clients.

That evening's festivities were held at the Marina of Alimos, for the opening night of the Yachting Festival.  So many cool boats available for private hire, even a pirate ship!  Opening remarks by several dignitaries representing Alimos, Athens, Attica, and fedHATTA, to the amazing repast by the same folks that catered the Zappeion dinner (believe it or not, coming from me, the Octopus was amazing!), to the fantastic Captains and yacht owners, it was yet another amazing night that blew my mind away.  After a fantastic evening on the yachts several of us agents got the midnight munchies and went to the neighboring Ventrini Roast House for some grub.  Ever have a Gyro with Black Angus Tri-Tip?  Sweet Jesus, it was a religious experience for my taste buds.  And let's not get into the Spanakopita, it was unbelievable.  Definitely a carnivore's paradise, one that I will be returning to as often as I can.

The next morning my body decided I needed to sleep in.  I missed my excursion to Delphi, but that was ok with me, as I had to get my belongings together and switch rooms (my mistake, I booked the hotel for one day less than I was supposed to, thank you Hilton Hhonors for coming through with a last minute redemption!).  Not an Acropolis View room, anymore, it had a great view of the city to the East, which was still pretty epic.  Took the day to relax and unwind before the last excursion for my trip, the Athens by Night: Food Tour and Wine tasting, hosted by those wonderful folks at

First stop was Ergon, a Greek Deli a block away from Syntagma Square.  They had us in a private dining room upstairs where we got to sample more Tsipouro, different cheeses and olives, and miniature rye rusks.  A heck of a way to get started.  From there it was to a real tourist heavy spot in Plaka which was packed with our group and other tourists.  The food was decent, much like what you'd find at some of the stateside Greek Festivals, and the entertainment was great too.  After that great dinner, we hiked to the Chocolat Royal, a cozy little bar and restaurant in the Thisio area with an AMAZING view towards the Acropolis.  We were giving a selection of 5 wines to taste from different areas of Greece.  Some were too dry for my taste, but there was this dessert wine, a honey wine, called Oinomelo.  It was so sweet, so tasty, I should've bought a case or 3.  The evening came to an end far too soon, and it was back on the bus for my last night at the Athens Hilton.

My biggest take away from this amazing trip was not just what the suppliers and vendors and everyone else had to offer, but the difference I've noticed in the Greeks than from when I've visited in years past.  We the Greeks invented Filoxenia, the art of treating foreigners with a sense of hospitality like they were family, which, on this great planet we inhabit, we are.

* All photos the author's except where noted.

Monday, October 9, 2017

God Save the Queen! Flying on the last domestic Boeing 747 flight (or so we thought)

Photo by Joe Pries, used with permission.

This is one of those times where I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts into words, considering just how special and epic this adventure was.  I'm going to start from the very beginning, and just crawl my way from there.

This all started in early June when I first heard about the one-off flight on one of the websites I routinely follow as a travel agent.  It simply said that Delta is putting the Boeing 747 on it's final trek home to Detroit from Asia via Honolulu and Los Angeles on September 5th.  I was floored.  I took a look at how much the fare would be to get onto this particular flight, and I was heartbroken.  The fare was over $800 one-way just doing Los Angeles-Detroit.  Well, that's that, I was thinking.

A few months later I get the invite from a higher up to come out to the California for an impromptu meeting.  He also mentioned that we will also be heading down to Los Angeles for an "event held by Delta Airlines".  I thought nothing more of it and it didn't even hit me it was the same date as the retirement.

So the day before the sendoff I flew to San Francisco for the meeting, then down to Los Angeles, going back to connect through Salt Lake City in the process.  Why would I do something like this?  Well, it was allowed, and I needed to rack up a few more miles.  So I finally made it Los Angeles, and was whisked away to my home away from home, the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena to spend the night.

After yet another fantastic and flawless stay at the Langham (where I actually had some time to wander around the property for once), not to mention the higher than incredible welcome back chocolates waiting for me in my room when I checked in,  I ended up at LAX quite early since I wanted to get some spotting in (it's been a while), so my first stop was the iconic In-N-Out burger joint on Sepluveda Blvd. for lunch while watching the planes coming into land over us.  Awesome place, definitely one of my favorite spots in LA, not just for the avgeek in me, but anyone in general should visit this place, but get in line, it'll be packed to the gills when you get here!

After lunch I made my way to Terminal 2, part of Delta's new home in LAX (giving up the long held Terminal 5 from Western Airlines to be over run by the Ultra- Low Cost Airlines), and checked in about 8 hours early for my flight.  I was under the impression I was just a tad too early, but the agent checked me in and took my bag. Phew!  Off to Security screening, and the inevitable pat down.

Delta recently moved from their former long time home of Terminal 5 to both Terminals 2 and 3 (the former iconic TWA terminal seen in countless movies), giving them more space and flexibility, or so they say.  They have Sky Clubs on the upper levels of both terminals with great views of the ramp and the North runways (but seriously, whats up with the Cup Noodles?).  These clubs have become my favorite go to spots for spotting inside the LAX terminal complex.  Free liquor, snacks, and you get to watch planes all day long?  What more could you ask for?  Needless to say, I hung out in the T3 SkyClub for a few hours spotting until I saw the Queen arrive from Honolulu into the Sunset.

Once she touched down and taxied past the SkyClub windows to her gate at T2, I finished what I was doing and made my way to the inter-terminal bus leaving out of Gate 35P, looking at the Delta branded Porsche pull up to the Terminal with no doubt a Diamond Medallion member catching his next flight.  The ride over to T2 was neat, with a Delta A330 just having pushed out of its gate and on it's way to Atlanta, and our bus driver scooting us by well under the wing of the big bird.

I don't know why, but I got confused and almost lost looking for the elevator up to the third floor of Terminal 2.  I thought I had seen it on my way to the gate, but I asked a Delta agent in the middle of the concourse and she pointed right at it.  Upon first glance, the elevator is almost hidden by the gift shop next to it, and it threw me for a loop.  So up I went into the SkyClub, and after check-in there was a big sign stating the retirement of the 747 and the room to the left was blocked off for a private party.  A few of the folks at the entrance saw the shirt I was wearing with my big, red, Northwest 747 on it (where Delta inherited their fleet from) and was invited in.

Turns out I had unknowingly crashed the farewell party the Diamond Medallion members were throwing.  Since I had my upgrade to Delta One in hand, I was invited with open arms.  The high flyers had taken up ALL but one (my seat) of the 48 Delta One seats on the Queen.  Everyone in the lounge was in good spirits and I met several incredible people that brighten up my news feeds on a regular basis.  The SkyClub was gracious and had food and drink aplenty on hand, and there were cameras all around.  I only stuck around for a good 45 minutes before having to find a quieter corner of the SkyClub and get in touch with home.  Chatted with the family for a bit, then gathered my stuff and headed down to the gate to meet another friend from online that was also on the flight.

By the time I got down to Gate 25, the waiting area was completely packed.  Found my friend and hung out with the crowd around him until boarding, The mood in the gate area was definitely MUCH different than any other flight I've ever boarded.  Everyone was in a good mood and happy, even those not flying to celebrate the Queen, just getting from point A to point B.  The gate agents came on several times to announce the flight and that boarding will begin earlier than normal due to the circumstances and special occasion.  Finally, the gate agent came on and began boarding the flight, with SkyTeam Priority and First Class passengers (yay me!) first.  I scanned my boarding pass and down the jetway I went, phone in hand and video rolling.

At the end of the jetway I was, entering the Queen with my right foot first and my customary hand pat of the fuselage before entry, I hung a left instead of the customary right and following the other Diamond Medallions to our seats (pods if you ask me).  I was in 9D, the center seat on the port side aisle, just behind the galley and L1 entry door.  These seats were amazing (even if my fat ass STILL needed a seat belt extender on the Big Boeing), and was completely lie flat, perfect for those premium passengers that flew the Queen to far flung Asian and Oriental destinations from Minneapolis, Detroit, New York/JFK, and Atlanta all those years.  The seat isn't front to back straight, in fact, it's in a style called "reverse herringbone" where the seat is slanted what..10-15 degrees in, so you it's easier to face your neighbor, and it is incredibly private and there is a LOT of storage space!  So I got myself settled in...sort of.  The rest of the cabin filled up, and the party got started, and a few of the folks from the forward section came back, yanked me and the others out of our seats and we all marched upstairs for the cockpit visits and customary traveling fool photos.

The Upper Deck on Delta's 747-400's were the cherry seats (there's only 14 of them to begin with), and they were the very first ones to be sold.  I was fine with that, 9D was perfect for me, I was just grateful to be in Delta One, let alone be on the flight period.  There was a massive line for cockpit shots and a few of my new found cohorts were having fun taking shots crowding themselves into the super exclusive upstairs lavatory, the crew rest, and finally into the cockpit.  There was a Delta crew member from my home base of Salt Lake City hanging out in the cockpit to snap photos for the folks who wanted a pic of them on the jumpseat.

Back downstairs I go, and finally got myself settled in.  The Flight Attendants came by and took our orders for the pre-departure beverages and passed out special earbuds with the Queen on the cover as a memento for this very special flight.  With so much storage space, I stowed my laptop above me, but kept my headphones, book, and other personal articles from my pockets in the storage cubby on the center console. The In-Flight Entertainment System was a much larger screen than the ones I am used to in Coach, and with the touch of a button, the screen popped out and I was set to peg the in-flight map for the duration of the journey.   Freaking amazing setup, if you ask me, aside from the narrow confines.  We pushed back right on time, and on both sides of the plane you could see the glow of hundreds of wands from the ramp agents below lining up to pay their respects to a plane they have worked with, flown on, and load and unload thousands of times over the decades.  It was incredibly touching and more than a few of us shed buckets of tears at this simple, final gesture.  The taxi out to the departure runway didn't take long at all, and the Queen lifted off with grace and ease, and was so smooth you wouldn't notice we were taking off if you didn't look around to see the cabin tilt up or the ground outside drop from view as were hurtled over the beach and out over the Pacific.

The 747 was originally envisioned as an "Ocean Liner in the Sky", and boy let me tell you, it feels like it.  As far back as I can remember, all of my 747 flights have felt this way.  It feels nothing like a flight in say, a 767 or 737.  I laid the seat all the way down to catch a few winks before our all too quick arrival into Detroit.  I like to sleep on my side, and I had no problem turning over and getting comfortable, if a tad claustrophobic due to the distance between my nose and the sidewall. wonder the amenity kits have eyeshades in them.  I slipped one on, turned on my music from my phone (which was plugged in to the in-flight power), and dozed off until we were well into our descent.

Touchdown in Detroit was feather-light and it was still pretty dark out while we taxied around and to our gate.  Once the plane was parked at gate 54A, and the seat belt sign went off, I took my time gathering my belongings and getting off the plane.  After deplaning and giving the old girl a quick kiss before making my way up the jetway, I stopped just before the jetway door and, along with quite a few others, took a few photos of the Queen at her gate for what we thought was the final time hauling revenue passengers.  Once out into the gate area us Medallion members that were part of the group partying in LA was lassoed into an empty part of the gate area for another group photo op with the Queen right behind us.  We were also invited up to the SkyClub, but my connecting flight was leaving in about an hour and I didn't want to risk missing my onward flight to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, and I said my good-byes and made my way to the departure gate at the other end of the concourse.

Before arriving at my gate I took a peek out the windows as the sun was coming up, and out at the remote parking stands away from the concourse was another Queen taking a well deserved rest...right next to her replacement, the new flagship of the fleet, the Airbus A350.  At the time of my adventure, there were two on property in Detroit, as that will be their first base, doing route proving and getting flight and ground crews familiar with the plane before entering revenue service.  She's a gorgeous looking bird, and I for one, can't wait to take a ride on her to some far flung Asian destination.

My flight to LaGuardia went by in a flash, considering I passed out just as we were pushing back from the gate, and woke up during touchdown.  My seatmates told me I was out the entire flight and snoring like a freight train.  I needed that nap in a major way, I had to get freshened up before catching my private car transfer to Newark Airport to meet up with an old friend before flying home on another airline.

It turns out this wasn't the 747's swan song for Delta, as just a week later, they were pressed into service hauling people and supplies in and out of the damaged areas in Florida that were hit by Hurricane Irma.  Now THAT's a fitting sendoff for a Queen.

In hindsight, this was such an amazing adventure, and I'm grateful I was given the opportunity to be along for the ride.  I met quite a few new people I'm glad to call friends on both ends of the country and from points in between.  I spent some quality time at my beloved Langham Huntington Pasadena Hotel (a HUGE thank you to the amazing staff, and to Jennifer, my go-to gal for anything and everything Langham related).  A heartfelt thank you to my higher ups that sent me on this whirlwind adventure, and to the one and only Queen, the Boeing 747-400.  I might not have covered as many miles on her as others have (my only trips on 747's were on the original 747-100 and 747SP with TWA back in the 1980's and 1990's going to visit family in Greece), but my appreciation for her place in airline and aviation history is well placed and I was glad to be there for the farewell.  Last but not least, an huge thank you to Delta, for setting this flight up the way they did, and for the Diamond Medallion (DDMF) folks for throwing the party to end all fleet retirement parties, thank you, from the very bottom of my tiny little heart.