Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sad Fate of Wilmington Train Station

Wilmington Station, 2008
For decades, trains that arrive in and depart from Wilmington, Delaware have used a station built in the pre-Amtrak days of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

It would be inappropriate to call this small station "grand," in the way that one might refer to Union Station in Washington or to Grand Central in New York.  It's not even as large as the stations found in Baltimore or Newark (though, in fairness, Wilmington is a smaller city than either of these). Yet it had a industrial-age sense of grandeur nonetheless.

Prior to his election as Vice President, Joe Biden -- then the senior Delaware senator -- regularly took the train to and from his home state.  He walked across the polished brick floor almost every day to board the Acela to the nation's capital.

Thus it was that in 2010, when the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act was passed, Wilmington Train Station received money for upgrades and renovation.

As conceded earlier, Wilmington Train Station cannot be compared to any of the grand stations of the past, and certainly not to Penn Station in New York.  In this case, however, it is apt to draw a parallel, because as with Penn Station, what happened here is a cautionary tale.

In 1968, the sweeping expanses of Penn Station were demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden, office buildings, and a new train concourse that to this day is a confusing, maze-like underground mall of dubious appeal.  In 2010, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act transformed Wilmington Train Station into a cheaply modern station along the same lines:

Wilmington Station, 2010

Polished brick is now gray tile.  Burnished brass is now laminate.  The lighting has gone from soft yellow to harsh white, and wooden benches encircling columns have been replaced with the double benches of blue metal mesh.

In 1968, the New York Times said of Penn Station that, "civilization gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves."  Ironically, civilization paid far more to transform lovely Wilmington Train Station into what it is now than it would have cost to preserve it as it was.

But that is what we deserve.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

When a White Christmas means a travel delay...

Southern states like Atlanta and South Carolina rarely experience the wonder of a White Christmas.  Snow makes for lovely landscapes and is generally regarded as a magical thing at Christmastime.  But as the tallies for predicted snowfall stack up, the impact is taking another, less-desirable turn: travel delays and cancelations.

In response to Christmas Day snowfall predictions ranging from three inches in Atlanta (where Delta maintains its primary East Coast hub) to up to 10 inches in Norfolk, Delta has already announced plans to cancel some 500 flights nationwide.  AirTran, which maintains a strong presence in Atlanta, will also feel this impact.

Other airlines will not be affected as strongly on Christmas, as their own hubs lie farther up the coast.  But the impacts will come later.  Sunday predictions are for 2-5 inches in Washington, D.C. and 5-10 inches in Philadelphia, impacting United and U.S. Airways respectively.  Along the way, Southwest's operations at BWI will get buried in the mix.

Late on Sunday and continuing into Monday, 10-15 inches are anticipated in New York, impacting not only Continental's hub in Newark but also all of the international flights in and out of JFK as well as New York's JetBlue service.  Boston may see 12-18 inches on Monday.

What to do if a flight is cancelled

If you flight is cancelled, you'll be accommodated on a later flight.  However, that may be too late to manage your holiday plans as they stand.  The problem with snow cancellations in particular is that they tend to wipe out other options as well. 

Amtrak, for instance, keeps moving through a few inches of snow, but a few feet tends to impact the rail lines.  Bus services like BoltBus and MegaBus, being subject to the challenges of the highways, are also impacted by snow.

Your best friend is information.  Check flight status using sites like so you'll know the situation as it unfolds. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Airlines, Fees, and Profits

Everyone knows that the airlines have added a lot of fees over the last few years.  From aisle seating to checked baggage, onboard food to priority boarding, many things that used to be free now cost money.

What many people probably haven't realized is the extent to which airlines depend on these fees.

U.S. Airways President Scott Kirby says that his airline expects to earn nearly $500 million in profit this year, but that "a la carte revenues represent 100% of that profitability."  In other words, absent the series of add-on fees that U.S. Airways has imposed, it would only break even.

What does that mean for travelers?  It depends. 

If you're the sort of person who wants rock-bottom fares and expects nothing of an airline that you wouldn't get on a bus--and not one of those next-generation buses we've talked about; I mean an old-fashioned Greyhound bus--you're going to be very pleased.

On the other hand, if you expect to get a seat of your choice, travel with luggage and want to have a snack onboard the aircraft, understand that the fare you see may not be the final price you'll pay.

The good news?  Each airline is following its own strategy.  Southwest, for instance, does not charge for checked baggage because it has significantly lower labor costs, while Spirit even charges for carry-on bags. 

That means that, however you like to travel, someone probably has you covered.