Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Planes, trains, not automobiles

Last week I was a New Yorker again, at least for a few days, on my annual trip back to the USA. I end up with so many impressions and reflections about modes of transportation—starting with flying. Ironic that just about the same time that flying has become fairly comfortable, that weather extremes are forcing long delays at airports, preventing us from getting on those planes and taking off on time. That was my experience this time; a four-hour delay leaving Oslo for Newark, and a one-hour delay on the return trip. In both cases, weather was the culprit—thunderstorms and tornadoes (in New York) the night before I was to fly to Newark, and thunderstorms on the return trip. The plane used for the Newark to Oslo trip was the same as the one for the Oslo-Newark trip, hence the delay. I could not help but wonder why SAS managed to get a plane out on time whereas United did not, but no one is giving me the answer, except to say something about the crew and the legal requirements for them to rest. It makes sense in any case, and United was quick to respond to potential customer dissatisfaction by offering us a number of ‘rewards’ for our patience—7000 extra bonus miles, substantial discounts on future trip purchases, and the like. I chose the extra bonus miles. Once I got on the plane, I had no complaints about the actual flights, either going or coming back. It is my impression that the future will only hold more of these types of extreme weather situations, so it’s just to get used to flight delays and to work on becoming more patient. Because really, there is nothing one can do about them anyway, and I don’t want airlines to risk flying through thunderstorms, lightning or hurricanes in order to maintain punctuality at the expense of safety. I ended up exploring the duty-free shops and bookstores in great detail as I had the time to do so. I ate a decent lunch (courtesy of United) and thought briefly about the film The Terminal with Tom Hanks—about an immigrant who ended up living in an airport terminal after he arrived in the USA. I never saw the film, but I remember some of the reviews when it came out some years ago. I wonder how business travelers manage; they must have to leave a day early in order to be sure that they make an important meeting if that meeting is overseas (Europe or America). That has got to elevate the cost of business travel—to pay for an employee’s extra night in a hotel when he or she arrives at his destination a day before in order to dodge potential flight delays. I don’t have those problems, thankfully, since my trips are not usually for business. I don’t mind flying for the most part; the planes are so modern now. Turbulence is not as bothersome as it used to be (at least what I’ve experienced so far and I hope it remains that way), and air quality on the plane has improved dramatically just within the past five years or so. That’s a big change on long flights—less dehydration and lightheadedness; the major problem still remains the leg room (lack of) in economy class. That has not improved; as far as I can determine, it’s gotten worse as airlines try to pack in more passengers per flight.

Once in New York City, it is easy to get around without a car, in fact it is preferable not to drive a car in Manhattan, even though it is not difficult to find your way around in this city borough. The major problem is traffic—lots of it, at all times during the day. The traffic is heart-attack inducing, and not for impatient or aggressive souls. There is no rhyme or reason to the amount of traffic, just that it exists. I remember my commuting days in the 1980s; sometimes it took an hour just to get across town if I drove in from New Jersey to my east-side uptown job. So I don’t drive now when I come back to the city. I take the subway—which has really gotten much better since the 1980s—clean stations, the presence of police on subway trains and platforms, passengers who behave well (no rowdiness as far as I can see) and a remarkably cheap price for a subway ticket. Two dollars and twenty-five cents for one ride; compared to Oslo prices, that’s a dream price. A one-way bus/subway ticket in Oslo will cost at least double that. And if I want to get to Westchester from Manhattan, which I often do, the best way to do that is to take the Metro-North Hudson line commuter trains. I used to take the Hudson line back and forth to Manhattan from Tarrytown, just like my father did for many years during his work lifetime, and as far as I can remember, this service has always been good to excellent. Trains are on time, ticket prices are not exorbitant, and you get to experience the scenic part of the trip when the tracks run parallel to the beautiful Hudson River. Of course I am partial to trains in general, so I am a bit biased. But I had the experience of taking a commuter train from Manhattan to New Jersey on this trip, and the service did not compare to that on Metro-North; it was ok at best. And of course coming into the beautiful end station on the Hudson line--Grand Central--is quite ok with me. Overall, getting around in the New York metropolitan area is not problematic, nor should it be, with good planning. It won’t break your budget either. 

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