Air Hitching

When an airplane is about to leave, and there’s still room on it (taking into consideration pre-planned, unchangeable limits, like “we only put in enough fuel for 170 people”) there are sometimes seats the airline would still like to fill, if they could get some money for them. They know about these seats so late, they cannot offer any kind of reservation system for them. They let third-parties sell vouchers to get people onto the planes, but the airlines don’t want the third parties competeing with them, so the third parties are prohibited from advertising. So there’s this little micro-industry of people who sell these vouchers, and you basically have to hear about it from someone who has done it to know about it. It’s called air-hitching, or standby travel. I heard about it from Erika of Pangaea.

As an adventure, I’ve decided to fly back to Guatemala by air hitching. I will spend about 50% of the best possible price of a commercial flight for the vouchers, and then I’ll spend some more money for ground transport. I’ll be going from Oakland to Cancun, which is the only route that is “air hitchable” and gets me close to where I want to be. I’ll travel from Cancun to Lake Atitlan for about 20% of the price of the commercial flight. That leaves me with a 30% margin to come out ahead. I suspect I’ll end up eating all that margin up with some sort of snafu. Should be interesting.

The first step of my air-hitching experience was getting to the bottom of the feuds happening in the industry so as to pick a company with the least bad reputation. It is a tiny industry which seems to be populated by blowhards, shady characters, and overzealous, immature, rude students. You really can’t make this stuff up… for a bit of background about the players, read this. I decided to go with AirTech, which seems to have the least public dirt on it on the net. (Until now… read on.)

I got ready to buy my voucher, but the only delivery option was $14 for 1-day delivery in the United States. I didn’t need it this fast, so I sent this email to find out if there was an alternative:

To: [email protected]
Date: Jun 18, 2005 2:05 AM

The only shipping option I see is 1-day, at $14. First, that's
$6 more than 1 day shipping from USPS costs. Second, I don't need
the vouchers until 7/14.

You are already $30 more expensive than air-hitch.org. The $14 extra
is too much. Can you ship them with only certified mail ($3) or will
I need to buy from air-hitch.org?

-jeff

I will fully, gleefully admit that I was playing the finicky customer. I fully expected I was going to get stuck with the $14, but I figured it didn’t hurt to ask. I also wanted to try out their e-mail responsiveness before I gave them my money, and this was as good a question as any. They advertise low prices for the vouchers, so it is natural that they would try to rip you off by quoting unreasonably high prices for the shipping. That said, the vouchers are like cash, so they need to be shipped with at least certified mail. So $5 might have been fair. $14 has clearly got a little profit in it.

Promptly, I got the following note back:

From: mike
Date: Jun 18, 2005 2:12 AM

Hi Jeff,

It is a bit expensive but I guarantee you that if you deal with us you
will have first rate service and a much better experience in general..
for the additonal 30 dollars (and btw I don't think you have added up
all of airhitches charges) you will at least be able to deal with a
professional and courteous organisation that takes fone calls and
returns calls, air hitch does not have fone service nor do they return
calls, I also advise you to search the internet and see the huge amount
of negative opinions that people have about air-hitch, but don't see
you haven't been warned, also..what was your itinerary where are you
trying to get to?

Good luck!

Michael Esterson
President, Airtech
www.airtech.com

PS you can save the shipping charge by picking up your flight passes in NYC..

A couple things to notice about this message:

  • The president of the company is doing customer service. Have I mentioned this is a tiny little fragment of the travel industry?
  • The attention to detail in the response is somewhat below that you might expect for a professional customer service agent.
  • My question was not answered, but he offered a way to avoid the charge entirely. OK, not perfect, but it’s a start.
  • The response consists of about 2 lines promoting his company, and 7 lines tearing down the competitor.

Irritated that my experience air hitching was going down the exact same path that so many have suffered before, I replied:

To: mike
Date: Jun 18, 2005 2:52 AM

Thank you for the warning, but I am fully aware of the history of
the three feuding companies.

Instead of insulting your competitor, could you please answer my
question: Is there a cheaper shipping option than $14?

The answer to your question is that I would like to fly from Oakland
CA to Cancun Mexico around 7/15/05 and return roughly 2 months later.

It is this unprofessional behavior that makes all three of you bozos
(AirTech, Air-Hitch, and AirHitch) hardly worth dealing with.

-jeff

Note that I managed to write three professional sentences and then let loose with the last one. This was a combination old-style flaming (pissed off writers write rude things), but also a test to see if I could get the info I needed and get back to doing business with AirTech without resorting to calling each other names. Yes, I called them bozos. Yes, that’s not a very nice thing to do. But I’m the customer and if he wants my money, it is really a small price to pay to suck it up, ignore the insult, and get back to business.

The reply followed the pattern of AirHitch so closely, I’m wondering if the two companies really did go their separate ways! Here it is:

From: mike
Date: Jun 18, 2005 3:02 AM

I was trying to answer you in a thoughtful way, you answered in a
mean and aggressive way, mean spirited customers like you are hardly
worth dealing with, take your business where you please, I am sure
in this case either company will work fine  for you,  may your
journey be a safe one. And the answer is no, there is no other
option than the $14 dollar shipping fee that we charge.

Peace
mike

Wow, OK, so now who’s flaming? I think this is the first time I’ve ever been explicitly fired as a customer by a company (let alone, by their president). The really sick thing is, though, that I still want to do business with them. Because here’s the really ugly truth about air hitching: this kind of service is about the best you can hope for. If you think air hitching is for you (financially, or for the simple adventure of it), you simply have to tolerate this type of behavior from the companies. Strange, huh?

I just replied to him as follows:

To: mike
Date: Jun 18, 2005 4:21 AM

> answer is no, there is no other option than the $14 dollar
> shipping fee that

Thank you, that's the piece of info I needed, which I could not find
for myself on your website.

If you will take my business I'd like to give it to you. I would like
to try standby travel for the first time, and my research leads me to
believe you guys will give me the best service in the industry. So,
should I click buy, or would prefer I didn't?

-jeff

It will be interesting to see if his greed overcomes his desire to inflict the maximum damage upon me possible, which I assume would be him blacklisting me from ever travelling with them or something. I’m kind of hoping he does, so I can just give up on this air hitching thing before it gets any uglier than it already is!

But for now, I will persevere, so that I have something to write about here.

Au revior, Genève

Tomorrow morning I will be getting on my easyJet flight back to London. I have been having a nice time here, and so I’ve postponed and delayed and conveniently forgotten to write anything down about my time here until the absolute last second. Which is now.

I have been meaning to write in Spanish, to keep from losing what I’ve learned so far. But that takes a long time and there always seems to be something more interesting to do. At least some of the things I’ve been doing here are preparatory study for my RedR class next week, so it’s not like I have been completely slacking off.

I got here last Friday. Sima met me at the airport, which was cool because we didn’t actually have a plan for how to meet, and my e-mail was bouncing in such a way that Sima couldn’t be sure I was getting her mail to me. (Fixed. Thanks Karl!) We went shopping for a work party, then I hung out on my own until evening, then joined Sima at work for a showing of Office Space.

On the weekend, we went to Yvoire, a little touristy city in France, on the shore of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva, in English). It somehow had this deeply artificial feeling to it. Like Disneyland, but without a central control mechanism. Strange feeling. It was a pleasant place to spend the day, but it would have been horrible with huge crowds.

The best part of the day, by far, was riding home on the ferry. We were using the Lake Geneva ferries, which are run by the Swiss Fedral train service. On the way out we got a modern diesel ferry. It had incredible horsepower, which might have just been because the Swiss never engineer anything without overengineering it, or it might have been because the current in Lake Geneva is ferocious. The lake is actually a wide spot in the mighty river Rhone. But I digress. Because as cool as riding upstream in a hot-rod ferry was, riding downstream in a steam-powered paddler wheeler was even cooler!

The best thing was that there was a gallery looking down into the engine room, so you could see the two huge pistons running the paddlewheels. Like the diesel boat, the steam powered one had a huge amount of power. The captain would bring it screaming in alongside the dock, and you’d think “Oh man, he’s really done it now, he’ll never get the boat stopped in time!”. But he’d ring down to the engineer “full speed reverse” and the paddle wheels would churn, the whole boat shuddering, and the boat would stop on a dime. I suspect this paddleboat driving style is a uniquely Swiss technique.

The last time I was here, I took a bunch of train rides around Switzerland with Steve and Sima. I watched time and again to see what the largest deviation from the schedule was. The largest was perhaps 35 seconds or so. But out of 10 trips, all the rest were closer to 5-10 seconds “late”. Of course, with that level of punctuality, it is simply possible the engineer’s watch was 5 seconds behind the station clock! (And how could I measure to the second? Station clocks in Swizterland all have second hands. Try to find a second hand on a clock in an American airport sometime!)

Anyway, I suspect the crisp docking and undocking manuevers the Swiss ferries do comes from the same place deep in the Swiss psyche as the on-time train departures, measured in seconds.

On Monday I planned a bicycle trip with great help from Sima. The plan was to cross the Salève via the Téléphérique, then ride down the back side on sloping farmland to La Roche sur Foron. I’d spend the night someplace in La Roche, and then ride down to Annecy the next day. At Annecy, I’d stay in a youth hostel a night, then do a ride on the lake front. Finally, I’d take the bus home to Geneva, stowing the bike underneath.

On my way in to la Roche, I saw a water-wheel spinning on the side of a mill. I stopped to take a look, but the hours on the bulding claimed it was closed. But I noticed a worker guy was downstairs tending to the mill, and so I parked my bike and went down to see him. I told him “I’m an engineer, and your mill is very interesting”, and he invited me in for a tour. How cool! It used a clever little device to auto-feed the grain, and a nifty sorter that separated the flour into fine, course, and wheat germ buckets. Then he took me down into the basement, with a cobweb-encrousted ceiling about 3 feet tall. We duckwalked around looking at the transmission that moved the power up to the mill. He also had a sawmill with a giant reciprocating blade (like a jigsaw). Because there was not much water, he was running the mill with about 80% electric power, and 20% hydro. He has a hydro turbine though, so when there is enough water, he can be totally self-sufficient. The neatest thing was the bearing holding the axle of the waterwheel. It was a river rock set in concrete, with a half-moon shaped notch carved in it. The axle simply sat in the notch, and spun on a film of oil. It reminded me of what I learned of how railroad bearings used to work at the Golden Gate Railroad museum.

In la Roche, I ended up staying in Le Clos du Bout du Pont which was a great little bed and breakfast. The lady there spoke only French, and my tiny amount of French had been obliterated by my Spanish. In the morning, over breakfast, she helped me plan my route to Annecy. With a map and fingers to point with, no words are really necessary.

I ended up following the plan as far as Annecey, but I decided I’d had enough pretty countryside and a sore enough bottom that I didn’t need to stay the night in Annecy and ride more the next day. So I took the bus home a day early. Sima didn’t seem to care one way or another, and I figured rent is cheaper at her house than at the hostel in Annecy.

Since I imposed myself for quite a long time on poor Sima, I am trying my best to pay “rent”. One of her computers died, so I rode the bike she loaned me to a computer store and got her a disk, then installed it and reinstalled Windows. I also have been doing the shopping for her, and helping with the cooking.

Sima and I like cooking together. She’s one of the first friends that I regularly cooked with, back in Montreal, and we still enjoy it. We’ve cooked french toast, spanikopita, several pasta dishes, and enjoyed various “picnic” dinners when we were not hungry enough for anything other than cheese and bread. We also have had fresh fruit and chocolate a few times for desert. Sima is in charge of the wine, as it is her cellar and she knows it best. Sometimes I pop the cork for her, but otherwise it’s all her job.

Last night, Sima and I made a pasta dish that was so good, we decided to write it down. It it really fun cooking improvisationally with someone else. Especially Sima, who thinks and cooks very much like I do. So, here’s what we made:

Jeff and Sima’s Run-of-the-mill Veggie Pasta

Makes about 3 servings.

Pasta and vegetable chunks (1)
250 grams rotini
1 small zucchini
8 button mushrooms (called “champignon Parisien” ici)
1.5 small onions
2 tablespoons capers
oil
1/4 cup white wine

Roast Veggies (2)
2/3 of a large bell pepper, chopped (we used some leftover green and red pepper, totalling about 2/3 of a pepper)
7 cloves garlic, chopped in half
canola oil
truffle oil

Rest of sauce (3)
8 sun-dried tomato halves, rehydrated in hot water
a “bunch” of basil (but save some for garnishing)
1/2 cup vegetable broth
1/3 cup parmesian, grated
“lots” of fresh ground black pepper
“dribble” of truffle oil

Cook pasta, drain. Stir fry onions in oil. Add zucchini, cook covered. Add mushrooms and wine. Cook covered. Add pasta and capers, and remove from heat. Add sauce (below), mix and serve.

For the sauce, roast the veges (2) for about 10 minutes. Not fully roasted, just enough to mellow the flavors a bit. Add in rest of sauce ingredients (3). Blend with a blender, food processor, or whatever.

For some ingredients, you can tell who added them by the measurements: metric or standard. I may know how long a kilometer is, but I still can’t cook in metric!

With two days left in Geneva, I realized I should get busy seeing some tourist stuff I’d looked into last week. So, yesterday I visited the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. My visit there really helped me understand the difference between the ICRC, the IFRC, and the national chapters. Understanding the difference will be really important if I choose to apply for a job with one of them. I also learned a bit about the history of humanitarian principles and law, which will be covered more in my Essentials of Humanitarian Practice class the week after next. Alas, it was also pretty depressing, since the message you get from the museum is “people have been doing pretty terrible things to each other for a long time, and the trend seems to be towards even more terrible things”. I really don’t think the museum curators are trying to send that message, but it’s pretty much the inescapable conclusion you come to, if you’ve got your eyes open and your brain engaged.

The most fascinating display was the 1/3 linear mile of shelving holding the actual archives of the records used to do tracing of prisoners of war during World War I. Seeing the shelves with your own eyes makes the scale of the war, and of the work the Red Cross did during it very clear. From a practical point of view, it was also interesting to see how a large information processing problem was solved in a time when IT was pieces of colored paper and quill pens. That kind of work is now done with software from people like HRDAG (an organization I might like to work for).

I learned something else at the museum that I bet most people don’t know. The Geneva conventions that are in effect now are different from the ones that were in effect at the onset of WWII. At that time, the laws of war only protected the combatants, not the civilians affected by war. The first Geneva conventions were motivated by the experience of WWI, which was fought closer to the “old style” war: between armies, on battle fields, away from civilians. Because civilians were not protected at the onset of WWII, the Red Cross was unable to do it’s normal inspection, relief, and tracing work in the Nazi concentration camps. Through intense negotiations, they managed to do some work in some of the camps, but they didn’t have the kind of access they have today in conflicts. It was only after WWII that the need to protect civilians in time of war was codified into law.

Today I visited CERN, the European research center for high energy physics. This is where the quark was discovered, and other cool physics stuff happened. There is a really neat tour where you get to go down in the tunnels and everything, but it needs to be booked decades (ok, months) in advance, so I didn’t get to go on it. Instead I visited Microcosm, which had really great science exhibits and old aparatus. Nifty!

Tonight I got to see Philippe and Sara, who I haven’t seen since the last time I was in Montreal, long long ago. Philippe was my first ever office partner, and he taught me quite a lot about how to do engineering in the presence of silly corporate behavior. A good skill to have.

Tomorrow morning I’m getting up early to see Sima off to work, then I’ll take off to the airport an hour or so later. I’ll find something to do in London to occupy myself tomorrow afternoon (maybe the London Transit Museum), then show up at Lisa’s house around 5 pm. We’ll have a few days together before she heads off to Iceland for the weekend. I’ll be staying in London for the weekend, as Iceland is perhaps the one place I could go after visiting London and Geneva where I could spend more money. I plan to see Bletchly Park and track down the house my mom lived in when she lived in London as a kid. She had scarlet fever there, so I’ll probably keep my distance. I’ve just finally pretty muched kicked the sinus infection I got after getting a cold in Mexico City!

On Monday evening, I need to be back in Leiston Abbey for my next RedR class. As there is no Internet in Leiston, I will drop off the face of the planet again. Hope you all have a nice week… I will, if it anything like my last class!