Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Amazing Race 23, Episode 3

San Alfonso (Chile) - Santiago (Chile) - Lisbon (Portugal) - Sintra (Portugal)

Panorama of Lisbon

Portugal made the short list of places I liked best among those I visited for the first time on my most recent trip around the world:

If you are wondering where you can still afford to travel in Western Europe with devalued U.S. dollars, put Portugal at the top of your list. Friendly people, great food and wine, great scenery, few crowds (even in the summer, most foreign visitors to Portugal stick to the beach resorts of the Algarve, in the far south), and the price sinkhole of the Euro zone. The climate is mild enough to be pleasant even in winter, and gorgeous in “shoulder” season in spring or fall. [The photo above was taken in late November.] Like Ireland and perhaps Greece, Portugal combines a proletarian identity (as a country whose main export used to be migrant labor) with modern European infrastructure. Lisbon and Porto are charming cities — big enough to be exciting, small enough to be accessible.

The Amazing Race 3 visited Portugal, with challenges for the racers in Porto, a “pit stop” in Lisbon, and the finish line for the 4th leg of the race at the Tower of Belem in Lisbon near the mouth of the Tagus River estuary:

Tower of Belem

The Amazing Race didn’t return to Portugal for 20 seasons and more than a decade. That’s typical: Portugal (especially its major cities, as noted above, and espcially in the off seasons) remains under-visited and under-priced.

This time, the racers had to take one of these trams up the hill to the castle:

Lisbon tram on hilly street

Where they got to enjoy the panorama of the city while they collected their next clue:

View of Lisbon from the castle

The racers’ clues directed them to challenges which included arranging typical blue-and-white azulejo tiles, jigsaw-puzzle style, to form one of the portraits that are so characteristic of Portuguese architectural ornamentation:

Picture in blue-and-white tiles on a Lisbon wall

Like the racers, we arrived in Lisbon from Brazil, and like most of them we did so on TAP (the Portugese national airline) from Brazil.

The racers connected from Santiago, Chile, via São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. We arrived in Lisbon from Recife. Recife and Natal, the easternmost cities in South America, have long histories as trans-Atlantic aviation gateways, especially for delivery and other ferry flights by short-range planes. Portugal is the tail wagged by the Brazilian dog of the Lusophone world, though, and the most important overseas destination for the Portugese airline. In addition to two nonstops daily to and from São Paulo, TAP has nonstop service between Lisbon and a other cities throughout Brazil, from Porto Alegre in the south to Belo Horizonte in the interior and Fortaleza in the far northeast. That shouldn’t be surprising if you are familiar with the scale of “provincial” cities in the superpower of South America: Each of TAP’s Brazilian destination cities has more residents than the city of Lisbon.

The deciding factor in this episode was which teams were able to get seats confirmed on the TAP flights from São Paulo. Ephraim and Chester, who weren’t able to get on either of the direct TAP flights that night and had to connect through other cities in Europe, got delayed and were eliminated at the airport in Lisbon, before they had even attempted to find the first clue.

Getting on a “full” flight is a widely-misunderstand art, not a science, and the success or failure of the teams on “The Amazing Race” appeared to have more to do with luck than skill.

To get on a full flight, you first have to get your name on a “waiting list”, and then you have to get yourself confirmed from that waiting list.

How does that work? In addition to the advice on waiting lists in my books, here are some tips:

  • You can’t put yourself on a waiting list online. Airline reservation and ticketing Web sites don’t even mention that waiting lists exist, much less which flights, or which booking classes on those flights, are open for waitlisting. That goes for airlines’ own Web sites as well as travel agency Web sites and third-party “metasearch” sites. If a flight is available only on a “request” basis, almost all Web sites will show it as “unavailable” or “sold out” — neither of which is necessarily true. You can only get your name on a waiting list by contacting a human travel agent, an airline call center, or an airline ticket counter.
  • The sooner you get on a waiting list, the better. Some of the racers thought that they couldn’t get on the “standby” list until they got to the check-in counter, but that’s almost never the case. All else being equal, and in the absence of some manual intervention by a supervisor, if additional seats open up (through cancellation, no-show, etc.) names will be confirmed first from the highest-priority waiting list for the booking class for the highest fare, in the order that those names were placed on that list. It’s usually much easier for airline staff to move you from one list to a higher priority list than to rearrange the order of names on any one list.
  • There are many waiting lists for each flight. There are separate waiting lists for each cabin or “class of service” (first, business, and coach). Within each cabin, there are separate waiting lists for each of up to about a dozen different “booking classes” corresponding to different levels of fares. For each of those booking classes, there may be three or more different waiting lists with different levels of priority. In general, every name on the highest priority waiting list for a given booking class will be confirmed before any of the names on the next lower priority list. So the key thing in “working a waiting list”, if you can’t get the person you are talking to to confirm you immediately, is to get your name moved to a higher-priority waiting list. In general, the higher the priority of the waiting list, the higher the level of supervisory authority within the airline is required to move names onto that list.
  • Each airline has its own waitlist procedures, priorities, and criteria for confirmation. You can’t assume that what worked with some other airline will work with this one. With some airlines, all decisions about confirmations from the waiting lists are made by the capacity and revenue management department at the airline’s headquarters. With other airlines, the “station manager” for that airline at that airport, or in that city, has the final personal say on which waitlisted would-be passengers get on each flight. Some airline staff can be bribed, at varying levels, to confirm waitlisted passengers. Most can’t, and offering a bribe for confirmation is usually counterproductive. (None of the racers have yet been shown offering bribes — perhaps that’s forbidden by the secret rulebook.) From time to time, a handful of travel agents have figured out how to hack reservation systems to get their customers confirmed on flights that airlines have tried to designate as “unavailable”. If your flight is full, your best bet is either to work through a travel agent with whom you (or the company or organization paying for your ticket) has clout and/or who has contacts and clout (i.e. a large volume of sales) with that particular airline. Sometimes they may be unable to get you confirmed, and will suggest that you contact the airline directly. But your chances are best if you start with a travel agent. They are more likely than you to know the optimum strategy for getting you confirmed: Who can confirm you, how to get your request considered by that decision-maker, and what arguments to use or favors to call in on your behalf.
  • Waitlist confirmations are always unpredictable. Airline personnel, or travel agents who do a lot of business with a particular airline, may have a good idea what your chances are of getting confirmed from a waiting list for a particular flight. But you never know for sure until you are confirmed or until the flight takes off without you. I’ve had the check-in counter re-open for me, and been told to run (escorted through the security checkpoint by two airline employees in high-heels-and-short-skirts uniforms running alongside me!) for the plane waiting for me at the gate, after an overbooked flight from which other passengers had been turned away was shown on the displays as “departed”. If a travel agency or airline is working on getting you confirmed from a waiting list, make sure that they can contact you to let you know if they are successful — and that you are prepared to act quickly if that happens, before the seat goes to someone else.
Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 13 October 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

In this episode, the "baseball wives" went to a VIP lounge to put themselves on a standby list while other teams were waiting for the counter to open.

Is this a good strategy? Obviously it worked for them, but one of the fans suggested that perhaps they were holders of America Express black card that "opens a lot of doors" (I am sure they could not carry the card with them according to TAR rules, but they could have memorized the number of the card.

I wonder if someone can comment whether it is a likely scenario and whether it is a good strategy to try to get on standby at VIP lounges/airline lounges if the gate counter is still closed?

Posted by: Talissa, 22 October 2013, 15:21 ( 3:21 PM)

@Talissa - Good question. On the race, the mistake the teams made was assuming that they couldn't get on a waiting list for better flights when they first made their reservations at the travel agency (or with the airline by phone). There was no need to wait until they got to the airport, and nothing to be gained by waiting. The sooner you get on a waiting list, the better. You can always get prioritized later. Start by getting on the list -- any list.

On the other hand, if the travel agent had already put them on the waiting list for a better flight, but they weren't yet confirmed, it might have been a good strategy to go to the VIP lounge and ask the lounge staff to make further efforts to get them confirmed. A reservation for any sort of VIP or person with connections is more likely to be prioritized than that of a nobody. I've seen a simple, unsubstantiated notation in a PNR by a travel agent identifying a passenger as a VIP get them upgraded from a coach fare to business-class seats on a long-haul flight!

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 22 October 2013, 17:57 ( 5:57 PM)
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