On my way to visit family for Christmas, I chose to fly on American Airlines. The experience quickly went from bad to worse. For context, I’ve been an American Airlines customer and passenger for over 30 years. I do not consider myself a frequent flyer, yet my loyalty program status recently rose due to increased travel.
After repeatedly delayed flights, poor service and rude agents, I asked for a simple customer service accommodation. In response, American reported me to the police. The escalation is an example of horrendous customer service and a lesson in how not to treat the consumer. Unfortunately, it’s also an essentialization of the American Airlines subculture and philosophy.
In pledging customer service, American Airlines claims on its website that it’s “in business to provide safe, dependable and friendly air transportation to our customers … [and that they] are dedicated to making every flight you take with us something special…in the hopes that you will fly us again and again. We work very hard to make your entire experience with us, from making a reservation to deplaning at your final destination, a positive one.”
In the same pledge, American Airlines promises to render “[a]ssistance when your flight has been delayed”, “[t]icket refunds” and “[h]andling of customer issues”. None were offered, however, to this passenger. All were refused. In other words, none of what American Airlines claims is true. On the contrary, American reported me to the police.
The travel fiasco began with a flight which was hours late. I was not informed of the delay until after I’d arrived at the airport. I waited for several hours. I was disappointed but not irate. I had arrived in advance — by two hours — of my scheduled flight departure. I’d checked in online. I’d reserved a seat. I was all set. Then, American Airlines notified me that its plane was not ready to fly.
Apparently, something was wrong with the aircraft. I was informed that the plane was taken out of operation and that another plane would be used. Eventually, I boarded a plane and arrived at my destination. I lost a day of Christmas time with family.
After the visit, in anticipation of the return flight, once again, I arrived at the airport hours in advance of scheduled flight departure. And, once again, I was notified that the flight was late — hours late — after I’d reserved a seat, checked into the flight, arrived at the airport, checked luggage and made connecting flight arrangements.
Again, I was told that American’s passenger jet was not ready to fly. The plane, I was told, was removed from operation to be fixed. It was too late to make other arrangements. This late departure, like the previous late departure, was caused by American Airlines’ aircraft maintenance.
Let me emphasize this point. The late departures were caused by American Airlines. There were no weather complications. There were no announced travel or security conflicts. There was no reason to expect a problem with aircraft, let alone on two separate airplanes during the round trip. I emphasize this not to blame American Airlines for badly or properly operating or maintaining flawed, faulty or deficient aircraft. Of course, I know that things go wrong and I want the aircraft to be safe. But the fact that American Airlines, not weather or an external factor, caused the delay is relevant to customer service.
Faced with hours before rescheduled departure, this customer proceeded to an airline customer service desk to seek assistance with the connecting flight. The desk was cordoned off. It was vacant. I noticed that an airline club — American Airlines calls them Admirals Clubs — was near the gate where my flight was scheduled to board.
The gate was packed with passengers. I decided to investigate whether American Airlines was willing to consider admitting me as a guest in the club for a few hours. The impetus was the prospect of having a place to sit, wait for hours and relax while waiting for customer service to address any problem with my connecting flight. I entered the club.
Speaking with an agent who did not wear a name tag, I explained that there was no seating at the gate — the terminal was full of travelers — and I asked if the club could consider making an exception, waiving requisites and admitting me for a few hours.
The agent neither addressed nor answered my question. Instead, she stated what she called airline policy. I explained that I understood the policy and repeated that I was inquiring about an exception; that an exceptional circumstance had apparently delayed my flight and I was asking for an exception to the club’s admission policy. The agent told me to visit American Airlines’ customer service desk. I explained that I had been there and done that and that the service desk was vacant. She shrugged, as if to say “tough luck.”
I would come to learn that the agent’s attitude and actions represent American Airlines, which is based in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.
The agent spoke to me as if she’d memorized a script. After making the policy statement, she added that, if she agreed to consider my request, she would have to admit every passenger. Of course, this is not true, which I told her. I never raised my voice. Nor was I rude, hostile or disrespectful. I made my request — that American let me wait in the club for a flight which was delayed for hours due to American’s maintenance problem — with discretion. The request I made was reasonable. The agent offered zero accommodation. None.
Shortly after I left the club, someone at American’s Admirals Club notified police. While I was standing at the gate while looking for a place to sit and rest, a trio of police officers arrived. One of them asked if I’d been to the club. I knew that I did not violate the law, so I spoke freely with the peace officer, who expressed shock to me that the airline had notified police. Of course, I was neither detained nor placed under arrest. However, I was shocked that American Airlines treated me as a potential criminal — merely because I had asked to be admitted to American’s club to wait for American’s delayed flight.
Is it possible that American Airlines can improve?
After communicating with at least nine American Airlines representatives, none one of whom offered to honor the airline’s customer service pledge, I have zero reason to think improvement is possible. In fact, I have multiple reasons to think that American Airlines is malicious, dishonest and dishonorable.
This hotel suited a recent stay near where the old airport was once located outside of Pittsburgh. Shuttle service is available for airport pickup. The driver took me to a nearby Walmart for groceries (there’s a microwave and a refrigerator in each room).
Hampton Inn in Moon Township
It’s a simple hotel. It isn’t fancy and it’s accordingly priced. With coffee and chocolate chip cookies near the front desk and free wifi and hot breakfast (frittata, pork sausage, cereal, hot oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar and almonds, waffles and fresh fruit) every morning, the clean room (with built-in hairdryer) and welcoming staff added value. The knowledgeable staff happily accommodated my requests, providing me with details about a bus route into downtown, where I had a meeting with my editor at the William Penn Hotel.
Beyond amenities, service and accommodations, I think convenience — being located in Moon Township near the airport and several restaurants, such as a Primanti Brothers, a Walmart for just about everything you need — and the setting made for a fine visit. Built on an angle just off University Boulevard, this Hampton Inn offers a warm respite amid the sound of singing crickets.
The Hilton Cleveland Downtown offers perfect hospitality. During a recent conference visit, my first to the friendly, Forest City known as Cleveland, Ohio, I stayed at the host hotel for OCON Cleveland.
First impressions aren’t everything but they matter. Upon check-in, this Hilton rewards member received a complimentary upgrade (after a polite attempt to upsell) to a room with a view of both the lakefront and the city’s downtown. My requests, including a walking map of downtown Cleveland, were promptly accommodated.
Hilton Cleveland Downtown
From the front desk and housekeeping to catering, dining and other staff, including the bellboys, every Hilton Cleveland Downtown employee takes pride in the work. This includes the hotel’s union representative, Aaron, whom I ran into while taking a rest during one of my downtown walks. The union rep was professional and solicitous, offering tourist information and helping me find my way around town.
This is possibly the best Hilton I’ve stayed at, with the exception of the Boulders in Arizona, though I don’t know if that’s a Hilton anymore. Besides outstanding accommodations, with good amenities, Tenillya the waitress, Steve the bartender and bosses Keith and Daryl at The Burnham Restaurant, named after the Cleveland architect, made my delicious daily meals, happy hours and mixers better. With a glaring exception, an officious woman issuing contradictory rules with her hair in a tight bun, my experience at the Burnham was exemplary.
The 5pm to 7pm happy hour follows a 3pm to 5pm happy hour at the nearby Eliot’s Bar around the bend — this, too, is named after an individual, coincidentally to the purpose of my Cleveland visit, a man with an Ayn Rand connection, Clevelander Eliot Ness (portrayed by Robert Stack in TV’s Untouchables, which Miss Rand enjoyed) — where I met a couple of Objectivist intellectuals for a glass of wine on my first day.
Happy Hour continues at Bar 32, where Nicki served while I enjoyed good conversation until 9pm. For daylight touring, sightseeing and roaming, I sought Kevin’s counsel at the front desk. He provided me with a history — he explained that the hotel opened for business on the eve of the GOP National Convention in 2016 and that both presidents Obama and Trump stayed here — and good humor, too.
In fact, Hilton Cleveland Downtown provides consistently pleasing, competent and quality service, accommodations and experience all around.
Vdara Hotel & Spa is located just off Las Vegas Boulevard. The all-suites, non-smoking, non-gambling resort, owned by MGM Resorts, is perfect for my needs. But I know that I am not the typical visitor to this desert oasis.
Vdara Hotel & Spa
Like LA, Las Vegas attracts every type of wannabe and couldabeen and they’re all over town. Prostitutes in line at the front desk with their clients, a drug addict passed out in the lobby, drunks stumbling around the parking lot, I saw them all on this trip, which was for business.
Attending the Global Security Exchange (GSX) conference at the Las Vegas Convention Center, I was easily able to get around town, thanks to Lyft, the monorail and sponsored shuttle buses. Each time I needed to go, a Lyft driver was already waiting by the hotel entrance.
Vdara, where I’d previously stayed, is tucked away off Frank Sinatra Boulevard behind MGM’s Aria casino and resort. Upon check-in, I asked the friendly front desk clerk, Letitia, for a list of items, which she promptly provided. The room was simple, elegant and easy to find and use. The same goes for everything else in the hotel, including the compact fitness room, spa, pool, bar and dining.
Complimentary bottled water awaited in the refrigerator. I used the kitchenette during my stay, though once standard items, such as coffee makers and dishes, either cost more or are provided only upon request. The bathroom had both a spacious shower and separate tub, good lighting, closet, vanity mirror and pocket door. The television’s remote control was sluggish, so it probably needed batteries. The wifi was strong.
Meals at Vdara mean a patio and bar lounge, small cafe with adjacent pantry for pricey, light groceries (each suite has a kitchenette) and a friendly, if high-priced, Starbucks. I bought groceries at Walgreens on the strip, which is my usual practice, and ate at the convention center. When I ordered to-go meals from the cafe, however, the food was fresh, perfectly prepared and delicious. But it took way too long. Every morning I asked for salt and pepper with my eggs, but they were included in the order exactly once. Each time I ended up with a small bottle of Heinz ketchup, which after the first time I asked them to omit. So, go and order to-go for the best Vdara food, but watch the clock and check the to-go bag.
I plan to visit Vdara again. It’s a beautiful, simple hotel. Staff are friendly, though a few stand out. Nathan was very prompt with a request. Letitia made an outstanding first impression. Concierge Hakan, who previously worked the concierge desk at the Cosmopolitan, was the most knowledgeable, accommodating and results-driven and I came away thinking that he should personally train every one at Vdara. There wasn’t a single Vdara detail about business or personal travel that he didn’t know.
As a non-smoking non-gambler seeking to work and enjoy myself while in a still-sometimes seedy town, modern, efficient and quiet Vdara, removed from the strip yet in close proximity, is in a class by itself.
During a recent stay for a conference, I discovered elegance in downtown Los Angeles hospitality. While the Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles, located across from Pershing Square, is not a full four-star experience, the 95-year-old hotel holds to high standards.
Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles
This is not a showy, pretentious property. Despite its grand reputation, history and lavish decor, the Millennium Biltmore primarily distinguishes itself as a premium hotel based upon its outstanding service. The standard room is adequate to good, depending upon one’s modern demands. Mine was alright, though I had to ask for another room upon check-in because the hotel’s non-smoking policy had clearly been violated by the previous guest. The fifth floor room lacked a vanity mirror for proper grooming, space was tight and housekeeping was mediocre.
Yet convenience, uniqueness and exemplary service compensate for the Millennium Biltmore’s flaws. Staff were without exception responsive and attentive during the conference, often exceeding expectations and anticipating demands. For example, when conference staff were overwhelmed during setup for registration, Biltmore staff, who were watching like sentinels in the background, stepped in time and again to provide logistical support, sustenance and manpower.
Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles
Cecil B. DeMille filmed his 1924 silent film Triumph here. Past guests include Howard Hughes, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jean Paul Getty, Shirley Temple, the prince of Wales, Walt Disney and Rudolph Valentino. Gary Cooper (High Noon), Claudette Colbert (The Palm Beach Story) and Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind) won Oscars here. The Biltmore proudly served American soldiers during World War 2. The bookie room in The Sting (1973) was filmed in the Biltmore’s Gold Room. The same room was used during Prohibition as a speakeasy with a hidden door so guests could dodge police by escaping onto Olive Street (for now, the exit is sealed in brick). Indulge in the hotel’s history with the concierge, who’s very knowledegable and is equipped with a complete list of motion pictures and television shows filmed here. Taylor Swiftrecently shot a video here when she stayed overnight. A web series was filming during my visit. Also stroll what the Biltmore calls its historic corridor, which features an exhibit of the hotel’s pictorial history.
Discovering the Millennium Biltmore means immersing in its small marvels and charms, chiefly a sense of simple luxury in the madness of downtown LA. Its bar and Cognac Room are both intimate and elegant. Smeraldi’s, where I dined for breakfast and lunch, serves delicious food very fast. Even the lobby, pictured above, fosters a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. Fitness, swimming and sauna and steam rooms add value and the Rendezvous Court with its piano, trickling water and natural light, as well as an afternoon tea, is perfect for reading, writing and thinking or conversation.
That the hotel’s interior designer, Giovanni Smeraldi, also decorated the White House and the Vatican is not surprising. From motifs based on literature’s Tales of the Arabian Nights to angels, gods and myths and 24-karat gold, the Millennium Biltmore surrounds the guest in elegance, interesting accents and themes and space for a distinctive and memorable downtown Los Angeles experience.
On a first-day pass, I attended part of the annual summer Objectivist Conference in Orange County, California’s Newport Beach.
Marriott Newport Beach
The town and venue are familiar. I’ve previously stayed at the Marriott Newport Beach for other Ayn Rand Institute-sponsored events. It’s a fine hotel across from Fashion Island with an attentive staff. A Starbucks affiliate capably serves coffee, food and drinks. I was writing on deadline during my visit, so I did not attend the ARI’s full OCON, which unfortunately does not offer a per-talk option. Most of the program was light, however, and did not entice me. Instead, I attended one day’s events and a few OCON affairs. The hotel’s restaurant and bar, where I visited with friends, clients and other intellectuals, were good for meetings.
This year’s conference, sponsored by Midwest manufacturer Relco, celebrates the 75th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel The Fountainhead and “how its themes of independence and integrity continue to resonate with readers of all ages.” Accordingly, English literature professor Shoshana Milgram, Ph.D., whom I interviewed for my exclusive report on Ayn Rand in Chicago, delivered a dynamic lecture (“Frank Lloyd Wright and The Fountainhead: The Full Story”) about the man who designed Fallingwater and the woman who created Roark and Galt and visited Wright at Taliesin.
The OCON lectures are shorter than they were in the past, which is unfortunate. So, Dr. Milgram delivered what can best be described as a dazzling account which breaks new ground in understanding The Fountainhead, Wright and Rand, whom my friend Dr. Milgram has profiled for a forthcoming biography. Hers is the primary impetus for my OCON attendance this year, though I also wanted to hear Aristotle scholar Robert Mayhew, whom I interviewed for his thoughts on Rand’s first novel, We the Living, lecture on humor in The Fountainhead. I had seen both Drs. Mayhew and Milgram present at OCON in Chicago several years ago and I consider them both top, leading new Objectivist intellectuals. Dr. Milgram’s talk at this year’s OCON was excellent, detailing newly disclosed research from Northwestern University archives, Wright’s introduction to Rand by Ely Jacques Kahn at New York City’s Commodore Hotel in 1938 and a fuller account of their exchanges over The Fountainhead.
The talk, which references Ayn Rand’s remarks on a never-reprinted Wright article and secret negotiations regarding the prospect of Wright’s working on the 1949 movie version for Warner Bros., explains why Ayn Rand was emphatic that Howard Roark is not based on Frank Lloyd Wright.
Dr. Milgram provides the literary perspective of Ayn Rand with impeccable skill. In my experience, ever since first attending the Virginia Tech associate professor’s talks in Southern California, she always does. She hunts for facts, goes by reason and, above all, she thinks for herself. Listening to her lecture on the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was fascinating, filling in gaps in my knowledge and helping me understand why it always seemed (and is often depicted as) one-sided, which Dr. Milgram breaks down and explains. I hope this talk, which is another reason ARI should consider offering single event OCON pricing, becomes available to the general public. The best compliment I can give OCON this year, and I am not saying this because Shoshana Milgram is a friend with whom I’ve worked, is that her presentation for the first time in my life makes me want to read an Ayn Rand biography.
A talk which did not tie into The Fountainhead, “Being a Rational Optimist” by ARI Chairman Yaron Brook, disappointed me. Since ARI founder Leonard Peikoff, who put in an appearance at OCON via video, ended his podcast, I do not listen to podcasts, so I don’t know whether Dr. Brook later expanded on his commentary. But it fell short of making a persuasive case for rational optimism. I attended with the expectation that he would probably convince me and affirm my pre-existing optimism in the future, which is qualified but real. Dr. Brook’s reasons include technology and life expectancy. He cited the fact that math and science are more widely studied. He went into some detail. But he failed to account for the discrepancy with his previous assertions in which he forecast doom or catastrophe within a 20-year time frame. Similarly, he did not mention, let alone address, alarming forecasts in Dr. Peikoff’s 1982 The Ominous Parallels or recent The DIM Hypothesis, originally presented as a series of OCON lectures.
Dr. Brook backed up his points by citing the late Steve Jobs and aviation entrepreneur Blake Scholl, a friend who addressed last year’s OCON in Pittsburgh. In reference to the standard of living, he cited the cost of an iPhone, which he said more than once costs “nothing” (which, especially if you calculate the cost of storage, apps, accessories and services, is not the case). Also, he praised Disney’s Pixar as making some of what he called “the best movies of the last 30 years”, a debatable assertion at best and I say this as someone who agrees with his remarks on Amistad and Argo. I agree with Dr. Brook that Americans generally tend to underestimate the role of the Enlightenment. But Yaron Brook’s argument that there is cause for optimism, which I’m inclined to agree with (and I have my own reasons to be optimistic), was unconvincing.
A better talk was “The Influence of Ayn Rand on My Life and Business Career” by Saxo Bank co-founder Lars Seier Christensen who, after 20 years as CEO, started his own private equity firm, Seier Capital. He made concise, convincing points about his business experience, which he delivered with humor. Christensen explained that there has to be a sense of purpose, or, as he put it, “some intention”, in making a dollar. In other words, he argued, one must choose to think about making money in some narrowly defined sense. He urged OCON’s audience, which ARI estimated at over 600 guests, to remember that there are no guarantees in life, that in business it is best to “fix conflicts on the spot” and he told us not to criticize for the sake of criticism. This is good advice backed up by his wealth of knowledge, experience and success.
Harry Binswanger gave a course on logic based on his book How We Know. The Objectivist Academic Center (OAC), which I attended from 2008 to 2012 when it was a four-year program, held a mixer for alumni, where I was able to talk with OCON speakers Ben Bayer, Robert Mayhew and Aaron Smith. I told Dr. Smith, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy, that I appreciate his session on idealism in OCON’s “Discussing Objectivism” series. Dr. Smith explored the nature and roots of Ayn Rand’s idealism, fully tethered to characters and themes in The Fountainhead, addressing questions such as: What does it mean to be an idealist? Why does Rand think that ideals are so important to have and to fight for? What is the connection between having ideals and having a self?
I’ve seen Dr. Smith speak on other occasions, such as when former CEO Jim Brown introduced him at an event in Orange County last year, and part of what I value is his ability to express himself as a searching philosophical detective and thinker. In contemplating idealism, for instance, he asked and answered each of those questions, emphasizing Objectivist virtues dramatized in The Fountainhead such as rationality, independence and self-esteem, which he stressed is impossible to exaggerate in terms of its importance. The material, pace and clarity in his presentations is very good. Dr. Smith communicates as if he seeks to be understood by a wide audience, a quality which is rare among today’s intellectuals, especially among Objectivists, whose best arguments can be lost on a general audience because they may come off as smug, defensive and dismissive. Reminding me of what Dr. Peikoff once wrote about addressing only those academics who act like human beings, or something to this effect, Dr. Smith gave an example from when he worked as a gymnastics instructor. He said he told his students not to “inflate your currency”. Aaron Smith argued for delivering true instruction when discussing Objectivism. Speaking about The Fountainhead character Peter Keating, he was not satisfied to merely identify and underscore Keating’s selflessness. He pointed out that Peter Keating failed to scrutinize his own actions and contrast his life with his friend Howard Roark’s.
In keeping with the theme of this year’s OCON — bearing in mind that the ARI and OCON ought also to be scrutinized — this is something every individual should strive to do.