Sunday, September 28, 2008

Adventures in Air Travel

The whole airline business is a mystery to me. I'm not sure why it wouldn't be susceptible to the same business principles that govern every other business, but it seems to have some enigmatic ability to swallow money. What other business would lose money when it routinely sold out or oversold its market-priced product? I have been on a couple dozen or so flights in the last year and every single one of them was packed to the gills. In most cases, the time I spent waiting at the gates was punctuated by the now-familiar "We need a volunteer to take a later flight" plea - always entertaining since no one volunteers and, somehow, the flight boards and departs anyway. Are the extra people stowed in baggage? Vaporized?

And don't I remember that the incentives used to grow in value the closer you got to departure time? Said offers from Las Vegas to Chicago, then Chicago to Albany, last Thursday were evidently fixed at a free round-trip ticket for the future and a later flight for the moment. But the later flights were 9 hours later from Las Vegas and over 24 hours later from Chicago. What the heck did they think the volunteers (had there been any) would do in the meantime? Well, OK, 9 extra hours in Las Vegas would be a kick, if potentially expensive, but who flying from Chicago to Albany on a Thursday evening would likely have the flexibility or the interest to wait until Saturday morning?

I usually fly Southwest. Although the flights are tightly packed, at least some of the other amenities of flying are still intact. My US Air and United flights on Thursday were a rude awakening to the new realities of non-Southwest flights. To check a bag now costs $15. This may or may not be an offensive nickel-and-diming of customers, but the upshot is that people now haul on board everything they possibly can, either to avoid this fee or to avoid the potential hassle of lost baggage. But the plane is packed, the aisles are too narrow for rolling suitcases to be rolled, and the overhead bin space is insufficient. So the unfortunates who board last end up having to check their bags anyway. I presume there is no $15 fee in this case - the flight attendant didn't mention any fee in her oft-repeated "If there's no overhead space, bring your bag to the front and we'll check it for you." This bringing the bags to the front business was also ludicrous - the aisles are TINY and packed with people organizing themselves into seats evidently designed for a species much smaller than most adult travelers. Suppose the extra $15 actually collected on bags checked in the terminal is enough to offset not only baggage-handling costs, but the extra fuel it takes to cool the plane during the now even slower boarding process?

Airlines obviously are saving money by deferring decor maintenance. Both my Thursday planes showed all the signs of hard use. I guess the mechanical maintenance is kept up to snuff (we got where we were going without incident), and I'm a firm believer in "first things first," but do the seats and seat pockets have to be falling apart? Do 10-20% of the tray tables, lights and air vents have to not work? Do the wings and wing flaps have to be adorned with what look (alarmingly) like black skid marks? Does the whole experience have to be so much like taking the bus, but at 5-10 times the cost?

On the US Air flight, I was charged $2 for a bottle of water. This is OK, I guess - it would have cost at least that much to buy a bottle of water in the airport - but the collecting of money and making of change was a ridiculous waste of flight attendant time. And how does the money process work? Do the poor flight attendants have to account for every can, bottle, styrofoam cup and dollar to make sure it all matches up at the end of every flight? Does some idiot in accounting think this effort is without cost? Why on earth don't they just charge $5 more for each ticket and keep the complimentary soft drinks, the customer appreciation that goes with free stuff, the extra $5 from everyone, including people who get no drinks or buy alcohol, and the flight attendants' focus on quick service and safety? What passenger wouldn't pay $329 instead of $324 for the ticket? Is whatever the airline manages to net from the airborne-convenience-store approach worth making me think they're cheap bastards with whom I'll not fly again unless there's absolutely no other option?

The flight attendants on the US Air flight were also incredibly cranky. This might be because they're also now functioning as sales clerks or maybe it's because of the dowdy uniforms they still have to wear - the contrast between their 1950s "air host and hostess" apparel and the "I could comfortably sleep in this" clothing of most passengers is hilarious. Or maybe it's because they don't get paid enough or treated with respect. Who knows? But it seems to me that any business that "recognizes that you have a choice in air travel, appreciates your business, and hopes to see you on another [insert name of airline] flight again soon" might also recognize that it would be a plus to instruct its customer service personnel to treat the customers like fellow human beings instead of annoying scum.

Having said all that, both my flights arrived early. I was resigned with my usual air-travel serenity to the connection being a problem, but the only difficulty I encountered (if you don't count feeling like a sardine in a seen-better-days tin) was the distance I had to trudge between the two gates at O'Hare. Obviously, it was my lucky day. Too bad I couldn't stay home and use that luck at a blackjack table.

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