Air travel frustrates, but people still love to fly
Much has been in the news about airlines and atrocious customer service. In March, a nosy tweeter presumed that a United Airlines gate agent, for no good reason, had refused passage to a girl dressed in leggings. In fact, the agent was applying well-established dress codes for non-revenue airline employees and family members. Social media was long on opinion and short on fact.
What else is new? All major airlines have grooming expectations for employees and relatives flying for free. For my part, if you offered free passage and required me to show up in a clown suit, I would only ask “As Bozo or Ronald McDonald?”
The dress code tea pot tempest passed in April with an incident in the aisle of a Louisville-bound United Express jet in Chicago. Gendarmes dragged a passenger off as if he were a contrarian in a banana republic. The fellow didn’t want to be denied boarding because, well, he had already been duly boarded. I would have shouted “Take me!” when the request for volunteers came, but I’m agenda-flexible, especially since retirement. If you want me to waive rights to a seat, just wave a free travel voucher under my nose.
One would have thought a multi-national transportation company could have figured out how to get the next morning’s crew to Louisville without the public relations debacle of commandeering a seat. Yes, it was United’s last flight of the evening to Louisville, but was there no other airline to get them there? No civil aviation charter? That would be costly, but surely less than a passenger’s out-of-court settlement with the carrier. Yet that’s what it comes to in much of corporate management and life in general: short-sightedness and money.
Forgive me for bashing United. All major airlines have service and public relations issues from scraps with moms and strollers to unaccompanied minors arriving at the wrong city. Actually United is my preferred carrier thanks to a “crossover” perk with my Marriott hotel status earned from spending a thousand enchanted evenings in Fairfield Inns overlooking Home Depot and Wal-Mart parking lots. I get a free checked bag, better coach seats and a rare first-class upgrade. I’m a self-aware, third-rate VIP.
In spite of horrific images in media, the airlines are making money and flying planes full thanks to strategies with aircraft sizes by route and lobbying for airline merger approvals. If you find the skies crowded and unfriendly, then thank a congressman. Nevertheless, we still want to fly. Airline travel is up and we love those cheap seats. Domestic and international routes are being added in unexpected places. For example, German discounter Condor Airlines began New Orleans to Frankfurt non-stop service in May. Next spring, low-price Norwegian Air Shuttle begins Austin to London non-stops.
For me, vexation with air travel continues with little things — like tasks you must do yourself that the airlines used to do for you. Facing an airport robot (kiosk), you retrieve your record, choose or change your seat assignment and check a bag. Boarding documents spew from the robot’s mouth and you wait for your name to be called as at a deli counter. You schlep your bag to the scale.
On board, slightly comfy in the upgraded “Economy Plus” seat you paid for or earned through airline loyalty, you watch “Basic Economy” passengers board. They paid the lowest prices for last-minute, scattered seats assigned at the gate. That’s when your latest task required by the airline may come: baby-sitting. On a recent flight from Houston to Kansas City, a fidgety 8-year-old with an economy ticket was plopped into the middle seat by me while his mother was randomly seated elsewhere. I surely don’t begrudge children on planes. I’ve flown with mine countless times, but they’ve been schooled with the stern Talley pre-flight lecture: tray tables and seat backs are not toys! This young man, constantly fidgeting and invading the adult spaces on either side, had no such training.
I considered switching seats with his mother, wherever she was, but by then Texarkana was in sight. Halfway to Kansas City, I hugged my plastic wall.
When the pilot “double-dinged” the final approach signal, I reminded the child to stow his paraphernalia and put his tray and seat in “their full upright position.” He complied. Things were good at trip’s end. I had learned it takes more than a ticket purchase and timely arrival at the airport these days to fully experience the miracle of human flight. It takes a village.