Air travel frus­trates, but peo­ple still love to fly

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Ted Tal­ley Ted Tal­ley is a res­i­dent of Bentonville who has lived in the Ozarks more than two decades. His email is theob­tal­

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.

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