Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Beastly Skies

Jeff Siger's post yesterday about flying pushed my buttons.  If you're allergic to rants you might want to stop reading now.

No businesses in the world get away with treating their customers as badly as do American-owned airlines.  They've engaged in a frenzy of profit-driven mergers until competition is more a memory than a market dynamic and they've piggybacked on all the TSA dreadfulness as an excuse to turn what used to be a relatively pleasant environment--an airplane in flight--into a jail cell at 37.000 feet.

The basic attitude seems to be that passengers are an inconvenience; if only, the airlines seem to say, we could fly all these planes back and forth empty.  But since they can't they've decided that passengers can be herded, strapped in, jammed together with their knees beneath their chins, forbidden to move, fed slop that would cause a riot in most prisons, and ordered to turn off their electronic devices at whim despite the lack of a single study that says that such devices actually interfere with anything.  Not one study.  Not after years of trying.  I personally think that the whole "electronic devices" thing is just the first glimpse they give us of the iron fist in the iron glove.  It says, We can make you do anything and everything and don't you forget it.

Abandon free will, all ye who enter here.

The airline I most regret is United.  Ten years ago, United was among the best U.S. lines.  I liked it enough that I amassed, literally, a million miles on it.  Today it puts into the sky one teensy authoritarian empire after another, all ruled by incompetents--people, I think, whose career as sexual dominants failed because they were too unattractive.

Last month I was in Austin, Texas, waiting for a flight back to Los Angeles.  At 6 PM there were only two United flights left on the electronic status board: my eight o'clock and the 7:30 to San Francisco that preceded it.  At about 6:45 they announced that the San Francisco flight was canceled, and at that moment, both flights winked off the board.

Those of us scheduled for LA wondered, understandably, which of two screw-ups had occurred: did they take the flight off the board by mistake, or did they fail to announce its cancellation by mistake?  One way or another, a mistake had been made.  There actually was a United employee in plain sight, the most unpleasant and officious woman I've ever encountered anywhere outside of a school bus, who spent fifty minutes diddling around with a clipboard, loudly announcing to anyone foolish enough to approach the podium that she was busy "closing out" the canceled flight.  When several people formed a meek little line (the signal that a group of well-trained submissives is assembling) she snarled that it was no good lining up, she wasn't talking to anyone until she'd finished closing out the flight.  And, in fact, we never did hear that the flight was going to take off until it was announced.  For a completely different gate.  See, they couldn't post the gate change because they'd taken the flight off the electronic board.  So we all had to run for the plane.

Competence, anyone?

And United's much-vaunted Mileage Plus program has turned into a bait-and-switch operation.  Two months ago--toward the end of July--I called to see whether I could employ some of my 300,000 unused miles to buy a tourist seat to Bangkok and trade the miles for an upgrade to business.  I said I could leave any day from October 9 to October 31.

Nothing was available.  Three months in advance, twenty-two days to work with, nothing.  On any flight.  So I decided to use miles for my return and asked them to find an available upgrade seat any time between January 14 and January 31 of 2013.

Nothing.  Six months in advance, nothing.  When I asked about February, I was told they don't book upgrades that far in advance.  I wound up buying business class on Asiana, and the thing that soothes my furious heart is that I know I'll have a great flight, much better than I would have had on United.  With people who act like they're happy to see me on their plane.

The explanation for the behavior of United and the other American-owned airlines?  This is Jonathan Turley, a lawyer and travel expert quoted in today's New York Times, and he's not kidding:  “I get the feeling that the airline industry is really waiting for my generation to die,” he said. “We’re the cranky, loud ones because we have a higher expectation. Every day, fewer people remember what it used to be like.”

People, listen.  When you have to go ANYWHERE, see whether the route is served by a non-U.S. carrier, and if it is, take that plane.  Or, if Virgin America flies your route, take them.  Unless it's completely unavoidable, DO NOT GIVE YOUR MONEY to American-owned airlines.  And especially, do not take United.

There's only one way to improve them.  Unless there's no way around it, don't give them your money.  And don't worry about damaging the American economy.  It's already screwed.  At this point civility is more important than guaranteeing a paycheck and a fat pension for people who should actually be on their hands and knees, scrubbing freeway onramps at rush hour.

Or am I being intemperate?

Tim -- Sundays


  1. No, Tim, not intemperate. (Well, okey-dokey, no more than usual...) I flew quite a bit while working as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard, and not just a few times on my own dime for vacations. I've reached the point where I don't plan to travel a whole bunch, hopefully will never NEED to travel much, and if I do I'll take a car or a train if at all possible. Only under great duress will I ever fly again.

    Of course, I'm not planning a trip to Thailand. But I have heard that someone actually rowed across the Pacific...

  2. Thank you, Tim, for replacing me at the top of United's hit list:).

  3. now I'm really looking forward to our United flight to Cleveland. ;-)
    But we are taking the train home!

  4. Funny, I don't fly much but this subject did cross my mind the other day. I was thinking about the psychological demands placed on airline travelers. First, the stress of getting to the airport, which is often considerable. Next, the wearisome (at best) search routine. Then the possibility of cancelled, delayed, or switched flights. (I've heard many stories of passengers finding themselves at the wrong terminal sprinting to make their plane. And then there is the memory of the old Hertz ads showing OJ sprinting through airports.) Finally they cram you into a seat next to a stranger, where you know you'll play Russian Roulette with your sanity for the next few hours, and tell you how to get oxygen and exit the plane if the worst happens. Does all this put people in a GOOD frame of mind? Of course not. Are airlines mindful of this and making an effort to alter these dynamics? Of course not.

  5. There used to be a comedy show on UK TV called 'Not The Nine O'Clock News'. They did a sketch about airline safety briefings that went something along the lines of, "In the event of an emergency there will be a loss of cabin pressure and a sudden reduction in the number of wings ..."

    I'm flying to Cleveland on Delta. Any horror stories about them you'd like to recount, Tim?

    1. Oh, and if you REALLY want to fly cattle class, try British Airways. 'The World's Favourite Airline'. Really?

    2. Or Alitalia. When the Jews say "Never Again!" they mean the Holocaust. When the Italians say "Never again," they mean Alitalia."

  6. This strikes a cord. Just yesterday I found out that my daughter's United flight for Dec 31st had been cancelled and she'd have to take another. They kindly offered us one that had her sitting in Newark for 12 hours, OVER NEW YEARS EVE, not to mention that as a paramedic she's working NY eve. We switched to WestJet. Ironically, when I booked the ticket, she said, "I hate United".

  7. There are so many people who utilize these airlines, and there is so much cynicism in the corporate world that they have forgotten to care about the customer. Were you to complain you would get a hypocritical response about how much you are cared about, if you get a response at all. It's not a pretty world out there; the small companies have more to lose and more to gain, so service is better.

  8. Sorry, everyone. I've written two long answers to these comments and blogger's really dreadful new software has eaten both messages.

    This is the third try. If this goes through, maybe I'll come back later tonight. SORRY>

    1. Ah, ya probably just couldn't get the Captcha right, Tim. (And "the blog software ate my reply" is ALMOST as lame as "the dog ate my homework." Come on, you're a writer, you're supposed to be CREATIVE!)

  9. Tim, Jeff - I am in complete agreement. However, I wish for the sake of your blood pressures you never have cause to fly on British budget airlines like Ryanair. It makes the experiences you speak of sound like Cathay Pacific Club.

  10. I see your point, Dan. I've heard words from Brits staggering off Ryanair charters onto Mykonos, that make me think we all do share a common language, at least in so far as four-letter words are concerned.

  11. Yes, you are. You know nothing about the pay or fat pensions of airline personnel. In addition, the FAA controls what electronics are allowed on in inflight airplanes. I worked for another US airline (not United) for more than twenty years and argue that the airlines we have today, we chose by electing Ronald Reagan President of the United States of America. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 sealed the deal. All major airlines except American have gone though chapter 11 bankruptcy. I would guess the station attendant that you were having trouble with has had her pay cut by 40 percent, her pension cut or terminated, and has to do the work of the people let go and not replaced in addition to her former duties. Give her a break. It's lucky more don't go postal on customers. You should be thankful for you just being ignored. I could go on and it would be informative about the working lives of the people you so easily denigrate. This really speaks of a lack of imagination in a so called author.

  12. In reply to Paul Krugman
    September 20, 2012
    Mary Ann

    Yes Tom McMahon, the Reagan years began the assault on unions in earnest. I experienced it first hand working as a flight attendant for Trans World Airlines, when a ruthless corporate raider was allowed to run roughshod over the employees after his hostile takeover. This raider made "deals" that provided snap-back provisions for the male dominated unions' concessions. But no such deal was afforded the flight attendants who this raider deemed, "not breadwinners." A union buster and a sexist to boot but his divide and conquer methods fractured the work groups and the airline.
    A once great airline was left a shadow of its former prominence as an air carrier, finally forced into two bankruptcies while the raider walked away with millions. My defined benefit pension was history and my wages never again approached what my cohorts at other airlines made. Finally, Americans are waking up to what has gone on for more than three decades. Back in 1986, few cared about anything other than making a quick killing when stock prices jumped if a raider appeared on the horizon. My story and versions of it could be told by millions of workers who have been marginalized by Republican philosophy and politics. I think they have a barely concealed disdain for most worke

  13. I am somewhat offended by Mr. Byrd's opinion, but I'll live with it. As for your intemperance, Tim, as long as it is with a good Pinot Noir, it is fully called for. I'll add my own story to yours, as we all could.
    I had booked a United flight from LAX to Dublin in 2010, with a stop over in NYC for a week during Christmas, then a return to LAX just after NYE. The International portion was on United's partner, Aer Lingus. Unfortunately, a blizzard swept into the whole North East and wiped out all air traffic. I assumed my flight to Dublin had been cancelled, but I could not find any information online, with Aer Lingus or United, both of whom reported "on time" as the only status. So I dutifully went to the airport and stood in line for nine hours waiting to be told what options I had since the flight had in fact been cancelled. It turned out that the first available flight to Dublin arrived there the day before my scheduled return to the States, so I opted to cancell the whole vacation and just get back home. No one at Aer Lingus or United was available to help me, and I ended up on telephone hold for another two hours before finally getting booked back to LAX in two more days. OK, this was unpleasant but hardly the fault of the airlines. They were overworked and highly stressed, and I'm not a VIP, so I can live with the problems. What steamed my boiler, however, was my request for a refund. It was impossible to talk to a human. I had to use an automated computer response system, and when I was done a got a confirmation e-mail saying "don't phone or e-mail us for at least three weeks because it just delays the process." Like an obedient fool, I did just that. Finally, after no response from United for 30 days, again using the automated system, I was told there was no record of my claim and to refile. Fool that I am, that's just what I did, and patiently waited another 30 days. I got the "no record of your claim" response again, and immediately wrote an angry e-mail to United Customer Service (a completely specious title) explaining the difficulty and requesting help resolving this problem. I got a (possibly computer generated) reply from CS saying my claim had been examined and I was being refunded $110. Since I had paid $1200 for the ticket, and the entire international portion had not been used, I thought this incorrect. I pointed this out in another e-mail and asked how the amount had been calculated, and was promised a further examination and reply. Time passed. Someone wrote to say that they had just taken over my case and sorry for the delay and they'd be right on it. Time passed. CS wrote to say that it had be readjuticated, and I was now going to get a total of $300 back. Again, and still, no explanation of how it had been computed. I'll skip the rest of the details, which include letters to the President and CEO of United, plus complaints to the FAA and some other oversight agency, with copies to United, and eventually, I was refunded a total of $600, after almost eight months of effort. All the airlines are challenged today, but some handle it as well as they can. Some are just crooks. I will Never voluntarily fly United.

  14. Robert Byrd, I actually have a nodding acquaintance with the historical path the airlines have been forced into (and to which they contributed) and I don't care very much. A business has responsibilities to its customers, and the airlines do not meet those responsibilities. I know airlines aren't usually in control of whether a flight leaves on time, but they could do quite a bit to ameliorate the stress by treating passengers as human beings rather than irritants. The demeanor of the woman behind the podium in Austin was unforgivable no matter what. No one has to do a job they hate, nor is it acceptable for them to take out their unhappiness on other. She was rude and arrogant when she had a whole airplane's worth of people in front of her with no idea whether their plane was still on the schedule. I don't care about her pension. I wouldn't lose a moment's sleep if she got fired at 11:15 this evening and when she got to the parking lot she found that her car had been stolen.

    You got me on the electronics -- I do know it's a Federal ruling because they say it twice each flight, but I wasn't thinking.

    The fact is that airlines in other parts of the world still treat their customers as though they were glad to see them get on the plane. It costs nothing, it doesn't take any talent that's rare in the general population. The fact is that the American airlines just don't give a damn. They deny their passengers the dignity we all deserve.

  15. I'm waiting for the first rail bridge over the Atlantic Ocean so I don't to fly to Crimefest anymore.