Posted in Commentary

Fly the not-so-friendly skies

As I recall the story, I was a month old the first time I took an airplane flight. I was born in November, and my parents brought the new baby home from Indiana to Wisconsin for Christmas. The pressure change was such that all the capillaries in my new eyes burst and I got off the plane a demon baby, giving new meaning to the term “red-eye.” Looking back now, that experience was probably prescient, and pretty indicative of my experiences with air travel.

The second time I remember being on a plane was on a short hop in my uncle’s plane. He piloted my family on a joyride up and down the west shore of Lake Michigan. I don’t recall any particular trauma on that trip, so it must’ve been fine.

Not so my third trip. I was a junior in high school, and a member of the Lincoln Youth Symphony, and we were headed to Toronto on a trip that was part fun excursion, part competition. It was my first (but, sadly, not my last) experience with airsickness, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was born carsick, and by then motion sickness was just a part of life for me. I was so sick on the plane, the flight attendant was worried about me, and I didn’t get off the plane to stretch my legs when we stopped in Chicago to refuel and reload passengers. I sat slumped in my seat and managed to nurse a ginger ale the last leg of the flight, and then we got on a motorcoach, where things didn’t get any better. Oddly, the only time I wasn’t nauseated that whole trip was on the Maid of the Mist boat at Niagara Falls. Best part of the trip was sitting next to Andrew Vogt on the bus and talking with him long enough that I crushed hard for the rest of the trip and somewhat beyond. Gosh, but he was cute, and talented. (I just googled him, not expecting to find him, but I did, and damn if he isn’t even cuter, and still playing the sax, pro! The crush is back on!)

In college, I only got on a plane to visit my family, who had moved to Minnesota by then. It was then that “Back in the USSR” became my personal traveling theme song: “On the way the paper bag was on my knee, man I had a dreadful flight…” ‘Nuff said. I learned to never get on a plane without having taken Dramamine half an hour prior to boarding, but sometimes even that was not enough. When I was lucky, it would put me to sleep within 45 minutes of take off, and the landing would be what roused me.

There had been hope in my family (and my own secret heart) that my motion sickness would be something I outgrew, but it never happened. The summer I left teaching and got a job as a traveling trainer, I had to wonder just what I was thinking when I took a position knowing I would be on planes 3 weeks out of every 4 all summer long. Sometimes I would be fine; sometimes I would get off the plane shaking, sweaty, and yearning for a toothbrush. I had to be careful with the Dramamine then because there was no one at the other end waiting to pick me up; I had to be awake and coherent enough to get my bags, my rental car, and get myself to a hotel in a strange city, often at night. There were a lot of inconveniences to air travel, but I looked at it as a necessary evil, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to be driving cross-country.

I learned a lot traveling for business. I learned a new level of self-reliance born of making my flights, dealing with delays and cancellations, and navigating big strange airports and bigger, stranger cities. I learned how to wait like a champion; air travel is all about waiting, and you can do it in a state of agitation, or you can learn to be mellow. I learned where the hubs were, and having taken many of the same flights over and over again through Dallas and Houston, I knew what my alternatives were when something went wrong, and could ask to be changed to a specific flight. One time, it looked like I wasn’t getting home that night as planned, but I remembered that there was one more late flight on American (I was on Continental that trip), and they got me on it and home to Tucson. And I learned that business travel held no joy for me, so I worked to create the job I have now in my company, where the furthest I travel is home for lunch each day.

The bulk of my work travel was over by 2003, with a few occasional jaunts in 2004, but even then, air travel was no picnic. I routinely got delayed in Texas because of weather, and in Chicago for randomly canceled flights. One night I got stuck in Houston late at night after circling for hours. I had a room, no luggage, no clean clothes, no dinner, and no room service privileges. The latter was discovered after I ordered a piece of cake and a glass of milk just so I didn’t starve before morning, and they realized downstairs that I couldn’t charge it to my comped room, so they were going to come up and get my credit card information. I told them I’d take care of it in the morning, but they were insistent. I suggested again that it wait until morning, because at that point of a really crappy day (and I was getting sick, too), I was eating cake in the nude, having washed out my bra and undies and hung them to dry so I’d have something relatively clean to wear in the morning, but if they still wanted to come up to my room at 11:45 p.m. so I could sign a credit card slip, I’d be happy to answer the door as-is.

They said that taking care of it in the morning when I checked out would be fine.

I also once spent 3 hours on a runway at O’Hare, where no beverages were offered, and the seatbelt sign was on the entire time. And probably once every four flights or so, regardless of airport, they would announce they were in an “oversell situation” and I would panic that I wouldn’t get home that night, but someone always volunteered to be bumped. The new post-9/11 security was a massively inconvenient joke, and if people weren’t homicidal upon getting into line, there was a fair chance they would be by the time they were done.

Luxury!

At this point, I don’t know a single person who hasn’t had at least one major problem on a flight, and I haven’t taken a single on-time and problem-free flight in the last 2 years. Sometimes the problems are minor, like a late take-off, and when you’re lucky, they make up the time en route. However, as airlines have cut flights and overbooked the ones they have, being bumped from your flight is highly likely, and forget about getting on another flight that day. It’s really been a mess for a long time, and the problems with people being virtually held hostage for 8 hours+ on the runway during the big snowstorms in February of this year are just the natural result of completely fubar industry practices.

In no other business are you required to purchase something 21 days beforehand, pay for it up front, pay one of 9 different prices for the same product, and have no recourse when you show up to take possession of your seat and they tell you you can’t have one, or that you can have one but it’s not their problem if they don’t get you where you intended to go at the time you contracted to be there. If city buses worked like the airline industry, there would be riots in the streets, and rightly so.

With all this as backdrop, the airlines are doing everything they possibly can to put a stake in their own blood-sucking heart, and it’s actually quite astonishing. I have to wonder what brilliant business mind thinks, “Air travel is a complete mess; we have seemingly no control over our schedules; we’ve cut back on every known service we possibly can and don’t even give people peanuts anymore; concourses are filled with people waiting instead of flying; and we are universally loathed by everyone who has the misfortune to step foot into an airport. Now…how can we make it worse?”

American Airlines has got the answer: they will now charge you to check a bag.

A lot of people, myself included, have gotten into the habit of doing carry-on luggage only whenever possible, to avoid the interminable wait at baggage claim, as well as the loss of luggage that seems to be happening with greater frequency. If the bag is in your hand, you know it will get wherever you’re going. They’ve cut back on how much you can take carry-on, (though people still push the boundaries and nothing is ever said), and it got a little trickier when they started limiting the liquids you could put in carry-ons. However, if you absolutely had to bring large quantities of liquids, or other carry-on-banned items, your option was to put them in your checked luggage, and pay the cost of time waiting at baggage claim. But no more; now you have to pay an extra fee to do even that.

American is the first to try it, but others are considering the same option as fuel costs sky-rocket, and because consumer confidence is at an all-time low for their industry, and people are staying home, so don’t expect this to be something you can avoid by just avoiding a single airline. Sometimes the choice is not yours, anyway. I am already boycotting American for other reasons, but sometimes they’re the only airline that will get me where I need to go, and I’m stuck between putting up with their crap and staying home. More and more, the latter seems like the more appealing option. I’m pretty happy with my backyard.

The thing is, anyone who travels a fair amount could’ve seen this coming for a long, long time, and cannot be surprised that airlines are being crushed under the weight of their own arrogant business practices. The cost of oil may just be the death blow to an industry that, frankly, needs to die in its current form and be reborn as something that works, because this sure ain’t it.

Some analysts are suggesting that air travel is going to revert to the province of the wealthy and the business travelers, as it was early on in air travel, as they will be the only ones who can afford it. It’s already headed that way. Tickets for my folks to get from Wisconsin to here are upwards of $900 apiece right now, so we’ll not be seeing them anytime soon.

I’d like to go that one further, and suggest that the airlines cannot survive without those of us who usually fill up steerage. There are not enough rich people to fill those planes, and a handful of planes in the air is not enough to keep an industry that employs so many viable. But business-as-usual is an unmitigated disaster which cannot continue.

What would make the difference? A one-month boycott of air travel. Yes, the industry would go down in flames, but it’s doing that anyway, and from the ashes may rise a phoenix worth paying money for. As long as consumers continue to suck it up and accept terrible (or no) service for increasing expense, airlines have no incentive to change. What they, and maybe we, have forgotten is that commercial air travel is not a necessity. Every flight I’m on, I see adults who are announcing to all that this is their first flight; somehow, they’ve managed to pass decades without getting on a plane. The fact is, given the current technology, travel for business is unnecessary and old-fashioned. I can talk to someone via video using free Yahoo instant messaging and a $30 computer camera, and that’s at the low end—there are bigger and better options, the outlay for which will still come in under the cost of a year’s worth of travel and hotel for a regular business traveler. Video-conferencing capabilities are such that the only reason a person has to travel for business is to shake their client’s hand, which is nice, but it’s a nicety I’m not sure we should keep on affording at the moment. Travel for pleasure can be enjoyable, but what have you paid to get there, and how stressed out are you when you arrive? Put it off a month, and the airlines will be begging us to come back. Government has its own planes, and there are private pilots who can carry donated organs between hospitals, and will be glad for the work in a tough economy. Did I forget anyone?

It amazes me that the world could mobilize to show its displeasure with New Coke to such a degree that it was pulled from shelves, but that we continue to put up with the shoddy state of air travel. We grumble, but we still buy tickets, and those are basically votes for status quo.

One month. If no one, and I mean NO ONE, traveled commercial air for one month, airlines would be begging for mercy, and they’d have to make changes on a grand scale, changes they lack the foresight or impetus to make voluntarily. I really think it could work. In any case, something’s gotta give; I’d prefer it to be them for a change.

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Author:

I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

6 thoughts on “Fly the not-so-friendly skies

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your take on the airline industry and subsequent poor service which, like many of us, I’ve experienced first hand. I used to love flying (not being prone to such sickness as you experience), but now I hate the very thought of it. FYI: first-class and full-fare passengers are not required to pay extra fees for their check-in baggage. So, as you stated, it’s a situation tailor-made for those willing to shell out the big bucks (not me). We have four trips requiring plane travel this year and I’m not happy about it. I was fussing at Dub Honey about the whole thing last night and told him I’m not interested in travel anymore. That’s a shame because I truly do love exploring the world but I don’t like being held hostage by the airlines and enduring miserable experiences. Not worth it to me.

  2. I’ll tell you when I quit for good…that’s when they make the traveler get on the scale and pay for “overages”..read, being fat. I ain’t weighing myself in front of anyone that doesn’t get paid to see me naked annually! B

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