Friday, June 18, 2010

Clueless Travelers

Tuesday we flew home from a conference in Las Vegas. Curbside check-in was a breeze and only a few minutes later our IDs had been checked and we were in the process of going through the security check. (I'd like to point out that the TSA folks were exceptionally courteous and efficient - a rare combination.) I politely invited a lady to move ahead of me in the line since Lourie was behind her, thus allowing us to stay together. Boy, was that a mistake! Despite the fact that she had on NO excessive accessories (large belt, jewelry, etc) that needed to be put through x-ray, had no laptop or other large electronic device that needed to be removed from her luggage and was wearing slip-on shoes she was the SLOWEST person I have seen in the security line in ages. As she removed each shoe it was given a careful examination with commentary on the flaws she discovered along with lamentations over the lack of quality in their construction. This was all done while standing in one spot - heaven forbid we slide our belongings towards the X-ray machine in the process and make some degree of progress! Then she had to remove her hat (with even more commentary) and finally made it through the metal detector. In the epoch that it took her to remove two shoes and a hat I removed my laptop and placed it in a bin, put my wallet and Blackberry in my bag, removed my shoes (cross-trainers, not slip-ons) and had everything on the belt, ready to pass through x-ray. I was reasonably confident that by the time I passed through the metal detector she would have slipped on her shoes, plopped on her hat, grabbed her suitcase and gone on about her business. WRONG. She was standing with her suitcase blocking the exit from the X-ray machine, slowly collecting her shoes and hat, then carefully putting them back on. I grabbed my bag, laptop and shoes and moved around her to the "dressing" area. I was re/un-packed with shoes tied by the time she managed to sashay past. Despite all the written and verbal instruction provided by TSA this poor lady was so clueless that it must certainly be painful! I'm certain that if they had an "experienced traveler" line she would have made that choice.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Air Travel

I would consider myself an above-average user of our airline system and a fairly saavy traveler.   About ten years ago I flew almost weekly, these days it averages out to about every 6-8 weeks, almost exclusively on two airlines.  In all of my flying I can count on two hands the number of unpleasant experiences I’ve endured.  I can count on one hand those experiences that were not related to the weather and of the remainder there are just a couple that occurred on the plane – most are due to surly ticket agents and carry-on luggage nazis that “pre screen” the number and size of your items.  Ironically enough, the longest ramp delay I’ve ever experienced doesn’t even rank among my most unpleasant.  While inconvenient and a general nuisance, the overall circumstances were about as tolerable as they come.
I was flying Delta (yes, I’ll mention names – and do my best to give praise as readily as criticism) leaving Atlanta for Oklahoma City on an August evening a couple of years ago.  It should come as no surprise that there were thunderstorms in the area, so traffic was a bit sluggish to begin with.   After lining up for one end of the runway the winds changed, so ATC reversed the field and sent everyone scurrying to the opposite end of the runway. (I’d love to see this ballet from the tower, I’m sure it’s a challenge both in the air and on the ground.)  As we reach our place in line at the other end of the runway a huge storm parks over the field and ATC shuts down operations.  At this point we are already 30 minutes beyond scheduled departure.  When the Captain informs us that we will be sitting for a while there are mostly shrugs – we’re fortunate to be on an MD-80 that is only about 2/3 full, the sun has set and we have a crew that has just come on duty.  We can move about, use our phones and electronics, visit the restrooms and generally make ourselves comfortable.  Snacks and soft drinks are also available if you take a short walk to the galley and the 1 1/2 hours passes without incident, in large part due to the courtesy of the flight attendants and the updates from the captain. When the storm passes, guess what? The winds have changed again, so it’s back to the other end of the runway. Fortunately we were adjacent to an intersecting taxiway and ended up #2 for departure, which caused a bit of a scurry as everyone re-prepped for takeoff, but the mood remained light.
Fast forward to the past few months. I’ve flown a bit more frequently in late 2009 and the first half of 2010 on a combination of business and family trips. Now, those of us who travel with such extravagant items as a razor (electrics have never worked well for me) shaving cream (for use with said razor) toothpaste, and deodorant (of all things!) are forced to pay an additional fee to check our bags. They call it “un-bundling fees” but apparently they think we all have the logical capacity of an opossum.
For those of you who were in a coma the past several years, there was a huge run-up in fuel prices after a combination of storms and mishaps impacted refining capacity. Those issues have long since been resolved and prices have moderated significantly (a decrease of about $2 per gallon, generally speaking)
In the midst of all this airfares increased, fees became “un-bundled” and passenger services were cut. Keep in mind that self-service check-in also increased (so your services were cut even before you got on the plane) and luggage weight limits were decreased from ~70lbs to 50lbs. (Don’t even get me started on flying internationally, where your 50lb suitcase is just fine for the trip over, but on the way back it becomes ~22.7 kg, which exceeds the 22kg limit imposed on the other end of the trip!) Now your empty suitcase consumes nearly 20% of your alloted 50lbs, assuming you have something of fairly recent vintage. In many cases airlines also added seats to some planes, decreasing precious legroom. I’m of average height (5-9) and if my legs are cramped I know something is wrong.
Now, every time you board an aircraft, thanks to all these additional fees and decreases in service you get to enjoy any number of inconveniences. First, and most likely, as you come down the jet bridge you get to run the gate-check obstacle course. No one has been able to explain to me why it apparently costs the airlines nothing to place these bags in the hold while my bag, checked at the counter and handled most of the time by machinery, costs them some portion of $15-$23, depending upon the airline. After we survive the obstacle course and make it on the plane we are faced with what I like to call “The Gauntlet.”
“The Gauntlet” consists of making it to your seat without suffering grave injury from the wild combination of suitcases falling from the overhead, passengers moving upstream with items too large to fit in the overhead and flight attendants squeezing through the aisle attempting to mitigate the damage from the two prior insults. After you finally get to your seat the danger still exists, especially if you are seated on the aisle. Somehow, all the angst and discontent that this exercise creates – all in the name of “un-bundling” – is lost on the airline bean-counters. As someone who doesn’t haul everything into the cabin I find it an affront that I’m forced to deal with the headache when I’ve paid to avoid it. Hey, airlines – how about preferred boarding for those who pony up for checked baggage? Let me take my seat before the circus starts, at least then I’m not having to deal with the salmon-esque machinations of everyone else.
Upon arrival at your destination there’s a whole new obstacle course to navigate, this one of feet and carry-on bags as everyone lines the sides of the jetway waiting for their luggage to be retrieved from the cargo hold. With all the other irritations, change fees have gotten outrageous as well. I’ve never failed to inform the airlines of how stupid they are on this issue when the chance presents itself. Last summer I was booked to fly from OKC to ILM on Monday morning. Sunday morning it became apparent that our meetings would end much earlier than anticipated so I called Delta to inquire about changing to a Sunday evening flight. There were seats available for Sunday evening, but Delta wanted a $100 change fee, plus an additional $300 for the difference in the cost of the airfare. I told them (not politely, mind you) that they were out of their minds and spent the night in OKC. The next morning they ended up compensating two people $400 each due to the flight being overbooked. I refused to take a bump on the principle of the matter and politely informed the gate agent that I attempted to fly out the night before but Delta’s asinine policy put revenue ahead of common sense. Given the choice to use something that is about to become worthless (such as an empty airline seat after the plane leaves the gate) and replace it with something of potential value (an airline seat the next day) doesn’t logic dictate that you at least try to preserve value? Obviously not in the airline industry.
Again, how does this specialized handling of baggage represent a cost benefit to the airline? I’d love to hear an answer to that one. Better yet, explain to me how you can claim rising fuel prices were the catalyst for cutting services, then fail to reinstate the services when the fuel prices dropped? Southwest Airlines allows two free checked bags and has the most reasonable cancellation and change policies I’ve ever seen, along with ridiculously affordable fares. Perhaps the other airlines should learn from their example?
As it is, the only thing the airlines are proving is that they will squeeze the markets where they have no competition to extract every dime they can, no matter what the cost.