Thursday, April 8, 2010

Come fly with me

A few years ago, I was flying somewhere almost every week--usually on business. Some weeks, with connections, I'd have six or more takeoffs. I'm fortunate that, for every takeoff, I've always had a matching successful landing. Well, there was that one close call at DFW, but we eventually made it to the ground in one piece.

I don't have a clue how many flights I've been on, but it's a lot. Enough to earn me elite status on Delta for several years running and more free drink coupons than I can count on Southwest. I still have enough miles banked from all those business trips to take me anywhere in the world on Continental.

I once got a Mexican guy sitting next to me blitzed on a long multi-stop flight to Tampa on Southwest. He had so many free beers from drink coupons I was handing out to everyone around me that the airplane ran out of his preferred brand by the second leg. His mastery of English was rapidly failing due to his growing fog, but he still had the nerve to complain about having to switch when he got the bad news.

The flight attendant, one of those indomitable Texas women, gave him a look with ice-water eyes and said with a sweet smile "shut up, Pedro, they're free." The guy thought about that a moment, nodded his head, and meekly ordered a Bud. I discreetly packed away the rest of my drink coupons and she gave me an approving nod.

True story.

It's been a long time since I really enjoyed flying, and these days I do as little of it as possible. My last commercial flights were last June--to Paris and back. It's inconvenient to get to Europe in a car.

Several things have combined to make flying a pain.

The increased security post-9/11 has definitely increased the hassle factor. I accept the invasive level of security at airports because I don't want to be killed by a crazed terrorist who thinks blowing up a plane full of innocent people will somehow take him to paradise, even though I know that most of what the TSA does is just to reassure us that they're doing something.

The new nude-o-scan machines now being installed in airports are a little over the top, though. I don't even like my doctor to see me naked, and I really don't groove to the idea of Luvinia at the TSA checkpoint passing judgement on every little detail of my manly physique.

Then there are the planes themselves. These days most airplanes leave packed to the gills. Airlines have become very sophisticated at the art of load management, which ensures that every seat is taken on almost every flight. Gone are the days when you could expect to spread out over an open middle seat.

The planes also feel more crowded because the airlines have managed to cram more seats into the same space on many of their airplanes. Also, the seats are the same size they were fifty years ago while the average American has become quite a bit bigger over the last half century.

Now, with bag check fees imposed by most airlines, people are trying to cram all their worldly goods under their seats and into those overhead bins. I've seen some heated moments on more than one flight recently when center of the universe types removed other people's stuff from the overhead and replaced it with their own.

Remember hot meals on long flights? I do. Charging for a pillow or blanket? Give me a break.

I've noticed some airlines these days play games with flight cancellations. If a flight isn't full enough, you're likely to have a suspicious last-minute "mechanical" or "weather" issue that puts you on a later packed flight. Some airlines do this more than others, but it's not a very nice trick to pull on paying customers.

Two items in the news this week have convinced me that it's only going to get worse for all of us. European budget carrier Ryanair is considering installing pay potties on short flights. Excuse me, pay potty (singular) since they're also planning on removing two of the three toilets on each airplane to add six more seats.

Also in the news, U.S. carrier Spirit Airlines will be charging customers for bringing carry-on bags aboard their flights.

I have a pretty good feeling for how that meeting went:

"How's it going, Darlene?"

"Pretty well, Frank. We're flying at ninety-eight percent capacity and our revenues are up two percent since we instituted the bag check fee, but the fee has created some secondary problems for us."

"Really? What problems?"

"Well, for starters, our customers hate us. Most of our comment cards and e-mails come addressed to 'Dear Satan's Spawn.'"

"That's okay, the sheep hate all the airlines, so that's not a competitive disadvantage. Anything else?"

"Yes, so many people are stuffing their luggage into the overheads on full flights that we're having to do way too many last minute bag checks at the gate. Those customers with big carry-ons are successfully avoiding the bag check fees and it's causing some departure delays. Three flights missed their takeoff slots last week and were delayed over an hour each because of this."

"Hmmm, I have an idea. Why don't we just charge customers for their carry-ons too. That way more of them will check their bags at the ticket counter. That will reduce the crowding in the overheads, eliminate the take-off delays and produce more revenue for us. It's a win, win, win."

"Frank, you're a genius!"

"That's why I'm the CEO and you're the VP for logistics, Darlene. You can thank me at bonus time."

I'm not mad at the airlines. They've got to do what they've got to do to make a buck. I'm just a little sad it has come down to this.

I have flights coming up next month and again in July, and I plan to fly on Southwest both times. The planes will be packed, but the hassle factor seems to be a little smaller on Southwest. Plus, Southwest is one of the few airlines left that doesn't charge me to check my bags.

Of course Southwest doesn't send me birthday cards any more since I stopped flying so often, and they used to send me two every year. Oh well, I don't mind the tradeoff.

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