Friday, April 11, 2008

New No-Fly Zone: Everywhere


The good news is that I managed to be on one of the last of the American Airlines MD-80's this past Tuesday right before the airline grounded all those planes. The bad news is that I managed to be on one of the last of the American Airlines MD-80s this past Tuesday right before the airline grounded all those planes. By that, I don't mean to say that I was unlucky because I might have been in some danger. I mean I was unlucky because I was on a plane.


That's a comment on the sorry state of air travel these days: I barely reacted to the fact that the plane might not have been properly wired. My major relief was that I had landed almost on time, that my luggage arrived, and that it will be a while before I have to fly again. I'm not singling out one airline or one type of aircraft. Over the last few years, air travel for most of us has gotten more and more miserable.


That's the real airline mess today. It's not just the American Airlines thing. It's how airlines have deteriorated in recent years. Remember the days when flying was fun? Or reasonably comfortable? Or at least tolerable? Those days are history. They are of a bygone era -- like three dollar-a- gallon gasoline, or nurses' hats.


The airlines put you in a bad mood right when you walk onto the plane. I know I didn't buy a first class ticket. They don't have to rub it in. But they do. They force us to walk through first class before we get to our seats. So we have to see people seated comfortably, having drinks from real glass glasses on our way to the torture chamber known as the "coach cabin." When you check into a hotel, they don't force you to see the penthouse suite with a spectacular view before you go to your little room near the ice machine. If the airlines cared about the feelings of the majority of people who fly, they could let us use one of the other entrances to the plane, or at least board the first class passengers after coach.


The cliché is that they pack us in like sardines on a plane. That's an insult to sardines. A sardine isn't getting elbowed all the way to Cleveland by the fish sitting next to him. The airline seat must have been developed by a descendant of the Marquis de Sade. It's like sitting in a child's car seat -- without little toys to play with.


The air-conditioning on a plane has two settings: Off and Antarctica. And if the plane is delayed taking off or getting to the gate and you're just sitting there, why do they have to turn off the air-conditioning? I guarantee you the air-conditioning is on in the cockpit.


Hardly a day goes by that we don't read about some airline going bankrupt or being forced to lay off more employees. One thing you know for sure, they're not in bad financial shape because of all that they spend on customer service. It's almost impossible to get a real person on an airline's phone, and humans don't show up to help people at the gate until a few minutes before takeoff.


The whole passenger-airline relationship is very unfair. If you're one minute late for your plane, they won't let you on. But the plane can be four hours late, and all you get is a shrug.


"USA Today" reported recently that airlines' performance was near a 20-year low. And that was before this recent mess that stranded or "inconvenienced" an estimate 250,000 passengers – so far. Flights are routinely overbooked, bags are lost, and planes are delayed. And delayed. People now spend so much time in airports that pharmacies and walk-in clinics are opening at airports across the country. The industry probably figures that things would become too crowded if they also opened walk-in law offices.


The one solution I can think of to all of these problems is for Congress to pass a law insisting that all airline CEOs fly on their airline's longest flight in coach class once a week. After a few weeks, they're bound to either make some changes or leave the airline business. I'd be happy to accept either outcome.

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