Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Food & Wine Thursdays will return at a future date, in the mean time I have more things to complain about. – DD

It’s hard to think of another business where customers spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a service only to be yelled at, crammed into uncomfortable spaces, and then, despite the aforementioned money spent, hit up for a dollar here and a dollar there for the duration of the service. But if you travel with a legacy airline in the US, that’s the experience you’re going to have.

Lately I’ve been travelng almost exclusively with low cost carriers and on a recent trans-continental and then trans-Atlantic flight on United/US Airways I was reminded why.

The legacy carriers planes are old and cramped, their flight attendants are gruff and ornery, and, despite their higher airfares, still nickel and diming their customers like the low-cost carriers.

Compare: I flew Virgin America to JFK. On my five-ish hour flight I had an in-seat monitor with free live TV, games, and music. I could also get on-demand entertainment for a fee if I wanted. The audio worked great with any standard headset. If you didn’t have a headset, the ones Virgin have for sale are nice, comfortable and of good quality for a mere $2. The food-for-purchase was reasonable and with a modern, healthy sensibility.

For the first time I used their GoGo wifi since this was a long flight. It only cost $8 for the flight, which is reasonable for 5+ hours of Internet. Monthly GoGo deals make it even cheaper for the frequent flyer.

Virgin America’s staff is young and friendly, helpful and most importantly they stay out of your way unless you call them. The only downside is that they charge for checked bags from bag one, but at Virgin’s prices I don’t mind too much.

Now, my United/US Airways flight was another story. Crowded on the first leg with only tiny shared TVs showing shitty movies. But at least United planes have ordinary headphone jacks. More on that later.

My experience with United at SFO was awful from the start. I couldn’t self check-in because I needed proof of return travel. This confused me since clearly the computer knows I’m flying back in 12 days because IT’S ON THE ITINERARY I PRINTED OUT FROM THE COMPUTER! And surly union baggage handlers at SFO? Don’t just stand there gawking at people, how about you be helpful? I know it might get in the way of your contract-stipulated standing around time, but maybe being a logical human being would be more productive. Also, United?I know it’s called self check-in but having one person roaming the 20+ kiosks to help with problems would be money well-spent, especially when the airport staff is unable to direct passengers to the right line.

The longer flights are the more desirable ones for flight staff since most of the work is done during takeoff and landing and there are FAA rules about how much flight time staff are allowed. As a result, long flights on legacy carriers, where assignments are based on seniority, are staffed by old, surly, and often just rude flight attendants.

(And I know you can’t REALLY discriminate on weight, but if a flight attendant can’t stand sideways in the aisle without hitting me with her ass–and not in that surra da bunda way–there’s a problem.)

Overall the United leg from SFO to Philadelphia wasn’t terrible once I boarded, just crowded and United’s old 737s have terrible legroom in coach.

The US Airways code-share leg to Lisbon was another story.

Despite arriving at the gate a good half -hour before departure, the flight attendant at the gate rudely snapped at me to board the plane immediately, despite the fact that he was neither standing at the boarding pass receiving area nor did he make any indication that he was taking boarding passes prior to his snap. I politely informed him that I was waiting for a colleague and it was a half-hour before departure. He told me not to tell him when I needed to board the plane and that I could wait for my colleague on the plane. And of course when I walked down the jetway I was stopped almost immediately by the backup of customers boarding the plane. Clearly that was worth snapping at me about. Clearly.

Once on the plane, it was pretty nice: not too crowded and with more legroom than the United flight. However, US Airways has the same shitty programming on their shitty TVs and with their two-prong headphone jacks, you can’t get stereo sound unless you pay $3 for their shitty plastic proprietary headset. Really US Airways? It’s not 1968 any more, headphones are pretty much standard travel gear you fucking cheap assholes.

(To the credit of one flight attendant who was next to me during my gate argument, she apologized for the behavior of the other attendant and gave us complimentary headsets and drinks.)

As an aside, what happened to free booze on international flights? $7 for a Becks? That’s some bullshit right there.

And despite all the a la carte charges elsewhere, why do the legacy carriers leave in place the one included thing I want them to get rid of, the goddamn meal service? I don’t want your fucking terrible pasta and soggy pastry! Give me some nice, reasonably priced a la carte options and keep your giant food carts and giant flight attendant butts out of the aisle. Who wouldn’t take a nice pre-made sandwich or wrap for $7 over a dry chicken breast nuked in an airplane microwave?

Last note (and Virgin was guilty of this too): stop yelling at us about overhead bin space! When you start charging for checked bags, customers are going to be carrying luggage on more often. And chastising us at the gate for an oversized carry-on (not me) is pointless. You need to get that enforced at the check-in counter and security screening. Or how about you let people check a bag for free? Even lower the weight limit to 25 pounds or something and then charge just for overage. People have to travel and they have to travel with stuff.

Think about what people need for traveling: reasonable luggage space, basic entertainment, hydration. Include that in the ticket price and then go nuts with a la carte stuff like food, premium entertainment, good liquor, wifi and extra checked baggage. That way your customers won’t feel like they’re getting squeezed and you can still make money on services. On Virgin, where I can enjoy good free entertainment, I end up spending more on peripherals than on a plain where I feel the next step is going to be a fifty cent bathroom charge.

Air travel is a way of life and the legacy carriers need to recognize the strong draw that new providers like Virgin have, especially on the younger jet set and adjust their practices accordingly. As it stands right now, if I never fly a legacy again, I’ll be ecstatic.

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
This entry was posted in Home of the Bizarre Rant, Just Wrong, Puffery, Week in Rage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Flying the Unfriendly Skies

  1. Vera says:

    I just had a minor heart-attack. I am flying an Air Canada/United bullshit codeshare to LA. If I don’t have access to free booze on board there will be a big problem. Twilight Zone the Movie-style bad. AC is still humane and offers free-flowing alcohol for anxiety-numbing, but fucking UA are barbarians and only offer it on flights to Asia! WTF! So, I have no idea whose policy will prevail LHR – LAX. I don’t care if they serve chicken so microwaved it squeaks when you bite it, I just want copious whiskey.

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