“Rough Air” Versus Turbulence

When you travel a lot, you tend to notice the little things — like the fact that the routine pre-takeoff speech has been subtly changed.

Flight attendants used to tell you to keep your seatbelt fastened in case the plane experienced turbulence. Now, you’re instructed to do it “in case the plane encounters unexpected rough air.”

Why the change in the standard speech? I imagine the airlines did some focus group testing and determined that people reacted more favorably to the notion of “unexpected rough air” than “turbulence.” I’m of the opposite view, however. Turbulent air just sounds like air that is upset for some reason; it will calm down eventually. But rough air suggests some meanness and malice, like the air is eager to cuff us around a little bit. The fact that it’s allegedly unexpected just makes it worse, like a thug springing from a dark alley to knock you over the head.

When I’m on a plane I’ll take upset air over angry air, every time.

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What’s Wrong With Our Airlines?

Every time you turn around, it seems like you are reading some disturbing new story about a poorly handled incident on an airline.  The latest is the story of a puppy that a United Airlines flight attendant forced into an overhead bin — where the puppy died.

united-airlinesThe incident happened on Monday, on a United Airlines flight from Houston to New York.  The dog was in an approved pet carrier device when a flight attendant required the dog’s owner to put the pet carrier into an overhead bin.  The flight attendant now says she didn’t realize the dog was in the pet carrier.  Another passenger on the plane, however, says the dog’s owner resisted and told the flight attendant that there was a live dog in the carrier, but the flight attendant insisted and the dog’s owner eventually complied.  When the pet carrier was retrieved at the end of the flight, the dog was dead — perhaps from lack of oxygen.

United Airlines has apologized, and a statement from a spokesperson said:  “This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”

In this instance, perhaps the flight attendant was at the end of a long shift and at the end of her rope, or perhaps she was confused about whether there was a live animal in the pet carrier.  (Of course, why else would somebody take a pet carrier on a plane as a carry-on item?)  Whatever the cause, the story is extremely troubling, because it’s another example of airlines treating passengers like cattle.  We’ve seen incidents where ticketed passengers have been forcibly removed from planes, including one instance that raised such a ruckus that United’s CEO sent an email out to me and other United passengers that spoke of passengers being “treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect” and that the airline intended to try to live up to “higher expectations.”  I guess that effort still has a ways to go.

 

Air Unfair

Yesterday Kish and I had one of those star-crossed travel days that make you want to grind your teeth into powder and curse the airlines with your dying breath.

The day began with a 90-minute delay of our flight from Bangor to Philadelphia.  OK, no problem — we’d wisely factored in some weather delays, given the fact that we’re in February and it is winter, and we still had plenty of time to make our connection.  We got to our gate in Philadelphia, checked the sign and saw that boarding was supposed to start in something like “42 minutes,” and found a seat and camped out.  When a plane arrived, everything was looking up.

02xp-pilots-master768Then the delay notices and announcements started.  First the flight out was delayed by 90 minutes, then another hour.  We groaned and went to get something to eat, and when we returned they’d changed the sign above our gate to show that the flight for the new time would be boarding in a new, reassuringly specific time, like in “58 minutes.”  They also made an announcement that, due to some kind of special fuel need regulation, they would have to load the plane with additional fuel and, as a result, the flight was oversold due to weight restrictions and some people would need to volunteer to take a later flight.  And, still later, a gate agent was actually giving us a kind of play-by-play about the incoming flight, to be arriving from Richmond.  First she announced that the incoming flight was at the gate in Richmond, then it had pushed back, and finally it was taxiing down the tarmac, ready to take off.

And then, only moments later and after our hours of waiting in the Philadelphia airport, American abruptly cancelled the flight.  Fortunately, we were seated near the gate, so we were able to get in line immediately, where we learned that there were no other flights out and the airline had helpfully booked us for a flight leaving Philly at 1:09 p.m. today.  (Hey, thanks, but I actually work for a living and Monday is, regrettably, a work day.)  No offer of a hotel room or a voucher, either, apparently because the cancellation was deemed to be “weather related,” even though the weather in Philadelphia was just fine.  When we left the gate agent, the line stretched back onto the concourse and was about 40 people long.  I was glad we were able to get the bad news quickly, at least.

So we bagged the flight, rented a car and drove from Philadelphia to Columbus.  Seven hours, a hefty rental car fee, and an outrageous, state-sanctioned-monopoly-gouging “toll” of more than $33.00 to drive from Philadelphia to New Stanton on the Pennsylvania Turnpike later, we rolled into Columbus shortly past midnight, bitching all the while that if the airline had just cancelled the flight right away or at least been honest with us that a cancellation was likely or even possible, rather than providing absurdly hopeful and totally misleading announcements and impending “boarding times,” we might have gotten home at a more reasonable hour.

I understand weather-related delays in winter, and that with such delays crew schedules can become bollixed and combinations of crew service regulations, maintenance issues, and other considerations can cause a legitimate cancellation.  What really galls me, though, is the lying and the misstatements.  Why can’t airlines just be honest with us?

Recline Decline

British Airways has announced that it is eliminating “reclining” seats on some of its economy flights this year.  According to the airline, getting rid of those seats will allow it to offer more low-far options to travelers — presumably because the company will be packing more seats into the economy section.

130212_afw_reclinerairline-crop-promovar-mediumlargeThe new British Airways seats will be set at a “gentle recline” configuration — i.e., two or three inches from the straight-backed dining room chair-type setting — but otherwise immobile.

Speaking as a frequent economy class airline passenger, I am all in favor of BA’s decision, and I hope other airlines quickly follow suit.  I never recline my seat, and I despise people who, as soon as the takeoff chime sounds, recline their seats to the maximum extent and crash into the knees of the passengers in the row behind.  In my view, people who do that are incredibly rude, and obviously are focused totally on themselves.  And really — do the few inches of reclining really make all that much difference, when you consider that you are horribly inconveniencing and cramping the unfortunate people who happen to be seated behind you?

In my view, the immediate/maximum recliners are almost, but not quite, as ill-mannered as the parents of unruly children who shrug when their kids won’t stop kicking the back of the seat in front of them.  If a seat design change eliminates their opportunity to ruin my flight, and allows for more affordable fares at the same time, it’s a great development.

It would be nice if people voluntarily behaved in a civilized fashion, but when they won’t, I’ll happily settle for technological modifications that prevent the rude behavior in the first place.

Seat Shrinkage

A recent federal court ruling has confirmed what those of us who travel frequently already know:  the passenger seating space on airplanes is shrinking.

A lawsuit brought by a group called Flyers Rights challenged the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to consider regulations to address minimum standards for passenger seating.   The passenger space issue involves two basics of airline travel — the width of the seats themselves and the seating “pitch,” which is the distance between the rows of airline seats on a plane.  According to Flyers Rights, the width of the seats has declined from 18.5 inches in the early 2000s to 17 inches now.  And the airlines are constantly reducing the “pitch,” too — from 35 inches to as low as 28 inches.  Narrower seats, and tighter “pitch,” allow airlines to cram even more seats onto planes.

28up-legroom-master675Because nobody really cares about passenger comfort on planes, the Flyers Rights lawsuit was argued to the court as presenting a safety issue.  Flyers Rights contended that the combination of shrinking seats and expanding passengers would make it harder to evacuate passengers in the event of an emergency and might also cause more passengers to develop deep vein thrombosis and blood clots because they can’t move their legs.  The federal court hearing the case ordered the FAA to at least consider these issues and decide whether to issue new regulations.

Anybody who travels much knows these passenger space issues deep in their bones.  Most flights these days are totally full, and it’s not difficult to feel like a sardine as you wedge yourself into your narrow seat, put your carry-on under the seat in front of you and thereby restrict your leg room, and then find your legs clamped when the person in the next row up “reclines” their seat by a few inches, directly on top of your kneecaps.  And the cramped feeling is exacerbated when, as is often the case, the person sitting next to you is overflowing their designated seat space.  If, like me, you typically work on a plane and need to retrieve things from the carry-on under the seat, you need to make many minute adjustments, and cram your face against the seat back in front of you, just to reach your carry-on and get out pen, paper, and reading material.

It’s hard for me to believe that any actual study would show that an airplane is as readily evacuated with narrow seats and 28 inches of space between rows as it would be with wider seats and 35 inches of passenger maneuvering room.  But forget the safety issue for a minute — I’m wondering whether any airline will start marketing itself as the humane airline that actually offers more leg room for those of us in coach.

Hey, a traveler can dream, can’t he?

Via Tropic Air

Kish and I decided to get away from the grey Columbus skies for a few days and chose Belize as our destination.  Tropic Air is one of the local airlines, along with Maya Airlines.  We and a dozen other passengers took this sturdy propeller plane across the bay to Ambergris Caye.  I’m used to prop planes that make an ungodly racket, but this plane was remarkably quiet.

You really know you’re in the Caribbean when you cross over that sparkling, crystal clear, blue-green water.

First-Class Jerks

Here’s an interesting finding:  when flights attendants were asked whether they would rather work the first-class cabin with its handful of passengers, or deal with the mobs in coach, most of them voted with their feet and chose to work coach.

stm5384a217ee8e720140527Why?  Because the first-class cabin is filled with a bunch of demanding prima donnas, whereas coach is filled with the humble salt of the earth — people who, accustomed as they are to being crammed into uncomfortable seats with insufficient leg room, are happy as hell when the attendant simply flips a packet of peanuts their way and gives them a glass of soda with too many ice cubes.

This squares with my years of personal experience.  I think I have flown first-class precisely once, when I had to get somewhere and the first-class seat was the last one available.  Other than that, I’m a coach guy who simply can’t justify the expense of first-class airfare.  So I skulk through the first-class cabin as they sip their champagne, munch on free cheese and grapes, and talk way too loud on their cell phones, like they’re the only passengers on the plane.  Given my brief, unpleasant exposure to them, I’m not surprised that — with the obvious exception of the Scotsman, who flies first class because he has booked every plane trip on Delta since Reagan was President — first-class air travelers are demanding, first-class jerks.

I’ll share a secret smile with the attendant in coach the next time I’m folded into a seat and she hurls a tiny bag of pretzels my way.