“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.

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.

Useless Airways

On Friday night US Airways flew its final flight, a red-eye from San Francisco to Philadelphia.  We’ll see no more references to US Airways on the departure or arrival boards at airports, because the airline is now a fully integrated part of American Airlines.  It will take a while, however, before all of the planes with the US Airways logo are repainted with American’s design.

Longtime travelers could be forgiven feeling a certain wistfulness at the news.  Not because US Airways was a great, beloved airline — it wasn’t — but because the ongoing trend of airline consolidation has eliminated another airline name that was easy to mock when you were waiting at a terminal for a long-delayed flight.  Anybody who flew US Airways much inevitably referred to it as “Useless Airways.”  And the greybeards among us remember that US Airways was formerly known as USAir, which was the successor to Allegheny Airlines, which had the best mockname of all: Agony Airlines.

Lots of big-name airlines have bitten the dust over the past few decades — Pan Am, TWA, Northwest, Eastern (known, of course, as Leastern) — and countless small and regional carriers and attempted start-ups.  The remaining airlines may still cancel flights for inexplicable and therefore suspicious reasons (i.e., they discover there aren’t enough passengers to make the flight profitable, so why not make those unlucky passengers take a later flight to fill it up and invent a reason for the cancellation) and irritate passengers, but their names seemingly have been carefully calculated to frustrate mocknaming.  If you’re a patriotic citizen, you feel guilty even attempting to mockname American Airlines.  And what do you do with the remaining carriers?  Delta = Schmelta?  United = Screwnited?  JetBlue = JetBlow?  They seem pretty forced.  And no one even suggests mocknames for Southwest, because its planes always seem to fly and therefore it’s a favorite for weary travelers who just want to get home.

I guess I’ll miss Useless Airways after all.

Dealing With The Dreaded “Airline Call”

Yesterday, as a meeting in Washington, D.C. was winding down, the sinister travel dominoes started falling.  First, lawyers from New York City got the message that their impending flight was canceled, and they had to start scrambling to make alternative arrangements. The first flicker of doubt about my flight zigzagged through my mind, but I quickly suppressed it and rationalized that it was because of bad weather in the NYC area.

IMG_1132Then, a few minutes later, those of us from Columbus got the dreaded “airline call.”  The dismal robotic recorded voice advised that our flight back also had been canceled outright — no initial delay, and therefore no ray of hope that the flight might actually leave at some point.

The message gave some gibberish explanation about “air traffic congestion” in the system, which undoubtedly is a daily condition in the busy air traffic corridor above the east coast of the United States — and said we would be rebooked.  Then another member of our party got the message that the rebooking was for a flight this morning, which meant that we faced the unhappy choice between an unplanned, no-clean-clothes overnight in D.C. — assuming you could even find a decent hotel room at the last minute in a city that seemed packed with visitors — or renting a car and driving home.

This really wasn’t much of a choice.  We quickly selected the latter option — when you’re expecting to get home, you really want to get home, no matter how difficult the journey might be, and some of us also had can’t-miss appointments early today — and then we faced another decision:  should we try to rent a car at the airport, or from one of the tiny downtown rental car outlets?  We chose the latter option, reasoning that if our flight was cancelled due to “congestion” the airport car rental counters probably were scenes of chaos.  The risk of the hotel rental outlets, of course, is that they don’t actually have a car available, no matter what the on-line website is telling you.

It was a close call, but cars somehow were found, and we headed out, conveniently leaving in the heart of the D.C. rush hour traffic/I-495/I-270 commuter snarl.  Hours later, as the clock ticked down to the midnight hour, we rolled into Columbus — about four hours after our designated plane flight arrival time.

We made it, and we gratefully acknowledge the utility of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.

The No-Bathroom Flight

I learned something interesting yesterday — a functioning bathroom apparently is not an essential requirement for a domestic airline flight.

IMG_6237It happened on my flight from Columbus to New York, on one of those regional jets that has only one rear bathroom.  In the boarding area, the gate agent advised us via a loudspeaker announcement that the only bathroom on the plane was “inoperative” — and sure enough, when we boarded there was a sign on the lavatory door to that effect.

(“Inoperative” seems like a vaguely Nixonian way of saying that the crapper isn’t working, doesn’t it?  Makes you wonder what happened, and whether a miscreant tampered with the smoke detector despite those pre-flight warnings.)

Here’s another interesting bit of information.  When you announce on the public address system at an airport gate that the only bathroom on a plane isn’t working and that people might want to consider that fact, you’re likely to cause a stampede to the nearest comfort facilities.  Obviously, no one wants to be caught in extremis on a bathroomless flight, but there is also the power of suggestion at work.  You might not feel like you need to go at this instant but . . . now that you mention it, and when you know that you’re going to have no options for at least two hours, you’re sure as heck going to try.  In fact, I think some people in the neighboring gate areas trotted off to the restrooms — just in case.

Fortunately, the flight passed without incident, and the passengers made it through without any apparent problem.  I thought of the no-bathroom flight that night, however, when bad weather at LaGuardia caused my flight out to sit on the tarmac for two hours, turning a short flight into a drawn-out exercise that would have been a kidney-busting disaster without a bathroom.  Thank goodness the lavatory on that flight was “operative”!

Sardines Of The Air

Air travel isn’t exactly exotic and fun these days.  So, it should come as no real surprise that people keep coming up with ideas to make it even worse.

Now  a company has sought a patent for a new seating configuration for economy class cabins, and in their design one seat in every row would face the rear of the plane.  That’s right!  In this brilliant new scheme, no matter where we economy classers might sit, we would be inches away from the face of whatever stranger happened to be riding on the same plane.  Imagine the thrill of being face to face with a nose-picking brat for a three-hour flight, or waking up from a mid-air nap to find the creepy guy facing you has been staring at you with a dead-eyed smile!  It’s not hard to imagine dozens of unpleasant and unnerving scenarios that could easily occur if this new approach were adopted.

Of course, it’s just an idea right now — but every recent development in the air travel business suggests that airlines would be very amenable to new seating arrangements that would allow airlines to cram even more passengers onto planes and, in the process, create even more incentives for travelers to pay the fees for seating upgrades.  Would you play an extra $50 to move up to business class if by doing so you could avoid the possibility of having to look directly at some random weird character for the entirety of the flight?

If you follow the link above to the Wired article on the patent application, and then follow its internal link for “patented a new seating configuration,” you’ll get to a PDF of the patent application that includes a schematic of the proposed seating.  Take a look at it and see if you aren’t uncomfortably reminded of the section of your fifth-grade American History book about the slave trade that included drawings that were used to instruct evil slave ship captains on how to pack their holds with human cargo for the Middle Passage, like the one that accompanies this post.

Air travel has become a commodity business, and we passengers are the commodities.

Off To Big D

This morning it’s off to Dallas for the National Championship Game.  For me, and for many others, it will be a circuitous journey.

IMG_4548Not surprisingly, flights from Columbus, Ohio to Dallas, Texas became a hot commodity as of about 1 a.m. on January 2, 2015.  By the time I secured a ticket to the National Championship Game to root on the Buckeyes, reservations for flights to Dallas prior to the game fell into two categories:  already sold out or outrageously overpriced.  As is their right in a capitalistic economy, airlines followed the law of supply and demand and jacked up their prices for flights.  As is our right, prudent members of Buckeye Nation explored their ability to secure other, more reasonably priced methods of getting to the game.

So, today I’m flying to Oklahoma City via Atlanta. Then I will rent a car and then drive about 200 miles south to Dallas.  This is similar to the fun trip Russell and I had to the Ohio State-Miami National Championship Game, when we flew to San Diego and then drove through the desert to Tempe, Arizona.  And I’m not alone in choosing an indirect route.  Others are flying to Houston and then taking to the highways, and still others are already on a 1,000-mile road trip to Dallas, hoping that they don’t get sidetracked by a winter storm.

The main thing is to get there and cheer on the Buckeyes.  If the journey becomes an adventure, so much the better.  Go Bucks!

Doubling The Airline “Security Fee”

Last week the “security fee” the federal government charges to airline passengers more than doubled, from $2.50 per passenger to $5.60 per passenger.  The increased fee was part of a budget agreement that Congress and the Obama Administration worked out last year.

IMG_2260I don’t have a problem with the concept of “user fees,” and I view the “security fee” as falling within that category.  I think user fees are a fair way of paying for services that some Americans use, but not others.  Every American needs our military, for example, but not everyone needs the blue-shirted Transportation Security Administration folks who remind us to take off our belts, look at our drivers licenses, and wave us through scanners.  Why should people who don’t regularly fly on airplanes pay for services that are used only by regular air travelers like me?  And with all of the nickel-and-diming that goes on with air travel these days, from baggage fees to food fees to other obscure charges, who’s going to notice an extra $3.10?

The problem I have is that the money raised won’t be used entirely for the TSA, or apparently for services that are directly related to air travel security.  I recognize that the federal government is one huge bucket, and it’s hard to precisely account for specific payments, but if you really want to implement a “user fee,” the proceeds should go solely for the service being used.  Otherwise, you’re just using the fee as a thinly disguised tax to raise general revenue, and you’re targeting just one group for the tax hit.  That’s not equitable, and it’s destructive of the fairness principle that make user fees a sensible approach in the first place.

Oh, The Glamour Of Air Travel

It seems as if air travel is on an unending, downward spiral, and who knows when we will hit bottom.

Long gone are the days when people dressed up for an airplane trip and airlines showered you with food and drink on your voyage.  Now you’re likely to find yourself seated next to a sweaty, plus-sized person wearing cutoffs, a tank top and flip-flops, and you consider yourself lucky if a flight attendant hurls a handful of peanuts in your direction at some point during the flight.

On our flight to Bermuda Wednesday, Kish and I were starving after a long run through the Charlotte airport to catch our aggressive connection.  The flight offered no complimentary peanuts, crackers, or snack food, so we were forced to buy a bag of chips and Chex mix to get something in our bellies.  The Chex mix was $3.49, and my Late July Organic Sea Salt Multigrain Chips and Zesty Tomato Salsa was $4.  Seems like a lot for a small bag of chips, but airlines apparently are looking for every conceivable revenue source — be it baggage fees, early boarding fees, or charging for other former freebies — and if you don’t fly with food you should just prepare to be gouged.

I’m not sure where the downward spiral will end.  Some airlines apparently are experimenting with charging for trips to the bathroom.  That seems like the logical next step in the quest to make flying as unpleasant and irritating as possible.

The Dreaded 3:30 Call

It was about 3:30 a.m. when the first phone call came.  It jarred us awake from a deep sleep.  As usual when you get a call in the middle of the night, you immediately think it’s some kind of family emergency.  Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

No, it was a robotic voice giving us the happy news that our flight plans had to be changed.  Half-asleep, my first reaction was:  Whuh?  The robot warmly advised that United had changed our booking so that we would fly to Columbus through Houston, and get in tomorrow morning.  Tomorrow morning?

By now fully awake, I thought:  Gee, thanks, United!  So I went to the united.com website and confirmed that, sure enough, the first leg of our trip back was cancelled.  Cancelled.  Such grim finality in that word.  Not like “Delayed,” where you retain a shred of hope that you might still be able to get through, somehow.  No, “Cancelled” is like the clanging shut of the cell door on your first night at Shawshank Prison.

Fortunately, we booked through American Express Travel, so I had a helpful live human being to call.  He looked at the situation, realized that there were non-United flights available, and came up with an alternative plan that is supposed to get us back tonight, although much later than originally planned.

So we went back to bed, slept fitfully, and now we’re off to the airport, hoping that further travel catastrophe doesn’t strike.  A day of potential travel hell awaits.