Flying the Very Unfriendly Skies

Some years ago, there was a regional chain of men’s clothing stores called Today’s Man.  It was quite successful for a time, entered into a period of decline, and then went out of business.  While The Curmudgeon felt bad for the people who lost their jobs, he nevertheless felt that Today’s Man had come upon its demise the old-fashioned way:  it earned it.

The company started off well, featuring low-priced men’s suits and nice sports clothing.  Through the years, though, the company lost its way:  as the chain grew larger and more successful, its suits got more expensive and its sports clothing got more bland.  The company failed to notice the shift from suits and ties to business casual and continued its emphasis on suits – more expensive than ever – and never really expanded the scope of its sports clothing.  While The Curmudgeon is not a very good dresser and is certainly not a recreational shopper, he does unquestionably have a weakness for long-sleeved, button-front sport shirts, and during the last few years of Today’s Man’s life, he would walk into its stores with cash to spend and inevitably leave empty-handed.  Other customers clearly had the same experience.

The economy didn’t kill Today’s Man; competition didn’t kill Today’s Man; cheap foreign imports didn’t kill Today’s Man; Walmart didn’t even kill Today’s Man.  Today’s Man killed Today’s Man by offering overpriced suits that men didn’t need and unappealing sportswear that men didn’t want.

The Curmudgeon thought about Today’s Man when he read last week that American Airlines is filing for bankruptcy protection.  While he understands that the airline industry faces a number of very serious obstacles – a still-slumping economy that discourages both business and leisure travel, rising fuel costs, and unpleasant security procedures (“sorry, ma’am, but that bottle of Yoo-Hoo in your daughter’s backpack is a tell-tale sign of a link to Al-Qaeda”) that take most of the pleasure out of air travel – he cannot help but feel that the airline industry is a full partner in its financial troubles because he has never seen an industry – any industry – that is so incredibly hostile to its customers.

You see, the airline industry really hates you.

Really, they do.  It sometimes seems as if they go out of their way to make the flying experience unpleasant, and then, when they run out of easy ways to do this, they hire consultants to come up with more ways to make the skies as unfriendly as possible.

Let’s start with the fees.  Once upon a time, and not that long ago, you paid for a ticket, you put a couple bucks in a skycap’s hand to check your bag, and that was the extent of your direct flying expenses.

But that was once upon a time.

Today, if you call an airline on the telephone to purchase a ticket, you pay an extra fee.  Some airlines also charge you extra if you buy your ticket at the airport.  Imagine that:  you go directly to the company’s office, purchase its product, and it charges you an additional fee for doing so.

You have to wonder why McDonalds never thought of that.

On top of your ticket price, you often pay a fuel surcharge.

Need to change your flight?  Pay extra, please.

If you purchase your ticket using frequent flier miles, you pay extra for your “free” flight.

You pay extra to reserve a seat on the aisle.  You pay extra to reserve a seat by the window.  Some airlines now even charge you extra for a seat in the middle.  Imagine – paying extra for the middle seat.  Aside from first class, you never paid extra for any seats in the past.

You also can pay extra for a seat with extra leg room.

Plan to check in curb-side?  That’ll cost you now – but you never paid extra for that in the past.

Some airlines charge you to print a boarding pass in the airport – something else you never paid extra for in the past.

You pay to check a bag.  You pay more to check a second bag, or a heavy bag.

You pay extra for expedited security screening and extra for expedited pre-boarding.

Once on the plane, you pay extra for food; you used to get that free.  Some airlines now charge you for a soft drink, and for a snack – again, things you used to get free.

Prefer napping instead of eating?  More and more, airlines are charging you for a pillow and blanket – once again, something that once was included in the price of the flight.

The airlines have really been foolish about all of these fees.  From a customer perspective, every time you dig into your wallet to pay another fee, you have a fresh reason to get angry and hate the airline.  The airlines have vast data on their passengers’ consumption of these services, so it would be much smarter for them to calculate airfares based on the average assortment of the services passengers use and lump them all into a single fee.

But it’s more than the money.  The airlines have shown a real talent for turning what can be a wonderful experience – travel – into a nightmare.

They routinely take away or charge you for things they used to give you – the aforementioned soft drinks, meals, pillows, blankets, and more.

Then there’s the abysmal attitude of the people working the desk and the gate – or, if you’ve totally botched your flying experience, the people who work the ticketing area.  They treat you like you are stupid, like your need for their assistance is an imposition, and like you should be grateful they have deigned to help you.  (In fairness, the niceness of airline staff seems to vary from city to city.  The Curmudgeon has found that airline personnel in Tampa, for example, are quite lovely; in Philadelphia, they’re quite surly.  Demeanor also seems to vary from airline to airline.  Southwest – nice; Air Tran, too.  US Airways employees, on the other hand, seem to receive their customer service training from Hannibal Lechter.)

Airlines’ pricing policies have long been absolutely incomprehensible, and they seem even worse in recent years.  Aside from wondering if you purchased two days too soon or two days too late to get the best price, when you’re sitting in that uncomfortable middle seat for which you paid a $5 premium, you can look to your right, look to your left, and be virtually certain that none of you paid the same price for your ticket, and you know – you just know – that you paid more than the other two people.

Similarly infuriating, when one airline announces a price increase or a new fee, most of the rest announce the same policy within days.  Somehow, the U.S. Justice Department never seems suspicious about what to a layman looks like price-fixing or conspiracy.

The airlines aggressively promote their frequent flier programs and then make you go through hell to actually use those frequent flier miles.

Their flights are routinely late – not because of bad weather, but because they don’t know how to run their businesses.

They’ve adopted this bizarre hub system that makes you stop in Miami to fly from New York to Chicago and stop in Anchorage on your flight from Dallas to Denver.

They will leave your plane sitting on the tarmac for so long that consumer outrage forced Congress to pass a law limiting how badly the airlines can treat you.  The airlines responded by arguing vigorously against such a law, insisting they wanted to preserve for themselves the right to decide how badly they can treat you.

They bruise your bags and lose your bags and make you feel like it’s your own fault for trusting them with your luggage in the first place.

They keep you in the dark when there’s a delay or a problem, providing no information.

At least one airline has a boarding system that leaves its passengers standing in groups that make them look like they’re preparing to board – a train to Auschwitz.

This list could go on and on, but the point is that the airlines have no service ethic whatsoever and no interest in developing such an ethic.  They fly the planes – not so well, actually – and think the paying public should be grateful they are there to serve us at all.

The airlines hate us, their customers, and that’s why it’s awfully hard to feel sympathetic when you hear that one of them is in financial trouble and awfully hard to avoid chuckling when you learn that they’ve had to seek bankruptcy protection.

Like the men’s clothing chain, the airlines have reaped what they have sown.  They’ve earned their financial troubles, and if they go out of business, they have only themselves to blame.

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