Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Decline of Western Civilization—Part V Fly With Me, or All We Like Sheep

In case of sudden decompression, you are on the wrong plane—Before we resume our usual kvetching, a rant. I have just spent 16 hours on an airline I will not name (Northwest) and this rant is not caused by any ill-treatment. Indeed, the flights were quite average. That’s what the rant is about.

I am old enough to remember when flying was fun or at least a special event you looked forward to. Many people even dressed up for a flight. The seats were comfortable, the prices reasonable, they fed you, later on they showed you a movie. You would call the airline for reservations and a human would answer the phone. The flight attendants (we called them stewardesses) were usually handsome young women. Drinks came in glasses, you ate with silverware on dishes, even in coach.

It was regulated by the government. Airlines couldn’t even jigger their tuna sandwiches without permission from the Civil Aeronautics Board. Then, of course, came deregulation and in 1985 tuna sandwiches became the least of our worries.

My flights to and from Californian this weekend were smooth, packed, cheap and unpleasant. They were unpleasant because I was jammed in a seat with not enough room to cross my legs, next to a guy who was territorial about the arm rest, in a packed plane with three flight attendants, at least one of whom had so little to do (there wasn’t anything to serve) she was reading a book in the galley. The airlines (Northwest particularly) have reduced travel to Greyhounds with wings. That’s fine for a 50-minute trip to Albany. It is not fine for five hours in a plane, sitting in seats 31-inches apart, with nothing to eat but crap ($3 a bag). Boarding was handled by one person who had to check the tickets and handle the desk for people who had problems at the same time. We boarded slower than we had to and the people with problems weren’t well served. Northwest, alone among major airlines, doesn’t even show bad movies. I treasured my iPod.

I was once a loyal supporter of what’s called the legacy carriers, you know, American, Delta, United, Northwest. I once even owned stock in Delta, so impressed was I with their service. Now they are in bankruptcy, arguably the worst-run major corporation in America with the possible exception of GM. I have frequent flier miles on several legacies and about 7 years ago, was one of United’s super fliers. Not any more. Last summer, my family did California on one of those new low-cost airlines, Frontier, with leather seats, leg room, satellite television entertainment, people who answer telephones and are not totally freaked out about losing their jobs. Still no damned meal, of course. At least they tried.

Some of this, of course is not the airlines’ fault. They are not the reason getting through the airports have become hell. Blame the 9/11 bastards for that. Nor are they responsible for the price of fuel, although most of the planes most of them fly are at least 10 years old and not the most efficient things on wings. But the rest of it is.

Two points to this rant then I’ll let you go. One, deregulation is over-rated. The airlines may have been more expensive, but they were better run and the customers were better served before the CAB was disbanded. You could fly from Philadelphia to San Francisco without having to stop in Dallas to save money. Fares were based on mileage. The longer the flight, the more it cost. Duh! It isn’t a political thing either; Jimmy Carter was president then. It’s economic philosophy. Not every human endeavor is better served by unregulated capitalism. Health care is another example. And those of you who think deregulation keeps down prices are invited to start paying my electric bill in July when the regulated price caps are removed in Maryland.

Second, if you are an airline and you are filling virtually every one of your seats, and you have cut service to the point where your customers hate you, and you are losing billions, is it possible you are still doing something wrong? Do you need an MBA to figure out you need to raise the price of your service? Can’t, you say? People won’t buy your service if they can get it cheaper elsewhere? How about providing something extra for the money, like good service and good food and enough people on the plane to service the customers properly? I'd gladly pay more. How about employees that have not just been screwed for the sixth time this month? You are in a service industry, schucks. We have to deal with your employees; you know, the ones you just stole the pensions from? How about, well, getting regulated again?

Come back for our next rant when we will discuss truly obnoxious characters who get insufficient attention: obese people in coach.

Back to business.


Bill Thomasson said...

Hi, Joel,

My first comment is that I don't remember when coach passengers ate off plates with real silverware. Probably because I couldn't afford to fly in those days. I'll still look for the cheapest flight.

The second is that, largely because of the airport situation, I'm taking another look at trains. I go back to the 1950s, when the railraods were trying to get people not to ride them so they could drop passenger service entirely. But these days trains tend to be convenient and comfortable, with easy-to-get-to downtown stations. Probably wouldn't work for Baltimore-California, but was very nice for Chicago-Toronto a few years ago. And nothing else would make sense for Chicago-Detroit or Chicago-St. Louis.

Joel Shurkin said...

Trust me. Glass and silverware. And I agree completely about trains and use them when I can, one of the advantages of living in the Northeast corridor.