Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Bloviation: Passengers Will Please Refrain from Passing Water While The Plane is at the Terminal

We’ll begin boarding with our first class passengers, members of the Frequent Migratory Ducks Club and standing room passengers--I remember when flying was a special experience. Many people got dressed for the flight; stewardesses (that’s what they were called) were all lovely young women with actual smiles; the food came in plates with silverware and despite comedian jokes was actually edible, and the seats were comfortable with plenty of leg room. Fares were reasonable and controlled. I remember one flight going to college on a DC-7 (yes, I’m that old), with a gin and tonic in hand, watching the sun set on the cloud tops thinking this was a terrific way to travel. You don’t need me to tell you those days are long gone. Now an article in the New York Times points out that--and this is going to be hard to believe--things are about to get worse. [Click headline or here]

With the exception of the CD industry, no industry in America does more to piss off the very customers it needs most than the airlines. They are now getting paid back for the abuses they piled on their best customers before 9/11. And they have learned nothing. Nothing! It’s getting worse. Northwest now charges extra for an aisle seat.

Now comes news that having crammed as many humans into their flying tubes as they could, they now have found ways of jamming in even more. Are you ready for standing room? Airbus is thinking about a section on the new planes where you would stand, strapped to a back board in the rear of the plane. It does not necessarily violate safety rules and would only be used for short flights, say island hopping in Japan. So far, Japanese airlines are cool to the idea. I should hope so.

Currently, the pitch--the space between the front of one seat and the back of another--commonly is 31 inches, which means, if you have long legs, crossing them is out of the question. Some rows on some airlines are even down to 30, and American Airlines, which once advertised more legroom in its coach sections, has piled them back in. Newer, thinner seats which could be used to increase leg room are being used instead to steal another inch from each passenger.

New planes aren’t going to be the answer. Boeing’s upcoming 787, was designed for eight rows across two aisles. At least half the airlines ordering the plane have asked for nine across. The giant Airbus 380 (500-passengers, double-decked), has generated stories that it would have bars, beauty parlors and shopping malls on board. Nonsense. The airlines will fill every square inch with seats.

We can go into the economics of airlines some other time. The fact is, you and I are partially responsible for this. We will fly with whoever has the lowest fares, even if those fares lose money for the airlines, drive their planes to turning them into sardine cans with wings, and accept terrible service. I stopped flying the worst abusers (Northwest and Delta). You can’t have rock bottom fares and good service. It doesn’t work that way. What’s the difference between flying from New York to Chicago and taking a Greyhound? The Greyhound is more comfortable. It just takes longer

And someday we’ll discuss deregulation, malicious mischief disguised as public service. And of course, really fat passengers in coach. Bring back the CAB!


Alan said...

I remember my very first flight as a (sort of) adult. I was 25 and a new enlistee in the Air Force. I had to fly from Boise to San Antonio. The airline was Braniff. Remember Braniff? Well, I was nervous as hell and somehow managed to catch my pants on the backside of a coach seat, ripping a big hole in them. The flight lasted forever, touching down at the San Antonio airport. Then it was a bus ride (in a blue Air Force school bus) over to Lackland.
A year or so later, I began flying the peanut fare on Texas International. Remember TI? I also flew home to Boise occasionally and to Klamath Falls, Ore., aboard Hughes Air West. Where in the hell did that airline disappear to.
Flying on a commercial airliner is no longer fun. It's a dreaded chore. Flying a 14-hour flight to Saudi Arabia aboard a C-141 Starlifter was a helluva lot more fun than flying to Philly is today. Earplugs and all.

Bill Thomasson said...

I, too, remember my first flight: Pine Bluff (AR) to Memphis on Texas International. Then, after a change of planes, Memphis to Chicago on Delta (with a weather-induced stopover of several hours in Indianapolis). At least the first leg was on a DC-3. I believe the second was as well.

That was really enjoyable because it was the first time I'd ever been able to look down on the ground from that height. The first sight of that crescent of lights that was Memphis was awe-inspiring. And I still enjoy looking out the window of airplanes, even though, with my current level of vision, I can't see all that much. (Northwest is thinking about charging extra for aisle seats??)

I don't recall them serving a meal on either leg of the flight. And in general I really can't recognize Alan's description of how luxurious flights used to be. Maybe because in those days I couldn't afford to fly very much. Which is probably why I keep getting the feeling that what he is suggesting is a return to the days when flying was for the well-to-do and working-class people took the bus across country. (I also have vivid and not particularly favorable memories of a bus trip from Pine Bluff to Cleveland around that same period.)

chsw10605 said...

The airline industry is splintering again. Those who are willing to pay can now time-share private jets. If one wants all sorts of restrictions, you can book a first-class seat for about the same as a full-fare coach seat. Still, the worst travel experience I have ever had was not a plane but a train. I was on a Broadway Limited from Chicago to DC which arrived almost a full day late.

Joel Shurkin said...

Done trains across country several times and loved it. Then again, I wasn't in a hurry. You guys might want to see the story above about spreading germs by air. Another good reason to avoid flying.


Anonymous said...

I honestly don't remember my first flight, but I do recall that when we flew we wore a suit and the girls wore white gloves. That was in the DC7 days flying LA to Tampa. One trip was on Delta and there was a U-shaped white leather sofa at the tail of the plane. I think that may have also been the plane that had sleeper berths between first and second class, but that may have been a different flight. Oh yes, air travel was much more civilized then. Today I wear jeans on the plane and change into better clothes when I land.