Flying Lame

Up to 2002, I spent a lot of my life in commercial airlines, flying for business and, rarely, flying for pleasure. Over the last 40 years, I've watched air travel evolve from a somewhat inconvenient experience into what is now a downright miserable exercise in customer-hostile service. I admit that I have flown business class or first class fewer than a dozen times out of the hundreds of flights I've suffered. It's possible that the folks who cough up $1,000 to fly from Minneapolis to Chicago are treated better than the rest of us. It's even likely. It's also possible that the reason coach-class travelers are treated like passengers in steerage on the Titanic is because the airlines don't make any money from us and would just as soon we didn't fly at all. If that is the case, I should be making them happy. I'd much rather drive 2,000 miles round-trip, take the train or even the bus, than put up with the vagaries of air travel and the discomfort of airports. Hell, I'd rather pay a taxi driver to pick up friends and relatives at the airport than go myself. Airports are so badly designed, overpriced, and security is so erratic and hostile that walking into a dark alley with a pocket full of cash feels safer than the airport experience.

The demise of the passenger train system in the US and the decay of airlines is returning the country to a time when moving away from home meant never seeing your home and family again. When a family member moves outside of practical driving distance, many families lose physical contact and resort to the age-old written communication tactic; although that is now instant via email, Twitter, and cell phone texting. Of course, cross-country telephone communication has been with us since the turn of the last century. Nothing beats eye-to-eye, though and that is something that the death of air travel will cost all of us.

In a recent airport experience, I was amazed at how incompetently airlines are handling the downturn in their business. American Airlines, for example, has lost the ability to accurately predict when a plane might land at a given airport. In the case of the flight I was trying to track, their telephone system decided to skip the Minneapolis/St. Paul portion of a flight and jump directly to predicting when that plane might land in Ontario, Canada. The flight had been moved from a 10:45AM Sunday arrival to an eventual 1:45AM Monday landing over more than a dozen steps and an equal number of plane transfers, so it's sort of understandable that the airline might lose track of what plane is going where. It might be understandable, but the passenger we picked up had suffered 16 hours of airport misery and had walked a considerable percentage of the total travel distance running from plane-to-plane without ever leaving the Dallas airport. Not once had an American Airlines employee offered sympathy, useful guidance, or tried to assist this 88-year-old traveler. In fact, without the generous aid of two fellow travelers, he might not have made the trip at all. The airline's employees were as useless as a Republican Peace Corps volunteer.

While we waited to learn where and when we should meet our traveler-in-misery, I watched a dozen passengers stacked up at the misnamed "help desk" baggage claim. I watched them for an hour and a half. The line didn't move. No one received any sort of assistance. The two giggling AA uniformed women behind the counter appeared to be engaged in conversation and were actively ignoring the customers in line. One-by-one, the passengers simply gave up and wandered off without their luggage.

In the meantime, the airline's computer system jumped from predicting (incorrectly) the arrival time of the remaining evening's flights to the mid-morning flights, leaving us to wonder if our flight would be arriving at all. That's when a call to the American Airline's computer system informed me that our anticipated flight would be arriving in Ontario in three hours.

I've been to our airport about a half-dozen times this year. The place is a ghost town. Two years ago, there were still a substantial number of pleasure travelers flying out of Minneapolis. Eight years ago, the place was booming. The differences are purely numeric and economic, though. Good times or bad, the airlines optimize the misery of their customers. You'd think when passengers are squeezing their dollars for maximum benefit, a luxury like air travel would try to provide added value, better service, and actively court customers. Airlines don't bother worrying about the middleman. Their existence relies on corporate welfare federal dollars. When the economy tanks, people stop flying, and executive bonuses are in jeopardy, the airlines go crying to Washington, begging for welfare and management assistance. Like finance and the military-industrial complex, airlines can't exist without taxpayer aid. Their management systems are incompetent. Their business model is non-functional. Their product may be obsolete.

Exceptions, like Southwest, seem to do well regardless of economic conditions and some of us limit the places we travel to the places those companies service. Obviously, the country needs to let the incompetent companies fail, including the manufacturers of the airplanes and the rest of the support industry for this out-of-date transportation system. It is impossible to justify the massive energy waste air travel represents and, clearly, airlines can not support themselves with the product they sell. Flight was an interesting engineering challenge and a lot has been learned from the experiment, but when commercial airlines become a luxury that only the rich can afford and they can only afford it with assistance from every other taxpayer, it's time to give it up. If the competently managed companies, like Southwest, can find a niche that doesn't require regular injections of corporate welfare, that would be wonderful. The overwhelming majority of airline management couldn't turn a profit under any conditions. They should be allowed to fail--and their management should exit without publicly financed golden parachutes--and the country needs to move on to transportation systems that work under 21st Century energy constraints.


  1. Anonymous7/22/2009

    Today Patti had to fly to San Francisco as her sister is having major health problems. Dropped her off at the curb at United one hour before flight time. She got right in, no problem. Plane took off on schedule to the minute. Landed in Denver five minutes early. She had a layover there, but no plane change, and the flight took off from Denver right on time and landed in SFO ten minutes early. She had a great flight, no problems at all.

    I on the other hand was in shock as the last few times I've flown you would have thought I was taking a wagon train. It is interesting, and in contrast to your experience, that the drop off section was incredibly busy. The cars were stacked two to three deep all the way down the row. That was at 10:45 a.m. at MSP.

    One thing that really drives me nuts is the highway signage. You'd think they would put "Main Terminal" and "Charter Terminal" on the signs or something like that instead of "Hubert H. Humphrey Terminal" and "Lindberg Terminal". I actually missed the exit and had to turn around at Portland Avenue. I swear that coming from the east the proper exit says "34th Street". I've been to that dang airport probably 500 times in my life (Literally) and I still get confused. One has to wonder how many people get confused. I'm sure I can't be the only one. Coming from the West is much more clear, but I'd love to hook a chain to those sign posts and just pull them down.

    Sheldon Aubut
    Houlton WI USA

  2. You know I love Minnesota, but I decided about 1 hour after moving here that Minnesotans should not be in charge of street signs, stop lights, or highway construction. None of those activities are a Minnesota talent, as best I can tell.

    Our last flight, and every flight I've had, with Southwest went as smoothly as could be expected. Northworst never failed to disappoint me. Never on time, usually overbooked, perfectly disorganized. American seems to be as bad. United, when I lived in Denver, was excellent until the city built DIA. From then on, the company rapidly slid downhill.

    When air travel works, it's reasonably painless. It's so inconsistent that I rarely want to give it a shot, though. I can always get 1,000 miles in 18 hours when I drive. Sometimes, it's hard to go to Chicago in 20 hours by plane. If the car breaks down and I can't get where I'm going, I have books and a decent stereo to keep me company. In an airport, I have uncomfortable chairs, lots of noise, and tension. It's not worth it.