Saturday, December 24, 2011
Remember When Flying used to be a Pleasurable Experience? Security is Not the Problem - The Airlines are the Problem.
This past week my wife and I flew from Boston to San Francisco and back. While I fly reasonably frequently, this trip crystallized for me how the consumer flying experience has deteriorated over the years.
On this trip going through security was only a minor inconvenience. My wife has two hip replacements. Her artificial hips set off the metal detectors; she underwent a pat-down that was performed efficiently and pleasantly by TSA personnel. The total time it took to go through security, including waiting in line and the pat-down, was brief. While one might wish that one would not need to go through security, it is a small price to pay for enhancing the safety of one’s flight. Hopefully security technology will improve so that security checks in the future will be even less of an inconvenience than they are today.
Getting through security was a small matter. However, the rest of the flying experience left much to be desired.
In the good old days, the airlines would first board families with small children and others who require more time to board, then the first class/business class passengers would board, and finally the coach passengers would be boarded starting with the rearmost seats. This pattern of boarding was time efficient. By filling the coach seats starting at the back of the plane, passengers were not being blocked from boarding by passengers settling into seats further forward. Also, in the good old days every passenger could check two bags for free. As a result the overhead compartments were rarely full, and one could be confident that one could stow one’s carry-on and coat in the compartment over one’s seat.
The boarding procedure is now quite different. On our flights, passengers were called to board sequentially according to their membership in approximately one-half dozen different boarding preference groups. It seemed to me that the majority of passengers belonged to one of these preference groups. After the preference groups were boarded the families with small children were invited to board. After that the remaining passengers were boarded in sequence of seating group number (Group number does not appear to correspond simply to seat number; I suspect assignment to group number also includes some degree of preference). As a matter of principle I have refused to pay for seating preference either in cash or in frequent flier miles. My wife and I just waited for our seating group number to be called. (By peeking at the seating group numbers printed on other passengers’ tickets, I see that many passengers appear to board before their group number is called. However, the line jumpers do not ever seem to be turned back by the ticket checker. How annoying.)
Stowing the Carry-Ons
Adding to the anxiety of boarding is the status of the overhead compartments. In advance of both our flights, the attendant at the gate warned that the flight was full and it was unlikely that the overhead compartment could accommodate all of the carry-ons. Earnestly, passengers were offered the opportunity to check their carry-ons at the gate – magnanimously, at no charge! Of course, after one has cut down one’s travel gear to fit into a small carry-on piece of luggage and brought the carry-on to the gate, one is reluctant to check it and thereby add 45 minutes to one’s trip by waiting at the baggage carousel upon arrival. My experience with checked luggage is also that the probability that it shows up at your destination is significantly less than one.
My wife and I did not succumb to the entreaties to check our carry-ons. We walked down the plane aisle attentively, hoping that we would find some open space. Not taking chances, we stashed our carry-ons at the first opportunity in an overhead compartment many rows ahead of our own.
The boarding process was delayed as passengers attempted to ram their possessions overhead. Attendants searched the compartments, played the baggage jigsaw puzzle game, and warned the passengers of how evil it is to place one’s personal item or coat (as opposed to the carry-on) in the overhead compartment.
Between the delays attributable to the inefficient boarding process and the additional time it took to stow the carry-ons, our departures were delayed for twenty to thirty minutes.
Squeezing into the Seats
My wife and I finally arrived at our seats. I am of average size (height and girth) and my wife tends toward the petite. Nevertheless, we were crowded in our seats. My hips pressed on the barriers on either side of me; I could only avoid sitting in a crouched position due to the fact that I could stretch out my legs a bit because there was nothing under the seat in front of me (I confess, I placed my coat and personal item in a crevice in the overhead compartment – it wasn’t such a big transgression because my down coat was very compressible). I thought back to the opportunity I had been offered during the online ticket purchase to pay extra for a few more inches of leg room – I had refused to be blackmailed.
I attempted to use my laptop during most of the flight. There is a danger here. When the passenger in front of you reclines the back of the seat can easily catch the open lid of the laptop, drive it down edgewise and rip it off the laptop base – I just avoided this mishap. However, once the seat in front of you is reclined one cannot sufficiently raise the lid of the laptop to view the screen while you are in the upright sitting position. By reclining my seat and slouching down in my seat I could just see the laptop screen – and that is how I worked during the six hour flights.
Most human beings would be expected to get hungry during a six hour flight. Serving meals used to be standard fare on flights. The flight attendants now just offer to sell you pre-packaged (high carbohydrate) meals. Wouldn’t it be nice to be served a meal with salad and some fruit? My wife and I made it through with the bag of trail mix that we had brought.
The airlines appear to be always on the verge of bankruptcy or in bankruptcy. I don’t blame them for attempting to fill their flights or charging a reasonable fee for the tickets. However the current system, of the airlines attempting to compete on ticket price and then nickeling and diming the passengers for every minimal creature comfort, is counterproductive. It delays the flights and makes the entire experience unpleasant. Airlines, please charge another $50 per ticket, but check the bags at no extra charge, board by reverse row number after boarding families with small children, add a few inches between seats, and serve meals. Everyone would be better off and the passengers would be more pleasant to deal with.