Saturday, December 13, 2008

Random Thoughts Whilst Sitting in Airports

I spent more than nine hours in the last two days sitting in airports (in between six hours actually in the air). I guess it was still faster than driving..., but surely air travel should not have to be that unpleasant.

First of all, I am old enough to remember when people used to dress up to go to the airport. Whether they were flying or meeting someone, they dressed nicely because when someone flew it was usually due to some kind of special "occasion". I'm not suggesting we go all the way back to that, but I think people should at least dress with a minimum of decency when they travel.

Granted, you do see a lot of business travelers in suits, poor beleaguered folks schlepping laptops, briefcases, black roll-on luggage and looking like they don't have any clue what city they are in. (I'll rant about corporate business travel another time.) Most business travelers have adopted the "business casual" look, which is certainly more practical then having men sitting in airports for hours upon hours in suits and ties. Women business travelers have more options in suit material, but even they do okay with business casual.

Business travelers aside, the rest of the traveling public in America seems to have decided that there is no need to dress up, or even get dressed at all. It's appalling how many people I saw in various airports wearing pajamas! I understand bringing toddlers in pajamas so they will be comfortable, but anybody over the age of four should be wearing street clothes! Puleeeeze.

Common courtesy and civility are (with rare and notable exceptions) virtually absent in America today , and I think that Americans' sloppiness is an indication of our general disregard for others. I'm not asking for people to wear their Sunday-go-to- meetin' best (not that Americans dress up for church much anymore either)! If I could write a dress code for the American traveling public it would be simple: wear reasonably clean clothes that are not sleep wear (that prohibition on sleepwear extends to bedroom slippers); cover all private body parts; no obscene words on T-shirts. Personally, I think the bar should actually be higher than that, but I'd be happy if we could start there.

To avoid this turning into more of a tirade than a mere rant, I'll refrain from discussing: cell-phone etiquette; arguing with spouses in public; and, eating smelly sandwiches on planes. In short: Please stop and consider the impact your behavior may have on the people around you. I fully understand that is totally unreasonable, which is why I'm not going to waste my time spelling it out in any more detail.

I remember when Delta flight attendants (fka stewardesses) were young, big-haired GRITS (girls raised in the south) who smiled their big ol' Southern smiles and called everyone 'honey' and 'sugah'. It made me feel at home just walkin' on the plane! They acted as though they were glad you were there (Southern gals make good flight attendants because they learn early how to smile and make you believe they give a rat's ass whether or not they actually do). When they counted the passengers, they made eye contact and smiled. Honest! It used to be like that. Really!

In the past two days, on four flights, I saw two flight attendants actually smile at a passenger. One smiled at a really cute baby (well, I thought she was really cute until we took off and she started screaming). I'm not sure that smile really counts.

The other one deserves special recognition. She was the poor heroic gal who was the flight attendant on a plane full of irate passengers. We had been delayed for more than three hours at which point the airline switched us to a plane that held twenty fewer people than the originally scheduled airliner (which had been booked solid). We knew when we checked in that twenty people were gonna get screwed. (How's that for stellar customer service? Thank you, Delta Airlines, for a really creative solution to a problem.)

Anyway, by the time we got on the plane after having been jerked around by Delta for hours, we were tired, hungry, and plenty pissed off. Nevertheless, this little gal, who must have graduated from the Southwest Airlines flight attendant school, tried to cheer us up. She was funny, perky, quirky and seemed to like interacting with the passengers. I think her efforts at both humor and interaction were mostly lost on us cranky passengers, but I stopped on my way out the door and thanked her for trying anyway.

That one pleasant airline employee aside, it is no wonder the airlines have financial difficulties. They treat their customers with something like contempt. Once I enter the lines for security, I feel as though I have been transformed from a human being into a sheep in a pen, being controlled, manipulated and moved around by unseen "others". It is a totally unpleasant experience.

The airlines apparently don't treat their employees any better than they treat their customers, because from the the minute you enter the terminal most of the employees appear to miserable, unhappy and surly.

I found myself actually pitying the poor schmucks at the gate check in counters who have be the face of the airlines for the passengers. Their job involves dealing daily (and sometimes many times a day) with angry passengers who know the airline is jerking them around. I watched the gate attendants carefully
for hours yesterday, trying to get some signal from facial expressions or inflection of their voices that something might be happening to get us moving. I came to the conclusion that the airlines keep the gate attendants as much in the dark as possible. Perhaps they don't want them to know too much so they don't have to actually lie to the customers. In any case, there is no doubt those people have a miserable job. That does not keep me from feeling irritated when they are rude to me. I am a Customer not a Sheep!

It is no wonder the employees are unhappy. They come to work every day knowing they're going to get yelled at by dozens if not hundreds of customers every day because of the ineptitude of their employer. Now that'll get you up for work every morning!

There is NO reason for it. We have a lot of smart, creative people in this country. The airlines are serving more and more customers every year and, because we have no other alternative if we want to get around, that trend is likely to continue. They are still doing business the same way they did thirty years ago. They need to figure something out ... soon.

Our obsession with security (important as it is) has crippled our ability to move people quickly from one point to another, and I don't know what the hell it is that causes one flight delay due to a raindrop or two in Manchester, New Hampshire, to cause hundreds of people to be sent scurrying around from one gate to another while the airlines shuffle them from plane to plane I know people could figure out a better way.

Here's one example: Why can I print my boarding pass 24 hours in advance with a gate assignment on it? Gate assignments should not be made until the plane is on its final approach to land (after the airlines have dealt with other planes coming in late or early). I don't need a GATE assignment until it's time to board. I want a seat assignment as far in advance as I can get it, realizing that there may be reshuffling (and I may need to check in again) if they have to switch out planes to avoid delays. I'd be happy to wait in a common lounge until they call the flight and announce the gate assignment prior to boarding. The at-gate seating is too small for the size of most of the planes anyway, and when you get three and four planeloads of people waiting in one gate area because the planes are backed up, it's a recipe for disaster. It's also undignified for an entire planeload of people to be sent running down the concourse for a last-minute gate change. From a customer service standpoint, that is utter madness!

One more thing: baggage. The airlines have started charging for checked bags, which means that more people are carrying on more and more luggage. That slows down both boarding and exiting processes. It is also miserable to schlep stuff around airports all day long. Here's my suggestion: Raise ticket prices and go back to two free checked bags (maybe even three). At the same time limit carry on luggage to one carry on bag that would have to go under the seat, plus a personal item, that would also have to go under the seat. Overhead bins would be reserved for coats and other "soft" items. That would speed things up a lot, avoid injuries from passengers whacking each other in the head with suitcases, avoid hard feelings because some passengers obey the baggage size rules and others don't... etc. etc.

Transportation is a critical component of a healthy country. Our roads, bridges, rail transport and our air transport are all woefully in need of a major overhaul. Smart creative minds need to work on thinking big ideas for how we can do things better. Right now, it seems as though corporate America keeps trying to put old-worn out band aids on new problems. Then when the business borders on bankruptcy, they look to Uncle Sam for financial assistance.

Here's a novel idea: fix your own house, folks. And do it fast because it's having a bad effect on the neighborhood.

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