An Airline Rant That Does Not Involve Fat

Because really, why would I want to restrict myself to just one aspect of why commercial air travel sucks, especially in coach, when there are so very many others?

I’ve long enjoyed reading Patrick Smith’s “Ask the Pilot” column on Salon. He often does fantastic, well-informed smackdowns of two of my major pet peeves: Security theater/overblown terrorism panic and airlines rolling out new policies that make me think I, with an MFA in creative writing as my highest credential, would be substantially better at running these fucking businesses. His column today touches on both, and while I’m not sure I agree that “unbundling” is a good strategy in general and Spirit Airlines has merely taken it too far, I can appreciate his logic.  But then we come to the last paragraph:

I fly mostly international these days, which tends to be pretty civilized, but a few weeks ago I found myself in South Florida, at the Spirit Airlines terminal. I have to ask, having been out of the domestic loop for some time: Is this the state of flying in the United States? I’d never experienced anything quite like it. It was like a humanity bomb went off. The lobby was elbow-to-elbow with the ugliest, loudest, more unbearable people I have ever seen — guys in gold chains screaming at each other; trashy women tottering around on silver high-heels clutching knockoff designer bags; teenagers sleeping on the floor; gigantic suitcases and baby carriages everywhere. The din of crying babies was unbearable, the security lines endless.

There is a whole lot of classism going on there, not to mention the child hate, which I’m not even going to unpack, because it’s pretty self-evident. (I was surprised and relieved to get to the end of that paragraph, reread it again, and realize fat was not also on the list of things that disturbed him about his fellow human beings.) My point is not “Oh, Patrick Smith, you have disappointed me,” although for the record… yeah. But frankly, I can’t get on anything much higher than a Shetland pony here, because quite honestly, if my life and finances were such that I could choose to travel primarily under more “civilized” circumstances, you’re damn right I would, and fuck everyone else. Because YES, that is exactly what flying is like for most of us, most of the time, and even if I’m not offended by designer knock-off bags and try to be sympathetic to parents of small children (though I don’t always succeed) and understand that teenagers sleeping on the floor might very well be there because the airlines have canceled or delayed their flights, I hate it all just as much as Smith did.

And so do all those other people. We all hate it. Because it is miserable. Not because of babies or purses or gold chains, because it is just too damn many people shoved into too little space, moving way too slowly, in a situation that jacks up everyone’s anxiety levels for numerous reasons. On top of concerns like “Will I make it on time?” and “Will the plane go down?” and “Am I going to be mistaken for a terrorist?” and “Is my underwire going to set off the metal detector again?” and “Will my luggage actually make it with me?” and  “Are all of my bags and/or children still within my sight and if not, what happened to the one I can’t find now?” you’ve also got 150 different airline and safety policies we’re all supposed to be aware of, but the vast majority of us are not — either because we haven’t flown recently or because the rules change every five friggin’ minutes — so at every step, somebody in a uniform is barking at you. “Boarding pass and I.D.! Put that here! No, HERE! Boarding pass and I.D.! This line. No, THIS line. Boarding pass and I.D.! Take that off! That needs to go in a separate bin!  That bin needs to be turned the other way! Come on now, don’t hold up the line! What’s in your pockets? Step over here!” Et fucking cetera. And meanwhile, there are recordings playing over and over, telling you to take out your carry-on liquids, which must be in 3-oz. containers in a quart Ziplock bag and if they’re not you need to fix it or throw them out, and have your boarding pass and i.d. ready, and if you’re using a passport, make sure it’s open to the picture page (so the line moves more efficiently, natch) and if you see any unattended baggage, you must report it, and p.s. Homeland Security says we’re on ORANGE ALERT. (I’ve flown dozens of times in the last few years, and it has never been anything but an orange alert. Which means, at this point, if I encountered a red alert, I’d be like, “Well, that’s only a little worse than normal. Whatever.”) And meanwhile, you’re expected to read signs about the symptoms of swine flu (and presumably get out of line and go home if you have them — or throw a fit if someone else does?) and signs about what to do with your laptop and shoes when you finally get to the friggin’ metal detector, and signs reiterating the point about the liquids, all while listening to the recorded messages and the authority figures barking at you. And the crying babies. And the people arguing. And then the people in front of you have liquids that aren’t in approved containers or forget about the change in their pockets or try to go through with their coats still on or misplace their boarding passes or put too many things in one bin, on top of the time it takes everyone who knows the drill to remove their shoes, coats and cardigans, get their laptops out of their bags and get all their coats, cardigans, shoes, laptops, purses and metal objects into bins and trays without overcrowding, and wrangle all their kids’ stuff if they have kids, then restore everything to its original location 10 seconds later, and GOSH, I HAVE NO IDEA WHY EVERYONE ENDS UP IN A BAD MOOD.

And that’s just flying domestically. My head almost fucking exploded at the Toronto airport last Saturday as I learned how much things have changed since the last time I flew into the States from there. (Probably at least 5 years ago; I usually drove.) It used to be you checked in at the ticket counter, got your checked baggage tags, went through customs, dumped the checked bags, went through security and that was that. Three lines, three requests for your boarding pass and I.D., only one more step than flying domestically. Now you go to the ticket counter and get checked baggage tags PLUS a bright yellow tag for each carry-on item. Then you are herded, with astounding inefficiency, into the customs area by one guy who has to check your boarding pass and passport AND make sure all your luggage is properly tagged. (This is where I realized my purse didn’t have the proper carry-on tag even though my computer bag did — I stupidly didn’t realize there was no distinction between “carry-on” and “personal item” in this context — so I had to go back and start over.) Then you go through customs, which used to seem like the big pain in the ass but is now by far the simplest part of the process. Then somebody asks to see your boarding pass and passport again as you drop your checked bags on the belt. Then you go through security — which, see previous paragraph. Then, once you are PAST security, another person asks for your boarding pass and passport. Then you walk off toward your gate, and suddenly ANOTHER person wants to see your boarding pass and passport. And then ANOTHER — and this one also searches all of your carry-on baggage, then tells you to put your palms face up so she can swab your hands for traces of explosives. (Except Al had to explain that last part to me, because when I asked what she was about to do to my exposed palms, she said, “I have to take a sample of your hand.” Me: “WHAT?” Her: “I just have to take a sample of your hand.” At which point I am JUST BARELY holding it together enough to recognize that whatever that means and however much I might object if I knew, being a belligerent asshole is not the smart move here. So I let her “take a sample” of my hands and move on.)

And all of that is before you drag your carry-ons 8 or 10 miles to sit in an uncomfortable chair at the gate for ages because you were warned to arrive 6 months in advance or risk missing your flight, which is before you get on the goddamned plane, which… well, the actual flying experience has been well covered by previous posts and comment threads on the fat issue. Oh, and I almost forgot the pretty much inevitable step where they tell you that your regulation-size carry-on bag will have to be checked now, so you need to get out all the shit you want on the flight and carry it on loose and figure out where to stow it once you’re on the plane, and hey, you know what would come in really handy at that point? A FUCKING BAG. And you know why that step is pretty much inevitable at this point? Because the airlines are all charging for checked luggage now, so everyone traveling somewhere for less than two weeks tries to get by with the largest possible regulation-size carry-on bag stuffed to the gills, which means they won’t all fit in the overhead compartments. (Which would be reason #1 why I don’t agree with Smith that unbundling is a fine idea to a point.)

The whole process is absurdly time-consuming, anxiety-inducing, demeaning, dehumanizing and uncomfortable, no matter who you are or what you look like. Triple all of that, for different reasons, if you look remotely “Middle Eastern” by the most ignorant person’s definition, if you’re fat, if you have trouble standing or walking but not quite enough to request assistance,  if you have assistive devices the TSA people don’t understand, if you don’t speak English, if you’re traveling with small children — and I’m sure there are several more categories of Extra Horrible Suck I’m not thinking of here.

So yes, it is always like that. And it is miserable for all of us. But we can’t do a goddamned thing about it, for the most part, because in many cases, flying a commercial airline is the only option. But not in all cases, which means people who would have flown in the past are choosing alternative transportation when it’s possible — on top of former business travelers who can now do it all online and people who can no longer afford to fly, thanks to the recession, and people who are unreasonably afraid of terrorism, thanks to ridiculous fear-mongering, off the top of my head — so between all that and fuel prices and piss poor management and who knows what else, the airlines are floundering, and their brilliant recovery strategy is to make it even more miserable.

I know! Let’s charge people for blankets and headphones and carry-ons and using the restroom, in addition to checked luggage and food and drinks and being fat, instead of making it clear how much a flight actually costs up front! And hey, while we’re at it, let’s stop taking cash for any of the onboard stuff, so even people who were willing to pay might be screwed when they get on the plane! And let’s cut a bunch of flights so we can continue overbooking them even with fewer customers! And cut a bunch of staff, so everyone who works for us is just as demoralized and anxious and surly as all the customers, who are made even more miserable by the fact that there is no one available to help them, ever! Also, we should totally buy into the theory that security theater makes everyone feel safer and more comfortable, as opposed to making air travel a bazillion times more punishing for reasons that are not even our fault, although we’ll be blamed for all of it, and thus avoid pushing back with all our might every time there’s a new arbitrary restriction meant to create the illusion of safety. And meanwhile, we should continue longstanding traditions like delaying and canceling flights and offering customers as little information as possible about those changes, switching gates at the last minute, wasting time begging people to take vouchers because we’re overbooked, loading up the planes and then sitting on the tarmac for hours, generally behaving as though our business plan reads “Phase 1: Engineer epic clusterfuck. Phase 2: ? Phase 3:  Profit,”  and then insincerely thanking everyone for their business AS IF ANY OF THEM WOULD PUT UP WITH A GODDAMNED BIT OF IT IF EVEN ONE AIRLINE OFFERED A HALF-DECENT ALTERNATIVE.

Now, since I am not an aviation expert, and I have no idea what actually goes on behind the scenes at airlines, it is entirely possible that I am unfairly blaming them for some things they cannot control at all, or not easily. But guess what, that’s business. What customers perceive is just as important as anything else — and thanks to the security process, every airline is starting with 3 strikes against them in terms of customer perception of the overall flying experience, so it really sucks to be them. Nonetheless, this is my impression, as a customer, of every single airline I have flown in the last several years, which is all of the big ones and some of the small ones: They’re fucking hideous. I have occasionally had an experience that made me think, “That wasn’t as horrible as usual; I should try this airline again,” but the problem is, then I do try them again. And lightning never strikes twice in the same place. I fly quite a bit, but I don’t belong to any frequent flyer program because there is no airline that has managed not to piss me off enough that I would rather commit and earn points than just look for the cheapest flight every time.

So, let’s review: I am someone who flies at least every couple of months, on average. But I am not loyal to any airline — in fact, I pretty much despise them all. I almost always choose the cheapest non-stop flight available even though I would gladly pay extra (within reason; i.e., not first class prices) if any of them actually offered something extra (other than extra legroom, which is not a big concern at 5’2″). In the last couple of years, I have been choosing to drive or take a train or bus a hell of a lot more than I used to — routinely for any distance under about 500 miles, and sometimes much longer — because it is always less anxiety-inducing, demeaning, dehumanizing and uncomfortable than flying (and often not much more time-consuming, if you factor in how long it takes on both ends). And if high speed rail ever happens in this country, I will be thrilled to cease flying domestically altogether.

There is one reason, and one reason only, that I give any of these companies my money: Because I have to. In my experience, every last one of them treats customers like shit and provides an utterly miserable experience, start to finish. And if any one of them made a sincere gesture toward offering customers a not so utterly miserable experience, at something less than oh, four or five times the cost of a coach seat? I would fly more often, and I would pay more for it. I’m not everybody, obviously — but as for broad principles that do apply to every single person who flies, I really don’t see how “Treat customers like shit and offer an utterly miserable experience, relying on all of our competitors to suck just as badly and a certain number of people to fly anyway” is a winning business strategy. And I really, really don’t see how “Charge more for things that used to be included, offer fewer flights and make customer service experiences yet more punishing” is a smart response to declining sales. I understand that when you’re bleeding money, trying to cut costs and find new revenue streams is an obvious answer. But at some point, you have to factor in that your success depends on providing services to actual human beings, and if you cannot prevent those human beings from feeling sheer disgust at the way you provide those services, or from actively resenting you every time they have to fly  – forget about whether you can engender loyalty among them — you are going to have a long-term problem, even if some of them will consistently be forced by circumstance into patronizing your business.

I mean, what do I know? My highest credential is an MFA. But I know I have to get on a plane again tomorrow (Arkansans, come out and say hi on Saturday!) and I’m dreading it. And I always dread it, even as an able-bodied white woman who’s not fat enough to be concerned about getting thrown off a plane or tall enough to be concerned about leg injuries just from sitting there. Because yes, it is always just that bad. And I really don’t have any brilliant way to wrap this up except to say fuck yooooooou, airlines, all of you, and fuck yooooooou, decision-makers who probably never fly coach but think making security lines even longer every time our intelligence agencies and the TSA fail to catch a bad guy before he gets to the plane is a good idea, and dear god I don’t even believe in, please bring high-speed rail to this country like yesterday.