Monday, July 14, 2008

My Last Airline Rant for the Year. I think.

Okay, as you can tell from these last few posts (rants) I am a not best buddy of the airlines right now. Or maybe it’s the FAA. Either way, they’ve clearly taken all the joy out of traveling. It’s almost (almost) easier to take a train, if trains weren’t more expensive and just as prone to delays (I’ll go into my train stories some other day).

Now, I used to love flying. I couldn’t wait for my next trip. I had all my frequent flier accounts in a special little wallet with my passport, and held my airline tickets like they were gold, before my trip. Now all I have is short list of things that really annoy me about airline flights, these days.

1) Delays. It’s not like they haven’t been doing this scheduling thing for several dozen years. And I’m not talking about delays due to weather. I’m talking about delays from poor planning, bad maintenance, and just shoddy customer service. But ‘nuff sad on that.

2) The rule to turn off electronic devices. The language from an in-flight magazine reads thus:

Devices such as electronic games, personal computers, and entertainment players and recorders (audio and /or video, such as iPod®/tape/CD/Minidisc/MP3/DVD players and camcorders) must be used with headsets at all times. These devices, as well as noise-canceling headphones, calculators, shavers, cameras. GPS devices, and aircraft power ports for laptops, may be used only at the gate when the main cabin door is open, or when announced by flight attendants and the aircraft is above 10,000 feet in altitude. These devices must be turned off during taxi, takeoff and landing.

Okay, for safety reasons, you should turn off your laptop and stow it. Likewise, I don’t know enough about phone service, and so could allow that some signals could interfere with the pilot’s ability to communicate with the tower. But why would you have to shut off your thumb-sized iPod shuffle that’s stuffed into a pocket on takeoff? Is there some miraculous new technology that grants the tiny MP3 player electronic control of the plane through the click wheel? I think not. It’s an example of a blanket rule that small minds adhere to, rather than actually creating a device that ensures the devices will not interfere with takeoff. Or that a slow-moving FAA megolithic system of rules that finds it easier to issue a blanket ruling than be real, and create real standards that make things easier for customers.

3) The beverage misers.
What’s the deal with needing to stretch one can of soda over three passengers? Why do the stewardesses sometimes give the can with the cup, and sometimes stingily fill the cup with mostly ice to give you barely anything to drink? And on the occasion I feel I want more, if feel like I’m putting the flight attendant out if I ask them to leave the can—like that’s somehow greedy and selfish.

I recently observed a way around this that makes everyone feel better. Request the can only. Accompanied by the self-effacing line “I’m a man of simple needs,” your request for the can only (no cup, no ice) is translated from greed to caring simplicity, a desire not to put anyone to any trouble, and a concern for the environment. I use that like every change I get, now, when I order my in-flight regulars, either apple Juice of tomato Juice, my own struggle to get healthy fruits and veggies in my travel diet. And avoid the devil corn syrup. Best of all, warm apple juice is like tea, and warm tomato juice like soup. Yum.

4) The disconnection of technology. Check-in kiosks that take the place of live attendants, and which all passengers are summarily funneled toward, are not updated with the latest info on flight status. This just seems sloppy to me. If the check-in database can connect to know you are on this or that flight, and your confirmation is this, and another system is aware of the status of the flight in terms of delays, why don’t the systems talk to one another? I believe the answer is because to do so would only directly benefit the customer, not the corporation. Therefore, not a priority. Likewise, the message boards at gates are not updated. I spent half an hour with another family and another lone traveler in Cleveland, OH, waiting for the connection to Boston. It was only 20 minutes before the plane was supposed to leave that I realized there was no plane, and no update on the board above the gate desk, and no attendant. A quick check of the main boar, located quite a ways away, that the gate had been changed from the boarding pass I had been given just two hours ago, at check-in in Austin. No one had been sent to check the gate, and there was no other warning. And if I had missed the flight, how much do you want to bet that would have been my tough luck, and not the fault of the airline?

Look, I realize that airlines are hurting. But where is the underlying logic of customer service that is the cornerstone of any good business plan? Every in flight magazine and pre-flight video goes on about how happy they are to serve, and how grateful the airline is for choosing them. But that is proven to be transparent lip service as long as the actual services are so sub-standard, I can’t be the only one noticing. This lack of actual service is creating a perpetual cycle—people don’t feel like air travel is special or convenient, yet it continues to cost more; they stop flying which hurts the airlines and causes higher prices; those still forced to air travel are treated worse, while paying more, and so fly less, and so on. The slippery slope is just getting steeper.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Fear and Flying (Three of three)

I was a little surprised that a system that marks every bag with a bar code, much the same as UPS or Fed Ex does, didn’t provide a subroutine by which the lost baggage lady could punch some keys and tell me where the hell my bag was. But then, I was also surprised that this woman’s hair had survived its time travel from 1978. After what I’d gone through the past several hours getting to Texas, there should’ve been little to surprise me. But it was late.

I supposed that this leg of the journey of air travel—solving the unique core issue of how to help a passenger locate lost luggage—was yet another low priority for the airline. Because I know it is possible. But maybe I assume too much. Maybe I was the first person to have this experience, that somehow my karma was disrupted that day. But a quick glance outside the door of the lost luggage office at row after row of bags, unclaimed, unaccompanied, and (despite the looping announcement over the loudspeaker) apparently not on their way to be destroyed, said otherwise. The lady, as kind as she was, and as much technology as her airline seemed to have at its disposal, was not going to be able to help me. I was tired, and if my bag wasn’t going to come in the next six hours (which she said it wouldn’t, as mine was the last flight until morning) I might as well get to my hotel and get some rest.

Half an hour and $40 to a cabbie later, I’m at the hotel. Still exhausted but still thinking ahead, I washed the clothes I was wearing, the only clothes I now have, in the sink, and hung them over the hotel room heater to dry overnight. The lobby offered toothbrushes and toothpaste and combs, all for sale. I wonder in passing whatever happened to the HoJo promise to provide that material for free to the weary traveler who “forgot something?” Then I remembered I’m staying at a more expensive, more upscale hotel than HoJo. So of course, given modern logic, at the more expensive hotel, nothing is free.

The next morning, my clothes were still damp, but a quick iron later and they were wearable. And I’m on time, and on mission for my day.

At noon, a call to the airport revealed that the bag had been located—they could deliver it to my hotel, or I could zip down to the airport and pick it up. For the latter solution, all I needed was an hour round trip, and another hundred bucks, to make up for the mistake that the airline made in the first place. Obviously, I opted for delivery. I hoped for delivery before 6, so I could run back to the hotel, shower and change into something I hadn’t been wearing for 24 hours. After calling and calling and calling again, I had the delivery time moved back and back. I finally called the hotel, and gave them my cell number, with a request that they call me if/when my bag was dropped off. I called them at 5:30, to determine whether I should go back to the hotel or not, reiterating my request that they call me if my bag came in. And they agreed. And I asked if they still had my number, to which they replied that they instead had my bag. Like it was some kind of game. It had been sitting there for an hour. Thanks for letting me know.

Needless to say, I carried-on, on my way home.

Which brings me to my most recent trip, where I wrote this past series of blogs. On this trip, I was all set to avoid my past mistakes. I had found my license, and held onto it for dear life. I carried my bag on. Then I made a mistake.

I arrived at the airport early, again—at 4:00 pm for a 6:00 pm flight that would get me in at 11:30 pm. At the check-in kiosk I registered for my flight to Austin, through a Houston connection. The computer gave me good news, in the form of a flight that would leave earlier, and get me there an hour earlier! Great! Win-Win! (There’s one born every minute, but apparently my birth stretched over three or four.) I clicked okay. Will I never learn?

I found out at the gate that my new, earlier flight was going through Newark, NJ. The flight coming in was also from Newark, and was delayed. Further, from the cheerfully helpful gate attendant, I learned all the flights to and from Newark had been delayed all day. It was just that no one bothered to inform the little hamster than ran the electronic kiosk. But, the gate person assured me, my original flight would also be a bit late, so it all evens out. But she put me onto an earlier flight to Newark that would, somehow, get me to Austin…at the same time as my original flight. Big whoop. But, no harm, no foul, right?

Except, in Newark, the flight to Austin was delayed another 2 hours. A little voice had told me that all flights from Newark had been delayed all day, but it didn’t register, as it should have, as a continuing problem that I needed to take into account. I ended getting to Austin two hours after my original flight would have gotten me in, and I got into my hotel at 2:30 in the morning. Really left me refreshed for my 9am meeting, and all-day brainstorming session.

Anyway, next time I will be older and wiser, and do all things right. Most importantly, I will be aware that the airlines are really out to get me. Sometimes, paranoia serves.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fear and Flying (Two of three)

So I made it to Boston’s Logan airport on time and on mission, ready to be patient. I mean it was my own stupid fault I didn’t have my license. So I would have to patiently explain how the expired passport that I had as a backup was valid, and hope I could make it through before y flight gave up on me.

The first hurdle was Delta, where I had to convince the counter person that it was a valid ID. She checked with someone, who told her it was not. I shook my head, and continued with my “is so” mentality, forcing the second person to check with someone who actually knew the answer to the question before answering it. You cannot use an expired passport to travel internationally (duh) but, yes, you can use it as proof of identity for traveling domestically. I successfully checked my bag, and moved on.

At the gate (where I again had to show my expired passport, and again explain that it was okay, and again wait while that was verified by someone whose job it should have been to know that already) the extra security meant going into a special booth, having a wand run all over me. Then I had to have my shoes checked in a special device for…I don’t know…special odors? Anyway, it didn’t take two hours. It didn’t even take a half hour. I got to my flight two hours early, and waited an hour for the flight to arrive. At which time I watched the ticket agent at the gate change the time to 2 hours later. With a gasp, I inquired, and found that the flight was delayed. Therefore I would miss the connection in Cleveland, and would not get to Texas that night. I was screwed.

But the helpful ticket agent came to my rescue. Either that or revealed the next link in their diabolical plan. He could get me on a flight on American, and there I could connect through Houston to get to Austin, and get there about the same time. That was the good news. The bad news was that American was in another terminal. Those meant I had to leave the terminal I was in, exit security, and then go back through security at the American terminal, with an expired passport, and accompanying “special procedures.” In less than a half hour. I thought fast, and agreed, after checking that my checked luggage (why oh why had I checked my luggage?) would likewise make the transfer. I was assured it would, and I took off running. I'm big, but I can be fast.

Airports are made for people in a hurry. Moving walkways are centered in long hallways, letting you move twice, three times as fast through their lengths, an answer to a prayer for the perpetually temporally challenged. The problem is that most of the people who take advantage of this are using the walkways as amusement park rides. They step onto the belt, and immediately stop, like it's an escalator, or a very tame roller coaster. All that's missing is their throwing theiR hands up and shouting "Wheeeee!" They're riding, without the slightest inkling that they're on a walkway. Worse, there are clearly marked signs designed for these people specifically, indicating that if they want to play statues, to keep to the right. People with somewhere to be are passing on the left. Maybe it would be clearer if they drew cobwebs on the info graphics. That day, I had no time to figure it out.

Through the terminal, to the next terminal through the line where I needed to verify a new ticket. Then off to security, where I played the “yes it is, no it isn’t, yes it is” game again, and it was every bit as much fun as the several times. And I made it to the gate on time. In time, that is, to see the ticket agent change the time, telling me that this flight also, was delayed. By now I was thirsty, and wishing I had the water that was in my checked luggage. I settled for the fountain, container-free, and you can’t beat the price. Luckily, the connection in Houston was such that it could allow for a delay, so I was still in good shape.

Long story long, I made it to Austin, and only an hour after I should have been there in the first place, at 12:30. Drama ended? No, not yet. The real drama was waiting at the baggage carousel. There, all the other bags were cleared out one by one by my anxious, exhausted fellow travelers on the last flight into Austin Bergstrom that evening, and continued to their destination. All but mine. As the carousel stopped, a fresh surge of anxiety struck as I realized that my bag was nowhere to be seen.

There’re few things as much fun as waiting to get the attention of the person at the desk in the lost luggage office at 1 in the morning in a city far from home. It was then, as I was forced to listen to her (aware that I was standing there and was the only one standing there) as she proceeded to finish a story on the phone to her girlfriend about something that had happened that day, using me as a live audience for reaction. I was too tired and baffled by that point to be anything but angry. But I was still coherent enough to realize this annoying woman was my only hope of getting my bag that night, so that I could have clean clothes for my meeting at 9 the next morning.

It was then that she killed me.

Oh no, wait, I must have dozed for a second. It was then that she asked me if I was sure my baggage had come in. I wanted to say, “well, beyond following herd of everyone else off of my flight to a baggage carousel, and then watching as they all picked up their luggage and exited, and watching the belt subsequently, I couldn’t say for sure.” But I just said “yes.” She gave me a book that identified types of bags, and asked me to look it over to give her an identifying number, so they could identify the bag if it came in. If. The bag itself would have identifying tags, would it not? Because it was disheartening to think that it could stay lost for no other reason than that I identified "basic black wheeled type D1" instead of "basic black wheeled type L7".

It was then I knew it must be a plot. No other professional industry could be as hopelessly screwed up and yet charge such exorbitant prices at the same time, and not be up to some nefarious purpose. I was becoming sure. But I still needed the proof.

Within 24 hours, I would have it.

To be continued.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Fear and Flying (One of Three)

It could be bad luck. It could be poor planning. It could be fear of flying. Or it could be that the airlines are trying to kill me.

Okay, that’s extreme. It could more likely be that America’s airline industry, the economic whipping boys since 9/11 and silent victim of increased security and rising gasoline prices, have begun a slow descent into self-destruction. And it could be that I’m just witnessing it, and maybe one of the few speaking up about it. But there’s something about it that feels vaguely personal.

I’ve always liked traveling light, especially on airlines. I’d mastered the art of fitting everything into one carry-on bag. But that was before the plot to smuggle bomb-making chemicals aboard an airplane that resulted in the rule change that forbade passengers from carrying liquid onto a plane. I flew just a month after that. I brought my water, and my carry-on with more water in it. I had to dump the water I was carrying, first, then the water in my carry on. Then I bought a bottle of water beyond the checkpoint, paying $2.50 for the privilege of a 20¢ bottle of water, in a captive area. I especially dehydrate during flights, and that day I had a cold also, and was dreading the flying. My real dread came when I was informed that I had to toss the water I’d just bought, just bought, inside the airport, beyond the security gate, just outside the boarding area, before I got on the plane. This was when I first became the first of the series of outrageous rules, which the government and the FAA created to protect the flying public, and to slowly, incrementally, kill me. I mean, do they believe that small shop inside the security area had somehow smuggled dangerous chemicals into their stock, just waiting for some clever terrorist criminal to purchase it and bring it on board? If so, I should take it as a compliment to their perception of my mastery and evil genius. But if not, I could perceive it as a plot. After all, would it have killed them, or the vendor, to let me know that if I bought water, I’d need to finish it before boarding? Shouldn’t there be a discount on a bottle you only drink halfway? No, no organized system could be that devious, or that inept. It has to be a plot.

I have to do a certain amount of flying for my job, to connect with a sister office in Austin,TX. But the trips are often very fast—two or three days at most. Despite this fact, I realized that the days of carrying all in a carry on may be past me, in this new era. So, on my first trip to Texas about 2 months ago, I checked my carry-on. It was a small bag, and one that I could have carried it on, but I was unfamiliar with the exact rules of what I could carry on, so I felt better safe than sorry. I was ready to leave 3 hours early, to be at the airport the requisite (and troubling) 2 hours early. That’s when I realized I couldn’t find my drivers license. This was troubling because I knew I’d need it to get through security, which made me realize for the first time how crippling the lack of a license, and the lack of a car, would be to an individual. If you had no car, you’d need no license. But if you had no license, you could never fly anywhere. Do not pass go. I was stuck.

Then I remembered that I had an old passport. It was old-actually almost five years expired. I carried it because I used it as a second form of ID at my new job, to prove that I was a US citizen. And I kept it, as I meant to get it renewed, and never quite got around to it. But would it get me on a plane? I checked the website, and found out that yes, you could indeed board a plane using an expired passport for ID. But it would mean an additional level of security. But I needed to go, and so I hoped that 2-and-a-half-hours would be enough extra time.

Hope is a silly thing, sometimes—the last resort of the unprepared.

To be continued.