In a recent column in The New York Times, writer Gary Shteyngart described "A Trans-Atlantic Trip Turn[ed] Kafkaesque." In the piece he berated an American carrier for lacking know-how, safe equipment, and sufficiently qualified, caring personnel. Cataloguing delays, mechanical problems causing an emergency unscheduled landing, and even a crew that didn't seem to know how to get to the airport, he wrote the airline, "You are exhausted and shorn of purpose. You need to stop."
Having just flown many an aggravating number of miles myself, I could relate. While onboard a flight from Newark to San Diego in August I wrote to the airlines. My letter said in part, "I'm wondering what further discomforts passengers will be made to suffer as you cut costs or increase profits. Could pay toilets be next?" I noted that not so much as a packet of pretzels or nuts was offered on a coast-to-coast flight, let alone a bottle of water or a headset for three bucks. (Instead, headsets were free, but you had to pay $7 to access the media system.)
I continued my diatribe, starting with the physical discomforts of the plane's configuration and more importantly, its safety hazards. "Packed in like rolled anchovies (forget sardines), the seats no longer recline more than a few millimeters, so that my up-seat neighbor's bald pate is practically in my mouth," I bemoaned. With my tray table cutting into my groin, it was impossible for my row-mates to get past me without Houdini-like machinations which involved clearing the tray of food, beverage, or laptop.
More importantly, I pointed out, "Crowding so many people into such a confined high-density space increases the likelihood of respiratory infection. And there is simply no way that an aircraft that tightly packed could be evacuated in event of an emergency." Fortunately there was no emergency but alas, I did come home with a nasty chest cold.
The fact is I've been writing to my preferred carrier - love those points -- with increasing frequency for the past few years to no avail. So I asked Customer Service, and the CEO, what they were going to do about the appalling state of flying with them. "You could," I suggested, "let it go since so many people seem to have accepted the agony of flying these days; in which case your tag line could be "Put Up and Shut Up,' or you could become an industry leader." I noted they could start by ripping out a few rows of seats, handing out a bottle of water and some pretzels on flights over two hours, and experiencing air travel aboard some of the notable carriers from other countries.
Their reply thanked me for writing and assured me that "the comfort of our passengers [was] a primary focus." They were "confident" I would "experience outstanding service" next time I flew with them, but unlike the old days, they didn't offer me a voucher of any amount to woo me back onboard.
In September I traveled with another airline (also a Star Alliance member) that failed to notify me that our flight would be leaving almost two hours earlier than our reservation showed. I only learned of this in the nick of time when I went online to book seats. Once at the busy international airport check-in counters, we waited for over an hour only to be told, "Oh, you already have boarding passes. You could have gone to Window 31!" Hello? Shouldn't there be some signage or personnel to guide passengers there? And should the limited number of counter personnel be allowed to walk off for tea break without someone taking their place? Is tea break the reason we waited an hour for the baggage claim belt to start moving after a short internal flight? So far, there's been no letter from that airline hoping they can "welcome [me] aboard again."
But none of this compares to Mr. Shteyngart's dreadful experience trying to get from Paris to New York. At the end of his saga he wrote, "Some of us started to cry. Not because the journey was never ending, but because you can be told that you are not a human being only so many times."
There are millions of passengers as up in arms about air travel -- and up in the air, so to speak -- about how to get from one place to another as Gary Shteyngart and I are. Still, the airlines continue to fly above the radar of consumer angst, presumably with the tacit support of the FAA as well as industry leaders. Maybe we all need to start crying, howling in fact, to get the attention and respect we deserve from airline executives and government officials.
Columns and letters help. But I wouldn't hold my breath for reform anytime soon. It seems we will be packing our own pretzels for a long time to come. I'd hang on to your headset and carry a fresh set of underwear when you travel too. You never know when your plane will leave without you, when baggage carousels will turn up empty, or what time tea breaks will disrupt boarding in distant lands.