Friendly Skies - Part 1

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Happy, shiny, smiley people.

Once upon a time, air travel was a glamorous adventure.

Think back to the super caravelles and their lavish bathrooms.

Think back to the professionalism, poise and attention to detail that were as much a part of being a flight attendant as the perfectly tailored uniforms.

Think back to comfortable seats, even in coach.

Think back to real silverware, large food trays and freshly baked buns.

Think back to when airlines still focused on their passengers' experience rather than trying to stack as many asses in seats as humanly possible.

Here's the deal: I'm only 34, so my memories of air travel don't go beyond the late seventies. Actually, my first intercontinental flight was in 1982, when I first came to the US on vacation. At the time, I was either flying PanAm, TWA, British Caledonian or Sabena.



In 20 years, airlines have gone from pretty good to lousy, and many of the big names have faded into oblivion. Sure, I am making a dangerous generalization here, but still. My experiences with air travel these past few years haven't been great. I hadn't really thought about it until a few months ago, when I flew Delta to attend a friend's wedding just a few hours outside of Kansas City, MO.

Very simply, here's what happened: I got on my plane, and started making my way to seat 27C... but somewhere between rows 14 and 18, I realized that something wasn't right: I still felt like I was in first class. I stopped, looked around, and saw that all of the seats in the cabin were wide leather seats... not the skinny little ill-designed shoe-horns I usually have to fold myself into.

As soon as I sank into my comfortable armchair, I dove for the emergency card in the seat pocket in front of me, and looked at the cover. MD88. Delta still flies the good old MD88. Thank god for small miracles.

Let me tell you something: Despite its ample size, the MD88 takes off, flies, and lands like a rodeo bull. Every time I land in one of those things, it feels like we're going to bounce right off the runway and end up tumbling into a field, BUT those seats make it all worthwhile. I'm not kidding. A comfortable seat can cover a whole lot of in-flight sins.
But not all.

Take the $7 the airlines want to charge you for a stale salad in a cheap cardboard box, for starters. What's THAT about? $7 for a day-old salad? People are suckers. If you're sitting in the back of the plane, you're lucky if there's anything left by the time the cart makes its way back to you. (So not only are people desperate enough to spend $7 on a crappy meal, but the airlines don't even carry enough food for everyone on the plane.) That's what I call adding insult to injury, but that's just me.

Too much closeness: 1/3 of my seat taken by my snoring neighbor = not a cool flight. Partial refund anyone?

Speaking of carts, I remember a time when flight attendants gently tapped you on the shoulder if they needed to get by. Nowadays, they just roll. I guess they'll keep right on rolling until they finally fracture someone's elbow. I've actually witnessed a pair purposely bump people with the corner of their carts to knock them out of the way.

Instead of saying "I'm sorry," they said "please keep the aisle clear, sir."

No joke.

That wasn't Delta though, or the MD88. This was on an US Airways A-321, where even a lean, medium-built guy like me can't completely fit in what is basically little more than a sardine seat.

As sad as it is, I guess when you spend more time training flight attendants to be cops than hostesses, when customer service is just a line item on a checklist, some of the politeness and basic human compassion that we once took for granted are bound to become a casualty of war.

Maybe instead of a plastic pair of wings on their chest, we should just give them a badge and a taser gun. Maybe we should be read our miranda rights somewhere between the belt buckle instructions and the life vest demo.

"... in case of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will result in the indiscriminate smashing of a giant block of solid metal into the back of your head at the cabin crew's discretion."

What's going on here? What's this week's excuse for the downward spiral of customer care in the airline industry? Money troubles? Security concerns? Profitability issues? Technology limitations?

How about this: Maybe the airlines aren't doing much to make their employees all that happy? Maybe the airlines' hiring requirements have... um... slackened some?

Or maybe the airlines just don't care.

But being that I'm an optimist, I'd venture to say that it's isn't as much an issue of not caring as it is an issue of not knowing what's going on outside of first class.

Perhaps if more airline executives cared enough to fly coach incognito, say, just for the sake of doing market research, they might get wise and fix the debacle that is the airline industry today.
We're talking shambles, here.

We're talking the last days of the Roman Empire.

We're talking terminal denial.

It's just about come to the point where you have to insert quarters into a meter just to use a filthy 2x3x5 bathroom. Don't think it won't happen either.


So yeah, the airlines could do better. A lot better. And some of them are trying. It's great... and my hat's off to any airline that tries to raise the bar a bit and make flying pleasant again. Or fun. Or memorable.

But here's the thing: You don't need clown outfits and superminis on leggy stewardesses to lure me into booking a flight with your airline. As a steerage passenger, here's all I really want:

1) Friendly, courteous gate agents. (No, not just polite. I said "friendly".)
2) Seats actually designed for adults of normal stature, not 5' tall space aliens with a bad case of scoliosis.
3) Friendly, courteous flight attendants. (Yes, "friendly".)
4) Not to be viciously rammed in my sleep by the unforgiving edge of a 200lb food cart.
5) Free meals on flights longer than 3 hours. Charge it to the ticket. Enough with the nonsense already.
6) If I am going to pay $7 for a meal, make it worth my while. I've had MRE's better than this.
7) Prohibit people from carrying their fast food on the plane. It stinks the place up.
8) I don't mean to be insensitive, but if the passenger next to me is so large that he takes up half of my seat, I want a partial refund right there on the spot.
9) Friendly, courteous flight attendants. (It's worth mentioning again.)
10) Take off on time. Land on time. Don't overbook.

Oh, and one last thing. If your airline uses "zones" to load your plane, here's a tip: Don't start with the front of the plane. If zone 1 is in the front of the plane and zone 5 is in the back of the plane, how about starting with zone 5? See, that way, the people in zone 5 aren't in the way when the folks from zones 4 and 3 and 2 roll in. You could load a plane in ten minutes instead of twenty-five minutes.

Just in case you were spacing out just then: Start loading from the back. It's faster.

If you're going to treat us like cattle, at least drive us like cattle. It's the least you can do.


Note: Check out another neat little post on airline experience crafting here.

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