Friday, July 9, 2010

Come Fly With Me? Maybe, Sometimes

Our scientists, our engineers, our inventors have come up with some truly marvelous creations that are of help to humankind. They have helped make the science fiction of not so long ago into the reality we live with now.

Take for example the wonder of flight. Airplanes, jets, rocket ships, all a boon in expanding where we can go. When I was a young girl people may have dreamed of inter-planetary flight but that's all it was: daydreams that were highly unlikely to come true. And yet, we've sent men to the moon, to outer space stations. We've sent rockets and probes to our outer planets. And yes, we can send someone to the moon but can't seem to send someone from Newark airport in NJ to Arizona without taking that person on a convoluted, time consuming trip around the country.

Friends and family have been flying, both nationally and internationally, in the last few weeks. The tales they are telling aren't pretty, and they aren't isolated incidents either. Not one person who has had to go to an airport and take a flight has not been faced with one type of glitch or another. Lost luggage is the least of the horror stories. Flights taking off on time? What's that? Crowded flights in planes whose seats have shrunk way down in the last few years are now commonplace. I'm not 5'0" and neither is my hubby. Clearly those who are redesigning the interiors of planes are doing so for 3 foot tall people whose legs are retractable and who are no bigger than a size 2. Free luggage has become a thing of the past, as have free meals. And now there is talk that all drinks, including water and soda and juice, will be charged for as well. What's next? Bring your own toilet paper flights?

Perhaps one of the greatest horrors to face travelers is the connecting flight, a total misnomer. A family member had a connecting flight to Tucson a few weeks ago. The flight left Newark at 7:00am EST. It should have arrived in Tucson 7 hours later, including the connection in Dallas. Right. The connection left without waiting for the arriving flight. Passengers were told they would be put on the waiting lists for any other flights that day, but that those with tickets for those other flights would be accomodated first. And all the flights were full. Just where did they think they were going to put a whole planeload of people who were now stranded in Dallas? And yeah, they were sooooo upset that they had inconvenienced the passengers that they didn't so much as offer anyone a voucher for a drink or food while they were stranded. They didn't open up the better lounges to those stranded passengers either. Somehow our family member got on a connecting flight that evening and arrived in Tucson at 10:15pm EST. That was 15 hours and 15 minutes of travel time for a flight that should have taken 5 hours in flying time.

The return trip was no picnic either. This time the passengers from Tucson were heading towards Atlanta for their connecting flight. And they arrived in Atlanta to find that the connecting flight had been cancelled. They told the passengers not to worry--they'd get them on a flight some time the next morning. Strangely enough the words "we are sorry" never appeared on the lips of anyone connected with the airline in question.

With the pending merger of Continental Airlines and United and the host of problems that all airlines seem to have developed, don't expect that taking an airplane ride is going to be easy or fun. And certainly don't expect anything approximating service. Three people flying to three different destinations on three different airlines: Italy, Israel and California. And in all three cases the luggage didn't arrive with the travelers, nor did the travelers arrive anywhere near when they were scheduled to arrive. One such incident could, perhaps, be deemed an accident, but three (and I bet there are millions more like these) is indicative of a systemic failure and/or a "we don't give a damn" attitude on the part of the airlines.

I'm not particularly gung ho about governmental involvement/interference in the marketplace, but the airline industry is ripe for something or someone to say "Enough of this baloney, here's what you have to do." For those who don't know it, there is one regulation that you should keep in mind. If an airline on which you have a ticket for a flight screws up and doesn't get you to your final destination within four hours of your stated arrival time, they owe you money and/or goods, such as a free ticket. There are a few exceptions to this rule (Acts of God), but it pays for travelers to know what their rights are and to insist on what is coming to them.

We have tickets to fly in August and experience has taught us that we don't take connecting flights no matter what the incentives offered to do so. Even with a direct flight scheduled we've warned the hotel that we might be late arrivals. Might be late? Sigh, sure to be late. And it's why we have learned to pack essentials, such as hubby's talis and tefillin, and any medications, and spare toothbrushes in our hand luggage. And just to end off with another glaring note, some of the airlines are discussing charging for hand luggage. Have a happy summer travelers!


Allen said...

My luggage and I went on a business trip two weeks ago. My trip lasted 2 days. My luggage took a trip that lasted 6 days. Very strange that the airlines seemed to know where my luggage was but somehow couldn't get it to come back home to me.

The way the customer service rep was talking (what customer service?!) he made it seem like my luggage was refusing to come home until it wanted to. He actually said 'your suitcase is preparing to arrive in Chicago.'

HZ said...

Not only is he frum, he's also from Staten Island:

efrex said...

B"H, I've had relatively few airline issues the dozen or so times that I've flown in my lifetime; the worst incident was a 3-hour delay on a New York-Cleveland flight (including the advance check-in time, we could have driven in the same amount of time). I have, however, heard some pretty ugly stories recently.

Unfortunately, I can't see government action alleviating the problem. The ridiculous "security" requirements and complete lack of engineering controls (for most American airports, the response to a bomb scare is to evacuate the entire airport, rather than isolate the bomb) means that you might as well take the roads.

Ironically, from my limited experience, bus service seems to have gotten a major overhaul in the last decade: Bolt Bus and Greyhound have cleaner buses, more comfortable seats, and more legroom than before, and the ability to plug in your laptop right when you board (none of this "no electronic devices" nonsense: if a plane is so poorly designed that my iPod is going to make it crash, do I really want to be flying it?)

The real problem is that airlines have next to no financial incentive to do good customer service for infrequent fliers: economy passengers are a low-margin business, and brand loyalty is almost non-existant.

Tuvi said...

Efrex, those economy passengers aren't all that low profit margin. The great majority of the seats on a plane are economy classes--there are about 10 million different economy classes. They make their running capital for any flight off of the first class/business class passengers plus some profit and economy class represents the rest of the profit.

The company I work for frequently sends people flying on business. Company policy is only economy fare tickets. My company is not unusual in this. These companies represent steady business traffic. When they raise ticket prices, which they've done recently by a huge amount, they're raising the cost of economy tickets by a way higher percentage than any raises they put on first class or business class tickets.

There seems to be nothing logical about the way airlines price fares. And I'll agree that customer service just doesn't exist. Why should it? My company is going to fly us out whether the airlines are nice to us or not--sad fact of business life.

Sam said...

This was the news reported about airlines at the end of June--"Low-cost and regional airlines reported operating profits in the first quarter of 2010 while the major-airlines group posted its second straight quarterly loss, according to figures released Monday by the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The airlines also reported collecting $769 million in bag fees and $554 million from reservation-change fees."

If the regional and low cost airlines can make a profit why can't the bigger airlines? They sure are charging customers a lot and they aren't giving any extra or special services. I'd guess that it is poor organization and business acumen. They're making fistfuls of dollars on bag and reservation fees.

Given the government's track record I'd say they are the wrong ones to get things straightened out, but then what's left to do the straightening?

We'll be flying three times after Tishe B'Av and I don't expect that even one flight will go the way it's supposed to. You do know what it's called when you pay to get screwed?!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes flying is necessary, but maybe it will be good for people's pocketbooks (particularly when oil goes back up) and for pollution for people to fly and travel a little less and when travelling to use trains more. It's a shame that this country does not have the type of train system that Europe has. I know that airline horror stories has kept me from flying the past several years.

JS said...

When people complain about the airlines it reminds me of this great routine from Louis CK on the Conan O'Brien Show. A real classic.

It's called, "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy."

JS said...

Found the clip:

Rae said...

Some cute parts to that video JS but here's where being older gives you a different view. I first flew on an airplane in the year 1952. Primitive as the cameras may have been my family took pictures of this momentus occasion--our first flight. We have pictures of what the regular passenger cabin looked like back then. We were flying what is coach today. We had four seats. Those four seats were in rows of 2s, not rows of 3s. We were in two consecutive rows and the amount of space you see between those rows in the picture today would contain at least one more row and probably part of another one. The person having the window seat could actually get up and sidle out of the row without requiring everyone to get up and out.

The aisle between the rows was big enough to not only accomodate the food and beverage cart but allowed the stewardess to stand at the side of it or allowed passengers to walk around it.

Flying wasn't cheap back then either, but at least you got something for your money. Yes, today you can get from point A to point B using a plane, which is I suppose the purpose. But the trip itself is becoming more and more of a nightmare rather than a dream. The advent of better technology is supposed to improve things for users, not make it worse. Planes today are lighter in weight, using less fuel than the old planes did. Engines are supposed to be more efficient. Where are any of these benefits seen applying to the travelers themselves? We're charged more for less.

Offwinger said...

I really don't understand the kvetching by people who don't fly often. If you fly often enough - or are willing to research anything OTHER than your flight price - you can figure out:

- what times of day to fly, especially given the time of year (e.g., take the first flight out in the morning from the Northeast in June to avoid thunderstorm cancellations, you can see ontime arrival stats of flights, some smaller flights are often cancelled when an airline runs hourly flights to a location, for cross-country west-to-east red-eyes are often cheapest and almost ALWAYS on time, don't book the last flight of the day if you will be unable to cope with spending the night there, etc.)

- what is a reasonable amount of time for a connection (just because they let you book it doesn't mean that you have a good chance of making it - no one is "holding a plane" for you, especially when it could mess up OTHER travelers on THAT plane! look up the map of unknown airports rather than being "surprised" you have to take a shuttle or walk over a mile between gates)

- which airports are hubs for delays & cancellations more than others (e.g., flying through O'Hare often means "I don't really care if I make my next plane," almost all delays in the country originate in the same few airports, in the NYC area, Laguardia gets bad weather before Newark or JFk, etc.)

- what the best way to rebook or get compensation is if you do have a problem (e.g., use the phone, don't wait on a long line at the airport, KNOW YOUR OPTIONS! - You can ask for a choice that helps you that the booking agent may not think of, being nice gets you more compensation than being irate and impatient, etc.)

- how to pack appropriately (e.g., it's a no-brainer not to check essential medications in luggage, but most people check way too much luggage in the first place - take less! depending on where you're going, considering ground shipping stuff ahead of you, etc.)

A little bit of sechel, a fair amount of research, and healthy dose of realistic expectations can do wonders for you.

People think I'm "lucky" for encountering as few difficulties flying as I do. I know better. Yes, there is always some amount of luck. But it's not luck that I've scheduled myself in a such a way that minimizes delays, minimizes missed connections, and minimizes the harm from lost luggage. You have to hope for the best, be prepared for the worst, and you'll see that far more times than not, you won't have any problems at all.

We are not charged more today - as compared to the cost of flying - than we were previously, once you account for inflation, the cost of fuel, and the cost of safety (plane maintenance schedules, FAA regs, etc.). For people who want to get cross-country, we've never had it as GOOD as we do now.

The airline industry is far from perfect, but I really don't understand the kvetching here. I don't know what kind of connection time/delay caused your family to miss their Dallas flight, but what exactly was the airline supposed to do? Make everyone else on the dallas flight late (even those with connections or other plans in tuscon)? Kick people who had tickets on other dallas flights later in the day off their plane for people who missed a connection?

And how much more are you willing to pay to lower the risk of baggage being separated from a traveler? What if it means you - the passenger - are required to have a minimum connection time that is much much longer to allow the bag time to make it through the system?

You can kvetch all you want, but that doesn't help find cost-effective solutions for the problems you're talking about. Many solutions that infrequent fliers come up with would help them in their own circumstance that one time while harming the entire travel experience for everyone else.

Toby said...

I agree Anon that our system of trains needs improving, although comparing us to Europe can't be an exact comparison. No one is going to argue that traveling by train takes a lot longer for long distancse then it does if you fly. Europeans in general have more vacation days then what is customary in the US so if it takes them longer to get someplace it's not eating precious time out of a short vacation. And yes there is the old time is money saying. My husband flies out to Texas, Arizona and California about every six weeks for his company. He can basically cover all three cities he needs to be in in one week if he flies. If he had to take the train he'd be out of the office at least two weeks.

Danny said...

Some good advice there JS but it isn't always possible to plan a trip using some of your hints. I take an average of 87 flights a year not counting any vacation I take with my family that involves flying. I don't always have a choice of when to fly or which airports to choose. Add in that some places are not accessible by direct flights from all of the NY airports.

Offwinger, none of what is happening is a secret of surprise to the airlines, the things that JS mentioned such as June storms etc. When an airline gives you a connecting time of 30 minutes from one flight to another they need to be realistic about that happening. It can't happen in a lot of the airports around the country. The gate you come in on is an easy 20 minutes or more to the gate you need to depart from, counting deplaning and getting to that gate. And that assumes the flight is on time. Even a few minutes late for any reason means you aren't going to make that connection. Your luggage is not going to make that connection either. Realistically there should be NO short connection times in the airline schedules, and the more spread out and congested an airport is, the longer the connection time should be between flights. Air line scheduling is itself a cause for many missed flights.

I was once on a flight with a connection in Atlanta. We were about 10 minutes into the air when they announced that those of us making the connection would not be able to do so because that connection had been rescheduled to leave just when we were arriving. The airlines knew all of this before we got on board for the flight and didn't tell us. I might have been able to make different arrangements in my home airport if they had been honest and up front about what was going on but they weren't and I got stuck in Atlanta for the day and missed the appointment I was flying out for.

When airports like Chicago and Dallas and Atlanta are known for their huge number of screw ups for flight schedules it's time for somebody else to look at the schedules and keep the passenger's needs in mind. They are the paying customers.

Offwinger said...

@ Danny,

Airlines often schedule flights based on a hub/spoke model, where most "connections" fall between certain hours (typically once in the morning and once in the evening). The schedule is already trying to optimize some kinds of connections, particularly for business travelers going to smaller cities that are not served by many daily flights. If you fly a lot for business, surely you know this.

That said - airlines are scheduling routes based on price-modeling, legacy gates rights at particular airports, the need for planes to be moved between airports, etc. They are *not* scheduling flights based on any one specific "connection," and it is a MAJOR mistake for people to look at the connection times offered to them online as any evidence that this is a feasible connection to make. It is not the airlines fault for suggesting to you a 20 minute connection. It is YOUR fault if you book it and then you're surprised not to make it!

Your comment that there should NEVER be a short connection time makes no sense. It suggests that every passenger is going to the same place and coming from the same place. Furthermore, if you want to block out windows of time for passengers, you'll have periods of time where you have too many planes/flights and not enough gates.

There is nothing wrong with the flight schedule. There is something wrong with a person who thinks the schedule is supposed to be accommodating his/her personal plans or the specific regional jet that he or she is on with 30 other people at the expense of everyone else.

G6 said...

A family member of mine just recently had an early morning flight delay and was informed (unabashedly, I might add) by the flight crew that the reason for the delay was the fact that the pilot overslept!
But don't worry, they took off shortly after he arrived....

Jo said...

A lot of the problems that passengers get stuck with is because most of the major airports ran out of expansion space a long time ago but added many more flights and airlines. Even the airports that had some room to expand just made things more crowded with more chance that things will go wrong. Chicago is a prime example. O'Hare can't handle all the traffic it gets even when everything on the schedule is perfect, and it's never perfect.

Airlines need to rethink just how much traffic their hubs can reasonably handle because there will always be weather problems somewhere in the system that backs things up around the country. There will always be flight delays due to late arriving planes that have to be serviced before they can fly out again. There will always be heavy traffic times of the year and times of the day. One solution might be a few more major airports in addition to the hubs we have now, and have them spread out better around the country.

Yea, and treating their customers better would really be a help as well. Every try to get information in an airport? Why should that be the case?

Miami Al said...

Frequent travelers know their routes and normally can navigate the system, as Offwinger suggested. The problems are mostly borne by infrequent travelers. The solutions to this would raise costs substantially (10%, 20%, whatever), which would be borne almost entirely by the frequent fliers for the benefits of the infrequent vacation traveler.

Doesn't seem like a "just" solution to me.

ProfK said...

We flew to Las Vegas last January. Tickets were $289 round trip. For this summer the same airline is advertising its "special" prices starting at $426 and up. Same day of the week, same time of day, same airport. These are coach prices. Business and first class did not go up by the same percentage of raise. It's not slow season to LV when we are flying so they can't claim less passengers and empty flights. And for that tremendous raise in price we are getting less services, not more.

No matter how everyone tries to excuse it, the customer service for the vast majority of airlines is horrific, no matter how you try to plan around their problems.