not so friendly skies

 Hearing about a Delta Airline flight whose passengers were closeted in a plane for 3 hours on the tarmac, inspired me to write this post. An engine problem was said to be the culprit, but upon close inspection nothing was found to be amiss. To Delta’s chagrin, the event was broadcast worldwide on YouTube. A very resourceful passenger captured his image with the camera on his cell phone.  Beads of sweat were shown cascading down his bald scalp, over his brows, and onto his cheekbones. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I can’t imagine that it felt any better than it looked. This picture ran countless times throughout the newscast. The Network drove home its point, and then some. Of course they included snippets of an interview with the passenger. In it he underscored how awful the situation was by explaining, that as a soldier, he’d served in Africa where temperatures soared well over 100 degrees. He’d also endured grueling conditions as a navy Seal. But nothing, he said, NOTHING could compare with the abhorrent conditions he experienced onboard Delta’s “flight from Hell.”  

Pictures of fellow passengers showed their disgruntled faces. Children’s cheeks were flushed from the heat. The air-conditioning was left off because of the supposed engine problem. A lone flight attendant finally took it upon herself to distribute bottles of water. Meanwhile, no announcements were made to explain the situation to the passengers. And according to the man in the picture, no apology was extended by Delta. I don’t remember what was contained in a formal letter sent by the airline. But judging from the man’s demeanor, it didn’t contain the mea culpa he expected. My husband and I experienced a similar situation on a USAirways flight leaving Philadelphia, but the outcome was considerably different.

Taxiing out on the runway, we were lined up with other outbound flights. It wasn’t clear if a passenger forced the captain to relinquish his place in line when she went to the bathroom, ignoring the “fasten your seat belt ” sign. I gathered that’s what happened because announcements were made to that effect. Pulling out of position, the plane went to the back of the line. Then Mother Nature stepped in, and “leveled the playing field.” All flights were delayed indefinitely because of bad weather in the Midwest. 

TV newscasts showing scenes like the one described earlier, drifted through my mind. I let myself go numb, knowing there was nothing to be done but settle in for the long haul. Getting agitated wouldn’t resolve the situation, and the accompanying stress would go against my resolve to stay healthy, and avoid Alzheimer’s. You know the old saying “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” 

Unlike Delta’s indifference to its passengers, USAir kept us apprised of the status of our delay. It was like having an open phone line between the cockpit and the cabin. When the captain wasn’t on the line, the flight attendants were. At the time I was slightly annoyed. (I told you I was calm, not dead.) I just wanted them to stop talking and do something, anything, to relieve our discomfort. Even in business class, the seats were HARD. More disturbing, you’d have thought there was a party going on! (Helllooo…am I the only one wanting to get underway here?)  The  flight attendants strolled the aisle, smiling and laughing while serving up cups of water, and casually visiting with passengers who got up to remove items from overhead bins. All around me were voices chattering, while I sat with furrowed brow.

Finally, the captain announced that our plane would be returning to the terminal. Once there, the door was opened and a ticket agent came aboard. From the cockpit came a further update that our delay would depend upon reconfiguration of flight patterns due to the thunderstorms and lightning. What came next must have surprised my fellow travelers as much as it did me. We were told that, because of new government regulations, passengers were free to disembark to make other arrangements if they so chose. Now THAT caught my attention! Wow! An airline wasputting the passenger ahead of the “bottom line.” Of course they had their “neck on the block,” but no matter. While it didn’t make a loyal fan of me, USAir won my respect.

My husband and I have both worked in the airline industry, he with Pan Am, and me with Iran Air and TWA.  Airline employees enjoy very nice perks, foremost of which is traveling free or at greatly discounted rates. It does involve going “stand by,” where they literally stand around waiting to hear their names called if space is available on the aircraft. This can be nerve-wracking, especially when accompanied by young children who wonder aloud “Why can’t we get on yet?” The wait is worthwhile, however, if they’re upgraded to first class…for free.

When we flew our own airlines, we awaited takeoff, giddy and delighted at our good fortune.  Gazing out the window, we’d admire the planes bearing the company logo. We felt proud, and special. Proud to be employed by companies who transported people all over the world. Special, because we were part of what seemed a fantasy, air travel. We dressed accordingly, suit and tie for my husband, dress and heels for me. Stewardesses were fashionistas, carefully groomed from head to toe. How I admired, and wanted to be one of them. But they seemed an elite class. Pilots too seemed like mythical beings, ensconced in their private domain, the cockpit. Catching a glimpse inside was a treat, sitting in one during flight was memorable. I had that privilege once, on an Iran Air flight.  Reminiscing about air travel in decades past, makes me think how different it is today.

I’ve agreed with friends that flying today is like riding a bus. Line up; get your ticket punched; squeeze into a seat; read your book or paper; eat food you’ve brought aboard; get to your destination, deplane, and go your own way. Flight attendants are likened to waiters and waitresses, except they may, or may not, serve you something. These days, you couldn’t pay me to be one of them. I’d much rather sit in my comfy jeans, “catching 40 winks” or some part thereof. Now, passengers try to cram as much as possible into carry-on luggage, not wanting to hand over $15, $20, or $30 for checked bags.

Airline travel has certainly changed. Deregulation enabled airlines to set their own rates which allowed consumers more options in popular markets; not so much, in  less traveled markets. Big companies scrambled, some eventually closed their doors, or merged with others to survive. Small companies like Southwest and Jet Blue grew to prominence with travelers who wanted the biggest “bang” for their buck. The industry continues to expand and contract, mirroring the economy upon which it depends.

My initial experience with Southwest was terrible. Traveling with my husband and daughter, we stood in the haphazard line waiting to board. People were sitting on the floor or standing, luggage at the ready, making sure they’d get a good seat, for it was “first-come, first-serve.” Then unexpectedly a voice was heard over the loudspeaker calling out a gate change. A mad scramble ensued. Everyone made a dash for the new gate. Upon arriving there, our family was nearer the front of the line than before. Eventually we heard murmurings at the back that there was another change. Slowly the line unraveled, people running in another direction. Finally making it aboard the plane, my husband, daughter and I managed to sit together in one row. There and then, I made my husband promise never to book another Southwest flight again. He promised. 

Fast forward to now, and Southwest is my airline of choice. Management figured out that herding passengers like cattle wasn’t good for public relations. A new system was put into effect lining people up according to positions assigned upon check-in, A-1 through 30, B-1 through 30, and c-1 through 30. People are more civil; boarding runs more smoothly. Without the lengthy process inherent with other airlines, it seems Southwest is in and out of the gate more quickly. Service on board is comparable to major carriers, sometimes even besting them. Air fares are comparable or better.

Current air travel is a “free-for-all.” Passengers get, or don’t get, what they pay for; airlines make, or don’t make, a profit. Fate seems to have the upper hand these days. I’m not sure what to think.

what do you think?…hugmamma.