Saturday, April 13, 2013

Is it possible that we look back on the current time-frame as the good-old-days for air travel?

For all of the whingeing and moaning about the current state of air travel, when you get right down to it things are humming along fairly smoothly right now.  Yes, occasionally it seems as if you're speaking to a hippopotamus in a polyester jacket at times when things have gone pear shaped and you're dealing with a gate agent, but overall we're still in a market where flying can be enjoyable.  Granted, sitting in cramped quarters in a seat designed for someone lacking hips while being fed a meal that makes microwaved cardboard seem desirable isn't up there with 16 hours in a day spa, but when you consider that many airlines are now offering seat-back in-flight entertainment systems at no additional charge on some International flights it's way better than it was when passengers in canned-meat class were forced to squint at a relatively small screen on the bulkhead where a rom-com was constantly playing.

In other words, I'm not saying flying today is great, it's not, but given other travel alternatives it's still a relatively cheap way to get from point A to point B without having to risk being run over by an 18-wheeler, or ending up at the bottom of the ocean wondering if your insurance will cover death and/or hantavirus.

Even the food is getting, slightly, better.  The good news is airport food, in the bigger hubs at least, is really improving as top-tier chefs are starting to open storefronts inside some airports where you can grab a to-go meal and tell the flight attendant that you neither want the chicken dish or the beef dish thank you very much.

Of course, frequent flier programs are rapidly deteriorating, many to the point that the tipping point between loyalty program and credit card is starting to blur.  So prevalent are perks for branded card holders that the faux elite are now considering paying extra for their red carpet treatment. (the REAL elite still choosing to stay, for the most part, on chartered or private birds).  As a non-pampered flier the dilemma is obvious: As more and more resources are directed toward the front of the plane, what are the options for those of us relegated to the back?

We've reached the point where VIP security lines are just as long as the cattle-class security line and, in some cases, it's better to skip the carpeted lines and just fall in with the rank & file.  In many cases you'll process through the system faster.  Last year, in Honolulu, the wife and I went to check in at the United desk and there were six kiosks for non-Premier customers with four agents working them while Premiers were stuck with one line and one agent.  As we walked up to the gate we noticed there were two people waiting in the normal queue and seven waiting in the Premier queue.  Guess which one we picked? I only looked at the agent slightly cross-eyed when they noticed our Premier status and asked "Why didn't you go through the Premier line?"

Of course, most of the passenger complaints harped on by the media are focused on those people who fly only during the busiest times of the year, and then slow things down to a crawl because the airline won't let them take their 25 gallon drum of family wine on the plane or that their children actually do have to have a passport to leave the country and "no one told them that."  When you think about all of this in the context of what's coming, we could be experiencing the golden age of air travel.

Think about this, the current spike in late arrivals/departures is largely being driven by Mother Nature. Coming soon however are wider seats (fee based of course) for the fat and slovenly which is going to mean that the rest of us will need to find ways to squeeze in to even narrower seats than the hip-compactors we're currently seated in.  Since hip removal would be expensive, and not very practical for walking around at your destination, people are going to get well stuck in to their seats which means that, for almost every Airbus flight, a maintenance crew is going tn have to be called bringing along a pry-bar and a pound of butter.  Given union rules, this will be a crew of five men with 50's style glasses, one of which will have no idea which way the crowbar goes and another one who will have eaten all of the butter.

Then there's the little matter of the American Airlines/US Air merger, something that is now probably a certainty and which is going to bring price increases (due to diminished competition) and the abolishment of the bottom for uncomfortable seats and bad food.  We will miss you USAir, because, for a long time, you've persisted in retaining your lightly padded vinyl seats and your meals were best described as pig sinus au jus served with mashed asbestos and soylent green beans.  Not only that, but you kept the screen on the bulkhead wall as well.  With this merger that means that USAir is going away.  Granted, the management team is still there and they may respond by bringing AA's quality down to US Air levels but I doubt it. They're going to be a big, not-so-shiny, new airline now and they're going to want to make an impact.

All of this means that we're going to have to find a new standard for the bottom.  It'd be very easy to select Spirit airlines and be done with it but I'm afraid a lousy discount carrier just won't cut it.  Therefore, in the interest of the self-preservation of my sits bones, and my desire to see United get better, it is with great sadness that I'm afraid we need to ask Delta to take one for the team.  Talk to Airbus, they seem to have some good ideas.

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