03 November 2009

My Latest Florida Trip, Part One:
The “Cranky Old Man” Rant

For a variety of reasons, I recently headed back down to Florida for a few days of work and recreation; a confluence of opportunities that came together pretty nicely (for the most part) to create a truly remarkable long weekend. I sometimes worry, as I glide towards middle age, that someday soon I won’t have any new “adventures” and will instead always be looking back on my youth; I needn’t have worried about that, at least not just yet. I had an outstanding time.

Having said that, I think I’ll start by complaining in a Rex Murphy-esque manner about the quality of air travel in the United States these days: it sucks! I took two different airlines on this trip (American and Continental, for the record) and both have, in addition to making the actual journey as unpleasant and uncomfortable as possible, decided to add a surcharge for the luxury of actually having any luggage to take with you. I’ll be the first to admit that I take advantage of the cheaper airfares available in the US: it costs less for me to fly from Seattle, even counting in the cost of the ferry from Victoria both ways, than it does for me to fly directly from Victoria (hah!) or Vancouver to virtually anywhere.

That said, the little surcharges and nonsense extras that airlines hide behind the base price of the supposedly “cheap” airfare really grate with me. The surcharge for your first checked bag, for example, is ridiculous. Overweight charges have been around forever, and rightly so; we don’t want Princess Vespa and her caravan of eight hope chests full of hairdryers to throw the weight ratios off without some cost. But when I checked my one and only (small) bag in at the counter, rather than being thanked or rewarded for not trying to haul a weeks’ worth of clothes in a carry-on, I was punished with a $20 surcharge and the indignity of having this one bag labelled “excess baggage!” Heaven forbid I should have had two checked bags (something that in decades past would have been quite the norm), that would have added fully 20% more to the cost of my entire airfare!

Of course this means that most people now try to cram everything they need to go on vacation into the two allowed carry-ons, which strikes me as more dangerous than storing luggage in, you know, the part of the aircraft reserved and designed for the weight of luggage. If you’re the sort who travels light, you might get away with this (presuming you don’t ever buy anything on your travels that you’d like to carry back home!), but these days even non-nerds are bringing extra gear like laptops and iPods/iPhones, water bottles and portable DVD players, not to mention all the crap that kids and babies normally require. Even with airfares at historic lows relative to inflation, the surcharges and loss of services over the years means you’re not getting the bargain you think you are -- and in both real and intangible ways, you’re actually paying a lot more.

I look at pictures of people flying “aeroplanes” back in the old days (or think of my own memories of flying from the late 60s to about the mid-80s) and am astonished at what we’ve lost in exchange for (what ends up being no more than) a few bucks. Start with legroom and hiproom in the seating; add in things like included meals and snacks; in-flight entertainment that was more than just endless ads for other entertainments; and of course the incredible hassle of just getting to (and through) the airport makes the overall experience very expensive in a variety of less-obvious ways, from the lost work time you need to check in hours ahead of your flight to the rip-off pricing of things like internet access and food. Oh, and do you remember back when you could actually meet your loved ones at the gate? Ah, memories ...

On top of all this, we now support an incredibly large yet ineffective “Homeland Security” bureaucracy that to my knowledge has not foiled any attempted hijackings or terror plots but which has thrown away many landfills’ worth of perfectly good and safe liquids, plastic bottles and penknives, not to mention added considerable delay and discomfort to the travelling experience. The folks who scream about how Obama is “nationalizing industries” should ask themselves why the airlines themselves aren’t paying for and managing this risk, since it is in their interest more than anyone else’s and they would probably do a hugely more efficient job of it anyway.

Of course, I get to go through this (in effect) twice, having to pass through the security check of Customs between the US and Canada as well as the usual TSA business coming to and returning from my destination. Talk about layers of government inefficiency! I have to say that the process of dealing with Customs in both countries is infinitely less degrading and more “human-oriented” than anything the TSA has come up with. The maze that Homeland Security have set up in front of the  often looks to me like one of those dog-show obstacle courses, or an incredibly lame state fair. We actually had a video on board the plane coming back (that was really one long ad for a show called “Wipeout”) that put people through various cartoonish stunts and barriers in an attempt to get them to fall into the mud and otherwise humiliate themselves -- the ghost of Douglas Adams and I had a good hollow laugh about the painful irony these duly-processed tourists who were watching the video were completely missing.

Another area that needs vast improvement is the airports themselves, which vary wildly in terms of how nice they are but seem as though they were designed by slaughterhouse builders who dream of designing apartment blocs. Some, like Dallas, are so nice as to be almost museum-like; others, like Orlando and Houston, are barely functional at the moment due to renovations, but all of them have one thing in common: absolutely no concept of how to move people around, which again seems odd in a building complex that exists only to do exactly that.

Every part of them, from the concourses to the shops, seem to have been designed without considering that you are of course going to be dragging lots of heavy luggage with you. I walked for what amounted to miles to find carts (which of course you are charged for) to take the load of my bags off my shoulders, only to find that I had to risk leaving them unattended (usually only briefly, but still) in order to use the washroom, check out a restaurant or lounge, inquire at check-in counters or peruse magazines. All airports rely heavily on your being willing and able to walk quite long distances while loaded down with bags and/or children, even though most now provide people-movers between terminals and short patches of “moving sidewalks” to give the illusion that they’re helping you get where you’re going. Why they don’t just have a permanent uninterrupted strip you can hop on and off of is beyond me.

On this most recent trip, I give Dallas and Seattle high marks for at least trying to consolidate shops in sensible ways, inviting in plenty of public art and for effective use of signage to help one find ones gate or where the shops of interest or internet points are located. Houston’s new “George Bush Intercontinental Airport” (ironic on so many levels, the mind reels ...) was one of the more bizarre places I’ve ever found myself, with signage that was missing gate #’s, no map or directory of where you were anywhere at all, no guide to the shops or terminals, an actual Fox News Channel souvenir shop (empty every time I walked by, which was often), bookstores that emphasized right-wing paranoia and “Post-Rapture” apocalypse epics (is this really the sort of reading you want while on a plane?), no big-name fast-food places (this is considered by me to be a good thing, but sometimes a family need quick cheap eats and doesn’t feel like experimenting), and finally -- I kid you not -- a mini-altar to George (HW) Bush, a frankly hilarious life-sized statue (see pic) situated in the middle of a mini-rotunda with placards of his family and accomplishments. The statue required two armed guards to keep away people who clearly wished to use it as a public restroom (including your humble narrator).

Speaking of Bush, in an age where the establishment seeks to control public behaviour at every opportunity, there is no bigger and more effective pacifier for weary travellers than free wifi, but so far only Orlando International Airport seems to have figured this out (Houston says they’ll be getting it “soon,” as though this technology hasn’t existed for the better part of two decades). Orlando’s airport is in a frankly shocking state of disrepair as I write this (they are apparently remodelling all the terminals by first tearing them apart), but I barely noticed thanks to free wifi. I’m not going to go so far as to say free internet should be mandatory, but if airport management companies are interested in helping offset the incredible hassle of modern air travel and give their customers a strongly favourable impression of their facility and civic image, free wifi will go a long way towards restoring the damage done and keeping delayed passengers docile.

And if you think free wifi at the airport is a good idea, having it on the freakin’ plane would be an even better one. I don’t actually mind those airlines that charge a modest fee for on-board internet; I’m still waiting to fly one that offers it at all, which is fairly ridiculous in the year 2009. I have to wonder, however, if airlines wouldn’t do very well for themselves by offering “free” internet while raising the actual fare up a notch or two rather than the present nickel-and-dime-you-to-death approach for every little thing.

Lastly, I have to mention the absolutely insane configuration of seats in modern aircraft, a problem that has been with us for a while now (thanks, Reagan!). Not only are Americans getting bigger (though the “chunky” have always been among us, even back when stewardesses were flying Playboy bunnies), they are also getting taller. Even worse, I fall into both categories! Yet airline seats are in fact getting now to the point where a normal-weight man who happens to be tall will find themselves in a vice-like grip in which they must remain essentially motionless for most of the several hours they will be on board, a torture Torquemada himself would have wept with joy to see, and women of normal motherly hippage (or men who, heaven forbid, have perfectly normal middle-aged “spread”) will struggle (particularly given the number of things we carry in our pockets these days) to find into the 17-inch wide seats with their inflexible metal-and-plastic armrests. I watched a lot of men who are far more manly-sized than I am struggle and contort themselves quite ridiculously to stuff themselves into seats designed to transport Kate Moss on a hunger strike.

For years, those guilty of being overweight could get around this by trying to book exit rows or use luck to find seats that had unoccupied units next to them, allowing a little “elbow room,” not just for excess weight but to allow movement or natural poses of relaxation. On today’s overbooked planes, this is an utter impossibility requiring passengers to constrain movement so severely as to have an actual life-threatening medical condition (blood clots in legs, or Deep Vein Thrombosis) become commonplace in frequent air travellers. Still think that “cheap” ticket is so cheap when you have to take an eight-week yoga class to learn how to “lotus” your way into your middle seat?

Sadly, I fear it’s going to take a concerted passenger revolution -- or perhaps the death of modern airlines as we know them entirely -- for reform to come to air travel, and dignity and human accommodation to return to the air travel process. I have recently heard verified stories of pilots getting their salaries cut 90% over the last two decades, and planes being flown to South America to have cheap non-union mechanics fix them to lower standards than would be required in the US. When I compare the fun and relaxing enjoyment of our seven-week drive across the states two years ago to the ignominy and inefficiency of our current air travel system, the time and money savings seem quite inconsequential compared to the good memories, amazing sights and wonderful times we had back then. Like food you order in restaurants that doesn’t match the picture in the menu, air travel just no longer lives up to its billing.

So next time, I will learn this lesson and do my research: go beyond just price, and find out which airlines offer the most comfortable seats; don’t charge people for extra for having normal amounts of luggage; offer free or inexpensive on-board wifi (and check which airports have free wifi); which airlines do the least “overbooking” (or offer the best perks when they do overbook you); which offer easy, affordable first-class upgrades, and generally which airlines actually treat customers like normal human beings. Because I’ve had it with being a sardine.

Postscript: I wrote the first draft of the above rant on a boat (the final leg of my journey, the Clipper from Seattle to Victoria). Why? Because on a boat, you can sit in train-style seats that are comfortable and roomy, you have a table right in front of you that you can work on, and you can open up the laptop without cutting off all circulation to your  thighs. The three-hour voyage just sailed by, so to speak.


Anonymous said...

The not at all anonymous Mark Glenn writes:

LOVED the airline rant, I'd recommend sending a copy to the PR wing of all major airlines. As a side note, the TV show "Wipeout" is my six year old sons favorite show. Watching adults ram their face into mud for the slim chance of winning some money really connects with a kindergarten mentality. You're just the wrong demographic to appreciate that. Try losing about 80 IQ points and you'll just love that show (and many others).

chas_m said...

I didn't mean to give a negative impression of "Wipeout" (I'm not surprised kids love it), just that the irony of the nonsense games we have to go through to get on a plane (compared to trains or ships or busses) seemed more than a little similar to the show to me. :)

And you're right ... I should email the URL of this to at least a couple of airlines' "customer relations" departments ...

In the meantime, I guess it's Southwest for me next time ...

PS. You know you're gaining the residence of the mystical Aaron Jarvis up your neck of the woods, right?

Anonymous said...

What th…! Aaron Jarvis is evacuating Orlando?! Prithee, where is he and the Missus moving to?

chas_m said...

Terran is already in the greater Atlanta area (Stone Mountain I believe), with Aaron soon to follow if he hasn't already.

When AARON JARVIS gives up hope on Orlando, there really isn't a lot left to love ...

Anonymous said...

Listen... there is a lot of bad about airport travel... the food choice, the cost of food, the waiting, the arguing, the lack of free wi-fi at the majority of airports, the airlines like frontier, who do away with first class entirely, and charge for every last possible bit they can... watch TV, buy water, buy a pillow, buy a blanket, It cost me $125US to check in two bags ONE WAY a few weeks ago. But you know what? That is the cost of getting more people on an aircraft.

Remember the COST of flying in the 70s and 80s? Most people didn't fly. It simply cost too much. That convenience for everyone to fly today, has an inevitable price.

What I miss over the past 10 years? The insane checks thru security, and the lack of free beer on the Horizon flight from Victoria to Seattle.

What I have liked? Try a flight on a widebody 777. I've never had an issue flying economy, because I just fit, but the 777 will give passengers a bit more room to breathe, and the first class section of the aircraft is wonderful, roomy, and isolated... but in a good way. Awesome aircraft, and looking forward to the 787.