What is going on with airlines? I clearly don’t have all the facts, don’t even know where to start investigating, but something IS wrong with airlines in the US.
Years ago, when reading PJ O’Rourke’s Eat The Rich, I came across his description of train travel in Siberia, where the train seemed to have been built to maximize discomfort and lack of hygiene. He compared this to travel in the US and I realized suddenly that Portugal, while not as bad as Siberian trains in the USSR was about halfway there: i.e. Portuguese trains had a restroom, but you’d not think to use it unless the alternative were death. And the way the employees treated you was with the kind of unconcern reserved for serfs. (Portuguese airlines still treat you that way. The emphasis is on the PASSENGER proving he/she is worthy by having all the paperwork and kowtowing to the “functionary” which is the Portuguese term for employee and which might tell you all you need to know.)
Yesterday, on the leg back from a hellish journey, I realized that US airlines are now halfway through Portuguese railways of old and the old USSR. And it makes me wonder: what is going on here?
Look, let’s start by establishing that EVERY company like every individual working for it, works in what it/he/she perceives as the company’s or individual’s best interests.
As we’ve seen in the case of publishing, in a large corporation it is possible for the best interests of the individual to be objectively at odds with the interests of the corporation, or at least to work to undermine it, without anyone being aware.
Maybe that’s what’s wrong with airlines, but I don’t think so, since even the decisions from the top down seem inspired by the type of – to draw from PJ O’Rourke again – Oxacan ditch weed that is simply not that easy or cheap to come by.
I can tell you the date travel became a nightmare: about a year and a half after 9/11. We tried to make it from CO to NYC and the trip alone took close to twenty four hours. I thought it was because the airline industry was recovering from a severe blow and restructuring, and it would get better.
I was wrong. I was actually seeing the airline industry at the best it would be in the next ten years. And every year after it gets worse.
Now, I know that the airlines got a massive bailout after 9/11. Are they still getting them? Are they too big to fail?
The evidence on the ground seems to indicate so, since I now find the total lack of unconcern with passenger wants or needs that I used to see in Portuguese public transport. Or is it the de facto rape of morale undergone by everyone passing through security? Does it soften people to put up with the otherwise indefensible?
One of the things I noticed while in Portugal was that my family puts up with ridiculous behavior form everyone in “official” position, even if the position is in a company selling to the public. They cringed every time I demanded what I’d paid for or made a fuss over shoddy products or services. They told me “we here in Portugal are more patient.” I’m telling you, my dears, if being patient leads to Portuguese level service, please don’t be patient. Not unless you have a hankering to be peasants.
Besides, even the “what can we get away with” doesn’t explain, say, my last trip. (And btw, in the last four trips booked, no matter how short or seemingly trouble free, I have YET to make it there in the allotted time. I rarely get all my luggage. And I will encounter one of more instances of sheer zany power-seeking by employees. Like… trying to force us to check a bag to “your destination” which fits perfectly within the frame they put up.)
The latest flights were from Denver to Atlanta, with a further car rental to Chattanooga. ONE flight. Not even that long. We chose Frontier because their Denver hub makes it cheap and convenient. Or so we thought. And because they were the one airline we hadn’t had an hellish experience with.
Suffice it to say I will never fly Frontier again, even if the alternative is walking.
No, it wasn’t the fact that their planes got hit by hail. Such disasters happen. It’s why they have insurance. It’s what came AFTER that.
Since they cancelled over a dozen planes – and btw, what WERE they doing cancelling at 10:30 am for damage incurred at 2 am? They could have cancelled it any time, and they have our phone/email to notify us, with perhaps a little more time to react.
BUT not only did they not cancel it till the last minute. Oh, no. They ALSO accepted checked luggage. Normally for five days or less, I travel with only carry on. However, I was taking Port Wine with me to give to people at the con. This required a checked bag because some nut jobs in England tried – and failed – to blow up a plane with their baby bottle. So henceforth and till the end of time, in the Tartarus we find ourselves in, we SHALL be punished by not being able to carry liquids. Unless, of course, they fit into the magic ziploc. (In a wonderful example of bureaucratic mentality, even if all you have is a bottle of hand sanitizer and you lay it on the tray so they can see it, pick it up and examine it, they’ll make you put it in a ziploc. They’ve forgotten the point of the ziploc is “to control quantity” and “so you can see what is there.” It is now a magical ziploc which stops explosions.)
So, we came in with no intimation of disaster and checked a bag. We sat at the gate, read our morning blogs, and waited. First the plane was delayed, then finally cancelled. We left at top speed for a customer service station, knowing, of course, that the nearest one would be swamped. We could have saved ourselves the trouble. ALL were swamped, with hours of wait to get to the front, by the time our plane was cancelled.
My husband left me and my son (we were traveling with only one, since the other was in NC already, and would drive in) in line, and went out of the secure area, to try to rebook at the counter, when the scuttlebutt around us was “you’ll be lucky to get there on Sunday.” Since the con ended on Sunday, you see where I had a SMALL problem.
So, Dan went out to rebook and secured it fairly soon – while Atlanta was booked solid, he got us on a flight to Nashville. He then tried to come back to us and found that his new tickets wouldn’t get him past security. Why not? They were not boarding passes. Why not? Because we had to first redirect and re-check our luggage.
By then it was about two hours since cancellation and two other frontier flights to Atlanta had left. Yes, you read that right.
I’m going nuts standing in line, and Frontier employees are circling the line with water, cookies and granola bars (none of which I can have but water, and oh, btw, because of security lines which can be hell in Denver, we left home at six, to get to the airport at eight, for a ten thirty flight. Yeah. I’m hungry and sleepy and just all around cranky.)
As it turns out Frontier employees SHOULD have been doing something else. What else? Why, asking people who had decided not to go or who were taking another route if they wanted their checked luggage back, for instance. JUST a thought. Also, btw, there were two people at the head of the line processing passengers and about five circulating with goodies. Does this make sense in any sane universe?
After a while I called my husband (we were trying to save cell phone batteries, which were needed as he was trying to solve a problem at work via cell phone.) He was standing in an “at least three hours” (per Frontier Employee. ONE working the line, mind you.) line to reclaim our checked bag. My son and I elected to go out of security and wait with my husband. BTW, this entire bit of theater (you’ll see why it’s just theater later) cost us the chance to maybe go home and nap or at least go to a restaurant and get a meal or even go to our favorite hotel and get a day room before our new flight at 8pm to Nashville.
When we got to the head of the line, the rumors that had been filtering back through the line became clear. The complete idiots at Frontier (sorry to insult idiots) instead of immediately cancelling all luggage from cancelled flights (surely, guys, if it was waiting to be loaded, it could be cancelled, no?) had sent it ahead by ‘first available’ flight, making a mockery of the idea that you need to pay for checked luggage because of fuel costs. Why burden your planes with extra luggage. Or does luggage only weigh when it’s WANTED? If it’s luggage no one wants flown, it’s weightless? (My dears, I write SF and that’s a quantum effect I never heard of.)
By the time we confirmed this, we barely had the time to catch our flight to Nashville. Meanwhile, we’d been making frantic rearrangements. You see, we had a car waiting in Atlanta. Had to cancel that (one way rental was $500 more) and book a shuttle from Nashville to Chattanooga. One small issue. Our plane arrived at one thirty am. Shuttle left at six. Even if we could get a hotel we’d be paying $150 to sleep three hours if that. So, we spent the night in the airport. Yes, I did this a lot at around 20, but I’m too old for this crap.
Meanwhile, Dan is on the phone with the luggage people in Atlanta, who tell him they’ll send our bag via a Delta flight to Chattanooga and it will be there when we pick up our new car rental there. Right… Only, of course, by morning the story had changed. They were instead going to fedex it to our hotel.
This seemed okay, and we checked in to our hotel, where I have to say – in that case – the fault was entirely ours. We booked that hotel, which used to be a Day’s Inn on the strength of two reasons – we’d stayed there three years ago and found it spartan but clean; and it was next door to the con hotel, which meant I could drift back to write. Only… well… no. Because the place, now a Knights Inn was the FILTHIEST place I’ve ever stayed in – and that, my dears, includes youth hostels in the early eighties in France – and without the barest creature comforts. Like… oh, a trash can.
But we went ahead and checked in because, duh, our luggage had already been sent there… right?
So we suffer through two days – I’ll try to discover what skin diseases I caught, later – without btw my clothes (I had taken three spare shirts in Dan’s luggage, but my jeans were definitely getting ripe) makeup OR my eczema medicine (well, it is liquid and a large bottle.) My eczema, btw, is haywire due to stress, lack of sleep, etc.
And then because the luggage hasn’t arrived and Dan continues calling, they tell him no, the luggage is in fact still in Atlanta. It seems the master plan was for us to pick it up on the way back.
I think dan exploded over the phone. The thing is that within an hour and a half our bag was landing at Chattanooga on a Delta plane. End of story? Oh, I WISH.
I was glad to have clothes, we changed hotels, happy happy joy joy.
On Monday we take the shuttle at noon to Atlanta for our flight. Again, note that Frontier has our cell phone numbers and that my husband connected to the net at least once. NO WARNING was sent.
We’re joking about the flights being cancelled, but even we didn’t EXPECT it, until… we got in line to check in and heard rumors.
We get to the front of the line and start by being lied to. They tell us that there was ANOTHER hail storm on the night before at two am. They couldn’t have known! It was just bad luck! They have rebooked us for Wednesday. They’re shocked it’s unacceptable.
Passenger in line next to us needs to get back to Denver, because his wife had a stroke. He’s not buying what they’re selling and calls friends in Denver to verify… there was no hail storm. (Which, duh, we knew.)
So they backpedal. No, no. The flights are still cancelled because of the hail storm on Wednesday before. And, oh, it’s weather, so they’re giving us no lodging or food.
(What transpires, btw, from putting together rumors while in line, is that Frontier chose to lease planes to keep SOME of their contracts… but not all. And yes, they are using the weather to justify doing nothing for stranded passengers, whom they’re not warning of upcoming cancellations. Meanwhile an article online says they won’t lose any good will because they’re using money from insurance to rent top of line planes and give excellent customer care. I’d like the reporter to have gone through what we went through.)
At this point guy next to us demands to talk to a supervisor and gets what my husband calls “designated crier” “It’s not my fault. I didn’t decide this. Why are you yelling at me?” Right. Because you are the face of the company, chickie. DEAL.
As she was about to leave she made ONE mistake. “Does anyone else here want to unload on me? I don’t mind… I mean, I can’t do anything, but if you want to yell at me, go ahead.”
At which point I said “Yes, I DO want to unload on you.” And I started by pointing out that no, this was no longer weather. This was choosing to violate contracts and that I worked for a nationally syndicated website (yeah, I know) and this WOULD be blogged (Promise kept, btw) and that I had had JUST about enough. Also that I was sure they were violating FTC regulations, among other things.
She then, CASUALLY – note that I’m sure she’s not really a manager, unless she’s the manager of that counter – awarded us a night in a (nice it turned out) hotel but NO meals. AT HER DISCRETION. So, the “powerless” crap was just that.
So, we paid $70 for dinner – Ruby Tuesdays. No car. All restaurants in the vicinity of airport are expensive – in addition to the extra $250 for the shuttle and the inconvenience of lacking my luggage for almost two days. I’ve found our last three trips, no matter how short, cost us about $500 extra apiece to get around airline insanity.
By the time we got back to the airport the next morning to fly Continental to Houston then Houston to Denver, I was so tired I seem to have arrived home without my cell phone. And while it might have been security, I confess that I was feeling so dazed that I wouldn’t put it past me to hand it off to a passing stranger. Since no meals, we didn’t have breakfast, thinking we’d grab something in Houston, so I was tired, upset and uncafeinated. ALSO itching all over my body from the worst eczema eruption in two years. (Which will necessitate doctor’s visit asap.)
So… what’s up with the airlines? Because given that the planes got hit with hail and everything thrown off, in the end this nightmare was brought to us by a lack of even casual interest in customer service. Frontier could EASILY have made our life better by
a) not sending the luggage on without us. If you’re booking passengers to the end of a weekend, from what’s clearly the beginning of it, is it so difficult to realize that many if not most of them are going off for an extended weekend? And that if they can’t get there till Sunday they simply won’t go? Or as in our case, book alternate routes to get to a conference or meeting? WHAT do you gain by sending luggage on ahead of passengers?
B) if you absolutely needed to send our luggage on a joy ride, how about just doing what you finally did, and put it on a delta plane, so it was there when we got to Chattanooga? Why the lies and the decoy with Fedex?
C) if you know you’re going to cancel the plane returning (and don’t even get me started on IT WAS A CONTRACT. You don’t get to pick and choose which contracts to honor. What are you? NYC publishers?) Email or phone the customers. First, it might be more convenient (it would have been for us) for them to stay put and extend their hotel (that one was clean) another night than to find out at the airport that they’re supposed to be homeless (and mealless) for two days. HINT there’s less chance they’ll revolt.
D) you effed up and you have an irate about-to-go-ballistic customer (or ten). The weather emergency was five days ago. Legally, you don’t have a leg to stand on. Yes, you can be a jerk and deny them hotels and meals. BUT even if you can get away with it – do you expect them to EVER fly with you again? EVER? In this lifetime? Do you expect them to tell their friends and neighbors you’re a great airline to fly with?
No? WHY DON’T YOU CARE?
How is it possible that EVERY step along the way Frontier chose the WRONG option to maintain customer satisfaction? And who will support them when they collapse? Uncle Sugar?
Honeys – Uncle Sugar is broke, and if I have anything to say to it, when you go to him with your little hand out, he’ll tell you it wasn’t his decision, and why are you yelling at him…
*crossposted at Classical Values*