Like Sinus Drainage, But With Wings
August 4, 2003
You've heard of air rage? I've got it. I'm building an invisible plastic chain-saw with a six-hundred horse motor to cut the wings off every airplane owned by American Airlines, before chopping the flight crews into runny gruel.
Friday morning, August first, San Francisco International. I showed up to catch a hop, AA 482, to Dallas-Fort Worth en route to Guadalajara. The line in front of the American ticketing was just flat huge. For an hour and twenty minutes by my watch people waited to check in. Yet between two thirds and three-quarters of the check-in desks were closed. American, presumably wanting to save a nickel, preferred that we stand there like cattle. We did.
The flight left way late. Why? American couldn't find a vital stewardess. Yes. Just misplaced her. Maybe they left her behind a seat cushion. Who knows? In any event, a whole plane-load of people with things to do had to wait, and wait, and wait.
Incompetent management. Airlines know they need stewardesses. Thing is, the airlines also know that the public will accept any degree of inconsideration, stupidity, and humiliation. Which is why we get them. We're patsies.
Next, clonking down the jetway, we picked up our Bistro Bags. You know, nasty little sandwich, nickel bag of chips, thingy of peeled dwarf carrots. They call them Bistro Bags because somebody in marketing figured it would make us think we were having a European Dining Experience instead of a sorry bag-lunch. We boarded. No one actually said "Moo."
The cabin crew were par: Not quite surly, but not under any constraint to be agreeable. The major US airlines barely tolerate customers. One suspects that they would be happier without them.
Off we took, finally, after the usual claptrap read from a card at high speed about how to fasten our seat belts and how the stews are there for our safety. Actually they're just waitresses. Hoping to sleep, I slid into the vague unpleasant torpor that flying has become. Normally people put themselves to sleep by counting sheep. On these aerial Greyhound buses I pretend that I have leprosy and count my fingers falling off.
American squeezes you relentlessly. To deaden the ambience I asked for a dismal little bottle of bad white wine. Five bucks. Decent airlines, meaning foreign ones, don't try to milk you for everything from beer to headphones.
Predictably, the waitress didn't have change for a twenty. Why not? It's a common bill. Maybe she didn't know she was going to need change when selling drinks. How could she? After all, she had only done it four times a day for ten years. Maybe the association just hadn't quite flowered in her neural thickets: "Urg Sell things need change Ahhh!" I pictured an evolutionarily advanced monkey learning how to poke at a coconut with a stick and shrieking with delight when it fell. She said she would come back. But didn't.
Over an hour later we were preparing to land, and still no change. The stew was forward, gabbling with her accomplices. Was she going to remember or wasn't she? The odds looked bad. I politely asked a near-by crewmember, a blonde kid with bad teeth who looked to be maybe twenty-four, if he would check on it.
He crossed the line from barely civil to deliberately snotty. "Sirrrrr! We aren't going anywhere," followed by loud remarks, intended for me, to a passing stew: "He wants his change. Hey, the ATM's broken." Clever little wunx.
He knew he could get away with it. This is the operating principle of the domestic air-transport business: You can get away with it. Lousy food, late arrivals, missed connections, surliness, gouging. These engaging traits once characterized Aeroflot, but they've migrated.
The preponderance of power lies with the airlines, and they know it. Any remonstrance and they can make an air-rage beef out of it and you miss your next flight. They figure the public has no recourse.
Finally, DFW. I needed to make the connection because people were waiting for me in Guad. But with American, making a connection doesn't really help. My next flight, AA 1401, couldn't leave because they couldn't find the pilot. So help me. No pilot.
Why not? Was he hung over? Still drunk? Couldn't find the airport? Didn't feel like working? In a lineup at the local precinct? Who knows?
Perhaps American will think I'm being too demanding-another sorehead customer. Maybe they are right. Maybe it is unreasonable to expect airlines to provide certain things: ant farms, say, or the Bhagavad Gita in Swedish, or a Faberge egg, or a pilot. I mean, how could American predict that it might need a pilot?
We sat, and sweated, and sat. Finally they told us that they had found a pilot, but that he was on another airplane. How very useful.
Either they can't staff their aircraft, or just don't care. It doesn't have to be this way. Used to be, flying United out of Dulles to the Far East, I always actually flew All Nippon Airways, which code-shared with United. ANA amounted to a major upgrade. Seats were larger, the food was great, the flight attendants hadn't recently graduated from prison-matron school, and they didn't try to gouge you for after-dinner cordials or a stray brew.
Now, I know that American has not the slightest interest in me or anything I might possibly do. (Of course, they don't know about the invisible plastic chain saw.) I fly only six or eight times a year, only two of those being long hauls to Asia. Business fliers are presumably American's money. I don't count. I know it. Still, what I did was call Claudia at my travel agency and tell her never, ever to book me on American, and always to choose a non-US airline when prices were close.
Nonetheless I note with delight that United Airlines went bankrupt (it's as bad as American, except that it usually has pilots), and American teeters on the edge. I hope it drops. Companies that peddle a sorry product with wretched service and abrasive personnel desperately need extinction. I'll celebrate with ribs and beer.
Would you go to a restaurant that couldn't find its cook and waiters and got you your meal after leaving you in the parking lot for an hour and a half? Don't do it. Fly foreign carriers outside the US--they're better--and the econolines domestically when possible: JetBlue, AirTran, Southwest, Frontier. They're all good. If you subsidize lousy performance, you get more of it. If second-rate airlines go out of business, tough.
Splendid, in fact.
The following photo illustrates the principle that you should never let your art-student daughter try to take a hokey picture of you. It might work. You would then lose half your readers, be put on a watch list by Homeland Security, and cause your neighbors to lock up their children and dogs. Though I don't smoke, she ran into Seven-Eleven and asked, "Do you have a really gross cigar?" They did. The focus is off because she couldn't stop laughing. Me too.