Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Air Travel: the "New Normal"

This past weekend I flew to Portland, Oregon to preside at the memorial service for Phil Buchanan. It was a rich but difficult experience and I am grateful I was able to be a part of it. If I write about it at all if will be after I have taken some time to get past the immediate emotional impact. For now let me just make a few observations about the “new normal” in air travel.
It was a challenge to find flights that worked because Susan and I were leading a workshop in Shawano on Friday, which meant departing from Appleton as late as possible, and I very much wanted to have brunch with our friends Debby, Greene and Terry before coming home on Sunday, which meant leaving Portland in the afternoon but still getting home at a reasonable hour. My flight out of Appleton left 90 minutes late, but that simply meant spending those 90 minutes in the Appleton airport rather than O’ Hare, which is hardly a sacrifice. Appleton now has free Wi-Fi.
I was on five flights in total, and each of them was fully booked or overbooked. The airlines are succeeding in filling their seats, likely because they are offering fewer flights. This means checking in as early as possible – ideally on-line as soon as they allow – to reduce the risk of being bumped.
Not a single flight had food aboard, not even for sale. Passengers now carry provisions of all sorts, making me think of people in the developing world riding rickety buses (except that there are not yet chickens in the aisles). Like those rickety buses, minor maintenance appears to be deferred more often. I had no reading light between Chicago and Portland, for example. I would have loved to snooze, but my aisle seat made that pretty much impossible.
Now that the airlines are charging for checking all bags, the great majority of passengers are bringing only carry-on luggage. A new etiquette is emerging: only larger bags may go in the overhead bins, so you are pretty much obligated to put your briefcase or backpack under the seat in front of you, surrendering what little foot room that space would have provided. The airlines are making a few bucks on this new policy, and the flight attendants are the ones paying the price for it. They have developed extraordinary stuffing skills, but it still takes longer to get everyone boarded and soothed than it used to. A policy that is new to me: the going rate seems to be $15 for the first checked bag and much more for the second, but if the first bag exceeds fifty pounds or is oversized that fee jumps to $125! This could be an issue when Harry and I go backpacking in Utah next month.
To get home on Sunday I needed to take one Delta flight and two United flights. The airlines do no play nicely together: Delta would not allow me to check-in or print boarding passes for any flights from my hotel, and I was rejected by their electronic kiosk at the airport as well. The woman who finally checked me in (and it was a challenge to find an actual human being) told me that I would need to get my United boarding passes at my next stop, Salt Lake City. Since my departure from Portland was delayed and I had only minutes to make my connection, which was in a different terminal, that could have been a major problem. Fortunately, United had permitted me to check in and print boarding passes at the hotel: points for United on that one.
Portland and Denver also now offer free Wi-Fi (I was not in Salt Lake City long enough to check). Free internet access is becoming an entitlement: I suspect (and hope) that Boingo’s days are numbered…
Although three of the five flights were delayed, I got to Portland a few minutes ahead of schedule and home to Appleton only 45 minutes late (high winds in Denver had departing flights stacked up on the runway). Air travel has become less and less pleasant, but the remarkable thing is that it still works most of the time – any trip on which you reach your destination that same day is by definition a good trip.


Anonymous said...

Glad you warned me about the backpacks. I'll start saving my pennies.

rick in cos said...

John, now averaging about a flight every 6-8 weeks, I really related to your observation. In the past two weeks I've flown to/back Raleigh, NC and Wash DC. It's not fun like it used to be. For any stay 2 nights or less, I only use carryon bags, and I posture myself to get on as early as possible to ensure space in the overhead for the rollerboard. You should see some of the "carryon" bags that folks haul onto a plane now. Any flight less than 2-3 hours offers little beyond a drink, but in retrospect on the history of airplane food, that's a blessing.
Further, your observation about fewer seats is spot on; it's like being on a cattle car nowadays, but this is what allows fiscal viability for the airlines.
Still, when one lives in the Rocky Mountains and family is all in the MIdwest, flying is essential. Overall, I"ve met some interesting folks, some not so much, and here's to the poor parents of the screaming kids.