*Written by Kevin Deeny. Previously published in the Lower Bucks Leader.*
I hate to fly. Well to be more accurate, I really don’t hate the flying part. I have enjoyed many flights. One in particular I recall from many years ago that was long-delayed due to a wicked summer storm in Texas. When we finally were allowed to board our flight we were number 19 in a long line of jets waiting to take-off and a long day of wishing just to get home got even longer. Like all of the other passengers, I understood that weather delays are part of the program and safety is the priority. But when we finally got airborne and broke through the cloud layer, it was an awesome view with a bright full moon above and lightning dancing through the clouds below. We followed that storm front for some time and I had my nose pressed against the window the whole time. This was one of my favorite flight experiences.
Recently I took a trip to Phoenix, one of many I’ve taken over the years, and took my assigned seat in the next-to-the-last row at the back of the plane. I noted a mother and teenage daughter sitting across the aisle in the very last row when a flight attendant questioned whether they were in their right seats. After looking over their boarding passes and confirming they were indeed sitting in their assigned seats, he grumbled to the other attendants that “They are not supposed to book these seats”. After a moment or two he advised the pair that he may have to reseat them if he has a “weight and balance problem”. The woman objected stating her preference to stay where she and her daughter were seated and he insisted that he may have to reseat them. He returned a few minutes later and instructed them to move to two empty seats four rows up and the mother and daughter gathered their belongings and moved.
I thought this odd. I have been traveling for business for nearly 40 years and had never experienced this on a relatively full flight in a large-scale commercial jetliner – in this case an A-321. I have experienced this on regional jets and on puddle-jumpers, but never on a big plane such as this. And moving 2 passengers only 4 rows in a jetliner weighing tons seemed, well, odd. Surely such a minor movement of weight couldn’t be necessary to trim this huge aircraft so I was a little curious and I took notice that during the flight, the attendant who required the family to move, spent time reading while sitting in the seat the family vacated. It dawned on me that the “weight and balance problem” that in some circumstances might be a real and important issue, may have been a pretext to open up this last row of seating for flight attendant use. This reminded me of all of the reasons why I hate to fly.
When I took my very first flight it was thrilling. I was amazed by the raw power of the engine during takeoff as we launched skyward as well as by the images of the earth rushing by below. It took me some time to take this initial flight since, for reasons I didn’t understand, I had developed a fear of heights. When the opportunity to join a skydiving club came up in college, I thought this was the most direct way for me to face that fear and I joined. So it just so happened that my first flight, in a modified Cessna, coincided with my first parachute jump. It was a thrill from beginning to end. It would be several months and a few parachute jumps later until I actually landed in an airplane.
After college, work required travel and I guess I’ve done my fair share – certainly not in the same league with some elite travelers I know, but enough to find my way to the car rental lots in a lot of cities without thinking about it. Along the way, I’ve seen a lot of changes with the loss or consolidation of several airlines – Eastern, Allegheny, Piedmont, TWA, Northwest, and America West to name a few. I’ve struggled with the unpredictability of airfares where it cost $600 to fly from Philadelphia to Ohio and $500 to fly to L.A. But most of all I’ve struggled to understand how an industry can “sell” a service and not provide a refund or indeed not provide the purchased service at all if plans change. That is simply not the way most of us treat our clients or customers.
After 9/11 air travel was chaotic. It seemed that every trip to the airport involved changed traffic patterns, changed security protocols, different baggage handling procedures, longer lines and the lack of standardization from one airport to the next. In the midst of this chaos, airlines found a way to increase their revenue by offering a means for “Preferred” customers to buy their way to the head of the line for security screening. This of course meant that those of us in the back of the line were delayed more.
At one time the airlines came up with a strategy to control the chaos during boarding and reduce the boarding time. They created “zones” for boarding purposes and sought to board the plane from the back to the front and from the windows to the aisle. The concept was to avoid the delay caused by passengers in forward locations blocking the aisles when putting their carry on bags into the overhead compartment and it avoided the delay caused by passengers sitting in aisle seats to have to get up and block the aisle to permit a passenger to get to the window seat. They expected a more efficient and timely loading experience which made sense to me. But it seems that the airline folks with the MBAs overruled the efficiency experts, because the airline saw another opportunity to increase revenue by allowing those who carried the airline sponsored credit card, or those who purchased some elite status membership, or those who paid an extra fee, to load earlier, regardless of their seat location, than those who simply purchased a ticket. In short order, the efficient loading strategy was cast into oblivion and chaotic boarding reigned anew.
Perhaps the most chaos was created when airlines began charging customers for a checked bag. The natural reaction to this policy, particularly for those who travel frequently, was to avoid checking a bag and carry on board as much as possible. Competition for overhead space increased and every flight not only had a full overhead compartment, but also experienced more chaos caused by passengers trying to stuff large bags into the small compartments. It soon became obvious that if you were to have the opportunity to stow carry-on bags in the overhead compartments, you had to board the plane as early as possible. And thus another revenue opportunity emerged for the airline out of the chaos their baggage policy created – to allow passengers to pay a fee for the privilege to board earlier. Thus if you wanted to avoid paying the baggage fee, you could pay another fee to increase the odds of having space for your belongings. And as an added bonus, you are granted the right to walk on the red carpet as you approach the ticket agent boarding the aircraft.
So as I waited in line to walk across the blue carpet and board my return flight from Phoenix behind the Preferred, Elite, Platinum, Gold, Priority passengers, I couldn’t help think about earlier times. I traveled to and from Boston for some time on several projects and would often take a train. I would catch a late train out of Trenton and in a sleeper car fall asleep with the gentle rocking of the train and to the clickety-clack of the wheels passing over the joints in the track. (Now long gone with welded track.) In the morning, with a knock on the compartment door, a Pullman would greet me saying “Good morning sir, your stop is next.” as he handed me a cup of hot coffee.
Did I mention that I hate to fly?