Monday, January 3, 2011

Dread of flying




On December 27 economist Alfred E. Kahn died. On that day, Stew and I also found ourselves trapped at Newark Airport--which had all but shut down because of a blizzard--cursing at airports, flying and particularly the dismal condition of airline passenger service. You can't blame Kahn for the weather, but I like to hold him largely responsible for the general nosedive in the quality of airline service which has gone from pleasant, even genteel, down to something that more closely resembles a rush-hour ride in a Mumbai jitney.

When we arrived at Newark to catch our flight back to Mexico, we waited about two and a half hours to reach the check-in counter, and just when we got there we heard our flight was in "the final boarding process" so there was no way we could make it.

We were then sent to the third floor of the Continental terminal to an area called "Flight Re-accommodations," where we waited in line for seven (7) hours to be re-accommodated into another flight, on standby, the next day. (That's Stew above, during his turn to sit down while waiting for his re-accommodation.)

Though there were at least seven or eight computer terminals at this counter, there were never more than four agents and only one or two most of the time, hence the slow pace of the proceedings. Evidently the airline didn't view the mounting chaos as an emergency that merited ordering all employees to report to the airport immediately.

When you stand in line for seven hours, conversations develop about all sorts of topics, like one with this guy who bore an uncanny resemblance to Paul Simon, including an intricate comb-over covering a vast bald spot. While waiting, he mused about how he missed his wife's cooking, especially her unique spaghetti and spinach dish. We were so hungry the concoction sounded almost good.

A few places ahead of us there was a tall, nerdy and hyperkinetic 20-something, who was headed for school in Japan. He blathered non-stop about a variety of throughly uninteresting topics, including how he was going to warn his parents that he could only come home once a year. Betcha the old folks will be grateful for the extra peace and quiet.

But at least in our group--Flight Re-accommodation Area Number 4--the mood was generally one of jokey resignation. Whenever an extra agent showed up, however briefly, he or she was greeted by a round of applause.

Not so at the neighboring Flight Re-accommodation Area Number 3, where there were twice or three times as many passengers, probably about 300, in various states of disgruntlement that included foot-stomping, booing and shouting. Five airport police officers arrived at around midnight to break up some pushing and shoving. At around 1:30 a.m. all people waiting on this queue were herded single-file into another area, presumably to have their flights re-accommodated at Areas Number 1 or 2.

Back at Area Number 4, at around 2 a.m., we received two standby boarding passes for a flight at around 9 a.m. later that morning. Unfortunately, this queue was not for checking in baggage. For that we would have to wait until 4 a.m. when the janitors finished cleaning and polishing the floor at Flight Re-accommodation Area Number 3, which would then become be the Flight Check-in Area.

Baggage check-in started quietly there until another 300 or more passengers piled in with their mountains of luggage--what do people carry in those monstrous boxes?--and the mood turned sour. Most of the credit for that wind change goes to an agent named Ana, who with her sulfuric temper managed to antagonize practically every passenger within earshot. She was indeed a nasty, little monster with beady, implacable eyes and thin lips that scared the bejeezus out of you, no matter how exhausted you were.

For the benefit of Latin American passengers her rantings alternated between English and Spanish. Once, she ran off to an airport phone to summon the police. Probably an angry Colombian or Costa Rican had threatened to smack her over the head. Can't say I blame him.

But as we approached the check-in counter, about 90 minutes later, we were greeted by Willie, who was in charge of the other end of the mob and seemingly intent on neutralizing Ana's obnoxiousness. He was dapper, in his 40s, with a bushy, graying moustache and most important, a booming voice that would carry over a thundering herd of cattle. Willie was also bilingual and he serenaded the crowd with jokes, and gentle coaxing and laughter, as if he were the star at a rowdy Las Vegas show.

It worked. Even after, let's see--almost 12 hours waiting in various lines?--we finally checked in and walked away smiling.

Granted, the Newark experience was greatly aggravated by the weather (that's New York City, above). Almost 1,200 flights were cancelled at Newark alone and presumably most of those passengers condemned to wander the airport for hours or days, like zombies with luggage.

But even when the sun is shining, flying has become a drag on the body and spirit and for that I largely blame Alfred Kahn who in the late 1970s, as the head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, pushed through the deregulation of the airline industry. In his campaign he had some strange pals, like the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Deregulation nowadays is a conservative article of faith that often hasn't panned out. Under Clinton and particularly under Bush #2, the banking and mortgage industry were deregulated, which took us directly to the near-meltdown of the banking system and later hundreds of billions of taxpayer bailouts to bring it back from the edge.

The U.S. deregulated while Canada kept its government controls on banking and mortgages. Give you one guess whose banking system emerged largely unscathed from the recent banking debacle.

Deregulation of the airlines was to bring about competition, which in turn--another capitalist article of faith--would bring lower prices and better service. It did bring us some low-cost carriers like PeopleExpress and Southwest Airlines. It has also bankrupted God-knows how many other airlines and transformed even elite carriers like Air France into flying oxcarts.

Admittedly, pre-deregulation carriers lived in a cozy, unreal world, in which certain routes were assigned by the government and fares established according to some rules never entirely clear to the customers. Flying was indeed somewhat of a luxury: Ever wonder where the expression "jet set" came from?

But constant pressure for lower fares now has engendered a dive to the bottom of the barrel, led by no-frills carriers. On the flight up to Newark a young woman next to me asked for a blanket and the airline attendant looked at her bemused, as if the passenger had asked for whole roast beef, medium rare.

Indeed, some carriers charge $7 for the luxury of a blanket, in addition to food--charging for airline food, now there's a challenging concept--and luggage. Has anyone thought of putting a coin-operated lock on the lavatories?

Some defenders of the system, though, may have a point. Cheap passengers have let airlines know that they will put up with practically any indignity or inconvenience as long as it yields lower prices, and the airlines have been eager to oblige. Several years ago someone even floated the idea of ultra-cheap "seats" to Europe in which the passengers would actually rest against a ledge instead of sit.

Come to think of it, after standing at Newark for 12 hours, eight hours to Paris sounds plausible.

But cost-cutting may have made a U-turn and come to bite the passengers, who supposedly get cheaper fares but end up paying for a number of things, like checking two suitcases, that used to be provided free.

After the five-hour flight to Mexico City, I was as agitated as those poor suckers in Flight Re-accommodation Area Number 3. Damn airlines.

Stew, however, disembarked calm and seemingly refreshed. In the last-minute boarding mayhem by the gate, his name for some reason didn't appear on the standby list. So the agent re-accommodated him once more, this time up to first-class--that rarefied reserve so reminiscent of the pre-Kahn, pre-deregulation era.

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