This month, AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit fixes the industry and insults passengers nationwide in another mind-expanding column on the state of the airlines.
September 1, 2002
"My God, read this!" I said, brandishing a page of USA Today to my co-pilot, Jim. USAir is going bankrupt and United says they won't be far behind.
"That newspaper is a week and a half old," said Jim. "Here is one that is more recent and has a story about the latest Delta-Northwest-Continental link up that is supposed to save the free world."
I can never figure out the airline business. How could an endeavor that successfully carries people thousands of miles through subzero thin air suck so badly at the basics of business? Any manager of a Dairy Mart or Jiffy Lube knows better than to sell their wares for less than they paid for them, but the airline executives are fighting with each other to do just that.
People were now shuffling down the jetway to board our MD-88 for its nonstop flight to Toledo. Carrying their belongings like latter-day European refugees, these people more closely resembled extras from a Mad Max movie than they did Americans. I couldn't blame them for looking a little harried. After all, they had just gone through one of the most asinine security procedures ever in existence a process that more closely resembles a Gilbert and Sullivan musical than an episode of Kojak.
They were bringing their miserable swag onboard and stuffing it in various nooks and crannies of my ship. World-weary and devoid of personality or excitement, these poor passengers were actually lumpy in appearance. This is because we don't feed them anymore, and they find it necessary to stuff snacks and sandwiches into their Kmart-special clothing, because they were only allowed one carry-on and one "personal item." Unfortunately, many of the passengers by this time on a very hot and frustrating day should have brought along a little deodorant as their personal item.
"I feel sorry for them," said Jim, as he entered our flight plan into the FMS. He, like most of the co-pilots I fly with, was far more skillful than I when it came to computers, and let's face it, flying in general. His fingers literally flew on the keyboard as he bemoaned the fate of your basic "coach potato."
"It's not like they have a choice in transportation," he said. "We have no usable railway system in this country, and for trips over a few hundred miles, flying these subsonic immigrant ships is the only way they can go see Grandma's funeral or Uncle Ned's grand opening."
I had finally sat down, put my ancient USA Today behind my flight bag that sat next to my prestigious captain's seat, and plugged in my headset. It was then that I unleashed a rave-out that would probably generate record volumes of hate mail should my passengers hear my voice over the flight attendant's "We will send you to jail if you smoke on our airplanes" speech.
These passengers got exactly what they wanted. A little over 20 years ago, when I first came on with this airline, a little thing called "deregulation" came along. On its face, it wasn't a bad idea. Break up the monopoly of government-run and government-sanctioned successful airlines, and let them duke it out in the business arena like Tanya Harding and Roseanne Barr at a celebrity boxing match.
To most people back then, airline flight was a luxury, and a very exciting event in their lives. They would actually dress up to go flying. You saw nary a tank top those days, and people on the whole smelled fairly good too, because they generally took a bath before they came to the airport.
Once at the airport, they had no cause to sweat and get upset. They could look forward to a cursory inspection of their stuff by security, and a hot meal at top-of-climb. Seats, even in coach, were far enough apart to stretch a little, and people behaving like most passengers today would be thrown off at the next stop.
"So true," said Trudy, our flight-attendant-in-charge, who was looking around the cockpit door. She was brandishing a rolled-up, used, disposable diaper that one of our passengers had just handed to her as he boarded.
"You're not going to believe this," she continued. "This guy just handed me this and said, 'Don't worry, it's only pee.' Also, I see no evidence of a child around, so I'm assuming this diaper is his ... Permission to kill him, sir?"
Now Trudy, if I gave you permission to spank every passenger that handed you gross bodily fluids in a wadded diaper, we'd never get off the ground, but you've proved my point. Everybody in today's modern age of flight thinks they are at a bus station, not an airport.
When everybody in America finally got what they wanted really cheap tickets to just about anywhere were the people happy? Heck no ... now they're upset at the "lack of service" the airlines provide! They pay a hundred bucks less per leg, and they're disturbed because we no longer give them hot towels and a plate full of pasta salad!
The airlines have gone along with this madness, and the whole idea of "customer service" now has more to do with only giving our frequent fliers one body-cavity search instead of the usual three. We don't feed them in flight anymore, but we've made the very best in trendy fast-food available in our terminals. Sure, it is overpriced, and the lines are longer than at the post office the week before Christmas, but that, apparently, is what everybody wanted when they signed on to deregulation.
"Our flying life has dramatically changed too, hasn't it?" asked Jim, who, even though he was my co-pilot, had more years in airline flying than me. He had done it the hard way: Two furloughs and a bankruptcy had placed an older guy junior to me.
"We used to have the ability to bid the same trip from month to month," he said. "I used to be able to count on going to San Diego every week for months on end. Now, I'm lucky if I get to fly the same trip twice, and on top of that, they all suck."
I think that has more to do with computers than deregulation. They can squeeze every bit of productivity out of us now, where, in the past, they would make up the trips by hand and just accept a little inefficiency. That is why, even though I'm number two in the base, I can't do better than a 13-hour duty day with a miserable nine-hour Toledo layover.
Jim nodded, grinning as he handed me the latest in company propaganda. We had all just gotten a memo from the management-types telling us they were "very concerned" about crew rest and would do something about it. We get one of these memos about once a year, in the same mailbox that they leave our bid sheets with their 12+ hours of duty each day and short layovers.
"If they were really concerned about crew rest and safety, would they have rotations like this hostage crisis we now find ourselves flying?" asked Jim.
Jim, I don't think the object of the exercise is really safety ... It, like many things in the airline business, is about the "appearance" of safety. In other words, if we were to crash tonight because we were too tired and made some bonehead mistake, they could point to this memo and say, "We told them not to fly tired!" Not one media outlet would ask about the fact that they could legally ask us to work up to 15 hours in a row with minimal sleep.
We finally pushed-back, lit the engines, and launched for the home of Max Klinger and Owens Illinois Glass. I double dinged the no-smoking light to allow our charges to fire up their laptops and CD players as we climbed through 10,000.
It was then that Center said: "Triad 134, glumph, maja, two mookie poo seven six five two ..."
"Say again?" asked Jim, who, like I, had no idea what Center just said.
"Sorry, I got stepped on," Center came back, and said, "Turn right to zero three five and squawk seven six five two."
Ah, there's another rave-out that I'll spare you. We now fly in much more crowded skies at higher rates of speed with less margin for error, and we still use "start of the art" technology from the 1950s for our communications.
"Okay, enough bitching for one leg," said Jim, who clearly had heard enough of me. "Do you have any real suggestions on how to improve the airline world, or are you just a professional whiner?"
I'm glad you asked. Here is a short list of things the airlines and the government could do to make airline flight more of a pleasure and less of a Survivor episode:
Charge what the tickets are worth for a flight. Instead of 10,000 secret fares designed to confuse the passenger, publish one or two that make sense. How do you arrive at a price? Well, you take the cost of operating the flight, divide it by the number of seats you routinely sell and add a modest profit.
Get rid of programs like "Silver Medallion Gold Coast Flying Weenie." These people are annoying, and why should they be treated better than every other coach passenger when it comes to security and service just because their company keeps buying them tickets to keep them out of the office?
Sell every weed-wacker (propeller airplane) to the Iraqis for their airlines. People buying a ticket on a major airline shouldn't face the surprise of finding out that their sky chariot that day was built before they were born and vibrates more than Madonna's carry-on bag.
Limit regional-jet flights to regional flights. Nobody wants to ride in a narrow tube for three plus hours.
Feed people. There is precious little to do on an airliner except sleep and eat. Food calms people down and keeps their mind off the fact that their seat partner smells like a Gorgonzola cheese factory and looks like Fred Flintstone in a muscle shirt.
Expect passengers to act like ladies and gentlemen and not like a doomed mob of passengers from the Poseidon Adventure who just discovered that the water was rising. If people act like jerks, ask them to leave and happily refund their money. If they hand you a used diaper, hand it back.
Make airport security more secure by not wasting time searching people like airline captains to make sure they aren't going to hijack themselves with their own shoes. Profile like crazy, just like the people at El Al. It works for them and would save us from those fumbling searches inside and outside of Grandma's sports bra.
Make sure that every member of Congress, the United States Senate, and the President and staff have to fly on commercial airliners everywhere they go. How can Dubya see the damage he has done to our industry if he never uses it?
Also, make it mandatory that airline executives ride their own airlines. There has been a rash of execs flying on fractional business jets instead of the cattle cars they call airliners.
While we are on the subject of airline executives ... not a single one of them should be getting any kind of bonus just because they "cut costs" by ending the careers of loyal employees.
And finally, I personally think that those nasty little electric cars in the terminal the ones that carry all the people that, for some reason or other, don't want to walk to their gate should go slower than I walk. Also, any driver of said vehicle that sounds his horn at me should be smacked with a used, disposable diaper.
| With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the
Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.