Flying vs. Transportation

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GUEST COMMENTARY. AVweb's Joe Godfrey, who lives in Southern California, flew to Oshkosh via piston-powered lightplane but returned home via turbojet-powered heavy iron. The return trip on the airlines took three hours longer, was immeasurably more frustrating and less pleasurable, and prompted Joe to pen this brief commentary on the difference between GA flying and airline transportation.

ATISWhile I was at EAA AirVenture '99 in Oshkosh, I had the honor of interviewing Paul Poberezny, who told me, "Flying on the airlines isn't flying, it's transportation." At the time, I didn't appreciate the significance of Paul's remark quite as fully as I do now.

My trip to Oshkosh was flying. I flew there in Mike Busch's Cessna T310R. We left the airport closest to my home in Southern California (CRQ in Carlsbad, Calif., just north of San Diego), flew on the days and times we wanted to, flew a route we chose, stopped for food and nature breaks where and when we wanted to, and arrived at a time convenient for us. As we flew east we were treated to a windscreen full of Mother Earth, including the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, and the farms of the Heartland. The trip took about nine hours flight time, and Mike was kind enough to let me have about half of that time in the left seat.

My trip home was transportation. Let me tell you a little about it.

Can you get there from here?

Since all the flights out of OSH were booked, I booked a flight from Milwaukee and had to arrange for a ride. Using United's Web site, I was able to create an itinerary with comfortable but minimum layover times. That little bit of work would soon come back to haunt me.

When I got to Milwaukee (thanks to AVweb news editor Mary Grady giving up three hours of AirVenture enjoyment to drive me there and return), United Airlines announced that my flight would be late because the airplane hadn't arrived yet. When it did arrive, United announced that there was a maintenance problem and we'd be leaving later still. Eventually they announced that the flight was cancelled and put us on vans for the 90-minute ride to Chicago.

This is the strange part about that. United had no trouble scrambling 15 vans, but apparently scrambling an airplane from their hub in Chicago wasn't an option.

Using my cellphone, I called United from the van to ask them to hold the ORD-LAX flight. Three people in my van were making that connection, plus who knows how many others in the other vans. My van arrived at O'Hare about ten minutes after that flight had left. United knew we were coming but didn't hold the flight.

United didn't bother sending a gate rep to coordinate our little band of Gypsies. When we got to Chicago, the vans dumped us on the curb with our luggage and hustled back to MKE to pick up another load of stranded pax. If I hadn't called from the van, the three of us wouldn't have known which flight we had been re-booked on. And the Chicago skycaps expected a tip at least as big as the one we had given in MKE. United put us on the next flight for LAX and told us we'd still make our connection to CRQ.

In-flight entertainment

I didn't get to see Mother Earth on the trip home because I was in Row 21, Seat E, on an old 747. That's a bulkhead seat in the middle of the airplane, not the window seat I had reserved on my original flight from Milwaukee. I did, however, have a great view of the gray carpeted wall in front of me. The audio system on the 747 was inop, so there was no movie, no audio and worst of all (for a pilot) no ATC on Channel 9.

In all fairness, there was some impromptu in-flight entertainment. I sat in front of a teenager who kept time to whatever he was listening to on his Walkman on the tray attached to my seatback.

And a chorus of babies sang the only song that babies know.

The other entertainment was olfactory. A guy asked for two cups of hot water and then proceeded to prepare his own food. As bad as it smelled, whatever he was eating helped mask the travel odor of the guy next to me, and made the in-flight meal look like a trip to Wolfgang Puck's.

Every once in a while I'd catch a glimpse of Mother through the tiny window ten feet away. That is, until the north-facing window occupant closed his shade to take a nap. Let's make a rule: Window seats are for people that want to look out the window. If you want to read, sleep, or watch Police Academy XXII, sit in the middle. I hope I never become so bored with air travel that I close my eyes to the majesty outside that window.

This is not flying!

United was wrong about making our LAX-CRQ connection. We arrived about ten minutes after that flight had left. Again, they knew we were coming but left anyway.

So I sat at LAX waiting an hour and a half for a commuter flight that took 18 minutes in the United Express Brasilia 120, and a flight that I can make in my Bellanca Viking in about 30 minutes.

Total time from OSH to CRQ: eleven hours and 45 minutes. Almost three hours longer than the Cessna 310 trip, and a heck of a lot less enjoyable.

My inconvenience is tiny compared to the planeload of people that sat at Detroit in the blizzard waiting for a gate, or other similar horror stories. It's a busy time of year, and I realize that stuff happens.

What bothers me is this is what most people think about when they think of air travel. Airlines are competing to see who can move the most cattle without creating a stampede. We, the cattle, tolerate it, but we don't look forward to it. Transportation on the airliners is not efficient, it's not pleasurable, it's not cheap ... and it's not flying.

I understood Paul Poberezny's point when he made it, but I really understand it now.