When I was a kid during a time when air travel was still exotic and romantic, and air travelers were known as the “jet set”, I loved everything about flying. I loved seeing the contrails of airliners paint the sky over my small hometown on the prairie. In those days, many small towns had scheduled air service, including mine with Northwest Orient Airlines flying in and out via DC-3s that were old, even then.
Air travel has changed a lot since those days. There is no romance and the only adventure to speak of is wondering how badly you might be inappropriately groped trying to get through security and then wondering further how badly you’ll be smashed into a seat, with space that seems to shrink with each passing flight.
Last weekend, my wife and I flew on a small airline out of St. Petersburg to spend Easter with my family in Minnesota. I had flown the airline before and it was…suitable. They offer nothing but direct flights, which is a big perk, and the seats don’t recline, which at six-feet tall, I also consider a perk because it saves my knees. The planes aren’t all that new, but they are clean.
The big problem with this airline, however, is that literally everything you can imagine costs extra. Like most airlines, they charge a healthy fee to have luggage. If you want an assigned seat, pull out your credit card. If you want a glass of water or a soda in-flight, pull out your wallet. If you want to board in time to use the overhead storage racks, put down the cash for it. Snacks, of course, also cost extra and beginning last week they even started charging up to $35 for carry-ons. In other words, for a round-trip flight with a single suitcase and a carry-on bag, you could potentially pay $120 just for the stuff most people need while traveling. You could probably FedEx it to yourself for less and let the delivery guy carry your luggage.
Worse still, the airline had just made the local news for stranding a group of 80 and 90-year-old World War II veterans at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC. Apparently, a luggage truck scratched their plane and the veterans had to wait for another one. They were finally hauled off to a hotel during the late night hours for an unexpected extra night in the nation’s capitol. You just don’t do that to war heroes, in my opinion — especially not elderly war heroes. But these days, everything is so tight with airlines both big and small, that finding a replacement airplane was no small feat. A Florida Congressman understood that and began working to arrange for an Air Force jet as well as doctors and medication, if needed. It wasn’t, but kudos to Congressman C.W. Bill Young. He certainly understands the perils of flying commercial these days and he appreciates the value of our veterans.
Our lives have been hectic of late, so for our Easter flight we decided to spring for the extra fees to secure assigned seats. For us it was a little bit of certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. We arrived at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport an hour early for our 6 a.m. flight, which is normally not a problem since that airport is generally not a busy place, especially at 5 a.m. Well, except for that day, anyway. On that day, it was extremely busy. There were problems with some of the passengers getting through security and we were still in a long line just to have our ID checked when we heard the announcement that they would soon be closing the doors to our flight.
We heard a collective moan (and a few muttered threats) from our fellow travelers when a TSA agent ushered us to the front of the line for the ID check. I put our shoes, belts, phones, computer and small bags through the X-Ray while Michelle ran ahead to the gate to see if we would make it and we did, just barely, despite that the groping I had to endure took a few extra minutes. I hadn’t had a chance to put my shoes back on by the time we reached the gate and I noticed that, among other things, I was still carrying Michelle’s purse and belt, along with a handful of cell phones. I’m reasonably certain things were a lot more glamorous in the era of the jet set.
We made it onto the plane, followed by a few other passengers who had also been delayed, only to find that our seats — the seats we had purchased weeks ago — had already been taken. It didn’t matter in the least that we had already checked in for the flight at the ticket desk an hour ago. A very nice flight attendant took pity on us and started asking other single passengers if they would consider moving so Michelle and I could sit together. Every passenger she asked said “No”, every single one.
In the hundreds of thousands of miles that I’ve flown since the naive dreams of my childhood, I have been asked to move to allow family members to sit together on a handful of occasions. I’ve always agreed to do it, despite that it has always meant losing my aisle seat and being stuffed into a middle seat — usually next to a cougher or a sneezer (somehow things always just work that way). Still, in our case, all the flight attendant was asking was for someone in one aisle seat to move to another aisle seat, yet she was refused. It’s getting to be a cold world.
Despite sitting a few rows apart while people who definitely did not pay for them occupied our reserved seats, Michelle and I were still able to communicate enough to swear off ever flying that airline again. What’s next? A shoe fee? A fee to wear a jacket? A restroom fee? The fees are insidious and the rules are strict and unyielding. Break one, or even bend one just a little, and pay big seems to be the philosophy.
Later, when they were offering beverages and snacks for sale, I sincerely thanked the flight attendant for unsuccessfully trying to make arrangements so Michelle and I could sit together. She smiled and gave me a beverage at no charge. What it boils down to is that the highly paid CEO of this airline has done everything imaginable to ensure that I will never, ever spend a single red cent to fly on this airline again, but an underpaid flight attendant managed to appease my increasingly dim view of the airline with an act of kindness and understanding.
It does make me wonder just who is more valuable for that company: the CEO or the flight attendant. I know what the answer is — it’s too bad the CEO doesn’t. I’m thinking it’s not very likely he’ll share some of his salary or bonuses with her. That’s too bad, too, because she had earned it.
Flying today isn’t anything like the dreams of my childhood, unfortunately. I wish that somehow a modicum of romance and adventure could be returned to it, but I’m fairly certain a CEO would manage to find a way to charge a fee for that, too.