What I want from the airlines

To avoid ruffling feathers, I’ll ask readers up front to please pay attention to the title of this post. It says what I want. I am speaking for me, not for any other business traveler. I understand that everyone has her or his own set of expectations and desires from flying. These are mine, and mine alone.

In my post before this one, I expressed disdain for United throwing a tiny bone to their most loyal customers by slight catering improvements. To me it was tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: When the ship is sinking, why worry about serving smoked salmon canapes? If I can’t count on a reliable operation, I’m more likely to experience indigestion than enjoyment from consuming a few crumbs on a flight three hours late. It’s personally insulting when any company attempts to placate me with frivolous frills when it can’t consistently deliver its primary product, its raison d’être. After all, airline core competency is getting us from point A to point B on the schedule they themselves publish and advertise. No one makes them offer airplanes for public transport, and no agency forces them to adhere to a certain schedule. So when an airline like UA consistently fails–for years and years, mind you, not merely for a short while–to keep to its own self-imposed schedules, then I deem it unworthy of my business or respect.

I realize others may feel differently. In fact years ago I probably would have agreed with the fellow who posted that United had been so stingy with meal service and perks recently that this news of better catering was a big morale-booster for the top flyers. As the decades have worn on, though, I have returned to a set of basic expectations that don’t include on-board service.

The airlines themselves seem to see things from a different perspective. For example, they obsess a lot about branding, as if the logos and colors on their airplanes and advertisements were as important in attracting customers as an on-time operation. Joe Brancatelli recently Tweeted that “No one cares about branding crap EXCEPT the airlines doing it. Passengers look at fares, perks, and treatment they get, not livery.” I agreed, but added in a reply that we also pay attention to schedule reliability, especially if connecting through a hub, a constant worry for those of us living in second and third tier cities with little direct service. When I can get point-to-point flights, schedule reliability is less important to me because I don’t have to worry about making that connecting flight. But I still expect to get where I’m going not more than an hour or two later than the published schedule.

My friend Judy from Hawai’i put her principal desire even more succinctly in a reply to my last post: “Just give me a comfortable seat,” she said. Yes, indeed! I’d probably qualify that to say comfortable and with a modicum of space between me and the passengers in front and behind me and beside me.

So what do I want now after more than fifty years of flying? I can’t recall ever rank-ordering my expectations, but here they are:

1. Safety – I want to stay alive and arrive at my destination, vertical and ambulatory, in one piece.

2. Schedule reliability – I want to be able to count on my airlines adhering to their published schedules, including connections.

3. Comfortable, moderately reclining seat with sufficient private space side-to-side and front-to-back such that fights don’t break out, as are now occurring on some planes – What are those exact dimensions? I don’t know, but we have not had this problem until recently as airlines have crammed more seats onto their planes than ever before. Experts like Joe Brancatelli and David Rowell can provide dimensional guidelines that have historically worked. We all know they are needed to maintain civility. As Joe recently pointed out, there are veterinary standards in place for transporting four-legged beasts. Humane standards of travel need to be adopted for us bipeds, too.

4. Reasonable, affordable fares, whatever that means – “Reasonable” and “affordable” mean different things to different people, but I think we are all feeling gouged generally these days. That said, this is a function of market demand and seat supply. Airlines are in the business of making money and have finally learned how to restrict supply to control prices. As a believer in free markets, I do not favor government intervention, but I sure hope the market reacts with falling demand soon to bring prices down.

5. Early boarding – Oh, yes, I want to be rewarded for my millions of miles of flying with certain carriers, and I am, but the principal benefit they offer me is this one: I get to board right after First Class. That way I can get to my seat ahead of the crowds, ensure there is overhead space for my carry-on, and get my mind settled into a Zen attitude before the madhouse of general boarding engulfs me inside the narrow aluminum tube.

6. Free checked bags – Another perk from a lifetime of accumulating miles, and never more important than now as airlines are making billions from these extra fees, which are, of course, likely to rise, and rise, and rise. Hopefully, however, not for me.

7. Other Perks – I get access (sometimes gratis, sometimes at a reduced cost) to roomier coach seats, the occasional upgrade to domestic first class (once common, but very rare these days–and never on international flights), the odd free drink or snack, and sometimes a smile and thank-you from on-board crews. The roomier seat is by far the most important of these perks (see number 3. above), but the courtesy of thanks is a nice personal touch which I always remember.

8. Checked luggage recovery – Often under-appreciated as an aspect of airline service, but very important. I expect airlines to get my checked bags on the carousel within 20 minutes of gate arrival.

9. Cleanliness – I expect airplanes to be reasonably well-policed of trash and debris, and I expect surfaces to be wiped down with disinfectant between flights to prevent disease transmission .

If my airline does those things right, I just don’t care if they don’t serve me a meal or if their airplanes have different logos or color schemes. After all, for decades airlines offered daily newspapers and magazines on board in both classes, and who misses those? It was a nice touch, but not essential to their core business (though newspapers are still provided on most international flights in premium classes).

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