The recent brouhaha with United Airlines, followed by the mysterious death of a giant rabbit on another UA flight, got me reflecting on the way I’ve been treated in the air since the 1970s when I began flying frequently. Has the experience from start to finish really changed that much? Yes, it has, I concluded upon reflection, although I’ve never had occasion to ship a big rabbit, much less had one expire on an airplane. But I have witnessed a steady decline in service with a corresponding rise in stress.
Flying used to be simple: Buy a ticket through a travel agent or by phone directly from an airline, then relax and enjoy the trip. The issuer (airline or agent) would mail the physical ticket to me, sometimes delivering it in person. Easy. Stress-free, as long as I remembered to keep the ticket with me at all times, since tickets could be converted to cash and airlines would not let you check in or fly without a physical ticket.
Heck, up until the early eighties I couldn’t even get a seat assignment in advance and never worried about it. Seats were assigned at the gate using little stickers pulled from a master sheet containing all the seat numbers for that particular flight’s type of plane. Even in the seventies, airlines had computers, of course: big hulking CRT monochrome monitors with ancient software running somewhere on huge IBM mainframes in Atlanta or New York or London communicating (not very fast) over Ma Bell phone lines. But the systems often broke down or just froze up—at least at RDU—and gate agents relied on my handwritten ticket as proof that I was legitimately booked on the flight. No panic, no stress.
In airline back offices somewhere, the computers were keeping track of my flying then, because I started to get recognized for my loyalty even in those dinosaur days before frequent flyer programs existed. If you were a regular on Eastern, for instance, they’d make you an “Executive Traveler” and give you free upgrades to First Class. Not always, but whenever First wasn’t totally booked with paying customers. It was totally in the discretion of the gate agent and based on “first come, first served” at the gate. I was (and still am) obsessively early, and so I was usually first on the ET upgrade list at Eastern. At the time I was often flying to NYC LaGuardia and loved those Eastern Airlines 727s on the route: so comfortable, even in coach. Again, no stress, not even when flying in the back.
The ET program was fair, too. Upgrades were awarded based on time of check-in at the gate, not miles flown (they had no way to track that precisely then) or amount paid. Famed UNC basketball coach Dean Smith was often booked on the same flight, but he was chronically late arriving, by which time I already had my upgrade in hand. Coach Smith would scowl when passing me perched in First as he lurched unhappily back to his coach seat, garment bag over his shoulder. Sometimes neither of us got an upgrade, and we’d sit together in coach. I recall that even in the back it was pretty comfortable, and the service was good.
Delta at first didn’t have a similar systematic upgrade program, but they somehow recognized me as a regular customer and made me a “Flying Colonel.” That status gave me free access to Delta Crown Rooms, which were then free and small, open only to invited guests like Flying Colonels and VIPs. Delta soon thereafter would give me upgrades even without a formal list. However, flying in coach, as on Eastern, then was fine, not cramped and uncomfortable like it is now.
During the same period I was flying quite a lot from JFK to London (LHR), and British Airways wanted my business. The other choices on the route were mainly PanAm and TWA. BA offered me complimentary upgrades to either First Class (rarely) or (more often) to their earliest version of business class, which was a section of coach just behind First Class in which BA would leave empty seats between passengers and provide free alcohol and better meals. How did they know to do that when I checked in? The BA computer, ancient as it was, had me tagged with a special code, “passenger previously mishandled,” which alerted the counter to give me upgrades. I quickly abandoned PanAm for British after that and often flew the only subsonic daylight flight to London, BA178, at the time an extremely comfortable first generation 707.
Flying wasn’t luxurious or romantic in the seventies and eighties (except, occasionally, in First Class), but it was much more than merely tolerable: comfortable, friendly, reliable. United’s old catchphrase “Fly the friendly skies” had real meaning in those decades.
What has changed? In a word: trust. The bond between and among customers and airline staff at all levels from reservation agent to ticket counter to gate agent to cockpit and cabin crew to baggage handlers was tight and honest. We all trusted one another. Now not even multi-million milers are immune to mistreatment and mistakes.
As trust has withered, so has civility—on both sides, not just airline employees—and more’s the pity. These days we arrive at the airport with guerrilla mindsets.
Who’s to blame? Certainly the airline companies are not managed the way they used to be and bear most of the responsibility for the embattled nature of flying nowadays. They have nickel-dimed us to death, charging for seat assignments, luggage, food and nearly every amenity except using the toilet (possibly next?). They enticed us with frequent flyer programs and then devalued them shamelessly while lying to our faces using weasel-words that no one believes. They have crammed seats so close together that no sane person dares to recline his or her seatback for fear of inciting a riot.
Airlines overbook their flights, over-schedule at airports already well beyond capacity (e.g., DCA, LGA, etc.), and run slip-shod operations that chronically fall behind their own schedules even on bluebird days. When airline-caused delays occur, airline staff are trained to explain them away with more lies; they were masters of “alternative facts” long before that sad term was coined.
On board, finding harmony in the claustrophobic aluminum tube that necessarily defines a device meant to pierce the sky at a high rate of speed has always been a challenge. These days the grind and the stress have made flights tense for all aboard the tiny arks. The ratio of passengers to FAs has worsened, leading to hurried, often incomplete service. Meals have been mostly eliminated. Passengers suffer in the cramped misery of too-small seats set too close together. As the mutual trust between flyer and FA has eroded, flight attendants too often look for the slightest provocation from a passenger to take punitive action.
No one deserves the Nazi tactics of the recent UA event. That said, we flyers, especially frequent flyers, bear some of the blame for expecting airlines to provide more than just bus service. After all, who expects Greyhound to be more than what they are? Riding a bus was never dreamy. Flying, once viewed as something deluxe, has become a far less savory experience than taking Megabus, let alone cruising in the relative calm and humane comfort of an Amtrak train. More often than not, “dread” is the emotion most people now associate with flying.
Something has to change.