This past Sunday (April 20) on the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, Andy Rooney discussed the nightmare that airline travel has become.
He suggested, tongue in cheek, that we boycott the airlines for a week to show them that the traveling public is tired of being treated horribly.
He got it partially correct: I think we should stop traveling by air until they get it right. Not just for a week. But for as long as it takes.
Airlines consistently rank among the worst businesses in terms of customer service. Consumers have gotten so fed up that complaints to federal agencies have reportedly increased. My guess is that the average person realizes that complaining to the airlines is like whispering into a hurricane: No one hears you.
About two weeks ago, I was flying home to Philadelphia from Las Vegas, where I had just presented a seminar, Breakthrough in Vegas, with my colleague and friend David Frees.
I always choose an aisle seat, even on a short flight, because I prefer not being squeezed in between two people, or between a person and the side of the plane.
Of course the aisles of airplanes are so narrow now that although you’re not squeezed in between two of anything, you will be rubbed, smack, bumped, and jostled by people trying to get down an aisle that is about 18 inches narrower than the width of the average person. Standing sideways.
The flight started out harmlessly enough. I was in the aisle seat, the middle seat was empty, and there was a guy in the window seat busily arranging an array of snacks he had brought onto the plane, including a salami sandwich, a pickle, two bottles of apple juice, a bag of kettle cooked potato chips, some M&Ms (plain and peanut) and a jar of mango chutney. (Okay, I made up the chutney part.)
As I was settling into the seat, preparing to read a copy of The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey’s son (also Stephen Covey), I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around and there was a giant in the aisle, so tall that he had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling of the plane. He looked like an Olympic weight lifter. He said, menacingly “Would you mind moving into the middle seat? I want to sit down.”
Perhaps where he’s from, the strongest person chooses where they sit. Actually, now that I read that sentence again, it’s not much different from what happens in a high school cafeteria, but I digress. Evolutionary biology must give way to reservations.
I said, “I do mind. I’m sorry. I’ll move so you can get in.”
His face flushed. I am sure that somebody that muscle-bound is used to people doing what he asks. But there was no way that I was going to move over so that I could be pinned between his left arm, which was about the size of the Japanese cherry tree (fully mature) and the guy eating his salami sandwich.
The giant could not fit in his seat.
It’s not that he couldn’t comfortably fit in the seat. He was too large for the space. In fact, he made quite a big deal about trying to fold himself into the seat. He could not sit straight because his legs were too long and he had to sit at an angle, with one of his size 23 sneakers under the seat in front of me.
He quite literally could not move for the entire five-hour flight back to Philadelphia. A flight attendant who had even minimal training in either airline safety, or medieval torture techniques, would have and should have recognized right away that the behemoth in the seat next to me was way too big for a standard airline seat, and moved him to a space in the cargo area.
But there was no way to re-seat the Incredible Hulk, because — thanks to hundreds of flight cancellations by American Airlines — there were no empty seats on our flight (with another carrier). Not that it would’ve helped. The massive bulk of my friend in the next seat would not have fit into even two first-class seats had they been ripped out of the plane and placed in an open field.
I spent most of the flight, as you might, too, cursing the airlines in my mind. And what I can only guess is that in an attempt to fit as many people into this confined space as possible for financial reasons, they have created a situation where — given that more than half of Americans are overweight — the chances that you will be seriously uncomfortable during an airplane ride are better than 50-50 no matter where you’re sitting, because the seats are not big enough for even two average sized people to sit next to one another without a whole lot of touching going on. (I’m not exactly slender, by the way!)
To add insult to injury, there was a mistake on the log showing what food would be available on the flight. They ran out of boxed snacks (which you should really only eat in close proximity to a hospital emergency room anyway — how long can chicken salad really last?) and boxed lunches before they made it beyond the first few rows of the plane.
I am one of those people who fears eating and then attempting to digest airline food without a good surgical facility nearby, so I always bring my own. Besides, in my row, I figured that if the giant got hungry enough, he would eat the guy in the window seat, I could distract him with a shiny object, and steal the salami sandwich and M&Ms for my own.
The take-home message for me out of all of this, is that the more other people are responsible for you getting from point A to point B, the more screwed you are.
The airline industry is a farce.
It is poorly lead, poorly run, the line staffs of most airlines are seriously demoralized, the service is terrible, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than you do of finding your luggage where it should be when you land (and why I ship clothes back and forth now instead of checking bags), and those are just the good things.
In the most recent hilarious slap in the face to the traveling public, many airlines are charging for the second bag that you check. In other words, a company that cannot ensure with any realistic probability, that your bags, which you are already paying to be sent to where you’re going, will be even within three nearby airports when you arrive, now wants to charge you for the second bag. Now you can pay even more to get your property lost.
What is really lost is the sense and sensibility of those who run airlines.
A few of them went bankrupt last week. I’m sure a few more will in the future. And quite frankly they deserve it. Until they start delivering the service that we all deserve, at a price that we can all afford, in a way that doesn’t pollute the environment in as many ways as airlines do, I will start looking for better ways to travel.
And so should you.