The State of Flying

Today’s travel experience is just awful. I long for the days when an hour-long flight included a hot breakfast in coach. The airline industry was regulated back then. Jimmy Carter had not yet had the revelation that a free market was the way to go. When the industry was deregulated, I knew where things would go, and it wasn’t good.

I have flown 2.6 million miles with American Airlines. Most of it was with Allegheny, renamed USAir, a wonderful airline in the days when Edwin Colodny was CEO, making a decent profit but also providing passengers with a pleasant experience. Imagine that? An airline that cares about you. In fact, USAir had a marketing phrase, “USAir begins with You.” But then USAir was acquired by America West, with a decidedly different management culture. To make matters worse, the new USAirways acquired American, a legacy carrier with an attitude.

I was supposed to go to the White House in June for a celebration of Pride Month. My flight was delayed, delayed again, and finally delayed until the following day, when I would not have been able to get to the White House in time for the meeting. There were absolutely no options on any carrier that would transport me from DEN to DCA in time to hang out with a couple hundred of the President’s closest friends.

Three weeks ago, I was invited to see Elton John sing at the White House. The news reports said it was a wonderful evening in the cool September air. I wouldn’t know. It was going to cost me over $1,400 to get there and back in time to leave on vacation the next morning. And the way things have gone lately, I wouldn’t have trusted any airline to get me home in time to leave on vacation.

And oh yeah, about that vacation. The night before we were to leave, I received a notification that our flight from Denver to Phoenix would be delayed by three hours. They offered no explanation, but I’ve been flying long enough to know when an early morning flight is delayed the night before, it is because of required crew rest.

That meant Cathy and I would miss our connection to Maui. I am Executive Platinum with American and have been at that level for three decades, so I know how to navigate an airline website and phone system. Despite my best attempts, and those of an experienced EP phone agent, we could not find a single flight on any carrier that would get both Cathy and me to Maui the next morning.

The agent finally found a single seat from DEN to DFW and one seat from DFW to OGG. Cathy left Denver at 6:00 on Sunday morning and arrived in Maui at 2:16, about the time we were originally scheduled to arrive. I, on the other hand, could not get out of Denver until 1:57 that afternoon. I sat in the Admiral’s Club and watched with Neta, one of the club agents, while the flight that made up ours was stuck in a ground stop in Philadelphia. An hour and a half went by. I said, “The crew is going to time out.” Pilots can’t fly more than ten hours straight, and if they are going to exceed that ten hours while they are in the air, the flight is cancelled.

We looked for a backup on Monday. There were none. There were no seats on Tuesday either. We waited to see if the Philadelphia to Los Angeles flight would get in the air. It did, but it was four hours late. Thank goodness, the company switched equipment for our flight to Hawaii, so I finally got to Hawaii at 10:00 PM, about 2:00 in the morning, my time.

When we finally took off for Hawaii, I thought of those poor people from Philadelphia who had been on their plane for eight hours, about the time it takes to fly from Philadelphia to Europe, and still weren’t in Los Angeles.

If this stream of consciousness post is disjointed, that is my point. This post feels like those twenty-four hours. And remember, I’ve been doing this for five decades. I have a lifetime pass for Cathy and me to the Admiral’s Club, purchased for $400 in 1982. (They stopped selling lifetime passes in the 90s, when they cost $6000.) I get free upgrades to first class. Even when I’m in coach, I get free food and decent seats. In other words, I am about as pampered as any frequent flyer in today’s world. And still, that trip was awful.

This is what happens when profits come before people.

I still remember an early morning flight in 1979 from LaGuardia to Buffalo. We were served pancakes with honey butter, scrambled eggs, bacon, and maple syrup. The picture above is of the type of plane we were on, a BAC-111. That was then. On my recent flight to Los Angeles, two hours and fifteen minutes long, I was served mixed nuts, in first class.

And so it goes.