Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reflections on being in the air, from the ground

I traveled quite a bit in 2008. There was the 10-day trip to London. The series of trips to San Francisco. Four trips to Austin. The most recent swing through Florida and Texas. You know you travel a lot when you start reading the "Itineraries" section in the New York Times regularly.

You also know you travel a lot when you have gripes.. errr.. suggestions for the airlines. Suggestions is probably a better term. My dad always says that with the airlines, you get what you pay for, and one cannot expect to receive a wide seat, free amenities and service with a smile while also demanding the cheapest rate for a ticket.

He also tells me that a large percentage of an airline's operating budget is spent on jet fuel (He should know, he's a retired aerospace engineer). So why is that while the price of fuel has dropped more than 50-percent in recent weeks, I still have to pay for bottled water on USAir?

My most recent trip shows the various ways airlines have started charging fees.

I flew JetBlue from Boston to Fort Lauderdae. Free soda, no charge for a checked bag, and a fairly comfy seat. I know that JetBlue charges for headsets and pillows, but I didn't need to make a purchase.

I flew Continental from Fort Lauderdale to Austin. Free soda, a 15-dollar charge for a checked bag, and packed in like a sardine can.

I flew USAir from Austin to Boston. No free drinks (2 bucks for a bottled water, in my case), a 15-dollar charge for a checked bag, and the seat was ok.

On my first flight ever as a kid, from Bradley field in Windsor Locks, Conn. to Chicago, I remember cringing when the drink cart came by. I wanted a soda, but didn't want to have to ask my parents to buy me one. "Go ahead," my dad said. "It's free." Those days are quickly going buh-bye.

The reality is while the charges are inconvenient, I will most certainly fly USAir or Continental again if the price and schedule is right. Which I guess proves my dad's point-- it all comes down to who offers the lowest fare.

One thing I cannot understand at all is why airlines charge for checking a bag. As if passengers needed additional incentive to bring their bags onto the plane and try to jam them in the overhead compartment. I typically am assigned an aisle seat, which means in most cases I get on the plane last (airlines with zoned-boarding assign later zones to those sitting on the aisle to speed up the boarding process). By the time I get on the plane, there is no overhead space. I always check a bag, so I am stuck with no overhead space after paying to have the bag flown with me to my destination.

There really is no incentive to check a bag. Even if you get on the plane and find no room for your roller-style suitcase, they will "happily" gate check it, put it on the plane right before they close the cargo door, and the bag is waiting for you as soon as you get out of the plane and onto the jetway. What service! And for f-r-e-e free.

It should be the other way around. They should charge passengers to bring a bag ONTO the plane. Business passengers would still pay, and passengers would receive an incentive to check a bag and make the cabin experience better for others.

In reality, I really don't have much to complain about. I have no real airline horror stories. Most of my flights are on time. And I have only lost my bag once. But a friend recently told me that the airlines design airline seats for individuals much smaller than the average sized person today. Guess that tells me where I stand on the totem pole, especially if-- I admit-- all that matters is price.

Oh and by the way, no more travel for me until next year, except in my Honda.

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