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The Airlines Aren’t Your Friends

Warning: This is not the usual literary blog that follows in this space. Please consider it, instead, something of a holiday caution/advisory for air travelers. A few years back I used to write a regular travel column, and the airlines frequently were the topics of interest. Most of the columns devoted to that subject ended with this piece of counsel: the airlines are not your friends. No matter what they claim, they are not your friends. Proceed accordingly.

This topic comes to mind once again in the turbulent wake a couple of recent flights, in which most of the ways that airlines demonstrate their unfriendliness were all too plainly visible. Readers should be aware, however, that what is coming does pertain to airline customers, like me, who fly as cheaply as possible, and who therefore suffer the most consequences. Those who can afford higher priced tickets and upgrades may well be excused from the discussion.

Dissatisfaction begins, of course, with advertisements in print and on television that emphasize the millions of dollars airlines are putting into improving their in-flight relationships with customers: flat-bed seats, chef-prepared meals, plenty of baggage space, etc. Those improvements will not be part of the economy class experience, though. There, planes with 2-3 seating across have been abandoned in favor of those seating 3-3 across for domestic flights, narrowing the roominess options and enabling the airlines to cram more people into ever-tighter places.

What about your carry-on luggage? Well the numbers of carry-ons carried on has multiplied many times since the airlines began charging for checked luggage. There is a modest amount of additional space in overhead bins, but not nearly enough to come close to taking care of what we bring on board now. On my flights, customers dragged bags the size of refrigerators on board without a negative word from airline gate agents. Whatever happened to limiting the size of carry-ons? One airline now charges for carry-ons; it could become a trend (especially if others charge by the pound).

“Safety is our first concern,” tout the airlines. Good thing, because service is pretty much gone these days in our long, narrow coach sections. Meals have disappeared, snacks are paid for, and getting your soft drinks and peanuts can take an hour or more on a crowded flight (and they’re all crowded). I’m mostly sympathetic to flight attendants; they’re called on to do way too much for too many in too short a time. And safety is their first concern.

Ever look at a flight schedule recently? A flight from Atlanta to New York carries a flight time of about one hour and 45 minutes. Your schedule probably lists it as requiring two hours and 45 minutes. That’s designed to take into account airport congestion and prevent a late arrival, which can make the airline look bad. And this is happening with airlines having cut back on their flights to save money, a corporate-smart thing to do, not least because it enables CEO’s and top administrative types to be assured to large annual salary increases at the expense of most airline workers who get little or no increases each year. But I digress …..

The argument goes that taking everything into account, airfares are about as cheap now as they were 20 years ago. Could be, but when you add in all the extra fees these days and the lessened family incomes, I am not so sure. What is for sure is those of us back in the miniaturized coach seats are getting a lot less. And I haven’t even gone into the matter of “attitudes,” at least partly because customers have been shamefully if occasionally understandably guilty of letting their tempers flare at perceived and real mistreatments.

There’s more. Of course. And maybe you missed the recent news from one airline, Delta, that it considers its passengers a captive audience for increased retail sales pitches on flights. “There are a lot of ways to make money beyond the basic sale of a seat between two points,” one Delta representative tells the local newspaper. Holy cow! That’s scary. Consider the ways …. no , on second thought, you consider them. I’m getting tired and angry.

So back to what I said at the top of this little entry, remember? The airlines are not your friends. At least to those of us sitting in the rear of the plane. But it’s Christmas, so let’s be cheerful. I wish all of you a good holiday flight. May the really obese guy coming down the aisle not claim the middle seat next to you!

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