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August 12, 2007

"I Don't Want To Fly!!!"

You won’t catch me on an airplane anytime soon. Well, maybe for a business trip to Europe (though another crossing on the Queen Mary II would be nice). No, I’m sorry, but the airlines have lost this road warrior as a customer. It’s back to Amtrak, driving or tele-conferencing.

It’s not that I’m afraid of flying. It’s not even the proctological screening by the TSA (though now I hear that cigarette lighters aren’t the terrorist threat we were told they were… but meantime, air cargo still flies unscreened.)

No, it’s the airlines that are at fault. After years of heavy losses, they have down-sized their planes and their service to the point that a trip on Greyhound seems more fun.

This summer is shaping up to be the worst in aviation history. On-time arrivals hover at 68% and are plummeting. Sure, the carriers blame the weather and antiquated FAA equipment, but that’s only part of the problem.

To save money, the airlines fly smaller aircraft, almost guaranteeing a full plane. And schedules are so tight, if there is a delay, forget about finding room on “the next flight.”

When flights are delayed, the horrors begin. You’ve heard the stories… passengers trapped on planes for hours, the AC turned down to save fuel, as planes await their slot for departure. Toilets backing up, no running water, passengers swelter… wouldn’t this be illegal if the cargo were cattle rather than humans?

Flight crews are also at the breaking point. Underpaid to begin with and now vastly over-worked with planes flying 90% full, the flight attendants are starting to crack. On one delayed flight a flight attendant had a mother and her baby ejected because the child kept saying “Bye, bye”. The stew said to the mom, “You’ve got to shut your baby up!” The mother couldn’t, so she and her child waved “bye, bye” to the plane from the terminal. How’s that for “the friendly skies?”

Not that things are much better in first class. Sure, the seats are a bit bigger, but long gone are the days when flying up-front meant a hot meal. On most carriers it’s the same crappy snacks, but in unlimited proportions. Gee, should I go for a third bag of pretzels or try a granola bar?

Access to airline lounges, while still an imperative to get away from the maddening throngs, grows more expensive and less rewarding. In Denver, United saves money by opening only one of its two Red Carpet Clubs meaning a half-mile walk for your free Diet Coke.

Sorry, but the airlines have lost me as a customer. I’ll enjoy an overnight sleeper on Amtrak rather than play on-time roulette at O’Hare. This spring, after being stranded in Charlotte with the promise their “might be” a flight in a day or two, I rented a car and drove home. Twelve straight hours on the interstate beat sitting around that fetid airport with five thousand weary fellow-travelers.

Flying used to be glamorous. Now it’s just tedious.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct