Wednesday, August 05, 2009

You're One of The Lucky Ones

Let me preface this post by saying that I feel extremely fortunate that I have the opportunity to travel. I do not take this for granted and I marvel anytime that I am in a pressurized metal cylinder hurtling at 500+ mph, enjoying the inflight entertainment at 35,000 feet, toward some destination. But, let me just say that air travel in the U.S. stinks! Last week, I was reminded why many Americans dread flying and why the skies are not so friendly anymore.

I was returning back East after being in California. I was flying United and I am not a big fan of United, but I have quite a few frequent flier miles with them so I fly them. Anyway, I’m checking in (I love online check-in and the check-in kiosks) the less people I have to deal with the better. Yes, I am becoming a crotchety old man. If you ask my wife she says I have been one for sometime 8-). But, I had two bags I had to check. I always try to just take a carry-on, but since I was in Cali attending a conference and visiting 15 different colleges/universities in Southern California as part as a counselor tour, I had too many materials with me, hence the two bags. The fact that many airlines in the U.S. now charge for checked baggage I feel is wrong, but hey, traveling by air is a choice, right? And the airlines are out to make money, so why not nickel and dime all of their customers in order to do so, while providing a modicum of customer service in the process. So, I checked the United website prior to checking in and I saw that checking in one bag is $15 and checking in two bags is $25. So, I check-in at the online kiosk and I inform the United representative behind the counter that I have two bags to check-in. The United rep. informed me that the computer would instruct me with what to do. So, I completed my check-in, entered my baggage information (2 checked bags) and the computer instructed me to pay $40 (credit card only). I was puzzled by the $40 payment. I called over the United rep with whom I had just spoken and I asked, “Sir, the computer informed me that I have to pay $40 for two checked bags. I thought I only had to pay $25?” He replied, “You should be paying $50.” I countered with, “What? I checked on the website and it said $15 for one checked bag, $25 for two checked bags.” The United rep. followed with, “The first bag is $15 and the second bag is $25 for a total of $40. But now, it is $25 for the first bag and $25 for the second bag for a total of $50. You must have purchased your ticket early, before the new rule went into effect, you are one of the lucky ones.” I totally misread the info on the United website, my fault; but when the rep told me that I was one of the “lucky ones” those words just did not sit right with me. I rarely, if ever talk back to people, but uncharacteristically, I leaned over the counter looked the United agent in the eye and incredulously said to him, “I’m one of the lucky ones?! I have to pay $40 for two check bags and then if one of them is overweight then I have to pay an additional $50 and I’m one of the lucky ones?” With this, the United rep did not say a word. He placed the luggage tags on my bags, placed them on the conveyor belt and away they went. Thinking back on what I did, I’m lucky the United rep did not reach over the counter and punch me! He would have been right to do so.

Ok, I was at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). LAX is known for their terminally long security lines. A friend of mine was on his way to Honduras from LAX once. He arrived at the airport 3 hours in advance and still missed his flight because of the security lines. Fortunately, the lines were not that long and I made it through with plenty of time to spare.

I checked my boarding pass and I was supposed to board my flight at Gate 73. I checked the departures tv monitor and my gate had changed. No big deal, but anytime gate changes or “mechanical” delays begin to take place then one’s flight might have a chance of being cancelled. I begin people watching (LAX is great for this) and I begin walking like I always do in airports. If you are going to be on a transcontinental flight for 5-6 hours why sit down while waiting? So, as I was walking, I heard that the gate assignment for my flight had changed again; to another terminal. No problem, all part of the traveling adventure. So, I get to the new terminal, one I had been to before and it is truly a cattle call. The gates are too close together and people for the myriad flights are on top of one another. It truly was a mess. Fortunately, the gate was not changed again nor were there any “ mechanical” delays. The gate agent did inform us that the flight was fully booked. There is always a little drama when that announcement is made.

I was one of the last to board the plane due to United’s seating configuration. As I boarded the plane, the scene on the plane was as chaotic as it was at the gate. I looked at my seat and I saw a woman sitting in it with two children two her left. I showed the flight attendant (FA) my boarding pass, he looked at me and said in a stereotypical effeminate male FA tone, “We’ve been waiting for you.” I’m thinking to myself, “Great.” Across the aisle from where I was supposed to sit was a man in an aisle seat, a woman in a window seat and an empty middle seat. The FA looked at me and explained the situation about how the mother and the children somehow did not end up sitting together (Believe me, I am familiar with this scenario. This has happened to El, the kids, and I before) and asked me in front of a plane full of people, “How do you feel about seating in a middle seat?” I replied, “I do not want to sit in a middle seat.” But, I added, “Look, I am not going to split up a mother and her children.” The FA seemed to like my answer. He said, “Let’s see what we can work out.” I immediately looked in First Class to see if there were any open seats there, but there wasn’t. There was an empty seat in the bulk head right in front me. I‘m not fond of bulkhead seats because I find them cramped, but at least it was in the Economy Plus section, which provided a little bit of extra room. So, the FA told me to stand to the side. As I was standing there, a guy was standing next to me angling for that same seat. He told the FA that he needed a seat with extra room because he had just had kidney surgery and he could not sit in a cramped position for hours at a time and his seat back in the Economy section of the plane was too cramped for him. Then he proceeded to pull up his shirt so that we could all see the scar from his surgery. I was beginning to laugh because I could not believe the scene that was unfolding before me. Someone had called for the gate agent supervisor to sort out the situation. The supervisor gets on the plane and the guy with the kidney condition starts with his story and how he is a musician and how he flies United all the time and then the gate agent says to the man, “What are you doing on the plane? I told you to stay at the gate! You and I had already had this conversation. Either sit in your assigned seat or come off the plane with me right now!” Kidney condition guy said, “I’ll just go to my seat. The FA asked, “What about your condition?” The guy replied, “I’ll be fine.” Then he mumbled on his way back to his seat, “United, just take the money and run. So much for customer service.”

At this point, the FA seemed relieved. He pretended to wipe his brow flamboyantly and yelled, “Whew.” He looked at me and said, “Sir, take that bulkhead seat right there.” I was like, “Ok.” As I was about to sit, there was a petite, smiling, 20 something year old female with a backpack on who looked at the both of us and sheepishly said, “That’s my seat.” The FA looked at her and said, “Look, can you do me a huge favor (complete with hand gestures), if you take that middle seat there I will provide you with all the free booze you can drink. She enthusiastically replied, “Sure!” I detected an accent in her reply and asked her, “Are you Australian by chance?” She smiled and asked, “How can you tell?” I answered, “You did not turn down a request for free booze.” At this we both laughed. So, she went to her middle seat, I went to my bulkhead aisle seat and all seemed to be right in the world.

Then, the gate agents began letting on stand by passengers to see if they could find seats on the plane and if they could, they would let them stay on the flight. If they couldn’t then too bad. There was a little commotion because a passenger had gone to the bathroom and a stand-by passenger had tried to take his/her seat, but the situation was quickly resolved.

I was chatting to my seat mate who was on her way to Hartford, CT. as I was on my way to Portland, ME. both via Washington-Dulles about what a mess United is and she replied, “This is why I never try to fly them.”

So, the flight safety instructions came on and the flamboyant FA was imploring all of us to pay attention and to read the seat pocket instructions because in his own words, “I ain’t trying to be no hero.” He then went on to talk about the US Airways flight that landed miraculously in the Hudson River and how all of the FA’s from that flight had returned to work, but one. He then said, “I would be that one who would not return to work if that happened to me.” A few people found the FA’s comments amusing, but I was not one of them. I thought the FA’s comments were rude and inappropriate, especially since we were about to take off. As much as I marvel and enjoy air travel to a certain degree, I have a healthy fear for it also. I can feel very uneasy flying from time to time.

Inflight instructions conclude and we take off. After take off, the announcement was made that if one wanted to purchase food or alcoholic beverages that it would be $6 and that only credit and debit cards were accepted, no cash, which surprised me.
After this, I read, mercifully dozed off, and before I knew it, we were in Washington-Dulles early after only 4 hours and 54 minutes. The quickest transcontinental flight I had ever experienced. It was cool to see after we landed was that both the pilot and co-pilot were females. I had never been on a plane where both pilots were females.

Short layover in Washington-Dulles, uneventful. Short flight to Portland, ME. packed! We landed in Portland and fortunately both of my bags made it. But, one of them had a gash in it and I noticed that the luggage lock I had put on it was no longer there. Concerned, I hurriedly opened it to make sure that all the contents of the bag were still in place. Everything was still there. My other bag was fine, luggage lock still in place. Obviously, this one bag was searched by a TSA and I had a TSA approved lock on my luggage. Usually, when a TSA checks a bag they place a little tag on it indicating that they had searched your bag and they put your lock back in place, not this time. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t a TSA and someone looking to take whatever he/she could find. Fortunately, that particular bag had nothing but dirty laundry and counseling materials. A fitting end to a flight where I was one of the lucky ones.

1 comment:

Kittie Howard said...

I also try to avoid United. Yes, yes, the airline is a mess! The same mess in Europe. But sometimes there's no choice. While at a major European hub I stood and stood and wondered how all the other gates could board so efficiently and we just sat and sat. And when we did get to board, it was total chaos. I just don't get it. The airlines complain and complain, but passengers seem to inconvenience some of the airlines.