THE BLOG
03/31/2014 03:12 pm ET Updated May 31, 2014

BS, Profanity, America and United Airlines

Here's a fun question for you to consider. Which of these most sets your teeth on edge?

  • the banking industry
  • the insurance industry
  • the pharmaceutical industry

This week my answer is... the airlines industry!

A couple of months ago, NPR's Audie Cornish asked this question of Doug Parker, CEO of the new American Airlines (recently merged with US Airways): "Now, public perception of your industry isn't good these days. I mean flying is not something most people really look forward to. And then we're in this era of extra fees, packed flights, is that going to change and, you know, how? How do you see it changing?"

Changing? In this era of frenzied customer service this is the only industry that charges you for changing your mind. A business contact told me that QVC lets customers return food they've eaten! Retail behemoths like Macy's and Amazon.com go out of their way to make returns easy. Corporate hotel chains allow cancelations with 24 hours notice or less. Airlines?

The Washington Post reports that for the first nine months of 2013, American Airlines charged passengers $650 million for reservation change fees.

I'd like to reserve their ass.

And can we turn now to legroom? Remember how you used to be able to take over empty seats once the last passenger was on board? Being able to sleep stretched out on an intercontinental flight was like, yessss! Which brings me to my recent episode on United Airlines.

Packed flight. Three empty seats two rows ahead. My husband and I make the move. We are happily stuffing our gear under the empty middle seat when Miss Efficiency whirrs up, well-oiled metal gears in place.

"You'll have to go back to your seats," she says.

Now these are not First or Business Class seats (even I know I can't slip into the room behind the curtain); they are in a newly invented class within the main cabin called "main cabin extra," "economy plus," "economy comfort," "even more legroom," "premium economy," or "main cabin select." You know they squeezed all the other rows tighter together so they could charge more for these seats.

I'm sure I should be ashamed to admit this but I can't afford the extravagant fares they charge for more legroom, free booze and better food on airplanes. I don't have a boss who pays my expenses because my boss is me! I always fly economy. Thank you for your sympathy.

OK, back to Miss Efficiency.

"Why do we have to move?" I say. "These seats are empty?"

"Because these seats are more expensive," she says.

"Yes, but there's no one to occupy them," I say.

"But it would not be fair to the people who pay more for them," she says.

We look at each other in puzzlement and start to gather our stuff.

As she walks away, I say to my husband in a low voice, "This is bullshit."

Her supersonic ears hear me. She stops cold, pivots and says,

"Would you like me to call the agent?"

I look at her, wondering WTF she's talking about and carry on with the process of moving back to our seats. Twenty minutes later, Miss Efficiency is back with another woman carrying what looks to be a giant cellphone from the eighties or a black oversized antennaed brick. I'm wondering if the agent intends to strike us with it.

"I understand you're having a problem?" she says, chirpy as hell.

"What problem?" I say. "We're sitting in our seats, aren't we?"

"Well, since you used the profanity," Miss Efficiency explains.

"Profanity?" I say, turning to look at my husband.

"Yes, the profanity," she says.

Visions of being kicked off the plane and being held for questioning arise before my eyes like a creature uglier than Miss Efficiency.

"Everything is wonderful," I say, smiling.

They turn and walk away -- efficiently.

"Profanity?" I say to my husband. "Bullshit is profanity?"

And a voice in the seat next to me says,

"In America it is."

I turn to see a very young woman, who has decided she should explain the ways of America to me, a New Yorker since the age of eight. I say nothing, open my book and read until we deplane. And as we walk toward the baggage claim area, a voice on the loudspeaker announces:

"When going through the security area, making inappropriate remarks is forbidden. Please avoid making jokes."

I love flying in the 21st century, don't you? What to do when the airlines seem to have all the cards? An aggrieved populace has been known to change evil corporate behavior before. It's a time-honored tradition. In America it is, anyway.