How many people would voluntarily allow a stranger to pat down their bodies in full view of hundreds of others, partially disrobe in public as a matter of course and then sit quietly waiting for hours as a company delays their vacation plans? Oh, and pay hundreds of dollars for the opportunity? Judging by the crowds at several American airports the week before Easter, thousands of us.
What other service industry is given as much leeway to make our lives miserable as our nation's airlines? Discounting the indignities of security - which, after all, is not the fault of the airlines - air travel lacks accountability or even a tinge of attempting to please the customer. On a recent flight - and I use that word loosely - from Washington, DC to Boston, my routine travel time of one hour turned into a nightmarish seven hour ordeal. We could have taken the train in about the same time and left our shoes on.
Delta Airlines put us on a small Comair jet that went nowhere, slowly. After sitting on the stuffy, cramped, full to overflowing plane for a long time, we were informed there was a mechanical problem. We were still at the gate but were told to stay in our seats in case the problem could be quickly solved. Depending on your definition of "quickly," it was. And then it reappeared. After a long while, we were told to take all our belongings and head back into the terminal which, by that point, resembled Saigon just before the fall. So many Delta flights were delayed that bodies were packed into the areas around gates. People were sleeping across chairs. Others slumped in quiet resignation.
There was rain in the Boston area but the skies outside the large windows were blue. There were probably even planes up there but not mine. What did Delta do to mitigate our misery and the growing knowledge that we likely wouldn't be seeing Boston in daylight despite having arrived at the airport mid-morning? Nothing. A few announcements were made but were barely audible. I knew enough to ask for lunch vouchers ($10 per person - know your rights!) to cover the cost of some truly awful sandwiches for my daughter and myself.
We boarded a flight around 3:00 and took to the skies half an hour later. By that point, we were four hours late and had missed any chance to play in Boston. Anyone with connecting flights was probably past despair. And this is not an isolated case. Several of our fellow passengers were playing, "What was your worst travel experience?" All involved airplanes and most were within the past few months.
Why is it that we are so passive in our belief that we deserve no better than we are getting? We expect the worst from air travel and we are getting it. We pay higher fares, agree to be charged for checking a suitcase, are crammed into seats designed for children and then agreeably miss part of our own vacations or business trips or funerals. It is only the most egregious cases that are noted in the media. The routine grind of late flights, missed connections and miserable travel appears to be expected.
Let's get mad. Any delay over an hour should be explained and alternative travel plans should be made for each flyer who wants them - without standing in long lines or making hour-long phone calls to 800 numbers. Once an airline accepts our money, it is responsible for getting us where we need to be in a timely fashion even if it ends up costing the airline money. Even if we need to be booked on a competing airline. Even if it requires hiring more airline staff. Don't tell us you are going to get us somewhere at a certain time if you're not. And if you want us to be patient and calm, stop charging us to check luggage. Make your seats wider and more comfortable. Give us the home phone number of your company's president.
But most of all, give us service. Because if the airlines don't, we need to get mad.