[Ed. Note: I wrote this while on a flight home from Milwaukee five years ago today, back when I returned to consulting for a living. Business consulting means you must travel to clients since they will not come to you. Clients want you to come to them, but generally will not foot the bill for anything other than Economy-Class tickets. “Economy” in this case does not mean only financial economy, it also means economy in space, comfort, and dignity. With cheapness comes pain. I edited it slightly, and added some comments after.]

March 1, 2012

I am writing this on a United 757 winging our way from Denver to Portland, which is where I will get the connector to Bend.

On this trip, we were late out of Bend because of snow, I had to traverse TSA with its full body scan, had to endure a cramped window seat at the back of the plane and a cramped aisle seat on the next flight. I paid $25 to check my bag, which did not make the connection, and even though United swore they would courier me the bag that evening, I had to return to the airport to get my bag… and then no one was there. Luckily, I dialed enough numbers to find a guy in operations who came up to open the baggage office. An actual quote from a United employee at the airport was “we are slow, but friendly.”

I am now sitting in an aisle seat on a full plane, with a friendly, yet large, man on the middle seat. I am large, too, so I am listing to port as I write this, my left shoulder being hit every time someone walks by, including the flight attendants.

My first flight today was overbooked, and the gate agent was annoyed because I showed up “last minute”. I tried to get a seat assigned last night, but was unable to. I tried to get a seat assigned at the ticket counter, but the agent said to go to the gate. But, to the gate agent, it was “last minute”.

I would have been bumped, except one nice soul accepted the $400 bribe, and agreed to take a bus(!) from Milwaukee to O’hare to catch a new plane (a bus because the agent didn’t trust that the flight to ORD would make it on time).

Almost every time I fly United it is a pain in the ass.

But this is not a rant against United. Rather, it is a rant against the demise of American air travel. It used to be that flight time was an ideal time to to get work done – open the laptop or notebook and go head’s-down for some uninterrupted work. Flying was never fully comfortable for me, but it was generally less crowded and less cramped.

It is impossible for me to do anything but sit stoically and endure the flights (although I can at least type this out on my iPhone.) And it is too bad.

There is a better way to do this. Hell, if I could, I’d pull a John Madden and get a custom bus. But, really, I would say that if we abolish the TSA and allow people to get onto a plane without being electronically strip searched and carrying what they want, that would be a great start.

Then, if the airlines stop nickel and dime-ing people that would help. It is cheap and petty that United charges $25 per checked bag and $8 for a snack. United has sucked for a long time, but the cure for them is to provide first class service from employees who give a damn. If they do that then they could charge the premium they seem to think they are entitled to and cut the crap.

What we need is a premium version of Southwest. 

The upshot for me is that flying is now like entering a wormhole with nothing to do but turn off until you get to where you are going. From a business perspective that means I must charge clients for travel, since travel is now an opportunity loss. From a personal perspective it means that flying is awful.


Some thoughts, five years on:

I have probably logged more airline miles than at least 98% of Americans. There was a time in the late ’90s that I flew twice a day between Burbank and San Jose, and I did that for months. Virtually all my travel was business travel, and most of that was when I was with KPMG Consulting. When you do something like this for as long as this, you develop a level of skill that you don’t know you have until you realize other people don’t have it. You learn how to pack quickly and efficiently: to roll your clothes, not to fold them, and toss out the “packing squares.” You learn how and when to get to the airport. You learn that trying to carry everything on the plane is stupid. There is no need to be afraid of claiming baggage, and life is so much better when you have only one carry-on, except on airlines like Alaska, where you can gate-check your bag. You learn to carry snacks and to carry a filtered water-bottle. You also learn to fly in your suit – if your suit is comfortable (which all suits should be), it is better than jeans and cheap running shoes, and everyone treats you like royalty. This is, as Helen Reddy said, “wisdom born of pain.”

But knowing how to do it does not make it fun or easy. I am blessed now in that I don’t have to travel weekly anymore. I am wise enough to know that airlines are not going to change. Unless you pony up for a higher class, your ride will get worse. If there is a choice of driving or flying, I will rent a huge car with Sirius XM and drive. When self-driving cars come along, I will use a car much more often.

We are human, and we can never replace being with each other in person. And we cannot bring Paris to our front door. At least for now, we are stuck with the airlines.

However, traveling for work has become less and less necessary. The capability to do quality work remotely has only gotten better since 2012. Mobile networks are better, mobile phone technology is better, coverage is better. I literally can do my job anywhere there is cell coverage and electricity, which is most of the United States and much of the world. I have worked in parks with chipmunks at my feet, in cafes in London, and, yes, at the beach (Note: if you are at the beach, just enjoy the beach. Just because you can work there doesn’t mean you should). I currently work on the edge of a national forest. Who needs to fly?

Airlines will not get better. The only incentive they have is to pack more and more people into larger and larger planes. Technology will save us from this mess, not the airlines. Thank God for technology that lets me opt out of seat 37E.

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Yet another traveler on Spaceship Earth. I blog about humanity, life, life hacks, and technology. I earn my living advising companies on how to treat their customers better.

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