Is This the Straw That Broke the Camel’s back?

I am a casual flyer these days, taking only one trip a year to go to the U. S. B. C. Open tournament, wherever it may be. Last year, it was in Las Vegas; this year and next it is Reno with Baton Rouge on the schedule for 2012. But there was a period where I was doing a lot of flying and getting quite familiar with the ins and outs of commercial flying.

But lately, I am thinking about giving up flying all together. Every since 9/11, it seems we are more interested in keeping people off airplanes than we are letting them on. One guy attempts to blow up an airplane with explosives in his shoes so we all have to take off our shoes. One guy tries to do the same thing with a combination of liquids so now the liquids that we take with us must be of a certain size and quantity.

And the device that detects explosive materials (which I assume to be nitrate-containing compounds) will also detect other compounds such as the residue of local anesthetics. That has to really scare someone recovering from surgery.

The implementation of policy and training sees inconsistent at best. I have observed TSA agents lift 40-lbs of bowling equipment without bending their knees and being told that they were never given any instructions on how to lift heavy objects. I have observed other agents as they struggle with clear cut instructions (like the time my boarding pass said “must check in at gate” and the agent was telling me that I had to go back to the ticket counter. As he was struggling with this dilemma, I pointed out that the individual behind me had the same boarding pass and that he should resolve the two issues at the same time in consultation with two supervisors. I was told not to tell him how to do his business and after they took some 20 minutes to figure out that I should go to the gate; they took the same amount of time with the next person who had the same issue.

But as I struggle with these annoyances (does anyone seriously think that someone is going to try and destroy a plane with a shoe bomb or a combination of liquids?) I also struggle with the service issues.

I have found that I can get a cheap ticket even two weeks before my departure but that the moment I go to book the flight, the price changes and I am forced to start over. And I know longer check my baggage since they charge you for your checked bags. I now ship my gear instead of lugging it to the airport; yes, it is a little more expensive but it gets to where I need it and I don’t have to worry about the bags being torn up.

And besides, I have to fly out of New York City in order to get any sort of cheap flight. I remember when the airlines were deregulated back in the early days of the Reagan administration. Just as today, there was this cry about getting government out of the way of business. Well, we have seen what happened with oil exploration and the way airlines are going today makes it very clear that while deregulation may help businesses, it does very, very little for the people.

It appears, at least as far as I can see, that all that has happened following deregulation of the airlines is that it robbed many of the smaller airports of service. And if there is service, it is prohibitively expensive. So I no longer can fly out of the regional airport that is fifteen minutes from my home.

Now, the airlines, especially in the past few years, have always charged you for changing your mind. You booked a cheap fare, you had better keep it.

And they have begun charging you for the simple snacks that they serve. But this past Wednesday (May 26th), I found out just how far the airlines (or at least one airline) will go to take every dollar from you that they can.

I knew from experience that the flight I had booked might be oversold. So I got to the airport early with the intention of volunteering for a bump as I have done in the past only to find out that I would have to pay a charge to fly standby. And after choosing the last seat on the plane, I find that I can pay for extra leg room or a more premium type of seat. Neither option is viable at this time. When I inquired about volunteering to move to the exit rows, I found that I would have to pay a fee. Those must have been the seats with the extra leg room that I passed up earlier.

I will not name this airline but I can say that while the skies were very friendly, the ground personnel were not. Weather-wise, this was the first time in all of my flying that the plane had to be diverted to an alternate airport because it was low on fuel. May 26th was not a good day to fly as thunderstorms blanketed the Midwest from Chicago to Denver. I don’t know what it was like in Chicago but when we finally got to Denver, ground personnel handed each of the departing passengers a sheet of paper with a number to call about the status of our reservation and a number to reserve a hotel room. No other information was provided. And of course, because of the severity of the storms and the disruption on the system, both phone lines had lengthy delays.

So I spent Thursday morning in, what is for me, the new Denver International Airport trying with so many others to get some sleep and prepare to get to my destination. Fortunately, the airport (and not the airline) was prepared to hand out sleeping mats, blankets, and a bottle of water.

Everyone must have one trip that borders on the disastrous or ridiculous; this has to be mine. But this trip and how the airline handled the flight reflect what I believe is going on in this country.

The reason for my flight delay was not the airline’s fault; the flight crew did their best to get me to my destination. The weather just prevented them from doing so. And when it is weather that causes flight problems, airlines are not required to offer compensation or assistance. Giving the passengers the numbers of the airline and the hotel booking company was all they are required to do.

These types of situation used to fall in the “acts of God” category and were, thus, exempt from corporate actions. But I am reminded that the single most important act of God was to send His Son so that we may be saved from slavery to sin and death. We make a big deal these days about being a Christian country but our actions sure don’t reflect that.

Our interests seem to be in the bottom line, the profits a company makes. It should be, no matter what the industry, on the people that the industry serves. The most important person flying on a commercial airline is not the most frequent flyer but the flyer that only flies once or twice a year. I am not saying that those who frequently fly shouldn’t be rewarded since they have to endure this stuff far more than the occasional flyer but if you treat the occasional flyer poorly, they may not fly again. Or if they fly again, it won’t be on that airline that treated them so poorly.

Our nation’s focus on the bottom line, to cut costs so as to increase profits, does not do well when there is a crisis. Be it the disaster in the Gulf, the mining disaster in West Virginia, or a stack of late airplane flights over the Denver International airport, the desire to keep the bottom line profitable for the short term will have long term negative effects.

But to keep the eye on the bottom line prevents one from keeping the focus on the people being served. I am not against any company making a profit; hey, that’s what you got into the business for. But when your focus is on the profit, and how much money a few privileged individuals can make, instead of the service you are providing, you have forgotten why you began the business in the first place.

I realize that I probably will have to fly to get to many places in this country. I have thought many times about taking the train but it is not always a good trade off. For essentially the same price that I paid for my airline ticket, I could have taken the train. But the time spent traveling would have been greater on the train and you have to make some decisions as to how fast you want to get to your destination and how much time you have to travel. And next year, I will have the same choices to make. As I plan for that trip, I will consider many factors about how I will get there. But one thing is for certain, the way in which this particular airline handled the problem means that I will probably not utilize their service next year.

I think that we, as a nation, have seen too many instances where profits are more important than people. I think it is time that we change that view.

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