Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I Just Flew Back From Arizona, Boy Are My Arms Tired!

On a recent trip from Baltimore, Maryland to Tucson, Arizona, that was supposed to be by way of Chicago Illinois, I realized that airlines are actually quite different from one another. This may not be news to some of you road-warriors with oodles of air-traveling experience. But for those of you that travel only occasionally, my experiences may be of interest.

I have never been afraid to fly, and thanks entirely to my moderate dieting success thus far, I find coach seats are not as horribly small as they used to be. I have never flown first class, and as my body shrinks I find my desire to do so shrinks as well. I am still a fan of large seats, were they available, unfortunately, unless you are willing to spend far more money than a sane person would, you will be stuck in little, intimate seats. The airlines with which I am recently familiar are Southwest, Continental, AirTran, and American. I have flown coach on each of those airlines this calendar year (2005). On each occasion I was on what I would call a medium passenger plane. They have all been jets, either Boeing or Airbus, and in each case, the coach area had either 3 seats on each side of the center aisle, or 2 seats on one side and 3 on the other.

The trips I have taken have all been from BWI (Baltimore-Washington International) Airport. The Continental flight was the first one I took this year, it was to San Antonio Texas ultimately, but involved a stop in Houston. I flew the same route on the way back. The flight was pretty eventless, everything was on time going there. On the way back, the ticketing-bag check lady hand wrote something on my bag check slip, and my bag was sent to the wrong place or arrived in Baltimore late, I don't remember exactly what happened, but I do remember being pleased that the airline took a report and delivered my bag to my house the following morning, free of charge. I live about an hour and a half from the airport, and that's with no traffic, so I was impressed, and happy with the results of the bag issue.

Continental served free soda, and a bag of pretzels. I remember being disappointed that I did not get peanuts, as I love peanuts. I suppose though, that with the state of peanut allergies these days, pretzels are a safer snack on a crowded airline, so while I was disappointed, I also understand the possible reasons for the snack choice. Overall, I was pleased with my experience on Continental, they provided the service I expected from an airline. Their delivery of my bag to my house after the mixup on my way home was better than what I expected, I feared I would have to wait at the airport for my bag to arrive, or come back to the airport to pick up my bag, in which case I would have been quite angry about the bag mixup. So, Continental came through, and by virtue of their delivering the bag and being so pleasant about the issue, came out surpassing my expectations.

My next trip was back to San Antonio, again from BWI. This time I flew on Southwest. I had always had the impression that Southwest was a budget airline, and so my expectations were low. When I try to figure out why I had that impression of Southwest, I think its because their ads tend to be focused on their prices, leading me to assume that they were less focused on customers and comfort. That assumption was wrong. Southwest was every bit as comfortable as Continental. The seats and coach area were just like any other airline I have flown. Two things about Southwest stand out in my mind, after having been their customer. First, the method of boarding was very unconventional, and unique. Because this was my first time flying Southwest, I did not know what to expect with regards to boarding, I assumed it was like any other airline, so I arrived an hour or so before flight time and then sat in a seat at the gate. Not until it was about to be boarding time did I look at my ticket to see what seat I was assigned, so I would know when they called my row to stand and board. I had noticed people sitting on the floor by the boarding area next to posts marked A, B, and C. I looked at my ticket to see that I was in group C, no seat was noted. I looked at the post marked C and began to realize that there was a big line of people at group C, which is the last group to be boarded, and due to my lack of experience with Southwest, I was now going to be one of the last people in group C to get on the plane. This meant, because Southwest does not assign seats, it is first come, first served, I got a really bad seat. I learned my lesson, and on my return flight on Southwest, made sure I got to the airport earlier, and was therefore put in group B. I then went right to the boarding gate and sat on the floor by the post marked B, so I was one of the first people in group B to board the plane. I had a very good seat on the way back.

The second thing about Southwest that stands out is their snack. Southwest served soda and juice just like Continental. But rather than hand out pretzels or some other small bag of snack food, Southwest really impressed me by handing out a snack box. Inside the box were goodies such as graham crackers, and Oreo's. The box contained a few other things, and remarkably, included a tiny bag of peanuts. I was, deep down, ecstatic.

A few months later I found myself flying from BWI to Tampa Florida. For this flight I took AirTran. I had never heard of AirTran before. I guessed that it was either an airline that had changed its name for whatever reason, or a newish budget airline. I am still not really sure where they came from. I flew coach on this roundtrip as I did on the others, and found AirTran to be about the same with regards to seat comfort. They boarded the traditional way, like Continental. They served soda and a little bag of pretzels like Continental. One thing stood out in AirTran's favor though, and I don't know if this is true of all their planes, or just the two I flew on (one to Tampa and one back from Tampa), they have free XM Satellite Radio built into the arm rest. They even gave out free headphones. The headphones they gave out were the jam-it-in-the-ear, and hope they don't fall out kind. I don't really care for those headphones at all, and would almost rather listen to nothing than use them, but I did use them for a little while just to try out the service. The arm rests have little buttons built in that allow you to change the radio channel and adjust the volume. On the way to Tampa, the seat I was in had broken buttons that would not allow me to change the station up, only down. Luckily the seat next to me was empty, so I plugged into that arm rest and was able to channel surf till I found something decent to listen to. On the way home, I kept my big comfortable cover-the-ear headphones handy, so I did not need the little ear-canal destroying green things. It was most enjoyable.

Only a week or two after my trip to Tampa, I found myself on a no-notice work-emergency trip to Tucson Arizona. I booked Tuesday afternoon and flew out Wednesday morning. I had my roundtrip booked with American Airlines. I expected American to be like Continental. Things went badly however, early on. I got to the airport around 8am for my 10am flight. I checked my bag, and had a hot dog for breakfast (my flight to Tucson connected through Chicago, I figured I might not have time to eat lunch). I then went to my gate and waited for the plane to board. About 5 or 10 minutes after the plane was supposed to be boarding the man working the gate announced that the mechanics were getting a diagnostic code during their checks indicating some valve wasn't working properly. He indicated they were following some troubleshooting steps and that we would have more information shortly. This began a cycle, where every 5 to 10 minutes we would hear someone tell him, over his walkie talkie, that they would have more information in 5 or 10 minutes. Because my connecting flight in Chicago provided me about 1 hour between arrival in Chicago and departure for Tucson, I became worried I might not make my connecting flight. I was the first to approach the counter, to see what could be done, just in case our plane was going to leave too late for me to catch my connecting flight. Yay me, I thought. I was being pro-active. The man at the counter, who by this time was far more upset with the mechanics and people working on the airplane, than any of the customers were, checked his computer and booked me a later flight from Chicago to Dallas, where I could catch a plane to Tucson, just in case. As I was finishing up, a lot of other customers realized now was a good time to be worried, and they got up and formed a line, to begin rebooking their flights, and getting their checked bags moved. The man at the counter began calling someone, on his phone, and through his walkie talkie, every couple minutes asking for help, as he now had a pretty large line of people to deal with. He never got any help. My wife called me, and we talked about my flight options. She obsesses over my flights whenever I travel, as she is afraid of flying, and well, you know how that goes. She informed me there was a flight to Dallas in about an hour, and there were lots of flights throughout the day from Dallas to Tucson, this would clearly be a better option for me than a crazy layover in Chicago. In fact, this would get me into Tucson about 4 hours earlier than what the man at the counter did for me. So, I quickly went to get back in line, which was now very very long. In the process, I told a lady near the front of the line, who had earlier told me she was also going to Tucson, which option was the best. I proceeded to wait in line for over 45 minutes before getting my turn at the counter. At this point they were boarding the original plane to Chicago, some 60 or more minutes late. I kept shouting, every 10 or so minutes, toward the man at the counter "will they be able to get our bags off and on to another plane?". I overheard the counter man talking to people working on the airplane getting people's bags off, and moved to other flights. At one point, when I was 3 people from my turn at the counter, the people grabbing bags and moving them to other planes spoke to the counter man through his walkie talkie, asking if there were any more bags to move off the plane, they wanted to lock up the cargo and get ready to take off. I said yes, very loudly and clearly, I was going to Tucson and wanted my bag changed to go through Dallas. He heard me, and told them, through the walkie talkie, yes there are more bags to move. I was now next in line, there were maybe 3 people left behind me. Some guy finally showed up to help at the counter. I went to him and he took care of rebooking me, but he did not even try to get my bag moved to my new flight. I told him what had happened and he just shrugged and told me to file a claim in Tucson and they would deliver my bag around midnight, to wherever I was staying. I was MAD. How hard is it to get back on the walkie talkie and ask if they can get one more bag. There were at most, 3 of us left changing flights, this would have delayed the plane what, 5 more minutes? I was furious. I tend to be the type though, that does not explode and start swearing at people until I get my way, instead I just take my business elsewhere in the future, and bash the company mercilessly on the internet. I did shake my head, give a nasty look, and throw my hands up in the air as I walked away in obvious disgust.

As you may be able to tell, from the detail, as I write this, I am on the first leg of this trip, en route to Dallas, and then on to Tucson. The flight crew offered complimentary soda, and to my amazement, they are willing to sell, for $3, your choice of red or silver snack box. They do not have free (or I should say included) bags of pretzels, or peanuts. I am now quite glad I had the hot dog for breakfast, as I refuse to by one of those snack boxes on principle. Other than what I have written so far, American Airlines is the same as other airlines with regard to coach seat comfort. The flight crew, and pilot did each mention however that if one needs to use the bathroom, they need to use the bathroom in their "section". This means, if you are in coach, you must use the bathrooms at the back of the plane, in coach, you cannot go into first class and use their bathrooms. I had not heard this announced before on other airlines, so I don't know if this is a policy with them too. I was of course put off by it, probably due to my already being extremely unhappy with American.

It is now 2:00PM Eastern time, I will resume this story when something else eventful has happened.
I am now on the final leg of my return journey. Once again aboard an American Airlines plane. After the somewhat disastrous first leg of my trip to Arizona, I was able to catch a connecting flight out of Dallas to Tucson by imitating OJ (my wife's head is still perfectly intact), running through the airport. Dallas has an interesting train system that connects the various terminals. I got onto my connecting flight with about 8 minutes to spare. On the way to Arizona they served soda and pretzels. My bag was delivered to my hotel at about 3:30am that night, and everything worked out.

So here I am, on my way home. On the first leg of the return trip, leaving Tucson at 7:00am Arizona time, they served drinks and a granola bar. On my current flight, from Dallas to BWI, they are once again doing just soda and charging for snack boxes. Luckily I picked up a pack of mini-donuts in Arizona.

Assuming all goes well at the baggage claim, and my plane survives the trip to Baltimore, I would like to take a few lines to summarize what I have discovered about modern air travel. The comfort of all the planes and airlines I have flown this year, if you fly coach, is roughly the same. The check-in procedures and bag checking is all about the same. The major differences I find are in boarding methods, and snacks. Personally, I prefer the traditional boarding method to the Southwest method. But, I prefer the Southwest free-snack box to all the other snack options on any of the airlines I have flown this year. And the satellite radio on AirTran rocked. If you are going to fly somewhere, and you have a choice of which airline to fly, I hope my experiences make your decision a little easier.