A few years back I sat on a bus to Chicago next to a woman who’d just retired and was living in New Mexico. She looked energized, refreshed, and at peace with the world. She spoke of her new journey into meditation
and prayer, of love, loss, and divorce
. But most of all her face lit up when she spoke about her vocation. She had been a stewardess.
Back in the day, she explained being a stewardess was a great privilege. The standards for being allowed into this profession were high, and not just anyone would be selected for such a position. They were classy, dignified and respected. Now we call them flight attendants, having included men into the field and also have changed their roles in many ways. While some might say there has been an improvement in their positions, others would question the fact that they are now required to push meals for purchase, Visa memberships, and sell, sell, sell. Complimentary snacks are not always complimentary anymore, and they are often seen hoisting overstuffed bags into the overhead compartment as no one wants to pay the fees for checking the luggage that was once free. One might ask, when did the loss of dignity in the process of flying begin?
Having traveled regularly for the last few years, it seems that the rules, regulations, and requirements are frankly becoming more and more ridiculous each time. The reason for delays and late departures are at times laughable. There was the time I couldn’t board the plane because they announced (and I do not jest here) “we are waiting for the glue to dry.” That’s right, it was a window seal that they were repairing. Another time we could not take off because the lawn mowers were out and blocking our path. Then there was the time that O’Hare was not allowing flights into the airport. There have been no planes and a full crew, a plane with no pilot, gates changed back and forth six times, and then there was this past Monday.
This weekend marked the University of Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony, and as such the local airport had a steady flow of parents, grandparents, siblings and graduates heading out of town. As I was placed on standby for an earlier United flight, I was third on the standby list and didn’t make it on. No big deal, I was booked on the 3p.m. flight. Or so I thought. Until we realized that by placing me on standby they had inadvertently (or “inadvertently”) wiped out my entire itinerary all the way to San Francisco. As I attempted to board my original plane, I was told they had sold my seat. I asked about their standby list, and they said they already took someone from the list. “So, I can’t get on my flight that I already have a seat for and you boarded two people neither or whom were originally booked for it?” I asked. Perhaps more bizarre was when the airline said a few hours earlier that they were doing me a “favor” by putting me on the standby list and waiving the $75 fee for being on standby.
Earlier in the day I’d asked if I could cancel the first leg of my trip as my parents were driving into Chicago. But as that would be considered a change in my flight, that would incur another $150 fee I was told. How odd I told the agent. They could profit more from letting me cancel one leg of my flight as they could sell it at their usual exorbitant rates. “What if someone hypothetically misses a leg of their flight?” I asked the agent. Then they just cancel your entire itinerary, he told me. It seemed the conclusion was a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.
After spending eight hours in the same airport with a voucher less than the amount of my actual flight, I finally made it into San Francisco. It was not because of the agents at my original airport, but because my new flight (now to Portland instead) had another two hour delay and I thought to check if the flight (which no one ever told me about) to San Francisco (my home destination) would let me board. A pair of empathic agents who could just tell from my expression that it was just not my day for travel were the only air travel angels I encountered that day.
On my flight I sat next to a lawyer and asked him why people can’t just sue these airlines. He said it’s all in the fine print. We agree to all of this poor treatment when we purchase a ticket. And with millions of people flying each year, it was highly unlikely this would change. The airlines are losing money he said. I’m pretty sure they’re not, I thought. Since I anticipate they will soon charge for using the bathroom, I’d venture that wherever they’re hit financially, it will be taken out on the consumer immediately. I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that Oprah, Buffet, and Gates join forces and create their own airline.
What is truly sad though is the way that people are treated. As we swapped airline horror stories in my eight-hour wait, there was the family who wanted a name changed on a ticket. One particular airline said there was no way they could do that. As a result of over-booking planes, an elderly couple was split up. They wanted to route them through completely different cities to meet up hours (most likely days in air time) later at their final destination.
As the rules of travel aren’t really articulated to consumers, there is really no telling what our rights are. One fellow passenger told me they can’t just take my seat; they have to offer a voucher to someone else to get off. I was not even given this option as the young lady dismissed me completely and closed the flight that I was accidentally (or “accidentally”) bumped off of.
Even screening procedures have become out of hand. Some experts argue that the adverse health effects of airport body scanners cannot be ruled out. The studies that claim these machines are safe have not been independently tested and hence there is no conclusive evidence. Even some pilots unions have recommended that pilots not undergo such screening procedures. That said, hand pats can be quite intrusive as well. But even if you ask for one instead of being scanned, be prepared for the incredulous and/or irritated looks of airport personnel who would rather have you make it easy on everyone and the growing line behind you to just walk through the mystery machine.
It is strange to think that travel, an experience that is often thought to whisk you away to another world, time, and place, has become not too far removed from institutionalized settings. We are all just cattle being herded, poked, prodded, and stuffed into tiny seats with little room to breathe or even stretch. While anxieties such as a “fear of flying” have been commonplace for some time, I wouldn’t doubt it if the conditions of travel themselves don’t induce panic attacks, severe distress, and somatic symptoms. This time around one of the features of new airplanes that one airline was boasting about included more oxygen on the plane. As if we weren’t already trying to cope with that whole “no water past security” bit, our oxygen level is also being decreased, monitored, and controlled by airlines. Now isn’t that just lovely.
What do we do about it? Sure the Occupy movements didn’t appear to make much concrete change. But to be honest, for the first few weeks I wasn’t exactly sure what the goals of the movement were. The rich were getting richer and we weren’t happy about it. But it wasn’t clear what we wanted them to do. So to get us started, allow me to delineate a few goals for better air travel:
1) Let us drink water before, after, and during security clearance.
2) Give us more air (on all planes, not just the fancy new ones).
3) Let us check our luggage for free before chronic back pain and muscle spasms become symptoms associated with travel.
4) Though some people have peanut allergies, I’d really appreciate even some soynuts free of charge.
5) I’d like those comfy airplane socks again, please.
6) Keep your First Class, but get rid of this Economy Plus, Economy Plus Plus nonsense, and stop charging extra for the exit row. Some people are just built bigger and shouldn’t suffer in tiny spaces and have to pay for comfort.
7) Know where my luggage is, and don’t let it get to my destination without me (or at least let me travel with the luggage, as there might be more oxygen in those compartments).
8) Instead of building more bars in airports (though I’m sure passengers feel like they need them), add exercise and gym facilities so anxious and restless passengers can work out their negative energy rather than take it out on the ticketing agents.
9) Don’t overbook your flights. That’s just commonsense. 100 seats, 100 tickets, not 150. Your math geniuses may make the formula work in your financial favor, but not in favor of the consumer.
10) Stop your racial profiling. Screen everyone or no one and not at the risk of our own health. Be as thorough as you need to be, but do not violate individuals' personal space. And use your commonsense. I'd venture a wild guess that 85-year-old men with walkers and 4-year-old children are not our biggest national security threats.
11) If a flight is over three hours, and you keep coming on the overhead speaker asking what you can do to make my flight enjoyable, don’t charge me for entertainment, headphones, and other such things. Even magazines would be nice, but I know, now I’m pushing it.
12) Be friendly, polite, respectful, and treat us like you’d treat your own.
If worse comes to worst, we can do a national day (even week) of not flying. If we have such days to reduce power usage and such, I’m sure we could throw out a random day (no major holidays) and refuse to fly. I’d venture a guess that someone would start listening.
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