Thursday, March 29, 2012

Flying the (Un)Friendly Skies

One of the worst things about traveling is...traveling.  Specifically, air travel. This once-glamorous mode of transportation has now become a stressful, hassle-laden, uncomfortable, and often degrading experience.  My wife and I visit other other places for fun and enrichment, which usually makes up for some of the negatives of getting to our destination.  We have great sympathy for business travelers who endure flying for their jobs and don't have this compensation.

My wife and I fly quite a lot, often to places that are far from home (see my blogs on Bhutan and on the Middle East).  We can't afford Business Class or First Class, so these journeys are in "steerage" unless by some increasingly rare miracle we get a free upgrade. It isn't unusual for the total flying time on these trips to be 15-20 hours, usually but not always broken into two or more segments of 5-10 hours each.  Once we suffer through the cattle-pen atmosphere of checking in, the indignities of going through security, the elbow-fest of getting our share of overhead bin space, and finally shoe-horning ourselves into our seats, the rest of the trip is primarily a matter trying to cope with excruciating boredom and physical discomfort.

At this point I should acknowledge that we have it incredibly easy compared to the days before air travel, and we forget that commercial aviation is a very recent technological marvel.  Someone from the late 1800's would find our complaints trivial in light of the wondrous feat of traveling half-way around the world in a day or two.

But human nature leads us to use a more restrictive basis of comparison, namely how things have changed in the recent past.  Geopolitical events, like 9/11, have led to tightening of airport security. Financial pressures on airlines have led to a host of cost-cutting measures, including reducing the number of flights, cramming more seats in each aircraft, charging for luggage, meals, and on some airlines even for the privilege of reserving a specific seat in advance.  In short, it seems like the situation is getting worse and worse.

The latest round of decline for us involves the recent merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines.  For years we have been members of United's frequent flyer program primarily because United has offered the best mainland and international connections.  Of course, actually cashing in our award miles has always been a little difficult because we live in Hawai'i -- a popular destination for people to use their miles to visit, making competition for available award seats fierce.  Still, we've managed to take advantage of the program often enough that it has balanced some of the negatives of air travel.

One of the best features of United's program was that if your paid travel in a year totaled 25,000 miles or more you were rewarded with some extra perks (please note -- these must be miles flown, not earned in other ways, like with a credit card):  You could reserve seats in economy with more leg room, check two bags free, and board the plane earlier (thus avoiding some of the slug-fest for overhead storage).  On our marathon journeys these things have made a big difference, particularly having more comfortable seats, and have kept us loyal to United's program.  And given the amount of money required for us to achieve 25,000 miles in a year, these perks seemed a fitting gesture of appreciation from United for our business.

The merger has changed all that -- for the worse, naturally.

A few weeks ago we received notice from United about the new "wonderful" and "exciting" features of the merger, including the merged frequent flyer programs.  Cutting through all the breathless corporate hype revealed new policies that represent a dramatic downgrade of benefits for customers like us at the 25,000 mile level.  The most irksome change is that now reserving seats with more leg room requires 50,000 miles in a year -- double the earlier number and certainly out of reach of the ordinary traveler.  Even many business travelers might have trouble meeting that requirement.  You can, however, pay extra for those seats -- an additional $150-250 per person for trips of the length we usually take.  There is one shred of this perk left -- 24 hours before the flight we can vie for the unsold premium seats with all the other 25k-milers.  Of course, this means that we may not find seats together, or that the available seats will be in those wonderful "middle of the middle" locations.  Spending 15-20 hours in one of those seats is decidedly unappealing, something you might wish only on the CEO who masterminded this new policy.

For us these changes no longer give United an edge compared to other airline frequent flyer programs. The new policies convey that our loyalty and considerable level of spending don't count for as much as they did.  So be it, and we wish United a profitable future. Their profit probably won't be coming as much from us, however, because we will be much more likely to consider alternative carriers.


SimoneStan said...

Hi Dick & Karen

Stan and I have tried to keep our slim silver elite alive with Delta. We started ages ago with Pan Am which disappeared into TWA which disappeared into Delta. We too chose the airline because of its convenience for our most steady transits: Seattle & Cincinnati. However as things have changed our loyalty is sorely tested by a moving target airfares that can go up even while you are actually buying your ticket. Full planes,
smaller and smaller seats and legroom, lack of food, very occasional upgrades and declining civility among passengers and crew.

I have no idea what the answers are but you are correct the worst thing about travel is the actual travel to get where you are going.

PaddleDoc said...

My current fantasy for air travel is to bring my treadmill on board. I can't sit for long periods of time, but I can walk. I haven't seen that option under any frequent flyer program have you?

Heykateforever said...

Oh, Richard, once again you hit my sore spot (especially if we don't upgrade and pay $25 - $75 or so per seat for the front of econ cabin and the extra 4 inches of leg room!). As a disabled traveler who cannot run the marathon between gates, and find being at the front of the plane cuts down on bumps and Tower of Terror rides of turbulance, I have seen huge changes. I don't want to get into who deserves to be disabled and who can walk the sometimes two miles between gates, but a system that existed on all airlines 4 years ago is breaking down terribly recently. My recent trip to Disney World was a nightmare. When I used to order a wheelchair from the airlines for all gates during a trip - I got my wheelchair and a wonderful person to get me to my gate on time. Not so this trip. Not even once. My friend who has bad Osteo Arthritis in her back ended up pushing me most of the time until on the wat home at Philadelphia airport, the day that nutty lady flying from Fence to Washington ended up landing in OUR home airport of Bangor, Maine at exactly two hours before our departure. The entire east coast shut down. We'd had an hour and 20 minutes between flights in Philly cut down to 20 minutes by the shut down. We booked it out of our plane - disabled cane-toting old (ish) lady pushing like a football player through the crowd getting out. No disabled cart waiting - none as far as the eye could see. So we booked it down A-terminal (A-59 if memory serves) and ran clackity clack to C terminal. No disabled cart waiting again! We needed to get to C-25 so we started hooding it down that terminal. Halfway there we here the announcement that Gate C-25 to Bangor was getting ready to close the doors so please be speedy if you want to make this flight. Speedy? It's 9:00 at night - how speedy can a woman who can barely walk across the room be? Well-motivated people can be very speedy knowing the price they'll pay later. So, I did what anybody would do, right? I yelled at the top of my voice NOT to close Gate C-25, flight #3118 to Bangor over and over again. As we came screeching around the corner and saw our gate, huffing and puffing, the young lady told us in her southern drawl "why, you ladies didn't have to hurry. We were going to hold the plane for you anyway." Yeah, you can take it from there. So, when we first got to Disney and they gave away our room because weather hampered our flights so we were late. Because they prioritize children to disabled people who bring their "helper," our room was gone and it took two hours to get another acceptable room NOT on top of designated smoking areas. Yes, Richard, the "getting There," and "getting back," sure isn't as nice and easy as it once was. No, at least it's not Wagon Trains or smelly railroads, but somehow it feels like we're going in the wrong direction toward making thing easier and quicker. We pay lots more - we get lots less. Sort of an analogy for everything going on today.... Kathy Wake Heyner