Andrew Pollack's Blog

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Thank you for flying the desperate skys

By Andrew Pollack on 11/11/2008 at 06:56 PM EST

I used to travel a lot. No, really, like every week. I glad I don't any more. Travel gets more difficult and annoying every week.

Its been an unusual month and I'm finally back from a long series of trips that have had me away from home for something like 15 of the last 20 days and logging something close to 20,000 air miles. To top it off, I've been flying on old-school airlines that are desperately seeking to exploit every possible method to extract the last dollar from every traveller. This means adding on more fees, playing games with seat assignments, and even charging for soft drinks while advertising to you on their aircraft.

Here's a list of things that were all done by US Airways (and some also done by American Airlines) this week. Taken together, its like a letter from the CEO saying "Please don't ever fly on our airline again. We really don't want your business, Thank you for flying the desperate skys."

1. $15 Fee per bag to check luggage -- each way. Aside from annoying me with having to hand over more money after I've bought the ticket, and aside from hiding $30 of the ticket price when comparing prices, this results in an increase in people using those damn roller-board cases to carry everything. Of course, half the things you'd keep in a toiletries bag can't clear security any more. Still, these middle management sport-jacket & jeans clad bunes flying around with their roller bags while talking loudly into their ever so hip blue tooth ear pieces mean it takes longer to load and unload the plane, costing the airlines more money than handling the luggage would. Those roller bags are also the cause of the most common injury on aircraft. They fall on people and break clavicles.

2. Unlikely or impossible connections. Of the four US Airways flights I was scheduled to take (five if you include the one I was diverted to) four were significantly delayed. Had I not known better than to wait in line -- and instead got on the phone and made my own arrangements -- I'd never have gotten to Phoenix to see my sister's wedding.

3. Seat Availability Games. I booked a good fare. It was the only reason I was on that crappy airline in the first place. My reward for giving them another chance? They offered me the worst seats on the plane. Center seats in the back, and in one case without two next to each other for my daughter and I. Of course, if we were willing to pay more, there were a great many open seats. In fact, once on board we found that there were a large number of seats empty and we could move around. In other words, it was a simple case of extort the family flyer.

4. Advertising to me. I absolutely hate this. It is one of the most invasive and intrusive things the airlines are doing now. I am forced to listen - over the PA system - to a hard sell advertising for a credit card. Even worse, they then send the attendant down the isle to individually ask each passenger to fill out the application in exchange for a miles bonus. I kept my thoughts to myself as nearly anything I could have said at that point would have meant me leaving the plane in handcuffs. This goes beyond plastering full size advertisements onto the tray tables - another new theme. This is pure "in your face" hard sales.

5. Charging for soft drinks. Charging for alcohol makes sense. Its expensive and it should be somewhat limited as it leads to problems sometimes. Now you want to charge me for soda on a 5 hour flight? Give me a break. I can almost support the charge for a sandwich. Its a bit steep, but $7 for lunch on a plane isn't too bad if its a good lunch. Its not though. You're a captive audience with no options, so they do whatever they want.

6. Surcharges for heavy luggage. Here's how it works now. You have to pay $15 each way for your first suitcase. You have to pay more for a second suitcase on many airlines -- others are just another $15. If you pack more than a total of 50 pounds (including the case) they charge you a $50 fee. More fees, more fees, more fees.

I hate surprise fees. Really hate them. In 1994 I was flying American Airlines through Chicago to Phoenix to introduce my family to my first born. Out of the blue -- half way through the trip -- a gate agent in Chicago charged me $40 to gate check the stroller. No other gate agent had ever charged me for this. I paid it. Over the next 10 years, I flew more than 500,000 miles -- much of it at full fare coach -- on Delta Airlines. I refused to fly American again for all that time. Quite literally, that $40 gate check charge cost American more than $40,000 in revenue. I only started flying American again because they have a very convenient flight to London from Boston. Last week was my first domestic flight on American in many years, and their fees and game playing assured me I made the right choice when I stopped using them. US Airways I hate for entirely more prosaic reasons. They just cannot seem to get me from one place to another with any degree of reliability.

Most of these new fees are recent, and were supposed to be to make up for the fuel cost increases. Fuel has come down now, all the way to levels far below pre-fee levels. The fees remain however.

The un-challenged top of my Airline Fecal Rouster remains: US Airways. My success rate on US Airways flights being within an hour of on schedule is now 3 out of 35 consecutive flights. American Airlines has earned the right to the current #2 spot though - thanks to their adoption of baggage fees and screwing with seat assignment availability, leaving United at #3. Southwest and Jet Blue -- cheap bastards that they are -- continue to at least provide exactly the level of service they claim. Southwest especially gets points. Its cheap, but reliable and you know what you're getting into. Jet Blue would score higher, but they shoot themselves in the foot by constantly talking over their own entertainment system to advertise to you.

Airlines - do you really want to work this hard to discourage passengers from buying your tickets?

There are  - loading -  comments....

re: Thank you for flying the desperate skysBy Paul Gagnon on 11/11/2008 at 09:41 PM EST
Good summary of the airlines. That has been my experience as well Andrew.
I've seen a steady deterioration of the airlines while traveling on business
over the last dozen or so years.

I would go out of my way to avoid Logan airport at all costs in the late
90's-early 2000's, it wasn't until they built that underground connector tunnel
that it became less of a hassle at that airport, going on Delta from a puddle
jumper at C over to terminal B, you had to exit security, it was terrible for a
while after 9-11.... and forget it if a weather-caster hinted the slightest
hint of inclement weather, always delays, delays, delays.

Recently, my sister alerted me to what seemed like a great fare to go from BGR
to Sanford, non-stop on Alegiant. $29 to get there, $129 to get back. By the
time we figured out all the luggage and stroller and seat assignments, Alegiant
had nickeled and dimed us up to a total fare that was at least as much as the
other 2 or 3 airlines that operate at BGR. We passed on it, we'll do
Thanksgiving at home this year, thank you very much Alegiant, nice try. It's a
great service for someone traveling light but not family friendly.

We have to use US Air as it is one of the only (sarcasm) economical and
convenient (/sarcasm) ways for us to travel between our Maine and North
Carolina facilities. I don't mind the Pliladelphia airport. But agree 100%
with the vile, vomit-inducing credit card pitch and the selling of traytops as
billboard ad space. Always present is a shopping magazine, full of mildly
interesting trinkets and gadgets, with obscene prices.. who actually buys this
crap? 2 or 3 bucks for a small bottle of water, TSA won't let me bring my
own... stupid.

Sometimes I feel bad for the stewardesses, I feel like they are uncomfortable
peddling this crap, (the scripted credit card pitch is really hard to listen
to) but are being told to do so against their will from the bean-counters and
execs at their corp headquarters, I wonder what the turnover rate is for that
job? Also I don't get why we can usually fly to Greensboro cheaper than I can
to Charlotte...? City taxes perhaps? Both airports are equidistant from our
destination. Charlotte is their US hub.... should be cheaper.

The current limp economy has forced the company to limit business travel to
only the most absolutely necessary, and even then it has to be vetted and
approved in advance by the CEO of the company. It looks like I won't have to
travel for at least the next 6 months on business, and quite frankly, that's ok
with me.
re: Thank you for flying the desperate skysBy Victor Toal on 11/11/2008 at 10:16 PM EST
I fly every week, most of the time US Airways. I don't see where they are any
worse than anybody else. Granted, now I have elite status and don't pay any
luggage fees etc. But over weight luggage was always an issue with any airline
going back many years.

If you complain about advertising, then you have to compain about advertising
ANYWHERE. TV, Radio, Newspapers, when you just want to look at an
article ....

Seat assignment? Yeah, that is manipulation, not sool but if you fly often you
should know that by now... Delta does similar things and Continental is also
doing assignment games as well.

Soft Drinks .. yeah, that blows major and I don't understand it - the price of
$2.00 for water? That is outrageous. $7.00 for alcohol? Man, not even bars in
NYC charge that ...

I really can't see why US Air is at the bottom though, IU fly every week and
all of them are late when they come to NYC and none of them are perfect or
really that much better than each other.
re: Thank you for flying the desperate skysBy Andrew Pollack on 11/11/2008 at 10:36 PM EST
The difference on the advertising, is that it is usually a trade. I listen to
the radio for free - and in return I listen to ads. I accept the deal. On the
airplane, I paid for that seat. I'm not getting a chance to accept a trade
off. I'm a captive audience. My choices for alternatives to listen to are
taken away while I'm forced to listen to this hard sell pitch.

Seat Assignment - I used to fly enough to get preferential (very) treatment on
Delta. Even when I flew the most, I never saw the kind of manipulation that's
going on now and nobody ever offered me seat "upgrades" within the same class
of service if I paid more. US Airways wanted $60 a seat to move my daughter
and I to adjacent seats that were clearly available. If she'd been younger,
I'd have had no choice but to pay it. That's just outside the realm of

US Airways - particularly through Philly - is quite simply not worth booking.
Literally. I've taken to driving when I have to go to philly and that's 8-10

Also, "Heavy" baggage was never (to my memory) set as low as it is now, it was
never as expensive as it is now, and it was never on top of already
extortionate baggage fees for regular baggage.

No. I'd be happy to never fly US Airways again.
re: Thank you for flying the desperate skysBy Victor Toal on 11/12/2008 at 09:57 AM EST
The advertising I can understand ... though I just tune that kind of stuff out
anyway, I really don't notice it anymore. Radio you can tune out, but
advertising at other places where you don't have a choice is always there. I
really hate going to German Yahoo pages, for some reason it is really
disgustingly rampant there with their pop-ups you have to click away..

Philly .. I rerely fly there or throug thre right now, the few times I did I
did not have a problem. But that is like peopel daying that fling through
LaGuardia is not bad when they only do it 3 times a year and never have bad
weather ... it don't count!!

Domestic weight I can't recall, but 50 lbs has pretty much always been the
limit on international flights as far as I can recall.

The whole seat fee ting - I never encountered that and it is low ... that is
just evil manipulation ...
re: Thank you for flying the desperate skysBy Danny Lawrence on 11/12/2008 at 09:44 AM EST
"Jet Blue would score higher, but they shoot themselves in the foot by
constantly talking over their own entertainment system to advertise to you."

Interesting, I just flew Jet Blue, cross-country, twice (BOS-LGB and
LAS-JFK-BOS) and I don't recall a single advertisement over the entertainment
system. There were the usual updates from the cockpit (and none of the "on the
left you cansee the Grand Canyon"). My problem is that the hardware for the
seatback TVs is stuffed under the seat, so that my small carry on bag won't
fit, but that's worth being able to watch SprotsCenter while flying.
re: Thank you for flying the desperate skysBy Bill Brown on 11/12/2008 at 12:58 PM EST
Thank every diety known to man and all other life forms that I don't fly these
days. It's been 6 years (Jan 2002, just after 9/11 with all its crazy rules)
since I've last set foot on an airplane and I'm in no hurry when I read horror
stories like this.

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