June 2016

Postcard from America: Fear of Flying Frontier

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Flying in America has become a depressing experience. The rush to blame the Transportation Security Administration means that travel's other components are often overlooked. To wit: on June 27th, a brand new Airbus 320 would take me from Los Angeles to Chicago. The departure of flight 1270 was set for 0940. The lines at TSA were short; perhaps fifteen minutes. After clearing security, it was just a short walk down to the gates.

Los Angeles International has had a makeover in the past few years. The International Terminal is more of a shopping mall and a gourmet food station than merely a place to board an airplane. But it is too easy to interpret "renovations at the airport" as applying to the passenger experience as a whole.

Arriving passengers from foreign ports are afforded none of the glitz of the new international terminal--instead they are herded downstairs for interrogation and fingerprinting. They will only encounter the renovated terminal treatment if they are leaving. These innovations, however, do not reach Terminal 3.

If you have become accustomed to the mall-ification of world airports, it is easy to assume that there will be numerous places to buy a cup of coffee, a souvenir, an extra bag, perfume, liquor or the like. You would, of course, be wrong. There's no mall here. Jet Blue, Spirit, Frontier and Virgin share two nodes of the same terminal pier. The racks of seats are for the most part full.

A line snakes out of the women's washroom like half-time at a football game. There aren't enough stalls for the ladies. Forget the transgender bathroom controversy--my guess is that more than one of these women would have been happy to (albeit temporarily) self-identify as male in order to get out of the line and find relief. But at 0800, that line was nothing compared to the queue for Starbucks Coffee--and that line blocked passageways and was not moving at all. If the goal is to reduce lines at the airport, perhaps some TSA agents could be pressed into service as baristas. 

Meanwhile, gate agents shouted the same instructions over each other in a cacophony of orders:

We will be boarding by rows
passengers who need extra assistance
by sections
or have small children under
please look at your ticket
the age of five
and find the section
or who need extra time
this is a very full flight
getting down the jetway
We will be boarding
gate-check your
carry-on items must fit
Passenger Robertson
for an on-time departure

Not wanting to pay for an extra bag, everyone brings a roll-aboard to the gate (if not two) and then the gate agent has to scramble because there is no way so much extra luggage will fit in the passenger cabin.
The equipment for the flight was a brand-new A320.

The seats immediately drew my attention. They were brand-new, there was no cushioning at all. The tray table had a new design--there was no tray table. Instead, there was a flip-up shelf which the flight attendants told us they called the "book shelf." It is easy to see why the airlines have chosen bookshelves over tray tables--the book shelf was so small it was impossible to write or balance a laptop on. There was room only for a beverage.

In retrospect this is less of a problem than you might think, since there are no free beverages--if you are the kind of person who doesn't mind spending $3 for tap water poured into a plastic bottle, or for a lukewarm can of a fizzy soda drink, be my guest.

While the airline seat was initially comfortable, after take-off I tried to recline it for the three and a half hour flight to Chicago. These brand-new seats don't recline. I suppose that's fine for a one hour flight, but three and half is just too long without being able to recline.

It is somewhat of a drastic solution to the coach phenomenon of the oaf sitting in front of you (and we are all oafs) reclining the seat back so as to make your tray table unusable and crushing your knees--now there are no more tray tables and you can't recline the seats--problem solved! There is of course, no warning of any of this.

U.S. airlines--JetBlue being the notable exception--don't have entertainment systems and the new A320 seats have no room for them anyway.

Is it be any wonder that Americans shy away from their own flag carriers when presented with a choice when flying overseas?

The flight arrived on time. The crew was professional.

While taxiing we passed a Qatar Air 777. Etihad, Qatar and Turkish airlines all fly non-stop to Chicago.

Chicago's O'Hare has spared no expense to afford its arriving passengers a welcome--there was even a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, and since this was a domestic flight, no herding towards the interrogation rooms.

Unfortunately, once you left the airport's secure area you were on your own. Arriving luggage is vulnerable to theft. Anyone could walk in off the street and grab a bag. There was only one information booth more than two hundred meters away from the security exit--and no signage indicating that the booth even existed.

Fortunately, Chicago is in the midst of a financial crisis and policemen swarm outside ticketing automobiles that tarry too long. Stand next to a driverless car and a policeman will appear in a nanosecond to ticket you. They seem pleasantly surprised when you tell them you have nothing to do with the car you're standing next to and only want to know where Vestibule "A" is. A sign has directed you to Vestibule "A" but has failed to tell you in which direction Vestibule "A" lies or what you will find there.

Kudos to the corporate cost cutters who have culled all the creature comforts out of flying. Yes, the plane gets from point A to point B, but that's it. And the airport designers have successfully monetized terminal space, but not everyone gets to benefit.

Welcome to America.