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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

U.S. AIRWAYS Tuna Can Shuttles

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Dec 12, 2012

By Thom Nickels

It’s good to be back home in the Riverwards after a quick trip to San Francisco and Palo Alto, California to cover an HIV-AIDS conference for another publication. I say it’s good to be home because, while I love visiting other states and countries, I don’t like what it entails to get there: flying.

Flying is not what it used to be, but then again what is? In the old days (the 1970s and early ‘80s) taking a plane was an exotic thing. Flight attendants then were a premier group with stylish uniforms; airplane seats were wider; there were free meals and booze.

Today these "freebies" have been relegated to international flights, while most domestic airlines in North America have been rated the worst in the world (the best airlines in the world are located in Asia). Airline travel in the United States began to go downhill when President Reagan deregulated the industry. With the present economic collapse, most American airlines, with the notable exception of Jet Blue, have become nothing more than aerial subway systems.

Consider U.S. Airways, called by many "the airline from hell," and rated fifth worst in the world by Zagat’s. This is the airline I used for my non-stop Philly to ‘Frisco trip. U.S. Airways has been criticized for its poor check-in service, cramped seating, bad food, rude flight attendants and its greedy insistence on charging passengers $25 for every piece of luggage checked at the front counter (it’s also practically the only airline that charges for checked luggage on international flights).

Unfortunately, things have gotten worse at U.S. Airways since the economic collapse. For one thing, the numbers of domestic flights, especially cross country, have been reduced so that the flights available are astonishingly overcrowded. These tuna-can shuttles offer nothing in the way of body comfort. If you are flying cross country, you can count on the "glued-in" experience of being joined hip-to-hip with fellow passengers in seats that are arranged so close you can hear the heartbeats of your seatmates. If you are unlucky enough to be placed in the middle seat, resolve not to be comfortable but to offer up the experience, perhaps as a "sacrifice" for the sins of the world or even your own sins. I was in the middle seat traveling both in and out of Philly and was so crammed in I could hardly move.

The U.S. Airways tuna-can shuttle has a major baggage problem, thanks to the airline’s $25 baggage check policy. As a result of the baggage fee, U.S. Airways has created a private hell for passengers and flight attendants in that most travelers, in a fever to save money, attempt to bring on larger and larger carry-on bags (still free, but watch out for a money-grubbing policy change in the future) that can be stored in the overhead bins above the aisles.

What an incredible sight it is to see passengers trying to stuff huge turkey suitcases and backpacks into these small compartments. The elaborate stuffing process often holds up the boarding line while passengers arrange and re-arrange their baggage.

Sometimes other passengers will help to get the puzzle pieces to fit. Of course, in a worst-case scenario, say a crash, one can only imagine the weight of all that baggage coming down on passengers’ heads.

The baggage-stuffing pandemonium was especially evident while waiting for takeoff at Philly International. Overly optimistic passengers with king-sized bags were forced to face reality when flight attendants told them their pieces were too big and had to be taken out and checked. Because the attendants had to send all oversized bags back into the terminal, the line of passengers on my plane looking for their seats didn’t move for a long time. An astonishing number of passengers had miscalculated the size of their suitcases and knapsacks just to save $25.

The situation was so bad an announcement was made that even passengers who had already stored their correct-sized baggage might be asked to remove them and go through the check-in process. Conversely, in the ‘Frisco airport while waiting to go home, a U.S. Airways spokesperson called for volunteers to check their baggage because overhead bin space was limited. "We have a completely full flight," the spokesperson said, "so you may be asked to check your luggage."

Contrary to the Zagat’s rating, I found the U.S. Airways flight attendants to be extremely polite and accommodating. This was especially evident while boarding my flight in Philly when the attendants had to deal with an obnoxious group of twenty-something students, about seven in all, who insisted that because they were friends, they had to sit together. Apparently they had arranged their tickets through a travel agency and were promised by a travel agent that they’d be able to sit together despite the seat designation numbers on their tickets. The commotion this incident caused held up the boarding line for a good 35 minutes as the students bickered with the attendants on their right to sit with friends. "This is my first time flying," one girl bemoaned, her spoiled brat wail causing seasoned travelers, some of them elderly, to look on in disbelief as the still-congested boarding line snaked back out of the airplane.

"You’re going to have to sit in your designated seats," one attendant repeated for the fifth time. By now, many of the passengers were becoming annoyed. Complaints issued forth like steam heat in a restaurant kitchen until finally one of students went to his designated seat, which happened to be in front of me. He looked as unhappy as a boy who found coal in his Christmas stocking, and relieved his frustration by putting in earplugs and disconnecting from reality, and of course not talking—ever—to the two passengers seated beside him during the almost seven-hour flight.

So, yes, while I loved my trip, I was glad to get off U.S. Airways and head to the Market-Frankford El, which happened to just as crowded as the tuna-can air shuttle. But while the El may have been hip-to-hip standing room only (when is the El ever not crowded?), at least there were no whiners clamoring and fighting for seats so they could be with their friends.