Look, I am not a complainer. I am not a difficult person.
In fact, as a rule I'm a pretty happy consumer. I think most products and services have improved in the last couple of decades.
For example, last year I bought a used car. It's a 2013 VW wagon that had 23,000 miles on it. It has just been great. I've doubled the mileage in a year and not a thing has gone wrong with it. It starts right up even on the coldest days, it's reliable in the snow, and it gets about 30 miles to the gallon. There's just no comparison to the awful cars of twenty or thirty years ago. And my car isn't fancy -- just a run of the mill mid-priced vehicle that's typical of what's on the market right now.
Or take coffee. There was a time, boys and girls, when a great cup of coffee wasn't available on every street corner. People actually drank a thing called "instant coffee" at home. And at work for me there was a little crummy coffee shop in the basement of the Capitol. The coffee came in Styrofoam cups with a reliable oil slick on the surface. It meant instant heartburn.
Probably the best example is computers. In 1985, I bought one of the first desk top computers for my boss at the time and set it up for him. It had clunky "floppy disks" to store data, a barely readable screen, and the big plastic box and its accoutrements sprawled out across an entire desk. It had a small fraction of today's computing power and yet it cost, get this, over $6,000.
Which brings me to air travel. Why is it that when the consumer experience in just about every other facet of life has improved, the airlines are so bad?
Case in point is our trip back from the West Coast this week. Dianne and I arrived at the airport two-and-a-half hours before our flight was to leave only to learn that we were too late to board. Delta had changed its departure to two hours before the flight I had originally booked. They said they had informed me, but I got no phone call and my search for an email or text message revealed nothing. Maybe the pigeon got lost.
So, the person at the counter, not making eye contact, clicked away at his computer and then said he would get us on the noon flight. We would fly standby.
Airline agent: "Yes. There are no seats available. It's a full flight."
Me: "Well, then we're not booked on the flight."
Airline agent: "No. You're booked. But you're flying standby."
Me: "But 'standby' means that if everybody shows up, we'll be standing by to watch the plane leave without us."
Airline agent: "The flight is full."
At this point I became somewhat unpleasant. Let's skip that part.
In response to my unpleasantness, the counter person offered us a flight through Detroit at an additional $50 per ticket. I objected to paying more to get to where I wanted to go later than I had planned because Delta had rescheduled my original flight and not informed me. For the record, I have nothing against Detroit itself, though I do dislike Lions' defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for obvious reasons.
More unpleasantness ensued, though in my own defense I did not step on anybody's injured calf.
Our airline agent, still not once looking up at us, retreated to speak with his manager behind the magic door.
He came running back a few minutes later to announce that we had won the Delta lottery and would be placed on the next flight to Atlanta, which left in a half hour. I thanked him and we rushed off through security. No time for breakfast, but we could look forward to Delta coffee and those cookies with "Delta" stamped on them that I like very much, so that was okay.
Dianne and I were seated apart from one another in middle seats, which is the airlines' way of saying they don't like our kind.
Another way that they say that is with the carpet. All the airlines now have, ahem, "The Carpet." Only special, premier platinum grand exalted flyers get to walk on Delta's blue carpet as they hand over their tickets. The reason for this is to make them feel special and also, if they show up late, the ticket taker will drop what she's doing with those of us in chattel class and rush to let the premier grand exalted flyer onto the plane before she returns to punch the tickets of the unwashed.
This all has the effect of making the roughly two-thirds of us who are not grand and exalted but who did pay for our tickets and are technically customers of the airline feel something less than special.
We arrived in Atlanta without incident and ate sushi at a nice restaurant in the airport. Once again I was reminded at how things had improved. It used to be that airport restaurant food and service were horrible. Now, travelers have lots of options and some of them are really good. The waitress was nice and helpful. We gave her a good tip.
Then it was back to gulag. Dianne and I waited our turn to board the flight home. Dianne, always kind of a rebel in her own way, made loud noises about threatening to walk across the magic carpet. I discouraged her. I wanted no trouble from the Delta authorities. And anyway, I know my place.
That place turned out to be the worst possible seats on any airliner: in the back row next to the engines and lavatories. We stuffed tissue into our ears to deal with the noise. As for the lavatories, I got a chance to observe the weakening of the collective national bladder as a steady stream (pun noted) of our fellow passengers walked past us to use the facilities. Mostly, it was guys my age and older. No reason to go into this in more depth here.
I travel some, though I guess not enough to be a special, premier platinum grand and exalted customer of any of the airlines. But I'd say this kind of experience happens on about one out of three trips. A flight gets cancelled or delayed. Despite thinking we had selected our seats, we get bumped back to the nether seats. Our luggage gets lost. (Okay, that happened only once, but I wrote about it, and about a memorable O'Hare experience.)
My serious point here is that from the moment of purchasing a ticket, where you have no idea what the value of that ticket is on any given day, through boarding, where you feel less than honored if you're not a frequent flyer, through the actual flight, where seats are becoming even more cramped, airline travel is an awful customer experience that is actually getting worse. And when things do go wrong, as they will, the airlines force a customer to be demanding in order to get it put right.
I didn't want to be unpleasant to the poor counter guy at Delta, but he was offering me a bad deal when a better option was available and he wasn't even trying to project any empathy for our situation. Why didn't he just try to give us the best solution from the start?
It's a tough business for sure. You're dealing with weather, uptight travelers nervous about getting someplace on time, safety issues, complicated technology and on and on. But this is their business. The airlines know about all of the challenges and risks, which when you think about it, aren't all that much worse than being in the auto industry or a lot of other endeavors. And yet, while almost every other industry improves and seems to care about its customers, the airlines continue to fail.