Time to Spare? Go by Air!
When I was a little boy back in Heavener people of affluence and style traveled on the trains. The KCS daily ran the Southern Belle and the Flying Crow from Kansas City to Port Arthur along with one or two more scheduled passenger trains. People traveling on the train were usually dressed in very nice clothes—the men wore coats and ties and the women wore nice dresses or suits. Buses were the province of those of lesser affluence but even they maintained a fair level of decorum.
By the time I was graduated from HHS, passenger train service was on its last legs and bus service had deteriorated markedly. The last train I rode from Heavener to Kansas City was in 1962 and it had very few passengers. Meanwhile, bus travel had changed to include a decidedly “non-decorous” subset of passengers who often reeked of a variety of smells ranging from plain old body odor to booze. However, the buses were still generally fairly full—a fact that did nothing to help if one found oneself trapped by one of the emitters of the noisome odors just mentioned.
Air service was just coming into its own with most airlines converting to turbojet or turboshaft power—e.g., the Boeing 707, the Lockheed Electra, et al. Many piston powered airplanes remained in use such as the four-engine, triple-tail Constellation. Passengers on the airlines were almost always dressed for business. Indeed, when I worked for AT&T Long Lines in the early 1960s, we were instructed to always wear a suit, a white shirt and a tie, and a hat when traveling. We sat in the first class section because “that is where our clients sit”. Since then I have made about one thousand business trips all over the USA and much of Europe.
All of this brings me to the title of this rather lengthy blog. Recently I was returning to Nashville from Washington, DC via American Eagle, a regional airline and a part of American Airlines. The airplane, an Embraer 175, was full—full of people dressed like they were going to a “hog killing” with some of them smelling like they were coming from such an event. We packed ourselves into the tiny seats (remember, until the Boeing 747 came along, all commercial airliners were “volume limited”, not “weight limited” so the game for the designers was to pack as many people on board as the volume would allow) and waited to push back.
Now I am a pilot and I understand and appreciate what happened next. The Captain found the aircraft to be non-airworthy (good on him for refusing the aircraft!) and the flight was (eventually!!) canceled. By the time of the cancellation, all subsequent flights to Nashville were completely booked so we faced the prospect of another night in Washington.
We approached the gate agent for help in rebooking only to be rudely told, “I can’t do that from this terminal. You will have to go back through security and get rebooked at our main desk.”—a patent non-truth (i.e., a lie). Those of you who have been through security at Reagan National know how long it sometimes takes to clear the checks. So we waited in the gate area and after the crowd had thinned out, we asked another agent for help and, lo and behold, he could and did rebook us from that terminal, albeit through Dallas.
When we attempted to board in Dallas, the tickets issued by the Washington agent were deemed “invalid” by American’s computer. I was ordered, not asked, to “Stand over here!” Being a compliant and mild sort of fellow, I “stood over here” only to be ordered in about 30 seconds to “Move over there! You’re in the way.” So I “moved over there”. When my ticket was finally validated I remained standing in the spot to which I had been ordered to wait while another person from my company had his ticket validated also. (He got the same set of curt and rude orders given that I had received.) At this time, the gate agent ordered me to “Get on through the door and go down the jetway, NOW!”
The end of this story is that I finally did get to Nashville some nine hours after I was originally scheduled to arrive. As I mused on the deteriorated nature of air travel on the way home, it struck me that air travel today is just about the same as bus travel was about the time I was graduated from HHS.
Now I didn’t mind the delay because I understand and appreciate the pilot’s decision to refuse the aircraft (If he doesn’t wasn’t to fly it, I don’t want to ride in it.) but I was very affronted by the boorish behavior of the gate agents in both Washington and Dallas. So I penned a very nice letter to American Airlines detailing the events summarized above. In reply I received an apology, a promise to work to improve the gate agents’ behavior (the two things I really wanted), and a $150 travel voucher.
Is there a moral to this story? If there is it may be—Keep cool—Stick up for what you know is right—and “Time to spare? Go by air.”