Saturday, August 12, 2006

What 'friendly skies'?

In the wake of the most recent terror threat, our governments have imposed yet more restrictions on travelers. When anyone demurs or complains, the bloody shirt of terrorism is waved: "oh? would you rather die???

It is a poverty of thought and action to be forced into such a situation. Especially since it isn't clear exactly when and where we draw the line.

Sooner or later -- if we continue along this line -- "security" will mandate even more invasive searches. I am sorry to be gross, but we're talking X-rays, strip searches and cavity searches. People who are ready to die exploding an airplane will certainly be willing to hide the explosives within their own bodies.

Someone made the point (I'm sorry I can't recall where) that apparently, the government would rather allow an unarmed terrorist on a plane, than give offense by singling anyone out -- despite what common sense tells us. That is a startling statement, yet rings true: consider our security measures! The focus is not on finding the villains, but on their tools, which are increasingly innocuous. Peroxide?

I am very sorry that this falls heavily on Muslims, on people of particular nationalities and with certain types of names. Would that we had a moral X-ray machine! But if there were a horrific crime in Piqua today, and a key identifier was that the suspects drove a white Hyundai, I would be among those pulled over for questioning, simply because of the car I drive. It would beyond stupid to say, "oh, that would be so unfair--we must instead pull people over randomly."

Of course it's not only a matter of focusing on the obvious: of course the terrorists might use a grandmother or a child, and when they act squirrelly, there you go. But to bypass the obvious, so as not to give offense...well, that is where we are at present.

Meanwhile, we have the wretched air-travel industry which seems nearly beyond redemption.

On one level, I feel sorry for this industry. Every time the air-travel industry seems about to get up from the canvas, another roundhouse punch sends it reeling. Can't get a break.

But, no industry seems more deserving--it is so incompentent, even anti-competent, if I may coin that word. I say that because of how seemingly immune, if not hostile, the air-travel industry is to its customers.

Of all the various experiences we have in ordinary life, what is more seamlessly stressful than air travel? I understand that this results from many necessities; but the air-travel industry shows little sign of wanting to help the customer in any of this.

For example: would it be so hard for airports to have comfortable places to gather and sit and wait? A few do; but mostly, seating areas are poorly designed.

How would I do it? Well, must they be so cramped? I realize we're stuck with what was designed years ago, but in planning new construction, really spread these areas out, so folks who have to wait for hours can have some chance for comfort. Sitting on top of one another is stressful. They were designed for brief use; but alas, those days are gone. Even if we can't expand these areas, could we not upgrade the seating so it's comfortable for lengthy stretches?

And would it be so awful if the airports thought about the incessant noise that is blared at people constantly? I understand announcements and such; but CNN screaming at you? Please!

Also, I would provide better food and drink services in airports. You can't get anything to eat on airplanes anymore, and now you can't bring a drink onboard. Yet frequently, the place where you can buy drinks is on the wrong side of security.

Here's an idea--why not have have someone bringing food and drinks around the airport, the way they do at ballparks? Doesn't have to be fancy.

At this point, more must be demanded from the airlines: if we now can't carry on a cup of coffee or bottle of water, then you're going to have to provide this sooner. One of the reasons people carry on bottles of wine and expensive cologne is because they don't want them smashed or to disappear. Airlines say they'll do a good job; fine--back that up with a clearcut guarantee. (Everyone knows what a hassle it is to deal with airlines whenever stuff disappears or gets damaged.)

Here's the thing: we all do business all the time with lots of companies, and we trust businesses we deal with to keep their promises, based on track record. I do business with lots of folks, all the time, and it's mostly pleasant. If it's different with airlines, the airline industry can only blame itself.

We need a fundamental rethinking of how we do this, instead of incremental adjustments and impromptu patches that rely on the docile public to go along. Those traveling for just one night now face the prospect of checking baggage, since they won't be able to carry on their shaving kits. Or are we headed to the day when one simply won't be able to bring such things at all (i.e., because the terrorists might find a way to detonate something even in the baggage compartment)?

It would help if decision-makers at airlines and airports simply had a change of attitude: Stop condescending to us, stop lying to us, stop treating us as an interruption to your work--we are your work! It is frustrating when, a plane is delayed, you won't simply say, "I don't know" or even, "I'm not allowed to say" but instead, you tell us the plane is delayed for manifestly false reasons; or you tell us, "only a little while longer" for five hours. I realize many customers can be obnoxious and feel free to drag them out by their heels--but I think the power-equation, at the airport, is leaning heavily your way, now. It will not kill you to smile, to say "I'm sorry" frequently.


Anonymous said...

Father Fox, your commentary here is brilliant. May I suggest you send a copy to the major newspaper syndicates and to the customer relations departments of every major airline? You covered it all and in such an articulate manner.

I always wonder why everything on the floor in airports (such as we customers) is all jammed up, while 20 ft. of empty, unused building space looms overhead (being heated or cooled at horrendous expense).

Anonymous said...

Fr. I agree with your commentary completely. But, at least at sometimes and some places the airline employees are good.

I recently had to fly to Chicago for a job interview. The weather was bad between there and home. Planes were stacking up, and unfortunately my flight was actually cancelled. I was on standby for the next and last one out that night.

There was two seats left, and there were a party of 3 ahead of me on the list. They were arguing about who was going later, so the gate agent gave me the seat.

The next night, returning home, the gate agent recognized me, and asked why I had come back. They even wished me luck with the job. (it wasn't to be, a worst fit could scarcely be imagined).

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks; but I doubt I have time to do all that. That's why I post it here -- this is how I light my little candle.

I did come up with a couple ideas since I posted this, and I'll post them now (or else I'll forget):

1. What about shipping ones luggage ahead? We ship things all the time, these days, by Fed Ex or UPS or whatever. Why, you can have frozen products and live lobsters shipped! So why not arrange to ship your luggage 2-3 days in advance?

The airlines could promote this, and make it worthwhile with a discount or something. After all, it costs them something to handle and haul it.

If luggage and such traveled on planes without passengers, I think the terrorists would be a lot less interested in blowing it up. They seem to want to blow up people. So would it need as much screening, and would there be the intense time-pressure we now have?

Of course, it must absolutely be reliable. Well, isn't that FedEx's slogan?

As of now, an "insurance" change of clothes isn't an issue for security, so folks could still carry that on. Or, if they checked it, the airlines should promise a set amount -- $100-200, no more -- for these lost items. Thought ought to buy replacement items, and if you put your mink-lined jumpsuit in there, too bad for you.

2. What about giving away a free shaving kit when they deplane? A small box or bag containing: a toothbrush, toothpaste, small shampoo, bar of soap, deodorant, disposable razor and tube of shaving cream (could have a "without" for women), maybe a small packet of aspirin and pepto-bismol, that sort of thing? It needn't cost a lot of money, between $5 and $10. This would mainly benefit those business travelers who take an overnight trip and don't need to check anything. So what do they do with their toiletries? These folks generate a lot of money for the airlines, and get treated like garbage. (I know--I have done a lot of this sort of travel!)

If the airlines don't want to give too many away, then give everyone a coupon that, if not used for this, could be used to discount the plane fare.

3. If folks can't carry on laptops and gift bottles of wine and cologne, then the airlines need to provide a "special handling" baggage service.

Either its cost is built in, or it's extra, with the ticket price reduced; and the airline needs to provide real assurance that precious cargo won't get wrecked.

It's not always about replacement cost, either. If you're traveling on business, and you have a computer or projector for a meeting tomorrow, getting that broken item replaced later isn't much consolation.

Even so, the guarantee should be: "if we ruin it, we replace it." That means a 1978 Dom Perignon is replaced, even if that costs $1,000. Don't promise the service if you can't deliver.

4. Airports need to be totally redesigned (and, sometimes they are), so that there's loads and loads of space (the present model seems based on how cattle are moved about), plenty of seating, plenty of pleasant diversions for weary, hassled travelers who must wait hours as captives -- at least give us a pleasant cell. We'll pay; but must we pay champagne prices for Milwaukee's Beast? (That's what we're getting now.)

And we need an attitude change. If you go to a nice hotel, a resort, a casino, or a touristy place in the U.S., what happens usually? Everyone seems to know, without being told, that their job is to make you, the guest, comfortable, welcome, and want to come back! Heck, even middling restaurants understand this.

Everyone but the air-travel industry. Why is that? Beats me; but it is.

Dad29 said...

The airlines have been pampered to a fare-thee-well by the Feds for years. They lose tons of money and get Federal breaks on their pension obligations; their cash-flow is virtually nil (profits are ginned up only after massive tax-allowed depreciation.)

For some reason or other, they expect to be treated as public utilities. Perhaps that's the real genesis of their "service" problems--they think they're like Gummint.

Anonymous said...

So why doesn't it work....

Maybe because Airports and Airlines are not owned by the same companies, so why should an airport improve, or can you really choose which airport you fly from ?

Maybe because they don't want you to sit around and relax, which means you don't go shopping...

Maybe because there is an easy way to get good service, get yourself into a first-class lounge. But if there is no difference anymore, why would anyone pay the price for First Class flights...

Maybe because your vendors pay big bucks, so why destroy their and your business with cheap alternatives ?

About the luggage thing, well you can ship it with Fedex or UPS, that gives you the price tag...and now you tell me that the Airline should discount that much from your ticket ? Plus most airlines won't have freight planes to do it. I know a european railroad company had a service like this (hey, they even pick it up at your doorstep..), but not sure whether anybody ever used it.

And the moment somebody says "I'don't know" or "I am not allowed to say", the next moment everybody will call them incompetent, lazy, not caring about their customer (.."how can they not know what's happening, why didn't they find out yet ?", "What's really wrong, what are they not telling us ?"...).

See all that are reasons why I prefer railroads over planes..., no hassle to get in, no waiting time, no luggage going anywhere you don't want it to go, and at least in my home country they start apologizing if the train is more than 5 minutes late, usually with the reason for it.
(though sometimes you don't want to know, especially if it is a "Personenschaden", "Damage to a peson", the euphemism for a suicide on the tracks)

Mary Martha said...

Lots of good points... but I have some sympathy for the airports and the airlines.

I work at O'Hare at the USO. My job is to try and make traveling easier/better for the men and women of our armed forces. Lately that hasn't been easy.

There are lots of really well meaning people working at the airports. However, there are many challenges. The thousands and thousands of frustrated and often angry passengers deal with, the homeless who try to live in the airport(hence no comfy places outside of security) the pickpockets and con artists who prey on travelers and tourists, and the general chaos of the airport. It's tough to keep a smile on every day.

Nobody likes the added security, and we have to deal with it every single day just to go to work.

I do have a travel tip... most major airports have an interfaith chapel. It is a far, far better place to spend your time than out in the crazy terminals.

I also like to FedEx my bags if possible. It does make for a much easier trip (no baggage claim, no dragging bags through the airport)

Anonymous said...

Someone made the point (I'm sorry I can't recall where)

That was on bettnet:

(Shameless promotion of my husband's blog)

dutch said...

Good Father, I say this respectfully,
some women have blown themselves up for their religion. And some women were caught in the UK planning to use their babies as shields!

I personally knew in my lifetime some Iranians with blue and green blonde blue-eyed gal I worked with.

There are also Russians who look very "Un-Muslim-like".

They will just be recruiting those who do not look like terrorists if we profile.

Just look at the Syrian Prez. Blue eyes.

We must profile everyone...simple as that.