Is Flying in the United States Really All That Bad?

“H ow did air travel, which once seemed so glamorous and exciting, turn into a sadomasochistic pas de deux between the industry and the passenger?”

Sarah Lyall embarked on a whirlwind itinerary of “eight days crisscrossing the country in economy class” via twelve flights operated by four airlines to twelve cities; and while the intrepid reporter of The New York Times documented the unpredictable vagaries inherent with domestic air travel in the United States, some parts of what is otherwise an entertaining and fairly accurate article had me wondering if she did not do all that she could to ensure that her flights were more pleasant.

Is Flying in the United States Really All That Bad?

Lyall and her seat mate were attacked by a rogue cup of yogurt which unleashed its fury on them after having built up internal pressure prior to being opened. She found herself in the middle seat on at least one airplane. A bag of hers was lost.

Yes, I have had my fair share of liquid nourishment spit in my face and all over my clothes — but that was years ago. I learned over those years that by slowly opening the sealed foil lid — and doing it where the opening is in the opposite direction towards the back of the seat in front of me — such accidents are easily preventable.

I do not remember the last time I sat in a middle seat — even aboard airplanes operated by airlines with which I have no elite level status. The only possible ways I can see someone having no choice but to sit in a middle seat is either if that is all that is available on a specific flight — or if there is a change in airplanes at the last minute.

I have never lost a bag while flying as a passenger on any airline. Perhaps that is because I virtually never check bags; but even on the rare occasions when I do, the worst that has ever happened is that it is one of the last pieces of luggage on the conveyor belt at baggage claim.

Perhaps I lead a charmed life? I think not.

My Most Recent Experiences

I myself flew as a passenger on four flights operated by three airlines within a week. Two of those flights — each on an Airbus A319 airplane — were operated by United Airlines, with which I currently have no elite level status. You know — the same United Airlines with which a passenger was forcibly dragged off of an airplane. The same United Airlines which suffered massive systemwide outages such as this one and this one. The same United Airlines which has become the latest poster child everyone loves to hate.

I should have been afraid — very afraid — but I was not.

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Yes, the seats are thinner in terms of cushioning. I believe that they are less comfortable than the seats they replaced — but not significantly.

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Adjustable headrests are a plus. See the window seat in the above photograph. Which one of these seats is not like the others?

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

While not exactly an invitation to stretch out as much as possible, the legroom is ample enough for me.

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

All passengers can enjoy in-flight entertainment on their portable electronic devices free of charge. Remember when in-flight entertainment consisted only of a magazine and the safety demonstration performed live by members of the flight crew?

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Air vents. Thank goodness for air vents. I do not like airplanes without air vents. Whoever designed airplanes without air vents should be locked in a muggy and musty room with stagnant air and no air vents for a few hours. And a slovenly drunken flatulent man who has not showered in three months and consumed six limburger cheese, bean, egg and broccoli sandwiches.

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Each flight had one small bag of snack mix — although members of the flight crew will most likely give you another one if you ask politely.

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

My apologies to those people who have interests in King Nut Companies; but if I never consumed their snacks again, I would not be saddened in the least.

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

I basically ate the few pretzels and the long corn chip thingies — but not the sesame whatchamacallit doohickeys — along with my small cup of orange juice.

The cheerful flight attendants and I were joking around and laughing while one of them was serving my snack and drink. We even had a discussion while she was working. She told me that in 25 years of service, people from Pittsburgh are the nicest — followed by passengers from Indianapolis; Atlanta for the most part; and “believe it or not, New York.”

I smiled as I pointed to myself, as I was born and raised in New York. What can I say?

I have mentioned in the past how much I appreciate and value the front-line employees of Delta Air Lines. The flight attendants on this flight operated by United Airlines definitely matched the service and feel of that of Delta Air Lines.

The flight of approximately two hours was otherwise uneventful but quite pleasant. The airplane departed on time. It landed a few minutes early. Could I ask for anything more — other than a hot meal, of course?

Chicago O’Hare Airport

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

I walked through the funky tunnel underneath the tarmac at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

As bad as United Airlines is portrayed throughout the media, there was only one person in line at the customer service desk.

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Perhaps nobody needed assistance in that terminal that day because United Airlines was operating normally that day?

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

You were most likely out of luck if you were hoping for an upgrade on that flight to Philadelphia.

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

The second flight basically mimicked the first flight in almost every way — except that it was more than an hour longer in duration…

United Airlines

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

…even down to the seats — and because the second flight was almost four hours in duration, there were no fewer than three beverage services. Members of the flight crew were not quite as cheerful and friendly as the ones who worked the first flight; but they were still pleasant.

Guess what? The departure for this flight was on time as well; and it arrived a few minutes early at my destination. I did not get forcibly dragged off of the airplane in a bloody mess. I was not inconvenienced by failed technology…

…in other words, nothing happened to me. I — gasp! — arrived at my destination alive. As an added bonus, not once during my travels in recent months have I been harassed at an airport security checkpoint — although the fact that that could change at any time is ever present in the back corners of my mind.

Summary

To answer the question as to whether or not flying in the United States is really all that bad, in many cases: yes.

Sarah Lyall does paint a bleak picture of the landscape of domestic air travel in the United States — and for the most part, rightfully so. Airplanes are more crowded. Boarding processes seem disorganized at times. Airfares are increasing — especially with the advent of basic economy airfares. An increasing number of narcissistic people throw the weight of their elite level status and self-importance for all the world to know to the chagrin of plebeians — not that anyone cares anyway. Passengers are bombarded with sales pitches of all kinds to pay overpriced ancillary fees to purchase extra products and services — such as upgrades and checking baggage and priority boarding and upgraded snacks. The class system seems to be widening into a gaping chasm on select transcontinental domestic flights; but let’s face it — a seat in the first class cabin on most other domestic flights is not exactly “Panem”, as alluded by Lyall. Security is more inconvenient in general…

…but I believe that we need to be careful about overemphasizing just how bad is domestic air travel — lest we lose credibility pertaining to legitimate complaints and concerns. Domestic air travel definitely can be worse; but it also should be improved — significantly — in my opinion. I have written many articles about the perceived adversity between airlines and their customers and members of their frequent flier loyalty programs. The tense environment does not have to be that way; but unfortunately, the almighty dollar seems to speak louder than anything else these days — including customer satisfaction, long-term loyalty, and trust. That does not mean that we should give up the fight in having our voices heard for better flying conditions at reasonable fares.

Why do airlines do what they do with customers? Because they can — at least, for now.

Fortunately, there are some things which we can do to ensure that our travel experience is not as miserable as that described by Lyall:

  • Book your flights early enough so that you can avoid sitting in a middle seat.
  • Pack as lightly as possible — preferably to the point where you will not have to check a bag to not only prevent it from being lost; but also to avoid being charged an ancillary fee.
  • If you do check at least one bag, be sure that you have everything you need in your carry-on bag in case your checked bag is lost so that your travels remain relatively uninterrupted — as well as to prevent embarrassing yourself in a “onesie”, as Lyall professes to have done.
  • Ensure that you maintain perspective and adjust expectations accordingly to prepare for the flight so that you are not disappointed with the outcome; and as a corollary to that…
  • Be civil, polite and respectful to everyone with whom you come into contact, as that is the best way to ensure that you receive similar treatment in return — degradation of good behavior virtually never has a positive outcome.

All photographs ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

7 thoughts on “Is Flying in the United States Really All That Bad?”

  1. betterbub says:

    I’m not old, I don’t travel too much, and I don’t have top-tier frequent flier status, but to me, flying is such a cool thing to do. I’ve had one flight in my life in non-economy (which was good) and I still would love to fly in a middle seat where the seat pitch is nonexistent. I guess I’m lucky, because I’m only 5’9″ and I’m not ‘wide’, so that could be it. I recall taking a 15.5 hour flight from HKG to ORD in UA Y and I would do it again every day of my life. Sure, I feel like a wooden plank at the end of the flight and sure, I’d love to consume some caviar and champagne, but just the idea of flying is so, so cool.

    Anyway, I only pay for Y, so I only expect Y.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      You and I think alike on this one, betterbub

      …well…except for the champagne part, as I do not drink alcoholic beverages…

  2. Carl says:

    Anyone who travels on airlines other than the domestic Big Three, foreign or domestics like SWA or Jetblue, will immediately notice the difference. And yes, the Big Three seem intent on further crapifying the flight experience to the point that articles like the NYT piece resonate with people (800+ comments on the article on NYT’s website).

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I completely agree, Carl.

      My point was that there were a few things in that article that the writer experienced which could have been easily avoided.

      1. Carl says:

        And I have to agree with you as well. Author came across as whiney and a bit spoiled.

  3. EJ says:

    Brian, why should you have been afraid of flying United? Surely you see beyond some of the exaggerations of the media. Also, what do you have to fear if you mind your own business and follow the rules? Seems like someone like you should be just fine on any airline.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I was actually mocking the media with that statement, EJ. Of course I am not afraid of flying as a passenger of United Airlines. Here is a trip report from several months ago:

      http://thegate.boardingarea.com/my-first-flight-with-united-airlines-in-years/

      I am not sure anyone has noticed; but I have consciously toned down and cut back on reporting on those incidents for now — partly because they have oversaturated the news recently and partly because I simply tired of it and lost interest in them in general — despite losing what could have been a lot of “clicks” and views.

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