Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why I dislike air travel

I have flown a lot, mostly for work, over my career and I'm now at the point where I try to avoid air travel as best as I can.  Why?  I thought I'd put my thoughts down in this article.

First, I should say that I tried to maintain loyalty to a single airline--United.  I enjoyed the privilege of getting more leg room gratis, checked bags for free, priority checkin and boarding, and occasional use of a lounge when flying internationally.  In many cases, I chose to maintain that loyalty despite not having the best flights in terms of time of departure or arrival.  But those perks meant less and less to me because I started encountering delayed and cancelled flights and missed connections.

Here's a list of things that has increasingly become a routine annoyance with air travel for me.

The TSA experience
  • The not-so-uncommon uncourteous TSA agent when I chose to opt out from going through the scanning machine.
  • A pain to carry liquids and gels.  I don't know how many bottles of water I have lost to the TSA.  As far as other liquids go, I almost always go through the inconvenience of checking my bags.
  • Elaborate process of taking computer out, taking off outerwear, taking off shoes.
  • Picking up who knows what from those mats at the security checkpoints.
  • Long lines at busy airports.
Ever since "TSA pre" was introduced, I have been offered it only once and I was reminded of what airport security used to be like before 9/11--so quick and easy. Overall, the TSA experience is one that I best describe as one from an oppressive culture.  And despite all of this, they have a pitiful record of actually finding problems.

The airline experience
  • Delayed and cancelled flights, sometimes resulting in a missed connection.  
    • Having to run from one gate to the next on arrival for fear of missing a connecting flight.
    • No time for using the restroom or buying food even between long flights.
    • Sometimes the missed connection required an overnight stay, knocking out one day of the business trip.
    • Rescheduling and/or getting a hotel required waiting in long lines as an entire plane of people tried to reschedule their flights.
    • Sometimes had to also pick up bags from baggage claim.  Sometimes checked bag pickup was not offered so I had to live with old clothing till the completion of my trip.
    • If the cancelled flight could be attributed to bad weather, the stay had to be at my expense.  Being business travel my company picked up the tab, but even finding a decent hotel at the last minute was a problem.  Sometimes the flight would get delayed to due airline issues but by then weather would get bad and the airline would attribute that delay to the weather.
  • Reduced number of flights.
    • Poor choices of flight times because of fewer flights.
    • Overbooked flights reduces the possibility of getting to the destination on the same day if there is a delay resulting in a missed connection, or a flight cancellation.
  • Poor service from stressed-out and overworked flight attendants.
    • I had a cancelled flight one time because the crew was beyond their allowable hours due to the delay of the flight because of weather.
  • Poor maintenance.
    • Seats that are dirty because the cleaning crew didn't have enough time to clean the plane between flights.
    • Broken seats or other equipment.  The worst experience was a broken seat pan that would keep sliding off during the flight and the plane was full so I couldn't move to a different seat.
    • Dirty restrooms.
  • Limited food choices.
    • Because of diet requirements, I usually just carry my own processed foods which, even though are marketed as healthy, aren't all that great.  So I usually end up with all sorts of digestion issues after a trip.
  • Unhealthy cabin environment exacerbated by operating older, smaller aircraft.
    • Aircraft cabins are extremely dehydrating (~4-6% humidity).
    • Very noisy environment.  I only recently started using noise canceling headphones which help a good deal with relieving stress on the ears, but I still feel all the vibration in body hours after a flight.  Perhaps my body is a bit too sensitive.
    • Low cabin pressure.
    • All of these contribute to a feeling of fatigue after flights of even a moderate duration.
    • Newer aircraft address some of these problems, but because of cost cutting it's unlikely any airline will be upgrading its fleet.  Most of them just refurbish the interiors of their older aircraft.
  • Misrouted bags.
    • Could have been avoided if I didn't need to check it because of TSA issues.
    • Results in wasted time since I have to wait till all the bags make it to the baggage claim, and then stand in another line for customer service to report the missing bag.  This is made worse when it happens on a flight that was already delayed and got in an odd hour of the night to begin with.
  • Usurious flight change fees if you need to cut a trip short or extend it.  I have pretty much never done this for several years now.
The airport experience
  • Dirty restrooms.
  • Aging infrastructure.
  • Overcrowded.
  • Limited and overpriced food choices.
  • Poor management.
I took a trip on Southwest from Sacramento to Austin via San Diego in January 2017.  We got off the plane in San Diego and the only way to get to the connecting flight was to exit security and go through another round of dealing with the TSA.  In the process I lost the bottle of water I bought at Sacramento airport and a good deal of my patience.  There is absolutely no reason why the airport management could not have sealed off a section to allow transit passengers to get to their connecting flight without going through security.
In summary

When I think of the poor flying experience, it is enough to deter me completely from flying for pleasure.  Most of these problems are symptomatic of the cost cutting that has been, and continues to be,  experienced throughout the industry.  As mentioned in this article, those airlines that fail to participate in such cost cutting activities begin to hurt financially as they "lose out" and eventually have to give in.  So while United has been getting pretty bad ratings for the last couple of years or so, I don't think any of the other airlines offer much of a different experience.  The only airline where I have experienced a significantly better inflight experience is Singapore Airlines on an international trip.

As a result, for now I have decided that loyalty to any airline is, for the most part, worthless.  And I have been trying to minimize my air travel (even for work) to only when it is absolutely essential.

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