Racing to the Bottom

Christmas Day, 1965.

The night before, when my family opened our presents, I had been given by Santa Claus, a small drum set, a GI Joe, and a little plastic guitar with the faces of John, Paul, George, and Ringo on the fret board.  A good haul for a five year-old, but I wasn’t going to get to play with my new toys until New Year’s Day.  I didn’t mind, though, for although it was Christmas Day, my sisters and I were dressed like it was Easter Sunday because we were headed to Kennedy Airport to fly to Miami Beach.  I can still remember how wondrous it all was to be living in the capital of the world.  We had a World’s Fair, Bernstein was with the Philharmonic (a hero in my family, likely because both the maestro and my father were born in Lawrence, Massachusetts), the United Nations was in Manhattan and our country’s membership was still something to be valued.

We lived in Queens, a borough of what was then “Fun City.”  My father was the sole owner of a drug store and worked long hours, but he made the most of the little time he had to spend with us.  On Sunday afternoons, when we weren’t at the World’s Fair, we might be bicycle riding in Central Park.  On a rare evening when he was able to close early or he was able to get someone to fill in for him in his store, he’d come upstairs and say, “Hey kids, let’s go for a ride,”  and we’d pile into his ‘63 Skylark and head off somewhere.  Where we were going would always be a surprise.  Sometimes my mother would come along, but more often she wouldn’t.  Being a parent, I now understand that these impromptu outings that took the three kids out of the house for a few hours were as much about parental bonding as they were about my father giving our mother a break.

Sometimes we went into Manhattan in the early evening and just walk around Lincoln Center, dazzled by the lights and the architecture, the chicly attired concertgoers at the Metropolitan Opera House and Philharmonic Hall.  In my memory, all the women are wearing Oleg Cassini and look like Jackie Kennedy.  There were television sets in the lobbies, so you see and hear a bit of what was going on in the concert halls and the theaters, but the main attraction was the Zero-Mostel-Gene Wilder-The-Producers fountain.  Not to fear, sometimes we did actually get tickets and see an actual performance of a ballet or a symphony.

Another spur of the moment destination was Kennedy Airport.  International travel had kicked into high gear by the mid-sixties and the International Arrivals Building at JFK was no less glamorous a place than Lincoln Center.  In my memory, many of the women are dressed like Jackie Kennedy, but were they were Europeans, Asians, Indians, and Africans, so I also have some images of colorful flowing garments.  The announcements were in multiple languages.  We were at the crossroads of the world.  Maybe it’s because I was so young at the time that I remember it this way, but I have to believe that it was all so new and so exciting, that everyone else felt that sense of wonder and a believed that we were lucky to be living in the best moment of history.

So, on that Christmas day, I didn’t mind that I was being taken away from my drums and my toy guitar.  The GI Joe stowed away in a suitcase and got to go swimming in the hotel pool.  I was going to fly in one of those 707’s that I had seen taxiing around from the observation deck on our sightseeing trips.  It was everything I could have imagined and more.

If only flying first class these days were as good as flying coach was then.  The flight down on National Airlines, which at the time was an icon for Florida vacations.  It was a morning flight, so breakfast was served, and you were given a choice: eggs, pancakes, or french toast.  As the flight attendants (okay, stewardesses), who were all dressed like Jackie Kennedy, moved through the cabin, they didn’t run out of any of the choices.  And the food itself was, well, just like normal food that appeared to have been cooked in some traditional manner, not manufactured.  On the flight back home, there was steak.  Normal steak.  There was real silverware with the airline’s logo engraved in the handles.   Pillows were free and the stewardesses didn’t have to make change because you didn’t need to buy anything.  Life at 30,000 feet was pleasant and civilized.  For a middle-class family from Queens it was royal treatment.

Needless to say, those days are long gone.  There have been periods in my adult life that my job has required constant travel.  I’m thankful that I’m now in a job that only requires occasional travel and I have enormous sympathy for the people I work with who spend most of their time on the road.

For most of last year during my last stint as a road-warrior consultant, I few every week flying from Dulles to Seattle-Takoma.  On travel days, Monday mornings and Thursday nights I had to mentally prepare myself for what lay ahead with some quiet meditation.  The whole experience, from check-in to baggage claim, was like being sucked into a torture machine.  I would be mentally stressed out and physically abused for the next eight hours and there was nothing I could do about it.  The only thing to focus on was the fact that no matter what I went through, my battered body and fractured nervous system would eventually be ejected by the torture machine.

The list of annoyances and abuses, major and minor, are well-known and there’s probably thousands of other blogs and columns just like this one in this post-Slater era, but here’s a short, non-inclusive list: TSA personnel barking out commands at security checkpoints, in-experienced non-roadwarriors clogging up security check-points who don’t listen to the barking TSA personnel, check-in counters that have endless lines, no airline personnel and broken kiosks, airline cabins that are now like cattle-cars,  sweaty, portly rowmates (not that I have any right to complain), grumpy flight attendants (not to single them out, everybody seems grumpy), two hour ground stops, the battle for overhead compartment space, getting nickeled and dimed for everything, and on and on and on…

My coping mechanism has always been to let everything go.  It’s a rather strange accomplishment for me because friends and enemies alike would agree that I can never let anything go, but in this context it’s different.  There is absolutely nothing I can control and my fate is  in the hands of others and the randomness of a chaotic universe.  While that may also be true of all the other things that I can’t let go, in this case, it’s a clear immutable truth that I can’t deny.  I have no control over whether my flight is delayed or cancelled or my bags get lost, or I get stuck in flat-against-the-back-wall seat 39C between two fat guys,  or I die a fiery death which might be caused by religious fanatic or a defective rivet.  I’ve also always believed is that the cabin crew are just as much victimized by the experience as the passengers, so when when they seem a little cranky, I cut them some slack.  Their lot is worse than ours.  They have go through what we go through and it’s their job to be nice.  For low pay.

No doubt all the security hassles since 9/11 has made things beyond unbearable, but the quality of the experience of air-travel was becoming unbearable long before then.  The decline in quality probably began with deregulation when airlines were made to compete with one another.  The intent was right, and it did indeed make air travel available to nearly everybody and not just the slightly upper middle-class and above.  Something went haywire after that.  In competing with one another, airlines engaged in price wars that not only drove their competition out of business, they drove themselves out of business.  This recklessness in business management is mind-boggling.  How do 49 dollar tickets to Florida make sense in any business model?

The flying public, and our society in general, have some responsibility for creating the current situation that we’re now all whining about.  The most important rule in business is to pay attention to your customers and provide products and services that they value.  The message that we have been sending over and over again is loud and clear.  The only thing that matters is price.  We’re a consumer driven society and we want what we want, when we want it, and we want it as cheap as possible.  Never mind that anyone else, our fellow citizens no less, needs to make a living.  This is why in the future, every job will be a McJob and we’ll all be working for WalMart.

An airline that attempts to address any of the issues that we complain about would find itself at a severe competitive disadvantage.  If for, example, an airline decided to improve in-flight comfort by putting fewer seats in their plains, giving us more leg room and more room to recline, thereby reducing the level of physical torture, it might be very appealing, but it doesn’t change the amount of fuel required to reach a destination in any significant way or the cost of that fuel.  That means the airline would have to charge us more.  An airline that did that would find itself in severe financial straits very quickly.  We’ve told them over and over again that we’d rather save as little as ten dollars on a ticket by flying in cramped cabins and arriving at our destinations needing a chiropractor.

They’ve lower the price of a ticket to exclude baggage handling, and so now everybody tries to carry their baggage into the cabin, causing fights over compartment space, creating unsafe conditions in the cabin, causing boarding and un-boarding delays, and forcing flight attendants to be involuntary (and unpaid) baggage handlers.  But the ticket is cheaper.  The airline travel experience would be vastly improved for passengers and crew alike if baggage handling were included in the ticket and nothing larger than a small handbag or a briefcase were allowed in the cabin.  Make it an FAA regulation so that all airlines would be impacted equally.

The airlines have been racing to the bottom and we’re getting what we pay for. It’s time to bring back some regulation, not in pricing or other anti-competitive ways, but in levels of services required by airlines.

For additional perspectives on the Slater incident and air travel general:

© 2010 – 2011, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.

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