October 29, 2002

Airline Horror Stories

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Yesterday I got up at 4 a.m. to get to the airport to catch a flight that was supposed to depart at 7:05. It didn’t actually take off till after noon.

When I first got to the airport at about 5:45 it was still dark. There was a huge check in line that snaked back and forth three times and then extended far back on the third round. I stood behind a Swedish woman who happened to be getting on the same flight as me. She had been told to go into an express line for domestic e-tickets and when she got to the front she was told by someone else that she had been misinformed and should get into the regular line. Puerto Rico is considered an international destination, not domestic.

Because she was waiting for the same flight as me, I felt that I was probably in the right line. After half an hour or so we got to the front of the line. The check-in agent asked for my ticket and ID. I told her I don’t have a ticket because it’s an e-ticket. She took my passport and started clicking computer keys.

“It’s showing me this isn’t an e-ticket.” This technical designation didn’t mean much to me. All I cared about was whether I could get on the plane or whether I should go home and go back to bed.

I had already been through some things over the e-ticket. When the tour operator hadn’t sent me a ticket I called and asked about it and the woman said, “You don’t need a ticket, it’s an e-ticket.” E-tickets presumably save mail expenses, free you from having to keep track of a ticket. People feel nervous going to the airport with nothing in their hands, but the airlines are trying to train people to get over that fear and feel confident. Today would be a setback in that process.

I told the airline ticketing agent, “I guess that’s why people don’t like e-tickets, the fear that you’ll get to the airport and won’t be in the computer.”

“You didn’t have an e-ticket,” she said.

“I was told I did have one,” I said.

“Well, it’s not,” she replied.

“Well, are you going to let me get on the plane or not?”

“There’s a tax,” she said, making a few more clicks on the keyboard.

“What is this? What tax?” I asked.

“It’s a tax you would have paid if you’d bought an e-ticket, but you didn’t,” she said with increasing irritation. “So I’m charging you now and then I’ll issue you an e-ticket.”

The tax was a little over $10. I refrained from asking if that meant there was an extra tax when you buy an e-ticket. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer to that one. I handed her my credit card. “I’ll need a receipt,” I said.

“Your receipt is always the last page of your ticket,” she said, holding up a green, rectangular punch card that looked exactly like every actual, hard-copy, non virtual non e-ticket I’ve ever had.

“I thought an e-ticket was an electronic ticket and there was no paper involved,” I said.

“No,” she said. “You should always have a receipt. She handed a three page card – a ticket – to me pointing to the pointing to the front pages and said, “This is what you’ll use to come back.”

“So you do need a ticket,” I said.

“That’s not a ticket. That’s your receipt,” she said.

“Well it looks exactly like a ticket to me,” I said.

As we had locked horns and tangled, she had neglected to do any of the customary informing functions, like telling me where the gate was so as she sent me off, I asked the where the gate was. She told me and I started marching off to the next line, increasingly unhappy about having chosen to take this trip.

I approached the security check doing a quick mental inventory to make sure I wasn’t carrying any deadly weapons and saw a line. What first looked like a fairly short line turned out to be a branch off of the main line. Apparently someone was joining someone in the line, but the people behind were not backing up to let the new additions into the line, so they just stood off to the side.

My eye followed the line back to the end and I followed it as it wound around in whatever room it could find. There was my Swedish friend again. She was more flustered than when we had spoken before, and I was a great deal more angry, so we let off some steam with each other as we stood waiting for the line to move.

We both made it through the security check point without being stopped. Apparently the shoe bomb is not a current concern, so we didn’t have to take our shoes off. I took out my laptop and put it in a tray, took off my coat and put it in another tray. The guy asked if I had anything in my pockets. I couldn’t think of anything and the alarm didn’t go off as I walked through the arch.

The plane was already boarding when we got there, so we just ... got in line, again. We boarded and things seemed to be going okay. The time for takeoff came and went and then came the voice over the P.A. system from “The Captain.”

He said the plane was “taking fuel very slowly,” and it might take a while. “It would take longer to get a new valve, and we don’t have a back up plane here in Newark, so we’re just going to fill it. To get enough fuel to make it to San Juan should take about 45 minutes to an hour.”

So I sat there and dozed off. That time came and went. Another announcement told people who had connecting flights to leave, and I jumped up out of my sleep thinking I had one. I grabbed my bags and hurriedly walked up to the front. I asked where to go. The woman said, “Just right outside the door.”

That sounded easy. I walked up the tube and out and there was another huge line. And there was my friend from Sweden again. We were becoming quite old friends by now. We stood in line together talking about what we were trying to figure out. I examined the series of letters and numbers all run together that constituted my itinerary and finally discerned dates. Then I realized that the next flight was not until tomorrow, and I did not, in fact, have a connecting flight.

I turned to go back into the plane. As I walked in, I realized there was no one watching the door and checking people as they went in. I felt strange just walking on. I slowed down and stopped at the gateway and the ticket agent noticed the same thing I noticed. “Hey, you can’t just walk on the plane,” she said.

“Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing,” I said. I showed her my e-ticket and boarding pass and passport and she let me on, saying to her colleagues, “We’d better get someone over here checking people who re-board.” Then to me. “Would you close that door when you go back in? I’ll stand here and watch.”

So I went back inside the plane, found my seat again, put my bags and my coat in the compartment again and settled back in my seat.

I dozed a while longer and then woke to the smell of food. I heard someone say the word “vouchers” and there was another announcement. “Be sure and take your ticket and boarding pass if you leave the plane.”

I went to the front of the plane again and asked about vouchers. The attendant said, “No, we stopped giving vouchers back in....” By the time she said the date I wasn’t listening anymore.

At 11:30 the pilot came on the speaker again and said, “The part is replaced, the new part is working fine, we are refueling and we should be ready to get underway soon. Another 45 minutes went by and we took off.

Someone said to me later, “This is the way it is going to be more and more because the airlines can’t afford to have back-up aircraft at their hubs.”

The airlines have deteriorated so badly it’s hard to believe. Deregulation is an utter failure. The industry has dwindled down to a few companies who control hubs and agree not to compete. Since they don’t have to compete for customers, they haven’t incorporated a service mentality to woo their customers. Instead a dictatorial attitude pervades. They run the airlines like military organizations. The tyrannical attitude they have taken towards travel agents in order to coerce them into working without pay has also seeped over into the way they treat their customers. They have cut every service they can until there is nothing left to cut. They have turned themselves into a no-frills commodity, one indistinguishable from the next. Flying is always the worst part of any trip, the necessary evil in getting to your destination. Instead of growing the market, they have reduced themselves to a utility. A bare necessity for transportation. People fly only to the extent that they have no other choice.

What we have here in a single industry is an example of why Adam Smith was right, that market forces make for good business, but why government has to regulate markets to ensure against monopolies and oligopolies, like that of the airline industry. Tyranny doesn't work in the long run. It doesn't work in business and it doesn't work in politics. The free market in business is analogous to democracy in society.

The several airlines that survived succeeded taking over the market so they could have it their own way and not have to compete, not have to attract customers with kindness, but force them to comply because they have no alternatives. Without healthy competition, they don’t behave as though they have to please their customers and finally after the disaster of 911, which is at least partly a result of cost cutting in their security operations, the industry pretty much went belly up. When they fail to make a profit, they turn to the taxpayers for bailouts. Of course when they make a profit, they keep it in the system. The only thing that is keeping them going now is the fact that they are a utility, a necessity for the operation of the country, and the government cannot let them fail. Since they have failed as a business and taxpayers have to support them, they should be operated as utilities. They should be regulated and their profits, when they make them, should be used to pay back what they have extorted from taxpayers. And competition should be re-inroduced into the marketplace through government regulation.

-- By David Cogswell

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