Flying The Unfriendly Skies Of United Airlines

There is an airline cone of silence relegating the customer to a captive state of information deprivation.
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Back in the days when air travel used to be fun and an experience to be looked forward to rather than dreaded, United Airlines advertising was wrapped around the slogan “Fly the Friendly Skies.” United discontinued its friendly skies promotion in 1996 but revived it again in September of 2013.

The friendly skies ads may be back for United but the reality of a pleasurable flight experience for its passengers is not. Those days have flown far away, as evidenced by the video clip that has gone viral of a passenger being dragged on his back down the aisle of a United plane because he would not give up his seat as requested so that a United crew member could take it.

Sadly, the unfriendly skies do not belong to United Airlines alone. Virtually all the carriers flying today occupy this airspace.

We commented on the sorry overall state of the airline industry in a Huffington blog that we posted in June of 2015 titled, “Squeezing the Yahoos: The Airline Business Model.” Even though some recent research indicates things may have gotten a little better lately, our own experiences and commentary from many of our fellow flyers indicates otherwise. Therefore we thought it was appropriate to resurrect that blog. A slightly edited version follows.

Squeeze the yahoos. Squeeze them till it hurts.

That appears to be the current airline business model for customer pricing, seating, luggage storage, amenities, service, and communication management. While the model might be very unpalatable for the majority of us “yahoos” who have to fly today’s unfriendly skies, it has been wildly profitable for the airlines.

We wish that we could take credit for the “squeezing the yahoo” phraseology. To our knowledge, however, that phrase was first used by Jimmy Breslin as the title for his regular “City Politic” column in the January 19, 1970 issue of New York magazine. The column was about the audacity of the New York City’s Transit Commission raising the fare per trip to 30 cents.

Breslin’s column was a hilarious diatribe on the actions of the commission and the plight of the New York City transit riders in being charged more for less. Sadly, we must say that the airlines have outdone the Transit Commission by an order of magnitude. They charge more and more for almost everything and deliver less and less.

At least, they aren’t charging us to use the bathrooms on planes yet. Although, it is our understanding that one airline - the discount Irish airline Ryan Air - was considering doing this until someone told them to cut the crap.

One might think that that we are overstating the case against the airlines. If so, consider the following:

The price of a flight- it’s just the cost of a ticket, right? Maybe - if you are one who is willing to travel steerage or in the rear of the cattle car.

If on the other hand, you want to maintain a shred of human dignity, it’s the ticket plus more for seats with extra (i.e. some) leg room, plus more for early boarding - and oh, yes - plus more for your bags. Pay that or leave them behind or try to squeeze them into the overhead luggage compartment - that’s if there is any room left (more on this later).

Speaking of squeeze. How about that leg room? Or, more correctly, where is the leg room?

Over the past several years, the airlines have reduced the cant on the seats so they can put in one or two extra rows of seats on each plane in order to get more revenue per flight.

We’ve heard rumors that the airlines are considering reducing the space between rows even more by having us put our feet on our own seat rather than on the floor between rows.

Seriously, the airlines are considering eliminating seats altogether and having the passengers stand holding onto straps from the ceiling. This will enable them to triple the load per flight.

Only kidding. What they are actually contemplating are putting seats on the wings of the plane. These seats, of course, will come with blankets - the only ones available on a flight these days - and a complimentary helmet and parachute.

Okay, we know we’ve gone a little over the top with this. But, that’s what happens when the traveling experience moves toward the bottom.

Now, back to some of the real squeezes. Let’s start with the pouches/pockets on the back of the seats.

Remember the good old days when they used to hold a newspaper, magazine, lap top and still have plenty of room for miscellaneous items such as a bottle of water and munchies. Forget about them.

Today, those pockets are nearly un-penetrable. They will hold the mandatory safety card, a slim airline magazine, and perhaps have sufficient space for a single 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper or a Milky Way candy bar - not both.

Then, there are the overhead bins. On a full-size plane, they will hold roller bags.

That’s true if you’re boarded early because you are one of the frequent flyer elite, have a credit card through this airline, an active duty member of the U.S. military, or fortunate enough to be in zones 1 or 2 for the boarding process.

If, on the other hand, you have been condemned to the nether zones, your carry-on luggage will become carry-off luggage. It will not go into the overhead compartment but must be gate checked to be consigned to the belly of the beast.

Your reward for this is that you will not be charged for that privilege. As an extra special treat, you will get to wait 1/2 hour at a carousel - to be changed three times - in baggage claim to retrieve your carry-on. With luck it will come back in one piece and relatively un-scuffed.

The good news at that point is that you have disembarked from the airline and will soon depart the airport and the big squeeze. Before you and we do, however, let’s not forget some of the other elements of the airlines’ squeeze business model.

Almost all airlines give the weary traveler coffee, water, juice and non-alcoholic drinks free of charge. A few throw in a sack of nuts - or, if it’s breakfast time, a biscotti.

That’s where the generosity ends though. Want an alcoholic beverage or a snack basket, you can get them at three to four times what you would pay if you were not captive on the airplane.

Speaking of being captive, most airlines operate on the squeeze principle of communication. The essence of that principle is don’t promptly or regularly share information with the passengers on why the plane is not pushing back from the gate, sitting on the runway, or circling prior to landing.

Instead, keep the yahoos in the dark and squeeze out a rare tidbit at the last moment and only when it is absolutely necessary. After all, those yahoos are only along for the ride.

This airline cone of silence which relegates the customer to a captive state of information deprivation is one of our personal pet peeves about the flying experience.

We guess we shouldn’t be too annoyed by this trivial type of captivity, we could have been on the United Airline plane to London that was diverted to rural Canada where the passengers had to sleep in military barracks overnight and kept in the dark regarding the reasons for the diversion.

We wish we could say that those are all of the squeezes that the flying yahoos endure. Unfortunately, that’s definitely not the case. These were simply the ones that were top of mind as we wrote this piece.

In his column in 1970, Jimmy Breslin opined that the people who raised the transit fares didn’t ride subways. The same can’t be said for the airline leadership that has foisted its squeeze business model upon the traveling public.

They do fly the same skies that the average Joe and Jane Yahoo do - just not in the same way. They are in the front of the plane where traveling is a completely different experience.

Perhaps if they were forced to have the same experience as the majority of travelers, they would change their model. There’s a thought.

What’s good for the yahoos should be good those for those who are squeezing them. Maybe if they were squeezed, squeezed until it hurts, they would relent and make things better for every-one.

On the other hand, maybe not. Certain types of people take pleasure in pain and suffering - even if it is their own.

In closing, we wonder what Jimmy Breslin would have to say about this most recent airline squeeze incident. We’ll never find out from him directly because he passed away less than a month ago.

He’s flying around heaven using his own wings now. He doesn’t need airplanes or the airline industry any more.

But, given the person he was, we are confident that he is putting in a word or two for all of us yahoos with the Man or Woman upstairs. Who knows, with Jimmy’s candor and persuasiveness, maybe the big squeeze will be brought to an end and the friendly skies will really return once again.