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Grounded By US Airways

For the modest project of flying from Nashville TN to Portland ME, it recently took me 12 hours, twice as long as scheduled. So far as I could determine accidents or weather were not in any way involved.

It started when, at Washington DC, US Airways decided at the last minute to replace its normal plane to Portland with a smaller one. My wife and I were among about a half dozen passengers in rows 19 and higher and the new plane only had 18 rows.

No one would tell me the cause of the switch. As an alternative, US Airways offered a flight six hours later and a $150 ticket credit. Not wishing to wait at Reagan Airport for six hours, I negotiated seats on a flight to Boston, along with van service to Portland. I would get a $200 ticket credit. My bags would be transferred to the Boston flight. The ticket agent seemed extremely unclear how to accomplish this lengthy task but she told me that when I arrived in Boston I was to go to the baggage service office and ask for someone named Pokey who would authorize the van. I boarded the plane to Boston with a smug feeling of accomplishment.

It was too soon.

At the Boston baggage service office, an agent told me that Pokey no longer worked there, but after some further and clearly undesired questioning, another clerk admitted that Pokey could be reached by phone. And what about my bags? There seemed complete indifference to this question although by pressing the matter I got the agent to locate them in Portland.

Pokey was contacted and a van showed up. But now another issue arose.  The surly agent next to the one I had been talking with, announced that she was fed up with authorizing things without the proper papers and she wasn’t going to do it again. The implication was that I had,  through inattention to duty, ruined her day. I don’t believe she ever looked me in the eye.

I had clearly turned into the enemy. When I asked to speak to a supervisor I was told I couldn’t but eventually got a first name and last initial. Which wasn’t really necessary because as I pressed further, one of the agents finally got off his seat and produced the supervisor from the adjoining room. She had no interest in helping me either and finally one of the agents said, “I guess you’re on your own.”

Nearly an hour had been spent on what they still call “service” in the corporate world.

We finally found safe haven aboard a Concord Coach bus to Maine, an ever pleasant, if slow, experience featuring free water, free wifi and a free movie (but not free pretzels northbound because the Boston airport won’t allow it).

Then we took a cab to the Portland airport, where by mid evening,  things tend to slow down considerably. I made my way to the baggage pickup area but noted quickly that US Airways had no office there. I asked a Delta guy why that might be and he replied, “Rent.” The pleasant woman behind the airport information desk warned me not to go to the distant US Airways counter because there would be no one there. “Sooner or later a US Air person will show up,”  she said.

After tiring of waiting for that elusive person, I went to the ticket counter. There was indeed no one there. A airport staffer suggested knocking on the door next to the counter which I did without success. He then suggested that I keep my eye out for a short red haired woman wearing an airport jacket.

It was now approaching 12 hours since I left Nashville. Suddenly, I had a revelation. It’s  not just our politics and our economy that are falling apart. The fantasy world created for us by corporate America is breaking down as well. Plane trips will become as disjointed and misguided as bank bailouts and failed stimulus packages. US Airways is being run by people as incompetent as Republican members of Congress who think that cutting expenditures solves everything. There are no longer customers to serve, only budgets to cut.

The reason I knew I wasn’t exaggerating was because that very day I had read an article by Brad Plumer in the Washington Post about how – despite increased ridership – urban public transit was falling apart:

“Public transportation in the United States has faced a perverse situation these past few years. Thanks to high gas prices, more and more Americans are riding buses and trains. But thanks to budget crunches, transit agencies are actually cutting services at the exact same moment.

“Over at Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark has a post highlighting one particularly dramatic example of this in Pittsburgh. Due to a $64 million funding shortfall, the city’s Port Authority is threatening to close roughly 40 percent of its routes in the city this year….

“The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston recently carried out a series of service cuts because of a $161 million funding shortfall — even though overall ridership rose roughly 3 percent last year. States and cities don’t have the money to keep up with growing ridership.”

When I got home I checked out some investment analyses of US Airways. Said one:

“While the distant past was challenging, the previous recession nearly forced US Airways back into financial distress. Last downturn marked the second-worst period for the United States’ airline industry since 1980, as scheduled passenger enplanements (the total number of passengers boarding a plane) fell 3.5% in 2008 . . .Faced with this daunting revenue situation, US Airways slashed domestic capacity by 10% and systemwide capacity by 7%. These steps enabled the firm to remove about $650 million in operating expenses while recording a 10% drop in costs per available seat mile, the best amongst its legacy peers. Going forward, we estimate that the capacity reductions could save the firm a minimum of $700 million per year.”

I was, it seemed, just another reduction in costs per available seat mile.

Fortunately, all my problems had been on the ground. The pilots were fine and one woman attendant even lip synched the male recorded safety message, the only time I’ve heard passengers laugh during such somber pronouncements.

But I couldn’t help feeling that US Airways had given me a peek at what America can look forward to. The ads will continue along with the boastful corporate claims, but the era of the customer as someone to serve and help will go the way planned by people like Paul Ryan for Social Security and food stamps.

The red haired women in the airport jacket finally showed up.  In minutes, this amiable exception to my day found our bags and sent us on the way.

And as I headed for my car, I thought, “Well, at least we’ve still got Concord Coach.”

Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review. He is the author of The Great American Repair Manual.

 

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