Posted by: Chris Davis | June 28, 2011

From Cabernet to Cattle Cars

From Cabernet to Cattle Cars…I think that is about as accurate as one can describe the change in airline travel from its beginning to today’s world.   There was a time when taking an airline flight was a first class event and passengers were treated like royalty; likewise passengers dressed and acted as such.  Juan Trippe would roll over in his grave if he were to take a trip on the airlines today.  Remember the days of the Clipper fleet?  Now that was classy.  How about an in flight meal, or the now TSA forbidden actual silverware?  I have a full set of United Airlines silverware somewhere in my collection…never thought that a simple set of silverware would be considered museum pieces.  Remember when kids got to meet the captain and were given a set of wings while the adults were offered a deck of company logo playing cards and a pillow / blanket to pass the time.  Good luck finding that kind of service today.

I recently took a vacation which involved airline travel from Huntsville, AL to Orlando, FL and back again.  Let me back up a bit, the airline travel included a stop in Atlanta, GA with a layover and aircraft change going both directions.  Names and dates have been omitted to protect the innocent, but with a little (and I mean miniscule) thought, I am sure you can determine which airline we were using.  Our day started dark and early at 03:00 in order to wake the family and arrive at the airport the required 2 hours prior to our flight.  It has been a while since I flew commercial so I thought this was a little excessive, but man was I wrong.  By the time we checked our bags, waited in the slothful, never-ending security line and submitted our papers to ever so cheerful TSA welcoming committee, we finally made it to our gate 45 minutes prior to departure.  By the way, our 2 year old was “randomly selected” for the wand and pat down.  Coincidentally, the flight began to board 45 minutes prior to departure, but somehow we still managed to push back nearly 5 minutes late because the boarding took a little longer than expected.  I would venture a guess that it has to do with their method of loading the aircraft from the front to the rear instead of the opposite.  Keep in mind that this is just my logical guess since people were crawling over one another to find their seats, I am sure the experts know better than I how to load an aircraft as efficiently as possible.

We made it to Atlanta on time thanks to VFR weather and a tailwind only to meet with a maintenance delay on the connecting flight.  I can understand maintenance delays from time to time, but it was the attitude of the gate attendant that got me…heaven forbid she be asked the status of the flight by a newly arrived passenger trying to “check in”.  Manners were far from her vocabulary and trying to understand her often called for a translator.  It reminded me of the infamous Shirley Q Liquor – “Preflight Announcement”.  I kid you not, this was our boarding announcement: “ Good mernin ladies and gennelmen.  Please lissen curfully as we call the rows to boart, we do ax that you remain seated until you is called.”

The second leg went as smoothly as the first once we were airborne only 1 hour behind schedule.  The days of an in flight meal has been replaced with complimentary peanuts (or pretzels) and a half can of soda… if you want more, it will cost you.  The deck of cards and a pillow has been replaced by a digital TV screen with on demand movies and games as well as a moving map of the flight, but everything is a la cart.  The ticket price for today’s airline traveler grants nothing more than an uncomfortably small seat, 1 piece of luggage (less than 50lbs) and one small carry on.  Anything more and you will need your wallet.  Let’s not even start with the dress attire for the passengers…I would not let my daughter (or sons for that matter) out of the house in what some people are wearing on the aircraft these days.  On that topic it should be mandatory for passengers boarding a sealed pressure vessel to take a shower, wear deodorant, and go easy on the perfume!

We left Huntsville at 06:30 and arrived in Orlando 6 hours later…if we add in the time spent at the airport awaiting departure along with the time spent collecting our bags and catching a van to the hotel our trip took us 9 hours in total from airport arrival to airport departure.  Just for comparison, I flew our Maule from Sun N Fun nonstop to Nashville, TN and it only took a little over 5 hours.  Add in a half hour to load and pre-flight as well as a half hour to unload and put it in the hangar and we still spent nearly 3 hours less on the travel time in an aircraft that only cruises at 125 kts.

The return trip from Orlando to Huntsville was just as interesting.  The flight out of Orlando was late pushing back and we made up a bit of time in the air; thank the Lord because we only had 45 minutes to catch our connecting flight in Atlanta.  Not to worry, the connecting flight had a maintenance delay which was beginning to be par for the course on this trip.  So far we were 50% for maintenance reliability and 100% on departure delays for all 4 flights.  Good thing we were not on a business schedule.  Interestingly, on this flight our gate was located at the end of the terminal in the sort of cul-de-sac area.  Of the 6 flights scheduled to leave the gates in this area, 3 were delayed for maintenance and 1 was delayed because (per the gate attendant’s overhead announcement) “the crew has finally arrived for our delayed flight”.    Way to throw the crew under the bus lady; maybe they were operating, or jump seating to Atlanta on one of the many other flights that were delayed for maintenance.  Of the 3 maintenance delayed flights there was a flat tire, bird strike, and (again per the gate attendant’s overhead announcement) “some kind of maintenance issue, we don’t know yet what is wrong, but will let you know when we find out”.  Sign me up for that flight please.  (insert sarcasm)  The kicker is that all of these flight delays were located at this airline’s world hub.  You would think that maintenance and personnel delays at the world hub would be a non event.  In the end, our 30 minute flight was delayed by 2 hours.

Maybe if the cattle cars operated under the same premise as the freight dogs the delays would be cut back.  For instance, if a FedEx or UPS package is late, it is free…so what if $1 was credited to each ticketholder for every minute a flight is delayed?  I know what you’re thinking…this would create a safety hazard because corners would be cut, or weather would be pushed to prevent delays.  If that were true then why don’t we see FedEx or UPS with higher accidents rates?  It can be done efficiently and safely, just look at Southwest.

With all of this hassle just to make a short hop to Florida I found myself missing private air travel more than ever.  I don’t know how weekly business travelers do it.  The value, reliability, and convenience of private air travel became very apparent to me on this commercial travel adventure and the need for services such as Social Flights became very obvious.  With private aviation under attack on a daily basis, it only takes one trip like this one to highlight its merits and its continuing (if not growing) need for the business traveler.  It’s time to get back to the Cabernet and leave the Cattle Cars at the gate.  With groups like Social Flights offering first class service, general aviation has now become affordable to the general public.


Responses

  1. I may have a small advantage over most folks, as I spent some time as a long haul truck driver, but on a good day I could DRIVE from Huntsville to Orlando in 9 hours! I’m pretty sure I could beat the airline time in a J3, and enjoy the scenery a lot more.

    • @ Roge – The sad part is that the total flight time was less than 2 hours and the other 7 hours were spent going through the process. I have not flown a J-3 to Sun N Fun yet, but did take a Supercub from Memphis, TN to Oshkosh which is nearly the same distance…took 8 hours and 3 fuel stops.

  2. Interesting post. Passengers seeing me in uniform waiting for a flight gravitate to me with such stories. I listen. Smile. Nod in agreement. Shake my head in agreement. Shrug my shoulders with them. I’m the convenient ear of the bastion and bane of air travel that they long to pour their frustrations into. They don’t expect answers; they sense I have few if any or that I am remotely responsible. My job is to get them there safely. I and my ilk are accomplishing that. They seem to know it.

    Like our changing world and society, air travel has changed forever and is evolving daily. It isn’t likely to return to the “Clipper Days.” (By the way, you’d have to be in your 90s to remember that.) It’s the fault of no one person or group. If you wish to understand it, make a stew: Throw in de-regulation, airway saturation, ground saturation, high traveler demand, out-sourcing, gargantuan corporate bureaucracies, low wages, extreme unionism, security concerns, the unfortunate ramifications of diversity hiring, and salt the stew with generous portions of rotten weather, and you’ve got your air travel system.

    So what’s the solution to your overall unpleasant experience? You get to unload on me. I’ll let you do so any time, if you’ll only be nice about it. 🙂

    • @ Alan- I thought you might drop in with a thought or 2 on this one…I always enjoy reading your blog and comments.

      The Clipper fleet was a general reference to the Pan Am flagship aircraft. As you mentioned, one would have to be hitting their 90’s to remember the days of the Boeing 314 flying boats such as the China Clipper or the Honolulu Clipper. That said, the Pan Am fleet maintained the Clipper call sign and luxury well into the jet age including the Clipper Young America which made the inaugural flight from New York to London and began the first commercially scheduled 747 service.

      While I never had the opportunity to fly on any of the Clipper fleet, I do remember hot meals on flights, silverware, meeting the flight crew, and touring the flight deck to get my wings. These are things that my kids only get the opportunity to do because I have family and friends such as yourself in the front office.

      As frustrating as it is for the passengers, I also realize it is the same for the crew. Nothing worse than showing up to work (away from home) and having to wait without pay while the company tries to fix a problem, or try to determine how to put you to work while in the meantime you field all the complaints as if you can change situation. Ah, the glamorous life of an airline pilot. LOL

      See ya around the patch captain…let’s do some Yak flying sometime soon.

      -“FSDO” out…

  3. Ah, yes; the latter-day Clippers. Understood. In the early 90s I had the honor to ride right seat on the DC-10 across from some Clipper Captains. They came to United with United’s Pan AM Pacific acquisition. (That was when Pan Am was parting itself out–the beginnig of the end for them.) Those guys were classic airline captains, without the bravado. I heard their stories. Long live the memory of Pan Am.
    –A.C.


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