Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beam Me Up, Scotty

There's nothing like flying domestic in the United States - and especially flying domestic in coach - that makes me want to crib a line from the old "Startrek'' TV show and say "Beam me up, Scotty!'' If only it would work.

It's no secret to any frequent traveler that domestic flying, especially in the back of the bus - er, plane - suffers by comparison with long-haul transcontinenal or trans-oceanic flying, especially in the front of the plane where first- and business-class is located.

That gap is widening, especially in the U.S. - burdened as it is with airlines that have only recently resumed making money - and that could be temporary, given the state of the national and global economies. Old fleets, shrinking the size of planes used to create packed flights, cutting routes, charging extra for most anything - this is the legacy of a lost decade for U.S. carriers. An antiquated air-traffic control system and overcrowded airports racked with delays add to the problems.

I am fortunate enough to fly often in business and occasionally in first class on long-haul flights by top international carriers. When I fly domestic, though, I often fly coach. This was the case last week when I flew with United Airlines from Los Angeles (LAX) to San Francisco (SFO). It was situation normal all fouled up - again.

What went wrong? Well, no United employee appeared at the designated gate until the scheduled 4:35 p.m. departure, and then only to announce a gate change and a delay. New departure time: 4:58 p.m. Opps! Did we say 4:58? We meant 5:15. All three departure times turned out to be fiction. In fact, the flight went wheels up at 5:53. We left 68 minutes late for the 53-minute flight.

The personable pilot did his best to lighten the mood for frustrated passengers. "This is United flight 460, with eventual service to San Francisco,'' he announced as we sat on the tarmac awaiting permission to take off.

The various reasons cited for the delay were: plane arrived late at LAX; minor mechanical problem; air traffic backup at SFO due to bad weather; and, finally, the need to take-on some extra fuel lest we be ordered to circle before landing in San Francisco. (We weren't.) There was, of course, no room to cross one's legs or retrieve items stored under the seat in front, given how tighty packed the rows of narrow seats were. The bad food for sale on the plane? Don't ask.

Well, so, you might say: What's the big deal? This is absolutely normal. And that's true. That's my point: It's absolutely normal.

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