Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Unfriendly Skies

What has happened to the airline industry?

If you’ve heard the bad news, you already know about the layoffs, the bankruptcies, the mergers and the rising fuel costs. There is general chaos and confusion. Even big airlines like Alitalia are struggling. Apparently, it’s a tough business but even the toughest seem to be crying for help. This might make you make you feel sorry for the industry until you purchase a ticket, sit your ass down in a seat made for an anorexic Ethiopian and realize that, wait a second, the customers are the real victims here.

During my sabbatical, I have flown much more than usual and I am amazed at how bad the service has become. I realize that you need to keep your planes full but how on earth can you overbook by 14 people? When I was travelling from Savannah, Georgia to Toronto, Canada on United Airlines I checked in at the counter. They told me they couldn’t issue a boarding pass until I checked in at the gate. No need to line up, they told me, they would call my name when the pass was ready. No big deal, I thought. Half an hour prior to departure, they still hadn’t called my name and I was just about to get up and see what was going on when they made an announcement. They had overbooked the plane by 14 people and were requesting volunteers to stay behind. If they didn’t get enough volunteers, then anyone without a boarding pass was going to be denied boarding. Of course, this caused a long line at the counter with all the people who were presumably going to be denied boarding. I waited in this line for 25 minutes until my name was finally called. As if my guardian angel herself plucked me from the crowd, I was given a ticket to board. Up until five minutes prior to boarding, I had no idea whether I had a seat or not.

On this same flight, I was travelling with my fifteen year old Pekingese and I paid $100 to put him underneath the seat in front of me. $100 one way! He was taking up no more space than a knapsack and certainly was no more trouble than one. When I walked onto the plane (grouchy after the overbooking ordeal), the flight attendant took one look at his carrier and snapped, “Put it under the seat”. Where else was I going to put it, honey? In the overhead bin? On the pilot’s lap? I felt like saying, “It’s not an it. He’s a he”, but there are some battles that are not worth the fight.

Why can United charge $100 for a one-way ticket for a pet that is going under the seat? The answer is very simple. Because they can. This is also the reason why they can now charge $15 for your first checked bag. This was the little surprise I got when I flew back from Toronto to Savannah. No longer is your stowed luggage going to have a free ride. $15 will cover all the hassles of transporting it to your destination. I realize that $15 isn’t a lot of money but why is United (and the other airlines) playing the nickel and dime game? Just add it into the cost of a ticket. The same goes for the food. Instead of getting crappy food for free, now we get to pay anywhere from $5 for a “snack bag” to $10 for a dry sandwich. The airlines (at least most of them) also charge for the earphones. Usually it’s just a couple of bucks but holy crap, these things probably cost 25 cents to produce in a Beijing factory. The flight attendants are also pleased to point out that the customers can keep the earphones for later use. Really? The sound quality is so great with them, I’m sure lots of people use them regularly with their iPods. I’m convinced there will come a time when we will have to pay for the in-flight movie.

With all these added charges, I think we should start charging the airlines when we feel like it. Your seat is so close to the one in front of it that you can’t feel your legs? That is good for $50. Your flight arrives an hour later than it was supposed to? $100 charge. Your flight arrives an hour later than it was supposed to and you miss your connecting flight? Full refund of the ticket.

I flew from Los Angeles to Key West on Delta. My flight arrived in Miami about an hour late. I knew that the connecting flight was going to be tight so I ran to the gate. They were expecting me. I still had about twenty minutes before the plane took off so I thought I was going to be okay. They drove me out to the plane but the doors were closed so I was denied entry. When I asked them why they didn’t wait an extra two minutes when they knew I was on a late connecting flight, they told me they didn’t know how long it would take me to get from one gate to another and they couldn’t hold up the plane for one passenger. It was the last plane of the day so I was forced to spend a night in Miami.

With all this travelling, I have been a very good customer and so the airlines have rewarded me with their ultimate present, AIR MILES. I used to think that air miles meant a free ticket with certain airlines. Sure, I understood that there were some restrictions (I couldn’t fly on the “blackout dates”) but I thought a “free ticket” meant a “free ticket”. Not always so. It’s important to read the fine print. Taxes and “gas surcharges” can make the price rapidly escalate. I am currently trying to negotiate a flight from Los Angeles to Manila using my brother’s air miles on Philippine airlines. (He was very generous to donate them to my account). I was told that the flight was “free” if I used 60,000 miles but there were additional charges of $400, most of it due to the gas surcharge. When I can purchase a ticket from LAX to Manila for about $900, these extra charges amount to almost 50% of the regular price. Suddenly, this free ticket isn’t so free. I also have air miles through my World Points Visa card. After accumulating 25,000 miles, I can get a round trip ticket. There is no charge for the flight as long as I use the flight with the lowest available advertised price. This sounds okay until I found out that the cheapest flights are either very early in the morning, late at night or have multiple stops along the route. Convenience, it seems, comes with a price.

To be fair, not all airlines are created equal. Although I’ve had especially bad experiences with Delta, Alaska and United, I’ve always had good experiences with Southwest. Their tickets are easy to purchase online, their staff always seems to be friendly and whenever I call their customer service number, I get a REAL PERSON right away and not the “Press 3 if you’re calling for reservations” type of bullshit. When I use my air miles, I get a round trip ticket without any strings attached. There was a little confusion among their customers when they changed their way of lining up at the gate but I think most people have now got it all figured out. Some complain that they don’t like the open seating policy but I’ve never had a problem; if I check-in online twenty-four hours ahead of time, I get an “A” seat. They are a “no-frills” airline but they don’t pretend to be anything more. This is far better than the other airlines who think they’re world class yet run their businesses like a used car lot.

My advice to the airlines? Start putting your customers first. In case you haven’t realized it, we are the ones paying the bills. Don’t add on ridiculous extra charges. Don’t overbook the flights. If you want us to pay for food, then make it food worth paying for. Revamp your air miles programs and don’t try to hide important details or mislead us with words like “free”. Make your customer service agents helpful. And maybe, just maybe, put the joy back into flying. If you succeed in doing all that, we’ll still bitch about the high cost of your fares but at least we’ll be getting our money’s worth.

End of Season

These are the final days of the summer. Even though the sun still tries to peek through the clouds, a cool wind is blowing and the lake is no longer inviting. In another month, the cottage will be closed up for another year.

Wish I could stay here a lot longer but it's time to move on. Back to Savannah and then back to Los Angeles.

Friday, September 12, 2008

African Souvenir

I'm staying with my parents this week so I've had time to browse around the house (and my old bedroom) checking out some stuff. It's been a lot of fun looking at yearbooks, pictures and diaries.

Since my family has travelled a lot over the years, we have collected some weird items. Perhaps the weirdest is a coffin that resides in the lower family room. This was brought back from Ghana by my brother a couple of years ago.

In Ghana, caskets are designed to be symbolic of your life. In this case, it is in the shape of a lion so the prospective owner could be a strong hunter or a virile leader. For a while, my brother also had a crab, an airplane, a cow and something that looked like a cougar.

The lion is a little on the small side so either Ghanians are quite short or else they are chopped up into pieces so that they can fit.

Without a dismembered body inside, it is a great piece of art.

The lion comes complete with testicles which were decorated for Christmas.

It is important to be festive.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Last skiing of the summer

I started skiing when I was very young, probably around seven or eight years of age. My father was a big water skier in his day and there were many sunny afternoons when a group of us went riding around on the lake. I started out on regular skis. Then I was taught how to ride on a round wooden table top, surf style. We called it the disc. Then my dad put a chair on top of the disc and I rode on that. When I was feeling daring, I became the boy at the top of a skiing pyramid.

One Christmas, I got a pair of trick skis. They are much smaller than regular skis and don't have a keel, which allows for 360 degree turning. Once I put on those babies, I rarely went back to the regular skiing.

That doesn't mean to say I ever got good at skiing with the trick skis. The above video is proof of that. I can still do a few things but I'm mostly just messing around and swallowing a lot of lake water.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Morning at the cottage

This is what the lake looked like this morning. I had to take a picture of it because we're now at the end of the season. Soon, the skies will grey over, the wind will get cold and the water will no longer be inviting.

The summer up here doesn't last long. Normally, they only get June, July and August to enjoy but this year, there was even less than that. There was a lot of rain and wind. Probably means the cool weather will come sooner too.

It's a beautiful place but I'm not sure how many more years we'll have it. My parents are having a harder time looking after it and the sons now live quite far away. I spent almost every summer here while I was growing up but I didn't appreciate it as much as I do now.

Sometimes you have to disappear for a while, then come back. See it for everything that it is. Sometimes, I feel the same way about Canada.


On a lighter note, I was able to snap a half decent picture of a Blue Jay today. He kept on stealing the nuts that I put down for the chipmunks.

I tried to get a close-up but he kept on flying away. Damn birds. Why do they have wings?


Just thought I'd throw that in.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Trouble the tripod

Trouble, my parent's ten year old Schnauzer, had her leg amputated because of cancer. The procedure was done last Wednesday and everything went quite well.

We picked her up on Friday and were given two types of pain killers and ten days worth of antibiotics. Even though she is a tough little patient, I could tell that the road to recovery was going to have a few pot holes. For the first few days, she was reluctant to walk, seemed withdrawn and most disturbing, she let out loud yelps seemingly out of nowhere. Thankfully, she was eating, drinking and eliminating normally.

We are almost a week out and Trouble has greatly improved. I have taken her off one of the pain medications (which has a tendency to make pets groggy and irritable) and removed the bandage covering the incision. She is walking much better and even going up and down a few short stairs. She sleeps much more comfortably and the loud yelps have disappeared.

I'm confident that she will be back to herself (minus a leg) by next week. Not too bad for a major surgery!

Cold in Canada

It's already getting colder up here. I woke up this morning and Dusty was a popsicle!

Pictured below is my method used to defrost him.

It's also a really good imitation of Kenny from Southpark.

He's doing much better now. At least I think he is. He hasn't moved for the past two hours.

Monday, September 1, 2008

iPOD accident!

I just found out that an ipod can be dropped into a lake and still work!

Just a little FYI.