Crammed into a far-too-short legroom seat for the next few hours, feeling as though I was a T-Rex trying to shuffle through a cardboard box of purchased individually wrapped food items without the ability to extend my arms, I reflected over how my trip to Miami had gone. From missing the 45-minute baggage check-in time by two minutes because of long check-in lines and unattended car-returns to purchasing a last-minute one-way ticket in order to get to my destination, a passive counter agent who was far from helping me or any other passenger and a TSA agent who didn’t mind the 45-minute one-line backup at security; I couldn’t help but wonder: what has happened to the airline industry?
My father was a Captain for United Airlines during the 80s until his retirement in 2004, a Naval pilot before that who flew A-6s in Vietnam during the 70s. Needless to say, our family flew a lot. Now, I continue to travel as a travel writer and photographer on assignment and have been on several airlines, ranging from great to poor—as both a professional and leisure passenger, the changes of late have come quickly and noticeably. Deciding to weigh out the story, I turned to friend and colleague Kimberly Lord Stewart, who was a flight attendant for Pan Am, as well as current flight attendant for United Airlines Heidi Hill-Greer.
“I was fortunate to play a part of the glory days of airline travel as a Pan Am flight attendant,” relates Stewart, “Regardless of whether passengers were in first class, business or economy, Pan Am put service first.” In an era where flight attendants were issued white gloves versus the era of today where they are issued handcuffs, the industry has certainly changed. However, some of the inconvenient changes have been made for overall safety and health issues, as Hill-Greer relates: “While it seems that getting rid of those small pillows and blankets onboard was a part of lowering service standards, it had more to do with sanitary issues. Those were done away with after H1N1 became and epidemic a few years back.”
“Airplane food” was the butt of many jokes for poor-quality economy class fare, while First Class enjoyed everything from steak to caviar. Now, most airlines only offer a meal-for-purchase snackbox on most domestic flights in Economy Class. Why was this? Hill-Greer offers more insight: “Post 9/11 meal service on domestic flights were basically cut not only to the cost cutting for the airlines but also so that the crew could be more vigilant of the passengers rather than so focused on an actual cabin service. This allows for the crew members to have more inflight situational awareness.” So, while the food has been cut on many airlines due to safety, how does that relate to the overall experience?
Sitting in my forward-curving airline seat with my knees bumping up against the seat in front of me (mind you, I had purchased an extended-legroom exit-row seat for my 6’ frame and the 6’4” height of my traveling companion—which due to the fullness of the flight had been assigned to someone else with no refund extended for either seat), the cuts and squeezes to budgets are becoming more and more noticeable. Frontier’s once signature hot chocolate chip cookie service and inflight magazine now things of the past, Customer Service representatives now waiving off anxious customers in a “not my problem” attitude, and serve-yourself boarding line-up procedures herding cattle-like passengers; all reek of a crumbling airline industry.
Yet, I mentioned “great” at the beginning of this article. Flights on Singapore Airlines were stellar as I traversed Cambodia and Vietnam with attentive flight attendants and smiling ramp agents, Maui was all the more pleasant with Hawaiian Airlines with colorful inflight magazine and tropical treats along the way, and Emirates is often lauded as the best airline in the world with stellar curbside-to-flight service and attention to detail.
Is it as Sir Richard Branson said “If you want to be a Millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline” where costs are insurmountable in the industry? Or can employees be pushed to make even the minutia of checking in or handling baggage into an enjoyable experience? With airline travel playing such an intrinsic part of global economy, where will the next chapter of airline travel take us? A far cry from knowing what is going on “behind the scenes,” customers may not have all the information but should that really affect the travel experience as adversely as it has of late? It seems in most other customer-service related industries, the back-of-house may be chaotic, but the front-of-house should be none the wiser.