Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why I Fly Wacky (SouthWest) Airlines

I fly every week on business and have done so for several years. Last year I paid the outrageous price of $650 to fly Delta from Cleveland to Charleston, South Carolina. (For that price you could fly to Paris and back, maybe even on the Concorde.) That is when I declared a personal war on the high-priced carries. Since October I have flown ValuJet (now renamed AirTran) or SouthWest Airlines every week. This is the story of my personal vendetta.

The traditional airlines continue to charge monopoly fares because they have co-opted the vast majority of the businessmen and women who fly. They have bought off the traveling public with frequent flyer miles that are worth less each year. These duped persons are easy to spot. They prominently display their Delta Crown or Continental Elite plastic luggage tags as they promenade down the concourse to their gates. All of this for the privilege of sitting atop each other with their knees in their chest.

These mainly corporate travelers laugh out loud when the self-employed or otherwise budget-minded talk about the money they save on Valujet or Southwest Airlines. True, flying on Valuejet and Southwest saves a lot of money. But such trips are not without inconvenience and even a few laughs.

The startup airlines have taken a look at every penny spent shuttling folks from one city to another. To drive out costs they did away with food. To drive out costs they did away with tickets. They did away with assigned seats. The stewards clean the plane. Valujet has gone one step further: they did away with the towmotors that push the jet away from its berth. Instead Valujet pilots fire up their engines and propel their planes backwards from the jetway with a deafening roar.

Valujets flights are often completely full. The airline needs some larger plans so they recently bought an old MD80 aircraft. On her maiden voyage the Valujet captain pulled the planes nose up to the hashmark where it read 737. The ground crews extended the walkway and it bumped into the port side of the plane somewhere around aisle 12 far aft of the door. On that day a towmotor might have been handy.

More hilarious is the way Valujet boards their planes. Everyone knows that neither Southwest nor Valujet gives you an assigned seat. Their time and motion studies have shown that the orderly allotment of people to seats takes far too many minutes. It is quicker to pop open the hatch and let the passengers climb aboard en mass.

Taking that idea one step further, Valujet calculated they could shave a few more seconds off their boarding time if they boarded in groups of 10 rather than 30 at a time. So the gate agent announces, now boarding rows 1 through 10, now boarding rows 10 through 20. One funny chap blurted out now boarding rows 11 through 12. Everyone cracked up laughing.

People who fly Delta might say they prefer to have an assigned seat so they can sit in an aisle of window seat. Not to worry. Windows seats are always available on Valujet or Southwest unless you arrive late for the flightin which case the rest of us waiting patiently on board say you deserve the fate you get. Arrive on-time and usually thee is an aisle seat on row one, two or three. Delta wont let you sit up front unless you are one of their very frequent flyers or are foolish enough to pay first class fare.

Such no frills flying is evident on the ground too. When you walk into Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta, hundreds of television monitors tell you where to meet your Delta or Continental flight. With Valujet there are only one or two such monitors and they are way down on concourse C. Sometimes the gate shown on the monitor bears little resemblance to the location of your plane on the ground. Then finding your flight is more of a hit or miss affair.

Compounding this problem, Valujet never seems to know where to park their aircraft. A few weeks ago the flight arriving from Dulles airport was three hours late because of snow and fog in the Northeast. Family and friends eagerly waited at gate 28 for their loved ones. One hour later they were still waiting for their loved ones but this time at gate 19. Two hours after that the same sets of relatives were huddled together at gate 24. Many were complaining. Some were cursing. A few boisterous college students were making crude remarks about Valujet operations.

The passengers, like the small airlines, look different too. Look at the crowd climbing aboard Delta bound for Reagan Washington National from Atlanta Hartsfield. These are the typical laptop-carrying businessmen and women with some families and college students mixed in as well. The gang on Southwest or Valujet is a more motley crew. Some rough-looking men wear tank top shirts and tractor pull caps. Some equally rough-looking women are dressed the same. In Cleveland there was a father and his kids all decked out in camouflage fatigues. They looked like a commando squad raning in theigh from 6 feet to 34 inches. Hopefully these members of the Michigan Militia left their AK-47s in the baggage compartment.

Even the culture in the waiting is different. You can see the contempt that Delta has for its passengers in the seats they give them to sit in: uncomfortable chairs with a metal arm rest is between. The metal armrest means you cannot stretch out or lay down. The Kiwi, Valujet, and Southwest lounges are more comfortable. In fact, laying down is where you will find most Valujet passengers: on the floor, on the seats, even on giant rolls of carpet awaiting installation.

Punky little Southwest boasts that it is usually on time. So important is this to them that they try to make up lost time even when they are five minutes late. Once coming in to Baltimore their pilot pointed the planes nose to the ground and skipped the usual approach. We felt like Wilbur Wright as we plunged to earth at 300 miles per hour.

Valuejet, on the other hand, is rarely on time except for the first flight of the day. When it rains the situation gets much worse. But Delta and Continental are just as bad. The 3:00 Continental flight from Cleveland to Baltimore is usually 1 hour late. Many Delta flights have an on-time rating of 30%.

The worst part of flying Valujet or even Delta is not the airline at all but Hartsfield airport. Like airports everywhere, the civil servants who man the xray machines are patronizing and rude. Likewise the bureaucrats who operate the Hartsfield subway shut it down each night at 11:00. This leaves tens of thousands of travelers with up to mile to walk. Try that carrying a sleeping 40 pound toddler. The Cleveland airport is worse. There big brother government fells compelled to tell you every five minutes over the intercom that, escalators are not meant for carrying heavy items Why does government feel compelled to reiterate the obvious

Valujet and Southwest dont mind the rest of us laughing at them. In fact, they often lead the chorus. Some Southwest flight attendants are genuine stand-up comics. Many have heard their act: The smoking section is out on the wing. In the event of an emergency place your oxygen mask over yourself first then the child traveling with you or someone who is acting like a child. And more. To break up the monotony and have a little fun the crew invites you to guess their average age or to give the name of the Valujet mascot. (It is the critter.)

As they continue to fly, Valujet eventually will work out the kinks in their system. (Of course they did not. They suffered a fatal crash and the airline was shutdown and reborn as AirTrans.) Hopefully they will work out the rough spots with their employees. Many Valujet gate agents are rude. Southwest is miles ahead in this arena. Their gate agents in Cleveland and Baltimore are attentive people who are usually polite. Most are young like their airline meaning they have yet to be embittered by going out on strike.

Given the late flights, rude gate agents, and old plans, who do some business travelers continue to fly the startup airlines The reason is price. It should not cost $650 to fly 700 miles and back. $200 is fair. That is what you pay at Southwest and Valujet. Soon Delta, US Air, and Continental will have to charge the same fee of they will end up bankrupt like Pan Am and Eastern. Corporate travel departments could help us all get lower prices by insisting that their employees pick the least cost ticket. And long for the day when the public realizes that frequent flyer miles dont warrant allegiance to monopolistic pricing.

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