Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Joys of Business Travel

What does $1000 buy you these days? 200 of those little cocktails on the airplane. 140 fast food meals in the airport terminal (compared to upwards of 200 down the block outside the airport). 11 round trips in a taxi from JFK to Midtown. Just a little less than 2 nights stay in the Westin Times Square. And 27 breakfasts consisting of oatmeal, coffee and juice at the restaurant in the Westin.

But what it bought me was an uncomfortable, unpleasant, somewhat nerve taxing ride on United Airlines today from JFK to SFO. After finishing an exhilarating day keynoting at Interop, and doing my best to make my 2 and a half year old daughter the talk of the tech industry...


(sidebar: Steve Jobs, if you are listening, yes Alex is available to do iPhone commercials, just drop me an email)


...I was back on a plane to return home to see the three ladies of my life. I had the hope of achieving the mythical upgrade, however despite my 20,000 miles traveled this month on United and my 100,000 thus far this year, I didn't rank high enough to make the comfortable elite on this flight. That, in addition to the fact that their website, which when not returning cryptic "sorry, this feature is down right now" messages, seems to just throw up a waiting screen during the online upgrade request process and then return the user back to the main itinerary screen with no notice of success or error, had me sitting back in coach.

I filed onto the flight in the normal manner, stopping to notice that this was a "p.s." flight. United offers "Premium Service" (p.s.) on flights from JFK to SFO with a modified 757 configuration offering 3 classes of service, an increased number of business class seats, and all coach seats sporting the "Economy Plus" configuration of more leg room. Thank goodness for that, because as I wedged into my middle seat, I couldn't possibly imagine having LESS room, in the legs or otherwise. However, I can't say that I found anything premium about the service.

What transpired over the subsequent hours managed to get me, a self-declared travel veteran and generally calm person, extremely frustrated and generally grumpy. After insisting the plane was "on schedule" and forcing us all to board, we then pushed from the gate and sat on the tarmac for well over an hour, waiting for the customary congestion at JFK to allow a normal take off. In what seems like the cruelest of ironies, the flight attendant passed out newspapers (if you can still call USAToday a newspaper) with one cover story reporting on the latest clash between the airlines and the transit authority where? None-other than right here at JFK.

After the aforementioned wait, we finally took off and once airborne, the flight attendant read the customary greetings with a few additional pieces of information.

  • She informed us that we were not to get out of our seats unless absolutely necessary. Seems odd, and somewhat rude, given its a 6 hour flight.
  • She also notified us that while on this 6 hour flight, we would be served complimentary beverages no more than, and no less than 2 times, once at altitude and again one hour before landing. Am I the only one that thinks it somewhat skimpy to offer captive passengers 2 small glasses of water over what is now a 7 and a half hour period?
  • She goes on to inform us that cocktails and some high fat, low nutrition food will be available to buy, also for the price of $5 dollars. Now not to focus too much on the money, but given that my employer paid $1000 to move me from SFO to JFK and back again, doesn't it seem odd that during that 13 hours of air travel United could spring for something more than two small bags of pretzels? Especially on the Premium Service flight.
  • But I digress. She goes on to tell us that exact change is not only appreciated, but today is required. Again, I understand the appreciated bit. But hello, United, guess what. ATM's distribute $20 dollar bills last I checked. Your items are available for $5. Unless you really expect everyone on board to buy 4 items (which is difficult given you only give me two chances to buy anything, and give me very dirty looks when I request 2 of the afore mentioned beverages), why wouldn't you give your staff lots of fives and tens to make change?
The trip proceeded as one might expect. When they finally turned off the fasten seat belt sign, me and 20 of my fellow passengers got up to use the restroom. This angered the flight attendants greatly, to the point where they were rolling their eyes and actually asking us to sit back down. I did not comply to this request, as waiting on the tarmac for over an hour and then another 45 minutes to get to a point where they turned the seat belt sign off was too much given the large diet coke I had before the flight.

Anyway, I could go on and on. This flight was miserable, and much of that has to do with United the company, and United's employees. So, what should you take from all of this? United restored itself to profitability this quarter reporting strong numbers. However, in this, a service based economy (and a service based industry), I don't think they have a chance. I'm headed to DC next week on business... my airline of choice? Virgin America.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I worked for a major "legacy airline" for five years and a recurring theme was that travelers got the service levels they wanted. We tried several times to raise fares a little bit and, in return, offered more leg room, etc... It never worked.

People must be content to ride like cattle and complain while saving $8.25 (or so) on the "best fare".

Virgin, JetBlue, and some other new ones are trying new stuff. I really hope it works out.