Off the Cliff? Airline Apocrypha, or How Far Do We Push these Planes?


By Shawn StJean

Awhile back, I wrote in this space about what many see as the imminent collapse of the US Postal Service.  It’s strange to me that, when the competitive system was only hurting the little guy, the Moms and Pops’ storefronts, we could afford to ignore it.  But clearly package-delivery companies are not the only corporate entities feeling the crunch.  Some are people-delivery systems.

I had the opportunity to fly on one of our domestic airlines for a quick holiday round-trip to see family recently.  I won’t name this company specifically, because I suspect the multi-rival travel industry puts them all under about equal pressure: enough to pop one’s ears, that is.  And I sincerely believe that the vast majority of employees are doing their best.  But the company itself resembles, from the perspective of an observant customer, and on the operational side at least, one big World War II submarine: there are repairs aplenty being conducted on the fly (though I didn’t actually see any holes in hulls being field-patched,) minor crises have become routine rather than exceptional, and the whole concern needs to be drydocked to assess and overhaul.

I made two journeys along the east coast, of two legs each, with two layovers, and flew on four different models of plane.  On paper, pretty typical.  Here is what occurred during those experiences.

1) Of the four, three flights left the gate over twenty minutes behind schedule.  The last was delayed over two hours.  During that time, at least within the first half-hour (delays were parceled out in 30-minute chunks, so that one could never really know when we were ever going to depart,) I overheard airline clerks tell customers a baldface lie:  that “air traffic was congested.”  Immediately smelling a rat, I was able to use my extra time to perambulate the terminal until I found a good, high window for a vantage point, and observe our aircraft.  A small two-man crew had several avionics hatches open, with tools in evidence.  I also observed the large scoreboard-like monitor for the ground crews, which is invisible from the passenger boarding areas.  It clearly stated that our APU had failed and needed to be restarted.   I’m no aircraft mechanic, but I’ve played with home computers long enough to know that Processing Units of any kind are pretty important.  When we finally boarded–several passengers had hopelessly lost future connections at this point–the Captain saw fit to clear the air: “I don’t know what they told you, but we have twenty-six computers on board, and they were not communicating with each other.”

2)  During another of my layovers, a loudspeaker announced to the passengers of my neighboring gate that there would be no restroom service aboard, and that they had better satisfy those needs before embarking.  Hmm.  So, broken pipes?  No plumber?  I don’t have an FAA handbook in front of me, but I’m not sure that’s even legal.

3) As we left the tarmac and headed into the friendly skies, one aircraft experienced enough bad harmonics to drop a passenger’s oxygen mask apparatus next to me, while on my other side, the plastic window partition vibrated shut.  Trying to occupy my attention with some less-alarming distraction, I opened the airline magazine, where the CFO informed me in his greeting editorial that the airline planned to purchase twelve new jets during this fiscal year.  This gentlemen went to lengths to explain how difficult it is to complete these types of transactions.  Fair enough.  But Sir, your fleet is clearly getting old–are you sure twelve is enough? Or, is it rather, all you can afford?

On the plus side, we had one very witty flight attendant, who made light of the safety briefing by slyly inserting words like “screaming” into his spiel, to the amusement of those listening to that never-gets-old seatbelt lecture.  Sometimes when you can’t cry about something, you gotta laugh.

At this point, it’s hard to see what’s keeping Jet Blue, with all its improvements in customer experience, from sweeping some of these other players from the board.

I’m not going to quibble with the reduced and missing beverage services and the luggage hassles and the attempt to lift an extra $25 from me for a “preferred” seat in coach, as if I were an idiot.  And airport security delays can’t be blamed on the airlines.  Clearly there are bigger issues at stake.  Safety issues.  We’ve all heard in the media how little pilots, co-pilots, and other key airline personnel can make for a living.  All these signs are in evidence.  So what don’t we know?

So take a stroll about the concourse next time you’re delayed–it won’t be long–and see what you can spot behind the curtain.

But don’t forget, either, to take a good look in the mirror as you’re hunched in the cozy confinement of your plane’s aft bathroom (coach customers must use only the rear one, remember–assuming it’s open.)  Because with our need/demand for low fares (which in some cases can be less expensive than driving, especially if you factor in the total costs of owning an automobile, not just gas and tolls,) we are virtually forcing these companies to cut every corner.  It’s easy to blame the competitive, capitalist system, which once again clearly fails us regular mortals here.  But we’re the end users; you and I are the bums in those seats. This isn’t like buying a knockoff Keurig–if it burns your coffee, leaks, smells funny, oh well, you throw it away.

Is this worth it?  How long before the crash?


2 thoughts on “Off the Cliff? Airline Apocrypha, or How Far Do We Push these Planes?

  1. I guess they are getting hit hard by fuel costs. I believe it’s a symptom of the decline in availability of cheap, easily accessible oil. At the same time, the KXL pipeline is being fought by coalitions of activists in 2 countries, at both ends and multiple places in between. I think it will continue to get worse until we as a species figure out what’s really important to us and allocate resources accordingly. Meantime I wouldn’t be surprised if the impending crash involves much more than an airplane or two.


    • shawnst says:

      I read an article in this month’s Sun (liberal magazine w/out ads) by a fella who attributed most of human ills today to dependence on fossil fuels–did a pretty convincing job, too.


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