I love a good long flight. Put me in an economy class seat on a decent airline for 14 hours, and I’m perfectly happy to pass the hours watching movies and devouring books on my Kindle.
Notice the key phrase: a decent airline.
Decent airlines are scarce in the U.S., with an avalanche of nickel-and-diming paired with increasingly cramped airplanes. Then put that on a route that just long enough to be international, but not quite long enough for U.S. based airlines to consider bringing their A Game.
Our recent trip to Costa Rica really brings that into focus: We flew there on two of the three big U.S. legacy carriers – American Airlines and United Airlines. Both flights arrived safely and relatively on-time. At this point, that seems to be the only aim, with on-time more than negotiable.
So what exactly is the problem?
First of all, we live in Phoenix. That means that direct flights to Costa Rica are seasonal, and our flight wasn’t scheduled for the right season. We connected in Dallas via American Airlines. Connections always make things a bit tricky. Fortunately, nothing ran late.
But let’s talk a bit about the seats: The first flight was an Airbus A320, with the second let being a Boeing 737. Both had slimline seats that were absolutely jammed into the seat in front. I’d guess a 30-inch seat pitch. Fortunately, my wife and I had a 3-year-old passenger between us, so we were able to steal her legroom. The seats on the United planes – a 737 from San Jose and an A320 from Houston – were slightly better.
Then there’s the baggage fees. I’ve never flown on an international flight that charged for checked baggage. These "short international" flights seem to get treated like domestic flights, which is really odd to me.
Then there’s the cabin service. American Airlines came out way ahead of United by providing a cold sandwich on the flight from Dallas to San Jose. United had buy on board options on their menu. But apparently they’d sold out on the previous flight. We shrugged it off at the time: Houston has some great food options in the concourse, and we allowed just enough time to pick something up. But, no: An aircraft that was late to push back from our scheduled gate cost us at least 15 minutes. That piled on top of having to go through Immigration and re-check out baggage. We arrived at our gate seven minutes before pushback. And even though there was a grab-and-go restaurant right next to the gate, the gate agents waved us onto the plane as if we were the last ones who would board (we were actually far from it). Fortunately, a brewery near our house was still serving pizza once we got out of the airport (Thank you, McFate, for always being awesome!). Oh, and did I mention that United managed to leave my wife’s backpack in Houston?
As for the flight attendants, they varied from flight to flight. The first United crew seemed entirely disinterested in their self-loading cargo. The second was far better, with one flight attendant getting some water to our thirsty 3-year-old before the beverage service (we didn’t have a chance to fill bottles on the mad sprint through the terminal).
What’s to be done about this? My hope is that carriers like JetBlue or even foreign carriers start putting the screws to airlines like American and United. I’m perfectly happy to pay slightly more for airlines that don’t charge for checked luggage on international flights, that have good schedules and that offer decent, consistent service in the cabin (that last one is possible – I’ve seen it in airlines abroad).
It would be nice to see a U.S. airline say "air travel can be awesome, and we’re going to make it so."
It’s a long shot, which is why I always try to book international flights on foreign carriers (Asiana is amazing, with Qantas, SAS and Lufthansa also being pretty solid). Foreign flag carriers seem to realize that they’re often a visitor’s first impression of our country, or a resident’s welcome home. It would be awesome to see an US-based airline make it their mission to act accordingly. Flying can be fun, but our country’s legacy carriers seem determined to make it a drag.