26 May 2009

A thought

The following is a Facebook note I just wrote, as I made my way back to Los Angeles from Toronto on Sarah's airline.

I am certainly NOT in a good mood, and Sarah's employer was one of the many reasons today. While I always listen to Rhapsody in Blue, the George Gershwin composition that is the official theme music of United Airlines, whenever I am on a United plane, that was not the case today.

As I travel from Ontario to Ontario...

As in, the Province of Ontario in Canada, to the city of Ontario, east of Los Angeles, in the US state of California (which was named by settlers who had hailed from the Canadian province). Actually, I landed at LAX rather than Ontario Airport, but the title works better with two Ontarios.

I may have been flying quite a bit lately - enough to qualify as Premier (low-level elite customer) at United Airlines - but I still feel excited about taking a trip by air. And if a United flight is involved, it's even better - because of all my past trips on that airline (one reason why I am Premier now) and the fact that I am using the airline as the setting for my novel in progress. Often, seeing the familiar United tail at a faraway hostile airfield (whether it's Amsterdam or Indianapolis) meant a sense of relief - relief that I was now flying to somewhere saner. Just as lovely: showing up over the skies of a great faraway city in a United plane (preferably the Boeing 777). But today, traveling from Ontario to Ontario on United, excitement was the last thing I could find, and it was dread instead.

My first leg took me from Toronto to Chicago, and I was very displeased with the purser, who was an elderly man with a French language pin on his uniform. His announcements seemed to mock the intelligence of his passengers rather than thanking them for their patronage. Examples:

"At this time, all electronics must be off. Not "airplane mode," but completely off."

"Please give your undivided attention to the safety demonstration. If you don't want to, at least shut up so that others can."

"We are preparing to land. Make sure to bring your seatback and tray tables to their upright and locked positions. And wake up any inattentive passengers."

Not even a "thanks for choosing United" after landing, just a whole bunch of insulting instructions. Maybe it was a good thing he didn't rub in his airline's name into his announcement (except for once at the end of the safety demonstration); if this were my first United flight, it would certainly have been my last. Not even a mostly empty Economy Plus section (as opposed to a fairly full Economy Minus) would've been enough to mollify me.

I've seen a number of flight attendants do nonstandard announcements, and those at Southwest and Alaska are quite funny, but I've never experienced such an insult. This brings that old railroad mentality - "passengers are the most obnoxious form of freight" - back to life. Needless to say, I responded to United's post-flight survey and rated this flight very negatively; when a Premier complains, the management certainly better listen. Fortunately, I've had far better luck with the vast majority of United flight attendants, and I will make sure my novel protagonist, Sarah Radcliffe, lives up to the best of their standards (while still having to put up with an occasional cut-rate coworker like the purser today).

The second leg to Los Angeles was to be flown with a Boeing 757, but ended up being flown with an international Boeing 767 featuring the new lie-flat business seats. I was not happy at all with this plane; while the First and Business cabins had been re-done in the curvy 777-style interior and equipped with video-on-demand (VOD), the Economy cabin was still stuck in the 1980s, complete with damaged/stained interior panels, and its seats were the same 9-channel videotaped personal TVs (PTV) from the late 1990s. When the safety video was shown, the VOD showed the full video, but the PTVs went off, requiring flight attendants to do the live demonstrations to the soundtrack for the Economy passengers. If a plane can be grounded/refurbished to upgrade the front half completely, doing some minor tweaks to steerage (and adding VOD) wouldn't have been too much more trouble. Some Economy passengers got re-seated in Business, but they seemed to be Premier Executive at least, higher on the elite hierarchy than I'll ever be.

It did not help that instead of flying from a bad place to a good place, I was flying today from a good place (Toronto, home of North America's first legal gay marriages) to a really bad place (Los Angeles, the first place in the world to revoke legalized gay marriages). And sure enough, as the half-refurbished 767 was descending over San Bernardino, California upheld Proposition 8, the questionable gay marriage ban passed by the theocratic voters after tons of misleading ads from out-of-state and foreign interests. And it didn't help to remember that California is home to not one, but TWO United hubs - Los Angeles and San Francisco.

This was one of the worse air travel days for me (though I've had it worse before - United was once guilty of double-charging penalty on a reservation change, though I did eventually get both charges refunded - and I've once had it even worse on a major competitor that I've never patronized since).

I really look forward to a day in the near future, when I can see the familiar United tail show up to take me away to a better place, and I can actually look forward to the flight. I do want to fly enough in 2009 to keep my Premier status through 2010, and I want to enjoy it while I do it. Today was not one of those days.

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