Airsnark’s Unscientific Guide To The Airlines – ON BOARD AMENITIES

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Airsnark’s Unscientific Guide To The Airlines – SAFETY

As I start this five part series on my own ranking of the airlines, I have to say that these rankings are all of my own choosing, and have to do solely by my experiences first hand, or because of things I’ve read (from credible sources).

So when you’re ready to go on a trip, be it a once in a lifetime trip or that twice a week slog across the continent, you’re probably not thinking about safety.  As a matter of fact, unless there has been a recent high profile airline crash, chances are that you’re probably not thinking about safety at all.  But safety is, first and foremost, how we can rest assured that our travel is going to get us from point A to point B without any hiccups.

I’m going to break these into the good, the okay, and the “WTF were you thinking?”.  And they are

  • The Good
    • Frontier Airlines
    • Alaska Airlines
    • Southwest Airlines
  • The Okay
    • Southwest Airlines
    • United Airlines
  • The “WTF were you thinking?”
    • American Airlines
    • US Airways
    • Skywest Airlines
    • Delta Airlines

Why did Frontier come out on top?  I haven’t flown them in a few years, but whenever I did, I almost always ended up in the exit row.  And you know that little schpiel that you’re given whenever you sit in the exit row?  Frontier stands heads and tails above the rest, because they didn’t pull the crap that most airlines do, which is, “You’re in the exit row, say yes that you understand your responsibilities. Thank you.”  No, Frontier was freaking serious about what they considered safety.  If you sat in that exit row, you normally got the regular schpiel, but you also got a lesson on how to evacuate the plane.  For instance, did you know that when there are 3 people in the exit row that each has a different job?  The one closest to the door opens the emergency exit (and disposes as needed), climbs out onto the wing, and drops the the ground below.  The person in the middle seat climbs out the window and stands on the wing, just outside the emergency exit.  Finally, the person on the aisle stands up where they are seated.  They are to help direct people to the exit, where the middle-seat person helps them out of the plane, and then sends the pax down to the waiting window-seated person.  The aisle-seated person is technically the last person off the plane.

I bet you didn’t know that, did you?  Unless you’ve flown Frontier.

Beyond that awesome briefing (which should be mandatory on every airline), Frontier mechanics have gotten into trouble for making sure their planes are airworthy.  Who else remembers the Frontier plane that got struck by lightning, and was being inspected between flights at DIA?  And while the pilot pushed to leave, the mechanic didn’t want the plant to take off, for safety reasons.  When he was overruled, he stopped the plane by throwing a chuck (a wooden block that they put under the tires to keep the plane in place) into the engine.  Some see this as illegal or sabotage – but I can see concerned about a potentially unsafe plane taking to the air.  For a young airline (Frontier was still flying 737s back then – they’re now all Airbus), it could have been devastating.

Second, I have Alaska Airlines.  Now if this was just post flight AS261 (the MD80 that went down in the Pacific, killing all on board due to shoddy maintenance), then Alaska may not be this high up on the list.  Thing is, Alaska learned from that, and suddenly proper maintenance and passenger safety became a higher priority.

I’ve actually gotten the whole big “passenger evacuation” schpiel on Alaska a couple of times, but really rare.  The thing is, though, they’ve taken security very serious.  For example, there was an incident that I watched play out, where someone who was seated in the emergency exit row didn’t speak English.  The Flight Attendant actually stopped the plane from taxiing when it was revealed (thus another reason for more than just a cursory  “Yes” at the safety question) and they moved the passenger.  I’ve also watched them move people that they didn’t consider capable of sitting in the exit row.

The “Okay” list includes Southwest and United.  Now there’s nothing really special about either of these airlines, and absolutely nothing sticks out in my mind whenever I’ve flown either.  I know that at one point there was a question as to where Southwest was doing their heavy maintenance (possible outsourcing to Latin America, where the FAA doesn’t certify the mechanics), but I don’t know whatever became of that.  As a matter of fact, I’m going to put out a letter to all the Majors, and ask where B, C, and D maintenance checks are performed (in house, outsourced, etc).

Then comes the “WTF were you thinking?” list.  And this list goes from least to most worrisome in my head, starting with American Airlines.

Now overall, American isn’t really bad, though I’ve had one scary situation.  I flew DFW to LAS for work, and had to spend the 4 hour flight standing.  Why?  Well, I purchased a ticket and was flying on an MD80 in the 2 side exit row.  The man next to me was absolutely ginormous.  Not his fault – I’m not going to be put out because of a large passenger.  But the thing is, he was in the window seat next to me on the 2 side exit row – and the man was so large that A) I couldn’t fit in my seat if we both were seated and B) if that emergency exit had to be opened, he would have absolutely not fit through it.

American handled the situation horribly (more on that in the upcoming customer service post), and the only official word that I had was from a gate agent who said that American couldn’t discriminate against someone just because they were large.  I didn’t care about the man’s size – just that he would have not fit through the emergency exit.  And were there an emergency, I’m not sure exactly what would have happened.

Next comes American’s suitor, US Airways.  Now I can say that there’s still a definitive split here at US Airways, with them and America West.  America West is a more professional, more safety conscious airline – but for all intents and purposes, they don’t exist anymore.  I’ve been on flights (plural) where flight attendants were more interested in standing around talking than checking to see if pax were wearing their seatbelts when the sign comes on.  My last trip on them ended with the lead FA and her “best friend” male FA stood up in the galley, hooting and hollering and just having a fun time – which is fine.  But they never picked up the cabin from a 2.5 hour flight, they never got people to put away tray tables, and it came as a shock to them that we touched down while they were still standing around talking.

Now people don’t understand the big deal about a tray table down during landing – but think of it this way.  Your tray table is out and usually has a metal ring around it (and is comprised of hard plastic), making it rather sturdy.  You land and hit something (not unheard of!) and are forced forward into the seat in front of you.  Think about this – what’s going to give way first – the hard, sturdy tray table, or your squishy organs?  I’ll take being cut in half for $200, Alex.

Then we get to Skywest Airlines.  Now it’s true that they were named one of the 10 most dangerous airlines (though there’s a well deserved refutation of how that came to be).  Thing is, this doesn’t have to do with accidents.  Rather, it has to do with maintenance issues.  Specifically, I was flying Skywest as a regional carrier for United this past Summer, and out of 8 flights, only 3 of them were not delayed by maintenance.  Otherwise every one of the other 5 flights had a maintenance delay of between 15 minutes and 3 hours.  Now it’s just a maintenance delay, right?  Well tell me WTH is going on that a plane needs that much maintenance.  The night of our 3 hour maintenance delay in O’Hare, there were 4 other Skywest operated flights from nearby gates – and every single one of them also had a maintenance delay.  Think about it – five planes at five gates, all with maintenance delays. Exactly what happens to these planes when they’re supposed to be taken care of during routine maintenance?  Or is the airline performing maintenance whenever there’s a flight.  Whatever the case, I had such lack in trust for Skywest that I abandoned flying United altogether – and told them why.

And finally we get to the bottom of the barrel, which in my personal opinion is Delta Airlines.  There are so many damn issues that it’s hard to classify them all.  From pax that get up and walk around during the plane’s taxi (and flight crews not doing anything about it, much less stopping the plane or calling the cockpit), to leaving unqualified people in the exit row.  I boarded a plane to Amsterdam after watching Delta put an elderly couple in a wheelchair in the exit row.  I’ve seen them not even ask people in the exit row if they were okay.  Hell, one of the first picture I ever tweeted was this:

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If you can’t make it out, it’s a disabled woman with a cane looking out the emergency exit, which she is seated next to.

But probably the biggest thing was when I watched two passengers get into it.  The person in the middle seat wanted the exit row windowshade opened, while the person at the window wanted it closed.  Everyone knows the most important (and most dangerous) parts of flight are takeoff and touchdown – and that windowshades need to be open.  The middle seat pax contacted a flight attendant to try and force the window seat passenger to open the windowshade, but the flight attendant took the window seat passenger’s side, saying it could be closed if they wanted.

Sorry, but windowshades need to be open at least during takeoff and touchdown.  The only airline that I know that had this as part of their safety briefing was TWA, but when American took them over in 2001, that went away.

So that’s AirSnark’s guide to passenger safety rankings of the airlines – all my own personal opinion.  You may have other experiences, and that’s fine – but this is how I see it.

Next rankings should be less contentious – onboard amenities!

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Like GRR needs more expensive flights…

For six months in 2010, I flew into GRR airport (Grand Rapids, Michigan) every week.  The thing that got me?  I was paying a buttload of cash just to fly into there, or the tiny AZO (Kalamazoo) airport to the South.  Never failed; there were about a dozen consultants, though I was coming from the farthest, since I’m West Coast based, and my tickets were always around $1,000 per week.

A few times I flew on Frontier, one of the only LCCs to fly into GRR.  And now, Frontier just announced that they’re getting out of the GRR market.

Sources say that it’s because Southwest is going in there.  AirTran has been in GRR for a while, but apparently now parent Southwest is going to move in as well.  Will it have an effect on the $1,000 airfares?  I doubt it.  Why?  Because it’s not really had an effect in Atlanta.  So why should it have an effect elsewhere?  Higher fares – and fewer flights, on more and more unreliable aircraft (can you say ‘maintenance delay’?) – are here to stay, it seems.

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Airbus factory in Alabama?

Okay, so I know I’ve ranted in the past about navigate to this web-site.com/2011/07/19/hey-american-air-how-about-you-buy-your-namesake/”>“patriotically named” airlines that don’t fly American planes.  It’s a particular pet peeve of mine.  I mean “US Airways (brought to you by a European consortium)” and “American Airlines (soon to be brought to you in part by a European consortium)” – that bugs me.  We make planes here in the United States; airlines, how about you buy them?  Alaska and Southwest has been doing rather well standardized on the Boeing 737.  Continental was all Boeing, until United grabbed them up.  But hopefully with Continental’s CEO at the helm of United, that “Buy American” attitude will continue.

But all that may change soon…  Airbus has factories in France and China, but they’re about to build a plant in Alabama, in Mobile – the town I was born in.  This is cool – but still, it’s still not an American plane.  So it bugs me, but not as much as it did before.

Don’t listen to me…  I’m bitter since my two favorite planes – the Boeing 757 and the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 – were put to pasture.  There’s just something about being a passenger on one of the classic birds; just on your taxi out, you can feel how much the plane wants to escape the bonds of Earth, and glide along the wind.

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HRC Rankings of Airlines, Hotels, etc. and a Word about United

For those of you that aren’t familiar, HRC stands for The Human Rights Campaign, which is the leading LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) rights organization.  Okay, so you’re not part of the LGBT community.  That’s fine.  There’s 10% of the population that is, and there are people who will often choose organizations based on their corporate actions (how they treat women and minorities, including LGBT workers).

I’m happy to say that my 3 primary airlines (Alaska Air, American Airlines, and Delta) and my primary hotel chain (Marriott) all have a 100% rating from the HRC.  If you look down the list, there are others; Southwest has a 95 rating, United has an 88 rating, Hertz Rent a Car has a 70 rating, with Skywest one of the lowest at 15, and Frontier and Midwest both with big honking 0 ratings.  (Personally, I didn’t know that about Frontier; I was going to fly them in January to see how they’ve changed since the last time I’ve flown them in 2010; now I know I won’t even bother!).

Now talking about United specifically.

So they have an 88% rating with the Human Rights Campaign, which means they can do better.  And what’s the first thing they should do?  They should address the ugly issue that came up this past weekend where a gay couple was denigrated when trying to use a United Club in Denver, including being called “faggots” and “idiots”, among other stuff.

So come on, United.  Denounce this manager’s action and use it as a teaching opportunity for your entire organization.

Personally, I don’t see this happening.  I’ve flown United a dozen times over the last ten years, and every time (without fail), the customer service is downright horrid.  I mean talking down to passengers, at a minimum.  Last time I flew them, I was standing near the gate desk in SFO, and the 3 flight crew were ten feet from me – and were talking smack about passengers.  It’s like a trained thing for United flight crews; day 1 is emergency training, days 2 through 5 is “creative customer insulting”.

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A New Reason To Hate Southwest Airlines

Okay, so Southwest doesn’t have the absolute best reputation out there.  Sure, they’re the low-cost carrier of choice for cattle-car service.  But they’ve had quite a number situations that’ve left them with a bad taste in travelers mouths.  You know.  Like the whole Kevin Smith “too fat to fly” controversy.  But his was just the latest of Southwest’s crappy behavior.

There is, however, a silver lining.  It may not be that passenger next to you that Southwest threatened if they encroached on your seat to beware of.  It may be your pilot.

Seems some pilot who A) is a pig and B) obviously hasn’t been laid in years and C) has such an ugly personality that I don’t care if he looks like the lovechild of Brad Pitt and Hugh Jackman, he has such an ugly soul, went on the radio – you know, that little communication device that pilots use to talk to the control towers so they don’t, I don’t know – run into each other on the ground and in the air – and went on an anti-gay, anti-anyone who isn’t a bimbo tirade, complaining that Southwest isn’t hiring enough bimbos for him to date.

Seriously.

So yeah, he didn’t do it on purpose.  He just accidentally kept his microphone keyed so that others couldn’t use his frequency.  I know I do that whenever I want to go on an anti-gay, anti-anyone who isn’t a bimbo tirade.

Good news is Southwest figured out who he was and suspended him.  Bad news is, he still actually has a job.  You think this guy is going to keep it?  He probably will, though really he shouldn’t.  Southwest calls the situation “a family issue”.  Yeah, well, you got a sick fuck in your family, Southwest.  Time to dump his ass.  Besides him being an idiot, he endangered anyone who was in the air departing or landing at Houston Hobby, and anyone on the ground.  Why not – I don’t know – fire him and give him to some misogynistic republican candidate for President to fly for?  At least there he’ll be flying with “family values” people who actually believes the same things he does.

And a shout-out to any Southwest flight attendants out there: Fly with this guy, and give him a cup of scalding hot coffee from me.  In his lap.

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You want to know why I fly Southwest as little as possible?

Read this.  It’s a story on Today in the Sky about a short & thin woman who paid full fare to fly standby on Southwest, from Vegas to Sacramento.  She got the last seat on a plane – and was immediately berated AND told to get off. Why?  Because there was a large passenger on the plane that needed both seats.  Thing is, they didn’t make the pax purchase two seats, as is their “policy”.

I know how airlines treat larger customers differs.  I’m larger, but I certainly don’t need either a seatbelt extender OR a second seat.  But Southwest is showing their true unprofessionalism in their reaction to the story.  A quote from the story/Southwest:

McInnis adds to the Bee that the airline’s staff also may have been reluctant to put the teenage girl into a possibly embarrassing situation.

I’m sorry, what?  Yes, it was an unaccompanied minor.  But that minor had a parent or guardian that dropped them off – they didn’t just show up at the airport.  Southwest KNEW about the large teen at one point.  And when they had the chance to do something about it, they chose not to.  Then the decide they didn’t want to put the girl into an “embarrassing situation”.  Bullshit.  They’re diverting the subject of the debate from their own poor business practices on to an unsuspecting girl.

Director Kevin Smith had an issue with Southwest that didn’t go well for them.  I’m trying to find the story about a woman who flew PDX -> SMF just fine, then was not allowed to fly back SMF -> PDX because Southwest refused her boarding because she was “too fat”.  That was probably 2006 or the like.

Inconsistent business practices create inconsistent business.  Screw you, Southwest!

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When good business decisions go bad

Usually a company will make a business decision, evaluate, and then implement. I’m going to pick on a company that I personally love, because they are about to do this very thing. But they made the wrong decision. It’s about Alaska Airlines and their commitment to WiFi aboard all of their planes.

Yeah, on-board servicing is good.  Airlines make billions of dollars in “add on” fees.  In 2009, the largest airlines combined to make almost eight BILLION ($8,000,000,000) in fees ALONE!  So adding something like WiFi, which is a nominal amount of capital for a large return, is a no brainer.  Alaska tested a service called Row 44 for their WiFi service on N644AS, a 737-800.  And it was GOOD.  Excellent service, because it was satellite based, not ground-transmitter based.  I used it, several times.  Blazing speeds, perfect results.  I was even able to stream video from my home television via my Slingbox, and had PERFECT service.  How’s that for watching an NHL playoff game on a plane that has no onboard entertainment, sans digEplayer units that contain static content?

All was perfect.  Customers were happy.  Customers were able to use the service no matter where Alaska flew.  And then Alaska grew.  They weren’t only going to be in Alaska and the “lower 48” (plus Mexico and Canada), but as of this fall, 10% of their market will be service to Hawaii, from several West Coast cities.

And then Alaska threw out Row 44 in favor of Aircell.  A service that is LAND based.  A service that means NO service on flights to Hawaii.  And problems outside 100 miles of the 48 states, so as for Mexico and Canada service, not so much.  And even flights to the namesake state of Alaska will be hampered until you are in US airspace.

What kind of plan is that?  It’s a plan that’ not so good.  When you are going to admit that you are already going to cut out profit potential by about 15% to 20% (10% Hawaiian service, probably another 5% to 10% in service to Mexico, Canada, and travel to Alaska via Canada), that is a business model couched in failure.  But why are they doing  it?  Well Southwest wants to get their planes outfitted with Row 44.  So Alaska is going to get on the Aircell/GoGo In Flight Internet bandwagon along with American, Delta, blah blah blah.

Add WiFi to planes.  Good.  Sacrifice a good business plan for an asinine reason?  Come on, Alaska.  You’re better than that!

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Are all mainstream airlines run by morons?

That’s what I think, especially when it comes to the “flying standby” thing.  Let me lay the groundwork here.

First, there was 9/11, and nobody wanted to fly.  Airlines parked planes in the desert.  Then more economic downturns, and again, more planes parked in the desert.  Things were steady for a little while, and then the idiots who play with derivatives trading ruined the economy, and wow, more planes got parked, airlines stopped buying planes, yadda yadda yadda.

So, we have a few less people flying, with a DRASTIC reduction in the number of airplane seats available.  Thus, more people per plane.  Fares went up, but that wasn’t good enough, so airline executives came up with “charging for checked luggage”, did away with free food, and even did away with free drinks (thank you, US Airways! They wanted to charge $2 for a cup of soda or coffee until people rebelled).  So one of the last things they did was get rid of the free standby flights.  You know, like if you have a four hour layover, and there is an earlier flight going out to your destination, you used to be able to get on it as long as there were seats.  Not anymore.

I was flying on an Alaska Airlines ticket with my MVP Gold status (gotta love Alaska/Horizon!), but had a connection on American. Now I’m Platinum on American, but traveling on my Alaska frequent flier number.  I get to Chicago early (ODD, I know!) and see that there’s a flight leaving in 30 minutes for my final destination.  I roll up to the counter and ask to get on it, hoping it’s not full.  The gate agent looks at me and says, “I’m sorry but we have a new policy; you’re not allowed to board.”  I asked if he had seats, which he said yes.  I then told him I was American Platinum.  His face totally changed, and he instantly printed me a boarding pass, so I go to get on the plane.

The plane was an EMB145, which seats about 50 people.  There couldn’t have been more than 12 people on that plane when I boarded.  WTF, American?  You’d rather a plane go out mostly 75% empty rather than let someone on?  Who in the hell came up with THAT business model?  Thing is, that later flight that I was supposed to be on was A) the last of the night and B) was packed.  They very well could have left other passengers stranded in Chicago for the night.  I was doing them a FAVOR by offering to go early.

The only airline that did this whole “standby” thing correctly (post 9/11) for any non-elite status holding PAX was the old NorthWest (though JetBlue and Air Tran are doing a good job today).  See, if you wanted to go standby, you would give them your credit card number and if you got on the plane, it was $15.  They only charged you once your plane landed in your destination city.  You weren’t charged if not.  Such a deal!  But carriers these days are totally screwed up.  United is changing their policy as of today, probably to match American.  Southwest is horrid – if there’s a fare difference, you have to pay it.  There was a famous scene in the Southwest reality TV series where they wouldn’t let a PAX change their ticket until they paid $1.  ONE SINGLE DOLLAR.  Nice, eh?

So you moronic people who run airlines these days.  Your PAX already pretty much hate you as is; stop giving them more reasons to hate you more!

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