Thursday, March 1, 2012


I don’t want to seem like some whining travel diva, but please remind me to sever all relations with United Airlines. No more “Mileage Plus” for me. Plus what? Discomfort? Delays? Snippy service? Fees and charges every which way you look?

Look, I know that air travel is pretty much a nightmare for us all these days. So many humans on this small planet are on the move. We are a global community. I know that resources are scarce, and that airlines must find ways to economize on fuel, to contribute toward a sustainable future. I recognize that I was brought up in a world that no longer exists—a world where air travel was a luxury and passengers were treated like valued guests and not like cattle to be herded as expeditiously as possible from one place to the next. My first flight ever, on a BOAC Viking turboprop from London to Paris, in the early 1950s is still a cloud of heady memory, a dream.

Yesterday was something of a nightmare. Again, I hope this won’t sound like one long complaint. I just think it’s important to tell the truth. First, UA, you should know that I booked this flight months ago, requesting what used to be known as an “upgrade” using the long-accumulated miles on the credit card you entrusted to my care. I have used it faithfully. Over what must now be at least ten years, maybe fifteen, I have charged enormous sums of money, assured of your “rewards” for my patronage. At first, the upgrade system worked quite nicely. Ellie and I appreciated the benefit, particularly, of being able to move from economy to business class on longer flights. Now, instead of making good on the promise you hold out in order to attract my business, you tell me I must wait. I wait patiently, calling every so often to remind you of my request. Up to the very day before the flight, you tell me I must wait—but that I am now “eligible” for an upgrade, available to a $75 “co-pay” at the airport. At the check-in desk, I hear that I must wait again, until I reach the gate. And at the gate you tell me there are no upgrades available.

I don’t know about you, UA, but I consider this to be pretty shabby treatment.

Herded to the very last row in the airplane, right by the door to the toilets—much in demand, I learn—I discover that there is no room for my carry-on bag. Oh, I forgot: at the check-in desk, I paid a $25 fee for the privilege of checking the larger of my two bags. I’m carrying lots of books, you see, on my way to a conference in New York. My fellow passengers have, for the most part, chosen to spare themselves the extra cost—who can blame them?—and have brought their sometimes sizeable baggage on board with them. Not surprisingly, every storage bin is filled. The flight attendant points vaguely back along the jammed aisle and suggests, helpfully, that I find another bin further back. Some hope. Eventually, I do find one with just enough space for the bag, but not enough for a coat and hat. My belongings end up spread around the aircraft. I worry that I’ll forget some piece of all of it.

I don’t like the new 757. It feels cramped. The aisle is narrow. The audio and video systems, in the steerage cabin at least, are deplorable. The light is so bad that even with your overhead light it’s almost impossible to read. The plane shudders, constantly. I’m no aircraft designer, but I wonder if this might have to do with lighter materials used in the plane’s construction, in the interests of fuel economy. No food service, of course, unless you pay for it. Having asked ahead of time, I brought a sandwich with me from the airport.

Not the crew’s fault, certainly, but the approach to the landing at JFK was the bumpiest I have ever experienced. I’m sure it must have been the climatic conditions, but I wondered again whether it might not have something to do with the plane’s construction. The shuddering and swaying were extreme, quite alarming at times. I was happy to be back on terra firma.

New York was curiously alienating last evening. From my hotel, once unpacked, I strolled south through a cold drizzle to Times Square in search of a bite to eat. Finding nothing very tempting, I stopped into a bar for a glass of wine and a bowl of soup and sat for an hour in front of a vast TV screen playing the Knicks game at ear-searing volume. The bowl of soup never came. The bar attendant would not let me pay the bill until a manager had come to “see” me, presumably to assure with his own eyes that I had lost patience and canceled my order. I waited patiently for the manager, who never arrived. I left too much money for the glass of wine and walked out. Bought a take-out bowl of chili and brought it back to my room. Watched the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Got a welcome laugh out of that…

… and remembered to have a chuckle at myself.

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