June 20, 2010

The friendly skies

I have moved to flying Southwest Airlines lately. Their prices are generally very competitive, and since they don't charge for checking luggage, there are less hidden charges to think about when pricing a flight. The fact that they don't charge for checked luggage doesn't prevent passengers from trying to cram a suitcase into the overhead bin, but I'm betting it is even worse on other airlines.

And Southwest has an understood culture of having a little fun on the job. There are generally a few jokes during the announcements, probably to prevent you from tuning them out. One of the standard announcements is to put on your oxygen mask before helping another (so you have the ability to help). The Southwest joke is to put on your mask before picking your favorite child to help next.

The crew on the first leg of my trip was just like any other airline, but the second leg had more fun at their job. The gal doing the exits/seatbelt/oxygen mask presentation fastened the 1970's style seatbelt around her head like a headband, and the oxygen mask became a hat. I am sure this not only helps keep her job light and fun, but she can tell who is paying attention by their reaction. Later she walked down the aisle sporting a glue-on black mustache. Even when she was in the jumpseat chatting with another flight attendant, she was all smiles. I have to say, it is great to be around folks who have fun at their jobs (or are at least great at faking it).

Southwest is general admission, with no assigned seats. The earlier you check in, the closer you are to the front of the line to have your pick of seats. I can imagine the folks stepping on the plane when it is partially full, scan the seats for an appropriate seat mate, trying to deduce in seconds whether they want to sit next to this person for a couple of hours. Are they chatty, fidgety, an armrest hog, angry or happy travelers? I was on the flights early, so I was the subject of scrutiny.

Not that I look forward to flying, but I don't really dread it. It is a quiet time of no cell phone or internet access. A time to catch up on reading or writing. I am not a chatty flier, and I ended up drawing similarly quiet seat mates on my two flights. The woman across the aisle was very chatty, and I can only hope the woman in the center seat was interested in passing the time hearing stories about random family members. (I would not have been).

I make a point of being polite and friendly to most everyone in the service industry. They often take the brunt of the public's frustration, sometimes quite unfairly. I greeted the TSA agent checking ID with a smile and a hearty "good morning". She returned the favor by looking at my ID and saying "looks like you've lost weight". Nice way to start the morning and my vacation.

On a flight in December, a passenger started popping off to one of the flight attendants. You could tell he was the type to treat service people as his personal punching bag, dismissing the flight attendant with a wave of his hand. The flight attendant was not willing to take it, but gave the passenger one chance to back off/calm down. When he did not, the flight attendant disappeared for a moment before returning to escort the passenger off the flight. The passenger backpedaled and immediately became conciliatory. The flight attendant kept at him, making sure there would be no further disturbances, before agreeing to let him stay on the plane. The captain actually stopped by five minutes later to make sure there would be no more trouble.

I have to say, it was nice to see them stand up against the rude treatment. The customer is not always right. You have to pretend they are 95% of the time, but there is no reason to accept personal abuse.

Airline flights are getting tougher to enjoy with diminishing leg room, disappearing perks, and added fees, but it certainly could be a lot worse. There was talk a little while ago of allowing cell phones to be active during flights. I hope this never comes to pass. It is one thing to have a seat mate engage you in conversation when you are not interested, but quite another to listen to half a conversation, inches from your ear, with no ability to get away from it.

And there is even talk about charging for carry-on bags and bathroom visits. Please, just give me the price up front, and get me there on time with minimal hassle. I promise to be quiet and behave.

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