Near Yellow Mountain

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Flying the Unfriendly Skies - an American Story

The tag line of United Airlines for many years was “fly the friendly skies” but like so many other American inventions, the friendly skies have moved to Asia. On a downward slide during the 80s and the 90s, after 9/11/2001 the American airlines slid even further into mediocrity.  Airports became increasingly unhappy places. The “war on terror” also seemed to become a war on fliers - on the ground and in the air. As the industry restructured, long term airline employees lost salary and perks and took it out on passengers. The TSA functions more like the “keystone cops” than anything else but most Americans puts up with the incompetence thinking they are being patriotic and doing their part in the “war on terror”. Low paid and often incompetent, our TSA airport security force often behaves like middle school bullies devoid of common sense. Of course, there are many hard working, diligent people working for the TSA but a bad system generally yields bad results and this is the story of the TSA.
Anyone traveling through the major airports in Asia – Narita in Tokyo, Changi in Singapore, Inchon in Seoul, or Hong Kong understands that airport security can be fast and in most cases courteous. Not so in the US where we would rather waste hundreds of thousands of man hours in productivity per year by forcing people to spend time in long airport security lines in lieu of more productive pursuits. Americans put up with it so it is not likely to change.
As someone that flies over 200,000 miles a year on United Airlines over 100,000 miles on Singapore Airlines and is also a “million miler” on American Airlines, I am a reasonably good judge of the service levels of carriers on both sides of the Pacific. As a global services member of United’s frequent flyer program, I know I get the best service they offer. I appreciate all the perks of being a global service member and how easy it is to book free flights for family members but unfortunately a great frequent flyer program cannot overcome a customer service system that is designed to provide a marginal experience in the air at prices higher than their Asian competitors. Normally it costs a few thousand dollars more to fly United from the US to Tokyo than it does to fly Singapore Airlines. Yet Singapore has newer planes, better seats, better entertainment, better food and more attentive flight attendants. Despite flying full planes to Asia and charging more than Singapore Airlines, United still can’t provide top notch service or earn a reasonable profit system wide.
On my current trip to Asia I flew from LAX to Tokyo on Singapore Airlines, after several days I flew to Singapore also on Singapore Airlines. Other segments were on Thai Airways and ANA. On most days, all these airlines provide better service than any American carrier provides.  On these flights the flight attendants checked the manifest and spoke to me by name, made sure I had ample food and drink and generally did what they could to ensure I had a good flight. Despite being a top level flier on American carriers, I almost never get the same level of service on a US airline. The question is why? Why can’t a country that invented most of the major innovations in the 20th century and still has companies like Apple that are the envy of the business world, get out of its own way when it comes to air or rail transportation?
Despite the fact that United has gradually upgraded most of the planes that fly across the Pacific and Atlantic, they have not upgraded the attitudes of most of the men and women that provide service at check-in and in the air.  It is shame that the American Airline industry cannot right the service ills that plague it.  Sorry for the rant but as someone who flies over 100 days a year, I ponder this question more than most people.