America's terrible airlines

20:51, Oct 18 2012

The general experience of flying in America, with its increased volume of travellers and elaborate security rituals, is enough as it is. But the actual companies involved in ferrying you through the skies make the situation much, much worse.

Simply put, America has some criminally bad airlines. I've never been able to shake the idea that they are all individually out to get me. 

At best, US domestic aeroplanes will be cramped and you won't get treated rudely. The only luxury you get is a small cup of soft drink (if you specifically request a whole can, you can get one!). Every single little part of the experience is monetised. An exit row costs you $50 or so. Desperate commuters cram large suitcases into small overhead bins to avoid baggage fees (I'm usually one of these people). I've also found lately that the movies usually aren't free anymore. You have to swipe your credit card and pay $5.99 to watch that Zac Efron movie that you don't really need to see, but suspect would be a good way to pass the time.  

Most people who have flown through America have a horrible airline story to share. My specific airline tale revolves around a disastrous United Airlines flight. They have reserved a special place in hell, in my estimation, because of this.

I was flying from Dulles International Airport in Virginia (a major hub that serves Washington D.C.) to Boston in July last year. LP and I took our seats on the flight. The power on the aeroplane kept failing. The lights cut on and off melodramatically. The pilot assured us that they would try to fix this, and if they couldn't it wouldn't matter anyway as the power would fix itself when they turned the engines on. Eventually, they gave up on trying to fix the malfunctioning fuse and turned the engine on, but because of the long delay trying to fix it in the first place, we now ended up in a long queue on the runway. While in this long queue, with our engines running the whole time, our fuel level started to run low (keep in mind that by this point we'd been in the aeroplane for nearly four hours) and we had to turn around and go back to the terminal. When we got back to the terminal, they told us our flight had been cancelled because of severely inclement weather that had just hit Boston. 

American airlines have this rule that's a bit of a doozy, really. They will put you up in a hotel and cover your costs if your flight is cancelled because of a technical error. If your flight gets cancelled because of weather, they will rebook you on the next available flight, but all consequent expenses are on you.


The United Airlines staff informed us that they had no obligation to cover our costs, because our flight was cancelled owing to weather. When we reminded them that if our aeroplane had been working we would have been in Boston three hours before the bad weather hit, they shrugged. They then offered us a new flight that was more than a whole day away. Three service staff were tasked with lying to the faces of the few hundred people who had just spent four hours trapped in a stationary plane. It was not pretty. 

We later wrote to complain to United Airlines, and our concerns were recognised, which was some compensation. The airline awarded us a $250 voucher, for future United Airlines travel! Ha!

This was not even close to an isolated incident. For example, just a fortnight before this trip, United Airlines' staff error meant that LP ended up missing her flight in Bozeman, Montana. Her connecting flight from Chicago to Boston was then cancelled because of mechanical problems. She was on standby for a series of flights but she couldn't get on any of them. They put her up in a hotel, and then her flight out of Chicago the next day was delayed by six hours. 

I had this realisation the other week, while flying from San Francisco to Austin, Texas on JetBlue. I was in my seat and I had a little extra legroom. The plane was relatively new. There was free seatback TV and we were told that we would get a free snack with our soft drink. Throughout my whole flight experience, I had no interactions with any JetBlue staff that left me wanting to hit myself in the forehead as a distraction from searing frustration.      

This was all very impressive to me.

But then it hit me: all it took for an airline to really win me over was a flight where I was not actively uncomfortable, got a small free bag of potato chips, and didn't feel as though I had been aggressively disrespected.

There is a low bar of quality to clear in America.

If this has taught any thing over the past few years, it is that our own national airline is a gem. I often reflect proudly on the fact that Air New Zealand is the best airline I've ever flown on. 

Granted, any domestic flight in New Zealand is only going to be an hour or so long, so the opportunity for pain is small. But its staff are attentive and kind, the planes are clean, they've got that cool trivia game onboard, they're reliably on time, and good at avoiding public relations catastrophes.

The long-haul flights are where Air New Zealand sets itself above the pack. The planes are state-of-the-art, spacious, and relatively comfortable, they at least try to make people in economy feel a little less like abject cattle. The airline then backs this up with good inflight entertainment and okay food (within the context of airline food).

Air New Zealand sets a global template. I think that Virgin Airlines, my second favourite American domestic and international long-haul carrier, succeeds by aping it in style.

So are we ready to accept Air New Zealand for the prize that it is? What's your worst American airline experience?     

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