Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adventures in air travel

Took a quick trip to Phoenix last week. My dear friend Bobby Rich was being inducted into the Arizona Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame and I was there to introduce him. You’d think when you’re inducted into a Hall of Fame people would know you but I guess not. It was a lovely ceremony and a well-deserved honor.

But it meant flying to Phoenix. For me that has always meant Southwest Airlines. At one time I loved Southwest. Just like the girls I loved in college: easy and cheap. But "college" reunions usually result in disappointment. Sorry to say that was the case last week.

Southwest features open seating. It used to be you’d just line up and it was first-come, first serve. Then you had to check in online starting 24 hours before your flight. You were then assigned a place in line. A 1-60, B 1-60, C 1-worst seat in plane. Usually if you checked in sometime during the first three or four hours you made it to the A group. Advantages of the A group: Room in the overhead compartments for your bags, window or aisle seat, more time to read their in-flight magazine.

My flight was Thursday at 8:15 AM. At 8:17 I checked in. My number: B 24. What the fuck? How could 83 other people check in in 90 seconds? This wasn’t like tickets for Streisand.

So I called Southwest. Well, it seems that now if you want a high number it costs extra – as much $40. So all those low fares they advertise? That’s if you want to sit in the last row wedged in between the fat guy and screaming baby.

You are now free to pay more.

However, B-groupers do get their revenge. Let's say you’re an A. You’re on the aisle. There’s an empty seat next to you. You get to watch sixty people size you up and decide they’d rather sit next to someone else. Then you glance back down the aisle and the scary dragon tattoo girl and slob eating a chilidog have their middle seats already filled. Not only did it cost you $40 for the upgrade but you now need six more months of therapy.

Or, you pay the extra $40 and Mr. Chilidog is in the B group and does decide to sit next to you. And since there’s no more room in the overhead bins he has to wedge his bag and computer and second chilidog under his seat (which spills into your seat). You’re sitting in a fetal position with mustard dripping onto your pants. Yeah, there’s money well spent.

Between the TSA inspections, X-rays, hidden fees, reduction in service and amenities, delays, and lost luggage flying anywhere is now an ordeal. And it used to be such fun. Oh well – lost love. Who says you can’t go back again? Probably a Southwest ticket agent.

26 comments:

MikeN said...

You could just buy two tickets.

I think the As are not available. So about 24 people before you checked in in 2 minutes. That's pretty typical.

Rich Shealer said...

You run the risk of an incompatible seatmate no matter who you fly.
I use Southwest whenever I can because my return flight often needs to change, sometimes several times. With other carriers that costs a small fortune. Once I had changed it every day extending the trip to over 10 days. I told the Southwest rep I dreaded calling my wife. She actually offered to call for me. I declined but it was a nice moment.
I’ve had the same problem with the 24hr check-ins getting blown up in seconds. I blame the increase in smartphones making it easier for people to check in.

Rich Shealer said...

@MikeN - Buying two tickets only works if you are large.

Angel said...

Southwest left our luggage sitting outside in a thunderstorm for an hour when we arrived in Orlando. First attraction at Disney World: the laundry room to wash and dry everything. No compensation at all.

Jason said...

Jetblue is just my favorite.. I'd fly them anywhere they fly to, even if it meant paying a bit more (which it usually doesn't)

alkali said...

@Rich Shealer -- bring an empty viola case ($40) and put it on the seat next to you.

MikeBo said...

I'd have to agree with Jason - Jet Blue is the best. I used to take Southwest (and PSA before that) between LA and Sacramento like some people hail a cab. But, "tempus fugit," and Southwest has gone south for the nuclear winter. Once I booked an Alitalia flight to Rome only to find out that the once proud airline had gone bankrupt and was 'partnering" with Delta. It meant an 11 hour non-stop flight that felt like a sardine can with wings. Sadly, the days of "Coffee, Tea, or Me" are way gone along with "we really move our tail for you."

Roger R. said...

Glamour days of air travel are longs gone.
Now, it's like taking the bus.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Roger R.: The exception is first class on Singapore Airlines. I traveled on it from London to Singapore on FF miles once. Not at all like flying as we know it, Jim...

Ken, a Friday question: what is going on in the writers' room of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER this year? For its first four years, this show was funny, fresh, clever, with characters you might want to be friends with played by actors who seemed to genuinely enjoy working together and being on the show. Now, I imagine everyone is worrying about their next job by this time, and I really only expected the key episodes (first couple, last couple, sweeps months maybe) to be any good or have input from the original creators, but this year has just been unbelievably bad - Jason Segal is clearly *actually* phoning in his part from a distant location as he has yet to appear with any of the rest of the main cast. But millions of people watch this show every week. That's not enough motivation? Or is this so far from the A team that this *is* their best work?

wg

Hamid said...

Off-topic - It's been a while since you've posted a movie review, Ken. I was curious to know what you thought of Enough Said, or Captain Phillips, or Escape Plan. OK, I'm kidding about the last one.

Jean said...

Had to check this out -- the $40 fee was new to me. It's new, and it guarantees you an "A" in the first 15 boarded. "A" seat status is also for business class -- which I know when I bought them also gave you priority through security check in.

You can still buy an early bird check in upgrade for 12.50, which can land you in the rest of the "A"s or "B" status.

I don't care as long as I'm in "A" or "B".

But I might have to see if Jet Blue flies to Pittsburgh, PA -- the only place I fly to...I'm willing to see if it's better than Southwest.

I really prefer the puddle jumping Southwest does. Breaking the flight up might take longer but it's less stressful for me. I'm a bad flyer.

John said...

Best thing I've found about a C pass on Southwest -- at least on a non-stop flight -- is the last bags on tend to be the first ones off, so you get away from the luggage carousel faster than the A and B group (the downside was I was having flashbacks to that old Odd Couple episode where Felix is afraid to fly to Houston, because I had an enormous woman taking up one-third of my seat on my flight to Houston (she was continuing on from Houston to Boston, via New Orleans, Memphis, Cincinnati and probably Breezewood, Pa. Not sure how many plane changes that involved, but Southwest tends to keep their flights simply zig-zagging within 1-2 regions of the country and let the passengers deal with the plane changes).

benson said...

In my part of the US, I have Allegiant. They nickel and dime like the others, and the seating is tight. But it's non stop for me, and they get you there for a fairly cheap price. (they tried the open seating, but it seems like that didn't work, as now when you check in, you get a seat assigned.)

Congrats to Bobby Rich. I think he's responsible for one of my favorite legal ID's. K-FM B-FM, San Diego's FM.

chuckcd said...

I only fly once every 2 years and only because I have to.

Veronica said...

Wow...never flown Southwest, and not planning on it anytime soon. Not a fan of the unassigned seats. Best airline is Alaska Air!

Pat Reeder said...

I always sit in the back. Statistically, you're much more likely to survive a plane crash if you're sitting in the last few rows.

VP81955 said...

I haven't flown since June 2001, which has nothing to do with 9/11, simply that I really haven't had much vacation time on my own volition, and I haven't gone any further than Philadelphia (to see the Nats play). But I am planning to visit Los Angeles sometime next year, as a prelude to an eventual move (and also to attend the TCM Classic Film Festival). After reading this, I may just take Amtrak (which I did coast-to-coast in September 1996, and it was delightful; every American should go cross-country at ground level at least once in their lifetimes to appreciate the geography and how it affected our history).

P.S. I watched "Mom" again last night, and it continues to impress. Great chemistry between Faris and Janney, and Nick Bakay (late of "The King Of Queens") seems to be doing splendidly as executive producer. He's come a long way from being the voice of Salem, the animatronic female familiar.

VP81955 said...

I meant "feline familiar" (sorry about the gender change, Nick).

mdv1959 said...

There is another option.. The $40 is for preferred seating which gets you into rows 1-15. After that it's first come first served, but the recently new wrinkle is that for $15 you can choose "automatic check-in". That's how you ended up in the 'B' section. At 24 hours prior to the flight anyone who paid the $15 for 'automatic check-in' is immediately checked in by the Southwest booking system.

My guess is that the automatic check-ins are done in the order the tickets were booked, so booking as far in advance as you can and paying the $15 fee will pretty much guarantee you a good seat.

I resisted paying the extra $15 fee for a while but like you I'm tall, and anything other than the four exit row seats are pretty torturous for me to sit in.

mdv1959 said...

Oops... that's what I get for not checking the Southwest site before posting. Actually the option I was thinking of is called "Early Bird Check-In" and the fee is $12.50.

Johnny Walker said...

Ugh. How I hate flying. US domestic flights in particular. Like others JetBlue seemed pretty painlessin the past. Internationally I just ADORE Air New Zealand. But everyone else it's somewhere between "not bad" and "when the fuck do we land already?"

It doesn't help that I can sleep on a plane about as well as I can sleep bungee jumping, I guess.

Wendy, wasn't last season supposed to be the last, but Bays and Thomas were sweet talked/strong armed into producing another one? After last season I knew it was going to be a limp to the end.

I wonder what the final joke will be after Older Ted finally says: "And that's how I met your mother..." to his kids?

"The first chance we get, you're going in a home."

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: Granted, but in fact, the quality dropped off very noticeably after season 4 - though it's only last year and this year where there were episodes that were so bad I wish I'd never seen them.

wg

Breadbaker said...

Gee, Ken, I just flew Southwest tonight. I had the Early Bird which was great on the first leg because I had a very tight connection. I had seat D2 and got off the plane first and made my connection. The second flight I had A45 and got to the exit row next to a nice couple who kept me laughing the whole flight. The trick is to sit next to a couple who actually don't try to stare you down to snag the empty middle seat.

Daddy Background said...

About a year ago I flew that same flight - 8:15am, LAX to Sky Harbor on Southwest, the first and probably only time I'll be on THAT flight. Still, pretty tricky for a guy who lives in Halifax, NS. I got a window seat and an empty middle seat between me and my son. No guy with a chili dog.

I'm not sure what happened to everyone who was booked on the NEXT trip to Phoenix out of LAX - their flight was cancelled.

But we had a wonderful trip. I remember the clear views of the desert. So thanks for making me think of all that. :)

ODJennings said...

It's been all downhill for Southwest since they removed the "conversation pits" where the seats faced backwards.

The best thing about Southwest used to be catching one of their Friday afternoon flights to Vegas and seeing all the dental assistants from Pomona flying out for their weekend jobs as Vegas strippers and hookers.

XJill said...

I still like Southwest because they don't charge you for changes. A couple of years ago I realized that even if I checked in like 30 minutes after the 24 hour window opened I was in the last group so now I don't even bother.

I only use it for really short flights and I can handle anything for an hour, at least so far.

Johnny - glad to hear it, I'm taking Air New Zealand to London next year and the New Zealand in 2015!