Lesson: Never Check a Bag

You know those guys you see getting on planes with big shoulder bags that couldn't possibly be made to fit in those little test boxes they put by the gates that everybody ignores? I'm one of them, for good reason: whenever I check luggage, something goes wrong.

Take yesterday, for example. I was out late Friday night, and we were scheduled for a two and a half hour layover in O'Hare airport in Chicago, and I just couldn't cope with the idea of lugging my big bag all over that deeply unpleasant airport (about which more later). The larger of my two bags was just full of dirty laundry and conference give-aways, though, so I decided to check it. Even if they lost it, as I was almost sure they would, I wouldn't be out much.

The airline gods found a new way to make this blow up in my face, though:

I booked my tickets through Air Canada, but the return flights were actually on United. Of course, the itinerary I got from Air Canada only lists the Air Canada flight numbers, not the United code share. But the itinerary gives a time for the connecting flight's departure: 5:45. When we got to Chicago, there was a 6:00 flight to Albany, so I figured that was it.

It turns out, however, that the code-share flight was moved to 7:30. I found this out when I tried to board the 6:00 flight. Which wasn't full, but they couldn't let me on it because... I had checked a bag for the 7:30 flight.

To paraphrase Apocalypse Now, Never check a bag. Absolutely God damn never check a bag.

The extra hour and a half I got to spend in O'Hare was nicely emblematic of just how unpleasant modern air travel has become. It's not just the intrusive "security" screening, it's everything about the process. It's like the airlines are working from some sort of demonic script to make the process of getting from Point A to Point B as soul-crushing and dehumanizing as possible.

The obvious starting place is the seats, which are packed in tighter than ever, at a time when the flying population is fatter than ever. If I fly in a regular coach seat, I can either take an aisle seat, and spend the entire flight being bumped by passengers and flight attendants going up and down the aisles, or I can try to wedge my 6'6" frame into a window seat, from which there is basically no escape in flight.

It used to be possible to get exit row seats and know that there would at least be adequate leg room, but in their effort to bring class war to the masses, most major airlines now reserve those seats for their "elite" passangers. They're not available to schlubs like me, even though I actually need the room. In a charming new wrinkle, United now allows you to pay extra for "Economy Plus" seats (provided, of course, that there weren't enough elite passengers on the flight to use them up immediately), so for an extra $50 or so I can buy myself barely adequate space for my legs, though there's still the wearying process of wrestling for the arm rest, and getting whacked in the arm by the drink cart.

On the flight itself, there are no longer any real services. On the three-and-a-half hour flight from Calgary to Chicago, I got a bag of pretzels. The flight left at 11:45, so like everybody else, I had to buy my own food at the airport, and paid $6 for the worst turkey sandwich I have ever purchased from a professional food service operation. The four-plus hour flight from Toronto to Calgary offered food for purchase only, so I got the right to pay $5 for a pretty mediocre BBQ beef sandwich (which was the best of the available options).

And yet, despite cutting every imaginable corner and squeezing every nickel possible out of their coach passengers, the major airlines somehow still manage to lose money by the truckload. It's hard for me to grasp the bottomless incompetence that this must require-- given the number of fat and cranky people they pack onto planes these days, you'd think they could turn a profit just by accident.

On top of that, airports have gotten more unpleasant than ever. There isn't a halfway comfortable chair anywhere in O'Hare, and there are only two places in the entire airport where you can sit down and get a meal. Neither of them is in the C concourse, so my dinner last night was food court Chinese eaten with inadequate plastic utensils while perched on the edge of a naugahyde plastic bench molded into a shape that can't possibly be a comfortable fit for any actual human backside. They offer wireless Internet access, but not only is it $6.95 per day (which I would've paid happily yesterday-- I paid more than that for the hotel Internet access in Calgary), but it requires you to download and install software in order to get it to work, and tehre's not a chance in hell that I'll agree to that.

Next year's DAMOP meeting is being hosted by Penn State. I think I'll be driving to that one.

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Hey, at least they had sandwiches for sale. Two weeks ago I had a nine hour flight—during the day—to Honolulu in which they had chips, cookies, and trail mix for sale. @#!&^#$%#?!?!

And what's with the stereotype that physicists never check bags?

According to the TV series Star Trek, in the future people will always wear jumpsuits. Maybe this is why - they got tired of losing their checked luggage between Mars and Saturn. You could roll up an extra jumpsuit in a little tube and that's your luggage.

I have flown it must be over a hundred flights within Europe without losing a single bag yet on two flights with United airlines last year they managed to lose my bags on both occasions. The bags were found and later sent to my address at what must be considerable expense to the airline and huge inconvenience to myself. If this is a regular situation for US airlines (and looking at the queue of irate bagless passengers waiting to fill in the missing baggage claim forms at Dulles, it might very well be) then I can easily see why they are losing money.

United also has the annoying habit of charging you $100 for your in-cabin animal and telling you that it is your carry-on...

But, I have to say this: while I feel for your travails, I hate your belief that your convenience is more important than anyone else's. When half the plane is carrying a huge suitcase and giant backpack, it makes it really hard for everyone on the plane to find room to store their stuff. And you guys (generically speaking) always put all of your stuff in the overhead, and get annoyed with the rest of us when we don't have room for ours and want to put it under the seat in front of you...

I cheer when the people at the gate take stuff away from people because it's too big. Sorry, but I do.

The airlines started losing money when they adopted the hub and spoke system. The hubs like O'Hare get jammed up with planes, passengers and baggage. They lose bags, they end up with stranded passengers who they may feed and put up in hotels, stranded employees who they must feed and put up in hotels. Hub and spoke looks great on the MBA spreed sheet but it does not work. The airlines that are making money still like Southwest run point to point systems. You can still have connections hubs but they do not base their schedule on 100's of flights arriving at the same time to fill up the 100's of planes they just flew in.

These idiots that came up with that then decided to stop paying commissions to travel agents and thus eliminated the enormous sales and costumer service force they use to have

Airline service sucks for the simple economic reason that people are unwilling to pay for good service. The vast majority buy tickets based very nearly on the single criteria of 'which one is cheapest'. The airlines would be perfectly willing to provide good service if more people actually bought tickets based on service instead of lowest price.

To be very blunt, you get what you pay for: If you pay Walmart prices for plane tickets, you get Walmart service (or lack there-of).

Disclosure - I always fly economy. No way am I paying 10X the price for tickets just for a couple of hours of extra comfort and service.

By Benjamin Franz (not verified) on 10 Jun 2007 #permalink

A lot of the problems I've had with air travel have been United-specific and I will no longer fly with them if I have any other option. When going overseas I usually try to choose a foreign airline because a lot of them have better service (I like KLM for getting to Europe, and China Airlines has improved its safety record substantially, though I hear there are even better options for getting to Asia--not all of them fly from Seattle, though).

By Genevieve Williams (not verified) on 10 Jun 2007 #permalink

I tend to avoid American Airlines like the plague when I can. Not only do they often not assign seats when I buy my ticket, but the way they treat those of us who don't already have seat assignments when we come up to the gate is with an imperious "sit down and wait for your name to be called," something that usually happens right before the standbys are seated. Then, of course, there's no food other than overpriced snacks. I haver very little experience with United.

Actually, Continental does pretty well. At least on flights longer than about 2 hours that encompass a mealtime, it still serves warm food at no extra charge; it's included in the price of the ticket. Surprisingly, the food isn't that bad. It won't win any culinary awards, but it's warm and it tastes OK.

Airline service sucks for the simple economic reason that people are unwilling to pay for good service. The vast majority buy tickets based very nearly on the single criteria of 'which one is cheapest'. The airlines would be perfectly willing to provide good service if more people actually bought tickets based on service instead of lowest price.

Which might make sense, if it weren't that there were a time, within the last ten years even, when ticket prices comparable to today's were available, yet the problems with the airline industry which Chad outlines were addressed or at least addressed to a significantly greater degree than they are today.

I mean, come on. Sometimes it seems like macroeconomics is just the science of making excuses.

I share The Ridger's annoyance with people who bring oversized bags on board. They tend to delay takeoff because the time they take to find space to stuff their bags (and the time others with smaller bags take to find space after the overhead cabins have been filled with oversized bags) slows down the boarding process.

And I say this as someone whose checked-in baggage was once left at a connecting airport across the Atlantic (Montreal) when I'd already touched down in London. They did deliver it intact to my hostel eight hours later, but it was an anxious eight hours for me.

I suppose it's a little late to mention this, but if you joined the hotel's free membership program, you got free internet.

For the 'download the software to use the internet', that may be a good job for a copy of Windows running in a VM. Use it at the airport, then delete it.

I had to check a bag, I'm now in Rochester for quantum optics/quantum information conference. We had a poster tonight at 7, so had to take the 6:30AM flight this morning. Dork at hotel told us to be there 2 hours early or we'd never make. Ever slept at an airport Tim Horton's for an hour???

But canadian airports are much nicer than US ones.

You don't have announcements every five minutes like

" Watch for unattended bags, they are likely bombs"

"The threat level has been raised to Orange (two years ago..)"

"You are all going to die"

But I do feel safe, after all a bored man looked at my passport for 34 seconds, and I had to take my shoes off. Go TSA........

Plus, the Calgary airport had nice seats, and no rails between them so you could lie down on them if you had to stay overnight.

At a recent retirement party for a colleague, someone presented the travel report for a trip he had taken to Paris in 1970. The airfare from New York was $800.
The hotel and meals expenses were $15 per day.

Today, the airfare would be more or less the same,
hotel and meals a factor of 10-15 higher. No wonder
service is deteriorating.

The airports are a different story. In the US most are municipally run, some times by small towns adjacent to the large cities the airports serve. As most
town-run services in the US (think schools, local roads, etc) airports are poorly run. They ought to be privatized.
Service will improve immeditaely. There is a lot of money
to be made from offering better services to the travellers. Think gyms, spas, places to rest, good meals.

By Gordon Pasha (not verified) on 11 Jun 2007 #permalink

I keep telling people, United is the spawn of Satan. Only airline I've ever been on where the thuggish employees had Israeli air travellers-- at the height of the al-Aqsa Intifada, before September 11-- complaining about the heavy-handedness of "security," as it was being used to shield the airline from legitimate consumer complaints.

("Yes, you see conveniently for us, a few minutes after you complained about the gate service, the whole flight crew decided they were afraid to fly with you on board. Officer Friendly of the Massachussetts State Police, here, will now escort you off airport property. Want to complain some more?")

Most other plaecs aren't exactly great, either. I generally get great service while I'm on a plane, regardless the carrier, but getting there is a horrible chore filled with arbitrary rules, draconian penalties, and essentially no consumer rights whatsoever. ("What? We booked 110% of our seating capacity? No, no, that's not a problem... for us. We do that all the time. You, on the other hand, are going to have to wait. Want to complain some more?" Not to mention the infamous, "What? You have a boarding pass that you just printed out from our kiosk ten minutes ago? Sorry, says here we reassigned your seat five minutes ago because we thought you weren't coming, based on your skipping a connecting flight eight days ago. Terrorists do that, you know. Want to complain some more?")

I don't know what they do to the terminal workers to turn them all so bitter and evil. It's like someone started a Stanford Prison Experiment with a consumerist bent, then died before he could shut it down. Probably killed by the terminal workers.

By John Novak (not verified) on 11 Jun 2007 #permalink

Most other plaecs aren't exactly great, either. I generally get great service while I'm on a plane, regardless the carrier, but getting there is a horrible chore filled with arbitrary rules, draconian penalties, and essentially no consumer rights whatsoever.

I forgot to mention my new favorite idiotic policy. On the flight out of Calgary, I was listening to my iPod while we were sitting at the gate, and the stewardess told me to turn it off. I pointed out that the boarding door was still open.

"That's just for cell phones," she said. "People can use cell phones, but all other electronic devices need to be off."

So, in other words, my iPod, which does not directly broadcast anything, is too dangerous to be used while the plane is stationary, but a cell phone is just ducky.

You think O'Hare is bad? You need to get out more. Spend a few hours in Heathrow, for example. A nice, privately run airport, so you run a gauntlet of shops after leaving security to look for a seat. Security is as bad as American airports, but privatized, and you get to sit in some of the worst seats known to man.

In fact, it seems lousy seats are a requirement at airports. I am not sure what the rationale is, other than some sort of kickback scheme involving hotels and furniture makers.

By Brad Holden (not verified) on 11 Jun 2007 #permalink

The electronics on the aircraft thing (which I completely forgot about) is, was, and always has been, bullshit. It offends me on a deeply personal level.

By John Novak (not verified) on 11 Jun 2007 #permalink

I tend to have similar problems with economy since I'm 6'5" and hate spending money. However, I've found that it helps if I go up to the check-in counter instead of checking in online or at a kiosk. They often take one look at me and offer to move me into an exit row seat. I've found this to happen pretty consistently with US Airways and American (but not United).

Another option is to use the check-in kiosk, but then check for empty rows at the back end of the plane when it asks if you want to change seats. It can be nice to end up as the only person for 3 seats in any direction.

Of course, my usual solution is to fly Southwest for domestic flights. Even if I can't score an exit row seat, I just park myself in an aisle seat in the back and dare somebody to take the middle seat of that row. This tactic works even better if you dress like an unwashed hillbilly while flying.

It seems that if you fly United on even a semi-regular basis, sooner or later you will have a horror story to tell. Here's mine: The last time I flew them was almost a year ago, Manchester to Aspen (connecting LaGuardia/Denver outbound and Denver/O'Hare on the return). On the way there my checked bag got stuck in LaGuardia for three days. (Of the dozen or so bags that were on my Denver-Aspen flight, only three actually belonged to people who were on that flight; although there were only twelve passengers on that Dash-8, at least two others filed missing baggage reports.) On the way back I got stuck in O'Hell overnight when the plane to Manchester went tech (and they waited until the last flight of the day left before cancelling my flight), and when I went to baggage claim to retrieve my suitcase I found it was already in Manchester.

I have never flown American (they don't serve Manchester). Of the rest, Southwest and Continental are the best of a bad lot. Northworst takes the prize for cheap, charging extra for aisle seats and offering only snack packs for sale (that must have been the airline Mollishka @#1 flew to Honolulu). Delta and US Airways are only slightly better, and neither Atlanta nor Philadelphia can be considered an improvement over O'Hare.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Jun 2007 #permalink

Brad #17, for me, O'Hare is the only airport in the world that I'd say is worse than Heathrow. I'd take an extra leg to a journey to avoid O'Hare.

Newark, on the other hand, has actually become a tolerable airport. So long as you can navigate the complexities of getting there, particularly if you do it via the long-term parking, much of which has been rendered almost inacessible by the mysterious addition of one-way signs, it's not too bad at all.

As of this last weekend, Madison airport is my favourite. Detroit airport wasn't too shabby, either (although it's pretty weird when anyone with an internet connection knows more about the position of the incoming plane than the groundstaff).

Additionally, although I find the standard economy seats generally excruciating, I have no problem with the emergency exit seats, say, being given to passengers that are more valuable to the airline (because they paid more or because they travel more with that airline). That's absolutely fair, it seems to me; we are, after all, paying for a service and if we don't like the pricing structure, well, don't fly with that airline (or, potentially, any airline) or else suck it up.

I say this as someone that just returned from a really sucky flight, incidentally.

Sing it, brother!

My worst-ever airline experience involved being stuck in Chicago O'Hare for four days, with them having lost my luggage. I eventually got my bag delivered to me at home, after the end of the trip, but I was vastly impressed by how BA/United had somehow managed to destroy a top-graded Samsonite hard-sided suitcase. It looked rather like they had backed an airplane over it, then tried to lift it with a crane by the handle while the airplane was still sitting on it.

Aside from that, pretty much exactly what John Novak says in #15. Yeah.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 13 Jun 2007 #permalink