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Return from Chicago

November 20, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

[WSJ interactive graphic (click on it)]

A week ago now, I was flying from Seattle to O’Hare for an overnight stay at the O’Hare Hilton and a meeting the next day. Thanks to the mileage I have accumulated in United’s Mileage Plus program and the rarity of our flying on United, when I do book with them, I always try to use up some mileage with an upgrade to first class. This trip to O’Hare is an annual one, and I have learned from experience that I can expect to get an upgrade on the flight there but not on the return. This year was no different. And for the second consecutive year, I got a lesson in what makes everyone hate flying.

The trip there was so pleasant. Through security in a snap. First on the plane. Comfortable seat. Read a book. Had some lunch. Nothing special, but edible. Pleasant flight crew, attentive service. And before I was ready to put my book aside, we were taxiing to the gate. I got off the plane 22 hours before the return flight, which meant I could already check in for the return. Rather than waiting to do so on my computer, I got out of security down by the baggage claim carousels and went straight to a United kiosk. Once I swiped my credit card and the kiosk recognized me, I saw that I still hadn’t been upgraded to first class. A couple of weeks earlier, when I booked my seats, I was presented as seating options for the return a handful of middle seats in the rear of the plane. Or, I could pay $64 to buy one of United’s “extra legroom” seats. My choice was still limited, but I could get an aisle seat in one of the exit rows plus 5 inches of extra legroom. I decided to take it. The kiosk readout showed that was still my assigned seat. I confirmed it, indicated that I would have no bags to check in, then was offered for $44 the option of fast check-in (but I didn’t need it, I was checking in at that moment), fast security line, and boarding with the first group.

Was it worth it? Well, I’d already spent $64. I couldn’t bear the thought of another $44. On the other hand, I would be cutting things close the next day, as my flight would depart as the meeting I was attending would end, which meant I would have to leave the meeting early, and that meant I would try to make some calculation about how late I could stay and still make it through security and to my plane. That $44 might buy me another 15-20 minutes at the meeting, or if not that, at least more peace of mind.

No, I couldn’t do it. I would take my chances.

Monday, I left the meeting room in the O’Hare Hilton at 2:55 for my 3:15 flight. Down I went to the Hilton basement, off I headed to the main underground passageway that connects the United Terminal with the hotel, the parking garage, and the train to the Loop. Despite making this trip for years, I was surprised at how long it took me to get through the passageway, up the escalator, and into the lower level of United’s terminal. At least I knew the route to the escalator up to the departure level. Boarding pass already in hand, I went past the check-in counters to the security line. It was 2:05, the plane would board starting at 2:45. I should make it easily.

And I did, but not until going through 45 minutes that was the promised reminder of why flying sucks. I say nothing new here, but it’s all about submission to authority. Keep your mouth shut, obey orders, be treated like dirt, and you might just get on your plane.

There were two TSA agents checking IDs and boarding passes and two short lines to get to them. But the lines were barely moving, and it soon emerged that the reason was that our lines were continuations of long and backed-up lines to the conveyer belts and scanners. I chose the line to the nearer belt, which in principle made it shorter, but also made it the line of choice for waves of employees and wheelchair passengers who zipped (or were zipped) past us to the front. We would go 2-3 minutes with no motion, then have some progress. As we got still closer, I could see that once our bags were on the belts, we were being fed, along with the other conveyor belt line, into a single line of passengers being prepared for the rape scanners. The TSA official monitoring the line would, every so often, signal for someone to bypass the rape scanner and go through the traditional scanning device, but most people were rape scanned.

I got to the belt at last. Out came my laptop, my Kindle, my iPhone, my quart bag of liquids. Off came my shoes, my belt. I never remove my belt for regular scanning, but I knew I would need to for the rapescanner, so I dutifully did. And then I got onto the rapescan line. The TSA guy asked if I had anything in my pockets. No. He said to hold my boarding pass in front of me when I entered. Then I remembered my wallet, called out to him that I had it. Take it out and raise it above your head when you’re in the scanner. Okay. In another minute, I headed in for my rape scanning. Above my head I held the wallet and boarding pass. Out I went, standing in that idiotic holding area with the mats with feet drawn so you know what position to be in. I was released, headed to my bags and belt and shoes and quart bag of liquids and laptop and Kindle and iPhone.

Once I was properly assembled, it was past 2:30. I was in United’s B terminal, had to go through that underground tunnel to get over to C. I once loved the tunnel, when I first went through it in 1989, when it was new, with the music and the light show. It’s never been the same since they had to obliterate the music with announcements about watching your step when you get off the moving walkways. And it was crowded. And I wanted to get the heck over to the other end and up to my gate. Another thing about United at O’Hare. I also once loved those terminals. So much light, with the high ceilings and the windows. But that’s if you’re not consigned to the hell of the terminal ends, where they crowd what must be about 9 gates in an area with a dropped ceiling and inadequate ventilation. Gate C-25 is one of them.

By the time I got there, there were only 10 minutes before boarding, and it was a mob scene, with our Seattle gate and an adjacent SF gate boarding almost simultaneously. I checked the screens to see if my status had changed. I had to wait for the listing of the 40+ standby passengers. Then came the screen saying first class was fully checked in, then the list of people waitlisted for it. I was #34. That wasn’t going to happen. Off I went to find a restroom, then back to find that I was now #35 out of 39. Using mileage gives you pretty low upgrade priority.

And now boarding began. Group 1 was first class and everyone with various categories of United and Continental frequent flyer elite status. I was group 4. I was hoping maybe there were 8 or 9 groups, having forgotten United’s system. Then group 2 was called. All window passengers. Oh. Four groups then, fancy-window-middle-aisle. I would be last. It might be tight in the overhead bins, the great battleground of our country. I got on the phone with Gail to complain as group 3 was called. And then our gate agent announced that all group 4 boarders with roller bags would have to check them at the gate.

What to do? Hide? Sneak it on? Could I? Would they catch me? Within seconds, she was at my side shouting out for group 4 roller baggers. I reluctantly raised my hand. Without looking at me or saying anything to me, she examined my boarding pass, wrote some data on a baggage tag, tore off the top portion and handed it to me. I saw that she had written 309 for the flight number. I tapped her shoulder as she worked on the bag of the woman near me and asked why it said 309 when I’m on 929. Oh, she said, as she crossed out 309 and wrote 929, that was the last flight she worked.

I was not happy. I was near the gate, likely to be one of the first group 4 boarders, and suspected there would be space for my bag. As the group 3 line thinned, the woman near me, my group 4 partner, joined the line. Moments later, we were all invited to board, and I got on right behind her, among the first of the group 4 boarders. I got to the end of the jetway and saw no one prepared to take my bag. Just then, a baggage guy popped in from outdoors, saw my bag, and grabbed it. Darn.

I stepped on the plane and found yesterday’s first class flight attendant looking at me. We both recognized each other. She welcomed me back and I explained that I would be in coach this time. As I headed to the exit row, I saw with some odd satisfaction that the bins were all full. Until I got to my seat. Right above me was a space that would easily accommodate my bag. Across the aisle was space for 2 bags. And as people continued to board, some had bags with them that they filled the space with.

Why was I forced to check my bag? Why couldn’t a more intelligent system be used? I was hopping mad. I mean, I understood the idea that a simple uniform rule was easier to enforce than waiting for bins to fill up and people to pile into the aisles with bags that would need checking. But there must be a better way. I was already paying $64 extra for my seat. Couldn’t I get some benefit from that without being expected to pay another $42 for group 1 boarding?

I know, what’s the big deal? The cost of having my bag taken away was that I would have to wait 20 minutes at baggage claim. Not the end of the world. Would I pay $42 to save 20 minutes? Well, obviously, I answered that question. I didn’t pay. But I had all the extra aggravation, and I got home to a later dinner, and had less time at home that evening to get caught up on some work. And to read the blogs. And to do two days of NYT crossword puzzles.

I was reminded of the Wall Street Journal’s recent article in their The Middle Seat weekly feature, with the graphic at the top of this post. The opening paragraphs pretty much tell the story.

An airline ticket gets you a seat on a plane. But which seat, now that’s a different story.

Gary Zeune, a white-collar crime expert from Powell, Ohio, went online to check in for his Frontier Airlines flight from Denver to Dayton. The only seats available were middle seats in the back of the plane. Unhappy with the options, he decided to pay $25 extra for a “Stretch” seat with extra legroom.

When he boarded the plane, he found several empty rows behind the Stretch seats. Window and aisle seats he would have happily sat in were empty. Frontier blocked them when he checked online because he was on a low-fare ticket.

“They are lying to you and making it look like there are no seats,” said Mr. Zeune. “I’m not going to complain about the $25 itself. It’s the manipulation.”

Seat fees are the latest iteration of the airline industry’s new normal. Carriers are blocking more seats from advance-seat selection, especially for low-fare passengers. More crowded planes also make it tougher to get a desirable seat. As a result, more travelers are feeling pressured to pay a fee and reserve a seat rather settle for an assigned one—which could be a middle seat or not located next to their family members. Worse, those without assigned seats stand a higher chance of getting bumped from a flight.

I was thinking that maybe instead of paying a seat-choice fee, a fast security and early boarding fee, a food fee, a baggage fee, and so on, all while hoping to get a first class upgrade with my mileage, I should just be able to pay one large fee and get to ride first class to begin with. That would simplify things. Then I remembered that there is such a fee. I think it’s what they call a first class ticket, and it’s priced so high that the sum of all the other fees never comes close.

I suppose I should just suck it up. Pay the price or suffer. And spare others the complaints when I do suffer. No one wants to hear about it.

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