Ask the pilot

The Pilot returns from Mali wondering why the service on U.S. airlines is so bad and recommending the JetBlue way.

By Patrick Smith
Published December 6, 2002 8:30PM (EST)

The Pilot is home safely from Mali and thanks those of you who took time to browse his columns during the past two weeks. While you were enjoying Thanksgiving, he was washing his socks in cheap hotel sinks and hoping to avoid schistosomiasis (Google it if you must, but you probably don't wanna know) in the Niger River.

There were times, when I was lost in the caldron of West Africa, that I wondered if those pre-submitted Ask the Pilots wouldn't be appearing from the proverbial grave. If you're ever offered a cut-rate pinasse trip down the Niger, do yourself a favor and take the plane. It's safer.

There's an airport in Timbuktu. Although I'd arrived by boat, I had a few spare hours one hot afternoon and couldn't resist a visit. Posing as a sort of liaison d'avion, "on assignment," of course, from "a major American magazine," I hired a Land Rover and dropped in. I expected nothing more than a thatch-covered shack -- maybe with a few of those ubiquitous Malian goats pulling a sand-encrusted luggage cart -- only to find something entirely different: a spotless little terminal (a neo-Sudanese evocation of the mud-built mosques you'll find all over Mali), smoothly paved tarmac, and even a handsome control tower.

Thing was, there were no planes. Mali might be one of the poorest nations on earth, but they've built this incongruous jewel in the middle of nowhere and apparently for nobody. Two flights a week, the guard explained. You find this time to time in certain corners of the globe -- showcase airports for commerce and tourists that never come. If you've ever been to the obscenely oversized airport in Mandalay, Myanmar, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Getting to Mali from America is surprisingly simple enough -- a one-stop shot broken by a morning layover in Europe. Until recently you could fly directly from New York to most of West Africa, transferring at Dakar on the notoriously ... well, let's just call it "colorful" Air Afrique, but sadly the green-and-white jets are no more.

It was Charles de Gaulle for me, where a security screener confiscated two cans of mosquito repellent from my carry-on, citing "The gas! The gas!" when asked to explain. (If I have malaria, I'm blaming the French.) They also made off with my disposable plastic Bic razors.

But I digress. What I wanted to discuss was the service aboard the flights to and from Paris.

It wouldn't be fair to call the passenger service aboard U.S. carriers "the laughingstock of the world," as one writer recently put it, but it's something like that or certainly on its way. At a time when airlines are sending out SOS calls and trying to lure back travelers, it seems counterproductive to diminish, rather than enhance, passenger service. But if my flight from the States to Paris was any indication, we're in trouble.

Assigned to seat 33E, I boarded a jet in the colors of a large U.S. airline. This was a state-of-the-art widebody, its exterior struts and fairings gleaming in the sun, but after one look at the interior I thought I was back in one of my old cargo planes. It was filthy. The sidewalls were scuffed, the tray tables covered with pen and Magic Marker scribblings, the cushions stained and worn through. The carpet was dirty and torn, and a piece of plastic molding had fallen from an underseat panel and was resting on the floor at my feet. One of my armrests was broken, and the one that wasn't broken featured maybe the most horribly uncomfortable thing I've ever encountered on an airplane: the handset controls for the lights, flight attendant call bell, and in-seat video screen.

Usually these are mounted in the side of the armrest, where, attached with a cord, they can be pulled out and used conveniently. But in this case they were located in the top of the armrest, so that each time I attempted to relax, my elbow would set off any combination of lights and chimes, while randomly upsetting the volume and channel settings of my video screen. Not to mention jabbing its black buttons into my arm. Welcome to ergonomic hell, and after inadvertently summoning a flight attendant for the fifth time, I pulled out the handset and rested it on the empty seat next to me.

Not that the crew didn't need the exercise. Following the post-dinner tray collection, not once in the more than seven-hour flight were we offered water. The food was adequate but limited, and the wine cost $4 a bottle. Underscoring the indolence, service was curt and P.A. announcements were mumbled in a rapid-fire fashion that at least half the people onboard, including the English-speaking ones, could hardly hear or understand.

The next leg, aboard, um, a certain European airline based in Paris, was another story. The cabin appointments were spotless and the crew attentive and helpful. There were footrests, fully adjustable headrests, and extra pitch (that's airline talk for legroom). Every passenger received a small packet containing a blindfold, a take-home set of headphones, and earplugs. This is in coach, mind you.

The dinner portions were ample and tasty, and extra bread was handed out twice during the meal service. The wine was free and the crew came around with water at least three times. Each seat was outfitted with a video screen (no harassing handset, thank you), with a choice of four languages. One of the channels even presented the feed from a camera mounted in the nose of the airplane, giving a rarely seen (well, for passengers) view of takeoff. And any of the 10 available films could be started on request with the touch of a button, a small frill that is hugely effective when it comes to killing time en route.

And that's the point, right? Killing time? One hopes the airlines are beginning to understand that passengers no longer expect, or want, luxury in the old-fashioned sense -- be it fancy entrées you can't pronounce or a choice of wines from five continents. Such things might be fun extravagances if you've dropped eight grand for a first-class sleeper seat, but they tend to come at the expense of more sensible, straightforward amenities. What people want is some basic comfort and efficiency.

You've heard me wax about the salad days of flying, but don't get me wrong: I neither believe, nor have I maintained, that pretensions of glamour have or deserve a place in modern-day commercial aviation. Note that none of my experiences on Air France, whether a second baguette or my chance to watch a movie at my leisure, were particularly lavish. People sitting in coach aren't covetous of a 20-page wine list or a serving of grilled salmon with braised fennel and leek. What they want is a halfway comfortable seat, some food (at least on a long flight), something to do, and, for God's sake, an occasional 30-cent bottle of water.

The faux glamour trappings are at best pretentious, and at worst embarrassing. What is a college kid in row 52, on his way to Europe with a backpack, supposed to think when handed a menu promising "authentic Italian minestrone with garlic and herb croutons?" Sounds impressive, but in the end he will not get a fancy meal. He will get a simple meal pretending to be a fancy one (served on a needlessly crowded tray overflowing with plastic wrap and silly little cups). And all he wants is maybe some pasta, or even a sandwich.

With all this in mind, it's worth taking a look at one of the upstart airlines making the big fellows nervous -- the JFK-based JetBlue. The jury's still out on whether JetBlue's model is the stuff of future success, but for now they're getting things right.

A ride on JetBlue is cool, clean and hassle free, and the price is right. But the important part is this: while not luxurious, neither is the experience without some flair. People often lump JetBlue with the likes of Southwest, but in many ways it is the anti-Southwest. Both offer low fares, sure, but JetBlue's strategy is something more upscale than a get-what-you-pay-for cattle car. To help save the industry from an all-out Southwest-style descent, it would behoove the majors to emulate JetBlue's careful balance of style and price.

Glamour is an anachronism we need put out to pasture. Quality, and a bit of polish, are not. And those are lacking.

(Next week  shoulder-fired missiles and more Q&A from reader submissions, so keep those questions coming.)

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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