Ask the pilot

Why are American airlines famous for the worst passenger service in the world?

By Patrick Smith
June 6, 2003 11:30PM (UTC)
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Special thanks to those of you who lobbied on my behalf, but Salon still isn't letting me write any travel pieces (see furtive snippets below). Not everyone, however, is disappointed to see my crossover aspirations snuffed.

"I showed your column to my 11th grade English teacher. 'He's trying too hard and has a bad habit of overmodifying everything. Definitely needs work.'"


Or this one:

"Listen, da Vinci, knock it off and get back to questions and answers about airplanes."

Fair enough. I always considered myself a halfway decent technical writer but a lousy artist, and more than a few of you concur. In any event, that wasn't the worst of last week's mail. Much more discouraging was my apparently failed attempt at a little political lampoonery:


"I'm still trying to decide if your reference to a 'terrorist-loving Coalition of the Unwilling' was facetious. Either way, such slander has no place in your column. I found it offensive and I don't think I'm alone."


"Why must you perpetuate the present climate of patriotic arrogance and jingoism with ridiculous statements like these?"


And so on. Both of those comments, and numerous others like them, arrived in response to my May 23 column, in which I revealed the sordid details of a French-led conspiracy to embarrass Boeing and the United States. In writing that piece I assumed two things: First, that the readership of Salon is, generally, an open-minded crowd with a certain distaste for the current political atmosphere -- the kind of people who wouldn't be caught dead ordering "freedom fries" at the company cafeteria. Second, that members of said demographic tend to have a sophisticated and discerning sense of humor.

I'll never make that mistake again. And here now, in the most agonizing exercise thus far in my pseudo-career as an online columnist, I must clarify something I believed to be patently obvious: I was kidding. I was neither advocating nor encouraging the sort of Francophobic silliness rampant in 2003 America. I was making fun of it.


So much for satire. (Of course, I did know a girl once who maintained that "institutionalized humor" was a tool of her bourgeois oppressors, me being one of them. But that's another story.)

Ironically -- or tellingly -- it was my readers from France who took the least offense. Their pointy French noses are better equipped for sniffing out irony, see. And as I figured, the Gallic fondness for Boeing's proposed "Dreamliner" name is nothing more than a matter of language:

"Being French, allow me to offer an explanation regarding the Dreamliner/Global Cruiser situation. It's very simple: 'Dreamliner' is a pretty word, easy to say in most languages, and any French sixth-grader can pronounce it right. Yes, it's flashy and ultimately meaningless, but all non-English-speaking Europeans are accustomed to commercial products bearing meaningless English names. In the end, the only thing that matters is the sound.


"On the other hand, anything with 'Global' in it sounds like the name of an insurance company, and 'Cruiser' is utterly unpronounceable in French. Worse, it sounds like 'croiseur' (battleship). So, a 'Global Cruiser,' heaven forbid, evokes a joint marketing venture between Citibank and Donald Rumsfeld. No reasonable Frenchman would ever vote for such a name."

Cogent, sensible, informative. And equally important, he got the damn joke.

So cut me a break. Besides, I really like the service on Air France. No other airline offers four rounds of wine and unlimited baguettes, served from wicker baskets, in coach. In the past year or so, en route to India and Egypt and Mali, I've enjoyed enough of its wine, bread and cheese to qualify as an honorary chevalier in the Legion of Honor.


If I hate the French for anything, it's because the security guards at Charles de Gaulle took away my expensive cans of mosquito spray. And also because they allow you to take pictures inside the Louvre.

[Slyly added travel anecdote:

[Whatever sublime esthetic experience is to be had in the Louvre is nullified by the museum's harebrained tolerance of cameras. This has turned the galleries into shrieking masses of people, pushing and shoving amid a storm of flashbulbs and the incessant buzzing of electronic auto-winders. For example, each person in the crowd must be photographed by his or her significant other posing before the Venus de Milo. To view the statue is, quite simply, a physical challenge. The crowd is a writhing, stomping organism of shoulders, elbows and knees. You do not look at the statue as much as glance at it from the corner of your eye while jostling -- quickly quickly quickly -- lest you get in the way of a Japanese teenager attempting to immortalize his girlfriend in front of the armless Aphrodite.

[I actually sent off a letter of complaint to the Louvre's management. To which they responded, entirely and unreadably, in French.]


I don't speak French. Nor do I speak Spanish, though for the past six days I was giving it my best shot. The Pilot is just in from a short hiking trip to Peru, which was the reason for his not posting a column the week of May 30. Instead of writing, he was gasping and stumbling his way around the Andes. To those of you who missed me, I'm sorry, but my finances don't justify hauling around a laptop and dispatching stories from atop Machu Picchu.

[Slyly added travel anecdote:

[The key to a successful Peruvian holiday is to spend as little time as possible in the festering urban tumor that is Lima. OK, that's a brutally unkind manifestation of my anti-city bias, but really there's little in Lima for the tourist. For better enjoyment, head north to the spectacular Cordillera Blanca or south to the coastal desert of Nazca; or, as I did, follow the crowds to the old Inca capital of Cuzco.

[Cuzco has changed since I was last there in the early 1990s. It's bigger, busier and cleaner, fully stocked with American-style amenities (ATMs, pay phones, in-room CNN) and trendy cafes. Still it's a charming city, with its cobblestone streets and many of the buildings set on original, centuries-old Inca foundations.


[It's also a kind of ground zero for young American backpackers. I certainly didn't remember it this way, so rife with nose-rings, dreadlocks, and Che Guevara T-shirts -- like it was spring break at Berkeley and everyone had headed to Peru. Over four days in and around Cuzco, I don't think I saw a single tourist over the age of 25. Everywhere I looked were young Americans -- energetic, outdoorsy-looking kids with healthy tans and Tevas, and most of them startlingly attractive. Well, at least the women: lithe and willowy with navel rings and tattoos. Cuzco itself appears to have adopted the hipster set, with Internet cafes sprung up everywhere and posters advertising body-piercing parlors and tattoo joints.

[The only place that compares, in my experiences, is Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe, which is similarly overflowing with the sorts of rugged bohemian types that give a place the look and feel of a Mountain Dew commercial. The difference is, most of the kids in Peru are Americans. Many of the world's travel circuits are maxed out with Europeans and Aussies and Kiwis, but in Cuzco at least 70 percent of the visitors seem to be from the States. There are two groups: the younger hippie/post-punks as described above, and the older, more serious adventure types, usually spotted wearing those nylon trekker pants.]

As I was leaving my editor remarked, "Wow, I'm sure you'll come back with some fascinating stories about Peruvian aviation."

Well, yes and no.


During my early '90s trip, one of the things I most vividly remember is the takeoff from Cuzco, 11,000 feet in the Andes, aboard a 30-year-old 727. All flights leaving Cuzco calculate a performance penalty thanks to the altitude, and I can only assume we were at our maximum allowable weight. We rolled and rolled and rolled until the plane at last, reluctantly, gave itself to that rarefied mountain air, the tires seeming to barely clear the perimeter fence. Flying in Peru still had a frontier feel. There was even a company -- Imperial Air, I think it was called -- running Soviet Tupolevs up there.

Today it's different. Not only has Cuzco itself gone upscale, but they've even installed jetways at the airport. And instead of bracing yourself for a fence-scraper in a banished Boeing or a Russian relic, you can relax aboard a brand-new, high-performing Airbus A320.

Since the failure and dissolution of Peru's two mainstay airlines, AeroPeru and Fawcett, both of which had been around for decades, three companies have moved in. Aero Continente, TACA Peru, and LanPeru. The latter is a subsidiary of LanChile, the well-regarded Chilean national carrier. Both they and TACA Peru, itself an offspring of the larger Grupo TACA, operate spiffy new Airbuses between Cuzco and Lima, the most popular tourist route in South America.

Thanks to this upgrade I'm unable to entertain you with tales of white knuckles, chickens in the overhead bin, or post-crash cannibalism.

But just the same, the point I'm intending to make, and which I've made in the past, is that Americans need to disregard many of their preconceptions about air travel in foreign countries, with respect to both safety and service. This is true not only in expectedly button-down regions like Western Europe or the Pacific Rim, but developing nations too. Some of you were incredulous when I wrote of the exemplary accident record of companies like LAB in Bolivia, and you might be just as surprised to learn it's our own carriers, the U.S. majors, that are known to have some of the worst passenger-service standards in the world.

My LanPeru flight was one of the most low-stress and enjoyable rides I've had in some time. The boarding process was orderly and smooth. The interior of the A320 was handsomely outfitted and immaculate, every seat with an adjustable headrest. Music played over the P.A. as passengers stowed their bags and got comfortable. (All right, it was Muzak rather than Mozart -- or Mould -- but still.) Newspapers were handed out, and I actually watched a flight attendant lean over a man's shoulder to switch on his reading light without being asked. I had to look around to make sure they weren't filming a commercial.

A hot sandwich was served, and the drop-down video screens played short-segment features the whole way to Lima. This was not business class on a nine-hour flight across the ocean. This was economy on a 65-minute hop in a Third World country. Total price: $86.

Very typical, in fact. Some additional selections from my Pantheon of Pleasant Flights, which help contrast the home/abroad service differences, as well as break some foreign-carrier stereotypes, are these:

Bangkok Airways, Phnom Penh-Bangkok.
Turkish Airlines, Istanbul-Antalya and Istanbul-Van
South African Airways, Johannesburg-Windhoek
Thai, Bangkok-Yangon
EgyptAir, Luxor-Cairo

And various others. What all these flights had in common was not only their short duration but also their comprehensive catering, extremely friendly in-flight staff, and spotless new aircraft. Compare any of these to a flight of similar length within the U.S. -- Detroit to Newark or Dallas to Phoenix. (Or JFK to Pittsburgh on TWA Express. Yeah, TWA Express is gone now, but I gravely recall the nonexistent leg room and hospitality aboard exactly that flight. After all, I used to work for them and flew it myself several times.)

In fairness, I've never forgiven the knee-crushing seat pitch and terrible cuisine of El Al, Finnair, or Royal Air Maroc, but levels of comfort and courtesy are often strikingly more impressive aboard airlines from other countries. Not only on short flights where differences can be more conspicuous, but long hauls too. Assuming fares are compatible, and given a choice between Singapore Airlines and a U.S. major for a 13-hour ride to the Far East, which is the better pick? (Of course any flight on any airline is hellish when seated in proximity to a screaming infant, but that's a topic for later.)

This isn't about food. If you recall some of my earlier online opining, you'll know I consider overly elaborate meals to be something of an unnecessary throwback. The point isn't how or what they're feeding you. The point is they're trying.

Annual passenger surveys seem to back me up on this. A selection from the 2003 Skytrax Passenger Service Awards reads as follows:

Friendliest cabin staff: SriLankan Airlines
Most efficient cabin staff: Asiana Airlines (Korea)
Best economy-class catering: Swiss International Airlines (the reborn Swissair)
Best economy-class seats: Air New Zealand
Best inflight entertainment: Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong)
Cleanest onboard washrooms: China Airlines (Taiwan)

And if you think that last category is trivial, you haven't been on a really long and really full flight lately.

Over at Air Transport World, the industry's most respected magazine and giver of a prestigious yearly passenger-service award of its own, only two U.S. majors have won it since 1974 (TWA and Eastern, neither of whom still exist)! The three most recent winners have been Emirates, British Airways and Asiana.

I'd be curious to hear what readers have to say. Allow me to solicit some of your best and worst inflight experiences, and maybe, if enough people write, I'll publish the results. The top finisher can boast, "The airline preferred 3-1 by the Premium subscribers of"

If you're wondering, the most current consumer complaint data from Air Transport World ranks Continental, America West, and Northwest as the worst performers, with Southwest, Alaska, and United at the top. However, Southwest's presence among the three best should clue you in to a certain irrelevancy of these rankings. Complaints aren't necessarily a fair indicator of service standards, especially when our expectations have been ratcheted down. These days, not only are we growing tolerant of absurd security procedures, but we've also become accustomed to lousy service. With the bar set so low, getting home in one piece without our luggage being diverted to Yellowknife is considered a satisfactory flight.

I don't know. Maybe JetBlue and Delta's new stepchild, Song, can get things going in the right direction.

Anyway, by this point you're probably wondering why a furloughed airline pilot who whines that he's never made a decent salary is jetting around the planet like James Bond. So you understand: If my semi-regular out-of-country jaunts make my life appear romantically extravagant, remember that I still have some leftover travel bennies from my pre-layoff days.

This was carefully explained to Ms. Shiley, winner of the May 16 Ask the Pilot reader quiz with her perfect score. Shiley, I've been informed, has spent the past several days buying new clothes and undergoing expensive beauty treatments in preparation for redeeming her grand prize, a "dream date" dinner for two with yours truly. I have the feeling Shiley anticipates a swashbuckling aviator and international playboy, but she's going to have to reconcile with a balding, not-so-square-jawed ex-pilot who just turned 37 and lives in a dumpy apartment infested with carpenter ants.

I know, I know, that's more than you need to hear. But the runners-up needn't feel so bad.

As if hair loss and furlough aren't bad enough, it gets worse: Within a few days, the U.S. Senate is set to vote on something called the FAA Reauthorization Bill. During the hearings, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.,) is planning to offer an amendment that would repeal the mandatory age-60 retirement rule for airline pilots. Retirement age would immediately increase from 60 to 63, and later to 66.

Advocates like Inhofe will argue that adjusting the retirement threshold will assure greater safety in the skies by increasing the overall level of experience among pilots. This is nothing short of total malarkey. The net influence on safety will be zero.

What it might do, however, is provide the final nail in the coffin of my already disastrous career, guaranteeing additional years on the street for myself and thousands of others, while those at the very top of the seniority pyramids hang around to earn better retirement cushions. It's hard to begrudge them, exactly, but considering the more than 10,000 out-of-work pilots at present, I cannot imagine a more notoriously ill-timed proposal. Both the airlines and the biggest pilots' union, ALPA, are opposed to the amendment. If you're feeling charitable, do as I did and write your senators in D.C.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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