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Can Coach Flying Be Anything But...Hell.

Posted by: David Kiley on July 27, 2007


Another flight, and another few minutes of pondering whether a coach airline experience will ever be anything but varying degrees of toxicity on the brand experience scale.

I resisted blogging on a truly hideous airline experience courtesy of Continental and United Express a few weeks ago, because in a fit of charity I chalked up some of my hateful experiences to being the exception rather than the rule. But following a different kind of hideous experience this week, all my charity is gone.

My Continental flight from Newark to Louisville a few weeks ago took off roughly ten hours after it was scheduled. Storms somewhere caused delays, I was told. Then the airline played the “how dumb are you? game.” That’s the game when they know they won’t be going for six more hours, but keep posting one-hour delays to keep you on their carrier. It was on the plane, off the pane, on the plane, off the plane. Sit on the plane on the runway. You know the drill. Naturally, it was one of those nasty little planes with two seats on one side and one on the other, with a bathroom usable only if a person bends one leg, wraps their elbow around their head and stoops.

The kicker was when I got to Louisville. My bag, which had been gate-checked, wasn’t there. It was 3am at this point. The hapless attendant said the gate-checked bags were never put on the plane. What!!!? They had hours and hours to perform that task. My frequent flyer friends, as well as other airline employees I quizzed said they had never heard of gate-checked bags not being put on the plane. Nobody was sorry enough. I didn’t see my bag from Wednesday night until Saturday morning.

Going through Chicago on the return, I went to my assigned gate only to find that the gate had been changed. I walked 35 minutes, dragging my recently replaced knee through O’Hare to the new gate, only to be told that it was switched back to the old gate. Nobody cared and the gate attendant for United blamed me for not knowing. I had only checked the screen. What was I supposed to do…call the pilot? I then caught one of those buses that drives across the tarmac, but not before dragging my knee down two flights of stairs on one end, and up two flights on the other. No elevators.

It was with great hope that I boarded a Northwest flight this week. It was a roomy plane that left more or less on time. Then, a woman sat down next to me. She even took the time to introduce herself and tell me what town she lived in. But ten minutes into the flight she began digging into her ear for what I don’t know, and then checking her chipped finger-nails for what came out and flicking the body salad onto the floor beneath her. This went on for 40 minutes!. I was so squeamish, I nearly barfed. I kept wondering at what point an airline passenger so dramatically crosses the line into disgusting behavior that I would have to break the social barrier that would normally keep me from commenting to a total stranger about their personal habits on public display.

In part, I was worried that if I confronted the lady, I’d be chucked off the flight or arrested for causing trouble…in this era of Osama Air. I know this isn’t Northwest’s fault. But I’m thinking that there should be a advisory on the backs of airline seats warning people that if they perform any disgusting personal hygiene acts, they risk being banned from flying for a year. Wait…that sounds pretty good to me. Banned from flying.

This was another nightmare in coach. I began thinking of the woman who some jerk of a flight attendant who recently kicked off an Express Jet flight recently because the toddler, who had been delayed for several hours with everyone else, was repeating the phrase, “Bye. Bye plane.” According to published accounts, the passengers weren’t complaining. But the short-fused waitress…oh, sorry….flight attendant, has the authority, God help us, to put the lady and her child off the plane. And she did. By the way… In a world of brand management gone mad, the lady had booked the flight on Continental, but the flight was operated by Express Jet. A Continental spokesman told me they had nothing to do with the incident and nothing to say, and referred reporter’s questions to Express Jet. There’s real brand management for ya. What is that? Out of the playbook of Hit Entertainment which, when confronted with a recall of Thomas the Tank Engine trains that had been painted with lead paint in China, referred media to the out-sourced manufacturer?

How can something so important as flying be so utterly devoid of positive experience unless you pay through the nose for a little extra service. Now, I’m pricing flights to London. The coach fare is around $500.00. I can get a bit more leg-room and civilization, but not for less than almost $2,000. What an awful business.

Reader Comments


July 27, 2007 3:03 PM

Ear?...Boy you're picky. Now if it was nose debris, ok...but just the ear?

Propaganda Minister

July 27, 2007 5:26 PM

I feel for you as I had many similar experiences before. But it seems that the airlines pretty much can do what they want in terms of customer service.
In any other business, companies like that would go belly up. Ooops, well they may not get revived as airlines do.

j bennett

July 27, 2007 7:21 PM

regrettably, your experience with the airlines is hardly a unique one. Indeed, it's a rare exception when all goes well - the plane is on time, the passengers are well behaved (and refrain from picking at their ears and other body parts during the flight), the food is somewhat edible ...if there is food, that is...and your bags actually arrive with you at your destination. This despite the fact that I am having to pay a princely sum for some of the flights I've recently taken (my discount fare to Europe in May was over 1200. Maybe your article and others like it will pressure the airlines to at least make a minimal effort to improve customer service. Of course, I am assuming they give a you know what about what their passengers think. What have I been smoking! Maybe the toddler was right. We should just yell "bye, bye airlines!"

Marco Diaz

July 30, 2007 4:34 AM

Take a European or Asian carrier if you're going to London. I wholeheartedly suggest Virgin Atlantic, they've never messed up on any of my trips. Courtesy and understanding are still free on all classes for most carriers where Fox television doesn't show in their home countries.


July 30, 2007 7:46 AM

In general, I've found my international flights to be more reliable than my domestic flights. One time, it took me 15 hours to get from the MidWest to New York. I believe it took me about the same time to fly from New York to East Asia on another trip.


July 30, 2007 8:10 AM

It would seem that airlines are just sliding further down the spiral. They could be presented as a mirror of the widening separation between the classes in our classless society, there are the “Haves” ( I have the money so I am buying the legroom) and the “have-nots” (I do not have the money so I am flying Spirit Air where I get the treat of a special kind of hell). I would agree whole-heartedly with David’s assessment that flying any kind of coach provides a really crappy experience, but I have not found that to be true for all carriers. For example last week I flew on a Southwest Airlines flight out of Las Vegas; a flight which is routinely late. The feeding flight comes from Chicago, so I brought a book and sodoku. With some focused reading interspersed with occasional sodoku I was whisked away from Las Vegas to Tampa. It was not until I got to Tampa that I realized that the bad weather in Chicago had actually delayed my flight 3 hours. To me three hours is an extreme; but I went into the whole experience with the assumption that the plane would be delayed and went prepared. Funny thing about it is even when I have been on planes that were delayed it is often the airline employees that make the difference. I have consistently seen Delta, Continental, and Northwest play games and out and out lie to passengers (like most of the passengers there can’t figure it out).
While I only fly about 3 times a month to various locations; I have started trying to have my flights booked with SWA as much as I can. My selection order after that is with Delta, Continental, US Air, and then NWA as my descending list of who I willingly fly with… and of course I never, never, never fly with the non-costumer driven – “we-will-take-your-money-but-not-necessarily-you” to your destination city “and then ignore you and blame it on you” - Spirit Airlines.
I guess I am bias, but if the employees are nice (no not civil – actually nice) I am willing to put up with a little “inconvenience”


July 30, 2007 8:25 AM

In this perverse world of the customer is always right, we get exactly what we pay for. We scour the internet for the cheapest possible flight from here to there. Our employers require that we fly the least expensive choice regardless of what that does to the travel schedule or the employee. What self respecting airline executive would waste a dime on superior customer service when the flying public only demands, "cheap, cheap, cheap" regardless of the brand experience?

Of the newer carriers, I have seen two types: the "we are cheaper than everyone else," and the "we do business class cheaper." What do you think will happen to these business class providers when they have to make a choice between cheaper and better?

Better service essentially equates keeping idle planes and crews available to fill gaps caused by weather and mechanical issues. I would be surprised if anyone other than the truly wealthy be willing to pay such a premium on their tickets.

Lastly the rude, uncaring, lying and incompetent airline employees we encounter when traveling are underpaid, have no benefits to speak of, and no job security. We the flying public are paying for that level of service as well. - pjw


July 30, 2007 11:38 AM

I can understand your pain as I often have a hard time enjoying coach class during my domestic travels and some internatinal travels. You could consider the better quality airlines from across the pond which offer Upper-Economy for all of it's transatlantic flights. Virgin Atlantic (a personal favorite) and British Air both do a great job of that when flying to the UK. Virgin also decided to bring it's excellent service to the states in the form of Virgin America. Otherwise I normally fly United and US Air soley because of their frequent flyer program and United's Upper economy service when flying from State to State. But as earlier stated, that will be less and less as Virgin America opens up some more routes.
Happy Travels


February 28, 2008 1:02 AM

THE ONLY TRUE COMMENT I CAN SEE THAT IS IMPARTIAL IS PJW. Have you ever heard you get what you pay for. you save hundreds of dollars thru some fly by night travel site. Expect everyone to know you and serve you like some demi-god is not going to happen in coach. sometimes not even on the bigger airlines which I have had the "priveledge" of riding first class on. The fact of the matter is. more and more people want to fly for cheaper and cheaper so now we have overcrowding, bad service due to airline employees receiving min wage and unhappy customers as a result. until the public pays more. fuel cost goes down or premadonna's like the gentleman who wrote this article change, we can expect more of the same. Be happy that we can get to our destinations, regardless of delay, quicker than if we drove and less expensive than driving. and take that thumb out of your mouths. We are supposed to be grown ups. Everything in life is not catered to us.


April 20, 2008 10:23 PM

If every person flying wants to be treated special then they have to pay the price.
If U want a cheap flight that's the way U get treated.
Delays,baggage not there are part of the game.
If U really want the Pilot & Flight Attendants to talk to U on bended knee fly on a Lear Jet that only has a few people on it.
But, face up to it. If U want to fly cheap that's the way U get treated. CHEAP
So spend the extra bucks & live will be up to your standards.
Don't fly Coach or Business seating fly First Class & U will be treated as such.


October 3, 2008 3:23 PM

I completely disagree with the idea that you should have to pay extra for adequate service. Getting your bag on time and not being treated like garbage hardly qualifies as "Special Treatment."
I do agree that you get what you pay for in terms of extras such as more room, better food/beverage offerings, etc. However, airlines have continued to raise airline fees and I certainly haven't noticed any improvements in services since consumers are now paying more.

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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