Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Why are U.S. airlines so bad?

Leaders of the free world they may be. Land of the free, home of the brave, blah blah blah. But what they are not, is the home of decent airlines.

I love visitng the US. But what the hell's going on with their airlines? Why are they all so incredibly bad? Flying through the US is a nightmare, everyone knows that - but it's not just because of the massive security push, the fact you have to take your shoes off about four times before you even set foot in the airport, and hand over your mother's cousin's social security number before you can board the plane.

I can deal with all that. They don't want people hijacking their planes - fair enough. It's all the airline-related hassles I resent. It's not like there's no reliable model to go on for running a good airline. The Asian and Middle Eastern airlines are an absolute dream compared to anyone based in the US of A. Why don't they just copy them?

It starts from the moment you jump online to book your flights. If you want to fly, say, United, you'll find you can't book a domestic flight on their website unless you have an American-issued credit card. Otherwise, you'll have to go to a travel agent. It's as if they think no one living outside the States could possibly have the means to fly in a big aeroplane.

So that's United. You'll be fine booking domestic flights with American Airlines. US Air is okay too - you'll just have to make up a fake American phone number, since the website can't get its head around foreign phone numbers. Continental is fine. North-West and Delta will let you get up to the payment stage, then redirect you to its Australian site, where you'll have to start all over again.

There's a way around these problems though - go to one of the aggregator sites like, and book flights with any of the airlines on there. You find all the flights leave at ridiculous times like 11.48am, or 2.12pm, but, whatever.

With your flight booked, you then head to an American airport, most of which are complete chaos. By the time you find out where you're supposed to be, you'll realise the airlines have done away with most of the actual "people" working for them, and you have to check in at a machine. This is pretty straightforward with practice, but it's the added extras that get me. If you're flying domestic, the machine will tack travel insurance onto your ticket. No thanks, don't want that. Oh, and you've been upgraded to business for just $300 extra. Press here to cancel that option. Cancel. Checking a bag in? That'll cost you $20. Please swipe your credit card. What if I don't have a credit card? Could you have warned me about that in advance?

You almost find yourself waiting for the option to pay $50 more for a plane with wings.

Phew. Okay, all that's out of the way, and you can board your flight. Hoping for one of those nifty little TV screens on the seat in front of you? No chance. I took an hour-long flight from Washington to New York recently: no telly. Fine, it's only a short flight. Then I flew four hours from Chicago to Seattle: no telly. Bit annoying, but I could deal with it. Then I flew 14 hours from LA to Sydney: still no telly. In the words of a great American: you cannot be serious.

Ah well, might as well kick back and enjoy my meal. Except ... there's no meal. Food on US carriers used to be bad - I remember flying about 10 years ago and being presented with a mini pizza and a small packet of M&Ms. Now? If you're on an international flight you'll at least get something to eat.

Domestic travellers, though, often get nothing. Nada. Nilch. It might be a four- or five-hour flight, but the tastiest thing you'll get to munch on will be your arm rest. You might get a small snack. But you'll have to pay for a beer to wash it down. These aren't budget carriers, but they act like it.

I don't want to be totally negative though. I guess the one thing all my US flights have had in common is that they've all landed safely. Which, you'd have to agree, is a nice touch.

But things could be a lot better. Maybe once Obama's done sorting out the health care system and the war on drugs and the terrorists and the motoring industry, he could give his country's airlines a nudge...

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