Saturday, October 8, 2011

Carry-on Baggage Nazis

The domestic coach flights I took this week to and from Phoenix to Albany New York on US Airways and United revealed a new trend to me that I was previously unaware was happening.  That is, the prevalence of domestic US airlines embracing the tactic of fear to get their customers to comply with policies that the Europeans adopted a long time ago - that is Carry-on Baggage Nazism.  Let me explain.

In Europe, when I've flown on French, German, Spanish, Dutch, English, Italian, Austrian, and Swiss airlines, I've had the very polite but very firm gate personnel measure, and even sometimes weigh, carry-on luggage.  Larger than 55 cm (22 inches), it must be gate checked.  Heavier than 15kg? It cannot go into over-head bins (at least on Spanair from Mallorca to Barcelona - whom I will never fly again).  You've got more than one personal item?  Vee vill have to check zee second one, unless you are business class, then of course, take on whatever you would like.

In the US, with it's Idiocratic culture of entitlement and me! Me! ME! ...the major carriers used to find to hard to get a plane loaded when every paid passenger was bringing on 2 maximum sized carry ons, and trying to stuff them all in the limited over-head compartments.  Pay $25 for a checked bag? Hell no! (says Idiocracy) I'm bringing on a overly stuffed 22 inch roll on with spinner wheels (that won't fit into many Airbus and Boeing overheads that are smaller than a Boeing 767 or AB321) AND a computer bag that looks more like a North Face backpack crammed full of gear for a 3 day wilderness hike, and by the way, my limited leg room is so important to me, BOTH of them are going in the over-head, and the 3 undisciplined, spoiled little children I am bringing with me, each of them have 2 large carry-ons that they can barely wield as well, and most of those are headed for the over-heads.

So to deal with this mind set, the US carriers instituted an aggressive, capitalistic, hierarchical system of "those with the ability to pay, are less inconvenienced".  You can pay more to board first. Pay more to pick a seat online.  Pay more to get "Economy Plus".  And each of these nickle and dime (or $15 and $25 and $50 options) drive the poorest Americans to the bottom of the food chain faster than before.  Instead of first class, families with children, and economy, now it is first class, families with children UNDER FOUR YEARS OF AGE, active duty military personnel IN UNIFORM, then zones 2 through 5.  If you are the poor bastard in zones 4 or 5, you KNOW that by the time you enter the plane, it will be 75% to 80% full, and none of the over-heads will be available.

This draconian, tiered bureaucracy was imposed about 2 years ago, and it's sunk in enough, that anyone whose flown in the last 2 years, or anyone who knows a friend or family whose flown in the last 2 years, KNOWS that in zones 4 or 5, you're S.O.L. Simply Out of Luck, and your bag will not be fitting in an overhead.. When you see your boarding pass, and you don't see zones 1, 2, 3 listed, you;re not in Afghanistan fatigues, and you've got no toddler in arms, you're going to be gate checking your bag; the dread washes over you.

And the Airlines have employed very observant psychologists, who have noticed this phenomenon.  The psychological data combines with scheduling, and low-cost-country performed maintenance, to provide very tight arrival and departure schedule.  Connecting flights at major hubs have about an hour on inner-airline transfers, and passengers know that if everything doesn't go smoothly, if there's a 15 or 20 minute delay, they'll probably not make their connection.  Those are the often the SAME passengers who are holding zone 4 and 5 boarding passes, who have booked the cheapest flights with the shortest connection times.

These Z4 & 5 passengers have now been kowtowed into WILLINGLY gate checking their roll-on bags.  They remember the last time they were on a flight that was delayed because the gate crew and flight crew were busy tagging and shuffling a dozen roll on bags that the ground crew then had to stuff into the baggage hold.  They know they are at the bottom of the financial food chain, and the Baggage Nazis have corralled them into doing exactly what they wanted them to do - bring on fewer bags, and not delay the boarding process.  The scariest part of it is, I do not think most of the Z4 & 5 passengers realize this is going on.  They just think it is part of being kicked in the teeth, again, by corporate America, and are not cognizant of the lemming like herding they are experiencing in the 'friendly skies'.

I've seen this tactic of [delayed flight + threats to Z4 & 5 passengers that their bags won't fit + threats of "and we won't make our connections"] = [faster loading] used Very Effectively by US Airways, United, and Delta, in the last 6 months.  The net result is, the passengers load more quickly, and when you are the last person to board (as I was at 930pm on Friday night) you find a dozen over-head storage spots EMPTY & Available!  I was so amazed, I put my laptop bag in the over-head, and had room to stretch my legs a little bit, after my 1200 meter sprint across O'Hare, seated in row 25 amongst my Z4 and 5 brethren an an Airbus 320.  Everyone around me was bemoaning that their glass crystal this and that, their fragile such-and-such, was going to be damaged under the plane, as I caught my breath and we rolled back from the gate.  (The lesson they needed to learn was, DO NOT pack fragile items in roller bags, unless you are in first class).  It's worked ingeniously, and insidiously, for the US major carriers. 

I am not saying it is a well oiled and fully functioning conspiracy - the airlines are not competent enough to pull such a complex strategy off.   What I have observed though, on multiple occasions with multiple airlines, is the successful tactic of employing threats of late connections, threats of "and you'll have to pick up your bag at baggage claim if it an international connection and recheck it" (yeah, that would not take much time at all!), and financial beat downs that force the masses to comply, very successfully. 

If you want to see a plane get loaded every 10 minutes, fly Southwest - or fly someone else and watch as a blue and orange Southwest 737 rolls past your Delta, Continental, United, American, or US Airways gate, every 45 minutes, jammed full of passengers who've picked their own seats, and a luggage hold jammed full of free checked bags.  There are rarely any delays in getting a Southwest 737 out of the gate and up in the air - in the Albany airport, while United was delayed, Southwest rolled a 737 by our gate ever 45 minutes, fro the 3 hours we waited.  Southwest has convinced their paying passengers that they're a "low cost" airline, but they're not really any lower cost.  Their flights and fares are comparable, within $30 or $40 dollars, to all of their "big airline" competition, and Southwest are no fools - they've instituted the "pay more, get more" practices of paying more for a "business class" seat in an all-coach 737, and "priority seating" for additional fees.  They're not dummies, and are not going to leave that money on the table.

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