Airwork: A Rude Awakening

Tom Benenson

(February 2011) — How do we get more people to join our ranks as pilots? It's simple; force them to make a trip on a commercial airline. Frankly, it's amazing to me that the airline experience hasn't caused a mass migration to general aviation. Ironically, the solution was driven home to me on my trip to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) annual convention last October.

I know I've been spoiled. For years, when I traveled to the NBAA's annual meeting, I saddled up my Cessna Cardinal and set my own schedule. Even before I owned the Cardinal, when I was flying a Cessna 150, I flew it to New Orleans, Atlanta, St. Louis and Dallas to cover the NBAA for Aviation International News. After joining Flying and upgrading to the Cardinal, I continued to make the annual pilgrimage to the business aviation mecca in whichever far-flung city it was being held, including Orlando, Atlanta and Las Vegas.

With the sale of my Cardinal last spring, however, my trip to the convention in Atlanta last fall was by airliner.

In the days when I traveled in my Cardinal, baggage wasn't a concern. I could comfortably carry my camera case, laptop computer, hanging garment bag, suitcase and a batch of paperback books. I wasn't completely naive and knew that going by airline would be different and that I would be prudent to limit my baggage. So, I did. In the end I managed to get everything I needed with me to fit in a small rolling bag, the kind that most people carry on. The only thing I carried was a Kindle with a generous group of free classics.

Since on my flight from Albany, New York, to Atlanta I'd be changing airplanes in Charlotte, North Carolina, and since I knew from the few past experiences at other terminals that the connecting gate is usually about as far away from the arrival gate as it can be, I figured it made sense to check the rolling bag rather than to have to drag it through the terminal between gates. I had an e-ticket, and the little kiosk checked me in. It then asked me how many bags I was checking. I was aware that airlines are charging for bags but figured the charge is only after the first one. Well, it isn't. The kiosk very efficiently asked if I wanted to use the same credit card with which I'd logged on to get my boarding pass to pay for the checked bag. What the hell. … I pushed "yes."

While waiting at the gate for departure, I heard a PA announcement that the flight was full and there was limited room for carry-on baggage in the overhead. For the moment it made me glad I'd paid to check my bag. But then, according to the announcement, anyone waiting for the flight who wanted to check their carry-on bag could do it for free. What?! I'd just paid $25 and I could have done it for nothing. But of course, if I hadn't checked my bag, I wouldn't have been able to get through security with the little two-inch pocket knife I would have otherwise been carrying in my pocket. (In fact, a friend who attended the NBAA who didn't check any bags on his return home was disappointed when a Leatherman-type pocket knife he had been given as a souvenir was confiscated by security.)

I went up to the counter and waited patiently to complain about having paid to check my bag. As I stood stewing, I noticed the sign at the base of the counter designed to let people determine if their carry-on meets the size restrictions.

The horizontal sign appeared to depict the outline of a carry-on bag in red. The red outline was oriented vertically the way rolling bags are dragged upright. I couldn't believe it! There was no way that virtually all of the carry-on bags that were in the waiting area could fit within the red outlined area. "You've gotta be kidding!" I said loud enough for a number of people to turn and stare at me. "You've gotta be kidding!" I repeated, even louder. "There's no way that bag there," I said, pointing at an offender, "is small enough to fit within the outline. Or that blue one there or that black one!" I was on a roll.

Then I felt someone tug on my sleeve. I turned and saw a woman behind me with a rolling bag tucked up against the back of her legs. She pointed at the sign. "That red outline is to show the height and width when it's lying down, not the length. The length is the black outline." I looked again. She was right. I tucked my tail and slinked back to the waiting area.

Eventually, they announced the boarding and I waited patiently for my "zone" to be called. In my pre-Cardinal days I remembered passengers would be loaded by seat number groups. But now it seems the loading process is arranged by zones. The higher the zone number, the farther back in the airplane you sit.

After the counter people made several announcements warning about the limited space for carry-on baggage, they began to board from the front to the back. As a result, those sitting in the front were standing in the aisle trying to hoist their heavy bags into the overhead and creating a bottleneck in the aisle for the people in the higher zones at the back of the bus.

Apparently there's a perceived benefit to being seated in the front of the airplane, so Zones 1 and 2 are available as perks for "preferred" customers. My guess is that the advantage of sitting up front is at the end of a flight, when those passengers sitting in the forward seats are able to get off the airplane more quickly. If I ran the airline, I'd let the elite passengers relax in the lounge (maybe in their own waiting area) until the steerage passengers have been loaded from back to front, eliminating the traffic jams in the aisle.

It may be sacrilege, but since the loading process is critical to an "on-time departure," wouldn't it make more sense to encourage people to check their larger carry-ons? Going one step further, why not charge for carry-on bags and allow at least one checked bag to fly for free?

I'm old enough to remember when flight attendants were available and would come around with an assortment of Chiclets to relieve pressure changes and help with the Valsalva maneuver. Now the flight attendants seem to spend the entire flight wheeling the service cart to the front of the airplane (another advantage of Zone 1 and Zone 2 seating?) to begin working toward the rear.

I know the airlines had some bad years, but recently they've notched some impressive profits. So I was surprised when I lowered my tray table in anticipation of my free soda, to be confronted by an ad on the drop-down table for Lands' End. And the napkin was printed with a message encouraging me to shop at the SkyMall. It made me feel the way I do when I have to sit through commercials when I go to the movies.

I did get to see the flight attendant again when she came through the cabin hawking the Premier World MasterCard. If you agreed to sign up for the credit card, you'd get to "move to the front of the line with 25,000 bonus miles." And, if you applied during the flight, you'd earn an additional 500 bonus miles. Among other benefits, the MasterCard promised to "make your travel more relaxing and [let you] get on the plane sooner with First Class check-in and Zone 2 boarding."

All in all, the flight could have been a lot worse. On only one of the four legs did I have a kid sitting behind me kicking my seat back, and most of the babies on board were well-behaved during cruise, kvetching only while taxiing out and in. And the flights were pretty much on time so I didn't have the breathless, heart-throbbing marathon race to reach my connecting gates.

If I needed a reminder of how much I miss my Cardinal, the flight by airline from Albany to Atlanta made the point. A previous trip in my Cessna Cardinal, with a stop in Hickory, North Carolina, to visit a friend, took just six hours of flight time. That compares pretty favorably with my airline trip, which was four hours and 56 minutes but doesn't include the trip to the Albany airport and security screening. No question, the flight in the Cardinal was much more satisfying and I arrived much more relaxed.

There's an argument made by some that we shouldn't promote single-engine piston airplanes as a reliable means of transportation — that we've done a disservice by fostering risky behavior in pilots trying to keep to a schedule. But prudent scheduling with time "left blank" for contingencies, careful flight planning and a realistic assessment of the weather can reduce the inherent risk and make general aviation a viable option. And, as the Cunard steamship line used to advertise, "Getting there is half the fun!"

Given the choices, airline or a general aviation airplane, the front of the plane or the back of the bus, there's no question which way to go.


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