The first time I ever flew was in 1966 on American Airlines. While I was nervous about flying, the actual flight was everything I hoped it would be. The plane was clean, my seat very comfortable with lots of leg room. The stewardesses (yes, they were still called stewardesses), were friendly and helpful. After a round of drinks and a snack, I was handed a menu. The food I selected was delicious. On the tray was a small pack of Winston cigarettes. (Yes, smoking was still permitted on airplanes). Even though I didn’t smoke, this little extra added to the feeling that the airline was concerned about the little details, getting everything just right. As far as I was concerned, flying was the only way to travel and American Airlines was on the top of my list.
Flash forward. A few weeks ago, I flew on an American Airlines flight from Las Vegas to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! No free food was served on this flight, not even a bag of nuts or pretzels, and no food was offered for purchase. And this on a five-hour flight!
The flight attendants came around twice with drinks. I was served water in an American Airlines plastic cup that tasted like chemicals. I went to the back of the plane to request another drink and found the flight attendants looking bored and reading magazines. (The thought did cross my mind that they could have used their down time to walk up and down the aisle to check on whether anyone was trying to set a shoe bomb on fire).
I told one of the flight attendants that the plastic cup had an awful taste and asked if she had ever sampled one herself. She gave me a rude look and held up her plastic cup holding a Starbucks ice coffee. In other words, no, she had never tried the plastic cups she was giving out to the lowly passengers.
The plane was old and the seats smelled musty. More than once when feeling an itch, I worried about bedbugs. The little critters seem to be everywhere these days, why not on a plane whose interior needed a good cleaning?
Entertainment? There were small TVs attached to the plane’s ceiling. With good eyesight (and if you brought your own headphones since the flight attendants never came around to offer any) you could watch the out-of-date movie being shown.
My biggest complaint, however, concerned the plane’s leg room or, rather, the lack of it. We were really packed in like sardines with no room to stretch either arms or legs. Two days later, my knees were still recovering from being locked in one position for five hours.
As I exited the plane, I paused to speak with the flight attendant in business class. “What has happened to American Airlines?” I asked her. “There was no food, no leg room, and bad service.” She gave me a sympathetic smile and said, “Low fares.”
Cheaper fares, however, do not explain the problem. For the same ticket price, I flew out to Las Vegas on Jet Blue. I paid $50 extra for extra leg room, and would gladly have done that on American if that option was offered. I was served a drink in a cup that didn’t have a bad aftertaste, along with some nuts. I was also able to purchase a fruit and cheese plate.
A small TV was mounted on the headrest in front of me and I used the time to watch the news and some of my favorite shows. In other words, the Jet Blue flight was very nice. On Wikipedia, Jet Blue is described as “an American low cost airline.” Yet, it’s a low cost airline that somehow is able to deliver a good ride.
There was a time when any company that had “American” in its name stood for quality at home and abroad. That time has passed and as I waited for my bag to come out of the airport’s carousel, I couldn’t help but think that what has happened to American Airlines is a metaphor for what has happened to our country. Somewhere along the line, American Airlines began worrying more about the bottom line than its customers. Sound familiar? And somewhere along the line, the designation “American” began to carry less cachet than it has in the past.
What will it take to get back on top? Putting people first. Fixing what’s wrong with our country is a tougher task. But we can start small, one company at a time. Let’s start with American Airlines, a major corporation with high visibility and worldwide name recognition, a name that should stand for everything that’s right about our country.
American Airlines may know why we fly. Now it needs to start caring about how we fly.