Sunday, October 10, 2010

US AIRWAYS: NO DISCRETION






"THE INVESTIGATOR," SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS, November 29th, 2008

Thanksgiving weekend is traditionally the most heavily traveled period of the year.

A good time, therefore, to expose US Airways' Customers First policy as a sham--if one Santa Barbara passenger's experience earlier this week is anything to go by.

The average age of US Airways' fleet is, by national standards, high--12.2 years- and its flight attendants have grown old and weary, too. They do not seem to like their jobs, or their passengers.

The Investigator observed, on recent round-trip flights on US Airways to Washington D.C. that the aircraft--a Boeing 757-200--was a quarter-century old. It creaked and rattled; even first-class seats did not function properly. Worst of all, air circulation was a flu factory, alternately too cold and too hot.

But back to the catalyst for this story: a young woman traveling with her pet Chihuahua. She walked onto a decrepit 757-US Airways Flight 4--at Reagan National--and the Uniformed Guardians of the Air decided that since they can't catch any terrorists, despite all the over-priced security, they would instead punish young women with Chihuahuas.

To preserve the inflexibility of stringent rules, they had to make certain the Chihuahua stayed in its kennel under the seat. And the moment they decided their authority was in question--say, because the Chihuahua had the gall to stick out its head for air -- well, time to crack down and teach those unruly passengers--who they secretly (well, not so secretly) hate--a lesson about Who's In Charge.

Folks, this gets ugly--so remember the US Airways mantra, Customers First, as you read on.

These Uniformed Guardians of the Air decide, let's ignore the young woman when it's time to serve drinks and food (for which they charge cash, in addition to charging per bag for checked luggage); we'll teach her a lesson about bucking authority, about allowing a thirsty Chihuahua to stick out its head in search of water.

Meanwhile, there's no movie, because, sneer the Uniformed Guardians of the Air, US Airways discontinued in-flight entertainment as of Nov. 1 due to "economical challenges."

So stay seated and shut up.

And because this young woman attempts to comfort her Chihuahua through the 51/2-hour flight, and the generally disgruntled-with-life flight attendants perceive this as a challenge to their Nazi-like authority (bestowed upon them by 9/11), they serve food and drink around the young woman, but not to her.

And that isn't all.

When the antique 757 arrives in Phoenix, the US Airways flight crew ensures that a ground representative intercepts the young woman at the arrival gate for further interrogation and harassment.

Oh, joy--we've found someone to victimize, so since we can't find any terrorists all year--aside from Jerry Lewis packing heat -- let's vent our frustrations by cracking down on Chihuahuas!

The young woman is jumped by a goon. "Where are you going?" The goon is delighted to hear another flight is ticketed, because it gives her the opportunity to taunt: "You can't take the next leg of your flight to Santa Barbara"--because part of the zipper of the Chihuahua's carrier case is broken. "You will have to buy a new dog carrier, and we don't sell them, so you'll have to leave the airport."

In tears, the young woman phones her parents. Her father asks to speak to the US Airways Nazi who has issued this edict, but the female gate guard refuses to speak to him. Her father suggests safety pins to repair the dog carrier bag.

Foiled, US Airways goons phone colleagues at the next gate to warn of the dire threat facing them: a young woman and her Chihuahua are poised to appear in their proximity presently.

Battle stations!

Our courageous Uniformed Guardians of the Air are ready. They grill the woman good, and order her to keep her Chihuahua zipped tight during the one-hour hop to Santa Barbara--or else.

Mid-flight, when the young woman has the audacity to request water for her Chihuahua, the female flight attendant turns apoplectic with rage and refuses. A neighboring passenger protests this stance, suggesting that perhaps ice cubes, at the very least, should be delivered for the poor dehydrated pup. To which our Nazi in the Air shrills, "Don't get involved or I'll have you fined!" (Insurrections are definitely verboten.)

It doesn't end there, folks.

When the young woman disembarks with her Chihuahua at Santa Barbara Airport, a US Airways Express representative appears at the base of the aircraft to harass her further, and rudely snarls, "I need to talk to you," hollering after her, "Are you returning? Well, you won't be allowed to fly again!"

Moot point. This young woman will never, ever fly again on US Airways--even if offered a free first-class ticket. "Never in my life have I been so mistreated," she told The Investigator, emotionally distraught from her experience.

US Airways should be ashamed of its ancient fleet--compared to, say, Virgin America, whose Airbuses are brand spanking new. But more important, US Airways should be compelled by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission to remove Customers First from their misleading characterization of themselves--and replace it with Flight Attendants First.

Anyone, anywhere issued with a uniform should be required to study the meaning of the word discretion before they are allowed to wear it. (Doubly so for those issued a badge.)

The Investigator contacted Derek Hannah, media spokesman at US Airways' headquarters in Tempe, Ariz. E-mail from Mary Ellen Heaps, "Executive Liaison, Customer Relations," arrived next day. It reflected a stagecoach mentality of everyone getting their stories straight to hide behind the small print that perpetuates mistreatment of air travelers. "We realize," wrote Ms. Heaps, "that even in the midst of difficult circumstances, a kind word from a caring employee will leave a positive impression of our company."

Which accurately implies that a negative impression, in this instance, is the correct one--and also that Customer Relations realizations do not convey to reality.

Airlines are a service industry. Given the "economical challenges" at play these days, airline employees should remember that passenger fares pay their salaries. Fewer passengers will result in job losses--which, based on the personnel in this story, would be no great loss at all.

FOLLOW-UP, FEBRUARY 7th, 2009

In a past column we questioned the disagreeable disposition of US Airways flight attendants and ground staff. Perhaps we should also be looking at their maintenance schedules and crews. And perhaps we will.

But for now we revert to service.

A reader tells of a "nightmare" experience he suffered at the hands of US Airways ground staff, along with this airline's clear violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Homeland Security regulations, potentially placing passengers in harms way. "They are a disgrace," he told The Investigator. "They have the worst customer service in the industry."

This Santa Barbara man and his family had the misfortune of flying US Airways from Orlando to Santa Barbara via the airline's hub in Phoenix. The first flight landed a little late after the pilot, preparing to land, had to perform an emergency ascent to avoid hitting another aircraft.

Upon circling and finally landing, this passenger asked the flight attendant if she would mind calling the gate of the next flight to Santa Barbara to advise them that a family of four, including two young children, were on the ground and on their way.

The flight attendant minded. Nor would this flight attendant even summon a cart to wheel this family to their gate, probably a mile away due to Sky Harbor Airport's terminal configuration.

So the passenger ran ahead to the gate while his family walked.

"I was not expecting to be greeted with such a defiant airline representative when I arrived at the gate," this passenger later wrote to the chairman of US Airways. "Not only did we miss our connecting flight, but the gate representative was belligerent and at times confrontational, and lacked any concern for me and my family."

So this family did not board flight 2725 from Phoenix to Santa Barbara.

But their checked baggage did. It flew home without them.

This is a serious no-no. It is a breach of security that violates FAA and Department of Homeland Security code.

If a passenger decides not to take a flight at the last minute, or does not appear for a flight, or is too late for a flight, his/her luggage, by law, must be removed from the hold. Only luggage that connects to passengers present in the cabin is lawfully permitted to fly.

"How can our luggage get loaded onto a flight without us?," this passenger wrote to the U.S. Department of Transportation. "The way my family and I were treated was unacceptable. My wife and I will no longer choose US Airways as our flight carrier."

A local reader wrote us the following after our earlier column on US Airways:

"I want to congratulate and thank you for writing such a wonderful and true piece. I fly 100,000-plus miles each year. My flights usually start in Santa Barbara Airport, which employs the rudest personnel. Some of these people put on a uniform for the first time and suddenly think they have any and all authority. Half of them wouldn?t qualify for a Marborg (garbage collection) uniform."

Oh, and the young lady with the pet Chihuahua who was mercilessly harassed and harangued by US Airways staff in November?

She enjoyed a serene cruise eastward aboard a spotless new Virgin America Airbus, whose smiling flight attendants could not do enough for her and other passengers. She paid half the price of a US Airways ticket, ate a decent meal, and on her personal in-flight TV screen watched Beverly Hills Chihuahua--with her Chihuahua sleeping peacefully on her lap.