Friday, July 28, 2006

Airline service

Last month I vented a bit about US airline service versus foreign airlines. Now Salon's Patrick Smith has a two part series reviewing the slow changes in attitude US carriers are making. Ask the pilot | Salon Technology
But if you ask me, there's something systemic at hand that transcends the basic profit/performance correlation. The airline business is nothing if not cyclical, and it's easy to assume that with a falloff in profits comes a falloff in the quality of your product. But it's crucial to note that a general decline in service has not necessarily correlated with the industry's bottom line. What we have today is the nadir of a prolonged slide that was ongoing even through the mid-1990s -- the most profitable period for airlines in the history of commercial aviation. Overseas it works much the same way: Many of the most consistently stable carriers, a number of them subsidized by their governments, are among the worst performers. Conversely, financially struggling companies are often able to uphold their reputations. For example, Malaysia Airlines, one of only four names at SkyTrax to maintain a perfect five-star quality ranking, will soon be laying off up to a fifth of its employees in response to intense pressure from low-cost upstart AirAsia.

Looking around the interior of a U.S. jetliner, you'll often see that they are filthy and neglected in ways that minimal upkeep and common sense could remedy. The incentive to pick a gum wrapper off the carpet, wipe away a coffee ring or reattach a piece of molding should have nothing to do with whether the ink is running black or red. For want of a better term, it's a culture thing.
Oh yes.

Contiental internationally isn't too bad -- it's better than Northwest for sure (and much better than the Northwest to Bombay using those ancient DC-10s). Their coach seats do tend to have more legroom as well, certainly more than Delta internationally (oh gosh! I still shudder at that 11.5 hour cramped flight from Rome to Atlanta a couple of years back!).
Continental still provides hot meals in economy, on international and intra-U.S. routes, and proudly boasts that pillows and blankets shall remain on board for anyone who wants them. Continental is living proof that the worst of the worst is capable of turnaround. Arguably the most resilient and successful of the embattled majors, this is a former industry disgrace that twice slogged through bankruptcy.
Still, miles away from the industry leaders
So things are getting better, albeit slightly, on the aft side of the curtain as well. Here too, however, we're still nowhere close to that pantheon of elites. Maybe it's no coincidence that the carriers offering the most lauded first and business classes also offer a superior economy class. Singapore's long-haul economy has, along with several other helpful accouterments, buffet bars and wide-screen personal video with a choice of 500 programming options. The closest we come to that level of in-flight entertainment might just be those seat-back TVs at Delta. (JetBlue, of course, has them too.) Call me cynical, but while Singapore's riders can pick among hundreds of movies and songs, we Americans, par for the course, can watch television.
As for me: I can't afford to travel Business. The reason I'm choose Northworst (and its FF partners: Delta, Continental and (never again!) Alitalia) is I have all kinds of things that fill up my World Perks mileage balance. As an Elite flier I get treated well on all NW and partner flights: priority boarding, at some airports, a separate check-in line, and (more important) security line, and better bag handling. On NW domestic flights I have a chance to get upgraded to First Class (which happens quite often). And those miles help -- for instance, the trip to Rome in March and to China/India last winter were award trips. And I just might have enough miles to pull off a free ticket for the next visit to the folks.

Of course, starting with the lifestyle change next month, I think my flying days might be curtailed a bit ... :-)

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