Those of you waiting to hear the story of Caroline and hubs having dinner in Lawndale, Chicago, stay tuned. The story is simply so unbelievable that I need more time to think about it. In the mean time, let’s have a chat about the year 2009 and the progress we’ve made in the areas of customer service.
Long ago, when I was a small child, I remember flying Southwest Airlines to visit my grandparents in Houston. I was in first grade and flying alone. My parents drove me to the airport where I checked two suitcases: one full of clothes, shoes, hair accessories, pajamas, bathing suits, etc. and one filled only with things I would need to have with me to survive the weekend: dolls, animals, writing utensils. (Case in point– and god rest his soul– after taking me to dinner at the Houstonian, my grandparents took me to see Jack London’s White Fang, a movie about carrying a dead body across the frozen tundra. I was six.) The point, however is that I had two suitcases. I checked both. And then my dad walked me all the way to the gate.
Southwest was thrilled to have me. They gave me an honorary pilot’s pin, a cap to wear, a full sized coloring book, and even seated me in the front seat with extra legroom. (Something every three foot person needs.) I had my own stewardess who cared about my well being, brought me unlimited cups of juice. They even played a game on the plane: stewardesses would ask questions over the loud speaker and people would ring in with the answer, winning free drinks and flight vouchers, not to mention creating a community of passengers who would have sat on the runway for hours just to play trivia and eat honey roasted peanuts.
By the time I arrived in Houston I felt like I’d been on a fun ship. I had pilfered 25 packets of peanuts to eat in the privacy of the stately guest bedroom, and even convinced those friendly stewardesses to give me some extra crayons in case my grandparents didn’t have any at the house. (Which they didn’t. They were missing crayons and general merriment. It had been replaced with the Wall Street Journal and a complete lack of understanding about children.)
It was a glorious trip, all for the bargain price of $139 (or whatever absurdly low price Southwest charged me for that round trip ticket to Houston). Magic. I loved Southwest so much that I flew Southwest nearly exclusively for the next 15 years of my life. In fact, my father, who has very few odd convictions, was convinced that there was never a reason to fly any other airline if there was a Southwest terminal within three hours of where you lived. While attending college at The University of Georgia in Athens, GA, my father insisted that I drive three hours one way to Birmingham, Alabama to fly home at Christmas. One year I even asked for a Delta flight out of Atlanta as my Christmas present. Just so I could come home directly, sans the six hour drive. (No dice.) Eventually when I moved to Boston, I was sorry to find out that Southwest flies to Providence, thus beginning three years of taking a car, a train, and a cab to the Providence airport so that I could then fly to Austin, via stops in Houston, Dallas, and maybe Albuquerque. (Southwest will give you a scenic tour of the Southwest for your low fare, as well.)
The point, however, is that the Southwest brand, with no complications and fine print, created the kind of brand loyalty that encouraged my entire family to go out of our way to fly with them. It’s an incredible kind of marketing, the kind that cannot be achieved in any other way. Customer service can move mountains.
Unfortunately, my life now is not as simple as it was back then. I fly places that Southwest doesn’t fly, and then I discovered that flying with a mini television in front of your face is worth at least $200 extra, thus beginning my slow divorce from Southwest. But I havent forgotten them. Recently, however, I had a jovial exchange with a JetBlue sales lady (Nancy) that left me wondering why I ever left the warm embrace of Herb and the Southwest gang.
Let’s imagine for a moment my trip to see my grand parents, only this time let’s set it in 2009. The year of the rat bastard airline whores.
When I was a wee thing, I went to visit my grandparents in Houston. I was going for the weekend, and my parents we’re letting me fly all by myself. Me and American Airlines. I couldn’t have been more excited. I showed up at the airport two hours early, with two suitcases packed: one for my bountiful wardrobe, the other full of necessities to keep me from gouging my eyes out while spending three days reading the Wall Street Journal and pretending that Fiber One tastes like Captain Crunch.
When I arrived at the check in, the evil service rep immediately eyed my two princess suitcases.
(He informs us that luggage is not a necessity when traveling. There are stores: malls, Goodwills, even outlets where I’m going. If I need clothes when I get there, I can always buy them. Airline policy. If people insist on frivolity like luggage, they are going to have to pay for it.)
Dad and I walk to the gate, where he is immediately beaten with a baton for crossing the yellow line without a ticket. As I scream for a medic over his unconscious body, a TSA working grabs me by the arm, insisting that I show him my driver’s license. I pull out my ID card and boarding pass, straining to see my dad over his massive frame.
He needs a valid driver’s license. Now.
I try to explain in Judy Blume language that I am only 7 and I can’t drive. He walkie talkies and suddenly a woman of comparable size and an extra large Dunkin Donuts ice coffee emerges. They exchange important conversation. I am immediately taken to a glass cube where I am left to rot, until a wiry black man comes to pat me down. He asks if I am carrying a concealed weapon. I reply that I am not. He asks if I am carrying coke. I tell him that I can only have Coke when we go for Mexican.
The next twenty minutes are a blur. I vaguely remember being beaten with a pistol and fingerprinted.
When I wake, I am slumped against the peanut cart, and my boarding group is being called. I wander to the front where a snatchy woman named Joy takes my ticket.
When I get onto the plane I settle into the seat in the front row. Immediately a thin man dances through the crowed, hands me a one page brochure. Some thing about a special room for legs. And some numbers. I give him my best “friendly stranger” smile and try to climb up on the seat. He is not amused. He wants $35 cash or check. I’m sitting in a seat with two inches of extra legroom.
I tell him that my dad gave me $40 dollars as special money for my trip. He takes the money from my Polly Pocket purse and throws me a five.
I get scared during takeoff and ask the stewardess if I can have some crayons. No.
I can buy a KidPak for $4.
She doesn’t tell me that I should save my money because if I get thirsty, a juice cup is going to cost me $3 and I’m not going to have enough money. So I’ll end up drinking sink water out of the lavatory to help wash down the fear and anxiety that is coming over me.
When I arrive in Houston I wander through the airport alone, waiting for someone to recognize me. Eventually the businesses start to close and I am alone. Just before I curl up to go to sleep in the internet cubicle I hear my name over the loudspeaker.
It’s them. My grandparents. They’re trying to find me. We’re going to be late for our movie.
Which is fine. Because once we get there the anxiety of my previous four hours bubbles over, exacerbated by the horrifying film and I have a manic breakdown in the middle of the theatre. I lay lifeless in my movie seat, thinking only of how I am going to get home.
A bus, my seven year old self decides.
I will take a bus.
My low fare of $139 soars to $926 all because I need clothes when I arrive to see the gparents, or because I sometimes find myself thirsty after three hours in a compressed chamber. Crazy. Plus I have the added bonus of being scarred for life. Super.
How many times have I been frisked and molested in a glass room while my father, the lumbering terrorist, walked through security on his blackberry?
When I called Nancy, my customer service rep at JetBlue, to change my flight to the SAME FLIGHT two days earlier, she cheerfully told me that my flight was actually less expensive, so I would be receiving a ten dollar credit… and that she would deduct it from the $100 flight change fee.
What the fuck.
Flight change fee? I have moved a reservation on one airplane– which is not sold out– to a reservation on another airplane–which is not sold out–and am sitting in the SAME SEAT. Nancy explains that the fee is to cover the convenience cost of the service.
One computer just told another computer something that didn’t so much as cost an energy credit to calculate. My Mac is more stressed out by this blog post than the JetBlue system was by my flight change. Does my $90 go towards a relaxing vacay for that poor computer? Who I so rudely inconvenience for my flight change? I certainly hope so.
Poor machine. Having to do all that work.
Alas the cost of flying is now similar to the cost of having your tits redone. You buy the basic package, but you forget you have to buy all the other stuff too. New bras, better fitting tops, mace.
There is no such thing as a $139 low fare anymore.