The Thinker

A tale of two airlines

Mostly I fly United Airlines. Since I generally cannot escape United Airlines when I fly on business, I joined their Mileage Plus Club. After three years of flying United on six to eight trips a year, I finally earned a free business class upgrade on a recent trip to Denver. The seats were wider in business class and there was much more leg room, but otherwise I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Their breakfast was nice, but it was no better than I used to get back in the 1980s flying on Delta in coach. Times have changed in the airline business and clearly, standards have slipped too.

My family’s recent trip out west was on our own dime. It was an odd trip. We flew to Phoenix, stayed there for a few days, then flew to Las Vegas, spent a few more days, then flew back home. Trying to figure out how to do it at an affordable price was challenging. We ended up getting there and back on Airtran. We made the hop between Phoenix and Las Vegas on Southwest. I had never flown Airtran before, and was curious whether they were just another discount airline or not.

Airtran’s major hub is in Atlanta, so we had to fly through Atlanta going both east and west. Airtran is an airline that takes penny pinching perhaps a bit too far. Their airline fare consisted of the world’s tiniest bag of “gourmet” pretzels and a beverage service. On the reverse side of the bag of pretzels were suggestions that told you that you could enjoy your pretzels more by ruminating on all the money you saved flying Airtran. In saving money though, they skipped on a few more things than the pretzels. For example, they could not be bothered to clean the airplane between flights. The floors and seat pockets were littered with the residue of other flights. I guess to turn a profit they have to turn over their flights quickly, so that left little time for niceties like cleaning the plane. Saving money also meant no in-flight movies. It was more a three and a half hour haul between Atlanta and Phoenix, which was a lot of time to read books and magazines. Perhaps to make up for the lack of movies, Airtran offered XM satellite radio instead, and provided complementary headphones. This made my long flight endurable. It also gave me an appreciation for the world of satellite radio. This was my first flight where I could actually listen to news live during the flight. As a news junkie, I appreciated the satellite radio, particularly the public radio channel.

It had been years since we had flown Southwest, and my last experience had not been a good one. This short flight between Phoenix and Las Vegas though changed my opinion about Southwest. Unlike all our Airtran flights, this plane was clean for this flight. I was impressed by how efficiently Southwest got us in and out of the plane. The lack of reserved seating is actually something of a bonus, because it reduces the time it takes to get on the plane. The flight attendants were not particularly friendly, but neither were they surly. I rather liked their offbeat orange and blue uniforms. Female flight attendants should dress business casual more often; the hose and heels look standard on the major carriers is so 1950s. Your bag of peanuts was small, but at least they were honey roasted. At least on this flight the flight attendants were glad to hand out additional bags of peanuts. Moreover, unlike the other airlines I have flown recently, Southwest seems to have the airline business down to a predictable science. There were no last minute stragglers trying to claim that last empty seat on the plane. We pushed away from the gate a minute early. I was also surprised to find I had sufficient of legroom. This is hard for me to find, since I am a tall man. Moreover, their seats were upholstered with real leather. This was almost classy for an airline with a no-frills reputation.

Southwest was not quite the cattle car that I remembered. To fly Southwest I have to go to an airport an hour away from my house. If they start flying out of Washington Dulles Airport, near where I live, I will look forward to flying them more frequently. As for Airtran, their prices were definitely lower than other fares, but not dramatically lower. We had to endure two-hour waits between flights in Atlanta. While this made it difficult to miss a connecting flight, it also made us see much more of Hartsfield International Airport than I wanted to see. I killed time by getting exercise walking between terminals.

So thumbs up for Southwest, but thumbs sideways for Airtran. Moreover, thumbs down in general to all airlines (including United) that cannot build time in to their schedules to clean their planes between flights. No matter what airline you fly, you should at least have the expectation that you will not find trash by your seat or stuffed into the seat pockets. If it takes raising the fares a bit, I will gladly pay for it, and I bet you would too.


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