One of the downsides of traveling on your employer’s dime is you rarely get to choose a decent airline. Since most of my business travel takes me to Denver, I am usually on one of our contract flights between Denver and Washington Dulles, which means I am on United Airlines.
United is one of these airlines which, if I were to grade it, would rank somewhere between a C and a D. Sadly, most of the domestic airlines here in the United States would rank between a C and a D. The good part about flying United is you pretty much know what you are going to get. Since my employer will not pay for business class, I will be back in economy. Since I am six foot two inches, I know my knees will be rubbing up against the seat in front of me. Trying to check in, whether online or at the airport, and I will be nagged to purchase “Economy Plus” seating. Because they can, United will also charge for bags: $15 for the first bag, $25 for each additional bag. These baggage fees have become quite popular and essentially are a way to raise your ticket prices without broadcasting it.
Fly United and you expect that the airplane is likely to be dirty, except in business and first class. If you want a meal, expect to pay $9 or so, assuming they are offering one, and do not expect it to be large or particularly memorable. Otherwise, all you get is a beverage service. Movies are scattershot, and generally available only on the longer flights, but at least they are free. Their wide-body aircraft generally have personal TV screens where you can select from some canned entertainment; otherwise, you are left to your own amusement. While their skies are not exactly friendly, they are not overtly hostile either.
Which is why my short flights on jetBlue to and from Boston last week was such a noticeable change for the better. Since I could not find a contract flight, I had to book an out of network flight instead, and jetBlue had the most convenient time and the best price. Given its low-ticket price I was expecting something like United Airlines or worse.
I could not have been more surprised. jetBlue is a civilized airline. First, there is no artificial distinction between coach, business and first class. As with a few other airlines like Southwest, there is only one class available. It was weird to walk into an airplane with no artificial bulkhead between premier seats and those of us in the cattle car section. The seats were all three across, upholstered in leather and actually left a few inches between my knees and the seat in front of me. Nor was the seat artificially narrow. Not that it was wide, but it was comfortable. Some airlines (and Northwest comes to mind as a particularly egregious example) will torture you by trying to jam you into 22 or 23-inch wide seats.
At least for my flights, the cabin was absent the usual detritus of napkins on the floor and reminders of previous passengers in the seatback pocket. The welcome boarding the plane seemed at least half-heartfelt. I never felt that on United. Settling into my seat, I found that I had my own personal TV with several dozen satellite channels available. If I did not want to watch satellite TV, I had XM satellite radio to choose from instead. This suited me just fine and I settled into the XM National Public Radio channel.
On-time departures are problematical with any airline, but my flights left a minute or two ahead of schedule and arrived on time or a little early. On the brief flight, we had a choice of either chocolate chip cookies or jetBlue’s proprietary blue-tinted potato chips. The beverages are announced at the start of the flight, and are usually somewhat limited, but include bottled water.
On the longer flights, if you want to see a movie you have to pay for the privilege, although there is plenty of entertainment on the satellite channels, just rife with commercials. You also have to pay $2 for earphones if you do not own any and want to listen to the entertainment. Overall, my experience on jetBlue was what passed for a high quality airline experience these days. It was weird. It was like they actually cared a bit about my flying satisfaction.
Southwest was the only other airline where I have felt something similar. Granted this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Southwest used to be infamous as the cattle car express, and they still have a bizarre policy where there is no assigned seating, meaning that you tend to arrive extra early to have the first chance to board. Even so, Southwest is at best a B- of an airline. jetBlue ranked a solid B.
If there are A-rated airlines out there, they are likely foreign carriers. Since I do little foreign travel, I have little to compare but I was impressed with IcelandAir a few years ago. Most domestic airlines seem to be flyer-hostile, or at least exhibit a passive aggressive side through tactics like usury baggage fees and premier seating that simply means your knees have an inch or two to spare. On jetBlue, the first bag is free, providing it does not exceed fifty pounds. (The second bag is $30. The third is $75.)
The only part of the jetBlue experience I found annoying was the commercials. JetBlue will commandeer your TV at certain points during the ascent and descent and subject you to annoying ads. You cannot turn the TV off, but you can at least unplug your headset and look elsewhere for a while.
Those of us older travelers cannot help but feel wistful for a time when the standards were much higher. In the early 1980s, I would annually fly Delta Airlines to Florida. Back in coach we were served real breakfasts. The food was provided hot in ceramic containers. You got real silverware and linens too, as well as a choice of meals and condiments. Moreover, all this came with the price of a ticket. There were no baggage fees at all for the first couple of bags. (This year I flew Delta to Salt Lake City and I can assure you they are busy emulating United Airlines.)
Those days are likely gone for good. Meanwhile, if you have to travel domestically and do most of your traveling back in the coach section see if you can fly jetBlue. You may at least get a hint of what real airline service used to feel like. When I have a choice, I will be booking jetBlue in the future.