Don’t look out the window approaching Midway airport

Chicago Midway International Airport is a scary airport. It’s best you not look out your window upon approach. It’s an airport in the middle of Chicago, butt up against residential housing with little room for error.

I’d like to say that some terrible accident is bound to happen at Midway except two major aircraft crashes have already. More are doubtless on the way, at least while they continue to allow commercial jets to fly in and out of that airport. Most recently in 2005, six-year-old Joshua Woods died when Southwest flight 1248 skidded off the runway and onto a street ringing the airport. The incident happened in a snowstorm but it appears that simple pilot error was the primary cause of the accident. The pilot either did not deploy the reverse thrusters on landing or they came on after a second attempt. In any event there was little margin for error. Southwest’s business requirements probably overruled the safer option of landing it on a nearer and longer runway at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

A far worse crash occurred in 1972 when United Airlines Flight 553 hit trees and roofs on West 71st Street during an aborted landing attempt. 45 people died, 43 of them on the plane. The airplane destroyed five houses and damaged three others. It killed an Illinois congressman and the wife of a prominent figure in the Watergate scandal of the time.

When you fly in and out of Midway and actually look out the window you wonder why a whole lot more accidents haven’t happened. Those were certainly my thoughts this week as I transferred between Southwest flights at Midway. There is so little margin for error, particularly for the large, hulking jets like the 737s that Southwest uses for most of its flights. Pilots want to touch down as close to the start of the runway as possible to make sure they maximize their braking distance. As a result they scream over the nearby houses, just dozens of feet above their roofs. The noise must be nearly nonstop and deafening. All the jet fumes cannot be healthy for nearby residents either. Perhaps the housing is relatively cheaper on flight paths next to Midway, but I cannot imagine anyone who has the option actually purchasing a house on these flight paths. I’d be wearing hearing protection all the time at home.

So don’t make the mistake of looking out the window on approach, like I did. The probability of not making a safe landing is, of course, extremely small. If you are the nervous type you will feel much safer with a connecting flight at O’Hare International instead. In spite of the safety issue, I can see the airport’s appeal to airlines like Southwest, which at times appears to own the airport due to its oversize presence there. Smaller than O’Hare, it is less likely to have problems with congestion, and Southwest is all about running flights on time. While smaller than O’Hare, it is hardly a tiny airport. It has two concourses. My connecting flight yesterday arrived at a far end A gate. I had to reach a far end B gate to get my flight back to Washington Dulles. It took more than ten minutes to get between them.

Midway has been spiffed up a bit to compete with its shinier siblings, but it still feels quite working class. It does have a food court, but not a large one. I needed to find lunch at Midway, which is quite a challenge if you must avoid carbohydrates and fat. In fact it is close to impossible, and I was saved only by the presence of a small shop that sold salads in Concourse B. Otherwise the food was either greasy or sugary, or sometimes both. It’s no wonder that we have an obesity epidemic when those trying to avoid these foods have so few options.

I like flying Southwest but I think that in the future I will just avoid Midway. When that next accident occurs, and it probably won’t take too long given all the traffic the airport receives, I don’t want to be on that plane.

Well, at least there’s Southwest

I’m not sure exactly when flying stopped being fun and started becoming a hassle. Flight delays will turn any flight into a hassle, no matter how outstanding the service. Still, I am old enough to remember when flying usually was fun. It was something you looked forward to. Maybe it was the warm moist hand towel served with before your meal so you could wash your hands. Yes, some airlines did this, even back in economy class. Real silverware was provided with hot meals back on Delta Airlines in the 1980s, also in economy class. Mostly, back then flying commercial was fun. There was usually a great view out the window, great looking flight attendants, and you felt fussed over.

Sometime in the 1980s, I took a People Express flight to Florida. I definitely saved money but the experience felt very third-world. It was my first experience flying on a cattle car of an airline. I’m not surprised that they went bankrupt, when you ended up connecting in Newark in a tired, ugly brick concourse. They had way more people than they had chairs, so mostly you found yourself sitting on the floor waiting for your connecting flight, then walking through a door with a hinge, out on the tarmac to a stairway to get on your plane. The flying part, when it finally happened, was excruciating, at least for a guy over six feet like me. The seats were painful for anyone under six feet, or anyone weighing more than two hundred pounds. To top it off, the plane was grimy and smelled of sweat.

Since the 1980s the flying experience has steadily degenerated. It is the unpaid price of airline deregulation, it seems. These days more often flying is both costly and a hassle. Free meals are a thing of the past, unless you are in business or first class. Getting a meal on any flight is problematical, but if you get one you will have to pay for it, and it will probably come in a snack box, in fact it will be more like a snack than a meal. We customers now pay for lots of things that used to be free: exit row seating (which used to be considered a hassle), baggage, early check in, two inches of additional leg room (or “Economy Plus” as United likes to call it), window seats, aisle seats and on at least one airline the privilege of using the toilet. In only one way has flying improved: smoking is no longer permitted, at least on flights within the United States.

The odd thing is no one really likes airline service. Certainly it’s unliked by customers, although many economists will argue that passengers now fly at a lower cost per mile flown than they ever have. The airlines don’t seem to like the business they are in, perhaps because it is no longer sexy. Most of them lose money and those that make money tend to do so sporadically. Airline attendants used to be paid a living wage; now not so much. Even captains get squeezed, particularly on commuter airlines where your pay may be as low at $18,264 a year, barely above minimum wage. Airlines also seem to merge regularly, most recently Southwest and AirTran, making you wonder if we will end up with a half dozen airlines, all of which will charge premium prices for mediocre service.

So I’ve learned to reduce my expectations flying. However, I still pine for days when the food served on airlines was hot and usually tasty, and when people actually dressed up to fly. Now I am mostly concerned about not getting ripped off, getting from point to point on time, and not having my knees painfully scrape the seat in front of me.

Lately I have been rebelling flying United Airlines. Typically I flew it everywhere I traveled for work, simply because they had the contract fare. It’s not even my money, so I shouldn’t care. But when it costs $1100 for a contract flight to and from Denver from Washington, D.C., I feel cheated. What do I get for all this money? Well, I do earn frequent flier miles, but in spite of traveling for business three to ten times a year, I never earn enough for a free flight, at least for some place I want to go at a time that works. The system seems programmed to frustrate you. Once I managed to get business class at no extra charge, but usually even that is not available. United carefully restricts the number of seats it will upgrade with frequent flier miles. Mostly they want you to pay $50 or $100 for the privilege, and will still dock your frequent flier miles.

This year, with one exception, I have been flying Southwest Airline exclusively. While remembering the airlines’ glory days, I am also appreciative of Southwest. Its system is a bit strange at first, but it is easy to get used to it. What I particularly like is saving money, even when it is not mine. Typically Southwest flights don’t even show up in our travel reservation system at work. I discovered that going to their web site and booking a web-only rate that I could cut the cost of a flight roughly in half compared with what my employer was paying for United and get a flight that suited me. Fortunately, since it cost less, I can book these flight.

What do I not get? Not much. Southwest doesn’t offer movies or any form of inflight entertainment. The recent exception has been Wifi, which you have to pay for, but which is not available on all flights. Fortunately, for most of us this is not a problem. We have our iPads, laptops and DVD players. They will keep us amused, but if not an eReader or old fashioned paper book will work as well.

I also lose the ability to book a seat. Instead, it is first boarded, first seated, which means twenty four hours before your flight you have incentive to get your boarding pass online. So it pays to watch the clock and get that boarding pass as soon as you can twenty four hours before your flight. Yesterday, I got my pass about ninety minutes after the window opened, and half of those on the flight had already gotten their pass! I ended up with B32, not a seat number, but an order for boarding. This got me an aisle seat three quarters of the way toward the back of the plane.

I did not lose the great airline meal, since they are not available anyhow.  Southwest does serve chips, cookies, pretzels and peanuts, and a complementary beverage. So if you expect to have a long flight, it makes much more sense to bring your food with you. Just don’t expect them to let you use their microwave.

What do I get?

  • Low prices. This is the main point. “Low” is relative, of course, but they consistently beat the competition, often by thirty percent or more.
  • Mostly predictable flying. Their planes seem to fly more predictably, probably because they are better maintained.
  • Faster ingress and egress. Their boarding system may seem a bit squirrely, but it works and it’s fast. No other airline can get people on or off a plane faster.
  • On time flights. Flights are usually on time; they have one of the best on-time ratings in the industry. My one experience with a delay recently flying back from Phoenix was that if your flight is delayed, they will hold your connecting flight if possible.
  • More legroom. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough where a tall person like me can sit comfortably. I can’t tell you as a tall person how painful it can be to spend hours with your knees pressed into the seat in front of me.
  • Better seating choices. In fairness, Southwest does offer an “Earlybird check in” where for $10 you can get a boarding pass 36 hours before a flight. Otherwise you must wait until 24 hours before the flight. In practice you don’t have to pay $10 to get a good seat. If it means enough to you, you will spend the money or take the time to make sure you get an early boarding pass.
  • Equality. No snobby walled off business or first class section. We are all equal in the eyes of Southwest employees, and are treated this way.
  • Free baggage. The first two bags are free. This means in addition to saving on airfare, I save my business typically $50 on baggage fees.
  • 737s. Give me one aisle and three across seating. It’s ordinary but it works just fine. These generic aircraft, perhaps because there are so many of them, tend to be more reliable than wide body aircraft.
  • Less marketing. Southwest of course has their frequent flier club and credit card, but they don’t relentlessly hawk it.  It’s a feature, not an attraction.
  • Chicago-Midway. They pretty much own the airport, which makes connecting flights so much more predictable than crowded and terminally flight-delayed O’Hare.
  • Locations. Southwest mostly flies where I want to go and now that they have more flights out of Washington Dulles I can get there without the hassle of driving to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Southwest is hardly the ideal airline, but it delivers on what matters: convenience, value and predictability. I no longer care about how many theoretical airline miles I have with United. I’m glad to trade them all away for the no-hassle flying that Southwest offers.

jetBlue: A civilized airline

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.