by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
October 8, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Remember when people dressed up to fly?
I was never a stewardess, but my first real job was as a guide at the 1964 New York World's Fair. We were called "Golden Girls." We were trained by stewardesses. We wore bright yellow two-piece uniforms and hats. We were required to wear not only bras but girdles and nylon stockings - there was a good reason why women metaphorically burned their bras in the '70s.
Pretty stewardesses were just one of the ways airlines turned a trip into a special event. They served free liquor. Their food may have been the butt of late-night television comedians' jokes, but they still gave you a free hot meal instead of a tiny bag of crackers. You had free magazines, pillows, blankets and leg room. And you expected to leave and arrive on time.
Today a plane is only a flying Greyhound bus. Style has been lost in the clouds, along with a lot of our luggage and stable flight times.
I recently flew to Florida and back on Southwest Airlines, an airline I happen to like. The crews are experienced and professional, the fares are a little bit cheaper, they don't charge for baggage and when you call with a question or a change of plans, a real person answers the phone.
This time, I was already on line to board at Bradley International Airport when they announced that the plane had a mechanical problem. The airline was flying in some mechanics to fix it, but since most of the passengers had to make connecting flights, we were quickly shuffled on to other planes. I arrived in Fort Lauderdale many hours late - but at least it was on the same day, and my bag landed with me.
Coming home, the first leg of my flight went off as scheduled. In Tampa, however, once again the plane had mechanical problems. We were already on board when the pilot announced that mechanics were just then fixing the autopilot. When they were finished, the plane taxied out to the runway, sat there for a while and then taxied back.
It turned out there was another mechanical problem and we needed a new plane. When we finally took off, two hours later, the passengers applauded.
However, while we were waiting for the second plane to fly in from Palm Beach, I heard an announcement that the Providence plane was being delayed because of mechanical problems.
Was there a growing epidemic of mechanical problems, I wondered? I asked the announcer. She gave me the traditional answer, which is, of course, that it's better to find and fix mechanical problems on the ground than have them occur in the air.
But no, I pressed. How many times a week does she have to make that announcement? It only happens only two or three times a month, she said.
So was Southwest overextending its planes? Was it spending too much on television advertising and not enough on maintenance? Or was I just a jinx?
Curious, I did a little research on the Federal Bureau of Transportation's <"http://www.transtats.bts.gov/OT_Delay/ot_delay"> on-line statistics page when I got home.
Southwest Airline's on-time record between January and July of 2009 for flights from Tampa was 85.20 percent. From all airports, it was 83.08 percent. By comparison, Delta from all airports was 77 percent.
Nationally, during the same time period, all the American airlines were on time 78.69 percent of the time.
Call me old-fashioned, but wouldn't you expect the on-time percentages to be in the high nineties?
I know airlines are in financial trouble, and as someone with an aging mother in Florida, I am dependent on them staying in business and flying safely. The thought of them disappearing or reducing service or raising prices or having frequent crashes scares me.
But there's a larger perspective, too. The current recession is highlighting something that many observers have known for quite some time: America is slowly sliding into third-world status. Too much manufacturing is gone. Too many people are living below the poverty line. Real wages - for those lucky enough to have jobs - haven't risen in decades, but the work load has increased exponentially. The middle class is disappearing. The gap between the rich (who now take private jets) and the poor widens every day.
America may have a huge economy and a lot of nuclear weapons, but it isn't even the world's leader anymore. President Obama has been hammering that point home every time he speaks abroad, calling for international cooperation to deal with the world economy, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the Middle Eastern tinderbox.
Travel is just one of many examples of our lowered expectations. It's not like we're being forced to fly in those old Soviet Aeroflot planes - the ones where, reportedly, the seats weren't bolted to the floor. Or that people are taking their chickens on board, as they do on some South American and South Asian flights. Or that American planes are falling out of the skies. Yet.
And I certainly don't want to return to the days when stewardesses were flying geishas.
But when passengers gratefully applaud a two-hour flight delay, it makes you wonder what Southwest really means with it's slogan, "It's on!"
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.