Thursday, April 2, 2009

Is Aviation really that bad?

A welcome flight to start the first trip of 2009

Greetings from chilly Colorado! After 3 long months without travel or sports, I've finally managed to return to the USA for some baseball, basketball, and even hockey. I'm spending one night here in Denver, where it has been snowing with temperatures near freezing, before flying to Phoenix tomorrow morning, renting a car, and driving to Tucson to see the Diamondbacks and Rockies in a spring training game. I'll have a report on that tomorrow, but for now, I wanted to share my experiences from today's flight.

Flying can be fun

One of the things that makes sports travel so interesting for me is that I love to fly. I've become an aviation enthusiast, and am always checking sites such as Kayak for flight deals or for the latest in aviation news and photography. But after yesterday's flights, I think that my positive outlook towards the industry is from living and flying mostly in Asia.

My route was to first fly from Tokyo's Narita Airport to LAX on All Nippon Airways, followed by a quick leg to Denver on United. The first flight was great - I was upgraded to premium economy, was through security in a minute, served a nice meal with free wine, had a personal video screen, and friendly, smiling service. A great start to the trip.

Only after arriving at LAX did things begin to worsen. A renovation at the International Terminal was messy; I received incorrect instructions on where to catch my connecting flight; the security check was long and irksome (and stinky, can we stop the removal of shoes please), and there were no seats at the gates.

Things aren't that bad

OK, I'm complaining about nothing, I know. It was just the contrast between Narita and LAX, perhaps combined with some jet lag, that made me grumpy. To be fair, I have been noticing improvements in many US airports. For example, in LAX yesterday, the immigration area was clean, my agent was friendly, and there were plenty of agents so that I didn't have to wait more than 5 minutes. Although the United terminal is old and lacks chairs for waiting passengers, it does have video screens at each gate that give information about the flight, destination, and standby passengers. I was also impressed that I could change my flight to Denver to an earlier flight, using a kiosk, with no charge. As it turned out, the earlier flight was delayed 90 minutes, so it only saved me half an hour in the end, but still worth it.

What surprised me most though was the friendly, upbeat nature of most of the passengers that I saw. Despite the delay for my second flight, people were joking and dealing with it without frustration. Strangers chatted amiably and laughed at the annoucement that asked for a couple to return to the security area, you forgot your daughter!

And once the plane was airborne, it was another beautiful flight, flying over California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and the Rockies before landing in wintry Denver. The pilots warned us about turbulence but they flew it beautifully, allowing me to catch some shuteye.

Perspective please

Aviation has a bad reputation in the US, and I understand why. The airport facilities are old and not aging well, and too many flights are delayed due to congestion, particularly in the Northeast. And with the cost cutting that most airlines are undergoing, meals are no longer provided for free (a positive thing in my mind, since you can bring something healthier and tastier).

But these problems are minor when you consider what flying does for you. The ability for me to get from Tokyo to Denver in 14 hours is amazing. People have lost perspective when it comes to aviation, expecting immediate gratification and a perfectly smooth operation every time. It isn't going to happen with a machine as complex as an airplane and passengers need to understand this. The people I flew with were a good example, taking the delay in stride.

I hope that what I saw on this trip is a start. Continued improvements in American airports and friendly, understanding passengers are necessary to return aviation to its past glory and making flying a fun thing to do again. But in the meantime, I'll stay in Asia.



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