I recently flew from SFO to JFK on the first leg of a trip for book research. My three-part itinerary on United Airlines — all domestic flights — cost me $1334 in total for coach seats, even with an advance purchase. Of course, that impressive price tag didn’t include many amenities that used to come gratis with air travel, such as a hot meal even on shorter flights, the ability to check bags without paying an extra fee, or a reasonable expectation of arriving on schedule.
The metaphor of frogs that don’t notice the water around them is getting warmer until it’s boiling (and they’re cooked) is only an urban legend, say the vigilant debunkers at Snopes.com — but it’s an apt image for today’s frequent flyers. Schlepping their carry-ons through security mazes, standing shoeless with arms outstretched in bleeping machines, shrugging off dramatic confiscations of shampoo and toothpaste, and frantically rejiggering carefully-plotted itineraries at a moment’s notice, we’ve come to accept the current state of affairs as just another way that life sucks in the post-9/11 era. Never mind that I’m old enough to recall when a cross-country trip on an airplane, even in economy class, offered an opportunity to unwind and feel coddled in the lap of luxury for a few hours with a stratospheric view. Now I look forward to flying about as much as I look forward to a trip to the dentist.
Unlike the constitutionally enraged audience of Fox News, however, it’s not TSA pat-downs that bug me. I’d be flattering myself to believe there’s anything prurient about some guy in a rented uniform having to touch my middle-aged junk. I’m sure that feeling around in the waistbands of science bloggers for plastique is not what most TSA agents had in mind when they signed on for the job.
It’s the casually contemptuous attitude of the airline industry toward its customers in the face of snowballing inconveniences that I find soul-crushing. Formerly courteous gate agents now have the wary look and defensive manner of IRS agents who are accustomed to being convenient targets of hate and ridicule. Flight canceled or hours late? Routine. Connecting flights missed? Happens all the time. Massively oversold? That’s just how we roll. Bag gone missing despite a $50 handling fee? Fill out this form over there, sir — there’s a line of passengers behind you.
Not until my most recent trip, however, did I realize that the airline industry’s reckless attitude is conspiring with developments in the technology of personal computing to breed a new kind of nightmare in the formerly friendly skies.
Arriving at SFO hours early in the hope of avoiding long lines at the ticket counter, I discovered that United’s “Easy Check-In” system was unable to locate my reservation. Thankfully, the ticket agent spotted my name on a printout, but I was informed that my aisle seat on the outgoing flight had been mysteriously converted to a middle one. Oh well, at least my plane was still scheduled to depart on time.
The smartly-dressed woman in her late 30s or early 40s who occupied the aisle seat in my row — who looked like an academic of some sort – scowled at me when I approached my seat. Looking terribly inconvenienced, she finally stood up, and I gingerly eased around her and strapped myself in for the five-hour journey.
Luckily, I had my trusty Kindle 3G with me, complete with e-books and PDF files I’d carefully chosen to guide and inform my three weeks of research. Back in the pre-digital days, the bag on my aching shoulder would have been overloaded with reading materials, because watching two-month-old romantic comedies on a jerky screen at 30,000 feet is not my idea of passing the time. My Kindle had become my constant companion on reporting trips. I slipped it into the pocket of the seat in front of me and tried to make myself comfortable.
Suddenly, the woman beside me jumped up and convened a hushed meeting of flight attendants. Though she hadn’t said a word to me, it didn’t take long to figure out that the subject of this emergency summit was me. The attendants kept glancing at the woman’s face, and then at me, with expressions that broadcast This is the last thing we need to be dealing with right now. Finally, the woman crossed her arms in triumph, and the senior flight attendant came over with a pleading look. “Sir,” she said, “I’m afraid we have to ask you to move to another seat.”
It seemed that the woman on the aisle had decided that she should not be compelled to sit quite so close to another human being; she may have footnoted her whispering with a piquant arch of her eyebrows about my being overweight. Fat people are never more conscious of the burden they place on others than when they fly in coach. We’re used to navigating the aisles with expressions of pained apology on our faces.
As the flight was full (are they ever not these days?), the attendant directed me to the one remaining seat in the cabin — also in the middle of a row, of course, and in fact much more constricted, wedged between two other refugees from Weight Watchers. But at least we all had the virtue of being good-humored. We made ourselves comfortable in an absurd situation by putting up our armrests and being decent and humane to one another. Meanwhile, as soon as the plane reached its cruising altitude, the woman in my old row began spreading out the contents of her voluminous purse on the vacant seat beside her, piling up stacks of paperbacks and magazines, and laying out a personal buffet of chips and candy bars. She was clearly a pro at this game.
To their credit, the flight attendants took note of the fact that the whole process must have been humiliating for me. One by one, they came over to say quietly that cocktails would be on the house for the duration of the flight. There was only one problem; I hardly ever drink booze on planes, particularly when I’m planning a late dinner with friends at the other end. I thanked the attendants and stuck to club soda and lime.
All things considered, the flight was a pleasant one, due to the esprit de corps of my fellow passengers. Instead of reading or watching movies, we chatted and joked our way from coast to coast. Eventually, one of the flight attendants came over and slipped me a coupon for a $75 discount on my next United trip, which I appreciated. Upon arriving at JFK, I took down my carry-on bag and gratefully walked off the plane, breathing a sigh of relief as I strode out of the jetway.
That sense of liberation lasted only a few steps. Then I remembered that my precious Kindle and the documents on it were still in the pocket of my old seat on the plane. I turned back to the gate and asked an agent if I could quickly reboard the plane to fetch it. That would be impossible, I was told. I was instructed to call United’s lost-and-found number to retrieve my Kindle.
The automated voice on the line was defiantly pessimistic, as if it didn’t want to foster any naive hopes that merely making a call to a lost-and-found number might actually result in any lost objects being found. Please do not leave multiple messages about your lost items, the voice admonished me sternly — one message is enough. If I didn’t hear back in ten days, I could assume that the things I’d left onboard were gone forever.
Unsurprisingly, I never heard a word. An automated message promising due diligence in retrieving my lost item would have made me feel a little better, even if it was a bald-faced lie. But instead, the whole system is designed to make passengers feel like fools for daring to bring an electronic device onto a plane. Apparently, the airlines now wish us to believe that a $189 Kindle in a $39 leather case is worth the value of a crumpled cocktail napkin, a used airsickness bag, or a tattered copy of Hemispheres magazine; that is, of no value at all.
Which is not to say that my Kindle was of no value to whoever subsequently discovered it in its seat pocket. When I contacted Amazon customer service to deregister the device, I was informed that it had already been deregistered by persons unknown.
Which leads to discomfiting questions: Are ground crews supplementing their undoubtedly meager income by deregistering and reselling lost Kindles online? (An Amazon customer-service rep I spoke to this morning confirmed this possibility, since a Kindle can be deregistered via its Wi-Fi connection without a password.) Or was the culprit the next passenger who was forced to sit in that middle seat — which means that seat pockets aren’t even cursorily checked or cleaned between cross-country flights? That doesn’t seem like a good thing.
Am I overlooking a third possibility? Given the state of security, isn’t the trajectory of objects left behind on planes a relatively closed loop — unless aspiring used-electronics vendors are sifting through trash cans outside of JFK?
While it may seem overly sentimental to mourn the loss of a relatively inexpensive e-reader, that Kindle meant a lot to me. It was a thoughtful Christmas present from my hardworking science-teacher spouse after a very lean and stressful financial year for both of us. The unspoken message of the gift was: Keep working hard on your proposal, and someday people will be enjoying your book on a device like this.
It strikes me that two contemporary developments in the culture of air travel have converged to our detriment. One of the chief selling points of Kindles, iPods, and other personal digital devices is how convenient they are for traveling, whether commuting to the office or jetting to Beijing. We entrust them with our personal libraries and other data and assume they’ll be at hand when we need them. The makers of these products have anticipated our needs by designing ever-slimmer, lighter, and more convenient devices with extended battery life — indeed, so slim and convenient that we can slip them into the seat pocket of a 757. Even people who can’t bear to sit through another Adam Sandler showcase no longer have to worry about getting bored on long flights.
At the same time, airlines like United — which once touted its corporate philosophy as “making friends and keeping them” — have propped up their bottom lines in a free-fall economy by calculating precisely how little service they can provide to their customers in coach, and how much frustration, humiliation, and disappointment those customers will endure before they stop buying tickets. I’ve been a loyal United flyer and Mileage Plus member for decades. But when I’m actually onboard a plane, I’m just another piece of oversized human freight that can be shifted around if that may make a problem passenger stop whining.
In other words, the major airlines — with rare exception — have stopped wooing customers by trying to make them happy, at least in coach. Instead, they reliably make them miserable, and then “up-sell” them ways of becoming slightly less miserable, such as Economy Plus seating, snack boxes full of mini-bar also-rans, and élite boarding passes that enable well-heeled flyers to bypass the pandemonium that is now de rigeur at the gate. Those Easy Check-In kiosks that once seemed so customer-friendly are now little more than high-priced vending machines for last-minute reprieves. And heaven help you if anything out of the ordinary happens, like accidentally leaving a device designed to fit into the seat pocket of an airplane in the seat pocket of an airplane for a few minutes.
I don’t blame flight crews, the gracious public face of corporations that have decided they can’t be bothered anymore. It can’t be easy working in a “service” industry that regularly brings its customers to tears. But if I have to watch that smarmy video of United/Continental CEO Jeff Smisek congratulating himself on the merger of the two companies one more time — against a backdrop of Gershwin’s majestic swelling chords from Rhapsody in Blue – I’ll be reaching for the little bag in the seat pocket myself.
But I will never entrust a Kindle, or any other electronic device, to my seat pocket on a plane again. Would United have been so cavalier about my losing an iPad, BlackBerry, Galaxy Tab, or MacBook Air? I will now dutifully label my digital devices, count them before I bring them onboard, and rehearse that number in my mind as the plane begins its descent, making sure I have the correct number of devices safely stowed in my bags before I walk down the aisle to disembark.
I suspect that I’m not the only passenger to have left a treasured digital device behind on a plane. A friend recently lost a pair of $349 Bose noise-cancelling headphones the same way. Like me, he realized his error while he was still at the gate. He was also turned back and told to call lost-and-found. You know how that story ends.
Have you ever left an e-reader, iPhone, tablet, PDA, MP3 player, or laptop behind on a plane while in transit? Did you get it back? Have the Kindle-deregistering elves that have apparently infiltrated airport security ever exploited the private data stored on your smart phone or laptop? What are your tips for preventing digital devices from getting sucked into the Bermuda Triangle of modern air travel?
Update: After reading this blog, two different United/Continental reps (thank you Georganne and Christina) hunted down my phone number and email address and contacted me to make things right. That doesn’t solve all the problems I mentioned, but I also heard about some behind-the-scenes United efforts to cope with the problem of lost electronics. And I am very glad to learn that United/Continental has empowered its customer-service reps to track these problems on Twitter and the Web and reach out to keep its customers happy.
The Dear United Airlines: I Want My Kindle, and My Dignity, Back by NeuroTribes, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.