Monday, March 08, 2004

Discomfort At 35,000 Feet

This weekend, we had the unpleasant experience of flying on American Connection.

That's the brand name used when one of the smaller airlines -- Chataqua Airlines, Corporate Airlines, or Trans States Airlines -- operates service for American Airlines between markets that used to be served by the big company with the big jets. Since downgrading St. Louis last year from a hub to just another airport, more of American's flights in and out of here are on these smaller carriers and their baby jets.

I hadn't personally experienced the downside to this reverse supersizing until I flew with my wife and daughter to Hartford, Connecticut.

Our flights there and back were on just such a plane, the kind that Steve Miller never sang about. It held only 50 or 60 passengers, with one seat on the port side and two on the starboard side in each row. The ceiling was so low that, at 6'4" I had to walk like Quasimodo to get down the aisle. Little did I know this contortionist act was a mere prerequisite for sitting down.

As a tall person, I'm used to being in airplane seats where I have very little leg room. I don't want to say the rows were in greater proximity on this flight, but I could intuit the vital signs of the person in front of me because my kneecap was wedged into their spleen.

This height problem wasn't the worst of it. Unlike the larger jets, the seats were not only closer together, but narrower, too. It's a good thing they don't serve meals on these flights anymore, because even an ounce of food would inflate your average passenger far beyond the limits of their cramped assigned seat. Combine that with the oppressive heat they pumped into the cabin -- apparently, the standard equipment does not include a thermostat -- and we're talking one very uncomfortable flying experience.

We purposely don't check our bags when we fly, because we like to move things along by not dealing with baggage claim delays. We were stymied on these flights because the interior was so small, there was no room for carry-on luggage (ours or anyone else's!). The overhead bins could hold a coat or two, but we -- and most of the other passengers -- had to leave our bags at the end of the jetway, where a baggage handler took them and placed them in the cargo compartment. They were returned to us at the same jetway location upon arriving at our destination. This meant that if we had anything in our carry-on bags that we needed during the flight, we were out of luck.

I like to travel by air, and do so several times a year but, for the first time, the size of the aircraft will now directly affect my future travel plans. I doubt that I'm alone in this attitude. Conditions like this will drive business away from an already reeling airline industry, and will be bad for this town's image, too. I can see why corporations considering relocating would reject St. Louis because of its new non-hub status. If I had to fly often on business, I'd hate having to squeeze into one of these flying cigar tubes several times a week. And once on board, space is so limited, you couldn't get any work done!

If that occurs, St. Louis' Lambert Airport will begin looking more like Hartford's Bradley Airport. When we arrived there -- in the middle of the day on Friday -- the place looked like a ghost town. As the passengers disembarked our plane, there was no one else around. We were literally the only flight arriving or departing within that hour. We passed gate after gate with no people, no planes, no nothing. I joked to my wife that they must be conducting a fire drill. It was almost spooky.

Outside, we took a cab -- which provided a lot more room and comfort than the flight we'd been on -- and when we arrived at our destination, my wife asked the driver if she could pay him with a credit card. He said the company did accept them. However, he'd really appreciate it if we would give him cash, because he had been at the airport for five hours, but hadn't seen anyone or had a single fare all day, and needed the money to just get through the afternoon!

As we handed him the cash, I thought to myself that Hartford, like St. Louis, must be proud to be an American city.