On December 17th, 1903, Orville (Redenbacher) Wright, assited by his brother Wilbur, flew 120 feet in 12 seconds - and in so doing, invented pat downs, turbulence, lost luggage and six dollar bottled water.
Today, Americans fly over 100 billion miles annually. (We drive twice that.) The fact that any of us get where we're going, at all, is a testament to the skill and dedication of the people who make it all possible - on the ground and in the air.
Nobody likes to fly. Check that - I don't like to fly. Being an American, I believe that everyone in the whole wide world thinks and feels exactly as I do, which means nobody else likes to fly, either.
Can the people who help us fly, help it be less horrible?
Those are the issues through which Captain Unsecret Shopper, attempted to navigate.
Last week I flew from Des Moines to Watertown, New York on business. The 2,140 mile, 17 hour round trip included stops in Chicago and Albany. I flew United Airlines, and Cape Air.
Along the way I took note of how I was treated by flight attendants, TSA agents and airport personnel: Did they smile? Were they friendly and polite? Did they make my flying experience, enjoyable? Did they freak out when I started screaming, "There's a gremlin on the wing!"
It is amazing how much impact one human being can have on us, especially in situations that are stressful and uncomfortable. Flying certainly qualifies.
Let us see if the employees I met on my journey, helped make the skies friendly(er), indeed.
Des Moines International Airport
The herding began at United's check-in counter.
There were a dozen drowsy luggage-toting passengers ahead of me, either checking in at United's automated kiosks or waiting to check their bags with the two UA employees at the counter. I had two carry-ons and could have avoided the cluster altogether by checking in online. But that's not how unsecret shoppers roll.
I got to the kiosk and followed the instructions; I typed in my password, online check-in code, flight number, Travelocity ID number, height, weight and best time in the 100 yard dash. The reappearing "There seems to be an error" prompt, suggested the kiosk thought I'd be better off taking a bus. The three passengers in the three kiosks beside me were also doing their fair share of screen touching and face frowning.
Marsha, a nearby UA employee who seemed to be standing in the area so she could help poor kiosk-challenged slobs, chatted with a friend about her lack of job security.
"They cut my hours back, and I'm really worried," Marsha said to her friend, and the rest of us who were close enough to hear.
I wanted to do everything I could to get Marsha some more hours.
"Can you help me?" I asked.
She did, pleasantly but without a smile. "None of those numbers matter," she said as she approached, making me wonder why they were supposed to. "Just stick in your credit card."
Money talks. The machine heard. It spit out two boarding passes. Rock and roll.
Next stop: security.
I wanted to stop and take a real picture of the baggage screening area, but I was afraid I'd be trampled by texting teens and stroller-pushing moms and cell-calling biz travelers, all amped up on Mountain Dews and Desitin fumes and triple shot vanilla lattes.
It was total chaos.
50 passengers ahead of me were being herded through a roped-off maze by a half-dozen TSA agents, including Richard, who, without a smile, barked, "Come on through!" while he waved his hand, suggesting we were cars parked in line to be washed, and not people feeling humiliated enough as it was. I was waiting to be jabbed in the kidneys with a truncheon while Richard yelled, "Roust, everybody! Roust!"
As we approached the x-ray screening machine (There's no advance body scan machine at DM Airport, and thus no "pat down" option.), Grant gave verbal directives: "Remove your shoes. Place laptops in containers. Say nice things about us in your blogs." People obeyed, frantically removing their watches, wallets, keys, coats and shoes and tossing them in to dull gray reinforced plastic trays, like lunchroom 5th graders dumping leftovers on "Meatloaf Monday."
I wasn't sure what to remove and what to keep on, so I just started taking off everything. A TSA agent stopped me before I'd stripped down to my Spiderman boxers.
The TSA agents kept waving their hands, encouraging us to hurry up and go through. I wondered if one of them was going to tag my ear, and auction me off. I finally got up to the metal detector, and stepped through. No "beep." The worst of it was over! I thought, as the thought was immediately laughed at by thoughts of crying babies and gassy passengers and Airport '77.
There was so much pressure to get through the screening process (both TSA, and self-imposed) as fast as possible that I, along with plenty of other passengers, kept dropping my keys, laptop, magazine, coat and boarding ticket.
Stressful. Unpleasant. Weird.
Dorothy, another TSA agent, smiled at me (the first and only one to do so) as I came out the other side, and said a wonderfully warm, "Thank you! Have a great day!" That allowed me to stow my negative thoughts in my head's overhead bin.
TSA agents are facing intense media scrutiny these days, although not quite as intense as a month ago. The constant pressure comes from knowing that lives depend on them doing their job perfectly, every day.
Passengers ain't got it easy, either.
Few of us - agents and passengers alike - were at our best that morning. It was very easy, in the chaos of the process, to lose sight of the fact that all of the people involved were, and are, indeed, people, who deserve respect, and compassion.
My greatest thanks to Dorothy, and a few other TSA agents, who helped me remember that.
It was onward and up up upward, to Chicago.
US Airways Flight 6190
Des Moines to Chicago
I haven't flown in a while, and hadn't seen the beautifully remodeled passenger gate area at the Des Moines Airport. Awesome!
Less awesome was a guy in the line that formed to board the airplane. "I heard they got 22 inches of snow out east last night, and the power is off."
Wait. I'm flying towards that?
"It'll be a miracle if we don't get diverted to another airport."
This is also the guy who sits behind you on the three-hour flight to Orlando and kicks your seat.
A much more pleasant voice came on the loudspeaker.
"We'd like to invite our Premiere Executive customers to begin boarding first."
Bad weather ahead guy: "This is gonna take all day."
Note to self: carry carry-ons through aisle at waist level, and "accidentally" hit this dude in the head.
A different overhead voice: "If you see any suspicious activity, please report it to the nearest airport."
...other than the one I'm standing in?
Troy, with a smile, ended my confusion by taking my boarding pass, and wishing me a great day.
Entering the huge Airbus A-320 (heading for section 4, in the rear with the gear), it was interesting to walk the wide aisle of 1st class (two big seats to a side) only to have it immediately narrow, indicating that I'd now entered the cheap seats, cheap skate. It felt like I'd just lost my job and needed to go on food stamps.
There were rumps in almost all of the 125 seats - the plane was full.
Instead of a flight attendant explaining for the 1,293,853 time where the flotation devices/oxygen masks/emergency exits were located, 40 TV monitors dropped down, and pretty, fresh-faced actors did the 'splaining, to a very cool version of Gershwin's already uber-cool, Rhapsody in Blue (United's theme song).
I ignored it, and started reading the front page of my Des Moines Register.
I put down the paper.
I picked up the front page of my USA Today.
AIRLINES OFFER LITTLE HELP TO FLIERS AFTER IN-FLIGHT TRAUMA
I put down the paper.
I turned towards the guy sitting across the aisle from me. He was trying to turn on his overhead light by twisting it. It came off in his hands.
I stopped looking at the guy sitting across the aisle from me.
I looked up at the TV monitor.
"In the event of a water landing..."
I closed my eyes.
Suddenly a loud "ka-THUMP" came from underneath the plane. Passengers jumped out of their seats.
I wrapped my Des Moines Register around my head, and fell asleep.
15 minutes later I woke up, airborne, to the sound of the Captain's monotone voice, mumbling through the cabin speakers like a 15 year-old at a McDonald's drive-thru:
Roberto and Lita, our flight attendants, rolled the beverage cart down the aisle.
Roberto, very pleasantly and with a smile, asked passengers open-endedly, "What would you like to drink?" while Lita, without a smile and a bit less enthusiastically, asked, closed-endedly, "Anything to drink?"
Lita had told me earlier to "shut that off," referring to the recorder I was talking into at the time, about Lita. As our plane began its descent towards O'Hare, she was now walking through the aisles and, still just a bit on the impatient side, waving her hands toward passengers, telling them to "Turn off your electronics. I need you to turn it off."
We made good time, with a nice jet stream push from the rear, and touched down in Chicago a little more than an hour after leaving Des Moines.
United Express Flight 6170
Chicago to Albany
The plane got a little smaller, the people got a little friendlier and the flight got a little smoother, the a lot further east I got.
The United Airlines guy taking our boarding passes was a hoot; he had that wonderful Chicago sense of humor, slightly sarcastic and wonderfully engaging.
During the flight, Denise, the main flight attendant, was kind, friendly, efficient and seemed genuinely happy to be taking care of us.
I grabbed my Time Magazine that I'd purchased at a newstand kiosk at O'hare, from a smiling, pleasant woman
President Obama smiled on the cover. His good buddy, Ronald Regan was grinning ear to ear, and had his arm around the prez. (Abe Lincoln was supposed to be sitting down in the shot, giving a thumbs up, but apparently his people forgot to remind him about the photo shoot.)
I cracked it open to page 1.
MOSCOW: TERROR IN THE AIRPORT
I closed it. And haven't read anything since.
The diet Coke was cold, the flight was silky smooth and the two hours we were in the air, flew by.
Cape Air Flight 1805
Albany to Watertown
During my two-hour layover, I played on my laptop while enjoying a half a bag of peanut M&M's, a diet soda and a big bagel with a cream cheese schmear, which I purchased at the Saranac Pub from Kim, who had a huge smile schmeared on her face when she served it to me.
About 15 minutes before boarding, I walked downstairs to the gate, where I was met by Denita, Enga and Bill, some of the happiest people I've ever seen who worked inside an airport, who weren't about to get off work.
Bill had previously visited where I'd left that morning.
"I came up through Des Moines and traveled to Ames once," he told me. "It was pretty, but flat - no mountains."
Jessica, our pilot, was no slouch in the "happy and engaging" department. That was a good thing, since the puddle jumper all four of us passengers were about to board for the hour-long flight to Watertown, had two propellers, nine seats and was about twice the size of the previous plane's potty.
I started at the (vibrating) floor as we took off.
The rest of the flight was silky smooth, like we were riding on the ground in an SUV, albeit a loud one.
While we flew, I leafed through a Cape Air promotional magazine. On the inside cover was a message from Dan Wolf, the company's CEO, and Dave Bushy, the President. At the bottom was the Cape Air/Nantucket Airlines logo.
Below it were the words, "Mocha HAGoTDI." At first, I thought it might be Native American. Then I read the translation: it was an acronym, which stands for: Make Our Customers Happy And Have A GOod Time Doing It."
Monday 11am, 4:38pm and 8:05pm
The three flights back
The trips back home on the following Monday were exactly like the trips out east on the previous Friday, except in a different direction.
There were a few things of note.
In Albany, Bill, from Cape Air, either remembered my name or got it off the computer. It didn't matter. "Have a great flight, Mr. Wright!" he said through a smile, as he shut the plane door. Awesome!
Jerry, the captain on the Albany to Chicago flight, didn't swallow the mic when he spoke into it, spoke slow enough to be understood and did so with a smile in his voice. Carol, one of the super-trio of flight attendants on the plane, was extremely engaging, friendly and outgoing. I thanked her for being so great to me, and was so glad I did, as was she. The woman sitting next to me said, "You must be in customer service. They're the only ones who give compliments."
One of the flight attendants said that we could use our cell phones, as long as they were in "airplane" mode - the first and only FA to point this out.
The soap in the lavatory smelled expensive, like marigolds and honey. The rinse water felt spring soft, and wonderfully warm. The potty itself smelled fresh and clean. The ride from Albany to Chicago was as smooth as any I've ever experienced on an airplane. I'm not sure we ever left the tarmac. I think the whole thing was staged ala Capricorn One, with blue screens, fog machines and "airplane engine" sound effects.
My overall experience on United Flight 481, Albany to Chicago, Monday, January 31st, 2011, 4:38pm to 6:04pm will now be my template against which all other flights will be judged.
The flight from Chicago to Des Moines wasn't quite as nice. One difference: when they closed the luggage compartment on the A-319 Airbus from Albany to Chicago, it sounded like a one ton drawbridge being slowly drawn up. On the Embraer 175 to Des Moines, it felt like somebody slamming the hood on a '72 Camaro.
On the front of the emergency exit directions, it said, "Final assembly of this aircraft was completed in Brazil." I wanted to put a line through the last four words, and write, "is still being worked on."
The ride into Des Moines was bump-free, but took a little longer than planned; sleet had fallen in Des Moines, and the runway had to be de-iced. To the ground crew's credit, we were no more than 15 minutes late as we got off the plane, past the gate and towards the airport's exit.
As I walked past the security screening area, it was vacant, except for a few TSA agents, who sat with their feet propped up, relaxed and chatting, in the middle of what had been complete chaos just over 72 hours before.
The place was quiet.
I took a picture. And took my sweet time taking it.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.
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