Saturday, January 31, 2009
A Letter to Richard Branson: 236th Richest Person in the World
Dear Mr. Branson:
I understand you are that talented English chap who made a pot of money in the record business and then started that posh airline with the naughty name. When I was working for a company that had a rather lovely travel budget, I was fortunate enough to travel on your carrier across the pond, and what with the manicure, the massage and that “raid the larder” feature (though I did hate the word “lard” in larder---maybe "pantry" might translate better?) the time just flew by, as it were. I especially liked the part where you called First Class “Upper Class.” Really good show.
So, since you seem to be a man of inventive travel sensibilities (didn’t you fly around the world in a balloon like your countryman Phileas Fogg?) I was wondering if you would be willing to come over here to the Colonies and see what you could do about the abysmal system we laughingly call our airlines. President Obama is all about change, after all, and any change in this department would have to be for the good. I know he’d take your trunk call, especially if you had the operator tell him it was Sir Richard on the wire.
This airline travel thing has been on my mind lately after a recent transcontinental flight. You see, I was moving from Florida to California (don’t ask!) and though my furniture was safely packed in cotton wool and traveling comfortably across country in an air-conditioned lorry, I was unable to get the removers to remove me in the same cozy fashion. Thus it was I was forced to travel across these United States by air.
I had a rental car to drop off (my own car decided to drive across country without me, more about that in future blogs) and I had three suitcases and a handbag. I know three suitcases is a lot, but I was moving, you see. My flight was conveniently set for 0600, and since it was the only non-stop flight from Orlando to San Francisco, and since it was winter and I didn’t fancy ending up in the Hudson River or the Rio Grande or whatever, I figured my safest bet was a non-stopper. A flight departing at 0600, requires a passenger to be at the airport at the convenient hour of 0400. So I was up at 0300 and naturally in the best of moods as I started out with me, my three suitcases and my handbag. Also, it was raining.
Dropping off the car at Hertz was a snap. They have the car rental thing down. But that is where the trouble began. I had to get my bags (me included) from the car drop-off, to the Hertz bus. It was only about 500 feet, but we don’t have porters in America, so I had a bit of a schlepp.
Then, the Hertz bus was unable, for security reasons, to disembark its passengers at the curbside check-in location. It was instead required to take us to a location deep within the bowels of the airport adjacent to baggage pickup. Unfortunately this is the place you pick up your baggage when you arrive in Orlando and are on your way out of the airport, so though it is a great airport egress I was still about a mile from any place remotely resembling a check-in counter.
Just then, a sky cap appeared. These are foreign people who come to the U.S. wear a uniform and volunteer to move your bags a few feet at the airport and thus make about $100,000 a year tax free, all in cash. Mine was from Latin America. He got me as far as the check-in line ($7.00) and then disappeared with a cheery “adios.”
I had already done the dutiful thing and printed out my ticket in advance. My printer being packed and safely in the lorry, I had to do this at the library on my last day in Orlando, ($.10) but I had hoped this would help me avoid standing in the check-in line. It did, in a way, because just as the alleged sky cap departed, a huge fat lady wearing an airline uniform told me all I had to do was use the Self Check-in Kiosk. I did not have any hands free to do this, but I piled everything around me as the fat lady took my passport (she wanted to make sure that I was really a Lutheran and not a terrorist) and I did all the real work of an airline employee by checking myself in at the Self Check-In Kiosk.
That having been accomplished I put my bags up on the thing there so she could put them on the baggage belt. “Oh no,” she said through the donut she was eating to avoid dropping any of that avoir du poids she was carrying around, “Just take your bags over there.” Over there was another 300 feet away and I still had those three bags and my handbag. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, and the big group of wealthy tourists from Japan and China who were clogging the area around the Self Check-In Kiosks broke into hearty laughter.
The only way to transport my bags that far, was one bag at a time. Doing so, I risked being arrested as a deadly criminal, because I was “leaving my bags unattended” but risk it I did. Everyone stared at me and poked each other and said Look at how hard that funny lady is working at 0400 and they went back to trying to work the Self Check-In Kiosk. Oh yes and the fat lady at the counter didn't return my passport so I had to go back for that too.
Gee, this is kind of a long letter, and I haven’t even told you the part about how I got frisked and patted down and practically stripped searched by the TSA officers because I have Stryker Trident bilateral hip replacements, but I’ve flown enough this year that I’m getting used to that. Besides, after the ignominy of the check-in process it was kind of like getting a nice big hug.
Finally, it was 0500 and as I put my clothes back on after the security check I carried only my purse and one small carry-on bag. Did you know the coffee shops at the airport don’t open until 0600? No matter. They are all self-serve too, so they might as well never open as far as I’m concerned. If there is one time it would be useful to sit at a table or a counter and be waited on it would be when one was at an airport and one were carrying children, laptops, trunkis, hats, coats, purses, reading material and presents for people at one’s final destination.
I think you get my drift. Sir Richard, if you would come over here and take on the job of Airline Czar (Sound too Russian? We can’t name you Airline King, because George Washington said we couldn’t, but we could call you Airline Prime Minister, or how about Lord of the Air? That has a certain ring to it.) and since we’re throwing a lot of trillions into stimulating the economy and overhauling our infrastructure, I’m sure there would be at least a trillion or two in it for you.
I personally don’t plan on flying anywhere ever again, my experience with the fat lady at the Self Check-In Kiosk still haunting my dreams. But for all those other nice people who travel: couldn’t you do just this one little thing? After all, we gave you the American beauty Jenny Jerome, who married Sir Randolph Churchill who produced the great Winston who saved you all from speaking German. I really do think you owe us at least something for that one.
Robin Chapman, a weary traveler