mac.column.ted: Airline hassles from online to on board (with a PowerBook)

mac.column.ted: Airline hassles from online to on board (with a PowerBook)

Ted Landau
April 2005

Over the past year, I have had to fly back and forth between Michigan and California several times. I used my desktop Mac for booking my flights online; the idea here was to save time and money from booking the ?old-fashioned way.? On flight days, I took my PowerBook with me of course. My plan was that to use the laptop to help pass the time. I might get some work done on an article or just watch a movie on DVD. Unfortunately, my ideas and plans turned out to have very little in common with the realities of airline travel.

Making reservations online. The first signs of trouble began shortly after firing up my Web browser in search of airline tickets. I wanted to get the best price, so I compared fees at several locations ? from Expedia and Travelocity to sites for several different airlines. I tried to figure out which flight would best combine the lowest fare with the fewest number of stops at the most convenient times. Solving a Rubik?s Cube puzzle would have been quicker. Among other oddities, I learned that it can be more than $100 cheaper to fly from Flint Michigan (about an hour from Detroit) to San Francisco via a 1-stop at Detroit than to just take the Detroit-to-SF nonstop leg alone.

And if you want to use Frequent Flyer miles, be prepared for an extra helping of frustration. No matter how far ahead you try to book, chances are there will be no seats left on any desirable flights. Sure, if you want to leave after midnight and go to San Francisco by way of Iraq, you can book your flight no problem. But if you?d like a midday non-stop, forget it. It?s not that the plane is full. It?s just that the only two seats that the airline has opened up for Frequent Flyers have already been taken.

All the while you are trying to figure all of this out, you are also playing a game of beat-the-clock. More than once, I found myself on the losing end of this game. That is, when I finally decided which flight I wanted ? and went to book it ? I was told that the flight was now full, at least at the selected price, even though it was listed as available less than 20 minutes before. So it was back to the drawing board.

Several hours and several cups of coffee later, I finally had my flight. I even had seat reservations. Now, I could only hope that: (a) nothing would happen that would force me to change my plans and (b) the airlines wouldn?t lower the price of the flight a few days later. In either case, I would be stuck. Any change in my flight plans would cost me at least $100 as a ?rebooking fee.? Hotels don?t have such restrictions, car rental agencies certainly don?t. But somehow airlines can get away with this. Even if you die before boarding the plane, you might as well have someone load your corpse into your seat ? because you are going to be charged for the flight.

In the end, no matter what you do, one thing is certain: The person sitting next to you paid less for their seat than you did.

The terminal. Arriving at the airport with your laptop in tow, the next phase of woe and frustration begins. For starters, you have to take your laptop out of its bag when going through security. With all the other things I have to juggle at this point, including taking off my shoes, it?s a wonder that I get everything back and put together at the other end. And there is always the danger that someone else walks off with my laptop while I am being sent through the metal detector for the third time as we try to discover what obscure piece of metal is triggering the device.

Having survived security, I arrive at my gate and find that it?s still more than an hour until boarding. Great, I say to myself. This is a good opportunity to sit with my PowerBook and get some work done. All I need is an electrical outlet for the laptop so that the battery does not run down. Unfortunately, if I can even find an outlet at this point, it is usually in a corner somewhere, away from any seats. The only way to use it is to sit on the floor while using the computer. This assumes that there isn?t another floor-sitter or two already there. And you can almost certainly forget free wireless Internet access. If the airport supplies access at all, expect to pay for it. And chances are not good that your payment will extend to access at other airports you?ll be stopping at along the way.

On the plane. When you finally board the plane and make it to your seat, you confront the last series of hurdles. First, you can?t use your laptop during take-off or landing. And it isn?t very practical to use when you have food in front of you (assuming your airline still bothers to serve food). The result is that, even on some long flights, my PowerBook was inaccessible for more than half the flight time. Which may be just as well. Because when I did open my laptop, I typically found that the seats were so scrunched together that there was almost no way to get the display in a comfortable viewing position (it hit the back of the seat in front of me before I could get it to the right angle). Plus I couldn?t get my hands to where I could comfortably type. The overall effect is much like trying to use a computer while packed inside a small shipping crate. And if you have to get up while your laptop is open ? or make way for the person next to you to get up ? it requires a juggling act that would impress Cirque de Soleil performers.

Finally, it?s over. Or almost over. We prepare to land. The lead attendant calls out ?cross-check and all-call.? Whatever that means. And why does the flight staff need to be reminded to do this every flight anyway? Do they all suffer from a short-term memory deficit? I can only hope it has nothing to do with reminding the pilot to put down the landing gear.

I gather up my laptop and prepare for the final rounds of ?hurry-up-and-wait.? From baggage check-in, to security, to boarding, to deplaning, to baggage claim, to airport shuttles, to rental car desks; it seems the day has been spent waiting in one line so that I can rush to wait in the next.

The alternative. The airlines appear to have given up trying to make flying a pleasant experience. In this digital age, it?s especially perplexing to see how little effort they make to accommodate computer users.

As it turns out, I also had to drive from Detroit to San Francisco three times this past year. And guess what? I enjoyed it much more than flying. The only downside (admittedly, it?s a big downside or I would never fly again) is that it takes much longer to drive than to fly (although I did drive fast enough to complete the trip in three days). I stop whenever I want, have no hassles with lines, get to eat better quality food than I would ever see on an airplane, and spend the night in a hotel with free high-speed Internet access, cable TV and an all-you-can-eat breakfast. Along some highways, there is even free Internet access at rest stops. I can?t use my laptop while driving (although I could hardly use it on the plane either), but I can still listen to my iPod. If you are not in a hurry, it sure beats the hassles of flying.

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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