Monday, January 16, 2012

No Wonder They're in Love

Traveling is not my thing.  Some people seem to live on jet airplanes, or in their automobiles.

Me?  I haven't been on a road trip since, um... about 2003, I think.  And the last time I flew was to Detroit for Christmas in 2009, the same year Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up his family jewels.

On those rare occasions when I do fly, it's almost always on American Airlines, out of their massive hub here at the sprawling Dallas - Fort Worth International Airport.  Ever since American Airlines relocated their corporate headquarters to Texas from New York, they've been its dominant carrier.  I flew Continental to Houston on a business trip once several years ago, and it was the oddest feeling, almost like I was betraying a long-time friend.

Not that American Airlines is a friendly airline.  It consistently ranks last in consumer satisfaction surveys, and it's the last of the legacy airlines that got so big they could demand business by virtue of the sheer scale of their flight schedules.  To have them currently in bankruptcy protection has disappointed some people, but surprised far fewer.  I've even heard hopes that this bankruptcy will feed American a steady enough diet of humble pie that when they emerge from Chapter 11, they'll be hungry enough to want to woo their customers instead of ostracize them.

Where's the Love?

Against this backdrop of me hardly ever traveling by air, and when I do, almost always traveling on American out of what we call the "Big Airport" here in north Texas, I found myself experiencing a bit of culture shock last night.  A friend of mine who hasn't been in town for about seven months was due back last night, and while a mutual friend was officially scheduled to pick him up, I happened to be in Dallas, so I swung by the smaller airport, to the terminal of a smaller airline, and received an unexpected lesson in how customer service is done in another sector of today's airline industry.

Back before Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was constructed, the Dallas metropolitan area was serviced by a typical 1950's-vintage municipal airport, Love Field, located a little north of the city's downtown business district.  Fort Worth had an even smaller municipal airport, Meacham, on its north side as well.  But in those days, Cowtown was still, well, Cowtown, whereas Big D really was growing in population and prestige.

Growing so much, in fact, that Love Field couldn't keep up with it all.  Landlocked by residential neighborhoods and an aging industrial district, there was no room for it to expand.  Meanwhile, Fort Worth wanted part of the corporate relocation action Dallas had been enjoying, and regional planners in north Texas were working with state leaders to get funding for a new airport better designed for international travel.

In the early 1970's, what was then a state-of-the-art airport complex was opened on a wide patch of scrubland between the two cities, and whatever was left of passenger service Meacham Airport quickly dried up and blew away.  Today, it's a respectable commercial aircraft services facility, but little more.

Dallas' Love Field, on the other hand, managed to retain much of its passenger business.  You see, although the western flanks of the airport were quickly degenerating into strip clubs, liquor stores, and rusting warehouses, Love Field's eastern side was enticingly close to the city's two most prestigious enclaves, Highland Park and University Park, where scores of business owners and corporate executives lived.

Sure, the new international airport wasn't too far away, but if you were just needing to fly domestically, why bother schlepping practically to Fort Worth when Love Field is in your back yard?  Several years earlier, Southwest Airlines had been launched at Love Field, and its management was busy building it into what has become one of today's most popular no-frills airlines.  Why not keep Love Field going, Dallas leaders rationalized, as a domestic, convenient alternative to the Big Airport?

Dallas Loves its Airport

Fast forward to last night, when, after Bible study at a friend's home about ten minutes away from Love Field, I drove down the old airport's main entrance boulevard, well-paved, well-lit, and attractively landscaped.  Plenty of signs directed me to where I assumed I needed to go; Southwest having only one terminal, and one baggage claim pavilion.  After all, you don't need to know a passenger's arriving gate anymore, do you?  You just need to know where they're going to be picking up their luggage.  And fortunately, the only escalators from the arrival mezzanine at Love Field's Southwest terminal is right next to the hallway towards baggage claim.

Not that I've ever flow into or out of Love Field, but I remembered what the layout was like from the couple of times I've dropped-off friends there in the past.

The parking garage was well-lit, also.  I'm commenting on how illuminated everything was at 10:00pm because, remember, Love Field is owned and operated by the City of Dallas.  And Dallas isn't known for replacing streetlights - or low crime rates, for that matter.  Sure, about two blocks to the east, the McMansions of Dallas' Park Cities elite grace well-tended neighborhoods of ease and tranquility, but right across the airport's western fence lie abandoned buildings and auto lube shacks which were closed - at least for the night.

A well-tended walkway - again, well-lit - guided me from the clean, modern parking garage to Southwest Airline's main entrance (yes, the terminal is small enough to have multiple doorways but only one main entrance).  Being 10:00pm on a Sunday night, the terminal was almost empty, with only a Cinnabon shop still open for the late arrivals.

Several cleaning crews were making their rounds, as well as security guards, and a few airport personnel, apparently just going off shift.  I found the baggage claim area to be the only place humming with any considerable amount of activity, as passengers were quietly getting their luggage off of the old-style loopy-patterned conveyor belts.  Dallas-Fort Worth International has wide, oval-shaped luggage carousels slanted to look like Mayan temples, and they clatter and scrape something awful.  It was almost absurd to notice what appeared to be original equipment at the much older Love Field barely making a humming noise as luggage glided past.

Things I Saw at the Airport

My friend's flight was running early, according to the electronic flight messaging board, but still, I'd have to wait for about 40 minutes.  I knew I was early anyway, so I didn't really mind.  I soon discovered that I'm a dying breed:  of the several flights which arrived while I waited, only two other people came to meet arriving passengers.  Maybe more people were idling in their cars outside of the baggage claim doorways, but only three of us came inside.  I remember the days when waiting areas (up at the arrival gate, remember?!) would be terribly congested with loved ones anxiously awaiting sight of their deplaning family and friends.

After noticing how people don't greet planes anymore, I was tempted to mentally meander into the social reasons for that.  Maybe flying has become so ordinary?  Maybe the lack of sufficient seating for people who want to wait, since non-ticketed folks are now banned from the main part of airport terminals - has virtually erased the once-common sight of airport reunions.

Anyway, I soon realized that in addition to the changing habits of air travelers and their loved ones, I was witnessing what a lot of frequent Southwest Airlines passengers have been raving about for years:  no-hassle flying.  I've known Southwest customers love their airline, but I thought it was mostly because of their reasonable fares.

Like clockwork, a group of about forty or fifty people would glide down the escalators from the mezzanine, most of them obviously tired, but few of them agitated or stressed-out.  Some of them had their one bag with them (no, not their spouse!), so they headed straight for the exit doors, which were only a few feet away from the escalator.  The majority of passengers - obviously frequent travelers through Love Field - turned automatically to their right, down the hallway to baggage claim.  Hardly anybody talked - only a couple of people were chatting softly on their cell phones.  Many of them - both young and old, although the majority of passengers were young - were texting busily, hardly watching where they were going, taking that automatic right turn like they were programmed to do so.

No anxiety, no stress, no anger; just the periodic wave of humanity washing down the escalators and turning towards baggage claim.  Where they got their bags and left.

Wave, after wave, after wave.

After a while, I couldn't help but notice how orderly the baggage claim process was going.  Maybe last night was a fluke.  Maybe it was the first time in ages that things have run that smoothly at Love Field.  Maybe the fact that Southwest's workforce is non-union - nope, they've got all the traditional unions at Southwest, so that can't be it. 

Granted, Love Field is not a large airport with dozens of flights arriving at the same time, and this was a Sunday night, after 10 pm, on a day with good weather, and most of these travelers were Dallas-area residents.

Although I did here one guy complaining to a security guard that he couldn't get any of the cabbies lined up outside to drive him to Oak Cliff, a dicey Dallas neighborhood, especially at night.

Yet even as multiple flights were disembarking and having their luggage combined on two carousels, there was hardly any talking.  Hardly any grabbing for luggage, hardly any pushing, and hardly any nose at all.  At American Airlines, at our Big Airport, in Detroit, and especially at New York's LaGuardia - the three airports which I've most frequently experienced - there's usually any number of shovers, violent grabbers of unwieldy luggage, shouting and raised voices, noisy luggage carousels, and generally, a higher level of anxiety than one might expect from people simply picking up their baggage.

At Love Field's baggage-claim, however, throngs of passengers would traipse down the long hallway, stand silently near the carousels, and within minutes, watch as bags popped through the little openings in the wall.  Almost at some secret signal, every piece luggage would be claimed, and people would be on their way.

There were no stacks of unclaimed luggage.  And there were no groups of disgruntled passengers having to file claims over missing baggage.  Yes, Southwest Airlines had a luggage service counter open, but - and get this! - it was for people who had arrived early for their originating flight, and their luggage had managed to get to Dallas on an earlier plane!  How often does THAT happen these days?

Something Special in the Air

By the time my friend's flight arrived, aside from marveling at how calm things were running, I was seriously bored.  There had been no drama of any sort, except maybe for the guy who couldn't get a cabbie to take him to Oak Cliff.  I'd estimate that several hundred people had made their way through the terminal just while I had been there, and everything was running like it was supposed to.

My friend said that whenever he could, he avoided using the Big Airport, preferring the low-stress vibes at Love Field - even though, due to a bit of crafty legislation known as the Wright Amendment, which sought to curtail Love Field's popularity, many destinations further away from Texas cannot be non-stop.  Like many travelers, my friend is willing to endure the inconvenience of longer travel times to and from Love Field so he can avoid the agony of Dallas - Fort Worth International and the legacy airlines like American which dominate it.

On my drive home afterwards, I got to thinking:  maybe this was a taste of what the "golden age of flight" was like?  When planes arrived on-time or early, when you didn't need to hike across acres of marble flooring to get from your gate to baggage claim, and when baggage claim was effortless and everybody left happy.  No noise, no drama, no fuss.

No wonder most of these travelers appeared to be seasoned Southwest Airlines customers.

No wonder American is in bankruptcy.

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