What’s Making Chinese Travelers So Angry?

Air travel delays in China are becoming epidemic. According to an article published today in Time, only 18 percent of flights departing from Beijing in June took off on time.

Chinese travelers are understandably frustrated with this problem, but their collective anger has taken a turn for the worse. Physical altercations, as seen in the video above, and arguments between travelers and airline workers have been documented. The latest protest tactic enacted by the travelers affected by the prevalent delays are sit-ins: passengers have been refusing to leave grounded planes that were subject to delay until compensated for the inconvenience. On July 28 in Dalian, passengers on two separate planes allegedly refused to exit and stayed put in their seats instead.

But staging a sit-in or becoming aggressive toward airline employees isn’t going to affect the problem because the core of the problem is centered in the very infrastructure of Chinese air travel: poor management by airline operators. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has attributed a whopping 42 percent of delays to mismanaged operations of airline carriers –- a problem that trickles down to individual flights from the top of the corporate airline pyramid, not the other way around.

The problem has gotten so bad some airlines are training their crews to defend themselves.
Chinese Airlines Train Crew in Kung Fu to Defend From Irate Passengers

United Airlines snags first place in 2009 on-time performance

Yesterday, United Airlines announced that they had climbed to the first place for on-time performance among the five largest global carriers in the country. This means United performed better than Delta (including Northwest), American Continental and US Airways.

On-time performance means the plane arrived at its destination within 14 minutes of its scheduled arrival time. Their 2009 performance was 10% better than the previous year, and preliminary numbers show that the airline will continue the trend in 2010.

One of the driving forces behind the huge increase in performance is a cash bonus for employees – for each month the airline took first spot, employees receive $65. For the entire year, United paid out $32 million, with each employee earning an extra $825.

Since delays are probably the number one complaint from most passengers, I’m very happy that the airline is putting so much effort into becoming better at being on time. And I do have to admit that the past couple of flights I took on United did indeed depart and arrive on time, something not always true in the past.

Fingers crossed that other airlines pick up the pace, and do what they can to beat United – more on-time flights will eventually benefit us all.

The best and worst airports in America

Chicago O’Hare, my home airport, has been ranked by Travel + Leisure as the 2nd worst airport in the country for its delayed flight percentages. But despite flying to and from the airport fairly often, I’ve never experienced the major delays it’s best-known for. Maybe the airport gods know that, as someone who is terrified of flying, I’m already under enough stress and just couldn’t take the added panic of a delayed flight. Or maybe, I’ve just been lucky so far. Either way, I was surprised to find O’Hare ranked quite so high on the bad list (and to learn that it was #1 in 2008). Some of the other findings were surprising as well, and some others – well, not so much.

Salt Lake City came in at the number one spot on the “best airports” list, based on a 12% delayed flight percentage. Portland, Minneapolis St. Paul, Los Angeles (LAX), Detroit and Orlando also made the top ten list. The losers included Miami, Dallas Fort Worth, Atlanta and Philadelphia. New York was doubly shamed with both JFK and Laguardia on the list. Taking the top spot was Newark with a whopping 30% of its flights delayed.

The magazine also ranked the best and worst airlines in America, based purely on on-time arrival rates. Comair and American were among the worst, with Hawaiian and Southwest showing the smallest percentage of delays.

United Airlines’ 1994 misstep multiplied

The less than stellar reputation of United Airlines doesn’t surprise me. (see article) I decided back in 1994 the airlines wasn’t for me. As missteps go, it wasn’t major, but enough to lose two customers that I like to think have snowballed into the airline’s woes of today. Generally, I’m not spiteful, but If the service back then is any indication of what has transpired since, I’m sympathetic to anyone who has flown United.

My story started with the 12 p.m. flight from Los Angeles to Singapore via Tokyo. I was in a buoyant mood at LAX. I had on a new outfit and we had just finished a wonderful three days with friends in who live in Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Orange. We were heading back to Singapore for our second year as teachers after a summer of travel and regrouping. We were well-rested and fit.

The warm fuzzy feeling began to wane over the Pacific as soon as the pilot announced an engine had failed and we were heading to Alaska, but soon after changed this to San Francisco. I had just finished lunch and the movie had started. Alaska sounded intriguing. San Francisco–not so much. Besides, my mother would soon be getting on a plane in New York on a flight through Frankfurt, Germany to Singapore.

After we stood in line for six hours, getting re-booked on a flight through Hong Kong for the next day, it was clear to me that my mother would be arriving in Singapore before us. Originally, we were to arrive 12 hours before her. Making the best of a bad situation, I phoned a good friend of mine who lived in Livermore close to San Francisco. He was thrilled with the idea of meeting for breakfast.

The bad situation got worse when one of United’s personnel stood up on the ticket counter, waving a toothpaste/toothbrush kit, shouting to the 30 of us left waiting for our hotel vouchers. “There aren’t any hotels left,” he said. “If you want us to put you up, you have to fly back to L.A.”

Say, what? It was 9 p.m. My stomach was rumbling; the food from lunch long gone. “But you have to hurry,” he shouted over the din of protest, pointing us to the direction of the gate where a plane was waiting. The two Polish women who had somehow become separated from their tour group heading for China after the Tokyo transfer, recognized sympathy in our faces and decided we were the ones who knew something. Their English wasn’t the best, so my husband had to explain to them that we weren’t going to Tokyo at this moment, but to LA. The rag-tag group of us clutched our toothbrush kits as we found seats on the last United flight back to L.A.. So far, the kits were our only compensation.

The flight back to L.A. was accompanied by wine–lots of it. The flight attendants walked the aisles pouring from regular sized bottles. The stewardess pressed the remainder of a bottle into my hand before I got off the plane, patted me on the back, and said, “Good luck.”

By that time, my mother was halfway to Frankfurt. The sour woman at United customer service told me that there was no way they could let my mother know at the airport in Singapore where we were. “Great.” I pictured my mom in a country where she hadn’t been before, wondering where we were and unsure of how to find us. If she followed the directions to our apartment, I fretted that she might not find the key where we left it or know how to turn on the air conditioner. Singapore in August is BLAZING hot. There she would be in our living room dripping sweat with no food in the refrigerator wondering when we might show up. These were the days before cell phones.

Back at LAX, we looked for an airport shuttle to take us to the hotel, arriving there 15 minutes before room service ended. The restaurant was already closed. With the $5 phone card, the airline gave us, I started making calls to Singapore to find someone to meet my mom. The assistant principal was home and was more than happy to offer his help. Barely able to down soggy French fries, and a hamburger, I took off my new outfit so it might look halfway fresh in the morning. Our suitcases were who knows where.

The next day, there we were back at the LAX airport for the 12 p.m. flight. Could we get bumped to First Class after all we went through, we wondered? No! Any travel vouchers? No! Eventually, there we were once again flying over the Pacific eating the exact same food we ate the day before–same menu. The movie was also the same. Since I was wearing the same clothes, it felt like the same day, although this time we did make it all the way to Tokyo where we said goodbye to our Polish women friends who didn’t have a clue about when or how they would meet up with the rest of their travel group to China. No one at United was helping them out.

There was my mother and the assistant principal waiting for us at the other side of customs in Singapore.

What was United’s response to the letter I wrote as a complaint? We were each given a $200 voucher, good for any domestic full-fare price over the next year. These were totally not usable given that we were living in Singapore at the time.

The result of the fiasco has meant I haven’t flown United since. Where the airline made its first mistake was not helping me contact my mother–particularly since those of us who flew back to L.A. were not enjoying a hotel in San Francisco with the other passengers and dinner at a reasonable hour. It was the least they could have done. Since that didn’t happen, something else needed to have occurred to sooth our nerves. I can’t imagine what the decision makers were thinking when they sent us back to L.A. and didn’t bump us to First Class at least on the LA to Tokyo leg, even though there was room. These were two easy solutions that would have kept me coming back. Instead, my alliance switched to Northwest and I’ve never looked back.

The photo by Alan Light is a United Airlines flight in 1987. Things sure have changed.

Air travel in 2008 to get worse: Tips on how to deal with it

The news is not rosy for air travel in the U.S. for 2008. An article by Jeff Bailey in today’s New York Times covers the predictions that make air travel sound like something people are REALLY going to be miffed about. If we thought there were hassles in 2007, watch out. We haven’t seen anything yet.

The changes make me think we ought to rethink how we see air travel woes in order to trick ourselves into feeling better about them. Here are some psychological strategies I’ve thought of that work in other areas of life. Let’s see if the same strategies can work in this air travel situation.

Change #1 – Prices are going up.

We can either think that flights are too expensive, or give ourselves the illusion that they are cheap.

Instead of thinking that you’ll be able to snag a round-trip ticket for a screaming deal, like under $200, just say to yourself, “The flight will surely be too expensive for me.” Then add $100 or so to whatever you think the price might be. Then when you find out what the price really is, it will be, more than likely, less than what you imagined. Instead of being bummed that you can’t afford the trip –or mad that you are paying so much, you’ll think that you lucked out on a good deal.

How strategy works in other areas of life: This is similar to the when you are considering buying a new item that perhaps you don’t need, but you really, really want to have. Your significant other asks you how much it costs. You initially inflate the cost by 50% or more so that when the actual cost is reveled, it’s clear that you scored a bargain.

Change #2- Planes will be even more crowded.

To deal with crowding, expect that you will be stuck in the middle seat, or that you will not find room in the overhead bin for your own stuff. Then when you have an aisle or a window seat and there’s room for your luggage, you can count your blessings.

Also think of something worse that could be happening. Say something like this, “At least I’m not in a crowded emergency ward at a hospital with a cut on my foot that needs nine stitches.”

How this works in real life: If you are in an emergency room with a cut that needs nine stitches, you say to yourself, at least I’m not stuck on an airplane with the chance of bleeding to death because the plane is in a holding pattern.

Change #3 – There will be even MORE lost or delayed luggage.

We can get angry and frustrated or not care –and possibly feel happy about it.

Plan for your luggage to be delayed or lost. Pack clothes that you don’t want anymore so that when your luggage is lost, you’ll think, “Good riddance.” If the luggage does shows up, after you wear the items one more time, donate them to a place like Goodwill for a tax write-off. You’ll have already done the hard part–deciding which clothes to get rid of. Consider this part of an ongoing winnowing process throughout the year if you travel frequently.

Be happy that you remembered to pack an extra change of clothes and your underwear in your carry-on bag so that you’ll be looking fresh as a daisy despite the snafu. Better yet, vow to only buy new clothes when your luggage is lost or delayed so you’ll be hoping that this happens. That way you can wear something new for a change instead of wearing the same tired wardrobe over and over again.

How this works in real life: When your dog chews up a pair of your shoes, decide that you really didn’t like them anyway. Besides that, they weren’t quite so shiny, the insoles had lost their puff, the heels were wearing down, and isn’t it great to have a good reason to buy another pair of shoes?

One change I didn’t notice is if flight delays will be more or less. Let’s just say, no news is good news on this account.

The article does point out the reasons for the increase of travel woes, (Let’s just call them opportunities that give us the chance to act like our best selves under duress.) Higher oil prices are the number one reason. Consider this. Last year oil was $52 a barrel. Now it’s up to almost $100. The airlines are looking for ways to boost their profits. That’s the bottom line.

The silver lining to this cloud, and yes, there is a legitimate one. Airlines like Skybus and Virgin America may get a boost because of their cheap travel options.