Sunday, December 21, 2008

Perversion of capitalism - flying South with US Air

A trip South to visit my daughter provided an opportunity to experience US Air’s new check-in procedures. In the name of efficiency, these have achieved a new low in customer service. Except at the First Class check in position there are, apparently, no check-in options, other than on-line. When I approached a designated economy class location, the passenger agent behind the counter interrupted her conversation with a neighbor to point to the adjacent electronic Kiosk and said in a somewhat sullen tone, ‘check in there,’ This was fine for IT literate passengers, but what about about the elderly, the IT illiterate or those without credit cards? Perhaps US Air management hoped they would choose another airline. More likely they had not considered this possibility or just didn’t care.

Personally, I don’t find a $15 charge for a checked bag to be more than a minor annoyance, though I wish US Air would simply increase the price of the ticket by $15. Other passengers disagree and react by being as sullen and put-out as the passenger agents and, at the end of a long day, the beleaguered cabin attendants. The predictable result is that passengers seek to have ever-larger bags pass as ‘hand baggage.’ Overhead compartments quickly fill and the aisle becomes congested with passengers looking for space or seeking to cart their ‘carry ons’ back to the entrance to be checked. This inefficient process evokes more hostile exchanges on both sides about the $15 checked baggage charge. Once the plane was loaded, the attendants are subjected to the further indignity of charging for amenities: $1.00 for bottled water, $2.00 for a soft drink, $5.00 for a snack box and $7.00 for a mixed drink. I passed on these as a matter of principle. No doubt the attendants were grateful when I and many others made this this choice.

As I left the plane, I found myself having flashbacks. It took a few minutes to place them. My US Air Flight had rekindled memories of times that I worked or visited in communist era East Germany and Hungary during the 1970s and 1980s. In that era virtually all ‘customer service’ persons were government employees. The ‘service’ provided was similar to that purveyed by US Air, indifferent at best, sullen and even hostile at worst.. At the time, it seemed paradoxical, a perversion of communist ideals that we came to accept. Employees of the ‘people’s government’ did not serve the people. Smugly, we could point to the superiority of our capitalist way of life. Now it appears that the results produced by unbridled capitalism (perhaps coupled, as under communism, with a incompetent, self-serving management cadre) can be equally perverse.

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