Or How The Airlines Got To Make Us Do Their Work?

Haresh Shah

During my early days at Time, my boss Bob Anderson would emerge out of his office, scratching his head, stop at my desk and go: I think you ought to hop a plane to New York and talk to our friend Arnold (Drapkin). Do some hand holding and get him off our collective backs? And then without waiting for an answer, he would wander back into his office and disappear behind the closed door.

Sitting diagonally opposite from my desk is Pat Murphy – the departmental everything.  She has already pulled out her drawer and is yanking out the round trip flight coupon booklet, she writes in the destinations and stamps them. Takes some money out of the petty cash, puts everything together in an envelope and hands it to me.

‘Have a good trip. I will get onto your hotel reservation.’

And soon I am pulling out of the Time parking lot in my phallic Oldsmobile Cutlass and am on my way to my South Shore Drive apartment. Having thrown together an overnight bag I am already cruising I 90/94 and am on my way to the O’Hare. I park right across the path from the airport and am standing in front of the flipping departure board, checking out the first flight out of there to New York’s LaGuardia. There is almost one every twenty minutes to half an hour. Irrespective of which airline it is, I walk straight to the gate of the first departing flight and within minutes I am on my way to the Big Apple.

No standing in long security check lines, not having to take off your shoes and the jacket and empty your pockets of all your personal objects, subjecting yourself to the metal detector and the humiliation of the x-ray machine disrobing you and then trying to be nice to the often smug and arrogant TSA agents whom Shirley McLain tags thugs standing around in her book I’m Over All That. Getting their hands on to the most intimate of your person and the belongings.

In just a few short minutes you have strode over to the departure gate. The flight crew was happy to see you. The captain and his second and third officers gave you a warm welcome. Some times even coming out of their ivory tower of the cockpit to greet you. Seats were roomier and you could actually lean back without dislocating the knee joints of the fellow passenger sitting right behind you. They served real hot meals of your choice – in most cases mini filet-mignon and or a  chicken breast with two sides and even a dessert. And other than on the US carriers on their domestic routes, alcoholic beverages were complimentary and they handed out little bags of peanuts to savor your cocktails with. Soon as the plane pushed off the gate, you entered the world of the pampered.

There were no complicated and only an accountant could figure out the pros and cons of various fares and the ones  you cliqued “select”, them suddenly disappearing in thin air. There was full fare and excursion fares. Full fare allowed you absolute flexibility and the tickets could have been open ended both ways and valid for a whole year. Excursions normally were cheaper and would have limitation of minimum and maximum stays. Within those parameters, you had all the flexibility you would ever need.

Reminds me of the trip I took to India with Carolyn and then nine months old Anjuli. On our way back we are booked on Swissair to Zürich and then onto the connecting flight to Munich. At the time the new Sahar, now known as Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport had just opened. In confusion, my brother-in-law Rikhav (Vora)  takes us to the old Santa Cruz Airport from where we rush to the Sahar – fortunately located in the same part of the town. By the time we rush to the Swissair counter, it’s too late. Their next flight would be twenty four hours later.

It is past one in the morning and with the nine month old soundly asleep in her back pack perched atop my shoulders, I am not willing to wait. I quickly scan the departure board. There is an Air France flight scheduled to leave in about half an hour. Maybe they have some seats available. You can re-route us via Paris. The agent is not happy about relinquishing us to another airline, but reluctantly picks up the phone and calls Air France counter down the hall. Sure enough, they have an entire bulkhead raw open, ideal for the couple with an infant.

The company policy allowed us to fly overseas in the First. But the difference in the fares between the front and the back of the plane was exorbitant and with the economy on the downward slide, the once flushed corporations had began to look at those costs. Based on the focus groups and other surveys, the airlines began to work on introducing something in between. When some companies switched  from the First to the tourist class and still paid pretty penny for the flexible  full fare tickets and then to be served and seated next to someone with an excursion ticket who paid half as much or even less, the discontent from the full fare passengers  was widely heard.

It must have been 1977 or 1978, when I had not yet returned back to Playboy full time, but was covering Mexico and then Spain on a freelance basis that I was traveling across the Atlantic on a KLM flight that for the first time I experience what I thought to be an embarrassing discrimination between me and my fellow passengers. When hardly seated, the stewardess walks up to me with Welcome on board Mr. Shah and then pins a little star shaped tag on the top of my headrest that distinguishes me as a passenger paying the full fare, and therefore entitled to a better service. I got to drink premier wines in real glasses and was offered a special food selection. While the person sitting next to me gives me an envious look, I pull out the pin and look at it, printed within the star are three capital Fs and in and the small letters circling define them as full fare facilities.

As for the tipple F pinned above my head, I think: Those clever Dutch! They must have seen the future. Realizing that the first class was becoming to be too expensive to sustain even for the big and rich corporations. Why not then create an interim class like on trains in India? Whatever, it took several years before KLM and other airlines introduced what is now commonly known as Business Class.

It took some years before Playboy  required us to abandon the First in favor of the Business Class. Enter upgrading of their A list passengers like me. Eventually, now KLM and many other international carriers have eliminated the First and the Business Class has become what the First used to be, minus some of the more sumptuous offerings such as being welcomed onboard with a glass of Moët et Chandon instead of Dom Perignon or Crystal. Appetizers are reduced from caviar and lobsters down to tiger shrimps and scallops. And sorry, no big fat expensive Cigars to go with your Cognac after dinner.

And there were no miles to collect and then after having diligently accumulated enough miles to take a free trip, just to find out that the flights you really want are not available for the award travel. What you’re offered are multiple-connection flights that take you a whole day to get from the point A to the point B. The only non-stop flights available for the award travel are either the red-eye ones or following the sleepless nights early in the morning ones. To be fair, when the first loyalty programs began with American’s AAdvantage and United’s Mileage Plus, your earned miles were as good as cash and the tickets issued were the same as if you had paid full fare. You needed 20,000 miles for a round trip within the United States. Soon as you had accumulated those many miles, they mailed you actual paper coupons which then you were able to cash in at any of the airlines’ offices in exchange of a ticket or an upgrade.

And there was no such thing as the miles expiring. No use being reminiscing and being nostalgic about it, because just a couple of months ago I was having an irate telephone conversation with the AAdvantage supervisor at American’s Dallas Forth Worth headquarters about them having unilaterally swallowed my 26,000+ miles on the ground that there was “no activity” in my account for eighteen months and that I can have them reinstated for… never mind, because the cost benefit ratio of me forfeiting them forever turned out to be better than what it would have taken to see those miles credited back to my account. While I was telling her about how the mileage programs operated in the past, she retorted: Those days are gone. Now we are living in a different world. Right you are Ms. AAdvantage.

But what has turned the airline industry upside down is the subject United wanted to discuss with us in small and intimate focus group held at the private dining room of the posh Four Season’s Hotel in the trendy near north side of  Chicago, and the participants treated to an exquisite and elaborate dinner. What they wanted to know was: How would we feel about our secretaries being able to book the flights for us on our own computers? This is the early Nineties. It wasn’t until 1991 that the ban over commercial traffic on the Internet was lifted. And not until 1994, Netscape and Amazon were founded, following which web based commerce began in the mid-Nineties. Which is when email was just beginning to emerge and the internet with its limited access was something only nerds were aware of.

Certainly, the consultants hired by the United must have seen the future – at least to the point where like traveling agents, their corporate clients too can be hooked up to the airlines’ networks, thus saying good bye to having to pay commission to the traveling agents and save on their own telephone booking clerks and be able to close down their city offices. In other words, though I don’t remember exactly the way our conversation went, I’ll make one up to illustrate the gist of it.

Me: If I understand it right, you want us – your customers to do your work?

Consultant: Not at all. We just want our best customers to have more freedom by giving them exclusive access to our network.

Me: Right! Buts it’s us who would have to do the looking!

Consultant: It wouldn’t be you personally, I presume you would have your secretaries do that.

Me: As if she doesn’t have enough to do already?

Consultant: I guess she would. But once we have provided the proper training, it’s as easy as one-two and three.

Me: So she would become de-facto traveling agent?

Consultant: Precisely. And who would know your preferences better than your own secretary?

Me: Right! So does my traveling agent and he would always know better of the other options available to his clients.

Consultant: So would your secretary. The screen will list ALL the available IATA flights, irrespective of the carrier. And she will be able to do it right away. And if you wanted, you too could look over her shoulder and see all the available options. No need for her to call your agent and then wait for him to get back to you. Just imagine how much time you would save!

Me: It still doesn’t change the fact that we – your clients would be doing your work. And if so, my question is, if we are going to do yours or traveling agency’s work, what is in it for us? Would you kick back a percentage for our trouble?

Consultant: We haven’t thought about it. But the kind of freedom you will have has never been available before.

The more he tries to convince me, the more unconvinced I become and I can see the frustration creeping over his face. This is not going too well. This is not the answer his clients are looking for.

But fortunately for the consultant, while a couple of other execs seem to see my point, the rest are intrigued enough to want to know more about the freedom they would have in booking their own flights. Especially the younger ones, the ones with some knowledge of the computer and the possibilities of the “net” that was not too far in the future. I wonder if they are as frustrated today as I find myself when trying to book a flight on my own. For someone my age, I am quite apt at navigating the internet, and yet, it has never taken me less than close to an hour to book a flight, even when I have already decided on the exact flight. And what with the ever changing fares and the temptation of checking other sources, or put it off until the better fares magically burst through the bright screen. Something that is not only time consuming, but can verge on a stressful obsession until you have finally bought the ticket. Leaving you still wondering if you got the best deal or not.

I hate, hate, hate it.

© Haresh Shah

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks



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Over the period of my lifetime, and especially during those twenty one years at Playboy, I have known and worked with an enormous amount of people. Many of those business relationships morphed into closer personal friendships. Among them, Poland’s Beata Milewska.