AMERICAN AIRLINES: : : DISGRACE OF THE UNITED STATES

flight_attendant

I have just got back to Japan from the U.S. It was a really great trip that will probably continue to filter into the next few posts for some time, as it was exciting, stimulating, and gave me a lot of food for thought. The people were lovely, the places intriguing, and spending time with D and his folks got my love batteries recharged up nicely after a period, at the end of term,  of feeling estranged and unsettled . I feel more optimistic and human again.

But while the actual experiences of each place we went to will linger in the mind, I would really rather forget all the transportation and the getting around. Because from the moment we left Narita Airport in Tokyo and got onto the plane with shitty American Airlines, I have nothing but pissed off and frustrated feelings remaining about a company that seems to be falling apart at the seams and doesn’t provide a decent service for its customers. It is shambolic. A really bad stain on the image of the country it is representing and a total third rate experience. This, coupled with the unpleasant, aggressive, and badly organized system of U.S immigration, in which people, who have paid good money to come to a country that they are curious about seeing, and are shuffled about like dumb and guilty, disrespected cattle, could honestly all make a person seriously think twice about going there again.

Perhaps I am exaggerating, as usual, but having had many years of international flying experience, with a great number of different airlines, I have a pretty good idea of what constitutes decent service. While the Japanese airlines JAL and ANA always offer predictably excellent flights, I also love the more relaxed, yet always efficient KLM, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Malaysian Airlines (recent disasters notwithstanding) and Virgin Atlantic, which has by far the best entertainment system, something that is essential for a person who cannot really sleep on planes, can’t read on them either, and so is dependent on a good film selection to maintain his sanity, with a hopefully flowing selection of drinks as well, as he flies in a flimsy metal box with man made wings across the latitudes and longitudes of the globe praying that the whole thing doesn’t crash or get shot down.

From the moment you got on the AA flight from Tokyo, you sensed a tired, disgruntled atmosphere, something grubby, as if the poor, put upon attendants, faces lined and careworn with the gradual deterioriations of their working conditions and quality of their airline, could hardly be bothered to do their jobs. I sympathize, but then again I have also paid a great deal of money to be on board this plane and I want to feel that it was worth it. But where other airlines now all have back of seat screens and huge selections of movies, TV programmes, documentaries and so on to keep your mind occupied (so much so that you are so spoiled for choice that you almost wish the flight were longer), American only had about five films in all, nothing I wanted to see, and even if I did ( and I did, because I had no choice), you had to wait until the next program began twenty minutes later or so, and even then the film would just inexplicably go off, the images on the screen breaking up and fragmenting, just as you were finally getting into it the corny Hollywood crap and could hopefully kill another half an hour, squeezed into your seat grumbling under your breath like a spiteful old man.

After a repulsive breakfast (a watery egg pancake with undercooked franks and a tropical strawberry hot sauce), we arrived at our transit stop Dallas, which had the worst immigration procedures I have ever encountered. Though people were exasperated, even panicked, adamant they were about to miss their connecting flights (and would be told in that militaryish, uncaring tone by some rude fat person ‘…then you’ll just have to miss your flight’), there were way too few officers checking and carefully, interviewing candidates for entry really taking their time (as though we were all despairing refugees, clawing our way to get a chance to enter the Greatest Country On Earth, whatever the cost, and should be intensely grateful to be even considered), (“REAlly? The last time you came here was ten years ago?!”) (Er, yes, there are actually other places I have been in the meantime……..) as the line snaked slowly, slowly, slowly forward, and you began to lose all hope that you would ever actually make it to the end, but looking back at all the other poor people at the beginning, saw how far that you had come.

And then that disgusting pancake, which you ate because you were starving, starts to mess with your digestive system, squelching, sugared, full of additives and deleterious, and you think, oh no, not now, no, please…….. that you might be about to commit perhaps the most ignoble act in the history of mankind in the middle of the roped in crowds, you try to control it and and then just think no fuck it and dart under the security rope, rushing to the bathroom just in time cursing and sweating and wishing you had never come. Disjointed, rattled. Like everyone else. But you crawl back in line, and two hours later, at LAST you are finally through, rushing for your connecting flight to Miami feeling dirty and disgusting on a flight that has no service except for water and orange juice and that has messed up your specific request for an aisle seat, because for as long as you can remember, you have always had an aisle seat, as otherwise you get anxious and claustrophobic. You don’t want to feel this way, but you do, so it is a very important detail for you personally. This is an unquestionable necessity. Sat in the middle of two people you begin to feel really and genuinely anxious. This is pure neurosis you realize, but it is something you  have and you therefore always make sure in advance that it is a situation that you can avoid. But no: they have downsized the plane at the last minute in some money saving, seasonal maneuver and have therefore changed the seating plan. There is nothing they can can do about it so you will just have to lump it.

Which I do because it is an exit seat with more space to get out if I really need to, and I look back at Duncan, a couple of seats behind for reassurance as I am strapped in between two sullen, bulky, businessmen, but I still don’t enjoy a single minute of it. My throat is dry and there is nothing at all to do.

Perhaps a glass of wine.  I could really do with some wine after the horror of Dallas, but, ah I see, you can’t pay in cash, only with credit card and I don’t actually have one. Yes, unbelievable, I know (but with this perfume addiction I am sure you can understand why). Even so, I don’t expect the cabin attendant serving the drinks to say to me, in such a condescending tone, ‘You don’t have a credit card?’

Shudder. This is not a pleasant journey to Miami at all, and, later, I realize that I vastly prefer travelling by Amtrak in the sleeper car to Tampa, where you can see the orange groves and swamps go by, meet interesting people in the diner cars, and chat to the friendly train staff who are down to earth and warm and who make the journey really enjoyable. The other domestic flights we take, with Delta to New Orleans via Atlanta are infinitely better as well : as soon as you enter the cabin you feel it – a more relaxed and light-hearted atmosphere, more space, jovial cabin crew, and pleasant flights that seem to pass in no time as you touch down excitedly at your destination.

Today’s/last night’s  flight, though,  was awful.

I have no concept of time anymore, and have just literally got in, after hours and hours of travelling; picked up the computer and started writing this as I need to get it out of my system and we try to heat up the freezing house and soothe the cat who is berating us for leaving her here alone with just the neighbours to feed her and a programmed heater to keep her warm at night. We spent the morning on whatever day it was, though I think it was yesterday, or maybe it was today, it seems impossible to calculate and meaningless anyway, just wandering around downtown Miami in the last moments of sun, to some areas we hadn’t been to yet, and then took a taxi to the airport, pleased that the holiday had gone so smoothly (because you never know with these family get togethers), but then realized quite quickly that we had, in fact,  spoken far too soon.

Firstly, arriving at the terminal clutching our e-tickets and travel itineraries, we found, to our blood freezing, heart-sinking worry that our flight didn’t even exist, that no one had ever heard of Japan Airlines flying out of Miami International, the first AA assistant we spoke to wondering if instead we should be flying out of Fort Lauderdale. And how far away was that? Oh, about two and half hours away or so. Fort LAUDERDALE? We would ever make it. Our mellow anticipation of a pleasant voyage home with Japan Airlines thus melted, at the drop of a hat, into instant adrenalized panic as we realized there had been a fuck up and we might not even be able to get back. What, the flight doesn’t even exist? How is this possible? It had cost a fortune.

What the hell are we going to do?

We rush (always running with American it seems), Duncan developing an immediate, penetrating headache, me with grim visions of us sleeping outside on the concourse  (we have almost no money left, and D has maxed out his credit card – we have no money for a hotel or another flight, and my bank card is not working in any of the ATMs: I see us stranded); the American Airlines person, who could have just checked for us, sending us running through the terminals A down through to D to search for the Information desk, where to our great and immense  relief a laconic, dry, and very funny lady tells us that of course, American and Japan Airlines do code shares my dears, you are fine, are you sure, yeah what do you think they hire me for, my pretty face and body?

D’s temples excruciating further from the temporary relief of stress we rush back to American Airlines dragging our baggage to the inscrutable machine-driven self-check in process ( call me old school, but I so prefer the old method where they just used to do it for you), the check in process for our flight from Miami to San Francisco, our hugely inconvenient stop-over point for our long haul flight back to Asia.

GATE D45. It is written quite clearly there on the ‘ticket’ (which actually tells us, again disconcertingly, that a seat cannot be designated for us yet, but please go to gate D45 and you will be issued with your Boarding Pass!)

So we wait there. But of course, there are no staff, and the one person who is there keeps disappearing, as time keeps ticking, and police with machine guns arrive for some security anomaly on the flight to Costa Rica, and we are getting closer to boarding (we cannot miss our connecting flight back to Japan!) and I check the Departure Boards just in case it has changed without warning and …..fuck! they have changed it to E9, unannounced – no! which turns out to be miles away, with rail transit cars and endless corridors, running, stressed out to the max to arrive at the departure gate where people are on standby waiting to get on, scores of them (they are, of course, overbooked). And again, VASTLY understaffed. For a whole room of people there is one person again trying to deal with all of this (one!). I feel sorry for her, but people are already boarding, the line isn’t moving, and we havent’ even got a seat yet. Are we going to be able to even get on the plane?

Eventually we get called to the front desk and get issued last minute boarding passes. I have a seat. Which of course, isn’t on the aisle, though some kind people let me swap, and Duncan sits next to a woman who tells horror stories earlier that day (‘American Airlines? Don’t get me STARTED!) of being stuck on the tarmac in the Bahamas for two hours (with no one passing around any refreshments or real apologies), and she rolls her eyes again as we then get an announcement that ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry but we have been told by the engineers that the plane is not currently structurally safe as there are too many people on board (?), and too many bags have been loaded on the plane meaning it is not properly balanced. Great! I feel really safe and secure! Knowing that I am about to take off on a plane that is not even structurally safe. Marvellous!! Keep it coming!

They unload some bags, and we joke about passengers also being thrown off the plane with the suitcases. And finally, an or so hour later after the scheduled time, it takes off, for a six hour flight to San Francisco with no meal service, not even a small packet of pretzels (at least Delta gives you those), no entertainment options ( I just pick up a note book and pencil and write a piece for the Narcissus that you can read in the next couple of days), an old fashioned way to keep my mind off the stress of this bullshit that AA keeps subjecting us to, as we finally, finally arrive in San Francisco, and have to run run again to try and catch our connecting flight to Japan, where there are no staff anywhere as it is almost midnight, and we finally, after rushing down endless corridors dragging my aching leg and carry on luggage, find the international departures section, seriously stressed and sweaty and stinking now, go through security again, endure the barking orders of the airport security staff (who really COULD be a bit more gentle and nice about it all, yes I know they are protecting us all from The Terrorists), and we finally get on to the lovely haven that is Japan Airlines and its reliable sanctuary of true and decent flight service.

It is like slipping into silk. Nice food, much better entertainment, decent seats, and a big, airy, cabin, but I fall asleep in any case, as it just feels so smooth and relaxing as the day has been so stressful, and we think finally, things will go without any hitch and we can just get home.

Eleven hours later, having traversed half the globe, we arrive at Tokyo International Airport and to the baggage claim and then we have the final denouement to American Airlines’ beautiful, seamless performance.

I had so been looking forward to opening my suitcase and looking at my souvenirs, those lovely Hové perfumes, the hand made soaps I bought on Anna Marie island, the curious hemp and vetiver lotions I bought from Nubian in New Orleans,  but on arrival, though Duncan has his suitcase, and the conveyor belt goes round, an assistant at the airport then lifts up a sign which reads ‘LAST’.

All the suitcases have been loaded on but  I don’t have mine. American Airlines, probably in that disorganized mayhem of baggage-shifting from the plane back in Miami, has lost my suitcase.

I come home empty-handed.

49 Comments

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49 responses to “AMERICAN AIRLINES: : : DISGRACE OF THE UNITED STATES

  1. Oh no! I know the feeling as it happened to me. I eventually got it back but in the interim I had no clothes, cosmetics or perfume!

  2. OMG! As if flying isn’t torturous enough. I have only been through transit in the States and it was sooo bad (with young children) that I always fly through Asia instead now. The airports are great, huge and have indoor playgrounds for kids. They are strange places but you are not harassed by immigration staff there, so much more relaxing. Have you got your bag back?? Interested to hear your American tales.

    • Thankyou. Yes, the bag did come back, and at least the humour and approachability of many of the American attendants did make up for the shoddy service. For a good version of that, I do agree, Asian airlines are way better.

  3. bellaciao

    The last time I went to the home of the brave I think I already had to give fingerprints which almost made me turn around and fly back. Then I have heard so many similar stories about US Immigration or connecting flights through the US that I decided to not go there anymore. There are so many other places of interest in this world, why bother? And then your beyond anything airline experience! I will keep my fingers crossed for you to get your suitcase and your bounty so that there is a happy ending! The pictures you took looked great though, particularly of baroque New Orleans.

    • Thanks.

      Yes, the fingerprints thing is offensive, most definitely, but we now have to do that in Japan as well so I have just resigned myself. I don’t plan to commit any crimes, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

      I will admit that on that first day I seriously also wanted to turn straight back as I felt so affronted by the contempt immigration seemed to feel for us all. I am aware that they are of course screening for terrorists and illegal immigration, but at the same time they should literally be grateful that people want to come and visit the country, contributing to the economy.

      You know, though: the overall experience was great, and though it was bookended by shitty travelling experiences, I reckon those memories will fade and the good ones will remain.

  4. Katy McReynolds

    Please, on behave of myself and my fellow Yanks, especially those of us who work in service industries, let me apologize profusely. No one should have such a terrible experience with a company whose sole purpose is to get you comfortably and efficiently from point A to point B. Duncan and yourself were miserable witness to what happens in all businesses who listen to there stockholders and ignore or dismiss the concerns of their employees and customers. This way of conducting business is ruining many previously wonderful and prestigious companies and I cannot adequately express to you how much it saddens this American woman.

    • Well, Dear American Woman, all I can say is that on the whole I met so many extraordinarily warm, sweet, polite and funny American Women and Men that they actually managed to almost transcend the admitted crappiness of the service they were giving.

      It is true that on that initial flight they did seem exhausted before they even started, with sad eyes, but once in the US it was different. I like the sass and the energy.

      I agree, though, that it is a real shame that things have been allowed to slide so much. Ultimately, there will be some rich shareholders or CEOs or whatever in their gated communes and swimming pools who remain untouched, while the people lower down the chain (and the customers, for god’s sake) suffer. But that is advanced capitalism!

      Overall, my experience in the US was extremely positive. It gave me a new lease of life actually.

  5. The Big Nose

    Oh no! I’ve been to New York twice, always treated like prisoners, the Immigration staff barking and asking senseless questions for hours. This is the reason why I travel only to Asia or stay in Europe. I hope you got your bag back. Tell us also your positive American tales I am looking forward.

    • Definitely more positive than negative tales to tell!

      Those immigration people though…..I could get into real trouble as I have a real temper and flare up. I can imagine me just getting sent straight back!

      As for travel, I always travel in Europe or Asia, and I adore both, but at the same time, most of the culture I consume, in terms of films especially, is American, so I have a fascination for the US as well. I truly believe that without America the world would be so BORING.

  6. Katy McReynolds

    PS I love Nubian lotions and have been buying them for the last several years. There is a frankincense and myrrh one that is to die for.

    • I discovered them on Canal Street in New Orleans. The others went back to the hotel, leaving me a chance to spend some dollars surreptitiously on perfumed goodies.

      It was quite a strange shop, actually. Lots of lotions and potions, wigs and incense sticks, and there were some quite colourful characters in there buying custom blends and so on.

      I could have quite happily imported the entire stock of soaps and lotions (so thick and creamily scented!), but unfortunately there was so Frankincense as I would have snapped it up.

  7. Oh man. What a nightmare. I read this during my first sips of morning coffee, and I believe that I too,was experiencing skipped heartbeats right along with you poor boys. Sadly, I think we all have those nightmare stories with air travel. I am glad you are home, safe and sound, and that your bag finds it’s way to you soon.. Right after your last article, I explored the Hove site and I sure do hope your goodies are intact and received pronto!

    • Got them back safe and sound and up in my collection upstairs.

      I mean, this was a ridiculous post: I had literally got in the house, was totally jet-lagged and irritable, so it was more extreme than it needed to be, but I found I just had to get it off my chest.

      Some of the attendants were actually quite nice, though it must be said that overall it was a crap service. I would never fly with them again.

  8. Marina

    What a horror my darling. Sadly what you speak of is true and reality. Sub standard service is the normal in North America. There are exceptions to be sure but….we could go on and on. Channelling positive vibes for the return of your bag.

    • Louise

      This is horror ! I am so so sorry you both endured such a nightmare , in fact that perpetual stress and insecurity while traveling is the stuff of my nightmares, when I do have bad dreams there’s always that travel-stress element as a main theme xxx

      • I mean being with Duncan, and actually loving flying, it wasn’t quite as horrific as I am perhaps making out, but the stress was huge, which is probably why we did nothing but sleep for two days when we got back!

    • Sorry for the lateness of the reply, M. We realized quite quickly that we had lost the adaptor plug for the computer, but had to wait til my case came back to make sure that it wasn’t in there rather than the bag we thought we had left it in (it wasn’t). Only got it sorted out yesterday.

      We had a fantastic time, actually and the overall feeling of the trip is very positive. Neither of us would travel with American Airlines again though. Duncan is quite adamant about it!

  9. Lilybelle

    Yes, flying in America is a horrible experience, which is why I prefer to drive overnight (plus take my dog) rather than fly. My last few trips by air have been nightmares. My last beef was with Delta Airlines, but American Airlines is just as bad. American air travel is nothing like it used to be. It’s disgraceful and embarrassing. We are becoming a 3rd world country. Don’t even let me get started. 😦

    • It’s quite depressing, actually, isn’t it?

      British trains are a bit like that. Once there was a collective gasp, I remember, on the London to Birmingham train (the first and second cities), when there was this announcement:

      “We are sorry. The train cannot move yet as there is no driver”.

  10. rosestrang

    Can you sue the airline for stress and inconvenience or something?! This whole immigration thing is ridiculous, whichever rules they bring in, any terrorist worth their salt will think of a way round it. It’s a similar mess in the UK. Why can’t they make the security process more efficient and streamlined? Why can’t everything be more efficient and streamlined, why can’t all countries be as organised as Japan, Germany and Switzerland?! I think you’re on the money that it’s about economical climate, but also I’d imagine a widening gap between service for the very rich versus the average person.
    Anyway, much sympathy, I hope you get your luggage back soon, and that the rest of 2015 is wonderful. I did like your description of having your ‘love batteries recharged’ with a good Christmas – they can’t take that away from you!

    • Exactly!

      And it wasn’t quite as bad as I described it (although that was how I experienced it). I had just got in the house and so was furious and thus dosed the experience even higher.

      The immigration thing WAS horrendous though. I agree. Why can’t they just have more people on the desks? It is almost as if they were taunting you.

  11. Thank you – you have just made our awful experience with Delta seem like a walk in the park! Hope you got your case and your sanity back…x

  12. Like others here and one of your travelling companions, I could begin by saying “don’t get me started…” Flying within the US and out of the US on American airline companies is indeed a hideous experience. AA, Delta and United are the absolute dregs. My (now retired) hubby used to fly at least 4 times a year to Malaysia, Bangkok etc., and Intel – although obviously a multi billion $$ company – insisted on him flying with one of these companies and in rabble class. 24 hours door to door. I went with him once and it was the worst flying experience of my life. I too ended up without my luggage (it had gone to New York – we didn’t even go to NY as part of our journey). There I was, in temperatures of 95 degrees with 90% humidity with nothing but my fleece travelling clothes. I was given a $20!! voucher to buy “essential items” until my luggage arrived – 4 days later and half way through my trip. Needless to say, in the interim I had to also buy more suitable clothing which irked me even more seeing as I had already splurged on new outfits for the trip.
    We made a decision several years ago after agreeing that flying had become an experience to be avoided at all possible costs (and how the airlines can justify charging so much for so little service is beyond me) that we would simply not do it unless a) an emergency arose or b) we sprang for business class. I had travelled to the UK to move my mum into care and as I had to fly alone and I hate flying as it is, coupled with the fact that I knew my visit was going to be super stressful, we elected to fly me business class and on Air Canada. Night and day! everything about the airline was fantastic – the service, the seating, the food. No lines to stand in, little shuttles to carry you about the airport, quiet passenger lounges with free food and drink at either end, first on and off the planes in a separate entrance, “pods” to sit in that you could lie down full out to sleep – I actually slept for 6 of the 9 hour flight! – real food on real plates with real cutlery (because of course, no one in business or first class could possibly be a terrorist…), luggage off first. I cant recommend it enough and any international trip I make in the future will be made the same way, even if I have to sell my perfume collection to get the money!!! As for US based flying – aint gonna happen unless we absolutely have to.
    I’m sorry to hear about your pitiful experience and am glad you have this outlet of sympathetic ears to purge to. I’m looking forward to reading about the bits in between 🙂

    • They will definitely be coming I promise!

      The Air Canada experience sounds amazing, though I simply would never have the cash to fly business class. Doesn’t it just feel like the most extravagant waste of money, not matter how pleasant the experience is?

      • Not in the slightest 🙂 Flying is such an extremely stressful experience for me – anxiety “disorder” and claustrophobia – that it is certainly worth the money. And its not something I would do on a regular basis – it has to be a MUST for me to travel internationally anymore. As for internal US travel unless I have to get there for an emergency, I drive, no matter how long it takes. We’ve had some *great* road trips.

      • Well seeing the beautiful vastness of the American landscape on this trip, I can certainly understand that (although I am much more afraid of cars than of planes, actually).

        As for travelling though, I MUST. So many places I want to see around the world. Me and Duncan just absolutely love it. I could never stay in one country.

  13. Sadly I have to concur with all of the above comments and validate completely your horrific experience.
    Almost all things in the USA are substandard, compared to the rest of the developed world, and people usually just settle for the mediocrity of it all.
    Whenever I fly over to France, I always try to fly Air France, far superior service to American Airlines.
    I do have to say though, my flight to Hong Kong was on Delta and it was not too bad. But immigration coming into this country made me so uncomfortable and creeped out, I am an US citizen and was still barked at and given zero courtesy overall. Why are those people so angry and aggressive I wonder?
    I am happy you had a glorious time on holiday though, just try to forget the flying/airport/airline part of it all.
    Just remember, most people in the states are just used to mediocre service, unless they are wealthy, so the companies do not even try anymore.

    • I actually found the people very courteous and friendly over all and don’t have a bad word to say about my actual holiday.

      But the whole barking at immigration thing and yes those immigration people…..it is so totally UNNECESSARY.

  14. American Airlines has always been a crap airline.. Are there any good airlines in the United States?? Or are they all crap??

  15. Katherine

    Bloody hell, what an ordeal! I’ve only ever been on short flights where they took care of passengers needs/comfort much better than this, I imagined longer flights you’d be treated really well, because…! That’s totally disgraceful, so much for the open market being better.

    • jennyredhen

      The open market is usually worse for the consumer.

    • I know, what a joke.

      I realize though what a spoilt brat I must come across as in this post as half the world can’t even afford to leave the place they are born in, but in Japan they hike the prices up at airlines, so you are essentially spending twice as much as you would if you were booking in the UK, and there is nothing you can do about it, so having spent a fortune it was mightily galling for everything to be so shambolic. Fascinating to be in America, though. We are so used to slagging it off, me included, but to actually be there was different. I kind of loved it, actually.

  16. Neodymium

    How horrible 😦 If your anxiety is confined to flying perhaps you could get your doctor to prescribe you valium or something similar? I have terrible dental anxiety and my dentist always gives me 10mg before procedures and it helps tremendously, i.e. I am not rigid with fear the entire time 😀

    • Thanks for the advice.

      Actually, to be honest, this post is way over the top. I am claustrophobic, but it is not that extreme, and I actually really enjoy flying usually, once I am mildly inebriated and involved in a film. But having neither of those things on a six hour flight, without ANY meal or drink service, strikes me as outrageous to be honest.

      The answer: a different airline.

  17. jennyredhen

    American Airlines have been a crap airline for along time. They are often the cheapest option.The only solution is to fly with another airline and pay a bit more

  18. I have just travelled from NZ to Washington DC The trip took 26 hours with minimum time between flights.one side of the world to the other is a long way….unfortunately….it used to take 6 months in a sailing ship with much more unpleasantness to endure including illness and death. Storms and shipwrecks.

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