Forty-odd years ago people were writing about something called The Summer of Love. I predict this is the year anyone who has to travel aloft on business will be writing instead about The Summer of Ugh. Meaning be prepared for screaming babies and inept fliers.
I don't imagine too many 'people in motion' will be humming many bars of "San Francisco" after reading about the looming "combination of crowded flights, high fares, and labor disruptions" that business travel writer Jane L. Levere describes in her New York Times story outlining what lies ahead.
Oh joy! you are probably saying right about now. Me too.
Factor in a sudden resurgence of leisure passenger traffic in the face of several years of draconian route cutbacks and it's a no-brainer that this summer is gonna be tough. The airlines are still struggling: still reducing capacity; still cutting headcount; still slashing flights. The new tarmac rule that has just taken effect has its heart in the right place, but will also precipitate flight cancellations. Contributing to this summer of disruption is Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland's wildly incontinent volcano. Levere quotes several experts who predict all of this will merge in a perfect business travel storm. Translated, it means more middle seats, fewer or no upgrades, extra delays, and an abundance of sardine-like sojourns.
What else might a road warrior expect?
First, you and I don't have the passenger train option we once had — not even the route options that existed during the Summer of Love. Just as the airlines have collapsed their route structures, so have the railroads. Actually, railroad, singular. We have Amtrak and that's it, apart from a few regional commuter rail lines. But as to long-distance options for switching from the plane to the train, there isn't much. And what's there faces challenges both in capacity and reach. Amtrak has a tremendous chance to step up to the plate, build capacity, improve service, and retain customer loyalty. Let's see how well Amtrak capitalizes on this golden opportunity.
Second, we will experience a lot of loosely supervised children reappearing on the business travel scene, if not pounding on our seatbacks. Now, I realize that some will take this personally, but here’s the truth: standards of behavior that once prevailed for children continue to recede into distant memory. Parents seem less able or willing to police their little airborne angels. Unfortunately, while parents and children are indeed going on vacation together, the code of conduct for visitors to the stratosphere is not quite the same as when inside the family car. Be forewarned that should you forget your noise-cancelling headphones, you will be truly sorry. And don’t worry about that Italian silk tie or scarf you planned on showing off at your customer presentation — that stain isn’t disappearing anytime soon.
Bottom line: You’re gonna get delayed, cancelled, re-routed. It happens. The thing is, it’s going to happen more. We, the Platinums, the Diamonds, and other elite citizens of the air have an obligation to set an example for the infrequent travelers that we can only hope they will emulate. We are flying more than ever with rookies — what skiers call "gapers." They are very much en garde, — on defense — and ready to mix it up with strangers, gate agents, security staff. We will get nothing in return (would an upgrade be asking too much?), but it’s still our job. How? Let me list the ways.
(1) When we see rookies seeking to excuse themselves from the TSA's security rules, the correct response is to lighten the mood with a wink and a nod to TSA staff or other travelers. This is, of course, at the expense of the offender; but it's for the good of the group.
(2) This one may not even be worth repeating, but when you find yourself in the security line, move like a samurai. Your calm, confident, and timely removal of your laptop and one-quart-sized transparent bag will remind others why there is a Green Circle Lane.
(3) Gate agents will be targets of outrageous, unfair, and embarrassing displays of human spectacle this summer. Be extra, extra nice to gate agents. Always smile and be relaxed, offer a gentle joke. You can bet the house that these people have had a worse day than you. Rookies just don't get it that being anything but nice to gate agents is worse than insulting a traffic cop or your neighborhood nightclub bouncer: it will only make matters much worse and quickly too.
(4) This is my squeegee guy tip — think twice before you relinquish your seat to a family who did not plan their trip effectively, i.e., are sitting apart from one another. For one thing, they’re more likely to behave more pleasantly in the company of strangers. For another, giving up your seat merely reinforces their poor planning practices. Airlines offer so many ways for passengers to book and rearrange themselves on the seatmap. None of these means exist, however, once you’ve boarded the plane.
(5) Help older people with their bags, especially with overhead compartments. Rookies don’t have their head in the game during boarding, but the good souls among them will see your actions and imitate it, helping those around them.
Yes, it's gonna be a rough summer, fellow travelers. But if we plan intelligently, anticipate, and be patient, we can survive it. Let’s do what we can to make the best of it. For me, that includes carving out some time to try to recall the words to "California Dreamin'." Remember: When the going gets tough, the tough fly economy class.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com