Why is US Airways so un-American?

Jorg Hackemann / Shutterstock.com
Jorg Hackemann / Shutterstock.com
If you read nothing more than the headline of this story, you might think this is another rant about the evils of airline consolidation — a consolidation that, by the way, isn’t over yet.

But it isn’t. Instead, I’m thinking about how to respond to a complaint I received from Mark Ellerman, a passenger on a recent flight from Phoenix to Chicago. Actually, so are all of the volunteer advocates who work with me.

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We just don’t know what to tell him.

Part of the problem is generational; a disconnect between the Golden Age of flying and today’s age of pathetic airborne buses. Ellerman says he’s been flying since the 1960s and he refers to flight attendants as “stewards” and “stewardesses,” which can get you into deep trouble with the crew on any domestic airline, just as calling your server a “waitress” can land you in some hot water.

It all started when one of the stewardesses — I mean, flight attendants — made an announcement after the flight departed. They were down to only one credit-card reader, so any drink or meal orders would take a little extra time.

Card readers? What about cash? Alas, only US Airways’ regional service accepts greenbacks.

“I had no idea that they could take credit cards now,” says Ellerman, “and she told me that is all they take.”

“I thought that she was kidding,” he added.

She wasn’t.

He continues,

I said, “You mean I can’t buy a drink with money — cash?”

No. No notice, no advanced warning, nothing but, “We’re Americans — we use credit cards.”

It was spoken in a voice loud enough that 10 to 12 people around us all laughed at me.

OK, being ridiculed by crewmembers — that’s unacceptable.

But the airline’s credit card policies, often euphemistically referred to as a “cashless environment,” are disclosed on its site. Interestingly, the airport is not a cashless environment. You can still pay for your airline ticket with bills. But I digress.

“At that point I knew that I and my US currency was being discriminated against,” he says. “I was excluded from the rest of the passengers who all enjoyed themselves around me, flashing toasts to me, while giggling at me.”

That didn’t sit well with Ellerman, who spent the rest of his flight angrily sipping a soft drink.

He asked a crewmember how to file a complaint. A flight attendant told him he could “go online” to file a grievance.

“I said that I thought I had been discriminated against,” he added.

“I don’t think so,” she replied.

Ellerman calls this refusal to accept cash “un-American,” and wants me to do something about it.

As I unpack his complaint, I see a few things: First, there’s the way Ellerman was treated when he tried to pay cash for a drink. I wasn’t there, of course, but I have seen flight attendants, in their own subtle way, belittle passengers who aren’t “in the know” about air travel. Did they hold up Ellerman to ridicule? I’m sure he felt that way.

Second, there’s the issue of cash being accepted on board. In the ‘60s this wasn’t an issue because almost everything was included in the price of your ticket. But now, almost everything is excluded from your fare. Maybe we aren’t sympathetic to a guy who can’t buy a drink, but what about the mom who wants to buy lunch for her toddler and only has cash?

Finally, there’s the issue of disclosure. I’m getting a little tired of companies that tell their customers, “Hey, it’s on our website,” when they have a policy question — as if we should commit their entire online presence to memory. That’s unreasonable. There’s a sizeable group of passengers that still don’t know your first bag doesn’t fly “free.”

When airlines shoot down public information projects that could potentially inform their customers, it really makes it look as if they want us to remain clueless, because ignorant customers are the most profitable ones.

I’m not sure what to do about Ellerman’s complaint. If I take a Quixotic case like this to US Airways, I’m pretty sure I will hear the giggles all the way from Arizona. Yet for all the hyperbole, Ellerman makes some valid points about the state of air travel.

Those should not be ignored.

Should I mediate Mark Ellerman's case?

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