What happened to my travel industry – and how do I get it back?

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Glen Brewer is an unashamed railroad enthusiast. He runs a website that specializes in 19th century trains. And that made his email to me about his recent flight so noteworthy.

Unlike most of us, who reflexively book an airline ticket when we need to travel long distances, Brewer prefers the train. He comes from a family of railroad aficionados. He still remembers the tales his father told him of catching the Twentieth Century Limited from Chicago to New York on business, just after WWII.

His story made me ask a question that we seem to have stopped trying to answer: What, exactly, happened to our travel industry, and is there a way to get it back?

Brewer recalls the old trains, with their attention to detail and high service standards. They weren’t just better in many ways, but also more convenient.

Consider his recent trip from Denver to Memphis on Frontier Airlines.

“In 1892, when our house was built in Denver, we could have walked half a block to the Denver City Cable Railway and taken a cable car to Union Station for our journey all the way to downtown Memphis,” he says. “Someday in the future, we may be able to ride a lowly bus to the station, a spartan light rail train to the airport, an airplane to somewhere near Memphis, and finally, a taxi to the actual city. But not yet.”

Today, a taxi to Denver International Airport costs almost as much as his plane ticket.

Instead, says Brewer, “after the hell of being herded through security screening, and a long wait, we rode in an appropriately named Airbus – the only honest advertising I observed.”

He continues,

I sat in my cramped, uncomfortable, claustrophobic, extra-priced seat staring at the bulkhead, several rows ahead, which read: “More Choice. More Perks. More Savings. Flyfrontier.com”.

This is apparently what passes for 21st century airline humor.

My wife and I had paid extra for the legroom, but I was stuck in the row behind these absurd premium seats and had to ask an old, surly, officious and rude “stewardess” (i.e., on-board sales agent) for a correction.

She unapologetically deferred to the on-ground manager, who only grudgingly authorized me to move forward to a dreaded center seat.

In front of me there was a tiny TV screen with a place to slide your credit card. Despite the fact that there were three crew members in the cockpit and four in the cabin (not counting two uniformed deadheads occupying premium priced seats — four inches of extra legroom), the only choices cost extra except for a small plastic cup of water offered only once.

The only other perk was the fact that credit card sliders have yet to be installed on the toilet compartment.

After takeoff, I watched the on-board sales agents leisurely standing at the front of the “bus” drinking airline coffee before blocking the aisle with their sales cart to sell drinks. Then they attempted to sell airline credit cards which would afford the purchaser extra Frontier miles.

Extra miles indeed! I never want to have that experience ever again.

All this contrasts sharply with his last Amtrak journey on the Coast Starlight several years ago, where the crew went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, and the train actually arrived early. Sure, it was only a shadow of the late pre-Amtrak train service he once experienced, but at least there was still a culture of service.

On Frontier, there was none.

Airline enthusiasts may counter that someone like Brewer is coming from the wrong place — a very outdated place. After all, look at the progress. You can fly to a place like Memphis for a fraction of a luxury train fare, and in a fraction of the time. The missing trolley, the remote international airport, the security hassles — those are all minor inconveniences. What’s more, the airline crowd might say, today’s airlines are finally profitable after a long period of consolidation and downsizing.

In other words, quit your complaining.

Something tells me, though, that Brewer isn’t so upset about the infrastructure issues and the flight problems as he is about the way airlines see themselves in 2014. They aren’t in the service business or the hospitality business. They are at their core transportation companies, efficiently moving their human cargo from point “A” to point “B” while creating additional ancillary revenue opportunities for the company’s shareholders.

When did that change? Was it airline deregulation? The advent of yield-management systems? Or, perhaps more troublingly, was it us? Did travelers stop caring about service in favor of a bargain airfare?

Many of these questions can be debated. But one can’t: We have lost something, no question about it. It’s an essential part of our travel industry that made us the envy of the world. The smiling service we once counted on has been replaced with a “you-get-what-you-pay-for” attitude from the crew. Even the airline’s “best” customers — the folks lucky enough to score an upgrade with their worthless miles — know these airlines can’t get much worse.

“Have a nice day,” can be an insult. “Buh-bye,” an epithet. Yeah, we get it.

I’m afraid the service culture that defined the American travel industry may be gone forever. I hope I’m wrong.

Is the travel industry a better place than it was a generation ago?

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