Stale pretzels and soda water
By Jim Poling
Published April 27, 2017
The cattle are prowlin’, the coyotes are howlin’
Way out where the doggies bawl
Singin’ his cattle call
Anyone remember that catchy but smooth yodellin’ tune? Tex Owens wrote it way back in 1934, but it has jumped out of the past and taken over my head. I’ve been humming it ever since David Dao boarded a United Airlines flight a doctor and got off a patient.
Video clips of Dr. Dao being dragged off the flight by the feet, screaming and bleeding, showed the entire world just how far the airline industry has descended into passenger Hell.
Round ‘em up, stuff ‘em in and ship ‘em out. Rawhide! Keep ‘em movin’, movin’, movin’, there’s a bigger bottom line at the end of this ride.
Commercial airline travel these days is about being shoehorned into an increasingly crammed seating area and fed tiny packages of stale pretzels with half-filled plastic cups of soda water. Set up a compact laptop on your fold-down seatback tray and it gut punches you when the guy in front tilts his seat back one inch.
All that after being pushed through the airport check-in obstacle course, and the unpacking and undressing at security. Then after being vacuum-packed into your seat comes the anxiety of wondering whether a computer will bump you from the overbooked flight.
It didn’t used to be this way. Back in the days before airline CEOs became bean counters, passenger comfort and satisfaction were important. Claude Taylor, who ran Air Canada roughly 30 years ago, personally replied to passengers who complained about service or offered suggestions.
Then there was Max Ward, the bush pilot who built a world-class airline with a passion to make flying an enjoyable experience. And it was, until the Transport Canada bureaucracy drove Wardair out of the business.
Wardair gave passengers first-class treatment for economy fares. Cabins were decorated in bright holiday colours. Dinners featured filet mignon cooked on board to the passenger’s preference. It was served on Royal Doulton china, with stainless steel cutlery and linen napkins. Flight attendants hand delivered individual food trays to each seat.
Drinks were free and coffee was fresh percolated. Then there was that fabulous dessert trolley.
Max Ward has been quoted as saying: “In the airline business, it’s about the journey, not the destination. It’s much more than merely getting our valued customer from A to B, and the level of service a passenger receives is indicative of exactly how the airline values the customer.”
Airline passengers today know how the carriers value them. Maybe you get to your destination, maybe you don’t. If you don’t get bumped from a flight, you arrive at your destination burping up stale pretzels.
United CEO Oscar Munoz presumably has learned a bit about the value of customers since Dr. Dao was beaten up on one of his airplanes. One of his first statements on the incident called Dr. Dao “disruptive and belligerent” and praised the United crew.
When the incident caused millions of dollars in United stock losses, Munoz threw on the reverse thrusters and has been falling over himself apologizing to Dr. Dao, saying his treatment was horrific and promising that nothing like this ever will happen again.
He certainly hopes not because the United board has decided that his $18-million-a-year pay cheque now will be tied to a new customer satisfaction pay scheme.
Max Ward never made that kind of salary. He paid himself less than his pilots and plowed the savings back into building a customer friendly airline.
Meanwhile, I just can’t get The Cattle Call song out of my head. Tex Owens said he wrote it after watching the snow fall in Kansas.
“My sympathy went out to cattle everywhere, and I just wished I could call them all around me and break some corn over a wagon wheel and feed them.”
Cracked corn, eh? Sounds a mite more appetizing than stale pretzels.