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Readers Choice Awards, Part 3 of 3: The Leftovers

Complaints are contagious, and last week’s Golden Pretzel nominations managed to draw a fresh new storm of “you think that’s bad” one-uppers to my mailbox. I wasn’t planning to share any of these, but here’s one that can’t be denied…

“In your most recent article detailing reader’s worst airline experiences, I was reminded of a flight I took with Air China. Upon entering the Air China plane in Beijing, I was greeted the intense stink of urine, whereupon I discovered a puddle of it in my seat from the last passenger. Kindly, I was offered another seat and promptly chowed down the in-flight snack, a bag of dried seahorses.”

Aren’t seahorses on a list of vanishing species or something? Do they stock the galleys with tiger parts too? Just remember that Air China and the better-regarded China Airlines are not the same, um, animal. The latter is the national carrier of Taiwan. No word of any endangered delectables on China Airlines, though a SkyTrax poll gave them an award for cleanest washrooms.

Such anecdotes, I think, can be therapeutic. We all feel better, don’t we, after commiserating? If any of the more hellish recollections posted here during the past few weeks strike a chord, let me know, and with consent from involved parties I’ll be happy to forward email addresses. Those of you with compatible traumas can share your pain in anti-airline chatrooms, or maybe start a lost luggage support group.

Anyway, a final and formal thank-you to everybody who partook in my survey. Admittedly once or twice — as with the letter from the Philippines that began “Dear Madam” — I was left wondering if should trust your objectivity, but the majority of your remarks and observations were poignant, insightful, and constructive.

The trickiest part, both for you the voter and me the interpreter, was adjusting to the platform of lowered expectations. Should we be happy, worried, or neither, that Southwest Airlines drew about equal number of best and worst ballots? Honestly I’m not sure. Does this airline, and others like it, actually sell a pleasant (enough) experience, or have passengers resorted to gauging satisfaction simply by measure of relief — relief that the plane wasn’t hijacked, nobody screamed at them, and their luggage wasn’t rerouted to Mongolia?

All things considered, the criteria should rest in between. Does it?

“Southwest Airlines. Arrivals and departures always on time; employees always, considerate, funny and friendly; planes always clean and well-kept; and they are the easiest airline with which to make reservations via phone or internet. And their prices rock! If Southwest is an option, I take no other.”

“I thoroughly detest Southwest’s cattle call boarding procedure — the Wild West notion that it’s every man for himself. This survival-of-the-fittest mentality is barbaric. I also loathe the colors of the planes and the mass-transit look of the interiors, reflecting not only a general lack of taste, but an attitude that says aesthetics are not important in life. But the worst aspect of Southwest is the demeanor of the staff. Southwest embodies the Wal-Martization of the skies, and the flight attendants are the greeters, complete with khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts.”

At first read, the second of those critiques is a pretty ringing indictment. Then again, maybe the writer, with his snooty overtones of elitist indignation, is hopelessly out of touch. I’m reminded of a mid-’90s episode of “The Simpsons”: “Ah for the days when aviation was a gentleman’s pursuit,” sayeth the dowdy curmudgeon Sideshow Bob. “Long before every Joe Sweatsock could wedge himself behind a lunch tray and jet off to Raleigh-Durham.”

I happen to agree both with Bob and the letter writer. However, I make that judgment with ticket prices removed from the equation. Be advised that, on average, airfares in 2004, measured in real dollars, are about the same as they were in 1988, while none of our beleaguered major carriers, excepting those perennial bulls from Texas, is even close to profitability.

Remember too that in most people’s minds the air travel experience has come to be measured curbside to curbside, not Jetway to Jetway. Much of the time we’re frazzled by the airside security dance and other ancillary hassles long before checking in or buckling our belts. It might well be the airport talking. As one reader puts it…

“The in-flight experience is pretty much the same on every airline, and it’s always overshadowed by the abuse we take in the terminal building.”

Southwest, reaps the psychological advantage of not only how it flies, but where. By aiming off-center in many markets, it allows customers to savor the logistical ease of a Manchester, Islip, or Providence, instead of the hectic snarls of a Boston, Newark, or La Guardia, at least on one end of their journey. Southwest might be the closest thing we’ve got to an official airline of the suburbs.

Meanwhile, and to a large measure antipodal to any lowered expectations theory, it’s fascinating how much of the praise for the most successful budget airlines seems to revolve not around price, but around service. JetBlue, voted best domestic airline by the readers of this column, is the most notable example, though even Southwest routinely scores high in passenger satisfaction. Thus the whole notion of “budget airline” becomes upended. JetBlue’s own ad blitz exploits the idea that fares will speak for themselves; the emphasis instead on personality: “People like JetBlue,” the commercials boast, “because JetBlue likes people.” Billboards proclaim: “New planes, new attitude.”

JetBlue shuns the “budget” or “discount” tag, and chooses the expression “low fares airline.” We can agree these are vague labels of convenience, but if it were all about fares, an airline wouldn’t be showcasing its personality to such great lengths, and people wouldn’t be praising not only the affordability of the ticket, and the overall pleasantness of the experience. There’s a long way to go, but a combo of lower fares and higher standards, at one time assumed to be mutually exclusive, are a one-two punch the legacy carriers simply will not survive. Any of them.

For the thousands of out-of-work airline employees, yours truly among them, it’s exasperating that the world’s most established carriers, with 50, 60, or 70 years longevity, can’t profitably emulate the attractions of a JetBlue. Of course, you’ll tell me how the employees of Woolworth’s and Sears probably wondered the same thing when the likes of Wal-Mart came nipping. Are the airlines floundering despite their ages and size, or because of them? For now, ask the big guys how to effectively stay in business, and they’re likely to start ranting about workforce salaries. In truth, all the labor concessions in the world won’t stem the defections if they continue selling a stagnant product. Chicken or the egg? Again, the answer is somewhere halfway.

A few of you wanted to hear about my own choices for favorite and least favorite airline. My partiality for Delta was documented last week, but beyond that I’m keeping mum. As you might recall, I subscribe to the belief that airline loyalties tend to be forged through unjustly subjective criteria. In function, performance varies widely day to day, flight to flight. This is particularly true vis-a-vis the US majors, which are, at least to me, far more alike than different.

You’re probably weary of my persistent valentines to overseas carriers, but what can I say? I’ll always remember the unexpected charms of Air Mandalay, who served breakfast on an ATR turboprop during the short ride between Yangon and Bagan; Bangkok Airways, with hot meals on the hour-long hop to Phnom Penh. Or the now-defunct Ecuadorian carrier, SAETA, whose A320s featured bountiful legroom and an orchid with every meal. During a delay in Quito, SAETA rolled a buffet cart into the terminal and dispensed free refreshments.

On the other hand, and let me set this up…

In keeping with my general principles, I was hoping to remain as impartial as I could to the much-maligned winner of my Golden Pretzel trophy, Northwest Airlines. My mother worked at Northwest for 20 years before retiring, and my experiences with the airline have carried me from Bangkok to Bozeman. In general those rides were no better, and no worse, than those aboard any of Northwest’s main competitors.

However, if there is one flight that I shall always remember, solely for the wrong reasons, it was a Northwest red-eye to Europe, in October, 1988. I was assigned to the center block of the very last row of an overbooked flight to Copenhagen. The only available seat, and it was the smoking section. Soon after takeoff, the cabin crew basically abandoned the entire rear portion of the plane. Or perhaps they couldn’t find it through the impenetrable olive haze spewed forth by dozens of chain-smoking Danes. I remember forcing my way to lav several times for water, filling a dirty paper cup from a spigot marked CAUTION, WATER NOT POTABLE.

To its credit, Northwest was first to ban smoking system-wide a few years later.

This discussion, and this topic, are now closed. Allow me to leave you with this, the most colorful of all emails submitted during my poll. It comes from Rich Kozel in Taipei, Taiwan. The airline is China Eastern, a mainland carrier based in Shanghai…

“China Eastern MD-11, Guangzhou to Shanghai, which I flew as crew during non-revenue proving flights in 1991. The ground staff allowed anything on board. One guy brought his ping-pong table and another guy brought his bicycle. Both fit neatly in the aisle blocking all access. In the business class cabin were dozens of watermelons, all nicely strapped into the seats. Guangzhou has great watermelons and Shanghai has none. China Eastern placed two mechanics on board whose sole job was to go to the local market and buy as many watermelons as they could find. I flew this route for sixty days straight, and every night it was a plane load of watermelons.”

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.