The modern air transportation system was invented in the United States, but is no longer a world leader. It’s easy to make such broad pronouncements, but the details matter and I’d like to share a story that shows just how far things have fallen in America since the days of Pan Am.
I’m writing this while sitting on a Delta flight from Beijing back to the US. There isn’t much else to do. Today’s flight started with a relentless upsell to a supposedly “enhanced” economy product that is essentially the same thing that economy used to be. I declined. Onboard, it’s been humorless flight attendants scolding passengers for the slightest perceived transgressions, followed by food served in such small portions that I‘d complain if it wasn’t so bad. The restrooms are none too clean on this flight, and the in-flight entertainment system is broken. This controls the reading lights, so the cabin crew just decided to leave the lights on for 11 hours on an overnight flight. And Delta, lest anyone think I am beating up on them, is one of the better US airlines. Flying Aeroflot is literally a better experience than flying US Airways and I’d fly even China Eastern (the worst of the Chinese airlines) over United.
If you live in the US, you probably think that this is just how flying is. That the experience of being groped and screamed at by TSA agents, scolded by airline employees, abused by arbitrary fees and overall being threatened and cajoled by petty people exercising whatever petty power they have to the maximum extent is just the way the airline industry works. If you fly in the US, or with US airlines, this is largely true. The story changes when you leave. In Asia, most airlines still have good service. Some have exceptional service. I’ve become accustomed to being treated like a human being when I fly in Asia, but the levels of courtesy and kindness I recently experienced in Japan makes me wonder why the US can’t be more like this.
At the end of my recent vacation to Palau, I stopped over for a few days in Japan. Since I’ve only ever spent much time in Tokyo, I decided to visit Kyoto and Osaka, places I’ve wanted to see for a long time but haven’t visited due to the high cost of travel there (a one-way train ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto, a 2 hour journey, costs about $150). This time, I decided that since I’d saved so much money on my trip to Palau by staying with a friend instead of at a hotel, I would take the plunge. I took a bullet train to Kyoto, enjoying a wonderful couple of days there, and then visited Osaka for an amazing two days of exploration. Reviewing my options to return to Tokyo for my flight, I discovered an amazing deal: American Airlines offered one-way award tickets for domestic Japanese flights for only 7,500 Aadvantage miles (plus a $75 fee). It’s always nice to actually be able to use miles (they’re easy to earn and hard to use) so I jumped at the chance.
Not really considering there may be more logistics involved than flying to the correct airport in Tokyo (there are two, Narita being the larger one), I went ahead and booked a flight. When I showed up at the Osaka airport, though, I discovered that there was a big problem: JAL does not have a baggage transfer agreement with ANA, the airline I was flying back to Beijing. I hadn’t really considered this as a possibility; nearly all airlines I’ve ever flown except for Southwest have baggage transfer agreements with nearly every other airline. “Nearly” was the operative word in this case and it looked like I was out of luck.
The JAL staff told me the bad news, and as is typical in Japan, just quietly waited for my response. Many Americans would have gotten angry, but I knew how to respond. “Well, I need to catch my ANA flight from Narita, since I am transferring to Beijing. Here is my itinerary,” I politely said, handing them a printout. “I won’t have time to check in my bag, claim it, and then re-check the bag in Narita. Can you please help me solve this problem?”
Business in Japan is done very carefully and deliberately. First, the JAL staff called ANA. If I cancelled my ticket with JAL and bought another one on ANA, they could check my bag through, and I’d make my next flight. However, this would cost over $300, and I’d also lose the fee I paid to book the JAL ticket plus a redeposit fee for my miles. This would push the overall cost up over $400. “I can’t really afford that,” I explained. “Is there a less expensive option?”
Furrowed brows, furious typing, a hushed phone call in Japanese, and then one of the ticket agents (there were two working at this point) came to the other side of the counter to look at my bags. “It’s OK,” she finally said. “The flight is not full, you can carry your bags on the plane. But you still may not have enough time to connect in Narita, you have to change terminals there. You will have to hurry when you get there, and there is no guarantee you will make your flight. I understand it’s expensive, but if you book with ANA they will guarantee your connection, we can only do our best.”
I had a bottle of scotch I’d bought at the duty free in Guam, and explained that carrying on my bags probably wouldn’t work because I had liquids in my bag. “Oh, that’s no problem. This is a domestic flight in Japan. If you don’t have any cigarette lighters, matches, or hair spray, you can carry that on board.” Of course! I should have guessed. Japan is a civilized country that makes rational judgments about risk, choosing to treat airline passengers as law-abiding citizens rather than potential terrorists. I smiled, bowed, said “domo arigato,” and collected my boarding pass. I wasn’t too worried about the risk. The worst case scenario was probably another night in Tokyo, and taking the next available flight back to Beijing. My ANA ticket was an award ticket, so it was flexible; I’d be able to stand by for their next flight.
Osaka airport security was quick, thorough, and friendly. The agent had a question about a can of shaving cream in my bag, and wanted to make sure it wasn’t hair spray. She was polite and efficient in opening my bag to check and the whole thing took less than a minute. In the US, the same situation would have likely resulted in a swarm of TSA thugs tearing my bag apart, playing twenty questions, and testing my shoes for explosives. The plane left the gate on time, but there was a ground hold due to air traffic control and we were late taking off for Narita. I wasn’t going to have much time to transfer once I got there.
Japanese flight crews are polite and precise, the service always impeccable, perfect English, and excellent food. Beverages and snacks were served even though it was only a 1 hour flight. Thoughtfully, the gate staff had seated me as close to the front of the plane as possible to allow me to disembark as quickly as possible.
When I arrived in Tokyo, I was surprised to see a uniformed ANA agent standing just inside the gate holding a sign with my name on it. I approached her and introduced myself. “Please walk quickly towards baggage claim. At the end of the walkway, there” as she pointed, “an agent will meet you and take you to your next flight.” 100 meters further, another ANA agent standing next to a whiteboard with my name on it. “OK, sir, we have notified ANA that you are coming, and you can check in for your flight. We need to hurry. Come quickly, you need to take a shuttle bus to transfer to their terminal.” I followed the agent, assuring her I could keep up if she wanted to go faster, which she did. We sprinted through the terminal at close to a dead run, arriving curbside, where an airport volunteer was waiting for me. “This man will take you to the ANA ticket counter. Have a nice flight!” she said, leaving me with a polite bow and returning to the terminal.
As if on cue, a Narita shuttle bus pulled up at curbside. I was the only passenger, and the bus drove straight to the ANA terminal, to the area closest to the check-in counters. “Come with me,” the Narita volunteer said, “I know the fastest way.” I followed him into the terminal, up an elevator I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, and to the ticket counter. The Narita volunteer, wearing all of the confidence of his yellow volunteer sweater, walked me straight to the front of the line and directly to the first class check-in counter. He told the agent my name, and she began furiously typing on her computer. I handed her my passport and bags, showing her my China visa. She tagged my bags, marked them “priority,” and handed me my boarding pass. “There may not be time today for duty-free shopping,” she said, “please go directly to the gate. If you do this, I’m sure you will make your flight.” She was right. I went through immigration, stamped out of Japan, and arrived at my gate during the final boarding call.
I booked an impossibly short connection, made assumptions about baggage transfers I shouldn’t have made, and showed up at the check-in counter a mere 45 minutes prior to an international flight. Instead of scolding me, lecturing me, and pointlessly enforcing petty rules on the number of carry-on bags, JAL and ANA did literally everything they could to help me solve a problem that was entirely my fault. And they did all of this for an absolute nobody, someone who has never flown them before and probably won’t fly them again soon, and traveling on a free ticket! The service was exact, impeccable, and remarkably considerate–even for Japan. I’m just trying to imagine how a similar scenario would have played out in the US. I’d undoubtedly have been stranded, and would probably have been charged through the nose to stand by for the next flight, and I’d have been berated and scolded and harangued every step of the way. No wonder people in the US hate flying. I think it’s no surprise that passenger numbers drop as people drive incredibly long distances just to avoid the humiliating experience of being groped and shouted at by the TSA, while simultaneously being berated by unfriendly airline employees and charged arbitrary fees in a petty manner. In the US, I’ve often had to open two bags and shift one or two pounds worth of items between them to avoid a $70 fee. At some point, it becomes simple harassment.
Nothing makes me look forward to returning to Beijing like a US airport. In China, immigration is always friendly, usually with a smile and hearty “ni hao!” Domestic flights are hassle-free. Tickets cost around the same as you’d pay in the US for equivalent distance, sometimes less, but every airline is full service. And I’ve never been yelled at, scolded, or groped by anyone in a Chinese airport. The story is the same in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, essentially everywhere I’ve been throughout Asia. The only country I’ve visited with an experience even closely approximating the US is North Korea. Meanwhile, US airlines endlessly lose money and complain that they need more fee revenue, cutting back service and benefits for even the most frequent fliers. People will put up with a lot of abuse from Ryanair or Air Asia if the fare was nearly free, but I can’t think of any industry in the world where high prices and poor service is a winning combination. Maybe what the industry needs instead of more fee revenue is a look in the mirror.