On a recent United flight, I was happily seated in the forward cabin. When it came time for the meal service, the flight attendants hopscotched through the cabin, apparently randomly, asking passengers which selection they wanted.
I later asked an attendant if the order in which she had approached passengers reflected their MileagePlus ranking.
"Yes," she said. Then, if one could roll one's eyes with one's voice alone, she did so when she added, "The United way."
"Ex-Con?" I asked.
She nodded, confirming she had been with Continental before the merger. "I'm on the work-release program now," she said.
The meal-selection protocol, she said, "just makes it awkward. If you run out of something, they want to know why they were asked last, even though they were in the front row. Especially if the guy sitting next to them was the first one asked."
It's no secret that the merger of the United and Continental cultures has been tough in some regards. I've heard that from employees with roots in both organizations. Likewise, I've heard complaints from former Northwest Airlines employees now wearing Delta uniforms, and expect the pattern might crop up again if the anticipated American-US Airways merger occurs.
But the conversation with the United flight attendant took an unexpected turn away from complaining.
"You know," she said, "it's just change. Everyone hates change, especially flight attendants. When they first started charging passengers for food, I hated that. The customers weren't happy, and we took the brunt of it. But six months later, I loved it. The service part of the flight became easier on everyone."
You can count me among those who, after initial wariness, embraced the pay-for-food concept. Over time, the choices became more interesting. When food had been included in the ticket price, it made sense from an airline's perspective to cut the olive from the salad. But in a United "Tapas" snack box offered today, you get a whole foil package of marinated olives.
Similarly, I once wrote a column questioning United's "EconomyPlus" model, but today I'm glad to have the option to pay for a little more legroom.
I haven't exactly embraced paying for checked bags. Give me time.
• • •
On the same flight, I was reminded of a different travel-related change that has occurred. Unlike ancillary fees, it's the type of change that one doesn't necessarily even notice because it comes about so gradually.
I happened to be seated next to an attorney named Gilbert Gaynor. We started talking, and it turns out he represents nine clients: energy company executives from Egypt and their companions who, in the fall of 2003, were flying on business to Las Vegas. To make a long story short, the plane was diverted to Reno after one of the group didn't sit down quickly enough, according to Gaynor. (Alaska Airlines characterized their activity as a "serious disturbance.") The pilot asked Reno airport police to arrest them all for intentional interference with a flight crew, a felony charge that potentially carries a 20-year sentence.
The airport police, the FBI and later the U.S. Attorneys' Office found no basis for filing a criminal charge, and a defamation lawsuit filed shortly after the incident against Alaska has bounced from District Court to Appellate Court to the Supreme Court, and is now back in District Court.
While I'm in no position to judge the merits of the case, it got me thinking about changes I've experienced as a passenger over the past 11 years or so.
I clearly remember the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that permeated airline cabins for years following 9/11. I flew on Sept. 14, 2001, and it's remarkable how the atmosphere aboard planes and in airports has, slowly at first but accelerating greatly in recent years, lessened to the point where we're now more focused on the inconvenience of security lines than on the dress, language and complexion of people standing in line with us.
• • •
And again, on the same flight, I had time to contemplate one other change that, like the reduction of fear and suspicion, reflects gradual movement. Before boarding the flight that morning, I read that 2012 was the warmest year in the U.S. since records have been kept. The implications of the change that represents may make all other change seem trivial -- for aviation, the travel industry and society as a whole.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.