Thoughts on Air Travel

Last week I had quite a shock: The Australian domestic air travel experience is dramatically better than the US experience.

I’ve heard various people complain about it, and it seemed to be much the same stuff as we get here: the security theatre, queuing, delayed flights, hassles and pain.

Well yes, all those are true. And yet somehow the US managed to be worse.

I’ve done a lot of domestic air travel in Australia this year, so I’ve well versed in how it all works. However, I only had two domestic flights while in the US, so this isn’t a wide ranging survey.

It’s probable that other airlines (I flew US Airways) and airports (I only saw LAX and PHX) are better. At least I hope so. If not, you have my pity, you poor US airline travelers.

Airport Layout

One of the first things I noticed was that Australian airports tend to be more streamlined in their layout. The US experience felt messy and confusing.

I’m a seasoned air traveller, so I shudder to think what novice travellers would experience.

Checkin

Checkin is done using electronic kiosks, for the most part, and then you just drop off your bag. The first time you use it is a little unusual, but the service people are there to help you if you need them. Or you can check in online.

Finding the right bag drop queue is simple; there’s clear signage, and different queues depending on if you’re a frequent flyer, club member, etc.

If you’re unsure where to go, there’s a person or two hanging around near the front of the queueing area to help with queries, and they know what they’re talking about. I’ve never been sent to the wrong place.

For US Air, checkin and bag drop happens at the same time (in PHX). There’s a bunch of kiosk things, and you need a credit card to pay for each bag. There are only one or two service people to help, and there’s no real queue. It’s confusing and unclear what you’re supposed to do, and no real signage to help.

Common to both Australia and the US are arbitrary bag weight limits. This is important for takeoff weight calculations, I know, but I say bring on weighing of passengers like they did back in the early days of air travel. I only weigh 60kgs, so I should be able to put more in my bag if I want.

As it was, I had to transfer 5 pounds of books from my checked back to carryon to get under the 50 pound limit.. which went on the same plane. My bags were checked all the way through to international (where I have a higher limit that I couldn’t use), so my experience was limited by US Air’s annoying policy.

Is Australia, all they do is tag your bag with ‘Heavy: nn kgs’ and get on with it. Maybe the baggage handlers in the US are more concerned about lower back injuries?

Security

Lots of theatre. No surprises there.

In Australia, I don’t have to show ID to get on a plane. In the US, they check that your boarding pass matches some form of ID. They don’t check it again when you board, though. That’s trivial to bypass, as pointed out by Bruce Schneier. So it’s annoying and ineffective. Well done, TSA.

Security screening itself takes significantly longer. I don’t have to take off my shoes in Australia. However, we also have the entirely non-random explosives screening process.

There was just an extra layer of paranoia across the whole thing in the US. Land of the free? Way to win the ‘war’, folks.

The weirdest thing was the layout of the exit from the security area. You get funnelled through the X-ray machines, and then there were no obvious pointers to the exit. People just kinda milled about before stumbling across the exit. This created a blockage, and slowed the whole thing down.

In Australia, there’s a clear exit path, so it’s easy to get out after you’ve gone through all the probing and prodding. Perhaps our significant experience with sheep dipping has prepared us for designing a better system?

One final question: what are the success criteria for winning the War on Moisture?

Boarding

The boarding algorithm for planes is suboptimal. For a moment, I thought US Air were trying to use a better one by boarding in ‘zones’. I figured, ok, yeah, board from the back of the plane to the front, sure. Makes sense.

Nope. I couldn’t detect any relationship between the calls to board by zone and any kind of optimisation of the boarding algorithm.

I timed it. It took 25-30 minutes to get a 737 (25 rows of 6, 3 each side) completely boarded, with no late passenger delays.

In Australia, boarding takes half that, and it’s still not optimal. What on earth is going on?

Also, the draconian checked back limits means people have metric assloads of carryon, so the overhead space fills up in seconds. Maybe that’s the cause of huge boarding times: people searching for somewhere to store their bag?

I just bung my laptop bag under the seat in front. Saves a bunch of hassle. But I’m short and don’t need the extra legroom. One advantage, at least.

Finding Your Way Around

Airports in the US are much the same as in Australia, with one exception: signage.

I found it trickier to locate things like bathrooms and baggage collection. Perhaps I don’t have the same social cues that US folks are used to, but I had to really concentrate on locating the appropriate signage to point me to where I needed to go. Often there’d be one sign saying “it’s up this way”, but that would be it. I couldn’t find the Qantas club lounge in terminal 3 at LAX at all.

Asking official airport people gave mixed results. Several times I was advised to go a certain way, and I did, only to find 25 metres later that, no, I should have gone the other way. Or, yes, I could have also gone the way I asked about, but I got sent the long way instead for some unknown reason.

Most odd was the sheer number of people supposedly there to help you. I’d guess at 2-2.5 times the number of people doing the same job as a single person in Australia. I don’t know if that’s because Australia is understaffed, or if the low minimum wage in the US makes hiring more people cheap, though I strongly suspect the latter.

However, there’s one thing I absolutely loathe about Melbourne International: the duty-free store is directly in the way after you clear customs on the way out. It’s like walking directly into the perfume department of a big department store, at the same time as 200 other people.

You have to wend your way between all the merchandise before, finally, after 50 metres, you’re in relatively clear space. Ugh.

At least on the way back in there’s a corridor on the side that bypasses all the displays.

Conclusion

I can totally understand why US airlines don’t make money. The experience sucks.

The Australian experience isn’t as fun as it used to be, but it’s still a notch or two above ‘sucks’ most of the time. The US experience basically defaults to ‘sucks’, and dips below that more often than it rises up to ‘tolerable’.

Which is a huge shame, because the US is mostly a nice place that I’d like to see more of. The prospect of having to fly around it kinda puts me off, though.

So bravo to the Australian domestic airlines, and a supporting bravo to the airports themselves. You’re doing much better than your US compatriots.

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