So long, Midwest Airlines. You’re already missed.
Last week’s announcement that Midwest Airlines will officially lose its name to the new Frontier by 2011 should have come as no surprise to anyone who travels by air. In reality, passengers who remember what it was like to fly pre-9/11 know that the Midwest we Milwaukeeans knew and loved disappeared long ago.
That doesn’t mean Frontier won’t offer good service out of Gen. Mitchell International Airport. The news that the airline’s parent, Republic Airways Holdings Inc., will expand Frontier’s presence here will mean more local jobs, competition on ticket prices and flights to new destinations.
Just this week, for instance, Frontier announced it will add flights from Milwaukee to California.
But the notion that Midwest Airlines will fade away even in name is a sad reminder that Milwaukee has lost another corporate headquarters and a brand once recognized for high-quality service.
Midwest’s passing is emblematic of how much the air travel experience has deteriorated over the past decade. Airlines aren’t entirely to blame for this, of course; the severe financial jolt the industry suffered in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, followed by rising fuel prices and the worst recession in decades made staying in business impossible for some airlines and near impossible for the rest.
Thanks to today’s economic realities, travel by plane has evolved from a high-end experience where passengers were treated as “guests” to a budget-focused, miserable ordeal of long lines, cramped space, no amenities and new charges for things that used to be free.
Even worse is the airline industry’s now routine practice of overbooking flights and the realization that a ticket bought and paid for is still no guarantee of a seat on the plane.
A recent travel nightmare of my own left me longing for the days of the old Midwest Express — and I’m not talking about the wide leather seats, complimentary champagne, meals served on china and the famous chocolate chip cookies. I’m referring to the old Midwest’s promise of nonstop flights, on-time departures and arrivals, helpful ticket agents, cheerful flight attendants and experienced pilots who knew how to land a jet smoothly on the runway. I appreciated that my hometown airline walked its “best care in the air” talk. For that reason, I almost always flew Midwest for U.S. travel, even if the ticket cost a bit more.
Luckily the trip to Orlando was glitch free, because my trip back to Milwaukee was a frustrating and exhausting two-day ordeal. When my daughter and I arrived at the gate two hours before our scheduled departure for Milwaukee, the Southwest agent informed us that even though we had our tickets, the flight was overbooked and there was room for just one of us on the plane. For the other, the agent offered a seat on the next available flight to Milwaukee, which would leave three days later.
“I can’t wait that long to get home,” I told the agent, and asked for alternatives. The only option, the agent assured me in a snippy tone of voice, was a ticket refund so that I could find a flight on a different airline. (And no, the agent couldn’t help me find another airline.)
After convincing my daughter to take the available seat on the Southwest flight and fly home without me (I didn’t want her to miss two days of school), I spent the next several hours running from one airline ticket counter to the next, pleading for a single seat on a flight to Milwaukee or Chicago sometime in the next 24 hours. Eventually, I got a ticket on a Delta flight leaving Orlando the next day for Memphis, where I changed planes for a Northwest flight to Milwaukee.
While grateful to get that one-way ticket, I did wince at its $1,000 price tag, which was considerably more than what I paid months earlier for my roundtrip ticket on Southwest. Adding insult to injury, the day after my return home I got Southwest’s e-mail inviting me to fill out a “customer satisfaction” survey.
The saddest part of my bad experience is that I know it isn’t unique. The reaction I get when sharing this story with friends has been one of resignation, a sense that even when you spend hundreds of dollars for an airline ticket, you shouldn’t expect to be treated well by any airline.
“At least you didn’t lose your luggage,” one friend said.
That much is true. But I still miss the best care in the air.((Original top photo by Scootzsx on Flickr.com, illustration by Brian Jacobson))