Assemblyman Tim Donnelly: A Tale of Two Airlines

AP Photo/Marco Garcia
AP Photo/Marco Garcia

As we are now in the throes of the heaviest travel season of the year, I thought I’d share my tale of two airlines.

Since 9/11, air travel has become about as exciting as going to see the proctologist. It’s frustrating at best, degrading at worst.

Shortly after I was elected, I was forced to deal with my fear of flying. The day after the election in November of 2010, I had to fly to Sacramento. For the first few months, I would brace myself on every takeoff and landing, praying that we didn’t crash. After that, I became so comfortable flying that I can sleep sitting up from the moment I board until landing, and then wake up refreshed.

My metamorphosis had a lot to do with the airline—which I’ll call LUV Air—that I flew every week. The flight attendants on LUV Air  went out of their way to be professional and pleasant, even to the point of occasionally singing or reading the boring instructions that the gov’t has mandated with the perfect blend of humor delivered with a straight face.  Every week I flew up to Sacramento on one of their colorful planes, usually returning on Thursday evening or Friday, depending on the legislative calendar. It simply became part of my routine.

There were times that I needed to fly for my campaign, and every chance I got, I flew this airline by choice. Until one day, in the middle of the governor’s race, I needed to get to the Central Coast, and the only flight was on what I’ll call “Union Airlines.”

Controlled chaos is the only way to describe a statewide campaign in a state of 38 million people. You get up early, work all day, dozens of stops, fundraising phone calls in between drop ins, interrupted by media interviews, then finally you speak at a few events followed by your own fundraising reception planned by people you never met, where your job is to smile and remember names and be interested in every person. That is often followed by a dinner, where you are the keynote speaker, followed by a more intimate gathering of a small group of key supporters—both financial contributors and activists—which can go late into the night.

On this particular day, I’d been traveling non-stop, and I was quite sick, but the campaign was going strong, and I couldn’t afford to stop. If I did, I might never restart. The good news, I was finally able to spend the night with my wife alone, and since we were in a hotel less than 10 minutes from the Ontario airport, I could sleep in until 5:30AM. The bad news, I wasn’t flying my favorite airline.

En route to the airport for a 6:30AM flight, we missed one turn. Little did I know that the four minutes it cost us would become much more significant. When I arrived at the terminal, I was surprised to see a line for TSA that was reminiscent of those impossibly long lines right after 9/11. That was a sign of things to come. I looked for a self-help kiosk, but there were none to be found.  When I got in line to get a boarding pass, I noticed a sign above the counter that said, “Must arrive 30 minutes before flight in order to get a boarding pass.” It was 34 minutes prior to take-off when I arrived at the counter. I tried working the self-help computer, but it denied me a boarding pass, and said, “Contact a Union Air Counter Employee.” Unfortunately, it seemed like there was only one employee for four stations, and by the time he reached me, it was less than 30 minutes prior to my flight.

“Sorry sir, but there’s nothing I can do.  You arrived too lat,.” the counter employee told me. “But I was here…” I protested.

“Doesn’t matter. I’m locked out once it’s less than 30 minutes prior,” he responded, throwing up his hands. “You’d never make it up there in time anyway.” As if that was some kind of consolation. But looking at the line, I knew he was right. As I walked away, he tried to be helpful. “You might be able to get a boarding pass on your smart phone.”

So, I tried that and got the following message: “Go to the Union Air Counter and a Union Air Employee will help you.”

That’s when I knew there was no hope. It was a sick feeling that you arrived on time, admittedly last minute, but on-time, but there was no way you’d make your flight because the company itself had erected obstacles to inconvenience you. The TSA was a government obstacle, but in this terminal it operated at the direction of Union Air, which meant they held up traffic so that, even if you arrived early, they didn’t let you to pass through security until a time determined by them, not you.

The only other flight I’d missed in the two years I was running for governor was with the same airline, and they refused to allow me to board the plane even though I arrived five minutes before the plane was supposed to leave. They’d already closed the door and pushed away. So much for customer service.

By comparison, at the airline that LUVS people, I needed to switch flights at the last minute due to a delayed flight. In spite of the fact that this other flight had closed it’s door, the counter employee at LUV Air walked me over, used her walkie talkie, and got the door opened so that I could make my speaking engagement.

A tale of two airlines.  At LUV Air, they love the people they serve, and it shows. They know that they people have a choice when it comes to flying, and they work harder and more efficiently than any of the other airlines so that you and I can get where we need to go for less money and arrive with a smile.  Unlike Union Air, LUV Air uses technology to make the passenger’s life easier.

As I walked away, I couldn’t help but wonder why our government couldn’t be more like LUV Air instead of treating us like a number instead of a valued customer.

The silver lining?  With no place to be, I went home, sat in my easy chair and slept for 14 straight hours, which enabled me to regain my strength for the rest of the race.