28 July 2009

The Uneasy Alliance

I have been a loyal customer. My Northwest frequent flier number dates back to the mid-eighties, when I was just a bright-eyed six-year-old heading to Africa. In my adult life, eight years of travel have perfected the Amsterdam-Minneapolis route. Take the last daily flight out of Amsterdam to arrive early evening in Minneapolis. The way back? Again the last flight, ensuring an optimal sleep experience (well, as optimal as possible while vertical in economy class) and the least painful transition back to GMT + 1. But things are different now.

I knew our relationship was changing. Lately, the evolution was apparent – murmurs of mergers and letters explaining the joining of rewards programs. I ignored these notices until yesterday’s trip up to the Minneapolis airport. I realized with alarm that the Northwest logo had been removed from the side of the hanger, though its shadow remained. Upon entering the airport, all NWA signs had been replaced by Delta. A panic grew. Where would I check my bag?

The biggest shock came when I entered the plane. Blue pleather seats? Where was the Northwest upholstery? And the staff had changed. What the uniform before? I don’t remember. Was today’s white short sleeve shirt and red tie the norm? Something seemed different. I remember a specific genre of flight attendant: middle-aged, no-nonsense women performed their duties at a brisk pace, their snappy movements urging you to promptly make a dinner choice and keep any additional requests to a minimum. But they also played a motherly role, exchanging travel tips and Amsterdam tidbits. Once, one of the NWA flight agents gave me her email address and told me to write anytime I wanted American goods. But now, the flight attendants were acting…generic.

A Delta safety video with some really obnoxious presenters came on, and I longed for the diverse contingent of Northwest personal showing me how to stretch on long flights. I searched for the familiar NWA World Traveler and was instead greeted with Delta’s Sky magazine. I flung it away in disgust and thought about consoling myself with a complementary gin and tonic. No such luck: Cocktails are $7 on Delta flights. Which is, apparently, what I was on.

Despite the unsettling (and sober) experience the movie selection was as good as ever, and with a huge stroke of luck I had no seat partner and slept like a baby. Then breakfast was served, and I noted with satisfaction that every aspect of my former life had not been removed: The egg biscuit was served in a foil container with the familiar Northwest logo emblazed on its side. But then my smile disappeared. Below my small cup of Minute Maid orange juice sat a soggy Delta napkin.

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