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Hair and Airport Hell

July 27, 2010

“I want long, straight, curly, fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty
Oily, greasy, fleecy, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen
Knotted, polka dotted, twisted, beaded, braided
Powered, flowered and confettied
Bangled, tangled, spangled and spahettied”

Lyrics from Hair by James Rado and Gerome Ragni

In this modern age of mergers and consolidations, it’s heart-warming when two companies are able to both save themselves and grow their stock prices as well. Such is the tale of Delta and Northwest, two lousy airlines that merged, became new Delta, and started to make money. For its reward, Delta’s stock price doubled from last year at this time.

How did they do it? Just cut routes, put more seats in your old, crowded planes, cut flights, cut customer service reps, and give customers fewer choices. And like magic, Northwest turns to Delta…well hell, isn’t that the American (not the airlines) way?

I got a little taste of this merger when I left a business meeting a little early to make sure that Fred and I could make the 6:15 flight Friday night to Detroit. It was the hottest day of the year in Chicago and storms were approaching. We thought we could beat the thunder and lightning when we arrived, only to find that our flight and the only other flight that night were cancelled. Just a red word, CANCELLED, on the wall, and then waiting on the phone to get answers, and a long line at the Delta desk. We called Enterprise, Thrifty, and Budget, the only rental car companies that offered a one-way car rental, so we could get home at midnight, in time for Fred’s birthday and his plans with his sons to golf and see the movie, Inception. The cost from Thrifty was only $39 but the drop-off fee at Detroit was $1000 (yes, you read that right.) We were stuck in Chicago with the Memphis blues again (if you’re a Dylan fan, you’ll understand.)

So we were finally able to change our flight to the next morning, find a hotel, make a reservation on the Courtyard Marriott computer to get a better price, and slept little as we listened to thunder, lightning, and buckets of rain all night. We took a shuttle back to O’Hare, got there at 7am, carried our luggage, got Starbucks, and then were seated a half hour before the scheduled flight. We waited and waited and heard that they were working on a latch and after an hour, the pilot told us we had to take our luggage and “deplane” and that the rescheduled time became 2pm. To change flights or find out options, we had to stand in a long line to talk to four phones, hooked up to Delta “customer service” in Atlanta. Fred tried calling on his cell phone instead and was cut off seven times. I went on my laptop and accidentally changed our flight to the only other one available at 4:15. I got back in line to see if I could change it to the original changed flight, stood an hour in line behind crying children, a Chinese man who didn’t speak English and looked like his wife had perished, and so many others who had to get connecting flights and couldn’t find one real live human. The 11:30 flight had just been cancelled and finally, the Delta customer service agent on the phone whispered to me that our best chance was on the 4:15 flight because the other flight was now scheduled for 3pm and she said, “Who knows if that one will leave today?” Any options to switch to United or American? What about paying for our hotel? Nope. So we sat down and waited as the weather in Chicago and Detroit turned mild and I thanked my lucky stars when our previous flight was delayed till 5:30 and finally cancelled. Fred asked his son and I asked my wife to wait by their computers so we could call them if our flight was cancelled and they could quickly book the last plane on United, which still had seats and would cost $360 for the two of us.

As they say, beggars can’t be choosy. We were in the ultimate hairy situation, harried beyond belief, just two pawns in a sea of nobodies begging for airline relief and hoping that they wouldn’t have to sleep in the airport again. When we boarded the plane, I crossed my fingers, sat in the middle seat in the back row behind a young girl and her two-month old and prayed that we would get off the tarmac and make it home.

I had never witnessed a worse experience in airline service and realized that the reason Delta was now profitable was that it simply abandoned customer service altogether. Call it “customer punishment” highlighted by a simple “we don’t give a hoot” philosophy.

And as we finally took off, I thought that missing planes was not so bad amongst all the problems in the world, high unemployment, massive debt, political skirmishing from all sides, Detroit’s Chief of Police just fired, and two wars that were not going well, highlighted soon after by a massive new lead by WikiLeaks of 90,000 pages of classified material chronicling the bleak and heartbreaking truths about the war in Afghanistan from 2004 through 2009. I also thought of Larry Kern, someone I liked and admired, and one of the best people in our industry who had died suddenly a few days earlier at age 59.

I felt beaten down by Delta and death and worry and looked for anything to raise my spirits. I had read that Detroit’s auto sales were improving, especially Ford, the company with the best financials, hottest new vehicles: the one company that survived and thrived without government help. And then Time Magazine, in their Assignment Detroit, wrote about a new and pleasant kind of war that takes place annually in Detroit. No, not the drug wars and not the war between the City Council and the mayor. “This is Hair Wars,” Madison Gray wrote, “a 25-year-old Detroit tradition, this year featuring about 34 stylists and 300 models that has become one of the premier hairstylist events in the U.S.” (“Hair Wars,” Madison Gray, Time Magazine, August 2, 2010)

Okay, we’ve got Ford, a marijuana college, and some of the coolest hair styles in the world, ones that would make Lady Gaga get jealous. The magazine and Time.com featured some crazy and amazing hair styles, such as “The Hummer” styled by Little Willie, modeled b Sharv Bailey that took a full day to prep. I realized that some of these stylists and Detroit gals were like the new heroes and heroines of Detroit, displaying a real sense of bravado style.

We may have lost Saturn and Oldsmobile and Hummer and Pontiac and soon Mercury but we have hairstyles that get featured in Time and we have all sorts of Detroit emblems featured in the HBO (a Time Warner network) series, “Hung.”

Before I get too proud, I realize that the HBO show is about a school teacher who sidelines as a male prostitute to make ends meet and that most of the human hair used by Detroit stylists, according to Time, is “imported from Asia.”

Hell, I yelled to myself, even our coolest hair is imported! Shoes, iPhones, TVs, shirts, most of our cars, and now the hair.

Well, at least, we still have airports.

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