Fly the Ornery Skies

LarkinIt was a warm summer day in 1989 and I was a field service representative on a call in Virginia. The national ISO who employed me had contracts to provide on-site service for several manufacturers that were too unique to have field troops. As a specialist, I was expected to work on scintillation counters, lab robotics, surgical microscopes, vascular diagnostic apparatus, ophthalmic surgery equipment and an occasional endoscope washer.

The work covered the East Coast. Response commitments for this high-priced, one-of-a-kind gear were short so I always kept tools, test equipment and an overnight bag in the trunk of my car. I lived on Long Island back then and USAir was pretty much your only choice between convenient Long Island Islip Macarthur Airport and the smaller cities I visited.

That didn’t bother me. The airline took care of full-fare business travelers. At Islip you could park your car within 100 yards of the outdoor gate and “congestion” meant there were two 727s on the ramp.

I made final adjustments to the Virginia lab’s robot and gave my office a call. The news was urgent — an emergency job in upstate New York to repair a phacoemulsifier needed for eye surgery the next morning. The parts and test equipment for that completely-different technology were in my car at Islip. My pre-Web, hard copy Official Airline Guide said USAir’s flight from Virginia to Long Island arrived 15 minutes before the flight from Long Island to Upstate departed. It was a chance worth taking.

USAir’s reservation agent wouldn’t make any promises, but she alerted people down the line. The flight crew out of Virginia did the same and made sure I was the first person down the stairs at Islip. I ran to my car, swapped tools and parts, and ran back through the terminal.

The entire ground staff knew what was happening. I was moved through check-in at Mach speed and when I ran towards the wrong plane, the aircraft handler waved me to the right jet with his batons. I bounded up the stairs. The cabin crew handed me a towel, closed the door and we were off to Upstate New York.

Later, I wrote USAir’s chairman to express my appreciation for what his employees did for me that day, and, by extension, for the patient who underwent surgery the next morning. Many years after that, I continued to go out of my way to fly USAir.

Now, move ahead to December 2000. USAir is now USAirways. Like a prize pig, it’s being cleaned up for acquisition. Revenue generation and cost-cutting are perceived as the only way to justify continued employment, so on this busy afternoon in Raleigh, business travelers — particularly field-service types with their unmistakable tool kits, desperate deadlines and corporate expense accounts — are being singled out for fleecing.

Citing a rigid interpretation of fine print, the ground crew cut off selected passengers at two bags — not two carry-on, but two articles of any type — and imposed an extra $75 per item on carts, tool kits, computers, even handbags. Flabbergasted road warriors arriving from Research Triangle Park job sites were told: No dice, to board this aircraft you must pony up $150 to $300 over your full-fare ticket! And nobody could complain, because the Station Chief had disappeared.

Other airlines are not innocent. This year’s Airline Quality Rating by researchers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Wichita State University indicates USAirways is slightly better than the industry’s average, but they’re all losing altitude fast. The collapse of the U.S. air transport system requires us to change basic assumptions about how critical medical systems can be supported. Remote diagnostics are not the magic answer. We need to find a way to get service technicians closer to our customer’s sites, either through partnerships with local providers, liberal self-help agreements or by accepting the fact that we can’t treat our customers the way airlines treat us, and hiring more field service representatives to keep our hospitals and labs satisfied.

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