Sunday, July 8, 2001

Miserable treatment
of passengers sparks
‘air rage’ incidents

The issue: Flight attendants'
"Air Rage Report Card" asserts
that the airlines and the
U.S. government fail to
curb unruly passengers.

THIS REPORT, from the Association of Flight Attendants, implying that airline passengers are the cause of air rage has set what must be a new standard for chutzpah, that wonderfully expressive Yiddish word for brazen gall. The poor benighted travellers, already having had discomfort, poor service, bad manners, routine inconvenience and incomprehensible prices dumped on them by the airline industry, including the flight attendants, are now blamed for being angry.

Flight attendants, airline executives and government officials, get your heads out of the sand because we have news for you. As TV viewers in the movie "Network" shouted: "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore." You are the cause of the air rage, not the passengers.

The president of the flight attendants union, Patricia Friend, told news reporters on Friday: "We're issuing this report card today in an effort to get airlines and the federal government to act now before there is an air rage disaster." She estimated that 4,000 cases of air rage occur each year, more than 10 times the figure compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airlines and the government blithely brushed off the report: The FAA said in a statement: "The FAA believes that widely publicized criminal prosecution of air rage cases serves as a strong deterrent." Diana Cronin, speaking for the Air Transport Association, which represents many large airlines, said: "It's not a huge growing epidemic as the news media is portraying it to be." David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, was closer to the mark when he said airline employees must bear some responsibility for the air rage.

The litany of complaints begins with making reservations and continues through checking in at the airport, boarding the plane, on the plane and arrival at the destination. Reservation agents are often surly and uninformed, giving out sketchy or wrong information. The air fare structure changes by the hour and would bewilder a Jesuit scholar; talk to three different agents and get three different fares for the same trip -- and a fourth and fifth fare from different web sites. Terminals can be packed because insufficient staffing causes backups. Airline officials give contradictory rulings. Enforcement of carry-on rules is inconsistent and carry-ons steal space. Seat assignments split parents from small children. Many flights are overbooked. Poor maintenance causes delays. Early boarding for families with small children or those "needing a little extra time" has almost disappeared. Handicapped passengers are forced to the back of the airplane and seated where others must climb over them to get to the aisle. Drunk passengers are permitted to board. Boarding is on time but the plane is stuck on the runway waiting to take off. Narrow seats and minimal leg room in crowded planes cause discomfort at the least and blood clots at the worst. Aisles are so narrow two people can hardly pass one another. Seats recline into the lap of the person sitting in the next row. Flight attendants can be lazy and snippy. Dirty cabins, dirty air that causes respiratory ailments, dirty and insufficiently stocked bathrooms are commonplace. Headsets that don't work, freezing cabins and too few blankets are frequent. Endless circling before landing at busy airports, late flights and missed connections cause much disruption. Restrictions on changing schedules are unrealistic or costly. Frequent-flyer program rules are often incomprehensible. Recorded messages can be inane or muddled. There's more but this is enough to outline the causes of air rage.

Are there exceptions? You bet. The reservations clerk who cheerfully works out a complicated travel plan. The smiling check-in agent who has clear answers to questions. The agent who copes with a flock of unhappy passengers who must shift flights when their plane breaks down. The flight attendant who finds time to pay special attention to an elderly passenger. The pilot who gives a clear and candid report when the flaps won't extend. The luggage clerk who tries every which way to find lost bags -- and succeeds. Every traveler has a vivid tale about how an airline employee performed well.

That, however, only underscores the larger point: Things are so bad that good work by an airline representative is a rarity that stands out.

On balance, traveling by air in the 21st century is like taking a long distance bus in the 1970s, when it was a smelly and uncomfortable experience. The airlines promote air travel as a premium service for which they charge a premium price, but what they deliver is a ride on the bus.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, President

John Flanagan, publisher and editor in chief 529-4748;
Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

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