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Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Marvin R. Shanken, Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

Anyone who has flown on a U.S. airline in the last few years has a story to tell. Whether it is a canceled flight, a long line at check-in with unmanned ticket counters, rude service, lost luggage or outrageous ticket prices, the list of grievances is always long. On top of the airlines' inability to run a consumer-friendly business, travelers must now also contend with the stricter, post-9/11 security measures that add hours to every trip and create a general feeling of anxiety. The whole air travel situation adds up to one thing: a very unpleasant experience.

You can't name another industry that has done so little to consider its customers first. Every year since deregulation in the late 1970s, the airlines have found ways to reduce the level of service and increase passenger dissatisfaction.

A final insult to injury is the cumbersome and inconvenient hub system. How many times have you been forced to travel to a hub city, only to change planes to get to where you really want to go?

If you are a business traveler, whom the airlines view as their best customer, it's even worse. The airlines simply make no effort to ease the businessman's journey. Business travelers pay higher prices for their tickets, or, because of the concocted structure of a Saturday night stay discount, they are penalized if they want to spend the weekend with their family. How illogical!

Recently, airline schedules have been reduced so that it's often impossible to make one-day round-trips for a business meeting. On top of that, business travelers paying full fare will often find themselves hunched into a middle seat with people on either side who are paying one-third, or even flying for free, and getting the same service. In other words, the business traveler is pushed to the lowest priority, and is the one getting ripped off the most.

Most of us remember the glory days of air travel, with airlines like Pan American. A flight meant a pleasant conversation with a professional flight attendant, enough room to not have a seat back pushed into your stomach, a meal that was at least satisfying, and maybe even a glass of quality wine poured from a bottle of a winery you'd heard of.

Today, if you're lucky enough to have food served, it often arrives as mystery meat in a dough sack inside a foil bag. The wine is a screw-capped, mini-bottle from an unknown winery. The flight attendants, riled up by years of labor disputes, are rude and unfriendly, and quite often, inattentive to the passengers' needs.

The final insult usually occurs at your destination, where you may wait on the tarmac for a gate to open up, and then you'll twiddle your thumbs for another 30 to 45 minutes for your luggage to make it out on the carousel, if your bags have made the same flight as you did.

American travelers are fed up. In this issue, you'll find a report on just how badly the airline industry is being managed. Maybe it's time for a change. Instead of being propped up by government subsidies, maybe it's time for some of the major air carriers to go out of business so that new airlines, with innovative and visionary managers, can start flying and give us what we deserve-decent, well-run airlines that provide good service at a fair price for everyone.

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