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We're Fed Up

Air travelers in America, especially businessmen, suffer high prices, delays, rude service, bad food and unfair restrictions.
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

Shortly before 10 o'clock on the morning of April 26, United Airlines Flight 1631 left Denver bound for San Diego. UA 1631 carried businessmen and vacationers; military men in uniform and in sports shirts; a girls' softball team; and a teacher flying west to join her husband at his best friend's wedding. More than a hundred passengers, from octogenarians to infants. Every seat was full.

A flight number in the first paragraph of a magazine story can't help but be disturbing these days. Few of us have the stomach, much less the heart, for more gloom. Fortunately, UA 1631 would not end in tragedy, nor with any display of heroism by a passenger or crew member. It would not be involved in an international incident, or be featured in the next day's newspapers.

By those standards, the standards of September 11, it was a success.

But while UA 1631 ably fulfilled the basic mission of air travel-that is, to get the passenger from point A to point B safely and in a relatively timely fashion-such low expectations are an indication of how unpleasant flying has become.

Over the past two decades, travel on commercial airliners has deteriorated from an enjoyable experience to an endurance test. Passengers are herded and prodded like cattle, harangued and humiliated, stuffed into too-small seats with little room overhead for the single, size-restricted carry-on bag they're now allowed to take onboard.

Often, they're forced to change planes at an airport hundreds of miles from their intended destination. They're fed only pretzels or peanuts and soft drinks-glorified prison fare-on all but the longest flights.

And unless they were able to solidify their travel plans weeks in advance, or if their trip doesn't happen to include a Saturday night stay (as most business travel doesn't), the privilege of submitting to such treatment can cost as much as $1,000 each way.

No wonder business travelers are angry.

Yet at the same time that America's three biggest airlines-Delta Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines-are flying full planes and slicing service to the bone, they're managing to lose billions of dollars each year.

Delta, which lost $397 million last quarter alone, is considered to be the most stable of the three. It recently pioneered the imaginative cost-saving measure of denying travel agents sales commissions on all tickets, another example of the airlines undermining another passenger convenience.

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