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November 27, 2009

Aviation's Tailspin

Anybody who reads this column knows how I feel about flying. I loathe it! I would sooner endure an overnight sleeper-car on Amtrak than three hours of turbulence on a Regional Jet. Talking to friends and business associates, I find I am not alone in my dislike of air travel.

The airline business is in a tailspin. Airlines keep cutting air fares to hold market share while also cutting staff pay and, many fear, safety.

Their fleets are smaller and so too are the jets. On routes that used to see 737s you’re lucky to be on a Canadair RJ. And forget about 767’s on transcons. They’re now run with 737’s or A320’s. Empty seats? Not anymore!

Since 9/11 we’ve seen 70,000 jobs lost in the airline business.

On a recent trip to Cincinnati, the guy driving my cab told me he used to be an avionics repairman for Comair before they closed their hub there. He recounted a really sick joke: “What’s the difference between an airline pilot and a pizza? Well, a pizza can feed a family of four.”

Underpaid pilots work up to 14 hours while flight attendants, who make $17,000 a year to start (minimum wage), must endure endless abuse from justifiably outraged customers. But these customer-facing employees shouldn’t be blamed for managements’ decisions. Pilots, mechanics and stews keep seeing pay cuts while the management desk-jockeys give themselves bonuses.

And what happens to the passengers? We’re merely cattle.

Imagine my delight at the recent news that the US Dept of Transportation has fined three airlines $175,000 for last summer’s stranding of a jet filled with passengers, overflowing toilets and screaming babies for six hours on the tarmac after a weather-related diversion.

Continental and operator ExpressJet will ante up $100,000 and, for refusing to allow passengers to offload in Rochester MN, Mesaba Airlines will pay $75,000.
Though these kinds of horror stories of airline indifference seem to occur monthly, this is the first time airlines have been fined. And the Feds say it won’t be the last. But why these paltry fines and not a law?

The proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights is still languishing in Congress despite the lobbying efforts of organizer Kate Hanni. As she points out, the Geneva Convention grants better treatment to POW’s than the FAA affords human air travelers.

Here’s what the laws are asking for:
1) Essential services onboard: adequate food, water, HVAC and medical kits.

2) The right to deplane if your flight hasn’t taken off three hours after leaving the gate.

3) Creation of an air passenger complaint hotline at the DOT.

We’re not even talking about airlines a la carte pricing for checked bags, blankets and seat selection. Or whacking us with a $30 per ticket holiday surcharge, just because they can. This is basic stuff. Survival.

While waiting on lawmakers to do something for consumers, FlyersRights reminds travelers there are things they can do to protect themselves:

1) If you get bumped because of overbooking and are not offered compensation, protest. Federal law says if you’re delayed by one to four hours you are entitled to $400. For a two to four hour delay, double your ticket price up to $800. Traveling to Europe, up to $900.

2) Pack light so you can carry-on. But always bring three days worth of medicines.

3) If you must check your bags, weigh them at home and don’t trust the airline scales. A recent consumer agency sweep in NYC found 8% of scales tested were inaccurate.

4) Never pack valuables, fragile or electronic items. They may be broken or stolen. And don’t wrap holiday gifts or the TSA will make you unwrap them.

We may never return to the glamorous days of air travel when one dressed up for the flight. But I’d be happy with just a little leg room, a free can of soda and a little consideration when things get delayed. Is that so much to ask?


denverpilot said...

Basically, the cost of flying hither and yon hasn't gone up much for a decade. Everything else has, per usual inflationary monetary policy. So yeah, asking for just about anything is technically asking too much. People wanted deregulation in both telecommunications and aviation badly in the 80's. Now we have it in both businesses. And both are now "If you can pay through the nose, we'll treat you great. Otherwise, you're just cattle we need to pay the light bill/fuel bill." We got exactly what we wanted. Cheap fares and cheap telecom, and all that goes with them... bad service, low quality, etc. As a private pilot, something just about anyone who can drive a car can learn how to do, flying myself to destinations, I can laugh at ad campaigns like "Bags fly free"... I putter my way there at 1/4 of the speed of the big-boys or slower, enjoying the view, and my bags always get to come along for free. Heck, my dog too if I wanted to. Your rant, while understandable, is spitting into the wind with people "hooked" like crackhead junkies on $200 cross-country flight. Sorry folks, I hate to break it to you but it costs almost that much just to get you there at that price. The folks making the airline a profit, are up there in the first 10 rows. (Note: My name here, "denverpilot" is in reference to my PRIVATE flying. I do NOT fly commercially, I just watch the industry with interest.)

Jim Cameron said...

Finally some action by the Feds...