Fear and thrift on the wing

Kevin Cowherd

October 01, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

For the nervous flier, these are trying times indeed as the airlines engage in another bloody price war and the operative term in the air travel industry is "cost containment."

The nervous flier does not like to hear the words "cost containment."

To the nervous flier, this smacks of doing things "on the cheap." It also implies (at least to a mind clouded with chronic anxiety) that an airline might be tempted to save a few bucks on less than top-of-the-line parts, pilots and mechanics.

As one who has white-knuckled a tray table or two at 30,000 feet, let me say this: Baltimore to New York for $69 is all well and good, providing the plane does not, upon its approach to JFK, have a wing drop off and wind up slamming into a grimy Staten Island marsh like an arrow quivering in the bark of a tree.

Boston to Orlando for $150 is wonderful as long as the pilot is not an earnest young man who was flying crop dusters three weeks earlier and now, misreading the flight plan, lands the plane on the southbound lane of I-85 outside Atlanta.

Do I overstate the case? Not to the nervous flier. As he reads this in the claustrophobic belly of a Boeing 747, wedged into seat 24B between a woman with a screaming 4-month-old infant and an obese businessman from Tallahassee, the nervous flier is wiping his damp forehead and shooting a clammy fist into the air and screaming: "Tell it, brother! Tell it!"

Yes, yes, tell it indeed. Take this business with the mechanics.

I don't know what kind of money the average airline mechanic makes. Let's say, for argument's sake, he makes $50,000 a year.

Now let's say the airline decides to cut costs. And after replacing many of the $50,000-a-year mechanics, the airline goes out and hires a bunch of mechanics at an annual salary of, oh, $25,000.

To the nervous flier, this raises the frightening possibility that his plane is being worked on by a guy who kicked around Al's Auto Repair for a few years doing tuneups and front-end alignments until, slumped on a bar stool one night, he opened his bloodshot eyes to find a matchbook cover that read: "You Too Can Be A Jet Mechanic!"

This is not a comforting thought, especially as one gazes out the window at 27,000 feet over Chicago and sees what appears to be a loose U-bolt vibrating free from one of the engine moorings.

Anyway, you see what I'm getting at.

Mention that an airline is pinching pennies and all these thoughts run through the head of the nervous flier, and many more thoughts, too.

Ugly, paranoid thoughts too horrible to describe here, except . . . well, I suppose we could talk about the pilots.

Does "cost containment" affect the quality of the pilots hired by an airline? There is no evidence to suggest it has, not even anecdotal evidence, really. And yet . . .

I have a ritual that I follow upon stepping into an airplane.

The first thing I do is sneak a peek in the cockpit, hoping to find that the pilot is an alert, distinguished-looking gentleman with a calm, reassuring presence. But lately some of the pilots have seemed a little, um, shaky.

On my last flight, the pilot looked like . . . let me put it this way. I would not have been surprised to hear that a few months earlier, the man was wearing a loud sports jacket and draping an arm around customers at Charleston Honda, saying: "I'll let you have this baby for $18,500, but you're killing me."

Of course, you can't get a straight answer from the airlines about how all this cost containment is shaking down vis-a-vis the safety factor.

Get one of their PR drones on the phone and what you hear is: "Oh, sure, sure, everything's fine. Yeah, yeah, we use quality parts, top mechanics, the best pilots in the business. Gotta run, babe. Bye-eee."

See, when it comes to soothing the nervous flier, the airlines just don't get it.

Look, I saw a newspaper ad the other day. This one airline was announcing a slew of price cuts and in the middle of the ad there was this: "We have upgraded our food service!"

Let's get one thing straight: the nervous flier does not care about ZTC food. With his stomach churning, his head pounding and both hands frantically locked onto the arm of the startled nun in the next seat, food is a low-priority item.

The nervous flier has one abiding concern, and that is that his plane does not suddenly shudder in mid-flight and commence a series of lazy barrel rolls before splatting down in some god-forsaken desert in New Mexico.

On the other hand, he does appreciate the beverage cart.

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