A frequent flier vents after enduring mental turbulence

August 07, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Ever since it was discovered that Russell Weston Jr., the man charged with the Capitol murders, had a cabin in Rimini, Mont., we have been subject to yet another round of stories, titled loosely: There's something about Montana.

What is it about the "last best place" that breeds, attracts or harbors the Freemen, the Kehoes, the Unabomber and the Westons? Psycho- and socio-babblers have all weighed in with theories about the isolation, the altitude, the power of myth.

But I have come up with a much simpler and more logical explanation. What is it about Montana that drives people over the edge? Northwest Airlines.

I have concluded from my own personal research that Northwest is largely responsible for the fact that anybody who actually makes it into Montana by the available air corridors will arrive in a state of paranoia and helpless rage, harboring violent fantasies toward unseen authority figures who control their lives from computer banks if not molars in their mouths.

Consumer research

Allow me to share my research. On a sunny summer Thursday, I innocently set off for a long family weekend.

Phase One: After boarding and with no warning, I am held prisoner on the runway long enough to make virtually certain that anyone bound for Montana will miss the last connection.

That, to paraphrase Dustin Hoffman in "Wag the Dog," was nothing.

Phase Two: After arriving at the Northwest holding station and purgatory located in Minneapolis, I race to the next gate and discover that -- Hurrah! -- my plane is still there. However, having been locked into one plane, I am now locked out of another.

That was nothing.

Phase Three: The beleaguered ticket agent says that I am rescheduled! Why, I am all set to leave Minneapolis late the next afternoon and go to Montana via Minsk -- excuse me -- Seattle. I reply in my best Ted Kaczynski tone that this is "UNACCEPTABLE." She nervously discovers two morning flights on two other airlines that reach Montana via Denver.

That was nothing.

Phase Four: After a few sleepless hours in a voucher-paid hotel room previously occupied by a chain-smoker who broke the phone, I return to the airport to discover that yes, I can get to Denver! The Northwest agent, however, neglected to mention that the seat out of Denver on an overbooked flight is unconfirmed. An itsy-bitsy piece of deception. I decide to chance it, and book a backup flight via Minsk -- excuse me -- Seattle.

As luck would have it -- and I do mean luck -- I make the overbooked flight and reach Montana grasping the silver masking tape that holds my armrest together. I make the whole trip in slightly less time and worse shape than Lewis and Clark.

Take me to my cabin.

An exception

Now, I generally don't take out my grudges in print. Lord knows, as an all-too-frequent flier I would suffer in silence, but for the sake of national security and mental health.

Of course, it is not just Montana. Nor is it just Northwest, although as of May, Northwest won the ribbon as worst-ranked carrier in the government's Air Travel Consumer Report. This is an airline that handles 9 percent of the fliers and gets 23 percent of the complaints. Yet for reasons that escape me, the pilots and not the customers are planning to strike.

But the true scandal of this vastly overbooked and screwed up summer of air-travel discontent is not a safety disaster but a civility disaster. With the system bulging at more than 70 percent capacity, with the number of airline employees shrinking faster than the size of the seats, we have an epidemic of air rage.

Remember back in June when beleaguered flight attendants testified in Congress about scuffles in the skyways? Remember the stories of passengers jammed in spaces fit for 12-year-olds fighting for lebensraum in the overhead bin? The bumped, the canceled, the overbooked, the under-oxygenated travelers living on a diet of pretzels and peanuts and false promises, have finally snapped.

Air rage over mistreatment and deception has become so routine that this summer the American Society of Travel Agents compiled a Consumers' Bill of Rights. It includes fantasies like the right to "timely, complete and truthful information regarding delays, cancellations and equipment changes."

In fairness, Northwest has its good points. It has a charming tap-dancing video that's played to the prisoners: "We'll feed you/ Proceed you/ Wherever life leads you/ Northwest will take you there."

Right. Oh, did I tell you about the flight home? They canceled it.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/07/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.