Airline industry takes the low road

August 09, 1999|By Doug Gambles

THE recent physical confrontation between a Continental Airlines gate agent and a passenger at the Newark, N.J., airport indicates that the airlines have added knuckle sandwich to their menu of rubber chicken, cardboard beef and plastic noodles.

The airline's version of the incident is that a male passenger, who was not allowed to get on the plane because he lacked a boarding pass, hurled the agent headfirst to the floor. The passenger says it is he who was attacked first.

While doubtless some court of law will sort out who's at fault, most people who fly will have no trouble believing the passenger. As long-suffering fliers have learned, the airline industry trumps all other private business when it comes to open hostility between server and customer.

Congress was poised to move against the airlines earlier this year with "passenger bill of rights" legislation pending in both the houses. The airlines headed it off, at least temporarily, by promising to mend some of their ways.

But who are they kidding other than Washington? According to the Department of Transportation, passenger complaints were 26 percent higher last year than in 1997, with travelers citing delays, carry-on restraints and cramped seating as their biggest beefs.

And this year has been a doozy, starting in January, when passengers were imprisoned for up to eight hours aboard Northwest planes on Detroit airport runways during a blizzard. A class-action lawsuit against Northwest claims the planes should have been diverted to another airport.

Since then, there have been the illegal American Airlines pilots' strike, causing chaos for thousands of travelers; a 44-percent increase in flight delays and an 86-percent increase in consumer complaints in April and May from a year earlier; numerous press accounts of bizarre airline incidents and escalating verbal and physical confrontations caused by air rage.

Also, some airlines have cut back on food service, and more passengers complain that dirty cabins are turning planes into flying pigsties.

Also, to save a buck, the airlines are filtering cabin air less than before, meaning fliers breathe in more of each other's germs. What's most surprising about air rage is that it doesn't occur more often. Many passengers enter the plane with their nerves already rubbed raw by the indignities of making it through the airport, ending up at the gate only to be subjected to flying conditions that have become almost unbearable. The concept of a torture rack on wings comes to mind.

Referring to the wrestling match at the Newark airport, a Continental spokeswoman said the airline "will expend whatever resources are necessary to assure the passenger is brought to justice and pays for his violence."

Perhaps the airlines should expend whatever resources are necessary to stop commercial air travel from being the thoroughly miserable experience it is.

Doug Gamble is a speech writer who has written for Presidents Reagan and Bush. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 8/09/99

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