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Airline problems really aren't anything new


Some Americans seem to be warming to the concept of an airline passenger bill of rights in the wake of high-profile airline blunders.

Several airplanes full of passengers were stranded for hours on the tarmac in recent months due to bad weather and a fierce resolve by the airlines not to return to the terminal. Airlines are loath to jeopardize their on-time departure records--because a flight that is parked on the ground for three hours is not considered "delayed" as long as it left the gate on time. Returning to the terminal also might force an airline to field a new crew if on-duty limits are exceeded by a delay, throwing the airline's scheduling into turmoil. So, from the airline's point of view, it might be preferable to keep people confined to a "flying sewer pipe," as one pilot terms it, for hours and hours and hours.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would require airlines to offer passengers the option of leaving a plane when it has sat on the ground for three hours after the door has closed. The proposals would also require airlines to provide food, water and adequate restroom facilities while a plane is delayed for such a lengthy period.

Some might think this is a new problem. But like a passenger who nods off only to awake and realize the plane returning to the same gate it left hours earlier, we've been here before.

In 1999, a Northwest Airlines flight sat on the tarmac for 11 hours, prompting a wave of calls for a passenger bill of rights.

At the time, I wrote about the deplorable quality of air travel and looking back on that column, I'm sorry to say little has changed. Let me share the warm feelings of dejà vu with you:

"Nearly every element of the air travel experience has become increasingly unpleasant or a joke: airport services, ticket prices, overbookings, airline meals, baggage handling, seat sizes, storage space, labor strikes, and so on. Airline quality is not just bad; I think it's growing worse."

Proof of the adage that things have to get worse before they get better.

"First off, lines at the ticket counter are too long. By this, I mean the ratio of passengers to ticket agents on most days is about 500-to-1, and those ticket agents don't look too happy about it. Besides, navigating a maze for three hours would more than defeat the purpose of arriving an hour before my flight."

Thanks to technology, those lines now take the shape of a 500-to-1 functioning self-serve boarding pass terminal.

"The next hurdle is the security checkpoint. I can always count on spending at least 15 minutes walking back and forth, listening to the machine beep, while being quizzed by security personnel. Keys in your pocket? Change? Wallet? Cell phone? Pager? Gum? Thermonuclear device? No. No. No and no. I have none of those things in my pockets because I always stuff everything but the clothes I am wearing into my bag to avoid triggering the scanner. It never works...."

Because of tighter screening protocols and the inability to bring such terrorist devices as shaving cream, razors, contact lens solution and bottled water in carry-on bags, I now check my baggage. But I'm in the minority and the lines are just as long as I watch the befuddlement of people new to the process.

"Once on board, I cram my belongings under my feet and settle in for the show: watching the people who seem determined to bring things on board that would barely fit in the hold of a C-130 transport plane. Just because something has a handle and wheels, I want to shout, doesn't mean you can drag it anywhere!

"The flight attendants blithely watch this freight go past them at the door to the plane, but do nothing to stop it until gridlock threatens to delay their 'on-time' departure."

I don't think the experience has changed much since 1999--if anything, air travel has become more unpleasant.

But the causes of these problems--a combination of lousy operating margins and bad winter weather--are not ones that can be legislated away. Maybe, though, legislation can ease some of the symptoms, from airlines pushing away from gates merely to preserve their fictional on-time records, to excessive ground holds, to refusing to give passengers the option of deplaning after a fixed amount of time. If airlines will not take these steps willingly, what other option is left to passengers held hostage?