Frequent Fliers Can Be Eaten Alive

By Rick Steelhammer (March 14, 1999)

Last week, I read with interest news accounts about plans by Congress to
develop a passenger bill of rights in dealing with the airline industry.

It's a reform that's long overdue, since it's hard to complain about
shabby treatment when you're traveling 5 miles above the Earth's surface
in a tiny capsule controlled by the people you want to vent about.

I am not a hard person to please, when it comes to airline travel.  I am
one of the few people in America who admits to liking airline food --
right down to the honey-roasted peanuts -- and I don't mind being
bumped, provided I get something free for the inconvenience.

But, occasionally, I have run into situations where passengers were left
at an airline's mercy and found out it had none.

My worst horror story took place many years ago in an airport far, far
away -- Honolulu, to be precise.  I felt lucky to have had the chance to
vacation in Hawaii with a friend and former co-worker who had moved
there, but that luck changed rapidly for the worse after exchanging
alohas at the departure gate.

Some type of minor mechanical glitch was detected soon after pulling
away from the gate, and the jet parked on the tarmac to await
installation of a replacement part.  It was New Year's Day and
apparently the ground crew had a hard time finding the aircraft
equivalent of a NAPA open on the holiday.

So there I was, with 150 other hungover souls, recovering also from
shell shock caused by the local New Year's custom of lobbing lit
firecrackers at passing tourists.  We hunkered shoulder to shoulder in
our pasty tropical print shirts, waiting for what turned out to be six
hours before taking off.

The airline crew did pass out two rounds of free drinks, which would
have been all right had we taken flight or returned to a gate within a
reasonable period of time.

But all that gesture accomplished was to dramatically increase the
number of trips made to the plane's tiny lavatories, where the holding
tanks reached capacity and marksmanship quickly fell below par.

During the hours before takeoff, passengers were treated to an
atmosphere not normally found outside the men's room at Watt Powell Park
on Discount Beer Night.  The airline never offered any form of
compensation, nor was there even a heartfelt apology.

My tale of woe is mild, compared with several related last week to
members of Congress considering the passenger bill of rights.

Congress is expected to pass laws that would require airlines to post
flight-delay policies and provide passengers with food and restrooms
during delays.

I have a few additional suggestions:

* Force airlines to install seats far enough apart that passengers over
6 feet tall don't have their thighs crushed at mealtime when the person
in front of them decides to ratchet his seat back to the fully reclined

* Force flight attendants to carry change, rather than hitting up
passengers to make change for their cocktail-buying brethren.

* Force airlines to inform passengers that if they arrive at the airport
for nonpeak flights at least an hour early, as recommended, they will be
treated to at least a 57-minute wait in the departure lounge.

* Give incentives to vendors not to sell coal statuettes or rebel flags
at West Virginia airports.

* Require that double bonus miles be awarded on any commuter flight
aboard an aircraft with 18 or fewer seats that encounters turbulence.

* Require that bonus miles be awarded to passengers given in-flight
magazines with the crossword puzzle partially filled in.

* Forbid the playing of any in-flight movie involving terrorists or
prisoners hijacking a commercial airliner, or of an airliner crashing in
a remote mountain chain, where, in the absence of airline food,
passengers resort to cannibalism.

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