Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Fly the Angry Skies

By Cap'n O

AUGUST 23, 1999:  The problem is growing. Committees are being formed to study and combat it. New laws will be written to govern it. Penalties for it will be stiffened. New employee training programs will be instituted to deal with it.

This growing problem is what the airline industry calls "air rage," or the situation where passengers get so angry about something that they resort to punching airline employees.

It is a problem. Unless you're a boxer or a bill collector, you don't expect to be punched while on the job. And even if you've got a job that includes such risks, it can't be much fun to be clobbered. Yet statistics show that although incidents of air rage are down slightly this year, the problem of customers beating up on airline employees is persistent.

So the airlines and the federal government are going to spend millions to, as one recent news story put it, "develop ways to crack down on passengers who attack airline personnel."

There's one problem with this rush to punish people who get violent while traveling by air. And it's a big one. Much of the blame for the mounting anger and frustration of the flying public has to be placed with the airlines themselves. They've turned flying into a nightmare.

Years ago, flying -- especially if you didn't dwell too much on the fact that thin aluminum tubes filled to the brim with flammable aviation fuel sometimes fall out of the sky -- was fun. Airports, although crowded, were light years away in atmosphere and decorum from bus terminals or dilapidated train stations.

You checked your bags one hour before departure and took a leisurely stroll to the gate where other reasonable people were sitting around reading and waiting for the plane.

Boarding was a civilized procedure because everybody had assigned seats. And because the skies were less crowded, the planes were usually on time.

The flight itself was fun. The attendants operated with a reserved enthusiasm that lent an air of dignity to flights. They never damaged passengers' ears by trying to sing to them. The food, although maligned by many, was fine by me. At least it was something hot.

But all of that has changed. Air travel is now nothing more than getting on a bus that flies.

Airports are packed and stuffed with people, many of them boors who not only have no class, but who have bad ideas about politics as well.

Boarding is like being in a zoo at feeding time. Because there are no assigned seats, old people start lining up at the check-in counter two hours before departure. They stand there for hours so they can receive a low-numbered boarding pass. Get to the airport an hour early now, and you're actually late.

And even though airlines give out boarding passes with numbers on them that designate one's place in the boarding line, the slobs with the highest numbers rush to the front of the line the minute the plane starts boarding.

Flights are different, too. Instead of being served a hot meal by an attentive attendant, we now have small bags of peanuts and a few ounces of cheese crackers thrown at us by attendants who think they're the next Waylon Jennings, Barbra Streisand or Sammy Davis Jr.

And then there are the delays. The last four or five times I've flown I've heard the familiar refrain, "They were a little late in getting off the ground in (fill in the blank), and we'll have a little two-hour delay."

Not only do delays keep you in an airport where a glass of beer costs more than $4, but they can make you late for a connecting flight. It's no fun having 10 minutes to race to the other end of a huge airport to catch a plane that you would have leisurely boarded 20 minutes earlier had your flight been on time.

Airline service is declining while more people are flying. People are sick of delayed or cancelled flights, of being bumped from overbooked flights and of having to starve on flights. That's why they're losing their tempers and punching out airline employees.

So instead of punishing harried, frustrated customers who get angry at service that's getting lousier by the day, the government should go after the real problem here:

Airlines and their bad service.

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