I was talking with a United Airlines flight attendant Sunday, and she told me that an increase in air rage has been one largely unnoticed result of the United pilots' refusal to work overtime. "Passengers sit in terminals for hours and drink," she said before telling me how the crew had to slip plastic handcuffs on one enraged passenger earlier in the day. Even in the best of times, drinking is the number one cause of outrageous passenger behavior. Combine the frustration of this summer's flight delays with booze, and the picture can be pretty ugly.
So what's to be done? Well, two weeks ago I talked about ways you could minimize the hassle of flying during United's labor problems. I suggested avoiding the airline and its hubs, such as Chicago and Denver. If you are flying United, get a paper ticket instead of an electronic one so it can be more easily endorsed to another carrier if your flight is canceled or delayed. And try to fly early in the day. A recent Fortune magazine article suggested passengers get a lot more aggressive by seeking compensatory damages when delays are an airline's fault, which led to a letter from Dan Beckham of White Fish, Wisconsin, proposing a one-day, nationwide moratorium on business travel. Or an airline passenger's version of the Million Man March, a Thousand Flyers March on airport hubs.
But even when the United crisis is over, it'll take more than protest marches to fix this country's aviation system. It's going to take an enormous commitment by both the airlines and the federal government. The president of AAA, Robert Darbeinet, this week recommended Congress invest the billions of dollars in the aviation trust fund for what the money is meant for: to upgrade the country's aviation infrastructure. In addition, the airlines are going to have to stop scheduling too many flights at the same time and air traffic controllers are going to have to figure out how to better juggle our crowded skies, especially during bad weather.
And here's a question. Why weren't any consumer groups invited to the meeting Monday between Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater and airline and union chiefs? Last year the little guy was all the rage. Airlines headed off a Congressionally mandated "passenger bill of rights" by promising, among other things, to level with passengers about delays. Both personal experience as well as anecdotal evidence indicate that hasn't happened. Now, no one expects 100 percent compliance. But there still seems to be a pervasive culture among gate agents who believe passengers can't be entrusted with the real reason a plane isn't taking off.
The upshot of Monday's D.C. pow-wow is that the Transportation Department will form a task force that will report back in 90 days. Personally, I don't think it should take three months for the airlines, workers, and Uncle Sam to come up with proposals on how to untangle the skies. I mean, this problem isn't exactly news. But with 650 million Americans flying this year and a billion expected to be flying ten years from now, it will soon be a crisis that will require a lot more plastic handcuffs.
I'm Rudy Maxa, The Savvy Traveler, for Marketplace.
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