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Monday, December 19, 2011

Travelatrocity: Horrors of Commercial Aviation

     There was a time, I suppose, when travelers considered commercial flying an exciting, pleasurable and even romantic experience. Since that bubble burst decades ago, air travel has become increasingly unpleasant. The ordeal begins at the airport with long lines, footwear inspections, strip searches, pat-downs, and body scanning. The misery continues in-flight with diminished amenities, germ-infested air, surly flight attendants, and drunken, bellicose, and over-sized passengers. Back on the ground, passengers are faced with delays in getting off the plane, missed connections, and lost, misplaced, and damaged luggage. If he were alive, Orville Wright would take the bus.

Standing Room Only

     In July, during a seven-hour U.S. Airways flight from Anchorage, Alaska to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 57-year-old Arthur Berkowitz stood the entire trip. When he took his seat on the plane, the spot next to him was empty. A late, very obese passenger came on board and took that seat and half of Berkowitz's. On takeoff and landing, Berkowitz remained squeezed into his seat but was unable to fasten his seat-belt. During the rest of the flight, he strolled about the crammed cabin annoying the flight attendants.

     Following Mr. Berkowitz's complaint, the airline offered him a $200 voucher for his trouble. When Berkowitz declined the offer, U. S. Airways closed his case and issued this statement: "We have attempted to address this customer's sevice concerns, but offering increasing amounts of compensation based on threat of a safety violation isn't really fair - especially when the passenger himself said he didn't follow the crew members' instructions and fasten his seat belt."

Adventures on Jet Blue

     In November, Anibal Mercado, an eighteen year veteran of the New York City Police Department, was returning home from the Dominican Republic on a Jet Blue flight when 22-year-old Antonio Ynoa, four rows behind him, launched into a loud verbal attack on two female flight attendants. Ynoa had gone wild after the attendants told him the bar was closed and refused to bring him soda to mix with the duty-free rum he had brought on board. Seated next to this out of control jerk were two mothers holding babies. The verbal assault turned physical when Ynoa punched a male flight attendant four times in the face.

     Officer Mercado confronted Ynoa and identified himself as a New York City cop. After a brief struggle, Mercado wrestled the drunk to the ground until a flight attendant arrived with a set of flex hand restraints. (The fact they keep handcuffs on planes says it all.) Although cuffed, Ynoa continued to yell and cuss at his captors. He also spit on officer Mercado.

     An hour after the fracus, New York Port Authority police met the plane and took Ynoa into custody. As they hauled him off the plane, he kicked at the arresting officers. Ynoa has been charged with assaulting and interfering with a flight crew. The chance of being confined in a tube thirty thousand feet off the ground with a jerk like Ynoa does not make flying a relaxing way to travel.

     A few days before Mr. Ynoa blew his top, passengers who were stuck eight hours in a Jet Blue plane as it sat at a tarmac in Connecticut during an October snow storm, sued the airline. Because of the delay, the airline could also be fined, by the Department of Transportation, $27,500 per passenger. Guess who will end up paying that tab?

Barroom Brawl in the Sky

     In November, fifteen minutes before a Delta Airlines flight from Atlanta landed in Baltimore, an intoxicated William D. Barna punched the man seated next to him. Two air marshals broke up the fight and seated Barna away from the other passengers. Barna fell asleep for a few minutes, then woke up and attacked one of the air marshals. The drunk and the marshals rolled up and down the aisle until the federal officers subdued the bellicose passenger. A couple of weeks later, an U.S. magistrate judge ordered Barna to undergo five to seven days of alcohol rehabilitation then spend four weeks as a patient in some kind of unspecified program designed to--what?--change his personality?

Baggage Theft

     Heightened airport security has made carry-ons less convenient. As a result, airline passengers are checking in more luggage. Besides added fees for this, and the risk of having baggage misdirected, lost or damaged, there is always the chance that airline baggage handlers will help themselves to your stuff. Recently, twelve American Airlines baggage handlers at Kennedy International Airport in New York, were convicted of baggage and freight theft. These airline employees were caught rifling through passengers' belongings for perfume, liquor, and electronic devices. They also stole laptops, jewelry, and items of clothing. According to one of the thieves, everyone was doing it. And we thought airline cargo was being inspected.

Spread 'em Grandma

     A few days ago an 85-year-old woman trying to board a Florida bound plane at JFK in New York, declined to pass through the body scanning machine because she feared the technology would play havoc with her defibrillator. Instead of patting her down, TBA agents took her to a room where they waterboarded her until she admitted the defibrillator was a bomb--just kidding. They gave the old lady a strip search. In the process, she banged her leg against her walker, causing it to bleed. She also missed her flight. My advice to grandma--stay in Florida. You will avoid humiliation and injury, and the skys over America will be much safer. Thank you TBA.

     Someone needs to tell the idiocrats who establish airport security protocol that there is such a thing as being too careful. But instead of applying reason, common sense, and governmental descretion to airline security, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, and some other politician, in the wake of grandma's strip search, have come up with a typically stupid idea that, as one might expect, expands the bureaucracy. Senator Schumer wants what he calls "Passenger Advocates" stationed at every airport to function, I guess, as quasi-magistrates to render decisions in cases involving outrageously inappropriate TBA enforcement practices.This will be a big help. George Orwell, an exceptionally creative writer, couldn't have made this stuff up. I find it amazing that anyone still writes fiction.

Alec Baldwin: Hero or Heel?

     The TV and movie star recently delayed an American Airlines' take-off because he refused to turn off his cellphone until he finished playing some word game. Before leaving the plane, Baldwin insulted and swore at the flight attendants (could this be true?!) who had ordered him, under the electronics-turn-off-before-we-take-off rule, to shutdown his cellphone.

     A few days later, Mr. Baldwin (really a sweet guy) apologized to the passengers he had held up, but let fly at the airline industry. Citing "paramilitary" security procedures, filthy planes, barely edible meals, and reduced flight amenities, Baldwin, in his blog, wrote: "Air travel has devolved into an inelegant experience akin to riding a Greyhound bus." It should be pointed out, in defense of Greyhound bus travel, that you don't have to turn off your cellphone at any point en route. Moreover, I doubt the articulate Mr. Baldwin has ever been on a Greyhound bus.

     The Baldwin dust-up has triggered a serious discussion over the necessity of the cellphone prohibition. ABC News aviation analyst and pilot (and novelist) John Nance, in an article published in "Time," said, "Airlines wrote the scripts that phones can interfere with the systems of the aircraft. But there is zero evidence [to support this]." In other words, this no electronics policy may be based on a myth. It should be noted that American Airline pilots are allowed to us iPods in the cockpit during take-off, in-flight, and while landing. (The image of a pilot playing with his iPod during landing is not a good one.)

     So, back to Mr. Baldwin. Is he a hero or a heel? I guess that depends on how your feel about the actor, and commerical aviation.    

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