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Column: We're just getting started on flying woes

If God had intended that man should fly, he should have given him an airline industry that was neither constantly on the brink of bankruptcy nor setting new lows in customer service.

Frontier Airlines — you can fly it from Tampa to Denver — was the latest to seek the protection of Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Friday, joining recently bankrupt ATA, Skybus and Aloha airlines.

Add to that this past week's swarm of canceled flights, mostly by American Airlines, because of safety concerns of bundled wiring in the wings of the workhorse MD-80 jets.

Through Friday, the week's cancellations surpassed 3,082 and stranded more than 338,000 passengers. That's greater than the population of St. Petersburg.

The safety checks and financial squeezes come on the heels of an airline quality survey giving the lowest overall marks since researchers began analyzing airlines in 1991. More consumers complained, more passengers were bumped, more bags were lost and fewer flights arrived on time in 2007 than in 2006.

For the record, here's how 16 larger airlines ranked, in order. The best? AirTran, JetBlue, Southwest, Northwest and (bankruptcy or not) Frontier.

The middle of the pack on quality? Continental, Alaska, United, American (remember this survey occurred before last week), Delta and US Airways.

The laggards? Mesa, SkyWest, Comair, American Eagle and (dead last) Atlantic Southeast.

Everyone, of course, has some recent tale of woe to relate about airline travel. I was bound for Tucson recently on Continental Airlines via Houston. Heading west, I boarded the connecting flight in Houston (every seat was taken) and waited while the captain told us that maintenance workers had to check a minor problem. Nearly an hour later, we were herded off the nonfunctioning plane and had to wait a few hours for a replacement.

Returning several days later to Tampa, again through Houston, I boarded a nearly full plane.

At 6 feet 4 and north of 225 pounds, I resigned myself to that puny middle seat and skimpy leg room. Then my seat mate — literally — tried to sit in the adjacent window seat. He was so broad that he had to raise the seat arm and invaded my modest turf.

Then we waited in cozy proximity while Continental tried to seat standby passengers. Too many were let on for too few seats, so all had to exit while attendants could try another seat count. There's more to this story — two young women, upset and herded by a stern gate agent, could not settle peaceably on the plane and were immediately escorted off — but you catch my too-familiar drift.

The sad part of all this is, by federal reckoning, Continental ranks pretty high in customer service. A customer service report for February issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation found American Airlines ranked No. 1 in most customer complaints in the categories of "flight problems" and "baggage" and received the most overall complaints. Delta ranked No. 1 with the highest number of complaints about "customer service." And US Airways was tops among consumer complaints about "reservations, ticketing and boarding."

Merrill Lynch analyst Michael Linenberg expects airlines to lose $1.9-billion this year.

Fasten your safety belt. It's sure to be a long, bumpy flight before we see much improvement.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or

(727) 893-8405.

Column: We're just getting started on flying woes 04/12/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 12, 2008 4:34am]

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