When he's not at his paying job as an environmental health supervisor, Gregg Rottler of Lutz chronicles the weird and ugly side of air travel on the Web.
Tracking the turbulent state of airlines — and the people flying them these days — keeps him busy. Anonymous travelers regularly send in stories of in-flight horrors to his FlightsfromHell.com Web site. They read like dispatches from the front lines. Consider these samples:
• A sweaty, 300-pound passenger in green shorts and a white T-shirt plops down in the next seat. "His mass of flesh spilled over the armrest, forcing me to lean left like a sapling in a hurricane," writes a contributor. The sweaty man settles in and offers a travel tip: "Never shower before a plane trip. It's a waste. Wait 'til you arrive. It saves water."
• A disabled traveler flying to visit his dying mother is wheeled off the plane by two flight attendants. They hear an announcement and run off, abandoning the passenger in the path of people boarding the next flight. "It was like being in the middle of a stampede," the traveler writes. A porter finally helps, but the airline never offers an apology or compensation. "My mother died two days later. I rented a car to drive home."
Rottler studied how to create Web sites for a year before launching one about bad restaurant visits called Dinners fromHell.com. Then, he saw a television ad by Princess Cruises. An exasperated flier surrounded by lip-smacking, nose-blowing, burping passengers yanks open the cabin door to escape. He lands in a ship's pool, where a waiter hands him a cold drink.
That inspired him to launch FlightsfromHell.com, which hit the Web in June 2007, midway through what would become the second-worst year for domestic airline flight delays, with horrific stories of travelers trapped for hours inside planes and stranded days at airports.
''I timed it just right," says Rottler, 53. "People enjoy reading it. They've gone through a lot of these situations. Especially, frequent fliers in some way can vicariously vent themselves."
The site is a break-even proposition, he says, that eats up about 30 hours a week once his work at the Hillsborough County Health Department is done. His modest expenses — fees for the domain name and Web hosting — are offset by "click-through" revenue from Google ads.
Rottler posts airline news stories, commentaries and entries from aviation blogs. But the site's original content comes from brutally candid fliers filing reports with titles such as "Neanderthal Man" and "Mr. Poopy Pants."
One called "Foot Fetish" describes a man in his late 60s or early 70s who spent the flight peeling dead skin from his feet into a pile on the cabin floor.
After just over a year of editing the site, Rottler says, "I think anything's possible."
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.