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Flying on airlines' wings of misery

As the recent physical confrontation between a Continental Airlines gate agent and a passenger at the Newark, N.J., airport indicates, the airlines have added knuckle sandwich to their menu of rubber chicken, cardboard beef and plastic noodles.

The airline's version of the incident is that a male passenger who was not allowed to get on the plane because he lacked a boarding pass hurled the agent to the floor. The passenger says it is he who was attacked first.

While doubtless some court of law will sort out who's at fault, most people who fly will have no trouble believing the passenger. As long-suffering fliers have learned, there is no private-sector business with more open hostility between server and customer than that which exists with the airline industry. Most flights should not be promoted by travel agents; they should be promoted by Don King.

Enraged passengers cannot be blamed for believing that the airline industry is the most incompetent business in the U.S. free enterprise system. If the newspaper industry were operated like the airlines, this paper would arrive late virtually every day and on some days would not appear at all. Complaints would be met with indifference at best and belligerence at worst. While there are legitimate reasons for some flight delays, passengers feel that weather and safety too often are used simply as excuses for the airlines' doing whatever they want.

The industry's attitude can be summed up this way: "If you want to get somewhere relatively fast _ with the emphasis on "relatively' _ you have no choice but to fly. And since prices and service vary little from one carrier to another _ and there are plenty of passengers to go around _ there is no incentive to cater to your comfort." Congress was poised to move against the airlines earlier this year with "passenger bill of rights" legislation pending in both the House and Senate. The airlines headed it off, at least temporarily, by promising to mend some of their ways. But who are they kidding other than Washington?

According to the Department of Transportation, passenger complaints were 26 percent higher in 1998 than the year before, with travelers citing delays, carry-on restraints and cramped seating as their biggest beefs. And 1999 has so far been a doozy of a year, starting in January when passengers were imprisoned for up to eight hours aboard Northwest planes on Detroit airport runways during a blizzard. A class-action lawsuit against Northwest claims the planes should have been diverted elsewhere rather than landing.

Since then, there have been the illegal American Airlines pilots' strike, causing chaos for thousands of travelers; a 44 percent increase in flight delays and an 86 percent increase in consumer complaints in April and May from a year earlier; numerous press accounts of bizarre airline incidents and escalating verbal and physical confrontations.

Also, some airlines have cut back on food service, and more passengers complain that dirty cabins are turning planes into flying pigsties. Then there's the stale air. To save a buck, the airlines are filtering cabin air less than before, meaning fliers breathe in more of their fellow passengers' germs. It gives a whole new meaning to the words "major carrier."

What's most surprising about air rage is that it doesn't occur more often. Many passengers enter the plane with their nerves already rubbed raw by the indignities of making it through the airport.

In addition to physical discomfort, the friendly in-flight service of yesteryear has been replaced with Gestapo-like patrolling of the aisles by unsmiling, cranky, authoritarian personnel. On a recent flight, I overheard an attendant tell a teen-age girl to "sit down and shut up" when the girl asked that the food cart be moved so she could have access to the bathroom. Who's training attendants these days, Don Rickles?

Referring to the wrestling match at the Newark airport, a Continental spokeswoman said the airline "will expend whatever resources are necessary to assure the passenger is brought to justice and pays for his violence." Perhaps the airlines should expend whatever resources are necessary to stop commercial air travel from being the thoroughly miserable experience it is.

Doug Gamble is a humor and speech writer for Republicans.

Los Angeles Times