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Airline passenger discontent doubles

Flight delays, stuffed planes and long lines bring complaints, which some blame on short-sighted feds.

Growing discontent in the crowded skies have caused complaints about airline service to more than double from a year ago.

A total of 5,005 complaints were lodged against the major carriers in the first six months of this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Tuesday. Last year, the count was 2,467.

The increasing air travel dissatisfaction is due to flight delays caused by unusually severe weather and air traffic jams, cramped and overbooked airplanes, and hours spent in airport lines.

"Everything's backed up, and everyone's just getting stressed out," said David Stempler, founder of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington-based advocacy group. "It's like cornered animals."

Customers often reported that their bad experiences were made worse by airline workers who were discourteous, arrogant or poorly informed.

Among complaints in the Transportation Department's latest report, to be released this week:

A passenger said he was "imprisoned in the airplane on the runway" for three hours in Philadelphia last spring and then treated "rudely" by a Delta Airlines ticket agent when he finally reached Atlanta, where he missed his connection.

In an airport packed with delayed and disgruntled passengers, a passenger made a cell phone call to U.S. Airways and learned his flight had been canceled even as the gate agent was still insisting the flight would take off at 6:45 p.m. Fed up, he wrote, "I rented a car and drove 4 hours" from Jacksonville to Tampa.

A professional musician, who flew from Atlanta to San Diego, said a baggage agent barely glanced at the gash in his saxophone, denied the claim and then told him to "shut up" so he could return to his computer.

Last winter, after Northwest Airlines kept a planeload of passengers on a Detroit runway for eight hours in a snowstorm without working toilets or food, Congress threatened to enact a passengers' rights law. But the lawmakers backed down in June when the major airlines issued a voluntary "airline customer service commitment."

Diana Cronan, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for the major carriers, said the airlines are working on improvements, especially in employee training and reservations systems. But she said major improvements were not expected until December, when the plans are supposed to be implemented.

The pledges do not go far enough, said Stempler, the passenger advocate. "It's not going to get to the heart of the complaints that I hear every day, which is the seats are too narrow, there's no leg room, the planes are crowded, and service has gone downhill," he said.

Hal Salfen, director of consumer affairs for the International Airline Passengers Association, hears the same from his members worldwide.

Asked what happened to the "friendly" skies of past airline commercials, he said, "They're gone, because the whole mind-set of the people who serve the public is completely different." Customers are no longer treated with the same deference, he said. "It's not only the airlines. It's everywhere we go."

Airlines have fared better, with profits soaring along with planes that take off with an average 70 percent of the seats filled by a flying public that has increased by 25 percent in five years.

Airline executives blame the nation's antiquated air traffic system, which often causes delays and cancellations, even in clear weather.

Stempler agreed. "The ultimate culprit is really the (Federal Aviation Administration) and Congress for failing to provide sufficient aviation infrastructure to deal with these loads," he said.

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