Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My hero

Money Magazine has an article this month on Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. Outraged at being held captive for nine hours in a plane with no food, water, toilets, or way to escape, she is fighting back. She got a passenger rights measure passed in the House, and it will be up for a vote in the Senate soon. To support it, visit Flyersrights.com. Click on the Take Action box to sign a petition.

Anyone who has flown recently knows what a nightmare it is. Haven't been on a plane in a while? Let me tell you a little story about my last trip home from North Carolina on American Airlines...

We left my brother's house in Raleigh at 1:30 PM, allowing time to return the rental car and make it to the airport the required two hours before our flight. We checked in and wrestled our stuff through American Airline's security with plenty of time to kill.

We stopped for dinner at an overpriced Internet Cafe for the free Internet access, only to discover, after placing our orders, that Internet access is no longer free. No problem. We brought books, and we know how to use them.

Good thing, too. The plane was delayed. It was probably resting up for its detour through Hell.

First, there was the announcement that we would be sitting on the tarmac for about an hour and a half before takeoff, which in airline speak means three hours if you're lucky. This set off some sort of explosive Jekyll/Hyde reaction in the guy sitting next to me.

My seatmate was a pasty little fellow in a golf cap who had seemed perfectly pleasant up until that moment. He immediately began to yammer loudly about his unhappiness with the situation and to demand free drinks. None were forthcoming. He began to breathe funny and to stare at people. I began to think about how much he resembled Norman Bates.

Half an hour later, some dude a few rows ahead threw up all over three seats. Apparently he had done his drinking before boarding. This meant a return to the gate so that the cushions could be swapped out. It also meant that we'd lost our turn to take off.

Well, it was the last straw for Cap Guy. He announced that he was getting off the plane at the gate, and the stewardesses were unable to restrain him when the time came. We all got a bit roughed up as he climbed over and pushed past everyone, but it was a small price to pay. I was actually feeling pretty lucky to be rid of him, until one of the unfortunate puked-upon refugees took Cap Guy's seat.

We eventually made it to New York (which airlines consider to be on the way from North Carolina to Indiana) and waited to board our second plane, which was only an hour or so behind schedule.

Meanwhile, down in Cargo World, our bags were boarding other planes for adventures of their own.

We arrived in Chicago around 1 AM, exhausted, starving, dirty and cranky. We watched hundreds of bags rotate endlessly on the carousels. Ours were not among them. We searched through stubby forests of lost bags in the holding area. None of those were ours, either. So at 2 AM we were standing in a long line of passengers at the claim counter, wondering if there was any chance American would bring our bags to Indiana if they were ever found.

An agitated man ahead of us in line dashed all hope when he stepped away from the counter, faced the room, and addressed the crowd: "Here I am, a loyal American customer! I fly American all the time, and this is how I am treated! They lose my bags, call me to come from my hotel to get them, and they aren't even here! I will never fly American again as long as I live!"

His speech was met with scattered applause and a general Amen, though we all knew it was an empty threat. If you have to travel far, you have to fly. And if you have to fly, you have to take whatever plane is going there. The airlines know they have you over a barrel, so they can treat you like dirt knowing you'll be back anyway.

Miraculously, our bags arrived on a later flight. We dragged them about five miles to get to parking. A long walk, a train and a bus later, we roamed the lot until we found the car. Two hours later, at 5:30 AM, we pulled into the driveway.

Believe it or not, this is now par for the course. Some of the above events, of course, are not the airline's fault. But the delays, long waits on the runway, lost luggage, and disrespect for customers are. An airline can hold you against your will in conditions that violate the Geneva convention. And if that doesn't make you want to sign a petition, I don't know what will.

No comments: