Archive for Thursday, August 31, 2000

The year air travel fell apart

August 31, 2000


— Remember when bad air and cramped legs were the major annoyances of air travel? How sweet it was. This summer, far from griping about conditions on board, you're likely to have passed long hours listening to airline agents talk gobbledygook about "ground delays" and "provisional status" to explain why everyone's still stuck in the airport.

Except that "explain" is not the right word. Airline language and behavior seem designed not to provide an explanation but to ward off all demands for one. Gate agents, it appears, believe if they jabber long enough in unintelligible language, you'll go away and leave them alone.

Can any frequent traveler doubt that the summer of 2000 will be remembered as the moment air travel fell apart? The dramatic defining event was the Concorde crash outside Paris the first ever for the sleek and once-so-futuristic supersonic jetliner. Air France and British Airways soon grounded all Concordes indefinitely, revoking their certificates of airworthiness. What a perfect symbol for this woeful era of air travel: Something that seemed so good for so long had suddenly gone unreliable.

We should be glad of course that most of the news wasn't about planes that crashed, but about planes that didn't take off or took forever to. You'd get to the airport early, stride hopefully to check-in and be informed briskly that your flight was canceled. The next flight was fully booked, but the agent would be able to get you on the one six hours hence. In which case you'd arrive shortly after the group you were supposed to speak to had gone off to bed assuming that flight ever flew.

"the main problem was is too many people flying: Air travel is up 37 percent over a decade ago."

Oh, there were terrible thunderstorms. And there was that labor problem with United Airlines. ("Know what UAL stands for?" someone behind me cracked on one long-delayed flight. "U Ain't Leavin'!")

But the main problem was is too many people flying: Air travel is up 37 percent over a decade ago. Planes are packed. Schedules are tight. Any delay ricochets from airport to airport, airline to airline, throughout the system, until nothing functions as planned.

No surprise then that this was the summer you began to hear about a growing number of "incursions" near-collisions on the crowded runways. It was the summer you could barely move on the "moving walkways," the pedestrian passages alongside them were jammed, and food vendors ran out of food.

Nostalgically, you pondered the things that used to annoy you: The too-loud airline theme song. The way the reading light focused on your knees. The yogurt that spurted on your neighbor as you opened it. How desirable these seemed during the endless hours in the airport, with its surly crowds and modern inconveniences the toilets flushing automatically at inappropriate moments, the seeing-eye lavatory faucets that can't see black.

Cancellations and long delays have become so commonplace that what-to-do lists are handed out in workplaces, circulated among friends, published in magazines: Fly early in the day and build extra time into your schedule. Know ahead of time the departure time and airline for the next couple of flights to your destination. Get paper tickets to ease your transfer from one airline to another.

With some 670 million Americans likely to fly this year up 20 million from a year ago the plague is not going away. Sure, the transportation secretary met with airline executives recently and promised us some short-range steps. Planes will fly at a greater variety of altitudes, permitting heavier traffic albeit with less fuel efficiency. Adjustments will be made in air traffic control practices. But real change would take a lot bigger airports, many new airplanes and dramatically different air traffic control much more than is now in the pipeline.

So air travel, that once luxe means of transport, will go on feeling more and more like bus travel except buses are likelier to be on time. It's always felt ridiculous that every single pilot, every blessed flight attendant, was forever demanding, at the end of the welcome remarks, that we "Sit back and relax." What did they think? That we were all perched edgily at the front of our seats, gritting our teeth, miserable and anxious? Well, now we are. Now, in this terrible new world of air travel, here is something that makes sense. At last.

Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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