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Passengers Suffer as Airlines Circle the Drain

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At 9:30 AM, about an hour into our flight to Philadelphia, our plane abruptly veered back toward Seattle. There was no terrorist threat, no elderly passenger suffering a heart attack, no engine blowout or sudden loss of cabin pressure or anything dramatic like that. No... the three rear toilets had malfunctioned, leaking an oddly sweet-smelling, bluish effluent into the aisles and, the pilots worried, into God knows what else... and it was this mundane mechanical failure that temporarily grounded the weekend plans of me, my daughter and a couple hundred other frustrated passengers.

A broken toilet. A fitting metaphor for an industry that has long been circling the drain.

It's been four decades since I first took flight, and while the five-year-old me's sense of wonder and delight has never quite faded, the allure of flying certainly has. Sure, domestic air travel has generally become quite a bit more affordable in this post-deregulation world, but it would be imprecise to describe it as merely inexpensive. Cheap, that is what air travel has become, and in every sense of the word.

Of course, at it's core, flying isn't all that different now than it was back in 1968, for despite all the technical advances during the decades since, there really isn't that much of a difference between this leaky 757 and the idealized 727 of my youth. Both are essentially long, hollow, pressurized, stuffy tubes, packed with dehydrated people, hurtling through the sky at globe-shrinking speeds. And both manage to get their passengers and cargo from one place to another. Usually.

But long gone are the days when service was king, and the airlines treated passengers as more than just those things they cram into the space above the cargo hold. Gone are the skycaps, the uniforms, the hot meals, and the justifiable obsession with beverage service. (Not to mention the free beverages.) Gone are the days when a missed connection would automatically be rebooked on the next available flight, even on a competing airline. Flying has never been comfortable per se, especially for those of us packed into coach, but the attentive service airlines once lavished on their customers served as a calculated distraction from the noise, the cramp, the stink and the tedium inherent in air travel.

Take a road trip and you can pull over from time to time and break up the monotony by enjoying a meal, a walk, or a little sightseeing. Ride the train and you can comfortably stretch your legs, stroll the aisles or relax in the Club Car. But once they seal that cabin door behind you, the air traveler is confined to a tiny, upholstered cubby where even air and light is miserly rationed. We are at the mercy of the airline for our smallest needs, a mercy that, after decades of contract givebacks, layoffs, and mergers, has finally been extinguished from the hearts of flight attendants, perhaps the last airline employees to abandon their long held role as passenger advocates.

In the days before deregulation, when the airlines were all but guaranteed a profit but were prohibited from competing on price, they competed on service, and it showed. And so it is hard to imagine the old Pan Am treating its customers the way US Airways did Friday morning, refusing to rebook tickets while mechanics inspected the plane, and forcing passengers to check back at the gate every half hour for useless updates. And when, five hours late, after mechanics concluded there was no safety hazard, we finally reboarded the same plane, we discovered the carpets still soggy and the toilets still leaking, but with thick wads of paper towels shoved up against the walls as a temporary dike.

If this is the sort of stunning lack of pride the airlines now show in the most visible sections of their aircraft, how can we trust them to maintain the parts we can't see?

I'm not suggesting we totally abandon competition for the days of tariffed fares and regulated monopolies, but perhaps there's something that lies in between, something that restores a level of confidence and competence to the system, while returning stability to an industry that has collectively lost $15 billion since deregulation?

[David Goldstein writes on WA state politics at HorsesAss.org]