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"Fly US?" No, Thanks!

The University of Michigan on Tuesday released their airline customer satisfaction survey. For the first time in six years there was overall improvement.

There was a time when airlines provided easy fodder for comedians. In 1970 the film Airport had the nation riveted and, a few years later, a book called Coffee, Tea or Me -- about the life of two stewardesses -- was a bestseller and was turned into a TV movie. In 1985, a porn film borrowed that title and the loose plot line. 1980's Airplane! is arguably one of the funniest films ever made. From 1965 until 1996 United Airlines used the slogan "Fly the Friendly Skies" and it's likely that most air passengers felt the skies were friendly. In short, airplane travel was generally thought of as an adventure, as fun and as something special. There was a time people even got dressed up to get on an airplane.

Today, of course, all that has changed. While 9/11 certainly had so very much to do with the change, there's something else....a kind of "customer-be-damned" attitude that makes flying a too-often unpleasant experience. And nowhere is this more evident than on US Airways.

In a 2007 airline customer satisfaction survey by Consumer Reports placed US Airways last. Tuesday's results had the airline up to a hardly glorious 59 (on a scale of up to 100). If recent experiences my friends and I have had are any indication, US Airways has a long way to go or the people surveyed have very low expectations.

I traveled from Las Vegas to the east coast last week. The flight was on time but the bag I'd bought because it had qualified as a carry-on on other flights turned out to be too big. I asked the airline representative at the counter if, since my bag was the same size it had always been, they'd changed the allowable carry-on size.

"Yes," she replied.

Joking, I asked, "Why, do you need the money?

Seriously, she said, "Yes. US Airways needs all it can get from its passengers. We had to lay off 200 people, you know."

No, I didn't know but that didn't lessen the pinch of having to pay an extra $30 to have my bag go into the luggage compartment.

After they took my bag and confirmed my identity at the counter I started to leave. "Oh! Wait!" the ticket taker said. "You'll want to buy food to bring on the plane. The location of your seat means they'll probably run out of food to sell by the time they get to you."

I was in the middle of the plane and, for the record they ran out of nothing -- not food or the pillows and blankets they sell. But they did not run out of words....they seemed to talk incessantly, mostly about the "opportunity" to buy merchandise from the SkyMall catalog.

The flight was on time and proceeded smoothly. But the word "please" was rarely uttered by the fight crew. It was "fasten this..." "watch that..."and so on. Those skies weren't friendly at all.

So, now it's time to return to Las Vegas. Same routine -- bought food in the airport (Nathan's!) and again, though I was seated three rows from the back, they didn't run out.

Luggage recovery at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas was the final ordeal. Gathered by the designated carousel, we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, after more than a half-hour, the announcement came, "We apologize for the delay. Your luggage will be here in five or 10 minutes."

As it began to arrive and tumble out of the opening in the carousel, an announcement was made asking two passengers to report to the luggage service department. I was one of those passengers and I went, fully expecting to be told my suitcase was bound for some destination other than Las Vegas. But, no! I was told, "Your luggage came in a few hours ago on an earlier plane."

When I asked why they'd made me wait all that time at the carousel for a bag that had been there for quite awhile, I was told, "Oh, we didn't think of it. Sorry."

With one layover at the Charlotte, North Carolina hub and the wait for the luggage, it took me more than 12 hours to get home, a distance of approximately 2,200 miles.

OK, I know, you're going to point out that at least I did get home. And you're right. But the little aggravations and annoyances built up and never stopped coming.

Of course, others fare much worse. Due to a disability that prevented him from carrying it, my friend had to pack his laptop in his suitcase. It was cushioned between his clothes and the suitcase had hard sides. It was difficult to tell there was a laptop in it.

He landed in Las Vegas and his luggage was missing. When it got to his hotel hours later, you guessed it. His laptop was gone. US Airways said they cannot help him as he had no proof the laptop was there. When he pointed out that the TSA people knew, the airline personnel shrugged.

Finally, there are my family members who visited here awhile ago. Flying US Airways from Fort Lauderdale, their flight was changed three times by the airline. When they protested, they were told the airline didn't have to do anything to accommodate them and they wouldn't do anything. But, they protested, so many plans would have to be changed. That, US Airways essentially told them, was "tough."

Yes, there have been worse experiences. And, yes, everyone and (almost) everything got where it was going. But the process was annoying at best, insulting at worst and the constant demands for money for things that used to be (and on some airlines still are) free, got old real quickly.

I would have let it go but today that survey was all over the news and I had to speak up. I cannot help wondering who was surveyed and how the news can be bright when, in the case of US Airways, more than one-third of those surveyed were unhappy with their service.

Seems to me an airline is just like any service. They have to earn a consumer's loyalty and respect. And, in this instance that just ain't happening. US Airways' slogan is "Fly US." Why?