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Airline travel not for the faint of heart

I was never one of the airlines’ pampered passengers. A few years ago, before motherhood and a recession slowed me down, my annual flight mileage allowed me the perquisite of early boarding — before all the baggage bins were full. But I rarely saw first class except when passing through it on my way to steerage, ah, coach.

These days, I don’t even get the privilege of picking seats in the exit row. I must pay for two tickets now, so my limited budget restricts me to the cheapest fares. And in the travel-heavy holiday season — when so many frequent fliers board with roller bags, briefcases, wrapped gifts and Christmas trees (OK, maybe not trees, but some of those packages are awfully big) — I give up and pay to check my bag.

I board with a squirmy toddler and head straight for the kids’ ghetto, the back of the aircraft. I can only hope for reasonably clean toilets so that the smell doesn’t waft through the back rows.

And I’m grateful for government regulations that have cracked down on some of the airlines’ more egregious abuses. While tea-party-fueled conservatives denounce a federal government they see as heavy-handed, abusive and growth-stifling, I’m delighted for rules designed to prevent airlines from keeping me sitting on a tarmac for hours, with a toddler who is hungry, tired and cranky.

Last year, the Obama administration initiated regulations that set steep fines — as much as $27,500 per passenger — for airlines that keep fliers hostage for more than three hours. The carriers are required to provide food and water if passengers are stuck on the craft for more than two hours; they must allow fliers to disembark after three. There might be a few hardy libertarians — Ron Paul supporters, for example — who oppose that government-imposed penalty, but I’m betting most travelers rejoiced at the news of government intervention.

In Ron Paul-world, carriers wouldn’t behave that way for fear of a market-induced penalty: Passengers would stop flying on their planes. But the market is a flawed arbiter, and some businesses are more resistant to customer complaints than others.

In many cities, for example, fliers are stuck with just one or two carriers. If you wanted to shun them, you’d be stuck driving 14 hours to Grandma’s house. (If there’s anything worse than flying with a toddler, it’s a long road trip with one.)

I’m not naive about the needs of big business. I respect the right of airlines to make a profit. And I’m thrilled that most commercial carriers have edged back into the black after some very lean years. If an airline shuts down, it not only strands its own employees but also drags down countless ancillary businesses. The economy is weak enough without that additional strain.

But it was the pressures of a free market that put airlines in the position of cutting costs so furiously that they abandoned customer service — and, in some cases, common sense. If you are as old as I am, you remember the golden age of airline travel, when passengers dressed well, aircraft were frequently half-full and ticket prices were out of reach for many travelers.

I remember my maternal grandmother’s first flight. She flew from Alabama to Ohio, where several adult nephews lived. They had purchased a first-class ticket for her, and she boarded in her Sunday-best. She was actually wearing a hat and gloves!

But President Jimmy Carter — despite conservative caricatures as a hapless, micromanaging liberal — deregulated the airlines. The increased competition drove down prices, so that air travel became a common consumer purchase. But market forces also banished customer service. While I’ve never been stuck on the tarmac for more than an hour, I’ve been subjected to lesser abuses, including surly gate and flight attendants, dirty aircraft and, of course, last-minute flight cancellations.

If anything, commercial airlines need more regulations, not fewer. Here’s my vote for the next one: a rule requiring airlines to seat children under 10 next to a parent. That would not only make the experience more pleasant for all travelers (my kid would bawl if she were separated from me), but it would also conform with basic safety requirements.

Indeed, I was shocked to learn recently — as I negotiated with flight attendants to get my 2-year-old seated with me — that it’s not a Federal Aviation Administration rule. If the aircraft loses cabin pressure, is my toddler supposed to know how to place the mask over her face?

If the carriers don’t impose that common-sense rule, the government ought to. Ron Paul has his (limited) charms, but I don’t want him in charge of the FAA.

Email Cynthia Tucker at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.