Flying Off On Airline Travel Trifles

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - June 13, 2007
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“You’ll hear tales of woe so pitiful ... more despised than the Internal Revenue Service! ... nothing more abhorrent! ... worse than the Perfect Storm, an F5 tornado! ... the flight of the ‘living dead’ ... the horrors of air travel might be the one unifying American experience.”

These were only some of the scary terms used or quoted by LA Times staff writer Catherine Hamm in her recent Sunday Times article headlined “Club Mad,” in which she combined a few air travel anecdotes - true but isolated - to sensationalize the downside of America’s air transport industry.


However, with humorous irony that would be easily noticed by Hawaii’s akamai air travelers, she undermines her own argument with a few revealing statistics:

* “Airplanes are flying fuller than ever - about 80 percent.” That’s bad? To me that means there are still 20 percent fewer people in the security and boarding lines, and more space to spread out once you are aboard.

* “More baggage is mishandled. In March, for every 1,000 passengers there were almost eight mishandled baggage reports; up from fewer than six last year.” Eight out of 1,000! That’s bad? That’s a baggage glitch rate of less than eight-tenths of 1 percent!

* On-time arrivals (within 15 minutes of scheduled) “for first three months of 2007 was 71 percent, down from 75 percent last year.” (and down from 82 percent in 2002). Some years have worse weather than others, and bad weather - like in the three months measured - causes late flights. Hamm makes no effort to break out the causes (like weather) of the trend.

* “In 1995, the average domestic air fare was $359, which in today’s inflation adjusted dollars equals $484. Yet last year we paid only $380 for the identical ticket.” $104 dollars less? That’s bad? It’s incredible, considering the continually rising cost of everything it takes to run an airline. Hamm’s negative spin on this one is that the low prices have allowed air travel to become “public transportation,” riffraff and all. “Goodbye glamour; hello flying Greyhounds.”

Of course, I’m not saying that air travel is all peaches ‘n’cream. We have all experienced our own frustrations and inconveniences, complete with personal tales of woe. But on balance, given the myriad of factors that go into the equation, we enjoy an incredibly convenient, dependable, efficient and affordable air-transport system. Good thing, since we in Hawaii depend upon air travel more than Americans anywhere else.

Just two weeks ago my wife Susan and I were about to return home from Portland, Ore., on United Airlines via San Francisco. Prior to departure, an unfixable hydraulic leak was discovered and our flight was canceled. Immediately the cell phones came out (including mine) as passengers called United reservations directly to reschedule their departures. Those without phones - after a fairly short wait - were rescheduled on the spot.

Rather than fly out that same day and going through L.A. where we would have to spend the night, we chose to stay in Portland and fly the rescheduled legs the next day. United put us up at the nearby Ramada Inn. In keeping with taking “adventure” where we find it, after checking in we took the Ramada shuttle back to the airport, caught the commuter train to Portland “City Center” (two bucks for Susan but only 85 cents for the senior citizen among us), window shopped, had one more dinner at our favorite downtown restaurant, then back to the Ramada - all by 11 p.m.


Yes, as a very frequent flier I enjoy some perks and priorities, but I can count on one hand the number of canceled flights I’ve had over the past 10 years; the same for missed connections because of late arrivals. This is not to say I haven’t pounded on the airplane’s door on a couple of occasions. But I can appreciate that when a non-frequent flier faces a canceled flight it’s a bigger deal in the context of their experience.

Maybe that’s Catherine Hamm’s problem; she’s scared herself into being an infrequent flier.

Her sensationalism reminds me of that of Capt. James Cook’s crew when, 250 years ago, he stumbled upon their diaries and observed, “... they are seldom content with the hardships and dangers which will naturally occur, but they must add others which hardly ever had existence but in their imaginations, by magnifying the most trifling accidents and circumstances into the greatest hardships and insurmountable dangers ...”

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