Tuesday, January 08, 2002

Traveling? Get in line, bring food

        It's hard to summon up much real outrage on behalf of the Secret Service agent detained by an American Airlines pilot. An Arab-American, the agent has issued a statement through his attorney saying he believes he was barred from his flight on Christmas Day simply because of his ethnicity.

        American Airlines says it's because the man spoke loudly and carried a big gun. The airline's CEO Don Carty said, “Our captain simply was not going to let an angry man with a gun on his airplane.”

        The agent missed his flight and arrived a day late. He is demanding an apology. I hope he doesn't mind standing in line. There may be some others ahead of him. These are difficult times for travelers.

Suspicious tweezers

        We have been swept by electronic wands. Our underwear has been scrutinized. Our tweezers and manicure scissors have been confiscated. We've been bumped and squeezed. We've had to take off our shoes and unfasten our belts at the behest of strangers. And we have been pretty good sports about it.

        We've arrived at the airport two hours early and cooled our heels. We've arrived two hours early and missed our flights. And this was in good weather.

        It is winter again in America, which is not exactly a sneak attack. If the FAA and the airline industry haven't figured out a plan to avoid stranding passengers in bad weather, how can we trust that they'll figure out a plan to deal with terrorism?

        Last week about 3,500 people, mostly Delta Air Lines passengers, spent the night at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta. Overflowing toilets, people sleeping in every available space. “Think Woodstock without sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll,” a Florida man told reporters.

        Pat Cronenberg, looked out the window of the airplane as it approached Atlanta Jan. 2 and saw “about 200 planes on the ground, lined up with their lights blinking.” Uh-oh. Founder and CEO of Pier 'n Port Travel Inc., she knows the ropes. She turned to her husband and said, “We're in b-i-i-i-g trouble.”

        On her way home to Cincinnati from Florida, Pat landed at Hartsfield and was put on a connecting flight to Cincinnati. Then she spent more than nine hours on the tarmac. Planes were de-iced. Then, because they have to take off within 15 minutes of the procedure, some were de-iced more than once.

Seasoned traveler

        “This was,” she says, laughing, “a very memorable trip. Airline personnel were really great. And so were the passengers. They knew it wasn't the pilot's fault. Or the fault of the flight attendants.”

        She blames airport management and the FAA. “Most of the planes stuck there should have been rerouted to other airports.” She says even in the best of times most seasoned travelers try to avoid Hartsfield.

        “I think people have been pretty patient,” she says, “very civilized because of 911.” But she says there was no food on the plane besides snack mix. “We were lucky there were no diabetics or people with serious problems on board. I can't understand why they don't just charge 10 bucks more and put some real food on the planes.”

        On Sept. 21, Congress appropriated $15 billion in direct aid and loans to the airlines to keep them in business. Taxpayers are more than passengers now. We are investors. It should be no surprise that we might expect a return on our money.

        Or at least a decent meal and some real service.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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