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Jewish World Review July 1, 2004/ 12 Tamuz, 5764

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Flying the unhappy skies | "Come fly with me," as Ol' Blue Eyes sang once upon a time. Flying was the sensuous metaphor for glamorous adventure, for floating above the earth, for romance in the sky. Alas, Sinatra would never recognize how unfriendly the skies have become.

The allure has vanished, but the adventure remains, but it's an adventure into long security lines, high-tech glitches compounded by inefficiency, incompetence and irresponsibility.

We expect hassles when we travel. It's our patriotic duty to grin if possible but bear it nonetheless as a contribution to the war against terrorism. We take off shoes without complaint and are no longer embarrassed when it's a hook on a bra that sets off the alarm. We're slightly less forgiving when we discover that electronic tickets have been swallowed by that mysterious computer, or when the computer spits out a boarding card with a middle seat in the last row when we were told months ago that seats on the aisle "are in the computer".

Some airlines are better than others, but "better" in my book no longer includes Lufthansa, the German airline that was once in the forefront of technological innovation. Lufthansa boasts "state of the art technology," and indeed, we once imagined that a stewardess could overhaul an engine in flight if necessary. But on a recent trip to Berlin we learned the hard way how the airlines deliberately oversell their flights to wring the last nickel from unsuspecting passengers.

"We have you on standby," a clerk told us at check-in. We had arrived two hours early.

"Standby? We bought these tickets months ago."

"Don't worry," she said, cheerily, "Standbys usually get on. Ramona will meet you at the gate and she knows to give you the 'highest priority.'"

Sure enough, Ramona met us at the gate, but her highest priority was not ours. "There's nothing I can do," she said.  "All the airlines overbook to make sure they send out full planes. You've just had the bad luck today."

"And you're just carrying out orders," I replied. Despite my best intentions I imagined that somewhere deep in the fatherland Gerhard Schroeder had assigned Teutonic elves to ruin the holiday of American travelers. That would teach them to elect George W. Bush. But a little anger, kept carefully disciplined, is something an airline understands. A supervisor found two seats on a flight four hours later. He threw in two vouchers for $400 worth of travel, or $200 cash. The supervisor had the last laugh. We discovered on boarding that our seats were in the middle of the last row, and did not recline. No sleep for the dreary. The television monitor was so small and so far away we needed binoculars to watch the movie.

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But soon we held our two new twin granddaughters (both gorgeous) in our arms, and a delicious week in Berlin with their mother and her wonderful German husband flashed past swiftly. Soon it was time to return to the embrace of Lufthansa for the flight home. Surely lightning wouldn't strike twice. Our flight from Berlin's Tegel Airport to Frankfurt was late, naturally, and of course we missed the connecting flight to Washington. A clerk, as cheerful and unhelpful as her counterpart in Washington, informed us that we were booked on a flight the following day. With what seemed suspiciously like schadenfreude, she told us that we would have to find our own accommodations and Lufthansa wouldn't pay for them. The flight from Berlin was delayed because of a problem with a conveyor belt: "You're not Lufthansa's responsibility."

Dark thoughts quickly returned. Maybe Herr Schroeder himself had taken charge of our trip. When the Lufthansa clerk merely shrugged when we asked if there were flights available on other airlines, anger threatened to turn to rage. If Lufthansa had been the Luftwaffe over London in the autumn of 1940 the boys of the RAF would have been home for Christmas.

A sympathetic German tourist nearby told us to try United. "I think they've got a flight later this afternoon."

And so they did, and so we did, and arrived at home at last, convinced that Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't get a taker at an airport today. Air travel has assumed all the glamour and romance of a ride on a crowded streetcar. Airline cabin crews typically call the planes "cattle cars," and it's easy to see why. Overbooking is policy, and if passengers don't like it they can stay home, which is actually a splendid idea: I'm lighting fireworks in my own garden this weekend, not stirring any farther from my door than the corner drugstore to pick up the photographs of my new granddaughters.

Happy Independence Day.

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