Jewish World Review August 23, 2001/ 4 Elul, 5761

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Consumer Reports

Lowering expectations and flying high -- AIRLINES have but one customer service obligation: not crashing. Anything else is gravy, which is quite common in coach meals.

Cease and desist all whining over air travel save complaints about numbskull parents who dump their children, aka "unaccompanied minors (UMs)," on airlines for cross-country trips. There are 7 million of the little dears each year, or about 1% of all airline passengers.

This summer, one child (10) from Los Angeles, ticketed for Detroit, ended up in Orlando. The child should have bagged Motown and the non-custodial parent and stayed in Orlando with Disney. Another child (10) was 18 hours late arriving in San Diego from Columbus because the flight was canceled. The San Diego father proclaimed that no one informed him. USA Today clicked its anti-airline tongue mightily. Did the parent/relative/significant supervisor/primary caregiver or whatever in-vogue adult appellation is now used for ping-pong offspring just dump the child at the Columbus airport? They couldn't stay with the child to ease anxiety and perhaps tip off the waiting-end parent that the flight left? What nincompoop father doesn't have mild curiosity about the progress of his child's cross-country flight and call to check arrival time?

Children flying solo are not the airlines' responsibility. Waifs in airspace are products not just of divorce, but parents who choose to live a continent apart and then are too cheap to fly with the child or have someone else do so. Airlines, busy with not crashing, do fall short of ideal proxy parenting.

Turning children over to gate agents who have a rough time getting the jet way to meet the door of the plane is risky. Some flight attendants have trouble with the local time announcement. They shouldn't reproduce, let alone handle the children of divorce.

Following the Detroit/San Diego minor mishaps, some airlines restricted unaccompanied minors to direct flights. Airlines should refuse unaccompanied minors altogether. Along with fellow passengers, I've done my share of comforting sobbing children who were ill at ease with everything from flying to leaving home.

That unaccompanied children traveled the rails and highways in other eras is different. First, children could read then. Second, the adults around them were not dangerous or self-absorbed in cramming as much into the overhead bins as possible.

Parental complaints about airlines for children flying solo reflects a societal trend: blame others for self-induced problems. Such demands also reflect unrealistic expectations for air travel, something so contingent on the uncontrollable.

Airline personnel cope with angry, fussy passengers who have been incited to riot by USA Today, which regularly predicts death and doom by airlines and is as outraged by air traffic control mishaps as it is by airlines' removal of olives from salads.

Weather twists and turns change schedules and reroute plans. Mechanical difficulties ground planes, but mechanical difficulties at 33,000 feet are problematic.

Air travel offers a veritable banquet in the human event, just not in food. If everything in your air travels goes well (and even airlines with the worst records offer a 50/50 shot for on-time performance, which equals your chances at a successful marriage and you don't see members of Congress or USA Today demanding improvement there), you have no worries. If something goes wrong, relish your story. Stories beat damages.

What stories I have. American Airlines lost my luggage on our trip to Disney World (I would have preferred Detroit). My baggage went to Paris and had a better time. American sprang for clothing. As long as those characters walking around with paws the size of laser printers are going to make fools of you, you might as well be wearing this year's Mickey line of ready-to-wear sweats.

After a delay of 5 hours, I flew from Atlanta to D.C. sitting next to a man from Macedonia who whipped out a 2-liter bottle of Sprite for his drinking pleasure during the flight. He offered me some. I passed.

I once saw 22 crates marked, "Roberta's Reptiles," loaded onto a plane out of Tampa. I flew home fancying myself an Indiana Jones on the Airbus Temple of Doom with serpents housed inches beneath my feet.

Once, after circling a fogged-in Houston for 2 hours, Southwest flew us to San Antonio where we sat on the runway for 3 hours. A Southwest employee whisked me and my eight months of pregnancy from the plane and across the runways in a cart as passengers cheered. Too late for a speech, they got me a flight home.

Adventures. Challenges. And I lived to tell of them. Therefore, airlines have met my customer service expectations 100% of the time. My only complaint is UMs. But the fault lies with their parents, not the airlines.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings