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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 1999 /29 Elul, 5759

Morton Kondracke

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Airport rage increases, with good reason -- EVERYBODY'S HEARD about road rage, and it's bad. But unless the government and the airlines get busy, we're also going to have increasing incidents of airport rage.

Already there have been a few violent attacks by passengers on gate agents. As flight delays mount, however, there are bound to be more.

I know. Without acting on them, I felt violent urges myself on my summer vacation. If you traveled by air, you probably did, too. Actually, the travel I did on my vacation was rather smooth. I used Southwest, a discount airline, to go from Baltimore-Washington International to Chicago Midway and back.

I've flown it before and found Southwest personnel invariably kind and efficient in processing me and my wheelchair-bound wife. The planes take off more or less on time, too.

It was on a business trip to Buffalo and back that the trouble arose. I got to the Buffalo airport an hour early for a flight to D.C. on United. Skies were clear. We passengers boarded the plane on time.

Then we sat past takeoff time. You know the feeling: "Uh oh." Sure enough, a voice announced that there were air-traffic delays in Washington, and the delay would last an hour.

We did not have to sit on the runway as many passengers do. We went back to the terminal. "Updates" followed one another, each reporting that "temporarily" no flights were going into Washington because of the weather.

People I called in Washington reported no weather problems. One passenger said he lives a half-mile from the airport, and his wife said the sun was shining.

Maybe there were thundershowers somewhere in between, but the fact is, not a soul hovering around the departure area believed the gate agent when she said she didn't know what was happening or whether the flight would be canceled.

In fact, as often happens, one airline-savvy passenger had talked to a pilot who had made a mysterious phone call and learned that there was little likelihood the plane would fly.

I cast around for alternate options. Drive back to Washington? Too far. Go to another airline? US Airways, with flights to Baltimore and Washington, also had delays that smelled like unannounced cancellations.

Miraculously, airline deregulation has produced another discount regional carrier, Shuttle America, that for some reason could fly to Wilmington, Del., when United and US Airways weren't flying anywhere along the Eastern seaboard. I rented a car from there and got back late at night.

But the very next day, it was the same story on another business trip out of Dulles Airport to Seattle. United's 5:35 p.m. flight was posted as delayed to 6:30. OK, but United's 3:35 flight also hadn't departed as of 6 p.m.

Bad smell. I switched to American even though it required a change of planes in Dallas, a notoriously delay-prone airport. The risk was worth it. I made it to Seattle, albeit late.

That's my story. There are much, worse ones: stories of people camped in airports overnight, sitting on runways for six hours, losing luggage for days or forever, getting lied to repeatedly by airline personnel apparently trying to prevent them from switching to another airline.

The lines at check-in at any major airport these days are horrendous. Also at security: Last Christmas at Hartford-Springfield, the line to security stretched down a stairway and out the airport onto the sidewalk. Flights are routinely overbooked.

If you feel frustrated, official statistics show that you have a right to be. Airline delays were up 40 percent this summer nationwide -- including 100 percent in Chicago over last year and 110 percent in Dallas.

The Air Transport Association estimates that the 308,000 flight delays last year cost the airlines $4.1 billion.

The airlines blame the delays on the Federal Aviation Administration and its outdated equipment. They say that the air traffic control system needs to be privatized.

The FAA, in turn, blames the weather and the airlines, although this was a less stormy summer -- at least on the East Coast -- than any in memory.

And both the airlines and FAA blame Congress for not releasing money to upgrade the air traffic system.

The FAA last month announced a series of administrative changes designed to lessen delays -- mostly by giving the FAA more power to centrally impose ground stops in the event of bad weather and reducing the spacing between flights.

Results haven't been reported yet, but the anecdotes reported by various news organizations do not suggest that delays were down in August. Quite the contrary.

It's true, air travel is safe and significantly cheaper than it used to be. Now, Congress and the airlines should find ways to make it more pleasant and efficient.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, NEA