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Once-glamorous air travel now a pedestrian voyage Crowds, cost-cutting engender complaints


Maria Gatti still remembers her first airplane rides as a girl growing up in Washington and Paraguay.

"They gave us chocolates. There was this round room that had magazines in it. The flight attendants seemed so beautiful and nice," Gatti, now 34, recalls. "It all seemed so glamorous."

At a time when seats have shrunk, planes are filled near capacity and meal choice has been reduced to peanuts or pretzels, the view from coach has become decidedly less starry-eyed.

"It's gone totally downhill," the Miami resident said recently as she waited at Baltimore-Washington International Airport for her father to pick her up for a family visit. "Now it's like a cattle haul."

As cheaper airfares and greater mobility send record numbers of travelers to the skies, passengers have never seemed more disgruntled.

The U.S. Department of Transportation received 805 complaints about airline service in October, the most recent month for which statistics are available, a 23 percent increase from October 1997.

A numbers problem

Many of the problems are the result of sheer volume: More people than ever are flying, especially during the holidays, traditionally the busiest time in the nation's airports. About 33.5 million passengers, for example, are expected to fly during the 2 1/2 weeks bracketing Christmas. With more passengers and thus more demands, personal space has shrunk, airports have become more crowded and airline employees are stretched thinner.

Translation: Don't expect many empty middle seats. That little luxury has become scarce even during nonholiday periods.

"Flying is more like a bus ride than ever before," says Dean Headley, a marketing professor who tracks airline quality, "but that may be knocking buses unduly."

Headley, of Wichita State University, and Brent D. Bowen, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, have rated the major domestic airlines for the past seven years, comparing their performance on 19 factors, including fares, delays, bumpings and accidents.

While the airline industry has improved in some of those categories over recent years, Headley said, consumer complaints continue to rise.

"It's not always what you do, it's how you do it," he says. "Bottom line is, the consumer is seeing airlines making money hand over fist and the service isn't improving. They're saying OK, you are reporting record profits, when are you going to do something for us?"

The most recent rating by Headley and Bowen, based on 1997 data, rates these airlines in descending order: Southwest, Alaska, Continental, American, United, Delta, Northwest, America West, TWA and US Airways.

Some passengers see little difference among the airlines.

"It's the luck of the draw. Sometimes, you just get someone who's having a bad day," says Debra Henson, 37, a television script supervisor and frequent flier who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"Since I'm usually on really long flights, I try to get a window seat so I can lean that way and get some sleep. But I always seem to get stuck in the middle seat, between two really fat guys," she says.

Bob Boan, 38, of Towson, who travels frequently for his job as a restaurant consultant, says airlines have no sensitivity toward people who are traveling.

"We don't like being away from our homes and our families as it is, and airline people treat you less than nicely because they know you're not going to be there tomorrow to complain," he says.

Two-tiered system

The skies have become more democratic with lower airfares, but within the passenger cabin, there's a distinct caste system: Those flying coach trudge past an increasingly plush and spacious first class en route to their own no-frills section.

"Air travel is very good in the front of planes and very bad in the back," says Ed Perkins, the recently retired editor of Consumer Reports' Travel Letter who serves as a consumer advocate for the American Society of Travel Agents. "There is a huge gap. It's like General Motors saying we have Cadillacs and we have Geo Metros, and you get what you pay for."

Perkins, however, says consumers must bear some of the blame for the dismal state of flying.

"What they've said is, what we really want is cheap airfares," he says. "The way you get that is you stuff lots of seats into the plane, spend the minimum on food and [use] the minimum number of flight attendants."

Airlines have indeed cut back on services since the early 1990s, when the industry lost billions of dollars and several major carriers went out of business, says Doug Killian, a spokesman for Northwest Airlines. The surviving airlines made a push to streamline and become more efficient, he says.

"After that bloody time, airlines might have gone too far in cutting costs. But now we're making money again, and so we're adjusting," he says.

Can't fly both ways

Still, Killian says, as long as consumers demand lower fares, it's impossible to provide first-class service throughout the plane. "In some sense, people want it both ways," he says. "You can't offer first-class service if your fare is, say, $100 to go from Minneapolis to Chicago."

The cramming of more and more seats into coach has put personal space at a premium. Perkins estimates that over the past eight years, coach passengers have actually lost an inch or two of legroom. More planes are using narrower seats and reducing the seat pitch, the space from the back of one seat to the back of the one behind it, he says.

All those strangers, stuck together for hours, add new meaning to the old line, familiarity breeds contempt.

"People have just been angry the last several years," says Nancy Gray, a Chicago-based flight attendant who has been grounded since April when a passenger who brought his own gallon of booze on board tripped and kicked her. She has had two operations for a broken ankle and other injuries.

"The fares are so low, anyone can afford to fly. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but they're packing the flights so full," says Gray, who with another flight attendant has started a support group called "Sky Rage" for their beleaguered colleagues.

Less can be more

While the philosophy of the airlines appears to be "you get what you pay for," oddly enough, the no-frills Southwest Airlines frequently tops consumer satisfaction surveys.

Some of that, Perkins says, comes from the fact that Southwest doesn't fly into many airports that traditionally are jammed and thus vulnerable to delays and other problems -- the New York market, for example, or Chicago's O'Hare. And, with a focus on Southern and Western states, weather-related problems are reduced.

But mostly, Southwest's success is in not promising more than it can deliver, Perkins said.

"They give people what they say they will give them. You go in there with realistic expectations. They don't say, 'Come fly our luxurious airplanes,' " he says.

"Southwest's product is on par with everyone else's product -- which means, bad -- but it's no worse," Perkins says. "Plus their fares are lower."

Indeed, the most satisfied fliers today are those who head to the airport with diminished expectations.

"My philosophy is, if you fly, you're going to get put out," says Chris Lemay, 37, a salesman who travels from his home in Rising Sun about 40 times a year. "So if nothing bad happens to me, I'm happy."

Pub Date: 12/22/98

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