If you're one of the millions of Americans planning to travel by air this summer, here's a tip from the travel experts: DON'T wait until the last minute to make your arrangements! Order your cyanide pills NOW.
Yes, it's a stressful time for air travelers. To understand why, let's look at some statistics:
* This summer, U.S. airlines will operate 310,000 flights carrying 73 million passengers, no two of whom will pay the same fare.
* Of these 310,000 flights, 82 percent are expected to experience delays classified by the airlines as "significant," defined as "longer than two days."
* Most of the delays will be "weather-related," which is the technical term the airlines use when the co-pilot reports for work holding a banana daiquiri and wearing only a leather thong.
* The remainder of the delays will involve "mechanical" problems, which occur when any single one of the 43,000 little warning lights on the cockpit instrument panel lights up, thus requiring the pilot to call in one of the nationwide total of six airline maintenance personnel, who, after repeated efforts to repair the problem while the passenger cabin reaches the temperature of a pizza oven, will declare that the airplane needs a new part, which must be brought in from the Airline Parts Storage Facility, located in Kurdistan and accessible only by goat.
* Of the 18 percent of the flights that are NOT significantly delayed, most will be outright canceled because of various technicalities, such as failure to feature an inflight movie starring Adam Sandler, as required by federal regulations.
* The situation will be somewhat worse at New York's LaGuardia Airplane Storage Facility, where, due to a combination of congestion and a runway that is slightly shorter than a Slip 'N' Slide, no flight has successfully taken off since 1977, although for the sake of appearances, planes are still sent out from the gates to taxi around until they run out of fuel and the passengers have eaten all the flotation devices.
So it's not going to be an easy summer. Fortunately, the airlines are taking positive steps to improve the situation, according to F. Hargrove Fennel, president of the Association of Airline Executives Barricaded in Their Offices.
"We're going to issue cattle prods to the flight attendants," he stated. "Also, for mechanical delays, we're going to give the pilot the option of waiting until nobody is looking, then hitting the warning light with a hammer."
But even these steps may not be enough. The airlines are facing strike threats from a number of key unions, including the Brotherhood of Luggage Misplacers; the Airline Seat Shrinkers Guild; and the International Association of Workers Who Make Sure That No Coach Passenger's Inflight Snack Packet Contains More Than Four Pretzels. Also, Boston's Logan Airport is currently dealing with a strike by the technicians who operate the huge, state-of-the-art fog-generating machine; this has forced airport officials to bring in replacement fog by truck from Maine.
Despite all of this, a few flights -- possibly even yours! -- may actually take off this summer. This is not good. While in the air, these airplanes will be relying on an antiquated air-traffic control system. A recent safety audit of the FAA showed that, among other problems:
* Air-traffic controllers are relying on outdated maps that show giant serpents in the oceans and refer to North America as "New Spain."
* The FAA's so-called "nationwide radar system" is in fact a man named Murray standing on the roof of a Wal-Mart in central Kansas with a walkie-talkie and a pair of binoculars.
* The FAA's Emergency Backup Aviation Communications System (EBACS) has become increasingly unreliable because, in the words of the audit report, "most of the pigeons are dead."
None of this, of course, means that you should not go right ahead with your plans to travel by air this summer. All it means is that you should allow extra time for possible delays -- say, a month -- and that you should have a backup travel plan, such as walking.
Also, if at all possible, you should not book any flights that will be airborne between noon and 2 p.m. central time. That's when Murray goes to lunch.