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Crowded and Tired


We all know the airlines have been in desperate financial condition with high fuel and other costs pushing big carriers like Delta and Northwest Airlines into bankruptcy. But it comes as something of a surprise to learn that they have once again been making a profit — high fuel costs or not.

According to The New York Times, it's predicted that a record 207 million people will fly this summer, and planes will be crowded with more passengers than ever. But in order to make profits, the airlines are, as the Christian Science Monitor reported Aug. 2, using "small strategies."

Unfortunately these strategies are more crowded planes with less legroom for passengers, higher fares, fewer service employees, cancellation of flights and "involuntary rerouting" of passengers when there are too few reservations on their original flight. Hold your breath: On April 25 The New York Times reported that Airbus in 2003 even researched the idea of carrying economy-class passengers standing with harnesses holding them in position.

Standing or seated, our travel by air has become an ordeal. In May, I returned from a trip to France, and it seemed clear to me that no one was planning for the humans who are the airline customers. We have fine machines to fly the ocean smoothly. Our little group traveled in luxury. We'd saved enough frequent-flier miles to sit in comfort in business class. We arrived on time, both going over and coming home.

But coming home was disillusioning. As our beautiful plane came to a stop in Atlanta, the captain rang the bell to let us release the seatbelts, start the cell phones and line up at the door. Then the waiting began. Alas, the jetway bridge was broken. We stood at least 20 minutes before the crew opened another exit and we could deplane.

Like many of the passengers, we had connections to make, so it was heart-sinking that we needed to stand in a long line to show our passports. The U.S. officials worked as hard and as fast as they could, but there weren't enough of them. After this process came another line for custom declarations. By the time we were cleared, the two-and-a-half hours we had allotted to change planes had shrunk to minutes. A quarter-mile run with our carry-on luggage left even the younger passengers breathless.

The commuter plane to Richmond had an aisle so narrow that it seemed prudent to navigate it sideways, and after takeoff, the flight attendant announced she would bring the beverage cart to us, but we would need to keep our feet out of the aisle; otherwise she would not have room to roll the cart.

In Richmond, there were signs telling us how wonderful the newly renovated airport is going to be. But I am afraid I will not live to see that — especially if I have to walk another quarter mile to retrieve my luggage (which, incidentally, on this trip was lost). Meanwhile, the Richmond International Airport reports that there are eight carriers that served 2.9 million passengers here in 2005.

Suppose for a moment the airline planners were to say to themselves: This is a service we are providing for the people of our country who must get from one place to

another. Let's make them as comfortable as we can. On its Web site the Bureau of Transportation reports that 658 million people used our airlines for the 12 months ending in February. Suppose the planners were to take a hard look at the tired faces of these travelers sitting in the waiting lounge for a flight. Suppose they were to remember that this group of poor, beaten-down passengers consists of customers, not nuisances.

Instead, this country seems to have decided there will be no mass transit, no wonderful European-style train service. And the corporate executives have decided

they can and will use private jets for their travel, leaving commercial flights to the lower classes. USA Today reports that personal use of corporate jets has soared, that "when it comes to one choicer perk, the sky's the limit." Perhaps so, but we still need to make our system work, and to work for the huge numbers of our friends and neighbors who deserve a chance to travel without feeling like a bunch of cattle.

Does anyone have a solution? S

Rozanne Epps is copy chief at Style Weekly and editor of the Back Page.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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