Why Flying Now Can Kill

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By A.L. Bardach
Sunday, October 14, 2007

I am haunted by the death of Carol Anne Gotbaum.

I didn't know the mother of three who died shackled to a bench in the Phoenix airport on Sept. 28, en route to an alcohol treatment center in Tucson. I don't know, beyond what I read in the newspapers, what troubles weighed on her. But I do know this: Based on my own recent flight experiences, hers was a death foretold.

There's every reason to believe that Gotbaum would be alive today if she had been allowed to board her flight to Tucson and take her rightful seat. While her tragedy has been a Page One story in many newspapers, few reports have focused on the fact that the airlines involved, US Airways and its subcontractor, Mesa Airlines, are notorious for overbooked flights. According to the New York Times, US Air had revenue last year of $11.56 billion. Of that, $1 billion was the result of diligent overbooking.

The stressful, often incendiary situations created by overbooking infuriate perfectly healthy, well-adjusted passengers. It's not hard for me to imagine that an emotionally fragile, vulnerable person like Gotbaum could have felt absolutely desperate.

Gotbaum wasn't late for boarding. She didn't forfeit her place by ignoring the airline's procedures. Her only mistake was showing up at the US Airways gate and believing that her paid-in-full, reserved-seat airline ticket meant that she would actually have a seat on the plane.

We made the same mistake. In May, I was to give a speech in Washington. I was recovering from a health problem, so I asked my husband to accompany me on the trip. A plane ticket was purchased for me on US Air. It wasn't a cheap ticket; together, the cost of our flights came to close to $1,500.

Bob and I had never flown US Air before, and we just laughed when the friend who dropped us off at the Santa Barbara airport barked, "Don't do it. It's the worst airline in the history of aviation." But then we saw the long, snaking lines at the counter, which was attended by just two employees.

When we finally reached the counter a half-hour later, the ticket agent told us that the plane had been overbooked and that there were no seats for us. I explained that I had an appointment in Washington and was also dealing with a health issue. To our surprise, the staff, who seemed exhausted and overwrought, were not especially sympathetic: The flight was overbooked, they said, and that's all there was to it.

What I didn't know then but learned later is that many of US Air's flights are subcontracted to the ultra-economy Mesa Airlines. Both Mesa and US Air are based in Arizona, and Mesa, we would learn, is famous for its penny-pinching, understaffing ways. My husband and I, as well as Carol Gotbaum, were dealing with Mesa personnel, although the airport signs were for US Airways.

Initially, we were told that we were being denied boarding because we had bought our tickets on the Internet. But that wasn't true. Then the counter person said that we were the last to check in when, in fact, there were half a dozen people behind us -- also with reserved seats. Finally, one staffer leveled with us and said: "Look, they [US Air] overbook all of our flights." Not only could we not get on our flight, but the next flight was also overbooked, and the one after that. There was simply no guarantee that we'd be able to get out that day.

Other passengers stepped up to help. Three people who were traveling on vacation offered to switch with us, preferring to get a free plane ticket for volunteering to be bumped. But we watched incredulously as the Mesa counter personnel talked each one out of switching with us. Much the same thing happened to Carol Gotbaum.

A great deal has been made of the fact that she was on her way to an alcohol rehab center, but no one has come forward to say they saw her drinking that day. The only difference between her and us was our reaction. We didn't lose control, but we were plenty steamed. When we learned that all the flights had been overbooked, my husband confronted the counter staff while I sat down and cried. That's why I can imagine the desperation the situation would evoke in someone who was ill, disabled or distraught. I only had to get to Washington for a conference; Carol Gotbaum's health and life depended on her getting to Tucson.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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