Why Flying Now Can Kill

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.

We eventually made it to Washington after Mesa/US Air dispatched us to another airport 100 miles away in a speeding taxi. The experience, however, stayed with us for a long time afterward, especially as we experienced more overbooking problems -- as well as lost luggage, delays and rerouted flights -- on every leg of our trip to and from Washington.

At various airports, I interviewed any US Air/Mesa staffers who would talk to me. On one flight segment, we sat with several Mesa/US Air staff members and a pilot and heard quite an earful. This small group said that to increase profitability, Mesa understaffs all its sales counters, baggage staff and other personnel and slashed health care and pensions, while US Air overbooks all flights and often issues duplicate seat assignments. We learned that the staff and the pilots were virtually at war with Mesa's chief executive, Jonathan Ornstein. We listened as one flight attendant told us that they have schemed and dreamed of "flying over his home and dropping the lavs," referring to the airplanes' toilets. The pilot told us they were terribly underpaid and overworked and that flying conditions were unsafe. Some pilots, he said, made only $19,000 a year and did not have adequate training.

Other staffers told us that many US Air/Mesa personnel were dispirited and overworked, which often led them to vent their frustration on passengers, in a sort of "kick the dog" syndrome, especially in Phoenix. One flight attendant said she had once seen five people arrive a few minutes late at the Phoenix counter and be denied the right to board even though the flight attendants and pilot were willing to allow them on. In this rare case, the plane was not overbooked, and the passengers' seats were available. Still, the counter staff wouldn't let them board.

Some of what we heard from such disgruntled personnel was later confirmed in the New York Times. On May 30, the newspaper ran an article looking behind the scenes at the airline practice of overbooking in which US Air figured prominently. It quoted a US Airways official as saying that employees called in sick because they didn't want to deal with overbookings, and a Boston gate agent complained, "You know you're going to be yelled and screamed at to the point you have to call the police."

But what about the passengers? US Air has said that it gave away Gotbaum's seat on a connecting flight because she arrived at the gate with only 25 minutes -- instead of 30 -- to spare. But she had already checked in for that flight at John F. Kennedy airport in New York. You don't have to check in again in the connecting city, as I understand US Air's regulations. The rules as posted on the airline's Web site also state, "Reservations are subject to cancellation if you are not checked in and at the departure gate at least 15 minutes prior to departure." Gotbaum was still covered. She'd left 25 minutes to spare.

Still, she was denied her reserved seat on the 1:30 flight. Nor did they allow her to board the next flight at 2:58 -- which, of course, was also overbooked. Finally, Mesa's counter personnel refused to let willing passengers switch with the clearly distraught Gotbaum. When she began to weep and protest, they called the police, who handcuffed her arms behind her back and dragged her away to a holding cell. They left her chained alone to a bench, crying inconsolably. Not long after, she was found dead, the chain shackling her to the bench stretched across her throat.

Surely US Air/Mesa employees aren't bad people. They're doing their jobs -- understaffed and underpaid -- in an industry with seemingly no oversight or accountability.

My husband and I didn't just get mad, we got even. Upon our return to Santa Barbara, we filed a complaint in small claims court for $7,500, the maximum allowed. US Air settled with us in June.

Carol Gotbaum's family may be getting ready to sue, too. But it's too late for her.


A.L. Bardach is the author of

"Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana" and the forthcoming "Without Fidel."

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