Last week, the Sunday Business section published several articles by staff writer Don Phillips, who recounted his experiences traveling on 18 flights in three weeks. On our Web site, at www.washingtonpost.com, we set up a page where readers could post their own comments and experiences. Don's stories certainly hit a nerve--about a hundred people submitted their own tales of woe or wry commentaries on the plight of the lowly airline passenger.
Not everyone has access to the World Wide Web--or the patience to go through pages of first-person experiences. So here are some of our favorite submissions to the Web page. We can't vouch for the accuracy of some of these stories, but this is how people remembered their experiences.
FREDERICK, Md.: I used to fly frequently between Dulles and Detroit for business. On one Northwest flight, we were served a snack of yogurt and bagels. The cabin was not pressurized correctly, so as the passengers opened their little containers of yogurt--packed at sea level--there were strawberry eruptions throughout coach class. I could see the gobs of yogurt rise above the backs of the seats in front of me. Quite a few well-dressed businesspersons left the plane with yogurt spots on their suits.
WASHINGTON: I have over 100,000 frequent-flier miles with United. One would think that would get me a break once in a while. Wrong! Unfortunately, due to my travel patterns, I am stuck with them as a carrier. Domestic flights on United are deeply depressing. Not enough seats in first to get an upgrade, even if you are willing to pay for it. Food is disgusting, even in first class. Nasty chicken breast in orange glop both ways to Denver this weekend in coach. The only way to survive these days is to bring your own food on board.
Never an empty middle seat in coach class. If the person in front of you puts their seat back down and you have the window seat, you are trapped for the rest of the flight. Last night from Denver--an hour late for unexplained reasons--100 on standby! No wonder passengers are so angry. The stress level of travel on United these days is so high that the only saving grace is my membership in the Red Carpet Club--which I pay for in full.
EL CAJON, Calif.: Two weeks ago my wife and I returned from Ireland via Aer Lingus. Arriving at JFK on time, the pilot discovered that some other airline had stolen his place at the terminal. We were bused to the loading dock and our baggage was literally thrown onto the conveyor belt, breaking several bags. Others were ripped by "employees" as the belt frequently jammed. My questions are: What's the criminal offense for stealing slots at JFK? For assault on luggage? Who would volunteer to go through JFK anyway?
KENSINGTON: Yes, I can cite several uncomfortable situations, but instead, here's a pleasant surprise. When it came time for dinner, my pull-down tray didn't work quite right. So, without a moment's hesitation, the flight attendant asked if I would like to sit in first class instead. Of course, I said yes, and was treated wonderfully by all, including getting all the perks a regular first-class passenger would get. This, by the way, was on American Airlines.
CHICAGO: Airlines are the Greyhounds of the '90s. Get over it. 'bout the only thing missing from the awful experience is watching them scrape gum off the floors at the dingy bus terminals. Other than that, it's the same damn thing. Ugh.
SILVER SPRING: The only thing I can't stand is when the airline people lie to you. Sometimes the lie can be so bad that they must think the passengers are idiots. My business partner and I were flying on AirTran from Atlanta to D.C. At the time our business was not successful and we were flying cheap by using the AirTran people. The flight itself was okay, but there was a four-hour delay in Atlanta. The gate people got on the speaker and said it was a weather-related delay. This was an outright lie. The CNN Airport News network on the TV right overhead said that it was sunny and calm throughout the East Coast that day and the weather in Atlanta was beautiful.
We called our wives in D.C. and they reported no weather problems. When we confronted the gate people with this, they got back on the speaker and said that it was not a weather delay but a slight mechanical problem with the plane. Then they told us that the light bulb on the wing needed to be changed and it was nothing to worry about. The plane was sitting right outside the window and about every repairman at the terminal was crawling all over it. Then finally they brought another plane in from Boston to take us home. Gosh, do you think there was something else wrong with the original plane than just a burnt-out wing light?
ALEXANDRIA: Last year I flew on a Northwest-KLM round-trip flight on official government business to Vienna, Austria. I was seven months pregnant at the time. The airlines lost my luggage. Northwest kept pointing the finger at KLM, and KLM kept pointing the finger at Northwest, and neither wanted to take responsibility. It was awful. My bag never did turn up, it cost me a couple thousand dollars to re-purchase maternity clothes in Austria--and when I returned home the most the airlines would compensate me was $649. As a government employee, we are not allowed to buy flight insurance, so I had to "eat" the loss. There is definitely a need for a passenger's rights bill.
WASHINGTON: Do other women feel they're not treated as politely as businessmen on travel? Even when they're clearly dressed for business travel themselves? I make it a practice if I'm flying in first or business class to see if the flight attendant will offer to take my coat or suit jacket. Nine times out of 10 they don't--but nine times out of 10 they always offer to do so for the men. I once raised this issue in a joking way with a flight attendant and she paused, said that she probably did fail on this and thanked me for "raising her consciousness." A small thing, but nice.
FALLS CHURCH: A few years ago my mother was flying from Dayton, Ohio, on TWA to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to see my brother. When she got home she went to unpack her suitcase and found that all of her jewelry had been stolen out of her suitcase by baggage handlers. She didn't know that baggage handlers are allowed to rifle through everybody's suitcase. A couple of years later my wife was flying on TWA on business and she had an awful lot to carry. Knowing of my mother's experience on TWA she was concerned about her laptop computer so she borrowed my padlock and used it to lock the suitcase. Well, the lock stopped the baggage handlers all right. So they just stole the whole suitcase.
ALEXANDRIA: For some reason, the smooth, uneventful flights fade from memory but the unusual ones linger and eventually we laugh. My favorite began on a Caribbean island when the Eastern Airlines captain announced there would be no restrooms available for the three-hour flight. He said there were no plumbers available on Sunday! Should he have said mechanics? He let everyone who needed to get off to use the terminal restrooms. It took so long people began to get off for a second shot and we were two hours late leaving when the airline said "get off or get on," we need to leave.
RESTON: In 1987, my wife and I were returning home after a trip to Greece. Our flight--one of those charters from hell--was scheduled to leave Athens in the late morning but was delayed some 14 hours. At first, we got the usual explanations: "routine repair," "waiting for a part," "the crew is coming in on another flight." As time passed and the passengers became increasingly irate, the excuses from the service counter became increasingly desperate: "We can't leave because the airport's closed," and--my favorite--"they've fixed the plane, but they have to take it up for a test flight."
From Free to $800-Plus
Here is what passengers paid for various seats on an 11:35 a.m. Northwest flight from Minneapolis to Anaheim, Calif., in February 1998. The plane is an Airbus A320.
CAPTION: Long lines at airports are among fliers' many complaints.