IT WASN'T A BIG DEAL, it wasn't a little deal. It was a $42 deal, and I felt I was on the wrong end of it. I wanted Air India to pay up.

I telephoned, but of course they wanted a letter. All right, I wrote a letter. On Dec. 19. Four weeks passed and I got no response.

Not to worry, I thought. When the chips are down, the airline customer has a friend. A strong shoulder, a mighty champion, a faithful righter of wrongs. Sitting on my desk was a press release telling me so. None other than the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Civil Aeronautics Board was ready to assist me as it had some umpteen thousands of other troubled souls. Furthermore, it pointed out that it had also helped them retrieve some umpteen tons of money.

Succes seemed just around the corner. A small matter of another letter to the CAB and then, action!

Well, February is hardly anyone's best month, so I didn't mind when I heard nothing. I decided to look forward to March. Something did happen in March. I got a letter (dated Feb. 29) saying that my letter (dated Jan. 21) had indeed been received and that the delay in answering was regretted. Moreover, wheels were turning, attention being given. I would hear more.

In April, I did hear more. The Bureau of Consumer Portection was still doing fine work, according to the new press releases coming in. All was moving smartly in May, too. Because of "bumping" violations, American Airlines was to be parted from $7,000 -- the result of complaints brought by the Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The first week in June brought -- yes -- another press release, only this one was alarming. The headline ("CAB Urges Increased Local Involvement in Airline Consumer Matters") was ominous, and the first paragraph confirmed my worst fears. The CAB was announcing the start of a program to transfer the handling of airline consumer complaints to "local authorities."

Here I have to admit that I could never be married to G. Gordon Liddy. He'd forever be hanging tough and I'd always be cracking. I cracked. I took to my typewriter and let loose with all my hopes, dreams and fears -- the principal ones being that Air India was about to get away with something it shouldn't get away with, and how could a consumer protector go out of the protection business, and didn't they care and, come to think, just exactly where had they been for so many months? I then tore it into small pieces, drank a cup of tea for composure and picked up the telephone.

Glenn Wienoff, (202) 673-5482 is the chief of the Consumer Action Division of the CAB. He has a pleasant manner and a new computer. These are both important items. His office now handles about 40,000 consumer complaints annually. Principally they have to do with flight irregularities, baggage problems, customer treatment, reservations refunds, overbooking and "bumping."

Just in that week, for instance, they heard from the father of a girl who'd bought a first-class ticket on Continental to fly from Colorado Springs to Los Angeles, but due to bad weather she had first been bused to Denver and then had to fly coach class to Los Angeles. He thought she deserved a refund for what she didn't get, but the airline didn't agree. It argued that adding the bus fare to the coach fare made the total come to more than her original ticket cost. That's when the family turned to the CAB, said Wienhoff.

Naturally I was incredulous. The poor girl! What can she do? Where will she turn? Wienoff thinks she's turned to the right place. And he proceeded to offer reassurance that the CAB is not out of business yet.

"Local and state consumer orginizations have received complaints over the years, and over the years it's become the practice to buck them to us. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, though, means we'll trying to say to other groups 'You can handle these yourself.' We'd like to see more participation at the grassroots level."


The "hmmm" is because I wonder just how much a grassroot can do. After all, the CAB, as a government regulatory body, has considerable clout and constant communication with the airline industry. It can speak softly and still command quite a lot of attention. I decided to canvas a few airlines and find out who else gets their ear.

The answers were intriguing. First most of the industry people I spoke with said they preferred to hear directly from the complainants and, as Kay Lund of United candidly put it, "We try to give everybody a response as qucikly as possible because we don't want the adverse publicity and we do want to resolve things before a third party, legal action or regulatory intervention is needed. It's only practical."

Apart from complainants speaking for themselves, the CAB is by far the most used intermediary, but coming along fast are newspaper, radio and television "action lines." Also checking in from time to time are state and local consumer organgizations, states attorneys' offices, the Better Business Bureau, the Nader-associated Aviation Consumer Action Project, the Airline Passengers Association, private attorneys and occassionally a member of Congress. There is also a noticeable trend toward taking the airlines into small claims court.

The november 1979 issue of Consumer Reports contains the next closest thing to a blueprint on how to institute a small claims action. There's a hitch, though, in that the party you bring suit against must have an office in your area so that a summons can be issued. Furthermore, it does cost some money and more time.

Back to the CAB.

"Okay," I said to Wienhoff. "Suppose you do take your complaint to a local agency. How long should you expect to wait before hearing something?" Not knowing what I was Up to, he bit.

"If in two to three months you haven't heard anything, then you'd probably have a right to get agitated," he said.

My feeling has long been that if Agitated could help, I'd keep him around permanently. Instead, I tried Civil.

"Whatever do you suppose has happened to my complaint to you?" I said sweetly.

Time out for a turn at the new computer and a few phone calls: A letter is in the mail. I can't wait to see what it says. However, I'm willing to bet more correspondence is my destiny. For future complainers, I would also suggest that the name of this game should be "whoever tires first, loses."