BOSTON -- As a frequent-flying critic who's watched the deteriorating performance of the airlines from a nonsmoking aisle seat, I was among those who called for an accounting. At the very least, disgruntled travelers deserved some information. At the very least, the airlines deserved some humiliation.
Then the Department of Transportation parachuted into the act. It issued its first monthly report, an 800-page book of computer printouts, marking the airlines for tarmac tardiness, bungled baggage and bumped bodies.
They put the worst culprits into the spotlight. USAir got the booby prize for lateness and Northwest for baggage mishandling. Presidential Airlines was the biggest bumper of the crop. As for airports, laid-back San Francisco came in last.
Like most travelers, I felt vindicated by the monthly report card. But the flush of victory didn't last any longer than a low-cost fare. Now that we are deep into the peak holiday travel schedule, I must admit that this knowledge hasn't set me free, at least not of anxiety.
DOT never did ask airlines to list how often they were late due to mechanical problems. It was afraid that an airline might respond by letting the planes go up with a few widgets out of whack rather than hurt its rating. Not a comforting thought.
Moreover, a national comparison-shopping list isn't all that helpful if there's only one store in town. In theory, the airlines are competitive, but not always in practice.
According to the DOT chart, your best shot for an on-time trip is to take American Airlines from Charlotte to Dallas. But this isn't helpful if you live in Des Moines and want to go home to Seattle for Christmas. Nor is it practical to adopt another set of parents.
My own airport, Boston's Logan, is among the half-dozen worst in the country. As a savvy consumer searching for a better landing, I should fly into Salt Lake City. But it would be a bit of a drive home.
The DOT report has let the consumer beware. But we're already wary, weary and worried. We need the airline companies to keep us company in our high anxiety.
Needless to say, I have a plan. The only workers at the front lines of the air battle today are pilots, flight attendants and gate agents. We have to get mechanics, air-traffic controllers, baggage handlers and executives aloft and involved.
We could begin with the mechanics. Everyone who flies says a prayer for the health and welfare of the mechanic: may your days be sunny and your attention be focused. But why leave our friendly mechanics behind?
During World War II, I am told, the people who packed parachutes were occasionally asked to take a test drop with their own products. This possibility hung over their heads, so to speak, adding that little edge of sensitivity to their work.
What if airplane mechanics knew that they could be randomly selected -- not to say hijacked -- for a hop on a plane they worked on? Might this not focus the mind wonderfully?
Now air-traffic controllers. I know they are under enough stress. Why not send them for a nice relaxing trip over Chicago during peak hours. They could pass the time by reading the identifying letters on the planes surrounding them. They could feel what it's like to be a mere blip on a radar screen.
I don't want to be cruel about this hands-on program. If mid-level executives don't want to fly, that's okay. They can have an alternative sentence spent explaining the ticket-price system to passengers: ''Congratulations! You are blue-eyed, 26 years old and flying on an odd-lettered day to see a sick relative! You get a 35 percent discount!''
At all times, a special role should be reserved for airline CEOs. As troubleshooter, the CEO should be brought to the gate one Friday night a year to deal with the cancelation of a jumbo jet. Remember, no drugs allowed for this activity.
I have suggestions for handling baggage-handlers as well. Each month, they should be required to check in their grandmother's china or their firstborn child, whichever they prefer.
What if the DOT hierarchy resists this sensible plan, which is far more useful than a wimpy monthly report? We can reserve the right to ticket their paychecks on a 20-stop flight plan through the air-travel system, until they give up. Not to worry, guys. Everything is under control. Air control.