"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 March 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Flight of the Crybabies



If aliens, Iraqis and rum-and-Coke

dinners can't keep America's

pilots from slipping the surly

bonds of Earth, what hope is

there for the cretins who have

to ride coach? "We are the

victims and we are being shamed

for not having the proper

attitude," irate passenger

Barbara Plecas recently told the

House Transportation Committee,

which is considering several

"passenger bill of rights"

measures. But at the same time

that Plecas and others were

sounding off in Washington, a

Santa Monica court was upholding

the right of a flight crew to

abuse an even better-heeled

passenger - socialite Marcelle

Becker. An American Airlines

crew had acted properly, the

jury ruled, in restraining the

Beverly Hills widow and tying

her wrists with a dog leash

after Becker's 13-year-old

Maltese, Dom Perignon, turned

the cabin into an exclusive

upscale doggy run.


It's a thumbnail sketch of how

government works in contemporary

America: Professional

dilettantes in the Capitol pass

feel-good legislation that will

inevitably be reversed by the

courts, where all real civil

authority now resides. In fact,

Congress is cruelly misleading

all those laptop schnooks,

singing nuns, and Tom

Clancy-grokking junior vice

presidents who now kvetch their

way across the delirious burning

blue. New legislation encourages

the already strong belief that

running up a few frequent flyer

miles entitles you to dance the

skies on laughter-silvered wings

while acting like a demanding

jackass. In fact, precisely the

opposite is true.



Pilots are now more likely than

ever to divert flights just to

make sure unruly passengers get

prompt jail time. Flight

attendants - already frazzled

from the burden of making sure

nobody gets a full can of Coke -

have greater leeway to respond

to your petulant nitpicking with

a disgruntled "fly me!" It's a

disjunction you can see every

time your flight gets delayed

and some boarding-line firebrand

hollers at the ticket agent

while glancing around the

waiting area in search of

fellow-traveler shows of support

that never come. He may think he

has the full weight of

consumerist America behind him,

but he's wrong. From the

drunken, incontinent investment

banker who unloads his cargo

into the serving cart to the

thunder-thighed nymphet whose

skimpy Catholic schoolgirl

outfit creates an attractive

nuisance for porn-starved

customs agents, the

general consensus these days is

that the customer is always



And for those of us who never

had any illusions about joining

the tumbling mirth of sun-split

clouds, who recognize air travel

as something to be endured in a

state of placid unhappiness,

that's a welcome development. If

you keep your sense of

entitlement under control, you

remember that being able to fly

is something you should be

grateful for under any

circumstances. Anybody who isn't

sufficiently impressed by the

intrinsic luxury of being packed

into a metal tube and whisked

across continents in a matter of

hours - who insists that the

miracle be accompanied by

chicken or beef, honey roasted

nuts, and uninterrupted

screenings of Chairman of the

Board - deserves to be wheeled

and swung into the sunlit

silence without further oxygen.



In fact, the dogfight over

in-flight customer service is a

textbook example of the

principle that service with a

smile just makes people

miserable in the end. You'll

never see a fight over the lack

of complimentary cocktails

aboard a bus - the mode of

transportation that, when all is

said and done, most closely

approximates the experience of

air travel (while being

inexplicably more expensive). In

fact, we believe the whole issue

will be solved not by better

customer service but

the absence thereof. If

passengers are ever to learn the

true nature of High Flight, it

will be by getting less of what

they want and more of what they

deserve - no food, no movie, no

windows, less leg room, and no

service crew (except maybe a

security officer who's not shy

about using the Taser on anybody

who speaks out of turn). They

really are way ahead of us

overseas, where passengers on

Mongolian Airlines and Balkan

Bulgarian Air have expected and

gotten this kind of service all

along. Stateside, Southwest and

Airtran (formerly Valujet) are

taking the first baby steps into

the no-service future.

Inevitably, the people who fly

these airlines end up blubbering

about the horrible experience

over Thanksgiving dinner.



But it's not so much passengers

as pilots who are to blame for

the fantasy that passenger

planes are or should be flying

luxury liners. This delusion can

be traced back to the days when

Howard Hughes was shooting his

first hit of codeine aboard the

Spruce Goose, and Pan Am Clipper

pilots were loudly insisting

that their jackets include

special Cap'n Crunch stripes on

the sleeves so that awestruck

Polynesian princesses would

recognize these men weren't just

drivers but courageous skippers

flinging their eager craft

through footless halls of air.

From there it's been a short hop

to the modern-day phenomenon of

self-satisfied Ted Turner

look-alikes giving


see-the-Mall-of-America color

commentary on the PA system,

while performing a task that

isn't substantially different

from Ralph Kramden's engineering of

the Bensonhurst-Astoria line.

Granted, US Air pilots can

always give choo-choo lap rides

to giggling flight attendants -

a perk that doesn't seem to be

available to the MTA's

overworked slobs. But the fact

remains that the Dallas-to-

O'Hare leg lacks even a Captain

Stubing-level of globetrotting

grandeur. The enduring

popularity of Airplane may owe

less to its dated jive jokes and

that aggressively unfunny

"Johnny" character than to our

suspicion that, in a pinch, even

Ted Striker could fly a plane.



That's not to blame the air rage

epidemic on the pilots. The main

complaints at the recent

congressional bitch-fest

centered on scheduling delays

that frequently leave passengers

whining on the Tarmac (flight

crews, currently pushing their

own flight-crew-protection

legislation, count excessive

carry-on baggage as the main

cause of airborne misery). But

the real culprit is the same

government agency that is

supposed to solve the problem -

the Federal Aviation Administration (the

leadership of which comprises

the résumé centerpiece of

budding historical footnote

Elizabeth Dole). The airlines -

already rendered strike-proof by

a Peruvian-style, presidential

fiat - now move close to a

billion people a year and are

ready to take on an even greater

payload. It's the infrastructure

at airports that slows things

down - specifically, the air

traffic control industry with

its all-scab work force (though

after nearly 20 years, we assume

they're highly qualified scabs).

The FAA is now crying for

attention with its Y2K

difficulties, but it's all a

ruse. Anybody who has flown

lately knows the FAA never had

computers in the first place.

And they have never done

anything to keep the airline

industry safe that the industry

- motivated by fear of lawsuits

- didn't do better on its own.


But in one respect, the

Passenger's Bill of Rights - and

the entire idea of letting the

government tie a can around the

tail section of the airline

industry - may be the beginning

of truly effective change. What

we should do is nationalize the

industry entirely; replace all

the pilots, agents, and barf-bag

handlers with government

employees; and let the nation's

mass of kvetching passengers

learn what surly, malevolent service

really looks like. An

Airplane-style bitch slap may be

just what the aviation

industry's detractors need when

they put out their hands and

touch the face of God.

courtesy of Bartel D'Arcy




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