Wednesday, July 18, 2007

As Air Travel Problems Mount, One Reporter Is Best

One reporter stands out above all others in covering the mounting problems of air travel in the U.S. and abroad. He is Joe Sharkey of the New York Times, whose column "On the Road" and other articles have set such a high standard that no one else is really competing with him.

By happenstance, Sharkey even has a connection to Brazil's tragic airline safety problems. He was on board the business jet that collided over the Amazon last Sept. 29 with a plane belonging to Gol airlines. No one on the corporate jet was hurt, but all 154 persons on board the Brazilian plane were killed. Up until last night, when at least 189 persons in the air and on the ground were killed at Sao Paulo Airport in the flaming crash of a TAM passenger plane, the Sept. 29 incident was the worst in Brazilian history.

There is no thought at present that U.S. air travel problems are as serious as Brazil's. The plane that crashed last night was landing on what a court had already held was too short a runway, in a rainstorm. The U.S. doesn't have such dire safety problems, but it has a crisis brewing this summer over airline delays, poor and sometimes even brutal treatment of passengers, and a fare structure which, in the absence of government regulation, no longer adequately serves either the airlines or the passengers.

Sharkey is superb at covering this, and the New York Times, to its credit, has given him the resources to do the job. Sharkey travels very frequently, and has become so well known as an air travel reporter that many stories fall into his lap, which happened in the past week. Distressed travelers call him, he doesn't have to call them.

By contrast, the L.A. Times has never had a reporter like Sharkey. The LAT covers airports and, of course, air crashes, but it scarcely covers air travel, and, under the penurious Tribune policies, it is providing less coverage, not more, in virtually all areas. Now that Eric Malnic has retired, even Times coverage of air crashes has languished.

The secret of Sharkey's reporting is that he pays tremendous attention to the problems of air travel as they affect the consumer. And he has an eye for the bizarre that brings these stories to life.

In Tuesday's New York Times, for example, he tells two stories which demonstrate just how bad things have gotten on the nation's airliners.

First, there is the account of what happened to Steven Khadavi, a passenger on a US Airways plane from La Guardia Airport in New York to Buffalo, Khadavi contacted Sharkey by text message from the plane to say, "I'm sitting on Flight 4385...We've been on the ground since 2:45 with no air. It's at least 110 degrees on the plane. There's a poor baby on the plane crying hysterically, likely from overheating."

When Sharkey checked this out, he found that dozens of airplanes had been piling up on the La Guardia tarmac, and that the US Airways Web site was saying Khadavi's flight had departed and was in the air when it wasn't.

When he first got Khadavi's message, Sharkey writes, "Strange, I thought. Here it is 2007, and I'm getting distress signals that sound as if they ought to be accompanied by the tapping of a telegraph key."

Sharkey was soon exchanging text messages with Khadavi. "Flight attendant says she can't talk to the pilot because he's in 'sterile flight,' a phrase I haven't heard before," Khadavi tapped out.

"Sterile flight?", Sharkey wrote in his column. "The plane clearly was stuck on a ramp, along with dozens of other flights. I wasn't sure how sterile it was, but it sure wasn't in flight."

At 5 p.m., Khadavi messaged Sharkey, "They just cancelled the flight." He said he'd been planning to take his family to
Quebec over the weekend by air, but now had decided to drive.

This was a microcosm of the stories of all of the people this summer who have been mistreated by airlines determined to make them wait on the tarmac for hours in hopes of either getting them in the air, usually in heated conditions and without food, or simply finding a gate for them, since all the gates are taken. Some passengers have been stuck in planes for eight hours or more. Khadavi did not have it as bad as the others. Still, his story was revealing.

The second story Sharkey told in his column yesterday was about the woman from Atlanta taken with her toddler off a Continental Express flight because her toddler kept saying, "Bye-bye plane!" as the aircraft taxied to the runway in Houston.

"As initially reported by WSB-TV in Atlanta," Sharkey writes, the flight attendant told the mother, 'You need to shut your baby up,' and suggested a dose of Benadryl, an allergy medicine that often causes drowsiness.

"The mother informed the flight attendant that she was not going to drug her child to prevent his saying 'Bye-bye plane.' The flight attendant walked up to the cockpit to report that the mother had threatened her. The plane turned back. Mother and child were removed.

"The other passengers backed up the mother's story," Sharkey writes. "Continental Express said it was investigating."

Only Sharkey tells such stories so well. Most other newspapers don't even have people assigned to them. At the L.A. Times, publisher David Hiller is far more concerned with groveling to any cost-cutting directives he gets from his Chicago bosses, than he is at improving Times consumer coverage.

But the larger point is that the airlines have been cutting back services to such a degree that it is now often a miserable experience to fly. My m0st recent flights on United Airlines and American Airlines were so terrible that I told my travel agent never to put me on either of those airlines again. I now fly across the country on Southwest, which is marginally better, and in California, since I'm retired and have the time, I take the train.

I believe we ought to go back to government-regulated fares, in a move to stem the cutthroat competition that is bringing the air service crisis to a boil. Then, fares might be set at a realistic level.

Am I advocating higher fares? I certainly am, if it brings back a modicum of service, meals on trans-continental flights and so forth. When I was a Freshman at Dartmouth 50 years ago, the fares to the Coast were about what they are today, and I'm not talking dollars adjusted for inflation, I'm talking just plain dollars. Fifty years without an increase has not caused a satisfactory situation, either for the airlines or the passengers.


On other transportation items in the news, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has gotten his comeuppance from the New York Legislature on his proposal to institute "congestion pricing" in Manhattan, charging people who drive in or out $8 a day. Approval was required in the Legislature, and Bloomberg did not get it. Thank goodness!

Also, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, in an Op Ed Page piece in the L.A. Times has assailed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for diverting money away from transportation bonds approved by the voters last year. The governor's action to use the money for something else substantially reduces construction of much-needed rail transit in the state. Feuer deserves high marks for pointing out Schwarzenegger's shortcomings.



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5/25/2010 7:09 AM  
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