It's air-rageous: The friendly skies have turned on us

Friday, August 24, 2001 at 12:00am

Talk about family unfriendly! America West Airlines loses kids in airports and then decides to punish families for its mistakes. Three different times in recent weeks, America West employees put kids traveling without their parents on the wrong airplanes, even though the families had paid extra for escorts to accompany the children from one flight to another. One little girl went back and forth across the country for 18 hours because the escort put her on the wrong plane.

The airline's response? Refuse to allow unaccompanied children to change planes. Unless it's hub to hub, the kids are out of luck. And we're not talking about just a few kids here: 7 million children are estimated to have flown alone last year.

This is the kind of decision that makes customers crazy, that makes them lash out at airline workers in what's now called air rage. At a press conference this summer, the flight attendants' union claimed that 4,000 incidents of verbal or physical abuse against flight crews occur each year.

The publicity on air rage has focused on extreme cases - drunken, rowdy passengers who go nuts in the air and threaten to invade the cockpit or throw open an emergency door. But the flight attendants' union claims alcohol's not the only culprit. They contend with customers furious about crowded, expensive seats, lost luggage and overbooked, delayed or canceled flights. Abusive behavior is obviously inexcusable, but it's not surprising that people erupt in anger when cavalierly told that the airplane they had counted on for important business or personal reasons simply isn't flying.

The long-term forecast looks even gloomier for air passengers. With the economic downturn, many people have tightened their belt and have chosen not to travel. Companies that cut back on business travel in the economic slump are finding it just as easy to get things done by holding telephone, Internet or video conferences. Those lucrative business travelers might never return to the unfriendly skies. And the airlines, with the loss of those funds, will make the necessary cuts, and passenger service will deteriorate even further.

So what's a frustrated traveler to do? The Transportation Department is developing rules requiring airlines to report on the reasons flights are canceled or delayed, which would be posted on the Internet. It's supposed to shame the airlines into shaping up. We'll see.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed her own remedy for air travel problems - limit alcoholic beverages to two per flight. Set the quota, the senator tells the airlines, or face the possibility of a federal law requiring attendants to enforce the two-drink rule. Talk about air rage.

Imagine it: After the connection's been missed, luggage lost, flight overbooked, middle seat in the last row finally secured for a five-hour cross-country flight, the booze is then cut off. Flight attendants are understandably alarmed at the prospect of taking on the task of alcohol police. They picture riots in the aisles. Then all they could hope for would be a plane full of children traveling without those troublemaker grownups.

Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts are syndicated columnists.

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