Chris BaldwinThis Week at April 25, 2006

Airlines back to treating fliers like dirt

Air travel has long been the equivalent of getting stuffed into a sardine can at 30,000 feet. And now, it's worse.

For a while there after 9/11, the major airlines actually started treating their customers with a modicum of respect. They worried about losing loyal customers to fear. They weren't so condescending at check-in. They threw in an extra bag of peanuts here and there. Flight attendants even occasionally smiled.

Not anymore. In the last year so, the difference has been noticeable. And it seems to become more so every month.

The Bush administration has done a good job in restoring Americans' confidence in air safety. Gas prices are so high car travel isn't such a cheap alternative anymore (not such a good job). People are returning to the skies at almost pre 9/11 levels.

Life's good for the airlines. So they make it worse for you. Fares went from creeping up to $50 increases on a lot of routes, led by supposed low-fare airlines such as Southwest (apparently, they need some extra cash to pay for those hilarious commercials).

The higher fare can at least be blamed on the oil business (hey, it always works for gas station owners). It's the rebirth of the rudeness quotient that really rankles. The airlines aren't just charging extra for every little thing they can think of. Sandwiches, aisle seats, multi-colored luggage. Next, you pay double if you only want to be 40 minutes late! Forget nickel and diming, this is more like Alexander Hamiltoning you.

It goes beyond that. It's an attitude of disservice. Have you asked a flight attendant for a pillow lately? Inquired about the availably of a seat change at a "customer service" desk? Vijay Singh gives Phil Mickelson more loving stares.

A seasoned traveler told me the story of getting bumped off a flight from Las Vegas because he showed up 58 minutes prior to departure. The check-in clerk told him there was no way he could physically make it to the gate in just 58 minutes. This is a healthy 40-year-old guy who wasn't been held down by two gargoyles while getting licked by a waitress in a school girl uniform. What exactly was going to keep him from the gate, again?

I personally witnessed two businessmen types get threatened with arrest when they slightly raised their voice at the check-in counter after what sounded like their third canceled flight of the day. The woman behind the counter started wailing about "verbal abuse" and a cop sprinted up, TJ Hooker style.

Arrest threats are thrown around at airports these days like chocolate is at Willy Wonka's factory. A grandmother walks by with her bag and two airport cops put their hands on their holsters.

Yes, we have to use your airlines to get to great golf destinations like Scottsdale and Ireland. We're captive. But that doesn't mean airline employees on power trips should run amok again.

As always, welcomes your comments.

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