Whatever Happened to the Friendly Skies?

A man was arrested at Newark Airport earlier this summer for breaking the neck of a Continental Airlines gate agent. The newspaper accounts did not say if other Continental Airlines customers cheered. If they didn’t scream, “Right on, brother!” out loud, you may be sure many of them were silently applauding the mayhem being inflicted on this living, visible symbol and representative of the airline company.

According to Port Authority police, if you chose to believe them, the man had gone into a jetway without a boarding pass, and the gate agent attempted to stop him and got his neck snapped for his trouble. If you chose to believe the alleged assailant, he went into the jetway to retrieve his toddler, who had temporarily escaped the parental grasp, and the gate agent tried to stop him. Michelle Treacy, a spokesman for Continental, called the man’s description of what happened “a complete perversion of the facts.” Maybe she’s right, but experience teaches us that nobody in his right mind would believe a word any spokesman for any airline says.

Another Continental spokesman, Catherine Stengel, announced to the press, “We will not stand for any violence against our employees.… The safety of our employees is very important to us.” If she expressed similar sentiments about the well-being of her customers, they went unrecorded.

Instead of issuing bellicose statements about not permitting violence, the airlines might consider how they provoke it. There will be more outbursts and, unless the airlines change their ways, nothing short of teaching Continental employees martial arts or giving them sidearms may protect them against the fury of customers, who are now said to exhibit a new medical phenomenon: “air rage.”

Anyone flying steerage, or what Continental calls tourist class, will feel justified in unleashing anger against anyone connected with the airline company. The cattle being trucked from the feed lots to the slaughterhouses of Nebraska enjoy comparable accommodations to what Continental is offering its passengers, especially in the newer Boeing 737-800 planes. The seat rows in these new planes are but 31 inches apart, and the width of the seats themselves is a little more than half that figure. There aren’t enough toilets in the 737-800 so that someone unlucky enough to be trapped in one on a coast-to-coast flight may suffer through six hours in a flying pigsty before getting off the plane.

The pigsty effect is enhanced by the bad, stale, germ-laden, lip-parching air that seems to have become the travel environment inside today’s passenger planes. The reason usually given for the rotten air is that it costs an airline too much money in fuel to give its customers healthy stuff to breathe. Perhaps airline executives are persuaded that air pollution in New York and Los Angeles is already so bad the customers can’t tell the difference. Or perhaps they believe that the bad air in their planes tranquilizes the passengers and therefore makes it less likely that these abused souls will tear the faces off the cabin attendants.

Timothy Peterson, a Continental baggage handler, was quoted in The New York Times saying, “People’s attitudes have changed … They are aggravated with long lines and flight delays. They’re becoming more aggressive. People lash out, scream at ticket agents. I’m concerned for my personal safety.” As a personnel safety measure, the rotten-air tactic doesn’t appear to be working. Indeed, people’s attitudes about flying have changed, as is evidenced when you see them limping off their non-on-time flights, gasping and infected from the foul air, nauseated by the so-called food, as our young people might say, and crippled with back pains and leg cramps. Today’s airline passenger is a surly, wounded animal.

If you want to see how attitudes have changed, you need only reflect on how people dress when they go to the airport. Once upon a time, people would spiff up for a trip through the air. Even the children were put in their patent-leather shoes. Today, the savvy traveler doesn’t even wear clean jeans. Old, dirty clothes are donned for the ordeal of being shoved, pushed and shoehorned into the often soiled seats.

Bitter feelings toward airlines are compounded by the growing number of late flights. One day last May, The Wall Street Journal reported, delays on Continental (them again) flights out of Newark added up to an astonishing 31,000 passenger hours. And who can forget the stories last Christmas about the Northwest passenger-victims kept incarcerated on an airplane at an airport in Detroit for upward of 12 hours. Note the reaction of the nation’s largest airlines to lateness, which has become their standard operating mode. First they blame the Federal Government and then they punish the passengers by closing the doors earlier and too bad for you if you’re not on board.

In any honestly run business, the timetables would be changed to reflect the actualities. Scheduled arrival and departure times should be drawn up to accord with real flight times. Of course, this would be a convenience to the passengers, which is against airline policy. It would also cut down on the number of passenger cardiac infarcts suffered in the course of running through airport hallways to make unrealistically ticketed connecting flights. That is against airline policy, too, as is telling the truth–which airline schedules with real flight times would do. We are talking about an industry that has made itself notorious for refusing to level with the relatives of passengers killed in airplane crashes.

Ticket agents, flight attendants and pilots are ordinarily polite, pleasant people who keep on smiling even though they are working for throwbacks to 19th-century robber-baron capitalism. The same cannot be said of the thugs and cretins employed to be the modern version of the old-fashioned Pinkertons, the uniformed men and women who run the X-ray machines and the rest of the security apparatus. Many of them, I suspect, had their applications for concentration camp guards rejected, and so they got hired at the airport. Their boorishness and dedication to being as unhelpful as possible is matched by their inefficiency. One of the constantly reoccurring stories of contemporary journalism is about the latest test of the airport security system. Apparently, you can get a 105-millimeter howitzer past these bozos if you have a mind to.

That they treat the customers like fish (jail slang for inmates) and act like screws (jail slang for guards) there can be no doubt. They make it a point of honor to answer no questions about gates and flight times, and should a passenger so much as mutter a complaint he or she will be threatened with arrest. On the plus side, since airliners have become flying cattle cars, it is just as well that the passengers get acclimated to being treated as livestock even before they get to the gate.

The authorities will be making a mistake if they go ahead and try the passenger accused of breaking the gate agent’s neck. No jury, at least not one composed of people who’ve flown in airplanes, will ever convict. What’s more, we can have the courage to hope that this passenger will become (pardon the use of the expression) a role model for the rest of us, and then, perhaps, we can look forward to a sort of frequent-flier St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when we rise up and break all their necks.