Airline passengers are not just frustrated with the continued deterioration of customer service. They're upset by the lack of retaliatory measures available to them when the airlines let them down.
At least that's one conclusion you might reach based on the comments posted by 70 readers in response to the recent Practical Traveler column, "Flight Chaos Shows Passengers Have Few Rights," which was posted online on April 16 (and which is still available at nytimes.com/travel).
Many readers agreed with Dean Headley, an associate professor at Wichita State University, whose connecting American Airlines flight from Dallas to Wichita was canceled this month because of maintenance inspections ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration. "In the airline industry," he said, "the passenger is left holding the bag." ("That's only if the bag wasn't shipped to Omaha instead," chimed in one reader, Allen Shaffer.)
Because of the inspections debacle, Headley - who, in a coincidence, was returning home after presenting a report in Washington on the decline of airline quality - made it home roughly seven hours late and had to wait two days for his checked bags to arrive.
The Rev. Randolph W.B. Becker, a reader from Key West, Fla., was also caught up in the inspections chaos. After his Friday flight home from Albuquerque on American was canceled, and the next best alternative offered by the airline was a flight the following day into Miami (a 3 1/2-hour drive from his home), Becker took matters into his own hands. He made it home that Friday by purchasing a ticket from Southwest to Fort Lauderdale and renting a car for the drive home.
A reader who signed off as K from Brooklyn stressed preparedness: "When we fly, we fly defensively - we try to take direct flights only to minimize the time wasted and the stress endured trying to make a connecting flight. We take only carry-on bags to avoid lost luggage. If we fly internationally, we get travel insurance."
A few readers criticized
"Way to go, Air Canada. Charging $50 for the privilege to talk to a human being. That's really low. Don't expect me to fly you any time soon," posted a reader with the screen name "rockfan, nyc."
But a representative from Air Canada also weighed in with a response that explained that the service helps passengers reach their destinations by not only offering to rebook them on the first available flight, but also arranging free meals, hotel lodgings, car rentals or other ground transportation no matter what the reasons for a delayed or canceled flight.
"It is not an example of how airline service falls short, implying offering less than they did," said John Reber, an Air Canada spokesman. "On the contrary, it illustrates how Air Canada is looking beyond common industry practice to find innovative solutions for travelers caught in difficult situations unique to today's challenging travel environment." He added, "The travel environment has changed. There didn't used to be delays related to long security lines. There didn't used to be flight delays due to air traffic control delays. This is a daily occurrence. This is a new reality, and that's what we're responding too."
A handful of reader responses were in defense of the airlines. "I fly for work regularly, and most of the problems I experience are beyond the control of the airlines and are exacerbated by irate and unreasonable passengers themselves," wrote Travis C. Stalcup from Chicago who flew on American on April 10 and found its gate and ticket agents "available, patient, and helpful."
Some readers said the government should step in with greater regulation or open the domestic market to more competition from foreign airlines. "We need the government to act to stabilize and restore a minimum level of reliability and service to the industry," wrote John Spohn from Austin, Texas.
(One bit of good news since the column was published online: Passengers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight can now expect a little bit more from the airlines. The Department of Transportation recently doubled the limit on the compensation that airlines must pay to passengers who are involuntarily bumped from their flights.
Starting next month, these travelers would receive up to $400 in cash if they reach their destination within two hours of their original arrival time, or four hours for international flights. They would receive up to $800 if they are not rerouted within that time frame. The previous $200 and $400 limits had not been raised since 1978.)
Resignation was a resounding theme. "All we should expect from the airlines is a safe plane to fly us from point A to point B. Nothing else," posted Maribel Haldi from New York. She added, "Be glad that the airlines had to repair their planes, and did."
And one reader had a novel suggestion for how to fix the chaos in the skies: Get Ralph Nader to stop running for president.
"Ralph Nader could do a lot of good to get real improvement in this situation for airline passengers, as he has done in the past," wrote Beth, of Fairfax, Va.
"He has experience and expertise in doing good things to get passenger rights respected. He is wasting his talent in his ill-advised run for president, when he is truly needed now to make the airlines behave in how they treat passengers. Ralph, we appreciate all the good work you have done in the past; please go back to doing this work again."