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Fear of Flying 

Why do airlines suck these days?

Something has got to be done about the airline industry.

Upon my return from attending the National Association of Black Journalists Conference in Las Vegas, friends and family asked me if I had a good time while I was there. My initial response was, "No." But after much thought, I realized that I had in fact had a great time, but had temporarily forgotten about my experience due to my ordeal with the travel portion of the trip.

On my departure, I was scheduled to leave Charlotte, with a connection in Atlanta and onto Las Vegas. Well, the flight out of Charlotte was delayed, so I had to run full-speed ahead through Hartsfield-Jackson airport to make the next flight, which was delayed and at a different gate than the one posted on my boarding pass and on the departure board. Fast forward to the end of the trip. My flight was cancelled and I was re-booked onto a different flight on a different airline. I was bummed about the cancellation but excited because this was a direct flight; however, the excitement was short-lived. The new flight was delayed for more than three hours.

A recent article in The New York Times stated that airline delays are at their highest level in at least 13 years. The Department of Transportation said the industry's on-time performance in the first six months of the year was its worst since 1995, the earliest period for which the agency has comparable data. In June, nearly one third of domestic flights on major American airlines were late. According to an article in The Baltimore Sun, the on-time arrival rate of U.S. airlines in June was just above 68 percent, compared with roughly 73 percent in June last year, according to Transportation Department data. So far in 2007, nearly 25 percent of flights on the 20 largest carriers have arrived late, the agency said. Can you imagine being late for your job 32 percent of the time ... and still having one?

The airlines have run amok, and it is the passengers that are paying for it. The industry states that the reasons for the delays include weather-related issues and that air travel is on the rise. Bad weather cannot be helped and most people would choose safety over travel any day. But many of these delays are not weather-related and are the result of poor management. Like some hair salons, it seems to me that airlines have more passenger slots available than they have personnel to meet the needs of the passengers. In a quest to get as much money as possible, the airlines offer more flights than they can handle and then pretend as if they cannot deal with the large volume of passengers and their luggage.

In June 2007, lost, damaged, delayed or stolen baggage reports rose to 7.9 per 1,000 passengers, up from 6.3 per 1,000 in June 2006. Complaints about airline service filed with the government rose 43 percent from June 2006. Canceled trips rose to 2.7 percent of domestic flights in June, up from 1.7 percent in June of last year. The airline industry links the increased delays on a lack of a modern, satellite-based air traffic control system, combined with increasing demand. "We're not surprised by the numbers," said David A. Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group. "We have been saying for some time: It's going to get worse before it gets better." This attitude is exactly why I'm contemplating not flying any time soon.

Why is the mistreatment of passengers an acceptable result of this precarious situation? It's clear that the airline industry has a plan to fail, which is the direct result of their failure to plan, without regard for the needs and rights of passengers. Why would I want to continue to fly, especially if I don't have to? Luckily, passengers have been complaining to their congressional representatives about the delays, and a Passenger Bill of Rights is currently being mulled over. In their defense, the airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration have been pushing for a comprehensive upgrade to the existing radar-based system but have been mired in an intense political battle over who will pay for it -- big airlines or smaller aircraft users such as corporate jets. Again, it is the passengers who are made to pay, while the corporations work out details.

In the meantime, airline travel will continue to be troublesome. Traveling is hard enough, having to worry about potential terrorists and equipment malfunctions, without having to also endure the stress caused by solvable delays. Stop offering more flights than you can handle. Get a system that works. Having people wait on the tarmac for five hours at a time should never be allowed to happen unless there are extreme circumstances. If there are extreme circumstances, have a plan. How come there are not designated gates at airports that are only used for emergency situations?

At any rate, the airlines must pull themselves out of this sea of mediocrity. Yes, we live in a culture that is moving towards mediocrity at the speed of light, but this should not happen with our airlines. Bankruptcies, security breaches and major delays do not make passengers feel safe or appreciated. The bar has to be raised. Passengers need to continue to hold the airlines accountable for their actions, since it seems as if the FAA and ATA are not interested in performing that part of their job. Further, if you or I only made deadlines 68 percent of the time we would be fired. It is only fair to require that a greater effort be made by the airlines to better serve their passengers.

Nsenga K. Burton is a Charlotte-based writer, professor and filmmaker.

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