The friendly skies of days gone by

by Jim Longworth

A few weeks ago I happened onto a TV show titled “Airline” on the Bravo channel. It is not a typical reality series. No one auditions. No one wins a recording contract and a trip to Hollywood. No one is forced to eat bugs or live with strangers in a strange place filled with hidden cameras (well, I might be wrong about that). And though “Airline” is clearly a promotional vehicle for Southwest Airlines, the series remains an unrehearsed looking glass into our society. Videotaped at LAX, Chicago Midway, Baltimore/Washington, Dallas and Atlanta, “Airline” chronicles the trials and tribulations of air travelers. A word of warning: If you’re over 40, viewing just one episode will make you yearn for the pre-deregulation era. Before I tell you why the warning is necessary, let’s review how things used to be. In the old days, flying was a privilege, not a right. Yes, it was expensive, and that’s why my family never flew anywhere together. But later, as I made a career in broadcasting and business, I became a frequent flyer and, with the exception of occasional turbulence, the experience was always enjoyable. “Stewardesses,” as we called them then, were attractive, friendly and compassionate. And most airlines had a dress code for passengers. Former TWA employee Dolores Hadsall recently told the Kansas City Star, “I worked for TWA in the seventies where the dress code for traveling first class was suits for men, and women wore dresses, or pant suits that required jackets”. In addition, passengers were well behaved. No one was loud and profane, and everyone practiced good hygiene. But all that (and more) began to change in 1978 when the Airline Deregulation Act was signed into law. One provision of the act lifted restrictions on air routes. That allowed start-up, discount carriers as well as smaller existing airlines to fill the skies with flights, making air travel more available and fares more affordable through increased competition. At the same time, the ADA helped to encourage air service from smaller airports. No longer would the feds set fares, and the Civil Aeronautics Board disappeared altogether. But it wasn’t long before the ADA started to backfire. According to the Air Transport Association, by 1990, 91 percent of all passenger miles traveled were on discount tickets at an average of 65 percent off the posted coach fare. The handwriting was on the wall. Between 1978 and 2001, nine major carriers (including Eastern, Pan Am and TWA), and 100 smaller airlines went bankrupt, including dozens of new carriers that had sprung up as a result of the act. And of those that survived, nearly all are now in deep trouble. US Air, which took over the highly profitable, highly efficient Piedmont in the 1980s, is now searching for a merger partner that can keep them out of the poorhouse. United has laid off so many pilots that airport janitors may have to start flying the planes. American and other carriers have drastically cut the number of flights from airports of every size. Meanwhile, on-time arrivals and departures are almost non existent, and in-flight services have been cut to the bare bones. And what of the people who benefitted from the fare wars which caused this chaos in the first place? How have they shown their collective appreciation for the privilege of flying? For that answer, I refer you back to the TV show “Airline.” Here’s a small sampling of behavior by people whose demand for low fares have plunged the entire nation into a transportation disaster: • passengers arriving at the gate intoxicated; • passengers who are loud and use obscene language in public; • families traveling together causing departure delays by demanding adjacent seating when they were too stupid to reserve seats together in the first place; • people who arrive late and then cause a scene because they can’t tell time or don’t own an alarm clock; • parents trying to pass off their 3-year old as a 2-year-old so they won’t have to buy another discount ticket; • passengers who dress like they’re going to a barbecue at a hippie brothel; • people who travel without having bathed in the past month, so the airline has to provide them with a change of clothing; • passengers who show up coughing and sneezing so that everyone else can share their disease, including one man who wanted to board the plane while vomiting — he later admitted that he had a history of passing out; • people who bring dirty baggage on board filled with everything from cockroaches to snakes; • travelers from foreign countries who think it’s okay to pack rotten food from the old country in their pocketbooks; • a woman who held up a flight for nearly an hour and refused to de-plane, finally explaining that she was upset about the temperature in the cabin; • passengers who lose their tickets, then complain to the airline because they only carried $20 with them, and can’t afford to purchase a replacement ticket; and • a man who is irate because he can’t carry on his knife which he will need when he arrives at his destination to attend a biker funeral. The examples are endless, and not atypical. Just last week, on another airliner, a man proceeded to strip down naked in mid flight and attempt to open the emergency door at 30,000 feet in the air. Forgive me if I sound elitist, but prior to deregulation, stupid, inconsiderate, crude people didn’t fly on planes. The fare was prohibitive enough so that those folks either took the bus or drove with a friend. When, as an adult, I could finally afford to fly, I knew how to behave, and I was considerate of my fellow travelers. Sure,I’m an old curmudgeon and this is a different era. But common sense and common decency have never gone out of style, and should never be optional in our society. The undeniable truth is that the skies were safer, less congested and more pleasurable to travel when fares were higher and airlines were regulated. But beyond that, the air carriers back then were profitable, and provided thousands of stable, high-paying jobs. Today, 30 years after passage of the ADA, every airline is struggling and every passenger is inconvenienced. And guess what else? Fares are going up anyway. True, fuel prices have recently skyrocketed, but the grand experiment didn’t work from the very beginning. In fact, it has left us in worse shape than ever before. The solution is simple. We must go back to a system where airlines are regulated, and where passengers are classy regardless of what class they are flying. It is a simple matter of economic common sense, and better attitudes at higher altitudes. Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).