Economy Class: Survival Tactics

Forget about the Sumo wrestler in the middle seat and the fact that you spend more time at the baggage carousel than at dinner. Put it all aside for a while and come with me on a survivor’s guide through the air travel jungle.

The old joke about air travel resembling buses with wings has come true. In some cases, it doesn’t even begin to depict the aggravations that can seem to be inherent in flying the crowded skies.

Greyhound doesn’t lock you in a bus and strand you on a driveway for hours. You may have a long journey, but your knees will work once you arrive. You know, going in, that if you’re going to get hungry or thirsty, you’d better plan ahead. And you’ve probably never circled the city waiting for a freeway to open up so you can reach your destination.

The Mice Are Happy

The airlines say that they are trying to treat us better. We were recently mailed a card that depicted two mice, happily gathering morsels and proclaiming with happy faces: “Crumbs!” It is, of course, all a matter of perception and perspective.

Start with what appears to be one of the hardest things for most consumers to accomplish — effective complaints and consumer activism. The airlines are (generally) making a lot of money. As a sad result, they can afford a certain percentage of disgruntled passengers. They know, that in many cases, they have a “captive audience.” Leisure travelers may be able to say no to flying; most business travelers accept it as a fact of life.

While certainly not your enemies, airlines are not your allies either. Their job is to make as much profit as possible. Part of your job, like it or not, is to make sure they do it with an acceptable measure of customer service.

You have three ways to hold them accountable. You can “vote with your wallet” and refuse giving your business to people who don’t deliver what they should deliver. Be aware of your air travel options and explore them.

Effectively Ranting

The second way is to complain effectively. Short of lowering your blood pressure, it does no good at all to detail your travails to an empathetic friend. Save some energy for complaining to the people who have the power to make changes. Set reasonable standards and, when they are violated, complain when the violation occurs and — if the situation is not resolved to your satisfaction — complain after the fact, in writing. Don’t let the airlines ignore you or try to pacify you with form letters. Your allies include the media and consumer watchdog organizations. If, on any given day, 10 percent of airline passengers who have been ill-treated, complained, change would occur.

The third way is government action. Any air traveler who does not have an easy-to-access record of how to contact the Department of Transportation (www.dot.gov) and the U.S. Congress Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee (www.senate.gov/~commerce) is missing the boat. These days, you should probably be writing to them as often as you write to your mother. Can we counter the airline lobbyists? Yes — but it will take more of an effort than we have been making.

In the meantime, there are other things you can do to make air travel less aggravating. Fly on a cheap ticket The main bonus of flying at appreciable discount is the money it saves. A secondary bonus is a little less of a sting when you experience crowded conditions. In air travel, the single best way of getting what you pay for is to pay less.

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