) -- Last week a contributor to


wrote a column called "What's Wrong with U.S. Airlines?"

A key thesis in the


was that flight attendants on some U.S. airlines are neither sufficiently young nor sufficiently service-oriented. "Travel on a


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Airlines international route and you will find that almost all flight attendants are over 50 years old," he wrote. "Many are in their 60s and 70s."

Flight attendants aren't just servers -- at times they're critical to passenger safety. And they don't have to be young, just able to perform in emergencies.

By contrast, attendants on a flight operated by Japanese carrier ANA "were mostly in their 20s, a few in their 30s

and they were beautifully dressed with identical dresses and hairstyles." Also, he said, they "acted as if they were on stage."

Does any of this disturb you? It seems to suggest that older people, particularly older women, ought not to have certain jobs. Fortunately, our laws and unions, which our contributor disparages, protect us from letting such thinking become corporate policy.

Our contributor also suggested that safety demonstrations at the beginning of a flight are intended as vehicles for flight attendants to assert themselves, that "unions have pushed the safety theme to move away from a customer service focus" and that "almost no one reading this will ever depend on a flight attendant for safety." And because commercial aviation in the U.S. is perhaps the safest form of transportation in history, that last point, at least, is true. But every once in a while, we absolutely need flight attendants for safety, which is why the Federal Aviation Administration requires their presence.

It might be useful to view the role of veteran flight attendants and their unions through the prism of a December 2008 incident involving

Continental Flight 1404

, a Boeing 737-500 that veered off the runway in Denver around 6 p.m., hit an embankment and burst into flames. (Continental has since merged with United.) Within 90 seconds, every passenger had been evacuated.

Much of the credit for that went to three veteran flight attendants, who left only after the passengers had all disembarked, even as fire on the side of the aircraft made many exits unusable, melted overhead bins and caused windows to melt and pop.

The three flight attendants were "real heroes," Richard Lowe, one of two pilots flying as passengers that day who also worked to evacuate passengers, told the National Transportation Safety Board. "The epitome of training in action was the flight attendants."

The crew included Pamela Howard, an 18-year flight attendant; Regina Ressler, with 11 years, and 10-year-veteran Al Felipe. Their union, the International Association of Machinists, honored them, but while we all know about the role senior pilots and flight attendants played when US Airways Flight 1949 landed on the Hudson River in 2009, few people outside the airline have ever heard of Flight 1404 -- perhaps because the incident occurred not in broad daylight in the world's media center, but rather late at night in Denver.

The point is that senior, unionized flight attendants are at times critical to passenger safety. They don't have to be young. They just have to be able to perform in emergencies.

So in making a list of what's right with U.S. airlines, let's start with safety:

Extreme safety

From 2002 through 2011, the fatality rate for U.S. commercial aviation was two deaths per 100 million passengers, according to a recent

Associated Press

analysis. Among 7.1 billion airline passengers, 153 died, the AP said.

On-time operations

Although the airline industry has come to be perceived as plagued by delays, the truth is that during the 12 months ending Oct. 31, the vast majority of flights -- 78.4% -- arrived on time. In fact, over the past 24 years, when the U.S. Transportation Department has been keeping track, 78.2% of all flights have arrived on time, even though each airline is disproportionately dependent on weather in hubs such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas and Chicago. (Arriving within 14 minutes of schedule is considered to be on time.)

Profitability, finally

Over the past few years, as a result of capacity reductions and the implementation of fees for service, the U.S. airline industry has developed a model that would seem capable of generating sustained profitability. While paying fees does not make passengers happy, it is clearly within our national interest to have a profitable airline industry capable of investing in new aircraft, paying decent wages and upgrading the infrastructure used by its passengers.

Available bargains

Fares are still a bargain in many cases. Since 2000, the price of oil has increased 85% and the consumer price index has increased by 27%, but the cost of a round-trip domestic airline ticket including fees has increased by just 7%, according to the trade group Airlines for America. Airline travel remains inexpensive for those willing to adjust travel times and to book in advance -- sometimes far in advance.

Reasonable jobs

Partially as a result of unionization, the airline industry enables viable careers for around 400,000 employees -- even for some who are no longer young.

Finally, just for fun, let's list the three things that are really wrong with the U.S. airline industry

Aging infrastructure

Aging infrastructure, particularly in the air traffic control system, creates delays and requires less-than-optimal safety practices.

Excessive taxation

Taxes and fees account for about 20% of the cost of a $300 domestic ticket, with much of the tax money redirected not to infrastructure enhancement but rather to the federal budget.

Inefficient security

The vast majority of the passengers who go through airport security are obviously not terrorists. But we have not figured out a way to separate the good guys from the bad guys, so we screen every single passenger, resulting in inconvenience, delays and high costs (not to mention innumerable bizarre, absurd, frustrating and confidence-shaking examples of poor thinking skills applied to unjustifiable effect). Not every part of this problem is easily fixed, but it's important to keep thinking about it.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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Ted Reed