Air Travel Hits New Lows for Passengers

Flying, it seems, has descended to the airborne equivalent of taking the city bus across town.

Except it costs a lot more.

And what do I get for my money? A bag of pretzels, safety worries and monumental aggravation.

It's no surprise that airlines are struggling due to fuel costs and a sinking economy in which potential travelers have less discretionary cash to spend.

But my family's safety is more important than an airline's bottom line. Any airline that flies nonairworthy planes and turns a blind eye toward mandatory safety inspections drags the industry to a new low at a time when travelers are already fed up.

AMR Corp.'s ( AMR) American Airlines canceled more than 1,300 flights yesterday and today to reinspect airplane wiring in the wake of last month's safety scandal involving Southwest Airlines ( LUV). Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration slapped Southwest with a $10.2-million civil penalty for flying planes that hadn't been inspected for fuselage cracks.

UAL Corp.'s ( UAUA) United Airlines and Delta Air Lines ( DAL) also grounded planes for inspections when the FAA announced a maintenance audit following the Southwest debacle.

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The story grew even more disturbing last week when Douglas Peters, a long-time FAA inspector, and other whistle-blowers, testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee about the airlines' lax managerial response to concerns about aircraft safety.

It seems we can't even trust the FAA -- the agency whose regulations are supposed to keep passengers safe. An FAA manager, Terry Lambert, also testified that he was ordered to destroy notes about his inspections and conversations regarding safety problems after FAA big wigs heard that Congress was asking questions.

I don't need to fly in comfort. Cost-saving measures by airlines are nothing new -- and sadly, I'm resigned to that fact. I've grown used to stale sandwiches and paying $3 for headsets that sound like I'm listening through a can. I'll even overlook literally rubbing elbows with the stranger seated next to me.

But when my family boards a flight en route to a vacation in California this summer, I sure hope someone bothers to inspect the plane -- and that others in the chain of command take his or her safety recommendations seriously.

Years ago, while en route to New York from Chicago, a flight attendant announced "a problem with the aircraft." Passengers dread that phrase -- particularly after take-off. I could hear the collective sigh of relief when she explained that the ground crew forgot to replenish the passenger water supply. We couldn't flush toilets during the flight -- a scenario that was preferable to a life-threatening alternative or emergency landing.

But why should any of us have to weigh the benefits of a foul-smelling airplane bathroom over crashing? The experience forced me to contemplate the possibility of an oversight that could affect my family's safety.

I'm fed up with airlines -- and apparently I'm not alone.

An annual study released this week showed the industry's quality at a 17-year-low. The Airline Quality Rating (AQR) -- an overall rating for the industry -- provides consumers and industry watchers a means to compare quality among airlines. Dr. Dean Headley of the National Institute for Aviation Research at the University of Wichita, and Dr. Brent D. Bowen, and aviation professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, have been publishing the rating since 1991.

This year, the professors analyzed 16 airlines and their performance in 15 categories important to consumers, such as on-time arrivals, involuntarily denied boarding and mishandled baggage. AirTran ( AAI) and JetBlue ( JBLU) ranked among the top two airlines for quality, while Delta Air Lines ( DAL) and SkyWest Airlines ( SKYW) were among the lowest.

Passenger complaints to the Department of Transportation were also 61% higher in 2007 than in 2006.

With findings like that, airlines have no room for error, in their skies or on the ground.
Suzanne Barlyn is a writer in Washington Crossing, Pa.