- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

Few people understand why some of us love flying - not just visiting various places around the world but actually being on a plane. This time of year, I see their point more clearly than ever.

Contrary to common perceptions, air travel doesn’t have to be a hassle. With enough knowledge and creativity, there are ways to make things work and even enjoy the experience, despite flight disruptions and intrusive security measures.

But it was difficult to think about the joy of travel if you flew in North America last week. All ills plaguing the airline industry seemed to have conspired against the already fragile and volatile system. The problems were predictable.

The airline capacity reductions are in the double digits compared to last year’s numbers, after all U.S. carriers cut flights and entire routes from their schedules and laid off thousands of employees - initially because of high oil prices and then as a result of lower demand caused by the weak economy.

Everyone knows that, even with the lower demand, more people travel over the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s than during any other period of the same length. The severe weather only made things worse, leading to the cancellation of even more of the reduced number of flights.

Not only did the storms in the Northeast, Midwest and Northwest leave thousands of travelers stranded, but as always happens in the airline networks, they caused a chain reaction, displacing aircraft and crews.

But those factors still didn’t seem cause for me to worry that I wouldn’t make it to my destination Monday, even though I had to make two connections. The weather in the cities I flew from, through and to was sunny, with barely a cloud in the sky, and I had an hour and a half between flights. By the end, however, it was almost surprising that I actually made it.

The trouble began the night before, when I received a message that my first flight was canceled. I didn’t investigate the reason, assuming the plane was stuck at an airport affected by the weather. I immediately called to get re-booked, but there were no seats on any flights that could have taken me to my destination that day.

At the same time the reservations agent was checking availability on her computer, I was doing the same on mine. Things were changing by the minute, and half an hour later, seats popped up on a flight leaving Washington an hour earlier than the canceled one, so I’d still make both my connections.

The next morning, my new flight was more than two hours late because of a mechanical problem. I barely made it on my second plane, only to sit at the gate for half an hour for a rather peculiar reason. The captain announced that there was no “push-back crew” available, saying, “They are limiting the time the crews can spend outside because of the cold weather.” The temperature was zero degrees.

Upon arrival at my third airport for the day, we waited 15 minutes for a gate agent to bring the jetway to the plane and open the door. You can imagine what the passengers with tight connections thought about that. I asked the gate agent what took so long. His answer was refreshingly frank: “We don’t have enough people. All the money goes to bonuses for the CEO.”

Now you know why I haven’t mentioned the name of either the airline or the airports. The purpose of this column is not to pick on companies - experiences on most major U.S. carriers tend to be similar - or to get employees in trouble.

It is only to point out that all events that caused disruptions that day could have been anticipated, including the bad weather in the northern part of the country in late December and the high passenger traffic around the holidays.

Hiring part-time employees - some of those recently laid off come to mind - might have been an option, though they have, of course, to get paid, and we all know the state of airline finances these days.

In fact, many of those front-line employees are the unsung heroes of the airline industry, despite some of the stories we often read about insensitive and incompetent customer-service agents. One of my flights was overbooked by about 40 people. Imagine how easy it is for a gate agent to accommodate all of those passengers and deal with the corporate pressure to get the flight out on time.

“Write the company about what you see,” a flight attendant asked me about a month ago. “They listen to elite customers.”

“I have a better idea,” I replied. “I’ll write it in a column.”

Click here to contact Nicholas Kralev.

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