My Turn: Exasperating airport visit leaves skepticism, worry

Posted: Monday, April 27, 2009

Recently I spent an exasperating eight hours in and out of my local airport waiting for my flight to depart, which it never did. After booking a different flight on a jet that had two maintenance issues that day, and after sitting on a hot, disabled jet for 30 minutes only to have the pilot tell us that our flight would be delayed due to another maintenance issue, I came to the realization that "somebody" didn't want me to fly that day.

But I needed to fly. I had business meetings to attend. But as Mick Jagger once wrote, "You can't always get what you want." Certainly, I would not be getting what I wanted that day. In fact, I would not be getting anything from my air carrier, not even a minuscule bag of spicy pretzels.

My day started early with a call from "Tom" informing me that my 7:30 a.m. flight would be delayed until noon. I appreciated the call, because that meant I did not have to waste time going to the airport. Instead, I went to work for what I thought would be half a day. I won't bore you with all the gory details, but by the time I got to work my departure time had changed to 8:45 a.m.

The letter I wrote to the airline company explaining my experience was four typewritten pages, and I never made it to my meetings that day.

As I sat on my rebooked jet with 100 other tired, frustrated and uncomfortable souls, the lady in the window seat said, "look over there." On the left side sat the "Tinkerbelle" jet and another jet sat idle at adjacent gates. Under each plane were several overall-clad workers wielding tools. A strange coincidence - three idle jets were parked at the gates of our five-gate airport?

After an "emergency" in the back of our aircraft - I say "emergency" because the flight attendant ran from First Class to the back of the aircraft - the passengers were allowed to enter the jetway to cool off. In the meantime, someone came onboard to assess the situation. After a brief cockpit minute, that person left and the captain announced that, due to engine start failure, an engineer would need to assess the situation. That was it for me. I grabbed my carry-on, exited the plane and walked out of the airport, pausing only briefly to tell the ticket agent I wouldn't be coming back.

For someone that flies frequently, the day was alarming. I've spared you the painful details in my four-page letter to the airline. However, I was left wondering if what I was seeing was just the tip of the iceberg and, if so, what lies beneath the surface of it all. Typically, when problems begin to surface in an organization, any organization, it's usually an indication that something more insidious lies beneath.

I do not pretend to be an expert on airline operations, but I do know that in recent years airline companies have been outsourcing or consolidating their operations - from food service to maintenance to operations.

We hear that maintenance is being performed by unlicensed aircraft mechanics in low-labor cost areas of the U.S., such as in the Southwest. The outsourcing of maintenance and consolidation of services are obviously cutting costs so airlines can maintain their profit margin. We are being told it is necessary so they can remain competitive. But, at what cost?

Is commercial airline travel safe or are the same ills that permeate the rest of today's corporate world also permeating the airline industry? I have no idea - I'm just a regular guy who has to rely on one airline company for virtually all of my travel. I hope my skepticism is ill-founded and that air travel is the safest it has ever been - because my life depends on it. But I'm still asking the question in hopes of stimulating others who are more knowledgeable of the inner workings of the major airline companies, and who perhaps are in a better position than just a "regular guy" to delve deeper for answers.

• Kerry Lindley is a frequent flier, concerned Juneau resident and a 35-year resident of Alaska.

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