The summer of 2008 looms, and the airlines have shrunk the domestic system to the point where the term “cattle car” is no longer useful, because there are laws about how many cattle can be crammed into a railway car.
So we will soon let the complaining commence.
But first some perspective, which comes, in this case, from Lauro Rizzatti, who describes himself as “pushing 65” and traveling more now than he ever did during 30-plus years on the road. Mr. Rizzatti was born in Italy. He is an American citizen, and is now the general manager in the Santa Clara, Calif., office of EVE-USA, a French company that makes products for the semiconductor industry.
His perspective is anchored in an early bad experience in 1975 when a T.W.A. 707 with 133 people aboard skidded off the runway in Milan after a flight from New York. No one was killed, but the fuselage broke, leaving a gap through which a few terrified passengers — Mr. Rizzatti among them — jumped to the ground.
“The seat in front of me, I saw it fly into pieces, but nobody was in it. The plane cracked as if in slow motion and I looked into open space. You are telling yourself, this is really happening to me and I cannot do anything,” he said.
Actually, he did do something. He jumped six feet through the hole onto the concrete.
“For one row’s difference, I am still here today,” Mr. Rizzatti said, adding that the experience never made him fear flying but did teach him for the first time how annoying fellow passengers can be even in a crisis.
One, who he said had to be coaxed off the plane whimpering but unharmed, was the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, “who made a very big issue of his emotional suffering in the media for a very long time afterward,” Mr. Rizzatti, disapproving, said.
Mr. Rizzatti said he generally had no serious complaints about the grim routine of air travel, despite the delays and cancellations that are far more common now than they were 30-odd years ago. For one thing, airplanes are generally far more comfortable, and even luxurious, for long-haul travelers in the front seats, “with big seats to sleep in, lots of gadgets, movies and the like,” he said. Thirty years ago, first and business class were pretty bare, he said, adding that “coach seats are worse now.”
Mr. Rizzatti also had kind words for the people who work for airlines in the US.
“A European airline might give you better food and drink, but the crew is not friendly like on an American airline,” he said. “Some Europeans, when you ask them for help, even if you ask for a simple glass of water on a plane, they say, yeah, yeah. And 30 minutes later, you have to remind them about the water.”
He went on: “And in the airports in Europe, the ground personnel, no one wants to talk to you. Here, even with all the delays and stress, the ground personnel are usually working to soften the stress. You can even have small talk about the weather. None of that will happen in a nondomestic airport.”
But what about the domestic airlines themselves?
Well, it turns out he is as fed up as the rest of us. As a frequent domestic and international flier, he has millions of frequent flier miles piled up and is, of course, an elite status flier on one major domestic airline that I won’t name, because they are pretty much all the same when it comes to how they treat their passengers.
Upgrades, the coin of the realm for elite-status fliers, are maddeningly difficult to get when you most want them, he said. But the airlines do dole them out on occasion — just enough to keep you flying with them.
“They exploit this. For you, there is no way out,” he said — not if you still value that occasional upgrade or other small perk like priority boarding.
“They know you won’t switch. I’d have to fly 20 years on another airline to get to the same level,” he said.
As all of us put-upon fliers are now quick to say, don’t get me started. - NYT