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Flier gripes taking off as more planes aren’t

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Randy Petersen, who expects to fly about 250,000 miles this year, was on the phone from the Atlanta airport on Thursday, making a weary concession during this summer of the worst airline delays and cancellations ever.

"My employees always kidded me that I was the Teflon flier," said the formerly indefatigable Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, a monthly for frequent fliers. "In all the air travel I do, I've really had very few problems. But I have to say, man, the airlines finally got me this summer. I am no longer the Teflon flier. I've been spending way too many nights in airports."

Petersen now joins the business travelers who have been grousing for years about flights that fail to take off on time (or at all), lost bags, arrogant customer service, overcrowded planes and a tote board full of other indignities and inconveniences. Among Petersen's peripatetic peers, air travel, once considered pleasant and even glamorous, is now derided as something akin to riding a Greyhound with wings, except the bus has more comfortable seats and usually gets there on time.

Now, at the peak of the summer travel season, tens of millions of American leisure travelers, many of whom fly only once or twice a year, are beginning to see what the sky warriors have been griping about. Again and again this summer, their vacation plans have been encountering the gridlock staggering the air traffic system. Airports, which once put an optimistic bounce in a traveler's step, are of late regarded as places that ought to have signs over the doors: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

Recent numbers underscore the grim situation. With 48,448 delayed flights, June was the worst month ever for airline on-time performance. The Federal Aviation Administration announced last week that there were 44,401 delays in July — about the same number as in July 1999.

To see how things have worsened, compare that to July 1998, when there were only 25,672 delays. Also, the current delay figures do not reflect many thousands of flights that have been canceled by airlines.

Simple math partly explains the air travel crisis. The number of airline passengers has doubled since 1980. About 640 million people will board 7.4 million domestic flights this year, the FAA says. Obviously, scheduling more flights subjects more planes to bad weather, which the agency says causes 70 percent of all delays. But there are other contributing factors. Some critics say the airlines strain the system by scheduling most flights during the same hours in the mornings and afternoons. And some conservative critics claim the FAA, despite huge spending for new air traffic control technology, is an inept bureaucracy that should be replaced with a privately owned air control organization. Others say that the airline industry is simply rapacious, monopolistic and determined to boost the bottom line on the backs of customers.

"Can anyone still recall the glamour of air travel?" asked Rene Foss, who began working as a flight attendant in 1985 because her mother had been one in the 1950s.

"When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me about her days as a stewardess," she said. "They wore white gloves. They served lobster thermidor. They had to practice what was called the art of polite conversation with one another, so they could better communicate with sophisticated passengers."

"You could only imagine my surprise when I started flying," she added, laughing. "Now, instead of wearing white gloves, we're wearing rubber gloves. Instead of learning to practice the art of polite conversation, we're learning to practice the art of self-defense against air rage."

It's a sign of the times that Foss in her nonflying hours wrote and performs in "Around the World in a Bad Mood," a musical comedy about beleaguered flight attendants and clueless passengers. The cabaretlike show, which taps into America's air travel angst, sold out early this month at the Fringe Festival in Minneapolis and is scheduled for four performances next month in New York City.

Misery being the mother of humor, other travel experts also find occasional amusement in the steady decline in the quality of the airline experience.

"I've seen one carrier that's actually cutting down on the size of the pretzel bags they give out," said C.Thomas Nulty, the president of Navigant International Inc., a travel management company in Englewood, Colo. "A small bag of pretzels is now half a small bag. I'm not sure where you can even buy a bag of pretzels that small," said Nulty, who estimated that he flies about 120,000 miles a year.

Nulty said airline consolidation often results in more convenient routes. But he and other veteran travelers worry about the potential for further deterioration in passenger service as big airlines continue to swallow smaller ones. For example, the largest carrier, United, has announced a deal, currently being reviewed by the Justice Department, to buy USAirways. And American Airlines is in talks to buy Northwest Airlines.

Petersen, for one, is not hopeful that things will improve any time soon. The airlines, many of which are enjoying record revenues as planes take off nearly full in this soaring economy, have no real incentive to do more than pay lip service to customer complaints, he said.

Customer complacency is partly to blame, Petersen said. Last year, after a summer of airline delays and worsening service, Congress was weighing legislation that would have mandated fines for airline delays, lost baggage and other problems. Instead, under lobbying pressure from the industry, Congress allowed the airlines to adopt a voluntary set of customer complaint guidelines.

"Business and leisure travelers alike didn't communicate to our elected officials that we wanted real action," Petersen said. "Instead of having to adhere to a law with teeth in it, airlines now mollify aggrieved passengers by saying, 'Well, how about we give you a thousand bonus miles and a voucher for Taco Bell? Will you be OK with that?"'