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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 February 2007, 11:54 GMT
Washington diary: Frightful flights
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Let's play a word association game. I say "bill of rights" and what comes to mind?

Torture victims? Oppressed minorities? America's founding fathers? Abused zoo animals?

Tailfins of jetBlue aircraft on a snowy runway
JetBlue was forced to cancel more than 1,000 flights
How about passengers on jetBlue, the US low-cost carrier?

This week the airline issued its own bill of rights after a disastrous episode in which hundreds of travellers were left stranded when an ice storm hit their hub at JFK airport in New York.

In the worst scenario, a plane full of holidaymakers bound for the Caribbean island of Aruba was left festering on the tarmac for more than 10 hours.

The plane's brakes had apparently seized up in the freezing cold and all the gates had been taken up by other stranded aircraft.

You wonder why they couldn't just organise a rolling staircase and a bus.

Grovelling CEO

Blurry cell-phone snaps showed ashen-faced passengers in colourful shirts, looking more like hostages than would-be revellers heading for the tropical sun.

Passengers waiting to check in for jetBlue flights
Passengers will be compensated for delays in the future

The company has now guaranteed every passenger who has to wait on one of its aircraft for longer than 30 minutes beyond the announced departure time a voucher for at least $25.

The longer the wait on the plane, the more the voucher is worth.

Wow! I can't wait! Perhaps this means that jetBlue will merely keep its customers lingering in the lounge rather than on the aircraft.

Nevertheless it was gratifying to see the company's CEO David Neeleman grovel on television and carpet his website with mea culpas.

Worldwide abuse

In my job as a foreign correspondent I have had the privilege of being abused by airlines all over the world.

There was the internal flight in Libya between Tripoli and Benghazi.

I looked out the window to see the suitcases still firmly rooted to the ground

After a 10-hour delay - no mea culpas and certainly no bill of rights - the ground staff finally asked us to identify our bags, which had been placed on the tarmac next to the plane for security reasons.

We obeyed and then climbed aboard, grateful for the promise of imminent transportation.

The engines roared into life, the wheels moved and we rolled disconcertingly past the burnt-out wreckage of a previous flight, beached on the runway like a decomposing whale.

I looked out of the window to see the suitcases still firmly rooted to the ground.

After much screaming and shouting from the passengers the plane came to a halt, the luggage was loaded and we departed.

Disappearing dumplings

As we flew over the Sahara a delicious meal was being prepared in the galley kitchen behind me.

After 10 minutes of chopping, sizzling and stirring, the gorgeous Bulgarian stewardess appeared like a domestic goddess in an act of redemption, carrying a plate of steaming dumplings.

My favourite! How did she know?

There, sitting expectantly on the dirt floor, was a dislodged airline seat - it was mine
She walked past me up the aisle and disappeared into the cockpit without ever being seen again.

Then there was the internal flight in Irian Jaya, the eastern-most province of Indonesia.

At Jayapura airport we weighed our television equipment on the kind of vegetable scales usually used at the market.

I asked the man at the check-in desk about my seat.

"You get your seat round the corner!" he replied matter-of-factly.

I did as I was told and got exactly what the man had promised.

There, sitting expectantly on the dirt floor, was a dislodged airline seat. It was mine.

It weighed a ton and I was expected to carry it to the plane so it could be screwed into its rightful place.

Dangerous cargo

The plane seated 60. But most of the passengers were leaking barrels of petrol.

Wamena airport, one of the world's highest and most dangerous, was our destination.

I was convinced that if we weren't going to die in a plane crash we would be slowly poisoned by petrol fumes.

The official flying time is 55 minutes - we were delayed by eight hours
I'm happy to say that I survived to see the ground staff at Wamena direct our plane to its mooring, wearing penis gourds and little else.

But I find that when you're travelling for work you can put up with just about anything.

When you embark on a family holiday with young children the threshold of tolerance is pitifully low.

I still have nightmares about the short flight from Albany, New York to Washington two summers ago.

The official flying time is 55 minutes. We were delayed by eight hours.

To make matters worse we were herded on and off the plane three times.

Were we on Candid Camera? Was this some weird new reality show?

Airline's 'lies'

Every time we were dished up another excuse.

First it was the weather in the Washington area. Then it was a mechanical fault.

Finally the captain (who had an English accent) came clean:

"Everything the airline has told you is false," he said, verging on rage and tears, which are two emotions best kept bottled up by any pilot about to fly a plane.

"The reason for the delay is that too many aircraft coming over the Atlantic are backed up and we are the last in line. We are the lowest in the pecking order."

This was not an explanation that pacified four young children howling with fatigue, boredom and hunger.

Add to that the pre-departure family striptease that is now de rigueur at every airport in the US thanks to 9/11 and you have to admit that flying isn't what it used to be.

Next time I turn up at an airport, I'll be in my pyjamas, wearing flip-flops and clutching my passenger's bill of rights!


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