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Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 13:57 UK

The 'creaking' US airline industry

By Matthew Price
BBC News, New York

American air passengers are being told to brace themselves for a summer of delays, lost bags, cancelled flights, and rising travel costs as a sense of crisis takes hold in the US airline industry.

American Airlines plans on the tarmac (Photo: Joe Raedle)
Several airlines have been forced to carry out safety checks

There is a stunning optical effect it is worth trying to catch when flying into New York.

It is on the approach to La Guardia airport and you should be on the left side of the plane, preferably right up against the window. It must be dark outside.

The plane will swing round over Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty, way down below, will raise her torch up to you. You will straighten up to glide along the eastern side of Manhattan.

And one by one, as the plane makes its final approach, the streets of New York's grid pattern - perpendicular to the plane - flicker into view.

One street is white with car headlights, the next red with brake lights. White into red. White into red. There is the occasional mixture of both on the two-way routes.

The streets fade in and out as if on a dimmer switch. They get busier, the lights gradually brighter, as each one passes.

And then a brilliant white light hits your eyes and you pass Times Square.

It is quite a meditative moment, which is just as well since most of the times I have flown into La Guardia, or any of New York's three airports for that matter, it has marked the end of a stressful journey.

Quality review

Flying into the States is not exactly a calming experience. Yes, yes, what about Heathrow?

Well, you have a point. But I have never been so consistently unsure as to whether or not I would actually make it on time as I have been flying around the States.

The number of complaints went up 60% last year

I thought I was just unlucky until the annual Airline Quality Review came out a few weeks back.

More than a quarter of flights are late and the number of bags lost, damaged, or stolen is rising.

There is overbooking and lots of passengers are simply being bumped off.

The number of complaints went up 60% last year.

String of excuses

Chicago seems like a good place to start the anecdotes.

At the start of this year's presidential primary campaign I spent 11 hours waiting for a connecting flight to Des Moines out of Chicago O'Hare airport.

Passengers wait at an airline check-in desk
In April 2008 American Airlines cancelled thousands of flights

First we were told we were waiting for an aircraft. Then we were told we were waiting for a crew. Then for another crew as the first one, by then, was over shift.

After a day of "we expect the crew to arrive momentarily", I finally asked for a straight answer.

The woman at the gate looked at me sympathetically.

"It's not going," she said.

"No crew?" I asked.

"Bad weather," she replied.

"If it was no crew you would have to compensate me, wouldn't you?"

"Yes," she said. "Next, please."

Strange acceptance

There are a few rules you should follow when flying domestic in the States...

  • Do not travel to or through Chicago
  • Factor in lots of time for delays
  • Know your airport restaurants - you will be spending a lot of time in them

Oh, and pack a lunch for the flight. Even when flying coast to coast often all you get is a snack bag of pretzels and a soft drink, or $5 (2.55) a beer.

Ok, I suppose I am moaning a little, but it really is that bad. And along with the delays the cost of travel is rising as aviation fuel gets more expensive. The airlines are struggling as business travellers scale back thanks to the bumpy economic conditions.

Then there is the safety issue.

Whistleblowers recently accused the Federal Aviation Authority of turning a blind eye to safety violations.

That led a number of airlines to temporarily ground so many planes that the country's airports were in chaos.

Americans though seem to take it all in their stride.

On one flight I remember a huge delay. When we finally got on the ageing 737, the pilot welcomed us on board.

The power promptly failed, the lights went out, and we were all told to pick up our bags and get off.

No-one really seemed to complain, but I huffed and puffed.

The man next to me just sat there calmly. "Can't do anything about it. It's just what happens," he said.

Like much of America these days, the airline industry feels tired, worn down, and old.

That is surprising in a country that often likes to think of itself as the best.

Arguably, it once was, but the airline industry - like the health system, like schools, roads - you name it, feels like it is just creaking along and leaving its passengers ever more frustrated.

I had hoped my problems might end as we left behind the unpredictable winter weather. Then came another report predicting a bad summer.

As one congressman put it, if anyone thinks flight delays are going to be sorted out "they are smoking the funny weed".

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 8 May, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Fresh chaos for US air passengers
10 Apr 08 |  Business
American Airlines grounds flights
09 Apr 08 |  Business

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