Sunday’s Washington Post featured an insanely over-the-top airline crisis story by A. L. Bardach. It begins with what should be a Bulwer-Lytton finalist:
I am haunted by the death of Carol Anne Gotbaum.
Yes, the death of Carol Gotbaum in a Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport holding cell was sad. She was a young mother: one might say it was tragic. But I hadn’t commented on it yet because it didn’t seem like an indictment of the air travel system or a particular airline. It was simply the very sad story of an unstable woman unable to deal with a stressful situation. Any impropriety on the part of the police is being investigated. From the accounts I’ve read and the videos I’ve watched, the police officers were firm but not over the line.
There’s every reason to believe that Gotbaum would be alive today if she had been allowed to board her flight to Tucson and take her rightful seat.
Sure there is. So she was denied boarding because the plane was full. Overbooking happens. For most airlines, if they didn’t overbook, they would fly with too few passengers and costs would go up. Overbooking is part of flying, and if you can’t deal with it responsibly, then find another way to get where you’re going. Or book a first-class ticket, or premium tickets, so that you get the best treatment.
According to the New York Times, US Air had revenue last year of $11.56 billion. Of that, $1 billion was the result of diligent overbooking.
I have no idea where the figure in the second sentence above comes from. Does US Airways denote “Profits from Overbooking . . .Mwa Ha Ha” on its balance sheets?
The stressful, often incendiary situations created by overbooking infuriate perfectly healthy, well-adjusted passengers. It’s not hard for me to imagine that an emotionally fragile, vulnerable person like Gotbaum could have felt absolutely desperate.
No one can say this enough: if you can’t handle the fire, get out of the kitchen. If you need some help, bring a helper along with you. Gotbaum’s family is up in arms over her treatment (understandable, indeed), but surely the airline denying her boarding is no more irresponsible than letting an “emotionally fragile, vulnerable” woman travel alone. Why didn’t her family help her out? If anyone else deserves blame, it should fall on the police officers for failing to appropriately read a case of mental illness before anyone should blame the airline. Cain may have been his brother’s keeper, but US Airways cannot possibly be its passengers’ keeper–at least not when the passenger has not boarded.
Her only mistake was showing up at the US Airways gate and believing that her paid-in-full, reserved-seat airline ticket meant that she would actually have a seat on the plane.
Now we veer into “has this author ever actually flown on a plane” territory. She is awed by the fact that yes, sometimes someone with a ticket doesn’t get on the plane. (Check your contract of carriage.) Yes, people, this happens occasionally, and far less often than Bardach leads you to believe. (In 2006, it was about 0.001 percent of the time. Help! Crisis! Civil rights!) It does not require a passenger’s bill of rights. Gotbaum made some more mistakes too: screaming at airline staff, refusing to cooperate with instructions. Those are what got her arrested. She was not jailed for missing her flight, people.
We made the same mistake.
Now we go into an air travel sob story, and it’s not a particularly good one. The author’s flight was overbooked; so was the next one. The author actually describes crying at the airport. Maybe she should stay home, too. Good thing her husband was traveling with her so he could handle the situation like an adult. In the end, the author reaches her destination.
I get really tired of these lame sob stories. I’ve certainly engaged in my share of air travel woe-sharing around the office, but I certainly don’t broadcast my experiences for the world, especially if they’re as tame as Bardach’s. Ninety-nine percent of my flights have offered exactly what was promised: I arrive on the other end roughly on time with my luggage. We obviously need changes, not least in how we price congested airspace, but cases like Gotbaum’s get so much attention because they are so exceptional! One of Bardach’s comments is spot-on, however: “Some pilots, he said, made only $19,000 a year and did not have adequate training.” I’ll address how policy relates to pilot pay at some point in the future. Bardach deserves credit for busting the myth of the overpaid pilot.
Some of what we heard from such disgruntled personnel was later confirmed in the New York Times. On May 30, the newspaper ran an article looking behind the scenes at the airline practice of overbooking in which US Air figured prominently. It quoted a US Airways official as saying that employees called in sick because they didn’t want to deal with overbookings, and a Boston gate agent complained, “You know you’re going to be yelled and screamed at to the point you have to call the police.”
I wouldn’t want to work there either. I have a relative who is a cabin crew member for Alaska Airlines, and she had a four-hour ground delay the other day. I feel just as sorry for the crew who have to deal with us, the grouchy public, as I do for passengers in these situations. Fortunately for Alaska passengers, my relative is professional, fun, and hard-working, so I’m sure they were treated as well as they could have expected.
Surely US Air/Mesa employees aren’t bad people. They’re doing their jobs — understaffed and underpaid — in an industry with seemingly no oversight or accountability.
Surely the employees aren’t bad people. But “no oversight or accountability”? Bardach has no idea what she’s talking about. Aviation is one of the most overseen industries in the world! Safety standards are rigorous, and our airlines’ safety record is excellent. Air travel is governed by a number of international conventions. Airports are minutely regulated environments (if poorly controlled by the TSA). Remember that scene in Meet the Parents when Ben Stiller gets arrested “because you can’t say ‘bomb’ on an airline”? Well, you can’t lose it in an airport terminal or you’ll get arrested. This is surely a sign of a surfeit of “oversight.” In fact, the blog commenters going nuts about this (like at the Huffington Post) seize on the Gotbaum incident as an example of some sort of Amerikan police state. But if true, that’s the fault of the police, not US Airways!
My husband and I didn’t just get mad, we got even. Upon our return to Santa Barbara, we filed a complaint in small claims court for $7,500, the maximum allowed. US Air settled with us in June.
Good for you, Ms. Bardach, the legal system worked. You got reimbursed. Stop using a dead woman to propagate your ill-informed rants about air travel in America. Carol Gotbaum’s death cannot be blamed on the airline she was supposed to fly. Tone down the hyperbole.
Why Flying Now Can Kill [Washington Post]
UPDATE: US Airways has responded.
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