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Best flight is no flight

Here’s a news flash you don’t need me to tell you about: Airline passengers are getting less and less happy about their experiences with the nation’s airlines. Surprised?

Actually, there were two new studies out last week about life in the skies and on your way to them, and they had to be about as cheerful for the airlines as the record-high fuel costs they’re facing.

The first, from the University of Michigan, is its annual survey of passenger satisfaction, ranking the airlines on a 1-to-100 basis and finding an average satisfaction level of 62, the lowest level since 2001 (remember 9/ 11) and the second-lowest in the survey’s history. Southwest won again, for the 15th straight year, with a score of 79 (almost a B, by golly). American and Continental tied for second, with the industry average of 62, and Delta got a 60, finishing out the top four.

The second study, from J.D. Power and Associates, the folks who measure our happiness with our cars, surveyed passengers at airports nationwide and found that the airlines actually are doing better than the airports, and neither of them comes close to the way people feel about their Lexuses. Between 2002 and 2006, satisfaction with airports went up every year. No more. This year, overall satisfaction was 675 on a 1,000-point scale (not even a C-, the way I grade), and that was down 14 points from last year, which was down from the year before. About one in five passengers reported delays, which is actually better than my average lately. The only good news for airlines is that the terminals fared even worse than the carriers: Comparing airports to the other big players in the travel industry, J.D. Power put airports at the bottom, behind hotels (758), rental cars (750) and airlines (687). Hooray for Hertz!

Of course, according to the J.D. Power folks, the airports can blame the airlines for their declining standards. The latest survey follows what they call a period of “notably high rates of flight delays between April 2007 and May 2008,” what those of us who spend more time than we’d like in the air (or trying to get there) might call, if not traveling hell, then purgatory, anyway. Apparently, the more time we have to look around the airport the less happy we are about what we find there.

When I took my first airline flight, at the age of 17, I actually found it exciting. The flight was delayed, but I didn’t care; just being at the airport seemed glamorous. It was cheap, too. I think it cost less than $20 to fly from Boston to New York on the “youth fares,” so how could you complain? Two years later, I took my first long flight, the kind in which you actually got food, from Boston to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for my college “big sister’s” wedding, and even if the flight home was overbooked and most of us were suffering from the dreary aftereffects of too many banana daiquiris that day, it still seemed exciting.

I no longer get excited about travel. Nervous, a little, but definitely not excited.

I don’t judge airlines by the food they serve. It’s been a long time since I stopped thinking of airplanes as traveling restaurants or expected flight attendants to race up and down the aisles like waiters and waitresses, bringing drinks on demand. I don’t expect to fly for $20, or today’s equivalent, not when it costs three times that to fill my car’s fuel tank. The University of Michigan people say we passengers are partly to blame for how poorly the airlines are doing in satisfying us because we shop too much for bargain fares, driving profits down, but I think that’s ridiculous. If they can’t afford to offer the fares, they shouldn’t. Besides, those of us who travel on business, as I often do, aren’t getting any bargains lately; believe me. If you’re wondering who is subsidizing your discount fare, look at the tired traveler with the laptop and the files sitting next to you. I’m that person, and I’m not complaining.

Not about that anyway. My concerns are very simple. Basically, I just care about getting there safely. Preferably on the same day I’m supposed to. Is that so much to ask?

Lately, yes. Southwest and American, the top two airlines on the list, each just went through major incidents of FAA-ordered groundings and penalties for safety reasons. Unnecessary? Not if I’m on that plane or my kids are. Two weeks ago, when I arrived two hours early for my flight, the monitor said “on time.” When the time came, it said it was delayed by a halfhour. When I looked again, they’d taken the flight off the list altogether. Every other flight that day was sold out. After standing by for the next one and being told that there was zero chance of making the one after that, I went home. All in all, I actually was pleased. The best flight these days is the one you don’t have to take.

©2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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