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Commentary CHRIS KATTERJOHN: Air rage: on runways, at gates, beyond

July 23, 2007

The summer of 2007 will likely go down in history as the Summer of Terror in the Skies.

Well not exactly terror in the skies, more like terror in the skies as it relates to waiting at the gate area for your plane to arrive, as in sitting on the runway for two hours waiting for your plane to take off, as in wondering if you can possibly make your connecting flight now that your original flight is three hours late, as in wondering if your bags will be there when you finally reach your destination.

If you haven't experienced it personally, you've surely seen the coverage on television or the stories in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today about the unbelievable numbers of screw-ups coming out of the airlines these days.

Record numbers of late departures, missed connections and lost luggage are making people skittish about flying this summer. Even with gas prices at record levels, getting behind the wheel of the family car is looking better and better.

Both of my daughters have had horrendous experiences flying this summer. One daughter's flight from Portland to Denver was so late she had to spend the night in Denver and come home the next morning. The other sat on the runway for 2-1/2 hours before her plane took off.

But the close-to-home story that takes the cake is the woeful tale of IBJ Media Creative Director Jo Hohlbein.

Like several others of us, Jo had a non-stop flight on Frontier Airlines to Denver for a recent business conference. Unlike the rest of us, Jo was somehow separated from her luggage. It didn't make it to Denver on the day of her flight ... or the next day ... or the next day ...

To make a really long story short, her luggage finally was delivered to her front door here in Indianapolis more than two weeks later. Of all things, it had found its way to Anchorage, Alaska, via United Airlines. How does that happen?

The "how" is, and forever shall be, a mystery. What is absolutely certain is the lackadaisical customer service provided by most of the people at Frontier.

Without makeup, dress shoes or a stitch of clothing except for what was on her back, Jo was forced to buy professional attire to cover three days of the conference, two receptions and one formal dinner.

Aside from the actual monetary expense, Jo spent literally hours on the telephone trying to track down her bags, taking her away from meetings and networking opportunities with peers from other markets. And there was the time she spent shopping for all her replacement clothes.

With her bag back in hand-it had been emptied and inspected at some point during the 15 days it was away from her-Jo is now trying to negotiate the compensation for her cost and inconvenience.

That is only serving to heighten the aggravation. Her initial Frontier contact told her she would be reimbursed 100 percent for "essentials" and 50 percent for everything else. On the first pass, the company sent her a check for less than half of what she turned in. I guess clothes aren't essential.

So here we are nearly four weeks out from her flight to Denver, and Jo still hasn't been made whole. All in all, Frontier has provided her with an experience that has been frustrating at every turn.

On top of her own debacle, Jo saw things that made her seriously question airport "security." She found that unclaimed, unmarked bags can, No. 1, travel all over the country without intervention, and No. 2, be handed over to people who claim them but are not asked to prove their identity.

It's a little scary.

I certainly empathize with airlines these days. I wouldn't want to be in a business that had to deal with unions, high jetfuel prices and federal security mandates on a regular basis. I'm sure many of their employees are stressed while at work, understandably. But a little better customer service would sure make it easier to swallow the "terror" so prevalent this summer.

A good first step would be compensating Jo for her trouble.



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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