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Travelers vent their wrath on innocents

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The ink was barely dry on the Rusty Saber column from a couple of weeks ago, the one about the trials and tribulations of airline travel, when a thing I said might happen actually happened.

In that column I warned that the pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, somebody, might suddenly decide to go on strike, leaving passengers stranded in what I consider one of the planet's worst possible places to be stranded airline terminals!

Even before the column actually appeared, American Airline pilots began a "sick-out" campaign, meaning they weren't technically on strike; they simply called in sick. Whatever it was called, to stranded passengers it looked like a strike; the airplanes weren't flying and they weren't going anywhere. And a federal judge didn't think the pilots were sick. To him, it looked suspiciously like a strike. He ordered them to get well immediately and get back to work, or face fines and jail time for union leaders. The pilots didn't immediately go back to work. As I write this, the judge has yet to decide who to fine and who to put in jail.

When an airline as big as American cancels a lot of its flights, absolute chaos is created throughout the system. Passengers scheduled on canceled flights must scramble to be transferred to airlines that are flying.

If you've ever been in a crowded airport, stranded because of a breakdown in flight schedules, standing in mile-long lines in hopes of getting on some flight, you've had a peek at Hades, and you know you don't want to see it again.

News media can't resist covering strikes. A strike is an event that upsets the status quo and it affects a lot of people (Two of the elements I learned in Journalism 101 that constitute news). An airline strike or sick-out is especially newsworthy because so many are negatively affected. Footage of irate stranded passengers holed up in airports is great for the evening news. Airport terminals are places we are supposed to quickly pass through. People trapped in them for hours is news.

My wife and I returned from our vacation in Hawaii on American Airlines at about time the strike/sick-out started. Luckily, we flew with pilots who hadn't yet become sick enough to call in.

Watching TV coverage of the stranded passengers, images abounded of angry travelers confronting besieged ticket agents. Why get so bent out of shape at ticket agents? They weren't on strike; they didn't cancel the flights. They happen to be the ones stuck with trying to fix the mess and taking the flak. Stranded passengers almost always take out their frustrations on the people who had the least to do with their situation.

On TV, the lady waving her arms madly at an agent, raving away, the red-faced man wagging his finger in the face of an agent, and all the other clods behaving badly on national TV weren't accomplishing anything beyond demonstrating boorish manners. Ranting and raving rarely accomplishes anything. Think about it.

It's always these harassed agents who eventually unstrand (I think I just made-up a new word) stranded passengers by finding other flights for them. When passengers scream at them and go into convulsions, how eager are agents to go out of their way to help?

Twice, I myself have been stranded in airports, both due to flight-control computer problems. My fellow passengers were livid, taking their frustrations out on ticket agents, none of whom had anything to do with the computers going down. The agents explained to their rude audiences that their names would be put on a first-come, first-served list of standby passengers for the next available flight.

When my turn came to talk with the agents, I explained in my best "ah shucks, folks" routine that I knew they didn't cause the problem, and they shouldn't pay any attention to the rude passengers; if they could manage to get me back to Springfield I'd be mighty grateful.

In both cases, guess whose name went to the top of the list, and was on his way home while the irate passengers were left in the terminal cooling their heels, frothing at the mouth and swallowing their tongues in anger?

Chalk up another one for civility ...

(Joe McAdoo is former chairman of the communication department at Drury College and a Springfield public relations consultant.)

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