Flying the angry skies

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CHICAGO – After one canceled flight and hours of waiting at O’Hare International Airport, traveling software consultant Andy Simmons stood inches from a gate agent, who studiously ignored him and the other passengers in line.

Finally, Simmons recalled, the gate agent declared simply: “I’m out of here.”

“You’re out of here?”‘ Simmons said he asked incredulously. It was 7 p.m. and she had been at work since 3 a.m., the agent said, stopping only long enough to give him a withering glare.

“She just walks away. Now there’s an empty podium and 10 people in line behind me, and nobody knows what to do.”

In a summer plagued with delays, things are getting nasty out there.

This year, airline passengers and employees already frustrated by delays say they have added peevishness, anger, even shouting matches to their travels. Chances are not only greater that you will arrive late at your destination these next few months, they say. It’s just as likely you’ll have a thoroughly unpleasant time on the way.

In the University of Michigan’s 2007 American Customer Satisfaction Index, which bases its ratings on thousands of interviews, airlines scored lower than at any time since 2001.

The U.S. Department of Transportation noted that May’s complaint rate was up 49 percent from the year before. In the weeks since, foul weather and computer outages have further played havoc with an air travel system operating at capacity and unable to respond even to routine problems.

There are some signs that airlines are concerned about passengers’ wearing patience. United Airlines in January created the position of vice president for customer experience and hired Barbara Higgins, an executive from customer friendly Disney Corp., to fill it.

The question is whether the efforts are too little, too late, as irascible customers make their way through security and into a system rife with delays, cancellations and little help to overcome them.

“It’s collapsing,” said airline consultant Michael Boyd, of The Boyd Group in Colorado. “The system can’t handle the weather. It’s understaffed. It can’t handle breakdowns.”

Delays have lost their shock value, but this summer’s impoliteness is stunning, said Phyllis Nutkis, who spent 48 hours trying to get to Chicago from Newark, N.J., starting June 27.

The low point came the next day, at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, as a long line of irritable travelers snaked to a ticket counter. At the head of the line, a woman carried a cake in a box, Nutkis said. She was pleading to be let onto the next flight. She had a wedding to get to. She was bringing the cake, she told the gate agent.

“‘Ma’am, you are where you are, and if you’re still here later, I’d love a slice of that cake,'” Nutkis overheard him tell the woman. The woman put her back to the counter, slid to the floor and began weeping.

“Everyone around us was yelling, and we saw a few employees close to tears because people were just so rude. It wasn’t their fault that the planes weren’t taking off, but people were blaming them for it,” Nutkis said.

United’s Higgins acknowledged that there is work to be done but said improvements are under way. The company has added check-in kiosks and a software system that rebooks customers whose travel has been canceled, as well as a system that contacts passengers when there has been a travel disruption.

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