Barry Saunders

The unfriendly skies of today’s airlines will keep me driving – Saunders

Barry Saunders says the thought of going to an airport today and dealing with long lines and with rude or indifferent airline employees would be enough to make Orville and Wilbur rethink their invention.
Barry Saunders says the thought of going to an airport today and dealing with long lines and with rude or indifferent airline employees would be enough to make Orville and Wilbur rethink their invention. AFP/Getty Images

Several years ago, during a very cold winter, I invited a friend to go with me to the Bahamas to thaw out.

Sure, she said. When do we leave?

As soon as I make the airline reservations, I told her.

“I’m not flying on any airplane,” she said, although not in those exact words.

Well, I asked, how do you propose we get there?

“Train,” she said.

Say what?

Did I mention she was really fine?

She declined my offer, and I ended up going alone.

Nowadays, though, I’d be right there with her. If the train, bus or my 1995 whip that gets 12 mpg doesn’t get me there, I’d just as soon stay put.

The thought of going to an airport and dealing with long lines and with rude or indifferent airline employees would be enough to make Orville and Wilbur rethink their invention. A decade ago, if a destination was within four hours, I’d drive it without a second thought. Because of the dehumanizing experience that air travel has become in recent years, I’ve expanded that to 6 hours.

Can anyone really be surprised that airlines seem to be treating passengers so cavalierly, rudely, criminally?

Paul Hudson isn’t. Hudson, president of, is a lawyer who said he has been representing passengers in cases against airlines for more than 25 years.

He told me Wednesday that it’s impossible to tell whether the level of mistreatment has gotten more violent because now everyone has a camera phone, “but we do know that 46,000 passengers were removed from flights last year. ... Under existing rules and statutes, passengers have very limited rights. The airline industry is the only one in which it is a felony to disobey an employee.”

That came about, he said, because of the Patriot Act of 2002. So, if you don’t return your seat or tray to the upright position, you can be charged with a felony?


“When airlines were deregulated in 1978,” Hudson said, “the theory was that if we had competition with less regulation, it would lead to better service and to lower prices. It did lead to lower prices for a while, until about eight years ago. When the industry was deregulated, there were 10 to 12 major airlines. Now, there are four.”

Along with the number of airlines, consumer satisfaction with airlines has plummeted like a lead zeppelin. Notice how many passengers are being involuntarily, sometimes violently, bumped from flights these days?

I consider myself the original bumpee.  Post-9/11, a flight attendant pushing the soda cart nearly dislocated my shoulder as I sat in an aisle seat. That prompted some of my litigious pals to tell me the same thing Bubba told Fred Sanford after Fred was hit in the back by a dude driving a Cadillac: man, you’re sitting on top of a goldmine.

I had no intention of suing, but I did write the airline a letter seeking an apology – OK, an apology and a bag of those salted nuts – since the flight attendant responded to my yelp by turning around briefly, never breaking stride and going “hmmph.”

I’m still waiting for that apology and those nuts. Perhaps they got snatched off the flight for not giving up their seat to an airline employee. Even had I sued, according to Hudson, the airline would likely have had the case moved to federal district court, “where it could cost at least $50,000 or more to litigate.”

I was also incensed when TSA once made me toss a brand new tube of very expensive skin moisturizer because I couldn’t carry it on the flight. “OK, but it’ll be your fault if I come back from vacation with my face resembling Paul Casanova’s catcher’s mitt after a Washington Senators’ doubleheader.”

I thought that to myself, since the TSA people didn’t appear to be in the mood for any sass. Nor did the hundreds of people waiting in line behind me.

I said nothing, but I’ll bet some TSA screener drew raves from his fellow screeners for the suppleness of his skin for weeks afterward, though.

How, then, can we affect the airlines and give travelers – presumably the most important part of the equation – some power?

Hudson’s group, billed as the largest nonprofit airline consumer organization, has some suggestions on its website.

I proposed years ago, after airlines started charging for bags and those postage stamp-sized pillows, that we could reclaim the power by refusing, for one day on the same day, to fly. If enough of us started singing “I believe I can driiiive” instead of “I believe I can flyyyyyy,” the airlines would become more responsive.

AAA Carolinas is projecting that more people will be driving during the upcoming Memorial Day holiday than last year, so – full of hope – I asked Tiffany Wright, a AAA spokeswoman, if that might be due in part to people feeling fed up with poor treatment by airlines.

Alas, her response left me disappointed.

“Oh, no,” she said. “There’s no correlation at all.”

Yes, she said, more people are driving to holiday destinations than in previous years, but that’s because the population has increased and “gas prices have been relatively low over the past several years.

“More people are flying, too,” than in recent years, she said.

Dang. No wonder they get away with treating us all like Sammy Sausagehead.

The Fifth Dimension, in one of the most wonderful songs ever written called “Ashes to Ashes,” harmonized the transcendently insightful line “We’re driving faster now than Orville flew.”

Until airlines start treating us better, I’ll be driving farther for vacations, because after flying, I often need a vacation to recover from the flights.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9