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Jewish World Review April 11, 2001 / 18 Nissan, 5761

Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom
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Consumer Reports

Ever want to break an airport agent's neck? This guy did! -- HE made me so mad I wanted to break his neck!

How many times have you felt that, thought it or even said it when dealing with an airline person? Once? Twice? Countless times?

But you would never DO it, right?

Well, someone did. Two years ago, at Newark International Airport. A man named John Davis, a steel plant supervisor, got so upset with a gate agent that he actually broke his neck.

Oh, he didn't intend to. The gate agent lived - although he's lost 80 percent of his neck movement - and last week, in a landmark case, a jury cleared Davis of aggravated assault charges that could have put him in jail for 10 years.

But the fact remains: Over something that happened at an airline gate, a passenger broke a man's neck.

If that's not a flashing red light, what is?

Unless you live in a cave, you know that relations between passengers and airlines are at an all-time low. Impatience. Aggravation. Rudeness.

Put it this way: There are episodes of "Jerry Springer" that are more civil than an airport encounter.

In Davis' case, his family already had been delayed for two hours at Newark. Two hours. That's where the problem began. Then, during the boarding process, Davis' 23-month-old daughter wandered down the jetway. Davis' wife naturally moved to retrieve her. The gate agent stopped her and allegedly pushed her back. He sent another agent to get the child.

Mr. Davis was incensed that the gate agent pushed his wife. A confrontation ensued. The two men wound up slamming to the ground, where the agent's neck was broken.

Now. As in all of these cases, a little compassion would have solved everything. A gate agent should be sensitive to a mother's fears. A gate agent should know that every second a parent is separated from an infant is a potential moment of horror the parent is imagining. Conversely, the passenger should know that gate agents are under orders to follow rules.

Of course, I am suggesting a perfect world here. And the fact is, the environment at airports is more hellish than heavenly.

Delays are common. Agents are dismissive. You're treated like cattle. And getting information is like squeezing toothpaste from an empty tube.

"Do we know why we're delayed?"

"We'll have an update in 30 minutes."

"So we'll leave in 30 minutes?"

"No. Someone from maintenance will tell us in 30 minutes how much longer it will be."

And 30 minutes later, you get the word.

"We'll have an update in 45 minutes."

There used to be a certain civility to air travel. People actually dressed up to go on planes. Flight attendants were service-friendly.

Now sweat suits are commonplace. Passengers come on drinking sodas. Flight attendants sometimes ignore passengers, choosing to have conversations among themselves, or they act like police, roaming the aisles, snapping directions.

Pilots often show little regard for passengers who are wondering whether they're ever going to take off. Information seems to be on a need-to-know basis.

Add to that the terrible performance at certain airports - and Detroit, sadly, is as bad as I've witnessed - with baggage unloading (go have lunch and your bag still won't have come down) or even getting a jetway to a plane so you can disembark, and, well, you see where the rage comes from.

But as is often the case, the true culprits are not on the scene. How about the airline executives who in their lust for profits underpay their personnel, understaff everywhere and overbook flights to squeeze out one more dollar?

How about the lack of parental influence that leaves passengers with no manners, thinking their needs and desires are all that matter?

They say too much straw can break a camel's back. It's true.

And too much rudeness, aggravation and insensitivity - on both sides - can break a man's neck.

Comment on JWR contributor Mitch Albom's column by clicking here. You may purchase his runaway bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie, by clicking here.


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