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Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent---and How to Reclaim Our Skies

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Award-winning journalist and leading consumer advocate William J. McGee offers a shocking, essential exposé that reveals the real state of the "friendly skies."

From outsourced call centers in India to the Alabama location where all lost baggage ends up, William J. McGee crisscrossed the country and traveled around the globe immersing himself deep into the world of commercial airlines. And what he found was shocking.

McGee interviewed countless...

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Attention All Passengers: The Truth About the Airline Industry

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Award-winning journalist and leading consumer advocate William J. McGee offers a shocking, essential exposé that reveals the real state of the "friendly skies."

From outsourced call centers in India to the Alabama location where all lost baggage ends up, William J. McGee crisscrossed the country and traveled around the globe immersing himself deep into the world of commercial airlines. And what he found was shocking.

McGee interviewed countless industry insiders—pilots, TSA security screeners, FAA inspectors, legislators, the CEOs of the major carriers, and even Ralph Nader and Steven Slater, the disgruntled flight attendant who famously jettisoned a JetBlue flight. Here he reveals how airline executives are cutting costs in "a mad race to the bottom" by delegating flights to second-tier regional airlines and outsourcing critical aircraft maintenance and repairs to unlicensed "mechanics" in China, Singapore, Mexico, and El Salvador. And while the U.S. airlines have raked in tens of billions of dollars for checked baggage alone in recent years, our skies (and our airports) are not getting any safer. What's more, McGee explains how both political parties and all branches of the U.S. government have conspired to place corporate interests above the interests of consumers, workers, the nation's economy, and even the planet itself. Attention All Passengers will change the way you view the airline industry and make you think twice the next time you see the fasten seat belts sign.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

For many airline passengers, "flying the friendly skies" seems to be a concept from the past. A recent MarketTools survey revealed a disturbing level of dissatisfaction and frustration among air travelers. Citing such reports, award-winning Consumer Reports travel reporter William J. McGee argues here that the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act is significantly responsible for disturbing trend that go beyond passenger discomfort and airline unresponsiveness to complaints. He notes, for instance, that free market deregulation left regional air transportation in the hands of small carriers for markedly lower safety standards. Attention All Passengers possesses both detail and analysis, making it an ideal tarmac read.

Publishers Weekly
Air travel, once glamorous, is now an ordeal for passengers, a financial drain for investors, and a nearly unsustainable business model for the dwindling number of U.S. airlines. McGee, a former flight operations manager turned journalist and consumer advocate, explains what’s wrong with commercial air travel in his debut book. The wonder is that it doesn’t run to thousands of pages. He quickly cites as a cause the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, which transformed airlines from public utilities run on a quasi-monopolistic basis to a free market business. McGee sides with critics who call for some reregulation to improve passenger experience and airline safety, and stabilize business operations. The dissection of major airlines’ use of regional carriers with lower safety standards for short flights, among other troubling practices, makes this an effective polemic. However, though he backs his assertions with statistics that show “airline accidents caused by maintenance factors have increased significantly in recent years,” McGee’s extensive research yields a jumble of confusing references to various accidents, a slew of names from many interviews, and an occasional slip into professional jargon, distracting from an otherwise compelling read. Agent: Rob Weisbach, Rob Weisbach Creative Management. (July)
Boston Globe
“McGee is making a serious and important argument, and he ends with a series of suggestions...that reflect both insider knowledge and common sense.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[A] provocative new book… McGee makes a compelling argument that minor annoyances such as baggage fees and shrinking seats are symptoms of deeper problems that are eroding the bottom line and, eventually, the safety of passengers.”
Chicago Tribune
“This eye-opening book should be required reading for anyone who flies, as well as airline employees and government officials.”
Captain - Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger
"A damning indictment of the airline industry, and the lax oversight and economic and political pressures that are jeopardizing the safety of everyone who flies."
Ralph Nader
“This book is the broadest consistent page-turner I’ve read on airlines, including our own.”
Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger
“A damning indictment of the airline industry, and the lax oversight and economic and political pressures that are jeopardizing the safety of everyone who flies.”
Library Journal
Consumer Reports travel journalist McGee has spent 27 years in and around the aviation industry. In 2010, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation chose him as the only consumer advocate to serve on the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee. Here, McGee fills 12 chapters with information about the many cost-cutting tactics employed by the major U.S. airlines, from farming out flights to second-tier regional airlines to having aircraft repairs performed by unlicensed "mechanics'' in foreign countries. Although he alludes to his ideas earlier in the book, McGee enumerates his solutions to these problems in a chapter titled "Manifesto for Taking Back Our Skies," which is only seven pages long. This conclusion is overly simplified and easier said than done, offering few realistic and feasible steps toward change. VERDICT A word of caution: reading this book may cause a fear of flying. Despite shortcomings, this is recommended for those interested in reading about corporate bureaucracy and how it affects consumers. [See Prepub Alert, 1/16/12.]—Lisa Felix, Mishawaka-Penn-Harris P.L., IN
Library Journal
An award-winning travel journalist for Consumer Reports,McGee talked to pilots, mechanics, passengers, airline CEOs, and more to offer this critique of the friendly skies. Here, he shows executives cutting costs by relinquishing flights to regional lines and outsourcing repairs to inexperienced mechanics abroad. With a 35,000-copy first printing.
Kirkus Reviews
Award-winning Consumer Reports travel journalist McGee (Creative Writing/Hofstra Univ.) delivers a workmanlike tell-all about the airline industry. "[I]t pains me to see what's happened to what was at one time the exhilarating experience of boarding a flight," writes the author. "Today, commercial flying sucks. And everyone knows it." Indeed. Although he worked for three different airlines between 1985 and 1992 (all of which were "financially liquidated"), he derives most of the book from his interviews with, among others, flight attendants, congressmen, an FAA whistleblower and family members of an individual who died in a plane crash. McGee explains how the shortcomings of airlines can and do cost consumers more than a comfortable flight; they result in unsafe conditions. In his well-researched narrative, the author exposes the common practice of outsourcing repairs, which can result in crashes because the companies doing the repairs are not as competent or as tightly regulated. Furthermore, in at least one incident in which shoddy repairs resulted in a crash and a lawsuit, the big-name airline attempted to protect its brand by dumping the blame on the smaller company. The smaller company subsequently restarted operations under a new name. McGee's exploration of this lack of accountability is intriguing and often damning for the companies cited. Eventually, however, the book becomes repetitive. The author's rant against customer service, though certainly justified, is far from original, and he often rehashes his valid points with excess explanation and anecdotes. Informative but not terribly entertaining.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062088376
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/26/2012
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

William J. McGee is an award-winning travel journalist for Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. In 2010 the U.S. secretary of transportation chose him as the lone consumer advocate on the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee. He also writes a monthly travel column for and has contributed to Condé Nast Traveler, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Money, New York, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and many other magazines, newspapers, websites, and blogs. Prior to becoming a journalist, McGee spent nearly seven years in airline flight operations management; he is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher and served in the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary. He earned an MFA from Columbia University and teaches creative writing at Hofstra University. He lives in Connecticut.

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Read an Excerpt

Attention All Passengers

By William J. McGee

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2012 William J. McGee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-208837-6



Sit Down and Shut Up or We'll Turn This Plane Around: Why Airline Service Has Collapsed and Air Rage Is Soaring

Hi, I'm Jenn, your virtual assistant for the Alaska Airlines Web site. If you need help or have a question, simply type it below. —

For many airline passengers, a big fear is that our checked luggage will turn up in a place most of us have never heard of - a place like, say, Scottsboro, Alabama. In fact, that's exactly what has happened with millions of suitcases over the years. According to federal regulations, the airlines have ninety days to reunite passengers and lost bags, and they usually manage to do it. However, on Day 91 a large truck will tote the unwanted belongings off to the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Before long, your iPod, your paperback Harlequin, and even your underwear will be up for sale.

You have to really work to find the Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC), because Scottsboro is not convenient for anyone outside of northeastern Alabama (and is primarily known as the site of the infamous and racially charged "Scottsboro Boys" trial in the 1930s). The nearest commercial airport is a distant forty miles away in Huntsville. The UBC has been dispatching trucks to airline bag facilities since 1970 and now works exclusively with all major domestic carriers. Once the goodies arrive sight unseen in Scottsboro, they're unlocked, unpacked, sorted, and cleaned (UBC boasts of laundering more loads than anyone in Alabama); then 100 employees stock 5,000 to 7,000 items on the shelves every day. Here's the breakdown: 40 percent of what's found inside the bags goes to charity, 30 percent is recycled or tossed out, and the remaining 30 percent fills the 40,000 square foot retail store in Scottsboro.

Talk about a niche market. There are a few wannabes along Willow Street, but you can't miss UBC's giant neon suitcase. Since there are no online transactions, the parking lot boasts license plates from around the South (830,000 visitors in 2010). And UBC - which perhaps fittingly abuts a cemetery - has become a bona fide tourist attraction, the type you learn about in brochures stocked in the lobby of the Days Inn up at Highway 35.

Inside, you'll encounter everything imaginable. As you roam the endless aisles, you'll find more ski boots than at Sports Authority, more cameras than at Best Buy, and more bras than at Victoria's Secret. There are crossbows and arrows. A full set of weights. A digital drum set. You can pick up a Balzac short story collection for a buck. Sure, occasionally there will be a quirky, newsworthy treasure: a 41 karat emerald, a full suit of armor, a 1934 French newspaper, a shofar, a hand-hammered cross. But UBC sold four thousand iPods last year, the supply of baby strollers and baggage wheelies is endless, and new wedding dresses arrive every day. The feeling I have gazing at a toddler's Scooby Doo clogs is not unlike viewing NTSB accident scene photos: Who were all these passengers? And why didn't someone want that oversized photo of Mickey Mantle back?

"The airlines get a bad rap," said Brenda Cantrell, UBC's Director of Marketing, when we sat down just as Alabama was recovering from its worst snowfall in a decade. She acknowledged that many passengers feel the airlines don't care, but said she supports her supply chain: "I think they do the best that they can." In fairness, Cantrell also pointed out the high incidence of passenger fraud, since many dishonest airline customers do not want their bags returned; dirty socks be damned if an insurance claim for jewelry and electronics is approved instead. An old airline maxim: Every lost watch was a Rolex, every necklace was from Tiffany's.

As for baggage fees, Cantrell is no fan, since they are just about the worst thing that ever happened to the UBC business model: "It's definitely in decline because more people are not checking bags." But despite the long odds, imagine her satisfaction when a suitcase was pried open recently and inside was clothing still price tagged by UBC— come full circle. As for how the airlines are doing, this is one aspect of customer service in which they are not completely at fault, because in November 2002 the industry happily abdicated responsibility for baggage screening to the federal government, and specifically to the newly formed Transportation Security Administration.

For Free Market versus Government watchers, this was epic. The result? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's monthly mishandled baggage reports, such filings soared after the TSA took over and air traffic started picking up again after 9/11. There were 3.84 mishandled bag reports per 1,000 passengers in 2002, and that number rose every year for six consecutive years, before peaking at 7.05 in 2007, just prior to the economic collapse of 2008 and the resulting drop in passengers.

One aspect the DOT stats do not fully capture is customer satisfaction, and how the airlines respond when passengers complain about what the DOT terms "lost, damaged, pilfered, and stolen" luggage. That's why it's worth noting that after the TSA started screening bags the DOT's monthly database of consumer complaints saw a marked spike in gripes generated by baggage handling. In fact, as a percentage of total grievances, complaints over luggage nearly tripled between the summers of 2002 and 2004.

I wrote about this topic after numerous arrests of TSA screeners for pilfering were reported in Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New Orleans, New York City, and Philadelphia (and famous victims such as Chevy Chase and Joan Rivers made the news). By September 2004, the TSA finally addressed the mounting backlog of complaints by adjudicating more than 17,600 passenger filings, at about $110 each, for "property damaged or lost when their checked baggage was screened for explosives."

Now that more passengers are flying again, the number of mishandled bags is increasing again. SITA, a Geneva based aviation communications organization, released Baggage Report 2011 and confirmed that an increase in passenger traffic has led to a 6 percent increase in mishandled baggage, with North America among the regions "most affected." However, there are important points to be made that highlight systemic problems with baggage handling.

"Baggage has never been a priority for airlines," says Scott Mueller, an expert on the topic. "If the airlines were held accountable, then at least they would refund the fee if the bag is mishandled." Mueller is a man with a passion for reuniting passengers and their baggage. He's a seventeen year industry veteran who headed up baggage services for Midwest Airlines, and during one five year stretch not a single passenger on his carrier filed a complaint over mishandled bags.

For one thing, the rate of checked bags has decreased since U.S. airlines began charging fees for this service, so this factor needs to be considered when comparing mishandled baggage rates across several years.

These DOT monthly statistics on mishandled baggage are problematic. For starters, it's a self-reporting system, and traditionally airlines have not posted an impressive track record under such programs. I know from firsthand experience that airlines can be "creative" with their flight delay reporting, and there is ample evidence that self-reporting safety issues to the FAA has not worked well. As Mueller explains, "The DOT does have the right to do a random audit. They can do that, but I don't think it's a high priority. You can easily fudge your numbers."

In addition, he notes the statistics are skewed because the DOT's monthly rankings are based on passengers boarded, not baggage checked. Mueller states: "The end results are based on the assumption that all 1,000 passengers that board an airplane checked a bag. Now if only 500 passengers out of 1,000 who board an aircraft actually checked a bag, then the airline's statistic of 4.5 bags mishandled per 1,000 passengers boarded would actually be double." What's more, there are four classifications of mishandled baggage - lost, damaged, delayed, and pilfered - but airlines are not required to break out the percentages on these subcategories, so consumers do not know if Airline A has a rampant problem with baggage break-ins while Airline B has a chronic issue with losing bags.

Mueller is equally critical of the TSA and the airlines. At Midwest, pilferage claims quadrupled after the government assumed responsibility for screening, and he has seen TSA e employees stealing in Orlando. He explains that the TSA is the only entity authorized to open a passenger's checked bag, and in many cases such screening is performed in a private room with only two employees, a scenario conducive to theft.

Then there is the customer service component. Passenger rights advocate Kate Hanni says, "The way the airlines handle claims is they summarily reject them the first time through. It's a real racket. There's no pressure on them to make the system better for passengers." Mueller concurs, and says this "absolutely" happens every day: "There definitely are a lot of claims that fall on deaf ears."

However, a bigger issue is that most passengers are playing in a rigged game without having read the fine print about how to file, when to file, and where to file a claim when their bag and/or its contents is missing or damaged. "There are a lot of issues with how bag claims are filed," explains Mueller. "The airlines don't do a good job of explaining all this to their customers. People always say, 'How am I supposed to know that?' Well, you bear the burden."

Considering all the problems passengers encounter with checked luggage, it's worth noting that baggage agreements don't cover carry-ons left behind in the aircraft cabin; carriers are not required to ensure that the BlackBerry you tucked into the seatback pocket finds its way back to you. "The airline has no responsibility whatsoever," Mueller says. "It's considered lost-and-found. Chances are you won't see it again." He notes that his employees have found watches, cameras, laptops, and even $3,600 in cash in the cabins of empty airplanes - but not all airline and outsourced workers do the right thing. In fact, some do the absolute wrong thing, as was made clear by a news story that hit the wires in the summer of 2010. French police arrested a forty-seven-year-old Air France flight attendant named "Lucie R." and charged her with stealing thousands of dollars in cash and jewelry from passengers while they slept.

In March 2011, Congressman Michael Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced legislation that would "require refunds [of fees] for baggage that is lost, damaged, or delayed." The Congressional Record shows that after ten minutes of debate, the "Capuano Amendment" was defeated on a voice vote. Interestingly, around that time I received an internal document prepared by the Air Transport Association, renamed Airlines for America (A4A), addressing talking points on the Capuano Amendment. Here's the airline trade group's reasoning: "The amendment is unnecessary given [the] historically low mishandled bag rate and competing baggage handling and fee policies." Huh? Carriers are charging customers for a service they are not providing - prompt and safe delivery of your luggage. How is this affected by the overall mishandling record or "competing" fee policies? One month later, Secretary LaHood announced this policy had been adopted by the DOT, Congress be damned. But unfortunately, refunding fees won't improve airline baggage handling.

Declining Customer Concern in a "Service Industry"

The airlines claim that the number of passengers who are inconvenienced is quite small considering the millions carried. But beleaguered passenger Dave Carroll notes that such percentages don't mean much to those whom the system fails: "You have airline executives who quote statistics - but they don't seem to care about those on the margins of the statistics." He adds, "If there's no integrity in the policies, then it's open season."

Of course, few carriers are competing on customer service these days. Charlie Leocha of the Consumer Travel Alliance explains: "As the low-cost carriers and as the comparability made everyone more competitive, the first thing to go was differentiation in customer service. It's not only executive management - it runs through the fabrics of the companies. The managers, the gate agents, the flight attendants working without contracts. The front-line employees are under the most stress."

For airline passengers in recent years, customer service has gotten worse. That's not opinion -that's documented fact. According to statistics, there have been more mishandled bags (despite the added baggage fees), more consumer complaints, more congestion, and more passengers bumped off flights.

But other key elements of poor customer service can't be encapsulated in statistics, though they have been captured by dozens of polls, surveys, and rankings. In June 2011, for example, a Consumer Reports survey of fifteen thousand readers found a "low opinion of today's flying experience."

There is so much bad juju surrounding airline customer service that sometimes I need to step back and wonder if hyperbole is overtaking reality. Could so many pissed-off passengers possibly be wrong? Luckily, one of the best barometers I know happens to be a trusted friend and colleague. Linda Burbank was the ombudsman for Consumer Reports Travel Letter when I was editor, and a few years later she joined me at, where she continues to serve as a consumer travel advocate. I've seen the way she fights for readers who have been wronged by airlines and other travel companies. (On behalf of a CRTL reader, Burbank once secured a $29,833 refund from Royal Caribbean and Expedia,- an unprecedented action from the laissez-faire and largely unregulated cruise industry.)

I sat with her in a café in San Francisco and asked her if airline service has really gotten worse. Burbank considered this and said:

"I think I'm seeing fewer complaints, but I don't think it's because service is better. Everyone is so beaten down. We've all just become resigned to bad service. We're in the flip-flop generation."

Excerpted from Attention All Passengers by William J. McGee. Copyright © 2012 by William J. McGee. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Acknowledgments xi

Prologue: Flying Sucks 1

1 Sit Down and Shut Up or We'll Turn This Plane Around: Why Airline Service Has Collapsed and Air Rage Is Soaring 11

2 What Happened to the Airlines? 43

3 Collusion and Confusion: How Airlines Don't Play by the Rules-and How Passengers Pay 71

4 So You Think You've Found the Lowest Fare 87

5 A Mad Race to the Bottom: How Airlines Mistreat Employees, Outsource, and Ignore Passengers 107

6 When Your Airline Isn't Your Airline: Regional Carriers Provide Lower Levels of Service and Safety 139

7 Outrageous Outsourcing: The Single Greatest Threat to Airline Safety 169

8 Unsafe at Any Altitude? Facing Unprecedented Dangers 199

9 Threats to Survival: Why Many Air Crashes Need Not Be Fatal 223

10 Lights, Camera, Strip Search: The Tragicomedy of Airline Security 247

11 Cloudy Skies: Aviation's Carbon Footprint 269

12 Ink-Stained Wreckage: How Airlines Manipulate the Media 285

Epilogue: Fighting the Clock 305

Conclusion: A Manifesto for Taking Back Our Skies 307

Appendix A Domestic Mainline Airline Partnerships with Regionals 315

Appendix B Domestic Regional Airline Partnerships with Mainlines 316

Glossary 317

Selected Bibliography 319

Notes 337

Index 345

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2012

    Mr. McGee did a fine job in portraying the aviation industry tod

    Mr. McGee did a fine job in portraying the aviation industry today. I found his writing style to be enjoyable and easy to follow. His inside the industry point of view easily comes across to the reader without seeming to be too biased. In the nook version I would have liked to have seen the footnotes on the bottom of each page. One issue that Mr. McGee did not enlighten the reader to was how employees of today's airlines are forced to bargain over a long protracted process that can take over 5 years and save corporations billions of dollars.

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  • Posted July 12, 2012

    This is a very important book. It had to take great courage for

    This is a very important book. It had to take great courage for the author to write because he has exposed many of the dirty secrets of the aviation industry. If you ever fly, or watch someone you love get on a commercial flight, this book is so very important. Don't join the tragic group of people who have lost loved ones and had no idea why. Read the truth in this book so that you can make your own informed choices. We all have choices, informed decisons or willful ignorance.

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