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Air travel: The right stuff

Customer satisfaction is at an all-time low. Delays and cancellations are at an all-time high. The lines are growing by leaps and bounds, and passengers' patience is growing ever so thin. So you might wonder, "Is there anything good to say about air travel these days?" Well, yes. James Wysong can think of 10 things right off the bat.
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Sure, it's easy to get on the air-travel hate wagon, and I admit I enjoy poking fun at the airline industry sometimes myself. And why not? There is just so much to ridicule, and as a flight attendant, I constantly see the stupidity that the airlines try to ignore. But this week I'd like to take a small break from what's wrong with air travel and take a quick look at the right stuff.

1. Safety. Despite terrorist threats and a huge increase in airplane traffic, air travel is safer now than ever. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration now investigate each and every accident, and follow up with new safety procedures to reduce repeat occurrences. Yes, your flight might be delayed by a warning light or canceled because of a mechanical problem, but your chances of making it to your destination in one piece have been improved dramatically.

2. Choices. With the increase in the number of airlines comes a wealth of new options. If one airline charges too much or treats you badly, you can almost always find a different carrier to get you where you are going. Remember the days when you often had to pay a fortune to an airline you couldn't stand? Well, thanks to Southwest Airlines and other low-cost carriers, you truly have a choice now.

3. In-flight food. Remember the lukewarm in-flight meal that was called "Salisbury Steak" but tasted like a salty piece of shoe? They said it was complimentary, but of course you paid for it in that sky-high ticket price. Now, on many flights, you have a choice whether to pay for it or not, plus the snacks on board have gotten better. Of course, you have to pay for those, too.

4. Airline alliances. It is always a hassle when your flight is canceled or you miss your connecting flight, but new airline alliances improve your chances of making up lost time, as you can often take a convenient flight on a cooperating partner airline. Same goes for your mileage points: You can often use your frequent-flier miles to get a ticket on a partner airline to an exotic location.

5. Fewer bumps. While the skies produce the same turbulence as before, communication with air traffic control and between other flights has become much more prevalent. Shared information allows pilots and air traffic control to vector around trouble spots, making your flight much smoother. It also gives more adequate notice to the flight attendants, who can prepare the cabin when turbulence is unavoidable. I once got a call from the cockpit telling me to prepare for moderately choppy weather in 23 minutes. Not 22 minutes or 24 minutes, but 23. I decided to time it and it was indeed exactly 23 minutes.

6. The Internet. The World Wide Web is truly a wonderful thing. It's where we learn, work, communicate and explore. It has even improved air travel. Not only can you find the best deals, you can also check in, choose your seat, and check the status of your flight online — and read about the industry in columns like this one.

7. Modern technology. While I would like to see the Internet and Wi-Fi become available on more flights, you have to admit that many airlines have come a long way with personal video screens, multiple channels, video games and even live television. Gone are the days of the tubular headset, bad audio and bad screen quality — to say nothing of the same movie shown over and over again. And now if you're stuck with nine bad movies to choose from, you can play your own movie instead.

8. Security. Yes, the Transportation Security Administration. No matter how frustrating, inconsistent and inefficient it may be, this agency has prevented major terrorist incidents from occurring. I, for one, feel a lot safer knowing the TSA is around. Remember the quality of security that was in place before 9/11? Now, that was scary.

9. Smoke-out. Air travel has improved dramatically since the ban on in-flight smoking was implemented over a decade ago. There are fewer fires, the cabin air is cleaner, and you smell a lot better at the end of a flight. I always thought it was ridiculous to say that Row 35 was in the "nonsmoking" section when folks in Row 36 were free to light up any time. Still, I think it's a bit overboard for airports to go totally smoke-free. I am not a smoker, but I do think airports could set aside one area outdoors for the die-hard puffers.

10. Beats driving any day. You never quite appreciate air travel until you are forced to drive for several days straight. After 9/11, when all U.S. airplanes were grounded, I had to drive from the East Coast to the West Coast. I would gladly take the smallest seat in economy — and pay any price — rather than endure that journey again.

Now, for all you high-flying cynics out there who are ready to tear this article apart, I say, "Please do." I welcome all your comments because I am preparing my next article, "Air Travel: The Wrong Stuff," and I want all of you to help, from veteran mileage club members to first-time fliers. I even want airline employees to let me know what they think is wrong with air travel.

All comments will be read — from humorous to serious, interesting to bizarre — and the top answers will appear in a future column. This is your chance to tell it like you see it.

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