DATE May 15, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: The Wall Street Journal's Scott McCartney on past,
current and upcoming airline troubles for them and passengers
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Getting ready to fly somewhere great for your summer vacation? You may be
looking forward to being there, but I bet you're not looking forward to the
flight. FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recently had some aggravating
adventures in air travel, including the surprise $10 fee he was charged for
each bag that he checked. So we set him up to talk with an expert on what's
happening with the airlines.
Scott McCartney writes "The Middle Seat" column for The Wall Street Journal.
And by the way, he's got something pretty icky to tell us about the middle
seat. McCartney covers everything from new fees to frequent flyer programs,
fuel costs and the competition between the airlines. Two of the biggest,
Delta and Northwest, have proposed a merger that would create the world's
largest air carrier.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Well, Scott McCartney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You wrote in a recent
column that it may be a rough summer for travelers. Let's look at what we can
expect as we hit the airways. First of all, cost. Are we going to be paying
Mr. SCOTT McCARTNEY: Absolutely. You're going to be paying more in several
ways. Ticket prices are up, but not enough to cover the fuel price increases
that airlines are getting hit with. So they're looking for other ways to
increase fees: baggage fees, fees for, you know, just about any kind of
additional service you can think of, and any way airlines can generate a
little bit more revenue.
DAVIES: Now, you know, the last time I flew, I flew on a discount carrier
called Spirit Air, and it was a good deal.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Mm.
DAVIES: But I found that I had to pay $10 each for my bags, each way.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Uh-huh.
DAVIES: And if I booked at the airport rather than online, it would've been
$20 each. And it was still the better deal, but I kind of felt like when I
got on their Web site, I didn't get that information up front. Can you tell
what you're really going to pay when you look online now?
Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, it's very difficult, because some of this gets into
the real fine print. And I think that's part of the game that's going on. I
think a lot of travelers, this summer in particular, are in for a rude
awakening when they get to the airport and it turns out that their overweight
second bag is now going to cost them $100 or so each way, 200, $250 round trip
just to check extra luggage. Some airlines are now charging for sort of
premium assigned seats. Well, that means aisle seats or exit rows or things
like that. Spirit charges if you just want the ability to reserve a seat.
You know, Spirit is one of the carriers that has pushed this a la carte
pricing as far as you can possibly think. They'll charge you for a soda.
They'll charge you for a snack. They'll have some merchandise that they'll
want to sell you on the airplane, sort of a tactic that has come over the
Atlantic from Europe, where Ryanair has a whole cart of merchandise that they
sell to try and generate more revenue.
Any way the airline can--they know that people will change their mind on
ticket purchases or change carriers or change times or flights or whatever for
just a $5 fare difference. But when you get to the airport, you're committed,
so you're stuck, so you don't price in, you know, `What's the difference
between American's baggage policy and Southwest's baggage policy when you book
DAVIES: Now, I just want to go back to something you said a moment ago. You
say airlines are actually charging you now for a seat selection? If I want an
aisle seat, I got to pay for it?
Mr. McCARTNEY: Different airlines have different policies. JetBlue has gone
to a policy where they have some extra legroom in about six rows on the
airplane, so you pay extra if you want a seat in one of those six rows.
Northwest has been charging for premium seats, those aisle seats up at the
front of the airplane, bulkhead seats. United has its Economy Plus section,
where there is extra legroom, akin to exit row-type seating, and you pay extra
And a lot of this happens at the airport. You check in at a kiosk, and the
airline now has the ability to ask you, `Would you like to pay $50 extra for a
better seat?' US Airways and others are doing that with first class upgrades,
holding some first class seats back in hopes of getting some extra dollars out
of customers who show up at the airport and say, `You know, the middle seat
that I've got, and I know the plane's going to be full, because almost all
planes are full these days, and all of a sudden, I'm on vacation, I'm going to
pay $45 to do something a little bit better.'
DAVIES: Well, you know, I guess some of this is driven by competition, and
some of it's driven by higher fuel costs. And in the end, I mean, isn't it
more honest to just say what you're going to charge people? I mean, how can
consumers best know what they're up against? Should everybody call the
airline and just ask all of these questions? `Do I have to pay to go to the
bathroom? Do I have to pay to check my bags?'
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, if you call the airline and book your ticket that way,
that will incur an extra fee because booking online is free, but calling and
using their ticketing--they charge you to sell you the ticket. So that's
caution number one. Caution number two is, honesty in airline pricing has
never been a major factor. The theory is that it is so price competitive that
what people look at first and foremost is that top-line price, the first price
you see, and that's where the decision gets made. Then everything else they
can add on after that, you're already committed, in most cases committed to a
nonrefundable, nonchangeable fare, so they've got you, and that's how they're
going to work their system.
DAVIES: Now, a lot of people, and I've done this, try and comparison shop by
using these online Web sites like, I guess, Orbitz or Travelocity. I guess
there're a lot of them that, you know, you give them a destination and they
will bounce up on the screen several different fares. Can you tell from those
sites what you're actually going to pay?
Mr. McCARTNEY: You really have to drill down farther. You can tell from
those sites what you're going to pay in terms of the fare and the taxes and
fees that are built into the ticket. You can't tell from those sites what the
baggage fee is going to be, what the extra add-on fees for whatever service
you want, things like that. To really get at those fees, you have to drill
down into the airline Web site.
And, you know, baggage fees, I think it's going to be a huge issue. My
daughter came home from college this week, and you come home from college with
lots of baggage, and so there she was at the airport and got hit with a $50
overweight baggage fee for her 60-pound bag. So until you pack, you may not
know what you're actually going to have to pay when you get to the airport.
DAVIES: Are passengers going to see more delays this summer? What are the
trends there? Are people spending more time on runways? Are there more
cancellations? Are we going to have more hassle this summer?
Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, I think there's a good chance that there will be
more hassle this summer. Last summer there were record levels of delays.
People did sit on airplanes for long periods of time. There were lots of
congestion issues. Some things have happened to try and alleviate that this
summer, but I think you're still going to see tremendous congestion. You're
still going to see long delays. Airlines have procedures in place to try and
get people off airplanes quicker that have sat for three, four, five hours,
that kind of thing. But the result of that is not necessarily good for
passengers. The result will be more cancellations. They'll be quicker to
cancel flights. They have been quicker to cancel flights this year because
they're worried about leaving people stranded on airplanes. And so those
cancellations create their own disruption for people. I think you see lots of
people stuck at airports. And because planes are so full, you may not get the
next flight out. You may not get a flight out the next day. You may be left
there for two days before you can get to where you want to go and get an empty
seat on a flight that'll you get you there.
DAVIES: You know, you mentioned people waiting on runways. There was this
horror story, I guess, about a year ago of a flight where people sat on the
runway for five hours. How is it that that happens? I mean, when airlines
send a full plane out from the gate to get into line, is there no
communication between them and the airport controllers that are going to leave
them hanging on the runway?
Mr. McCARTNEY: No, there can be constant communication, but there are
several reasons why. The system that is set up so that you have to get in
line, and if you get out of line you're going to lose your place in line, and
that can actually exacerbate the delays. And the other factor is that things
change. Weather changes. So a plane pushes back and leaves New York Kennedy
Airport, and there's already a long line of airplanes waiting to take off, but
you got to go get in line or you're not going to get out of there. And so you
do get in line, and then the weather changes and you sit longer, and then the
tower says, `You know, I think we're going to be able to start departures in
30 minutes.' So you wait. And then 30 minutes comes and goes, and they say,
`Well, maybe another hour.' And you have to decide--and these are very tough
decisions for airlines and pilots and even passengers to make. `Am I better
off waiting on this flight, which has already sat for three hours, or going
back to the gate? Because if I go back to the gate, I may be stuck for two
days.' On the other hand, if I was just going for a meeting that, you know,
I've already missed, I want to get off the airplane and go back. It just
depends on what your circumstances are.
DAVIES: Right, right.
Mr. McCARTNEY: It may be that you're trying to catch cruise ship or get to a
wedding or something that you have to go.
DAVIES: Right, but the passenger has no discretion there anyway, right?
You're stuck on the plane.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, passengers do now have some discretion at some
airlines, where basically airline policy is, after four hours or so, if
somebody wants off the plane, they'll get them off the airplane. And that
usually means going back to the gate. And so you get into these really
difficult situations where you may have 90 people on an airplane who want to
go, and five people on an airplane who say, `I, you know, let's go back, let's
give up. I want off this airplane.' You get into sort of peer pressure
situations. Ultimately, it's the captain's choice, but airlines have
instructed their captains that if anybody wants off, you got to take the
DAVIES: You know, my wife had an experience the last time we flew where she
had a problem making a connection, but got to the airport where her connecting
flight was leaving on time. It was. It was still at the gate. But she got
there and was told that even though she had a confirmed reservation, she had a
boarding pass, that the plane was full and she would be stuck there overnight,
and was sent to a line with 60 other people at, what do they call it, the
Mr. McCARTNEY: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: Or accommodations desk. Is this a common occurrence, of bumping
people who have a confirmed reservation?
Mr. McCARTNEY: I wouldn't say it's common, but it's certainly increasing.
There was as much as a 50 percent increase in the number of people getting
bumped from flights last summer. And this was actually an issue we raised in
terms of the compensation that the government requires airlines to pay for
people getting bumped. It hadn't been changed in 30 years, and the
competition maxed out at $400 a passenger. Well, if you can sell a seat to a
business travel for $800 or $1,000, you have every incentive in the world to
sell that last-minute passenger that seat and bump somebody who's already
bought a ticket for that flight. And I think that was happening. The
government did respond. This summer new rules go into effect, that double the
amount the airlines have to pay in compensation, can go up to $800. So that
may alleviate some of the overbooking and bumping.
But, you know, anyone who flies knows that flights have been very full, and
one of the byproducts of that is we have seen more people getting bumped.
DAVIES: I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that there are
government rules about how you have to compensate people. I mean, I didn't
know that. What is the rule? Is there a rule for meals or hotel or voucher
for a new ticket?
Mr. McCARTNEY: All of that. The airline has to provide. If you get stuck
overnight they have to provide a hotel. They have to provide you some meal
vouchers. But they also have to compensate you, and the passenger--and I
think most people don't know this--the passenger can ask for the compensation
in cash. You don't have to take it in one of those airline vouchers that give
you a discount off a future flight. You can have them write you a check, and
they have the ability to write a check at the airport. The rule is--it's sort
of a sliding scale. If you get bumped from a flight and the airline can get
you where you're going within two hours, compensation is at one level. If
it's four hours, that's another level. If it's more than four hours, it goes
up to the maximum. Different rates for domestic and international.
Another change that was made was previously, regional jets were essentially
exempt from this. It only applied to aircraft over 60 seats. But now they've
dropped that down to 30 seats. So most regional aircraft are included. And
that was a major source of overbooking and bumping on those smaller jets.
DAVIES: Well, we're seeing some big activity, kind of widening the lens here,
we're seeing some merger activity. Delta and Northwest have proposed a merger
which would create the world's largest airline. Is this going to be good news
Mr. McCARTNEY: The history of mergers is that they've almost never been good
news for passengers. Typically, passengers are in for a couple years of
turmoil at airlines that merge. They're very complex entities, and putting
two airlines together is really a tough challenge. We saw this with US
Airways and America West. It was a much smaller merger than what
Delta/Northwest are proposing, and yet when they tried to put their computer
systems together, reservations were lost, flights were delayed, people ended
up in long lines. It was a total mess. The airline's on-time performance
plummeted. Baggage piled up everywhere. Just an enormous mess.
Then beyond the operational issues, you have really serious labor issues that
can ultimately affect passengers when pilots or flight attendants decide to
take action informally or formally against the airline to protest new wages
that have been imposed on them, or more likely, the seniority integration
becomes the major stumbling block. US Airways and America West still have not
been able to integrate their labor groups because of the seniority issue. To
a pilot, that's everything. It determines your schedule. It determines your
pay. It determines your vacation. Determines what aircraft you fly. And
putting sort of meshing two seniority lists together means somebody loses and
somebody wins, and nobody's happy.
DAVIES: Now the Delta/Northwest merger, I know there's already been one
congressional hearing on it, it still needs official approval, right? Who has
to approve this merger before it can occur?
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, Congress doesn't really get a vote. It's up to
government regulators. So in this case, it's essentially the Federal Trade
Commission that would look at any merger. I think the Department of
Transportation weighs in as well and the Justice Department. And so it's not
like another corporate merger. It's not like Hewlett-Packard saying, `We're
going to buy Electronic Data Systems.' The employees of those companies care,
the customers may care, but the general public may not get antsy about it. In
the case of airline mergers, communities get very concerned. If you're in
Cincinnati, which is a major Delta hub, you have to wonder if Delta will
continue with the Cincinnati hub if they acquire Northwest, which has a nearby
Detroit hub. Different things like that. Northwest's weakest hub is Memphis,
Tennessee. Are they going to continue with that under the merged airline?
Now, those two carriers are insisting that they're not going to cut capacity
and close hubs and things like that, but a lot of people think that, in order
to get any sort of benefits to the business out of a merger, you have to
reduce capacity. Otherwise, it doesn't make a lot of sense, and so
ultimately, small towns are concerned if they're going to lose out on airline
service or if they're going to end up with just monopoly service. If your two
carriers serving your community are Delta and Northwest and the merger goes
through, there may just be one airline.
DAVIES: So when will we know whether this merger is approved?
Mr. McCARTNEY: I think they're really pushing for, you know, to get it done
by the end of the year, get it done within the Bush administration was the
primary driver. High oil prices have sort of raised the sense of urgency.
And so I think, you know, it won't be this summer, but sometime in the fall it
should really come to a head.
DAVIES: Do they want to get it done in the Bush administration because they
fear a Democratic administration might be less amenable to the notion?
Mr. McCARTNEY: Absolutely, yeah. No, that's been very clearly stated, that
they think the Republican administration would be much more agreeable to the
combination of two big airlines. Democratic administration, or even a John
McCain administration--John McCain's been very involved in aviation
competition issues, and might take a dimmer view of putting two big airlines
DAVIES: You know, there's been talk of other airlines combining, possibly.
Southwest has made great inroads into routes that were run by United and US
Airways, and people have talked about them merging. Are we in for a period of
consolidation in the industry?
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, I'm not sure. We often fret about a huge wave of
consolidation in the airline industry, and often it doesn't happen. And I
think there are several reasons for that, the primary one being it is so
complex and so difficult. And, you know, it's really sort of a dangerous time
to be talking about big expensive mergers. There's not a lot of financing out
there for airlines to combine in the credit markets, and you put two airlines
together and you increase costs in the short run before you get the benefits.
It's a very difficult time for airlines to think about investing in that.
On the other hand, you know, basically nothing else has worked in this
business. This is the last big idea, and they feel like they have to try
something. And this is what they have to try.
DAVIES: When you say nothing else has worked, I mean, I take it that means
from the point of view of the big legacy air carriers nothing's worked, but
there have been all these discount carriers that have really done well and
have offered new options for flyers, right?
Mr. McCARTNEY: That's right. The reality of this business, I think, is that
we don't necessarily need merged airlines, but we may need fewer airlines.
Airlines go to bankruptcy court with some regularity, and it's very rare that
they actually shut down. We've seen several smaller carriers recently go to
bankruptcy court and shut down because there hasn't been financing to keep
them going. But for the big airlines, there's too much at stake for all of
the stakeholders--the labor unions, the creditors, the people who own the
airplanes and lease the airlines, the communities. So everybody props them up
and keeps them going, when we might be better off, you know--the airline
industry would financially be a whole lot healthier if a big airline failed
and went out of business and that business was spread to the remaining
DAVIES: There's been a lot of activity about air safety lately. I mean, the
FAA fined Southwest for some inspection lapses, and then Congress kind of
barked about that, and the FAA got busy checking a lot of inspection and
maintenance records. And there have been a couple of incidents lately where
planes have taken off and landed with, you know, panels missing, which were
discovered after the fact. Are there real safety issues out there that should
Mr. McCARTNEY: The best way to look at this is that the system in the US is
quite safe, and what we're really focusing on is keeping it that way, and even
making it safer. I don't think these are issues that passengers need to worry
about as they get on airplanes these days, but I do think overall in terms of
how we're going to police the airline industry, if you will, there are issues
that should concern us. The FAA has the difficult role of being the cop on
the beat, and periodically through its history it's ended up being considered
too cozy with airlines, not enough oversight. And I think we're in one of
those periods right now where there are real concerns about whether safety
inspectors are being allowed to really police airlines aggressively, whether
inspectors themselves have gotten too close to the airlines that they're
inspecting, or end up going to work for the airlines that they were
inspecting, and that creates conflicts and allows lapses.
DAVIES: OK, let me just interrupt you there, Scott.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah.
DAVIES: So what's the remedy for that problem?
Mr. McCARTNEY: I think the remedy is what's going on now, which is more
attention paid to the issue, which is more emphasis from those who oversee the
FAA, both in the administration and in Congress in making it tougher. The FAA
doesn't have an administrator right now; there's an acting administrator. The
new administration will appoint somebody in charge of the agency, and I think
that, you know, one of the things that will be made clear is that we expect
The infrastructure is there. Sometimes it's an issue of Congress funding more
inspectors, giving the FAA the money to get its inspectors overseas to where a
lot of maintenance is done now, and make sure that we have FAA people in China
or Germany or South America or wherever maintenance is being done, and tighten
DAVIES: When an airline fails--you've bought a ticket for a carrier and the
airline goes out of business--I mean, I think historically people have
believed that another carrier that's going the same way will honor your
Mr. McCARTNEY: Right.
DAVIES: I don't know if that's out of courtesy or regulation, but you've
written recently that the rules have changed about this, right?
Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah, that's right. Historically, airlines did pick up
passengers from failed carriers. There were regulations that encouraged and
even at one time required that. There was a feeling among airlines that doing
a good deed would engender customer loyalty. An airline fails, there's a
passenger looking for a new airline to be its favorite airline, as it were,
and so do something nice for them and they'll come back and buy more tickets
on you in the future. I think for the industry, the reality is loyalty is
fleeting. People were flying those airlines because their fare was $5 less
than somebody else. So there's not a lot of loyalty to be garnered.
The industry was successful in getting regulations changed so that there is no
requirement that they have to honor the tickets of failed airlines. And so
many of them chose, in the recent round of failures, to not do that and make
you buy a new ticket. That was particularly troublesome to people because we
had two Hawaiian carriers failed, Aloha Airlines and ATA Airlines, which had a
lot of service into Hawaii. Those are expensive tickets, particularly at the
last minute. There aren't a lot of empty seats. And so people got stuck, and
it was quite a major shock.
DAVIES: So now before you buy a ticket, you've got to look at the annual
report of the corporation to see whether it's going to be around in six
Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, you do. It's a very tricky thing, but in fact we
published a lit of airlines that we thought you ought to be concerned about,
because it now is a factor in buying tickets that, you know, if I'm buying a
ticket six months out, I got to make some kind of judgment of whether the
airline's going to be there in six months.
DAVIES: Speaking with Scott McCartney. His column about air travel appears
in The Wall Street Journal. It's called "The Middle Seat."
There was this initiative, I think, called Open Skies, which was aimed at...
Mr. McCARTNEY: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: ...rearranging international travel. Explain what that was and
whether it's been effective.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, Open Skies has been a US government policy push for a
number of years going back to the Clinton administration. The idea is that,
over the years there have been very restrictive treaties negotiated between
countries on air service, and Open Skies does away with those treaties and
basically says, `Anybody from your country can fly anywhere you want to
anywhere in our country.' That's been very successful in terms of opening up
competition in international air travel. The latest effort has really been
focused on the European Union as one large entity rather than a bunch of
different European countries, so have one treaty to cover Europe with the US
and let it be Open Skies.
The net effect of that has really had an impact on Heathrow Airport in London,
one of the most prized destinations in the world. Only four airlines were
allowed to fly before this from the US to Heathrow: United and American on
our side, British Air and Virgin on the British side. Now anybody can fly
from Heathrow to the US, and so this summer we've seen a lot of different
airlines pay millions of dollars for landing slots at Heathrow and facilities
there, and really pumping in service. The number of planes flying across the
Atlantic is up this summer, despite the, you know, you would think with the
woes of the dollar that people wouldn't be traveling as much. Of course, the
dollar makes the US a whole lot cheaper for European travelers, so there's a
lot of traffic coming that way. And on the whole, Open Skies have been very
successful in creating more air service and more competition and, ultimately,
DAVIES: Some carriers have opened overseas routes with planes that they used
for domestic flights in the past, didn't really change any of the interior,
you know, accommodations. Does that mean a different kind of international
Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah, it does. The big change we've seen in international
aircraft is the use of smaller planes on long-haul routes. Part of it's a
result of manufacturers increasing the range of newer airplanes, like the 737,
which now has much longer range. But the real change across the Atlantic has
been the use of the 757, which is a single-aisle airplane designed basically
for US domestic markets. It doesn't have the, you know, luxurious first class
space that big wide-body jets have, or the large business class cabin. It
doesn't have great seat pitch. The distance between, you know, the leg room
you get, things like that. But for a six-hour flight from the East Coast to
Europe, you know, at a reasonable fare, it may be OK for travelers.
The benefit you do get out of it is the benefit of smaller planes has allowed
airlines to offer more direct flights without going through connecting hubs.
So you can fly from Newark to Barcelona or a lot of different cities, small
cities in Europe that could not support wide-body direct flights, now you can
get to without making a connection.
DAVIES: You also wrote that the TSA--it's the Transportation Security
Mr. McCARTNEY: Right.
DAVIES: That inspects passengers at those security checkpoints has, at some
airports, begun to experiment with different-speed lines. I mean, an expert
traveler, if you meet certain category, can go to the express lane, and then
if you're traveling with small kids, you got to go down to the slower lane.
Is that working?
Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, it is working. It's kind of a humorous thing.
This was something actually suggested to TSA by travelers in focus groups, and
TSA, in its wisdom, said, `Oh, no, that'll never work.' But they did try it.
And turns out that it had benefits for the travelers, travelers loved it, and
also had benefits to the TSA in terms of actually enhancing security. So now
at a dozen airports, and more coming, there are three different categories,
three different lanes for travelers to choose. One's called Black Diamond,
sort of a ski resort term for the expert trails, where that's for expert
travelers who kind of know the drill and can get in and out quick. There are
lanes for casual travelers who travel infrequently, and then separate lanes
for families with small children and people who need special assistance in
And the real key to it is segregating the wheelchair people and the family
people away from the road warriors. It was a losing deal for both groups.
Families and people with special needs really felt rushed and pushed by the
aggressive road warriors who were coming up their tailpipe, as it were; and
the road warriors hated being in line while, you know, somebody had to get
wanded in a wheelchair or some kid set off an alarm because a metal thing was
in a backpack or, you know, whatever it was. So separating those two groups
of travelers has benefits for both.
DAVIES: I wonder if people think that the express line for the veteran
travelers is going to move faster, so everybody jams into that line.
Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, that's a real concern. I think the bigger concern
is that it's completely voluntary, and as people figure this out, they run for
the shortest line, whatever it would be. So there are expert travelers who
will run over to the family line if that's shorter. There are families who
think the expert line is going to move faster and so they jump into that. TSA
says they find that, in general, people really are choosing the appropriate
lane. They would much rather feel comfortable in doing it. And the TSA
doesn't really care if people jump lanes. If the lanes even out, that's a
good thing, and sometimes it's the TSA people who are actually taking expert
travelers and moving them over to a shorter lane if that'll get them through
DAVIES: You know, you also wrote a column that I almost hesitate to bring up
on the radio, and it's about what you might find in the seat pocket in front
of you. What occasioned this?
Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, I think this has been an issue that's been
simmering out there for a while. People do things on airplanes that they
wouldn't do in other places, and that's always sort of fascinated me. I mean,
you get into this with air rage and different things like that; but sort of on
a less serious note, the disgusting personal habits and trash that people
leave behind. It really made airplanes downright nasty, in some cases. This
DAVIES: Well, like what? What're we talking about?
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, the flight attendants, the number one thing they
complain about are dirty diapers left in seat back pockets. And you push it
down there, and it's a big surprise, and it may have been there for a while.
But it's not just dirty diapers, it's half-eaten hamburgers, it's toenail
clippings, it's, you know, all kinds of things. Airplanes get cleaned a lot
less these days because of the financial pain of the industry, and so stuff
gets left there to fester and molder.
I think the other end of it are just sort of the nasty habits that people
have. People complain about, you know, travelers sneezing into airline
blankets. Well, then the blankets get folded up and put in the overhead bin,
and the next guy comes along and doesn't realize where that blanket's been.
It's just, you know, people do things in public on airplanes that they
wouldn't do at restaurants, they wouldn't do in their offices, and certainly
not at home.
DAVIES: Well, this makes car travel sound so appealing. Are we seeing more
of this because planes are being cleaned less or because passengers are
angrier at airlines?
Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, I think there is an element of anger at work here,
and I talked to some psychologists who thought that it was definitely a
factor. People, you know, they come through the grumpy lanes at TSA's
security screening, and they don't get their upgrade or they had to pay a
baggage fee, or their flight is late, or they got bumped. Or whatever it is,
there are lots of reasons why people are not happy when they get on the
On the other end of it is, they have no emotional connection to the airline or
its employees. They probably didn't even talk to an employee before they got
on the airplane; they checked in at a self-service kiosk. If they did
encounter an employee, it might be some grumpy person saying, you know, `Move
along, move along, check your bag,' whatever it would be, barking orders. So
you don't feel any need to take care of your favorite airline's equipment or
be nice to its employees.
And the other end of it is sort of acting out because, you know, `They messed
me up so I'm going to mess them up.' And even after the story ran, I got
e-mails from readers who had seen people, you know, just so angry. And there
was one guy who was so mad at the airline he took the little plastic cup of
soda that the flight attendant gave him and just right in front of her poured
it on the floor of the airplane. And then there was, another pilot wrote to
me about a really disgusting incident where a passenger had put something very
nasty and offensive in an air sickness bag and handed it to the pilot as he
walked off the airplane. And it was, you know, a sort of message, `This is
because you, you know, made me miss my meeting or something.' I mean, it's,
just, people lose their manners on airplanes somehow.
DAVIES: Gosh. But I have to say, most of the time I fly, I don't find any of
that stuff, and let's hope that stays the same.
Mr. McCARTNEY: That's true, although don't look too hard. And the other tip
from road warriors is, don't look in the middle seat pocket because that's
where you find the nastiest stuff. That's often where parents put kids, and
kids can contribute to the problem. Or people leave things sort of
anonymously if the middle seat is empty and think that they can do it without
DAVIES: Well, Scott McCartney, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Good to be with you, Dave.
GROSS: Scott McCartney speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
McCartney writes about air travel in his Wall Street Journal column "The
Middle Seat." Dave Davies is the senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
You can download podcasts of our interviews on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Ken Tucker on Madonna's "Hard Candy" and Robyn's "Robyn"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Rock critic Ken Tucker has reviews of two new albums by two women, each of
whom go by one name, Madonna and the Swedish pop singer Robyn. Madonna's
"Hard Candy" is an album meant to confirm her status as a dance music
perennial, while Robyn's new album, called "Robyn," serves as a reintroduction
to an overseas star who's been trying to become a Madonna-sized star for
(Soundbite of "Candy Shop")
MADONNA: (Singing) See anything you like, and I'll have it for you
Come on into my store, I got candy galore
Don't pretend you're not hungry
I've seen it before
I got Turkish delight, baby, and so much more
Get up out of your seat...
(End of soundbite)
Mr. KEN TUCKER: For her 11th studio album, Madonna has rolled out the big
young guns. Justin Timberlake wiggles with her vocally on the song "4
Minutes." Kanye West makes a cameo. Producer Timbaland and the team known as
The Neptunes supply rattling percussion, beats that compel Madonna to reach
for fresh reserves of nerviness.
TIMBALAND: (Singing) I'm out of time, and all I got is four minutes,
I'm out of time, and all I got is four minutes
(Speaking) Come on. Yeah. Ha. Break down, come on.
Mr. JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Hey! Huh. Come on. Madonna.
MADONNA: (Singing) Come on, boy
I've been waiting for somebody
To pick up my stroll
Mr. TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Well, don't waste time
Give me a sign
Tell me how you want to roll
MADONNA: (Singing) I want somebody to speed it up for me, baby
Then take it down slow
There's enough room for both
Mr. TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Well, I can handle that
You just got to show me where it's at
Are you ready to go?
Are you ready to go?
TIMBALAND: Come on.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: Madonna is at an interesting point in her career. This is her
last album for Warner Brothers, with whose Sire Records label she began her
career in the early '80s. She's thus a free agent who recently signed up with
the concert promotion company Live Nation for the new paradigm in music career
strategy: concert tours, albums and merchandise, all of whose profits are
shared by artist and company in one multimedia package. This move jibes with
her image of a constant re-inventor of herself.
But as shrewd an artist as she is a businessperson, Madonna hasn't been
distracted musically. This new album, "Candy Shop," is a sweet and sour mix
that includes a lot of dominance and submission imagery, but it doesn't
register as daring or, heaven help us, transgressive. Instead, the songs are
useful, juicy metaphors for the way Madonna retains prominence in an ever more
confusing and cluttered musical landscape.
(Soundbite of "Miles Away")
MADONNA: (Singing) I just woke up from a fuzzy dream
You never would believe the things that I have seen
I looked in the mirror and I saw your face
You looked right through me, you were miles away
All my dreams, they fade away
I'll never be the same
If you could see me the way you see yourself
I can pretend to be someone else
You always love me more
I hear it in your voice when we're
You're not afraid to tell me
I guess we're at our best when we're
So far away
So far away...
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: While Madonna works with steely precision to make sure that she
stays prominent, Robyn is just trying to be heard. This 28-year-old is a big
star in her native Sweden and throughout Europe, but has had trouble gaining
American popularity beyond US dance clubs. Her new album, called "Robyn," is
brash and smart and catchy and knowing, a collection of songs that never lets
(Soundbite of "Handle Me")
ROBYN: All right.
(Singing) I heard about some guy that you beat pretty bad and got in the
You own a cool and I hear you get far with every waitress
Saw you on the poster, your song is the bomb, but you're outrageous
I see you living large with your crib and your cars, and that's just great,
Let me tell you how it'd be
You won't get with this, you see
Because you can't handle me
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: That's the album's first single, "Handle Me," as in you can't.
Robyn comes on less like Madonna's defiant daughter than like a woman who's
still testing the parameters of her power in relationships and, by extension,
in the music business. Unlike a lot of female pop stars, she doesn't put up a
front of regal invincibility. Unlike a lot of female singer/songwriters, she
doesn't lull you with her vulnerability. She takes a twitchy, itchy song like
"Who's That Girl" and says, frankly, "I'm just pretty some of the time."
(Soundbite of "Who's That Girl")
ROBYN: (Singing) Good girls are pretty,
Like all the time
I'm just pretty
Some of the time
Yeah, good girls are happy
I won't stop asking
Until I die
I just can't deal with the rules
I can't take the pressure
It's got me saying, ooh, yeah,
Who's that girl?
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: Robyn says things that no American pop star would ever be caught
dead avowing--not racy or mean stuff, but on a song called "Bum Like You,"
asserting that she likes to hang out with a guy who's not rich or even
particularly good looking. She just likes his company. Such a sentiment
wrapped in so nice and tightly a pure pop dance melody is a bracing slap to
I really like and admire Madonna's "Hard Candy." I love Robyn's hard-headed
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large with Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Madonna's new album, "Hard Candy," and the self-titled album by Robyn--that's
Robyn with a Y.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "With Every Heartbeat")
ROBYN: (Singing) Maybe we could make it all right
We could make it better sometimes
Maybe we could make it happen, baby
We could keep trying, but things will never change
So I don't look back
Still, I'm dying with every step I take
But I don't look back
Just a little little bit better
(End of soundbite)
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