Opinion: Second-class treatment at regional airports | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: Second-class treatment at regional airports

Ken Johnson
Free Press Opinion Columnist

There are days when I get reminded of how, despite the great airport we have, we are seen by the airlines as rural, second-class hicks. We’ve been overcharged for years, for example.

And it’s not the fault of those multi-tasking airline workers who have to do everything — check us in, load our baggage, take our tickets. For small markets like Grand Junction, it’s “Express” commuter flights that take us to a hub, where typically we get on a “real” airplane.

Now another operating decision shoves us further into second-class status: cancellations.

Here’s how it works. Harsh winter weather jammed up bunches of flights to and from major airline hubs. With planes sitting at our gates, why would those cancellations affect our flying to Denver? You’ll be interested to know the big carriers control commuter schedules.

When the federal Air Traffic Control tells airlines to cancel flights, it’s the airlines who pick which planes to ground. It’s also simple math; the big airlines hit their commuter partners hard. Flights with 40 or less passengers are sure to be high on the hit list.

Oops! That’s us.

Yes, you will eventually be served. No, you won’t be on time.

Greg Hart, United’s chief operations officer, said the obvious: “The simple driving factor is that you want to impact as few passengers as you can.”

And poor United has had real problems this winter. Terrible weather and runway closures in San Francisco, Chicago and Newark, all United hubs, rippled all the way to Grand Junction.

This type of issue hit close to home when my brother, Jim, took a trip in late December. He was due out of Grand Junction on a 10 a.m. flight, and then continuing on at 12:15 p.m.

United notified him late in the day prior, via email, that his flight was canceled “by Air Traffic Control.” They would “protect” him on the same schedule the next day. Instead he got rebooked on an 8 a.m. flight.

Oops again: When he got to the airport, that early flight was canceled! It was snowing in both Grand Junction and Denver. The stranded fliers finally got to Denver about 1:30 p.m., and of course he missed his connection. He managed to snag a seat on a 3 p.m. flight.

All was well. Passengers were aboard, baggage was stowed. All they needed was to push back and head for the de-icing line. An hour later the pilot reported the bad news.

“This flight has been canceled by Air Traffic Control. Everyone needs to deplane and go to a United service counter.”

Jim luckily snagged a seat on a 10:15 p.m. departure. After three cancellations, what could go wrong!

No, it was not canceled. But it was delayed an hour and a half. He finally arrived at 1:40 a.m. (yep, the next day) after 20 long hours spent mostly in airports.

Now, back to ticket prices. GJT to DIA, round-trip, typically costs anywhere from $444 to $701. You can however fly round-trip Los Angeles to New York City — 6,000 miles of flying — for $254. It has been that way since airline deregulation from President Jimmy Carters’ day.

Small-town America: not only are we second-class, small-city hicks in fares; we now are steerage class in service.

Ah, the friendly skies. Makes you almost long for regulation again!

Free Press columnist Ken Johnson is founder of the Grand Junction Free Press and former owner/publisher of The Daily Sentinel. He spends his time between the Grand Valley and California.

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