04/10/2013 03:01 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

The Once-Friendly Skies are Now Plagued With Turbulence

If you're a boomer, you're old enough to remember when flying was a treat. Those days are long gone. Today, air travel is on par with colonoscopy prep. The hoped-for synergy of combining air carriers has not panned out. Instead, Continental's highly-touted customer service has succumbed to United Airlines chip-on-the-shoulder mentality. AirTran has taken the spirit of fun out of Southwest. Soon, we'll have a single airline that specializes in poor customer service. I have the perfect image for the planes -- a snarling, winged greyhound.

The airlines are eliminating flights and jamming more seats into their glorified sardine cans. Soon, they'll employe pushers to shove the passengers in so they can close the cabin doors. The litany of purser instructions will include a directive that we inhale and exhale in unison. They'll play a video of a yogi to assist the uninitiated.

I'm often relegated to the middle seat, squashed like a cartoon character as my fellow passengers ooze into my personal space. But there are treats in store for us. We may soon have the option of saving a few bucks by standing during flight. RyanAir has designed a "standing-room only" seat just for you. If you'd like a seat belt, bring your own.

Airlines now post à la carte ticket prices. It's only after you invest 15 minutes online that you're privy to the actual cost of the trip. Extra fees are big business. In 2011, airlines earned a staggering $22.6 billion worldwide in "ancillary revenue," up 66% from two years earlier. We're being nickeled and dimed to death with add-on fees for everything from food, to early boarding to checked bags. Want to fly without having your knees impaled in your chest? Pay for "extra legroom." Need to change your itinerary? Not so fast. After listening to an endless loop of Musak, you'll be connected to India and informed that you'll pay $150 to $200 for the privilege.

Still, the airlines worry about their public image. So, they've taken to cheating. They pad their flight times to feign on-time performance. They claim they lose fewer bags. Yet, we all know they have fewer suitcases to lose since more of us are jamming our Rollaboards into the overhead bins.

We are not happy campers. Passenger complaints rose by 20% from 2011 to 2012. The depth of the public's animosity toward flight personnel became clear recently when the TSA announced its inexplicable decision to allow passengers to carry pocket knives, baseball bats and hockey sticks on board. The proposed change elicited an immediate outcry from the flight attendants' union. Were they worried about terrorists? No. They envisioned irate passengers knifing them in the back or high-sticking them in the face as they dispense beverages. Understandably so. My recent travel debacles have left me fantasizing about sharp objects.

Don't feel too sorry for the flight attendants, though. According to George Hobica, founder of, who surveyed his friends in the industry, they have their sneaky ways of evening the score. It's all about getting us to go to sleep so we leave them alone and they can retire to their jump seats and read People magazine. Did you know they pass off decaf coffee as regular, leave the seat belt sign on after the turbulence has passed to keep us in our seats and refuse upgrades after the cabin door has closed simply to avoid extra paperwork?

There are indications that the airlines may have outsmarted themselves. According to a Consumer Reports survey, 40% of respondents said they're flying less due to the annoying add-on fees. Sadly, until the command "Beam Me Up, Scotty" works, commercial airlines are the only game in town for everyone but the super-rich.

Do you have any tricks for making the best of the current state of air travel?