America - Andrew Stephen fears the worst for US airlines

The other day, for the first time in hundreds of flights across the Atlantic, I was charged for head

There is always a time lag, I find, between British fantasies of what life in America is like and the realities. A myth that survives against all the odds, for example, is that travel inside the US is efficient and carefree: that the airline passenger glides effortlessly to his seat in a welter of goodwill from smiley flight attendants; that planes are clean and airy; and that flights invariably arrive on time. Compare any American airline to its European equivalents, says the America-is-better-than-Britain crowd, and the American one always comes out on top.

I can say with feeling that this is no longer true. It is now much more pleasurable to pass through Heathrow or Gatwick (especially Gatwick) than it is to negotiate Washington Reagan National Airport, say, or Dulles. To give just one personal example, this month I paid a flying visit to the UK. US Airways managed to lose my luggage, and I did not receive it until nearly 48 hours after I had checked it in. Then, on my return to the US, it managed to lose my sole suitcase again. I am still awaiting any explanation, let alone an apology.

The truth is that America's major airlines are pared down to the bone, and even beyond. United, the second largest, has just been given permission to default on $6.6bn (£3.6bn) in pension plans, leaving 120,000 of its employees to rely on the government (in this case, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation) for their retirement benefits. United will save $645m per year from this economy (not extending to the $1.1m it is paying to its chief executive, Glenn Tilton), which is part of the $2bn savings it says it needs to make to emerge from bankruptcy. US Airways, the country's seventh biggest, has already "terminated" nearly $1bn of pension obligations.

Both airlines are in "Chapter 11" proceedings, a state of partial bankruptcy that is peculiarly American: companies that find themselves unable to meet debts can file with the federal government and vow to reorganise and cut costs while their debts are suspended. Airlines have lost more than $35bn since 2000 and will probably lose another £5bn this year; the country's third largest, Delta, says it lost $5.2bn last year alone, when its pilots took a 32.5 per cent pay cut.

The results for passengers are everywhere you look. Fares are up, most recently by 10 per cent. Fleets are being cut. Fewer flights are arriving on time. Very few meals are now served during flights, and when they are, passengers have to order them in advance and then pay between $3 and $5 for the usual soggy, lifeless "sandwich". Northwest has dropped pillows from its planes as an economy, and American Airlines is trying to make savings by leaving olives out of the few meals it serves. The other day, for the first time in hundreds of flights across the Atlantic, I was charged for both headsets and drinks, which have always been free on transatlantic flights.

The response of the US government has been predictable. It is another myth, much cherished by Americans and frequently repeated by the British, that Europeans go in for government subsidies while Americans do not. Live by the market and perish by the market is, supposedly, America's motto. Yet the federal government handed over $7.5bn to the airlines as a result of 11 September 2001 alone; the airlines were already in deep trouble, but the atrocities provided an excuse for governmental bailouts. Now the airlines are the recipients of no less than $9.5bn from the federal government in the guise of grants, loan guarantees and tax waivers.

If all this were not enough, excessive airport security adds to the miseries of travellers. Americans like authority and uniforms, and absurdly histrionic "security" is now par for the course - the unanswerable explanation being that it is "because of 9/11", which is used to excuse everything. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is in charge of airport security, had just 13 federal employees at the beginning of 2002. Less than a year later, it had 65,000 and had taken over security at 450 airports.

The TSA's latest brainwave is to spend $16m on new uniforms with more prominent epaulettes, which says it all. It is now routine in American airports that you have to remove your shoes before passing through magnetometers; it is a meaningless ritual, because X-rays do not reveal explosives hidden in shoes. But we all have to line up in our socks, clutching our shoes, and woe betide anybody who kicks up a fuss. Umbrellas, for some reason, have joined the list of items of carry-on luggage that have to be X-rayed separately - while four books of matches, bizarrely, are not a problem.

The hourly rate of TSA employees starts at just $5.15, and they are subjected to frequent tests in which fake guns and the like are secreted in luggage. The result is that they feel harassed, and then pass their stress on to passengers. Yet the General Accounting Office, the government's spending watchdog, says that airport security is no better than it was before the 11 September attacks - something I, at least, could have told them.

Chapter 11 is thus increasingly being used as a life-support system for ailing companies, prolonging the existence of patients indefinitely. United has been in this state of partial bankruptcy for 30 months, US Airways since last September, and no American airline has gone bust since the late, lamented Pan Am finally went under in 1991. My other favourite airline, TWA, was swallowed up by American Airlines in 2001.

But those from the same evocative era, such as Northwest (formerly Northwest Orient), are shedding aircraft as well as people. Northwest only recently decided to get rid of dozens of its ancient DC-9s. A sad fate for many passenger planes these days is to end up in huge airliner parking lots in the deserts of New Mexico or southern California, where they are abandoned indefinitely in the hope of better times to come.

In the meantime, I am in a quandary. The reason I flew US Airways to Britain this month was that I had finally decided to use some of the hundreds of thousands of air miles I had accrued with the company over the years, before it was too late. I still have even more to use with United - enough to pay for several first-class transatlantic trips, during which I could even expect free headsets and drinks. Heaven knows whether I ever will, though.

I meet many Brits who simply don't believe that air travel in the US has become appalling. They want to resist the reality that it now means sweaty, grubby security lines and being shouted at by overweight, underpaid security workers in militaristic uniforms - before, that is, you are herded on to overcrowded and cramped planes. I find myself increasingly nostalgic for the Greyhound buses on which I travelled tens of thousands of miles in my student days: they, at least, never once lost my luggage.

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