Did you hear the one about the passenger who was charged an extra $15 by the airline to lose his first checked bag? And another $25 for a second bag mistakenly loaded onto an airliner to Calcutta instead of Cincinnati?
That might sound like a Jay Leno monologue, but a disgruntled frequent flier delivered it at a recent forum sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation for consumers to air their gripes.
The message from airlines wasn't reassuring, either. Essentially, they said, if you think it's bad now, you ain't seen nothing yet. They warned of shrinking service and higher fees for everything from preassigned seats to bottled water.
Airline representatives defended overbooking flights, saying those who are bumped are offered compensation, including vouchers to buy tickets for future flights on the same carrier that failed to get them where they wanted to go in the first place.
"Air travel at times can resemble theater of cruelty," Michael Lyons, vice president of the National Business Travel Association, told the audience. "Flight and seat options are going away. What last year was a $250 ticket is now $450 or $500. That's rough."
Activists at the forum who are lobbying Congress to pass an airline passenger bill of rights scolded the carriers for blaming all their recent failures on high fuel prices.
Joan Marett attended the forum as a concerned consumer. A resident of suburban Chicago, she is usually a last-minute traveler because of her job coordinating the management of firefighting resources at wildfires in the Rocky Mountains.
"I had my checked luggage lost for five days while going to a fire," said Marett. "My tent, sleeping bag and other essentials were gone. When I went to the airline seeking a reimbursement to buy new supplies, they kept telling me, 'Don't be extravagant.'"
Yet for all their disappointment, airline passengers received an unapologetic warning at the forum that customer service will continue to diminish and consumers more than ever need to fend for themselves at the airport.
In defending the airlines' routine practice of bumping passengers by overbooking flights, Catherine Gantt of Southwest Airlines compared empty seats on a plane to "a grocery store with spoiled food."
She advised passengers to check in early online. But "an oversale isn't necessarily a bad thing because passengers can receive compensation for denied boardings," said Gantt, a specialist in consumer advocacy.
However, there are often strings attached to the "free ticket" given to bumped passengers. With the airlines cutting their schedules and selling up to 90 percent of the seats on many flights, restrictions make it difficult to use vouchers.
Airline officials made it clear that much of the burden for having a successful flight rests on passengers.
Before going to the airport, travelers should print out an extra copy of their itinerary, laminate it and place it inside their suitcase on top of clothes, said Rachel McCarthy, managing director of customer solutions at United Airlines.
That way, if the bag becomes lost or the luggage tag comes off, airline employees can open up the suitcase and figure out its proper destination, McCarthy said. With eight miles of conveyor belts at its baggage-sorting area in O'Hare International Airport, United employees process an average of 1,700 checked bags each hour.
McCarthy also suggested passengers pack one unusual item such as "a purple dinosaur or ruby red slippers" to help airline employees trying to reunite unclaimed bags with their owners.
She said United returns lost bags to nine out of 10 customers within two days.
Preparing for a flight is critical, officials said. Travel during off-peak hours and book nonstop flights if possible, they said, and check to make sure the night before traveling that the airline hasn't changed the departure time.
"Ask a million questions and don't test the limits of the system," said Paul Ruden, senior vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents, during one panel discussion.
The forum, the second of three that will be held around the country, was designed to help educate air travelers about their rights and responsibilities.
Ruden, a travel professional, acknowledged he failed to anticipate a potential snafu involving his own travel plans on US Airways Express from Washington, D.C., to O'Hare via a connection in Columbus, Ohio.
Unknown to him, Ruden's itinerary involved a sharing agreement by US Airways Express with United Airlines. Ruden became alarmed when he noticed his bag was tagged to go aboard a United flight.
In the end, the bag was checked through properly to O'Hare, but Ruden said it's a lesson that "you must ask questions and take care of yourself."
"You have to be prepared for what the government calls 'irregular operations,' " he said. "We call them disasters."
Airline fares that consumers see in advertisements and on Internet travel sites now represent merely a starting price point, federal officials moderating the panel discussion said.
Passengers are just beginning to be deluged with supplemental fees for services that once were free, from checking baggage and getting a preassigned seat to obtaining water or the once obligatory packet of salted nuts or pretzels on flights.
To boost revenue, the airlines will continue adding rules such as the recent reimposition of minimum stays on some airfares.
Unless airfares specifically say they are fully refundable, "most of the time you are not going to get your money back" if the ticket goes unused, said Tim Kelly, a team leader in the aviation consumer protection division for the Department of Transportation.
Change fees are also escalating, with some airlines charging up to $150 per ticket, officials said.
Airlines and government representatives at the forum maintained that a passenger bill of rights, which has never passed Congress, is unnecessary because the industry can regulate itself.
But critics said the airlines have had their chances and failed.