Hapless Passengers Recount Some Unpleasant Air Travels

White-knuckle fliers are not the only ones who have learned to dread air travel. Today, everyone from the jet-setter to the vacationer learns to arrive at airports prepared for trouble. Some examples:

--Last November, a Washington journalist boarded the 6:30 p.m. Pan Am shuttle at Washington's National Airport for the normal 45-minute flight to New York's La Guardia Airport. Air traffic was stacked up around New York because of rain, and the plane circled Philadelphia for three hours. The flight finally returned to Washington--but to Dulles Airport, far outside the city--and it did not get off the ground again until 12:30 a.m. Again air traffic forced the plane into airborne holding. The flight reached La Guardia at 1:45 a.m.

--Gus Christopoulos, 49, of Laguna Hills, regional manager for an electronics firm, was booked on a United flight for Seattle when the plane developed equipment problems, and the passengers were transferred to Alaska Airlines. Once airborne, the stewardess announced that there were not enough meals. Christopoulos was seated between two Alaska Airlines ticket holders. "They brought me a tray and put it down in front of me," he said. "Then somebody came and asked, 'Are you a United passenger?' I said yes. And they took the tray away from me."

--Bill Radebaugh, a 37-year-old computer salesman from Columbus, Ohio, said he and his family recently found themselves stranded when Florida Express canceled their flight home from Palm Beach. "I was really angry," he said. "I had no money on me. I spent three hours trying to get them to give me a room. They finally called the police. They wanted to get me arrested, but the cop sympathized with me." Radebaugh said the airline later reimbursed him for a rental car to get to a nearby motel.

--Nancy Valasquez, product manager of Community Health Computing in Houston who sometimes makes a dozen flights a month, recalls that on one Continental Airlines flight to Miami she arrived as planned, but her luggage went to London. It took three weeks to get her bags back. "I made so much noise, they finally did something," she said.

--Ron van Wey, a salesman from Richardson, Tex., was on a flight from New Orleans to Chicago several weeks ago. The flight was one hour late leaving because of bad weather in Chicago. The delay had caused flight attendants to exceed their work-hour limits, and they balked at flying back to Chicago. After a dispute, the flight crew finally agreed to stay and the flight took off. By that time, air traffic was so congested at O'Hare that the pilot warned passengers that they might be diverted to Indianapolis. The airliner did land in Chicago, but two hours late.

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