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Bookworm: Just the ticket for frequent fliers

You haven’t gained weight.

Not an ounce. That’s what you were thinking as you looked at the airplane seat to which you’d been assigned. You hadn’t gained weight, so the only explanation was that the seat was made for first-graders. If you could’ve gotten your knees out from under your chin and pulled the tray-table down without committing Hara Kiri, you might’ve even been comfortable.

You thought you’d save a few bucks by booking the flight yourself, on an airline you’re not used to flying. Was that a mistake? For an answer, grab “Attention All Passengers” by William J. McGee, and strap yourself in.

You have an important event that you absolutely can’t miss, and it’s in another corner of the country. So, like a smart consumer, you went online, found a flight, and booked your trip. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that ticket costs vary, depending on time and location of purchase. What you might not realize, though, is that where you got your ticket and how much you paid determines the customer service (or lack thereof) that you’ll get (or won’t).

Wasn’t flying supposed to be enjoyable?

Yes, there was a time, says McGee, when “flying was fun.” You got on the plane without having to near-undress. Luggage went along, fee-free. Yes, it was a rare treat, it could be very expensive for the average Joe, but it was an exciting pleasure.

And then came deregulation.

McGee says it was assumed that airlines would regulate themselves, but that didn’t happen and it made things worse for consumers. Load factors are now at “theoretical maximum,” so airlines impose ancillary fees to create revenue. They also overbook — something no other business does — and who you book with may not be who you fly with. Seats are jammed together with mere inches left for “comfort.”

But those are just annoyances, compared to deregulation’s effects on safety. Airlines are reluctant to ban unrestrained “lap babies.” Cabin doors are reinforced, but sometimes not very well. Food is rarely inspected, we aren’t informed enough on emergency survival techniques, and airplanes are frighteningly accessible to people without clearance. What’s worse: Plane maintenance is usually outsourced, often overseas.

For 27 years, McGee worked “in and around aviation,” and when he started this book, he vowed to his mother that he’d make it “good.”

He kept his promise.

“Attention All Passengers” is eye-opening, irritating and downright disturbing, despite that flying is, statistically, safer than other modes of travel. McGee had access to experts, officials and government agencies in the researching of this book, which gives it an air of authority without sensationalism; that, and the extremely useful hints on individual safety make this an invaluable read for any traveler.

If planning a business or pleasure trip gives you personal turbulence, this won’t soothe your fears one bit. But if the sky’s the limit for your travel plans and you want to take a good book along with you, I think “Attention All Passengers” is just the ticket.

‘Attention All Passengers’

By William J. McGee

Harper $26.99 354 pages