5 Ways Airline Travel Sucks — and What You Can Do to Make It Better

By Carrie Kirby on 1 October 2014 0 comments

Call it the week that airline travelers couldn't take it anymore. Three different flights were diverted so passengers could be removed, all of them squabbling over one issue: Reclining seat backs.

In one case, a traveler used a Knee Defender device to prevent the seat in front of him from reclining. In all the cases, the real issue was that flyers are now packed so close together in coach airplane seats that they can't help invading one another's space.

"Travelers aren't sardines. There's a line there of comfort and the quality of experience," Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told Condé Nast Traveler in an interview after the rash of in-flight meltdowns. "My hope is that the industry sees these incidents as a message from consumers that maybe they are getting a little close to that line." (See also: The 8 Scariest Things Possibly Coming to Air Travel)

Legroom isn't the only issue bugging us in the air these days. Overall, airlines garner worse customer satisfaction scores than almost any industry. How far we have come since jet setters made selections from cheese carts and wandered freely through lounges with live music?

Like flight delays, this list could go on forever, so we've kept it to the top five things that suck about flying.

1. You Can't Move Your Legs

It's not just the Knee Defender users who noticed.

A standard coach seat has always been too narrow for most people to sit comfortably, with 17 to 19 inches between armrests. But as airlines have pushed to add revenue, they have moved the rows closer and closer together, so that now there is only 31 to 35 inches from one seat to the one behind it. Not only does this cause reclining seats to bash into knees, but it makes it nearly impossible for a window seat passenger to get up and use the restroom without sticking her butt in the face of the middle and aisle-seat passengers.

Many international flights now have an extra seat squeezed into each row, too. Too-narrow seats force passengers to let their arms dangle into the aisle, where they get clobbered by the drink cart and by other passengers hauling bags and car seats.

What You Can Do About It

It's pretty clear at this point that Knee Defenders aren't the way to go, and besides, most airlines ban the devices. All you can really do is pony up for an extra legroom section like United's Economy Plus, finagle an exit row seat, or at least try for the aisle so you can throw your legs out there (watch out for the beverage cart).

Also, consider leaving your own seat upright to avoid contributing to the discomfort of others. A recent survey revealed that if you recline your seat, other passengers hate you.

2. You Can't Get Anything to Eat

Once upon a time, your wish was your flight attendant's command.

"People were given pillows, blankets, magazines, playing cards, pens and a hot meal, wine, top-shelf liquor — and that was just in economy," former Pan American World Airways flight attendant Anne Sweeney told ABC.

Nowadays, many airlines — AirTran, Southwest, Spirit — have no meals on board, while others — JetBlue, American — sell boxed meals. Most international travelers still get a hot meal, at least — probably to avoid violating any international treaties on torture of prisoners.

What You Can Do About It

Not much, except carry a meal onboard.

3. You Can't Find Room for Your Bag

Spud Hilton, travel editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, kicked off a carry-on controversy when he created the the Carry-on Hall of Shame to highlight passengers trying to haul larger-than-regulation bags onto planes.

They don't want to pay to check the larger bags — and who would? But Hilton says these passengers aren't just cheating the airline, they're cheating you.

"The increasingly aggressive disregard for the size standards — which has led to flight delays, a much longer boarding process, abusive passengers, and increased theft from gate-checked bags — also is disregard for everyone else on the plane," Hilton wrote on his blog.

What You Can Do About It

Call out overhead bin hogs. If you don't have the nerve to tap someone on the shoulder to inform them that their suitcase doesn't qualify as a carry-on, you can snap their picture and upload it to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #CarryonShame. The publicity could push the airlines to start enforcing their own rules.

4. You Can't Get Away From People Like This

Remember when people used to dress up to fly? Or at least get dressed?

Passenger Shaming, on Facebook and Instagram, posts photos of shirtless and barefooted passengers, people making out in their seats, and even a kid using a potty chair in the aisle. Even Superbowl champions in first class can't always avoid other passengers behaving badly. Then there's the auditory pollution from passengers who play movies with no headphones, and the air pollution from those who douse themselves in cologne.

What You Can Do About It

Bring a curtain to shield your eyes? Take a sedative and try to sleep through the indignity? Play Bozo Bingo? Whatever gets you through the flight.

5. You Can't Get There on Time

2013 was the worst year for flight reliability in the past five, with only 78% of flights arriving on time, according to FlightStats, Inc.

The most miserable delays are tarmac delays, when passengers are stuck in planes on runways for hours without going anywhere. Tarmac delays have gotten so bad that the government stepped in to assert passengers' right not to be held hostage on runways, but they still happen. In fact, last year United had to pay $1.1 million in fines for 13 times it left passengers stranded in their seats for more than three hours — including two planes where the toilets weren't working.

What You Can Do About It

Fortunately there are strategies for avoiding flight delays. Fly nonstop, fly early in the day, and don't connect in Denver in the wintertime. If you have a choice, some airports have fewer delays than others.

This list could go on and on.

Poor customer service, lost luggage, germy tray tables, out-of-control children, turbulence, security lines — what's not to hate about air travel these days? While there is not much we can do about many of these discomforts, we actually have a ton of power over the flight experience — of other people. Be the change you want to see in the air. Be polite. Help parents of small children. Don't leave your gum in the seatback pocket. Thank the flight attendant. Flush. Don't block the aisle. And for goodness sake, keep your shirt on.

What's your worst in-flight experience? Please share in comments!

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