Clipped Wings: Can Consumers Fix Air Travel?

by Kentin Waits on 27 June 2011 5 comments
Photo: Emily Walker

For me, it begins about two days before a flight — that mild anxiety that only modern air travel can inspire. It’s a restlessness born of the knowledge that in a matter of days, my intricately laid travel plans will surely begin to unravel. I will be shuttled from nearly bankrupt airline to nearly bankrupt airline (the result of a delay, a staffing issue, a mechanical problem, or the like) only to end up considering myself fortunate to land a spot wedged in some seat designed by a retired torture-device engineer.

The modern air travel industry is broken. From the harried groping at the security lines to the in-flight pretzel-tosses, consumers are losing their voices and suffering the consequences of a service on the skids. Let’s examine just a few of the indignities travelers are subjected to and explore some ways we can collectively make ourselves be heard. (See also: 5 Tips for Making Airline Travel Easier)

Luggage Fees

Fuel prices may fluctuate, but luggage fees look like they’re here to stay. If the best minds were to figure out how to power a jet with only pretzels and the power of crying babies, I’d still be paying at least $25 for every checked bag.

Why are we passively allowing what amounts to an undeclared fuel surcharge on each flight we take? What might happen if we began calling, twittering, and writing emails to the airline decision-makers and demanding a fairer solution?

TSA Procedures

Once my wallet is lightened by the checked bag fees, I’m treated to security lines so extensive that I immediately begin to calculate the cost/benefit ratio of everyone I love and am traveling to see. The only upside is getting to take my shoes off for a few moments and then experience what I convince myself is just a special "fraternal hug" by the TSA screening agent.

Isn’t there a better way? It’s as if our system is so broken that the safeguard has become the new menace. After months of outrage and a public relations nightmare, the TSA has made only nominal changes to its screening of even the youngest of children. Maybe it’s time to leverage a bit of that democratic influence we Americans enjoy and (sensibly) reinvent the TSA through the representatives we elect.

Late Flights

I never attempt to fly without a fully charged cell phone. How naïve I’d be to assume that plans will not need to be changed, arrival time estimates revised, or connecting flight arrangements reworked to accommodate the vagaries of flight schedules and routes that the airlines establish through careful study and fly every single day?

By leveraging the power of a collective passenger response, I wonder how schedules might improve if just 50% of the passengers from a late or rescheduled flight called the airline or posted a negative online review. Let’s try it.

Boarding by Class

I’ve never won the lottery, but I imagine it feels something like finally being able to board a long-delayed flight. It typically goes something like this -- after the third hour, a secret cabal of gate staff convenes and determines in hushed-tones, secret codes, and semaphore that passengers may begin to board. Then the elaborate and arcane process of boarding by class begins. Understandably, those with small children and passengers who need extra help go first. First-class passengers board next, then platinum flyers, then gold, then silver, bronze, copper, nickel, and nickel-plated passengers go. Since I usually travel aluminum class, I take what amounts to a walk of shame to my middle seat between an angst-ridden teen and a chatty Midwestern woman.

What does this artificially created class division accomplish other than to make boarding a plane feel like a privilege instead of service we’ve all paid something for? Isn’t this just a remnant of a bygone era when we didn’t arrive at the gate already fully-frustrated from a series of long lines? I vote for a mini-exercise in civil disobedience (and alchemy) that would have aluminum mixing with gold.

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Carry-Ons

The unplanned offspring of the airlines’ checked baggage fee is the over-stuffed carry-on. Otherwise mortal passengers become super-human when zippering and hauling these comically large bags. I’m reminded of the classic image of Atlas straining to support the earth as passengers attempt to wedge these nylon sausages into the groaning overhead bins.

The solution is simple — airlines should dispense with checked-bag fees or at least allow one free checked bag. It might cut into their bottom lines a bit, but maybe profits could be made more legitimately by real industry-wide efficiencies.

Cabin Chaos

With the hurdles of the TSA screening, flight delays, and boarding processes behind me, I feel like a bit of well-deserved rest. Likewise, it would seem that the flight attendants and pilots would like a plane full of sleeping passengers too. But it’s not to be. Just as I’m drifting off to sleep, a crackling audio system delivers some inane message from the pilot in a decibel so high I brace myself for a water landing. Then, twenty minutes later the clanking metal carts rumble down the aisle in a sad nod to the long-lost era of more genteel plane travel — dispensing pretzels, crackers, and sodas. If peace ever comes, it’s disrupted by the constantly glowing video screens on the back of every headrest, emitting just enough light to keep passengers awake during evening flights.

This seems like an area where airlines could easily scale back service without much impact. Why, especially on short flights, must passengers be constantly hydrated and visually entertained? Couldn’t we relax, read a book, and enjoy a cabin free of Shrek and soda?

Comedic Flight Attendants

I can’t imagine the challenges and special brand of frustrations that flight attendants face. In the bigger picture of the airline industry, most employees are as hapless and helpless as the average traveler. I’m sure some marketing firm suggested that each flight attendant should try her hand at amateur comedy. Maybe a junior VP somewhere delivered a compelling PowerPoint on how most passengers forget 80% of their complaints if they leave with a chuckle. Enter Susan, the flight attendant who delivers with aplomb jokes about arriving at the wrong destination or how she will be selling anything you leave behind on eBay. But to me, this in-flight version of Open Mic Night underestimates the harrowing experience we’ve all put up with and the stiff drink (or two) we’ll all need to recover from it.

Jokes aside, America’s once grand airline industry is broken. From mild inconveniences and slight indignities to outright danger, the industry’s chronic decline is precipitous and unchecked. Sleeping air traffic controllers, mounting TSA issues, and an aging fleet all conspire to make the future of air travel bleaker every year. Short of that mythic American high-speed rail system, the answer to better travel lies in our response and in our refusal to be passive about a level of service we wouldn’t allow from any other industry.

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Meg Favreau's picture

The overstuffed overhead bin thing definitely makes me crazy. Half the time I've been on a flight in the last year, they've had to check carry-ons because space ran out in the bins.

I'd love to hear other ways consumer could help fix air travel -- any ideas, readers?

Guest's picture
Jared

I agree with you on a lot of this. The airline industry is the only industry where a customer can pay for a service, not get it, and not be given any sort of refund. Flights at 6 pm on a Friday are more expensive than flights at 11:45pm on a Friday .... but if my 6pm flight is delayed to 11:45, tough luck! You don't get what you pay for, and you can't do anything about it.

I don't know what you're talking about with all your references to the good ol' days of our grand air travel industry. Under strict regulation, planes were routinely flying with only 1/3 of the seats full, and flying was so expensive that most people couldn't afford it. Partial deregulation helped a bit with that, but there's still not enough competition in the industry to make any of them care about passengers.

The best solution? Build a national high speed rail network. The airline industry needs a competitor.

Guest's picture
Anna

I didn't try to fix air travel. I took the TSA at its word that "we have options other than flying" so since flying is optional, they can do whatever they want. My last trip, I took Amtrak.

Now maybe on the east coast, train travel is an option. But out here in the midwest? Nope. Due to flood, train was delayed so they had to bus us to Chicago for the first leg of the trip. Arrive in Chicago, on-time departure, only do be delayed a few hours later when EMS radioed the train to stop for...wait for it...a dead body on the tracks! 2 hours late arriving at my destination. Trip back was uneventful but still had delays. What I read recently is all tracks are privately owned and Amtrak has to get permission to travel and cargo gets priority over Amtrak. Hence delays are quite normal. You don't have another train you can get on, unlike a flight, so you have to wait for the train to arrive or use an Amtrak bus.

I've been to Europe. The state of our travel system is laughable. No wonder so many Americans own cars. Until we truly have other options, I'll keep my car.

Guest's picture
skymuffin

911 has turned the airline industry on it's head and it has yet to fully recover. 911 is also responsible for the TSA frustrations, and checked bag fees, and overworked unfriendly flight attendants, and loss of inflight amenities. Most Legacy air carriers never fully recovered from the financial and moral devastation of 911 (deaths of passengers, flight attendants and civilians lead no demand for flying for a long time, and on top of that death lawsuits etc... Unless the government would take over the airline industry (and I seriously hope they don't) airline corporations will still will seek to eek out a profit dealing with sky high fuel prices and hefty Union salaries for their workers, and airport fees and plane maintenance, and why not I ask? Airlines are no different from the Nike corporation, they too are entitled to seek out profitability. There are lots of people out there still willing to spend their hard earned cash on overpriced sneakers made in China as well as middle seat on an airplane with fuel surcharges sans the pretzels and pillows and smiles of a lost era. Why? Because Nike still makes great sneakers and air travel is still the fastest safest way to get to where we are going fast. Moreover, if we had a rail system spoiled Americans that we are, I am sure we would have issues there eventually too especially if became a target of terrorism which would bring TSA onboard there as well. But most importantly at this time in the life of most Americans, air travel is the very least of our problems right now, honestly people should be happy then can afford a ticket to fly with 9.6 percent unemployment.

Guest's picture
Anna

Europe has had to deal with terrorism far longer than we have. It's like 9/11 made Americans thing terrorism just happened then. Nope, Britain has dealt with IRA bombings in shopping malls and Al Qaeda on their trains. Germany had Bader-Meinhof and who knows what else. Lockerbie, other plan hijackings. And then there is Israel, who has far more threats and far more security than we do. these locations don't have a TSA like arrangement on all their airplanes,trains, buses, malls, etc. And while Israel is more vigilant, their system also seems more efficient. I feel much more secure when I travel in Europe where at least their security looks like it knows what its doing versus the reactive approach over here.