Clipped Wings: Can Consumers Fix Air Travel?
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)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.