Man, it’s dangerous flying the unfriendly skies these days. What used to be a jaunt through the clouds has become a test of nerves. Planes, and airports in particular, have been transformed into shelters for the cantankerous and the grouchy, the entitled and the misguided. And all this has happened in less than a decade.
What’s going on?
In these past few weeks we’ve been treated to incidents that defy explanation and basic human decency. In early April, David Dao was dragged off his overbooked flight by airport security after refusing to cede his seat to United Airlines crew members, causing Dao to suffer a concussion, a broken nose and other injuries. The incident was captured on cellphone video in all its cringe-worthy glory.
As a result, federal lawmakers, who never miss a chance to grandstand, took U.S. airline chiefs to task, warning them that if they didn’t up their game they risked increased government oversight. Yet, the flying experience — I’ve flown twice since the Dao episode — has not improved in any measurable way. Some might reasonably argue that it has grown worse.
Consider: Delta booted a family off an overnight flight from Maui to California after the airline wanted to put another passenger in the seat the family had initially bought for their 18-year-old son but was planning to use for their 2-year-old. A video showed the crew telling the parents they would go to jail and that their children would be placed in foster care, dreadful and empty threats both.
Last week, a hair-pulling fight broke out at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport after Spirit Airlines canceled nine flights. Hundreds of angry passengers mobbed the ticket counter and at least two women tried to swing at Broward sheriff’s deputies. Three were arrested for disorderly conduct, inciting a riot, trespassing after a warning, and resisting arrest with violence.
Shortly after that boondoggle, two passengers got into a full-blown fistfight on a Southwest Airlines plane. One of the men was punched several times before passengers and flight attendants intervened. Then a Missouri woman flying on a regional U.S. carrier claimed she had to use a cup to pee after flight attendants wouldn’t let her use the restroom. She dutifully wrote about it in a lengthy Facebook post.
To be fair, sometimes it’s not the airlines’ fault. The Obnoxious Traveler is very much alive and well in America — believe me, I’ve sat next to one or two — as is the Entitled Passenger, the Unreasonable Journeyer and the Drunk Tourist. How else to explain the two imbeciles fighting on the Southwest plane? And the woman with her pee cup — turns out that attendants never suggested a cup and that the woman, who claims an overactive bladder, wanted to urinate during the plane’s descent, which is against FAA regulations. (Has she not heard of Depends?)
What’s more, the Spirit Airlines’ cancellations were a result of a labor dispute and eventually a federal court ordered the pilots to stop an illegal work slowdown and return to work.
Those explanations, however, are not meant to give the airlines a free pass. They deserve plenty of blame. As Americans have grown taller (and fatter), airplane seats have been shrinking, leaving most of us feeling like canned sardines marinating in olive oil. Flights are often late, fees are exorbitant, lines to board and deplane are disorganized, and the possibility of getting a checked-in bag within 15 minutes of arrival is nonexistent. Early 20th century transatlantic travel in steerage class, the stuff of conscience-raising novels, has nothing on 21st century economy seats.
Airlines might do well to take some pointers from Disney, where trains run on time and employees smile through a litany of awkward and embarrassing situations. Disney truly works wonders with customer service. At their parks, parents willingly hand over a small fortune to stand in line in the heat with bawling babies and sugar-infused children for an experience they’ve been convinced is both worthwhile and essential.