The Air Travel Dilemma: How Do We Fix the Flying Experience?

A mood-lit Delta cabin (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Alex Navitsky)

Over the past several months I haven’t been able to turn around without hearing someone talking about airlines. Previously nothing has made me happier to talk about an industry I am extremely passionate about, but lately, the conversations have taken a turn for the worse since the United incident with Dr. Dao.

In light of recent events, I have attempted to reflect and find some sort of common ground between two opposing sides of people; the hard-core “AvGeeks” who feel airlines can do no wrong, and the everyday fliers who claim the airlines do not care one ounce for their customers.

The reality is that it hasn’t been easy to find this so called “middle ground.” In addition, I have found few if any that are willing to meet in the middle in what has become a battle for the skies over who is ultimately responsible for making air travel both safer and a better experience for both customers and employees.

In an attempt to pursue some sort of resolution, I have asked two individuals to discuss their opinion on what has caused the recent strife between the airlines and passengers, and what solutions they propose to create lasting solutions.

Amy, Consultant, Los Angeles, Calif.

It wouldn’t be a normal Monday morning if I weren’t on the way to the airport. As a consultant, I am tasked with solving problems and traveling nearly every week, often to different destinations. While there are certainly some perks to this such as the airline miles and hotel points earned, I have grown increasingly accustomed to a lack of empathy from airline staff at my airline of choice, which often leaves me feeling as though travel isn’t the beautiful experience it’s cracked up to be.

To be clear, this isn’t a complaint about the aircraft themselves; sure, we’ve all had our fair share of flying on a legacy-US Airways aircraft with limited seat pitch and a lack of power outlets, but what really hits home for me is that the airline industry in the U.S., which is supposed to be a part of the service industry, doesn’t make a reasonable effort to take care of its customers.

I am not simply talking about your Executive Platinum AA flyers or Global Services at United, but the once-a-year vacation travelers as well. I stopped keeping count of the rude customer service agents, delayed flights with no gate announcements and downright mean approach toward passengers traveling home to see their families.

In my line of work, I have learned that in difficult scenarios the issue is rarely the problem itself, but rather how it is viewed and addressed by the group who created the problem. When passengers are delayed, how much does it cost for a gate agent to present a genuine apology and true estimated time of departure, rather than play the “15-minute rolling delay” game with no announcement made to passengers?

When an old woman is traveling and cannot lift her bag up, how much time does it really take a flight attendant to assist her? These are questions I ask myself every day and wonder why we as a nation have grown so accustomed to a lack of care for customers, and why we haven’t pushed back more and demanded to be treated fairly.

I am not talking about a lavish red carpet entry on every flight or free alcohol for everyone in coach, but rather simple, meaningful greetings and a willingness to feel empathy for a passenger. If the airlines in the U.S. can figure this out, maybe then we can truly make flying not just a tolerable experience, but a positive one once again.

Dan, Student, St. Louis, Mo.

I remember taking a trip when I was young to visit Lambert-St. Louis International Airport as a kid. Keep in mind that this was a time prior to 9/11 when it was commonplace to travel to the gate to see family take off on their trip, and it was also at a time when TWA was booming at its hub in St. Louis.

There was this magical feeling watching a Boeing 747 glisten down the runway as it prepared for its flight across the globe, and I knew from a young age that no matter what the circumstances were in the future, there would always be something special about flying.

Unfortunately, over the last several years I have seen this magnificent experience plagued by screaming passengers, unruly incidents at the gate and downright demanding expectations from frequent flyers that have all but taken away this once incredible experience. Airline employees have become tasked with not just looking out for passenger safety as they should be, but rather babysitting both young children and grown adults. This is not the way flying should be.

Front-line staff both on the aircraft and at the gate are having to work beyond their limits with demanding passengers on both sides of the loyalty spectrum with everyone wanting more, even as ticket prices continue to decline driven by new ultra-low-cost carriers entering many cities where legacy carriers operate.

Customers want rock-bottom fares but want top-notch service at the same time. Essentially they want more while spending less, which doesn’t exactly add up. This isn’t to say all passengers are like this, as many are still going about their travel in an efficient and mature way.

But the reason we keep hearing about terrible incidents involving air travel is driven by aggressive behavior by a select group of customers. How can a gate agent be expected to help a passenger with a baggage issue if he is video-taping her the entire time?

How can a flight attendant be expected to provide good customer service to passengers if they end up in a large brawl onboard? The answer is no solution can be made by the airlines without all passengers doing their part to return travel to a sane and safe place to be.

Conclusion

While this is just the opinion of two readers, I would encourage you to voice your own opinion on recent events occurring onboard U.S. airlines. How can we as a group, both airlines and passengers, try and return air travel to the friendly skies once again?

Joe Pesek

Joe Pesek

Joe joined AirlineGeeks in 2014, and in his current role as Editor-in-Chief manages a growing team of writers both in North America and Europe. He enjoys spending the bulk of his time researching, learning and analyzing the latest trends in the airline industry, all while mentoring new members of the AirlineGeeks team who seek to do the same. Areas of research include revenue management, codeshare and alliance partnerships and airline financial results.
Joe Pesek
  • BernieFlatters

    Amy, it isn’t the job of the flight attendants to put luggage away, even if it is for an elderly woman. Would it be okay with you if the FA took the bag and checked it?

    • Southeast PDXer

      That is *exactly* what I wanted to say. If you cannot lift your bag into the overhead, then you should not be bringing it on board – end of story, full stop. A flight attendant’s job is not to be your personal valet. A flight attendant’s job is to be there in case of emergency and act accordingly.

      • Jeff J

        You’re mistaken, this was taken
        directly off of AA.COM

        “Ability to lift objects up to 35 pounds such as galley stowage bins and carry on baggage”

        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4d312d4b02a5feec4e56c16bd028ee1405744563bb072cd38d6270d38bdf5cac.png

        • Southeast PDXer

          It may be part of the job description, but that doesn’t mean that it should be part of a flight attendant’s job. That’s my personal belief, so I’m not mistaken – I’m opinionated.

          • Jeff J

            But you stated as fact it was not part of a flight attendant’s job to put bags up for people. It says right there in the job description that is, and part of what they’re paid for.

            I’m 5’11 275#s, I can easily lift and secure my own carryon as I usually do…i can’t tell you how many times flight attendants grab my backpack or ask to put it up for me…I usually smile and refuse unless I’m traveling with my young son because at that point any help with a lil one is welcome.

            But think about it…flight attendants deal with carryon luggage and overhead bins day in and day out all day long…who best to be the most efficient with these things??

            As with my point below, if we were stopped being treated as profit centers and nickled and dimed for every little thing, we could go back to checking in most of our stuff. Or we could follow Aerflot’s example and board from the ramp, dump our stuff in fwd cargo hold as we walk up stairs to the cabin.

          • Southeast PDXer

            Here is exactly what I said:

            > A flight attendant’s job is not to be your personal valet. A flight attendant’s job is to be there in case of emergency and act accordingly.

            Please take it as I wrote it, not as whatever you’re interpreting it. And while I agree that we are generally treated as profit centers and not people (which is why I don’t fly one of the “big 3” anymore), I don’t see US airlines changing anytime soon. Profits before people is the motto of just about any publicly traded company for a reason, and that isn’t going to change.

  • Jeff J

    Dan doesn’t have a relevant point, he’s going off talking points from faux news it sounds like. Select group of customers?? What select group is this?? I haven’t heard of them. I’ve seen issues with pax who were from across the spectrum, on different airlines from across the world that range from LCCs to international legacies known for their outstanding customer service.

    But bottom line is just a matter of treating folks with dignity and respect. I don’t care if i paid a dollar for my flight. I know I’m not getting red carpet service, champagne and a chocolate at my seat. The flying public knows this, and aren’t expecting that either. But still we deserve basic dignity and respect like any other human being.

    And that’s the problem with the US Airlines, they don’t see their customers as human beings. We’re profit centers to have every last nickle and dime extracted from us. We have to travel and they know that, so they hold us hostage in the process. With all the consolidation the just”us” department has allowed, they collude easily, so to who are going to go to?

    • J Scott

      Jeff J let me tell you about your fellow human beings who travel these days. About 25% (this is my own estimation from personal observation) ruin things for the remaining 75%. This quarter of the population are made-up of slobs who leave their garbage on tables and chairs, and assholes who think the sun revolves around them and get all bent out of shape when they can’t get the ass kissed. These folks are the ones who leave a gate area trashy, instead of taking the time to walk 20 feet to the available waste bin. These are the people who demand this and that because they think that they deserve the red carpet treatment even if they “paid a dollar for [their] flight.” These are the ones who rush to the front of the line to get on the plane, even when they’re seated in a section which will be called out in sequence at a later point in the process. They want to be first, so they can get that choice spot in the overhead bin and take up more space than necessary. These are the types who argue or talk back to the flight attendants because they think they know more, or are unwilling to comply with the requirements to shut off their electronic devices when asked to. (It’s such an unreasonable request, right?!? God forbid if they can’t get that last round of Candy Crush in!) These are the people who start fights, get drunk and stupid, leave their trash everywhere, and get up to get their precious bag from the overhead bin while the plane is still taxiing to the gate, thereby holding up the entire process. These are the folks who “lose” their stuff at the Security Checkpoint or at the restaurant/bar or at the gate, or on the plane because they’re in such a rush to get ahead of their fellow humans. Then the file complaints to the airport or airline stating that some perceived injustice has been foisted upon them because they lost their precious sweater or phone or laptop — if it was so damn precious then why did you forget to grab it?!? Because in your tunnel vision rush that item lost its preciousness in favor for some selfish fulfillment.

      Now, I said 25%. (Again, an estimation) The remaining 75% of us now all get treated the same by the gate agents and flight attendants because they’re only human too, and get tired of dealing with that 25% element day after day after day. They don’t know which of us is going to turn out to be that butthead so, try as they might to put on that smile, they’re cautious and just waiting to go into self-defense mode. What makes things worse is that we’re all confined in a limited space, a human mailing-tube, at 30,000 feet. We all have to put-up with that butthead, but the attendants are the ones who have to deal with the situation. Not because it’s their job, but because the 25% have forced them to. Customer service in the 21st Century is a physically and mentally draining job.

      Now, before you blurt-out “Well, if they can’t hand it, then they shouldn’t be in that position,” just think for a minute. They didn’t get into their job to babysit the 25%; they got into their job because they wanted to be part of the adventure that is aviation, and perhaps at one point in their life they actually wanted to be the best customer service rep they could be. But the 25% have ruined that. For all of us.

      Yes, the airlines are squeezing us, and charging us for this and that. But the people are the real issue here, and you can’t (yet) select which types will be allowed onto public transportation and who won’t.

      And, Jeff, Dan DOES have a relevant point; you’re just unwilling to see it. Are you part of the 25%?