More than a decade ago I unexpectedly found myself on an unusually small aircraft a major airline was using for my return flight to New York. Even before we took off the woman in the seat in front of mine reclined her seat. Something in me snapped: I kicked the seat with such force it returned to its upright position. I’m fortunate the woman didn’t call a flight attendant and possibly had me arrested.
I think often about the incident. I’m not a violent person and I do my best to avoid public confrontations. Kicking the woman’s seat wasn’t a conscious decision. I suddenly felt trapped, and I reflexively responded to free myself, much like trying to break a fall with one’s hands.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t read about an aircraft being diverted because of other disruptive passengers behaving badly as I did. Invariably a video of the incident surfaces on TikTok and we see a passenger shouting at crew members and then other passengers. The disruptive passenger is led off the plane and everyone cheers. The flight crews are hailed as heroes.
Watching videos of disruptive passengers, I’ve come to appreciate that some of them also just snapped, and their bad behavior was uncharacteristic. One example was Anna Dugan, a Las Vegas woman who made national news last October after Delta threw her off a flight from Atlanta to New York because her small dog was sitting on her lap. As Dugan was being led off the plane, she threw a water bottle at a customer. A video of the incident is embedded in this story.
Reading up on the incident, my sympathies were with Dugan. According to published reports, her flight was already delayed 12 hours. While Delta has a rule that only animals in carriers are allowed on a flight, it wasn’t clear why Dugan was allowed on board in the first place. The flight attendant featured in the video appeared indifferent to Dugan’s frustration, which no doubt exasperated her despair. Passengers immediately began filming her with their phones, which heightened Dugan’s unease.
One passenger shouted, “Get off the plane” when she was already packing her stuff. That passenger was the recipient of Dugan’s water bottle. Frankly, I think he deserved it.
I’ve embedded an interview with Dugan after the incident. She strikes me as quite a nice person, one who is obviously very emotionally bonded with her dog.
Flying these days has become a horrific experience, so toxic that it could provoke even a Quaker to become violent. The entire process is dehumanizing, a test of one’s ability to withstand misery, abuse, and neglect.
Passengers are treated like cattle. They are herded through security by ranchers repeatedly shouting orders about removing laptops, shoes, belts. Some passengers are subjected to additional security checks because they were randomly chosen. That includes the elderly, some of whom have limited or no mobility.
Yeah, Grandma sure looks like a majority security threat.
The unpleasantness continues when passengers arrive at their designated gates and all too often discover their flights are delayed – first by 30 minutes, then 60, and then sometimes cancelled. The airlines often have no accountability as to the reasons for their cancellations. I’m understanding of cancellations resulting from bad weather, but “equipment and mechanical issues?” If an airline can’t maintain its fleet to fulfill its ticket obligations, an automatic major ticket price reduction is in order.
More unpleasantness awaits if a flight is cancelled. The line invariably is too long to speak to an agent, so one must call a toll-free number where they hear that all too familiar greeting: “Due to unusual heavy call volume…please listen carefully because our menu options have changed…did you know that the answers to our most frequently asked questions can be found online at…”
So, one waits. And waits. And waits, sometimes for hours. If one is fortunate to get a real person, it’s someone who’s heard more sob stories in an hour than most hear in a lifetime. It doesn’t matter to them that you are going to miss your beloved Uncle Peter’s funeral or that you are the best man at your childhood friend’s wedding. In some instances, the person on the phone is located offshore and possibly lives in a home without running water. For them, being stranded at an airport is a first world problem.
The unpleasantness extends through the boarding process, at least for those of us who routinely fly coach and get to experience first-hand the economic disparities of capitalism. We must parade by those flying first or business class, sitting smugly and comfortably in their cushy seats nursing their drinks and avoiding making eye contact with the proletarian riff raff. The financially privileged can’t wait for the flight to take off because the curtains are promptly closed, and they can enjoy their rarified travel experience free from having to look at the little people.
Coach passengers receive more orders and instructions, including warnings about limited overhead storage space and the need to stow smaller items under the seat in front of them, usurping the limited leg space they’ve been granted. Then come the late boarders who take it upon themselves to rearrange overhead storage compartments so they can stuff an oversized bag they managed to bring on board.
Then the cabin crew marches through the aisles doing their seat belt inspections. I’m often taken aback by the confrontational nature of the flight attendants. Some have touched me with a force I found unacceptable. I can’t blame them. They are under orders to get the plane prepared for departure within a tight time frame. A slow fasten-the-seat-belter gums up the works.
I feel for the flight attendants who must demonstrate how to fasten a seatbelt. How humiliating to stand before an audience and perform an act that no one pays attention to. It’s comical the FAA assumes that people still need instructions on how to fasten seatbelts, which are mandatory for driving in every state but New Hampshire. New Hampshire’s motto is “Live Free or Die,” so I say let residents from The Granite State suffer the consequences of their libertarianism.
The tortuous process airline passengers endure before and during online boarding turns them into emotional dry timber, as flammable as a California forest in late summer. Ground personnel and flight attendants aren’t trained or required to treat passengers with empathy and compassion. When Anna Dugan became irate about not being allowed to travel with her dog, the flight attendants promptly threw her off the plane. Cheering Dugan’s ejection provided misguided solace for the rest of the miserable passengers.
Ground crews and flight attendants can’t be faulted; they have miserable jobs and must endure abuse because of a system that victimizes them as much as passengers. The only beneficiaries of the pathetic state of U.S. airline travel are the managements of the carriers and their shareholders. The CEOs of the 11 publicly traded large U.S. airlines took home a combined $53 million in compensation in 2021, admittedly a bad year for all of them because the CARES Act limited the obscenity of their compensations.
Airline travel is destined to become even more miserable because U.S. airlines have become so emboldened, they even jerk around passengers who paid extra for misery mitigation. The final straw for me and what prompted this post was learning that Delta routinely downgrades passengers who buy Delta One business class seats to coach and gets away with simply refunding the difference in fares, plus some bonus miles. Delta for a time was decidedly superior to its competitors, but under the leadership of CEO Ed Bastian the carrier has been on a steady downward trajectory.
I’m sensitive to Delta’s downgrades having recently paid a business class fare to travel overseas. A chronic injury and other issues would have made it impossible for me to endure 14.5 hours of air travel in coach, and if I was downgraded, I would have been unable to make the trip. Fortunately, I flew Virgin Atlantic, which despite being 49 percent owned by Delta, honored its fare obligations.
The recent Southwest debacle should serve as a watershed moment for America’s flying public. Passengers can continue to accept and endure mounting misery and disruptions, or they can demand significant change. Posting tweets protesting bad airline experiences is meaningless.
Twitter serves as baby rattle for adults; it makes one feel better tweeting negative comments, but it ultimately has no impact on the airlines. United had a banner year in 2017 despite an avalanche of bad publicity for beating the daylights out of a passenger who refused to be ejected because the airline overbooked a flight. For a time, #BoycottUunitedAirlines was a trending Twitter topic.
Here’s my three-point plan to reform airline travel.
There’s an urgent need to create competition. Current regulations prevent foreign carriers from offering U.S. domestic flights. U.S. carriers aren’t deserving of that protection and it’s time to end it. Although I’m philosophically against government subsidies, I’d support giving Virgin Atlantic oodles of tax incentives to provide domestic U.S. travel, providing the airline maintains the superior standards I recently experienced.
Admittedly, I flew Virgin’s business class, but I occasionally flew Delta’s business class in the airline’s glory days and there was still no comparison. Comparing Virgin Atlantic’s lounge at Heathrow to Delta’s in Detroit when I last visited is the difference between a Ritz Carlton and a Courtyard by Marriott.
I’d also support giving tax breaks to start-up airlines, with the proviso that if these airlines were acquired, the value of the tax breaks would have to be repaid in full – double if the buyers were a private equity or hedge fund.
Finally, I advocate that all federal government officials be required to fly the middle seat in coach, and that use of taxpayer-funded employees to manage their travel arrangements be prohibited. This is my idea of inclusion and equity.
Let Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg experience first-hand the full gamut of airline travel horrors. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar reportedly went ballistic on a staffer for forgetting to pack utensils for a salad she brought on an airline flight, so let’s see how Klobuchar endures regularly commuting to her home state in a coach middle seat.
Unfortunately, the flying public likely will continue to accept the miserable travel status quo, guaranteeing that an increasing number of passengers will endure their fifteen minutes of humiliating TikTok fame.
I’m forever grateful there was no TikTok when I kicked forward an airline seat.