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Having An Unpleasant Flight? It's Probably Your Fault

In this Jan. 25, 2016 file photo, a passenger talks on the phone as American Airlines jets sit parked at their gates at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. (Susan Walsh/AP)
In this Jan. 25, 2016 file photo, a passenger talks on the phone as American Airlines jets sit parked at their gates at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. (Susan Walsh/AP)
This article is more than 4 years old.

American Airlines has unveiled a new advertising campaign encouraging passengers to be more civil when they fly. According to an article in the New York Times about the ads, fliers are requested to be nice to hostesses, to ask their seatmates before raising the window shade, not to hog the armrests and generally to behave.

I can get on board with civility much of the time, and certainly, air travel generally could use much more of it. That said, it seems to me the only response to the audacity of the campaign is to gasp. Could they actually believe it’s an appropriate response to what the airlines themselves have done to degrade airplane travel?

Let me review: According to a recent article in Consumer Reports the coach/economy experience on American Airlines is scored at the barely passing grade of 64. Nine out of 12 other airlines do at least slightly better than they do, though the magazine’s readers are not feeling a lot of love for the industry generally.

...it’s more than a bit galling to have them deflect attention from their deteriorated service by suggesting that the passengers should be nicer.

Even in a weak field, American is rated “worse” (full black circle) for: legroom, seat width and comfort, room for carry on, refreshments and food, and in-flight entertainment. For the remaining categories, cabin and restroom cleanliness, check-in ease, and service from Airline staff, they are merely bad (half black circle). Nowhere on their report card do you see a single stellar grade.

It’s not just American. As the magazine suggests, (and as I’ve written about before for Cognoscenti) flying keeps getting more unpleasant and more stressful for everyone in coach. One statistic captures the larger problem: seats average 17.5 inches in width, down from 20 inches 30 years ago.

To explain the comfort decline, the Consumer Reports article points to the “rampant mergers” that leave consumers without choice or power. It notes that in 2015, “U.S. airlines raked in profits totaling $25.6 billion, a 241 percent increase from 2014.” Two hundred and forty-one percent. When was the last time you saw that kind of raise?

In other words, airlines are refusing to behave with civility toward their passengers. They no longer wish to act fairly -- as members of a civil community where we all look out for each other. Their greed has gotten the better of them, and the people who fly have been demoted to inconvenient afterthoughts. The airlines count their cash while the passengers, like too many clowns crammed into a car, try to scrunch up and survive the bumps and bruises.

Why not make airlines into public utilities: entities allowed to monopolize markets in return for accepting government controls that assure that they act for the public good?

In the face of airline behavior it’s more than a bit galling to have them deflect attention from their deteriorated service by suggesting that the passengers should be nicer. I don’t know about you, but I tend to be nicer when I’m comfortable, relaxed, treated fairly, and fed a hot meal.

I actually wish the government would step in. As with basic services like water and electricity, Americans are dependent on airplanes — whether obligated to travel for work, or simply trying to maintain loving ties with faraway family members. Why not make airlines into public utilities: entities allowed to monopolize markets in return for accepting government controls that assure that they act for the public good?

Instead, now, we have the pain of monopolies without the compensation of strong consumer protections. I doubt positive changes will happen soon. In the meantime, rather than waggling fingers at us, let’s all nicely ask the airlines to rethink their own priorities. Come on guys, allow yourself the good-citizen-glow of better behavior: widen the seats, restore hot meals, create a simple, fair boarding system, stop charging extra fees for aisle seats and baggage, and settle for a reasonable profit from your fellow citizens. In return, I’ll watch as many instructional videos on civility as you care to film.

Related:

Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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