Lets Not Just Blame the Flight Attendants

In the last few weeks, two videos have more or less gone viral involving interactions between passengers and airlines personnel. One shows a man being dragged off of a United Airlines flight by police because he had the audacity refuse to vacate a seat for which he had already paid. The second shows a young mother crying because an American Airlines employee carelessly almost walloped her baby with a stroller. A fellow passenger, who happened to be a large fit looking man, then confronted the employee who in turn, then challenged the large male passenger to a fight.

These two videos capture much, but not quite all, of what is wrong with airline travel in America today. Travel has become a high stress experience every step of the way. Lines are long; airlines are perennially understaffed. The airlines never miss an opportunity to charge for something that used to be included in the ticket price. Passengers are hamstrung by the security theater that creates even more stress, longer lines and angry attitudes at the airport. That same security theater further strips passengers of their rights because if a passenger asks too many questions about why a plane is late, or why their seat has been switched, she risks being called a potential terrorist and becoming subject to more hassle and questioning. If, of course, a traveler is Muslim or looks like she might be Muslim the experience is considerably worse on all fronts.

Flight attendants and gate personnel are easy targets for passengers because they are charged with enforcing the absurd rules and policies of the airlines. These are the people who never give a straight answer to simple questions like “how late will the flight be?”, won’t let passengers switch to empty seats or use the restrooms in business class and make some passenger check luggage as they board the plane while letting others shlep enormous heavy bags onto the flight. These are the minor problems associated with travel. The more grave ones, such as bumping passengers off flights, canceling flights altogether, refusing to provide needed information and the like are also usually done by these employees as well.

The problems with air travel today do not, however, originate with these employees. It is not hard to feel anger towards these people, but they are often overworked, underpaid and asked to take on more responsibilities so that the airlines can squeeze just a little more profit out of the rest of us. Threatening a harried flight attendant, even when he behaves terribly, may make passengers feel good, but it is not going to solve any problems.

Although the experience of flying has gotten worse for most passengers in the US, the airlines themselves are doing fine as they continue to make record profits. The major American airlines have made these profits the old-fashioned way, by creating monopolies, or near monopolies. The dreadful way paying customers are treated when they fly is a product of these near monopolies, but also result of an absence of meaningful regulations or consumer protections. Airlines are not going to suddenly start giving up profits and treating passengers better, but existing monopolies, in many at least facilitated by government policies, mean that increased competition is not going to form to solve the problem either. However, better government policies could address many of these problems, but in Donald Trump’s America, where a substantial number of Americans continue to harbor the quaint and surreal illusion that further deregulation will solve all our problems, this is not going to happen.

The poor treatment of passengers, overcrowded airports, frequent flight delays and the like is also a result of our inadequate infrastructure. The United flight from which Dr. Dao was removed in the now famous video was from Chicago to Louisville. One of the reasons that flight was oversold was because there is no other practical way to get from Chicago to Louisville, despite the cities being only 300 miles apart. A high speed train could cover that distance in three hours, maybe a little more. That is slower than a flight, but given the difficulties associated with moving around airports would be more convenient for many people. Not only do we not have that kind of rail service in the US, but nobody even thinks to mention its absence.

Obviously, people flying across the country will fly regardless of what train options exist, but for journeys of under one thousand miles, good high speed train service would be a viable alternative to flight and would alleviate some of the pressures on air travel while indirectly breaking up the near monopolies on long distance travel enjoyed by the major airline. Similarly, airports that are designed for 21st century and security needs would relieve a lot of the stress felt by both passengers and the people who are paid to interact with those passengers. Real investment in infrastructure is difficult. It requires resources, thoughtful planning and an assessment of needs based on more that putting money into swing districts and states. Again, there is little reason to believe that will happen anytime soon. Nonetheless, if it does not happen, all the anger in the world targeting low level airline employees will solve nothing.

Photo: cc/Tomas del Coro