There Are Two Sides To Our Obsession With Airline News

It seems we could almost run a daily segment on the latest airline news. Every day a new story arises with the latest insanity from an airline. The highlights are easy to remember: a man getting dragged off a United Airlines flight; flight attendants wrenching a stroller away from a distraught mother on an American Airlines flight; a woman being forced to pee in a cup after being denied bathroom access. If we didn’t know any better, it would seem like the skies are becoming more reminiscent of the Ol’ Wild West.

But is this really the case? Are airlines really becoming that emboldened and disrespectful to customers? Or are customers simply finding better avenues to air their grievances?

First of all, there will always be an abundance of airline complaint stories. It’s just a matter of finding the ones that hit all the human interest points for reporters. In 2016 alone, US airlines carried around 744 million passengers, or about 2 million each day. If just one out of 100 has a complaint- seat assignment, damage bag, rude flight attendant, bad checkpoint experience, forgotten glass of water- that still works out to at least 20,000 unhappy customers a day. Most of us just go with the flow, brushing off delayed flights or a stranger’s reclined seat in our laps, merely happy to get to our destinations. We may not be ecstatic, but we’re not particularly upset enough about the situation to demand a change either.

Say only one-thousandth of 1 percent (0.001%) of daily flying crowd ends up unhappy, that’s still 20 people a day. There are undoubtedly more unhappy people than that. Even when airlines are almost perfect, there’s always a story about an expectation not being met. A video of a brawl on board a flight is pretty much always newsworthy.

The recent fixation seems to link back to that United Airlines incident, where a passenger was bloodied and hauled off a flight to get some United employees to another airport for a shift. So much attention was devoted to that particular incident that it has since elevated the public and media’s interest in similar stories.

Arguably though, most of these stories start with a passenger refusing to obey a flight crew’s instructions. I’m not defending any particular airline, and most certainly not defending violent actions of flight crews, but a lot of these start with a rule violation. Like the woman who tried to keep and fit a double stroller into the carry-on after a flight crew member told her not to. Look, I’m not saying it was acceptable to hit the woman or give all that attitude to her or the other passengers, but if the woman had removed her stroller than none of the following actions would have happened. Same for the man being removed from a Delta flight for using the bathroom before takeoff. There are circumstances surrounding these instances- like the Delta flight being delayed- but a lot of the time the flight crew are just trying to follow the rules given to them by their employers.

Of course, most of these incidents could be avoided by the airline employees using logic and a touch of sympathy or empathy to help passengers avoid an embarrassment, but I think that speaks to a behavioral issue and not an airline problem. Like the United Airlines crew giving a woman two cups to pee into instead of allowing her use of the bathroom during take-off- was that really necessary? Or the flight attendant who lied to the Schear family, telling them that their two-year-old toddler should be in their lap and not in the seat that they had paid for? Despite what their website stated?

I suppose an argument could be made that behavioral issues are a direct result of poor training. But truthfully, I think shitty people are everywhere, not just working on airplanes. There are good and bad people in all industries. Take the viral story of SouthWest Airlines for instance. They removed a mother from her flight to reroute her trip to visit her son who had suffered a life-threatening head injury.

Stories like that give me hope about the innate goodness of both people and airlines, but then you hear stories where passengers are blatantly attempting to gain news coverage in hopes of winning some sort of compensation. Recently, a family contacted news outlets about their experience of getting kicked off a JetBlue flight for storing a birthday cake in an overhead bin. The family’s side of the story is entertaining when held up in comparison to the airline’s perspective. According to the father, they were kicked off because, even though he had removed the cake, he questioned whether the flight attendant had been drinking. Sounds pretty scandalous, until you find out that the flight crew had to ask the family several times to remove the cake because they had placed the cake and their personal items in a bin reserved for safety and emergency equipment. Even when removing the items, the airline stated that the family cursed and yelled at the crew, which is when the captain of the flight determined they would not be flying with them. There are always multiple sides to a story- and the truth lies somewhere in the middle- but once the airline stepped up with their version of events, the family went mysteriously quiet.

Now that’s not to say there aren’t flaws in the airline industry. As is common practice, airlines are constantly overbooking flights to try and get as much money as possible. Although this has worked for them in the past, these recent incidents have sparked some discussion on regulating and changing these previously accepted practices.

“I take no pleasure in beating up the airlines, but in this case, it’s warranted,” Senator Bill Nelson said, the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee at a recent hearing on the subject. “The fact is we wouldn’t be sitting here today if the traveling public believed the airlines cared more about them than their own bottom lines.”

Canada has already jumped into the fray, announcing that any passengers with a ticket in Canada won’t be allowed to be removed because of overbooking under a new passenger bill of rights. Minister Marc Garneau said the shoddy treatment of air passengers would not be tolerated on any domestic or international flight leaving or arriving in Canada.

“When Canadians buy an airline ticket they expect the airline to keep its part of the deal,” Garneau said.

That’s really all anyone’s looking for. Understandably, airlines need to stay competitive and keep low ticket prices, which is why they employ these practices in the first place. I’m not saying it’s perfect as it is, and we should always do exactly what flight crews instruct us to do. It’s always a good practice to question what is going on, which seems to be what is happening.

In 2016, customers lodged 10,833 complaints with the US Department of Transportation. That’s 1.52 complaints per 100,000 passengers. But while not everyone knows they can register a formal complaint with the department, many, many people know they can post a nasty tweet, unhappy Facebook post, or a highly entertaining video without full context to get an almost instantaneous response- whether it be from the airline itself or the internet mob.

So are our skies becoming more unfriendly, or are we just getting social media happy? Not sure I can really answer that. There are a plethora of ways to protect yourself from getting booted from an overbooked flight, but unfortunately, it seems like we’re going to have to use regulation to get these airlines to change.

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