In Case It’s Not Clear, People Really Hate Airlines


When the images of a bleeding passenger being dragged off a United Express flight began to surface, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be good for United. But I don’t think anyone expected it to erupt into the global rallying cry that it’s become. United’s missteps clearly poured gas on this fire, but there’s more going on here. Years and years of pent-up anger aimed at airlines is being released, and it’s not pretty.

The severity of the situation really dawned on me last Thursday as I sat in an interview with a local Fox reporter. We started talking about the Chicago Aviation Police, and that’s when it hit me. Over the last few years, police violence has been a hot-button issue. It has spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, and it has polarized people around the country. And here was a textbook example of what people have been rallying against… a defenseless, older minority was dragged off an airplane by the police, and he was severely injured (though not killed, fortunately) in the process. You would have thought this would have ignited another round of vitriol aimed at the police, but no. Everyone blamed United. The Chicago Aviation Police even suspended officers over this, but nobody seems to care. It’s all about United, and that really says a great deal about just how much people hate airlines.

There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, but while you can spread blame around, much of it lies with the airlines themselves, specifically primarily the big 3 legacy carriers (American, Delta, United). Case-in-point, when I was talking with that Fox reporter, she was clearly angry. So I asked her what she hated most. She said it was being charged “$20 for a blanket” or for peanuts. It was that whole nickel-and-diming thing. But, as I’ve written here many times, I think this model makes sense (even more sense as a bundled fare family, like JetBlue has done). But the airlines were so desperate to grab cash back when the housing crisis began and oil spiked that they slapped that first checked bag fee on without giving it a second thought. Most fees have been added in that fashion, and the customer experience was never a serious part of the equation. Thanks to such a botched rollout of the a la carte model, the airlines never had a chance of getting people on their side. People don’t trust the airlines, and we’re now at the point where every misstep, big or small, helps as a proof-point to strengthen those anti-airline beliefs.

I watched this United issue snowball last week, and found myself feeling frustrated. Sure, the way the airline stumbled through the handling of this mess was part of it. But the bigger concern is that I don’t see a quick fix for the root problem here. It’s not clear there’s any fix at all.

I thought back to a previous flashpoint, when scores of passengers found themselves stuck in an airplane on the tarmac for hours and hours on end on multiple occasions. There was a tremendous outcry then, but there was also a clear mission. They wanted to make sure nobody ever got stuck on the tarmac for that long again. Though we can argue whether the end solution was the right one, people rose up, took that to the government, and pushed for a regulatory solution. It worked. Today, tarmac delays almost never happen thanks to the will of the people, but this situation is different.

The crux of the problem is that there is no single, clear goal here. It feels more like the Occupy Wall Street movement where people are mad, but everyone has a different reason for feeling that way. That Fox reporter was mad at a la carte pricing, but others are mad about delays. Some are fed up with surly employees. My wife remains livid at the mess of a boarding process. This is different because there is no one fixable problem. It’s just a general loathing, and there isn’t a silver bullet. People just want the airlines to be better than they are.

Can they do that? Well they’re trying. Flush with reasonable profits instead of the razor-thin margins (often negative) they’ve lived off of for years, airlines in the US are investing in their products. It’s now fairly normal to get free video content and free snacks when those were far from the norm just a couple years ago. And this stability also makes it a better work environment for employees. That should result in better service.

But while airlines have started to improve, they’ve also introduced product changes people instantly dislike, including Basic Economy and the decision to add more seats to airplanes. There may be rational justification for these moves, but they don’t play well publicly. Two steps forward, one step back. Or maybe it’s one step forward and two steps back. Either way, any improvement is met by the public with skepticism as people wait for the next axe to fall.

In the short run, we’re going to see (and already have seen) some changes because of this latest mess. Delta raised the limits on how much its employees can offer to get volunteers off an airplane when needed. American has pledged not to take a confirmed customer off an airplane again just to let another passenger on. And United, which will be making more changes after it finishes its review, is requiring crews to be booked at least an hour before departure on full flights so that the exact situation we just saw occur is never repeated.

But frankly, these are all small potatoes. It is incredibly rare to have to pull someone off an airplane after boarding. This might be great for the few that it helps, but it does not deal with the seething rage coming from the masses.

The big 3 airlines have spent years trying to turn themselves into viable businesses, but decisions were often made without really thinking about the customer. And that tone-deafness has caused a slow-simmering reaction that is now bubbling to the surface in a very palpable way. Like I said, there are no easy solutions here.

Now that the big 3 airlines have transformed their business models, maybe it’s time for them to take a break. No more “innovating,” or whatever their corporate speak proclaims, for awhile. It’s time to turn inward and scrutinize the business with an eye on the customer. Start repairing the broken relationships now and work toward building long-term trust and respect.

[Original image via Yellowstone National Park]

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116 comments on “In Case It’s Not Clear, People Really Hate Airlines

  1. Ryanair has managed to improve its customer image from the “nasty airline” to “ok they are not that bad any more” over the last few years; that means that AA, DL and UA should be able to as well

  2. Cranky, I find the hatred for the airlines astounding. People have the airline system they want. The nation went from a pre-1978 model of onboard service to today’s model of low cost is everything. The fact is that no airline can offer both low fares and ultimate high-quality service to the same passenger.

    You get what you pay for.

    Nobody is arguing the United incident at ORD was bad news. And Oscar has acted to change the way in which gate agents handle passenger bumpings/removals (or whatever you want to call what United did). But the core problem is that basic economy is what you get if you want to pay $199.00 to fly coast to coast. Where there used to be baggage services, there’s now a computer. Food, bags, better seats? Count on paying for them.

    1. You get what you pay for, yes, this is absolutely true. But the “Big 3” airlines haven’t adjusted their marketing to reflect that; they are marketing as if they are still selling the same product they sold decades ago; is it any wonder people are upset when they don’t get i?

    2. at some level you do get “what you pay for”. however, are the “ancillary services” such as a surly FA, being beaten and dragged out, being told the “you are going to like the changes” lie, removed to make room for higher paying passenger, losing a child, etc. what customers pay for?

      At the end, I want to take responsibility for my choices. I will not, unless I’m down to a nickel and a dime, travel on base fares with “legacy” service or on the ULLC (potaito potato for the masses); I expect not to be dragged out either, so airlines need also to take responsibility for their way of operating and the results thereof.

  3. I think the real problem is bad marketing, bad corporate communications and bad product management. And in the eye of the consumer it all feeds to their bad perception. As we know from marketing 1 on 1, perception is reality and is much, much harder to reverse because, once it has taken hold, it is in our collective heads.

    Lets start with the product. Yes, the airlines have finally got some money, and they are, at last, investing in new equipment and equipment upgrades. But almost none of those upgrades are impacting the real life experience of most passengers, who fly in the back. Do you think that they care they are on a new plane with Polaris upfront when they are now 9 abreast (I know I am mixing up my aircraft). The point is, the back of the cabin gets free video but don’t care because they feel packed in even worse then before, and on top of that, they feel nickle and dimed.

    So here comes bad marketing and bad PR. All consumers see and hear in airline messaging is news about their great business class/first class improvements. Because it is the only place where airlines are meaningfully innovating. Consumers know that those seats are fabulous, but meanwhile their own purse, or their corporate travel policy, has placed those seats well out of reach. On top of that, airlines destroyed one of the few ways those seats were within reach for the frequent flyers in the back, by changing their frequent flier programs. Bad marketing decisions were not so much to change the programs, but the way these changes were (not) communicated. The real world experience of passengers who fly in the back is that with the change, any chance of making it to the front was effectively reduced to zero. All the while, the advertising continued to talk about collecting miles for free flights (more bad marketing).

    The frequent flyers have loud voices, and that spills into the general public perception, fanning the flames of resentment. But let’s be honest: that resentment is decades old. Comedians, movies, sit coms: they have been making fun of airlines since the 70’s. Perhaps longer. And that has sown the perception seed deeply inside of every human being in at least the Western world.

    Why do you think Southwest or JetBlue always rank high? Because they have consistently focused on a promise for the masses, not the priviliged few. A decent seat with some room. No bag fees. Those things matter, and they matter even more today than in the past because they buck the (perceived and therefore true) trend that the big three are out to rip you off, or even rip you out of your seat.

    Sure, Delta for instance brought back food in economy on transcons. But go back to the comedians, and airline food was always part of the joke. Plus, frequent fliers mostly fly shorter stretches, or internationally, and in either scenario won’t benefit from these “improvements”. Bad corporate communications decision was to make a “thing” out of it only to find that the food jokes on late night are alive and well, and the frequent flier community noting it wasn’t an example of improving service, but a minor reversal to how it used to be on a rather limited number of routes. At the same time, the launch of basic economy was bungled by the PR and marketing departments.

    Because our news media are not fact checking anymore, and because the airline perception is that of being against the consumer, the news media narrative became “yet another way the airlines are downgrading your flying experience in the back, while nickle and diming you on top”. It was an easy story for the outrage segment on the evening news.

    Ryanair has been mentioned as an example of how to turn yourself around. They have. And it was through bett er marketing and a dramatic change in corporate communications (shutting down O’Leary). They are still the butt of jokes, often unfair, and they still have very little leeway whe things go wrong, but they focus on being on time, and being honest about what they are and what you, as a passenger, can expext. They’re not showing off Polaris to the US domestic market, when (a) that product will hardly even exist for the foreseeable future, (b) is out of my reach anyway, and (c) the evening news just told me you’re downgrading economy to basic.

    It is going to require a complete rethink by DL, UA and AA. Unless they ultimately don’t care because what choice do consumers have?

    1. I think part of that is that a lot of airline bloggers (not CF) ooh and aah any new Business Class seat without really considering that most people will never be in those seats in first place and really don’t seem to care that coach is becoming worse and worse. The new Polaris seat is nice, but if you are not there, you’re stuck in coach where they added an extra seat to each row to cram you in further. It’s like the rich get what they want and the rest get crumbs. It might also be a reflection on society as a whole anyway.

      As for competition, DL, UA, and AA are the only three airlines that serve large swaths of the country that aren’t all that populated. You can’t fly WN, VX, or B6 to Montana or the Dakotas.

        1. I disagree on CF not being one of the bloggers who “ooh and aah any new business class” If I’m right I think that’s part of the benefits he’s pointed out as airlines have become profitable.
          I do agree in that it is “a reflection on society” as the middle class disappears, imo.

  4. If we were to discuss root-causes of customer dissatisfaction, I would say that it is the combination of a-la-carte non-refundable tickets with irregular-operations. Irregular-operations due to weather and maintenance are intrinsic with the airline industry. Irregular-operation will not go away. However, when the airline tries to define the exact benefit of the experience through myriad options and then fails to deliver on it—because of irregular-operations or otherwise—that is the problem. From a customer standpoint, there is nothing wrong with a non-refundable a-la-carte model. However, as a business, you must deliver the purchased product as specified every-single-time. Otherwise, it might be best to provide a more comprehensive and flexible product. That way, when the airline fails to deliver, the customer is a little more fuzzy on what exactly the airline failed to deliver. For example, if the airline overbooks the flight, glass half-empty. But, if the airline SOLD stand-by tickets, glass half-full.

    1. That is an interesting point. I wonder if standby is a product they could sell?

      “We’ll get you to your destination on April 23 or by 9am April 24th, but you have to be at the airport by 9am on April 23rd.” That being said no one would read the fine print on this and they’d yell to high heavens about it. At least with buddy passes, people are educated by the employees giving the pass.

  5. I have been flying for at least 60 years and yes it was much nicer flying back in the 60’s, but lately, am I becoming a real curmudgeon in my old age, I am really annoyed at the airlines.. Last month we flew from Boston to Washington to see our grandson;I bought the tickets on line but when I looked at seats available for “free, there were only middle seats and none together. What exactly are we paying for when we buy a ticket? This has happened before but it seems ridiculous . Next time I get on a bus, will I pay for a ticket and then pay for a seat. Okay, they don’t give me free food or blankets: I can live with that but a seat???
    The last time this happened, I paid more for seats,this time I didn’t and guess what, we had two seats together. I hate being deceived and maybe that is what is irking airline passengers so much. The last few flights, there has been an announcement at the gate that the overheads were full and passengers could leave their bags at the gate to be put below for no charge. We had just paid $25.00 at check in. Personally I have always hated large suitcases being brought on the plane. It slows down boarding and deplaning;why not get rid of that?
    This last flight was American, and I don’t know if it is my imagination, but I could not move my legs..and with a bad knee it took me weeks to recover from an hour and half flight.
    Luckily my kids will be moving to NY and I can drive or take the train.

  6. Good article and it raises a whole lot of issues….

    But first, social media has created a whole new environment for society and businesses are most certainly affected.
    Everyone now has an opinion and thinks their opinions matter to the world when in reality most people simply hop onto the train someone else started.
    As you note, there is a generalized hatred for airlines because the media for years said that airlines are lousy businesses that are a most-hated industry.

    People put up with far more pushing and rudeness on the roads and in many other venues of life but the public has repeatedly been told that airlines are bad and people will perceive it that way without considering that they suffer far more in other arenas of life.

    The real question is what experience the people who relentlessly comment on the airline industry on social media or the MSM (your Fox reporter) actually have using them and the answer is clearly that very few people have had a bad experience. They are out to elevate their own voice and standing, personal experience lacking or not.
    More significantly, when people comment about pricing including charges and fees, the simple question is ‘why did you fly with them if you don’t like it?” and yet the answer is always the same just as it has been over and over with passengers who vowed hatred to United about the passenger dragging incident but who said they will keep flying them.
    If one’s anger about a situation does nothing to change one’s own behavior, why should ANYONE be impressed and how is anyone being hurt except you who perpetually carries anger around but can’t change what causes it?
    Further, generalizations ALWAYS result in collateral damage – not all legacy airlines have the same faults or strengths any more than the same can be said for all businesses of any one categorization.
    Companies have to learn to live in a social media engaged world. United has not figure out how to do that and remains in the hot seat because their culture is confrontational with their passengers; they expect passenger compliance with what they say or they won’t hesitate to call in force to back them up.
    That type of mindset doesn’t exist at other companies that have the ability to diffuse situations which happen all the time at airlines.
    Social media will do its thing; airlines need to do theirs which ultimately means making money. As long as airlines keep making money, social media is just a big noise which has to be managed if not ignored. Other airlines will take advantage of the noise that some airlines like United cannot manage.
    If angry customers start voting with their dollars, companies will be forced to change or they will die. If the noise is from non-customers or those who refuse to speak with their pocketbook, nothing will change.

    1. You’ve made some great points here.

      Something I would like to add is that the airlines are just a representation of North American culture/Corporate culture, you could almost say customer driven to bring the price down. We have seen it with fast food, supermarkets, and airlines. The rest of the world follows suit starting with Europe then Asia. Consider shopping at Walmart to the stores of old and see the difference in customer service – the consumer wanted prices brought down. The legacy carriers in Europe tried to stay in the customer service market but competition through prices brought their level of service down.
      Another thing that people complain about is space, now seat pitch may have gone down since the glory days of flying, but hasn’t the passenger also got larger. I don’t think service or space has gone down by much, it’s just that people’s expectations have changed. Consider a family being asked to leave a flight 20 years ago to people nowadays who have ‘rights’. We have become selfish and more self-centered that’s the only thing that has really changed.

      1. very good points. Americans want and have an informal culture compared to many parts of the world – few formalities, lots of independence and freedom to do “my own thing”

        The American service culture reflects American values.

        Even fast food employees in other countries have different levels of service than in the US because English doesn’t have a formal “you” that is used in business and non-personal conversations but many languages do.

        Americans want to receive what they are not willing to give in terms of service in terms of formality even though Americans are capable of delivering fast, efficient service – but not necessarily warm and fuzzy.

        I just completed flying more than 25,000 and can tell you that the human part of coach service on Delta was as good as or better than Emirates or Lufthansa. The hard product on a Delta 777 was better than Lufthansa’s 747. Emirates hard product is clearly better but that gets right to the heart of the charge of being subsidized; not too many airlines have wood grain toilet seats and cologne in coach lavs. The notion that all US airlines can’t compete successfully with global companies or that US legacies categorically underperform low cost carriers is bias.
        There are differences between companies for sure. Categorically defined differences? no.

      2. The seat pitch argument is just flat-out wrong. In Frank Borman’s book, “Countdown”, he talked about being President of Eastern Airlines during the debate over the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

        Mr. Borman took a standard two-row display of Eastern seats as they existed pre-deregulation and then a second demonstration row showing how Eastern would position seats if the Deregulation Act was passed and became law. The latter looked much like our coach seats do today and it was humorous to watch overweight Congressmen slip into what has become the norm today.

        American tried “more room in coach” for everyone in the early 2000s by taking out a row of seats in its planes (maybe two or three rows on the jumbos) and increasing seat pitch. It lasted about two years, if that. As Tim points out, we’re more focused on low cost and bottom line performance. So, if you want more room, you pay for it.

  7. Well said!

    I started flying when it was “an experience”–the airlines seemed happy you were there and enjoyed your business. Pilots would explain the route and sights along the way. Now it is nothing more than a bus that can get you from point to point (most of the time).

    It is a shame the airlines have lost sight of the customer when they are in the service sector.

  8. I think the Big 3 made a pretty significant strategic error by looking at all low cost carriers and their customers the same way. I now prefer JetBlue and Southwest specifically because they have fewer / cheaper fees. I avoid Frontier, Spirit, and now the Big 3 at all costs (lame pun intended) because I hate paying for things like checked bags, carry-ons, and seat assignments.

    Seems like the Big 3 react to a LCC-friendly customer like me by saying “a price sensitive customer! lets de-bundle / price a la carte / give him the fees he wants!” That may be true of the people they’re losing to Spirit and Frontier, but I imagine I’m not the only one who is increasingly choosing Southwest and JetBlue for the exact opposite reason. Again, seems like a pretty big strategic mistake to assume all LCCs and their customers are the same – specifically that they’re all willing to put up with additional fees, lower quality of service, etc.

    1. I like your post, Sam, and I feel similarly.

      I’m not really a huge fan of Southwest the airline (for a host of reasons, both real and completely petty), but 9 out of 10 flights they’re my first choice. Why? Because even as a seasoned traveler, fully aware of how to work the system to my benefit, I find the avalanche of fare classes, fees, options, different sizes of planes, etc. on the “Big Three” to be just tiresome enough that I don’t want to deal with it. At all. I can’t imagine how people who aren’t well versed in air travel feel when faced with this array of purposefully-baffling choices. This OBSESSION United, Delta, and American have with identifying and coddling to ridiculous levels their top 10%, then top 1%, then top .001%, is a perfect example of Cranky’s allusion to the Occupy Wall Street movement, where the vast majority of people who rely and depend on your service are treated with barely-concealed contempt.

      And finally: The next time an airline introduces some additional layer of unnecessary complexity under the rubric of “choice is better for the customer!”, the CEO of that airline needs to be publicly flogged. STOP IT.

      1. True, but no fee for carry-on, seat assignment, or in-flight entertainment. Plus generous legroom in every seat and quality snacks. Even for us peons who don’t spring for premium economy. Its a much better product than any of the big 3 offer and fees are cheaper & less common.

  9. I think a lot of the vitriol aimed at airlines is due to the fact that they have become the 21st century de-facto long distant transit. The American alternative, the road trip, is equally loathed and parodied in film, i.e. Family Vacation. We may reminisce about the trips in the family station wagon, just like we do about “the good days” of flying, but at the time nobody was none too happy about the experience. The big difference is that when you’re doing the piloting yourself in the family truckster the only person to blame for problems is yourself. You choose the vehicle, the route, where to stop for fuel, etc. When traveling by air, more and more these days you have limited options (at least non-stop) and are at the mercy of the airline. They are an easy entity to blame, even when the problems may not be the airlines doing. What’s to blame…my hunch is consolidation and the oligopoly nature of the business. People also hate cable TV co’s, cellular phone co’s, oil co’s. All oligopoly businesses where your options are limited and there is probably nothing the businesses themselves can do to change that attitude. We are indeed a strange species.

    1. And, of course, in the US the airlines don’t have to compete with railroads. In Europe it is usually faster to take the train, city center to city center, for any trip of several hundred miles. Same in China. Here passenger rail has been starved of cash, while roads and originally air were funded. If I’m going to DC I take the train, even though it is ridiculously slow, but in most of the country that’s not an option.

      One reason fr the rage at the airlines may be the feeling that there is no alternative.

  10. Noticed that you left Southwest out of this writeup. I personally view them much better than the Uniteds of the world…

  11. Cranky, I think much of the problem is that a company like United, or even worse, American, have a clear corporate mentality of a sales and marketing company, not a transportation company. Therefore, sales and marketing are far more important than actually delivering any single passenger to any single place anywhere near on time. Sure it is great if you make it but it is far more important to them that they collect money. For anything and everything.

    Having done work for American, I can tell you that the management knew instantly if there was a .1 percent drop in projected revenue, each day or even more often and they could tell you exactly what flights were losing money and which were making money. They had no earthly idea or any particular interest in the fact that Dr. Dao, or anyone similarly situated was forcibly taken off the plane unless they felt it might impact revenues, even temporarily. It is simply not relevant to the business model in the macro sense. And it is not simply because it is a rare event it is because it is not particularly relevant to the employees because it is not important to management.

    On the last flight I took, last week as a matter of fact, I was on a A319 out of Miami. My wife’s “in seat entertainment” didn’t work. I took the time to count the number of screens that were out walking down the aisle.
    17 units were not working. When you ask the employees about it they simply say they will report it. Again, a relatively small percent (8 or 10 percent maybe?). What do you think would happen if 17 people hadn’t paid for their seats? Or one?

    Once you start viewing United or American as marketing companies instead of transportation companies their behavior becomes predictable. Try it on your next flight.

  12. A few ramblings:

    – It might be a surprise to airlines, but isn’t a surprise for the average member of the flying public. Yes, flying is reasonably priced, and even cheap compared to Ye Golden Days. But that doesn’t make people happy about what’s been done to the flying experience to get to that point. Do passengers (unrealistically) want low fares AND “golden age” service? Yes. But there’s gotta be a better way of selling and delivering the cut-rate service that is apparently what customers are willing to pay for.

    – I think that airlines have become too focused on incremental profitability improvements, and completely UNFOCUSED on everybody who doesn’t ride up front. Is it any shock that people are cranky and unpleasant on flights when airlines keep shooting themselves in the foot? How do you think the coach passengers feel when reading Yet Another Story (often in the in-flight magazine!) about how the airline has piled Yet Another Amenity up front, (lie-flat beds, expanded wine list, Cone of Silence, whatever) while they are stuck in an increasingly cramped and uncomfortable coach seat? “Gee, I’m so glad my ticket is so cheap!” is NOT what John/Jane Q. Coach is thinking. (I’m thinking airline management being ordered to complete a certain percentage of their trips in non-premium coach would help.) (The press doesn’t help; this is quite possibly one of the only air industry media outlets that even deigns to mention coach on a regular basis.)

    – Tarmac delays. You should read your own articles about this. When this KEPT HAPPENING, despite pledges by the airlines to Do Better, the government was all but forced to step in. There was much bellyaching by the airlines, and even much bellyaching by you, personally, on this very blog about how this was an example of terrible government intrusion, it would surely backfire, etc. Never realizing, even once, that the airlines brought this upon themselves (by continually fouling up tarmac delays in an unforgivable fashion), and remaining completely insensitive to the needs of their customers. The government didn’t WANT to implement rules (it was years before they even started writing them, after a couple official Task Forces and resulting “self regulation” came and went), which invariably reduce flexibility, but they were left with no choice.

    – The airlines totally screwed the proverbial pooch with bag fees. Their justification at the time was “fuel is so expensive!”… is it any shock that people are angry that when fuel went back down and the fees stayed anyway? It doesn’t help that Southwest usually offers pricing pretty close to the “majors” and doesn’t charge the fees.

    – Why are the legacy airlines fighting so hard against mandatory seat spacing minimums? You’d think they’d jump at the chance to get out of the Race to the Bottom spiral of juicing per-flight revenue by shrinking seats.

    – On the boarding process: I remain shocked that it hasn’t dawned on airline execs that the half-dozen “priority” boarding groups has become completely ridiculous. It’s almost comical listening to the gate agent spell out the qualifications for some of these groups: “Spiff Air Gold members, Monopoly Alliance Peridot flyers, Spiff Air Plutonium EvilBank Ultra Deluxe Cardholders, people Seated in Baron-Class seats, and those that paid for a Extortion Priority Pass, are now welcome to board; all others, please remain seated and wait for your betters to board the aircraft.”

    – Southwest sells Cheap And Cheerful. Spirit, Frontier, et al, sell Even Cheaper but Painful. What do United/Delta/American sell? The exact same thing they’ve been selling for 50 years, even though the experience does not even vaguely resemble that product. It would be as if Jaguar started selling rebadged Yugos. Even if they sold them for the same price (or cheaper) than the local Yugo dealer, and even if it was a decent value, people would be furious when it was not what they expected when buying a Jag.

  13. CF – the contrarian I tend to be and, at times, simpleminded tells me your “no single, clear goal here” is not necessarily so. I think that the “golden rule”, “bring humanity” goal some airlines used to operate under is a good single clear goal.

    The most recent example imo is a JetBlue that used to have and operate under the goal of “bring humanity back to flying”, but unfortunately, imo, with the hasty decision to fire Neeleman that mostly went away with the next CEOs. Yes, JB had a major misstep, stranded passengers, caused by its Neeleman’s rushed ADHD behavior that led to his firing. However, one can argue that the “passenger bill of rights” was generally a good ‘mea culpa’ step in the right direction and prior to the incident it did well in “bringing humanity back…”.

    Another example, imo, used to be Southwest under that “crazy” dude Herb Kelleher. Need I list the treatment passengers generally received and spoke of under his leadership. By their version of the “golden rule” (*why I say their), imo, they subscribed to and generally applied to each other and passengers they used to deliver “service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride”. Unfortunately, imo and respectfully since Gary, a bean counter, took over he has led it to declining service and being more like a legacy.

    imo, at the end of the day in its purest and ultimate form it is instilling a culture of what my Lord called the 2nd greatest command “love thy neighbor as yourself as I first loved you” in complex and frail humans.

    thanks CF for providing the forum for me to express my contrarian and simpleminded opinion.

    1. please excuse the long post. I don’t read long post so I’m not offended if you don’t read this long one. I won’t know anyway but if I did it still applies, not offended.

  14. Most people blame the airline when things go wrong. In some cases that is justified in other cases it isn’t. Part of the issue is with ATC and the airport infrastructure (have you ever not been able to push back into an alley at LAX because of a plane blocking you?).

    Cranky- is there a website that compares customer experiences in a tabular format? I think that would help fliers decide who to fly.

    Also Cranky have you ever flown Finnair? Everything they do is very vanilla (part of it is culture). But it is the same boring boarding and flying experience but you know there will not be any surprises

    1. Airlines have blamed “ATC” and “aiport infrastructure” for delays, but in many cases it’s due to the airlines themselves over-stressing those resources, and then pretending everything is hunky-dory when writing schedules.

      The fact that some airport terminals are crowded is not new news. If that causes flight delays, the proper response is to build in more time, or schedule fewer flights. Not blame the airport for having the same design it’s always had.

    2. Finn – I’m not sure what you mean about a tabular format. What experience exactly? Just a lit of what’s available? I’d suggest looking at

      I have flown Finnair, but it’s been about 20 years. My MD-11 right was quite nice back then!

  15. Notwithstanding the incredibly low real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) cost of air travel since a few decades ago, for me part of the problem is it feels like I’ve been forced to make bargains I didn’t want to make.

    Examples: Sure, I can now pay $50 for that premium economy seat and get 36″ seat pitch. But all I really wanted was to keep my 32″ seat pitch, can I pay back the $15 the airline saved? (Dollar amounts a 100% wild guess.)

    And yes, the on-board food was crappy, but it was there, and I didn’t have to fumble around trying to buy things in the terminal that cost me more than the money saved by slashing the “free” food.

    Paying for checked luggage? Compared to taking my bag on board, you want me to pay money for adding time to the start and end of my journey, and have a better chance of it getting lost or damaged along the way? Fantastic.

    Paying for seat selection? When I’m traveling for my family, all I really care about is sitting together (not get split up). I don’t care which rows, but now I’m forced to pay as if I did care about which rows, or run the risk of getting split up.

    These are the things that make me, well, cranky, even while I appreciate the wonders of jet travel!

  16. People love complaining about airlines but don’t do anything to educate themselves about how it all works.

    So purchase Basic Economy style tickets and then complain that they don’t get to pick their seats etc.

    In the U.K. I’ve heard people saying they’ll never fly easyJet or Ryanair again, and then… book easyJet and Ryanair again. Because as passengers we are obsessed with price, and just don’t want to admit it.

    Price fixing is wrong, but we want BA to price match easyJet. It feels like there is little loyalty these days and price is king.

    Ask non airline geeks about what airline they flew on holiday with and most people can’t remember.

    Admittedly airlines have brought a lot of this on themselves as the blog points out, but they were responding/reacting to the market.

    I do wonder where we go from here.

    1. I disagree that airlines were “reacting/responding to the market” when killing their passenger experience. What they WERE doing is responding to their shareholders and booking statistics.

      It’s not the job of passengers to “educate themselves about how it all works”. It’s the job of airlines to make it clear to passengers what they are buying, so expectations are set accordingly.

      The airlines forgot that their “market” was made up by people. People with long memories. (memories of a better experience in the past, and memories of the poor experience they just got.) When an airline keeps marketing their experience as if they are selling what they’ve always sold, it’s no wonder when people get upset that they aren’t getting it. With airfares varying so much over time, do you think they actually know, or care, what the average fare on a route is?

      1. I think my comment about passengers educating themselves was too broad – my pet hate is the mantra “it is the passengers responsibility… etc etc” but I was talking about the actual booking that a passenger has made. They’re guided through the process, and nothing seems to stick.

  17. In other news, an airline industry trade group is crowing over the fact that the DOT has suspended work on a regulation stating that airlines should make it easier for passengers to know about what fees apply to the ticket they are booking.

    Seriously? Is there ANY hope that these guys will ever understand their customers? Is there ANY justification for fighting this rule other than to hide costs from their customers? And they are STILL shocked when people are upset with them?

    1. Instead, what about actual de-regulation? No DOT, TSA, FAA, government-owned airlines, Essential Air Service, ownership restrictions on foreign airlines, post-9/11 bailouts, federal air marshals, Chicago Aviation police thugs doing your dirty work, etc. …

      1. No FAA? So, no ATC? No safety rules? No inspections? No passenger protections? Yeah, that’ll end well.

        And I’d very much like to see how a private company could assemble the vast, contiguous swath of land required for an airport without a scrap of eminent domain.

        1. Does the FAA/NTSB figure out safety fixes (or have their rules stopped accidents from occurring), or is it Boeing, Airbus, GE, Rolls, and the airlines (plus pilots and crews on these planes everyday), who have a vested interest in ensuring planes don’t fall out the sky regularly? Regarding eminent domain and government subsidies of large swathes of land, I think James Hill’s Great Northern avoided Credit Mobilier-type scandals.

          1. Companies looking for short term profits DO cut corners; this is not a remarkable statement to make. The model of “Loot the company, draining it of money, and safely lock the profits away elsewhere for when the failure occurs” happens in a lot of industries (banking (ref: Great Recession), retail (ref: Sears/KMart), pharmaceuticals (ref: any number of drug scandals), etc.) Do you REALLY want that to happen to airlines?

            1. ValuJet essentially went out of business when it dumped people in the ocean. A government rule and enforcement didn’t save those people. I think you could argue Sears/K Mart didn’t cut enough profitable corners, like its more successful competition. Banking is a Federal Reserve-backed cartel, further proving my point of real government dis-intervention in the private economy would be better than the crony-capitalism of today.

            2. Morris. You’re incorrect. Valujet kept flying for quite sometime. Until they were bought by Southwest.

              They just changed their name to AirTran (after buying another company called AirTran.)

            3. I did say “essentially”. The non-sophisticated public this article describes as hating airlines didn’t/wouldn’t know that.

            4. ValuJet bought Airtran, dumping the Valujet name. Last time I checked, they go by the name Southwest now.

              The “Feds” didn’t cause J7 to have bad mtc or logs. J7 did that in the name of cost savings. The sucky part is that the feds didnt shut them down earlier.

            5. I didn’t say the Feds forced them them to be unsafe. I said they ignored the rules, meaning the fear of the rules enforcement didn’t save the people.

  18. I am not here to say that the United passenger deserved the treatment by Chicago Authorities, however when will America stop with their entitlement and want everything to change each time an incident arises. What happen to the day when people respected one another. If some one is asked to leave and they refuse then where is the respect? So before long, spoiled rotten Americans will get whatever they want. I’m over seeing the whining and complaining about any little thing. People today are so wrapped up with social media and their perceptions without knowing the facts. They can’t greet flight crew with a hello or even a goodbye and thank you!! Really? They just got you from point A to point B, provided you a service, and you bitch and moan! Get over yourselves America, wake up, show respect and stop listening to all the “experts” that think they know everything about aviation!! (Except for you Brett). Entitlement needs to stop!!

    1. A passenger being asked to leave a seat they have paid for and are currently occupying because the airline has lousy operational planning? That’s not “respect” from the airline towards their customer (greatly inconveniencing the customer because of the airline’s mistake), and it’s not an “entitled” attitude to get upset about it.

      1. Actually, you’ve proved Bob’s point; whether you agree with it or not, the “seat” remains property of the airline – even in moments of blunder.

        It’s never wise to claim ownership of another’s property.

        1. Um, no. There was a contract. A court will decide who was in the right under that contract. The airline thought it had the right, so did the customer. The airline got someone to use force to assert its position.

          If the court decides the airline’s contract allowed it to do what it did, no problem, you are right. If a court decides the airline was in breach of the contract, and therefore the use of force was unlawful, well, the courts and justice system is specifically designed to crush and punish the unlawful use of force. That’s quite apart from issues of breach of contract.

          It’s one reason why the use of force is to be avoided where humanly possible. If there’s a mistake, and the use of force is not legal, the consequences can be crushing, and they are designed to be.

          1. I think you need to re-think your position. Seems, whether rightly or wrong, when United ‘bumped’ the Dr, he no longer held seat on that flight – therefore, technically, he was claiming seat that is not his, it belongs to United. Period!

            Consider this:: If I contract you to drive me from A to B, and after I arrive and take seat, you inform me, in agreement with contract terms, you are unable to transport me today because something unexpected just came up and you need to instead reposition some of your staff – that, if left unattended, would be detrimental to your operation.

            Do I then have right to occupy your vehicle in protest; refuse to leave when repeatedly asked, and then claim abuse when law enforcement forcibly remove me from seat in your vehicle I’ve claimed as my own – all while claiming I’ve done NOTHING wrong?

            Lets keep it in perspective!

            1. Let’s wait for the court to rule. The whole point of contracts is that they are legally enforcable. Parties to contracts can and do give up rights and have obligations while the contract is on foot. Your example is not relevant. It’s what is written on the contract of carriage, and nothing else.

            2. “The whole point of contracts is that they are legally enforcable [sic]” in a court of law.

              One should never seek self remedy by disobeying law enforcement demand to vacate another’s property.

            3. Your opinion is noted. The doctor obviously disagreed. Thus far, you are both equal. Let’s see who the court agrees with.

              If it agrees with you, happy you, you were right on the internet. If the doctor was right, he will have made more money via damages and compensation, and suffered less than most professional boxers make over their careers.

              But it’s the court’s determination that matters.

    2. You nailed it! Most prevalent is American traveler belief they have constitutional right to arrive on time.

  19. It’s not just the masses, either. The legacy carriers have hollowed out their FF programs, in the process reorienting themselves to cater first to their wealthiest customers (note how AA now starts its boarding process by calling for Concierge Key members — a tier that was like a secret society until now) and moving its BIS elites further down the chain. It’s useful referencing Occupy for several reasons here.
    At the same time, airports themselves have become far more consumer friendly. There are far more options when it coms to food, and that’s also driving competition, which further expands options and keeps things more afforadable. By contrast, the legacy carriers have M&A-ed themselves into a cartel.

  20. There are still many things that I think about this.

    1) What are the actual sequence of events? When was it determined that they needed these four deadheaders on the plane and from what airline did the deadheaders work?
    2) People believe that IDB is determined randomly. It never has in my experience.
    3) Why people aren’t more angry at the officers that badly injured this guy? If he was removed without violence, this incident wouldn’t have had the publicity it has.
    4) What would happen if this was B6 instead of UA? Would the backlash be as great? I’m not sure. It seems like UA is the most hated of the airlines in this country, so if it happened elsewhere, who knows if the reaction would be so great.

    1. Most airports of any size have a police force that is employed by the airport (and not the municipality containing the airport.) They can arrest people just like any other police officer can (and security guards cannot.)

      1. It is worth noting that in this case, it has been reported that the airport police who dragged Dr. Dao off the aircraft had received four months of training, far less than the municipal police.

        1. It’s also worth noting the police gave the subject a lawful order to leave the plane and he refused. They gave him more than one opportunity to comply and he refused. They have a job to do and they aren’t there to beg and plead for someone to obey a lawful order. If Dr. Dao had simply complied with a lawful order, he could have pursued United on his own or in court and everyone could have gone on down the road without incident. If United could have handled this situation properly and on their own, there would be no need for a police response. They couldn’t handle the situation, they called for law enforcement, law enforcement gave a lawful order, the order was refused multiple times and they took action. They aren’t “law suggestion” officers.

          The fact they were placed on admin leave doesn’t imply they made a mistake. It’s routine to do this after a high profile incident. Unfortunately, CF seems to have bought into the media hype about the perceived notion of widespread, unchecked police brutality.

          1. Was it a lawful order? That’s surely the point in contention. If a court finds the order was lawful, you are right. If the court finds the order was not lawful. Well, unlawful demands followed by violence are what the courts are designed to punish.

            Let’s see what the court says, eh?

    2. David – It’s the airport authority’s police force, though I believe I heard that they are unarmed.

  21. Great Op-Ed piece on the subject. QUOTE: “With real competition comes real failure, hopefully followed by bankruptcy and even liquidation, instead of American-style too-big-to-fail bailouts.”-unquote.

    The bigger, deeper, and underlying story here is that the airlines do this simply because they can. There is no real competition anymore.

    Bring back the days of choices, allow new start airlines. The competent ones will survive. The incompetent ones will not. I know CF is a staunch defender of “Employee Stability”, but you know what? That’s not the world we live in anymore. I don’t know that airline employees these days are rude so much as they are complacent. Maybe having a cast of ever changing characters like KIWI and Reno Air instead of the beasts like United and American is exactly what we need. And the first machination to set that in motion would be to break up one or two of the Majors the way the old Bell Systems was done in the telecommunications sector a few decades back.

    And yeah why not? Let foreign ownership come in. It’s now been proven time and time and time and time and time again that most American businesses these days are simply too myopic and inept to stand on their own two feet without foreign investment.

    Bring it on.

    1. Matt D – I would love to see foreign ownership, but I bet we’d see these airlines fail pretty miserably if they tried to come in on their own. If this were allowed, we’d see more mergers – US carriers could merge with their European counterparts, for example. And that could be successful since it’s not additional capacity. But I can’t imagine a world where, say, Singapore comes in with an ultra premium model and ends up being successful. Though I’d love to see the airline try.

  22. Remember the old tire commercial, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it? Well the airlines have broken it and rebroken it, and broken it and never tried to fix it?

    If they would stop trying to do what the other guy does, and start improving themselves, they might do something like make things better for passengers…you know, the people who pay their salaries and bills….which might help them be above the others and show more profit with increased passenger loads.

    People don’t mind paying more for something if they can see it’s a better value for the price. But today people don’t see that when flying.

  23. I continue to despise and oppose the nickel-and-diming that has been the norm (except Southwest) for the last decade. Airlines should charge one honest fare and not tack on fees for every square of toilet paper. 10 years of this and I still hate it, so I get where that reporter was coming from

  24. [29419CEC00000578-3105960-image-m-34_1433175711009]


    I won’t jump into the ‘comments’ war on your article because that is futile. But one comment, that the airlines have not adjusted their marketing… sheesh.

    I would have liked to have seen a price comparison reference; gee, I bought a $10,000 car and it doesn’t have any room in the backseat, no side airbags, no navigation system, no back-up camera and it is a stick shift! Wow, what a lousy car company!

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Exactly! Makes me crazy to hear so many so angry about the airlines making so much money yet whining because they have to pay $35 to check a bag. Airline fares are the lowest they’ve ever been (thank you, deregulation), and now my airfare doesn’t include a fee for a checked bag because I am not going to check a bag. And the food–sheesh, people! You whined and moaned about how bad airline food is, you wasted most of what was served to you, and arly days, you whine because airlines stopped serving food. You don’t get to have it both ways, people!!!

      1. Thank you!! Finally someone who sees what most people do not. Everyone seems to want something without paying for it or they want to be given something for a half hour delay or just have to be around grumpy people on a plane. Better then the bus or driving.

    2. I am not sure if your comment was directed at me, as I talked about “poor” and “bad” marketing choices. The big three airlines (and many, many competitors) have NOT adjusted their marketing and now what they sell vs what the majority of consumers experience on a daily basis, and/or know what they will experience.

      The fact remains that while the front end of the plane gets upgraded, updated and innovated, the back end of the plane gets downgraded, cheapened and crammed. That is what people know, and they also feel like they’re being nickle-and-dimed on top with fees and penalties and with seemingly very little recourse.

      As I mentioned, apart from their pricing, the reason Southwest and JetBlue are popular is because (a) their product is great, and (b) their marketing consistently delivers on its promises. The same is true for Ryanair, EasyJet, Jet2 and Norwegian. To a degree it is probably even true for Spirit.

      I think deregulation and an open economy are great, but the Big Three have completely missed that memo. Their products, pricing and frequent flyer programs are largely interchangeable. Their marketing feels like they’re selling a exclusive, unique, high quality, enjoyable experience. The reality is very, very different.

      1. Nobody in their right mind buys a $199.00 round trip on an airline they fly once or twice a year and expects Polaris service. It’s just insane to think otherwise. The only way one will eliminate this anger or anxiety is to eliminate first and business classes. That’s not going to happen.

        What you may be insinuating is the class anger that was pervasive in the last election. This anger occurs when a basic economy passenger sees Polaris or some other luxury service and thinks they are getting the screw put to them. Yeah, I get that but, you know what, too bad! You pay for basic service and that’s what you get.

        I remember a few years back when a Northwestern female intercollegiate athlete got on a flight of mine to the Southwest and saw a first class cabin full of men. She was upset, apparently, that she was not upgraded. She whined about it and all I could say was, “get used to it…” I was harsh but the message was clear — you want first class, you or somebody sponsoring you better be prepared to pay for it.

        It’s no different that driving a small Hyundai down the road and being blown off the highway by a Porsche. You can be as angry as you want, but you made the decision to allocate your wealth elsewhere.

      2. I simply have to push back at your characterization of the big 3 as having made no changes to their product while the low cost carriers have repeatedly upgraded their product.

        First, nearly all of the big 3 offer in seat AVOD on at least some of their domestic fleet. There are notable differences in what each offers and on what type of aircraft and it is not changing but AVOD does exist on at least some of the big 3 but does not exist on ALK or LUV.
        Second, CF can go thru the timing of when and by who WiFi was added but DAL states that it offers WiFi on more aircraft including its 2 class RJs than any other airline in the world. I don’t know if that is correct but I have to believe they would have been challenged if it wasn’t correct. You can get into debates about airline X has installed faster internet but products always change and every airline is involved in upgrading their technology.
        Third, the big 3 offer far more web technology and self-service products than their LCC peers. Some of that may be a product of their more complex operations but those tools do make it easier for customers to interact with the airline and they are often available to customers free via the onboard internet.
        Fourth, you get down to snacks and drinks. Most airlines offer something. Sure you can argue that someone’s snack is more to your liking but that is subjective. and as we have seen, there are legacy airlines that are bringing back free meals (even if it is a sandwich it is more than the snacks on other carriers).
        The seats and potties on airplanes are pretty much the same.
        When you talk about the hard product, there simply is no basis for saying that one group of airlines has a better product than others.

        And when you get to onboard service – the human factor – it is equally true that not only is perception of service subjective but the notion that there is a big dividing line in the sky between the service between legacy and LCCs just isn’t true.

        I just cannot agree with your statement that the quality of product or service between airlines is dramatically different between airlines, let alone that there exists a division between low cost and legacy carriers.

        1. Tim – Delta was one of the early adopters of wifi onboard. American and US Airways were both pretty early too. United was a laggard.

      3. The back end of the airplane has in fact been upgraded. Leather seats are now the norm. You have wifi and a far far greater choice of inflight entertainment on most flights not to mention that in seat power is steadily proliferating. Personal space by and large has shrunk but you have only to look at JetBlue to see why. JetBlue offers what is essentially a premium product but by and large they are not able to demand and get even a small fare premium for that product.

        You mention Spirit and while it’s true their marketing fits their product they are according to complaints the most hated airline in the country. Yet they continue to grow and be among the most profitable.

        The essential problem is we want to fly in the first class of the 50’s and pay Spirit prices for it. Guess what folks the math doesn’t work on that. So here is the deal. If you hate the airline economy product then pay for the upgrade. If you can’t afford it then you can either not fly or stop whining.

  25. How can a $200 change fee which is levied even if a ticket is cancelled months before travel be justified? In such a case, certainly the airline hasn’t lost the opportunity to resell that seat. It’s things like that which make the public despise airlines.

  26. Whenever I travel, I dread traveling domestically in the US especially when traveling with UA and this was before the incident with Dr. Dao. However, when traveling overseas to Asia, that is when I really like traveling especially when I get to choose flying SQ or CX!

  27. For me, the cramming of more and more seats into the same sized cabin is a massive irritant. It’s one thing to be annoyed by poor customer service or to be nickel-and-dimed, but its another to have to physically suffer through a long flight. Oh, I’m 6’4″ and I am biased when it comes to this – and the trite reply that some of you may toss out there about “hey, just buy a business class ticket” is unadulterated BS! Yeah, so because I ended up being tall, I should pay a 400% premium on my ticket – to merely be able to survive my flight? That’s not acceptable.

    Yes, the checked baggage charge is an annoyance – but a $200 change fee is a much bigger issue in my eyes. It’s basically extortion and we all know it’s pure profit. As for “basic economy”, this is an innovation that just makes matters worse. By muddying the waters, it will tend to tarnish the reputations of brands like Delta, American and United. Brands that market themselves as offering the leading, supposedly premium, product. Oh, and I travel a lot for business. Most flights are booked 7 days in advance or less. So, I’ll pay $600+ for an economy seat and I’ll get a horrible seat assignment, if I get one at all. Inevitably, somewhere in the back of the bus. Except on Southwest, where I’m always able to be in the A boarding group. And no, my employer will NOT pop for a first class seat.

    Frankly, for all of these reasons, I very much prefer Southwest. Plus, I know that I will get a real mainline jet, no change fee, a tolerable seat pitch, a free checked bag (if I need it) and reasonably good customer service. Plus, in a real irony, a more civilized boarding process than the “groups 1 through 13” nonsense of the big 3. Yet somehow WN doesn’t see the need to deface their product by selling a ‘basic economy’ product.

    As an aside, I find that the travelers who tend to deride Southwest are those who have tier status on DL, AA, US, etc. So, they’re immune from most of the suffering to begin with. But if you are in the majority who are NOT among the elite on those airlines, you quickly find that Southwest and JetBlue are vastly superior.

    1. stogieguy7 – I’m not sure who is telling you buy up to business class, but you now have far more options than you used. You an buy up into an extra legroom seat for a whole lot less than a ticket to business class. And depending upon the route, you can get up into premium economy as well. The options have become far greater than before.

      1. The last flight I took on United (last night) offered premium economy – for $129, one way. My company already paid $500 for the ORD-DCA round trip. Not a reasonable option at this price point for a 1.5 hour flight. Granted, it’s usually less – but not always. And my company isn’t going to pay for such an option, so it would come out of my own pocket. So, into the back I go.

        Admittedly, United’s A320 had more pitch than I’ve experienced on DL or AA, so I did okay. But I wouldn’t want to fly coast-to-coast in such a seat on a full flight. It would be miserable. And misery makes people irritable. And it makes them resent the airlines. Which is my answer to your question.

  28. Just wanted to say great article, thanks for pointing out the structural issue surrounding public perception of airlines and its intersection with police violence.

    I imagined that before this incident and Delta’s weather-operational troubles ATL there seems to be some positive movement in terms of trust and operational reliability, but seems to have been a fragile peace. Thanks again.

  29. I’m not seeing anyone else raising this – but I really object to very loud inflight announcements, frequently mid-way through the flight pushing the latest whizz-bang deal they have thought up. Frequently, they are made in the 90 decibel range (per my quite unscientific iPhone app).
    In contrast, I recently took a long distance bus trip in Mexico. The bus left on time, an attendant at the bottom of the steps welcomed us on board, offered FREE water, or soft drinks and a pretzel and the seats reclined, each one with it’s own TV monitor and constant entertainment. There were no announcements on board – a peaceful trip! And, the fares were quite inexpensive.
    If Mexican bus companies can provide such excellent and friendly service, you’d think someone in the U.S. might try to emulate them?

  30. The customers certainly play their part in this too when they demand (and I do mean DEMAND) the absolute lowest fare.   Many will change airlines for $5 and most will change for $30-$40.  And they can find that $5 (or more) lower fare by going to Spirit or some other similar cattle car airline where they get the same thing….a crappy product.  So what is a major airline to do but jam in the seats, nickle and dime on the blankets and so forth unless they are happy to simply cede the bargain hunters to ULCCs?  I think the problem is that flying a major airline used to a relatively luxurious experience and the public has internalized that.  Now that has been taken away and people hate it when you do that.  Their focus is on what the majors used to be like, not what what low quality products are the alternative on ULCCs.  Somehow the idea that there is a price connection doesn’t occur.

  31. Good piece and it’s definitely brought up a lot of valid discussion points, most of which I agree. I know for myself the experience of flying for me has degraded over the years due to the crowded, tight aircraft and the lack of self-awareness by many of my fellow travelers…backpacks in your face in an aisle seat, etc. Boarding a plane these days is reminiscent of when I lived in Washington, DC and trying to board a Metro train during rush hour…crowded, people shoving and trying to get ahead of everyone else, standing in the way so people can’t get off the train. I feel like there is some type of psychological reaction humans get when we are forced to congregate in large numbers and in tightly confined spaces that brings out the worst in all of us. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s been my reaction the past few years and I can’t say I really miss the days of being a road warrior.

  32. Cranky,

    I work in both aviation and parking… so everyone hates me! Airlines have it bad for a multitude of reasons on the PR front. Any economically rational decision is usually a negative from the customer experience standpoint, at least in perception. Having a business that is high in labor, capital, and commodity (fuel) use leaves little room to make a lot of profit on a % basis even in good times, and with the heavy pricing pressure do to a competitive industry despite consolidation means the ability to unilaterally increase revenue from ticket pricing is difficult.

  33. Just my .02:
    – The public perception(fed by dubious media narratives)is that consolidation over the past 10 years was driven by greed of 1%. Industry dorks know it was about long term survival but optics persist.
    – There was similar outrage at the oil industry when oil hit $140 p/bbl, gas spiked to $5+ a gallon and the industry posted record profits. Never mind there was more to the story, but once again it’s about optics.
    – IMHO Oscar M. is the best thing to happen to UAL in a generation….but super-container ships don’t turn on a dime and neither will the UA culture.
    I spent years working for UA: this incident proves the culture of deny>deflect>blame>punish is alive and well. Front line employees are given finite latitude to solve problems and deviation from tight SOPs can result in termination. It was implied, on a regular basis, that we are replaceable. I guarantee those gate agents were unable to up the buyoff without consent from a higher-up while trying to close out the flight on time.
    – Many great points on the industry ‘over promise, under deliver’ problem. Imagine going to a restaurant where ‘high value’ customers get prime seats with free premium wine and the lower status customens sit by the bathrooms and pay for water, plates and napkins. Now let’s imagine that the price difference is a mere $10…but the add on is not available to people who are willing to pay more due to limited seating. Then let’s say that a last minute reservation costs $25 MORE than the upscale experience.
    Not a way to win goodwill.

  34. Interesting, to say the least! I see the UA pilots were fairly quick to get out a statement (UAL MEC Statement, April 13, 2017) finding blame: “This violent incident…was the result of gross excessive force by Chicago Department of Aviation personnel.” They follow that with: “No United employees were involved in the physical altercation.” and “This occurred on a Express flight operated by Republic Airline, as such, the flight crew and cabin crew of Flight 3411 are employees of Republic Airline, not United Airlines.” How do you tell the difference between the UA employees and those of Republic? Ttravel with a lawyer, I guess! Sixty percent of UA’s flights operate like 3411. And the masses could be confused?

    1. I think it’s valid for the United Employees to say “Hey, it wasn’t us”, but United, wisely, has not tried to distance themselves, the company, from Republic. (One of the few things they have done correctly.)

  35. I was just traveling on United through Ohare over the weekend (and despite what my Twitter feed suggested, few people have sworn off flying United – the planes were full). One thing that struck me is that airlines market the dream – there were ads all over the airport touting their Polaris business class. That is nice, but most fliers cannot even dream of such as service, making their time spent in a cramped, uncomfortable, amenity-less coach compartment all the more miserable.

    1. It’s no surprise that airlines spend their marketing capital on their premium products. Companies use marketing to drive sales. People who buy premium seats are often more concerned with product than price to a degree so it makes sense to heavily sell that product. By comparison economy seats sell basically on price and schedule alone so it doesn’t matter how you market them. Consequently it’s no surprise that United and others heavily market their premium products because that’s where their marketing dollars can actually make a difference.

  36. You hit the nail on the head. In fact, this is one of the reasons I left the industry. It got old (and tiring) constantly hearing people talk down on your company, and wanting to step in and correct the people who had no clue how things worked. It just takes a lot out of you, especially if you’re like me and listen to what people say and want to educate them if they are incorrect. People love to hate airlines -I’d say even more than cable companies!

    1. when pigs fly.

      a pie in the sky.

      anyhow, you get the gist of my opinion of a day w/o flying in this industry.

  37. Next year I most likely won’t be Executive Platinum on American due to job changes, but I will still have to fly, and I am not looking forward to experiencing things that I see today yet get a pass on due to my status (which I’ve had for about 5 years now … I’m so spoiled). Maybe its time to switch to Southwest and then just suck it up when I fly AA or DL to the odd place Southwest doesn’t fly.

  38. Since UAL just reported their earnings for the 1st quarter and provided guidance for the 2nd quarter, even without any financial impact from the Chicago incident, UAL will likely underperform nearly all if not all US airlines on industry comparable metrics for both quarters.

    As much as some people want to argue that the US airline industry is very profitable, it is clear that the profits are not spread evenly across the industry. It is also clear that the airlines that are on the higher end of profitability are the ones that are capable of delivering a better customer sevice experience with more amenities. There is more than a passing correlation between the ranking on customer service ratings for airlines such as the Airline Quality Rating and profitaiblity in the industry for the legacy/network and low cost carriers; the ULCCs fall at the bottom of customer service rankings regardless of profitability.

  39. I think that “Occupy Wallstreet” is the correct reference. Most of us are stuck in the back with ever declining space and poor service while the elite (who either pay or fly more) are showered with more and more luxury. It is class warfare plane and simple. The airline advertising also doesn’t help. It is not a kid imagining the fun in visiting Grandma anymore. It is the great Polaris seat with Sax Fifth Avenue Bedding while I am crammed in steerage.

  40. Thank you for this post, Cranky. I am a former Pan American World Airways purser who has been a frequent airline passenger (business and leisure) since I left Pan Am. I agree that there is a pervasive animosity in the flying public toward U.S. airlines, but I believe that its genesis goes back further than the imposition of à la carte fees. I first noticed, and myself felt, the resentment evolved into that animosity when the airlines started charging a fee for any change in reservation. That resentment grew into animosity as that fee grew into ever-higher amounts which now often are higher than the fare for the reservation/ticket that has been changed. For airlines to continue overbooking while assessing these change fees, moreover, is an unconscionable practice, given that those fees, and the nonrefundability of most fares, have minimized the “no-show” problem that was the stated justification for overbooking. U.S. airlines (except Jet Blue) persist in overbooking because they can and because of the “corporate greed” (having to eke out every penny for the shareholders) that has become the bane of the U.S. economy since the 1980s. At the same time, flying has become an oft-execrable experience, at least for anyone who flies in “basic economy” or its ilk. (I believe that the absence of tolerable leg and shoulder room has become the basis of much of the passenger discontent.) As to whether passengers are getting “lower fares” because of the airlines’ cost-saving and revenue-generating measures…no one knows whether the market would have allowed airlines to charge substantially higher fares if they had not taken those measures. What I do know is that many, if not most, people who once loved, or at least looked forward to, flying commercial passenger aircraft in what was then just called “economy” or “coach,” including me, now avoid it at all costs, and the revenue airlines lose because of that avoidance is something I’ve never seen airlines or analysts consider. (One caveat: Alaska Airlines, Jet Blue (at least on its transcontinental flights that I take) and Virgin America still manage to treat their passengers like human beings, and that fact alone makes them bright stars in the very dismal U.S. airline firmament.) And finally, a note regarding the inexcusable treatment of Dr. Dao by United Airlines (which was responsible for that treatment): although you wrote a post on “overbooking” that generated many comments on the treatment of Dr. Dao, I have been surprised that you have not written a post regarding that treatment itself. As much as I have been dismayed by the above-mentioned airline cost-cutting and revenue-generating measures since the 1980s, nothing the airlines have done has horrified and angered me as much as the treatment of Dr. Dao…it went beyond the pale and makes clear that anything can happen to a passenger on a U.S. airline, at least since post-9/11 “security” measures greatly increased the authority of airline personnel to regulate and respond to the perceived attitudes and behavior of passengers. For the most cogent analysis I have seen of the legal aspects of this incident (including why United may not have had the right to remove Dr. Dao from the aircraft), see, .

    1. you do realize that JetBlue, even without supposedly overbooking its flights, has had one of the highest involuntary denied boarding ratios in the industry? Let’s also be clear that there is a difference between overbooking and denied boarding. Airlines can overbook their flights all they want (accept more bookings than seats) if they get the math right and end up with the right number of passengers at flight time. The US government tracks denied boardings, both voluntary and involuntary but not overbooking.

      Further, on a number of metrics, low cost carriers perform lower than some legacy carriers so there is a whole lot of smoke and mirrors going on when people talk about the great service that LCCs deliver but actual qualitative measurements of customer service metrics say otherwise.

      JBLU is often at the lower end of on-time in the industry. Southwest has higher bag mishandling rates than many carriers.

      The 2017 Airline Quality Report was released in the middle of United’s PR meltdown but it usually gets pretty good press.

      The 3 best airlines according to the AQR which uses objective (numerical/statistical) criteria? Alaska, then Delta, then Virgin America.

      1. I’m not a Southwest fan, but as one of the few airlines with no bag fees the get screwed in the DOT stats. Mishandled bags are per 1000 passengers. Not per 1000 bags checked.

        Since many people don’t check a bag if they have to pay for it, Southwest’s stats suffer.

      2. the lcc you mention are actually ullc. the very ones legacies are beginning 2 be more agresive towards. shall we see the legacies drop further? c’mon man.

      3. Thanks for the response, Tim. Re your first paragraph, see the Newsweek article for which I provided a link at the end of my comment. As far as my comment about being treated like a human being on Jet Blue, please note that I qualified it by with “at least on its transcontinental flights that I take.” None of those more than 75 (non-stop) transcons have involved any voluntary or involuntary denials of boarding, none have involved any mishandling of my always-checked bag, none have arrived at the destination late, and every one has been a more pleasant onboard economy experience for me than the non-stop flights I have taken on the same routes on JB competitors. If JB is truly an LCC, it is unlike any other LCC (much less ULCC) I have flown.

  41. “American has pledged not to take a confirmed customer off an airplane again just to let another passenger on”, so what are they are going to do with their concierge key guarantee?

    1. Jose – This is a pledge to not remove someone who is already on the airplane. If a Concierge Key decides he or she needs a seat after boarding, then he or she is going to have to wait anyway since it would be past check in time.

  42. Once upon a time, passengers dressed to fly; men in suits with briefcase; women donning gloves and hats carrying cosmetic cases trailed by little ones wearing their Sunday’s best.

    Even into the 1980s, before flight, many of us would visit restaurants – such as Runway 84, some featuring aviation themes. Back then, flying by air was an experience.

    And then, Trailways Bus Lines went out of business; Southwest became model for airlines to model and voila!

    Just read where, this past, Air Marshall’s kicked honeymooning couple off United flight for helping themselves to seats – perhaps economy plus – that they did not pay for, nor intended to pay for.

    Considering the ‘ol days,’ I wonder if this scenario would have had alternative ending if:

    Groom, or bride, had made their way to rear or plane and struck brief conversation with flight attendant, mentioning, of course, ” me and my beautiful spouse are on honeymoon,” that “someone appears to be in our seats, and is it possible to take one of the empty seats further up, please, as that will really make our trip more memorable?”

    You tell me if outcome may have been different than demanding the upgraded seat?

    Further, more than likely, by politely asking, bride and groom would have, compliments of crew, more than likely been presented bottle of wine and/or choice of spirits to enjoy during flight and another round to savor while honeymooning – that is, if they’d only shown consideration and kindness, which many airline employees will tell ya, is sooooo important to having your way. Too bad most travelers haven’t figured out this very simple process yet.

    So yes! Airlines have changed – but so has clientele they serve.

    1. Yes I agree with the joy of previous air travel and showing consideration of the staff. I deal with customer service in a restaurant. We have tables next to the window with a view. Everybody who comes to the restaurant comes for a special reason – Engagement, proposal, reuniting with family, birthday, 2nd anniversary, third anniversary, dog’s anniversary, and even one time a second engagement. People nowadays think they are more special than the rest, and through all these events people consider it as a way to get something special for themselves. The scenarios should have been handled like this. “There is somebody in my seat asleep can you wake them for us? To be honest we would like some more legroom as it’s our honeymoon, can we pay to upgrade?” That way it changes from a request they hear on a daily basis 10 times a day with people trying to profit to sounding like they are co-operative. They may end up paying but as they respected the employee they might get them for free.
      To present an example, I purchased a ticket for the train in the UK, the rules were clearly explained to me that if I took an earlier train I would have to pay extra. The ticket conductor came around asked to see my ticket and I said “I believe that I have to pay extra.” He looked at me in astonishment and said “I have had to argue with just about everybody on this train over the same thing, you can have that one on me.” A couple of hundred $$$ saved.

    2. I stand corrected. Just heard from reliable source : “They were asked to leave the plane by our employees and complied” and “No air marshal or authorities were involved. This ‘bad behaviour’ was international flight, where standards, mostly per Federal regulations, are generally HIGHER than domestic flights.

      Yet, correction proves one must be careful of source(s), even NY Times.

      Anyway, I sense rash of ‘copycats,’ hoping to profit, making all-out attempt(s) to get booted from flights.

  43. It’s the customer service…. It’s horrible. And quite frankly the flying public are atrocious as well. Watching a flight attendant stand up and yell “YOU! SIT DOWN NOW!” on a flight from Tokyo to non American passenger, a United flight no less is a perfect example I personally witnessed of horrible flight attendant customer service. And it’s not isolated. USA flight attendants get away with bullying. Then they probably hate their jobs. Who in their right mind would work for the likes of Frontier or Allegiant or Spirit? Then there is the passenger ala 2017….flip flops/sweat pants/body odor/carry on bags the size of steamer trunks. And top it off with a glorious choice, really, of 3 airlines. Flying has truly become a nightmare. I have no pity for the airlines and the mess they’ve made.

  44. People want their iphones in one of 20 different colors, jeans cut in 50 different ways, and their burger done ‘their way’. But airline a’ la carte pricing – that’s what the nasty airline industry does.

  45. The root problem? Selfish people!

    The solution, humility and working together.

    Can’t anyone see the guy who got drug out was no different than a child throwing a temper tantrum?

    Did the other people who were asked to leave the flight do this? NO, they were, applause please, civil and polite. They got up and left the plan. THEY are hero’s but nobody is thanking or applauding them. They helped in so many ways. Focus on the positive. Oh wait, that’s not what everyone else is doing and not nearly as fun.

    Cranky, you want to make a change? Find the other passengers, interview them and examine their civility. Encourage people to help one another. Exhort us readers to a civil and higher standard.

    You can be on the worst airline, bus, train, subway or ship operator and when people are civil, it is all the difference. Has nothing to do with the operator. It’s people helping other people.

    There is a quick fix, let’s work together, as people, helping others and placing them above ourselves. Not easy, but it is the quick fix.

    PS. I have flown over 2 million actual miles and have voluntarily and involuntarily bumped numerous times.

  46. The issue is how does a business treat its least profitable customers. Some businesses, like a law firm may decide not to take marginally profitable clients because an unhappy client can make trouble no matter how cheap the fee. Consumer businesses selling a standard product may treat all customers well, e.g., McDonalds tries to treat the value menu customers just as well as the folks buying the expensive sandwiches. But many airlines–I would exclude, for example, Hawaii Air–are totally transparent in the lack of esteem in which they hold their least profitable customers. You get the message if you board in the last of 10 groups. If you arrive at the airport way early and there is an earlier flight with available seats can you do yourself and the airline a favor by not wasting that empty seat w/o paying a fee? It depends on status.

    In addition to the constant reminders of low status, “coach” travel has gone over the past few decades from being pleasant to being very cramped and unpleasant. This may have been market driven. BUT, people eating half-price stale bread won’t like their bakery as much as folks eating fresh baked bread.

  47. I’ve been flying Alaska for years, and enjoy it. I’ve also (recently) been treated very well by both American and United. In each case, I approached employees in a friendly way, smiled, and calmly asked if they could help me. And they did. Twice I was behind others who approached the airline employees with a lot of anger and attitude and things didn’t go so well for them. Maybe we should all be a little more patient, and a little more kind, and traveling wouldn’t seem so difficult. Pay for TSA Pre-check if you travel a lot – that alone vastly improves the entire experience – and then be kind to the people you encounter. Why is that so hard?

    Whenever people complain about the service and then complain about the prices, I just look at them like they’re nuts. Prices are among the lowest they’ve ever been and you can fly so many places so easily now. Lose a little weight so that you fit in the seat ;-) and feel lucky that you’re not on the modern equivalent of Greyhound.

  48. I’m not sure if this really is a true example of airline hate.

    What many people saw in that video was, in the opinion of many, unreasonable demands followed by violence.

    Then there’s the question of whether those demands, in fact, were legal. That will possibly be tested in court.

    If it turns out that the company had actually breached its contract in some way, that then means it was a situation of unlawful demands followed by violence.

    I think any company using force to assert its position is going to have a very hard time of it if the public thinks those rights are unreasonable, irrespective of the industry. Witness downloading of copyright material. Imagine the fallout if Disney had people beat people up for downloading illegally.

    I don’t think this issue really illustrates airline industry hate.

  49. Obviously AA employees didn’t learn anything from the United episode.

    Geez people are stupid, drunk, high or just really messed up in the head.

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