Why does air travel seem so miserable?
By MELANIE ZANONA
May 13 2017
Bloodied passengers getting dragged off flights. Airport brawls. Shrinking seat sizes. Invasive pat downs. Long security lines. Extra fees.
The chaotic scenes that have unfolded in airports and on airplanes over the past few years are raising the question: Is air travel getting more miserable for the American public?
The frustrations of passengers seem to be boiling over, even though flight cancellations, airfares and customer complaints are all way down.
Some blame the prevalence of social media and smart phones for creating a false picture of what the air travel experience is typically like.
But others say the unrest is being fueled by a new airline model that scarifies comfort and other freedoms in order to make flying more affordable and accessible.
“If you’re not careful, you can feel like a mountain is being made out of molehill, but a closer look would probably scare the heck out of you,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. “There is widespread upset and frustration with the state of air travel.”
Tensions between passengers and airlines have been escalating since the video of a man being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight went viral last month.
The incident, which sparked international outrage and congressional hearings, put a spotlight on the airline industry’s treatment of travelers.
Other videos have since emerged of a family being kicked off a Delta Air Lines flight; an upset mother claiming an American Airlines flight attendant hit her with a stroller; passengers brawling on a Southwest Airlines flight; and mayhem breaking out at an airport after Spirit Airlines cancelled hundreds of flights.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has also been in the hot seat.
A reduction in TSA screeners created massive security lines at airports around the country last spring, leading to three-hour wait times in some cases and leaving scores of passengers stranded at airports over night.
And there have been multiple reports over the years of invasive and uncomfortable pat-down procedures conducted by TSA officers.
“People are getting irritated, because they end up having these bad experiences,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told The Hill.
While customers’ tempers seem to be flaring, the latest statistics from the Department of Transportation (DOT) paint a different picture.
Complaints appear to be decreasing, with 950 customer complaints filed in February of this year, compared to 1,501 that were logged during the same month last year.
Flight cancellations, mishandled bags and bumped passenger rates reached the lowest levels in decades last year, according to the DOT.
And the average cost of a domestic flight dropped to $347 in the last three months of 2016, down from $369 for a ticket during the same period in 2015.
“Airlines are focused and committed to delivering the flight experience our customers expect and deserve when they take to the skies,” said Airlines for America (A4A), a trade group representing most of the nation’s major airlines.
“It’s a great time to fly as fares are historically low, air travel is safer than ever and intense competition across the industry has enabled customers to benefit from more choices and greater access to travel options.”
But some travel advocates say that the DOT statistics don’t tell the whole story.
“That calculation does not account for ancillary fees,” Grella said. “People are paying for things they used to get for free. They feel nickel and dimed.”
Airlines have increasingly moved towards a more “a la carte” menu that starts with a lower base fare and charges for add-ons that used to be standard with a ticket, such as checked baggage and seat assignments.