Take It From Me, a Delta Employee: Passengers and Workers Are in This Fight Together
Overbooked planes, cramped cabins, and poor working conditions all have a common cause: deregulation and the relentless pursuit of profit.
By a Delta Air Lines Employee
May 25 2017
Recent incidents of violence and disruption within the airline industry have called into question the policies that airlines utilize to transport people through the sky. Airlines charge excessive baggage fees, cram passengers into narrow seats, and consistently overbook aircraft, causing chaos when gate agents fail to generate enough offers from passengers to voluntarily take a later flight.
As a current Delta Air Lines employee, I feel it’s time to set the record straight about why these incidents of violence, distress, and anxiety have become increasingly prevalent in the last 25 years. I have no choice but to write this anonymously given Delta’s history of unfairly terminating its employees who speak out about their working conditions. I don’t want to become the next victim.
People across the country have developed countless theories for who is at fault in these situations. Some have blamed airline employees for being too quick to call the police, who often unnecessarily escalate a situation to physical confrontation. Others blame passengers for these situations, claiming that because airlines possess the legal authority to demand passenger compliance, they also have the right to violently remove passengers, even those who do not put anyone’s life in danger.
The problem with both of these theories is that they place the blame on people without power: flight attendants, gate agents, and the passengers they transport. Instead of blaming those at the bottom, passengers need to recognize that these situations are the result of an incessant drive for airline profits coming from the very top of these corporations. That drive makes conditions for both airline workers and passengers worse.
For instance, take the fact that the biggest economy seats today are smaller than the smallest economy seats of the 1990s. The drive to make room for more seats has not only affected passenger comfort; it has also meant that galley-ways for flight attendants have shrunk significantly. Flight attendants at Delta are forced to work in incredibly small spaces, resulting in greater risk of injury for workers who sometimes spend up to 15 hours per day in these cramped conditions.
Additionally, load factors (the percentage of passengers on board compared to the total number of seats) have increased dramatically. In 1995, the average load factor was 67 percent. By 2016, that number had jumped to 83.4 percent, and it is continuing to rise as profitability compels airlines to overbook flights, causing passengers excessive stress and straining flight attendants.
Gate agents have also been strapped with increasing work-loads. Gate agents are given about an hour per domestic flight to make announcements, handle passenger questions, ticketing issues, re-booking, gate-check baggage, manage boarding, print flight departure paperwork, and close the aircraft door for an on-time departure. When flights are overbooked (sometimes by more than 25 seats), gate agents are forced to seek volunteers to take a later flight, in addition to the tasks they are already responsible for completing. Overbooked aircrafts create a toxic environment for passengers who fear their seats could be taken, as well as gate agents who are subject to disciplinary action if their flight doesn’t leave on time.
Increased load factors have also resulted in more bags for baggage handlers per plane, and the increase in baggage fees has resulted in tremendous profits for the airlines. In 2016, Delta made $866 million dollars from baggage fees alone. Still, Delta often staffs a team of only three ramp agents to handle domestic departures: the minimum standard set by the Federal Aviation Administration. Most of these profits go straight into the pockets of investors, rather than to ramp employees who do the work.