Columns 2016

Air travel sucks the big one

According to the U. S. Department of Transportation, consumer complaints about airlines continue to flow in at astounding rates. The number of complaints about fares alone doubled in the past year. A spokeswoman for the airline industry group Airlines for American said, “despite the increase in complaints, the total number of complaints remains low relative to the number of air passengers.” (ADN 2/20/16)

This poor, delusional woman seems to think that the number of complaints in some way relates to general consumer satisfaction with air travel. Let me assure her that it doesn’t. Go to any airport in this country and look at the people waiting at the gate for their flight. Do any of them look particularly happy or thrilled to be flying? Or do you more get the feeling of a sullen mass of people resigned to discomfort and unease for the next few hours as the airlines redefine acceptable personal space for both bodies and baggage? I would venture to guess that the reason you don’t see as many complaints is because people have simply given up. The airlines beat us down into such sheep-like submission that all we can do is thank them for giving us at least three-quarters of a seat for our trip.

Airlines are making record profits thanks to the drop in oil prices. But you haven’t seen that drop in ticket prices. Nor have you seen it in any loosening of fees for everything from checking a bag to charging for your carry-on.  You walk down a plane aisle so narrow that you have to turn sideways and crab walk to get to your seat. Once there, you are lucky to find overhead space for the carryon they charged you to bring. You sit in a chair meant for the very small people Americans no longer are, only to have the person in front of you recline his headrest just the slightest, which puts it squarely in your lap.

God help you if you have the middle seat. You are squeezed between two people who can barely fit in their seats. You will not know a moment of comfort again until you deplane. Everything you do, from reaching for your book to pulling down the tray, is accompanied by profuse apologies to the people on either side as you elbow them unmercifully. Need a bathroom break? The bathrooms are so small you have to leave your purse outside the door. Want something to eat or drink? Pay as much for a cheese plate or frozen hot sandwich as you would for a steak anywhere else.

So despite the fact that airlines view this survey as a glass half full, those of us actually forced to endure a plane trip know that the glass is actually half empty and draining rapidly. All that money the airlines are making charging you for everything but the air you breathe is going to executive bonuses and salaries.  So you can see where that half full feeling comes from.

When I first flew, you could get to your gate without being body searched. You dressed up for the occasion because, in fact, it was an occasion. You were served hot meals at no charge. You checked bags at no charge. Seats were big enough for your entire body. Aisles were wide enough to stroll down face first. Those days are gone now. Flying is the new bus travel. You dress down because god knows what you’ll be sitting on. You bring your own snacks. You enter the restrooms with trepidation, hoping to be able to fit. Mostly, you pray for the whole thing to end as soon as possible.

As always, Alaska Airlines is way down on the list of complaints from passengers. And I still would rather fly with them than any other carrier. But that doesn’t make their aisles wider, their lines shorter or their overhead space more accommodating.  I’m not sure the graciousness and comfort I remember from the glory days of plane travel will ever return. I guess we have to wait for space travel to start to get that kind of service again.

Those quiet people lining up to hear their row called for boarding, they aren’t complaining because they have simply given up. If you could hear the complaints going through their minds, you’d be frightened.