In Defense of Airlines, Sort Of

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We may not agree on government bailouts, consumer confidence or even egg recalls, but there is one thing that Americans universally seem to loathe - airlines.

Anyone who reads the news, or admittedly, our site, will know that these antagonistic feelings aren’t exactly without cause. After all, airlines lose dogs, break guitars, bump portly film directors, employ (or deploy) disgruntled flight attendants and charge us for virtually anything and everything.

With all of the evidence seemingly at hand, it’s easy to hate on airlines, but lately we’ve been wondering: Is this aversion actually justified? And if it is, what exactly is causing it?  

Before you throw me off the proverbial plane, consider a recent incident that took place on Southwest Airlines (Stock Quote: LUV) when a Sacramento woman was removed from a flight to accommodate a larger passenger who needed two seats instead of one. An egregious offense, no doubt, considering the overweight passenger arrived late and only paid for a single spot. As such, the incident had gone viral by the next morning, with articles appearing on MSNTravelYahoo, The Huffington Post and CBSNews.com.  We ran a story, too, entitled “Southwest Struggles With Weight … Again,” a riff on an earlier incident in which the airline essentially grounded film director Kevin Smith for the opposite reason.

But here’s the fun fact not captured by any of these stories’ headlines: Unlike Smith, the passenger in question was an unaccompanied minor and Southwest employees had foregone the traditional policy of asking for bump-able volunteers in an effort to spare the young woman from embarrassment.

Arguably, you could deduct some points for execution. The bumped passenger, after all, alleged that Southwest personnel berated her when she took issue with being booted from the plane. All things considered, however, even the most dedicated hater would have to admit that the airline’s heart was in the right place.

Southwest got into a bit of trouble three weeks later for a similar screw-up. Flight attendant Beverly McCurley probably meant well when she took a 13-month-old from her mother after seeing the child get slapped in face. Still, a bleeding heart won’t get you out of any bad press. In fact, when it comes to airlines it seems to guarantees it, as the “Flight Attendant Takes Baby Away” story saddled Southwest with some explaining to do.

But why should an airline have to scramble when their personnel protects a teenager or an infant? Shouldn’t we, instead, demand explanations from the slap-happy parents, uncooperative passengers or rogue flight attendants who fly off the deep end before deploying the emergency slide?

If we should, we don’t.  Clearly, when it comes to aviation, a different set of rules apply.

Not good or bad, just different


To get a better idea of how it feels behind the scenes, I spoke to public relations officials who work or have worked for various airlines. For the most part, they remained diplomatic.

Southwest spokesperson Whitney Eichinger, for example, stopped short of saying that representing an airline was a more difficult job than any other public relations gig. After nine years in the industry, she says she’s “grown accustomed to it.” However, Eichinger says airlines have to deal with situations other businesses do not. For example, a brawl in a bar or restaurant isn’t going to generate the press and, consequently, the attention that one inside an airplane will.

Allow me to fill in some blanks here (public relations employees, after all, tend to be a positive bunch). If airlines don’t apologize more than other companies - and the sheer volume of business they do on any given day would suggest that they have to – then at the very least, it’s safe to say they are doing so on a larger scale. Delta, for example, didn’t just have to apologize to Josiah Allen for losing his dog, Paco. It had to answer to the thousands of dog lovers who signed his online petition too – a petition that was made readily accessible through links in articles on The ConsumeristAolNews, and Mainstreet.

“Airlines get their share of publicity,” agrees Agnes Huff of the Agnes Huff Communications Group, who has worked in airline PR and crisis management for more than 20 years. “It’s a very, very visible industry that is followed quite closely by the public and the media.”

Ed Stewart, who has worked for Delta (Stock Quote: DAL), Southwest and United, is more straightforward when asked if airlines have it harder.

“Absolutely,” Stewart says. “It’s an interesting and challenging business.”

Excess Baggage

So do the airlines deserve the scrutiny?

It seems logical to conclude, after all, that the airlines brought a great deal of this negativity on themselves. American Airlines (Stock Quote: AMR), for example, probably shouldn’t complain that its latest fee to book the first few rows in coach was picked apart by most major news networks. Neither could AirTran (Stock Quote: AAI), which tried to quietly raise its checked bag fees by $5 just two weeks ago.

“People think that airlines are trying to nickel and dime them so they get frustrated very easily,” Rick Seaney, CEO of the ticket research website Farecompare.com, says, explaining that the airline industry isn’t traditionally known for its customer service. Recent results from the University of Michigan’s American Consumer Satisfaction Index showed that overall airline customer satisfaction is on the rise, but Seaney notes that this is only because it was ranked so low already.

In fact, Seaney says consumers were more satisfied in general with the service received from the Internal Revenue Service than the service they experienced aboard an airplane.

“You know you’re doing something wrong if you’re rated below the IRS,” Seaney quips. In the latest version of the study, airlines, incidentally, tied with cable companies for the lowest score on the index.

If you don’t want to take the University of Michigan study as proof Americans don’t like airlines, just read some of the e-mails I received on the subject. For example, Georgia resident Larry Peck said, “If I had a dollar for every time I caught an airline employee lying to me, I think I could retire. All the stupid fees aren’t helping either.” But are airlines truly incompetent when it comes to customer service or are our collective expectations simply set too high?

Neither the IRS nor cable companies are responsible for the safety and security of their customers and when it comes to those standards, American airlines are actually doing a pretty good job. According to the National Transportation Board, air travel, particularly within the U.S., is the safest method of transportation in terms of deaths per passenger mile. Your chance of dying in an airplane crash is calculated to be one in 13 million, a fact that we readily forgot as we lament about the lack of an in-flight meal.

Blame 9/11

When you factor our current economic climate into the equation, the decision to hate on airlines becomes decidedly more complicated. Huff, for example, suggests that you can’t fully blame the airline for your miserable experiences because you were probably in a bad mood before you even boarded the aircraft, as customers are increasingly frustrated over security changes that are out of the airlines’ control.

“Customer expectations are not in line with the changes that had to be made by airlines post 9/11,” she explains.

Seaney said airlines must enforce a battery of safety and security measures these days that they themselves did not come up with. All major air traffic laws, for instance, are imposed by Air Traffic Control or the Federal Aviation Administration, and not, say, Spirit Air.

Furthermore, Huff says that even the ancillary fees that we loathe can be attributed to changing economic conditions. For example, back in 2008, in the aftermath of the country’s financial crisis, analysts estimated that American Airlines was losing $3.3 million a day … and they weren’t the only airline in the red.

“The perception is that airlines are charging us for every little amenity,” Huff says, “But they have a perishable product. Every empty seat does not bring in revenue. The consumer mindset has gotten unrealistic in terms of what the cost [of flying] should be.”  

Seaney agrees with the assessment that there’s more than one factor at work when it comes to the public’s perception of air travel.

“We say the best part of travel is seeing the airport from your rearview mirror,” he says, before adding, “it’s not entirely [the airline’s] fault. It’s an ecosystem. All the parts together make people unhappy.”

And we’re increasingly to blame. An impromptu poll conducted by Chicago Tribune travel journalist Chris Elliott on Tuesday found that about 70% of the 14,000 respondents believe travelers now behave worse than they had previously. Elliott cited a sense of entitlement, poor preparations and interestingly, choice of cologne as some of the causes behind a passenger’s bad behavior. Methodology aside, the point is, customers not only hate airlines and flight attendants, they hate their fellow passengers as well.

What do you think? Does the suggestion that we give airlines a break infuriate you? If so, you might want to check out this other article that looks at  why we should still hate airlines, then comment below!

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