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To the Airline Industry: We are Watching You

Published in ChicagoNow, April 24, 2017

I wish I could totally boycott air travel. If I can get to my destination via car or train or bus in a reasonable amount of time, I will always choose that over dealing with the airline industry. I made a list about why I have come to loath air travel, even before United decided to drag Dr. Dao off a flight recently because they wanted his seat for one of its flight crews.

My top four reasons for not wanting to fly:

1. Airlines don’t respect their customers, treating them like cattle

2. Consumers are gouged on ticket prices, baggage fees, and upgrades

3. There is no consideration for the most vulnerable passengers

4. Airline policies promote elitism and rudeness

It is clear from numerous recent incidents that the airline industry does not respect its paying customers. Forcefully removing and injuring a 69-year-old man for refusing to give up his seat was the most extreme example of this attitude, but I feel it every time I fly. Because I try to avoid up-charges, I am the customer the airline industry hates most. I have to board last, despite the fact that I am near the back of the plane. I worry about whether there will be overhead bin space for my carry-on, and I sit in the most cramped seats.

You might wonder why I don’t pay for amenities. Well, if I am taking a two-hour flight to visit my family in Boston, I should not have to pay a ridiculous amount. I’m willing to pay my fair share, but I know how the game works. Prices fluctuate considerably depending on factors that are never clear to me. I have to buy the ticket at the exact right time, whatever that is. I have friends who spend hours a day for weeks on end trying to get a reasonable fare. In case the airline industry cares, I would prefer to pay a predictable price that doesn’t fluctuate in an effort to squeeze every penny out of folks like me. And please just include the baggage fees and seat upgrades in that price.

The airline industry has been making huge profits in the past couple of years off of these fees as well as change fees for folks who end up needing to take a different flight for medical or personal reasons. Two years ago, my mother was dying and I had to get to Detroit quickly in the hope that I could say goodbye to her. And here’s what happened.

I found the very expensive last seat on a flight to Detroit. No more bereavement fares. My carry-on was confiscated just before I boarded. No room at the inn. When I explained my mother was dying and I needed to keep my bag with me for a quick exit to the hospital, the flight attendant shrugged and took it. The suitcase went in with the other baggage, forcing me to wait 30 minutes at baggage claim to retrieve it. The flight was delayed on the departure end for no reason other than “waiting in line for our turn” and on the arrival end because we were “waiting for our gate.” When I got to the hospital, my mother was on a respirator and in a coma. I want to pretend that she knew I was there, but there was really nothing to do but hold my brothers’ hands and let her go. And by the way, the airline told me I had a choice of carriers (I didn’t) and thanked me for choosing to fly with them (I don’t).

My kids and grandkids have avoided flying because their family includes a child on the autistic spectrum. They are well aware of the horror stories of families being kicked off flights because of the behavior of ASD kids. Even telling the airline in advance and requesting seating that will be least disturbing to other passengers is no assurance that there will not be a problem if their child cries or acts out. The recent incident of the mother with twin one-year-olds being treated roughly by an American Airlines flight attendant who forcefully took her stroller, almost hitting her baby, confirmed that the airline industry no longer cares about families traveling with young children. The elderly and people with handicapping conditions get in line with the other cattle and have to make their own way to their seats through increasingly narrow aisles.

The airline industry promotes elitism that extends beyond what used to be the divide between first class passengers and everyone else. Boarding takes forever because there are always so many special folks ahead of me. Because I try to get a plain old ticket, I am behind nine of the castes American Airlines has established. All but the one for the military are based on paying more for the privilege of getting on the plane ahead of others.

All of these policies are part of a plan that Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, calls “calculated misery.” He explains that the airline industry needs to make its basic service so terrible that folks will pay extra fees to avoid it. What used to be normal airline service — reasonably sized seats with leg room, baggage policies that didn’t force passengers to carry on their luggage, and boarding based on seat location — now cost extra. And the miserable unwashed masses that don’t want to pay these fees are pretty unhappy by the time they squeeze into their seats, creating rude behavior toward flight attendants and their fellow passengers.

So, what’s the answer? The airline industry has us over a barrel because there are places too difficult to reach without flying. With the consolidation of airlines that took place in late 2014 and early 2015, consumers have very few choices. Last year, the airline industry made $20 billion in profits while the flying public paid high prices and was subjected to poor treatment far too often.

The answer is using our phones to document the abuses of the airline industry. The more videos of passengers who are mistreated, the better. We need to let the airlines know that we will expose their greedy and unfair practices. A viral video of airline abuse is a powerful weapon. Remember airlines, the whole world is watching.


by Laurie Levy
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