For F***'s Sake: Why Is Modern Flying Such A Soul-Crushing Time Suck?
An in-depth look at why your flight is delayed, why your seat is so small, and why your bag costs $50 to check.
“It was an unforgettable nightmare,” says Donna Beegle. In 2015, she and her family were attempting to travel in coach class from Houston to Portland on a United flight. Midway through, they were removed from the aircraft by police. The reason? The pilot “didn’t feel safe” flying with Beegle’s then-15-year-old daughter, Juliette, who has autism.
Juliette was experiencing low blood sugar that day. Like many people with autism, she has some specific sensory issues, one of which being that she only eats hot food. The family hadn’t been able to get her anything prior to the flight, and when they politely asked if they might be able to purchase one of the extra hot meals being served to first class passengers, they were repeatedly told no by crew members. Over the course of about an hour, Juliette began crying and was visibly agitated. Eventually, Beegle says, they were given some rice from one of the meals.
After that, Juliette was able to calm down, and by the time the plane made an emergency landing in Utah, she had settled quietly into a movie. “My husband and I both turned to each other thinking, oh my gosh, somebody probably had a heart attack or something,” Beegle remembers. But suddenly, the paramedics arrived at their aisle. Beegle explained the situation and said that Juliette was fine now. “[The paramedic] rolled his eyes and he said, ‘Oh my God, another over-reactive flight attendant.’”
That should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t. The police were summoned. About ten minutes later, Beegle and her family were removed from the plane. They were eventually rebooked on a Delta flight. Beegle says both she and Juliette were “crushed” by in the incident and the lack of compassion displayed by United staff. They initially filed charges against the airline, but after the National Autism Society got involved and used the incident to broker with the airline for a staff training on how to better interact with people with developmental disabilities, they dropped all charges. Nevertheless, the interaction haunts them. “I cried and cried. I cried for the ignorance toward my daughter. It just broke my heart,” Beegle says.
This is just one entry on an ever-growing list of people who have been shamed, discriminated against, and otherwise wronged by major corporate airlines. There was the passenger who was violently dragged off an overbooked United flight, the dog who died on another flight by the same carrier after its owners were forced by staff to store it in an overhead bin, and the family with a toddler that was kicked off a Southwest flight because the child wouldn’t stop crying. A flight attendant reportedly instructed the two-year-old to “shut up.” All of these instances occurred in just the past year. This month, a passenger on a Delta flight sat in dog poop that had somehow been left in his seat from a service animal on a previous flight.
These stories and videos often go viral, followed by a brief period of outrage. We talk of boycotting. Sometimes there’s a lawsuit. (It’s usually settled out of court.) But rarely does any meaningful, lasting change occur. A few days or weeks pass, and there’s another ugly confrontation. Another child or animal or person with disabilities is mistreated. Another pile of dog shit, metaphorical or otherwise, waits atop a seat. The specifics may change, but the moral of the story does not: flying sucks.
Even if you’ve never personally experienced anything quite as dramatic as the Beegles did, air travel is, for many of us, a necessary inconvenience at best. If you have family members that live in different parts of the country or world, or have a job that requires you to visit different places regularly, you really don’t have much of a choice but to fly. Plus, traveling is fun and enriching. It expands our minds, fosters acceptance, and helps us to grow as human beings. But these days it feels like there are a lot of reasons to be wary of getting on a plane. There are the often inexplicable delays, which according to the Department of Transportation, happen on 15% of flights. There are the tiny seats, which have shrunken up to four inches over the past two decades, even as Americans themselves have gotten larger.
“The industry could make flying more comfortable, that meaning the bigger seats bigger with more legroom,” says Annette, a flight attendant with an unnamed carrier who asked that we not use her last name. “That would make it better for the passengers and the flight attendants. That would reduce revenue for the company and drastically increase airfares. We probably will never see this.”
The worst part, though, is that “you have to take whatever they give you because they can just take you off, and so you people put up with things they wouldn't normally put up with,” says Beegle. “When you're on a plane, you have no power."
The fact that we’re able to move people and objects from one place to another through the air is, if you think about it, very impressive. It’s safe to say air travel ranks pretty high within the canon of human achievement. But the evolution of flying from something absurdly rarefied to something increasingly akin to an airborne dictatorship leaves a lot of room for inquiry into why things are the way the are, what made them that way, and how they need to change.
There’s a constant push-pull within the airline industry that makes it feel like as soon as one thing gets better, another gets worse. For example, while an increasing number of planes have TV screens and charging ports, flights are still regularly delayed and overbooked. It’s the same with airports: While there are healthier food options and more electrical outlets, TSA security is time-consuming and seems to randomly change requirements based on which airport you’re in and even who happens to be on duty that day. There are many Band-Aids, but few opportunities to get at the larger issues of air travel, some of which have been festering below the surface for decades.
Kelsey Myers, a new mom who was traveling in May of this year, was attempting to board an already-delayed American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Chicago when she was told she’d have to check a bag containing her breast pump, even though she’d checked the rules on American’s website before the flight and the pump and its accoutrements had not been an issue when she had gone through her TSA screening that day.
It didn’t matter. The man in charge of boarding the flight was unfamiliar with all of this, and he wasn’t about to take Myers’ word for it. After an increasingly heated exchange, she requested he call his supervisor, who arrived on the scene seemingly uninterested in her side of the story.
“You’d think if it was a supervisor, they would know the rules, but also, if you are coming into a situation, that you would ask both parties involved what's going on,” she remembers.
After more heated back-and-forth, she gave up and said she’d check the bag with the breast pump equipment in it, despite the fact that she needed it, and later observed there was plenty of room in the overhead bins. But that wasn’t the end of it.
He asked her: "'do you have extra breast pump stuff in your luggage too?'" Myers recalls. "And I was like, actually I do have pumps in there. And then that's when she responded with: ‘uh, lady, how many boobs do you have?’”
Perhaps you’ve heard stories from your parents or grandparents about the golden days of air travel. In the 1950s and ‘60s, flying was a glamorous affair worth getting dressed up for. So-called “flying boats” glided through the sky as well-heeled passengers sipped stiff cocktails from the comfort of their plush, roomy seats. “Air hostesses” were, in a way, the equivalent of today’s Instagram influencers — young, beautiful, well-travelled and even better dressed. People smoked and socialized and ate three-course meals from 35,000 feet. It was like a cocktail party in the sky, and the sentimentality over this era is well-established in everything from Chrissy Teigen’s 2017 birthday party to a Pan Am-themed restaurant in Los Angeles, which for $300 a head recreates the experience of flying in the ‘50s.
But for all the storied glitz and glamour, flying was also prohibitively expensive, a luxury only afforded to the upper class. “The full fare was probably the equivalent of a secretary’s monthly salary,” according to Guillaume de Syon, Ph.D, a professor of history at Albright College. “Very few people could afford it.” And those pretty young airline staffers faced sexism and discrimination, forced to, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, meet job requirements like being unmarried, maintaining a maximum weight of 135 pounds, and wearing a “well-fitted girdle” at all times.
Competition between airlines to make flying more accessible began in the late ‘60s, De Syon says. The proliferation of fanjets enabled planes that could both fly faster and carry more passengers. Propeller planes faded away, and airlines began flying to a wider range of destinations.
A deregulation act passed in 1978 dissolved the Civil Aeronautics Board, which had strictly regulated airlines as a public utility, including disallowing them to sell tickets below a certain price point, and only approving one or two carriers to fly on a given route. For years, the government had hoped to curtail competition between airlines through these regulations.
Suddenly, it was a free market — meaning carriers could more or less fly where they wanted, charge what they wanted, and serve passengers how they wanted. The pomp and circumstance didn’t immediately disappear, but many in the industry see this as the beginning of the end for flying’s glamorous days. By the early 1980s, ultra low-cost airlines had sprung up everywhere, and others had to struggle to compete.
Deregulation also led to the shrinking of seats, which have been whittled down over the years from 18 to just 16 inches wide. The “pitch” of the seat, which accounts for legroom, has shrunk from 35 to 31 inches on average in coach class. Some seats, on budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit, have pitches that go as low as 28 inches. Meanwhile, American men and women are both significantly heavier on average than they were in 1960. Consumer advocates have been arguing against the so-called “incredible shrinking airline seat” for years, but earlier this summer, the Federal Aviation Administration rejected a rule that would have imposed a minimum size restriction on seats, arguing that seat size has no impact on passenger safety.
This isn’t to say that deregulation was a bad thing. Without it, the vast majority of people would probably not be able to afford to fly today. But by the time four planes were hijacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001, the experience of flying was already trending toward the unpleasant. Then—quite literally overnight—there was an extreme tightening of security measures, which extended from the substantial pre-boarding procedures we’ve grown accustomed to today (shoes off, laptops out, pockets empty, etc.) to heightened levels of caution from staffers when dealing with passengers aboard the aircrafts themselves.
There was also a sudden, drastic reduction in passenger demand. According to the International Air Transport Association, airlines experienced a $22 billion revenue drop between 2000 and 2001. That led to a government bailout of several airlines, lest the whole American air travel system effectively collapse.
In an effort to recoup funds lost after the attacks, airlines began charging extra for things like checked luggage, and even as their profit margins have corrected, those fees have mysteriously stuck around. A joint study by IdeaWorks Company and Cartrawler revealed that in 2017, global airline carriers took home a whopping $82 billion from these kinds of fees, with $57 billion of that going to US-based carriers.
“It’s a bit of a cliche, but 9/11 took away the innocence of flying — the sense that you could go and, for example, meet your party at the plane in United States. There were some very civilized elements that still existed in the US that were gone after that,” de Syon says.
Meanwhile, in the past decade, mega-mergers of airlines have led to decreased competition, which means pricier flights and increasingly lackluster customer service. “You have four airlines that control over 80 percent of traffic [in the US],” explains Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare, a company that curates deals on flights and hotels. “So the fact that each of those airlines has effectively divided up the country by city and there's only a handful of cities with really, really good competition has essentially made it more difficult for people to find a cheaper ticket there.”
The so-called “big four” that Seaney refers to are American, United, Delta, and Southwest, and it’s estimated that nine out of ten domestic flights are operated by one of those carriers. If you wanted to boycott one of these airlines, but you still want to visit your parents without defaulting on your student loan, the logistics are not in your favor.
From the perspective of flight attendants, it’s passenger behavior that is at the root of the problem.
“We are to de-escalate when we can, and assume we are being videoed. If I am unable to de-escalate, I would leave and have a flying partner step in. She may have a totally different approach that works. We do not want any confrontations onboard,” explains Annette, the flight attendant. She says that within the company she works for, there have been numerous conversations about how to minimize these type of flare-ups between employees and passengers. And that the first priority is to focus on safety, not comfort.
Annette cites factors like sleep deprivation, stress, and excessive consumption of alcohol as common reasons why some passengers become aggravated on and around airplanes, and take their anger out on them. The high cost of airport food and parking, hassles they may have experienced getting through TSA, and confusion navigating the concourse can also rev up passengers, she explains. None of these are factors the airlines themselves have much control over, but, flight attendants bare the brunt of the complaints, she says. “A passenger finally finds their gate, and they hustle to get onboard, find their seat, and put their bag in the overhead compartment. Just as they think they get to relax, here I come, asking them to put their tray table up.”
And yet, it’s likely none of this will ever get fixed. Because even in an era where everything from feminine hygiene products to money transfers have been “disrupted” by eagle-eyed innovators, no Elon Musk-type has really emerged with big promises to do it all better. The closest is Richard Branson, whose beloved airline Virgin was absorbed and then retired by Alaska Airlines in 2017 following a struggle for profitability. Branson referred to the watering down and eventual termination of the brand as a “castration.” Because Virgin was a US-registered airline, Branson and his foreign businesses were unable to control voting interests during the acquisition
“It was a long and hard journey but in the end you are the best consumer airline in America. You invented concepts like ‘moodlighting’ and ‘on-demand food,’ you reinvented cabin amenities from seat-to-seat chat to Netflix in the sky. You chose warm and soothing pink to purple moodlighting that transitions based on outside light,” Branson wrote in a farewell letter to the airline. “You proved it is possible to run a business with a strategy that does not rely on low fares and a dominant position alone: you attracted premium flyers with a fun and beautiful guest experience."
There are several companies, including FareCompare, Hopper, and Hipmunk, who purport to make finding a deal on flights easier. And, hey, when you’re paying something like $200 (as opposed to $500) for a flight, maybe you’re less likely to be annoyed when the seat is small and the food is bad and it’s delayed an hour and a half.
But when it comes to actually revamping the experience of flying, that’s easier said than done, apparently even for someone with the resources, vision, and business acumen of Richard Branson. As you might imagine, it costs a lot to run an airline. There are countless regulations and tons of red tape to navigate. And it’s almost impossible to compete with industry behemoths like American and United, even as they continue to bungle interactions with passengers. While most airlines do undoubtedly want to create better PR for themselves, there’s little financial reason for them to make real, substantive changes. For a country that so values competition and choice, we have very little of it.
A 2016 survey by Airlines for America shows that, for all we like to complain, more people are flying than ever before. As Annette revealed, the biggest thing on carrier’s minds isn’t how to make flying more pleasant, or even how to cut down on heated altercations between their staff and passengers, but simply how to squeeze more people onto aircrafts to meet this demand (and, yes, turn a profit).
Thatcher A. Stone, a prominent aviation lawyer who has argued cases for people discriminated against or harmed by airlines, thinks there are accessible solutions: “If they gave you a box of chocolates, a pair of earplugs and either a toy for a kid or a newspaper for an adult as you walked on the airplane or as you left the gate… [Passengers would] have a sugar high from the chocolates. They’d plug their earphones in and they wouldn't bother anybody. They’d listen instead of talk, and then they’d read and watch, the kids would play with the toy. But [the airlines are] not smart enough to do that, which is unfortunate.”
To be fair, certain airlines are taking small steps in that direction: Delta, which already offers complimentary beer and wine on all international flights, recently revealed that it’s testing out offering three-course meals and gratis champagne in economy class on flights between Portland and Tokyo. American has decided to allow early boarding for people with nut allergies, giving them time to properly sterilize their seat and tray table. These small comforts probably won’t do a lot to mitigate the stress felt by people regularly victimized by racial profiling, sizeism, and other types of discrimination that still run rampant on planes, in airports, and during TSA screenings. And they also won’t fix the problem of delayed flights and insensitive staffers and insulting $75 vouchers. But they are, at least, an acknowledgment on the parts of airlines that a lot of people are pissed off — and that if there is, for example, the ever-looming threat of accidentally sitting in dog poop (or something like that), they have every right to be.