Why Flying Sucks Lately

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S1: Earlier this summer, the nation cleaved into two camps. I’m not talking about masks or vaccines or political affiliations. The camps organize themselves around this question. Are you for duct tape or against it?

S2: There is uproar today after an out of control passenger accused of groping the flight attendants was duct taped to his seat and the airline suspended. The flight crew, I think, taped his ass up. So they took this step, which is probably not in the flight attendant’s handbook.

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S1: Yes, this story immediately made me and my family think about the terrible flights we’ve been on, flights that turned us on our fellow passengers, flights that made us temporarily homicidal. And to think for all those years, we could have just asked the flight crew to get out the duct tape.

S2: The flight attendants restrained this passenger to his seat using something called restraint tape.

S1: OK, fine restraint tape.

S3: The summer has been so crazy. We’ve actually had, I think, three different duct tape episodes.

S4: What? Yeah.

S1: Scott McCartney writes about airlines for The Wall Street Journal. He’s on team duct tape.

S3: If that’s what it takes. That’s what it takes. It’s a dictatorship. Under federal law, you have to comply with crew member instructions. There’s not a whole lot of margin for error when you’re 35000 feet in the air.

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S1: Part of the heightened tension in the skies can be chalked up to the travel rush. A lot of trips got delayed and people are trying to make up for time spent at home in relative isolation. But Scott says flying has been bringing us down for a long time.

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S3: I’m not making excuses for people doing really bad things on on airplanes, but I do think that it’s an experience where you go from one stressful deadline to to the next. You rush to get to the airport. You go through indignities with with TSA, you. You may be subject to delays, cancellations, flight changes. There’s a whole class system to it. You feel lousy if you’re in group nine versus group one. Your bag may get taken away from you. You lose control and then you get on the airplane. And the airplane is is a place unlike any other in society, because you are pushed so closely to strangers. And that all has been a bad scene for some people who snap and lose it and act out

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S1: today on the show. Why flying sucks right now and what can be done about it. I’m Mary Wilson filling in for Mary Harris. This is what next. Please return your tray tables to their upright and locked positions.

S4: I have this idealized vision of flying in the past. Where it was a lovely experience. Welcome aboard.

S3: Welcome aboard the spacious cabin.

S4: You dress up, you’d be treated like a somebody.

S3: Roominess extends even to the powder rooms, which look like those in a private home.

S4: Everybody would be on their best behavior.

S3: And a new sensation, complete absence of vibration.

S4: Am I dreaming? Was it really like that at some point in the 60s, you know, early, mid 70s?

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S3: Well, it wasn’t. It wasn’t. You know, it’s interesting what people remember. There certainly was before deregulation. Flying was for the elite. So it was expensive. It was not the opportunity for the masses to fly. And people did dress up and all. Now, was was the service better? You know, there may have been somebody carving Roastbeef in the cabin or, you know, different amenities like that. And at the same time, certainly in the period before the jet age, you flew at lower altitudes. Planes were noisy, much more turbulent, you know, because you were at lower altitudes, slower. You know, it was not a great experience and planes were not nearly as reliable. And so there were mechanical problems and emergencies and statistically far more crashes. So I think, you know, the the past has been romanticized. And we forget that flying may not have been so great. Back in the golden age

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S4: when I was thinking about all the things that are not great about flying. I was trying to think, when did when did the first domino fall, when did it start to go bad? And immediately I thought of deregulation, which I only had a vague sense of and a vague memory of it until I started reading about it to talk to you. Deregulation happened in 1978. It was a bill signed by President Carter and federal control over flight routes and ticket prices and the creation of new airlines. And I understand that, you know, although I might like to say all this, all the problems we’re talking about, probably the fault of deregulation. It sounds like it’s a lot more complicated than that.

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S3: Oh, I think so. You know, as many problems as there are, I think deregulation is a huge success. We have so many options travel. We have so many hundreds of millions of people traveling. That wouldn’t happen without deregulation. We have tremendous competition in the airline industry. I just did a story recently about ticket prices. Ticket prices for the last 25 years, the average domestic ticket has not changed. Without factoring in inflation and you factor in inflation, the price has steadily come down like 85 percent from what it what the average cost 25 years ago. Now, prices have been higher this summer, but there are so many competitive forces in this business that prices will come down. And you see that over and over again. Now, that race for the lowest ticket price has come at a cost, and that’s why airlines have pushed seats closer together. That’s why there are all these fees that frustrate people and things like that.

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S4: Oh, yeah. I really feel that competition between airlines when I’m shopping for a flight, you know, I feel it on the front end. But once I’ve purchased a fare, nobody cares about me anymore. I may as well be like like livestock today that I’m a piece of luggage with a mouth to those planes.

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S3: That’s exactly right. It’s you know, you feel like you get treated like a box and it’s FedEx just moving you from point A to point B. It is a tough, tough business. And so there are so many forces that sort of come to a head when you get squished into that airplane seat.

S4: OK, so so we are in the jet age. It is not all bad. In fact, it’s much improved over years past. But there are still a lot of things that drive us crazy. What do people tell you is the most enraging thing about flying?

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S3: Well, I think there’s a whole world of airline policies that just frustrate the heck out of travelers. The inability to get refunds when airlines cancel flights and people are entitled to refunds. Well, we’ve seen this summer with with frequent multiple schedule changes, even for people who have tickets for Christmas, upcoming Christmas. And they’ve already had, you know, two or three schedule changes that that change what they bought. And it feels like a bait and switch to them. And it is you buy a nonstop flight and then you get switched to a connecting flight. It’s not the same product. The lack of reliable information communication is a huge problem in this business. People hate it when they feel like airlines are lying to them or when the story keeps changing or. Even simple things. You know, the skies are sunny and the and the airline says your flight’s been delayed by bad weather. And there’s not an explanation. It may be a legitimate thing because there’s bad weather in some place where the airplane that’s going to fly them is or the crew that’s going to fly them is. And so it is affecting their trip. But airlines don’t explain that well. So there’s there’s that whole world airlines have written their policies for their benefit, not for their customer benefit.

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S4: Mm hmm. One thing I read about is that every flight fare you purchase is a contract and the terms and conditions may apply, you know, and everybody checks that box. And I don’t I don’t read the terms and conditions. And you have written that the the terms and conditions are actually changing very frequently. Airlines are changing what those terms are and maybe to the dismay of of passengers. And I was just wondering how you found that out. And what are some of the things they might be tweaking?

S3: Well, you know, you can tell how frequently they change because it’s called contract of carriage and it’ll have a date on it when it was last updated. And a lot of it is subtle. A lot of it responds to things have been a lot of changes lately for pandemic reasons. There was stuff that I, I and others wrote about immediately because they were so wrong. United, for example, in the early days of the pandemic, changed the terms and conditions on when it would issue refunds. And it’s actually a no no to change the terms on tickets that are already purchased. What the rules that were in place when you bought the ticket, that’s the contract you agreed to. You can’t retroactively go back and say, hey, we’re going to we’re going to change that on you.

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S4: And they tried to and

S3: they tried to and they they had to roll it all back. There was it was a whole lot of because airlines were canceling so many flights in the early days. And the the federal rule is when the airline cancels a flight, it has to offer the option of a refund. And the way the federal law is written says if it’s a significant change, the airline has to offer the refund option. And airlines have defined significant in different ways. But generally, it’s it’s about two hours somewhere, 90 minutes, somewhere, three hours in that range. And United change that out to I think the first one was 23 hours or something. So they can’t get you there one day. They’ll get to the next day. And that’s a that is a huge change. And they did that because they wanted to minimize the number of refunds they were going to have to pay out. And then they they got flak about that and they cut it back to six or eight hours and then finally said, OK, fine, we’re going back to what we had before, which was two hours. And so that was one episode where the importance of the contract of carriage comes into play.

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S4: One of the obstacles to things getting better right now, I guess, in the short term, is that airlines are very short staffed. When I read about that, I’ve been pretty surprised because my understanding was they may have gotten more than 20 billion dollars over the past year in two different, you know, relief measures passed by Congress. How how is it that they haven’t been able to to keep more workers employed?

S3: Well, you know, the the federal funding was really to preserve jobs of pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, really necessary personnel. It didn’t cover the outsourced people. It didn’t cover the telephone reservation lines people. It didn’t cover the wheelchair pushers or the or the guy who drives the fuel truck for the fueling company. There are so many people, it takes two to get an airplane loaded and and off the gate and on its way. And so airlines have been hurt by by that. And they have had to cut flights out of schedules because they didn’t have enough wheelchair pushers or other people. You know, some of this is of their own making. They we’ve seen a massive restructuring of where they fly in the pandemic. Right. People aren’t flying internationally. They want to go to different places. So Bozeman, Montana, is having this huge boom and in air travel, right? Well, surprise, surprise, the airline may not be able to get enough gate agents in Bozeman, Montana. And and that’s those weren’t jobs that existed before. Nothing being preserved there. You got to go hire new people or send in people from other cities or, you know, that’s a challenge. There have been challenges with with workers who were able to take voluntary leave through the pandemic and then just decide they weren’t coming back or they weren’t ready to come back yet. And that that was a, you know, job still existed, but they didn’t want to fly during the pandemic. The job has gotten tougher for flight attendants. There are more people packed into the cabin. They’re flying all day. They’re subject to the same delays and cancellations and frustrations as as everybody else. They’re dealing with with customers who are pissed off before they even, you know, step onto the airplane. And so they took leave and some of them have not come back yet. I think the labor challenges really show you both the complicated nature of the business. And in the end, the notion that, you know, it’s not just the people wearing the uniform it takes to run the airline. There are all kinds of people throughout the airport, throughout the the the ground staff in many different places.

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S1: Airlines need different places to be running smoothly to make a typical multiline flight work. So if an airport far away from you sneezes, your flight might end up getting a cold. It’s not obvious when it happens, and usually it’s not very well explained. So Scott McCartney did a kind of autopsy on one of these flights gone wrong. He talks to a woman named Rebecca Rice in July. She and her family went from Atlanta, Georgia, to St. Kitts in the Caribbean. But multiple delays meant they arrived to the islands a whole day late.

S3: It was a big deal, and she’s in Atlanta. She’s trying to get the same kids she has to an American go through Charlotte. She would have normally booked on Delta nonstop out of Atlanta, but there weren’t any seats available. You know, because so many people wanted to go to the Caribbean this summer. So she she gets a ticket on American and the Atlanta to Charlotte leg gets canceled. They tell her by bad weather, there’s no bad weather there. Bad weather was actually in Dallas. And so the crew never got to Charlotte until late the night before. And crew rest requirements meant that her flight would be delayed two hours simply because they needed enough rest time. Americans didn’t have any reserve crews to plug in or switch crews around. Normally that, you know, if the crews not going to be available for two hours, maybe there’s a different crew that that would be available and you can make a swap. But that two hour delay meant they’d miss their connection in Charlotte, that that was the only way to get that day to St. Kitts. So so they got stranded for a day and it was, you know, one example after another of sort of lousy airline service.

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S4: And it all started with that

S3: two hour delay, and that’s so typical. Airlines have been running with with really lower levels. Some airlines have a reserve crews. It goes back to some of the staffing issues we talked about, but also also goes back to choices airlines made about packing in as much revenue as they could get out of this summer because they had such huge losses in the in the year before. And so there’s not the ability to recover when you get those delays. And there aren’t spare airplanes to switch around there on spare crews to plug in. And they’re just running with less cushion. And that really plays out painfully for passengers.

S1: After the break, how passengers can strike back more with Scott McCartney in a minute. When the airlines do jerk us around, our recourse is limited. And that is the fault of deregulation, because deregulation exempted the airlines from state level oversight. So if an airline is bilking you out of a refund, you can’t go to your state attorney general and expect help from the Consumer Protection Office. The only sheriff in town is the Federal Department of Transportation. And that agency has not distinguished itself.

S3: The Department of Transportation has not been effective at all. We basically had two transportation secretaries. The second one under Obama and then the only one under Trump who did very little or consumer advocates would say they did nothing for protecting consumer rights in air travel. You know, it is the is the only sheriff. The industry was given an exemption by Congress from any sort of state regulation or oversight. Dotty is the only body that that governs this. So so one example of Frontier Airlines changed its refund policy in the pandemic. And there are a huge number of complaints. And then the attorney general of the state of Colorado, where Frontier’s based, said we have never gotten more complaints about a single company than we did about Frontier. And there wasn’t a thing we could do about it because airlines have this exemption from the federal government.

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S4: I want to talk about some of the things that could make flying better. I’m going to start with the lowest hanging fruit I can think of, which is maybe the planes should stop serving booze. Is that that much of a moneymaker for them? Could they stop serving alcohol on the planes?

S3: I don’t think it’s much of a moneymaker at all when you factor in the cost of injuries, disruptions. You know, if an airplane has to divert to an airport unexpectedly because a passenger has to be arrested. That can be a ten thousand dollar event. And, you know, the passengers not paying for it. The airline is. So we’ve seen a couple of airlines that through the pandemic are not serving alcohol. American and Southwest in particular. And I think that, you know, that may stick. We’ve also seen sort of college campus type behavior where people realize that the airlines not going to serve alcohol, so they get plastered before they get on the airplane. So alcohol is clearly a problem. I’m not sure the airline alone can legislate the problem here.

S4: About 10 years ago, there were a lot of complaints about how planes would leave passengers stranded on the tarmac for hours.

S5: They kept hearing they’d be departing shortly, but these passengers ended up stranded on a dark plane for nearly five hours.

S4: No food, no air conditioning.

S2: They’re called nightmare flight to where passengers are stuck on airport tarmac for hours. Well, now the government is limiting.

S4: It was a bunch of high profile cases of this, and it prompted Congress to pass the air passenger’s bill of rights, which was enacted in 2011. You think that’s due for an update, right?

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S3: Yeah, very much so. And by the way, tarmac delays is a great example of the sheriff actually doing his or her job. Ray LaHood was the secretary of transportation, was a Republican in the Obama administration. And he just got really pissed off that people were getting stranded for 10 hours. You know, at a time sitting on an airplane with no services now, you know, because of airline screw ups. And so he said no more. And they put through a rule with really heavy penalties if airlines did that. And lo and behold, airlines figured out a way to fix the problem. And that’s typically, you know, what happens. It didn’t it didn’t raise ticket prices. It didn’t disrupt travel, didn’t, you know, wasn’t the end of the world. They just figured out a better way to manage it so that that has happened. I do think there are you know, there are some key areas, some of which we talked about, where it is time for more passenger rights. I think the the consumer has really been left behind here. And there are some simple things that that government could do without him imposing a whole lot of new regulation, but do some things to to level the playing field.

S4: What are some things I can do if I decide to like improving air travel is my number one priority? What are some things I could do to make the world a better place?

S3: I do think there’s value in filing complaints with the Department of Transportation. It’s it’s a fairly easy thing to do. You could do it from their website. They’ll take complaints over the phone. However, whatever is is your preferred communications method. And a couple of things happen. The DOT does forward complaints to a particular area, to the airline involved, and it does ask for a response. So complaints that go to the Dotti in theory do get more attention. And we’ve certainly seen some airlines be more responsive. And, you know, it’s helpful for journalists and others to to track which airlines are doing well and provide some some peer pressure. I do an annual scorecard of airline performance, and that’s that’s one of the factors we look at. So I think that that can have a benefit. I also think social media is is a powerful tool for airline passengers. Certainly seen this with with videos of late and things like that. But airlines, you know, can be more responsive on social media. They do have social media desks and it can be a good way to get a response from an airline when, you know, writing a letter, making a phone call gets you nowhere.

S1: Scott McCartney. Thank you so much for talking.

S3: Sure. Good to be with you, Mary.

S1: Scott McCartney is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, where he writes the middle seat column, and that’s the show. What next is produced by the best in the business? Elayna Schwarze Davis Land Danielle, Hewitt and Carmel Delshad. Allison Benedikte and Alicia Montgomery rarely take us to our chairs, and when they do, we deserve it. I’m Mary Wilson, filling in for Mary Harris. Thanks for listening.