When I heard about the recent Metrojet crash, a single thought crossed my mind: I'm never flying again.
Of course, I will, but that doesn't mean I won't do it without a bit of hesitation and a dash of paranoia. I hate flying, straight up. If recent surveys are any indication, I'm not alone in my discontent.
According to J.D. Power and Associates' 2015 survey of the airline industry, overall passenger satisfaction with traditional airlines was a dismal 691 out of 1,000 points. Low-cost airlines scored only slightly better at 766.
The airline experience has become one of anxiety, discomfort, and animosity. Airlines have had an almost constant presence in the media lately, and none of that coverage seems to be positive. And then, just in case you do forget how bad your last experience on an airliner was, your next one is sure to refresh your memory. It's gotten to the point where, if there were an equally speedy way to travel from Point A to Point B, a good number of us would probably take it-even if it cost us a little more.
A survey of U.S. and European travellers confirmed this: 79% said they would choose trains over planes if high-speed rail options existed, and 61% would choose rail over air if the cost was the same or better.
What is it about the airline experience that has us all so unhappy with flying? While the reasons can be as numerous as the thousands of tiny annoyances the airlines manage to stuff into these flying metal tubes, here are the seven biggest downers of the modern airline experience:
The recent Halloween downing of a Metrojet flight over Egypt has renewed our collective paranoia of becoming the victim of a terrorist attack in the air. Whether because of a ground-to-air attack or an on-board bomb, the flight lost contact with air traffic control only 23 minutes after departing the runway. The airliner was found in pieces in a remote region of the country, all crew members and 217 passengers dead.
Back and forth between Russian, US, and UK officials has done little to assuage our fears that this was an act of terror. Of course, this wouldn't be the first time that a terrorist group chose an airliner as a target. From Lockerby to 9/11 to the Underwear Bomber, we all know that airliners are a favorite target of terrorists. They use them because they're big, public, and dramatic, and they have an immediate effect on our desire to travel, which in turn puts a damper on commerce.
These events, which are probably just as improbable as dying in an accident crash, keep us wondering about the guy next to us and that bag he checked in.
And don't even get us started on the TSA.
Every air-involved terror attack gives the TSA license to make their inspections and searches more inconvenient, intrusive, and even ridiculous. Following the Metrojet crash, one DHS official was quoted as saying:
"If we say, 'From now on a certain item poses a threat, no one's allowed to bring that item aboard a plane,' we can request that... Obviously we could dial it all the way up and say you can't bring anything at all in your carry-on."
Thankfully, the official recovered by saying, "But that's not workable, and it's going to make everyone very angry."
That kind of common sense pretty much sums up why we love the TSA.
Everytime you turn on the news, planes are catching fire and pieces are falling off in midair. Statistically speaking, these events aren't likely to happen to you or me, not even remotely. Your chances of dying in a plane crash, according to the NTSB, are about 11 million to one. Despite these steep odds, however, 40% of passengers still say they're afraid of being in a plane crash.
Every day, roughly 93,000 flights are made throughout the world. In the last year, on the other hand, there have been only 15 accidents involving commercial airliners, according to Airsafe.com. Unfortunately, these stories make the news and provide visuals vivid and horrifying enough to make us second-guess flying.
About a month ago, for instance, the captain of American Airlines 550 fell ill and died en route from Phoenix to Boston.
A month before that, British Airways Flight 2276 was preparing for takeoff when its left engine failed and then bust into flames. Everyone, including crew and passengers, were safely evacuated, but evening news images of thick, black smoke billowing from the crippled plane were enough to give any traveler the chills.
Then six months prior to that came perhaps one of the most disturbing air accidents of the year. On a flight from Spain to Germany, the plane's first officer inexplicably took control of the aircraft and crashed it into a mountainous area, killing all six crew members and 144 passengers on board.
As statistically improbably as these events are, their accounts and images make it hard for us to trust that our next flight might not be our last.
If you were halfway paying attention to the news a couple weeks ago, you probably heard the story of this unfortunate American Airlines passenger, who just happened to be in the way of the wrong flight attendant at the wrong time:
Seriously, if passengers wanted to be treated this way, they could just visit their local DMV. According to experts, as plane seats become smaller, the number of flights increase, and cabins become more crowded, the flight attendant meltdown is likely to become more common, as with this poor American Airlines attendant (yep, those guys again) who lost it and had to be physically subdued by her passengers:
When you depend on flight attendants for safety and service during your flight, the last thing you want is for them to treat you like you're inconveniencing them. Or for them to issue death threats.
Racist passengers. Drunk passengers. Kung fu-wielding passengers. Over the last few years, videos of misbehaving airline passengers have become their own sub-genre of Internet videos. Each one showcases the worst that humanity has to offer, packed into the already claustrophobic space of the modern airliner.
Coincidentally, Expedia just released their list of the worst airline passengers, based on a survey of their users. Their worst-ranked offenders were "The Aromatic Passenger" (#3), "Inattentive Parents" (#2), and, at number one, "Rear Seat Kickers."
Seriously, the thought of being associated with folks like this on the ground, with plenty of breathing room, is bad enough. But to be packed into a flying metal tube with the most inconsiderate human beings on the planet, without enough room to straighten your legs, much less get away? That's enough to make any flyer second-guess their next trip.
The airlines take your life and your schedule into their hands. You trust them to get you to your destination on time, and you plan your itinerary around that assurance. But then your plane's engine dies. Or a solar flare fries the airline's ticketing system. Next thing you know, you're in an airport you never intended to be in, calling home to explain how you'll be sleeping on the tile floor of a food court, hoping you'll be able to catch a flight the next day in the direction of home.
Last month, a technical glitch befell Southwest Airlines' call centers, website, and mobile app, causing delays for 450 of their 3,600 planned flights for that day. These issues continued into the next day, affecting thousands of air travelers and causing lines that stretched through terminals and out onto sidewalks.
Air travel is already a stressful experience. You're in a giant metal javelin with a bunch of strangers, zipping through the sky at hundreds of miles per hour. Kids are crying. People are drinking too much. If anything this already claustrophobic setting could use a bit of relief.
So what do the airlines do? They further cut into your personal space by stealing a few extra inches from that place between you and the person in front of you. If you're normal-sized, you find relief by twisting your body to the side, with your knees awkwardly touching your neighbor's leg. It's awkward but not painful. If you're over six feet-tall, like me, you can try that maneuver all you like, but at least one knee will be rubbing against the seat pocket, pretty much the entire flight.
According to the Independent Traveler, shrinking leg room is a real thing, although airlines continue to deny it:
"Although the "standard" seat pitch has decreased almost industry-wide from 33-34 inches to more like 31 inches, airlines maintain that leg room has not actually diminished."
Despite these objections, people associated directly with the Federal Aviation Administration confirm that leg room might not be just uncomfortable, but even life threatening. To gauge the smallest safe distance between seats, the FAA conducts fire drills on planes where they watch how quickly the fake passengers are able to evacuate, given the distances between seats. They've found that 31 inches is a sort of minimum safe distance between seats. Why, then, according to these same experts, are there only 30 inches of leg room on United Airlines flights? Or only 28 inches of leg room on Spirit Airlines flights?
There's an unwritten rule that spans all industries: once you give something away for free (like the ability to bring baggage on an airplane) you shouldn't start charging for it. It makes people mad. It's adding insult to the injury of poor customer service and already cramped cabins. And it flies in the face of progress itself.
I mean, most industries find ways to get cheaper and better over time. For example, in the 1990s, a DVD player the size of a small TV would cost you upwards of $400. Today, a player a quarter of the size will cost you under $20. This is an effect of innovation and the free market. An effect which seems to bounce right off the airline industry.
After letting passengers bring a carry-on and a check-in bag for no extra charge for literally decades, airlines starving for profits have started charging for everything they can.
Take Delta, for instance. To check one bag will cost you $25. Want to pick your seat? That's going to run you somewhere between $9 and $59. Want to send your kid across the company without a guardian? That'll be $100.
These new fees have reportedly boosted airlines' sagging bottom lines, but they've also made us dislike airlines even more.
While some of the above-mentioned factors (think terrorism) are out of airlines' control, our relationship with flying could be vastly improved with a concerted effort from the airlines. It's worth noting here that not all airlines are clueless to their passengers' needs. Southwest and JetBlue continue to buck the trend. Maybe solution is to give less alcohol to passengers. Maybe it's to give more. Maybe it's to sacrifice to put another inch between seats.
At any rate, the airlines have some work to do if they don't want to get pushed out of existence by newer, faster, less intimidating travel options.
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