New Report Shows More Americans Are Fed Up With Airlines

Yet at least one airline plans to make its plane lavatories smaller.

In the early 1970s, famed newsman Chet Huntley appeared in a series of television ads introducing American Airlines’ new “Luxury Liner” fleet. The modified aircraft featured extra leg space, wider aisles and a cocktail lounge “the size of a living room” with a piano bar where passengers could while away their flights downing sidecars and flirting with pretty stewardesses. The airline sacrificed 60 seats on its 747s to make the lounge possible. And here’s the best part: It was in coach.

Compare that to the scene that played out on a Southwest flight last summer when my wife and I flew to Denver for her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. After shelling out several hundred dollars a piece for tickets and paying another stipend for having the audacity to bring luggage with us, we were herded into an aisle barely wide enough for a 10-year-old and forced to wedge ourselves into two seats at the very back of the plane that were so small it was hard to take a deep breath. We spent the next four hours sitting rigidly upright since the seats in the last row don’t recline (which would have made it impossible to drop the tray table if we had actually been served anything to eat.) Needless to say, we both got pretty heated. The way we saw it, we paid the same price as everyone else for our seats, but were delivered a product that was of a substantially lower value. I’ll skip the details, but by the end of the flight we’d both been flagged—after one drink, mind you—and the flight attendants would no longer make eye contact with us. It wasn’t our finest moment.

Minus the informal reprimand from flight staff, our experience is hardly out of the ordinary. Flying has become a necessary evil, a special circle in Hell where penitents are forced to pay for the privilege of enduring austere regulations, humiliating security procedures, cramped seats, high fees and the loss of amenities—such as hot meals, cocktails and in-flight entertainment—that were once de rigueur on even the shortest flights.

More Americans are speaking out. According to a new report from Purdue and Wichita State Universities, the number of complaints against airline companies increased 20 percent last year, to a rate of 1.43 per 100,000 passengers. That might not seem like much, but that’s just the number of people who took the time to lodge a formal report with the federal Department of Transportation.  If you’re like most people, you’d just as soon put a bad flying experience behind you rather than relive it in a written complaint that’s unlikely to make a difference anyway.

The gist of most passenger complaints is that they are being made to pay more money for fewer services and getting a poorer quality product to boot. Overcapacity and a drive for more revenues is prompting airlines to shrink seats, turn 130-seat planes into aircraft that can hold 150 passengers, and charge travelers added fees for everything from food and baggage services to the privilege of watching a movie or napping with a blanket and pillow. In the latest cost-cutting scheme, some airlines are now preparing to shrink their already tiny bathrooms so they can add even more seats.

Passengers are now more likely than not to endure some form of unpleasantness during their flights. But first they have to get on the plane, which, even with a ticket, isn’t a given. According to the report, nearly one in every 10,000 passengers is denied a seat even though they booked one in advance. And given the time and effort it takes just to get to the gate, don’t expect someone to give theirs up for cash or a free ticket like they did in the old days.

The best-kept secret of bad airline travel is that it doesn’t have to be this way. As usual, the problem can be traced to a lack of adequate investment, a failure to modernize and, above all, good old-fashioned politics.

The U.S. currently has the world’s worst air traffic congestion, according to the Building America’s Future Educational Fund—which counts Ed Rendell among its founders. (Philadelphia International Airport ranks as one of the top 10 most congested airports in the nation, with nearly a quarter of flights delayed an average of 58 minutes). More than a third of flight delays in the U.S. can be attributed to outdated technology—including our air traffic control system, which relies on a radar-based system developed in the 1950s. Infrastructure is another problem, mostly in the form of airport capacity. New runway construction has failed to keep pace with increased traffic. The World Economic Forum ranks U.S. aviation infrastructure 32nd in the world, behind that of Panama, Chile, and Malaysia. According to Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International-North America, the U.S. needs to invest more than $80 billion into airline infrastructure—including runways, terminals and other facilities—by 2015 just to keep up with projected growth in passenger travel.

While there has been a push to add more runways over the past several years, in February Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta said sequester cutbacks to air traffic controllers could force the closing of runways at several large hubs. (Over the weekend Huerta announced that the 149 air traffic control towers set to close on Sunday had been granted a reprieve until June).

Airline deregulation in the 1970s forced competition into the sector, which brought down airfares and led to a surge in the number of Americans traveling by air. But airports—and the air traffic control towers that keep them running—have remained largely under the purview of the federal government.  This adds a level of partisanship to efforts to reform the system—either in the form of new investments or changes to the status quo that would raise the hackles of powerful unions.  Canada joined many European nations in “defederalizing” its air traffic control system in 1996, creating a nonprofit corporation to oversea take offs and landings. According to the head of the group, called NAV CANADA, the reforms have led to greater efficiency even as the number of air travelers grew by more than half.   Efforts on Capitol Hill to adopt a similar model—largely championed by the GOP—have failed to gain a foothold.

Maybe Canada can serve as a model for changes in the U.S. Maybe it can not. That’s a decision best left to the experts. What matters is that it is time for politicians to listen to American consumers and begin working on ways to bring our commercial aviation system out of the dark ages instead of forcing passengers to suffer the consequences in the increasingly unfriendly skies.