Has plane travel gotten ruder, or have we?

Quentin Fottrell over at MarketWatch writes today about the upswing in recent air travel “incidents,” including some women who thought it might be a good idea to light up on a flight to Cuba, and three flights in the past week were forced to land after passengers got into a fight over reclining seats.

Some attribute the new rudeness to the airlines’ never-ending quest for profit:

“Southwest and United both took away one inch from each row on certain jets to make room for six more seats. American is increasing the number of seats on its Boeing 737-800s from 150 to 160. Delta installed new, smaller toilets in its 737-900s, enabling it to squeeze in an extra four seats. And to make room for a first-class cabin with lie-flat beds on its transcontinental flights, JetBlue cut one inch of legroom for coach passengers.”

And that’s certainly part of the problem. Every time you fly there seems to be a nice slight, courtesy of the airlines. Permanent $300 domestic ticket-pricing comes to mind (it goes up with oil prices, but some never comes down with them!), $50 per round-trip in “baggage fees,” which are simply a huge tax that airlines added to your ticket, as bags were always included before. No more in-flight meals — and not that we enjoyed the meals, but still, it’s the constant whittling back that people notice.


From the Pan Am Historical Foundation.

And then there are the flight attendants. I fly enough — probably twelve flights a year — to notice when things start getting surly. And ever since the price of a plane ticket plummeted a few decades back, attitude among some flight attendants went sky-hight.

I particularly notice it flying with my dog. She’s 10 pounds, so she travels as a carry-on, but I still have to pay anywhere from $95 (Southwest) to $125 (United and American) each way, so it’s not as if the airlines are doing me a favor by letting me bring her on the plane. And really hit or miss whether some flight attendant, or gate attendant, is going to be gratuitously nasty with me over the dog. United has been pretty awful, American slightly better (half the attendants are jerks with her, the other half nice), and even Southwest (the “nice” airline) was downright nasty the last time I flew. And when Southwest flight attendants get surly, you know things are heading south.

And don’t even get me started on flights across the Atlantic. Unless the price is significantly less, I won’t touch a US carrier going to Europe or Asia. I’m willing to pay $300 to be treated like scum. I draw the line at $1,000.

Ironically, the one area I haven’t had problems with is the TSA. They’ve been amazing, to me at least, ever since we professionalized their ranks. Pre-9/11, airport security was a disaster. My favorite story was the time the woman at security picked up my $3000 laptop computer with only two fingers, and carried it away, teeteringly extended from her body, like it was a bomb or a smelly pair of underwear. (I had a little chat with her supervisor.)

My second favorite was right after 9/11, my first flight since, yet still pre-TSA, when the security guy at the metal detector at Dulles Airport in northern Virginia (where the flight that hit the Pentagon took off from) didn’t speak English. We kept asking him if, under the new rules, we had to unzip our laptops from their sleeves, and he’d simply nod, mumbling something in what was decidedly not English. And hey, I’m as a big a fan of foreigners and foreign languages as the next guy — bigger probably — but having an airport security guy, weeks after 9/11, who was unable to communicate the safety rules to passengers, was more than a tad creepy.

My experiences with the TSA post-9/11 have only been good, especially since I got the dog. While American, United, and even Southwest seem to have a thing against small bundles of furry happiness, the TSA folks are, generally, tickled pink when they see me coming up with my little Sasha. They talk to her, pet her, ask me about her. On my last flight, the agent even helped me out with my bags, as (and any parent of small kids will appreciate this) it’s not terribly easy putting your belt and shoes back on while juggling a rambunctious (and somewhat afraid) little girl.

In the end, I’m not sure if air travel has gotten nastier, if we’ve gotten nastier, or whether the cumulative effect of flying so many flights eventually catches up with you, and you start thinking that things are getting worse, when perhaps you’re simply becoming a bit more jaded about the entire experience, after decades of abuse.


From the Pan Am Historical Foundation.

And finally, a word about the surly flight attendants. I’ve worked a number of jobs serving the public, including selling cocoa at the local ice rink in junior high, selling hamburgers at the local pool in high school, working as a waiter in college, and working as a Senate aide doing constituent services as my first “real” full-time job. And whether you like it or not, you have to be nice. It’s the job. And I find that while some flight attendants clearly have the service-oriented ethic, others truly think they’re the cat’s meow. The thing is, it’s hard to know whether the surly chip-on-the-shouler flight attendants are the making things worse, or whether they got surly in the first place because of all the surlier passengers.

Whatever it is, with the terrorism, the forever-spiked fares and fees, and the ever-decreasing service, flying stopped being fun for me a long time ago. And I suspect the old romance is forever lost.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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