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.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | 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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49 Responses to “Has plane travel gotten ruder, or have we?”

  1. Indigo says:

    An afterthought: This is wartime during a depression.

    We’ve been at war so long that we’ve forgot that we’re at war. Shift the focus off The Polyanna and we’re mired in a wartime economy, collapsing our infrastructure to keep the war fires burning, wallowing in a depression that doesn’t stop and pretending it’s a recession that’s drawing to an end. In a social environment like that, with war and international crisis the focus of government policy, the average citizen is abandoned onto a lessez-fair platform that empowers negligence, rude public behavior, and a profound sense of alienation from authority and commerce in the private individual.

    That guns are not drawn more frequently and that shoot outs and public lynchings are happening often enough to merit the attention of the conventional media, suggests that we’re actually fairly mellow considering the circumstances.

  2. silas1898 says:

    Which gave the working class $19 flights on Peoples Express, I took a lot of them back in the day.

  3. silas1898 says:

    It’s called getting old. I’m 55. “Get off my lawn” is only 10 ish years away.

  4. silas1898 says:

    There can always be a passenger on the plane who has never flown before.

  5. Naja pallida says:

    According to the people that study that kind of thing, lots. But given how many ways an air plane can crash, your mileage may vary, I’m sure.

  6. Brian C. Bock says:

    I’m of average height and I find the closeness of the seats on airlines extremely uncomfortable, especially on long flights. The pressurization causes a lot of pain in my joints due to arthritis. I can relieve this by moving my arms and legs. But I can’t move my legs because the seat in front is so close and often it has so much stuff under the seat, like those huge boxes that provide the in-flight entertainment content, that I can get very little motion.

    What’s going to happen is someone is going to die from deep vein thrombosis and a pulmonary embolism because they were immobile for too long because their seat was too small and they wouldn’t let people stretch because people standing to stretch look like terrorists or something. Then for a few years, airlines will add an inch or two to some seats on some flights, but never the one you are on. Then they’ll stuff them back together again and deactivate the recline.

  7. GreenEagle says:

    Oh well, how many people have ever been saved in a plane crash by taking the brace position anyway?

  8. GreenEagle says:

    This current problem could be solved by some reasonable Federal regulation (yes, I said Federal regulation- so sue me) on the minimum distance between seats. The greed of the airlines in cramming more and more people in coach is what has created this problem, and the government could fix it quickly.

  9. therling says:

    I fly maybe once a year, and yes, I usually dread it. Partly because of how crappy you are treated by the airlines and partly because of the behavior of my fellow passengers.

    The airlines’ decline is easy to point to as a reason for passengers behaving badly. You pack people into a small space for hours on end after they’ve been poked and prodded and then spend a lot of time sitting around waiting to get on your plane and they’ll get cranky.

    I’d suggest that one of the factors behind passenger misbehavior is an effect brought about by the digital age that I think has caused more generalized incivility. The Internet is a device that lets out the “Monsters from the Id,” look how quickly people can get nasty on any comments section. People used to have to consider more carefully how to talk to other people, because you had to do so in person. The more practice you get in being snotty, the less effort you put in to stop and think about how what you say affects others around you.

  10. olandp says:

    I don’t fly often, once a year or less. There have been times that I experienced awful service, and times that I got great service. Even though I have long legs, always go for an aisle seat, I never recline my seat out of consideration for the person behind me.

    I remember one time seated in the last row, the flight was delayed of course, when we landed the woman in the center seat who had been talking to her daughter across the aisle the entire way, literally climbed over me in an attempt to get out for her connection (which she had already missed). Somehow I ended up in front of her coming off the plane and casually strolled down the jetway with her behind me.

  11. Bob Munck says:

    I’ve simply stopped flying. If I can’t get there by car, train, or ship or do what I need to do over the net, I don’t do it. I had a million air miles under my wings before they started keeping track of frequent flyer miles, stopped counting transatlantic flights when they hit three digits in the late 70s. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d provided a half million dollars in revenue to the air carriers (constant dollars).

    I don’t know if a significant number of people like me have also stopped or cut back on airplanes. If they have, the airlines are creating a middle-class gap in their customer base. The front of the plane is getting more expensive and the back is getting cheaper, so the passengers up front are wealthier and those in back are poorer. It’s really quite a good metaphor for what’s happening to American society in general.

  12. Jim Olson says:

    I’m 5’4 and I can’t do this in a modern coach seat.

  13. nicho says:

    Bad link

  14. koolaidyarn says:

    I have a hunch that if people aren’t specifically told not to smoke, there will be that douche who lights up in the middle of takeoff.

  15. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I have to travel to Los Angeles and D.C. a couple times a year. I have tried Delta, Southwest, and Sun Country. I really thought that many of the Southwest employees were very surly. Delta employees were okay, but Sun Country’s employees seem to be always nice. I’m now using Sun Country all the times. Their ticket prices are very good. In fact, I was able to spring for first class tickets for my next trip to Los Angeles. I look at it as buying and extra ticket for my legs. I’m six foot three for heaven’s sake.

    I also have problems with certain airports as well. I hate Dulles, so I try to always go into and out of National (Reagan). LAX can be a real bummer, but Sun Country doesn’t go into Burbank.

  16. BeccaM says:

    Given the position of the tray-table latch and the now ubiquitous LCD entertainment screens, as well as the fact you’re putting your head against something that has another person sitting in it, I figure the new ‘brace position’ basically is just the airlines’ way of ensuring any passenger on a landing rough enough not to kill them will instead suffer a severe concussion and short-term memory loss.

  17. nicho says:

    Of course, one reason for flight attendant surliness could have to do with things like the situation an acquaintance of mine found herself in. She worked faithfully for the airline for many years and was just ready to retire. Suddenly, the airline decided it couldn’t deliver on the pension it had promised and on which she had relied. It needed the money to make sure the CEO and upper-level executives had their massive bonuses and pay raises. So, even though she’s older, she has to keep working, spending hours on her feet, dealing with some real jerks in the seats. (Not every passenger is a jerk, but enough are.) That’s enough to make you surly.

  18. BeccaM says:

    True enough.

  19. GarySFBCN says:

    Most of my flying is trans-Atlantic and it is usually a good experience. When I fly domestic, I do lower my expectations. But the blame is 50-50, airlines and the ‘general public.’

  20. nicho says:

    I have seen people who have had to be shown how to use a seatbelt. Look at how dumb the average person is – and then remember that 50 percent of people are dumber than that.

  21. nicho says:

    No more calls, please, we have winner. When I started flying way back in the Stone Age, coach seats had as much leg room as you’ll find in domestic business class these days.

    They used to show you the “brace position” for emergency landings, where you would put your head in your lap and clasp your hands under your knees. Now, the “brace position” is that you lean forward two inches and put your head on the top of the seat in front of you. I’m not quite sure what that “braces.”

    Old style:


    Good luck trying that today.

  22. NCMan says:

    instead of banning reclining, why not regulate enough leg room for reclining not to cause a problem.

  23. nicho says:

    Well, flight attendants may have to deal with them, but it’s fellow passengers who have to sit next to them or behind them for hours at a time. At least flight attendants can have them duct taped to the seat if needs be. Fellow passengers don’t have that power.

  24. nicho says:

    Flying these days is like spending a day in jail. Line up over here, wait over there, take off your shoes and your belt, get in this line, we’re going to xray you and possibly grope you, no talking, no smiling, no joking, no asking questions, don’t argue, don’t try to explain your rights. if you don’t follow every one of these rules, you’ll end up in handcuffs. You’ll be crammed into a space smaller than would be allowed for prisoners under the Geneva Convention. If you get any food, it will be expensive and it will be crap. If you want a drink, it will cost you more than if you got it at the bar at the Four Seasons. You will be told when you can go to the bathroom and when you can’t.

    And people get testy. Imagine that!

  25. nicho says:

    I can’t think of anything good to say about Ronald Reagan, but it was Jimmy Carter who signed the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978.

  26. Rambie says:

    I used to fly twice a month from SLC to Las Vegas for work, Southwest used to have seats in a alternating Forward/Backward facing direction. It -usually- gave the illusion of more room for us passengers, there was a flight where the person in front kept kicking their legs forward and tapping my shoe or shin.

  27. Indigo says:

    It’s the Zeitgeist (whatever that is). Early in the automotive era, frustrated by the demands put on his production line, Henry Ford, Sr. was supposed to have observed that “People are no damn good.” Not much has changed. On the organized religion front, George Takei twittered a similar dilemma this morning:

  28. emjayay says:

    And the big things are a lot closer together.

  29. emjayay says:

    Exactly. All part of the same thing. See my comment above! (Not that I have anything all that original to say.)

  30. Drew2u says:

    (since Reagan’s policies went into full effect? >_>)

  31. emjayay says:

    Oh. Now that makes sense.

  32. magster says:

    I’m 6’2″, which is tall but not crazy tall, and reclining seats are definitely a problem for me (and sometimes painful when the person ahead of me really puts their weight into recline). Ban reclining seats!

  33. emjayay says:

    Yes. Of course in those days prices were a lot higher, given the much higher cost per mile with much smaller and less efficient planes, not even counting cramming passengers in. And it wasn’t really pure capitalism at all: prices were controlled. All similar seats on all same routes were the same price.

  34. Interestingly, my spanish teacher from high school told me the same thing about students, even the honors classes. Said they all have become entitled and rude.

  35. caphillprof says:

    The primary cause of the problem is the incredibly shrinking seat size/personal space along with the extortion (1) for getting a seat, (2) for not boarding last, (3) for checking luggage [you pay extra but it still doesn’t arrive and good luck getting the baggage fee back]. And this nonsense about the person ahead reclining directly into your tray table which means you can neither eat, nor read, nor get any use out of the tray table. I particularly hate the bit where they do not release seats until 12 hours before the flight and abhor their not seating families and parties together. All this shuffling people around. And I hate, hate, hate the wrong people boarding early so as to impede loading the plane.

    If I were god, no one would be permitted a carryon heavier than she was able to hoist above her head and into the overhead compartments.

    Oh, yes, flight attendants are like nuns–some saints and a lot of Nazis.

  36. This was pre-TSA.

  37. And she counts as one of my carry-ons, just to add insult to injury.

  38. emjayay says:

    Charging you anything, much less big bucks, for a little dog in a carrier that fits under the seat is absurd. But then, it’s capitalism. Supply and demand. The demand curve is pretty steep, because you just want to take your doggie with you. Supply, one per customer. So the price is whatever they find you will pay.

  39. magster says:

    The fees for carry-ons was a bridge too far for me in my relationship with Frontier Airlines.

  40. emjayay says:

    It’s hard to understand that there could be an apparently non-English speaking TSA employee. A big part of the test they have to pass is English comprehension.

  41. goulo says:

    A nice thing about living in Europe in contrast to the US is the better network of trains (and buses), providing a realistic non-car alternative to flying.

  42. emjayay says:

    Finally, cool photos at AB.

  43. BeccaM says:

    Well, eventually the water boils and the frog dies. This situation has been slowly building ever since the Reagan era and the beginning of airline deregulation. 9/11 ratcheted it up.

    The personal space ‘air-rage’ incidents? That’s the end result of finally figuring out, “How much can you cram people together, restricting their movements and inflicting an ever increasing list of indignities before some of them start to crack?”

    The surly flight attendants? Well, they’re nearly all non-union these days, paid crap wages, are overworked and constantly being asked to do more with less — and yes, the comity and politeness from passengers isn’t what it was because they are being treated like dangerous cattle by the entire system.

    It goes back to the airline industry itself. Every one of those photographs from the halcyon days of air travel show aircraft with what nowadays would seem like business-class space in coach. Nearly every aircraft innovation has been geared towards “How can we cram more bodies into this plane?” and not “How can we increase passenger comfort?” For example, there are potential seat designs that allow people to recline by sliding the base forward rather than tilting the back into the next person’s lap. But putting those into planes would take money and effort, and it’s always easier and cheaper (read: more profitable) just to go with the same old design.

    Anyway, I’m not going to pick the passengers or the flight crews as where the lack of politeness is coming from because it’s both. However, looking for the root cause always leads me back to the realization both groups are being massively exploited in the name of capitalist profits. Passengers want to get where they’re going with a minimum of fuss and with a certain minimum of comfort; flight crews want to get their jobs done and to enjoy their jobs. So as yourself: Who has made it all but impossible for both those groups to be happy and content, to feel valued either as a customer or as an employee? It ain’t either of them.

    As ever, it’s the plutocratic 0.01%.

  44. BeccaM says:

    Me too, Jim. Except in my case the willingness to drive extends as far as the distance between New Mexico and California.

  45. BeccaM says:

    Re: smoking — FAA regs haven’t caught up to reality.

  46. HereinDC says:

    Having lived with a flight attendant for over 25 years…..It’s the passengers that have gotten surly. If you ever get the chance to sit down and have an evening with a group of flight attendants. ( Which many a nights I have ) you would hear how increasingly over the last 20 years…how passengers have become prima donnas and or filthy pigs.

  47. S1AMER says:

    You have to be old enough to remember flying in the days before deregulation to fully appreciate how awful it’s become, particularly since the post-9/11 panic set in and the Great Recession became the excuse for additional cutbacks.

    The only good thing that’s happened to flying in recent decades is the end of smoking*. That’s real progress. Otherwise, give me Amtrak for travel whenever possible: Roomy seats, occasional scenery, tray tables big enough for a laptop and a drink, time to catch up on reading or to take a nap, restrooms that might be as unpleasant as those on planes but at least have some room, and — most of all — avoiding the tension of driving on unmaintained roads.


    *(Why does the pre-flight announcement still include the absurd statement that “This will be a non-smoking flight today?” That’s what it’s been every day for years, damn it, so why can’t somebody cancel the ridiculous language? Also, while I’m still ranting about nonsense on planes, what person in his or her right mind thinks it’s still necessary to demonstrate how to use a seat-belt buckle? Yeah, that was a novelty back in the 1950s and even into the 1960s, but it’s so damned silly today.)

  48. Jonathan says:

    I would argue that if flight attendants have become ruder, it’s a product of passengers being ruder, but both are due of the changes made by the airlines. You may have worked service jobs before, but did you work any of those jobs over a long enough time where the conditions changed? Packing more passengers in has a negative impact on them as well, since it’s not like they’re adding staff. I bet their space is being taken away as well in an effort to pack more people in. If airlines treat paying customers this badly, do you think that they really treat their employees any better?

  49. Jim Olson says:

    In any other context, flying would be considered cruel and unusual punishment. You have to enter through a security gate and scanned and possibly searched (no matter how nice the TSA agents are, its still an invasion of privacy. You’re crammed into a very tight space with very strict instructions, given barely subsistence rations, and the slightest infraction punishes everyone. It is a misery that I avoid as much as humanly possible. I would rather drive 500 miles than fly domestically.

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