Despite United’s apology and settlement, don’t expect air travel to get any smoother
United Airline’s report Thursday on the event of April 9 — better known to the flying public as the day a screaming doctor was bloodied up as he was dragged off a flight — begins like this: “We can never apologize enough for what occurred and for our initial response that followed. United Airlines takes full responsibility for what happened.”
In the report, the airline, and much-maligned CEO Oscar Munoz, profusely apologized to the victim of the incident, Dr. David Dao, and United passengers while promising new customer-friendly policies. The deal also includes a settlement reached Thursday with Dao for an undisclosed amount.
The United report couldn’t have come soon enough. On Wednesday, news outlets began reporting on another United fiasco. A mammoth, sweet-faced three-foot bunny named Simon was found dead after a taking a transatlantic flight from London to Chicago on the already bruised airline.
Although the number of animal deaths is quite rare on planes — only 26 animals died on flights in 2016 — the last thing United needs at this moment is to be the top-ranked airline in bunny deaths, passenger draggings, and customer boycotts.
Despite the airline’s profuse, if belated, apologies, don’t expect to see sweeping changes among major airlines. As the number of airline passengers reaches record levels this year, this kind of behavior will only grow in frequency.
There may not be many more giant bunny deaths (fingers crossed), but we are facing an inevitable future of more hot-headed employees and unruly passengers who will continue to make headlines as long as flying remains our most stressful means of transportation.
That is because the experience of air travel is not unlike a motorist driving by a drought-stricken forest and flicking a lit cigarette out the window. Conditions are ideal for flaring tempers and combustible actions. Unless you are one of the fortunate few to hold a business class or first class ticket, flying in 2017 can be an ulcer-inducing experience.
It begins before we get on the airplane. During peak times of the year, security back-ups at TSA check points can quickly grow longer than a conga line at a Miami wedding. This was especially apparent last March when long lines caused 6,800 passengers to miss their flights in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Congress shifted $34 million to the TSA to increase staffing. The TSA began pushing passengers to sign-up for TSA Precheck and Global Entry.
When passengers dutifully tried to sign up for Global Entry in Boston, they found that the process could take months. Cue more stress.
Those security lines are not getting shorter. The Department of Transportation reported that in 2016 airlines carried a record 823 million passengers. It was the first time in history that the number of passenger exceeded 800 million. The trade organization Airlines for America found that the number will continue to climb. It predicted a record 145 million passengers to fly from March 1 to April 30 this year.
Anyone who has ever stepped foot in an airport knows that more passengers means more hassles. There’s nothing more disheartening than getting through clogged security checkpoints only to see that there is no place to sit at your gate. By this point veins start showing on the temples of stressed passengers who simply want to get on the plane.
On the other side of the desk, flight attendants are trying to hold back what are known in the trade as the “gate lice.” Gate lice are the folks who crowd the gate, hoping to get on board as soon as possible so they can store their carry-ons in precious overhead bins. In the process, they block the entrance to the ramp and slow down the boarding process.
Now that airlines are increasingly charging passengers for the luxury of choosing a seat, the gate lice have multiplied. I’ve been ready to board many a flight as harried gate agents ask the crowd to step back. In one instance I thought an agent was going to take out a whip to drive the lice back like a lion tamer would. Maybe it was this kind of stress that prompted a Delta flight attendant to kick a passenger off a flight for getting out of his seat for an emergency bathroom run.
Barring weather delays and canceled flights, which are the emotional equivalent of a punch in the face, you’ve made it onto the plane and can take your seat. Unless, of course, you’re on a United flight. But let’s give Munoz the benefit of the doubt and assume you will survive an involuntary bumping and bruising this week.
With adrenaline and anxious thoughts surging, you squeeze into your seat. Another layer of stress is added to the travel trifle when you see you have just a few precious inches between yourself and the passenger in front of you.
Airlines are increasingly adding seats to flights to accommodate the record number of passengers. Add to the recipe a rude seat recliner, a drunken passenger, or a stroller that should not be on a plane, and your flight can turn into an all-out cage brawl.
Speaking of strollers, although United has taken the brunt of airline criticism over the past month, American Airlines had a brief moment in the spotlight last week after a fracas broke out involving a baby stroller and a surly employee. American Airlines, fearing a United-like backlash, quickly apologized.
Until the process changes, you’ll see more yelling, shoving, and drink throwing. For the moment, all we can do is white-knuckle our way through and hope whichever bad Will Smith movie is offered on the in-flight entertainment system can take our minds off our surroundings.
That is until the next trip, when the emotional forest fire begins anew.