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Why flying has gotten worse — and how one airline has improved

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

At 30,000 feet today’s passengers feel very low: crammed, overcharged, and treated like cattle.

The number of “unruly passenger” incidents that disrupt operations has increased to one incident for every 1,053 flights, and Congress has even stepped in to question the shrinking legroom and its potentially life-threatening role in quick evacuations and deep vein thrombosis.

“Planes are fuller than they’ve ever been before,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 members at 20 airlines. “The idea has been to eke out as much revenue from each flight. Any time you get humanity pressed together in a small space, it naturally creates conflict.”

The job of a flight attendant goes far beyond waiting on passengers, but most of that job is done discreetly and not obvious to most people on the plane. Flight attendants can be first responders, safety professionals, fire fighters, and even thwart attacks. But these days, dealing with unruly passengers has taken on a larger role.

It’s harder to leave problems on the ground

“The best way to avoid a problem in the air is to leave them on the ground,” Nelson said.

But these days, pilots and flight attendants say, keeping problems off the plane is much harder, given the industry’s focus on on-time metrics that put significant pressure on cabin crew to rush the boarding process.

“When the airline is trying to shut the door it doesn’t leave any wiggle room to keep problems off the plane,” said Nelson.

Managing with smaller cabin crews contributes to the issue. Nelson says that airlines have trended towards using the smallest cabin crews possible that regulations allow, making it difficult to evaluate potentially problematic (often intoxicated) passengers as they board. Sometimes the captain is performing flight checks as the boarding process is happening, due to crunched schedules.

“My flight attendants can de-escalate,” said Captain Dennis Tajer, who flies for American Airlines. “But sometimes they're given a firework with the fuse lit.”

Overhead luggage storage is a common source of tension on airplanes. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

An obsession with on-time

Tajer, who is also a spokesperson at American Airlines’ Allied Pilots Association, told Yahoo Finance that being on time is important, but the single-minded approach that American Airlines (AAL) often takes can seriously damage the consumer experience in other ways, making everyone’s job more difficult.

“You can cross over to where you're obsessed with on time,” said Tajer. He gave an example of an experience he had in which the doors were closed on time but a “full flight” had eight empty seats. When he asked where the passengers were, the flight attendant told him they were at the gate but that they had been ordered to close the door.

"They were told we can't take a delay,” said Tajer, who stepped in to open the door back up. “They decided to close it while they were standing there! I can only imagine what the passengers would be like on the next flight [had they missed it.]”

Ross Feinstein, a spokesperson for American Airlines told Yahoo Finance that “this is not our policy — we do not close the door if people are waiting in the boarding area to board the aircraft.”

Both Tajer and Nelson point to aggressive scheduling as a factor for these types of incidents — not sanctioned by policy, but perhaps a result of pressure to hit numbers. At American, scheduling can be so tight that a mere 15-minute delay could push a pilot over their legal limit of the amount of hours they can fly. This would cause the plane to not have enough pilots, causing a delay that could set off a chain of crew shortages and more delays. There is often little room for error. “Part of it is a ‘dream sheet’ versus a real schedule,” said Tajer.

Tajer added that the situation has come to a point in which the contract discussions between the union and management have not even broached the subject of money: “We're still talking about schedule stuff – that's the crisis American has.”

The airline said that crew legality is based on federal regulations, and that the scheduling team takes everything into account when scheduling our pilots.

Commercial aircraft cabin with rows of seats down the aisle

American in particular has been pushing an on-time-above-all approach — American Airlines President Robert Isom is known as Captain D0 for his obsession for a delay of zero (D0, in airline terminology). He has argued that it's better to disrupt the flights of a few than to hold up an entire plane.

American said it was very focused on departing on time, because on-time departures mean the best chance for on-time arrivals.

“You have a flight going DFW-SLC. But upon arrival, that flight turns SLC back to DFW,” said Feinstein. “Now [if] you hold the DFW-SLC flight 10 minutes, we could jeopardize the connections for all of those customers flying DFW-SLC.”

But pilots like Tajer believe a small amount of compromise is required. Not all delays are the same, and waiting a few minutes might be worth it sometimes.

"Somewhere in there is a happy medium," said Tajer. "We are not there."

Feinstein, the American spokesperson, said that it may hold flights on a case-by-case basis, but that is determined at hubs and its operation center in Fort Worth, and that the airline is more willing to hold the last flight of the day, when connections or turning the plane around aren’t part of the issue.

The bags and the fees

For air travelers, there are serious benefits in getting what you pay for: You don’t have to pay for what you don’t want, which makes flying cheaper if you don’t need to check a bag or get a meal. It also allows airlines to lower prices and race to the bottom.

But at the same time, people paying to check a bag feel that burn more when it’s a line item — and even more so when it’s incurred at the airport.

“All these things are going on at the same time other ancillary fees that have created additional stresses,” said Nelson. “Everyone wants the bag on board because of fees.”

Not only do fees make people angry, as they view themselves as being nickeled and dimed by the airline, it also creates a stampede as people line up early and race onto the plane to claim the carry-on space. With more seats on current planes, this means more gate-checking — another thing that annoys fliers and contributes to the tense environment.

“Often carry-on bag space is a leading escalator of issues,” said Nelson, who noted that the conflict can be between passengers themselves or a complaint to staff. With fewer flight attendants or flexibility to deal with issues space issues, de-escalation, one of the most important jobs of a flight attendant, becomes more difficult.

Inequality

The space issue is much more pronounced than it used to be as seats and legroom have shrunk. It’s gotten to the point where Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) worked to pass bipartisan legislation this year, which will require the FAA to make sure that planes can be evacuated in a timely manner — something which may not be possible given the current seat constraints.

But at the same time, travelers at the front end of the plane have been treated to increasingly luxe accommodations. Tajer said that the difference has gotten to the point that it’s as if there are different airlines on the same plane. And this is actually the case for some airlines. Level, a brand from International Airlines Group (IAG.L), flies on American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, and Vueling. To passengers, especially at the bottom of the food chain, it has never been clearer where they stand.

Luxury in the front, squeezed in the back.

“There's always been a bifurcation of travel,” said Tajer. "But when you take an inch out of space between seats you take a mile out of someone's experience.”

Nelson said that there has been a marked increase in conflict on airplanes since the 2016 election as political tensions inflame what is already a powder keg.

“People generally are upset in this country about the amount of inequality, and when they come on the plane and have to walk through first class, it’s a trigger,” she said. “They see ‘this is where the rich people sit’ and ‘this is where me the poor schlub sits.’ Every time we take off we’re like a mini microcosm of society.”

Studies have shown that boarding mid-plane so coach passengers don’t see first class decreases disruptive incidents, but every plane simply can’t be boarded in the middle.

United has improved with a solution

Both pilots and flight attendants are quick to point out that they do not blame passengers for snapping on occasion, but rather a system too rigid to treat people a bit better. Nelson, a flight attendant with United, did give the airline special props for improving — though at quite the public relations cost after the 2017 incident when a passenger was dragged off the plane.

In the wake of the fallout, United promised it would empower its flight attendants to make customer service decisions away from a more draconian no-compromise structure.

“United recognized that with very strict rules, it doesn’t really leave room for airlines to be responsive to the human beings,” said Nelson.

United now has a four-point system for its crew to follow: “Safety, caring, dependable, and efficient.” Nelson said by increasingly prioritizing caring, there is more leeway to hold the plane a moment longer to get someone to a funeral.

However, she said, this is still unique in the industry.

Making matters worse, the middle ground between super-strict policy and friendly accommodation may be drifting further out of reach given the industry’s headwinds. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), profit expectations for airlines were downgraded to $28 billion from $35.5 billion for 2019, as rising fuel prices and weakening global trade affect the industry.

But according to Tajer, at least some of the problems could be fixed with for free, or at least in a way that might pay for themselves: better scheduling, bigger picture thinking, and listening to more people who spend time on the plane.

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Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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