Air Travel: Five Steps To Becoming a More Informed Complainer

“You made me late”, “you made me miss my connection”, “your service is terrible”, you’re not as good as you used to be”, you, you, you!Welcome to my world. I am an airline pilot for one of the last international US carriers still standing. You can recognize me as the one with four stripes on my shoulders and a target on my back. After the first thousand wise cracks, uninformed complaints, and inane accusations hurled in my direction I don’t feign compassion very well any more.

It doesn’t matter the setting; social or professional, it seems it is always open season. It has become vogue to lay all air travel complaints at the airlines’ feet. And why not, Leno, 60 Minutes and the USA Today have made it a sport.  


Remember the good old days?
Remember the good old days?

The irony is that most of the complaints made by our customers don’t have their roots in the airline itself. There are a myriad of moving parts that have to align correctly to get you through security to your departure gate, onto the airplane, out to the runway, and off to your final destination. The individual airline may be the major player in this ballet but there are countless agencies enroute that can derail this train. How’s that for a mixed metaphor.


 I recently listened to a Financial Times interview with Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines on the subject of ‘Why Is Airline Travel So Awful”? It was fascinating in that Mr. Anderson answered directly with an insider’s perspective. There were no apologies, promises to do better, or emotion. Quite basically, his response was, ‘it is what it is and these are the reasons why. How refreshing!


After the first thousand wise cracks, uninformed complaints, and inane accusations hurled in my direction I don’t feign compassion very well any more. Every traveler should be required to watch this interview before heading off to the airport lest they forfeit the ability to grouse if things don’t go as planned. But in an effort to offer a public service here are 5 Steps To Becoming A More Informed Complainer.


1.) Your expectations are flawed. Airlines provide safe, rapid, long distance transportation from point A to point B. It is not a restaurant with wings, a sports bar with a hundred TV’s, or a 4 star resort with Ritz Carlton trained attendants. While some airlines try to provide some or all the above, a successful mission is getting to point B without making the eleven o’clock news. Period. Your expectations are much lower when you board Amtrak or Greyhound than when you board an airline flight; even though dollars per mile the cost is quite often much less on an airplane. What you should expect is courtesy however, as you would from anyone with whom you do business. Just remember though, those employees are people and they also have their threshold for aggressive passengers. All too often incredible displays of bad behavior are acted out by seemingly mature, respectable adults targeting anyone in an airline uniform that strays into their path.


2.) You didn’t pay too much for your ticket. Those guys up front aren’t amateurs or actors. They aren’t teaching assistants, physician assistants, or paralegals. They’re the real deal and they’ve got the equivalent of at least a masters or a PhD in aviation. The airplane you’re strapped to isn’t a piper cub. It’s a very technical, complex piece of magic that has a price tag of anywhere from 40-120 million dollars. Do you remember that nice terminal where you checked your bags? Well, the city owns it and they’re charging your airline a fortune in rent each month in addition to the large fee they add for the airplane to use their runway. The fuel, well you know the story there, but here’s some perspective. The seven largest airlines will pay over $15 billion more for jet fuel in ’08 than they did in ’07. That’s right, a 15 with nine zeroes. Each one penny increase in fuel prices has a $200 million impact on the airline industry. Big numbers when you consider that fuel went from $1.71 to $3.92 per gallon. Lest you still have the desire to complain pricing; over the last 7 years the average ticket price has only go up $18 (from $153 to $181). Even if you procrastinated and walked up to the counter at the last minute and paid full price; it’s still a bargain especially if you absolutely have to get there quickly.


3.) You don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. Don’t speculate on why you’ve been delayed, it’s wasted energy and you’ll probably be wrong. You just don’t have all the information. After 30 years of sitting in cockpits, even I often don’t seem to have all the information because there are just so many factors that directly or indirectly influence your particular flight. Your Blackberry and that 800 number are nice but they don’t have the real scoop either. The Air Traffic Control radar outage in the Midwest, a thunderstorm a thousand miles away, sheer volume, enroute aircraft spacing, security issues, and connecting bag concerns; the list goes on. On average the U.S. air travel system gets you to your destination on time about 75% of the time. If you’re in the remaining 25%, over half of the time those delays are caused by circumstances well outside the airline itself. Most often it’s rooted in our antiquated air traffic control system, not in the airline you’re traveling on. Take a deep breath and remember next time you get the urge to blame the airline, just because you fly 100,00 miles a year doesn’t make you an aviation expert anymore than watching Grey’s Anatomy every week makes me a surgeon.


4.) The airline doesn’t want you in their terminals or on their airplanes. They love you as customers but want you to get to your destination more than you. Delays cost them money and goodwill at every turn whether they be on the ground or in the air. Think of it this way; gate agents want you on the airplane so you won’t crowd around their counter, flight attendants want to get you off the airplane at your destination because they still have a few more legs to fly after you leave, and pilots want to fly because that’s what we do and frankly, we’re an incredibly impatient bunch. Trust me on this one; airline personnel are your biggest advocates to getting you on your way. Be nice. Simple courtesy pays dividends when it comes to deciding who should get those wonderful involuntary upgrades to first class because coach is oversold.


5.)  You asked for it. In the 80’s passengers demanded safer airplanes and air crews. The airlines spent billions of dollars on better cockpit resource training, new technology, and fleet upgrades. In the 90’s, consumers asked for more amenities and better service to more airports. Oh, did I fail to mention you wanted it all cheap, really cheap! The industry responded with new terminals, exclusive clubs, frequent flyer perks, and a multitude of low cost carriers answered the call with smaller, less comfortable aircraft to service those smaller airports. Following 9/11, security took first priority as Congress mandated a total industry overhaul. Today you are now safer and more secure, if not more comfortable every time you get on an airplane. In 2008, you want internet and TV access at every seat so you can be entertained while you wait out a delay probably caused by a system that hasn’t responded nearly as well; our national Air Traffic Control system. It’s a shame they don’t publish the 800 number for their complaint line.


So there you have it; a quick perspective check for those of you that look for any opening to grouse at the U.S. airline sector. Sometimes it’s their fault and sometimes not. Next time you see an airline employee, think twice about the urge to vent. Or at least try to muster your new perspective of a much larger and more complicated picture than you had five minutes ago.   






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