For air­line pas­sen­gers, frus­tra­tion gains torque

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­ The Nav­i­ga­tor CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

It didn’t take the lat­est string of vi­ral videos to con­vince Cyn­thia O’Leary. There was no need to see the near-riot at Fort Laud­erdale Hol­ly­wood In­ter­na­tional Air­port or the pas­sen­gers brawl­ing on a flight at Bur­bank Bob Hope Air­port.

She’s done fly­ing, at least for now.

“We’re driv­ing,” says O’Leary, a soft­ware de­vel­oper from Tampa.

Jeff Kolker is fin­ished with air travel, too. “I’m not fly­ing this year,” says Kolker, an ac­coun­tant from Pryor, Okla. He’s plan­ning trips to Mon­treal and Hal­i­fax, Nova Sco­tia, this sum­mer. That’s more than 30 hours of driv­ing.

In case you missed those clips, here’s a re­cap: Ear­lier this month, a pas­sen­ger aboard a South­west Air­lines flight from Dal­las, bound for Oak­land, Calif., came to blows with an­other trav­eler dur­ing a stopover in Bur­bank and was later ar­rested. A few days later, a brawl erupted be­tween pas­sen­gers and sher­iff’s deputies af­ter Spirit Air­lines can­celed nine flights in the wake of a la­bor dis­pute. And just last week, a video emerged of a fam­ily be­ing kicked off a JetBlue flight in a dis­pute over a birth­day cake.

The in­ci­dents fol­low the forcible re­moval of David Dao from a United Air­lines flight from Chicago to Louisville, last month, also cap­tured on video. That led to con­gres­sional hear­ings and prom­ises by air­line ex­ec­u­tives to “do bet­ter.” It also made trav­el­ers like O’Leary swear off air travel — es­pe­cially on United Air­lines, which she says is on her per­sonal black­list.

But these lat­est ker­fuf­fles are rais­ing new ques­tions: Will any­thing change? What, if any­thing, can pas­sen­gers do — be­sides drive — as they face one of the most un­cer­tain sum­mers for air travel in more than a decade?

“The frus­tra­tion of pas­sen­gers is reach­ing a break­ing point,” says Theresa Skarsten, a small­busi­ness owner from Bend, Ore., and a fre­quent flier. “The air­lines only care about prof­its, not cus­tomer ser­vice. They’re cram­ming us into smaller and smaller seat­ing, flights are late and the ex­cuse is usu­ally main­te­nance.”

Ex­perts say the frus­tra­tion is real, but change isn’t easy.

“While I think all of us who travel would love to be­lieve this is a tip­ping point in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween pas­sen­gers and the air­lines it sim­ply is not true,” says Catharine Cur­ran, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Charl­ton Col­lege of Busi­ness in North Dart­mouth, Mass. “Su­per­fi­cial changes will be made.”

Some con­sumer ad­vo­cates are hope­ful that they can use the mo­men­tum gen­er­ated by the out­rage to put the force of law be­hind the vol­un­tary mea­sures now be­ing adopted by air­lines. Fly­ers Rights, a pas­sen­ger ad­vo­cacy group, last week sought to per­suade law­mak­ers to en­act tough laws that would ef­fec­tively sus­pend over­selling of air­line seats, stop air­lines from deny­ing board­ing to tick­eted pas­sen­gers and loosen fed­eral laws that make dis­obey­ing the flight crew a felony, among other steps.

“It is ob­vi­ous that air­line pas­sen­ger mis­treat­ment is not iso­lated and will not be solved by re­ly­ing on air­line prom­ises or vol­un­tary poli­cies,” says Fly­ers Rights pres­i­dent Paul Hud­son.

Prac­ti­cally speak­ing, any pro­posed rules are likely to be saved for the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion Reau­tho­riza­tion Act, which is up for re­newal later this year. And if pub­lic out­rage cools be­tween then and now, those mea­sures could be wa­tered down or dropped en­tirely. Other fed­eral agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment, Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity and Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, can also act to help pas­sen­gers, Hud­son says. But for now, they’ve cho­sen not to.

The air­line in­dus­try says new reg­u­la­tions are not needed. Air travel is safer than ever and in­ci­dents like this month’s are rare, ac­cord­ing to Vaughn Jen­nings, a spokesman for Air­lines for Amer­ica, an air­line trade group. “Our com­mit­ment to cus­tomers is treat ev­ery­one who flies with dig­nity and re­spect,” he says.

So what should air trav­el­ers do in the mean­time? It’s all about self-em­pow­er­ment, ex­perts say. “Pas­sen­gers should do their re­search,” says Kevin Mitchell, who rep­re­sents cor­po­rate travel in­ter­ests in Wash­ing­ton as the chair­man of the Busi­ness Travel Coali­tion. He sug­gests that you carry a copy of your rights with you when you’re in tran­sit.

In fact, at least one or­ga­ni­za­tion, Trav­el­ers United, is work­ing with air­lines to more promi­nently post ba­sic con­sumer laws in air­ports. Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, air­lines have so far re­sisted dis­clos­ing these es­sen­tial rules in this way, be­yond what they are re­quired to do by law.

Of course, pas­sen­gers who are aware of their rights are far less likely to be pushed around dur­ing a de­lay, can­cel­la­tion or other un­fore­seen event, which is prob­a­bly why the in­dus­try is re­sist­ing the idea of im­prov­ing their dis­clo­sure.

If noth­ing else, these in­ci­dents have shown how un­pre­dictable air travel can some­times be. And whether you’re a fan of reg­u­la­tion or think the in­dus­try al­ready has too many rules, there’s prob­a­bly one thing ev­ery­one can agree on: You never know what’s go­ing to hap­pen.

“Al­ways buy travel in­surance,” says Ben Bal­danza, the for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of Spirit Air­lines. “It’s cheap, easy to use, and a sin­gle in­ci­dent where it is needed ef­fec­tively pays for the costs on dozens of flights.”

When the un­cer­tainty of air travel is too much, you can al­ways do what O’Leary and Kolker have done — take a break from fly­ing.

If that’s not prac­ti­cal, then at least don’t for­get to pack your pa­tience and po­lite­ness this sum­mer, as well as a cell­phone with a charged bat­tery. Af­ter all, you never know when you’ll be sit­ting next to the next vi­ral video drama.

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