Two babies shriek in harmony as passengers on either side of me annex the last of my elbow room. The smell of body odor coalesces with that of stale, recycled air, amid shouts in Mandarin, Tagalog, Portuguese, Arabic, and English spoken in a grating Aussie accent,¹ because “using your inside voice” is not a concept that has diffused cross-culturally. Bored Texan flight attendants in bright pink lipstick roll their eyes. I’m exhausted, but my body has shifted into flight-or-fight mode, with nowhere to go and constrained by social mores requiring I not punch anyone. So, I respond with the last refuge of the helpless: I cry.
As I prepare to board my next trans-continental flight, these images haunt me. They haunt me even though I know I won’t be flying with a US carrier. Even though I know I should be safe. Even though I know there’s no reason to be curled up on the ground in fetal position, rocking back and forth, muttering, “The captain has turned on the ‘fasten seatbelt sign,'” over and over under my breath.
In the scheme of things, my concerns might be characterized as what some people would call “good problems to have.” As I live longer in a region of the world where disparities in wealth are more pronounced, my problems as a global citizen hailing from the first-world become, well, first-worldier. I’m not trying to apologize for or otherwise excuse it; I just want to offer some context for the relative ridiculousness of my day-to-day trials and tribulations, and some assurance that I am, indeed, cognizant of my brattiness.
But perhaps it is this crippling self-consciousness that the US airline industry seeks to exploit. US Carriers are, among other things, the stern parent not indulging the temper tantrum that you are unleashing on the staff at Disneyworld because you lost your reservation at Cinderella’s castle to eat lunch with the princess herself. “You should be thankful,” they would snap, “Some children don’t even get to go to Disneyworld.”
The weakness in this analogy, of course, is that I didn’t pay my way through Disneyworld when I was six years old. I do, however, frequently pay a non-trivial amount of money to jet around the globe in a metal death tube, each time wildly more traumatic than the last. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, the infant who stopped wailing for two blissful minutes,² like the eye of a hurricane passing over, starts up again, howling like a banshee, and the flight attendant cuts you off from the Chardonnay that tasted slightly like vomit, anyway.
Every flight I take with a US carrier, without exception, is the worst experience of my life. Once, after an inexplicable six-hour delay on a United flight from Newark to Hong Kong, because it’s not like I had anywhere to be or anything, airline staff refused to feed me for 16 hours. Refused! Allow me to elaborate: on the list of alternative meal options while booking a United ticket are choices for kosher, gluten-free, vegetarian, low-calorie, and “bland” meals, whatever that means. Not among the list of choices is “peanut-” or “nut-free.” Thus, I did not make a special meal request while booking my ticket. Instead, I assumed that the prudent course of action would be to make a request of the front desk at the airport. They instructed me to inform the flight attendants once on board.
When I asked the flight attendants whether the in-flight meal contained peanuts, and informed them of my life-threatening allergy, they proceeded to feed everyone else on the flight and then return to me an hour later with the following information: they did not know the contents of their food, and could not be liable should I go into anaphylactic shock over the north pole. Thus, they would not be feeding me.
“You should have notified us ahead of time,” the flight attendant condescended.
When I protested this Camusian edict, she responded, “Then you should have brought your own food.” Because it’s not like I paid for an inclusive ticket. Because it’s not like any food that I would have brought I already consumed during the six-hour delay in New Freaking Jersey, aka, the barnacle on the armpit of America.³
The kicker here was that when I called to register a complaint, they directed me to file one online. But when I tried to file a complaint online, the system mysteriously collapsed. (United, if you’re reading this, which you won’t be because you do not and will never care about your customers, I’ll accept my recompense in diamonds and the blood of your former CEO, Jeffery Smisek.)
United doesn’t have to cater to me, or give one iota of a crap about the service they provide, because most of their customers don’t have the flexibility of consumer choice. Most people can’t decide to eschew United for the rest of their lives and only fly KLM or Emirates, because United has cornered the market for reasonable prices on certain routes. (Also, if you’re a card-carrying Member of the Tribe, you simply can’t fly Kuwait.) Some of us don’t get to fly on our company’s dime. When choices are available, it’s tantamount to Sophie’s: have a miserable, harrowing experience on United, or descend into the dilapidated mental asylums that are American or Delta and play a part in a real-life reenactment of Dante’s Inferno.
And this is because the US aviation industry hates capitalism. Yeah, I said it. American carriers hate America.
Reasons US Carriers are Satan’s Robot Falcons #1: The Airline Cartel
The pesky thing about capitalism is that if you are selling a defunct product or bad service, people won’t buy it, and then you won’t profit. If the people really want to buy that particular type of good or service, they will go to another vendor whose products don’t make them want to saw their faces off with cheese graters. And so on.
But suppose you have two companies trying to peddle almost equally bad services, in a race to the bottom. Instead of bleeding money to their competitors, or being forced to use ingenuity to improve their services, they could simply agree to combine forces in abject atrociousness.
Enter the Delta-Northwest merger in 2008, the United-Continental merger in 2010, and the US Airways-American merger of 2012. Now, just four airlines control 80% of the market. Not surprisingly, in July 2015, 25% of United flights did not land on time. This is bad-news-bears for customers flying out of Newark (like I did), where United owns 70% of the runway. Their answer to record-low customer dissatisfaction? If you don’t like it, you can swim across the Atlantic.
Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal noted that the main concerns about the mergers–empty seats and price hikes–do not appear to be coming to fruition. Still, with fuel costs down, airlines are recording profits that they are presumably piling up in a pit in the Mojave Desert and setting on fire, because they definitely are not reinvesting in their product or labor.
Which brings us to labor relations…
Reasons US Carriers are Satan’s Robot Falcons #2: Employer-Employee Relations
After the economic slump following September 11, 2001, in addition to nixing legroom and free pretzels, most US airlines slashed workers’ salaries and defaulted on their corporate pension plans. They outsourced baggage handling and gate agent jobs. United even made its employees wear cheaper uniforms. It’s easy to see how flight attendants and gate agents could become short-tempered.
Meanwhile, the competing unions of the merged airlines refused to consolidate standards of service, and some, to this day, do not have a set of standardized rules. And while, on one hand, the airline unions in the US empower pilots and other employees with collective bargaining leverage, you have to wonder whether they aren’t protecting unmotivated staff not just from the airlines but also from the passengers they’re supposed to be serving.
It is also probably worth considering that a major “pull” factor for international airlines is the prospect of traveling the world–an incentive that doesn’t seem to entice American workers.
In the very least, when I am consuming a product or a service, I want to have a neutral relationship with the vendor. It would be nice to have a congenial relationship. I don’t live my life trying to find new ways to be a jerk to people. Even though I know I am paying you for a service, and that this is a business transaction, I try to comport myself in a way so as to make everyone as comfortable as possible. I use my manners. I try to be understanding. “Excuse me, but when you get a chance, could you please…” I don’t make unreasonable demands.
And yet, almost every time I fly, I can count on a hostile relationship with the flight attendant. You would think I had stolen their boyfriends. All of them. And I get that your job is stressful, but when my job is stressful, I’m not allowed to unleash a torrent of abuse on my clients. Why can’t you handle stress like the rest of us, and just go lock yourself in the disgusting warzone of an airplane bathroom and cry?
Reasons US Carriers are Satan’s Robot Falcons #3: Other Governments Hate Capitalism
And finally, even with the Department of Justice officiating the unholy matrimony of the biggest carriers, US airlines can’t compete with other countries’ airlines who can confer their excellent service on Abu Dhabi’s dime.
I’m not suggesting that the US government should follow suit and subsidize the airline industry, though, of course, the argument can be made that the government is already propping up the airlines by neglecting to trust-bust them. But maybe this could be the impetus to try, even just a little, to make their service remotely less horrendous.
Until then, I’ll just have to brace myself for landing.
- Aussies are the “Americans of Southeast Asia.” (♥♥♥ Said with all the love in the world ♥♥♥)
- I have heard the common refrain and read all the blog posts. “If you are annoyed by the baby, imagine how horrible it must be for the parents! Stop being so selfish and consider others, you insensitive, single, childless woman incapable of empathy!” I am not swayed. I had no agency in the matter of being in close proximity to your offspring; you did. You did it on purpose. Now put it in the overhead bin.
- Sorry not sorry.