The Sunday Magazine

Once a luxury, now a nightmare -- why airline passenger comfort always comes last

Posted: April 15, 2017
Last Updated: April 15, 2017

A United Airlines plane at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. (File Photo/David J. Phillip/The Associated Press)

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In his essay, Michael recalls the era of good service, when air travel was a special event; now it's an ordeal. Witness what happened on United Airlines this week.  4:29

Certain persons of a particular vintage can remember when flying was a thing of joy, magic and mystery combined with the delicious tickle of anticipation of an hour or two of being cosseted and catered to by people who understood the idea of service.

People dressed up to get on the airplane. Your parents made sure you wore a clean shirt and pants. Real food served on real plates with real cutlery, was presented with a smile. Sometimes free cigarettes were offered.

And you sat in a chair thousands of feet above the clouds and tried to catch a glimpse of your world below.

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An ad for Delta Airlines from 1959

No more.

Flying is now an ordeal, a nightmare whose constituent elements are premeditated and orchestrated to frustrate, infuriate, embarrass and humiliate.

Delays are common. Lineups are strangulating. You are served snacks you wouldn't feed your cat.

Even if you have bought and paid for a ticket, that is no guarantee that you will make the flight. Then of course, there's the possibility of being kicked off the plane.

I'm not suggesting that every time you fly United, the cabin crew will contrive to have someone beat the crap out of you. It could happen, as we know, but they don't have to.

April 9, 2017. This image was made from a video. It shows a passenger being removed from a United Airlines flight in Chicago. (Audra D. Bridges via AP)

You can be kicked off the flight for any number of reasons.

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In 2013, a family was kicked off a United flight because they complained about the violence in an in-flight movie. In the same year, an Ottawa woman who is deaf and blind was removed from an Air Canada flight because she didn't have medical clearance; notwithstanding the fact that she had flown all over the world without a hindering bureaucracy.

Last year, a University of California student was yanked from a Southwest Airline flight for speaking Arabic. In May 2016, a University of Pennsylvania economics professor was removed from an American Airlines flight and questioned by authorities about some math equations on a pad of paper.

Then there is the bumping.

The airlines argue that they have to overbook flights to cover the costs of no-shows. Which means that the purchase of a ticket is no guarantee you will fly.

I can't think of any other enterprise—say a rock venue—where organizers sell multiple tickets for a single seat.

Why governments allow this is beyond the grasp of reason.

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The cause of our anger is that we still believe airlines offer service for payment. That's where we're wrong. Service is an incidental byproduct of the real mission of the airlines or indeed any corporation—which is to increase shareholder value.

Which is why Canadian banks routinely pressure their tellers into selling services and products their clients don't want or need. Which is why cost-cutting and service attrition have become obsessive.

There is an ironic coincidence about that notorious United-inspired assault of Dr. David Dao. In the same week, a new book called The Golden Passport attracted widespread attention. Written by Duff McDonald, it examines the most prestigious business institution in the world, the Harvard Business School. Its importance to Wall Street and the Fortune 500 cannot be overestimated. An HBS degree is invaluable—like Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket.

What is intriguing is the kind of student it educates. Quoting an Aspen Institute study, McDonald points out, "When students enter the business school, they believe that the purpose of the corporation is to produce goods and services for the benefit of society. When they graduate, they believe it is to maximize shareholder value."

So forget about service being the cardinal principle of corporate culture. The airlines can do pretty much what they want to. And we have to go along or take the bus.

So the next time you fly and don't want to get bumped or beaten up, get to the departure lounge early.

And do what you're told.