Even during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, I traveled on commercial airlines extensively. With family stretched from Alaska to Mexico and Florida, and looking after aging parents and my own appointments, I’m on planes at least once a month.
The commercial flight experience has become pretty rough this year.
There were times last year when I could have used the C concourse of SeaTac International Airport for a bowling alley, it was so empty. Same in Atlanta. At this time last year, I flew on a Boeing 737-800 that had just 10 passengers.
In April of 2020, masks were not mandatory, but a few passengers were wearing them, or pulling up gaiters or scarves over their faces. I was among the early mask-wearers, starting in March of 2020, because there was a lot we all did not know about the Covid-19 virus. I also brought hand sanitizer on board and wiped down my tray and armrests with disinfectant.
By summer, airlines were mandating masks, and when Joe Biden became president, they became law through his executive order. That’s when things started to deteriorate.
Months later, flight attendants are militant, but not only about enforcing federal law concerning face coverings. They have become generally surly with passengers. Whatever sense of hospitality they may have had has disappeared. For their Gold members, Alaska Airlines flight attendants all but throw chocolate bar awards at them with nary a “thank you,” these days.
Recently on a red-eye, I was fortunate enough to be upgraded to first class on Alaska Airlines out of Seattle. There is no service expected on a red-eye, as everyone wants to sleep. Upon initial descent, the flight attendant shook me harshly on my shoulder and ordered me to raise my seat back. It was nearly a punch. Rough handling was unnecessary since I never lowered it in the first place. Awakened rudely with a jolt, I felt a bit manhandled.
That’s when I realized why some people have reacted so poorly to flight attendants: Some travelers are stressed about flying or about wearing masks for hours on end, without food or water. Some are experiencing terrible hardships in their lives and are heading toward difficult situations, such as death, divorce, or other family tragedy. Not everyone flying is feeling like the Chiquita Banana woman when they fly hither and yon.
Mind you, I’d kept my mask on, as I always do onboard, and had been sleeping since before the wheels left the runway. There was no cause for physically rough treatment.
This is not a solitary experience. On nearly every flight in recent months, I’ve witnessed other passenger being treated like inmates, rather than paying customers. Although I have not seen unruly passengers, I read about them or hear of them in the media, and the instances of disputes between flight attendants and passengers are apparently on the rise.
These days, the onboard announcements make it very clear that there is federal law involved and the attendants are there primarily to enforce the law, that masks must be replaced between bites and sips, or else. The announcements are more like warnings, and they set passengers on edge.
Travelers with two-year-olds who are tired, cranky, refusing their masks are being removed from flights and are left stranded in airports by airlines. Others who are simply trying to get some air into their lungs are banned from airlines for leaving their mask off at the wrong time. Over 4,000 passengers have now been banned from commercial airlines for not complying with the mask mandate.
Under the new Biden law, it has become a war on passengers. People feel they are walking on eggshells from the moment they step into the plane.
Rather than addressing the reason passengers are disgruntled over airlines’ poor treatment of them, airlines are now going to the federal government for even more powers of enforcement.
Evidently it’s not enough to have the Transportation Security Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration involved with mask enforcement and removal of disruptive passengers. It’s not enough that there are approximately 3,000 U.S. Marshals flying around the country incognito on various routes to keep us safe from terrorists.
Now, the airlines have asked the U.S. Justice Department to also take action against misbehaving passengers through criminal charges. This will no doubt lead to even more ominous warnings over the jet’s address system: “You may be criminally charged by the Department of Justice for not wearing your mask.”
The airlines already have thin credibility when it comes to passenger safety and comfort. Until recently, the airlines were allowing dogs, cats, and other pets of every size and habit to fly with their handlers as “comfort animals.” This, despite the fact that many passengers are allergic or phobic about certain animals.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information says allergies to dogs and cats affect 10%–20% of the population, and yet airlines were exposing an average of 15% of their passengers to known health risks on every single flight. To object to sitting next to a pet meant being relocated to an aft seat or being asked to take another flight. The comfort of pets were more important than the health of passengers.
Today, airline employees behave as though they are in the prison business, treating every customer like a criminal. And the passengers have clearly started to fray at the edges.
I’ve held off writing about this topic for some time, hoping things would improve. As a pro-business writer, it’s not my way to take private businesses to task unless something is truly egregious.
But the standoff between airline employees and passengers is increasing the sense that both sides now view each other as the enemy, and this cannot end well.
Airlines need to own their lapse in training and address the behavior of their workforce as it interacts with customers. They should do it now, because it will be a long summer for passengers and crew if they don’t.