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updated 4/26/2011 9:27:01 AM ET 2011-04-26T13:27:01

After a recent incident-free trip that took me through three airports, somehow I still felt a pang of unease and even hostility toward my airline keepers, and I wondered why it was the case. It's not like travelers don't have enough reasons to hate the airlines — let us count the ways:

  • Fees upon fees upon fees
  • Completely unreliable fares
  • Fuel surcharges on fuel they paid for months ago
  • Fare guarantees that are wiped out by change fees
  • Weird overhead bin policies and behaviors
  • The small but obvious minority of airline employees "having a bad day" and venting on customers
  • Pick your own

But these don't quite explain the strength of negative feeling many travelers have toward the airlines. Then it occurred to me — they're like a bad parent. They have all the power, wield it capriciously and then cry when things get tough. It has been my feeling that this kind of behavior is the real reason folks have such deep antipathy toward the airlines — it's not due to prices, fees or poor treatment on your travel day, but rather because the airlines simply "don't play fair," a notion and test of character to which there is an elemental human attachment.

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In their fickleness, inclination to change the rules to suit themselves, inconsistency with punishments, overplay of their power advantage and infantilization of their customers, the airlines are very much like a bad authority figure. I thought of many ways to title this article — Bad Boss, Bad Baby-sitter, Bad Merchant, Bad Nanny State, Bad Teacher, Bad Friend, Bad Judge, Bad Parent, Bad Name-Not-Fit-to-Print — so let's do them all! Without further hesitation...

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The bad boss
From "Dilbert" to "The Office," bosses are often depicted as responding to an overworked employee by giving him or her more work. A correlative airline behavior might be a recent experience New Jersey-based educator Ann Laurence had with US Airways. Laurence had booked a flight to Boston with the airline, but found out the day before her flight that a family member on the West Coast had taken very ill. She called US Airways in hopes of switching the Boston flight to a different flight out west on the same day.

It may have been the same day, the same airline, the same traveler and a compelling reason, but US Airways would not make the change. They forced Laurence to purchase a new full-fare flight to the West Coast, and gave her a "credit" on her original flight — subject, of course, to a $150 change fee if and when she actually used it (a fee that was almost half the cost of the original flight).

"Sure, we can take this project off your desk for now. Here, do this other one — then you can complete the original one."

The bad baby-sitter
My recent experience with bad baby-sitters usually comes down to a sitter who says she wants the job, but, as you discover later, doesn't actually want to deal with, you know, kids.

Years ago the airlines lowered prices, attracting a much larger and less affluent customer base, then cried that they couldn't afford to provide service at those prices and didn't really like the class of people they attracted. Now they routinely blame their own tremendously successful low prices for all the things they now inflict on passengers.

The airlines, which became rich, large and intertwined in the lives of regular Americans by offering very affordable (and sometimes absurdly low) airfares, now regularly complain that travelers want very affordable (and sometimes absurdly low) airfares. It was not travelers who set fares so low that regular folks would buy them — now they're mad that we bought them?

The bad merchant
Everyone has visited a store where prices are not displayed prominently, if at all, and every trip you make to the register feels like an improvisation based on how much of a sucker you look like that day. Or perhaps it is more programmatic than that; for example, the Valero gasoline chain recently got into some legal hot water for failing to display its credit card prices, which were higher than the prominently posted cash prices. A lot of customers felt they had been hoodwinked into paying the higher price.

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The airlines take this a step further, charging you extra almost no matter how you pay for your flights. For example, Allegiant charges a fee to book by phone, and a fee to book online — what else is there? In this case, isn't the fee really just part of the fare? That these folks are allowed to advertise low base fares without the fees is a travesty.

The bad-nanny state
The term "nanny state" has taken on a very loaded political meaning, but maybe that makes it all the more appropriate here. The phrase is used to disparage situations where constituents are assumed by policy makers not to be able to think and choose for themselves. Let's forget for now that some of the choices they are said to be making with full knowledge and consent are "drinking poisoned tap water" and "eating known carcinogens" and see how it applies to the airlines. In my case, it was when an airline did not look out for our interests at all.

On a recent bumpy Continental flight, the seatbelt signs finally went dark, and I sprinted my 4-year-old boy to the back of the plane from our seats near the front. When we arrived, the flight attendant was pushing out the food cart, and said, "You'd better hurry up or you're not getting back to your seat." We went as fast as we could, and literally ran back up the aisle to our seats. The cart was already blocking our aisle, however — we missed by one row. The attendant refused to let us back in our seats, forcing us to stand in the galley in the back of the plane until the food service was complete. When the cart finally reached us, the attendant barked, "Move over! Move ALL THE WAY over!!" Having forced a 4-year-old (and four other adults) to stand for 20 minutes on a bumpy flight, she also felt the need to scold everyone.

So much for safety; Mary Poppins she wasn't.

The bad friend
Good friends and bad friends come in many forms, so let's go with a simple one — the "heads I win, tails you lose" friend. Missed a connection or late to the flight due to bad weather? Too bad for you! We can't fly due to bad weather? Too bad for you!

The bad judge
Anyone who has ever gone to traffic court knows that many are essentially collections agencies; the judge and prosecutor let you out of a $50 speeding ticket that would have had points, and then charge you $240 for administrative fees. They know you'll take the deal so your insurance premium doesn't go up, so they'll reach as deep into your pocket as they can.

The trip to the county court payment window feels a lot like the trip to the airline check-in counter these days — and the amount it costs to get past that window looks a lot different than the amount you walked in expecting to pay. (These folks think so too.)

The bad parent
Since I am a relatively new parent (and because it rhymes), let's call it Bad Dad — because most of the rules the airlines seem to make up on the fly are the very same types of things I am trying to avoid as a parent. As with bad friends, there is no end to the ways I could figure out how to be a bad parent if I really tried, so here's one example. When there is something I want, I get it; when there is something my kid wants, he often hears that we can't spend money on that right now. So the next time we go to the same store, it's a fair question as to whether we can spend money on something now, since perhaps we had just gone to the bank to deposit money. Now, to cave every time this happened would be to spoil the child, but the essential unfairness of the forced trip to the store remains. He was understanding when we did not have enough to purchase something for him on a specific trip, but now that we're flush, what's the beef?

So it goes with fuel surcharges. When the price of oil spiked skyward a couple years back, travelers were pretty accepting of fuel surcharges on the whole, and cut the airlines slack without too much complaining. But when fuel prices dropped precipitously again, it wasn't unreasonable to ask, well, when are these surcharges going away? But the airlines, like a Bad Dad, found other ways to hold us off, adding on new reasons for new fees, saying they could not afford all these things they had given us for years, while making trip after trip to the bank.

The truly heartless bad #@$%#$%
It has gone relatively unmentioned in the press over the past few years that airlines have largely eliminated or cut back savings on bereavement fares, which were discounted last-minute fares extended to folks who lost family members. We all know what a same-day flight can cost, but if you have to book an emergency flight for this reason, you will find that your family's misfortune is the airline's small fortune. This really seems like heartless stuff to me.

(While on the subject, it turns out that some funeral homes have relationships with what they call "bereavement travel services" who answer the phone as such and speak in very hushed, sympathetic tones, but when you complete a transaction, you figure out they're merely branches of Carson Wagonlit selling you the same fares you could get on Expedia. Yeesh.)

To go back to the title of this article, the word "hate" is not too strong to describe feelings toward those who would profit in our hour of need. The airlines have eliminated every last iota of human empathy and fairness from their transactions — bereavement, half-price fares for infants, reliable family boarding procedures, sensible change fees, even dealing with the weather. They have learned to rig every game, and increasingly every play in every game, to the house's benefit. When they make a mistake, they get themselves out of culpability in contracts we barely know we accepted.

An important note: Hating the airlines doesn't mean hating everyone who works for them — we're really directing your loathing at the corporate entities, not the everyday folks who work the front lines and often have to carry out some very unpopular policies. Oftentimes those corporations provide a good product, but when things get tough, they don't play fair ... and that is enough for many folks to — let's be the good parent and say "really dislike" — the airlines.

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