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Air travelers are fed up and beaten down

Sure, fewer air travelers lodged complaints in 2008, but don't go thinking everything is rosy at 35,000 feet. Frequent fliers are gritting their teeth, slapping on a grin and feeling lucky when they leave the airport with all of their luggage.
Image: frustrated traveler
Reports last week showed fewer air passenger complaints in 2008, but frequent fliers will tell you it's not because traveling has become an incredible experience. Many road warriors say they grit their teeth, slap on a grin and feel lucky if they leave the airport with all of their luggage.Digital Vision / Getty Images stock
/ Source: contributor

We pray to escape the middle row. We pay extra for a cranny of bonus leg room. And we pine for an upgrade to the highest of all Promised Lands — first class.

But nearly eight years into this shoe-shedding, Ziploc-toting, knee-hugging, $6 snack box-munching culture we call air travel, the seat that U.S. passengers may need most is a shrink’s couch.

What in the name of Chuck Lindbergh have we become? Chronic flyers, in large part, have devolved into kowtowed teeth-clenchers who are often too scared or too tired to squawk about poor treatment, who dutifully remove their belts, watches, jewelry, keys, coats and laptops while flashing a big old grin, and who are — come touch down — just happy to get there.

Psychologists call it “conditioning.” The emotional makeup of many airline passengers seems to lie somewhere between battle worn and mentally spent, according to dozens of travel experts and mega-mile flyers contacted for this article. One flight attendant compared the psyche of flyers to hostages with Stockholm syndrome — which causes abducted people to become loyal to their kidnappers.

“When it comes to service, it has gotten so bad (across the industry) that when people receive the tiniest morsel of courtesy, they feel grateful,” said Gailen David, an American Airlines purser. Through his own company, the Jetiquette Academy, he helps airlines and other clients bolster customer service. “(Travelers) have been conditioned to not ask for much and to just go with the flow.”

That, at least, may explain the surprising headline from the latest scrutiny of airline quality: Complaints dipped in 2008. According to the study — compiled by private researchers using government stats, and released last week — the number of traveler grievances tapered from 1.42 per 100,000 passengers in 2007 to 1.15. At the same time, more flights arrived on time in 2008 and fewer bags were lost as compared to the previous year.

(Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, the two lowest-ranked legacy carriers in the 2008 quality survey, have not responded to's inquiries.)

Now, let’s prepare for cross check — and some context. The highest year ever for flyer complaints? That was 2007. In 2008, the airlines also transported fewer folks and bag fees caused many customers to carry on. So the true psychology at 35,000 feet seems far more intriguing than the cold numbers.

The truth comes out
Given a chance to engage in some cyber analysis and a bit of old-fashioned venting, these perpetual passengers spoke of a darker reality:

  • “When no one is listening after a while, why bother to complain?” asked Barry Maher, a professional speaker from Helendale, Calif., who teaches, among other topics, stress management. He has never filed a formal gripe with an airline. “(Sure,) complaints are down, so are complaints about the stock market. The bar is very, very, very low.”
  • “We’ve been beaten into submission,” said Janet Hopkins, who has performed as a soprano with the New York Metropolitan Opera. As a frequent cross-country flyer, she has filed two airline complaints. Within the past three months, a drunken passenger harassed her and a flight attendant refused to intervene, she says. In another episode, an airline employee shut a Jetway door in the face of Hopkins and 15 other passengers as they ran to catch a connection following a late arrival. When she subsequently asked a ticket agent to book another flight, “she just looked at me like I was annoying her, and gave me an 800 number to call.”
  • “Flying today is like getting wet in a rain storm — after a while you just accept you are going to get wet and deal with it,” added Bob Dixon, who walks corporate clients through issues like customer relationship management. He flew 210,000 miles in 2008. “I dread it.”

Since the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, airports have offered a demeaning, demanding gauntlet of curling lines, identity verification, bodily inspection and a now-tired dance in which travelers reassemble their attire while simultaneously walking and showing the world their shampoo. The flights are still another kind of heaven. The result: flyers have grown more compliant, professional shrinks say. As consumers, we’ve lost some swagger; we’ve stowed our customer confidence in the full, upright and locked position.

“We’ve come to expect the airport experience as a rite of passage, i.e. as a process that we must go through in order to achieve the goal: arriving safely and on time,” said Michael Brein, who holds a doctorate in social psychology and pens travel guides as “The Travel Psychologist.” “It has gone from ridiculous to ludicrous.”

Textbook case
It is, as they say, textbook psychology — a classic case of behavioral science.

Humans, by and large, are resilient and adaptable, tending to follow the rules — at first, begrudgingly — until eventually they “habituate to the new order,” explained Dr. Ramani Durvasula, an associate professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and a semi-frequent flyer.

“All in all, flying is a psychologically trying experience: minimal control, physical discomfort, sublimation of basic needs like food, water and restroom use. Expectations drive our experience,” Durvasula said. “Over the last eight years, most of us have re-calibrated our expectations through successive approximations. We all (initially) said we would fight to the death if they charged us for food, blankets, exit row seats or checked bags. Now we meekly fork over our cash for the very same plane food we were insulted by when it was free.”

And what do humans typically do after facing repeated, harsh situations? Many cower. Others sharpen their approach, preparing mentally and physically for the next challenge.

Some travelers train in little ways for their journey. Irene Smalls, author of children’s books, including “Kevin and his Dad,” is currently on a four-city book swing. Before leaving Boston, she “girded up” by taking vitamins and power naps, by buying a sashimi platter to nibble on in flight, and “by doing lots of centering.”

“Centering involves focusing on why I am going, how it connects with my life plan and my purpose in life,” Smalls said. “Some months I am on a plane two to three times a week. When I see hassles at the TSA security, I smile and think of them all running around naked.”

Playing the ‘security card’
On the opposite end of serenity, however, there is a quiet frustration. Passengers like Dave Grossman, president of the hotel-booking engine, contends travelers “worn down by the airlines and by the TSA” are inclined not to voice their displeasure over poor service “lest you be seen as a security risk.”

“As an airline employee for over 20 years, I know the ‘security card’ may be pulled at any time if a customer should seem a bit too passionate about their complaint,” acknowledged AA purser Gailen David. “Most airline employees have developed skills to empathize with and comfort frustrated customers. Other front line employees are at the breaking point and may react to customer complaints with threats to have them arrested upon arrival.

“I’ve seen this happen and have actually pulled the card myself during less enjoyable times in my airline career,” David said.

Amid all the tension, however, some consumers still hold sympathy for the airlines and their financial woes. Franca Gargiulo, founder of Monterey, Calif.-based AvenirMonde, an international marketing and management firm, has created a Facebook page that speaks to a softer psychology.

The Coalition for Civilized Air Travel is dedicated to people who love travel, “abhor the horrible state” of U.S. carriers, but also who believe “beleaguered” airline personnel desperately need a hug.

“The employees of airlines are more beaten down by the industry,” Gargiulo said. “The only requirement (for) joining the group is that you have to promise to be nice and help say something to cheer up an airline employee!”

The sentiment is sweet. But grudges can run deep. As of Monday, the Facebook page had attracted only 13 members.