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Airplane Mode

Elbow-to-elbow seating, oversized comfort pets, midcabin standoffs — and passengers armed with their smartphones. A new era in air travel has some Americans tweeting mad.

When was the last time someone told you they loved flying? Or even said they liked it? Or that they couldn’t wait to get back in the air?

In the spring and summer of America’s flying discontent, it’s likely your anxiety began to mount long before reaching the jetway. You felt nickeled and dimed by charges for everything: extra leg room, a snack, a thin blanket, an advance seat assignment. If you weren’t blindsided by a tumultuous curbside check-in, you might have stumbled over new complexities at a security checkpoint (Coming soon: mandatory screening, in separate security bins, of almost ALL electronic devices!) or arrived at your gate to find there was nowhere to sit.

Eight hours of aircraft movement at LAX International Airport.
Photo illustration by Mike Kelley

There’s now such a jumble of boarding groups on many flights that it’s hard to feel the system isn’t rigged, to someone else’s advantage. And getting on the plane in good time feels crucial. Boarding late means jammed overhead compartments and probably being forced to check your carry-on, to be recovered later at baggage claim. (Unless you’ve paid that new novelty fee on some airlines — $15, and up, for overhead bin space.)

Once inside the plane, you finally breathe deep. But not too deep. Your seat is almost certainly narrower and closer to the seat in front than in years past. And no doubt your airline has packed additional seats into the cabin — as many as 19, for example, on one model of the workhorse Boeing 737. The narrow metal tube is filled with more of your fellow humans, too, because “load” factors recently reached an all-time high. That empty middle seat of yesteryear? It’s as scarce as hot in-flight meals and complimentary pilot’s wings for the kids.

Plane Load Factors by Airline Goodbye Empty Middle Seat

Airlines fly with fewer and fewer empty seats, increasing their profits as passenger comfort falls. Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Each of these changes might amount to a nagging discomfort for flyers whose mere presence on a passenger jet makes them among the world’s most privileged people. But when the minor indignities are piled on top of flying’s mega-stressors — canceled flights, hours-long delays and interminable tarmac holds — the shortcomings can fuse into a particular sort of misery, a new kind of airplane mode.

Nearly half of Americans and a majority of those over the age of 45 feel that air travel has gotten worse over the last decade, according to a poll completed earlier this month by NBC News and SurveyMonkey. “There is a tremendous sense of diminished expectations on behalf of passengers,” says Bill McGee, a one-time airline flight dispatcher and now aviation adviser at Consumer Reports. “The fun went out of it a long time ago. Most of us are just looking for civility and to get through it in the most painless way possible.”

About two of every five respondents over 45 who fly say cramped seats and overcrowding are their main complaints, according to the NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll. The next greatest concerns among all flyers were high ticket prices (cited by 19 percent), extra fees (11 percent), and delays and cancellations (also 11 percent). Charles Leocha, chairman and co-founder of Travelers United, a nonprofit that lobbies on behalf of all travelers, put it bluntly: “It’s like a torture chamber up there.”

Wrong Side of the Class Divide

For many passengers, the stress begins the moment they step inside an airport, where they experience a growing sense of class division. Security lines at many airports seem endless, with ever-changing rules about the size of the scissors and shampoo bottles you can bring aboard. (Scissors up to four inches are now OK for carry-on bags, but the TSA website makes it clear, for those who were wondering, that power saws and sabers are not welcome.) But those who have paid $85 for TSA Pre-Check can often sprint through security without taking off their shoes. And the experience is even faster if you’ve paid $179 for an annual membership in Clear, a service that allows members to shortcut security checkpoints using fingerprint scanning.

Ordinary passengers, however, shuffle along in line, and then just before they pack into coach, they have to edge through first class — where cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and hot towels might be passed around, even before the cabin door closes. Airlines are increasingly catering to their premium customers with fancier seats and beds, and most passengers never even see the comfortable terminal lounges for first-class seat-holders and very frequent flyers.

At Los Angeles International Airport, the wealthy can pay for an even greater buffer from the great unwashed, courtesy of an exclusive new club, The Private Suite. The service — with a $7,000 initiation fee and $2,700-per-trip price tag — allows travelers to ensconce themselves in a retreat on the south end of an airport that, by consensus, is one of America’s most crowded. Members can dine on caviar, take a shower and get a pedicure while waiting for their planes. The Private Suite has its own TSA agents, far from the exasperation of the long lines. And when it’s time to board, a car whisks Private Suite members across the tarmac, directly to their gates. Gavin de Becker, the entrepreneur who founded the Private Suite, hopes to expand to other airports.

Stressed and financially strapped, Americans are sensitive to any additional signs that they are falling behind, said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “People are working two and three jobs to get by, and the disparity of wealth is growing,” Nelson said. “People are upset.”

Even apparent economic advantages, like reduced ticket prices, can prove ephemeral. A government watchdog group said last week that increased fees for checked baggage more than erased what consumers gained from a decline in airline fares.

That reality only adds fuel to perhaps the most contentious showdown in the aviation universe — securing overhead baggage space. It’s not a problem for first-class passengers, of course, but for others the entire boarding process has become a dash for those bins, as passengers jockey for an advantage to keep their rolling bags near them and avoid being the losers who are forced to check a bag and wait an extra 20 minutes at the luggage carousel.

Cindy, a flight attendant for a midsize carrier who declined to give her last name because her company had not authorized her to speak publicly, said she recently had to turn away a couple who brought the kitchen sink, literally, onboard a flight home from Mexico. The wrought-iron showpiece had not been packaged and didn’t fit in the overhead bin. So Cindy sent the couple off the plane, to find a solution for a later flight.

It’s not as if passengers can spread out and relax once their gear is stowed. One model of Boeing 737, outfitted for an average of 145 seats in 2000, is now packed with 164 seats, on average, according to Global Eagle, a firm that supplies in-flight entertainment and connectivity to the transportation industry. A standard Boeing 767 that had 34 inches of “legroom” in the 1980s now has 31 inches. (On budget carriers like Spirit, this seat “pitch” can be as little as 27 inches.) And a seat on the same jet, once measuring 20 inches wide, is now just a smidgen over 17 inches.

Boeing 767 Airline Seat Pitch Change With Narrower Seats and Tighter Rows, You’ve Really Got Your Neighbors’ Back

YEAR

1985

2017

Boeing 767

American

31 inches

Delta

33 inches

United Airlines

34 inches

YEAR

1985

2017

Boeing 767

American

31 in.

Delta

33 in.

United Airlines

34 in.

YEAR

1985

2017

Boeing 767

American

31 inches

Delta

31 inches

United Airlines

31–32 inches

YEAR

1985

2017

Boeing 767

American

31 in.

Delta

31 in.

United Airlines

31-32 in.

Passengers complain of crowding, with narrower seats and shorter rows — as little as 28 inches on discount carriers like Spirit Airlnes — to an average of 32 inches on American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Source: Consumer Reports

More and more passengers are angling to find solace in small comforts. That can mean pulling on a music headset or diving deep into a favorite digital game. But there are more devious strategies. Flight attendants and gate agents say they are seeing a proliferation of wheelchair requests, because a wheelchair gives passengers early access to the plane and to coveted overhead space.

The surfeit of wheelchair customers is particularly pronounced on flights from New York to Florida, says Jason Rabinowitz, an aviation blogger. And when the planes arrive, many of those passengers walk into the terminal without assistance. “They call them ‘Miracle Flights,’” Rabinowitz said. “They get to south Florida and, suddenly, everyone is cured.”

And a growing number of passengers seek comfort (along with reduced costs) by flying with their pets. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines must make reasonable accommodations for people whose doctors assert that they need to fly with an “emotional support animal,” and the animals fly for free. Passengers have taken pictures of pigs, goats and even a turkey, which were ostensibly providing emotional support. The industry does not track the fauna proliferation, but flight crews say the phenomenon is now routine, particularly on longer flights.

Pam Bacich of Newport Beach, California, arrived at her seat for a flight from Juneau, Alaska, to Seattle recently to find the space beneath her filled by Thor. The more-than-100-pound Great Pyrenees “stability dog” stretched all the way from the floor beneath his owner, at the window, to the aisle, where Bacich sat.

“I rode for 2 ½ hours with his head under my feet,” she said. “I love dogs, but this shouldn’t be allowed, just from a safety standpoint. The airlines have no control.”

Revenge of the Battered Passenger

After hearing these kinds of complaints a few years ago, the comedian Louis C.K. admonished Americans (himself included) to get over themselves and their inflated sense of grievance. “Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you noncontributing zero?” he riffed. “Come on. You’re flying! It’s amazing!”

But for many travelers, it feels something less than amazing. And the displeasure they once might have shared only with family and friends now thrums across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook — metastasizing into the wider body politic.

The multimedia flogging may have reached a kind of apotheosis in April, when video cameras captured an airport security officer in Chicago dragging passenger David Dao off a United Airlines flight, setting off a public fury. United executives, reeling from the incident, vowed a new era in customer service, and other airline officials promised multiple reforms to Congress.

United Airlines Reaches Settlement With Dragged Passenger

MSNBC

The industry, they said, would eliminate or reduce overbooking; prohibit law enforcement officials from removing passengers, except in emergencies; raise compensation for bumped passengers (to as much as $10,000); and help flyers to better understand their rights as consumers.

But the waters would not be so easily calmed. Just days after the Dao incident became public, a new video surfaced of an American Airlines flight attendant apparently striking a mother who had tried to sneak on an over-size baby stroller (6.3 million online views). Then came another viral video of a California couple and their two toddlers being kicked off a flight home from Hawaii after they refused to give up one child’s seat.

The sense that the social contract had been shredded appeared to be confirmed in early May, when nine flight cancellations by Spirit Airlines at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport led to a terminal melee and multiple arrests. Just a day earlier, video cameras captured passengers scattering inside a Southwest Airlines jet in Burbank, California, as two men brawled like cage fighters.

Airline employees say the pile-up of videos seemed to only energize a vocal minority of flyers, who appear ready to seize on any opportunity to prove that the airlines are incompetent, inflexible or both. One day in July, a gif showing an unattended luggage conveyor belt dropping bags, hard, onto a tarmac became the most-viewed item on Reddit. Some 3,000 comments gleefully ripped the apparent culprit, United Airlines. Sample: “The bag was being belligerent” and “Appropriate force was used to extract the bag.” United declined to comment.

To respond to the social media assault, the big airlines now have social media rapid response teams, which try to resolve travelers’ laments, or at least apologize, over and over again. Delta has staffed a 100-employee “digital engagement” unit, spread across four centers in the U.S, to field incoming fire. The digital team is on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And, yes, they even accept compliments, though they more often get lectures.

“Don’t say you will give me something and then say ‘no,’” said a Twitter user whose online name is Maverickenator, a consultant in robotics who tweets frequently about his flying experiences. “Don’t do that, or I will go straight to Twitter.”

Airline executives say the endless stream of videos is getting to them.

“You’re now flying with a bunch of paparazzi,” said one former United executive, who asked not to be named, saying he wanted to let the airline’s current leaders speak for themselves. “It’s crazy!”

When Defiance Turns Dangerous

As much as the videos have exposed the airlines’ errors and occasional incompetence, employees also stew about the intemperate behavior of their passengers. Flight attendants report that more passengers — if still a minority — have turned defiant. They won’t store laptop computers for takeoff. They won’t sit down as the plane taxis. Told the forward restroom was open only to first-class customers, one coach flyer recently responded with an F-bomb and entered the restroom anyway.

“The entitlement, it’s just awful,” said Cindy, the flight attendant.

Things have gotten so uncertain that some airline employees now look back on the days after Sept. 11, 2001, as a kind of high-water mark. As horrific as the terrorist attack on airplanes and America was, it bonded passengers and flight crews together in virtual self-defense pacts. “Every single passenger who boarded our plane, we had no doubt, they were with us,” said Nelson, the flight attendant union chief.

A KLM 747 unloads at a gate at LAX.
Photo illustration by Mike Kelley

By the time the bloodied Dao was dragged off his flight, that spirit had been left in tatters. Consumer-advocate Leocha believes there is a fundamental disagreement between travelers and the airlines about their relationship.

“Passengers say, ‘I paid for my ticket. They have my money. I want what I paid for,’” Leocha said. “And airlines are saying, ‘No, you are getting what we give you.’”

The new belligerence has rattled many airline employees. “Some flight attendants say, ‘I dread going to work. I am scared to go to work. I am worried someone is going to hurt me,’” said Nelson.

The most beleaguered staffers may be gate agents. They are inevitably the bearers of bad news when flights are delayed or canceled. And they face relentless pressure from their bosses to get flights out on time.

An agent for a regional carrier at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport described working a gate alone, with responsibility for everything from filling the plane, to assisting disabled passengers, to negotiating stand-bys, to keeping an eye out for TSA auditors trying to sneak contraband onto flights. New gate agents make as little as $9.50 an hour, their union says. And turnover is high, meaning inexperienced workers are sometimes left to interpret byzantine rules for customers who have run out of patience.

The workers feel that passengers try to go around them, by registering their complaints via Twitter and Instagram. “If we would just get one airline to back flight attendants and back the crew, people might check themselves and say ‘Wait a minute,’” said Nicole Prince, a veteran flight attendant. “But from a business standpoint, it doesn’t always go that way.”

Aware of the public-relations flogging they have taken of late, the airlines promised to improve, including fresh training in customer fulfillment. Marti, a gate agent for a regional carrier at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, who asked that her last name be withheld because her company did not allow her to speak to reporters, said her company spent millions on a new customer-service training program, including an admonition to “make more eye contact” with passengers. “I don’t have time to make eye contact,” said Marti, with a weary chuckle. “I have to get the flight off on time.”

Yet Cindy, the flight attendant, and other airline employees say it is only a vocal minority that creates the turbulence, in a nation of flyers who mostly travel without incident. Nearly four in five Americans have the same view of flight attendants, check-in and gate agents, saying they are “satisfied” with the courtesy of those employees, according to the NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll.

But when delays inevitably crop up, even the most placid passengers have to work hard to temper their exasperation. For Michelle, a young public relations professional, that episode arrived this July when she was trying to fly from New York City to Rochester, New York, to meet her family for a weekend getaway. (She asked to use only her middle name because she might want to work one day in the, ahem, travel industry.)

Flights Delayed On-Time Record Improves, but Millions Still Left Waiting

Airlines say that a majority of flight delays are due to weather conditions beyond their control. On-time records for 2016 were about average for the last decade. Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics & U.S. Department of Transportation

She arrived three hours early at LaGuardia Airport, hoping to win a stand-by seat, but got shut out. Heavy weather delayed her regular flight another 90 minutes, before the airline canceled and sent her home. Delta rebooked her for the next day, but the solution would have routed her through Atlanta and turned a 45-minute hop upstate into a seven-hour ordeal. Michelle had to spend nearly two hours on hold to reach a ticket agent, but she found a direct flight. It put her in Rochester 24 hours late, finally reunited with her parents and brother.

Michelle was ready to fly home Monday night, but Delta again canceled, again citing weather, though Michelle said she didn’t see a cloud in the sky. Her only alternative was to take the first plane out of Rochester Tuesday morning. And though she rose before 4 a.m. for a 5:45 a.m. flight, her plane arrived at the gate without flight attendants. The airline said its employees had been stranded in the same storm.

In all, she lost a full day of her three-day weekend. She dodged a 100-person line at the Delta Air Lines help desk. She missed her Tuesday morning work meeting. “It felt kind of soul crushing,” Michelle said. And it would take a few more calls — including a couple dropped by Delta’s robo-operator — to get some recompense. The human being who finally answered offered her a $200 credit. She asked for a supervisor and haggled it up to $270, about the amount of her original round-trip ticket. (Delta declined to comment.)

“Now I have a $270 credit. And no desire to fly with Delta any time in the near future,” Michelle said. “And I have my pipe dream of the week: to found a disruptive airline that blows these consolidated behemoths out of the water!”

Fewer Airlines, Higher Profits

The run of toxic attention has left the big airlines seemingly chastened. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security called airline brass to Washington in the weeks after the Dao incident and administered a general dressing-down, followed by revived calls by a few senators for a passengers’ bill of rights (PDF).

Eight hours of aircraft movement at LAX International Airport.
Photo illustration by Mike Kelley

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told airline execs that passengers feel more like “self-loading cargo” than valued customers. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the rough treatment of Dao couldn’t be explained away. But Blunt also said someone needed to pose “hard questions” about the way agitated customers were treating flight attendants and gate agents.

While apologetic, the major airlines have hardly been cowed. A statement from the industry’s top lobbying group, Airlines for America, declared 2017 “a great time to fly.” The group boasted that “fares are historically low, air travel is safer than ever, and intense competition across the industry has enabled customers to benefit from more choices and greater access to travel options.”

The big carriers roll out an array of statistics to back their position. Average round-trip fares dipped to a low in 2016 of just under $367, adjusted for inflation, down from $617 in 1979. On-time arrivals hit 81.4 percent last year, better than all but one other year in the past decade. The amount of mishandled luggage also declined, to 2.7 bags per 1,000 passengers, the lowest on record. And involuntary denied boardings — the kind that hit Dao — reached a low last year of 0.62 per 10,000 passengers.

The airlines also celebrated wins for their bottom lines. The year 2016 ended as the fifth straight with profits for U.S. air carriers, performance so consistent that even financial sage Warren Buffet — who once called the airlines an investment “death trap”— bought stock in the four largest U.S. carriers.

Net Incomes of Airline Companies Consolidation and Cost-Cutting Create Wall Street Winners

A wave of mergers has left four major airlines, and they have eliminated many unprofitable routes. The result: a record run of profitability. Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

That represented a remarkable new chapter for the industry, which for much of its history has operated somewhere in a fuzzy space between private enterprise and public utility. The old Civil Aeronautics Board, shuttered in 1985 as part of federal deregulation, closely limited fares and meted out routes, while a score of carriers cruised along, competing mostly on creature comforts and style. Many of them lost money.

Though the airline industry was deregulated by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, it would take several other systemic jolts — notably the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the Great Recession, with its sharp reductions in discretionary travel — to get the airlines to trim money-losing routes. The downturn also triggered a series of bankruptcies, followed by consolidations. Delta Airlines consumed Northwest, United gobbled up Continental, Southwest took over AirTran, and American Airlines swallowed U.S. Airways.

Those four giant carriers finally had the reduced competition — combined with newfound discipline over the number of routes offered and the size of air fleets — to forge consistent profits.

One result: The number of flights offered annually declined by nearly 1.5 million over the last decade. Less service and fewer partially filled planes, combined with sharp cost-cutting, drove revenue to new highs.

Cut-rate carriers like Spirit and Allegiant showed that the highest priority for many customers was buying the lowest-cost ticket. They would be charged a fee for every “extra” service. The airlines now get 10 percent to 30 percent of their revenue via ancillary fees for things like seat assignment, extra leg room, baggage and — a biggie — reservation changes, said Alex Dichter, a senior partner at McKinsey and Co., who consults with the airlines.

Airline Ratings AQR Report Card Delta Joins Midsize Carriers at Top of the Heap

Top-rated Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America, the top-rated airline the previous four years, in a December 2016 deal. Source: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University

Airlines insist the new system offers passengers flexibility. They pay only for what they want. If passengers are content with a tighter seat at the back of the plane, they can get the cheapest price. The airlines have found that 35 percent of customers are driven exclusively by price, and another 35 percent make it a prime consideration, Dichter said.

“The airlines are responding to consumer behavior,” Dichter said, “and customers are not particularly engaged on issues outside price.”

In fact, according to J.D. Power and Associates, airlines reached an 18-year high in customer satisfaction in a survey concluded in March, before the spate of videotaped confrontations. (Though they ranked below car insurance and credit card companies and just barely ahead of companies that make you pay your mortgage.)

But that sense of satisfaction often isn’t reflected in the way that customers respond when they’re traveling and, particularly, when they are confronted with extra charges first-hand, said Marti, the Dallas/Fort Worth gate agent. Many express exasperation, she said, especially when they realize their bargain fare does not allow even a single carry-on. They become more agitated when told fees will not be removed, even when a flight is long delayed.

Her airline now requires her to enter an explanation into the computer system to remove any fee, something Marti feels she has no time to do, given that she works her gate by herself. “The company puts us in charge of collecting that extra money, and we find ourselves in a very tense situation,” said the veteran agent.

But the single biggest change — as most travelers and industry experts agree — is that planes today take off with very few, if any, empty seats. In 1995, an average of about one-third of seats had no occupants. Now, planes average loads of 85 percent. More humans create more problems and not just by forming long bathroom lines and jousting over thinner armrests.

The biggest challenge: When a flight is delayed or canceled, there aren’t many open seats on other planes to accommodate the displaced. People who miss a flight today are much more likely to be stuck. Says Consumer Report’s McGee: “Transportation systems are not designed to operate at peak capacity, 24/7. But that is what we have now.”

A Chance for Change

The turbulence rocking air travel in 2017 has consumer advocates and a few allies in Congress pushing harder than any time in memory for legislation to try to ease the way for passengers. Led by two senators, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, both Democrats, the proposed reforms would be part of annual legislation to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

One provision would limit ticket-change fees to the amount it costs the airlines to make the change, slashing the $200 charge that has become standard on many carriers. Another would require the FAA to study whether planes can be safely evacuated, given the proliferation of smaller and more densely packed seats. The amendment would also require a health analysis — looking into maladies like deep-vein thrombosis — of packing so many people so closely together.

But other proposals would push in directions not favored by consumer advocates. One would make good on President Donald Trump’s call to privatize the air traffic control system. Another would pare back enhanced training for pilots enacted after the 2009 crash of a regional jet in New York state that killed 50 people — the last major crash in an industry that has had an impeccable safety record this decade.

Smaller carriers say the modified pilot training is necessary to allow them to staff planes during a pilot shortage. The Airline Pilots Association disagrees and is pushing back hard. The pilots say the only shortage is in pay; pilots who spend more than $100,000 in training are loath to take jobs on some regional carriers that pay less than $40,000 a year.

But some still yearn for a return to a more genteel era in air travel. Nelson, head of the flight attendants union and a United flight attendant for 21 years, said she hopes the industry can find a way to resurrect a sense of glamour about flying.

“People still want to talk about air travel,” she said, “because it’s necessary, it’s a huge part of our economy, and it can be magical.”

We hope you enjoyed reading in first class. Now, see what it looks like from coach.

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12 hours of activity at Los Angeles International Airport.
Photo illustration by Mike Kelley

Correction (Sept. 26, 2017, 2 p.m.): An earlier version of the caption on the seating chart in this article misidentified the carrier that reduced the distance between rows to 28 inches. It was Spirit Airlines, not Virgin America.

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Editor Anna Brand

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