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The Call-In: Answering Your Air Travel Questions


And this is The Call-In. Today we're talking about the airline industry. None of us can quite forget the viral video of the passenger who was forcibly removed from that overbooked United flight. That episode and other recent incidents have tapped into something of a collective outrage over flying. So we wanted to know what it's like for you.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi, I'm calling in about my recent experience with an airline.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I just can't stand the way that I'm crunched into a little bit seat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As a former airline employee, my biggest tip...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Make sure that you're flying on a family-friendly airline.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: My husband can't even fly anymore because it's so uncomfortable.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: That's it. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Thanks, bye.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We invited Scott McCartney, writer of "The Middle Seat" column in The Wall Street Journal, to help us understand the forces driving the industry, and he points to deregulation in the late 1970s as a big factor.

SCOTT MCCARTNEY: What changed with deregulation was basically opening up air travel to the masses. The price to fly has come way down, and the number of people flying has gone way up. But with that has come intense price competition that has driven prices down and forced airlines to find ways to really cheapen their product.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This past week, the House and the Senate held hearings on the airline industry's customer service problem partly in response to the United incident. So can Congress do something to change the things that people hate, you know? And if they can, how motivated are the companies to make those changes?

MCCARTNEY: Well, I'm not sure a Republican Congress is going to increase regulation of a private business. I think there's a lot of pounding the table right now because people in Congress know that the public is upset with airlines. There certainly could be regulatory changes. Congress has, in the past, passed changes. Just a simple one not too long ago - requiring that airlines refund baggage fees for passengers whose bag doesn't get there on time.

I think the main issue right now is passenger rights. Airlines - the legal document that goes with your ticket is called the contract of carriage, and airlines have been free to write their own rules. The passenger is really disadvantaged in that. You know, just this week American Airlines moved to shrink the size of rows on some of their new airplanes, in some cases, down to 29 inches...


MCCARTNEY: ...Of what used to be 32 inches. And so you can...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even the thought of that makes me feel cramped.

MCCARTNEY: Yeah. No, it is. And it's not just the leg room. It's how you feel more condensed into the cabin.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can Congress, though, get involved and say, OK, we can have a passenger bill of rights, for example? I mean, would that be something that you think would be a good idea?

MCCARTNEY: I think Congress has tried in the past with different passenger bill of rights, and there have rarely been strong changes that have come out of that. I really think this is a situation where the industry has to solve its problems. And airlines will say, well, people want low fares so this is what we have to do. But I do think there is a limit, especially at a time when the industry is making lots of money, to how low you can go. And the industry has to realize that, and it's very hard.

At different times in the industry's history, airlines have tried to say, OK, we will offer a better product and people will pay a higher price to come fly us and that has not been the case. So it's on the consumer as well as the airline.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what does the flight crew think? Gailen David was a flight attendant for American Airlines for 25 years, and it was his dream job for a while.

GAILEN DAVID: It was such drastic change when you looked at the leg room being cut, when you looked at meals being cut - all the extras that passengers had become used to. And it was done because of, you know, economic reasons and so forth. But it started to feel like for the passengers and the employees, as well, that there was a little bit of greed involved.

And it was just making everyone so uncomfortable and inconveniencing them. And I think that that's one of the things that I hope passengers realize is that for flight crew, when the passengers are suffering, we are suffering as flight crew. And we hate to see them uncomfortable. And we're the biggest advocates for passengers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess, you know, it's important that you say that because oftentimes - and we've seen this over and over again in some of these viral videos - you know, you guys are the ones that are bearing the brunt of some of the anger. You're the public face of that. Is that how it feels? Like, you're on the front lines?

DAVID: Yes. You know, when flight attendants first came to be when they used to be called stewardesses and stewards, you know, they were an airline's hospitality face. So when a policy is changed in the board room, and they come up with another idea to make money and so forth, the flight attendants and other frontline employees are always the ones that have to deliver that to the customer and enforce these policies and so forth. And so it does feel that way to the customer. When behind the scenes, it's the worst part of their job to have to see the service degraded in any way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you keep on referencing this, and I think it's important to understand that a lot of the airline employees have been through all these consolidations. They've had all these different things thrown at them. The airline industry has been in such flux for so long. Has that really affected the morale of people who are employed?

DAVID: It has. And you know what? Let's go back and look at September 11 when they - the airlines really used that as a way to get out of a lot of things. They stopped serving meals. They started - that was the beginning of unbundling an airline ticket to where you used to buy a ticket, and it included everything. They were able to then say, you know what? It's for economic reasons. We have to unbundle this. We have to start charging for every little thing.

You would have thought that once they had figured out how to create billions of dollars in extra revenue through the ancillary sales that they then would have come back and said, listen, now we can put back some of the comforts that we took away. That hasn't happened. It's - now it's let's see if we can squeeze the passengers even more.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are the top things you'd like to say to flyers? It could be advice or request on behalf of the airlines. What should we the flying public know?

DAVID: I would say that when you're choosing an airline ticket really be aware of what that ticket includes because when you get to the airport, you're going to be charged for this and charge for that. Know up front - it will decrease your anxiety and your frustration. And if you like all those little perks like boarding first and all of that sort of thing, go ahead and get that. And it'll just...


DAVID: Yes, just go ahead and pay for it. It's the environment we live in now. And another thing I would say is to look at the flight attendants and other frontline as your friends as you go through the experience.


DAVID: Yes. Be nice and realize that they really are doing their jobs. I hate when they tell me to turn my phone off. I really do. But I always have to talk to myself and say, you know what? This is their job. Just do it without even being asked, if you can. And it just makes everything easier.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Gailen David, host of the TV show "The Jet Set." And next Sunday is Mother's Day. We want to hear your stories about the joys and the heartaches of motherhood. What lessons did you learn from your mother - good and bad? Were you ever estranged from your mother, and how did you make up? Did becoming a mother bring you a new understanding of your own mother? Call in at 202-216-9217. Leave us a voicemail with your full name, where are you from and your experience. And we may use it on the air. That number again, 202-216-9217. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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