Unfriendly skies for airline passengers

What’s happened to civility on airplanes and in the skies?

Less than two weeks after a United Airlines passenger was dragged from a flight in Chicago, American Airlines on Friday suspended a flight attendant who took a stroller away from a woman traveling with two young children from San Francisco to Dallas. 

Airline policies do not allow strollers onboard the plane. A stroller can be checked at the gate free of charge, and surrendered on the jet bridge, and will be waiting in the jetway upon the passenger’s arrival.  

The incident captured, in part, on a smartphone by a passenger showed the woman sobbing and pleading for her stroller back. A male passenger came to her defense, and got in a verbal confrontation with the flight attendant.

American quickly apologized for the altercation, posted on social media, and said it is investigating.

The lawyer for the United passenger, David Dao, dragged off a flight April 9 announced Monday he is also representing the American passenger seen on video holding her baby and imploring “you can’t use violence with a baby.”

Attorney Thomas Demetrio said on NBC’s Today show that the American incident was a “microcosm of the entire problem. We’ve got a flight attendant out of control. We’ve got a distressed mother.”

The union for American flight attendants, in a statement, asked the public not to rush to judgment. The flight attendant, a veteran hired by US Airways before the 2013 merger with American, is based in Philadelphia, the union confirmed. “There are really two stories here,” said the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

In an airline industry blog titled "In Case It’s Not Clear, People Really Hate Airlines," Brett Snyder, author of the CrankyFlier.com, said that “years and years of pent-up anger aimed at airlines is being released, and it’s not pretty.”

There are a lot of reasons why, but “much of it lies with the airlines,” primarily the big three “legacy” carriers American, Delta, and United, Snyder said. The “seething rage coming from the masses” is now bubbling to the surface.

After the September 2001 terror attacks, passenger travel dipped. Major U.S. carriers filed for bankruptcy restructuring, which led to consolidation and five airline mergers. Jet fuel prices spiked followed by a global recession in 2008 that “caused the airlines to make a lot of changes to put themselves on better financial footing,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, an industry publication.

Airlines “unbundled” fares and charged fees for once-free services like checked bags and meals. Airlines flew bigger planes, packing more people on board. Seat sizes shrank as carriers put more seats on each plane.

“It’s not just the smaller seats. It’s from the moment you arrive at the airport and there are lines — lines to check a bag, and lines to go through security,” said George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, a fare-tracking website. “The boarding process is the most stressful part of the flight because people try to stuff everything in the overhead bins. People jockey for space.

“In general, I think society has become less civil,” Hobica said. At the same time, airlines are bolder. “They realize that people don’t have anywhere to go if they don’t like it. It’s a duopoly in some cities, and in some cities it is a monopoly. A lot of people don’t have a choice really.” American operates 70 percent of the flights in Philadelphia.

Kaplan, of Airline Weekly, said he doesn’t know if flying is less civil. “There are more people on airplanes and mathematically things are more likely to go wrong. On the other hand, with cellphone cameras everywhere, they cause people to think twice before acting aggressively. We all know that we are being recorded all the time.”

FlyersRights.org, an airline consumer group, wants the federal government to investigate the American passenger incident. Coming after United’s violent removal of a passenger “makes this a U.S. airline crisis,” said president Paul Hudson in an email. “Passengers are not going to tolerate this abusive conduct by U.S. airlines any longer.”

Snyder of CrankyFlier said, “People are mad, but everyone has a different reason.” Some hate the a-la-carte fees. Others are mad about flight delays. Some are fed up with surly employees, while others don’t like the boarding process. “It’s just a general loathing,” Snyder said, “and there isn’t a silver bullet. People just want the airlines to be better than they are.”