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Interaction: Why are US airlines so shitty?

Kügenliche: [whispering] Hello, and welcome to Interaction on this twenty second day of April. Today we are examining the death of customer service on US airlines. On most other airlines around the world, humans can be expected to be treated like humans. Several recent incidents, however, have shown that US airlines have little to no regard for the humans whose lives they have been entrusted with. What is the reason for this? Is it a regulatory failure? Are the airlines themselves to blame? Or do Americans simply harbour self loathing so deep that they seek out airlines that treat them as badly as they think they deserve? We will discuss these questions and more with our panel, whom we will now meet. I’m Charlotte Kügenliche, joining you live from seat 37A. From seat 37F, we have a retired flight attendant with over twenty years of experience at three different US airlines, Mr Joseph McKeen.

McKeen: [whispering] Hello.

Kügenliche: [whispering] From seat 37E, joining us is architectural engineer and frequent traveller, Ms Jodi Monroe.

Monroe: [whispering] Hi.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Joining us from seat 37C, to give us the international perspective, we have a retired gate agent with over twenty five years of experience at a major Japanese airline, Ms Akimi Tsunakane.

Tsunakane: [whispering] Hello.

Kügenliche: [whispering] And joining us from seat 37B, we have a travel correspondent for FINTV North America, and author of the book Up In the Sky: Why Airline Service Has Deteriorated, and What We Can Do to Stop It, Mr Adam Adamle.

Adamle: [whispering] Hello.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Well, thank you all for being with us today. Joseph, let us go to you first, if I may. You recently retired after a long career as a flight attendant. Have you observed the industry change in the United States?

McKeen: [whispering] Yes, I have. I’ve seen passengers become more and more discourteous over the years. I’ve seen more rude and boorish behaviour in the last few years than at any time in my career. Passengers are not treating airline employees with respect, and they are not treating each other with respect. It’s really getting out of hand.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Well, that is an interesting sentiment. Jodi, have you observed this shift in passengers’ behaviour?

Monroe: [whispering] Look, it’s not just the passengers. Airline employees have also become more arrogant and demeaning. I mean, when we got on the flight today, the gate agent wouldn’t even scan our boarding passes. We had to scan them ourselves. And sure, passengers are more irritable, but it’s precisely because air travel is itself becoming more irritating. We are forced to pay more for our tickets and get less in return: less space, less food, less flexibility, less service. US based airlines are all doing this, and it’s just making things worse for themselves.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Akimi, what would you say to that? Have you seen anything of the sort on Japanese airlines?

Tsunakane: [whispering] No, I have not. In my experience, airlines in most other nations, including Japan, have continued to maintain high standards of customer service. Airlines still treat their paying customers with respect. Something such as the incident with Dr David Dao with United Airlines would never happen in Japan.

Kügenliche: [whispering] So Adam, bearing that in mind, is there something that US airlines can learn from their foreign counterparts?

Adamle: [whispering] Absolutely. Airlines in other parts of the world do a much better job balancing the need to turn a profit with the need to perform a service. Airlines in the US are concerned only with the bottom line. The David Dao incident, and yesterday’s stroller incident with American Airlines, are proof of that.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Right, well, with that, let us turn now to you, our viewers. We are taking questions from you through a variety of channels: SMS, E-mail, tweet, telephone, several social networks, and a couple of antisocial networks. You can see there the various addresses and numbers, being shown to us by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Monroe: [whispering] Surely that’s not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kügenliche: [whispering] It is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And don’t call me Shirley. Our first question is by a tweet, from at sign Shirley followed by a sequence of numbers, who asks us “omg ur whispering into camera like blair witch y u do that”. Adam, y we do that?

Adamle: [whispering] We are doing that because we are broadcasting from United flight 1237 from Newark to LAX.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Joseph, this is the first time I have participated in a live television broadcast from an aircraft in flight. Have you heard of such a thing before?

McKeen: [whispering] No. In fact, I thought it was illegal.

Kügenliche: [whispering] And I am being told that is why we are hiding underneath these sheets. We go now to a question by telephone, and it is from Dawn in Fort Worth, TX, USA. Dawn, are you there?

Dawn in Fort Worth: Yes, I am.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Hello Dawn. Thank you for phoning in today. What is your question?

Dawn in Fort Worth: United is a shitty airline. Why hasn’t it gone out of business yet?

Kügenliche: [whispering] Right. Well, thank you for that question, Dawn. Let us go to you, Adam. Why is United still a thing?

Adamle: [whispering] Well, the major US airlines essentially colluded to divide up the country during the 1960s and 1970s. The 1978 deregulation was intended to open up competition, and that has happened at major airports. However, many smaller airports are still served by only one airline, and people who live near those airports do not have a choice. Their fares are gouged, and they do not have any other options if they need to travel.

Monroe: [whispering] Well, even for major airports, the choice is usually United, Delta, or American. Those three airlines are, for most people, completely interchangeable. They all charge for food, they all charge to check bags, and they all charge to make any changes. So yes, we get the choice of airlines that are not really any different from one another.

Kügenliche: [whispering] So what should Americans do? If they want to have real options in air travel, what is their best course of action? Should they demand change from the airlines themselves? Should they ask the government to step in?

Monroe: [whispering] Well, one thing we can do is express our outrage at these incidents. And with a plane full of passengers with camera phones, we are hearing about these incidents as soon as they happen. We need to continue to express our outrage, loudly and frequently.

Adamle: [whispering] More than that, I would say that the government has a role to play here too. The FAA is simply failing to regulate airlines in the way that it needs to. It should be illegal to forcibly remove a passenger for no reason other than to make space. It should be illegal for airline employees to physically assault a passenger. It should be illegal to overbook flights. Imagine purchasing a ticket to a sporting event, only to be removed from the stadium because they wanted to put someone else in your seat.

McKeen: [whispering] That’s ridiculous. It would be totally irresponsible to ban overbooking. It is a necessary practise that is needed to avoid empty seats.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Well, that’s interesting, Joseph. Let me ask a follow up question. What would be so terrible about having a few empty seats on an aircraft?

McKeen: [whispering] Well, operating aircraft is so expensive that the airlines have to fill as many seats as they can. Every empty seat is lost profit for the airline.

Kügenliche: [whispering] But at the same time, airlines must also compensate anyone who is denied boarding due to overbooking. Are they not losing money by having to pay this compensation?

Monroe: [whispering] Look, we’re missing the point here. Overbooking should be illegal not because of money. It should be illegal because of humans. Passengers are humans, and it is long past time for us to be treated that way. If I try to buy a ticket on a flight that’s full, you need to treat me like a human and tell me that the flight is full. Don’t bullshit around and say, “Oh, we might be able to get you on this flight if enough people cancel, or if we offer a big enough voucher to the people who are already on it.” Just tell me you can’t accommodate me, and I’ll find another flight.

McKeen: [whispering] But then you might book with another airline.

Monroe: [whispering] So? The flight is already full. They’ve already sold all the seats. They’re making the maximum money. Trying to make even more money is irresponsible. It’s straight up corporate greed. And protecting humans from corporate greed is exactly what the government exists to do. It’s why they have safety inspections, and seatbelts, and oxygen masks, and life jackets underneath each seat.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Akimi, you said that the David Dao incident would never happen on a Japanese airline. I’d like to dig into that and find out what makes you say that. What specifically is different between US airlines and Japanese airlines?

Tsunakane: [whispering] Airlines in the United States appear to be trying to undercut one another first and foremost. They seem to be interested only in offering the lowest possible fares. As a result, we are truly seeing in action the American saying that you get what you pay for.

McKeen: [whispering] But Americans have shown that they do want low fares above all else. If they were unhappy with the service or with the amenities, people would stop flying. But air travel is more popular than ever before.

Monroe: [whispering] No, we would stop flying if we didn’t have anywhere to go. But we do have places to go, so we need to get there somehow. Like I said, there is no choice. Every airline does that shit. We tolerate bag fees, overbooking, and poor service, but it is not because we like them. It is because there is no other choice – either no other choice that we can afford, or no other choice, period, that goes to where we’re going.

Kügenliche: [whispering] Right, well, let us now move on to –

Flight attendant 1: [lifting blanket] Are you all right under there?

Tsunakane: Yes, we are fine. Thank you.

Flight attendant 1: Would you like any snacks for purchase?

Tsunakane: No, thank you.

Flight attendant 2: Could you lift up that blanket for me?

Kügenliche: [whispering] We’re fine, thanks.

Flight attendant 2: I’m gonna need you to lift up that blanket for me.

Kügenliche: That won’t be required.

Flight attendant 1: Are you all right under there?

Flight attendant 2: I need you to lift up that blanket.

Kügenliche: [lifts blanket] There. See? We’re fine. We’re all fine. See? We have our seatbelts on.

Flight attendant 2: Is that a television camera?

Kügenliche: Yes, why?

Flight attendant 2: Are you filming right now?

Kügenliche: Yes, we are. Why?

Flight attendant 2: I’m going to need to take that.

Kügenliche: What is the reason?

Flight attendant 2: We do not permit making TV shows during a flight.

Kügenliche: I saw nothing to that effect in your contract of carriage.

Flight attendant 2: I’m still going to have to take that from you.

Kügenliche: What is the reason?

Flight attendant 2: It’s for the safety of the other passengers.

Kügenliche: How does broadcasting a live television programme affect the safety of the other passengers?

Flight attendant 2: It interferes with the aircraft’s electronics systems.

Kügenliche: No it doesn’t. [shows paper to flight attendant 2] We have a statement here from Boeing that states quite clearly that our broadcast today is no danger to the safe operations of this aircraft. See?

Flight attendant 3: Are they all right under there?

Flight attendant 2: They’re making a TV show.

Flight attendant 3: On my plane? Oh, hell no! Give me that camera!

Monroe: Hey, what are you doing?

Tsunakane: What is the meaning of this?

Flight attendant 3: How did you get this through security?

Kügenliche: Through the X ray machine, of course.

Flight attendant 3: Give it to me!

Monroe: That’s enough! Let go of her!

Flight attendant 3: You stay out of this!

Monroe: You let go of her right now!

Flight attendant 3: That’s disruptive! You’re being disruptive!

Monroe: Disruptive? You’re the one who created the disruption!

Kügenliche: [whispering] Well, it looks like that will have to be all for us this week. I would like –

Tsunakane: What do you think you are doing? You bring dishonour onto the entire air travel industry!

Kügenliche: [whispering] I would like to thank Mr Adam Adamle, Ms Akimi Tsunakane, Ms Jodi Monroe, and Mr Joseph McKeen for being with us today. Next week we will be discussing vertebrates, and we will be joined by a herpetologist, an icthyologist, an ornithologist, and whatever someone who studies mammals is called. Please do send us your questions for them. Until then, thank you for joining us.

McKeen: I don’t know what’s going on. I was just minding my own business, and all of a sudden, these people started making a TV show. Nothing to do with me.

Monroe: Ooh! You snitch!