Why Air Travel is So Unfriendly

Have you ever had a bad airline experience?

OK, I joke. Of course you have. We've all had one. The only people who haven't had a bad airline experience are the people who don't fly.

One of the big problems is a lack of civility. Flight attendant turned author, Heather Poole, recently lamented on her blog about the lack of civility passengers show towards flight attendants. She has a solid point, but the issue is much bigger than that.

Passengers are regularly subjected to rude treatment at nearly every step of their journey. It's not just rude flight attendants. Rude gate agents, TSA officers, and other airport employees can all sour the experience before we get on the plane.

No wonder the U.S. airline industry is one of the lowest rated industries on the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

This post examines why incivility is such a common part of air travel. And, it highlights a few things airlines (and airports) could do to improve things.

Sources of Air Travel Stress

Let's image a typical travel day. There's a lot of things that contribute to passenger stress. It starts with the airport arrival. 

Many airports are chaos. There's a calamity of cars, taxis, and shuttle busses jockeying for position. People cut each other off at slow speed. Infrequent visitors really clog things up as they block other traffic while trying to figure out where to go.

What can airports do here? Better traffic control is a solution. The traffic control officers at many airports are typically unfriendly and unassertive. It's a dangerous combination that leads to continued chaos while these folks sit idly by.

The next step is the check-in. Savvy travelers skip this part and check-in online or via a smartphone app and then use an electronic boarding pass. Checking a bag is to be avoided at all costs.

But, there are those of us who attempt to check-in via the kiosk. Here, passengers are often met with long lines full of anxious passengers. They're also met by airline employees who frequently seem overwhelmed by the stress of it all, or, they've long ago numbed themselves to the experience. Trust me, this rubs off on passengers.

What can be done? One solution is to give these airline employees special training on how to better assist passengers who use those kiosks. This would allow them to be more helpful and allow passengers to feel more confident. 

Getting through security is the next big hassle. TSA has lately come under fire for long lines. This causes stress to skyrocket as passengers worry about making their flight. 

The unfriendly and aggressive attitude displayed by many TSA officers only makes things worse. The typical TSA process involves someone who checks your ID, but steadfastly refuses to smile. Next, you are greeted with an officer who is barking instructions at people as they wait in line. To top it off, there's the process of taking off your shoes, emptying your pockets, and taking certain items out of your bag, only to reassemble the whole mess once you get through to the other side.

It's no wonder that passengers are on edge when they finally clear security. 

One immediate solution is for TSA officers to rethink their approach to passengers. Bark less. Help more. Seek out the confused travelers and offer some polite guidance while developing a friendly rapport with frequent travelers who don't need any assistance.

The gate is the next sore spot in the journey. People cluster around the gate like herded cattle, creating stress and tension all the way around. This creates an unpleasant situation where people in later boarding groups are inevitably blocking access to the gate for people in earlier boarding groups.

Part of the problem is the shear volume of boarding groups. (I counted six on a recent flight.) People crowd the gate well before their group is called. Another issue is gate agents tend to make their crowd control announcements over the intercom, rather than approach individuals directly to ask them to clear some space.

Southwest Airlines spares itself from this ruckus by having a clearly defined boarding process where every single passenger literally knows their place. While that's not feasible for every airline, some gentle assistance to get people organized can go a long way.

Boarding the plane itself is another exercise in incivility. Gate agents at many airlines rarely smile and say hello as they scan passengers' boarding passes. Flight attendants are so busy preparing for the flight that they often neglect to greet passengers as they board the plane. Passengers themselves are so worried about getting a space for their carryon baggage that they regularly jostle and bump each other.

Here, the fix isn't so easy. Heather Poole asked passengers to be more courteous to flight attendants. I agree. But, we all could stand to take a deep breath and be more courteous to each other. Flight attendants to passengers. Passengers to flight attendants. And, passengers to passengers.

 

What the Best Airlines Know

Take a look at the three airlines at the top of the American Customer Satisfaction Index:

  • Jet Blue
  • Southwest
  • Alaska

All of these airlines consistently promote civility better than their competitors.

Their employees are more friendly. Gate agents do a better job of engaging passengers. Flight attendants do a better job of greeting passengers. 

They also tend to have better in flight experiences and better policies that make it less likely for passengers to get agitated in the first place.

Here's one specific example.

I fly Alaska Airlines a lot. The gate agent usually smiles and greets me by name as I board the plane. They get my name from my boarding pass, but it's a nice welcome.

I also fly one of their partner airlines a lot. On this airline, the gate agent doesn't even greet me two times out of three. I will smile and say "Hello" and they literally will not return my smile or my greeting. When this is a regular occurrence, it's hard to expect much friendliness on the flight.