SYNDICATED COLUMN: What a Real Passenger Bill of Rights Should Look Like

The violent ejection of a United Airlines passenger from a flight bound from Chicago to Louisville appears to have marked a long-awaited turning point. Dr. David Dao, 69, suffered a broken nose, lost two teeth and faces reconstructive sinus surgery. At last, America’s long-suffering flying public is crying as one, have you commercial airlines no shame?

Americans have been mad as hell. Now, it seems, they’re not going to take it anymore.

How will the politics of protecting travelers from rapacious — and sometimes brutal — air carriers play out? With the Republicans in control of all three branches of government, will this moment pass without significant legislative action as did the mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut? Or will Trump’s Congress be forced to act?

Thanks to nickel-and-diming us with $30 baggage and seat fees, the airlines are raking in billions. So they can easily afford changes that benefit consumers but cost their bottom lines.

Even the IRS is more popular than the airlines. So politicians aren’t taking any risks by taking them on.

Now is the time to act. Consumer advocates should set a high bar for their demands — and insist that Democrats get behind them. Dems should be able partner with Republicans on this one; “airlines suck” is bipartisan.

What would a genuinely kickass passenger bill of rights look like?

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Americans sometimes point to Europe as an example. But the EU code is toothless.

Case study: A service truck ran into my Norwegian Airlines plane before its scheduled morning takeoff from Martinique. The plane was grounded indefinitely. Understandable. Less understandable was how Norwegian treated us: late that that night, they flew us to the neighboring French island of Guadeloupe, put us up in a filthy, dangerous motel and flew us to New York the next day — more than 24 hours later.

EU rules say I should have received 400 euros compensation for the delay. Citing the time-honored corporate doctrine of “we don’t feel like paying just because,” the jerks at Norwegian denied my claim. Norway’s national aviation authorities gave me the brush-off, referring me to France. I contacted the French — lucky for me I’m fluent, but what if you’re not? — who’ve never bothered to reply.

Airlines poll just behind price-gouging low-service cable companies as America’s most hated business sector. This is a disaster. Since radical problems require radical solutions, let’s think big.

Class Warfare: Trudging through first class to steerage isn’t just an insult to human dignity. In a country that overthrew aristocracy, special titles and privileges (business class, Sky Club members, Platinum Gold Whatever) are anti-American. The airline class system incents efficiency experts to target the flying top 1% with beds at the expense of such amenities as room for the knees of the 99%. The Department of Transportation should ban class distinctions. Let all seats be created equal.

One Price Fits All: Obama-era DOT rules require airlines to clearly post fees for “extra” services like luggage. Two pieces, plus a purse or briefcase or small backpack, ought to be part of the flat fee everyone pays. The current system, in which the stripped-down Spirit appears as cheapest in listings but hits you up for $50 a bag and so winds up being the most expensive, is ridiculous.

NOverbooking: McDonald’s can’t sell the same Big Mac to two customers. How does it make sense to allow airlines to sell 140 tickets on a plane with 120 seats? That’s overbooking. If a paid passenger misses her fight, sell it to a standby if there is one. Otherwise let the seat fly empty and let us stretch a little.

Ban Surge Pricing: Sophisticated algorithms designed to maximize airline profits have frequent flyers sharing dubious tips (Tuesday is the cheapest day to buy your ticket) and clearing their web browser cookies to stymie airlines whose prices mysteriously creep up after each search (buy now or else). Whether on Uber or United, surge pricing is creepy and annoying and requires too much work for flyers. Set a price and stick with it, dammit! SFO to JFK on Delta should cost the same regardless of the time of day or day of week.

No Preferential Seating: With the exception of families traveling with small children, the disabled and trying to keep groups together, seats should be assigned randomly without consideration for frequent flier status or anything else. Particularly disgusting has been the recent practice of airlines that only allow advanced assignments for premium extra-cost seats, fooling some victims into buying something they don’t need and stressing out everyone else.

Ergonomic Reform: Leg room, pitch and seat width in coach have been shrunken to the point that the average person is cramped and uncomfortable. For safety reasons alone — evacuating a stricken aircraft through narrow aisles and rows is slow and thus dangerous — the FAA should set significantly more generous minimum standards for seat spacing. A middle-seat passenger ought to be able to get out to go the restroom without forcing his neighbor on the aisle to stand up.

Last and perhaps least, my personal bugaboo: what’s up with those last rows in some planes, where the seats can’t recline? That’s just mean.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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16 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: What a Real Passenger Bill of Rights Should Look Like

  1. Airplanes? I have no fear of flying. But I will not get on a plane unless I literally have no other choice. Mainly, it is because I will not tolerate the whole culture of air travel: the pointless security farce, the phony fixed smiles on everyone’s faces, the cramped cabin, the nickel-and-diming once you’re on board, and so on.

    The reality is totally economic. There are unavoidable costs associated with a plane. Maintenance and fuel being two of them. You cannot, without violating physics, fly a plane for less than $X. Take away the in-flight movie, remove the meal, unscrew half the light bulbs, and you still have fixed costs that cannot be made to go away. The real problem? First class. Redistribute all that square footage.

    Other simple fixes? Ever watch how boarding works? It’s completely wrong. The plane should board so that the people going to the back end of the plane get into the plane first. First-class, by the way, should be the last to board. Deplaning? First-class off first. Then, ONE ROW AT A TIME, front to back, everyone vacates. As with Ted’s suggestion, people who have connecting flights are automatically put to the front of the plane so that they can get out first and make those connections.

    And while we’re at it? The seats should face in the other direction. In a bad landing, this would probably save a few lives.

    • The flying public is absolutely incapable of a simple, three-step, process

      1) Stand up
      2) grab your bag
      3) walk

      IS THAT SO FREAKING DIFFICULT??!! AHHHGH!

      excuse me, did I say that out loud?

      Sometimes I fly for business or vacation. I do bike when I can – I still can cover a thousand miles in two days. I know my Harley gets better mileage than a plane, “pretty sure” it’s a better passenger-mile-per-gallon, but admit I haven’t done the math.

      (Hey, Henri – I’ll race you bike against bike. I have thought about biking Europe at some point… 😉

      • «(Hey, Henri – I’ll race you bike against bike. I have thought about biking Europe at some point… 😉» Thanks for the offer, CrazyH, but alas, I fear we misunderstand each other – not, perhaps, for the first time (such are the ambiguities of language). The «bike» I mentioned is one on which I – and I alone – serve as the motor, which differentiates it significantly from your Harley. That’s not too say that I’ve not taken fairly long trips on such machines – the last major one being when I biked down to København (Copenhagen) from Stockholm to attend my elder daughters taking of her student examination and then biked back again (a round trip of some 1200 km),- but that was more than thirty years ago, and I fear I’m no longer in shape to do it again….

        Henri

      • No misunderstanding whatsoever, Henri – you don’t seriously think I’d propose a fair race, now do you?

        😉

      • «… you don’t seriously think I’d propose a fair race, now do you?» One can always hope against hope, CrazyH – besides my gripe is not that the race wouldn’t be fair, but that I’m no longer able to enter the lists. Even Thor found to his dismay on his visit to Útgarða-Loki that he couldn’t successfully wrestle Elli ; alas, that seems to be the case with me as well….

        Henri

      • Harley gets better mileage than a plane

        You are likely correct… it isn’t really the maths that so hard, it’s deciding what should enter into the equation in the first place.

        I recommend George Monbiot’s book Heat as a concise source for such practical issues about the impact of everyday life.

        There are some additional factors to do with the effect of CO2 emitted at different elevations, as well as to do with water vapor. The chemtrails crazies completely miss that unadulterated water vapor has actually quite potent effects – and possibly actually contributes to net cooling in the short term, i.e. masking just how bad the situation really is already…

        Going just by miles-per-gallon, a typical Harley is quite the gas-guzzler, comparable to a small car. Still, you may be right about planes being even less efficient. Small planes are particularly bad and take-off and landing drain fuel especially, so let’s avoid flying over short distances even if it’s likely cheaper than trains due to insane subsidies. Multi-leg journeys are the worst, but make logistic sense so especially in Europe we shifted to big hubs that rotate out people (London, Frankfurt…).

        => If you must fly, fly direct (or take the train instead of a connecting flight).

        Essentially the only way flying equalizes your Harley’s fuel-efficiency per person-kilometer/mile is to take a modern superjet and fly intercontinental. But then again it would take you quite some time to rack up such distances… footprint gets huge even if efficiency per mile is better…

        Car-sharing multiplies efficiency, and trains and buses typically are better by a factor of 10 or so. Biking (as in cycling, not motor-biking 😉 beats all…

        (Then again, motor-bikers account for a lot of premature deaths by clean decapitation, making them prime organ-donors and nipping their carbon footprint in the bud. Go bikers?)

      • The usual rule of thumb is that the closer the object stays to the ground (i.e., the less energy expended on lifting out of the gravity well) the more economical it is to transport.

      • «The usual rule of thumb is that the closer the object stays to the ground (i.e., the less energy expended on lifting out of the gravity well) the more economical it is to transport.» Balanced, Alex, by, among other things, the fact that air resistance is greater the closer to the surface of the planet one finds oneself. That’s why commercial airliners generally choose to cruise at altitudes of 10000 – 11000 m….

        Henri

  2. Several years ago, I decided to stop flying for environmental reasons – it didn’t seem right to contribute to anthropogenic global warming in that way. If I couldn’t conveniently reach a distant destination by train (close one I bike to), I’d abstain. (I also thought I’d compensate for my two daughters, who fly all over the world, but I still eat meat, while my eldest daughter has become a vegan, so it seems to be six of one, half a dozen of the other….)

    But Ted’s description of how the air travel has «developed» in the decade or so since I stopped flying has provided me with more personal reasons for staying as far away from aeroports as I can get ; I find the notion that most people are willing to submit to such conditions horrifying….

    Henri

    • Fresh air (compressor bleed air) is brought into the pressurized cabin from the jet engine’s compressor stage, resulting in lower fuel efficiency.

      The alternative is less air brought into the cabin and higher fuel efficiency (upside for the corporation bottom line) with more sharing of previously breathed cabin air, along with its viral and bacterial load (downside for the customers).

      The choice to be made by the airlines is between lower fuel efficiency (higher fuel costs and higher CO2 footprint) or the immediate health and comfort of their passengers.

      • So I guess secret option number c is to pamper the rich while screwing the poor.

        Though we may be commoners and carry diseases – now literally true because we’re flying economy class?

        Perhaps they will next create a regimen where an individual economy passenger will only get decent airflow provided they are actively browsing a shopping catalog?

  3. A major problem is that flying is a horribly inefficient way of transport energy-wise per unit of distance. Especially over short distances and in small planes – and over large distances it sums up…
    (Admittedly the distinctly American one person in huge car is about as inefficient)

    So yes to cramped spaces. Yes to overbooking. I’m sorry to say, but there it is.

    The link to the article showing that U.S. airlines made record profits this year makes it clear it is because of market consolidation. This seems to be the main problem – even if we were to get a consumer-protection system up which would make it possible to compare prices between airlines (there are third party search-engines which do that to an extent), they would just split the routes and/or essentially offer same services for the same price – as do mobile phone carriers.

    BTW our whole economic system is geared towards subsidizing air travel (“jet-set”), in much the same way that the medieval duchy was geared towards subsidizing heavy cavalry (knights). But perhaps since the commoners have started flying, now it will become possible to regulate this? (Like drugs which only get regulated when the plebeians start using them).

    Class warfare is a very valid point. You’d think we’d assign leg room to those who need it (elderly, injured…), but no, to those who are willing to pay. More precisely, I’d be surprised if many people flying business class actually paid out of (their own) pocket. Perhaps this is why it is called business class?

    There are quite distinct castes in neoliberal system, which are most easily recognized in terms of air travel:

    1) The actual people who count – fly in their own private jets and helicopters, so they do not have to come in contact with commoners who carry diseases. (They might charter planes in a pinch, but then you don’t get to name the plane). [0.001%]
    2) Their clerks, valets, doctors and other specialists who do the actual work running the world for them – fly business class. [1%]
    3) The working class that thinks it’s middle class flies economy class. [10%]
    4) The actual (working) poor typically don’t fly at all [most people].
    [5) Hacker/jesters scour last-minute low-fare tickets and zig-zag around the globe by themselves on short notice without money, baggage, or commitments of any kind; and thus consider themselves free and cosmopolitan]

    I think it is actually healthy in some ways that the distinction between 2) and 3) becomes so clearly visible. In my home airport there is quite literally more space allocated for 2) than for 3) with 10 attendants loitering over 2 “senator class” passengers while 2 attendants plus bar-code reader and baggages scale technology take care of the remaining few-hundred passengers.

    When they sound out those annoying boarding announcements I regularly substitute White or Aryan for business class and Black or Untermenschen for economy class in my head, in an effort to maintain sanity in insane times. To be fair, it’s not about appearances anymore but exclusively about money – even the self-help books authored by the Donald advises people without money to fly business class on credit to develop the right state of mind (of entitlement).

    • There is a club of people who figured out the system. They basically fly free, first class, anywhere in the world, any time they like. The airlines have since plugged the holes, but they can’t take the privileges away.

      While I applaud their ingenuity in sticking it to the man, it is a rather expensive hobby in terms of what the rest of us pay for their entertainment.

  4. hmm, I suggested a traveler’s bill of rights yesterday and Ted writes about it today. How about a cut, Ted? jk – I would be proud to inspire a great man.

    My personal gripe – I’m a big guy and starting to have circulation problems. It used to be that I could get to the airport a couple hours early and score an exit aisle row. Can’t be done anymore because some Important Person reserved days before.

    But you need to show some empathy for those First Class passengers – their last row doesn’t recline either. 😉

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