Stephen M. Walt

The top 10 things that make air travel annoying

On my recent trip to Japan, I was reminded once again of how jet travel has shrunk the globe: Had I wanted to visit Japan a hundred years ago, it would have taken me nearly a month just to get there and another month to get back. Today there’s a direct flight from Boston: 13 ...

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On my recent trip to Japan, I was reminded once again of how jet travel has shrunk the globe: Had I wanted to visit Japan a hundred years ago, it would have taken me nearly a month just to get there and another month to get back. Today there’s a direct flight from Boston: 13 hours and you’re there. Pretty miraculous, when you think about it.

Even though they routinely infuriate me, I actually have some sympathy for airline companies. They have enormous fixed costs, their expenses fluctuate unpredictably when the cost of jet fuel rises, and they can’t expand profitable routes as much as they might like to because they are inherently limited by the available infrastructure (i.e., access to gates, number of runways on which to land planes, etc.). Plus, airliners have been a prime terrorist target for decades, so they have to contend with a sometimes irrational consumer base that will cancel planned trips by the thousands if there’s a whiff of danger. Making a profit in this industry ain’t easy, which is why these companies seem to roll in and out of Chapter 11 with such frequency.

Nonetheless, there’s no question that jet travel has also become increasingly irritating.   The planes are bigger, smoother, and on the whole more comfortable than they used to be, and banning smoking on airlines has eliminated one of the worst features of the earlier era of flying. But the whole experience of getting from City A to City B is much less pleasant than it was when I first started traveling on a frequent basis. Interacting with airline companies is rarely fun: you’re either dealing with a distant operator, a balky website, or some web-based travel service giving you pre-packaged flight combinations that may or may not be what you’re looking for. And let’s not even get into the Alice-in-Wonderland world of margin pricing, which may make economic sense but also complicates the consumer’s booking process. I still love to travel and do a lot of it, but the emotional wear-and-tear is not to be underestimated.

So, with the summer travel season upon us, I offer today my top 10 infuriating features of modern jet travel.

#1. Perverse baggage incentives. To make more money, nowadays airlines routinely charge people to check a bag. The predictable result: More people use carry-ons, and airlines do a very poor job of regulating the size of bags they permit on the plane. But the planes don’t have more storage space, and people boarding late can’t find an overhead bin and are forced to check a bag anyway, which makes everyone more anxious. Equally predictable result: boarding takes longer, people get frustrated, and everyone has a worse time.

#2: Change fees. Another favorite gouging trick is to charge passengers an exorbitant "change fee" if they show up early and want to shift to an earlier flight. This step involves essentially zero cost to the airline: At most they have to print out a new ticket and maybe it takes about two minutes of an agent’s time (unless you do it at a self-service kiosk). In fact, taking an earlier flight on which there is space is actually in the airline’s interest: It fills up the earlier plane and that means there’s room on the later flight if somebody shows up and wants to buy a higher priced, last-minute ticket. So it’s a win-win for the airline, but they will still charge you $50 bucks or so to make their lives easier. Or you can save the money and sit there seething as you watch the earlier flight take off with an empty seat that you could have been in. Makes you really love the airline, doesn’t it?

#3: Low rent entertainment. Is it my imagination, or are airlines starting to cut corners on their entertainment packages, even on long-haul flights? On the plus side, the technology is much better: You often get multiple channels of music, films, TV or games, the better to fill up a long flight. Individual screens (even in coach) are obviously an improvement. But the downside is that the quality of the offerings is declining: Instead of movies you actually want to see, you get a series of Hollywood flops (John Carter, anyone?), boring documentaries, or bottom-shelf sitcoms. And as an added irritation, every airline I’ve been on recently now adds a bunch of commercials to the mix. In short, not only are you paying to get to your destination, you’re also paying for the privilege of being a captive audience to someone’s advertising.

#4: "Loyalty programs" with no real benefits. Airlines have become very adept at packaging loyalty programs, and I get a mailing once a year announcing that I’ve reached some new level complete with a new "silver," "gold," "bonus," "premium," "ultra," "elite" or whatever status. And each time I’m told that this new status will supposedly brings me all sorts of great benefits: automatic upgrades, etc., expedited check-ins, one free bag check (see above) etc. Except that I never actually seem to get any of these things in the real world, because I’m still one level short of the level where the real goodies kick in. Trying to use miles to get a free flight or a free upgrade remains a mine-field of restrictions and limitations (i.e., you’ll get your upgrade if there’s room, if the date isn’t blacked out, and if your "elite" status is "elite" enough. Maybe your experience is different than mine, but I feel like Zeno’s tortoise: I get more and more miles but never reach the promised land of a tangible payoff.

#5. The TSA two-step: I’ve kvetched at the whole TSA monstrosity before, and don’t have much new to add to my earlier comments. It’s inefficient, degrading, almost certainly fails any reasonable cost-benefit criteria, and probably does more than anything else to make flying annoying. Based on my travel to several dozen countries, I’d say the U.S. system is consistently more intrusive and prolonged than elsewhere. It’s not clear that anyone has an incentive to make the system work better: politicians won’t relax restrictions lest they get blamed should a terrorist attack occur sometime afterwards, TSA bureaucrats and "terrorism" consultants will want to keep their own budgets up, and airlines can exploit your irritation by charging you more money to get "express-lane" treatment. Someday I’ll probably be standing naked in a TSA line, and it won’t be a pretty sight.

#6. Keeping the passengers in the dark: Sometimes (but not always), airlines seem to share the Obama administration’s attitude about secrecy: What’s going on is for them to know and for you to wonder about. How often have you sat on a runway or at the gate while your departure time came and went, wondering what was going on, only to get an explanation 20 or 30 minutes later? An even worse variation on this theme is when airline personnel come on and explain there will be a short delay, and then come back 20 minutes later to explain there will be another short delay, and then tell you an hour later that the flight has been cancelled. Mind you, this opacity doesn’t happen all the time; indeed, sometimes pilots or ground agents are admirably clear about explaining what the situation is in a timely and informative way. But when they don’t, it’s time to reach for the Xanax.

#7: Late night dinners. This one’s a personal pet peeve: you board an overseas flight that leaves at 10 PM or later, and all you really want to do is pop an Ambien, recline your seat, and catch whatever sleep you can. But the airline insists on starting a full meal service about an hour after take-off (meaning it’s now after 11), which is the last thing you need at that point. Sure, you can skip the meal, but the lights will be on and there will be carts bumping up and down the aisles anyway. I appreciate that the airlines think they’re providing a service here, but I’d rather they saved the money on the dinner and just fed me a nice breakfast (and a decent cup of coffee) in the morning.

#8. The nanny state in the air. Commercial air travel has been going on for almost 100 years (the first commercial flight was in 1914). In all that time, I wonder how many lives have been lost or people injured because somebody’s tray table was not in the "fully upright and locked position?" Are you really putting your fellow passengers at risk if you are reading your Kindle or wearing your noise-canceling headphones while the plane is taking off or landing? I guess I can see why active cell phone use might be discouraged (although the actual risk to airline navigation and communication systems is hotly contested), but the airlines aren’t really very serious about this. They will stop you if you are talking on your cell phone or sitting there typing a text or email, but you can leave your phone turned on and in your holster and they’ll never be the wiser. I’ve forgotten to turn mine off countless times and nobody notices or cares, which suggests that the airlines are just conforming to regulations by making these announcements and occasionally punishing passengers addicted to Words with Friends.

#9. Airline websites, operators, and customer (dis)service. One of the obvious cost-cutting strategies that airlines have employed is to reduce the number of real people you can talk to and to force you to deal with machines instead. So you get self-service kiosks at airports, which are great until something goes even slightly wrong, at which point you have to find a real person who may or may not be there. Most airline websites remain remarkably clunky, and sometimes seem intentionally designed to drive you crazy. (A couple of years ago, I could almost have flown the Atlantic in the time it took me to book a ticket on one European carrier’s website). Or you can call the customer service line, and get one of those maddening robotic operators asking you questions in a faux-friendly voice, none of which actually get you closer to resolving whatever issue led you to call. Rule of thumb: If you’re calling an airline’s toll-free number, it’s almost always because you have a problem that couldn’t be solved on the website OR by a robot, and what you need is a real human being. But if that’s your situation, be prepared to listen to Muzak for a half hour before a real person picks up. Ah, the joys of modern cost-cutting capitalism.

#10. Travelers who rant about acts of fate/God. We’re all in this together, fellow travelers, and one final thing that can make flying unpleasant is when one of us melts down at circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control. When a hailstorm shuts an airport and screws up everyone’s schedule, it doesn’t do much good to take it out on the gate agents or the flight attendants or your fellow passengers. Lord knows I’m not the world’s most patient or sanguine traveler (as this entire post reveals), but we should all try to retain a certain go-with-the-flow attitude when the issue isn’t some man-made screw-up (and sometimes even when it is). I flew to Turkey back in May, and a fellow traveler told me that he made the same flight every month and that it had never been on-time. Not once. As it happened, we were four hours late (first bad weather, and then a sick passenger forced us to return to the gate just before takeoff). The other guy and I just looked at each other, smiled ruefully, and kept our cool. So did everyone else, thank goodness. And we eventually got where we were going, which was the whole point.

There: I feel better. And if your summer plans include some foreign travel, I can only say: "Bon Voyage!" (and bonne chance).

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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