2017-04-12 14:47:03
Update: In the Air, That Uneasy Feeling of ‘Us vs. Them’

When a passenger was forcibly removed from his seat aboard an April 9 United Airlines flight to Louisville, Ky., before it left the gate in Chicago, the video taken by onlookers seemed to capture the mood in the air: us versus them.

“There’s a lot of blame to go around, not the least of which is the overall culture of aviation where customer service issues have become law enforcement issues,” said Gary Leff, author of the travel blog Viewfromthewing.com. “Rather than practicing de-escalation, any disagreement with the crew becomes seen as a threat.”

How the industry reached the unfriendly skies is a journey that goes back to 9/11, which ushered in greater security regulations and carry-on restrictions. In the aftermath of 9/11, “not following crew instructions immediately could be seen as a threat, and they take all threats seriously,” Mr. Leff said. “Airline employees are in positions of extreme power and authority.” Noting that not all crews are authoritarian, he added, “the emphasis has shifted.”

Adding to the challenges were the global recession and the fuel price spikes of 2008, when the number of fliers dropped and the cost to fly them soared.

“That sequence of 9/11, the fuel price spike and the recession forced airlines to reinvent themselves in a way that they probably always would have been if it was a clean sheet project,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, an industry publication.

Before the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the government controlled airfares and routes, and airlines vied to differentiate themselves with meals and leg room. They hung on to these conventions, for the most part, until around 2008 when that reinvention introduced the idea of unbundling services like checked bags and meals, making them pay-per-use options.

Airlines also cut capacity, flying fewer planes with more people aboard. When the economy rebounded, most carriers stuck with the practice or put more seats on bigger planes.

“Their policy now is that capacity discipline is key to maintaining airline profitability,” said Douglas Kidd, the executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, a group that advocates more transparency in fares, more comfort in the air and less intrusive security measures. “In the past, so many airlines were vying for market share. Now with consolidation, with four to five major airlines, they don’t have to worry about market share.”

Deregulation led to competitive pricing and new low-cost carrier entries like Southwest Airlines that democratized air travel in the United States. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average domestic fare in 1995 in today’s dollars was $459. In 2016, the average was $349, down nearly 24 percent.

But even a good deal can contribute to frustration in the air when a ticket on one carrier offers more or fewer services than another, making it hard to compare fares. Southwest fares, for example, include checked bags, Delta Air Lines charges most passengers to check a bag, and Spirit Airlines charges for checked and carry-on baggage.

“It’s not just between airlines but within the carrier, where different classes like economy or premium economy mean different things,” Mr. Kaplan said.

Still, a ticket guarantees a flight, right? Yes, but as the United case illustrates, not necessarily the one a passenger has booked.

“When you buy a ticket, you subscribe to a Contract of Carriage that says basically that they can remove you at any time for many reasons, from the government requesting the space to you not smelling good,” said Mr. Kidd of the airline passengers’ association.

The carrier is obligated to transport the passenger by rebooking the flier on a future flight. At that point, the airline must compensate the passenger based on the destination and length of delay.

United’s terms, which are standard in the industry, stipulate that the airline must compensate passengers on domestic flights who were involuntarily denied boarding on an oversold flight at double the fare they paid, up to $675, if the alternative flight is scheduled to arrive less than two hours after the original flight. Beyond that it must pay four times the original fare, up to $1,350.

Normally these sorts of boarding decisions are made in the gate area and rarely occur on the flight. In the United case, forcibly bumping a passenger contributed to tension not just on that plane but across the industry.

“It’s important to follow the directions of flight crew members, but when they don’t seem to make a lot of sense, it hurts aviation security as a whole,” said Jeffrey C. Price, professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Ejecting a flier may be legal, but it also affects passenger perceptions of an airline, even if passengers are required to follow a flight crew’s instructions, including surrendering a seat.

“There is a lot of research in organizational settings that suggests perceptions of unfairness lead to anger, hostility and spiteful behavior,” wrote Elizabeth Popp Berman, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany in an email. “When an airline’s decision to remove passengers is seen as unfair because it does not conform to expectations about passengers’ rights or the airline’s obligations, it is not surprising that passengers will become less compliant.”