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Have The 'Miserable' Airlines Finally Reached A Tipping Point?

A girl waits as travelers walk though the security line at O'Hare International Airport.
Joshua Lott
Getty Images
A girl waits as travelers walk though the security line at O'Hare International Airport.

In the wake of recent high profile incidents of customer mistreatment, most notably, the viral video of airport security officers dragging a passenger off a United Airlines plane last month, commercial airlines are scrambling to regain the trust of air travelers.

But some industry observers say rebuilding that consumer trust will be difficult because the airlines' harsh conduct in the last couple of weeks may have inadvertently pushed passengers just too far.

Let's face it, even before these recent incidents on American Airlines and Delta, in addition to United, air travel had already become a dreadful experience for many of us.

"I think it's terrible," said Paul DePaulis of Houston, as he prepares to board a United Airlines flight home at Chicago's O'Hare airport. "We're a bunch of tuna crammed into a can and it's miserable," he said. "I hate it."

Still, DePaulis says he has to fly almost every week. "No choice," he said, "business."

DePaulis says it's not just United. Most airlines are squeezing more people into smaller seats, restricting carry-ons and making passengers cramped, cranky and craving comfort.

On his way back to Philadelphia, business traveler Tim Nelson tried to take it all in stride.

"I look at from the standpoint of, I'm gonna get on the plane, I'm gonna get off the plane and don't expect much. Because that way, you aren't disappointed," said Nelson.

But Nelson says United's front-line employees do seem nicer since the incident in which a passenger was violently dragged off a plane.

Peggy Garrett just arrived from Denver and noticed the same thing.

"They tried today; they were very accommodating today," said Garrett. "They seemed to say a couple of things, like 'let us know what we can do to make you more comfortable' and I don't think I've heard that in a while."

"I think this is a turning point, I think it is," said Nelly Munoz of Pembroke Pines, Fla. After seeing how quickly United employees responded to her complaints — she and her husband had purchased two seats together but were re-seated several rows apart — Munoz thinks that better customer service is here to stay.

"I mean, I noticed it right away that they came in to accommodate us after I made those comments," she said, "so I think they are trying to improve customer service."

United and other airlines took a verbal beating in two congressional hearings last week, with lawmakers threatening to mandate significant customer-focused policy changes if the airlines don't improve themselves.

"This has to be a turning point for the 87,000 people and professionals here at United," said United CEO Oscar Munoz, as he apologized before the House Transportation Committee last week, "and it is my mission to make sure that we make the changes needed to provide our customers the highest levels of service, of course, but also, a deeper sense of respect and trust and dignity."

That may be easier said than done, and not just for United.

"It appears that broad-scoped trust in the airlines, that's the kind of trust people have in the industry as a whole, has suffered a big shock over the past month," said Kent Grayson, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management who studies the psychology of consumer trust.

He says while recent incidents of passenger mistreatment have gone viral, the more gradual erosion of consumer trust in airlines isn't new.

"As a result of airline activities and decision making over really the past maybe even 10 years, customers have slowly but surely started to feel as if airlines don't always have their back," he said. He adds that whether it's true or not, the common perception appears to be that airlines put profit over passenger comfort, and it is that perception that matters most.

But Grayson thinks that airline executives now get it and are trying to change that perception.

After another viral incident in which Delta removed a family from a flight, the airline canceled a media day that was scheduled for this week after, writing on its website that "the timing is not right to showcase Delta's product innovations and global strategy."

Veteran aviation industry journalist Benét Wilson, who blogs about air travel at AviationQueen.com, notes that airlines had already begun to invest in service improvements even before this latest round of airline shaming.

"What this incident did was kind of serve as a catalyst and a wake up call to the airlines saying you need to continue to swing the pendulum in the direction of just an overall better passenger experience."

Wilson says a big test for the airlines is coming up soon with the busy summer travel season.

You can be sure that many of those being packed onto planes will have their cell phones out and ready to record any stumble the airlines make in their effort to increase passenger comfort while still protecting profits.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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