On August 6, a United Airlines passenger at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was arrested after he refused to turn off his cell phone and then punched another passenger.

On September 11, a 27-year-old man on a JetBlue flight stood up and urinated onto the passengers seated in front of him.

On September 14, a woman lost it on an American Airlines flight from Miami to Chicago. She hit a crew member and another passenger. She was arrested after the plane made an emergency landing in Indianapolis.

On October 18, a man on a Southwest Airline flight from Los Angeles tried to choke the woman in front of him because she reclined her seat.

I know just how those perpetrators feel. (Well, maybe not the guy who peed.) And I’m not blaming them. These are passengers so fed up with the airlines that they lose all sense. They may have had their victims, but they are victims themselves—victims of airline irresponsibility, greed and scorn for their customers.

Have you taken a flight recently? It is humiliating. No room for your belongings, since everyone pulls a carry-on so as to avoid the charges the airlines impose for checking a bag. No room for you either. A person with medium-length legs cannot fit comfortably into the three-person row. You can’t use your tray table to work on your laptop or rest your book. The seat in front of you is too close even if the person sitting in it never reclines.

If they recline? That’s when the discomfort grows so great that people start complaining with their fists.

Business class is not much better. With a husband who has endured many flights for his work, I can sometimes use his miles to fly business class, hoping for more comfort. It’s not to be had. The electronics, which work poorly in most airlines, have captured the space between the seats, so even business class seats are narrower. Some airlines promise sleep on overnight trips because business class seats lie down. But lie-down is a lie.

On a recent overnight Delta flight, the seats sloped and the space for your feet was so cramped you couldn’t turn over. I emerged with a bruise on one ankle from banging into the sides. My husband declared those seats were like coffins.

On an overnight Turkish Air flight the “lie-down” seats were so sloped that passengers spent all night sliding down and trying to push themselves up.

Last year British Airways had real lie-down seats. They were comfortable, and a passenger could actually sleep. But that might have been only on one kind of plane. I can’t guarantee they still have them.

So why aren’t passengers beating up the airlines instead of each other? Why aren’t we holding sit-ins? Mounting fly-ins? Why aren’t we blocking the doors to the jet ways until the airlines treat us with respect?

People are complaining more to the Department of Transportation, but it’s not about the discomfort and tight quarters, even though that’s what they’re fighting about on the planes themselves. DoT lists as the most frequent complaints canceled flights, lost baggage, ticketing mistakes, food or lack thereof, excessive charges or no refunds for missed flights or changing plans, and rude employees. Rude employees is probably understandable since ticket agents and flight attendants are on the front line putting up with so many disgruntled passengers.

According to an article in USA Today, American and United had the most complaints in the first half of this year and JetBlue had the least among the long-haul airlines.

A forum for complainers exists at www.airlinecomplaints.org, but there is no evidence it has any effect on either the airlines or those who regulate them.

One organization, however, says it has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to put a moratorium on seat-size changes and passenger space. Paul Hudson, the president of FlyersRights, which bills itself as the “largest non-profit airline consumer organization,” says overcrowding is second or third in the complaints it hears. Hudson believes minimum seat standards should take into account how long it takes passengers to get out of an airplane in an emergency. Crowding so many passengers into an airplane is “unsafe because airplanes are required to be able to be evacuated in 90 seconds with half the exits disabled,” he said. He also said the reason the FAA never hears complaints about overcrowding is that “they have no category for that.”

Hudson and I discussed rumors floating around about double-decking passengers, installing bicycle seats and how over-crowding contributes to passengers getting blood clots. It was all quite depressing.

For now, the best idea is, whenever possible, take the train.

Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com. Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Go live in a third world country and maybe you’ll see how blessed you are to live in the U.S.A. – and to have such high class ‘inconveniences’…

  2. The conditions will only change when airlines really compete. When some airlines start up they offer more seat room in coach, free checked luggage and better fares, but once they are established, they join the other airlines realizing that as long as passengers have no alternative they will accept the miserable conditions. Greed rules! Supposedly Congress is investigating violation of anti trust laws involving possible under the table agreements among airlines. However, we are likely to have Star Trek transporters before anything positive comes from that.
    Karen, you suggested the alternative of the train. The inadequacy of the U. S. passenger rail system could be another topic for you. One other point, no matter how bad the misery of air travel is, we could make it better by not taking our frustrations out on our fellow passengers or plane crews who aren’t responsible for them.

  3. I never have any problems traveling. I think it’s all about attitude. I’m fit, so the seats are just fine. I’m also a 200 lbs. fit, so not a likely victim. Before boarding, I always chat up someone “similar” and get my seat changed if possible. On board, if someone within my radius of influence acts up, or seems like they are about to, I make my presence known. I remember this one guy kept defiantly reclining his seat despite numerous protests from the stewardess before take off. I got up and fixed the seat, said nothing. He stopped.

    You can’t take a train to Cali or Lisbon, so for now–I’ll keep flying. I recommend Virgin Atlantic. Use them if they go where you go, no matter what. True love.

  4. All intercontinental Delta flights feature fully flat beds—not “sloped” seats—in business class (AKA “Delta One”). Indeed, flat beds are becoming standard in international business class on many major airlines. Say what you will about economy seating, but Mrs. Cord Taylor’s claim that business class “is not much better” is flat-out ridiculous. Given her failure to distinguish between previous-generation and modern business class seats (and even the former is worlds better than economy), I take it the author isn’t very knowledgeable about the airline industry.

    • Karen seems very knowledgeable about the flying “industry”, taking into account her frequent travel on the airlines.

    • This is for Mark. I’m wondering about your experience with the flat seats on Delta. The last flight I took overnight to Europe, which was in August, had the cramped coffin like seats that were slightly sloped (not as bad as Turkish Airlines.) Have you had better? I left on a very big plane from Boston, so I’m assuming it was their latest rendition, but there may have been another upgrade in the past month. We were wishing we had gotten economy premium or whatever it was called. Very uncomfortable.

  5. I write this from an airplane, and until passengers stop shopping for the absolute cheapest ticket, this will never change.

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