Airline passengers have been at the mercy of airlines for long enough. Isn’t it time for the FAA to do its job?
For years now, in their hunt for profitability, the airlines have gradually herded passengers into an increasingly uncomfortable and expensive mode of travel. Overbooking is the norm, which can stop ticketed passengers from staying on their flight. Seat and leg room have diminished, a potential danger to long-distance fliers who can develop Deep-Vein Thrombosis, a life-threatening blood-clot condition. Fees are charged for everything from bulkhead seats and checked baggage, to neighboring assigned seating for families. Some airlines are beginning to toy with the idea of charging for carry-on luggage or use of overhead bins. Pillows and blankets, if available, must be paid for. In-flight entertainment is almost non-existent. Meals, still of poor quality, are now ala carte, and some carriers charge for any kind of beverage, including water.
To complement the unpleasantness of air travel, gate agents and flight crews have become less friendly, with many being downright surly. All of this has arisen from both airline deregulation and the failure of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to compel carriers to improve travel conditions. In fact one might fairly say the FAA has become little more than another trade group for the airline industry, compromising passenger rights and some aviation experts say, flight safety protocols.
Recent affronts to commercial air travelers include the assault on a United Airlines passenger, a 69-year-old physician who was dragged from his seat and seriously injured by Chicago Aviation Authority Police at O’Hare Airport. United demanded his seat on an overbooked flight, so it could give it to one of their employees. The attack was filmed by passengers, posted online and picked up by the media worldwide. Initially United Chief Executive Officer Oscar Muñoz tried to downplay the incident and told employees in a leaked internal communication, that they acted properly. Later he was forced to retract his comments and make numerous public mea culpas. Too little, too late and it likely cost him a promotion to chairman of the company.
Then on an American Airlines international flight at San Francisco Airport, a male cabin attendant yanked a stroller away from a mother who was carrying two babies, in the process hitting her with it in the face. An outraged male passenger verbally intervened for her, but the crewman tried to egg him into a fist fight. The aircraft captain had to step in and force the flight attendant to take a seat. This time an airline reacted swiftly, suspending the employee, apologizing to the passengers, upgrading the woman to first class and putting her on another flight. This physical attack was recorded on cell phone video, posted online and went viral.
Many other incidents of airline employees abusing passengers don’t get reported, usually because they haven’t been filmed. But they happen and the carriers do everything they can to cover them up. However, passengers can fight back, not by physical confrontation, but within the legal system. Whatever happens on an aircraft is under the jurisdiction of federal authorities. Passengers who have been assaulted by airline personnel can report the matter to the airport police, and then follow-up with a formal complaint to the FBI. If a crime has been committed against the passenger, local prosecutors or US attorneys can bring criminal charges resulting in the arrest of the worker.
Even without a prosecution, passengers who have been subject to physical abuse can bring a civil suit against the carrier in federal court. Publicity in these cases, and the potential for the airline to have to pay out significant monetary damages, is exactly what these companies want to avert. If legal action, civil or criminal, happens often enough it might even wake up the FAA to the fact that they are a public agency and cannot rubber stamp every wish or deed of commercial air carriers. It will certainly force the airlines into changing their abhorrent behaviors towards the flying public, and help make the discomforts of air travel just a bit easier. These abuses would quickly stop if Congress compelled the FAA and the carriers to treat passengers like human beings, not farm animals traveling to market.