Bad flight? Don't blame COVID

Air travel would be taking a nosedive even without the pandemic 

By almost every measure, air travel is getting worse. 

Consumer complaints soared to a new high last year. The Department of Transportation logged 102,550 grievances in 2020, compared with just 15,342 in 2019. That's more than a six-fold increase.

Air travelers lashed out, sometimes literally. The Federal Aviation has proposed more than $1 million in fines against unruly passengers this year. That's also a new record.

It would be easy to blame the pandemic for the airline industry's service failures. But it wouldn't be entirely correct.

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Truth is, the airline industry was already headed in this direction. And even when you factor in the deluge of post-pandemic refund complaints and the inevitable confrontations over face masks, you still have an industry that has intentionally forgotten how to deliver good customer service. 

It wants to be bad because at least in the short term, it's good for their bottom line.

A pandemic isn't enough to force the airline industry to change course. If anything, it's emboldened airlines to make more cuts, blaming the service reductions on COVID. But make no mistake, the airline industry is still in full control of its customer-unfriendly policies.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Has COVID made air travel worse? Or was it already heading in that direction? I’d love your perspective on this important issue.

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One pandemic won't change the airline industry

If there's one thing the airline industry doesn't like, it's change. Airlines love dependable income streams — the business travelers buying full-fare tickets and reclining in their lie-flat seats, the elites collecting their often worthless frequent flier miles, and the poor saps sitting in steerage, paying all those fees. 

Their reaction to an event like the pandemic, as we've seen, is to stay the course. Airlines vainly chased after corporate travelers during the pandemic. They feverishly sold more frequent flier miles. And they trimmed some fees only after receiving billions in federal aid

The business model is intact, though. Coddling your best customers while compressing the rest into the minimum possible space is a proven business strategy. And it's remained remarkably constant through 9/11, the Great Recession, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Air travel got worse because that was the plan all along.

COVID is a convenient excuse for more cuts

How has the pandemic affected customer service? That's open for debate, which you saw in Friday's lively forum discussion (subscription required). But the pandemic is a convenient excuse for all kinds of service cutbacks.

Airlines have quietly removed all kinds of amenities, most notably food and drink service, and blamed the pandemic. Their reasons don't always fly. For example, they've selectively restored meal service in business class, which suggests premium class passengers are less infectious. That's absurd.

Airlines have also dragged their feet on customer refunds. The files of my nonprofit consumer advocacy organization are bulging with thousands, if not tens of thousands, of refund complaints. An overwhelming majority are airline passengers who asked for their money back after their flights were canceled during the pandemic. Then they waited months until finally, they reached out to my advocacy team for help.

Airlines would like you to believe that slow refunds and service cutbacks are entirely the pandemic's fault. Nonsense. Airlines have been cutting back their service and offering slow refunds for years. The pandemic gave them a license to accelerate the process.

The trajectory is clear — air travel is getting worse, not better. But it was that way long before the first COVID-19 case.

$200 million for a "nice" airline

Consider Breeze Airways, the improbable pandemic startup airline. The air carrier launched earlier this year and has expanded to 16 destinations, mostly on the East Coast.

I interviewed Breeze's CEO, David Neeleman, last week. One thing he said stood out. When I asked him what he wanted to be known for — really, the main differentiator between Breeze and his competitors — he didn't hesitate.

"Niceness," he told me. "That we offer a great price, nonstop to where you're going, with people who care about your experience."

Niceness? In Neeleman's business plan for Breeze, hatched back in 2018, he was keenly aware of the long decline of service that has brought us to this point. The serial airline entrepreneur knew that going the other way would get it noticed, and might even make it successful. 

And investors agreed: Last month, Breeze secured another $200 million in funding, which probably guarantees it will become a household name in the airline industry. I even coined the phrase the "Breeze Effect." Let's see what happens with that.

COVID has nothing to do with this

So if you had a bad flight this year, please don't blame COVID. Your airline may want to, and so do the media pundits. The travelers around you might fault the pandemic for your crummy trip, too. Pay them no heed.

COVID has become a catch-all explanation for just about everything that’s gone wrong since 2020. But in the case of air travel at least, that doesn't necessarily align with the truth.

Airlines know that charging you more and giving you less is a reliable business strategy. They've intentionally reduced their customer service to maximize their profits, and they will continue to do so, no matter what happens.

Chances are, you'd have had a bad flight — even without a pandemic.

Time for your comments. To what extent do you think COVID is to blame for the airline service cutbacks this year? Are airlines using COVID as a scapegoat? Do you believe them?

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About the art

Artist Dustin Elliott says he imagined himself as a passenger peering over his airline seat to witness some “good ol’ American in-flight brutality.” “I sought to make air trauma playful and colorful — UFC bloodsport meets the blue skies of airline travel, rendered in very soothing pastels with soft flowing brushwork,” he says.