Why are airline passengers so mad?

Outdated mask rules and an oversize airline bailout have left air travelers feeling cranky

It happened again on Friday. An angry passenger screaming "STOP THE PLANE!" tried to break into the cockpit on a Delta Air Lines flight from Los Angeles to Nashville. The crew restrained him, and the flight diverted to Albuquerque.

It's just the latest in a string of air rage incidents. The most high-profile so far is a violent confrontation in San Diego in which a Southwest Airlines passenger assaulted a flight attendant and knocked out two of her teeth. That scuffle may lead to a permanent ban on alcohol served on planes.

Maybe now is the right time to ask why airline passengers are upset. I think the reasons for this post-pandemic fury range from an obsolete mask rule to an oversize bailout and an ungrateful response from the airline industry. There's one easy solution — and a few difficult ones.

As always, I’d love to get your feedback on this important issue. If you’re reading this newsletter online you can scroll to the bottom to leave a comment or just push the big red button now:

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Blame it all on alcohol?

Face it, the mask rules in effect now don't make much sense. Since January, the Department of Transportation has required face masks on public transportation, including flights. It claims traveling on public transit increases a person’s risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 by bringing people into close contact, often for prolonged periods, and exposing them to frequently touched surfaces. 

But the rules don't align with the reality of travel today. More than half of Americans are vaccinated, and the CDC has relaxed its guidance for people who have had their shots. There are other places where people are in close contact with others, including grocery stores and offices, where the mask rules are different.

The Federal Aviation Administration has received approximately 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers during the pandemic, including about 1,900 passengers refusing to comply with the federal face mask mandate. 

The airline industry's fix? Ban alcohol!

Certainly, some of the confrontations involve alcohol presumably consumed before takeoff. But the decision to temporarily suspend alcohol service sends the wrong message: Blame the booze for the in-flight scuffles. That's offensive because it implies all angry air travelers are raging alcoholics and that the only way to stop them is to take away their drinks. 

That's not the answer. The issue is far more complex. Besides alcohol, you have these perplexing face mask rules. And one more thing. If you review the eyewitness accounts of this year's air rage incidents, it's clear that flight crews are partially to blame for escalating the situation. They're in a difficult spot, forced to be the mask police. An ambiguous law that says failure to obey a flight crew is a federal crime doesn't help.  I’ll have more on that in a minute.

Suffice it to say that passengers aren't lashing out on their own.

🎧 EXTRAListen to my exclusive podcast on angry air travelers.

How airlines are stoking the flames

Part of the problem is how airlines have behaved during the pandemic. They've pocketed an almost record amount of government aid since the outbreak. The airline industry alone has received a generous $59 billion bailout or the equivalent of $168 for every American.

And what did taxpayers get for it? Sure, airlines eliminated some change fees. But they were only too happy to let the ticket credits you received during the pandemic expire. A congressional effort to persuade airlines to offer refunds or ticket credits that don't expire has not succeeded. 

Don't believe me? Here's the letter Senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal sent to the U.S. carriers last month. And here's the airline industry's tone-deaf response, which basically says, "We've done enough."

Air travelers aren't stupid. When every American is paying $168 to the airline industry and the industry is pocketing even more of their money in unused tickets, can you blame them for being upset?

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Is the future worse?

If you think air rage is a problem now, give it a few weeks. Airfares continue to rise, and in some markets, readers are complaining that they're higher than they were in 2019. At the same time, airlines like United are showing just how out of touch they are with their customers by buying 15 supersonic planes. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm as excited about supersonic air travel as I was in January of 1976 when the Concorde launched. 

But United's timing is beyond awful. It's a perennial bottom-feeder in the customer service department, and employee morale is at about the same level as the TSA. It has a reputation for dragging passengers off planes and beating them over the head with fees. Maybe it should have spent the billions that it will splurge on the supersonic planes on improving its customer service — and perhaps refunding the expiring ticket credits we lost during the pandemic.

The optics are also terrible. It received another $5 billion in government aid just last April. And now it's buying a fleet of luxury planes to cater to its elites? 

Come on.

It's really just a matter of time before United and other carriers quietly reintroduce some of their most hated fees. Ticket change fees will be back, but maybe under a different name. Luggage fees will rise, perhaps as early as next year. 

It's a funny way to say "thank you" for the generous taxpayer support during the pandemic. But then, most airlines feel we are lucky to have them. Honestly, that's the attitude: Where would you be without us?

What should happen

How do you de-escalate these angry confrontations? You start with fixing the mask rule. I'm a supporter of vaccination passports. If you don't have a vaccination, then show a negative COVID test, and you can board. Let's get a system that works, not one that assumes everyone is infected.

We need to stop expecting flight crews to be the mask police. It's not something for which they were trained. They're not particularly good at it, either. Requiring a vaccination passport or a negative test and dropping the mask rule would fix that.

Long term, there are two solutions. First, maybe we need to take another look at 49 U.S. Code § 46504. The regulation says anyone who "assaults, threatens, or intimidates a flight crew member or attendant" is in violation of federal law. Some flight attendants have shortened that to, "It is a federal offense to disobey a crewmember's instructions." You can see how that might be a problem, potentially creating an airborne tyrant. Clarifying that wordy statute might go a long way to keeping everyone in their place.

The second and maybe more difficult change must happen at a higher level — in the halls of the legislatures and the corner offices of the airline headquarters. Congress has to stop coddling the air carriers. There should be no more government aid without meaningful concessions to consumers. For example, ticket credits should not expire. Fees should be reasonable and directly related to a task performed by the carrier, not a random money grab. Airlines need to find a better way of saying "thank you" than declaring we're lucky they exist.

Are you flying mad?

No wonder people are still reluctant to fly. They see this nonsense, and they say, "I'm going to drive instead." But for those of us who make it to the airport in 2021, are we already mad before leaving our homes? Mad that we had to pay more than we expected, mad that we have to wear an uncomfortable mask even though we're vaccinated, mad at the flight attendant who tells us we're not wearing our masks correctly, mad that the airlines still get to keep the money from our last canceled flight?

Well, take a deep breath. It's going to be a long summer. But the rich government bailouts will end soon. Who knows, maybe the airlines will have to actually compete for your business after that? And maybe — just maybe —- the Department of Transportation and Congress will start doing their job and protect you.

Your turn. Are you flying mad this summer or not flying at all? Do you think airlines are being treated fairly by the government, or are they being overprotected? What are your solutions to this problem?

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