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Airline Annoyances You Can and Can’t Avoid

The biggest gripe among airline travelers, says a new Consumer Reports survey, is “luggage charges,” but the report lists another 11 annoyances. Although the CR story provides some interesting demographic cross-tabulations, to me the more interesting take is to see who is responsible for the various individual gripes—and which ones you can avoid and which you can’t.

Out of the total of 12 tabulated annoyances, nine are fully or partially the direct result of airline policies and practices:

  • The largest number—”Rude or unhelpful staff,” “Can’t reach a live service rep,” “Poor communication about delays,” “Long waits at baggage claim,” and “Long lines for security or check-in”—are problems you can’t avoid, and are 100 percent the airlines’ fault. They reflect the airlines’ failure to provide basic customer care and service, and they’re probably the result of overall poor or uncaring management, ineffective supervision, and outdated system designs.
  • Three others—”Luggage charges” (I’m pretty sure they really meant “Baggage charges”), “Added fees,” and “Puny snacks or none”—represent problems you can avoid by planning not to use or buy. People are clearly annoyed when they have to pay for something formerly included in the base fare, but at least they can avoid paying.
  • “Flight delays” is also partly an airline problem. Sure, the basic cause of many delays—maybe even most delays—is bad weather, and the government has been woefully slow to roll out available and proven technological advances in air traffic navigation and control that would alleviate much of the delay problem. Nevertheless, airlines must share in that blame, for scheduling and operational failures that often make weather delays much worse than they need to be.

{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}The other three major gripes are strictly the fault of fellow passengers, not the airlines: “Seatmates who hog your space,” “People who hog carry-on space,” and “Crying babies.” Still, airlines could do a better job than they do of policing the numbers and sizes of bags people carry onboard and of requiring oversize travelers to buy two seats. As a personal note, I’d add “Noisy gum chewers” and “People in front of you who recline their seatback into your face” to the list of top passenger-generated nuisances.

Of course, these gripes represent minor annoyances and frustrations, not a broader take on “what’s wrong with air travel.” In that category, I’d nominate “Seats designed for anorexic jockeys” as the major problem, and, for many, I’d add “Inability to get frequent flyer seats” as another significant frustration. I know that lots of you would specify “High fares” as sort of a knee-jerk response as the number one problem, but I would remind you that, even at today’s fares, most airlines are losing money, and it’s unrealistic to call for still lower rates. After all, when you lose money on most seats, you can’t make it up in volume. Certainly today’s fare structure has some serious imbalances, and fares on some noncompetitive routes are outrageous. Overall, however, fares have got to increase for the industry to survive.

The Consumer Reports survey also included gripes with hotels and rental cars, and they tended to mirror the top airline problems. Apparently, flying isn’t the only part of your trip where you can encounter “Rude or unhelpful staff” and “Added fees.” These two perennials scored about the same for hotels and rental cars as for airlines. The other gripes were what you’d expect—uncomfortable beds, dirty or damaged car, and such.

In a broader context, airlines, generally, tend to rate very low in customer satisfaction, as compared to other consumer industries. I recall a survey a few years ago that rated the airlines below the IRS in customer satisfaction—how low can you get? Fortunately, hotels usually fare fairly well, and I guess you tolerate rental car companies even if you don’t love them. But airlines, unless you’re in the front cabin, you aren’t very pleased. But you keep flying. Go figure.

What’s your biggest complaint with the airlines? Share your thoughts by adding a comment below!

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