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A Few Words about Why People Hate Airlines, Part 1

I try hard not to write about what others in the airline blogging world are writing about, but Cranky Flier earlier this week touched on a story about an NYU Professor (and blogger) named Jay Rosen who flew cross-country on Virgin America and discovered that the power outlet at his seat didn’t work (James Fallows at the Atlantic originally mentioned this here.)  In short, Rosen was on a VA flight and discovered that for whatever reason, when he plugged in his laptop, the powerport at his seat no longer worked.  The hypothesis is that either in-seat power on planes can’t handle a full flight of people plugged in (not true), or that some laptops cause a power surge thereby shutting off its ability to recharge until you unplug then replug it in (basically true).

This is not about in-seat power.  This is about the power that consumers think they have over companies, and this is specifically about the unbelievable animosity that passengers have toward airlines.  As soon as Rosen discovered that his power was out he used the airline’s free in-flight wireless to Tweet his followers his dismay about the plug (Fallows includes the Twitter exchange):

“Virgin America’s claim to offer power at every seat is false. I am experiencing that fake claim now.”

Zero to 100 in .1 seconds. Instantly accusing the airline of lying.  Over a (possibly) broken power plug.  There’s some back and forth with VA over twitter — WHILE HE’S FLYING, mind you, on what I’m guessing is probably a $119 transcon ticket and enjoying free Internet 6 miles above the Earth — and then accuses the airline of lying (“your claim is a lie.”)  and threatens to take the whole thing to his Twittering masses of readers.

How many things are wrong with the picture?  A grown man getting this riled up over a power plug during a flight.  Said grown man accusing an airline of lying.  The aforementioned individual getting into a pissing match with an airline employee over whether his broken plug constitutes lying.  The same guy then threatening to spread this accusation without any proof whatsoever.

VA’s twitter-er handled the entire episode with aplomb (“Would you mind sharing your flight/seat # so I can share with our Engineering dept? Sorry for the inconvenience”), while I would’ve gone completely apeshit (excuse me) on the guy.

How did we get to this point where passengers have such an enormous and unwarranted sense of entitlement?  How did the relationship between passengers and the airlines become so poor that every slight suffered is magnified into a diatribe that every Facebook friend/Twitter follower has to endure whenever people fly?  Why did the guy in the row behind me on my flight home over the weekend start screaming at the flight attendant when he thought she was touching his hat in the overhead bin?  The assumption is automatically that every airline is out to get us, that every policy is meant to screw us over, and that every interaction with personnel is accusatory.

All of this in a golden age of flying.  Airfares are as cheap as ever (well, they were as cheap as ever last year, and they’re somewhat higher this year), and in-flight amenities — free, in many cases — are abundant.  Yes, you have to pay $6 to eat something, but on many airlines watching live television, using the internet and plugging in your laptop are all gratis.  Flights are plentiful and we can fly to more places nonstop than ever before.  Alliances and frequent flyer programs mean that for opening a credit card we can get a free business class trip to Europe.

And that is the backdrop for the relationship that passengers have with airlines – cheap fares, free flights and 95% of the world’s cities are a one-stop flight away.  Yet there has never been more vitriol and hatred spewed at these airlines than we have seen in the past couple of years.  Sure, social networking and review sites have made this true for other industries (I have noted my frustration with the incessant whining at Tripadvisor here and with people saying a given airline “sucks” here.)  But airlines have certainly taken the brunt of it.

Part of the reason is that social media has made everyone assume they are an expert in just about everything.  The gentleman mentioned at the top of this column is a journalism professor who, in the twitter exchange with Virgin America, makes himself out to be (apparently) an electrical engineer.  TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington (who knows better) wrote a ridiculous rant about his flight “from JFK to hell” that inspired more than 500 comments.  Flying has become “intolerable.”  The problem that caused his trip to be hellish?  His bag was lost.

Everyone’s an expert.

Tomorrow, Part 2:  How Did the Airlines Contribute to the Backlash?

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