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The Ordeal of Airplane Travel

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Economy. Also known as cattle class.

Economy. Also known as cattle class.

Lost Flights, Lost Baggage, Lost Patience

Flying today is something endured, but rarely enjoyed. It's no wonder that airlines are constantly deluged with complaints and that flight attendants have to deal with angry passengers.

Airline Employees Have it Rough

After almost three decades of working in the airline industry, Steven Slater had had enough. In the now-legendary story, the Jet Blue flight attendant had met up with one insufferable passenger too many.

Arriving in New York in August 2010, The Daily Mail’s David Gardner reported that Slater, “used the public address system to launch a four-letter tirade at shocked travellers . . . Then he grabbed his bags—and two cans of beer from the galley—and popped the lever for the plane’s inflatable emergency chute.”

It was a spectacular resignation and one cheered by just about every flight attendant in the world.

After completing counselling, substance abuse treatment, and one year of probation, Mr. Slater was a free man, but with few prospects for employment as a flight attendant.

Airport customer "service" area.

Airport customer "service" area.

Airline Customer Complaints

By the time they get to their seats, passengers have been stuck in line-ups, subjected to various indignities by rent-a-cop security personnel with bad attitudes, and herded like cattle into departure lounges to wait, and then wait some more.

More than a few have spent time over-refreshing themselves in the bar to face the trial of being squeezed into a seat designed to carry the bottom of someone with the body size of a supermodel.

Then, there's the probability of flying in the opposite direction to their final destination to catch a connecting flight back home because it’s more convenient for the airline to do it that way. That’s if you’re not bumped because the carrier overbooked the flight.

No wonder flight attendants run into cranky passengers a lot.

Fortune magazine reports that complaints about airlines in the U.S. rose by 30 percent from 2014 to 2015. More than 20,000 passenger complaints were lodged with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2019. American Airlines drew the highest number but that's because they carry the most passengers; discount carrier Spirit got the most on a per-customer basis.

And, it has gotten worse—a lot worse. During the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines laid off a lot of staff and parked hundreds of aircraft; they have been slow to return to pre-pandemic services. The Air Travel Consumer Report for April 2022 from the DOT shows 4,423 complaints. That's an increase of a whopping 321 percent over April 2019.

Complaints usually involve flight cancellations and delays, lost baggage, missed connections, and the like. But, there’s nothing an airline can do about flyers who are a little challenged when it comes to geography.

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The Daily Telegraph reported that one airline customer moaned, “It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England it only took the Americans three hours to get home.”

Unruly Passengers

Airline Marketing Strategies

Was it really that long ago that coquettish Cheryl and her stewardess colleagues (as they were called back then) were inviting National Airlines passengers to “Fly Me?”

A Time Magazine article from November 1971 reported that “Some National stewardesses decided that the idea amounted to a personal rather than a commercial proposition, and was a blatant sexist pitch.”

Time quotes the airline’s Public Relations Director Robert Mattel as saying, apparently with a straight face: “We had no preconceived idea of injecting a suggestive leer into the campaign.” Of course not—to the pure all things are pure.

Clearly, National was not aiming its sales pitch at the kind of passenger described by flight attendant James Wysong in Consumer Traveler.

He wrote that a middle-aged man complained that the skirt of a female flight attendant was too short: “He said that every time the attractive crew member closed an overhead bin he got an eyeful. The gentleman was traveling with his wife and did not care to be turned on in such a manner.”

The diplomatic attendant suggested a good strategy might be to just look the other way.

Poor Quality Cabin Air

Aircrew Health points out that the cabins of modern airliners contain elevated levels of ozone, airborne allergens, and carbon monoxide. All these and other chemicals can cause drowsiness, and throat and eye irritation.

In addition, an investigation by the German television network ARD (reported by Charles Starmer-Smith of The Telegraph) “found high levels of a dangerous toxin on board several planes.”

Of 31 aircraft tested, “Twenty-eight were found to contain high levels of tricresyl phosphate (TCP), an organophosphate contained in modern jet oil as an anti-wear additive, which can lead to drowsiness, headaches, respiratory problems, or neurological illnesses.”

The BBC explains that “At the altitude at which commercial jets fly, the air pressure does not allow humans to breathe independently.

“To overcome this, hot compressed air is drawn from the plane’s engines and, once cooled, directed into the cabin to supply breathable air—known as bleed air.” Now, that’s a comforting word for it, and it doesn't help when we learn that folks campaigning for cleaner cabin air refer to the problem as “aerotoxic syndrome.” The airlines say no such condition exists.

The Noxious Fumes of the Obnoxious

Passengers, of course, would have no clue they are inhaling this stuff, but they can detect the gassy traveler when they’re in the confined company of one.

Flight attendant James Wysong recalls coming across one such customer in first class:

“It got so bad that many of the passengers put their earplugs in their nostrils. One of the flight attendants sniffed about until she located the culprit, whom she advised to use the lavatory when the next gas attack struck.”

The brave lady got a round of applause from the relieved flyers and several letters of commendation. No word on whether guilty party has been placed on any “no-fly” lists.

Comedian Encounters a Flatulent Passenger

Bonus Factoids

  • At least two websites on Facebook and Instagram feature images of airline passengers grossing out everybody else on the plane. Canadian Television News reports “Bare feet on the tray table, topless, and even pantless travelers are just some of the worst offenders . . .” Actually no. Flight attendants report far more outlandish behaviors. For those with a desire to find out how awful passengers can be a Google search for "Passenger shaming" will get the job done.
  • In a 10-year period, the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) collected more than 66,000 reports of unruly airline passengers. These range from verbal assaults, physical aggression, damage to the aircraft, and “riotous behaviour.” But, IATA doesn’t represent all airlines, so the real number of air rage incidents is much higher.


  • “World Discovers a New Hero.” David Gardner, The Daily Mail,August 11, 2010.
  • “Airline Passenger Complaints Soared Last Year.” Christopher Elliott, Fortune, February 18, 2016.
  • “The Most Ridiculous Complaints Made by Tourists.” The Daily Telegraph, October 1, 2016.
  • “The Nation: Fly me.” Time Magazine, November 15, 1971.
  • “10 Wacky Complaints about Air Travel,” James Wysong, Consumer Traveler, April 15, 2008.
  • “How Safe is Air Quality on Commercial Planes?” Jim Reed and Adam Eley, BBC, June 8, June 2015.
  • “‘How Do you Wind the Window Down?’ Revealing the Most Hilarious Questions Passengers Have Asked Flight Attendants.” John Hutchinson, Mail Online, September 21, 2015.

Early In-Flight Service

That was then.

That was then.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor

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