The Ordeal of Airplane Travel

Updated on July 19, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

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

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 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 cattle pen.
Airport cattle pen. | Source

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 super model. Then, there's the probability of flying in the opposite direction to their final destination to catch a connecting flight back to 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.

Passenger question:

“Can you ask the crew to fly lower as my wife is scared of heights?”

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 2016. 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.

Ominously, Fortune says “While grievances filed with the DOT represent only a fraction of overall complaints, they are thought to be a reliable barometer of airline customer service.”

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.

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

Passenger question:

“How do you wind down the window?”

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, February 2009) “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.

Passenger question:

“This whirring sound is giving me a headache; can you turn the engines off?”

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.

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 travellers are just some of the worst offenders …” Actually no. Flight attendants report far more outlandish behaviours. For those with a desire to find out how awful passengers can be a Google search for "Passenger shaming" will get the job done.

Between 2007 and 2015, the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) collected more than 49,000 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.

Passenger question:

“Why is the cost of a ticket the same if I fly from New York to Buenos Aires as it is if I fly in the reverse direction? Going from north to south is downhill all the way so you won’t use anywhere near as much fuel.”


  • “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.

That was then.
That was then. | Source

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      20 months ago from UK

      This makes for interesting reading. The phrase ' being herded like cattle' often springs to mind when going through check in/security/boarding followed by 'being packed in like sardines' on economy flights.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Surprising but on second thought, not really. Funny sometimes although the issues are serious. Thanks for sharing these bits of information about air travel. Good presentation!

    • srsddn profile image


      3 years ago from Dehra Dun, India

      Quite interesting, Rupert. Very nicely described. I enjoyed the description as well as videos. The Cheap Flights was the master piece. Thanks for sharing.


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