I’m old enough to remember when flying domestically in this country was actually a pleasure. It was truly an idyllic time: no intrusive security screenings, free meals included with the price of a ticket, free blankets and pillows, in-flight magazines, a free movie (sometimes even two!), and fairly comfortable seats. There were no admonitions to keep your seat belt fastened “at all times” mid-flight, no obnoxious credit card pitches delivered over the plane’s PA system, and most notably there was usually plenty of overhead baggage space because people typically checked their bags free of charge without feeling compelled to overstuff a so-called “travel bag” containing a week’s worth of necessities simply to avoid being charged an onerous fee.
The pre-flight environment was also noticeably different. Boarding was a fairly routine process, unencumbered by selective prioritization of certain passengers beyond first class, active military members, families with small children, and people with disabilities. (The standard call was for “people who need a little extra time to board.”) Overbooked flights were seldom a problem, and if someone had the misfortune of being bumped due to overbooking, the airline would immediately try to find you an alternative flight on another carrier, or, if necessary, provide you with a voucher and transportation cost to a decent hotel for the night. People generally weren’t forced to sleep in airports, for example.
Virtually none of those amenities exist anymore for domestic fliers. Instead the process for passengers on most of the major airlines is akin to a “Hunger Games” competition for ever-dwindling vestiges of common decency. It’s a grasping for small gestures of magnanimity evidencing some slight reassurance that the airlines regard their customers as anything but cattle to be prodded into an uncomfortable, stifling, and sterile metal tube for several hours. In short, for most Americans it’s an unpleasant, stress-inducing experience. Throw in the time constraints and added pressure occasioned by the holidays and it becomes even worse.
Of course, customers—particularly ones who still possess some dim, vestigial recollection of that halcyon “before” time—have reacted in ways you might expect.
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One of the more perverse incentives spawned by this long-term degradation of the flying experience is the predictable response by people to try to gain even the slightest advantage to improve their dismal lot. For many, that simply means actually being able to embark and disembark carrying the same travel bag the airline has effectively—through its exorbitant fee policies for checked bags— forced you to fill to capacity. (Some so-called “economy” carriers—such as Frontier—even charge you for that “privilege,” while at least one airline, Southwest, does not impose fees for two checked bags.)
But as most travelers are acutely aware, the policy of pre-boarding by most airlines of their favored passengers—the ones who have shelled out the high cost of a “business class” ticket, or the ones who have joined the airlines rewards programs either through frequent flying or subscription to one of a multiplicity of financial institutions’ credit card promotions—invariably fill up much of the baggage space. This is almost always before many of the “zones” of ordinary peons who haven’t caved to the airlines’ incentivized product-hawking are permitted the luxury of boarding. (Unlike other major carriers, Southwest, again, still employs a “sit where you like” policy and has fairly limited pre-boarding options.)
As a result, on “full” flights there is often no remaining overhead baggage space and travelers are compelled to check their “carry-on” bags, succumbing to the indignity and hassle they’d tried to avoid in the first place. They aren’t charged extra (yet) for this insult, but an additional half-hour—at a minimum—has been added to their trip experience, along with being forced to quickly burrow in their stuffed carry-on bags to extract anything they actually wanted to bring on the plane before surrendering them.
That extra half an hour trudging to baggage claim may not seem too onerous unless you happen to be traveling with small children, or you’re a business traveler flying at night and just trying to get to a hotel to sleep. But for most recurrent air travelers, they’re viewed as yet another degradation of an already fairly miserable experience. And they’re justified in feeling this way. By privileging certain classes of people through incentivized perks, the airlines are effectively treating the remaining passengers as second-class citizens, and the second-class treatment those customers receive while actually on the plane simply confirms this. So what people do is try to recoup that tiny degree of munificence—the privilege of actually carrying their travel bag—that risks being snatched away from them: They line up at the gate to try to get on the plane as quickly as possible.
Sofia Andrade is a features intern at The Washington Post and a recent college graduate. As such, she is possibly too young to have cognitively experienced flying before the airlines dragged us into this abyss of end-stage capitalism. This may explain why she gamely enlists several psychologists to try to explain the behavior of airline customers whom (apparently) some gate attendants have labelled with dehumanizing terminology. (I won’t dignify it by repeating it here; you can read the title of her article yourself.) These are the folks who attempt, through various measures, to get on the plane as soon as they can so they can secure a place for their bag.
Andrade identifies the issue well enough:
While gate agents will give clear, boarding group-specific directions, there remains a strong contingent of passengers who either get in line before they’re called or wait in their seats until they’re the last to board. While the latter type of traveler often hangs back to avoid standing in line altogether, the motives driving the former group can be harder to place.
Leaving the crass epithet in her title aside, some methods she alludes to—such as trying to sneak into line before your zone is called—are obviously rude and out of bounds. Not many people actually do that, though, in part because they sensibly fear the prospect of being summarily tossed to the back of a line by an alert gate attendant. But simply lining up before your zone is called to try to forestall the possibility of having your bag yanked away and checked is a perfectly rational response to an inherently unfair situation created wholly by the airlines themselves.
And, in fact, the vast majority of people so airily stigmatized by these unnamed gate attendants (including, admittedly, myself and typically 30-50 other passengers on any given flight) do not “line up,” but rather position themselves to get into line early once their zone is called. This isn’t behavior deserving of a dehumanizing slur. It’s simply acting on the learned knowledge that if you do not act this way, you stand a good chance of receiving that additional indignity, the perverse result of the airline’s own deliberate cost-cutting, amenity-slashing policies.
Andrade acknowledges that motivation in her article:
Flights are often full, or even overbooked, which can lead to a sense of pressure among travelers to claim their space early. Airlines forcing fliers to gate check passengers’ carry-ons because of “full” overhead bins, for example, means that being the last passenger to board when Group 6 is called (rather than the first to board with Group 7) can be the difference between keeping your carry-on and not.
Andrade’s article for the Post spends a lot of effort explaining the psychology of this “lining up” phenomenon, pointing out that it is driven in part by conformity to (and competition with) the behavior of others, and emphasizing that it may actually slow down the boarding process. Those are valid points, but if she is really trying to explain this behavior, it would have been helpful to focus more on what causes it in the first place.
One of the psychologists who communicated with Andrade via email comes close to putting his finger on the real cause of all this:
“The consequence of these structural [airline] issues is that they set up uncertainty (on any flight, I might have problems) and competition (this is a zero sum game: others getting on with bags lowers the chance of me getting on with bags),” Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, said in an email. “This leads to anxiety and antagonism.” The antagonism is what motivates people to line up even if it means cutting in front of people.
But simply calling out the “structural” issues they’ve created doesn’t quite capture the general disregard that most airlines have normalized as “business as usual” for American travelers.
In a piece titled “Why Airlines Want To Make You Suffer,” written in 2014 for the New Yorker, Tim Wu explains that this degradation of the flying experience for Americans is intentional.
Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.
Some of these measures are open and obvious, such as reducing seat sizes to put more customers into a plane. As Wu writes, “Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports who worked in the airline industry for many years, studied seat sizes and summarized his findings this way: “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”
Other strategies used by the airlines are calculated to impose suffering through more personal (and thus largely hidden) mechanisms:
Fee models also lead most people to spend unwarranted time and energy calculating, agonizing, and repacking in the hope of avoiding paying more. The various fees make prices hard to compare, as a ticket can now represent just a fraction of the total expense. These are real costs, and they are compounded by ticketing practices, which demand perfect timing. When customers miscalculate their schedules or their plans change, the airline is ready with its punishment: the notorious two-hundred-dollar rebooking and change fee.
As Wu’s article explains, the process of boarding the plane (grown ever more lengthy as “privileged” travelers who heavily traffic the airline are permitted to board first) is intentionally degraded by these fee systems. Moreover, airlines have no incentive to eliminate this “status racket”; in fact, they’ve doubled down on it by “privileging” airline credit card holders who—either personally or via their employers—presumably spend enough on credit to attain sufficient “flier miles.” This is a win-win for the airlines since those miles can only be used on their own carriers. It’s also a win for financial institutions that contract with the airlines to issue such cards. But for the consumer, the simple act of boarding a plane has been overlaid with yet another level of annoyance added to the experience, along with an embarrassing reminder of income inequality as the privileged classes march to the front of the line, their travel bags safely in tow.
Beyond the elimination of meals on nearly all flights and the elimination of pillows, blankets, and anything that might administer comfort, the attitude of some flight attendants and gate attendants has also contributed to the general misery. I personally had a bad experience with a particularly loathsome gate attendant for Frontier in Seattle. We had initially embarked on our flight with no idea that Frontier charged for carry-on bags, and in fact we weren’t told that or charged at our origin point. We disembarked for a one-hour layover in Seattle and prepared to change planes for the last leg of our flight, whereupon the Frontier employee looked at our ticket and somehow noted that we hadn’t yet been charged for the carry-ons. He proceeded to demand an additional $200 to allow us to continue our flight. When I protested that this was an unfair surprise under the circumstances, he became obnoxious and refused to give me his last name so I could complain to the airline. We were forced to pay and board due to time constraints.
Of course most airline workers are courteous and professional, often dealing with harried or otherwise difficult customers. But many are probably miserable as well, forced to hawk an “exciting” 10-minute “credit card” pitch at the conclusion of every flight while pushing carloads of prepackaged foods and snacks that most customers choose not to purchase (some, including myself, out of pure rage). Meanwhile, the experience of the public continues its downward spiral, with flight delays or abrupt cancellations attributable to weather, “maintenance” issues, and staff shortages trapping customers in a hermetically sealed palace of rip-offs that passes for a modern American airport, and fewer and fewer counter personnel thanks to automated “self-service” kiosks.
Many of these problems are not completely the fault of the airlines. Matthew Yglesias illustrates in an article for Vox that thanks to high fixed costs, their business model as it currently stands is in many aspects essentially untenable, perpetually vacillating between “exploitative and unprofitable.” The causes of the historical decline in air travel quality in this country are complex and usually attributed to the deregulation and subsequent consolidation of the industry, but the reality is that increased regulation would likely mean higher ticket prices, and as observed by Yglesias, Americans consistently “choose lower prices over higher quality, leaving air travel a perennially frustrating experience.” While there is no shortage of proposals for improving competition and reducing costs through congressional or executive action, few of them have been implemented thanks to resistance by the airlines themselves.
But knowing that doesn’t make the experience any easier for American consumers to endure. So as far as positioning themselves to get in line the minute their “zone” is called, it really doesn’t take a psychological analysis to understand why people behave this way: No one wants to be the person left literally “holding the bag” thanks to this concerted policy of disregard for paying customers. And that’s why people will continue to line up, regardless of what nasty, dehumanizing names their gate attendants might invent for them.
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