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Shawn Vestal: A long pattern of indifference to passengers preceded the airline meltdown

Arriving and departing travelers at the Spokane International Airport, some shown Wednesday, have faced numerous flight delays and cancellations this holiday season.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

As we began our descent into Phoenix – a city nowhere near our original route – the flight attendant got onto the intercom and began offering us … a credit card deal.

Sign up now, he said, and you’ll earn enough points for two free domestic flights.

I almost burst into laughter. Bitter, angry, insane laughter. Because, by this point in Holiday Helltrip 2022, the idea of submitting to the American aviation system – ever, for any reason, even if you paid me – sounded as appealing as putting on a set of thumb-screws.

After all, our original flight out of Spokane, for a long-planned Christmas trip, had been delayed for hours and hours because Sea-Tac did not have sufficient de-icing crews to handle winter weather.

Our flight home from New York City had been canceled – without the minor courtesy of a notification – with no replacement available for four days, a substitute route that my travel-savvy wife all but stitched together herself.

Our eventual trip home – a series of hops through America’s finest airports lasting more than 20 hours – began in the darkness of early morning and ended in the darkness of late evening. Meanwhile, the airlines were peddling first-class tickets at outrageous markups, while the poor, unwashed coach class – customers whose money they had already banked – waited for days and entered a Byzantine web of bureaucracy in the hopes of having part of the cost of the delays reimbursed.

Surely, we would never, ever, ever fly again.

Surely, we would do anything else – ride a horse, rent a Lime scooter, walk.

Except: Of course we will.

Someone we love will die or get married, and we will want to go. A vacation to somewhere cool – like the fun Christmas week in the Big Apple we were lucky to enjoy – will make it onto the schedule. I’ll want to see my family, or need to go somewhere for work. Heck, travel is part of my wife’s job.

And there we’ll be again, like Oliver Twist with his empty bowl, begging for more of the thin, unsavory gruel that is American air travel.

This, at the end of the day, is a vital dynamic at the center of the great airline collapse of Christmas 2022. It felt less like an unpredictable, singular crisis – though the severe winter weather nationwide was indeed a serious hardship – as the culmination of a long, gradual erosion in which the airlines treat the customer’s experience with a cavalier disregard.

From a chaotic and opportunistic system of pricing, to shrinking seats and chintzy snacks, to the nickel-and-diming us for basic services, to the elimination of customer service features, to increasingly common cancellations and delays, to the seeming indifference that greets you when you find yourself stranded after a missed connection or having lost a bag – flying has come to feel like an enterprise in which the airlines have simply taken for granted that their customers will swallow an ever-more-unpleasant experience and come back for more.

They’re just not that into us.

We, on the other hand, keep returning, hoping and praying that this time, maybe, just maybe, we won’t miss our connection at Sea-Tac and find ourselves making an unplanned drive in a rental car over the Cascades.

Well before Holiday Helltrip 2022, fliers were fed up. Every major airline in the country had worse on-time performance during the first six months of 2022 than the previous year, according to the federal Office of Airline Consumer Protection. Several airlines were on schedule less than two-thirds of the time.

And the number of customer complaints has exploded. Overall customer complaints doubled during the first half of the year, and flight-performance-related complaints were six times higher than the previous year.

Airlines have had legitimate challenges, from the pandemic putting a huge damper on business to staffing shortages that forced the trimming of schedules. That particular challenge persists – as it does for many businesses – and played a huge role in the particular disaster of Southwest Airlines, whose collapse was the worst of all.

But Southwest was also plagued by foreseeable problems that its staff and union leaders have been talking about for years, particularly an outdated scheduling system whose failures were becoming increasingly common as the company poured millions of dollars into stock buybacks to drive up the share price (and fatten executive compensation).

And while Southwest was the biggest problem over the holidays, it was far from the only ones. Our problems – on both ends of our trip – involved Delta, American and Alaska airlines, and at every step of the way we were surrounded by fellow passengers who had experienced similar misery.

I’m somewhat reluctant – but only somewhat, obviously – to make this complaint. As a professional complainer, I have always viewed the customer service critique as the lowest expression of the form. That barista spelled my name wrong! That clerk ignored me while I stood there! Whenever I find myself sharing a customer-service complaint, I can hear the absolute pettiness of it even as the words enter the air.

But Holiday Helltrip 2022 was simply of another order. And for all the analysis and discussion about the various reasons for this and possible regulatory solutions, it’s clear that a large part of the problem is the blithe and long-standing acceptance among airline executives that fliers will simply swallow the next level of inconvenience and indignity in order to get where they’re going.

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