Why does air travel seem so miserable?
Bloodied passengers getting dragged off flights. Airport brawls. Shrinking seat sizes. Invasive pat downs. Long security lines. Extra fees.
The chaotic scenes that have unfolded in airports and on airplanes over the past few years are raising the question: Is air travel getting more miserable for the American public?
The frustrations of passengers seem to be boiling over, even though flight cancellations, airfares and customer complaints are all way down.
Some blame the prevalence of social media and smart phones for creating a false picture of what the air travel experience is typically like.
But others say the unrest is being fueled by a new airline model that scarifies comfort and other freedoms in order to make flying more affordable and accessible.
“If you’re not careful, you can feel like a mountain is being made out of molehill, but a closer look would probably scare the heck out of you,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. “There is widespread upset and frustration with the state of air travel.”
Tensions between passengers and airlines have been escalating since the video of a man being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight went viral last month.
The incident, which sparked international outrage and congressional hearings, put a spotlight on the airline industry’s treatment of travelers.
Other videos have since emerged of a family being kicked off a Delta Air Lines flight; an upset mother claiming an American Airlines flight attendant hit her with a stroller; passengers brawling on a Southwest Airlines flight; and mayhem breaking out at an airport after Spirit Airlines cancelled hundreds of flights.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has also been in the hot seat.
A reduction in TSA screeners created massive security lines at airports around the country last spring, leading to three-hour wait times in some cases and leaving scores of passengers stranded at airports over night.
And there have been multiple reports over the years of invasive and uncomfortable pat-down procedures conducted by TSA officers.
“People are getting irritated, because they end up having these bad experiences,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told The Hill.
While customers’ tempers seem to be flaring, the latest statistics from the Department of Transportation (DOT) paint a different picture.
Complaints appear to be decreasing, with 950 customer complaints filed in February of this year, compared to 1,501 that were logged during the same month last year.
Flight cancellations, mishandled bags and bumped passenger rates reached the lowest levels in decades last year, according to the DOT.
And the average cost of a domestic flight dropped to $347 in the last three months of 2016, down from $369 for a ticket during the same period in 2015.
“Airlines are focused and committed to delivering the flight experience our customers expect and deserve when they take to the skies,” said Airlines for America (A4A), a trade group representing most of the nation’s major airlines.
“It’s a great time to fly as fares are historically low, air travel is safer than ever and intense competition across the industry has enabled customers to benefit from more choices and greater access to travel options.”
But some travel advocates say that the DOT statistics don’t tell the whole story.
“That calculation does not account for ancillary fees,” Grella said. “People are paying for things they used to get for free. They feel nickel and dimed.”
Airlines have increasingly moved towards a more “a la carte” menu that starts with a lower base fare and charges for add-ons that used to be standard with a ticket, such as checked baggage and seat assignments.
Meanwhile, air carriers have been making record profits, in part because of low fuel prices. U.S. airlines posted $25.6 billion in after-tax profits in 2015, which is triple the amount from the previous year.
“Recent events have brought to light some systemic problems in the airline industry’s treatment of travelers. At a time when airlines are raking in massive profits, consumers in Minnesota and across the country deserve better,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said in a statement.
The industry shift has made flying far more accessible and affordable for the general public.
But it also comes at a hidden cost: air travel can be far more stressful than it used to be, with travelers competing for overhead bin space, not knowing their seat assignments before they arrive and not getting served food on the plane.
“The average experience of flying commercial is not glamorous like it used to be, but people are choosing it [through lower fares],” said Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Maybe it’s not as comfortable, or you’re not getting served expensive meals, but you do have more people traveling.”
Passengers may be feeling less comfortable on flights due to smaller seat sizes. American Airlines announced earlier this month that it would cut legroom in its economy class seats by two inches.
Research shows that when someone feels that their personal space has been invaded, there is a response activated in the brain that can produce defensive behavior.
“It makes sense that on an airplane, if people are encroaching on your space, you would have the urge to fight back,” said Daphne Holt, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “That’s what this reflex in the brain does. It makes you want to defend that space.”
There has also been mounting anxiety about the safety and security of air travel since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The administration is currently considering whether to ban laptops on all U.S.-bound flights from Europe amid increasing concern over terrorists trying to hide explosives in consumer electronics.
“There’s more uncertainty and more tension in the travel process, from the process of booking leading right up to the actual trip experience,” said Michael McCormick, executive director and COO of the Global Business Travel Association. “You have to wonder if the uncertainty and the anxiety that has been created hasn’t affected the psyche of the travelers.”
Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor and liberal scholar, said stagnation, rising mortality rates and enhanced inequality have created a “breakdown” in American society that “has left people feeling isolated, helpless, victims of powerful forces.”
The travel experience, in which passengers are generally not in control of their own situation, could be further inflaming everyone’s nerves. There have even been heated political arguments that have broken out on flights surrounding the 2016 election.
And social media has emerged as a constant watchdog, with some incidents garnering attention that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
“A lot of this is social media driven, and you have people with cameras now who are able to record incidents that would probably not receive media attention in the past,” Scribner said.
Some travel advocates blame the consolidation of airlines and the lack of competition as the root of the all travel woes in the U.S. Just four airlines account for approximately 85 percent of passenger traffic in the country.
In Europe, there are more airline choices, especially among the low-cost carriers. But statistics show that European travelers are only slightly more satisfied than their U.S. counterparts.
Seventy percent of U.S. business travelers said they were satisfied with their experience traveling on an airplane last year, compared to 72 percent of United Kingdom business travelers who said the same.
Whether or not the American flying experience is getting worse, it’s catching the eye of federal regulators.
Lawmakers have introduced a stack of new bills in response to the United dragging incident, and some are pushing to establish more consumer protections.
“It’s all in the mind of the beholder, and look what they’re seeing on TV,” Nelson said.