Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

The worst summer for air travel in recent memory is wrapping up, and we can only hope that the problems that have seemingly plagued every other flight will abate a bit.  I feel that every work related gathering includes tales of flights gone awry.  My wife had another flight canceled last Thursday — every one of her flights from Chicago has been significantly delayed this summer.  She had a colleague sit on the tarmac at weather addled O’Hare airport last Thursday for more than six hours.  Six hours.  You know what’s really pathetic?  That’s not even a story anymore.  Remember the Jetblue "meltdown" in February?  Ha ha ha.  We’re seeing those types of delays all the time this summer.

And sure, there are underlying causes for all of these delays that go beyond "Northwest sucks."  Sure, the air traffic control system is beyond overburdened.  Sure, the weather has been pretty awful this summer.  Sure, the growth in smaller jets has led to more takeoffs and landings.  Sure, airlines can’t let you off the plane when you’ve been stuck on the tarmac for 5 hours.  Sure, LAX couldn’t process any of those international passengers for 10 hours because their computers were just broken.  Sure, Northwest had to cancel a slew of its flights because, it says, its pilots have called out sick.  There are a million reasons.

And those reasons — seemingly all beyond the airlines’ control — are the reasons we haven’t heard any airline apologize for the state of the system.  And if you’ve been stuck in any of these delays and tried to have a reasonable conversation with front line staff, I’m relatively certain the apologies have been few and far between.  I know you’ve heard a lot of, "the weather isn’t our fault" and "we’re doing the best we can."  I’m sure they are.

But that doesn’t matter.  Every single business traveler can tell you that the air travel system, in nearly every regard, is a disaster.  Perhaps it was teetering on the edge for a while.  But this summer showed the foundation is nearly non-existent.  And while airlines can say that it isn’t their fault, it’s time they started apologizing.  Because while a storm isn’t their fault, the fact that a 1 hour delay on the 8am from Minneapolis to Detroit can lead to a 7 hour delay on a flight from Miami to Phoenix IS their fault.  And it’s certainly their fault that they pay frontline staff about $8/hour, causing them to be rather unhappy, a frustration that is not infrequently taken out on the customer who just wants to know if he’s going to get home to see his family that night or not.

And this breakdown in the system, which is caused by the airlines, by the air traffic control system, by low fares, by weather, by security rules, by whatever, is what has caused the public to have zero trust in airlines.  Passengers assume airline staff is lying to them at all times.  That there really isn’t a thunderstorm.  That they aren’t 8th for takeoff.  That the fare isn’t available.  That the flight was canceled for mechanical reasons.  All lies.  Or so people think.

Which isn’t to say that there have been no signs of humanity out there.  Today’s NY Times has an article about pilots and gate agents on several flights who ordered pizza for their passengers, who had been stuck on the tarmac for hours.  Bravo.

But really — that’s what it’s come to?  A poorly paid gate agent paying out of her pocket for pizza because their multi-billion dollar employer says that a 5 hour delay isn’t their fault?  That’s where we are?

It’s time we stop talking about fault and start talking about fixing.  And even before that, I think everyone who has flown this summer deserves an apology for the way the last 12 weeks have been handled.  I’m certain that everyone has tried their best, but the underlying assumptions – that it’s OK to make people sit on a runway for 6 hours without feeding them because that’s the only way to ensure they won’t lose their place in the takeoff line – are crazy. 

Of course passengers haven’t been perfect either, treating frontline workers poorly, complaining about the level of service they receive on a $59 flight from New York to Florida, thinking that everything revolves around them.  Shame on us, too.

With the end of the summer just days away, it’s time for a fresh start.  We’ll pretend the last 12 weeks didn’t really happen if we can just get a promise that it won’t happen again.  And an apology wouldn’t hurt either…sorry seems to be the hardest word.


  1. Bravo to you Mr. Blank, for this impassioned plea, for keeping your eye on the industry and reminding us that our incident is not isolated, that we are ALL experiencing this meltdown of the airline industry. As an insider, do you have suggested actions we can take to enact change?

    I love that this post is so long it breaks your blog template– you weren’t planning on getting this verbose about a travel issue!