(See Part 1 here and Part 2 here)The final reason that passengers have come to clash to strongly with the airlines is around security (and insecurity). There are two pieces to this part of the puzzle.
The security piece is, of course, entirely out of the airlines’ hands. It’s not the airlines’ fault that every airport seemingly handles security differently with even every TSA agent massaging the rules to fit whatever they want to do. You can either argue that they’ve been wildly successful since we haven’t had any major incidents since 9/11 (wrong), or you could argue that they are protecting us against the threat of hijacking, not terrorism (correct).
Until the full body scanners came along this year, the airline security system was at its core the same as its been for 30 years. The system was set up to catch people who were bringing guns onto planes. This was a good thing to try to stop in the 1970s when a surprising number of people successfully hijacked airplanes using guns they had surreptitiously brought on board aircraft. It was important to crack down on people bringing guns on planes because that would help solve the hijacking problem. A system was set up to stop guns from being brought on board, and hijackings are now nonexistent in the United States.
Say what you will about the terrorists who perpetrated the acts on 9/11, but few can argue that they did not exploit just about every hole in that outdated security system. 9/11 worked because we had become complacent about airport security; since we hadn’t had a hijacking, and since nobody had put a bomb in their carry-on luggage, we obviously were successful.
Clearly, though, we did not have a strong airport security system. Instead we had a strong keeping-guns-and-bombs-out-of-carry-on-luggage system. Those are two very different things, as we learned on that day nine years ago.
Passengers quickly became frustrated because, to this day, the rules that were put in place after the 9/11 attacks were put in to stop the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately, they were put in place after the 9/11 attacks. It was as if the only message the fine people in charge of airport security got out of 9/11 was that if you stop people from bringing various harmless household items on a plane, flying will be safer. Instead of considering what actual threats exist for the flying public and coming up with a system that can be implemented while still allowing the flow of passengers across the US, they decided that toothpaste was the enemy.
(A quick note here: Yes, Israel has a great airport security system. And no, there’s not much we can translate from that system to the US. Israel has exactly 1 domestic route. If the only domestic flight in the US were from LaGuardia to Philadelphia on a regional jet twice a day we could implement the Israeli system here. Or if you were comfortable getting to the airport 6 hours early. It’s your call.)
So, people got to the airport, had no idea what they could bring on a plane, were subjected to a near strip-search as various pieces of clothing were removed at security, then their deodorant was taken away, then they forgot their belt that they had to remove, and they had to explain to their 4 year old why the policeman was patting down mommy, then boarded an airplane. At that point, as you might imagine, they were not in a good mood, and they took it out on the airlines.
The insecurity piece is that when airlines in the mid-2000s decided to downscale their in-flight service, it added a large measure of uncertainty to your inflight experience. In 2005, a passenger likely arrived at the airport unsure what they were allowed to bring in their luggage; what they had to check; how much it cost to check a bag; whether it cost anything to check a bag; whether there would be a free meal on board; or no meal; or a meal for sale; or whether you could bring a drink with you to the airport; or whether they’d make you pour it out before you got to security; or whether you’d have to drink your own breast milk in front of 300 strangers to prove you were not a terrorist. Those were good times.
To recap: ridiculous security measures made people cranky when they got to their flight without knowing whether they’d be fed, walked on board to a crowded plane without anywhere to stretch out while they weren’t treated very well by flight attendants whose pay had been reduced 3 times in 5 years. That is not something special in the air.
I hear frequently about the wonderful service provided by Singapore Airlines (and others), and lamenting about how that service is not quite what we find on our flight from Detroit to Kansas City. The reasons why are myriad, but it boils down to this: although Singapore Airlines and US Airways are both airlines, they are about as much alike as a Rolls Royce and a 1978 Toyota Corolla. Sure, they’re both cars. But that’s about it. The Corolla will get you there reliably, and that’s what you’re paying for (especially when “there” is only 800 miles away). US Airways will get you there with, perhaps, some modicum of service. But that’s it. US Airways will never charge $18,000 for a first class flight to anywhere. Singapore does. They are simply different, and comparing them is a useless exercise.
Thanks for reading the OTR’s first 3-part post…
(I feel like there’s a book in this topic – hell, you just read 2,500 words and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Now if I were only less lazy…)