Mark Twain, renowned for his "rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated" remark, had he lived a century later, might have been referring to the airline industry. Perhaps more than any other sector, the airlines find themselves portrayed in the media as being in a constant state of disgrace, particularly among today's new age media giants--bloggers.
These laptop-toting experts, many of whom openly despise all things airlines, have shifted the collective psyche of a generation of travelers into believing that airlines are the devil of the day. Yet, all too often, self-styled airline pundits fail to address the ripples of prosperity from the economic forces of the airlines.
Air transport is closely linked with economic development, driving activity locally, regionally, nationally and globally. A 1998 study attributed 6 million jobs globally to the aviation industry. A decade later, that figure is believed to widely exceed this count. These jobs include high-paying positions directly attributable to civil aviation, such as service providers, manufacturing and service industries, which in turn depend on numerous suppliers.
Rather than recognize the merits and benefits of a strong and viable air transportation system, travel writers resort to a game of political foes attacking their enemies. And enemies they are. I like to think of this group as a grumpy gang of travelers. Those who seemingly believe that airlines are to serve at the whim of the consumer without any consideration toward generating a profit to sustain their business, pay their employees and return value to shareholders.
One longtime critic of the airlines, Joe B., recently wrote a column proclaiming that he "began to dislike and distrust the big airlines on Feb. 1, 1987, a date that still lives in business-travel infamy. Like thousands of others, I, too, was stranded by Continental Airlines on the day it attempted a 'big bang' merger with its Peoplexpress, New York Air and Frontier Airlines subsidiaries." Wow, this was 20 years ago and the guy still holds a grudge. I'll steal a line here from Cameron Crowe's 1989 Say Anything, and tell him: "You must chill. You must chill."
In the words of Joe B., "Continental's terminal was overwhelmed with angry, abandoned travelers, mishandled luggage, and dazed and confused employees." But the untold story is that Continental was losing over $1 million a day (that's 1987 dollars or nearly $2 million today).
Organizational restructuring is a tough game, but what rational individual can blame a company for changes when it's bleeding that kind of money? What speaks most to this long-ago event is that Continental is a thriving airline today with relatively strong customer service marks.
Most likely as a result of the bash-all-thing-airlines brigade, pedestrian crusaders have entered the fold. The latest incarnation of these evangelists seeking to impose their will on an entire industry is Kate Hanni, a real estate broker from the Napa Valley who had a bad flight and formed the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights (CAPBOR). And why not form a coalition, since it has made her the Cindy Sheehan of air travelers. Expressing angst against airlines is a sure mode toward popularity, with this real estate agent's anguish propelling her to a seat before Congress and onto a number of cable news programs.
Possibly the most disingenuous anti-apostles of airlines are those whose view of a plane comes from the screensaver on their computer monitor. To me, travel writing is inspired from the trenches--to know travel you have to get down and dirty. Think of a war correspondent reporting from the safety of a Manhattan office--not very credible. One writer, a troubleshooter of sorts, solves the world's travel problems, mostly airline-related, from the comfort of her home. Often her headlines will read "This Is Not The Airline For You" or "Airlines Playing Games Again."
To be fair, airlines certainly have contributed to consumers' apprehension. Without a doubt, a plane full of travelers will remember the long hours they spent on a runway without food and water or use of bathrooms. I concur that no one should have to endure such conditions. However, airlines got the message and, for the most part, instituted change.
For example, about a year ago JetBlue plummeted into one of its worst PR disasters since starting operations in 2000. Storms in the Northeast paralyzed JetBlue's operations, stranding JFK passengers on nine planes for up to six hours. The story that often is not told is how then-CEO, David Neeleman, issued a public apology, stating that he was "humiliated and mortified" by the system failures and promised to introduce a "Customer Bill of Rights" and compensation for passengers inconvenienced from this act of nature (which JetBlue had no control over).
Other than security screening, which really is a TSA process, airlines have been working hard to enhance the flying experience. For example, airlines such as Delta have responded to one of the biggest gripes of consumers--award seats. According to Jeff Robertson, Delta Air Line's director of the Sky Miles programs, "Providing greater transparency in award seat availability is a customer benefit that also gives them greater control over their travel experience." By adding access to Continental, Northwest and Air France award seats on its Web site, Delta.com, Delta's customers have access to more than 95% of all redeemable seats.
Likewise, mainstream airlines such as American Airlines and United Airlines have bumped up their in-flight services with enhanced meal choices, including meals prepared by notable chiefs, state-of-the-art entertainment systems and lay-flat seats on select flights.
Also available at Forbes.com: