What Air Travel is Like for Most People (It’s Worse Than You Think)

I often write that with all of the difficulties I have in navigating airlines — getting tickets issued properly, correcting agent mistakes — it amazes me that the median traveler is able to manage to get from A to B.

I generally know what I’m doing, have strategies for getting onto the flights with the best chance of making it out when weather rolls in, and don’t rely on airline staff to tell me what’s possible. And when things do go wrong I know what to look for, how to be proactive, it isn’t my first rodeo. And yet airlines make things far more complicated and confusing than you’d expect, someone less familiar with the ins and outs of travel is at the mercy of big bureaucracy hardly aimed to solving problems let alone doing so quickly.

I’m reminded that things which seem obvious, and often too basic to repeat on this blog, strike co-workers or others I meet in my travels as sage wisdom. There’s so much of a black box feel to dealing with airlines, so much of a frustration, that people freeze deer in the headlights as soon as they confront a challenge that repeating simple mantras can actually help people get through what should be simple challenges.

When things go wrong elite status helps both jumping to the front of the queue and sometimes even generating sympathy on the part of airline agents to go the extra mile, though the most important trick to sympathy is simply being nice and even commiserating with the people you’re dealing with. If you understand them they’re more likely to help you.

Back in May Scott Mayerowitz put together a video comparing what it’s like to travel with and without elite frequent flyer status but I think he actually underplayed the differences. Both passengers were able to check in for their flights. The technology worked. Their flight took off on time as scheduled. The real differences come about when things go wrong.

It’s stories like that of the Maheswarans that should remind us all both what it’s like for most people to travel, and how much better airlines can and should do delivering their product to the customer.

The family of 5 showed up at Toronto’s Pearson airport two and a half hours before departure to fly Air Canada to London connecting onward on Air India. They bought their tickets through a travel agent.

  • An Air Canada agent “directed the family to the wrong check-in line.”

  • An hour and 40 minutes to departure they were sent to the correct line.

  • The family relays that the agent checking them in declared, “A family of five is a no-go.” They thought they were being bunmped, but Air Canada says the flight went out with 8 empty seats.

  • They were sent over to ticketing, where they waited an hour, but the line closed.

  • Then they were sent to another check-in agent, who couldn’t help “because she wasn’t trained on ticketing issues.”

  • A manager told them to go home and they’d be rebooked the next day.

  • But when they came back “[t]hey stood in the ticketing line for two hours” got to the front of the line only to learn that their tickets were cancelled since they had no showed their flight the night before.

  • Since they were on an agency-issued ticket they were sent to the travel agent to deal with re-issue.

  • The travel agent had no idea what to do other than apply their tickets as a credit against new ones — for a total of $5,345.83 more than the original ones.

Copyright: ronniechua / 123RF Stock Photo

Their travel insurance is covering the cost of change fees but they’re out four grand. An Air Canada representative says simply “I cannot get into specific issues” but offered a 25% off discount certificate good for future travel as a “goodwill gesture.”

By the statistics air travel is amazing but people hate it, that shouldn’t be, and it’s a bridge that ought to be possible to cross.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s called a lack of competition. There’s practically no incentive for airlines to offer better customer service or better systems.

  2. I’m surprised you’re not overwhelmed with comments. Unfortunately, airline employees are sometimes unpleasant because they can be. My daughter left 3 1/2 hours before a flight to Berlin, but arrived at JFK exactly one hour before the schedule departure time because of an incompetent Super Shuttle driver. The Delta agents would not let her on the plane even though she had her boarding pass and seat assignment. She returned home, and was terrified that she would have to pay a hefty change fee, and a higher charge for the new ticket. Luckily, she had a Chase Sapphire Preferred card. She called Chase who called Delta, and they re-booked her the next evening at no charge. Same airline with some nasty employees and some wonderful ones.

  3. I honestly don’t understand what the point of this post was. I come here for some sort of insight and get none. I need to stop

  4. (/b>@Jason … the clueless are doomed to remain clueless. This post does have lots of lessons for people who are able to look for clues instead of condemning the messenger outright

  5. While you are right that airline staff have become progressively worse, especially in North America, in this case the passengers could have been smarter. Since they were a party of 5, what they should have done would have been to split themselves up to multiple check-in lines (assuming it was not clear ab initio where they should queue up). In these days of ubiquitous cell phones, it would be pretty easy to coordinate how each line was progressing; this way, if one line turned out to be wrong, the others would have had a head start. If a line was right, other family members in different lines could be easily summoned to turn up and present themselves. Guerilla tactics, but it works. Being Indians, they should have been smarter.

  6. Another great post from Gary. Please send this to Scott @WSJ who just wrote a column on how Air Canada is a great option for US travelers. Sure worked well for this family.

    I’ve heard horror stories from family members and others who did not know their rights and received similarly poor treatment from airline personnel. Certainly status helps, but knowing your options when things go South is even more important. And avoiding BE fares and Spirit…

    @AnotherIndian Split a family with kids into multiple lines? Are you joking?

  7. Gary,
    I would be curious what your recommendation would have been for the family. If someone does not have status in this type of instance, are they completely stuck?

  8. “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is the noblest; second by imitation, which is the easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

    Most of the world works off the latter.

  9. As usual, Gary, your article underlining criticism and sarcasm rather than information and solution to the readers.

  10. Oh yes, this reminds me of when I had a flight codeshared on Delta with Air France. Basically got to the check in counter late since queued in the Delta line first, to be sent over to Air France in another terminal. I guess that was my fault since I didn’t understand that I needed to go to the operator instead of the airline that issued the ticket. But the Air France counter was already closed and I couldn’t board. After awhile, an agent finally came out (another person was also in the same situation) and said we had to go to Delta for the rebooking since it was on Delta stock – but no worries since there are MANY flights departing that evening (the agent’s emphasis). Also told me to go into the first class line at Delta since that is also the customer service line. I wait in the first class line (a couple people in front of me). I get to the front, and the agent was not very nice, emphasized I missed by flight for being late. Then refused to put me on another flight. I tried to reason with her. THEN she looked closer at my ticket and said “WHY are you in the first class line? Your ticket is for economy. You can’t even afford a first class ticket! NEXT!” … I was gobsmacked. I tried to explain that the Air France agent told me to go to this line. THEN she says, “if you don’t leave, I will call security.” … And this is why I refuse to fly Delta, and subsequently, have acquired elite status (Exec Platinum on AA, Platinum on United) in the other airlines refusing to give any business to Delta. Her rudeness was shocking. I’ve since flown ~1 million miles and gained experience navigating airlines/airports, but definitely knows how daunting it is to take a big trip (Boston to Paris) as someone who is inexperienced. I also completely agree. Elite status matters A LOT when there are natural disasters and customer service issues. I have had planes held for me (not in USA, but in New Zealand/Asia), been flown out on the first flight out after a storm when people without status had to wait 3 days, etc. But it still upsets me to see the stark difference between how elites and non-elites are treated.

  11. “They bought their tickets through a travel agent.”

    That’s very often the problem, especially if it’s a shonky online booker with zero customer service.

    That doesn’t excuse AC for directing them to the “wrong line”, whatever that was. Codeshare perhaps (yet another great unnecessary source of confusion for infrequent fliers)?

  12. These are all valid issues for inexperienced travelers. Much of the blame goes to the controlled mess that air travel is. Part of this goes to the novice flyer. Many act as they do at other places like Walmart or running late for work everyday, etc. They literally fly by the seat of their pants, do no research or proper planning in life. They then complain and blame others completely when things go wrong.

  13. This is exactly why I tell people use travel agents for information and pricing, but unless you are flying for business and are required to use the travel agent, don’t do it. Book directly with the airlines and do not take no for answer in a nice way while still on the ground.

    People often make themselves victims of incompetence by accepting b.s. answers from incompetent people, or from their own stupidity.

    When I travel for pleasure I try to book ahead and that means bookings when traffic is not horrible, lines at the original departure airport are not horrible, traffic is not too horrible and I get their early. Oh btw I rarely and I mean rarely use a travel agent or agency for personal travel, I book directly with the airlines.

    Lastly if people will take 10 minutes to signup on an airlines Frequent Flyer program it will help them get better boarding as well.

    I know people who rarely travel and are intimidated by it, I tell them don’t be. follow my above advice and should be fine.

  14. –As an Executive Platinum on American Airlines at least until early 2018, I still fly American Airlines. It used to be that I could call American Airline agents on my cell phone and they could fix most of my problems.
    –However, recently, they have been telling me that they do not have the authority to fix certain issues and that I had to go to the customer service line at the airport. And usually the customer service line is long.
    –Corporate policy issues anyone.

  15. LOL @ the commenters complaining about how gary didn’t “provide answers”.

    Take the post for what it is. An example and a word of warning to ensure you stay informed and a step ahead of unhelpful airline staff. The best (and only) “answer” is to “get status”, but even that isn’t a guarantee. So be informed instead and know the rules of the game, or you’ll get played like the unfortunate family in this article.

  16. In my experience, the majority of travelers who have a less than pleasant experience with their travels is due to poor preparation or a lack of knowledge in regards to stream lining their experience with such things as online pre check in etc.

    Moral of the story…(and it’s a sad state of affairs) is the less time you have face to face contact with airport staff, the more efficient and pleasant your travel time will be. People just have to be prepared to arm themselves with this knowledge and not just ‘wing’ it – pardon the pun.

  17. An interesting question is what we can learn from the experiences described. I have my list.

    1. Never book with a travel agent. Especially online travel agents. Book on the airline’s website. Use your FF number and sign up for one if you don’t already.
    2. Know where to go when you get to the airport. They are all confusing if you have never been to it before. There are plenty of tips and even videos online for the major airports.
    3. Get there very early – especially for international travel. Many disagree with this, but I am into reducing stress, not saving a little time.
    4. Status is nice – it really does save time and help when things go wrong. If you don’t have it, if you have paid for business class or first (or upgraded, which also requires some knowledge to do), then you will be treated the same as having status. Okay, plenty of people cannot have the former or afford the latter – but in that case, pay even more attention to items 1, 2 and 3.

    I get that airports are very confusing, and when crowded are even more so. I get that there aren’t enough people at check-in to handle things quickly, or who will give you bad advice. That security and passport control can be very backed up. And that you might miss your flight as a result. I don’t think that is going to change any time soon. All you can do is try to learn from experience.

    The thing is, if you do pay attention and learn how things work, you can make travel can go from being a torture to a pleasant experience.

  18. I read these comments and I am appalled.
    Now I am old, but I have been flying for 60 years. I’ve long collected FF miles and kept an eye on status, almost as a hobby. For a good while I lived in Asia and traveled on some else’s payment. I learned how to take what I was given, buy my tickets in Bangkok and go around the world in Business Class every time I had to drag myself reluctantly back to Washington.
    I considered myself fortunate and wondered each trip how on earth I would survive the long flights in the economy seats even in the days when those had acceptable legroom.
    But I don’t think I ever encountered as much smug entitlement as I regularly read among the comments on this website.
    Folks, even in economy people are buying a service. Most of you would have a fit if the usher in a theatre was as nasty and condescending and irresponsible as airline personnel regularly get away with.
    Why, oh why is there so much disregard and blame dumped on the CUSTOMERS?
    I quote: “The thing is, if you do pay attention and learn how things work, you can make travel can go from being a torture to a pleasant experience.”
    This statement is just not true. If you pay A LOT of attention before hand and spend A LOT of energy learning how things work, and you learn to work the system, YOU MIGHT INCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF GETTING LUCKY and not experience torture.
    One of the sorrowful aspects of all this is how an country which once aspired to be a classless society has become so snidely class-centered and damning of our fellow men, women and children.
    No one, but no one, is watching out for your privileges and status. Those are momentary. (Read Flyer Fun above.)
    And certainly no one is watching out for paying customers most in need. Even as I stand with my business class ticket in hand, I watch and experience unprofessional, unkind behavior by airline employees every time I fly.

  19. I don’t think air travel is that different than a lot of consumer items. If you go cheap, the quality will not be there. It just won’t, and thinking that a $400 ticket to fly you around the world and back will result in a quick, pleasant experience is no more realistic than thinking you can buy a cheap suitcase and not have it fall apart after a couple of turns in the cargo hold. I think the flying public cannot expect much different as long the typical flyer buys the cheapest ticket, regardless of quality.

  20. By the way, I’ve had a lot of pleasant experiences flying internationally. None of them in economy, which I used to do regularly when I was young.

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