What's The Matter With American Air Travel?

The Economist has a special report that considers the various problems with the American airline industry. Of particular interest is a survey of 519 airline passengers that posed the question, “What, if anything, do you dislike about taking a trip by plane?” The answer, overwhelmingly, was “Security measures.”

What does it mean when an airline has no control over the factor that most irks their customers? “Poor service,” the topic that most concerns this site, was a distant 8th on the list.

The airlines pay, both financially and in lost customers, for the TSA’s bungling. If security is truly the passenger’s biggest complaint, to whom should we complain? Should we complain at all? —MEGHANN MARCO

In the land of free flight [Economist]
(Photo: Economist)


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  1. Buran says:

    Complain to the airlines, because we do have to deal with this BS to use their product, and to the government. But don’t count on getting it fixed any time soon. The government doesn’t care.

    Vote with your money and use other forms of transportation. I’m picking up a car that’s great for long distance driving in just two weeks and traveling by Amtrak in just three.

    Suck THAT, airlines. You’re no longer fun for me, and I’m not going to use your “product” if you put me through hell to get to it.

    And I’m an aviation buff too. When the enthusiasts tell you to shove it, you’re in trouble.

  2. Skiffer says:


  3. Skiffer says:

  4. Geekybiker says:

    Over 15 percent of people thing “nothing” is wrong with air travel? I call shenanigans on this survey!

  5. Skiffer says:

    Whoah…funky comment script troubles…


    Problems with the survey:

    A) Does 519 passengers make for a credible survey?

    B) And what happens if the answer to “what do you dislike” is “All of the above”? (Except “nothing”, of course)

  6. Rusty215 says:

    I think that harping on the security is odd. Yeah, the lines suck and its a PITA to take my shoes off, but it is what it is. I actualy dread flying these days. My main gripe(s) are the frequent delays, strandings, canceled flights, reroutings, crappy tiny ancient seats, sometimes surly flight crew, and the general lack of overall consideration/compassion from the airlines in general for their customers and front line staff. Hire some damn people already!

  7. jeffj-nj says:

    Does 519 make a credible survey? I don’t know, but raise the number to 520 if you’d like. I vote “security sucks (and is a farce anyway)”.

  8. smbfl says:

    If the security actually accomplished something I wouldn’t complain but it doesn’t. All that is being done is only to give people a sense of security. There are so many other ways to get to the planes.. Mechanics, food service vendors, cleaning crews and on and on. Prisoners in jail manage to kill each other with bed springs and silverware. If a terrorist wants to take over a plane bad enough I’m sure they can find something on the beverage cart to do it with.

    I personally think that the crew in the cockpit should be armed and there should be an unidentified armed person on every flight whether that be an air marshal or an airline employee. Make a move for the cockpit door and explain it to God or Allah or whoever you believe in.

    As far as sneaking a bomb on board to blow up the plane… At some point during takeoff every plane is over unsecured land and only a few hundred feet off the ground. If they want to take out a plane they can sit in their car on the side of the hwy and do that.

    So I agree that the security stuff one goes through to get on a plane sucks because the only purpose it serves is to make nervous nelly feel like they are safe.

    I used to often fly from Tampa to Atlanta. At this point it takes me one additional hour just to drive there. Why bother?

  9. gorckat says:

    Yeah, we should complain about security theater. Maybe someday we’ll have something effective in its place.

  10. cyclade says:

    If you combine (#1) security measures with (#2) arrival time requirement/waiting (which is, let’s be honest, just a subset of #1), about 35% of passengers are complaining about the same problem. That’s more than three times the amount that complain about the next “worst” problem, “cramped” seats!

    I tend to strongly agree with that plurality. The shoes, sweaters, and jackets off/laptop out of its case/liquids limitations, etc. shakedown doesn’t make anyone any safer at all (fly within Europe and see how easy — and totally safe — it is to get on a plane there!) and only adds to unneccessary delay, frustration, etc. I mean, just trying to find a place to put one’s shoes back on at the end of the screening area leads to passenger confusion, congestion, and irritation right off the bat!

    It *is* annoying to have to cool my heels an hour or more before departure, knowing we’ll push back from the gate and sit on the runway for goodness knows how long before we actually go. Plus, if it’s a long flight, there’s a good chance I’m going to wind up getting further irritated spending $4 on a bottle of water or soda (’cause I can’t bring mine through “security”) or other jacked up airport prices for a sandwich, candy bar or something else. For those traveling with kids, I’ve got to imagine the costs and waiting frustrations at the airport make a long car trip seem not as bad in comparison.

  11. wobudong says:

    Complainers better start worrying about safety, as well as cramped seats, etc. The air traffic control system is faltering and needs fixing — fast. This summer air traffic will be heavier than ever. I have been flying (as a passenger) for more than 50 years.
    Once or twice I could see another airliner in the sky from my seat.
    Last Sunday I flew from Minneapolis to Newark airport, a 2.5-hour flight. I saw THREE other planes.
    I was a surprised I would have been to see a UFO.

  12. rjweiss68 says:

    Note that the scale of the graph is clearly percentages, and so the question appears to be forcing the choice of one particular aspect that is most irksome.

    What would be more educative would be ratings of each factor. For example, customer service comes in at only 3% or so, and so it would be easy to draw the interpretation that it is not much of a problem at all. Yet I believe that direct ratings of airline customer service would reveal a fairly deep level of disgust on the part of travelers, even if customer service isn’t the most bothersome aspect of air travel across the board.

  13. BillyShears says:

    Perhaps the airlines should use their powers for good? They already have highly-paid lobbyists down in D.C. Perhaps one of the things these folks can bring up over their next power lunch with Senators and Representatives can be about the TSA.

    The agency is completely dysfunctional, and employs clowns who see a bottle of Poland Spring as a reason to escort someone to a secure area and raise the country’s DEFCON status.

  14. segfault, registered cat offender says:

    “…to whom should we complain?”

    Easy, just send a note to complaints@tsa.gov.

  15. QuirkyRachel says:

    See, I don’t think that the security stuff is that bad. It is annoying, and I did miss a flight once because the security line was so long. But at the same time, I see that as a part of flying. I’m happy they do have security (albeit, some of it is just silly, but real security measures aren’t politically correct, so my hand sanitizer was deemed dangerous…)

  16. KenyG says:

    The trouble with the security is it is just so “knee jerk” of a reaction.

    Shoe bomber…. so now all of airline flying America removes their shoes.

    9/11 – now tweezers/nail clippers are not allowed

    no lighters, but matches are ok.

    no liquids…

    In the post 9/11 era – no one is going to ever again stand up with a box cutter and get his way. Let alone finger nail clippers or tweezers.

    But the bigger question is – why are these measures not in place on our rail systems (commuter and amtrak)? Why not on bus lines?

    why are not vehicles stopped and searched before tunnels and bridges?

    I mean if you wanted security…

    So, I think it is all very much window dressing. Becuase it is the Government it has taken on a life of its own – like any other bureaucracy.

    I just find the whole thing bizarre and we are all such cattle.

  17. sr71pav says:

    The security is bad because it’s a farse. It’s there for the masses who might actually feel it does one bit good. Any number of objects I, or anyone, brings on board an airplane are far more dangerous than things they refuse. Give me sandpaper and a credit card, and I can make a knife. Hmm, a ballpoint pen, wonder if I could hurt anyone with one of those. It’s stupid, I hate it, and to me, airport security is a chance for those who couldn’t even get a GRE to fell all high and mighty over those who actually were successful in their lives.

    Maybe we should ban those who know martial arts from flying…

  18. mac-phisto says:

    my problem with security is simulated at the dmv, the bank, the supermarket & countless other places. why, on god’s green earth, do you have 20 lines if you’re only gonna open 1 or 2 of them?!? even at peak travel times, there’s inevitably 3 or 4 closed lines.

    & as for security on the plane, i propose a simple solution. hermetically sealed door locks to the cockpit that cannot be opened midair. couple that with technology that already exists on newer large-bodies that allows ground-based controllers to take over the plane’s controls & mandatory grounding of plane at nearest airport in the event of a hijack – problem solved.

  19. Peeved Guy says:

    @KenyG: Hve you read this thread and the thread about the sippy cup incident? People are pissed because they can’t take a bottle of water with them on the plane and have to remove their shoes, can you imagine what they would do if they were stopped before crossing bridges and the like? Wowzers! Also, I don’t think iot is possible to cause as much damage with a Greyhound bus as with a jetliner. Crash a bus into a building and see what happens.

    Re: security in general. If your house was broken into because you have a crappy lock, what would you do? Buy the same lock, a better lock or say ‘the hell with it’ and have no lock? If you but the same lock, would you be wasting your time? If you bought a better lock would you be reactionary? Or wasting your time, because if the burglar wanted in, it won;t matter what type of lock you have? Whay not be defeatist and say ‘screw the lock’ and don;t put one on? We use locks (and security at airports) to “keep the honest people honest” to a certain degree, catch the stupid ne’re-do-wells, and make the real bad guys have to at least work for it.

  20. Sinflux says:

    I’ve never had a problem with flying that wasn’t my fault (i.e. forgetting the day my flight was on). I’ve never spent more than 15 minutes going through security and I check in online so I don’t have to deal with checking in at the airport. I am one of those people who would’ve said “nothing”.

  21. timmus says:

    I’d like to meet those 18% who say “nothing”. What the hell planet did they come from?

  22. mathew says:

    I think the survey requires the world’s largest “Well, duh!” response. I’d have given them exactly the same top 4, in the same order.

    But then, I’ve experienced the joy of spending 45 minutes waiting to get through security, as well as the delights of having the TSA “security” staff steal my camera and iPod chargers from my checked luggage.

  23. Trai_Dep says:

    Yet another thing that the Bush Administration touches turns to shit.

    It’s amazing that for a guy that mouths empty words so much about liking business, he screws over an entire multi-trillion dollar industry through his creation of inept policies and agencies.

    Anyone sane President would look at the policies and say, “Whoa – fix this now,” but two more years, I guess.

    I suppose when change finally DOES happen, the freepers will fight tooth and nail to bar sippy cups, lighters, shoes and liquids from airports, or The Terrorists Will Win.

  24. bohemian says:

    I hated flying before 9-11. It was slow, crowded and service sucked. Now they have added the fun of 2 hour waits before your flight, pat downs, shoe inspection and if your the lucky winner a strip search an interrogation. You think I would pay money for this crap?

    We quit flying. Either the train or driving unless for some reason we have to go overseas. If we have to go overseas we will probably drive to Canada to fly out. From what I heard they have not adopted the totally insane security illusion.

  25. Trai_Dep says:

    And I just know the TSA is just going to chuckle at these finding, laughing it off with, “Tsk, tsk – pesky civilians just don’t understand the perils we save them from every day.” Their stupidity and tone-deafness are what truly enrages.

  26. lyndyn29 says:

    @Sinflux: Me too.

    @Timmus: I take responsibility for my pleasant flying experience. Keep track of times, fly on airlines with good customer service reputations and new, spacious planes (JetBlue and Frontier), fly in and out of small airports when possible (BTV in Burlington, Vermont is my favorite airport anywhere – they keep the TSA baggage checkers in a glass-fronted room directly behind the checkin counter, so you can watch them search your bags if you choose, and I have) and maintain a calm and polite demeanor with everyone I encounter. The only time I’ve ever had a problem was when flying into Boston with a travel companion with a very, very, very common Irish-American name, who of course, turned up on a checklist. The JetBlue folks took all of our ID, got us set in a comfy loungy space with sodas and TV, and got us pre-cleared through TSA, which took about an hour. By the time we got to the security gate, we were only delayed about five minutes, and still made our flight by about ten minutes. If the airline people hadn’t been proactive about helping us get through security, I’m convinced we would have missed our flight, after being uncomfortable, thirsty, and under overt surveillance for that hour-plus.

    I’ve also seen JetBlue hold a plane for a traveler who was delayed in security through no fault of his own, and then the pilot put the burn on to get the plane to its destination on time. Three minutes early, actually.

  27. synergy says:

    @Peeved Guy: But there’s a lot more Greyhound buses out there. Look how many people those roadside bombers and car bombers are taking out every day in Iraq. And that’s with soldiers patrolling the streets with weapons.

  28. synergy says:

    @lyndyn29: For the most part, if your state doesn’t border an ocean, you’re SOL with JetBlue. There’s a helluva lot more people that live outside of the coasts than on it. We don’t have the option of JetBlue.

  29. lyndyn29 says:

    @synergy: Actually, I live in Colorado.

    JetBlue gets me anywhere I need to go on the East Coast, through either JFK or Logan. Frontier gets me everywhere else, and the service and comfort level is awesome.

  30. Security measures should own that list… Arrival/Waiting time is absolutely nothing compared to time wasted and the hassle of “security”. I’d rather wait at the DMV than deal with security and that’s saying something.