In Defense Of Airlines


Get real crybabies. Let’s have some empathy for the thousands of dedicated airline workers getting trashed by spoiled self-centered passengers thinking only of their own circumstances, with no regard for the dedicated workers who give them lift every day under often impossible circumstances. I am sick and tired of watching news reports with sound bites from disgruntled passengers blaming airline personnel, government workers and the bad weather for their woes. It sounds trite, but try walking (or flying) in their shoes.

Certainly there have been some very trying times for passengers. Last weekend there was a totally unforeseen “bomb cyclone” winter storm that hit the east coast with a fury, grounding thousands of planes in the US and cancelling hundreds of overseas flights headed to the East Coast. New York’s Kennedy airport was hit hard, forcing a shutdown due to white-out weather conditions. When it finally opened a day later, passengers spent hours on the tarmac due to below freezing conditions that incapacitated ground equipment, and heavy traffic from flights making up for the cancellations.

  JFK LuggagePassengers waded through a sea of bags from delayed flights at Terminal 4 at Kennedy International Airport on Sunday. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times.  

So many gates were covered in snow and ice there was simply no way to deplane passengers who spent hours feeling like prisoners in a tube looking out their windows at a terminal so close and yet so far. Sure. Some airports around the world are better equipped to deal with flight backlogs, stranded passengers and strained facilities. Unfortunately New York’s Kennedy is not one of them.

And then bad went to worse, after a water main broke in JFK’s Terminal 4, a major arrival point for international arrivals. Officials closed the terminal for hours, baggage claim was flooded and power went out. Port Authority officials apologized, saying such a mechanical breakdown was unacceptable. That was scant comfort to the thousands of passengers desperately trying to find their bags in a sea of piled up luggage.

But I lost my compassion for some of those passengers when they began screaming at airline employees, started fist fights, and blamed anyone and everyone for their missed connections and lost bags. In particular, some “irates”—that is what airlines call flipped out passengers—complained there were no employees there to help them. Did it not dawn on them that many of those workers were themselves stuck in the same “super storm” and unable to make it to the airport? I call this an incredible lack of “empathy”, the total inability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes. Too many passengers are belligerent, self-centered travelers who feel entitled. Airline workers trying hard to do their jobs in an increasingly hostile environment are not your punching bags.

  JFK Winter StormA passenger slept while workers cleared snow at Kennedy International Airport. Winter weather led to flight cancellations this week. Credit Damon Winter for The New York Times.  

Want some more examples. A while back I was waiting to board a flight at O’Hare airport in Chicago when I watched a screaming passenger at the next gate yelling at the agent to reopen the closed door for the flight he was missing because he was late. When told “the horse had left the barn,” he picked up a chair and threw it at the window next to the agent. Or how about the business class flight I took on British Airways to London last August. For most of the 10 hour flight from San Francisco I had to stare at the passenger in front of me with her bare feet propped up on the window. Not much chance to check out the scenery outside.

  Plan Passenger FeetWoman’s feet in front of me on British Airways Flight 0286 on August 31, 2017 from San Francisco to London.  

Sure. Airlines can do better at customer service and pricing. But those extra fees by example, while an irritant, have helped a troubled industry that was for decades a black hole of losses to finally start making money. Earlier this week Delta Airlines reported strong quarterly earnings and positive forecast for 2018, with the biggest increase in business travel in 3 years. That rewards employees and stockholders, and gives Delta the ability to spend the money necessary to upgrade equipment and insure continued passenger safety. United and American are also legacy carriers signaling strong profits and growth with similar dedication to improvement.

Airlines routinely train their employees in safety and customer service. And certainly employees, being human, can crack in “act of God” circumstances. But let’s cut them some slack. It’s a tough job with little pay in a competitive industry. And there was not a single fatality in US commercial aviation last year. So next time you board, how about you give them a smile and thank them for their service. You may not get an upgrade, but maybe a free drink or at least a wide smile.

A disclaimer here: I have been in love with aviation since my first commercial flight more than 50 years ago. I was a Captain in the US Air Force, am a private pilot and airplane owner. My twin brother David started his career as a gate agent for TWA in Chicago, and has held senior executive positions at major carriers worldwide. We actually remember a time when passengers dressed as if going out to a fine restaurant for dinner. Isn’t it funny how dressing up made for more civil discourse on board?

  (Brian Banmiller is a national Business reporter for CBS News Radio, writer and public speaker. The former television business news anchor in San Francisco can be reached at

This article was originally published on January 12, 2018.

Brian Banmiller

About Brian

CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.

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