United incident added to long list of passenger complaints

The tale of David Dao -- dragged off a plane Sunday when he wouldn’t give up his seat -- has been burning up social media.

But while most people never had it that bad, his story has spotlighted how unhappy passengers are these days. In fact, in the past few years, air travel complaints have soared.

The following are some of the biggest problems people have:


You can’t blame the airlines for this, since TSA security measures were instituted by the federal government in the wake of 9/11. Nevertheless, the long lines and intrusive procedures help ensure many passengers are miserable before they even board.

To make things worse, a surprisingly high number of TSA employees have been cited for misconduct.  Sometimes there are lawsuits.

Take the story of frequent flier Stacey Armato.  She was a mother carrying breast milk who wanted alternate screening (allowed by TSA guidelines) so it wouldn’t be exposed to radiation.

According to her complaint, the officials didn’t like her attitude and she was forced “to stand in a glass enclosure [...] for over 40 minutes, where she was frequently harassed and abused by TSA agents.”

A police officer was called over who, rather than help, told her to do what the TSA wanted or she’d be arrested.

She sued and won, even though some of the video of the incident mysteriously went missing.

Will things get better?  The TSA says it’s trying to improve, but it was created by an act of Congress, and when it comes to government bureaucracies, Congress can be the opposite of progress.


Not only are the flights overbooked, the seats are undersized.

This isn’t just your imagination. Over the past few decades, to fit in more passengers, airlines seats have been shrinking (while Americans, it should be noted, have been doing the opposite).

For instance, the distance between economy class seats on United Airlines in 1985 was 32-36 inches.  In recent years, it’s 30-31 inches.  And the width of the seats has gone from 19.5-20 inches to 17-18.3 inches.

This has made the ethics of reclining a serious question. If you lean back, the person behind you has even less room. So now we’ve got the phenomenon of one person in the front of the cabin reclining which starts an avalanche of seats moving back.

The jammed seats led to the invention of the Knee Defender, a device that prevents the person in front of you from reclining.

This created an incident on a 2014 United flight where a women who could not recline threw a cup of water at the man behind her using his Knee Defender.

The flight was diverted and both passengers removed (and perhaps taken to a space where they had plenty of room to think about what they did).  Meanwhile, everyone else on the flight was punished by an airline that may have overreacted.

Airlines, in general, have banned the Knee Defender, so the knee scraping continues.

Is there a solution?  Yes -- be short and thin, and you’ll have all the room you need.

Earlier this month, just before Dao’s incident went viral, a real estate executive says he was booted from the first class cabin after being told a “more important” passenger needed the seat. Geoff Fearns was already seated on his flight from Kauai, Hawaii to go home when a United attendant approached him and told him he had to leave.

“I asked why,” Fearns told the Los Angeles Times. “They said the flight was overfull.”

The real estate executive, who had paid $1,000 for his premium spot on the aircraft, initially refused to move even after he was told that someone with a “higher status” needed the seat at the last minute.

“They told me they needed the seat for somebody more important who came at the last minute,” Fearns recalled. “They said they have a priority list and this other person was higher on the list than me.”

The argument continued to escalate and at one point United crewmembers reportedly told Fearns he would be placed in handcuffs if he didn’t comply. Eventually, however, the airline offered the passenger a seat in economy, where he endured the six hour flight in between a bickering couple.

When he got home, Fearns wrote to United CEO Oscar Munoz, asking for a full refund-- and a $25,000 donation to a charity of his choice-- for his traveling troubles. The company offered to refund the difference between his first class and economy tickets and a $500 credit toward a future United flight.

Fearns has since turned down the airline’s officer, citing not wanting to ever fly United again and, like Dao, is considering legal action.


Most people who have been flying long enough have at least a story or two about luggage problems.

But it can probably be summed up best by the old Henny Youngman joke:

Getting on a plane, I told the ticket lady, "Send one of my bags to New York, send one to Los Angeles, and send one to Miami." She said, "We can't do that!" I told her, "You did it last week!"

And don’t get me started on airline food.


There are numerous other problems, of course.

Among the most common are canceled and delayed flights, rude employees and reservation mistakes.

Who needs to hear horror stories when the norm is horrible enough?

But there is a solution.  Perspective.

For less than $300, you can fly across the country in about five hours.  For most of human history, this sort of trip would take months, perhaps years, and you might die along the way.

So maybe the seats are a bit uncomfortable.  Maybe the flight attendant is curt.  Maybe the bathroom is always occupied and you didn’t get the window seat you wanted.  But never forget, we are participating in an event that would have been considered miraculous by our ancestors.

And when all else fails, say to yourself “at least I wasn’t dragged off the flight, battered and bloody.”

Now that’s perspective.