Videos showing arguments between passengers and flight staff have become more frequent

By Aric Jenkins
May 5, 2017

Another week, another airline fiasco.

Delta became the latest flier to become embroiled in controversy after Brian Schear, a customer who boarded a red-eye from Maui to Los Angeles with his family, uploaded a video to YouTube revealing their encounter with flight officials who demanded that his 2-year-old son give up his seat to another passenger.

The ensuing exchange led to Schear and his wife being threatened with jail time before the whole family, including another 1-year-old son, was booted from the flight and forced to pay thousands for an overnight hotel and new plane tickets, the family told KABC.

The Schears’ story is another chapter in a seemingly endless book of airline horror stories. Why does it seem like another video exhibiting an argument between passengers and flight staff emerges so often? The answer, Airline Weekly managing partner Seth Kaplan says, comes down to sensationalism.

“There’s a pattern in news in general. When one thing happens, you tend to get a combination of copy cat type of events and people become more sensitive,” Kaplan told Fortune. He added that while Delta did make a mistake by not addressing the Schears’ ticket situation before they reached the ticket counter, the situation received supplementary media coverage due to the United Airlines altercation last month in which a 69-year-old passenger was forcibly dragged off a plane.

“In almost every measurable way, airline service is as good as its ever been,” Kaplan continued. “It’s the safest, most punctual, has fewer lost bags and less complaints than ever before. That tells me it’s more of an anecdotal thing that we’re seeing.”

The latest Air Travel Consumer Report from the U.S. Department of Transportation was issued on April 18. The document, which details quality of service across airlines, both domestic and foreign, shows that there were 950 consumer complaints this February, down 551 from the 1,501 complaints that were registered one year prior. In 2016, the number of passengers who were involuntarily denied boarding — meaning they did not choose to give up their seats on an oversold flight in exchange for compensation — fell by 15% for every 10,000 passengers based off of the same data from 2015.

Across every single category — baggage, reservations, fares, customer service, refunds, and more — the report shows that customer complaints have decreased.

Shawn Pruchnicki, a lecturer at Ohio State University’s Center for Aviation Studies, who flew as a captain for 10 years on Delta’s former subsidiary, Comair, said that in his 4,000-plus hours of flight time from 1999 to 2009, he experienced passenger incidents about a half dozen times. Part of the reason behind this, he said, was that captains used to have more jurisdiction over their planes.

“The captain of the flight is and should be the final authority of the aircraft,” he explained.

But now, Pruchnicki said, airlines have stripped captains of that power and rely on police too much.

“The police tend to use aggressive tactics, and more training should be provided so they understand what they can and cannot do,” he said. “It didn’t used to be like this — I remember when suddenly one day some internal [airline] people said to us, ‘You are not in charge until those doors close and the plane begins rolling.’ The police used to report to me.”

While the data shows that airline passenger incidents are down, Pruchnicki says that airlines are “absolutely at fault” for the incidents that are widely-reported, and that airlines’ tendency to overbook flights in order to maximize revenue has put them in the spotlight.

“These problems need to be solved at the gate. The policy should be that once a person is boarded, it’s the airline’s problem — they don’t seem to get that,” he said.

And ultimately, Pruchnicki and Kaplan both said, the improvement of technology has had an impact of the visibility of these incidents.

“Cell phone cameras are definitely a factor,” Kaplan said.

Pruchnicki agreed.

“After everything that’s happened… any problem a passenger sees on a airplane — they’re going to film it. The general public wants to know.”

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