How to avoid the worst flight ever

Think air travel is a nightmare? Wake up.

Sandy Pradas, who says she was crushed in a tight seat on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, can help. Or Andrew McConnell, who had to bribe an airline employee to get on a flight for which he was already ticketed. So can Susan McPherson, who was splattered midflight by projectile vomit.

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These are not unusual stories, but they’re making the rounds with greater frequency now, as spring break approaches. It’s a time of year when more infrequent air travelers take to the skies — often, they are not sober — adding to the unbelievable but often true catalog of unpleasant in-flight encounters.

Before we continue (oh, I know you want to hear about McPherson’s encounter with Mr. Upchuck), a reality check: The airline industry’s definition of a “nightmare” is considerably different from yours. Safety is first, and when it comes to that critical standard, the industry is doing great. In fact, 2016 was the one of the safest years ever for the global aviation industry. When you and I think of a nightmare, we take for granted that the flight will arrive safely. We’re more concerned with landing with our dignity intact.

Both are important, of course. But this isn’t an aviation safety column, so let’s stay on topic. Nightmarish conditions will happen, but you don’t have to become another statistic. A little planning and common sense can take you a long way. All the way to your destination, perhaps.

Let’s get back to Pradas, who knows a thing or two about contortions. She’s a yoga instructor. But no amount of practice could have prepared her for the conditions in economy class on a recent flight from Miami to Madrid.

“I had never seen so little space between seats on any flight,” she says. “And we had eight hours on this thing.”

True, airlines have been moving their seats closer and closer together, and they also have the audacity to claim we asked for it. After all, didn’t we want lower fares? Thing is, Pradas didn’t pay a lower fare for her flight to Europe. Instead, she got scrunched into a seat as if she was striking a Yoganidrasana, the legendarily difficult yoga pose that makes you look like you’re folded in half. Ouch.

Not all flight-from-hell stories happen in the air. McConnell, en route to a rehearsal dinner for a wedding, arrived a few minutes after the arbitrary 90-minute check-in time for his Atlanta-to-Denver flight imposed by his airline. Even though he and his wife had no luggage to check, and they could have easily boarded the plane, the two ticket agents assisting them refused to let them on. Instead, they were told, they could pay to fly on the next flight. After all, rules are rules.

“I pulled out my wallet and emptied it on the counter,” he remembers. “I said, ‘I have $240 here. How about I give you each $120. Then can we get on the plane?’ ”

The agents looked at each other. Then one of them said to the other, “I won’t tell if you don’t.” And they let them on the flight for which they already were ticketed.

Are you rolling your eyes? Me too.

And finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. That part of the story where we talk about involuntary contact with bodily fluids. McPherson, a consultant to corporate and non-profit organizations based in New York, was on a flight from LaGuardia to Dallas/Fort Worth, sitting in coach class and dressed in business attire.

“I had a meeting when I landed,” she says. But the passenger next to her, a man in his mid-30s, had other plans. He became violently ill shortly before takeoff.

“He not only missed his target — the airsickness bag provided by the airline — but much of it landed on me,” she says. Worse, she had to wait until after they reached cruising altitude before a flight attendant could help her clean up.

“It was the worst flight ever,” she says.

So why bother regaling you with stories of sick passengers, intransigent airline employees and masochistic airline seats? It’s not just because there’s a solution, which I’ll share in a moment. It is, perhaps, to put the worst flights ever into perspective. Every one of these passengers reached their destination safely and on time. Points for the airlines on that one. In other words, no matter how bad you think it is, it could be worse.

But it’s all relative. And also, preventable. For example, it’s less likely you’ll encounter a drunken passenger on the first flight of the day, so flying early may help you out of barfing class. McConnell could have saved himself $240 by arriving for his flight on time, obviously. And on an overseas flight, there still are airlines that treat their passengers with respect. (Hint: Stay away from the U.S. carriers, which generally do not.)

Steffanie Rivers, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline, admits that part of the blame for bad service falls squarely on the shoulders of her employer. “But 90% of issues onboard the flight have to do with other passengers,” she says. “Drunk and disorderly, crying babies, support pets that poop or bite.”

Bottom line: If you have a bad flight and are looking for someone to blame, you might look for the closest mirror.

How to avoid a flight from hell

• Avoid connecting and late flights. Generally, the more connections you make, and the later in the day your flight leaves, the greater the chances something will go wrong. First non-stop flight of the day is a recipe for an undramatic flight, even at the height of spring break.

• Know your rights. By far the best resource for airline consumer rights, at least when it comes to federal regulations, is the Department of Transportation’s Fly Rights brochure, which is available online. Also, check your airline’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline.

• Be grateful. Take a deep breath and appreciate the big picture. If your flight lands safely, that’s the most important thing. And, at least until the next airline merger, you still sort of have a choice in airlines. Next time, don’t pick the one that delivered bad service if you can afford to.

51 thoughts on “How to avoid the worst flight ever

  1. “And on an overseas flight, there still are airlines that treat their passengers with respect. (Hint: Stay away from the U.S. carriers, which generally do not.)”

    Weird to make this comment, when one of your first stories (the yoga instructor) was probably on an international carrier (three of the four MIA-MAD nonstops are on int’l carriers), and the US carrier (AA) that flies that route offers as much or more seat pitch than the int’l carriers (IB and UX).

    1. Seat pitch IS NOT a measure of leg room. Leg room depends on the thickness of the seat back, of the seat in front of you.

          1. So you’d prefer a twelve hour flight in a coach seat with 32″ pitch to a lie-flat business class seat? Wow, you must place a huge amount of value on ensuring that the people who serve you food meet very rigorous standards for physical attractiveness.

          2. Fair enough. Even for work, though, I’d much rather have plenty of space for my laptop, notepad, etc. than being crammed into a coach seat. To each his own.

          3. What’s a notebook? You mean the little accessory/widget that you type text into on your laptop, why would that take up space?

          4. I mean a paper notebook. Or any other paper. Or being able to use your laptop with sufficient elbow room.

  2. Why did we not name the airlines in these stories? That’s the least we could do toward improving our treatment in the future.

    1. We can guess. The Miami to Madrid is American — if she flew on a US domestic carrier. Atlanta to Denver could be either United or Delta. And LaGuardia to Dallas would most likely be American.

      Based on a big three Airlines, ignoring Southwest (because no one complains about them). I guess these could have been Spirit or another LCC.

    2. And if the check-in time was for hard technical reasons, a bribed gate agent wouldn’t be able to ignore it at his whim.

  3. “McConnell .. arrived a few minutes after the arbitrary 90-minute check-in time”

    The check-in times are not arbitrary. There are operational reasons as to why an airline imposes a certain check in time, which also varies by airport.

    Regardless of whether it is 90 minutes or 60 or even 30; there is really no excuse for that in this day and age. Almost all of the airlines allow you to check-in from a phone or computer 24 hours in advance. You can even get e-mails or text messages from the airline reminding you to check in! And if you are away from home, many hotels have a computer or kiosk to help you check in — with a printer if you are one that likes paper boarding passes.

    1. 90 minutes is a bit longer than normal. For domestic travel, most airlines cutoff at 45 or 60.

      However, being forced to pay a bribe is outrageous. The airline should be named and security video could confirm if the customer put cash on the counter. If true, the employees should be fired.

      1. I agree with both points. 90 minutes is not typical for a domestic flight with no checked luggage. I just took umbrage with the term “arbitrary”. I have only seen that time when there is a special circumstance at the airport — say the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

        And plopping down cash to get on board. Well, that should not have happened as well. You are correct in that they should be fired.

      2. And if the check-in time was for hard technical reasons, a bribed gate agent wouldn’t be able to ignore it at his whim. The revenue team must have calculated that closing a flight 30 minutes early generated $X in additional forced walk-up fares. This pax probably saved significant money through bribery.

          1. They could have rebooked new tickets. No one held a gun to their head and made them take that one flight.

          2. According to their story, they were flying for a specific event so taking a later flight probably wouldn’t have worked for them. Additionally, re-booking would have definitely cost more than $240.

            So are you saying it is okay for agents to request/take bribes in order to allow passengers to board a plane after the cutoff time?

          3. I’m saying I’ve lived in parts of the world where bribery is little more than a service access fee, and the US might as well be one of them.

          4. I’m not sure how eliminating/ignoring bribery laws would make the US a better place nor serve travelers’ best interests.

          5. Sure it would, all those entitled PAX who think they have a right to behave poorly would be left at home, because those people never spend money.
            I mean don’t you wish you could get someone like a politician to listen to your whining position, and actually vote for legislation and laws that support your particular position and point of view in exchange for supporting their re-election or funding their charity?

  4. “Not all flight-from-hell stories happen in the air. McConnell, en route to a rehearsal dinner for a wedding, arrived a few minutes after the arbitrary 90-minute check-in time for his Atlanta-to-Denver flight imposed by his airline.”

    What airline was this?

    Delta’s checkin cutoff for a domestic flight from ATL is 45 mins (30 without baggage). United’s rules are the same. Frontier is 45 mins with or without baggage. Southwest is 45 minutes with checked bags, I don’t even see them cite a minimum time for pax without checked bags.

    Those are the only four carriers who fly ATL-DEN.

    1. The increased time could have been temporary. A busy holiday weekend. A special event in the departure city. An incident at another airport, domestic or international, especially if it was terror-related. Even labor related, if there is a strike or picket lines — although haven’t seen that lately.

      I have to assume that the ticket agents were before security. And these were not the gate agents. And why use a person to check in, especially when you have no luggage to check in. The kiosk should have been able to print the boarding passes for them.

      1. That’s all possible. It’s also possible that we’re not getting the full (or accurate) story here.

        Agreed that it’s incredibly easy to check in before you get to the airport, especially if you have no baggage. I haven’t gone to a check-in counter in a long time.

  5. I have noticed that nowadays, there is not always a motion sickness bag in the seat back in front of you, so don’t count on that…

      1. Think Ryanair has totally done away with seat pockets & they are probably the most successful airline ever, financially.

    1. Yeah, that’s all over the news. I’d have to say his “bad experience” kinda trumps all the others in this article. Although I’ll be curious to hear if he ultimately considers what he experienced to be worth it, after the enormous pay-off I expect will be coming his way!

    2. The PAX on that flight should have waited for the plane to take off and then give those UA employees what they really had coming.

  6. Hi Chris, One thing I just want to say is – thanks – I always enjoy your articles – always well-written, on-point and sometimes hysterical… I’ll reread to add my two cents !

  7. As CSRs we are forbidden (reprimand up to and including termination) to even take a small tip at the counters or anywhere else. That being said, though, I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t done it. Of course I am NOT condoning it but it just isn’t worth it if you have a nosey coworker who decides to report it or it’s actually a “test” customer (in which case you are really hung). On very, very few occasions I’ve had customers insist I take a tip and even then I told them, throw it over the counter (on the run) if you want to, I see nothing (until they walk away and I suddenly “find” it). Guess what, $10-$20 just isn’t worth it. The best one I ever had was a guy who I helped (irrops or something don’t remember) and he wanted to give me a $50 bill. I just wouldn’t take it (too many eyes) so he asked me “do you cook?” I said yes. He then gave me his business card and told me to call him – I did – he worked for a very high quality cookware company – he ended up sending me one of the best cooking pots I have ever used, still have it !!!!

  8. Want to avoid a nightmare flight, change your attitude.
    What were the PAX expecting this was Atlanta, you want to play you gotta pay. Everyone gots to make that paper.
    That’s not really projectile vomit, I was on a flight once and the PAX two rows in front of me had some 20 year old back from Spring Break vomit in his lap and then pass out on him.

    Nice suggestions, it would be nice and great if every direct flight cost the same s connecting flights, but that just isn’t so.
    Arriving on time or early (imagine that) would have saved the PAX $240, look those are rules.

  9. I’m one of those guys that has a wife that HAS to be at the airport 3 hours early for a domestic flight, and 4+ for an international one *groan*.
    It’s a good reason to own a Kindle with lots of books on it.. *chuckling*

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