Will the rash of recent viral videos have a lasting impact on airline regulation?

It didn’t take the latest string of viral videos to convince Cynthia O’Leary. There was no need to see the near-riot at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport or the passengers brawling on a flight at Burbank Bob Hope Airport.

She’s done flying, at least for now.

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“We’re driving,” says O’Leary, a software developer from Tampa.

Jeff Kolker is finished with air travel, too. “I’m not flying this year,” says Kolker, an accountant from Pryor, Okla. He’s planning trips to Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia, this summer. That’s more than 30 hours of driving.

In case you missed those clips, here’s a recap: Earlier this month, a passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas, bound for Oakland, Calif., came to blows with another traveler during a stopover in Burbank and was later arrested. A few days later, a brawl erupted between passengers and sheriff’s deputies after Spirit Airlines canceled nine flights in the wake of a labor dispute. And just last week, a video emerged of a family being kicked off a JetBlue flight in a dispute over a birthday cake.

The incidents follow the forcible removal of David Dao from a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville, last month, also captured on video. That led to congressional hearings and promises by airline executives to “do better.” It also made travelers like O’Leary swear off air travel — especially on United Airlines, which she says is on her personal blacklist.

But these latest kerfuffles are raising new questions: Will anything change? What, if anything, can passengers do — besides drive — as they face one of the most uncertain summers for air travel in more than a decade?

“The frustration of passengers is reaching a breaking point,” says Theresa Skarsten, a small-business owner from Bend, Ore., and a frequent flier. “The airlines only care about profits, not customer service. They’re cramming us into smaller and smaller seating, flights are late and the excuse is usually maintenance.”

Experts say the frustration is real, but change isn’t easy.

“While I think all of us who travel would love to believe this is a tipping point in the relationship between passengers and the airlines it simply is not true,” says Catharine Curran, an associate professor at the Charlton College of Business in North Dartmouth, Mass. “Superficial changes will be made.”

Some consumer advocates are hopeful that they can use the momentum generated by the outrage to put the force of law behind the voluntary measures now being adopted by airlines. Flyers Rights, a passenger advocacy group, last week sought to persuade lawmakers to enact tough laws that would effectively suspend overselling of airline seats, stop airlines from denying boarding to ticketed passengers and loosen federal laws that make disobeying the flight crew a felony, among other steps.

“It is obvious that airline passenger mistreatment is not isolated and will not be solved by relying on airline promises or voluntary policies,” says Flyers Rights president Paul Hudson.

Practically speaking, any proposed rules are likely to be saved for the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, which is up for renewal later this year. And if public outrage cools between then and now, those measures could be watered down or dropped entirely. Other federal agencies, including the Transportation Department, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Aviation Administration, can also act to help passengers, Hudson says. But for now, they’ve chosen not to.

The airline industry says new regulations are not needed. Air travel is safer than ever and incidents like this month’s are rare, according to Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America, an airline trade group. “Our commitment to customers is treat everyone who flies with dignity and respect,” he says.

So what should air travelers do in the meantime? It’s all about self-empowerment, experts say. “Passengers should do their research,” says Kevin Mitchell, who represents corporate travel interests in Washington as the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. He suggests that you carry a copy of your rights with you when you’re in transit.

In fact, at least one organization, Travelers United, is working with airlines to more prominently post basic consumer laws in airports. Perhaps not surprisingly, airlines have so far resisted disclosing these essential rules in this way, beyond what they are required to do by law.

Of course, passengers who are aware of their rights are far less likely to be pushed around during a delay, cancellation or other unforeseen event, which is probably why the industry is resisting the idea of improving their disclosure.

If nothing else, these incidents have shown how unpredictable air travel can sometimes be. And whether you’re a fan of regulation or think the industry already has too many rules, there’s probably one thing everyone can agree on: You never know what’s going to happen.

“Always buy travel insurance,” says Ben Baldanza, the former chief executive of Spirit Airlines. “It’s cheap, easy to use, and a single incident where it is needed effectively pays for the costs on dozens of flights.”

When the uncertainty of air travel is too much, you can always do what O’Leary and Kolker have done — take a break from flying.

If that’s not practical, then at least don’t forget to pack your patience and politeness this summer, as well as a cellphone with a charged battery. After all, you never know when you’ll be sitting next to the next viral video drama.

14 thoughts on “Will the rash of recent viral videos have a lasting impact on airline regulation?

  1. I really don’t think there will be anything but minor changes. The legislators have already proven that they either don’t listen to reason or don’t care. Otherwise, they would have done something about these things long ago. The only changes we’ll see are for optics, unfortunately.

  2. There will not be any additional regulation coming from Congress or this administration. As lovely as that may sound, the incidents that are triggering these calls will fade into memory as politicians focus on whatever new and shiny issue that is dangled in front of them.

    * United has already changed their policies to prevent what happened to the doctor from occurring again.
    * The fight occurring at the terminal for Spirit was caused by pilot/management dispute. Regardless of where you fall on that issue, Spirit is a bare-bones operation. It doesn’t have agreements with other airlines, often flies a route once a day or just a few times a week, and has minimal staffing at airports anyway. You get what you pay for.
    * The Southwest incident is interesting. That occurred on the most “consumer-friendly” airline on the US, but the problem occurred when people were fighting over seats. Unless you are advocating that SW now assigns seats, you are removing one problem and replacing it with others.
    * The JetBlue case is a he-said she-said thing. The video shows one thing, but JetBlue said the behavior was different before the recording. Unfortunately, claiming that crew-member might be drunk is a very serious accusation and once you let that out, you aren’t flying. (Almost as bad as bomb jokes in a TSA line.) Crew-members can get fired for having alcohol in their system while working, so that is not something they take lightly.

    But people who claim they are not flying because of these incidents are way over-reacting. While the incidents are troubling, there are more than 700 million US domestic passengers. The odds are so low that such a troubling incident would occur to you.

    1. There has been no reporting on what triggered the fight on the Southwest plane is unclear. However, the plane was already on the ground and it looked like people were already getting out in Burbank. It probably wasn’t a fight over seating since the attacker was probably getting off.

      1. What I had read as the passengers who were fighting were looking to change seats for the next flight. So these people were continuing onto the next destination.

        1. I don’t know if that would make much sense. They were already on the ground in Burbank, and the guy who got arrested was a resident of Lancaster, California. Maybe he was on his way to Oakland, but it would make more sense to me that he was on his way off the plane to go home.

          One of the rumors I heard was that he was angry that someone else was taking too much time exiting the plane.

  3. Of course the airlines share part of the responsibility, but when did we begin to think it was ok to shove, push, yell at, etc., etc., especially now that we know that we can be removed, arrested, banned for life from flying that airline, face civil charges from another passenger, etc., etc.? Once on that plane, my only goal is to get from A to B. That’s it. The rest can rant and rail all they want.

  4. Of course the airlines share part of the responsibility, but when did we begin to think it was ok to shove, push, yell at, etc., etc., especially now that we know that we can be removed, arrested, banned for life from flying that airline, face civil charges from another passenger, etc., etc.? Once on that plane, my only goal is to get from A to B. That’s it. The rest can rant and rail all they want.

  5. At the heart is Wall Street.


    Relentless pressure on corporate America is creating an increasingly Dickensian experience for many consumers as companies focus on maximizing profit. And nowhere is the trend as stark as in the airline industry, whose service is delivered in an aluminum tube packed with up to four different classes, cheek by jowl, 35,000 feet in the air.

    “There’s always been pressure from Wall Street,” said Robert L. Dilenschneider, a veteran public relations executive who advises companies and chief executives on strategic communications. “But I’ve been watching this for 30 years, and it’s never been as intense as it is today.”

    Rich bonus packages for top executives are now largely tied to short-term income targets and fatter profit margins instead of customer service.

  6. Carriers ignore the fact that flying is stressful for just about everyone. From the stress to getting to airport, thru security, making your flight, first time flyers, fearful flyers, etc,—the situation is ripe for problems.

    Many staff are pleasant and helpful, but there is a fair percentage that treat You with disdain as if they are doing you a favor. When boarding, I ALWAYS say “Good Morning”, etc, and about 1/4 of the time am ignored. Those cabin crew are consistently the ones who don’t talk, roll their eyes and huff and puff thru the flight. I once heard one of them berate an older man who forgot to ask for sugar for his coffee. But, you don’t dare say boo, because they are in “charge”.

  7. As I mentioned in my email to you, it is disturbing that this site has stopped “naming and shaming” some of the companies (travel agencies) that are at the crux of the cases. I hope that you go back and add those details to the cases that are missing them.

      1. It was an off topic post. I’m getting concerned about seeing two stories now where the offending company was not named.

  8. I didn’t buy the cake family’s story then; don’t buy it now. Case in point: the sound of other passengers clapping as the family was escorted off the plane.

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