Oh, the irrational passengers airlines fly!

What is it about air travel that makes us lose our minds?

Just the other day, I got an email from a reader who claimed she was “outraged” by a flight delay.

The first leg of her flight from Austin to Dallas had been canceled, causing her to miss her connection to an international flight. Although her airline handled the service interruption by the book, offering a flight the following day, she would have none of it.

She just knew it was a conspiracy.

Why? Because her parents had taken the identical flights the day before, and they departed on time. She suspected — although she had no evidence to support this conclusion — that because the flights from Austin to Dallas were not flying at capacity, the airline had simply canceled it.

“We have hotel bookings that they are not willing to compensate for,” the passenger said, “not to mention valuable vacation time we are wasting.”

You don’t have to be an expert on airlines to know that canceling a scheduled flight just because it’s flying half-empty doesn’t make a lot of sense. Besides being on the line for missed connections, meals and hotel vouchers for the displaced passengers, it would almost certainly draw unwanted attention from government regulators.

Either way, a single cancellation hardly amounts to a conspiracy.

“I want a refund and apology,” she said.

I told her I couldn’t help. I didn’t tell her why.

But I’ll tell you: Her request was totally unreasonable. A complete refund on a ticket she’d used? Reimbursement for missed hotel nights? Sorry, no can do.

But reason has nothing to do with any of this. If we were reasonable, we’d be willing to pay a fair airfare — one that covered the cost of operating a flight. Instead, we want something free or as close to free as it gets. Maybe that’s why airline managers feel they have no choice but to lie to us about the true costs of our tickets, dangling unsustainably low fares in front of our noses and then socking us with fees and surcharges.

The problem with air travel, both from a passenger and an airline perspective, is that we’ve disengaged our brains almost completely from the process.

Airlines abandoned reason long ago. Their fares make no sense (why does a roundtrip airfare cost half as much as a one-way ticket, for example?). Their business model makes even less sense (it’s based on upselling you on extras, like luggage fees and sky-high change fees). Even the fact that they’re in the airline business to begin with makes no sense, because if they studied their history, they’d know that over the long term, no one makes money
operating an airline.

And how about passengers? A lot of them are just as nuts. On what planet are $59 fares to anywhere sustainable? Not this one. Yet we don’t book until the price is right. And what if that flight is delayed by a few hours? I’ve seen passengers go after airlines for event tickets, missed hotel reservations, lost wages and vacation time when inclement weather prevented an on-time departure.

Who are these people?

When it comes to air travel, almost nothing is rational anymore. Don’t even get me started on airports, the TSA, airport food vendors, mass transit and taxi service to the airport. They’re all out of their minds, too.

The crazy isn’t fixable. It will be with us for generations.

As some of you know, I’m wrapping up this column at the end of the year. It’s been a wild ride, but no industry has offered a richer source of material than airlines.

But as perhaps its greatest beneficiary, l just want to say: thank you.

Who's crazier?

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Update: Many of you have asked what happens after this column goes away at the end of this year. I’m rolling out a new feature on Tuesday, Jan. 1, which will challenge conventions, slaughter sacred cows and bust myths about all things relating to travel and transportation. If you have any suggestions on what you’d like me to cover — or not cover — please . Your ideas are very welcome.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    Yes they do, but the bulk of the passengers on coach are on restricted fares. The classics need these higher revenue seats to make money. Any hiccup in business first hurt them. So you see the reason why they charge ancillary fees in coach. I think the business class market shrunk after the 2008 recession.

  • Ann Lamoy

    Excellent advice.

    And sometimes, simply emailing without a request will get you something nice.

    On September 28th, I had a 7:10 flight from LAS to SEA. We pushed away from the gate but before we could take off, we ended up pulling back. Someone heard a strange noise and reported it. Maintenance checked it out and after we deplaned, spent about 6 hours trying to fix it (even so far as to getting on the phone with Boeing engineers). They ended up cancelling the flight.

    Because they had no plane they could bring in, they had to rebook the full plane of passengers. About 30 people got on a Delta flight that went through Salt Lake. There were only two other flights leaving that night-one at 8:30 and another at 9:50. While we were all standing in line trying to rebook, an Alaska Air rep walked through handing us cards to fill out to mail in so we could either get airline miles or a voucher as compensation for our trouble. (they had already given us a meal voucher around 11am).

    I ended up getting the last flight out. About 30 people couldn’t get flights and had to stay overnight so they were put up. (We all got meal vouchers for an evening meal as well-they got a meal voucher for the morning).

    I mailed in the card requesting a voucher. When almost a month had passed and I hadn’t gotten anything, I emailed customer service. I gave a quick explanation of what happened that day (flight number included) and said that I hadn’t received the voucher yet and I was wondering when I could expect it. I didn’t mention anything about how much I expected it to be not was my tone angry in any way. (I mentioned that I understood that things happened and I was pleased with how accommodating the people at the airport were.)

    Within 24 hours, I received an email from a VP of Customer service, apologizing for the delay and what happened. He also gave me a $350 voucher-good for one year. Considering the flight cost $303, I was extremely surprised and pleased. I honestly was expecting maybe a $50 or $75 voucher at most. I have to wonder if one of the reason it was so much is because I was pleasant in my email and not coming across as a “give me this NOW because it is all your fault”.

  • Michelle C

    I have friends who work retail and they also have seen people defecate in the middle of the store for what could only be described as for “$h1ts and giggles.” I work as a nurse and I can tell you people feel so entitled they do irrational things, and come off as crazy.

  • Bill___A

    Thank you Chris

  • Bill___A

    That’s right, you can’t sit there even if it is empty. They will generally let you change if you pay but there’s a convenience fee for doing it on the plane.
    People who pay for upgrades don’t want others to be able to just get them for free.
    If you get so stressed out on a simple flight that you need to drive on the road 14 hours each way, then I hope you are at least driving sensibly.

  • y_p_w

    I haven’t traveled that much on business, but my business travel has only been on two airlines – Southwest and Reno Air. One thing was that they were cheap and the other was that they covered the important routes for our business.

    Of course Reno Air is long gone.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I’m making a guess, mind you, but I suspect anyone who urinates or defecates in a store aisle has a mental problem. The societal shame on such an action is so high that most people would rather urinate or defecate in their pants while dashing to a bathroom.

  • larry bradley

    They may have a mental problem? Actually, they were all drunk, just like the folks on airplanes that were doing the same thing.

  • Lil’ Miss Nightmare

    I flew to Seattle with a layover in Denver in July ’12. Our 50 minute layover turned into a 4 hour delay because of mechanical problems with the plane. We boarded the flight & after 45 minutes were asked to leave the plane because of a mechanical failure. The people at the desk were almost immediately surrounded by irate passengers screaming for compensation of some sort. I didn’t want to jump into that shark pool but I really wanted to get an idea on either the problem or amount of time it would take so I could grab something to eat/a smoke/a drink.. I talked to the lady at the counter who informed me that the computer on the plane failed & they were working on it.. & I stopped her & said “I don’t care how long it takes. I am not mad in the least. I just want the plane fixed before I get on it. That’s all I care about. I could be here for the night, don’t care, I want to be on a working plane, the end” & we both laughed & agreed that was best for everyone. They were great with giving us updates but some people on that flight were just total jerks about it. Y’all can fly your own damn selves on the broken plane.. The flight crew & I will wait till a working one arrives if y’all are in that much of a rush. Finally after 2 different computers were replaced (the replacement broke & we had to wait for another one to arrive from another airport – OH THE HUMANITY!) we boarded. The flight was pleasant otherwise & they comped my gin & tonic on the flight (which made my “OMG FLYING IS TERRIFYING” nerves very happy) because of the delay.
    I got to my destination alive… that’s all a girl can ask for.