American Airlines’ new ad campaign — “The world’s greatest flyers fly American” — gently praises flyers who are civil and generous. After decades of flyer abuse, that’s a lot to ask.
I am a 2-million-mile, Platinum-for-life American Airlines frequent flyer. I’ve been a frequent business traveler for 25 years. I have watched the sad decline of the flying experience over that time. For me, American is the least awful airline, partly because it flies where I need to fly, and partly because I have status on it. But it’s still awful.
When I was a teenager, my job was to take care of my high school’s laboratory animal room. As I saw, if you put 3 rats in a large cage, they do fine. If you put 15 rats in a small cage, they become feral and turn on each other. Nice rats become nasty rats.
So it is with the airline flyer. American (along with the other huge domestic U.S. airlines, Delta and United) has packed us in tighter and tighter, stopped feeding us, encouraged us to pay for checked luggage and WiFi at dialup speeds, and generally abused us. Economically, the worse coach is, the more they can charge for upgrades. As Tim Wu wrote in an excellent piece in The New Yorker, “The necessity of degrading basic service [and charging fees to escape it] provides a partial explanation for the fact that, in the past decade, the major airlines have done what they can to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience.”
But there’s a cost to this behavior: like the rats, the passengers become feral.
We fight to the death over armrests.
We stage cage matches over the right to recline a seat-back by three or four inches.
We bring stinky food onto planes and offend our seatmates, who are inches away.
We pack massive carryons and have fistfights over bin space.
In an environment like this, anything can set people off. Somebody clipping their toenails (yes, I’ve seen it). Somebody bringing two dogs on the plane and insisting they are both service dogs (my friend just saw that yesterday). Babies being babies. Farts.
But like the hostages we are, we suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. We ought to blame the airline, but we can’t live without the airline. We grumble at the experience, but you can’t beat the system. So we fly the same airline over and over (status helps you escape the suffering) and look down our noses at the other passengers and their reprehensible behavior. The peasants are revolting.
If you were American Airlines, what would you do? You can’t make the seats further apart — you’ll fit fewer people, have to charge more, and flyers choose by price. (And you’ll lose upgrade revenue.) You can’t scrap the fees, you’ll lose billions. You can’t advertise better routes, because the competition has brought everyone to parity. There’s no one left to merge with.
And you can’t become Southwest, because it would take a decade to get to their fee-free, transparent-price, limited change-fee culture. During that decade, you’d get eaten alive by United and Delta. (Even JetBlue, which was more like Southwest, is now well on its fee-laden way to becoming just like American or United.)
So, having packed your hostages into the plane, you return to advertising. You advertise peace, harmony, and the superiority of the flyer who has achieved them. You show pictures of clouds and (non-crying) babies and encourage people to give up the armrest to the poor schmo in the middle seat.
Completely understandable. But don’t tell us you’re for civility when you’ve packed us in like rats in a cage. We’re not fooled. I’ll be nice to my fellow flyers, because we’re all in it together. But 2 million miles into the odyssey, I know my captors very well.
Here’s American Airlines’ new ad, to bring a minute of peace to your day.