Motto of the U.S. airline industry: “We’re Hoping to Have a Motto Announcement in About an Hour.”
When the first commercial jet, the de Havilland Comet, was introduced in 1952, it ushered in an entirely new concept that the Wright Brothers never anticipated: air travel complaints. The modern traveler could now brag of turbulence, delays, in-flight meals, and mishandled luggage. Both air travel and these surrounding issues gained traction with the introduction of the Boeing 707s. Boeing created 1,010 “seven-oh-sevens,” which dominated passenger air transport in the 1960s. In 1970, the Boeing 747 became the king of the skies, and it wasn’t dethroned until the Airbus A380 in 2005. You might look at it as basic math: more and bigger planes means more passengers and more flights and more delays and more lost luggage and more waiting.
Air travel may offer one of the safest modes of transport, but the issues around it have not abated. Between cost cutting, the creation of no-frills carriers, old planes finding new life in developing nations, complicated baggage delivery systems, and overburdened airports, we’ve entered the golden age of air travel complaints. And for good reason: for all too many flights, former mainstays—such as comfort, timeliness, and general good customer service—have gone the way of the DC-9 (out of production after 41 years and nearly 2,500 planes built).
After an 11-hour layover at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Kate and her 19-month-old son, Garren, finally got on their Continental ExpressJet flight home. Kate was trying to keep her son occupied during the preflight procedures and pointed out another aircraft out the window. “Bye, bye, plane,” Garren said. He repeated this many times while a flight attendant went over safety instructions.
After the safety demo, the flight attendant leaned over the man sitting in the aisle seat and said to the mom: “Okay, it’s not funny anymore. You need to shut your baby up.” Kate explained she was simply distracting her son until he fell asleep, which he would be doing shortly. The flight attendant suggested giving the child an allergy medication to help him sleep. Kate refused to drug her child at the flight attendant’s request, and their discussion escalated into an argument.
The flight attendant told the captain that a woman had threatened her (Kate denied making any threats), so he agreed to taxi back to the airport. A witness on the flight said she heard the flight attendant brag to Kate that “We’re going back to the gate.” Other passengers came to the defense of Kate (and her now sleeping son) to try to keep them from getting thrown off, but to no avail. She was told the police would remove her if she didn’t disembark immediately. Kate and her son had no choice but to exit the plane and try to find a place to spend the night.
An ExpressJet spokeswoman merely recited the standard line that any passenger compromising the safety of the other passengers or crew or undermining a crew member’s authority may be removed from the aircraft. Though the airline was happy to explain to the media that they “take any complaints about these issues seriously.” Source: ABC News
A man and his porn do not part ways easily. A Nationwide flight attendant should have considered this when she asked a male passenger known as A.C. to put away his adult magazine. The passenger and his porn were about to fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town when he was asked to desist from perusing the material. According to the airline’s spokesperson Roger Whittle, the passenger “became abusive and threatened the cabin crew, using inappropriate language.” (He told the flight attendant she was being f*cking rude.) This is why, Whittle explained, A.C. and his porn were kicked off the flight prior to departure.
A.C. reportedly made an appointment to meet with his lawyer later that afternoon to decide on an appropriate course of action. Source: Independent Online (South Africa), April 5, 2005
Its most impressive quarter was Q3 2007, when a noteworthy 57.5 percent of its flights had delays. Source: Association of European Airlines Consumer Report (Most recent year with statistics available: Q2 2007–Q1 2008; calculation was made based on average quarterly ranking)
WORST FIRST-WORLD AIRPORT
This is an easy one. Miami. To me, it’s the last flight out of Saigon every time I go through the place. The only redeeming thing in the entire airport is the great Cuban food at La Carreta, which you’ll be eating since you stand an excellent chance of not going anywhere fast.
—Peter Greenberg, investigative travel reporter and producer, served as correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America and travel editor for NBC’s Today show
LEAST BOTHERSOMEFLAMING 747 ENGINE
British Airways (Flight 268)
When British Airways flight 268 departed Los Angeles en route to London with 352 passengers and 18 crew, the 747 pilot soon realized that only three of the four engines were operating. How did he know? Perhaps it was when the entire number two engine burst into flames before the plane even left L.A. County airspace. Faced with the choice of flying with three engines for the remaining 11 hours or dumping $30,000 in fuel to make an emergency landing (and possibly paying upwards of $275,000 to compensate passengers for a late arrival), the British Airways home office suggested the pilot go for it. The pilot then told the control tower in L.A. that he and his crew would try to “get as far as we can.” The control tower officer, which had witnessed the flames coming from the plane, was stunned. Impressively, the plane nearly made it to London. Low fuel levels deterred that plan and forced the pilot to make a safe emergency landing in Manchester. Surprised by the decision? The Air Accident Investigation Branch, part of the UK’s Department of Transport, found that continuing after an engine failure occurred on 15 other BA flights in the last five years. Source: Guardian, September 25, 2006
A pilot flying a Boeing 737 for the Turkish airline Anadolujet left the cockpit to use the bathroom. No problem there. But he left the controls in the hands of a 15-year-old boy. Small problem.
The pilot was likely unaware of a similar incident in 1994 that killed 70 people on an Aeroflot flight when the pilot’s son turned off the autopilot.
Anadolujet, much to its credit, sacked the pilot, but not before picking up a Titanic Award. Source: Mirror, September 24, 2008
WORST AIRPORT The worst has to be in Douala, Cameroon. Aside from the bribes, there’s the complete lack of air-conditioning, chairs, facilities, and organization. Charles de Gaulle runs a tough second. —Jane Wooldridge, travel editor of the Miami Herald
LEAST LIFE-THREATENINGEMERGENCY LANDING
On a cross-country flight, a 50-year-old male passenger decided to disrobe while sitting in his seat in the back of the aircraft.
The US Airways pilot faced the prospect of flying with a naked man in the back of the plane or diverting the flight to Albuquerque and making an unscheduled landing to have the man covered as soon as possible (apparently, the plane’s blankets wouldn’t suffice, nor would putting his tray table down).
In America, nudity is only acceptable on cable TV and the Internet and in movies and magazines, so the pilot diverted the plane, delaying all the passengers and wasting extra fuel, so the nudist could be covered and arrested. This award goes to the pilot. Running out of coffee is a far more worthy cause for diverting a flight. Source: Associated Press, July 2, 2009
On a British Airways flight from London to Jamaica, a British couple admittedly gained membership into the “mile-high club” (more accurately, the six-mile-high club) in the plane’s lavatory. Twice. Their sexual acts, coupled with additional disturbances in the cabin when they were refused further drinks, were somehow enough to divert the entire flight to Bermuda and have the pair escorted off the plane in handcuffs—no, not the pink fuzzy type. Source: Bermuda Sun, December 2005
LEAST REASSURING MAINTENANCE PRACTICE
Nepal Airlines was having technical trouble with one of its two Boeing 757s. Eventually, the airline announced that it had corrected the problem by sacrificing two goats to appease the Hindu god of sky protection, Akash Bhairab. The goats were sacrificed in front of the aircraft, right on the tarmac of Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu.
“The snag in the plane has now been fixed and the aircraft has resumed its flights,” said senior airline official Raju K.C., according to a Reuters report.
It may be worth noting that after the ceremony, the plane did complete a successful flight to Hong Kong. Source: Reuters, BBC, September 5, 2007
WORST LANDING Not a fair question. I tell people that judging a flight by a rough landing is like judging a book by a single misplaced punctuation mark. From a pilot’s point of view, there is so much that goes into a flight, and to judge everything by the smoothness of a touchdown is unfair. Especially when some landings are intentionally firm, such as those on shorter runways. That’s my excuse, anyway, for those times when I bang it on.
—Patrick Smith, commercial airline pilot, air travel columnist for Salon, and author
MAJOR EUROPEANAIRPORT WITH MOSTDELAYS
Q1 2008 was its most impressive quarter, with 42.1 percent of flights delayed an average of 38.8 minutes.
Top 10 runners-up in order: Gatwick, Rome, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Madrid, Dublin, Athens, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Lisbon, Manchester.
Source: Association of European Airlines Consumer Report, based on average quarterly ranking of percentage delayed for the most recent year
WORST AIRLINE Undoubtedly the late and unlamented Viasa of Venezuela. In the olden days of the late twentieth century, this basket-case airline provided the only really cheap link between the UK and South America. Halfway through a tortuous, 25-hour trip from Heathrow via Paris, Margarita Island, Caracas, and Rio to São Paulo, I contracted the worst food poisoning I have ever experienced. Since all the “meals” I consumed in that time were provided by the airline, I can pin the blame squarely on Viasa. In a gratifying bit of travel karma, this useless airline went bust shortly afterward. —Simon Calder, travel editor for the Independent and TV travel host for the BBC
MOST DEMANDING TAXI
Taking off shoes at security, limited luggage, extra fees . . . think airlines are asking a lot of you these days? Maybe you don’t have it so bad. Passengers on a Chinese Shandong Airlines flight were asked to get out and push the 20-ton plane about 800 meters (half a mile) when it broke down shortly after landing. (The airport staff gave it a try first but weren’t able to get it near the gate without the additional help.) It took them two hours. Still, they were able to keep a positive outlook. “Thank God it was only a 20-ton medium-size plane,” said one of the airport workers. Probably won’t be long before airlines ask us to roll down the window and flap our arms. Source: Daily Mail/Telegraph, September 27, 2008
MOST EXPENSIVE FLIGHT PER MILE
A Delhi-based man named Bahadur bought an old Airbus 300 to offer weekly sessions in which any of the 1 billion Indians who had never flown before could sit on a genuine (though disabled) airliner, listen to pilot announcements (“We are about to begin our descent into Delhi”), and be served by flight attendants. Said one customer (who paid the equivalent of about $4), “I see planes passing all day long over my roof. I had to try out the experience.”
The experience of sitting on an airplane and not leaving the ground is far more realistic than the passengers may realize. Few air travelers haven’t experienced delays on the tarmac. Bahadur just needs to change his pilot announcements to: “Sorry for the delay. We’re still waiting for the go-ahead from the control tower—apparently there are a lot of flights backed up trying to land in Chicago, and we’re just waiting for a new departure slot. But we expect that anytime now. Meanwhile, sit back and relax, and we’ll do everything we can to make this part of your journey as pleasant as possible.” Source: Times (London), September 30, 2007
WORST AIRLINE Bangladesh Biman. Passengers blowing snot on floor; one pulled out a camp stove ready to make tea.
—Larry Habegger, cofounder and editor of Travelers’ Tales publishing
MOST HATED AIRPORT(OF 50 BIGGEST)
AFRICA/MIDDLE EAST WINNER: Dubai
ASIA WINNER: Bangkok
EUROPE WINNER: Heathrow
LATIN AMERICA WINNER: Mexico City
NORTH AMERICA WINNER: LAX (Los Angeles)
PACIFIC WINNER: Sydney
NARROWEST COMMERCIALPLANE SEAT
Northwest Airlines can lay claim to the world’s narrowest seat (on board their Saab 340), measuring in at a hip-crunching 16 inches. By comparison, the industry average for economy seats is closer to 17.5 inches. And a few economy seats are as wide as 19 inches. So if you find yourself flying on Northwest’s Saab 340, you’ll be pleased to know that in this case, it’s not you getting bigger. Source: SeatGuru.com, July 1, 2009
WORST AIRPORT LINK No place in the world rips off airport commuters more than the sweet New Jersey Transit to Newark’s airport—that is, if you’re coming in from New York City. It’s a plain ol’ commuter train (not much place for your bags) but charges $15 per person for the two-stop, 24-minute trip. That might be okay if it weren’t triple the cost if you get off a stop before or after the airport. Meanwhile, New Jersey Transit’s hour-long ride to the airport from Trenton, clear across Jersey? Yeah, it’s $9.25. Probably just payback for New York stealing Liberty Island.
—Robert Reid, Lonely Planet’s U.S. spokesperson and travel editor
SPECIFIC FLIGHTS WITHMOSTDELAYS
The FAA knows exactly which flights have the most delays and prints a list of them every quarter. To make the list, the flight needs to be at least 15 minutes late 70 percent of the time.
Looking at the most recent year of statistics available, ExpressJet had the most flights that achieved this impressive status, with 29 flight routes that were at least 15 minutes late at least 70 percent of the time. Close behind were American and Comair, each with 26 flight routes on the list.
Most impressive, perhaps, is Comair’s Q3 record (July–September 2008) for its Minneapolis to JFK flight, which was delayed by 15 minutes or more 62 out of 63 times, for a single-quarter record 98.4 percent delayed. (The industry average is close to 20 percent.)
Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics (most recent available year of FAA reports: 2007–2008)
WORST AIRLINE Air Pakistan: duct tape holding together seats, cockroaches in the aisles.
—Pauline Frommer, publisher and founder of Pauline Frommer’s Travel Guides
SUSPENSION FROMAIRLINE AWARDS LIST
Azerbaijan Airlines and FlyGlobespan
Skytrax ranks airlines on a one- to five-star system for quality standards. Last year, six airlines received the top score of five stars. Air Koryo (the national airline of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) stood alone at the bottom of the ranking as the lone one-star recipient.
But two have the dubious distinction of being suspended from Skytrax’s list: Azerbaijan Airlines and FlyGlobespan. According to Skytrax, “Suspending an airline from Star Ranking may relate to concerns about safety, or where wide variations of product/service inconsistency and reliability make ranking inaccurate.”
When you visit FlyGlobespan’s website, it has the words “award winning” right under the logo. Wonder if it’s counting this as an award. Source: Skytrax, July 30, 2009
WORST AIRPORT Well, it used to be JFK, but that seems to have improved a bit, so I guess I’d have to say Heathrow. —Martin Dunford, former publisher of the Rough Guides series