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Airlines need an attitude adjustment

A report out Monday found that U.S. airlines did a whole lot better last year getting passengers where they’re going and not losing people’s bags in the process. And maybe that’s true.

Maybe airlines are indeed stepping up their game. Maybe they’re responding to tough economic times with a renewed commitment to high performance and customer satisfaction.

Or maybe we’re just so used to being miserable from the moment we set foot in the airport, we’re not complaining anymore. We’re just taking it.

“If you expect a bad experience, why bother complaining?” acknowledged Brent Bowen, head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University and coauthor of the annual report on airline quality.

“Many times, consumers tell us that whenever they send a letter to an airline, they get no response,” he said. “Or if they do get a response, it says only that the airline is too busy to respond.”

The report by researchers at Purdue and Wichita State University is based on complaints lodged with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“The expectations of the flying public have been lowered,” said the report’s other coauthor, Wichita State professor Dean Headley. “A good flight these days is when nothing goes seriously wrong. That’s how bad things have become.”

I can vouch for that, having just returned from an all-too-brief vacation and a round-trip flight aboard a major airline.

You know the drill: fees for checked bags, fees for food, fees for headphones, cramped seats that laugh at any notion of comfort or personal space.

Generally speaking, airlines did a better job last year getting passengers from Point A to Point B on time, and they did considerably better ensuring that our bags didn’t end up at Point C. Or at least there were fewer complaints about such things.

But when it came to “involuntary denied boardings” -- that is, bumping people from flights they reserved a seat and bought a ticket for -- passengers were sufficiently cheesed to log an 8% increase in complaints.

Personally, I can’t understand how any business can get away with selling more of a product than it can possibly offer. Oh, I get why airlines would want to do it: Why carry the risk of a passenger not showing up for a seat when you can offload that risk to the passengers who do?

But isn’t selling something that you won’t have -- in this case, sufficient capacity for everyone who wants a seat -- a breach of contract or an act of fraud? Apparently not, insofar as airlines warn in advance that they may pull something like this, and federal authorities say that’s good enough for them.

“It’s a common aspect of the airline industry,” Headley said. “But it does sound like it’s right on the edge of dishonest.”

Here’s what I propose: When airlines sell people a ticket, they sell people a ticket. If that passenger doesn’t show up for the flight, that’s his problem -- he’s out the hundreds or thousands of dollars the ticket may have cost.

If the airline can then turn around and sell the empty seat to a standby passenger, great. If not, it still isn’t out any money, and no one else has been affected by the booking gone awry.

And while I’m at it, here are a few other thoughts:

* Always board the back of the plane first. It’s just dumb to allow people to clog up the aisle as they wrestle those ubiquitous wheelie bags into the overhead bin.

* And maybe it’s time to rethink carry-on bags altogether. By charging $25 or more for each checked bag, airlines are prompting savvy passengers to try to beat the system with ever-larger carry-on bags. This makes boarding and disembarking an increasingly time-consuming process.

Enough with the wheelie bags and the battle for overhead-bin space. Let’s limit carry-on bags to bags you actually carry -- backpacks and shoulder bags and whatnot that contain supplies for the flight and not much else.

And Spirit Airlines saying it will start charging up to $45 for carry-on bags -- what, are you kidding me? Aside from that being wrong, it’s just plain mean.

* Speaking of mean, showing a movie on a flight lasting more than three hours but charging a few bucks for cheapo plastic earbuds is about as money-grubbing as an airline can get.

* As for these “cashless” flights that have become the industry norm, maybe a little wiggle room wouldn’t be such a bad thing. How about if passengers could purchase vouchers at the gate if they expect to need cheapo plastic earbuds or a little snack while trapped in the cabin?

Most important, it’s time for airlines to stop competing to see who can offer passengers the worst experience and to instead start charging high-enough ticket prices to ensure a fair profit (emphasis on “fair”) while also treating customers with a modicum of respect.

Right now, it’s all about the nickel-and-dime fees -- and making passengers feel like a bunch of uninvited dinner guests.

“They always say they want passengers to be well-served,” Headley said, “but that’s not how it works out. Airlines want revenue first and foremost.”

Will the friendly skies ever return?

“I don’t think so,” Headley replied. “Those days are gone.”

I’d settle for the halfway-honest skies.

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@ latimes.com.


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