I’ve resisted writing this article, as too many consultants fire off articles related to their field of expertise while using travel-related themes to make their points. This is because consultants spend so much time in airplanes and hotels, it becomes their only point of reference for many real-world activities. James Harrington, the self-professed quality “guru,” often wrote magazine articles framed from his experiences in airports, and it was evident that his latter-day experiences were nearly entirely seen through the lens of a traveling consultant, rather than an earth-bound user of his products. It’s off-putting.

But here I am, some decades later, doing the same thing. now, however, I feel I’m more than justified since US airlines are facing a PR scandal the likes of which hasn’t been seen… well, perhaps, ever. Dr. David Dao was physically dragged off a United Airlines plane by law enforcement because he wouldn’t give his seat up for double-booked airline staffers. Another woman was reduced to tears when an American Airlines flight attendant yanked a child stroller from her, hitting her baby, and then the flight attendant nearly came to blows with another passenger, while the captain watched passively from the galley. Delta Airlines is now facing a similar backlash after rudely ejecting a family over a mis-quoted airline seating policy. These incidents are only getting attention because passengers, armed with cell phones and Facebook accounts, can publish them; many of us traveling regularly know this stuff goes on, and never gets reported.

And thank goodness for the reporting being done by passengers themselves, because the situation is worsening year by year. In his testimony before Congress, United CEO Oscar Munoz put the blame for such incidents on a melange of half-thought-out symptoms, such as kneejerk reaction to engage law enforcement when no laws were broken, strict adherence to procedures without assessment of the real world context, and insufficient rewards offered to passengers to give up seats. Overbooking was mentioned, but almost in passing.

Munoz is no idiot, although he plays one on television apparently. He knows full well what the problems are, as do the other CEOs of Delta, American and the rest. Travelers know it too, even if they can’t put it into words. If we apply some ISO 9001 style root cause analysis, it doesn’t take much to conclude that the root cause of all the United States’ airline woes is poor capacity management. In short, too many people in planes and in facilities that were specifically designed for a smaller number of people.

Proper capacity management is a professional expertise in and of itself, utilizing the disciplines of engineering, ergonomics, human behavioral sciences, and even psychology. It’s not easy. But airlines have unprecedented cash to invest in such work, if they choose to; the reality is that they don’t. Their one goal is to put as many people on a single plane as physically possible; operating a flight typically runs at fixed costs, for staffing, catering and fuel, with the typical fluctuations driven by current market prices and labor demands. But those adjustments typically move slowly, allowing airlines to plan their costs over medium- and long-range periods. This is especially true now, as fuel prices have stabilized.

Nevertheless, the reality is that getting more people on a single flight, rather than operating two flights, is cheaper, and results in higher per-flight profits. And so the airlines are obsessed with jamming in passengers, despite any previous capacity management efforts that have been made. This results in overcrowding of not only the airplanes themselves, but the ticketing counters, terminals, jetways, security lines and luggage reclaim areas. Behavioral studies from a century or more ago already have proven that putting more people in a limited space results in stress and often outbursts of violence, so the airlines should not be surprised at the growth in passenger furor and frequent cases of airline employees “losing it” and going ballistic. These reactions are the inevitable result of changes made by the airlines to cram in passengers. Let’s look.

Luggage

Airplane designers dream up a new model with capacity in mind. Yes, they love to announce a new plane is going to feature a “bowling alley, a movie theater and a nightclub” but no one believes that; I’ve seen the same promises in old issues of Popular Science, and never once have seen a Delta or American Airlines plane with a bowling alley. Instead, one of the main factors in any commercial airplane design effort is always passenger capacity, along with cargo capacity, fuel capacity, and then the expected mechanical considerations, like structure, engines, aerodynamics, etc. But the process is keenly linked to an estimated total passenger capacity, since ultimately commercial planes are tasked with moving asses through the air.

The airplane manufacturers have a standard volume space they assume a single passenger occupies, and then they work up from there. They then build the aircraft with the passenger cabins considered “empty,” because the airline customers will then make their own demands on how the passenger “loadout” will be configured. One airline may purchase a number of jetliners with each holding 150 passengers, assorted into different classes (first, business, economy, etc.) Another airline may purchase the same airplane, but request that it hold 250 passengers in only one class (economy). Another may yet request it be configured for 300 or more passengers.

The airplane manufacturers will then build the interiors accordingly, use subcontract firms to do so, or the airline itself may have subcontractors do it; or it can be any combination of these. Eventually, the planes are delivered as configured by the purchasing airline. Even then, once an airplane is purchased and operated, it can be reconfigured years later to add seats beyond what it was originally configured for.

The problem is that an airplane’s outer structure is fixed, so its inner capacity is fixed, too. A plane designed to hold 300 passengers cannot suddenly hold 1,000, no matter how much the buying airline wants it to, unless they strip out things like the engines, landing gear assembly, electrical systems and the cockpit; it’s an idea Spirit Airlines is probably considering, too. Luggage is also relatively fixed in size, and the size of human beings is known and fixed, even giving consideration to different heights and weights; airplanes don’t have to accommodate 9-foot tall, 600 lb, three-headed giants, for example. Westeros Airlines maybe, but not Delta.

But when airlines compress seating to fit in more passengers, this breaks some basic considerations, and even laws of physics. If an airplane is designed to seat three people in a given space, the luggage space above is thus configured to handle three pieces of luggage of the airline’s pre-established and approved sizes. That might look like this:

When the airline re-configures the space to insert a fourth passenger seat in the same space, it does a number of things that defy physics and increase stress and irritation. First, it reduces legroom, which causes passengers physical discomfort. This simultaneously reduces space for smaller, under-seat carry-on bags as well. Then, since the luggage space above cannot be resized, now the space originally intended for three pieces of luggage must be used for four; in such cases, the airline will forcibly “check” the fourth bag, throwing it into the cargo hold. And I mean literally throwing.

Airlines don’t care what’s in that piece of luggage you may have carefully packed with the assumption you’d be able to bring it on board. Seasoned travelers know not to put sensitive electronics or valuables into checked bags, because the airlines have such poor security and handling procedures, there’s a good chance items will be damaged or stolen. So most people will pack their valuables in the carry-on bags, only to be confronted by irritated flight attendants demanding they suddenly check their bags anyway, because the luggage space is full. Arguments ensue, and for valid reasons: the airline is not about to reimburse a passenger if their camera equipment or computer is broken when tossed around by the baggage handlers, nor are they going to admit their staff stole jewelry out of it. The staffers fight back because they operate to procedures, and can’t process the experience of customers.

It gets more ludicrous when the flight attendant announces that you’ll have to check your bags only after you remove your “lithium batteries, valuables, or any fragile items,” because they’ve just invited you to violate their other policy, which says you can’t sit with a lap-full of loose items which can become projectiles in the event of turbulence. They also balk if you stuff the seat pocket with these items, resulting in more self-inflicted chaos and arguments between passengers and flight staff. Their own procedures don’t even agree with each other.

The airlines operate in a dreamy world where they think if they add more seats, passengers will just know this psychically, so while they are still at home packing, they will consider this and simply bring less luggage. And mind you, this means less luggage then their own airline policies say you can bring. They want everyone walking on planes with a wallet or handbag, some cologne and a happy smile. That’s it. It defies human behavior.

Lines Lines Lines

Next, an increase in passengers means more people are placed into spaces within the airport that were not designed for large crowds. An airport is built at a point in time, with a planned capacity being a key component in its architectural design and physical layout. Its capacity is relatively fixed, and cannot be increased or reconfigured at the same rate of speed that an airline can add additional seats to a fleet of airplanes. Structural additions or changes to airport facilities require long-term engineering studies, planning, and often statutory and regulatory approval at multiple levels of government. Not to mention millions, if not billions, of dollars in investments.

So whereas an airport may be built in 1980 to allow for a set number of people, based on 1980’s typical airline capacity, a typical gate may look like this:That airport cannot quickly add square footage to accommodate changes made to each airline’s increased passenger capacity, so in a few years that same gate looks like this:
The physical space allotted for the gate has not changed. The square footage is the same, the number of ticket scanning podiums (typically 1 or 2) is the same, the width of the jetway is the same. The single loading door of the front of the airplane has not changed. The only thing that has increased is the crowd. Simple laws of science tell us now that passenger loading will take longer, since more passengers have to pass through a fixed space that was designed for fewer people, and thus the physical space between passengers will decrease. This increases hostility, irritation, stress, and the likelihood of an altercation. It even increases the risk of physical injury, as people with backpacks accidentally smack into those behind them, or wheelchairs run over standing passengers, or children are stepped on. The increase of stress and risk is true for passengers as well as airline staff.

The constant yelling by gate attendants, insisting that loading time is a function of the passengers’ ability to listen to directions and “take your seats quickly,” isn’t helping. We all know that’s nonsense, and anyone simply looking at a massive, congested crowd knows the problem is the number of people, not how fast they can “step into your aisle and allow others to pass.” Planes aren’t delayed because of people sitting too slowly, they’re delayed because airlines are greedy.

United States of Shouting

Then there are the odd policies adopted by the US airlines, airports and security agencies. Those of us who travel internationally often know that arriving at a US airport, after a long time out of the country, points out the problems with our national policies immediately. You are greeted, suddenly, by hostile employees of the airlines, airports and TSA, and treated as stupid. Then the shouting begins; my God, the shouting. At no other country’s airport are you shouted at by so many employees, each one treating you as an ignorant savage, talking down with condescension while barely able to contain their own loathing for their jobs. They’d rather not be there, and as their way of self-expression, they are going to take it out on you. And the policies of those organizations involved hand them the procedural tools to do just that.

I’ve traveled to Europe, Asia and all through the Americas, so I do admit to not being up to speed on travel in the Middle East, Russia or Africa.  But my experiences, even with low-cost budget third world airlines, still proves that the US air experience is one of the worst in the world. This is due to not only poor training, but poorly designed training. The procedures and training given to American airline and airport staff not only does not aim to reduce conflict, it actually ensures it. It’s likely the training is designed by equally irritated airline staff who likewise really don’t give a shit about passengers.

Take, for example, the simple failure to raise your tray table prior to landing, whether because you forgot or were being petulant. In other countries, the staff are trained to simply reach in, and raise the tray for you. They don’t speak; this is because other nations don’t assume their language is the only language in the world, and they know that you may simply not be able to understand them. They reach in, raise the tray, and there is no conflict. Ditto for the seat back; they reach in, press the button with one hand, and raise your seat with the other. In silence. They move on, and the problem is corrected.

In the US, however, the flight attendants are trained to bark orders, in English, and demand that you raise your tray table yourself. The interaction is immediately hostile: you are doing something wrong, and you are verbally berated in front of everyone else on the plane. If you don’t comply, they won’t raise the tray table themselves, but instead launch into an extended lecture, condescending and irritable, blaming you for putting the airplane’s landing at risk.  It’s ludicrous, of course, because ultimately it’s the flight attendant that is dragging out the process and causing risk to the landing procedures, rather than simply raising the tray table; but US flight attendants are trained to harass and berate passengers, all for the purposes of quoting procedures and humiliating someone they see as a nonconforming customer. And heaven help you if you don’t understand the English they’re shouting at you in, because then you’re not only violating airline policy, you’re an ignorant savage to boot, you dirty underworlder.

The US Transportation Security Agency (TSA) has won worldwide fame as being one of the most incompetent, poorly trained fleet of badged personnel on the planet, and it’s well-earned reputation. Their training is so abysmal, their behavior defies belief when you begin to notice it. First, unlike any other country, you are confronted with shouting. And a lot of it. Whereas other countries put up signs, often in multiple languages, the US’ arrogant “we speak English, bitches” assumptions means that you won’t have signs in many airports, and so the TSA agents have to scream instructions at you. And of course, they do this in English.

You know the script. “People,” — they always start with the word “people,” which sets the condescending tone immediately — “people, you have to remove your liquids, put your laptops in a tray by themselves, and place your shoes directly on the belt!” You’ve heard that, shouted over and over, until the TSA agents appear literally blue in the face. Worse, they don’t hire TSA agents on their public speaking abilities, and assign these “shouting” duties to anyone, including the tiny, mousy-voiced employees who couldn’t be heard over the noise of the PA announcements if they blurted out a gut-inverting primal scream. But if you don’t hear them, if you don’t speak English — and only to TSA is it a shock that international travelers may not speak English –, or if you don’t understand them for any reason, the fault is yours and yours alone. Then you’ll be faced with the second speech, also shouted at you:

“People, the reason these lines are so long is because you’re not removing your liquids! This will all go faster if you just pay attention and do as I tell you!”

It’s nonsense of course, but the TSA agents are trained to believe it. They don’t know the airport security area was originally built to process only 2,000 passengers per hour, and when the crowd is 5,000 strong the system essentially breaks down. They don’t care, either, since they are typically low-paid and given a badge, which is always a recipe for disaster. Many TSA agents are not regular fliers, so they never experience their work as a customer of it, alienating them further from the hassles they impose on people.

The same physical constraints apply to the screening area as to the gate area: the physical area was designed to accommodate a set number of people, and thanks to airline capacity increases, those areas find more people being shoved through to get on the same number of airplanes. So whereas a security screening area might have been designed like this:

… thanks to airline capacity glut, the eventual area looks like this, increasing confusion, pushing equipment to its limits, increasing security line delays, forcing TSA staffing issues, and overall dramatically increasing stress on both passengers and TSA agents:

Worse still, this overcrowding results in a reduction in TSA’s primary function: airport security. The chaos at the security screening area is the weakest link — not the strongest — when it comes to enabling people to switch bags, steal property, and cause altercations. It’s been well documented that the screenings don’t work, either, and that while the best equipment in the world can be given to TSA to screen passengers and bags, the training of TSA agents is so poor, and the work so mind-numbing, that nearly all dummy explosive devices were able to pass through screening during recent testing.

Factor in the crowds, heightened stress over the risks of having your luggage stolen as you are separated from it, and incessant shouting by TSA agents (“People! People, listen up!!“) and it’s a recipe for conflict and agitation.

Mexico City paints a picture of what US airports are becoming, quickly. Aeromexico, which routs the majority of its flights through its hub at Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez; the airport is physically small, and simply cannot handle the capacity. Making matter worse, Mexican regulations require all passengers to go through customs and security even if they are merely passing through on a layover, because the facility does not have a separate area to process passengers flying internationally. This means everyone must stand on a line for immigration, and fill out immigration paperwork, even for a 30-minute layover; and then everyone must gather their luggage and undergo multiple screenings, including (often) a hand-screening, of luggage. The average wait for this process is 2 hours, but can take up to 4, since the physical layout of the building only allows four immigration officers to process the thousands of people passing through ever hour.

We see airports such as Denver and Houston already turning into this, slowly, but piling on the additional US problems of English-only shouting and overall treatment of passengers as criminals, making the experience even worse than Mexico. In Peru I am able to board a plane that has every single carry-on bag hand-screened before I get on the jetway, and the experience is still more polite, faster and less stressful than a simple domestic “hopper” flight from Orlando to Miami.

So while the CEOs of various airlines face the US Congress and the growing anger of passengers, they will feign ignorance, or — like Munoz — post smug and tone deaf excuses. They will insist that if things are so bad, then people wouldn’t fly, ignoring the growing realities that necessitate the increase in air travel. They will outright lie about fuel prices and pilot union negotiations. And they will always, always blame their customers.

But until capacity management is taken seriously, and understood as a significant risk to airline safety, personal safety, and national security, the situation will only worsen.

    About Christopher Paris

    Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 25 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001:2015, which can be purchased here.