Holiday Travel Tidbits

The Stuck at the Airport team was in Geneva, Switzerland this week for an education day with officials at the International Air Transport Association, IATA.

Topics ranged from passenger rights and travel accessibility issues to earnings, sustainability, biometrics, safety, security, air cargo, and more. We’ll be folding what we learned into many of our stories going forward, but we are glad that the odd holiday ‘decoration’ we spotted a few years ago at Geneva Airport was nowhere to be seen this time through.

Airports and airlines elsewhere approach the holidays with a more festive outlook.

Munich Airport (currently recovering from the fallout of a snow closure) transforms each winter into a holiday destination complete with ice skating and curling rinks.

Orlando International Airport (MCO) and many other airports also go all out with holiday decorations throughout their terminals.

Air Canada released its annual charming (if somewhat syrupy) holiday video:

But we still love this heartwarming video with the story of the Heathrow Bears from Heathrow Airport .

Why are airline passengers so rude & unruly?

[Our story on the rise of unruly airlines passengers first appeared on NBC News)

Air travelers picked up some bad habits during the pandemic that they can’t seem to shake.

Unruly passenger incidents rose 47% globally last year from 2021, even as pandemic-related restrictions faded, according to recent data released this month by the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.

Reports of bad behavior rose from a rate of 1 incident per 835 flights to 1 per 568 over that period, IATA found.

Conflicts over mask requirements, which drove a surge in unruly conduct during the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, have largely dissipated.

But as air travel continues to rebound — a record 257 million passengers are expected to hit the skies on U.S. airlines this summer — other sources of contention are still triggering disruptions at alarming rates. And some say official data may only capture a fraction of the problem.

“The public does not hear about the 99% of would-be incidents that are resolved by flight attendants without event,” the Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson said in an email. “We deescalate conflict as aviation’s first responders on nearly every flight.”

Industry experts say that they can only speculate about what’s going on.

“I’m not sure if there is an overall increase in a feeling of self-entitlement,” said aviation security expert Jeffrey Price, the owner of the airport management consultancy Leading Edge Strategies, “or if people are, for some reason post-Covid, feeling more empowered to assert what authority or influence they believe they have.”

Looking at more than 20,000 reports submitted by around 40 airlines worldwide, IATA found the most common types of unruly conduct last year were non-compliance with crew instructions, followed by verbal abuse and intoxication.

In the last few weeks, a Delta Air Lines flight heading to Detroit from Paris was diverted to Canada for an emergency landing over the behavior of an unruly passenger. And a traveler denied boarding at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was arrested after allegedly having slapped a Spirit Airlines employee.

While extreme incidents like those remain rare, “it is very concerning to see the frequency of reported unruly incidents increasing,” said Jonathan Jasper, IATA’s senior manager for cabin safety. “And the key here is that the numbers are only a part of the story. It’s the behavior behind the numbers that is causing us some concern.”

IATA attributed last year’s jump in noncompliance to infractions ranging from passengers’ smoking cigarettes or vaping on planes to failing to fasten their seat belts, refusing to stow cabin baggage during takeoff and landing, and drinking their own alcohol onboard.

IATA’s study doesn’t break down incident rates by region. In the U.S., Federal Aviation Administration data shows the problem remains elevated despite having eased considerably from pandemic peaks.

In 2019, the FAA logged 1,161 unruly passenger reports and just 1,009 in 2020, when lockdown orders sharply restricted air travel.

But as flight volumes began ticking back up, the reports skyrocketed to a record high of 5,981 in 2021 — around 72% of which had to do with masking rules, the FAA said.

Last year, the agency tallied 2,455 unruly passenger reports in the U.S., still far above pre-pandemic levels but a sharp drop nonetheless. The decline came in a year when a federal judge struck the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate for public transportation in late April 2022, by which point masking-related unruly conduct had dipped to 63% of FAA reports.

When mask mandates were overturned, however, the agency had already spent well over a year enforcing a “zero-tolerance” policy for unruly behavior.

In January 2021, it rolled out penalties such as hefty fines and the threat of federal criminal prosecution, including potential jail time, for any passenger who “assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members.” The FAA said this April that it had referred more than 250 of the most serious cases to the FBI since last 2021.

While instances of noncompliance fell at the start of last year as more airlines and governments around the world dropped their mask mandates, IATA found the rate beginning to rise again as 2022 wore on, ending the year up.

Some aviation experts say many customers have most likely lost patience with airlines over high ticket prices, widespread delays and cancellations and sliding service quality in recent years.

“Flying is an altogether less enjoyable experience,” said Philip Baum, the managing director of the aviation security consultancy Green Light Ltd.

He noted that the industry let go of huge numbers of personnel early in the pandemic and has struggled to recruit and train new ones. Many airline and airport workers may now be less experienced and more stressed, adding strain to interactions with shorter-fused customers.

In addition, Baum said, “The reality is that post-pandemic, those experiencing poor mental health is on the increase, some of whom may find the depersonalized service offered a trigger.”

Nelson also pointed to the pandemic’s long shadow, saying it “exposed deep social division and resentment over rising inequality,” and she criticized public officials’ “mixed messages and contempt for rules that protect our collective safety” as having made matters worse.

“Our cabins are microcosms of humanity, so this anxiety, confusion and division continues to show up in behavior on our planes,” she said.

Aviation most likely isn’t the only industry more customers are lashing out at. In the National Customer Rage Survey, released in March, a record 74% of consumers said they experienced issues in the marketplace in the previous 12 months.

And 43% of respondents said they had raised their voices at customer service, up from 35% in 2015. Labor shortages in recent years were probably a factor in the jump, the researchers said at the time.

Whatever the underlying causes, the problem shows few signs of fading from air travel.

The FAA had already recorded 822 reports of unruly passengers as of June 11 — less than halfway through a year when global passenger volumes are projected to reach 92% of pre-pandemic levels, up from 72% last year.

In fact, after a slight dip in February to 122 unruly passenger incidents, the FAA received 169 reports in May — the highest monthly level so far this year.

The agency didn’t respond to requests to comment further on its data.

Airlines & Aviation Leaders Gather in Istanbul

The Stuck at the Airport team is in Istanbul this week for the annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the World Air Transport Summit.

CEO & representatives from more than 300 airlines are here, along with government officials, equipment suppliers, and all manner of other aviation world players. And the agenda includes not only assessing how the industry is doing now, post-COVID-19, but how it’s going to handle itself going forward.

Unruly Passengers – Still A Growing Problem

The annual report on the number of unruly passenger incidents worldwide always gets our attention.

And this year’s report is both surprising and alarming.

We thought that the incidences of unruly passengers would have dropped when the airline mask mandates did.

But according to IATA data, the number of reported unruly passenger incidents worldwide actually increased in 2022 compared to 2021.

The latest figures show that there was one unruly incident reported for every 568 flights in 2022.

That’s up from one per 835 flights in 2021.

The most common categories of incidents in 2022 were non-compliance, verbal abuse, and intoxication.

In 2022, non-compliance incidents were up about 37% over 2021.

What’s considered non-compliance? Infractions such as smoking, refusing to fasten a seatbelt, failing to store baggage when told to, or consuming your own alcohol on board an airplane.

Physical abuse incidents are also on the rise. While IATA says physical abuse incidents are rare, they’re nevertheless up 61% over 2021, occurring once every 17,200 flights.

What is the airline industry doing about unruly passengers?

Mandatory pre-flight refresh classes in onboard etiquette aren’t on the table quite yet. (Although we like that idea.) But the airline industry has some strategies it is working on to address the unruly passenger issue.

Those strategies include:

*Getting more countries to ratify the Montreal Protocol 2014, which gives governments the necessary legal authority to prosecute unruly passengers no matter their state of origin;

*Training more crew members on how to de-escalate incidents on the planes;

*And asking airports, airport bars and restaurants, and duty-free shops to help spread the word on the consequences of unruly behavior on airplanes.

Airlines vow: better bag tracking + fewer barriers for passengers with disabilities

My feature this week for CNBC details two good-for-travelers resolutions voted in recently during the Annual General Assembly of the International Air Transport Association.

One deals with a way to better track baggage. The other promises that the global airline industry will ease barriers for passengers who have disabilities.

Here’s a slightly different version of the posted story:

Airlines spend lots of time, energy and money competing against each other for your travel dollar and loyalty, even though high fares and excessive fees often make it seem like they’re in cahoots to make sure your journey is a frustrating, expensive nightmare.

But sometimes the industry works together to takes global action in your favor.

At the recent Annual General Meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry trade group passed a handful of resolutions aimed at making the passenger experience better for everyone.

Two of the resolutions that might make a noticeable difference on your next flight, and on flights into the future, address bag tracking and accessibility for people with disabilities.

Better baggage tracking. Fewer lost bags.

Most frequent travelers can share a story or two about a checked bag that got mangled, arrived days late or went missing.

But while passenger numbers soared 64% between 2007 and 2017, information technology company SITA found that the bag mishandling rate per thousand of passengers fell by 70.5%.

In 2018, 4.36 billion travelers checked in more than 4.27 billion bags.

“More bags makes things more challenging,” notes Peter Drummond, SITA’s Director of Baggage, and while “Everyone across the industry needs to look beyond the process and technology improvements made in the past decade and adopt the latest technology such as tracking to make the next big cut in the rate of mishandled bags.”

Right now, most airlines use bar code technology to track bags through their journey. But some airlines, such as Delta, have switched to RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking, a form of wireless communication used to track objects with an embedded RFID chip.

IATA considers RFID tracking to be a more cost-efficient method to achieve the industry’s target of 100% bag tracking. And at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) adopted a resolution supporting the global deployment of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) for baggage tracking.

“Passengers want to arrive with their bags. And on the rare occasion when that does not happen, they want to know exactly where their bag is,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, “Deploying RFID and adopting modern baggage messaging standards will help us to cut mishandlings by a quarter and recover bags that are mishandled more quickly.”

While fewer lost bags will make airline customer happy, the push for RFID tracking move isn’t entirely altruistic.

While the industry has already seen a 46.2% cut in the annual cost of baggage mishandling due to better tracking, IATA estimates industry-wide adoption of RFID bag tracking will see a return on investment of over $3 billion to the industry.

Smoother travel for passengers with disabilities

1 billion people – 15% of the world’s population – live with some form of disability.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says this number is increasing due to aging populations, the spread of chronic diseases, better measurement tools and refinements in the definition of what constitutes a disability.

Of course, people with disabilities are also travelers. An Open Doors Organization (ODO) market study from 2015 found that adults with disabilities spend $17.3 billion annually on their own travel.

ODO notes that since these individuals typically travel with one or two other adults, the economic impact is at least doubled, to $34.6 billion.

But air travel poses a myriad of challenges for people with disabilities.

For example, between December 4 and December 31, 2018 (the first month the Department of Transportation required airlines to track this category) major U.S. carriers mishandled more than 700 wheelchairs and scooters, more than 2% of the 32,229 mobility devices loaded on airplanes.

“That’s 25 people a day who may have been stranded, unable to work or participate in a family activity,” explains Chris Wood of Flying Disabled.

Noting that improving the air travel experience for people with disabilities is not only “the right thing to do,” but good for business, IATA also passed a resolution committing airlines worldwide to ensuring that passengers with disabilities have access to safe, reliable and dignified travel.

The industry trade group said its aim is to change the focus “from disability to accessibility and inclusion” by bringing the travel sector together with governments to “harmonize regulations and provide the clarity and global consistency that passengers expect.” 

The resolution has the ability to enhance the passenger experience not only for people who currently have disabilities, but also for those in years to come, said Eric Lipp, Founder and Executive Director of Open Doors Organization.

“Most importantly,” said Lipp, “This is the first time IATA has recognized this on an international level. And this is in good timing with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Globally the time is right.”

Global airline execs on flight shaming, 737 Max return and more

Courtesy Korean Air

Your next flight – and flights you take in the future – will benefit from discussions and decisions made by top brass from the global air transport industry in Seoul, South Korea last weekend.

More than a thousand airline CEOs and industry leaders were on hand for the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). On the agenda was everything from climate change and “flight shaming” to the future of the beleaguered 737 MAX, congested skies, baggage tracking and a myriad of ways to improve the flying experience.

Also on the list: A downgrade for the industry trade group’s 2019 profit expectations.

“Although 2019 is expected to be the 10th consecutive year of airline profits,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO told the group, “Rising costs, trade wars and other uncertainties are likely to have an impact on the bottom line. The prolonged grounding of the 737 MAX aircraft is taking its toll. And aviation, like all industries, is under intensified scrutiny for its impact on climate change.”

In December 2018, IATA forecast a profit of $35.5 billion for the global air transport industry in 2019. The revised outlook  downgrades that forecast to $28 billion.

“Airlines will still turn a profit this year, but there is no easy money to be made,” said de Juniac.

Restoring public trust when Boeing’s 737 MAX back returns to the skies

In his air transport industry report, IATA’s de Juniac said the two recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes and the grounding of the aircraft have damaged the aviation industry’s reputation,

“Trust in the certification system has been damaged – among regulators, between regulators and the industry and with the flying public,” said de Juniac, who called for improved coordination in the industry.

“To be clear, I am not advocating for knee-jerk reactions. But governments and industry must find a way to maintain public confidence in safety with fast and coordinated responses,” he added.  

Estimates for when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will give the 737 MAX the green light to fly again range from this summer to the end of the year. But even airline CEOs that don’t have 737 MAX planes in their fleets worry about what may happen if one country’s regulatory agency lifts the ban before others decide to do so.

“I do indeed believe this is what we are facing,” said Carsten Spohr, chairman and chief executive of the Lufthansa Group, during a panel discussion of airline executives, “Probably we will see the MAX flying domestically in the U.S. first before we see if flying somewhere else. But this is a global industry and we need global trust. [It will be] difficult to explain to our global passengers that the aircraft is safe in some part of the world and supposedly not safe somewhere else.”

To try to avoid this scenario, later this month IATA will meet with representatives from Boeing, 737 MAX customers and regulators from the FAA and other countries, said Gilberto Lopez Meyer, IATA’s senior vice-president for safety and flight operations. 

Airlines continue to combat carbon emissions

Climate change, and what airlines can and are doing to reduce and offset carbon emissions, is gaining more attention as global air travel is set to increase significantly and as the “flight shaming” anti-flying movement that started in Sweden starts to spread. 

In 2017, private and commercial aviation created about 859 million tons of CO2, or about 2% of all man-made carbon emissions, according to IATA.

To reduce emissions as air traffic increases, the industry has agreed to a wide variety of standards, mitigation measures and targets. And, at its meeting in Seoul, IATA members passed a resolution calling on governments to implement a global plan calling for carbon-neutral growth as of 2020 and a 50% reduction in the industry’s net CO2 emissions by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.

Fuel efficient airplanes, improvements in air traffic management and increased use of biofuels are among the tools helping the aviation industry reach reduced carbon emission goals and carbon offset programs are in the toolbox. But, while passengers tell IATA they support voluntary offset programs and more than 40 of the group’s member airlines offer them, IATA has found that take-up rates are low.

In fact, few hands were raised when a room full of airline executives were asked if they’d purchased carbon offsets for their own flights to the meeting in Seoul.

Airline industry’s to-do list:

Looking ahead, IATA member airlines, which represent more than 80 percent of all global air traffic, passed several other resolutions that could have a real impact on your travel experience.

One commits airlines to move forward with plans for using bar-coded baggage tags with radio-frequency identification (RFID) inlays, which can help keep checked luggage from going astray.

Another focuses airline attention on improving the air travel experience for people living with disabilities.