United Airlines Feels Your Pain. I Don’t.

By Steve Chapman

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz has heard the complaints from air travelers, and he truly regrets the suffering they endure.

“It’s become so stressful, from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security,” he told ABC News. He also acknowledged that seating is too tight to be shrunk further, and that his airline’s Wi-Fi is unsatisfactory.


Confronted by unhappy air travelers, Munoz feels, or least feigns, great sympathy. I, by contrast, find myself entirely unmoved by their grievances. Perfect bliss is a rare if not impossible attainment in this world. But for passengers on major carriers to gripe about what they have to put up with is like New Englanders complaining about the Red Sox.

I fly something on the order of a couple of dozen times a year, which means I've gotten to experience modern commercial aviation at its least enjoyable. Postponed and canceled flights have forced me to scrub plans, miss important events, rent cars and spend the night in airports. I've sat next to passengers with sharp elbows, loud voices, bare feet and incontinent infants.

Like any air traveler, I often feel frustrated by endless delays, cramped accommodations and general helplessness. When it all starts to ruin my day, though, I can usually restore my equilibrium by remembering a few important things:

I'm warm, dry, safe and fed, with ready access to caffeine and alcohol. I'm able to visit any decent-sized city in America in a matter of hours, and anywhere in the world in a few more hours. I can zoom across huge distances, for a fare that is not onerous, and return at my convenience.

Some of our ancestors came across a perilous ocean on rickety ships, some of them in steerage and some of them in chains, with the added attractions of rats, scurvy and stale hardtack. Our forebears crossed the continent in covered wagons, on horseback, in canoes or on poorly shod foot. Many of them risked their lives; all of them sacrificed their comforts, if they had any.

Were Lewis and Clark outraged when bad weather forced adjustments in their schedule? Did African Americans fleeing slavery worry about spotty Wi-Fi service? Did the pioneers who migrated westward complain about the amount of legroom in their open-air, wooden-wheeled, horse-drawn buckboards?

When my father was attending college at the University of South Carolina in the 1940s, he didn't fly home to see his family in West Texas. He spent long days hitchhiking — 1,100 miles each way. Today, thanks to the airlines, I could have breakfast in Chicago, lunch in South Carolina and dinner in West Texas.

If air travel has become unbearable, why are the airports and flights packed with people? In the past 30 years, the number of passengers flying in the United States has nearly doubled. That's why the parking lots are so full, the security lines are so long, the lounges are so crowded, and the seat next to you is always occupied.

A major reason for the surge is that flying is much cheaper than it used to be. As Robert Poole noted in Reason magazine last year, the average domestic airfare today is $344. In 1979, it was the equivalent of $616 in today's dollars.

Tight seating, baggage fees and minimal amenities are not an airline plot to make you miserable. They're an airline plot to keep fares low, because most travelers are loath to pay more for a cushier trip. They want to get where they're going as inexpensively as they can.

Let's not forget the matter of safety. There hasn't been a fatal U.S. airline crash in more than a decade. If you survive the drive to the airport, your biggest risk is choking to death on a Starbucks scone.

Big carriers do make mistakes. American Airlines apologized for removing a woman and her child because they had a rare skin condition. United gained infamy for having a passenger dragged off an overbooked flight. Delta apologized to a man whose seat was smeared with dog feces.

Human error, however, is an inherent feature of every facet of life, not a trait distinctive to airlines. What most people put up with when they fly is not hardship but inconvenience. Such is the luxury of modern life that we sometimes forget the difference.

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9 thoughts on “United Airlines Feels Your Pain. I Don’t.”

  1. I have a solution to this problem – do not fly! It is very simple. I can the howling and gnashing of teeth from those who feel like they have to, but you know what, I bet most flying is non necessary.

    1. I agree. Until those who absolutely do not need to fly for business or other valid reasons vote with their feet and dollars nothing will change.

  2. I disagree with you. Yes, travel on an airline is easier, but I pay 500 – 600 dollars each time I jump on an airline to go to Houston, which I do every month. I have had my luggage lost (and never recovered), which cost me about $400 to replace my clothing and my Karate Ghi (they gave me $100). I have had flights cancelled, and sitting on the Tarmack for over 3 hours just to loose my connecting flight. I have spend multiple times in the airport sleeping on the floor behind a gate just to make a red-eye in the morning (because of a cancelled flight), just to make a Seminar I was teaching the next day. I am under the opinion that paying $648.15, and 25 bucks for a checked bag is kind of a contract between myself and the Airline. They can break their aspect of the contract anytime. But if I am late, they do not wait for me, and I have watched the Airplane leave me at the gate, when all the passengers were pulled off and had to go thru security again, and the plane did not wait for the passengers to come back. (United in Salt Lake) I found out later that it was a person who did not go thru security correctly and they were not on our plane. I am grateful that I do not have to walk across the prairie for 2 thousand miles, but the airlines are collecting a descent sum of MY money. Yet they are not convenient in any sort of way. The leg room is bad yes. I can handle that (I am 6’6″) so that is an issue. But I still believe that the money I spend is a binding contract that they do not keep as binding. YOU ARE WRONG! In my opinion.

  3. Drive across America and forget the airlines. We stopped flying in 2003 after TWO near collisions on one trip; landing in Las Vegas and landing at Midway on the return trip. There is so much to see and experience.

  4. I can’t stand Oscar Munoz and United Airlines. As long as that loser is CEO, I will never fly United. All I can think about is how they treated one of their customers like trash by having him dragged off of the plan from his paid for seat all because they considered their customers less important than their company policies. What a low life. I hope the customer got a big settlement. Who cares what Oscar Munoz thinks. He is a loser who should have been fired a long time ago. That says all I need to know about how much United cares about its customers. I don’t need to hear Munoz’s fake statements abut feeling the pain of customers he could care less about.

  5. If any other business treated its customers like most airlines do they would be out of business in a year.

  6. If air travel has become unbearable, why are the airports and flights packed with people? For the same reason gamblers play with cheats: it may be crooked but it’s the only game in town.

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