July 1, 2008

Packed Cabins Ramp Up Fliers’ Stress Levels

By Gary Stoller

Russell Meyer has flown frequently on business trips for 20 years, but he's never been as uncomfortable as today.

"It is like flying in a sardine can," says the 60-year-old La Plata, Md., man who sells scales and slicing and wrapping machines. "Most of my recent flights are overbooked and packed to the gills."

A growing number of frequent fliers are complaining about crowded planes and lack of space to put carry-on bags in overhead luggage bins. Crowded cabins, fliers and flight attendants say, have increased the stress of travel.

"Complaints are up, and expectations are down," says Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, which represents more than 2,500 corporate travel managers and suppliers.

Airlines say it's the busy summer travel season, and planes aren't fuller than last summer. "It's people's perception that planes are more crowded, but the comfort level hasn't changed," says David Castelveter, vice president of the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.

The latest statistics show that during the first three months this year, planes were fuller than ever. Seats on U.S. airlines' domestic and international flights were 77.2% full, compared with 76.8% during the same period last year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Fliers may worry that flight and route cutbacks will lead to more-crowded planes, and that new fees to check even a single bag will prompt passengers to carry more items onboard. Airlines say flight cutbacks so far have been minor, and new checked-bag policies haven't yet had an impact.

More flight and route cutbacks, however, have been announced for the fall, and on June 15, American Airlines began charging for each checked bag. On July 9, US Airways begins charging for each bag. United Airlines began charging for a second checked bag earlier this year and will begin charging for each bag on Aug. 18.

More space for a price

Some airlines also have extra fees aimed at cramped fliers.

United charges additional fees that can range from $28 to $218 on a round-trip itinerary for a seat in the front of the coach cabin with five more inches of legroom than standard seats. The airline also allows a passenger to pay $349 per year, plus the cost of tickets, to reserve two seats with extra legroom when booking each flight. The charge was $299 when United began offering the annual-fee program a few years ago.

Meyer believes that paying extra for roomier seats is often the only way to be comfortable.

"Getting a decent seat is becoming almost impossible, unless you pay an additional fee," he says. "I have been stuck in the middle or window seats more in the past nine months than in my entire flying tenure."

Frequent flier Brent Rumsey, of Danbury, Conn., is "much more disgruntled than six months ago."

Flight attendants are at "wit's end" and are unable to resolve complaints, he says. "The general public knows it's seldom the fault of flight attendants and gate agents that there is a $15 checked-bag fee or a flight is overcrowded, delayed or without food," says Rumsey, who works for a major hotel chain. "I'm afraid they are so callous and jaded from years of abuse that they can't help but perpetuate the poor service levels."

More pressure on cabin crews

Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants union, says flight attendants are trained professionals whose job responsibilities and work hours have increased in recent years, despite shrinking pay and benefits.

"Planes are definitely more crowded than in the past, and there's definitely more pressure for flight attendants," says Caldwell, whose union represents more than 55,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines. "The airlines keep throwing extra fees at passengers, who then may go through long security lines. By the time they get in the cabin, their stress level is high."

Caldwell calls on the airlines to adopt and enforce consistent carry-on bag rules.

Airlines are enforcing carry-on bag rules, and extra fees are needed to bolster an industry reeling from high jet-fuel prices, Castelveter says.

"We're facing the worst economic conditions in the history of the aviation industry," he says. "We're facing a $7 billion to $13 billion loss this year, and carriers now are struggling to survive."

Some frequent business travelers say they would be happy to pay higher fares in return for more comfort in the cabin.

"If airlines can't make money with the passenger load they are carrying, they should raise the fares and stop coming up with all these surcharges and fees," says Todd Sifert, a health care consultant in Dallas.

Corporate travel managers expect employees to complain even more about passenger discomfort when airlines cut capacity further in the fall.

In a new Association of Corporate Travel Executives survey, 65% of 128 travel managers who responded said capacity cuts will cause their employees to request an alternative to flying.

"I'm sure that part of the problem is just the usual summer crowding, but it also seems there are already fewer seats available," Sifert says. "I can't imagine how bad the situation will be when the airlines really start taking planes out of service." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>