By Allan Ripp
Federal lawmakers raked U.S. airlines over the coals the other week, warning that if they didn’t upgrade customer service and booking policies in the wake of United’s mistreatment of a single passenger, they will face stricter government oversight.
“I don’t believe in re-regulation, but Congress will not hesitate to act,” warned Bill Shuster , who chairs the House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, addressing executives from United /zigman2/quotes/205037281/composite UAL -1.06% , American /zigman2/quotes/209207041/composite AAL -0.06% , Southwest /zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite LUV -0.80% and Alaska Airlines /zigman2/quotes/200972303/composite ALK -0.89% at a May 2 hearing. “If we don’t see meaningful improvements, I can assure that you won’t like the outcome.”
Meanwhile, travelers are acting out over the industry’s performance lapses — or just acting out. Witness a hair-pulling fight at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport in Florida on May 9 when Spirit Airlines /zigman2/quotes/205782179/composite SAVE +0.73% abruptly canceled nine flights, never mind that it was caused by a labor dispute with the company’s pilots. And the CEO of Australia’s Qantas /zigman2/quotes/205878984/delayed DE:QAN -1.27% was smashed in the face with a pie while giving a speech in Perth.
It would be welcome news if airlines could enhance the flying experience, which has deteriorated in recent years as seats have shrunk, perks have grown skimpier and network software glitches have triggered nationwide delays. And no one should ever be manhandled as was the doctor from Kentucky because he wouldn’t voluntarily yield his seat to United crew members. United CEO Oscar Munoz has admitted his carrier allowed company protocols to supersede human judgment in trying to resolve an onboard overbooking.
Trouble in line
But if Congress really wants to improve air travel, it might turn its sights, and its pies, on the Transportation Security Administration, which abuses thousands of passengers daily in the name of safety procedures and which doesn’t seem to give a headset about service.
Having just flown round-trip from New York to Los Angeles, I got a fresh dose of the government’s approach to customer relations. Those slogging, wrap-around airport security lines are in full force, even if you’ve got TSA precheck. While we were inching our bags along the floor prior to our flight from LAX, former Secretary of State John Kerry was whisked past with a private detail — a reminder that not everyone is treated like a stockyard animal on their way to emptying their pockets.
At the entrance to one checkpoint, my wife, Sarah, and I were scolded for not following the two-bag carry-on limit — my sneakers were tied around my laptop and Sarah’s purse was outside her backpack. “Get those items consolidated or get off the line,” the inspector barked. When Sarah had trouble accessing the barcoded ticket on her phone, the inspector shot us the mother-of-all eye rolls.
At a second access point inexplicably atop an escalator, another TSA agent berated us for not having our boarding passes open. “Can’t you see this is an escalator? Get off! Get off!” she snapped, then ignored our passes so she could hector other passengers as they came off the moving stairs. The woman behind us was so flustered, she had to step aside to use an asthma inhaler.
Spared the indignity of removing our shoes or being patted down, we had to wait while Sarah’s bag was tagged for a random check. The agents waved their wands over her belongings joking with one another and ignoring our questions. It didn’t add to my sense of security knowing that my wife and I weren’t harboring explosives. It took me three passes through the metal detector to determine that my belt-looped Fitbit was tripping the alarm.
Granted, safeguarding passengers is no ordinary amenity and requires extra care and time to do diligently. But that shouldn’t mean it can’t be handled with civility and flair, especially since the security apparatus sets the first tone for every flight Americans take and yet makes us all feel like we’re headed to the prison cafeteria. Here are suggestions to help the TSA elevate the service in performing its public service:
1. Hire more greeters and chaperones to guide passengers through the labyrinthine lines, like those cheery production assistants who keep tourists feeling good about waiting four hours to get into the Colbert show outside the Ed Sullivan Theater. Stand-up comics might be added on the busiest travel days.
2. Mount closed-circuit cameras — or a high-def jumbotron — so people can wave to themselves as they trudge up, down and around the feeder line. Alternatively, run news shows from CNN or Fox /zigman2/quotes/209921865/composite FOX -2.28% like at your local bank — or continuous loops of the movie “Airplane.”
3. Hand out giveaway items — chocolate mints, towelettes, mini muffins and cups of juice, and Velcro inspector badges and epaulettes for the kids, who might dream of one day becoming a TSA agent.
4. Post signs advising travelers to watch for suspicious activity, and an anonymous hotline to report surly inspectors.
5. Empower roving “ambassador” agents to make snap decisions for letting travelers advance the line — a family with a screaming child, the guy whose flight departs in 15 minutes, a honeymoon couple. Passengers are understanding if they know a fellow flier, even John Kerry, is in need.
6. Provide enhanced training for agents with passenger-facing roles, including courses in improvisation, empathy, hospitality — and for times when the lines get really crazy, abnormal psychology.
7. Add more screening stations! An obvious solution, worthy of bipartisan support for funding, since there are no first-class and coach sections at the X-ray machine.
To their credit, United and other carriers have responded honorably to their public shaming , raising compensation incentives for overbooked fliers and ending forced evacuations of those already seated, along with more options for getting customers to their destinations, using alternative airlines if necessary. Would that the TSA take a hard look at its own anti-passenger tactics, before someone forces the issue. Goodness knows, there’s a bit of Dr. David Dao in all of us, ready for a primal scream.
Allan Ripp runs a press-relations firm in New York.