A Freakonomics Contest: The Friendly Skies

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I just flew down to LA from Seattle, and aside from a vicious battle of wills with my neighbor over possession of the armrest (ultimately won by me: a foolhardy reach for his drink was his Waterloo), I was pretty satisfied with my trip.

However, for most of us, air travel represents anything but a positive experience. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the airlines rank second-to-last in customer service out of 47 industry sectors. They are tied with the much-reviled subscription TV companies and come in even lower than the despised federal and local governments.

(The most unpopular industry of all: newspapers. Yeesh, we’re writing our hearts out for you and giving you our product for free. What else would you like us to do, pick up your drycleaning?)

In one sense, hatred of the airlines is ironic, given that fundamentally the air traveler has never had it better. By nearly all accounts, the deregulation of the industry starting in the late 1970s has been a smash success. Since that time, airfares have dropped by more than half in inflation-adjusted terms, most of which can probably be attributed directly to deregulation.

In addition to allowing airlines to set lower fares, deregulation has permitted them to operate more efficiently. For example, deregulation set off a rush to hub-and-spokes as opposed to point-to-point networks; hub-and-spokes generally allows airlines to keep planes more full, use the right sized plane for each route, and offer more choice to consumers.

(It should be noted, though, that point-to-point has its advantages, in terms of simplicity and cost. Thus it is still used on many routes, especially by lower-cost airlines. The industry is still working out just what the optimum combination of the two strategies is.)

In any event, scare stories about the evaporation of air service to small markets that was supposed to happen with deregulation have not come to pass.

There are other reasons life has never been better for the air traveler. The development of online price comparison shopping has put you the consumer in the driver’s seat, compared to the days when a travel agent booked your ticket, and you had no idea whether he really worked to give you the best fare or not.

Granted, our population has risen about 35 percent since 1978, but since that time the number of air passengers has doubled, indicating that fliers are doing well under the new system. And, in a way, the chronic financial ill-health of many of the airlines can be viewed as evidence of something positive. Airlines’ hops in and out of Chapter 11 may be disturbing for shareholders and employees, but they may also ultimately be evidence that you the customer are wringing the best possible deals out of the carriers.

On the other hand, deregulation has probably contributed to a decline in the flying experience, at least in certain respects. In the days before deregulation, fares were fixed, so the airlines competed not on price but on service. They provided elaborate meals and even vied with each other to employ the most attractive flight attendants. Planes were full of empty seats (before deregulation they ran at about 50 percent capacity, compared to about 80 percent today), giving you a strong chance of being able to stretch out and avoid armrest chess.

Today, all the competition is on ticket price, so many of the traditional frills are evaporating. Former freebies like meals, checked bags and – if Michael O’Leary of Ryanair has his way – bathroom trips are going the way of the biplane and pilots’ scarves and goggles, leaving customers plenty frustrated.

In a bid to allow you some much-needed release, as well as blacken the airlines’ names so that they’ll seize the most loathed industry ranking from us newspaper people, Freakonomics is going to give you a chance to vent about your air travel experiences and win a prize for it.

We’re now boarding all contestants for our next scheduled contest. Our destination: transportation hilarity, as you the readers regale us with your most memorable air travel stories – good, bad or just plain weird.

Terms and conditions: Post your tale here in the comments section. The story must have happened to you personally, not to a third party. Keep it under 200 words (there will be a $30 fee for oversized entries, waived for members of our Frequent Freak readers club).

I’ll narrow the field down to a group of semifinalists, based on writing style and the amusement value of your experience, then let you the readers vote on the most entertaining story. The winner will be awarded a complimentary ticket to Freakonomics schwag.

Cross-check and prepare for contest departure!


I once enjoyed a flight, back in the Seventies.


A few years ago, I was on a trip home from Tuscon via Chicago. Once we landed in Chicago, much of the passengers turned-over, yet it was the connecting flight for me. The women who sat behind me was a very interesting character.

After the seat-belt sign was turned off, I reclined my chair. For the next 30 minutes or so, it became a battle of her kicking or pushing my seat forward and me reclining it again. I finally turn to her and asked her to stop kicking my chair to which she responded that there was no room for me on her lap. Once I explained that due to a back issue, I needed to have the seat reclined during the flight and then reclining my seat, so seemed to acquiesce.

Then the real surprise: She started to spray Binaca in my hair as retaliation. At this point, I decided that a little help from the Flight Attendant would be helpful, so I pressed my call signal. Her husband helped to diffuse the situation by asking to act reasonably. The remainder of the flight was uneventful.



On a flight from SFO to Kona, my girlfriend's seat did not recline we asked the flight attendant about it while we were still on the ground. Her response, "I will put it in my report" and quickly walked away. What does that mean? Before doing the gentlemanly thing and switching seats with my girlfriend, we asked on more flight attendant who knew a 'trick' to get it working again...

Ron L.

My best flight was probably a Thai Airways flight from Italy in 2008. It was during a school trip. On the last day of the trip, I had a fever and nose bleeding. Because I had seen an airport doctor before the flight (expensive, but thankfully, the insurance company footed the bill), and he gave me a medical certificate, the stewardess allowed me to grab the middle section of a row in Economy Class at no extra charge - 3 seats! Best flight ever - I could lie down and sleep in comfort for the full 10hrs.


4 day romantic getaway to Mexico connecting through LAX. First flight delayed, but barely on time for connector. Too bad connector was overbooked. Told to hang out at the airport, because they would find us a flight later that day. Didn't happen. Put us up in an airport hotel and told to come back at 5:30 next morning. Did so and were told that flight overbooked again. We asked to just fly home, but they said, wait a minute, if we get you to Phoenix you can catch a connector to Mexico from there. Got to Phoenix, talked to ticket agents who said no chance of catching a flight that day to Mexico, we'd be best to go back to LA. Asked just to go home, but were told no seats available. Went to LA waited for a day and a half and finally caught our our original return connector home. Flights: $862. Airport restaurant food: $359. Memories of romantic getaway: worthless.

Bart Monson

My wife and I were flying to Ecuador on our honeymoon. Confirmed our flights the day before, show up at the airport at 10am the next day. We walk up to the counter, present our passports and the desk agent says to me "We have you confirmed, but we show your wife flying out tomorrow." Me: "No. We're both flying out today. We confirmed our flights yesterday" Agent: "The system shows that you made a change yesterday evening. You changed your wife's flight to tomorrow" Me: "No. We didn't change her flight to tomorrow. It's our honeymoon. We are travelling together. We have boats to catch, hotel rooms booked..." Agent: "You definitely made a change... Or, somebody, made a change..." Me: "Probably somebody wearing a Delta nametag..." Agent: "No. The system says you did it." Me: "I must have just forgot that I changed my wife's flight for our honeymoon trip to a different day." Agent: no reaction. Me: "I know! Let's get my wife back on the flight for today so that we can proceed with our honeymoon!" Agent: "This flight is oversold, she can stand-by but it does not look like she will get on the plane. Do you still want to fly today?" Me: "Yes. I will go on the honeymoon alone. She will stay here, divorce me and marry someone who would never go on a honeymoon without her." The situation escalated, my wife and I howled in outrage, supervisors were summoned, real or perhaps spurious phone calls were placed, much typing ensued, but nothing got us on our flight. We headed back home, still fuming, to re-arrange our travel plans in Ecuador. We flew out the next day, were super-nasty to anyone and everyone wearing a Delta nametag, and bad mouthed the airline non-stop. This was 3 years ago, I am still mad about it, and the worst thing is this: Delta has never admitted that someone on their end just bumped my wife off our flight. After numerous calls and letters, they still claim we actually changed my wife's flight, our flight to begin our honeymoon, to the next day.


Mike B

Did you notice the contradiction in your post there? You said that consumers hate airlines, but, in essence, we have never had it better based solely on all of the economic measures of well being, namely ticket price and efficiency of operations. Perhaps one should admit that what was gained by the consumer in terms of ticket price and service frequency, was taken away by the lack of customer services possibly resulting in a net loss of utility.

Perhaps the regulated, collusive market was better for everybody. Cheap food makes us fat, Chinese goods fill our houses with clutter and deregulated airfares make travel a miserable experience. Perhaps more of a bad thing is inferior to less of a good thing. It would be nice to put the question to a referendum where people were given the choice to have the lowest fares rise 50% if they could be guaranteed a positive flying experience with no BS.



Flew from DC to Florida to board a cruise for my honeymoon. My wife and I had four bags between us because it was an 11 day cruise and there were several formal nights. Fight down, no problems what-so-ever. 11 days later on returning we are told by a surly airport check in lady that "You can't fly with that much luggage"... what are we supposed to do, leave it there? Two different counters, six airport staff and $40 per bag later we board to fly home. 11 days of relaxing immediately wiped away by flying stress and one airline that is never getting our business again.


When I was much younger, my mother, sister and I were trying to get to Florida, but our original flight had been canceled due to a sudden blizzard. We got standby tickets for another flight and just barely made it aboard. However, ice and snow meant that airlines were being particularly careful about the weight of the plane, and decided that to be safe, the plane should have fewer passengers. As the last people to get on board via standby, my family was the first to be kicked off. I don't begrudge the airlines for this - they were acting in the interests of safety, and the snow made things hard for everyone.

What I DO begrudge them for is making the following announcement on the plane's PA system to tell us: "Would Ms [mom's name] please exit the plane? You have put us over our weight limit." With all eyes on us, my mom sheepishly had to stand up and make one hell of a walk of shame down the aisle, hoping that the other passengers could tell that she was of perfectly healthy weight.



i LOVE flying. and i'm good at it. i get thru seurity with no problems. whenever i'm in the air i think, "i should write a book on how to do this right." a go-girl-guide to savvy traveling. you have your own tv. treats. reading material. i'm petite so leg room isn't an issue. the airport is like a mall. great people watching. i could live on a plane!

Walter Wimberly

When I was about 10 years old my parents let me fly by myself to spend a week with my grandparents. The flight was from Orlando to Jacksonville "my destination" then on to Atlanta. There was another boy about the same ago who was to fly from Orlando to Atlanta.

The flight attendants got the two of us mixed up, and wouldn't let me off the plane when I tried to get up, and simultaneously were trying to kick the other kid off the plane. Luckily we both knew where we were supposed to go and after ten minutes of arguing on our own were able to show them the tickets we had with the correct destinations. To this day I have no idea how I would have made it back to spend the week with my grandparents if I had been kept of that flight.


Before my family got on the flight, somebody pickpocket my wallet, that included my bording pass. I had to buy an extra ticket at last minute, and nobody batted an eye when the crook cashed in my ticket, and got away scott free.


Admittedly, this was my fault, but I once missed a flight home from New York to Knoxville, TN by about 15 minutes. I chose to rebook onto a flight that had 2 connections instead of a direct flight that would leave 6 hours later. My chosen flight was as follows: New York to Atlanta, Atlanta to Cincinnati, Cincinnati to Knoxville. For those of you without maps, that meant I overflew Knoxville twice before getting home. I asked the flight attendant if it was possible to get a parachute, but she declined. Ironically, I got home at about the same time as the later, direct flight would have...

Ben M

It was Christmas Eve, and the terminals were full of good cheer. So much so that my connecting flight from Chicago to St. Louis was being temporarily delayed so that some passengers from a late connection would be able to make it in time. The flight attendant at the desk actually played the 'Christmas Eve Card' and begrudged us to be patient and allow these people to arrive so they could have Christmas with their families along with everybody else. A five minute delay became 15 minutes and so on. Angry fathers began storming the desk.
Finally, we were shuffled to another terminal. After a chaotic loading onto another plane (was this plane better for our 'late passengers'?) our pilot finally filled us in about how sorry he was with the technical difficulties on the other plane and we would be off shortly.
So, instead of Christmas Cheer it was a Christmas Lie designed to keep us calm! It wasn't late passengers...it was plane trouble!

Now the waiting began. We sat for another 20 minutes before the pilot chimed in again.

"Sorry folks, apparently the co-pilot's smoke goggles has a small tear and that is a no-go item. They are searching for a replacement pair now somewhere in the airport."

I don't know about the other passengers, but I was willing to risk it all to get home now instead of waking up Christmas morning in O'Hare.

About a half hour later we hear the amazing news that a replacement pair of smoke goggles have been found. At this point anything they tell us really doesn't have any credibility. I figure smoke goggles is an inside term for working off the martini buzz from the pilot's lounge.

Still, the waiting continued. Finally, they inform us catering hasn't been done and now we have to wait for the plane to be restocked. Now people are becoming rabid. This is a very short flight to St. Louis...we don't even get catering. The pilot admits it is so the plane can be stocked for tomorrow's flights. Wow, some honesty. I arrive in St. Louis about 2:30 in the morning or so. I'm sure I've gone way over 200 words but this was therapeutic. Thanks.



Levitt thinks his dad is the king of farts? No way, he's got nothing on me. I can light up a plane before you can, "you are now free to move about the cabin." On mulitple ocassions I've gassed the plane so bad that the flight attendant has walked down the aisle emptying a bottle of Lysol. If you're a whale sitting next to me, rolls oozing into my personal space, I will make your life a living hell. If you keep kicking my chair and you're older than 9. . . you're done.

The best part about it. . . no one ever knows who's really killing the place. Sure, you might suspect, but you never know. Of course, on the very rare ocassion when someone's performance tops mine, I am totally grossed out - the first one gagging and quickly lifting my shirt over my nose.


I have plenty of stories about annoying things that have happened to me while using air travel - delays, overbookings, disgruntled employees, nonsensical internal policies - but by far the worst experiences are those that have nothing to do with the airlines themselves: an overwrought and bumbling TSA and arrogant, self-absorbed fellow passengers.

It's amazing how many people will attempt to shove past an old lady in the aisle while she struggles to put her baggage in the overhead compartment, people who have no concept of what constitutes carry-on sized luggage and then throw a fit when they are told they can't bring it on board, people who ignore instructions to put their seats up, put their seat-belts on, refrain from using the restroom for a few minutes, or board with before their seating section is called.

Yes, there are acts of kindness or generosity, but they are so few and far between that they stand out as nearly heroic compared with the standard boorish behavior.

The regulations enforced by the TSA are far more inconvenient, are mostly ineffective, are poorly executed and are arbitrary at best. I have watched as TSA employees have required that a toddler remove her belt and plastic necklace. I have watched while a woman was forced to move her toiletries from one zip-lock baggie to another because the first baggie was too big. I have donned paper slippers for my own amusement to keep myself from getting too angry at having to remove flip-flops. Are we safer in the air than we were 10 years ago? Possibly, but two bombing attempts were only foiled due to the ineptitude and faulty equipment of would-be terrorists.

Maybe air passengers are so grumpy and seemingly self-absorbed becaused they have been treated like cattle by their government. Maybe airline customer service is shoddy because the employees have to deal with customers already pushed to the limit by the TSA process.

Maybe reclining my seat is the one act of freedom and rebellion I have left. Sorry if I bumped your knees, but I assumed after all the kneeling and groveling before petty government authorities, you would be immune to it.



We actually have enjoyed one airline over the years - Lufthansa - from the free diapers when the kid were babies to the free German wine for us parents. As usual, on a trip a few year back, we were in coach. When the flight attendant came by with the dinner choices she offered up: "Chicken or cous." I understood "chicken," but was not so sure of "cous." I inquired back "couscous?" thinking that they were being very updated to offer a vegetarian option other than typical pasta. The attendant looked back at me just as confused and said: "Just one - cous." Wanting to take on as much of a culinary adventure as I could airborne in coach I ordered for my 8-year old daughter and myself: "We will have one chicken and one cous," I said somewhat tentatively. When we lifted the foil we were surprised, yet thrilled, to find it was actually goose!!! Who would have expected such a gastronomic specialty in coach seats? Another reason to love Lufthansa!



I was a freshman in college, attending the University of Washington, and had just been home (Madison, WI) for the first time since leaving (I believe it was the Sunday after Thanksgiving). Boarded the flight, sat down in my seat, waited about an hour, and then we were told that there was a mechanical issue, and that we couldn't get out for 2 or 3 days. Being a first-semester freshman, this was terrifying, as in, "OH MY GOD I MIGHT MISS CLASS!!!!!!!!!!!!" (unfortunately, that fright didn't last through all of college).

So, off I go. Call my Mom, call my Dad, arrange a pick-up, and head to the ticket counter to see what I can get. I look terrified, of course (ha!), and am wearing a University of Washington sweatshirt. An older couple approaches me and asks if I'm a Husky, to which I, of course, say yes. They tell me they're heading to Seattle to, where they live, and that I should stick with them. So I do. Somehow, don't remember the logistics, but I end up in a cab to Milwaukee -- a 90-minute ride from Madison, and quite the expense. I don't pay a dime, and somehow end up on flights from Milwaukee -> MInneapolis -> Seattle. ROYAL TREATMENT, I tell you. We land in Minneapolis and they chauffeur me around TWO elite clubs, where I get free food, drinks (WHEE! they don't know I'm not 21!!), etc. We land in Seattle, and this couple drives me back to my dorm (for those unaware: driving someone from the airport to UW takes a good 45 minutes), gives me their contact information, and essentially tells me to have a nice life.

Airlines may bother us, but you know what? There are still good people out there. I have no idea who that couple was, how they are doing, or even what their names are, but THANK YOU!


Chris Markham

Now funny as these posts are I'm hoping by shamelessly internationalising I can top them.

So flying from Vladivostok while Perestroika was at its height (or should that be nadir) as an imperialist capitalist, having paid in dollars I was entitled to a seat. Not so the Vladivostok boxing team who were forced to stand for the entire flight (yes I do mean take-off and landing too). These were not short or slight men. And it was through sheer democratic choice that in the midst of an overflowing plane, they began practicing contact sparring (go figure) and to swig down bottle after bottle of red wine (glasses are for wimps).

I thought I'd never been on a worse flight until I flew with the world's least favourite low-cost airline, which leaves me leery of ever flying on anything but my very own Learjet.

Larry Karp

I would venture to say most of the problems are created by the travelers themselves. They are rude, demanding, and disrespectful to themselves, the airline staff, and their fellow passengers. Prior to deregulation, (I was a child) boarding an airplane was a special experience. You dressed like you were going to church. People were civil to each other and that attitude payed forward. You met with minor inconveniences, and you handled them like a civilized person. How often are we on trips now where someone thinks the rules don't apply and boards early in the front, only to hold everyone up? Or won't sit down so the plane can depart on time? Gosh forbid if they cannot get a pillow on the 90 minute flight? Yelling and screaming like animals.
I also remember flying to Chicago at the end of September 2001. It was more like the old days. I was terrified! But people treated each other well, especially the staff.
Enjoy your flight! Smile at your staff and fellow passengers. Remember the miracle that air travel is! You are traveling across the country or oceans in hours, not weeks or months. How many of us will see the world now, when we would never have been able to 40 years ago??
PS... I am not involved with the industry in any way, but I am an observer of the deterioration of civility in all aspects of human interaction.