Jet Blue, Steven Slater, and the future of airline courtesy

Airline passengers once enjoyed hot meals served on china. But prices were far higher then too. A little common courtesy can make today's in-flight experience more pleasant, if no longer luxurious.

A smiling flight attendant with Southwest Airlines helps passengers put their baggage in the overhead compartments.

My wife recalls taking a flight (on her own as a teenager, no less) from Boston to New Zealand in the late 1960s.

She was handed a menu with several choices of hot meals. Each meal was served on china with silverware. (This was in coach, not first class, mind you.) When she got sleepy in the course of the 16-hour flight, she simply wandered to the back of the half-empty plane and stretched out over a row of seats.

You might still be able find these amenities on some international routes. But the US domestic airline scene has turned flying into something more dreaded than anticipated: planes packed cheek by jowl with passengers who just finished jockeying to get their belongings into the overhead bins first to avoid the fees and delays of checking baggage.

Today's US coach customers haven’t seen a hot meal in years; they’re happy if the airline is willing to sell them a cold snack.

Of course, that 1960s flight cost was a luxury, costing about $1,000, roughly $6,000 in today’s dollars. A round-trip flight today might run $1,400, or less than a quarter the cost of 40 years ago.

But flying then wasn’t a national pastime; the term “jet set” referred to the idle wealthly who could afford to be frequent fliers.

I didn’t fly in a commercial airliner until I went off to college. Today many kids have taken flights abroad as teens. Flying today is another big bus with wings.

But I’ll take today’s deregulated airline world, despite its long-gone sheen of glamor.

We can hope airlines eventually will compete with each other on quality of service and a better flight experience, not just on price. Meanwhile, we all can do our part to make today' airline travel more pleasant for everyone.

When even a flight attendant loses his cool, as Jet Blue’s Steven Slater did this week, it shows just how much tension can build when passengers become frustrated. They’ve already fought their way through traffic, stood in security lines trying to remember how to comply with all the procedures as quickly as possible, and then headed to the gate, hoping the plane will be there and the flight will leave on time.

A Monitor writer once wrote about airline travel: “By exercising calm and courtesy in busy check-in lines and crowded lounges - toward airline staff as well as passengers - we can be human shock absorbers to smooth everyone’s journey.”

That makes sense to me. Be part of the solution not the problem. Using the Golden Rule has a pretty good track record over the millenia.

Actually, 2009 was the latest in a five-year downturn in unruly passenger incidents, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. But maybe Mr. Slater’s outburst will reminder passengers that even flight attendants, who are paid to be helpful, deserve a little common courtesy.

At least there’s one thing that all of today’s airline passengers can be happy about: no one smokes onboard anymore. Now if only the anger could be extinguished too.

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