would argue that our airlines’ biggest collective failure is not one of onboard service, but one of communications. Airlines have lost the ability to deliver timely or accurate information to their customers.

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In spite of what the general public assume, airlines don’t, as policy, by design lie or mislead. What passengers take to be lies are better described as garbles, caused by the faulty transfer of information. Such is that the bolt compartmental structure of airlines, where specifics of a circumstance are passed along from department to department, each with its own priorities, vernacular, and expertise. There’s plenty to lose in translation, and it’s not unlike that game you played in grade school, where a short anecdote is whispered around the room, growing more and more scrambled each step of the way. At the airport, the person in charge of picking up a microphone and announcing that your plane is delayed often has limited understanding of what the problem actually is.

And the various personnel can be mighty territorial. Several years ago I was the captain of a commuter plane victimized by a snowstorm. Our twenty or so passengers were confused, and the gate staff did little to make things clear. So, there in the boarding lounge, I asked for people’s attention and began to explain what was happening. Maybe I got too in-depth with definitions of things like “wheels-up time,” but a few seconds later came some loud footsteps and a voice booming behind me, asking, “What the hell is this asshole doing?” It was the station manager, and he didn’t take kindly to a pilot usurping the role of airport customer service.

No matter the reasons, time and time again, and against their best interests, airlines fail at getting the truth out, and that’s a problem. Not only does it violate the common sense protocols of customer service, it also allows rumors, myths, and conspiracy theories to flourish unchecked. It stokes anger and distrust, and it aids and abets the fears of anxious flyers. Airlines have a terrible habit of responding to anomalies—be it a minor schedule disruption or something more serious—in one of two ways: either with total silence or, perhaps worse, resorting to hideous oversimplifications. The result is nearly total lack of respect from the public. People dislike airlines and don’t believe anything they say—partly because they never actually say anything. Or, when they do, it’s condescending or even terrifying:

A flight is cancelled because “it’s too hot to fly.” A crew aborts a landing because “a plane crossed in front of us.” In Flagstaff, Arizona, one day, counter staff informed a group of delayed passengers that volunteers were needed to give up their seats. When passengers asked why, they were told, “We need to lighten the load. The plane has been having problems and we’re afraid one of the engines might cut out.”

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