Deception & Denial – Commercial Aviation's Two Worst Habits

I’m currently sitting in the transit area at Auckland airport, having missed a connecting flight that would have had me home by now. Instead, I’m left reflecting on how broken commercial aviation’s response to dealing with the natural problems that occur when you combine machines, weather and people with tight schedules and connections is.

TL;DR: commercial aviation consistently jumps immediately to deception and denial whenever something happens that causes a problems for their customers. They might have gotten away with it in an age where people had no choice but to be left in the dark without internet, email and social media, but increasingly their policies of outright lying to their customers are causing their brands a lot of damage. The only thing saving their lying arses at all right now are the difficulties of communicating due to unnecessary bans on using mobile technology in-flight and the prohibitive cost of international roaming when you’re on the ground. These will change, and then they’re going to be *really* screwed.

How many times have you had your travel plans screwed up by a “mechanical issue” or “operational issue”? It always seems there’s a mechanical issue that means your flight was cancelled or delayed or some other setback has occurred? Of course, when this is true, it is something you almost appreciate happening even though you’ve just missed your connections and will have to spend hours sleeping on the floor of an airport. “Well, at least they found out and cancelled the flight and didn’t wait to realize until we were airborne – we could have crashed!”. Unfortunately, though, this catch-all excuse is often a complete lie. Here’s a couple of examples I’ve had; my friends in the industry tell me this is very very common.

The “Mechanical Failure as an excuse for Overbooking” Deception

“Sorry sir, there is a mechanical problem with the aircraft – we’re going to need to move you over to X and your direct flight is now going to take twice as long”.

This happened to me a couple of years ago on a flight from Sydney to San Francisco with United. The truth went more like this:

  • We have a policy of over-booking aircraft because we put company before customers and need to squeeze money out every last seat mile.
  • Since we screwed up again, and you’re stupid enough to show up early to check in, we’re going to need to inconvenience you and send you via Auckland and LAX before you eventually get to SFO so we can save money on paying other passengers compensation or provide upgrades to business class.

Having been told a routinely full 747-400 is not making its daily flight, I said “Wow, lucky I got here early – can you book me through on the direct flight to LAX instead?”

Realizing that treating customers like cattle and lying wasn’t going to work first time like it usually does, and knowing that the LAX flight was also over-booked, I was told “Actually, there’s a mechanical problem with that aircraft too, and it has also been cancelled”.

It wasn’t until I was passing through the security checkpoint with my 3 boarding passes in hand and a staring at a much longer trip that I saw the United crew in uniform going through. They only have two flights out of Sydney each day, so I figured, oh, amazing, they fixed the plane. I started talking to the crew: “Oh, I thought that your aircraft went U/S” (which is aviation talk for unserviceable or “broken”), to which they replied “No, it hasn’t been U/S at all?”. When I got to the gate I confronted the check-in staff who lied to me, who then admitted, yes, they had lied to me, but bad luck your bags are already on that plane over there and we can’t move them”.

Lesson: if they tell you there’s something wrong with the plane, ask them what it is. When they say “I don’t know”, then assert that you think they’re lying to you again and that they’ve just overbooked it and you expect to be put on the flight you booked or upgraded to business on an alternative. Remember, they deliberately fucked you over to their policies of maximizing their return at your expense, so don’t be afraid to turn the tables.

The “Mechanical Failure as an excuse for Under-Filling and Combining” Deception

This is another favorite that happens quite a bit on busy routes (such as in the US). The airline sets their schedules months and months and months out. Then through some hard core math and financial engineering known as yield management they try and get a balance between filling the aircraft and getting the highest price, moving prices based on how far out the flight is and a lot more.

Of course, when the time comes for the plane to fly, the yield management guys might not have done a very good job, and the airline is looking at a half full flight scheduled to leave at 1pm. They know they’ve got another flight which is half full (or more) leaving at 5pm, and since it doesn’t cost them to keep you waiting in the airport for 4 hours, they tell you there’s a mechanical problem with the aircraft and the 1pm flight is cancelled.

So you spend 4 hours waiting in the terminal, missing connections, inconveniencing family members who are coming to pick you up, all so they can maximize their per seat mile revenue completely at your expense. Remember, that flight that didn’t leave didn’t have crew, didn’t burn jet fuel, and the engines weren’t spinning so they’ve been able to delay critical maintenance. Their win, completely your loss.

Lesson: if they tell you the flight is cancelled due to a problem with the plane, ask them what it is. When they say “I don’t know”, then assert that you think they’re lying to you again and that they’ve just cancelled the flight to combine it with the later flight to make more money and ruin your day. Of course, complaining isn’t going to uncancel a flight, so tell them you expect to be upgraded to business and hooked up with lounge access or get a cash travel voucher as compensation. Remember, they deliberately fucked you over due to their policies of maximizing their return at your expense, so don’t be afraid to turn the tables.

The “Due to operational requirements there’s a change of plans, but don’t worry, we’ll have things organized for your connections” deception

This was today’s doozie with AirNZ, who until today I’ve held in high esteem. The flight was from SFO to AKL, and then onto SYD, a flight I’ve taken at least half a dozen times. This time, though, there was a problem – “Operational Requirements” meant we had to go via Fiji.

What were the “Operational Requirements”? In this case, there wasn’t much the airline could do; there are limits on the amount of time air crew can spend on duty to help combat fatigue in what is already a pretty stressful (and potentially fatal) workplace environment. In this case, there was a delay the previous day (or two days ago?) on the flight leaving Auckland for SF, and the crew would have gone over their duty hours (a big legal deal) if they tried to fly all the way to Auckland. So, we diverted to Fiji, where AirNZ had flown another crew the day before to swap with our original crew and continue the flight to Auckland.

This means we got into Auckland 2.5 hours late, and probably 200 or so people needed to have their onward connecting flights rearranged. Never fun, but totally predictable – the airline knew more than 20 hours earlier that this was going to happen, and they knew exactly who they needed to rebook and move around.

As a result, they promised passenger after passenger in SF that things would be OK; the mum who’d just flown from NY with her three kids and still had to get to Melbourne was assured and told that they’d booked her through on a Qantas flight because the AirNZ flight would be missed. Ditto for the guy heading to Adelaide. For those of us flying through to Sydney in AirNZ, it should have been a simple matter of printing our boarding passes at some point in the intervening 20 hours.

Of course, this isn’t what happened. We all lined up for over an hour as a completely predictable workload was handled by too few staff who made up for their short number by being extra rude. Only after everyone is lining up do they realize – again, completely predictably – that the 1pm flight wasn’t going to be able to fit everyone, so they then work out what new plane they’re going to use instead. Chaos continues for a few more hours. The people at the lounge disqualify my lounge passes on a technicality, but they do offer $12.50 worth of Burger King to say sorry.

Lesson: when they say “operational requirements”, find out what the truth is (after all, weather and safety rules do routinely mess up the aviation business), and then when checking in try and get your booking changed right there and then and a forward boarding pass assigned.

Deception and Denial don’t work when we have a voice


The marketing and sponsorship teams of airlines spend hundreds of millions of dollars in every year promoting their brands. But in a world of Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, decisions to deliberately inconvenience or visit chaos upon their customers in the service of saving them a bit of money has the ability to undermine their brand building, and fast.

Only by asking questions and challenging their standard operating procedure of deception and denial can we have a voice, and the more of us that speak, the more we’ll undermine the bullshit their brands are built upon. Some airlines already get it – Virgin America is the most honest airline I’ve ever dealt with, and their brand is reinforced every time my friends and I interact with them in person – but for those who don’t, ask questions, demand answers and do something cattle don’t do – say something.