12/23/2014 03:31 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Traveling for the Holidays? 6 Ways Airlines Reflect the Decline of Civility

Just took a routine flight from Chicago to Boston. No rain. No snow. Only a 30-minute delay going there due to a "typographical error on the pilot's checklist." (What on earth is that?) So why am I complaining? Well, air travel has become a metaphor for the overall lack of caring and civility we see around us every day.

  1. Classes of people: Oh my God! Boarding took forever because there were so many special folks ahead of me. Because I had a plain old ticket, I was in Group 2. That meant by the time I boarded, most of the plane seats and overhead compartments were filled. Here are the twelve castes American Airlines has established:
    • First Class/Business Class
    • Uniformed U.S. Military
    • AAdvantage Executive Platinum / AAdvantage Platinum
    • Dividend Miles Chairman's Preferred / Platinum / Gold
    • oneworld Emerald / Sapphire
    • AAdvantage Gold
    • Dividend Miles Silver
    • oneworld Ruby
    • AAirpass / Priority / Group 1
    • Group 2
    • Group 3
    • Group 4

    Note that none of these castes included people with small children, folks with handicapping conditions, or the elderly. I can't imagine what you had to do to get into Group 3 or 4.

  2. The rich/poor divide. Clearly the top 2 percent get all of the goodies. If you want to be ahead of the unwashed masses, there are up-charges for everything. If you are unable to afford all of the fancy categories, you can pay $15 extra to get Section 1 seating, which allows you to take all overhead space from cheap people like me.
  3. Technological advances that seem to make things even harder. Getting boarding passes became a major ordeal. For some reason, on the way there the website was unhappy and refused to print them. No problem. My husband and I emailed them to our phones. Feeling pretty smug about that working, we tried to do this for our return flight. Only my husband's worked. So I had no way to board the plane other than waiting in a long line with my locator number. But why do that when there's customer service?
  4. Customer service that is not too accommodating. I'm guessing from the number of times the automated service encouraged me to go to the website, no one really wanted to talk to me late Saturday night. But I hung in there (isn't that why speakerphone exists?) until a rather snippy woman told me to use a computer to solve my problem. I told her I was in a hotel room with only my iPhone. Wrong department. More speakerphone until I finally encountered the more condescending expert in the smartphone department. After being told repeatedly to follow the link on my screen that wasn't there (I'm not kidding about this. My husband can confirm I had no such link.), he became very angry. "It has to be there," he insisted. Fifteen minutes later, he agreed to email me my boarding pass. Oh my God! He could have done that at the start of this conversation. Lucky for both service representatives, there was no survey to take at the end of this fiasco. Well, I guess this post is my personal survey.
  5. Security that is not always secure. Waiting in the long line for Group 2, our boarding passes that had been emailed to our phones disappeared. Poof! We rushed to the desk to get some more customer service. This woman was very accommodating. She just asked us our names and handed us boarding passes. No need to identify ourselves in any way. That was pretty friendly after going through the screening process in which they wanted my husband because he has two ounces of foot powder in his carry on bag.
  6. Rudeness all around . I'm certain all of the above experiences make passengers downright surly. I watched a woman getting her bag down who hit a kid in the head and then shoved the child in front of her, separating her from her family. Maybe she had a connecting flight to catch, but really? She never even apologized. On my return flight, the woman next to me set up the world's biggest laptop on her tray and proceeded to keyboard for the entire flight. Her elbows constantly invaded the small amount of space my cheap ticket bought me. I also saw people rushing by a mother with a baby, trapping the crying infant in her row because the mother was unable to push her way into the aisle without dropping her child. Honestly people - that baby wasn't even crying during the flight.

I'm sure the airlines set the tone for this behavior by shockingly caring more about the bottom line than the comfort of their passengers. I guess I could be more understanding if they were hurting, but I hear they are making huge profits these days, especially with the price of oil dropping. And didn't we all bail them out after 9/11 to the tune of billions of dollars?

Remember the old John Denver song, "I'm Leaving on a Jet Plane"? Back then, you could just pack your bags, call a taxi, and leave your girlfriend without knowing when you would return. That's because there were no change fees, up-charges, or sold-out flights due to having so many fewer flights. And there were just two classes of travelers -- first class and the rest of us.

I'm old enough to remember such shocking things as empty middle seats where you could put your things, snacks and meals (OK, they were bad but they still tried to feed you) on all flights, aisles wide enough to pull your suitcase, seats wide enough to accommodate folks without invading the person seated next to you, enough leg room so folks could recline their seats without getting into deadly combat, families with kids being allowed to board first, and flight attendants (OK, stewardesses) giving kids pilot wings. My grandkids will be shocked to hear this, just as they are shocked that I grew up with no computer and only three channels on a tiny black and white TV. Sadly, they will also be shocked to learn that folks were civil to one another because leaving on a jet plane was a rare privilege.

I wish you all safe and happy travels. And I ask that you reflect for a moment on how you can show some kindness to your fellow traveler.