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Airlines vs. passengers: Can this marriage be saved?

The relationship between airlines and passengers needs a little counseling.

August 31, 2011|By Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval

The scenario is all too familiar: A love affair that started out wildly romantic and adventurous grows bitter and dreary over the years. Communication breaks down. Disappointments replace dreams. And before you know it, the relationship seems unsalvageable. Is there a couple's counselor in the house?

Counselor: OK, let's just start by listening to one another. No interrupting, no name-calling. We'll start with you, Airline. What would you like to say to your Passenger?

Airline: When we first met, you treated me like a hero who swept you off your feet. Nothing could stop us; the whole world was ours. Now, I feel taken for granted.

Passenger: What about me? You used to shower me with attention. It was all champagne and hot towels and chocolates. On our last trip to New York, you ignored me and flirted with the Kardashian wannabe in first class. You're such a social climber.

Airline: Yes, I like my jet-set friends, but they spend time and money on me. And you? Not so much. They're entitled. You're just jealous.

Passenger: I'm not jealous. As a matter of fact, you have to give me more space!

Airline: Look, there are only 99 of us commercial airlines left, and this year, we'll board 633 million passengers. You do the math. How can we turn every seat into a Barcalounger? Unless you split the check.

Passenger: What's that supposed to mean? You're the cheapskate, nickel-and-diming me, charging me for luggage? This is T-R-A-V-E-L. Of course I come with a suitcase, which you'll probably just put on the wrong plane, anyway. To Dubai.

Airline: See, this is what I mean! You're never satisfied. Your neck hurts, your legs are cramping, the guy in front of you just flung his seat back and spilled your (ahem, still free!) Diet Coke. You spent years ridiculing my cooking, so I stopped. Then you flipped out. You're so needy.

Passenger: I'm not needy. You just need to start showing some basic consideration, like not always being late, or losing my things.

Airline: A blizzard is not my fault. Sometimes I'm a bit late because I'm obsessive about my maintenance and worried about our safety. I care about that more than anything, and my track record over the last decade proves it. Give me some credit. It would be nice if you showed a little gratitude once in a while. But noooo, you don't even smile anymore.

Passenger: If I'm such a hot mess, why are your hands always all over me?

Airline: That's the TSA, not me.

Passenger: We've grown apart. You don't tell me anything; it's impossible to reach you.

Airline: Don't pretend you don't use smartphones and email and social media as a way of communicating too. You're always airing our dirty laundry on Facebook! If I happen to overbook, you're tweeting my mistake to the whole world before we've even left the gate. You've changed a lot too, you know.

Counselor: It's clear that both of you still need and want each other; you've just forgotten how to show it. This could be a very fulfilling relationship again. Here's my advice:

Stop fibbing. Honesty is the oxygen in any relationship. Passenger, no more fobbing off your 6-year-old as a toddler for early-boarding privileges, or faking your grandma's death to avoid cancellation penalties. And Airline, if the plane is over Kansas, do not tell passengers waiting in the lounge in Boise, Idaho, that they will be boarding "momentarily."

Give a little. Passenger, do you have to hold out for a free upgrade before you'll swap seats when you can see for yourself that a family is being separated? Airline, can't you just pretend once in a while that the 7-foot-2 college kid crammed into a middle seat should be discreetly bumped to one of your empty first-class seats?

Communicate, communicate, communicate! You're partners, not adversaries. Airline, loyalty is something you have to reinforce.

And Passenger, if filling your SUV with gasoline makes you consider a second mortgage, imagine a jumbo jet's fuel bills. Every new rule, regulation, safety standard (and online discount fare) hits the airline smack in the wallet too. Besides, charging for meals or a carry-on ensures that only the passengers using that service are paying for it.

And finally, play nice. Ask; don't demand. Say "please," and "thank you."

You're gonna be great together, once you leave all the old baggage behind. In Dubai.

Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval are chief executive and president, respectively, of an advertising agency in New York. Their firm has represented airlines, among other clients.

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