It's looking ugly for travelers at the nation's airports this summer, and supermodel Naomi Campbell isn't the only one who can't contain her frustration.
Earlier this month, a woman was arrested on a JetBlue flight on charges of assaulting flight attendants during a cross-country trip. Earlier this week, an ABC News story about an autistic toddler and his mother getting kicked off an airplane brought in more than 1,400 comments from readers, many about the tensions between airline passengers and employees.
No doubt travelers have plenty of reasons to be frustrated. Today, Delta revealed that even its best customers aren't immune to the changes brought on by the high price of fuel when the carrier announced it will soon add a $25 or $50 fuel fees to its frequent flier SkyMiles award tickets. Thursday marked the 20th attempted airfare increase of the year, according to Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, versus the 23 total attempts the airlines made last year.
As the price of jet fuel continues to skyrocket, carriers are increasingly asking passengers to pay more to help them break even. People are paying steeper fares for flights. They're swiping their credits cards more often than expected once they've arrived at the airport to pay extra fees.
Their money is helping airlines pay for fuel that now, according to the Air Transport Association, averages 30 to 50 percent of carriers' operating expenses. Add wild weather to the equation -- from floods in the Midwest to wildfires in California -- and delays could be the final ingredient in a recipe for meltdowns.
"There is an increase in hostility, and it goes both ways," said Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. "I am, in both ways, seeing a rise in air rage and also a rise in employee hostility toward the passenger."
Hanni said her group's hotline for distressed travelers at 1-877-flyers6 is receiving about 400 calls daily, and that the repercussions of this season's fuel crisis is making the situation worse this summer than last.
"Our hotline has been ringing off the hook," Hanni said. "They're calling us saying, 'I've been bumped and I'm not getting the bumping compensation that I'm due.'
"That's a very prominent theme this summer."
Hanni participated earlier this week at a U.S. Department of Transportation forum in Chicago on consumer experiences in air travel. The forum was the second of several the Transportation Department is offering around the country this year.
Still, at the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, spokeswoman Brenda McKenzie said she thinks the summer travel season is "going as smoothly as it possibly can."
"There's always frustration during the summer," said McKenzie, a flight attendant for American Airlines. "With summertime and the loads increasing, we automatically feel more stress from the traveler."
To that end, things aren't looking dramatically different for passengers so far this year compared to last year, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Even in April, when American Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights in a matter of days, a report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics revealed that the department received 1,113 consumer complaints about airline service that month, down 10.8 percent from the 1,248 complaints received in April 2007. May statistics on delays, mishandled baggage and consumer complaints won't be released until July 7.
In the first four months of 2008, U.S. airlines flights arrived on time an average of 72.6 percent of the time, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Comparatively, in the first four months of 2007, they were on time an average of 72.3 percent of the time.
Meantime, on June 17, the same day the woman was arrested for assault on JetBlue, the carrier released a statement saying it was ranked highest in customer satisfaction among low-cost airlines in the country. A satisfaction study conducted by J.D. Power and Associates found that JetBlue ranked highest, based on responses from nearly 20,000 passengers who flew on domestic airlines between April 2007 and March 2008. Jet Blue also said Friday that nothing else to the scale of that arrest had happened recently on its planes.
Still, Seaney said changes brought on by fuel prices have laid the groundwork for "an adversarial relationship" between passengers and the airlines.
"I wouldn't even call it frustration anymore," he said. "I'd call it beaten down."
The situation also stands to get worse in the fall. Recent announcements from all the major U.S. carriers indicate that starting next season, airlines will offer fewer flights in their schedules and employ fewer airline employees in an effort to save money and trim their operations. Come September, several carriers are planning to pare down flights, in some cases eliminating service entirely in several cities.
In other words, fewer air travel options might also mean fewer smiling passengers.
"It's the equivalent of California not having rain for a year and having the big lightening storm coming," Seaney said. "Everything's set up for one spark to cause an issue."
Hanni, who is advocating for a federal passenger bill of rights, said, "There's no appropriate way or protocol for a passenger to complain or to say, 'This is what's going on with me.' There's no appropriate way to do that without the risk of federal agents coming to the plane, or the flight attendant or the pilot interpreting that as hostile."