To a point, it's gotten sad. Every day brings another horror story of some hours-long delay where travellers are stuck at an airport with seemingly no way to procure sustenance or entertainment. We're to the point now that being stuck in an airport is the modern-day travel equivalent of spending time in solitary confinement, in a Vietnamese prison.
Gary Shteyngart got the ball rolling with his fatwa against American Airlines trans-Atlantic service. Not only was his experience unacceptable, but it was proof of case (in his mind) tha American should roll up the sidewalks and stop providing service across the pond. This was then followed by a reader letter to the NY Times seriously expressing disbelief that a hastily cobbled together government bill (the so-called Passenger Bill of Rights) hasn't done anything to alleviate the laundry list of water torture like inconveniences travellers are forced to endure. Amusingly, the light on real world experience, progressive writer Matt Yglesias decided to put in his two cents blaming, of course, American's failure to capitulate to the unions during bankruptcy.
This is just a small sampling of the public gripes that I pulled from a (half-hearted) defense of the airlines by Patrick Smith writing in the Daily Beast. A review of any ChronBlog article on the aviation industry brings out a hoard of "United should close down" nabobs spewing anger, bile and not a few hilarious misstatements of fact. Even the travel message boards, purportedly populated by "savvy" fliers regularly devolve into flame fests when one member's 27 leg, 2 open jaw, fuel-dumped, intentionally booked to be as convoluted as possible flight plan goes even slightly pear shaped. Don't ever let first class run out of Krug, or have the good folks at Lufstansa first class run out of rubber duckies or put more than two people in the Porches that ferry First Class travellers from the first class terminal to the planes.
In the aspirational travel world of hand-made cards by flight attendants and anger that the complimentary noise-cancelling headphones aren't made by Bose, complaints of scratchy pajamas are legion. Reading gripes about the service issue du jour has moved from slightly-amusing hobby to increasing annoyance to constant screed. Missing from any of this discussion is what you can do to avoid these traps, instead we get a river of flame describing these issues, in excruciating detail.
Here's the rub. If airline travel has gotten this bad, so bad that even aspirational travel bloggers and writers (those folks who travel almost exclusively first class, on points) have decided that it's worthy of hundreds of lines of moaning and complaining, then all hope may truly be lost. Except that I don't really believe that it is.
We're coming out of a period where two of the four major US carriers are in major states of flux. United was going through the pains of merging with Continental and American was experiencing the challenges faced due to bankruptcy. In almost all cases passengers did get where they need to go, eventually. Plus, and this is the part where I defend the airlines, in many cases the flying public expects airline operations to be powered by unicorn farts and fairy dust. When things go wrong the general inclination is to throw up one's hands, let your hair catch on fire and run to the Internet to vent. Rarely have I found this to be good practice. In most cases how your issue gets resolved is your problem. I've solved many problems by being proactive and discussing potential problems over the phone with the airlines before I fly. I resolved an unwanted long-layover w/United due to their schedule change by just giving them a call and checking my options. On an upcoming trip (to Rome, in US Airways coach *yikes*) I called up and confirmed the wife's gluten free meal and I'm bringing along ergonomic seat cushions so that I don't end up with numb-butt after a 9 hour flight sitting in US's notoriously rear-end unfriendly seats.
I agree, when things do go terribly pear-shaped the airlines could, in many cases, do a better job of information dissemination. It's frustrating sitting at the gate while the gate agent types merrily away on the mystery screen of death with no departure updates or anything of the type. You can alleviate this however by downloading a mobile app and monitoring updates from the comfort of the nearest bar. I did this in Seattle while we were on our way to Alaska and awaiting our crew to arrive from another flight. While the rest of the passengers sat at the gate stewing themselves into a hot anger, the wife and I were enjoying cocktails and appetizers until around 30 minutes before our departure. The point is, irregular operations are often what you make of them and do not necessarily have to result in an online explosion of bile and fury.
Unless Lufstansa first class is out of rubber ducks. Then complain away.