The year got off to a less than auspicious start for airlines when President Trump passed an executive order banning visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. The hastily drafted order, scant on details, left international airlines guessing who they could and couldn’t admit onto their planes.
United Airlines courted controversy of its own when staff forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked flight. A 30-second video emerged showing Dr David Dao being assaulted by security on the flight leaving Chicago O’Hare for Louisville, Kentucky.
American Airlines faced a similar incident when a member of cabin crew allegedly struck out at a mother holding her child. Again, video emerged of the cabin crew threatening another passenger who came to her defence.
The list of PR disasters continued when an Australian passenger launched a lawsuit against American Airlines after he was seated next to two obese people for a 14-hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. The incident raised questions over the airline’s decision to order Boeing 737 jets with less space between seats at the back of the plane, to make room for premium-priced seats at the front.
Passenger rights group, Flyers Rights, challenged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to rethink its policy on shrinking seats after the consumer organisation made a case that smaller seats and less legroom would one day lead to tragedy.
Not to be outdone by their American counterparts, British and European airlines have also had a year to forget. Two computer crashes in three months caused widespread delays to British Airways flights that left thousands queueing for hours at Gatwick and Heathrow airports – the delays costing the airline an estimated £100m in compensation.
Ryanair has also had a terrible year. Europe’s largest airline was forced to cancel around 40,000 flights after a scheduling mix up and has come under fire from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for ‘persistently misleading passengers’ about their rights.
Controversial policies, shrinking seats and widespread delays pale into insignificance when compared to the plight of Monarch Airlines. The carrier announced it has ceased all trading after years of heavy losses, leaving thousands out of work, stranded abroad and cancelling 300,000 future flights. The CAA says it is taking action to get 110,000 people back to UK in what papers are calling the UK’s biggest peacetime repatriation.
However it’s not been all bad news for airlines. New Delhi-based carrier Vistara won plaudits for letting female solo travellers pick their own seats amid growing concerns over safety, while Air India won new fans in the vegetarian community after making all economy-class meals on domestic flights meat-free.
EasyJet also turned heads by working with U.S. start-up Wright Electric to build the world’s first mass-produced electric passenger planes. The battery-powered planes will be much more eco-friendly, quieter and reduce turnaround times. With 2017 only three-quarters of the way through, who knows what surprises remain in store for the world’s airlines. For the most part the good outweighs the bad and passenger numbers are expected to double over the next 20 years according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).