Flight Cancelled

by Matteo Bittanti
Release date: December 21, 2016
Features: Softcover, 276 pages, illustrations, full color.
Format: 7 x 7 inches = 18 x 18 cm
Language: English
ISBN: 978-1366588210
Price: $59.99
 

PURCHASE HERE

 

DESCRIPTION

Flight Cancelled is a collection of comments written by consumers who flew with Alitalia, Italy's flagship air carrier, between 2003 and 2016. These travel experiences were originally published on different websites. They are reproduced in this book in unedited and unabridged form. These are stories of frustration and resistance. Loss and sorrow. Hope and resignation. Negligence and resilience. These are horror stories. These are cautionary tales. 

 

THE AUTHOR

Matteo Bittanti is an artist, writer, curator, publisher, translator, and scholar. His academic research focuses on the cultural, social, and theoretical aspects of emerging technologies, with an emphasis on their effects on communication, visual culture, and the arts. He is particularly interested in new media art, especially Game Art. Bittanti teaches Media Studies at IULM University, in Milan, where he also in charge of the M.A. Program in Game Design. He lives in San Francisco and Milan.

 

GALLERY

 

TEASERS

 

EXCERPTS

TRANSCRIPTS

Raluca   Theresa   Vito   Antonietta

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In his highly influential book The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), Michel de Certeau describes the process of cultural production as an ongoing struggle between two opposing forces: the Powerful and the Powerless, i.e. the producers (the ruling class) and the users (the ordinary people). Although the former control the means of production, the latter can counter their vulnerability by appropriating, subverting, and repurposing some of the products they consume, thereby attributing new values and meanings to these very artifacts. The dissemination of culture can therefore be understood as the byproduct of multiple acts of co-creation in which the consumer is not a passive receiver, but an active participant. However, such phenomenon is far from frictionless.

This negotiation requires the interplay of what the French Jesuit scholar calls strategies and tactics. A strategy is the overarching framework of the ruling class and their goals, e.g. to discipline, govern, or gain profit. It is “A calculus of force relationships when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an environment” (p. 5). Tactics, on the other hand, are the purview of the powerless: they are ways through which “the weak are seeking to turn the tables on the strong. Tactics must depend on “clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, the hunter’s cunning, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries poetic as well as warlike they go back to the immemorial… intelligence displayed in the tricks and imitations of plants and fishes. From the depths of the ocean to the streets of the modern megalopolises, there is a continuity and permanence of these tactics” (p. 7). While strategies tend to be fixed, tactics are constantly changing, which makes them unpredictable, often hard to censor, and therefore interesting.

I had de Certeau in mind when I began collecting travel experiences shared online by consumers who flew with Alitalia, “Italy’s flagship air carrier”, between 2003 and 2016. For this specific project, I concentrated on comments originally published on three websites: My 3 Cents (1), Consumer Affairs (2), and Yelp (3), which I reproduced in these pages in unabridged form and reverse chronological order. These platforms give visibility to consumers who would otherwise be invisible. These expressive tools introduce new rules of engagement supporting innovative forms of tactical agency. They are spaces of contention between the ruling class and subordinate groups. The latter use these avenues to share their stories and struggles. By doing so, they disrupt the imposed, dominant narrative. Additionally, they represent a kind of symbolic retribution. Psychologists argue that storytelling can be therapeutic for victimized individuals subjected to traumatic situations. Indeed, these are accounts of frustration and resistance. Loss and sorrow. Hope and resignation. Negligence and resilience. By venting their disbelief, annoyance, exasperation, and even rancor for a perceived mistreatment, ordinary people react to institutions equipped with powerful means of communication, including multi million marketing budgets and an army of lawyers that can easily crush any dissent. (4)

In his remarkable book Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web (2015), Joseph M. Reagle provides a penetrating analysis of text-based user-generated content in online communities. Reagle argues that comments constitute “a genre of communication” (p. 8) whose function is to “ inform (via reviews), improve (via feedback), manipulate (via fakes), alienate (via hate), shape (via social comparison), and perplex us” (p. 18). Comments mean something because they can enact successful change. In fact, “A comment can affect another’s status, it can help others make decisions (such as “The food here is great”), or it can alter a person’s behavior (for example, by providing feedback about someone’s actions)” (p. 17). According to Reagle, “User comments, ratings, and reviews are valuable because, in economic terms, they address the marketplace problem of information asymmetry.” (p. 44) This asymmetry refers to the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless described by de Certeau.

To provide a very brief description of a corpus consisting of approximately 330 comments, the average is approximately 250 words in length, with the shortest around 50 words and the longest approximately 2500 words. Each text is accompanied by the author’s name (sometimes, a nickname or initials), location, and date of posting. Some comments are framed by a short title. The authors are either native speakers or learners of English. These comments reveal something profound about the ongoing struggle between corporations and ordinary people. On the one hand, they allow a passenger to vent the irritation experienced when dealing with what they describe as a monolithic, indifferent, and unresponsive company. This kind of storytelling can produce cathartic effects. On the other hand, they can be read as horror stories and cautionary tales. Traveler Gerhard (Vienna, Austria, 2016) calls them “war stories”. In all cases, they are personal recountings of vexation, often accompanied by admonitions and suggestions for other travelers who may find themselves in similar situations. Considered sequentially, they form a larger narrative linking chains of events rooted in direct experience (5). This kind of storytelling is simultaneously personal and collective. Psychologist Jerome Bruner (1991) argued that one of the ways in which people make sense of their world is through the “narrative mode” of thought, which is concerned with the basic desires, needs, and objectives of human agency. The narrative mode articulates the dynamics of human intentions: when “activated”, it seeks to explain events by looking at how human actors strive to achieve their goals over time, what obstacles were encountered and which intentions were fully realized or deeply frustrated. Being able to narrate an episode rates high on the modern list of necessities. In a neoliberal world where corporations are considered “people” and granted unprecedented power, tactical storytelling may be the only tool left to the subordinate groups to address issues of personal identity and agency in pseudo-public fora like online websites. Tactical storytelling is, first and foremost, an affirmation of the self.

The stories included in Flight Cancelled vary in tone and style: some were originally written as formal complaints to Alitalia’s customer relations office. When the company chose to ignore them, the authors shared their messages online. Consider the the following excerpts, sampled from a vast archive:

Tried to call “Customer Relations” in New York several times this morning, but could not get through to anyone. On all three attempts, received a message that “due to the high call volume,” no one could answer my call. (Natasha, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 2011)

I have requested a follow-up and looking for the status of my missing baggage by submitting several e-mails to ALITALIA CUSTOMER RELATIONS via e-mails at: customer.relationsNYC@alitalia.it and haven’t had any responses from anyone. (Al, Yorba, California, 2014)

Alitalia does not care about their customers. They make it impossible to contact them. Customer relations ignores the emails you send them. Then they claim there is no way to contact customer relations except through email... I am done with them. (Sean, City, New York, 2013)

I have sent Alitalia three faxes, one letter, and left you a message, and I have heard nothing from you so far about your negligent losing of my suitcase. It is impossible to get somebody to answer your lines, and your e-mail system does not work. I believe that you have obligations towards your passengers, and ignoring me does not absolve you from your responsibilities. (Claudia, San Diego, California, 2008)

Other comments function as “dispatches from the trenches” whose main purpose is to warn fellow travelers about the dangers that lie ahead when booking a flight with this airline carrier. The authors address both Alitalia and other customers at different points in the same review. Warnings, admonitions, and recommendations tend to be located either the beginning of the text or at the end, as a type of a closing move. Most suggestions are expressed in the negative form (“Do not…”). Here are a few examples:

[I’]ll never recommend flying with Alitalia. No costumer support and rude phone responders that want to charge you for their mistakes. (Mehdi S., Houston, Texas, 2016)

I would not recommend Alitalia if you have any other choices of airline. (Lisa C., Humble, Texas, 2011)

I would not recommend booking any flights through Alitalias website. Customer service is non-existent. Sadly, this airline has lost my business for ever. (Natasha A., Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 2011)

I travel all over the world and have flown several airlines. Alitalia has by far Worst customer service I have ever seen. I will never fly with this airline and recommend all to stay away from them. (Tooran, Lawrenceville, Georgia, 2016).

Alitalia lacks customer service and I strongly recommend not to fly Alitalia. Purchased a different ticket not on Alitalia. (Kamal, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2016)

I hate Alitalia with all my heart and I hope this review spreads the word that they completely and utterly are the worst airline. Please tell all your friends and I hope no one ever has to go through the Alitalia hell. (Matthew T., Los Angeles, California, 2014)

Many commentators address Alitalia’s peculiar ways of dealing with luggage, a term that appears 343 times in a document of 90,044 total words (“bag” is mentioned 158 times). “Luggage” is often accompanied by adjectives such as “lost” (176 times), and “missing” (55 times). For example:

For the second time this year, I flew into Rome and Alitalia lost my luggage. (Anthony of Laytonsville, Maryland, 2010)

Basically, the flight was awful and they lost our luggage. (Nadine, Brantford, Canada, 2009)

Students beware! DO YOUR HOMEWORK. RESEARCH THIS AIRLINE BEFORE YOU BUY A TICKET! UNLESS YOU ARE PLANNING TO CARRY ON YOUR LUGGAGE CASES, DO NOT FLY ALITALIA! (rsabelli, 2010)

Alitalia lost my bags on a flight from Italy to JFK Airport in New York 10 days ago along with approximately 10 other passengers'. The individuals at the Lost and Found in JFK were slow moving and generally rude to myself and the other passengers who were in the same situation as me. When I tried to call the number I was given to check on my bags, no one picked up and I have left several messages with no return calls. (Michael, Fairfield, Connecticut, 2009)

I would do whatever possible to not fly this airline again. I gave it one stars because my wife and I arrived in Rome in one piece but our luggage did not. Alitalia lost our luggage and ruined our trip to Tuscany. (Dick B., Sun Tan Valley, Arizona, 2016)

Several consumers lament the uncomfortability of the airplane seats (the word “seats” recurs 165 times, “seat” 124), but also unexpected delays and excruciatingly long waiting times (“time” is mentioned 223 times and “times” 64; “hours” 189 times and “hour” 120). Consider the following examples:

On the way home, they seated us in the mid-section of the plane. Near the toilets. The stench was so bad it made us sick. Airline attendants did not deal with the problem and would not allow us to change seats. I used my blanket to cover my nose and mouth because the odor was so bad. Made me sick to my stomach. Overall this was a terrible experience. We were very disappointed with Alitalia. (Mrs. Myers, 2008)

The seats in my section (row 32 going and row 34 returning) were placed so closely together that I could not open my tray table. (Edwin, lake Forest, California, 2016)

In both directions some of the movable parts of the seat were broken. Worse, the food trays were broken and bent forward so that the food and drinks slowly moved to the edge and fell off as the plane vibrated. And even though the seats neither lay flat to the floor nor sat upright, they each had a bar poking out of the seat across the middle of the passenger's back making sleep all but impossible. But worst of all, and I’m not making this up, though the seats were not flat to the floor, they were flat like a board (with a bar across the middle) but pointed downward feet first – so that if one did fall asleep despite the bar, the vibrations of the plane slowly dumped you forward to slide off onto the floor. (John L., Scottsdale, Arizona, 2014)

The seats on the plane were old, portions were ripped, and very uncomfortable. It was an overnight flight and I could not sleep at all the entire way as the seats were too uncomfortable. There was also barely any legroom and the plane was hot. Further, the flight attendants were not very nice. (Kevin G., Chicago, Illinois, 2012)

My seat was broken and it was like sitting in a hole! The seat across the aisle from me had no tray table, and the seat back was actually held together by duct tape! I have pictures to prove this! The seats were all stained, carpeting frayed/torn, absolutely disgusting! (AnneMarie, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2015)

The range of topics discussed by travelers include: booking, customer care, punctuality, cleanliness of the aircraft, quality of in-flight assistance, on board food, baggage handling, website, and reimbursements. A prominent theme is the perceived rudeness and carelessness of Alitalia’s staff: the word “rude” appears 89 times in the book, followed by “rudeness” (5), “rudest” (6) and “rudely (4). Here are just a few examples:

The incompetence, lying and rudeness of Alitalia staff is unparalleled in the airline industry. While trying to resolve problems created by them we had six different experiences of staff and supervisors refusing to speak to us, walking away while we were talking to them and refusing to give us their names. (PSD, 2007)

They would have to be the rudest, arrogant and unhelpful airline staff we have ever met. (Don, New York, 2013)

I still can’t believe the attitude of your employees, the incredible lack of respect or helpfulness and basically the enormous incompetence of the staff. (Raluca, Bucharest, Romania, 2016)

The attendant was rude and said I had to call ahead of time, I told her I did. She said I had to then make sure it was on the ticket (how was I supposed to know that). On the flight back it was not on the ticket in Catania, I was told to tell Rome. When I told Rome (dealing again with a rude worker) I was told it was too late. They also lost my luggage. I was told by multiple people at the military base that Alitalia is the worst for losing luggage and they will not tell you when they found it. You have to keep going back to the airport, which I did three times. Then finally on the third try it was there, again dealing with very rude hateful staff. I just called Delta to get credit for my sky miles and was told to call Alitalia. I did and again got a very rude person who said I am supposed to talk to Delta and only wanted to argue instead of listen to anything I was saying. DO NOT FLY THIS AIRLINE, customer service does not exist! (Janet, Utah, 2015)

I had the opportunity to talk to basically all the customer service representatives, who had very poor English and were very rude with no intention of helping. (Suxie, Mexico, 2015)

The staff we encountered on our flight from Barcelona to Rome to Palermo were not just poor but it seemed like they delighted in being as rude and impolite as they could with their customers. This attitude extended to all staff (I didn’t have any interactions with pilots) but it seemed as if all other staff (check in, flight crew and customer service representatives) had received specific training on how to be as surly and rude as possible. (Doug, British Columbia, 2014)

They were so rude, the supervisor was happy and literally made fun of us by not answering everything that we asked. On top I am calling the customer service to complain and there is not a single person to talk to about this subject. We emailed as we were told by the customer service. Nobody got back to us. Terrible customer service and I want my $2000 back. (Nihan, Massachusetts, 2014)

Many writers describe the difficulty – if not impossibility – of obtaining a (promised, expected, deserved) reimbursement for a specific Alitalia’s fault (overbooking, lost or damaged baggage etc). The company is consistently described as an implacable, Kafkaesque bureaucratic machine. The word “compensation” is mentioned 44 times, while “refund” 62. The term “claim” appears 89 times throughout the book. These examples suggest that Alitalia is somehow reluctant to honor its promises:

It’s now almost 2 months-- we emailed the complaint form, sent numerous follow up emails, but no response from the airline, no refund for the upgrade that wasn’t provided, even though they took the money. (GARY, Rome, 2012)

After almost 4 months I didn’t hear from them, and when I followed up, they lied and told me that my luggage was returned to me the following day, and then they denied my claim. (rsabelli, New York, 2010)

There is simply no way on God’s little green earth that I can figure out a way to reach anybody at Alitalia regarding an actual action plan to refund my money. It is looong gone in spite of repeated calls and e-mails that are firm but exceedingly polite. (Alan, Toronto, Canada, 2016)

Negative descriptors abound: Alitalia’s service ranges from “bad” (48 times), to “horrible” (52 times). The frequency of comparatives like “worse” (22 times) and superlatives like “worst” (112) is also remarkable. Here is a small selection of comments: “This is the worst carrier I have ever done business with” (Concetta, New York 2014), “This is perhaps one of the worst examples of customer service I’ve ever experienced” (Frances, Lewes, 2013), “If possible DON’T EVER travel with Alitalia – they have the worst service and organization!!!” (Kristina, Mount Prospect, Illinois, 2013), “Flying with Alitalia is a big risk. It’s the worst airline in the business” (Olivia, Chicago, Illinois, 2014), “My family had the worst experience ever” (Eva, Lake Mary, Florida, 2012), “I booked my honeymoon with Alitalia and it was the worst mistake I’ve ever made.” (Calvin, Toronto, 2012), “My husband and I were scheduled to return from Rome to Chicago on Alitalia on Oct 30, 2011. This was a nightmare and the worst experience ever” (Saskia, Springfield, Missouri, 2011).

These comments also reveal a profound culture clash. In some cases, the commentators argue that the company’s behavior epitomizes widespread Italian habits. Here are few examples: “If this is a typical example of Italian business practices, no wonder the country is in a mess” (Dennis, London, 2014); “If this airline reflects on the government that runs it, well, then no wonder this country’s economy is in the toilet!” (Randy S, Brooklyn, New York, 2013), “Never ever ever again will we fly Alitalia across the ocean, which is sad since we care very much about Italy’s economy” (Joan of Croton New York, 2014). For others, the incompetence of Alitalia’s staff they causes cognitive dissonance with what they experienced in the Belpaese. Consider the following comments: “They should be ashamed to be representing such a beautiful country in such a filthy way” (DeBears, Chicago, 2012), “Having an airline like Alitalia as Italy’s flagship airline shamed their national pride” (Norman, Paris, 2015), “Alitalia representing a country synonymous with style and design should either evaporate or get much needed help” (michael, Toronto, 2015), “In all my years of traveling I have never felt so ABUSED and HELPLESS! This company gives the wrong impression of Italians” (Amelia, Orland Park, Illinois, 2013), “I am sharing with you my story for a company that is an absolute disgrace to Italy!” (Lauren, Boston, 2011), “We had a wonderful time in Rome and all Italians that we encountered there were extremely friendly and helpful, but Alitalia Airlines is the worst” (K.L. Chicago, 2013), “They ruined Italy” (Victoria, Los Angeles, 2016). Many are also displeased by Alitalia's staff's limited English skills. For example:

Rude and inattentive flight attendants almost refusing to speak English to me (on a U.S. bound flight!). (MEHDI, Columbia, Maryland, 2016)

The young employee who was supposed to check us in barely spoke English. (Raluca, Romania, 2016)

When I started complaining they pretended they can’t understand English and I was told off by a male cs who addressed me as “lady” that I just have to wait. (Agnes, Singapore, 2015)

I had the opportunity to talk to basically all the customer service representatives, who had very poor English and were very rude with no intention of helping. (Susy, Mexico, 2015)

The first operative spoke no English, the second was poor and the third simply said they had decided to stop operating the route. (Dennis, London, 2014)

I talked to over 15 people but nobody was speaking good English and was competent to actually do their job! (Kristina, Mount Prospect, Illinois, 2013)

I felt like an idiot, it isn’t because I’ve been speaking to you in English that you’ve got to answer in Italian giving me a look just like saying you’re Italian on your passport, don't you speak Italian. You see, now I do not only pay more than easyJet for a flight to Sardinia, I also have to listen to the flight assistant asking me to speak Italian to them. Ridiculous. (Alex of London, 2010)

The pilot and flight attendants rarely repeated announcements in English...not everyone speaks Italian on their flights!!! (Irene Y., North Miami Beach, Florida, 2012)

Finally, some argue that Alitalia is deliberately mistreating non-Italian customers and providing a lower quality service to everybody else, especially American travelers. Consider these excerpts:

All attendants were rude and basically completely ignored you unless you were/spoke Italian. There was a definite difference in the level of respect and courtesy offered to Italians and non-Italians. (K.L., Chicago, 2013)

There was a completely different standard for how the Italians on the flight we treated and how the Americans were treated. The Italians sitting near me were all offered extra food and given preferential treatment with regard to how often flight attendants stopped by or brought food or wine. All of this was in Italian of course, so that none of the dumb Americans would suspect anything. (Claire F., Pasadena, California, 2014)

However, this claim seem unsubstantiated: judging on the variety of complaints collected in these pages, Alitalia does not appear to be discriminating. In fact, lamentations about the company practices were authored by travelers of different gender, age, nationality, social status, class, ethnicity, and religious belief. The vast majority of reports were written by either American citizens or individuals living in the United States.

Another recurring theme is the staunch refusal of Alitalia’s flight attendants to perform what American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983) called “emotional labor” in her seminal book, The Managed Heart. Commercialization of Human Feeling. Hochschild defines emotional labor as

The management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value. I use the synonymous terms emotion work or emotion management to refer to these same acts done in a private context where they have use value. (p. 7)

According to Hochschild, this kind of labor “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others – in this case, the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place” (ibidem). In her ethnographic study of flight attendants of Delta Airlines and Pan American Airways, Hochschild describes the enormous effort that must be exerted in order to provide courteous emotional labor to often tired, disgruntled passengers. Hochschild argues that the ability to smile, regardless of the unreasonableness of passengers, is a crucial aspect of their job. Alitalia’s flight attendants, however, are often depicted by some commentators as completely lacking empathy and deliberately antagonizing the passengers. In one particular episode, Elvira (Podgorica, 2015) describes a horrific experience during a trip from Brussels to Rome. In her text, she lists repeated abuses allegedly perpetrated by an Alitalia’s flight attendant which continued even after the plane landed.

While I was standing in line to leave aircraft I turn back and looked at my flight attendant, she looked back. We looked at each other for two moments and then she commented to her colleague something like (I do not know Italian, but what I understood from her body language and international words). This lady is .... (laughing)... this people ...and big laughter.. I wanted to run out of the aircraft. Putting yourself in the position when you are not controlling situation but your basic need are in hands of other people, and they are treating you like this.

In fact, the flight attendants’ perceived indifference or confrontational attitude is definitely a trope. For instance,

During flight, I asked the flight attendant for a glass of water and the response I received was that I could get up and get it myself in the back. Really?!? I would have been okay with this response if I wanted to stretch my legs, but the fact that I had to wake up and bother the people next to me in order to get myself a water, made it awkward and inconvenient for me and the people in my row. (Crista, Los Angeles, California, 2014)

The flight attendants just sat in the back and talked and laughed with each other the whole time except when serving the food. I asked for water and he gives me a dirty look and ignores me... What’s up with these lazy people? (Ali, Ottawa, 2013)

It took them 15 minutes or longer for the flight attendant to bring the juice, with no apology for taking so long. She actually set the glass on my tray table without looking at me or talking to me as she was too busy talking to someone else with her head turned away from me. After the regular food service, not one flight attendant walked through the cabin asking if anyone wanted anything else to eat or drink. We were told that we could get our own snacks at the back of the plane. I am guessing we were told that because all of the attendants were going to go to sleep in an area reserved for them. I have never in all the years I have flown, been told to get my own snacks! (Vito, Menifee, California, 2012)

Staff/crew are mostly ill-trained with attitude problem with zero customer service. Arrogancy, harsh and unfriendly attitude seems to be way of their culture.They have no respect for the customers, young or elder. (12B, 2005)

The staff even on the plane were rude and would throw things at you rather than serve you properly. Ask for an extra drink? You’ll get an eye roll and a look of disgust the Italians only reserve for true enemies. (Matthew, Los Angeles, 2014)

Flight attendants will walk right by and pretend not to see when you ask for help. Try it if you don’t believe me. (Calvin, Toronto, 2012)

When we flew from London to Rome, my wife asked an attendant for water for our two young children when the beverage cart was coming down the aisle. I could see the attendant's face as I was separated and sitting several rows back. She rolled her eyes and snarled and did this with several passengers. It was not unique to Americans, but aimed at passengers of all nationalities. (The Consciencious Traveler, 2007)

The flight attendants were all in a bad mood, like if you were asking for a favor and not paying for a service. (Ricardo, Newark, New Jersey, 2007)

When my school traveled from Rome to Toronto, we had a very uncomfortable flight. The flight attendants were all sleeping at the same time, only once did they come clean up half the garbage from the plane. (Colby, Regina, 2010)

During the flight, several flight attendants climbed into the rows ahead of us, reclined their seats to the fullest possible extent, chatted loudly for a while, then napped. Tough gig. (Jeff, Boston, 2015)

At one point my husband called twice for a flight attendant to help us with the system and no one came to help us. I then called twice as well and again, no one showed up. The flight attendants basically hung out in the back behind a curtain and chatted with each other and drank wine and coffee the whole time. (Claire F., Pasadena, California, 2011)

Judging from these accounts, it appears that “maximizing customer satisfaction” is hardly Alitalia’s priority. On the contrary, flight attendants are often described as deliberately ignoring or even sabotaging the travelers. Although one may argue that the vast amount of disparaging comments may indicate the agenda of some of the websites hosting them – i.e., their intention of profiting from a company’s deficiencies by requesting a fee to remove a negative review (6), they nonetheless provide priceless insights into the rhetoric of dissatisfaction and people’s reactions to conflict situations. As Reagle writes, “people are most likely to participate [in commenting] when they have a strong positive or negative experience.” (p. 56) Truth to be told, I was unable to find positive appraisal of Alitalia’s service in online comments.

Often plagued by misspellings and unorthodox grammar, ALL CAPS and exclamations marks, lists and imperatives, these anecdotes represent a new vernacular literature made possible by digital technology. Explicitly protected by the Constitution of the United States of America as free speech (7), these travel experiences offer a glimpse of an ongoing power struggle between different factions. Although some may find them entertaining, there is little humor in these pages. These parables were written by frustrated, exasperated customers or, at least, by customers who are performing – rather convincingly, it must be said – frustration and exasperation. Readers will not find anything resembling the funny review of a meal consumed by a traveler on a Virgin flight from Mumbai to Heathrow that critics have called “the funniest passenger complaint letter ever” (2009). In his missive addressed to Sir Richard Branson, the author describes a “culinary journey of hell” culminating with a subpar “biscuit”. Here is a salient passage:

It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.

In short, although the authors often use sarcasm and irony as a rhetorical strategy, the comments included in this book were not written to amuse the reader.

Psychologists agree that the recounting of personal stories in situations of stress, abuse, and conflict can have positive effects. These reviews exemplify the travellers’ psychological need to articulate their disbelief and resentment. For these reasons, they deserve to be preserved and shared in printed form, especially considering the inherent transience and fragility of the web: a site hosting gigabytes of records can disappear in a matter of seconds, with a simple click.

There's more. In 1985, political scientist and anthropologist J.C. Scott wrote a very influential book in the field of cultural studies titled Weapons of the Weak to describe the arts of resistance under domination. Scott described the peculiar clandestine nature of peasant politics in Southeast Asia, “the prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labor, food, taxes, rents, and interest from them” (p. 7). Thirty years later, in her outstanding examination of Anonymous, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman (2015) describes the actions of the infamous online collective as “weapons of the geeks” and argued that

While Weapons of the Weak describes the tactics of economically marginalized populations who engage in small-scale illicit acts—such as foot dragging and vandalism—that don’t appear on their surface to be political, weapons of the geek is a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged and visible actors who often lie at the center of economic life. (p. 34)

I like to call the online complaints collected in Flight Cancelled “weapons of the meek”. These texts allow normally invisible, mute individuals to express their reaction outside of the corporate (and thus private, highly controlled, profit-driven) channels, i.e. customer surveys. Travellers are meek because they are usually willing to endure injury and insult with saint like patience, without resentment and without rebelling. This is especially true of flying in the post 9/11 age, where travellers are treated both as potential terrorists by the TSA (and thus subjected to all sorts of humiliating rituals at airports) and as cattle by most airline companies. After all, stuck in a plane they are - in effect - canned meat. Flight Cancelled shows what happens when the meek cannot take it anymore. Scott grouped the peasants under the rubric of the “sub-altern”, that is, persons holding a subordinate position within society. Coleman calls the members of Anonymous the “super-altern”: “those highly educated geeks who not only speak for themselves but talk back loudly and critically to those who purport to speak for them.” (ibidem) I call the online commentators that write about Alitalia the “counter-altern”, that is, those citizens who produce alternative, oppositional narratives to the dominant, corporate message. Unlike Scott’s peasants (and akin to Coleman’s geeks), they are privileged: after all, they can afford to travel, by plane, go on vacation, obtain a visa, enjoy leisure activities, and discuss their experiences online. But unlike the former, they are not necessarily “highly educated geeks”, that is, technologically savvy experts who could sabotage Alitalia’s website with a DDos attack (Distributed Denial-of-Service) or other trolling tactics. They are individuals who react to a perceived mistreatment by producing and sharing their own counter-story. 

Flight Cancelled brings their barely visible tactics into the light of day. This book is a constellation of distinctive but often overlapping grievances, a documentation of accounts written by ordinary people facing a formidable, ruthless adversary, an archive of political resistance, an anthology of conceptual writing, and a new kind of online folklore. Unconventional and experimental both in form and content, Flight Cancelled is more than the sum of its parts. In Uncreative Writing. Managing Language in the Digital Age, Kenneth Goldsmith (2011) wrote about the joys of a relatively new practice exemplified by “language hoarders... mirroring the gargantuan scale of textuality on the Internet” (p.3). According to Goldsmith,

This joy is evident in the writing itself, in which there are moments of unanticipated beauty, some grammatical, others structural, many philosophical: The wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as literature, a reorientation to the poetics of time, and fresh perspectives on readerliness, but to name a few. And then there’s emotion: yes, emotion. But far from being coercive or persuasive, this writing delivers emotion obliquely and unpredictably, with sentiments expressed as a result of the writing process rather than by authorial intention. (p. 4)

Fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the flight.


Notes

1. My3cents.com is a consumer review website founded in the March of 2000 whose stated goal is to “provide an open forum for consumers to share good and bad experiences regarding any company or product... Help consumers to become better educated on a company or product... Enable businesses to provide better service to consumers, and help improve their products and services.” (Source: My3cents.com)

2. Consumer Affairs is an online company founded in 1998 by Jim Hood, an Associate Press executive, editor and reporter, as an easier way of collecting consumer opinion. An independent Web-based consumer news and resource center, ConsumerAffairs give consumers the ability to write reviews about products or services. It is headquartered in Stateline, Nevada with an office in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Source: consumeraffairs.com)

3. Founded in 2004 by former PayPal employees Russell Simmons and Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp is an American multinational corporation headquartered in San Francisco, California. It develops, hosts and markets Yelp.com and the Yelp mobile app, which publish crowd-sourced reviews about local businesses, venues, and services. As of 2016, Yelp.com has 135 million monthly visitors and 95 million reviews. (Source: yelp.com)

4. In 2000, Alitalia sued William Porta, a disgruntled passenger who registered a controversial Internet domain name – “www.alitaliasucks” – after his luggage was lost. Mr. Porta was accused of infringing Alitalia’s trademark by “registering the name [...] and posting a letter about how the airline treated him after it lost his luggage”. The lawsuit concluded that by seeking to relinquish the name in bad faith, Mr Porta violated the Anti-cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act.” However, Porta’s lawyers argued that there could be no trademark infringement because “alitalia sucks” is “Neither identical nor confusingly similar to Alitalia, and there is no likelihood of confusion about who sponsors Porta’s web site”. They also argued that his use of Alitalia’s mark is fair use. The case and the ensuing conversation are described here. The full defense can be read at Public Citizen.

5. Scholars distinguish between direct complaints, where the recipient of the complaint is the same individual who is responsible for the complained-about action or state of affairs, and indirect complains, where the addressee is a third party, that is, someone other than the individual who is responsible for the complained-about events/states. For more information, see Camilla Vasquez, “Complaints online: The case of TripAdvisor”, World Languages Faculty Publications. Paper 8, 2011. URL: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/wle_facpub/8.

6. Consider, for instance, the article “Who is ConsumerAffairs.com Really Advocating For?” published on October 21, 2014 by Truth in Advertising (https://www.truthinadvertising.org/consumer-affairs-com), which argued that the website “creates biased and negative portrayals of companies that don’t pay for its service called ConsumerAffairs for Brands.” The service collects reviews from customers and gives brands an opportunity “to respond”, that is, to pay to have them removed. This practice inevitably raises questions about the veracity of the reviews. As Reagle (2015) writes, “Researchers estimate that between 10 to 30 percent of online reviews are fake. The cast of manipulators includes fakers (those who deceptively praise their own works or pillory others’), makers (those who will do so for a fee), and the takers (those who avail themselves of such services)” (p. 89). Vasquez (2011) adds that “The traditional lack of reliability associated with self reports becomes further amplified in online context, where identity has become a fraught and often-contested category, and where issues related to ‘authenticity’ and ‘representation’ abound. In other words, with online complaints, there may simply be no way of knowing who is really responsible for the complaints.” (p. 10) For the purpose of this project, the authenticity of the comments is completely irrelevant. Additionally, this selection of complaints is by no means an exhaustive or entirely accurate description of the company’s performance.

7. Signed by President Barack Obama on December 14, 2016, the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 outlaws contracts featuring “non-disparagement” clauses in terms and services. According to the new law, contracts that “Prohibits or restricts an individual who is a party to such a contract from engaging in written, oral, or pictorial reviews, or other similar performance assessments or analyses of, including by electronic means, the goods, services, or conduct of a person that is also a party to the contract” are illegal. The full text is available here.

 

References

Bruner, Jerome. “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, Critical Inquiry 18, n. 1, Autumn 1991, pp. 1-12.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1984 [1980].

Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, London: Verso, 2015. 

Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing. Managing Language in the Digital Age. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2011.

No Author. “Virgin: the world’s best passenger complaint letter?”, The Telegraph, January 26, 2009. URL. [Last accessed: December 1, 2016]

Reagle, Joseph M. Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2015.

Scott. J.C., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Yale: Yale University Press, 1985.

Vasquez, Camilla. “Complaints online: The case of TripAdvisor”, World Languages Faculty Publications. Paper 8, 2011. URL: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/wle_facpub/8  (Last accessed: December 1, 2016)


 

MEDIA COVERAGE

Daniel Oberhaus, "Airlines Treat Us Like Shit, and All We Can Do Is Write Bad Yelp Reviews", Motherboard/Vice, January 7, 2017.

Massimo Rota, "L'avventurosa storia del viaggiatore Alitalia", Duels, January 8, 2016. (Italian)

Daniel Oberhaus, "In dit nieuwe boek staan ruim 300 negatieve online recensies over Alitalia", Motherboard/Vice, January 9, 2017. (German)