Airlines Treat Us Like Shit, and All We Can Do Is Write Bad Yelp Reviews

A collection of horror stories about an Italian airline and a cautionary tale about complaining on the internet.

Jan 7 2017, 2:00pm

Image: Matteo Bittanti/Concrete Press

These days we live in a runaway review culture, where restaurants, your friends, and even bowel movements are all fair game for anonymous criticism. While this might be expected from a species where every individual has at least two things (opinions and assholes), it's also the easiest way to hold companies accountable for their products. Unfortunately, it's usually only people who had remarkably bad experiences that leave reviews so it can be difficult to put much faith in what a given stranger had to say about Company X, but even so, these reviews can be really entertaining to read.

Case in point is Flight Cancelled, a collection of 13 years of online reviews about Alitalia, Italy's flagship airline. Compiled by Matteo Bittanti, the conceptual artist behind the book about homelessness in Sim City, the 300+ reviews in Flight Cancelled were culled from My 3 Cents, Consumer Affairs and Yelp between 2003 and 2016.

Billed as a collection of "horror stories" and "cautionary tales," Flight Cancelled serves as a testament to Bittanti's fascination with comment culture, and what online comments say about the reviewer and society at large.

"I like to call the online complaints collected in Flight Cancelled 'weapons of the meek,'" Bittanti told Motherboard, referencing a seminal 1985 study on peasant resistance called Weapons of the Weak. "These texts allow normally invisible, mute individuals to express their reaction outside of the corporate channels. They are individuals who react to a perceived mistreatment by producing and sharing their own counter-story."

According to Bittanti, airline customers have plenty of reasons to be peeved when they fly, especially in the post-9/11 age, where travelers "are treated as potential terrorists by the TSA and as cattle by most airline companies." After all, said Bittanti, "stuck in a plane, the passengers are, in effect, canned meat."

A reading of one of Bittanti's favorite comments in Flight Cancelled.

After reading hundreds of negative comments about this airline, ranging from 5000 word odysseys to the short and sweet 'screw you,' Bittanti said he began to notice common themes emerging in this "theater of complaint" that might not be noticed by the casual consumer, who usually only reads a handful of reviews before making a decision.

"Many comments reveal a profound culture clash," Bittanti said. "In some cases, the commentators argue that the company's behavior exemplifies or even epitomizes widespread bad Italian habits. In a sense, Alitalia represents all Italians [and] some commentators find that problematic."

Interestingly, Bittanti said that many comments tended to display all of the five stages of grieving displayed by terminally ill patients outlined by the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. These emotions—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—might manifest as perceived inattention from Alitalia's staff, cursing in Italian (Alitalia, tu sei una brutta Strega!—Alitalia, you're a bad witch!) and others seek compromise, especially in hopes of getting some sort of reimbursement from the airline.

There is no catharsis for the reader, but perhaps for the writer, who can vent her frustration for a perceived abuse," said Bittanti. "There are no happy endings either: in most cases, the travelers have been unable to obtain an apology, a reimbursement, or even an acknowledgement for what they felt was an unjust treatment. Narratively speaking, these stories evoke that famous line in Leonard Cohen's greatest song, 'Everybody knows that the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost.'"

You can get a copy of Flight Cancelled on Concrete Press' website.