While recently driving between Saint George, Utah and Ventura, California, my wife and I started discussing why we drive the seven-hour trip rather than fly. It was during when air travel was snarled in the East by winter storms. We decided that there are too few airlines competing for business and large, national carriers are more affected by weather than smaller, regional carriers. In my younger days, there was a carrier based in the East named Eastern Air Lines and one in West named Western Airlines. They did not compete, connect or share resources, such as airplanes and pilots. Weather or mechanical problems on one carrier did not directly affect the other. Those times are long past. Within large national carriers, problems in one sector often can and do affect service throughout the carrier’s area of service. Bad weather in the East may produce delays and cancellations elsewhere.
I used to fly often for business and pleasure both in the front and back of airplanes. Lacking much recent experience, I decided to query a friend who flies frequently. His greatest dissatisfaction with the present system is the hassle of security by TSA. He described the frequent practice of airlines to overbook leading to packed flights, at least in coach. He believes that the present poor service he has experienced is due to airlines striving for efficiency, and of course, greater profit. I have a somewhat different view of the current state of air travel.
I have always viewed air travel as a necessary chore; I prefer to drive where possible. My friend has been occasionally upgraded to business class, and his description of the experience is more in line with my memory of air travel than is today’s flying experience for the vast majority of air travelers. Why does today’s flying public put up with the inconveniences of air travel today? Partly I think that many travelers don’t know how much the flying experience has deteriorated and partly because many cannot afford to pay for a better experience. The same stagnation in middle-class incomes that leads to shopping at discount stores also produces a public that flies in the rear of airplanes and lacks other forms of travel.
And this situation will continue as long as the 1% and their supporters in Congress do not fly on the same planes that you and I do. The tax laws are written so that many of the 1% fly for free or nearly free in corporate jets. They do not experience the hassle of TSA inspections. One member of the 1% was quoted as saying, ” Only losers fly commercial.” It is not possible to gauge how prevalent that attitude is, but do you remember the fast reaction to the air traffic controller inspired delays produced by the sequester cuts? Congress immediately legislated relief. Not because of the inconvenience to the flying public, but because of possible inconvenience to the 1% flying in private aircraft.
Today’s flying experience is made worse by the fact that airlines are making seats smaller to increase profits while at the same time some airlines are eliminating galleys and some toilets. Over recent decades, Americans have grown taller, wider and heavier while leg room and the ability of seats to recline have shrunk. When I was flying often, airlines flew with some empty seats which made flying a better experience. Now some airlines charge extra for every amenity including aisle or window seats.
What will it take to produce relief for those of us in the 99% who want a better experience while traveling by air? We won’t see any improvement while the politically connected have their own, separate system of air travel. One way would be to increase income levels so that more people can afford to fly in the middle or front of airplanes. Another way would be to break up the large airlines into smaller ones to promote more competition. Another would be a concerted effort to develop a nation-wide system of high-speed rail to give travelers an alternative to air travel.
To get the support of the 1% for the effort, I would suggest customer satisfaction surveys every 90 or 180 days. If customer satisfaction falls below a certain level, say 90% on time and other important measures, then corporate jets would be banned from US airspace until the metric is met. That certainly would get the attention of the 1% and ensure their support for ensuring higher air passenger satisfaction.