A Sky-High Race to the Bottom

In an age when airlines seem to have nothing but our worst interests at heart, can we learn to love flying again?

This article appeared in the June 2017 premiere issue of Hyperlink. Purchase a copy.

Hyperlink is published by Winning Edits.

By Ray Sylvester

The airline industry has long received a bad rap when it comes to consumer experience. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an economic indicator that measures the satisfaction of US consumers, in 2016 the airline industry ranked better than only municipal utilities and the wireless telephone, wired telephone, and subscription TV industries.

This may not come as a surprise, because when airlines get it wrong, they really get it wrong. There was the time now-defunct Northwest Airlines stranded the passengers of flight 1829 on the tarmac for eight hours straight, just a short walk from the terminal in Detroit, with no food, water, working toilets, or helpful information. Or more recently, in April 2017, when United Airlines ignited a firestorm after having a passenger forcibly removed from an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, to make room for airline personnel.

These headline-driving instances aside, you don’t have to look far for more mundane evidence of the travail that is the flying experience. But is it still possible to learn to appreciate what we’ve got in a world of ancillary fees, zero-perks economy fares, tiny planes crammed to the gills, and an Orwellian circus of preflight security?

Flying is cheap — but is it too cheap?

Before 1978, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) tightly regulated airfares, as well as airlines’ routes and even their investment and operational decisions. As a result, carriers could effectively only compete on their food offerings, cabin crew quality, and flight frequency. For consumers, this meant high fares, cushy service, and relatively empty planes: a great experience, if you could afford it.

This was the supposed “golden age” of flying, when air travel was luxurious — and unattainable for most people. But on October 24, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA), which dissolved the CAB and preempted states from enacting or enforcing laws or regulations related to the price, route, or service of an air carrier.

What’s happened since then has been a remarkable democratization in the accessibility of air travel — but how many of us can truly appreciate that fact, given how far removed we are from the gilded era of regulation? Right now, says Patrick Smith, pilot and owner of blog AskThePilot.com, air travel is “really more affordable than it’s ever been. And I think that’s lost on a lot of people . . . It’s not considered an elite activity the way it was in decades past.”

Indeed, airfares have undergone minor upward and downward shifts since 1978, but the overall post-deregulation trend has been to send prices earthbound — by a whopping 50 percent. This downward price trajectory has allowed many more people to benefit from the ability to travel across the country and around the world. The sub-$100 cross-Atlantic fare is a prime example: In early 2017, two European carriers, Norwegian and Iceland-based WOW air, both announced $69 one-way fares between the United States and Europe. That’s almost unheard of, even in the deregulation era.

So flying is cheap and available to the masses. But has that affordability and accessibility come at a cost? One might reach that conclusion when looking at the growth of the “budget” airlines and the elements of their business model — namely restricted fares and ancillary fees — that have infiltrated the airline industry in recent years.

The low-budget approach started with Southwest in the 1960s, whose business model capitalized on efficiencies the major US airlines missed. Southwest’s model was famously copied and expanded by Ireland-based Ryanair, which built a mini-empire around unabashed cost-cutting. Now, the low-cost spirit is alive and well in the form of a wider cadre of carriers, represented in the US market by Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant, and Monarch.

The backbone of these carriers’ product is a low-cost, no-frills air travel experience. Want a cheap fare? Sure. Just hope that you don’t need to carry more than one (very size-limited) personal item onboard, and don’t forget to print out your boarding pass at home.

And the budget carriers’ template has begun to seep into the realm of the major airlines — the “Big 3”: Delta, American, and United. In 2013, Delta launched a “basic economy” fare class, one that doesn’t allow ticket changes, upgrades, or even seat selection before check-in. United and American released their own version of a basic fare class in February 2017 with similar limitations — although their variations also exclude the use of overhead bin space. Oof.

But some industry observers speculate that the Big 3 can’t hope to compete with the low-cost carriers on price. Instead, they believe these airlines’ strategy is to use basic fares to incentivize travelers to “buy up” — to forgo the barrel-bottom experience and select the next cheapest fare instead. In this sense, basic fares provide a nice option for flyers who are especially cost-conscious — but for those who want just a little more, the next price tier up is also rarely unattainable.

Flying is still pretty inexpensive, remember, especially when you focus on how fares have, well, fared since the death of disco.

To be fair, the explosion of basic fares and ancillary fees for checked bags, seat assignments, and itinerary changes or cancellations has caused a good amount of consumer consternation. In April 2016, a coalition of consumer interest groups wrote to Senators Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid to drum up support for the Forbid Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous Fees (FAIR Fees) Act of 2016, which attempts to “prohibit air carriers from imposing fees that are not reasonable and proportional to the costs incurred.”

And to be sure, some fees are arguably more difficult to swallow than others, like the $200 fee for domestic flight changes that’s surreptitiously become the industry standard. But notwithstanding this outlandish growth in change fees, much of our widespread distaste for ancillary charges may have more to do with perception than reality.

First off, the 50 percent drop in airfares since deregulation in 1978? That figure accounts for the recent uptick in ancillary fees. So, we’re still getting a pretty good deal in historical terms. Plus, as Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic in February 2013, “Flyers hate fees. But we might learn to love them if we thought of them as savings.” From a pure cost perspective, low fares and expanded ancillary fees are a potential boon to the frugal traveler. “Unbundling” services the way many airlines have started to arguably does let flyers save on costs by picking and choosing exactly what they want to pay for.

But this perspective also relies on the notion of a rational consumer who cares about cost above all, more than convenience or clarity. In reality, consumers aren’t automatons, and have a wider set of priorities. As Ben Cotton of the blog FunnelFiasco.com put it in a December 2016 post, “Itemizing everything enables the customer to pay for exactly what they want. It also gives the impression they’re being nickeled and dimed.” In that sense, maybe the real trouble with ancillary fees is one of perception and transparency. Even if consumers come out ahead on the balance sheet, there’s still the annoyance factor of “being charged for every little thing” — especially if you weren’t anticipating those charges in the first place.

One development that could smooth things over would be the ability to actually see what your “real” fare — including potential fees based on seating and baggage — would be when you’re searching for flights. For instance, if you wanted to check two bags and sit by the window, you’d be able to see exactly what that would cost on any airline in the search engine. Unfortunately, the Trump administration recently halted a proposed rule to make airlines list ancillary fees alongside flight prices. For now, if you wanted to find out in advance the true cost of that flight, the answer will continue to be a lot more than just a couple clicks away.

The whole experience

It’s not an illusion: things have been getting tighter, at least in economy class. According to an analysis by Bill McGee for USA Today, in the 1990s, 31–32 inches was the minimum seat pitch in economy class on US carriers, and the narrowest economy seats measured 19 inches. Now, seat pitch runs as little as 28 inches (thanks, Spirit), and the maximum economy seat width on any carrier is 18.5 inches.

In response, airlines have rolled out newer seat designs with lighter construction and thinner seat backs that allow them to make up for some of the loss of seat pitch and width. But these smaller seats are also enabling carriers to pack more seats onto each plane — and that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. Airlines have also become even more focused on maximizing the number of occupied seats per flight through tactics like overbooking.

As a result, planes are getting fuller. Airline industry load factors — a measure of capacity utilization, or how many available seats are actually occupied, jumped from 67 percent in 1995 to 84 percent in 2013. In addition, more flights on the Big 3 — as many as half, according to Smith — are farmed out under a practice called codesharing to regional carriers with smaller planes and tight accommodations.

The combination of cheap fares, smaller aircraft, and airlines determined to fill every seat and squeeze every inch of usable space on their planes means that, yes, we’re all kind of packed in these days. But does a tight fit mean we’re going to have a bad experience? Probably — but not necessarily.

To uncover why, let’s look at some research by Boeing that examined the specific factors that affect a person’s perceived sense of comfort on a plane flight.

Boeing’s research identified the two most important elements to an enjoyable flight — the first of which is if there’s someone in the seat next to you. (We’ll get to the other one in a minute.) So, with the distance between seats shrinking and planes fuller than ever, it’s not surprising that an inability to stretch legs can set off fliers’ frustrations. Hence the emergence of things like the Knee Defender, a device that locks the back of the seat in front of a passenger, preventing it from reclining. (Fortunately, or not, several budget carriers, including Spirit, Allegiant, and Monarch, have now made it impossible to recline their seats at all.)

But Boeing’s research also found that other elements of the flying experience — including headroom, and even the perceived size of the cabin itself, have an effect on flyers’ comfort. “A lot of the perception of comfort is visual,” Boeing spokesman Sean Griffin explained in an interview with Ed Hewitt of Independent Traveler, an online travel guide. By adjusting the contours of the overhead bins to provide more headroom and changing the cabin lighting, Boeing actually managed to convince focus groups that they were sitting in a larger cabin.

So, as with ancillary fees, perception matters.

And in that vein, the other most important element to an enjoyable flight identified by Boeing? Whether your flight arrived on time. This finding suggests that comfort is a complicated equation, one that’s affected by many other elements of our air travel experience, some of which we may not even be aware of. Basically, we’re sometimes willing to put up with less comfort — a little less leg room, or a snack cart that’s run out of biscotti by the time it reaches our row — if we feel we’re being treated right in other areas.

On this mark — the average customer’s perception that their needs are being met — airlines have traditionally fared poorly, as we saw at the beginning of this article. But there are also factors outside the airlines’ control — namely, the preflight experience — that can spill over into passengers’ perception of their inflight experience. Noisy, dirty, crowded airports, and laborious, intrusive security add up to an experience that often “leaves people frazzled before they even get on the airplane,” says Smith.

The annoyance of security, in particular, leaves passengers primed for disappointment, Smith believes. “A lot of what people complain about are things like airport security, which is part of the greater experience of travel, but it’s not something that the airlines themselves control. And I think if you somehow could remove the whole security hassle from the experience, how different it would feel overall. I think that’s such a huge factor in polluting people’s experience.”

“If you ask me, I think the golden age of air travel, in a lot of ways, is right now.” —Patrick Smith, askthepilot.com

A new golden age

Airlines may be nickel-and-diming us, packing their planes and shrinking their seats — but all is not lost. There are still plenty of reasons to appreciate the air travel experience.

First, aircraft technology is constantly improving. Planes — damn near all of them — have WiFi now. More recent aircraft designs, such as the Boeing 787, incorporate technology that allows for a higher level of humidity in the cabin, as well as better air pressurization, making breathing easier.

And speaking of breathing easier, smoke-free flights have been the normfor over twenty years. If you flew on a plane anytime before the late eighties, you probably remember choking your way through the flight, blinking furiously for sweet relief as your eyes seared in a gray haze — and that’s if you were seated in the “nonsmoking” section. So chalk that one up to a clear improvement.

Plus, on the brighter side in terms of customer service, the industry’s 2016 ACSI score of 72 is its highest since the inception of the index in 1995. Market research firm J.D. Power also found that markers of consumer satisfaction with airlines hit a ten-year high in 2016.

Air travel is also incredibly safe, and getting safer. There hasn’t been a large-scale crash involving a US carrier in more than fifteen years. “That’s just remarkable,” says Smith, “and nobody ever talks about it.”

And in a throwback move that we hope will stay, Delta is even bringing back free meals in coach on some of its routes.

Says Smith, “If you ask me, I think the golden age of air travel, in a lot of ways, is right now.”

Plus, there’s the simple wonder of flying through the sky, a source of awe so easily overlooked in this age of attainable air travel. Comedian Louis C.K. put it this way:

Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy. Like, in my lifetime, the changes in the world have been incredible. Flying is the worst, because people come back from flights and they tell you… a horror story… They’re like, “It was the worst day of my life. First of all, we didn’t board for twenty minutes, and then we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway…” Oh, really? What happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?! You’re flying! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, ‘Oh, my God! Wow!’ You’re flying! You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!

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