How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Airlines

For some reason I was recently thinking about the long-defunct People Express and how they used to publish advertisements with all of their sale fares listed in it.  In 1985 the airline made waves by charging only $99 to fly from Newark to Los Angeles, Newark to London and Newark to Brussels.  I remember trying to convince my father to go to Brussels with me for the weekend because the fare was so crazy (we didn’t go, and he’s mocked me repeatedly for every weekend trip I’ve taken to Europe since).

I mention this because it’s 2007 and sale fares from New York to Los Angeles are about $99 each way, and winter fares to London are often available in the $99 each way range.  Think about that.  In the mid-1980s oil was under $20 a barrel (under $15 a barrel for some of it).  It’s 5-6 times more expensive now, and Boeing hasn’t exactly lowered airplane prices over the past 20 years. 

We hear a ton of complaints about airlines ranging from the petty (the episode with the Spirit Airlines passengers complaining about their $37 round trip flight) to the legitimate (7 hour runway strandings).  Fine.  In the holiday season I thought I’d help us remember that in many ways the state of air travel is better than it has been since Kitty Hawk.

We can travel basically anywhere in the world on a whim.  Average roundtrip airfares between New York and London were about $6500 (in today’s dollars) back in the 1950s.  I could fly there for $500 in 2 weeks.  Despite rising fixed costs, airfares continue (for the most part) to be incredibly affordable in ways that most other countries can only dream about.  It’s changed the way we keep in touch with friends, go on vacation, and do business.  We’re all better off because we can fly off to Michigan to visit friends for $150, when driving the same route would cost about $180 in gas.

Frequent flyer programs and the growing airline alliances have allowed us to visit roughly anywhere in the world for free — and it is truly free for many of us, as we accumulate those miles on our companies’ dime.  20 years ago Albania was closed off to the rest of the world.  This summer, I called Continental, used 50,000 miles (thanks to work trips to Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta, mostly), and 10 days later was on a plane to Tirana on a Skyteam partner.   If we can stop complaining for a moment, think about how insane that is.  The world has become accessible in a way it never has before.

Frequent flyer programs, for all of the issues with redeeming points, are still an amazing perk.  If you’re a mid-tier elite and you fly from the east coast to Hong Kong, you’ve just about earned enough miles from that one flight for a free ticket to Aruba.  Our parents saved up for years to go to the Caribbean maybe once in their life.  We get a free ticket every time we take a trip.  Crazy.

Planes have gotten more comfortable, too.  Everyone used to complain about the food, then, oddly, everyone complained when they took away the food.  Seats used to be uncomfortable and cabins were smokey (hard to believe now, right?).  JetBlue offers leather seats, with seatback live television and as much legroom as you typically find in domestic first class.  For a $59 flight from Newark to West Palm Beach.

If you’re flying during the holiday season you may find yourself standing in a long security line (not the airline’s fault), having to figure out how much water you’re allowed to bring with you (not the airline’s fault), and circling for a bit before you land (also not the airline’s fault).  Your trip may not got as smoothly as possible.  I’ll accept that.  But get over it, and realize that those are the costs of making the world as accessible as it is to more people than ever before.  And if you’ve benefited at all from these changes, you’ll know that the price we pay is worth it.

Have a great Christmas and New Year’s, and the OTR will be back on January 2nd or so.

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  1. This is a lesson in human psychology, of course. I have always been amazed by how much grief the airline industry gets. Because, if you think about it — as you have — you realize what a fantastic deal airline customers get. The prices are generally astonishingly low for what you get, and you get to fly in a metal tube at 35,000 feet in absolute safety (something also totally taken for granted).

    But human psychology prevents people from appreciating this. We all know the human mind is a strange thing. For instance, study after study finds that it’s not absolute wealth that makes most people happy, but how much money they have compared to their peers. In other words, everyone could be starving, but if you have an extra slice of bread than your neighbors, you may be happier than if everyone had all the bread you could eat!

    It seems obvious that perceptions of airline travel work the same way. Despite the fact that it has gotten much cheaper (and safer), your mind focuses on the little things that have gotten worse. It’s less “exclusive” (everyone now gets to fly). The flight attendants tend to be grizzled veterans instead of friendly young things. There’s less free food. Security lines are longer. Etc.

    Not sure what this all means, but there it is!

  2. all very true, but:

    The issue with airline travel is that everyone else is making money: airports, airplane manufactures, other parts of the tourist industry (hotels, cars, etc), maybe even the reservation systems. But why not airlines?

    At least in the US, a large reason was always labor costs and unions, but I don’t know if that is the case anymore.

    the most interesting thing I’ve seen in the past year is that something like 75% of JetBlue employees have never worked for an airline before. It must be a really toxic place to work.

    I managed to double-volunteer for overbooked flights on Continental yesterday — I fly them enough I don’t feel bad about pocketing $400 in travel vouchers. But what stuck me again is how much any airline employee just can’t be honest with you. I think that is what drives people up the wall and is part of the complaint process.

  3. Cheers! You make some great points. Love your posts and look forward to many more in 2008. Happy New Year!

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