Have you had the pleasure of flying lately?
There is something of an oxymoronic quality to the juxtaposition of the words “pleasure” and “flying.”
Having just flown coast-to-coast, one cannot deny the aggressive efficiency of the airline industry as it operates today.
You do arrive at your chosen location safely, which is not unimportant, and usually on time with your person and possessions more or less intact. But there's little more than that to recommend the experience.
If that’s a complaint, and there is an undeniably whiny tone there, it can seem almost churlish. There is much truth in the rant of social commentator and comedian Louis C.K. when he describes criticisms about flying this way:
“’I had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes.' … 'I had to pay for my sandwich…’
“Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight and then land softly on giant tires that you couldn't even conceive how they [expletive deleted] put air in them? … You’re flying! You're sitting in a chair in the sky! You’re like a Greek myth right now!”
Furthermore, we are somewhat our own worst enemies in this regard.
Collectively, we have taught the airlines that price is the number one factor we care about. Multiple carriers can offer a flight — one of them with demonstrably awful in-flight service, impossibly tight seating, surly employees — and if the latter is $10 cheaper, that plane inevitably will be filled first.
So if there’s blame to be apportioned, the mirror might be the first place to look. It’s more than a little unfair to keep saying it’s all the fault of the airlines.
Having said that, are there elements, other than the fact we all like our comforts and dislike paying for them, that make some complaints about air transportation as it currently operates legitimate?
For one thing, the ability of marketplace forces alone to effectively regulate the industry is being called into question by the behavior of the airlines themselves.
They have compressed that market by eliminating competitors through corporate mergers and selectively reducing the number of flights and available seats at a time when there are more customers than ever.
Fares are up even though their costs, especially fuel prices, have been significantly reduced, their unions have been largely quiescent and their executives are at least as overpaid as the CEOs of every other oversized corporate entity in the country.
At Albany International Airport, one carrier now has nearly half the traffic, which does nothing to encourage lower fares or more convenient routes and schedules.
Moreover, we hear about industry plans to further nickel-and-dime travellers — usually in the form of 20s and 50s — almost to the extent of squeezing blood from a turnip.
New seat classifications that seem to price space by the millimeter, even smaller bathrooms, new carry-on baggage fees and bench seating are some of the reported ideas.
The industry has the temerity to argue that all this serves their customers better by increasing choice. Perhaps, but will it result in a lower total fare? That’s unlikely.
Can anyone decipher just how tickets are priced? Why does necessary or emergency last-minute travel have to be priced so high? Why is the guy sitting next to you paying so much less for his seat than you are? Is that fair or just pressing an unfair advantage?
Air travel may not be a necessity on the order of food or shelter, but there is no effective alternative way to get between points A and B when the latter are considerable distances apart.
The airlines know this and seem to be exploiting it and other advantages to the max.
Then there’s the security situation that has been much in the news lately. For a range of reasons including some attributable to the airlines, TSA wait times have increased, requiring travellers to arrive at airports hours before their flights are scheduled to leave.
This seems to be less of a problem at smaller airports like Albany International, but the major hubs are groaning under the strain.
One suspects that if airline upper management had to fly economy and go through standard security, these matters would be fixed very quickly.
Of course, we all want to fly on profitable airlines that can invest in new equipment and keep us safe. That doesn’t mean there aren’t abuses in the current structure of air travel that need to be addressed.
Maybe it’s time to selectively re-regulate it if the industry by itself can’t or won’t.
John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette.