If You Think Air Travel Sucks Now

At one point a long time ago, traveling by plane was an expensive choice that most ordinary people didn’t have the means to try. Then the infrastructure matured, fuel was relatively cheap and for a while the industry became a commodity with an availability level somewhere around cable TV.

I’ve been wondering for a while when prices will start to reflect the skyrocketing cost of highly refined aviation fuel. Thus it wasn’t much of a surprise to hear this morning that the per-bag price increases are all part of a much larger plan. The airlines know that most of us will be priced out of plane travel soon enough. When plane tickets reflect the real cost of flying today a ton of customers will cancel their trips, which will leave the airline pushing around huge number of empty seats. They don’t want that, so instead they’ll nickel-and-dime us with an increasing number of small irritants like per-bag charges and overweight passenger fees until demand lets them reduce the number of airplanes flying around.

It’s not a bad plan as plans go, it’s hardly evil, just smart long-term business planning. The price of gas has a new floor that is nowhere near where it was when American could profitably fly you from New York to LA for $500. So keep in mind that the next time you grouse about paying an extra $75 for wearing open-toed sandals (or whatever Dogbert’s airline consulting firm thinks up next), if you still get on the plane, then in their opinion you’re not frustrated enough.

It’ll be a great couple of years to be a flight attendant.






35 replies
  1. 1
    rachel says:

    Running the TSA gauntlet just adds that final edge to the misery that air travel has become. :(

  2. 2
    Incertus says:

    I decided about 5 years ago that flying would be my last resort for travel, just because I didn’t like the hassle, and I’ve mostly managed to avoid getting on a plane–probably three times in that period. The real problem is that gas is also expensive now that driving is less of an option, and while I love Amtrak, getting to some parts of the country is near impossible, mostly because Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks.

  3. 3
    El Cid says:

    Why don’t they just split the charges up into a flight price and a fuel charge fee?

  4. 4
    Lee says:

    I’m driving the family (wife , 2 kids) to Florida, about a 18 hour drive, for this very reason.

  5. 5
    NonyNony says:

    It’s not a bad plan as plans go, it’s hardly evil, just smart long-term business planning.

    When “smart long-term business planning” suggests that you need to drive away customers in order to keep your business running, something is seriously wrong. It really suggests that the “free market” model may not be the one that best describes your business. I suspect we’ll be seeing more begging for bailouts and possibly re-regulation in the coming years.

    OTOH – the companies that are failing most heavily are the ones that were agitating the strongest for deregulation not so long ago. While the “budget carriers” like Southwest seem to be doing much better. That suggests to me that the failure may actually be in the corporate culture and legacy business deals of the older airlines and not so much in the market itself. I guess we’ll see.

  6. 6
    Phoebe says:

    Will Amtrak get cheaper if demand goes up and they can add more trains or something? I love Amtrak. No metal detectors – nothing. It’s like buying a ticket for a movie. And the view is fantastic. Much much better than any highway. And I can go to the club car and see bible camp teens playing dice and singing atrocious 70s songs I didn’t think any teenagers knew. It’s just lovely.

  7. 7
    jcricket says:

    While the “budget carriers” like Southwest seem to be doing much better

    They are, for now, but as their fleets age watch the same high fixed costs roiling the big airlines now to start hitting Southwest. I wonder if air travel isn’t just fundamentally broken.

    I think Tim’s right and that air travel will end up a more expensive, less available form of travel (rather than a cheap way to get anywhere in the US). Unfortunately, without a high-speed regional or national train system, this simply means more people will have to drive or simply forgo trips.

    Big change from the direction the last 20-30 years (more mobility for the average joe) and I don’t think it bodes well for a lot of sectors of the economy. Think about all those place that lost “old economy” jobs and replaced them (sort of) with “hospitality” industries. They’re gonna get screwed if this comes to pass.

  8. 8
    SamFromUtah says:

    I haven’t done any traveling on Amtrak since the 1970s, but I loved it back then. I hope this air travel catastrophe finally gets us to support rail like we should have for decades now.

  9. 9
    Halteclere says:

    I’d ride Amtrak from Dallas to visit my parents in rural Missouri (the Amtrak line to Chicago passes within 75 miles of my parent’s town) if I didn’t have to disembark or embark in Missouri after midnight. That’s too late for my parents to drop off / pick up my wife and I. Even if the travel time by rail is 11 hour compared to 8 hours driving, it would be so less stressful.

  10. 10
    Cris says:

    This is the economic arc that passenger space travel is going to take, isn’t it?

  11. 11
    Brachiator says:

    They don’t want that, so instead they’ll nickel-and-dime us with an increasing number of small irritants like per-bag charges and overweight passenger fees until demand lets them reduce the number of airplanes flying around.

    It’s not a bad plan as plans go, it’s hardly evil, just smart long-term business planning.

    I don’t see the smart planning here. Even flying fewer empty planes is an expensive proposition. Some costs are fixed whether the plane is full or empty (pilot salaries, maintenance costs, etc.).

    And of course the other alternative is to cut out service to some airports or cities altogether. This gets really interesting, since in the old days (1940s and 1950s) you had more interstate bus service to smaller cities. But when air travel became cheaper, bus companies went out of business. Since the bus companies are not coming back, when air carriers stop serving them, the cities find themselves exiled. But this also has an impact on jobs and economic acitivity.

    The price of gas has a new floor that is nowhere near where it was when American could profitably fly you from New York to LA for $500.

    I think you mean jet fuel here, not gas.

    Phoebe Says:

    Will Amtrak get cheaper if demand goes up and they can add more trains or something? I love Amtrak. No metal detectors – nothing. It’s like buying a ticket for a movie. And the view is fantastic. Much much better than any highway. And I can go to the club car and see bible camp teens playing dice and singing atrocious 70s songs I didn’t think any teenagers knew. It’s just lovely.

    The problem here is that except for a few corridors, Amtrak does not make money and must be subsidized by taxpayers. So this is a somewhat expensive nostalgia fix.

  12. 12
    Turbulence says:

    Speaking as someone who works in the airline industry, this post is staggeringly ignorant.

    Look, the airlines aren’t really profitable. It is quite possible that they’ve never been profitable if you ignore government handouts and bailouts. Any business is going to try and raise more cash. In the past, their incredibly baroque mainframe computers limited their ability to effectively charge separately for separate things, so they effectively sold a single bundle of services regardless of what passengers used or needed. Newer software is giving them newer capabilities and you ain’t seen nothing yet. So far, they’ve only been tinkering at the edges, but my company is writing a new reservation system from scratch for one major airline. With technology more recent than that from the 1960s, they will have the flexibility to try all sorts of innovations. Many will be painful. Some will be awesome.

    Why don’t they just split the charges up into a flight price and a fuel charge fee?

    They do to some extent. If you purchase from an agent that gives you detailed fare pricing, you can see the breakdown on taxes and fees; right now, there’s often a hefty fuel surcharge fee.

  13. 13
    toujoursdan says:

    The Toronto Star had a similar article last weekend.

    THE GLOBAL VILLAGE RECONSIDERED
    The end of travel

    High oil prices are crippling airlines and travellers alike and we may only be at the start of a new, global class divide between the stranded and the mobile

    …The North American airline industry is under siege, with exorbitant fuel costs, a slowing economy and competition from Asia and the Middle East leading to employee layoffs and flight reductions.

    Within a year or two, insists writer James Howard Kunstler and others, it will all be over. They predict the demise of the commercial airline industry as it currently exists.

    And then, like in the medieval age, society will split into two groups: the mobile, and the stranded.

    If fuel prices stay high and if governments don’t step in to help, fares will jump, and people in the bottom third of average household income will rarely be able to afford to fly, if at all, says Henry Harteveldt, vice-president and principal analyst of U.S.-based Forrester Research.

    Harteveldt says airlines in North America are only profitable in their current form if oil costs $100 U.S. or less a barrel. Right now, it’s at $124. Harteveldt says the next generation of fuel-efficient airplanes, which companies like General Electric are working on, will not be ready for five or six years. That won’t be fast enough.

    He says the industry’s troubles will come home to roost within a year…

    Toronto Star: The Global Village Reconsidered

  14. 14
    The Thinking Man's Mel Torme says:

    I think Tim’s right and that air travel will end up a more expensive, less available form of travel (rather than a cheap way to get anywhere in the US). Unfortunately, without a high-speed regional or national train system, this simply means more people will have to drive or simply forgo trips.

    I guess this makes me a snobby, elitist, crypto-fascist, but…how is this bad? Airlines have always been capital-, labor-, and energy-intensive enough, and historically low margin enough, that the idea of them being mass transportation was ridiculous. The airlines lost their buttox individually and collectively on the price sensitive tourist routes (e.g. New York to Florida), and tried to make it up with baroque yield-management fares and by shivving business travelers. The airport and air traffic control infrastructure is 30 years out of date, but no one wants to pay to bring it to the level it needs, so we pay indirectly in lost time.

    Rationalizing fares to reflect current energy costs and route demand is going to mean airlines are going to contract considerably, and in a hurry. Many more airline employees are going to lose their jobs, but at this rate they will anyway.

  15. 15
    rachel says:

    I’d like to travel across the USA on Amtrak someday. If I can get a ticket on a sleeper car, of course.

  16. 16
    g-rant says:

    Will Amtrak get cheaper if demand goes up and they can add more trains or something?

    Not anytime soon. Amtrak is under the gun to make profits, so prices will only rise as demand does. Adding trains is impossible due to lack of equipment. They’d love longer trains because that would mean more $$ per train, but the equipment just isn’t available. (And won’t be for the foreseeable future>)

  17. 17
    Cris says:

    The problem here is that except for a few corridors, Amtrak does not make money and must be subsidized by taxpayers.

    Highways are subsidized by the taxpayers, too. Massively. Putting resources into improving and maintaining passenger rail isn’t a fiscal impossibility, it’s a matter of priorities and vision.

  18. 18
    Jamey says:

    The problem here is that except for a few corridors, Amtrak does not make money and must be subsidized by taxpayers. So this is a somewhat expensive nostalgia fix.

    So is highway travel subsidized. Heavily, and in more ways than one can count. Sad fact is, the price of NO mode of transit currently reflects the actual cost per mile. So why not invest some federal money into a mode of transit that, when deployed effectively, has fewer associated costs and, generally, fewer negative externalities. My guess is, that’d be rail.

  19. 19
    Jamey says:

    Wow, Cris, “jinx.” (You owe me a Coke…)

  20. 20
    dbrown says:

    How is charging for extra bags, or any bag wrong? Bags add weight (read as more fuel) and aircraft space (read lost cargo room that can be sold for mail, packages etc.) Why shouldn’t that section (cargo) of the plane be paid for? If I only need a small carry on and a family needs ten suitcases, why shouldn’t they pay for all that space and weight and I only pay for my seat? That is good policy and fair – true, compared to the past with free meals, drinks and nearly unlimited bags that was a golden time but as you said, that was when fuel was cheap.

  21. 21
    Thursday says:

    I was just in Panama (mother-in-law died suddenly), and managed to get three people there in three days for $1200 without having the time to plan for it. I can’t imagine what we’d have done if we could only afford to send one of us – my wife and her brother were in no shape to try the trip alone.

    Lousy end to the trip – our bags, which were in Houston for a grand total of three hours (we never saw them) had their locks broken while there as part of a “routine search”. Just how the fuck we were supposed to execute a terrorist attack or smuggle contraband into the U.S. or whatever they were thinking when we couldn’t even reach our bags is bewildering at best.

    This pretty much puts an end to trips South for us (by air, at least), so I guess that’s the airline’s way of helping the environment. Or something.

  22. 22
    Brachiator says:

    Jamey Says:

    The problem here is that except for a few corridors, Amtrak does not make money and must be subsidized by taxpayers. So this is a somewhat expensive nostalgia fix.

    So is highway travel subsidized. Heavily, and in more ways than one can count. Sad fact is, the price of NO mode of transit currently reflects the actual cost per mile. So why not invest some federal money into a mode of transit that, when deployed effectively, has fewer associated costs and, generally, fewer negative externalities. My guess is, that’d be rail.

    Your guess would be wrong. Here’s a little background on Amtrak:

    The most popular and heavily used services are those running on the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which … Boston, Massachusetts; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; and many communities between. The NEC services accounted for 10.0 million of Amtrak’s 25.7 million passengers in fiscal year 2007. Regional services in California, subsidized by the California Department of Transportation are the most popular services outside of the NEC and the only other services boasting over one million passengers per annum. The Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins services accounted for a combined 5.0 million passengers in fiscal year 2007….

    Outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is a niche player in passenger transportation. In 2003, Amtrak accounted for just 0.1% of U.S. intercity passenger miles.

    Re-establishing intercity passer service, including track maintenance and labor costs, would be massively expensive. And to what end? Already, one problem with rail service is that the grading for rail tracks is not the same as for passenger rail, so compromises (including those related to safety) have been made. And even some past service has still not been restored:

    Damage to railroad track caused by Hurricane Katrina interrupted service on the Sunset Limited. Originally the train departed from Orlando, Florida, but the track damage along the Gulf coast caused the train to originate at New Orleans, Louisiana. Although the track’s owner, CSX, completed repairs by early 2006, Amtrak service has not resumed over two years later, leaving the intermediate stations between Jacksonville, Florida and New Orleans without any Amtrak service….

    Amtrak hauled mail for the United States Postal Service and time-sensitive freight, but discontinued these services in October 2004. On most parts of the few lines that Amtrak owns, trackage-rights agreements allow freight railroads to use its trackage.

    Passenger travel by rail is slow and inefficient. I am just not seeing the benefits, except for those who have a jones for mass transit.

  23. 23
    louisms says:

    My SO and a couple of other friends (exec types) fly somewhere or other at least once a week on business. When I question them as to the reason for all these trips, none of them can adequately explain just what they accomplish on the majority of those in-person visits that couldn’t be done by teleconferencing.
    It seems there is just an expectation that “facetime” is due this or that branch office or client.

    Maybe the conservative resistance to change in how business is done will be overcome if flying becomes a lot more expensive. I certainly hope so, and not just for the energy savings. It’d be nice to be able to hook up with my GF during the week instead of making do with a skype videocall from St Louis.

  24. 24
    Gay Veteran says:

    Brachiator: “Passenger travel by rail is slow and inefficient. I am just not seeing the benefits, except for those who have a jones for mass transit.”

    wtf? Amtrack would be great for medium distances, like any 2 cities that are as far apart as DC and NYC

    btw, what does expensive air travel mean for tourism?

  25. 25
    Cris says:

    Jamey Says:
    Wow, Cris, “jinx.” (You owe me a Coke…)

    Pinch, poke. The resemblance between those posts was uncanny.

    dbrown Says:
    How is charging for extra bags, or any bag wrong?

    I’m not sure anybody is saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying it’s a pain in the ass, and such a significant turnaround from a previous customer service model where such services were included that it feels like a slap in the face.

    The policy is not wrong, but it’s also not wrong for customers to complain about it.

  26. 26
    Duros Hussein 62 says:

    Kind of makes me wonder why they would go ahead order those Airbus A380’s. Or not; perhaps they can save more fuel by packing passengers into one plane and just making fewer trips.

    Of course when one of those babies crashes and takes 500 people with it, that won’t be so attractive either.

  27. 27
    Turbulence says:

    I’m not sure anybody is saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying it’s a pain in the ass, and such a significant turnaround from a previous customer service model where such services were included that it feels like a slap in the face.

    Why? People who use lots of services when flying have been subsidized by people who don’t for decades because airline computers and business process were stupid. Now they’re smartening up which means people will pay for what they effectively use.

    My wife and I flew a few weeks ago and had to pay for one bag; $15 each way didn’t kill us and it only took 10 seconds at the kiosk. I was glad to only pay $30 for baggage rather than having our ticket prices go up by $50 so that other people could travel with 3, 4, or 5 bags.

  28. 28
    Incertus says:

    Passenger travel by rail is slow and inefficient. I am just not seeing the benefits, except for those who have a jones for mass transit.

    It doesn’t have to be–that’s the point. The problem with Amtrak has been that it’s been designed to fail for the last thirty years. They don’t have a long-term capital improvement plan because no one–no President or Congress–has been willing to push for it. They need their own tracks, and they need to be high speed tracks. They need new locomotives and cars, and the money put into them in order to keep them operational and to replace them regularly. But Congress nickels-and-dimes them to death, and doesn’t provide any long term stability, because until now, gas has been cheap. We don’t look ahead in this country–it’s always the immediate gratification for us, whether we’re talking about the next quarter’s profits or the next election.

  29. 29
    Halteclere says:

    Southwest is the best airline I’ve traveled on. What other airline would, if you were to miss your flight and had to reschedule a departure two days later (the reschedule occurred several hours after missing the flight), give you money back because the new flight was cheaper than the missed one? I can’t imagine what fees I’d have had to pay with American Airlines if I had tried to reschedule a flight post departure.

    Speaking of Southwest, thanks to some wonderful forward thinking it has

    locked in more than 70% of the fuel it expected to consume this year at about $51 a barrel, far below Thursday’s closing crude price of $126.62 a barrel.

    Link

    Long term viability is an issue as this fuel hedging doesn’t last forever, and, as someone upthread said, their new planes become old. But compared to other airlines (I’m looking at you AA), it is still a pleasure to fly.

  30. 30
    Halteclere says:

    Note: Obviously what you wear may affect your flying experience

  31. 31
    Cris says:

    Turbulence Says:

    …it feels like a slap in the face.

    Why?

    Because baggage service was previously presented as part of the package, and now it’s presented as an add-on. It’s not a matter of cost, it’s a matter of customer perception.

    I was glad to only pay $30 for baggage rather than having our ticket prices go up by $50 so that other people could travel with 3, 4, or 5 bags.

    And I would be glad to pay the entire price of my trip up front, and not have to pull out my wallet at the kiosk.

    For what it’s worth, people flying with 3, 4, or 5 bags have been paying extra for years. The travelers doing the subsidizing were those flying with no bags at all.

  32. 32
    r€nato says:

    us dirty fucking hippies need to get working on a plan to turn patchouli oil into a new energy source.

    but seriously, I would love to see airlines price tickets by your weight. I mean, if the 300 pound guy sitting next to me who’s spilling over into my seat can pay the same price as me, well I guess next time I fly I will just layer all of my clothes on my body and claim that I am extremely susceptible to drafts. I guess that’s one way to get around the baggage fee.

    But seriously, I have been too many times the victim of having my seat real estate pilfered by really fat people. Why should I pay the same as someone whose body weight is 50% more than mine and therefore uses 50% more fuel?

  33. 33
    Turbulence says:

    And I would be glad to pay the entire price of my trip up front, and not have to pull out my wallet at the kiosk.

    Um, I didn’t have to pull out my card at the kiosk. It offered to bill the charge to the card I used to make the purchase originally.

    For what it’s worth, people flying with 3, 4, or 5 bags have been paying extra for years. The travelers doing the subsidizing were those flying with no bags at all.

    Given that I was talking about a group of two people flying together, I’m pretty sure most people weren’t paying extra for 4 bags for two adults in the recent past. So, wrong.

  34. 34
    ColoRambler says:

    Passenger travel by rail is slow and inefficient. I am just not seeing the benefits, except for those who have a jones for mass transit.

    Well, yeah, in the US it is, but that’s because we’re doing it wrong.

    This is how you do it. You build trains that approach the speed of jet planes. Yes, I know, this is a test run with a shortened train on a test track, but even the regular service speed is 200 mph or so, which is still a pretty fast form of “slow”.

    TGV trains have replaced a lot of the air travel between the cities they serve. If there were rail service like this between northern Colorado and my employer’s main office in Salt Lake (500 miles), it probably would as well. It would be indescribably more comfortable, and it might even be faster door-to-door than flying, given all the overhead of air travel. For crying out loud, I have driven that trip, door-to-door, and it’s only taken about 50-75% longer than flying, even while staying within posted speed limits.

  35. 35
    Badtux says:

    The primary problem with passenger rail here in the United States is a) a lack of track (all current long-haul tracks are owned by freight lines and are fully utilized by freight lines, with passenger trains having to beg for occasional slots and taking twice as long to get anywhere because they have to sit on sidings to let freight trains take precedence), and b) a lack of equipment in those places where there is track. For example, right now Cal-Train in the SF Bay area is fully utilizing every single trainset in their inventory on a typical day. They have two (2) spare cars in case a car develops a problem. They have no (zero) spare locomotives. And all trains during peak hours are 100% full with people hanging off the straps. They note that they could improve service considerably if they had enough cars to add just one to each trainset and just one more locomotive (and additional cars) so they could schedule two more trains a day. They don’t, they can’t get the money, because heavy rail doesn’t put money into the pockets of big political donors (the local boondoggle is BART, which costs 5 times as much per mile to operate as CalTrain and 10 times as much per mile to build out, but puts money into the pockets of politically-connected contractors so …).

    Anyhow — the current rail infrastructure is inadequate to support passenger rail, and I see no chance of it being beefed up to acceptable levels anytime soon. Especially with the nation bankrupt from the expenses of the Iraq and Afghan wars…

    I am going to ride my V-Strom 650 to Louisiana this fall. I did the calculations, and discovered that at 50+mpg, it was cheaper to drive than to fly. Funny how that works, eh?

    – Badtux the Transportation Penguin

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