Airline Travel Worse than Ever

Airline Travel Worse than Ever Americans are increasingly frustrated with airline travel.

Low-cost carriers — AirTran, Jet Blue and Southwest — took the top three spots in a national survey of airline quality, while the industry overall fared poorly amid rising fuel prices and increasingly fed-up consumers. At the bottom of the list released Monday were Comair, American Eagle and in last place: Atlantic Southeast Airlines.

The past year “was the worst year ever for the U.S. airlines,” said Brent Bowen, a study co-author and professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Aviation Institute. “Overall operational performance and quality declined once again to the lowest level that it’s ever been.”

The annual Airline Quality Rating survey found that more bags were lost, more passengers were bumped, more consumers complained and fewer flights arrived on-time than in the previous year. The overall “quality score” the researchers gave the industry (-2.16) was the lowest in the nearly two decades they’ve been studying the airlines.

Despite these results, though, people continue to fly. Indeed, it’s rare to get on a plane these days that’s not packed to capacity.

Between the hassles of security, cramped flights, lousy service, and the incredibly high chance of lost bags and flight delays, I simply hate flying these days. This is a fairly recent development. I took my first plane trip, a transatlantic flight to Germany, as an infant and have taken probably a hundred flights since. Even a decade ago, flying was a no-brainer if the stay was short and the drive was long; now, I refuse to fly if I can drive in under eight hours.

I take enough trips overseas and cross country that I still fly several times a year, though. And, clearly, most of the big airlines have figured that they can’t compete on the basis of service and so stopped trying. Most people, myself included in all honesty, treat flying as a commodity experience and make our calculations largely on the basis of price. Given that all the big boys seem to be constantly in danger of going bankrupt, you’d think they’d try to set themselves apart with a more enjoyable flying experience.

How odd, then, that the budget carriers have nonetheless come in with slightly bigger seats and some low-cost frills that make customers happy and loyal. Would that business model work on a larger scale? Or is it only workable when cherry picking a handful of the most profitable routes?

Image source: Autopia

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    We will some interesting development with the recently enacted US-EU Air Transport Agreement, which basically allows any US or EU carrier to fly to any airport in either area. Ryan Air, notorious for its low fares and extra charges for service, is already planning on US services by announcing a 7 Pound Transatlantic fare. Let the competition begin!

  2. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    There was a time when I routinely flew between the Middle East and either Europe or the Far East. I have probably logged enough miles to have flown around the world several times. I flew so much that it became a non-event.

    Then came 9/11 and the TSA. Since then, I will go to any extreme to avoid flying. Not because of any fear of terrorism but because of the abject stupidity and incompetence of the TSA. I have read of the TSA’s follies for years and witnessed it once when I flew from Tulsa to Las Vegas. I know that if I were to fly again, I would find it impossible to not say something to the TSA idiots who think nothing of seaching a 90 year old man with a walker simply because his name randomly came up on the computer while overlooking other more plausible security threats for fear of offending someone by profiling.

    My comments would change nothing at the TSA and probably get me arrested so I just drive where I need to go. Or stay home.

  3. legion says:

    I have a hypothesis. I think that back in the 80s & 90s, a lot of airlines started playing ‘buzzword bingo’ with their management theories in the aftermath of deregulation. They seem to have noted how just-in-time principles brought up profits & decreased supply tails in manufacturing in other industries, and used them on airlines.

    Now, while JIT can increase short-term profitability, it can’t reliably handle any kind of disruptions in demand. And unfortunately, short-term disruption happen all the time in air travel. And every time they do, airlines freak at the revenue disruption. And every few years, another airline goes bankrupt.

    But short-term profitability is the only thing that drives corporate success anymore. As a result, even after the massive post-9/11 bailouts, US airlines pretty much across the board have refrained from reducing overhead (like executive salaries rather than legally-required maintenance) and instead pushed the regular consumer margins to the edge of functionality and acceptability. And the current trend in US capitalism to put short-term profits ahead of all other considerations and never to punish senior executives for driving their companies off cliffs has steadily eliminated any US-based alternatives.

    I think the agreement DC Loser mentions will bankrupt a lot more of them… But that’s just my theory.

  4. DC Loser says:

    I’ve personally never had a problem with the TSA when I fly, which I do on occasion for business and pleasure. But it’s akin to an encounter with the Soup Nazi. You patiently wait in line for your turn. You don’t make smalltalk with them, you do as you’re told, don’t deviate from the script, and in the end you get what you came for. It is degrading that it’s been reduced to this. Of course we can all write our Congressmen if we really want a change.

  5. FireWolf says:

    You’re preaching to the choir here James about flying. I haven’t flown since prior to 9/11. Not because I’m afraid terrorists would take over the plane and fly me into a skyscraper, but because I’d rather drive the U.S. and spend 2-3 days doing it, than sit in a security check point with my wife and daughter while having some TSA agent searching my 1yr olds diaper for a dirty bomb. (Which he can certainly have if one is there).

    Recently, we were planning a trip from Minnesota to Charlotte, NC. An 18 hour drive, and 2 days to get there (considering we like to sleep more than drive straight through) and we opted for the car ride instead.

    Flying out of the country is another matter entirely, and since I’m up here in MN, I could very well fly into Manitoba and take an international flight but that’s pretty impractical.

  6. You don’t know what fun is until TSA comes up with a false positive for nitro on your CPAP machine.

    It is positively stunning just how full the average flight is now compared to the good old days when the airlines were actually making money without charging $5 for a blanket.

  7. sam says:

    Ryan Air, notorious for its low fares and extra charges for service, is already planning on US services by announcing a 7 Pound Transatlantic fare.

    Can we examine its plane maintenance records?

  8. MarkT says:

    I take about 50 flights per year and I’m surprised at all your reactions. It really isn’t that bad.

    I admit there are some weird things happening (like customs copying laptop hard drives) but I think that stuff is rare.

    Most of the time the security lines are reasonable, the TSA staff are polite, and your flight is less than 30 minutes late.

    I fly mostly out of Dulles airport and usually arrive at the airport about 60-70 minutes before my flight and that always gives me plenty of time.

  9. Joe R. says:

    I live and work in China, and I just never visit the U.S. anymore. It isn’t worth it. I take my holidays in Asia. Both airports and airlines are better over here. Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Thai International, and others make American-based airlines look ridiculous.

    Domestic Chinese airlines are as good as domestic U.S. airlines–which is no compliment to either bunch.