Airlines Want You Miserable and It Serves You Right

JetBlu is joining the competition in charging bag fees and cramming in more seats.

American Airlines Cancelations Unnecessary

JetBlu is joining the competition in charging bag fees and cramming in more seats, sparking a new round of pontification on the sorry state of airline travel.

Tim Wu explains “Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer” in The New Yorker.  The setup isn’t anything new:

In 2013, the major airlines combined made about $31.5 billion in income from fees, as well as other ancillaries, such as redeeming credit-card points. United pulled in more than $5.7 billion in fees and other ancillary income in 2013, while Delta scored more than $2.5 billion. That’s income derived in large part from services, such as baggage carriage, that were once included in ticket prices. Today, as anyone who travels knows well, you can pay fees ranging from forty dollars to three hundred dollars for things like boarding in a “fast lane,” sitting in slightly better economy-class seats, bringing along the family dog, or sending an unaccompanied minor on a plane. Loyal fliers, or people willing to pay a giant annual fee, can avoid some of these charges; others are unavoidable.

The fees have proved a boon to the U.S. airlines, which will post a projected twenty-billion-dollar profit in 2014. To be fair, airlines are not just profiting because of fee income. Reduced competition, thanks to mergers, helps. There is also the plummet in the price of oil, which the airlines seem to have collectively agreed is no reason to reduce fares or even remove “fuel surcharges.” But for the past decade it is fees that have been the fastest-growing source of income for the main airlines, having increased by twelve hundred per cent since 2007.

But Wu takes an interesting logical leap:

Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

The necessity of degrading basic service provides a partial explanation for the fact that, in the past decade, the major airlines have done what they can to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience. For one thing, as the Wall Street Journal has documented, airlines have crammed more seats into the basic economy section of the airplane, even on long-haul flights. The seats, meanwhile, have gotten smaller—they are narrower and set closer together. Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports who worked in the airline industry for many years, studied seat sizes and summarized his findings this way: “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

Boarding for non-élite flyers has also become a miserable experience. There are far more efficient ways to load planes than the current back-to-front method, which is actually slower than random boarding. The process takes longer still thanks to the practice of letting flyers with status board out of turn and thanks to luggage charges, which compel fee-avoiders to cram their bags into overhead compartments. Airlines lack a real incentive to fundamentally improve boarding for everyone—by, for example, investing in methods such as filling both ends of an airplane at once. It would make life better and also defeat the status racket.

Sure. But here’s the thing: most customers view air travel as a commodity, shopping for the cheapest base ticket to their destination, factoring in only obvious conveniences such as direct flights vs connections and arrival and departure times. An airline that sacrifices a couple rows of seats in order to make the remaining customers marginally comfortable gains nothing for the gesture. Ditto those checking bags or offering in-flight wi-fi for free. Frequent fliers might choose that airline over those who don’t all things being equal; but most customers wouldn’t know the difference.

Alison Griswold expounds on this idea for Slate (“Americans love to complain about cramped flights and extra fees. So why do they keep choosing them?“):

Not surprisingly, the trends in the airline industry—smaller seats, fewer free amenities—have been met with growing customer frustration. This summer, a seemingly unprecedented bout of “recline rage” infected the nation’s air travelers, with multiple planes diverting to calm angry passengers. A quick glance at the data on passenger complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation reveals that Spirit, perhaps the most notorious charger of “optional” service fees, is also by far the most reviled. In each of the past five years, the complaints per 100,000 enplanements on Spirit have been triple, quadruple, or even quintuple the complaint rates seen on most other carriers.

At the same time, customers haven’t started protesting with their wallets. For the second year running, Spirit is reporting the highest operating profit of all U.S. airlines. Allegiant Air, another super-cheap domestic carrier, is close behind. Americans might love the idea of better-quality flights, but they’re simply not willing to pay more to book one.

“There’s clearly a disconnect between some customers’ stated preferences and what actually matters most when they’re sitting down ready to make a purchase,” says Brian Davis, vice president of business development for Allegiant.

Over the past five years, ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit and Allegiant have consistently outperformed their peers in terms of operating profit, the best measure of comparison. During the same period, airlines that promise a nicer experience for a slightly higher price have lagged behind. Virgin America, which seems to have something of a monopoly on the best domestic airline title in multiple rankings, bled money from 2010 to 2012 and has only started to catch up to its competitors over the past 12 months. JetBlue’s operating profits have been steady but mediocre since 2010; the changes to its seating and pricing are designed to bolster annual revenues and margins. “JetBlue has tried all these years to believe that even the lowest-paying passenger can have lots of legroom, a free checked bag, and everything else, but it just hasn’t worked,” says Seth Kaplan, an industry analyst and managing partner at Airline Weekly. “People will tell you, ‘I don’t like being nickeled and dimed, just give me a price—I’m willing to pay more just to not have to deal with all of that.’ But the data suggest that they’re not really willing to do that. Because if they were, JetBlue would be the most profitable airline in America, and not Spirit.”

[…]

For all the complaints that companies like Spirit get—and there are complaints galore—the market indicates that customers care more about cheap prices than anything else. Both Allegiant and Spirit say routine surveys of their riders support this conclusion. When passengers are asked how important they consider various aspects of airline service on their own, such as price, timeliness, and other factors, Allegiant’s Davis says they all score “pretty high.” When the options are pitted against one another, though—framed in terms of tradeoffs—price overwhelmingly wins. “The greatest service we can provide to them is keeping the fares low,” Davis says.

Then again, for those who aren’t frequent travelers, the price menu is hardly transparent. It’s really difficult to know ahead of time just how uncomfortable a given seating experience will be on a five-hour flight. Or how much relief a $75 upgrade to “Slightly Less Shitty Economy Class” will actually bring. And while it’s not incredibly difficult to figure out which carriers offer such things as free checked bags or wi-fi ahead of time, most people aren’t going to take the extra trouble of doing that research and factoring it into the fare prices shown on the various airline booking websites. The upshot, then, is that all the incentives are for airlines to keep the base price as low as possible:

In the latest fiscal quarter, the average flight cost $164.80 on JetBlue and $84.50 on Spirit. JetBlue also collected an average $22 in additional fees, or so-called ancillary revenue, from its passengers, and Spirit another $54. Looking at those numbers alone, the average fare on Spirit is about $50 cheaper than on JetBlue. But to truly compare the services, you have to make a few adjustments. For starters, flights on Spirit tend to be about 20 percent shorter than those on JetBlue. Spirit also crams 178 seats onto the Airbus A320, while JetBlue’s current layout accommodates 150. When you factor these things in, it turns out that JetBlue would have to take in about $196 on average just to make the same revenue per passenger that Spirit does. By those standards, JetBlue’s flights are actually a better deal. But based on sticker price alone, they don’t necessarily feel like it.

Nor, frankly, is there any easy way to the airlines to make it feel like you’re getting a better deal if they throw in more services or better seats in their base price. So, naturally, they don’t.

Fundamentally, then, Wu is wrong. It’s not that airlines need to make you miserable in order to charge you more; it’s that they need to make the price as low as possible and most people don’t care about comfort enough to pay for it. And those who do—and can—are given the option of doing so.

The combination of most customers being  unhappy with the flying experience and airlines being unable to easily market a better flying experience is a classic market failure. Since this race to the bottom is at least partly a result of the decision to de-regulate the airlines in the late 1970s, it’s not unreasonable to argue that having the government set higher minimum standards.

At some level, I support the idea. As an above-average-height individual with fairly long legs, there’s a level beyond which seat pitch can’t go without being incredibly uncomfortable. For many, it’s actually a medical issue. And, with Americans getting fatter by the minute while airline seats are getting narrower, we’re long past the point where airlines have to either humiliate obese passengers by making them pay for an extra seat or make unwitting strangers share a portion of the seat they paid for with a sweaty fat man.

But regulating such things means that airlines’ already thin per-seat margin will go down and base ticket prices would have to increase. The revealed preference of most consumers is for low ticket prices. And, of course, some percentage of those who now fly would be unable to afford to do so.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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.

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    I’ve been traveling JetBlu for a while. I made probably 7-8 flights to FLA when my mom was sick. Actually enjoyed their service. Too bad…sorry to read this news.




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  2. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Baggage fees were to offset higher fuel costs.

    American was first in 1998, others were quick to follow:

    “With record-breaking fuel prices, we must pursue new revenue opportunities, while continuing to offer competitive fares, by tailoring our products and services around what our customers value most and are willing to pay for,” United’s chief operating officer, John Tague, said in a statement.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/13/business/worldbusiness/13iht-13bags.13679822.html

    It worked so well, everything now has a fee associated.

    Now it’s no longer fuel, but all about “Shareholder value”.

    I don’t believe that we will see the airlines choosing to reduce baggage fees, or provide employees a raise since they are now collections billions in fees.

    The sheep continue to be fleeced.




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  3. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Oh… and let’s not forget the OTHER major change in Airlines…

    The flight attendant’s role: Switching from Safety and Service to Head Cashier in the checkout Aisle.

    No wonder we hear so many stories of unruly passengers with even more unruly flight attendant staff.

    Want to change seats? That’s a three day jail sentence for trespassing !

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/12/new-york-woman-spends-3-days-in-jail-for-trespassing-after-changing-seats-on-plane/




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  4. James Pearce says:

    I read Alison Griswold’s piece last night and came away skeptical: the pricing transparency issue, upcharges as profit centers, etc.

    (Interesting to note that there’s a link prominently featured to an article by Josh Voorhees titled: Jet Fuel Is Cheap. Plane Tickets Aren’t.)

    Seems to me, though, that the airlines have embraced the McDonald’s model. Exhibit A:

    “The greatest service we can provide to them is keeping the fares low,” Davis says.

    McDonald’s mistakes people’s desires for cheap, fast hamburgers to be a demand for hastily constructed and nearly inedible crap. You could pay them extra, but they’re still not going to be able to deliver a gourmet burger.

    The airlines have mistaken people’s desires for low fares as demands for cramped seats and crowded flights. If you pay them extra, will they be able to deliver something else?




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  5. Trumwill says:

    I found it of that Wu seems to treat the increased number of seats when you cramp them as an afterthought, secondary to making passengers uncomfortable. Not quite right.

    As a vertically endowed individual, I welcome some of these changes. The price tiering gives me the option of Economy Plus, which didn’t exist before. I pay more, but since I take up more space I don’t see the injustice in that. It’s not efficient for them to make all the seats Trumwill size and giving tall or hefty people priority seating would give people conniptions.




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  6. superdestroyer says:

    people always forget that travelling by plane is more than sitting in a seat. Considering that no matter how much people pay, they still end up sitting around an airport, going through TSA checkpoints, handling bags, travelling to and from the airport, there is only so much the airline can make a trip pleasant for an economy class flyer.

    What would be really revolutionary would be a first class only airport in NYC, LA, and other large cities where people could pay for a better overall experience.




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  7. Rodney Dill says:

    My wife and I usually try to get “Economy Comfort” seats with Delta, in our trips between Detroit and Houston. The extra 4 inches of leg room doesn’t sound like much, but really makes a difference. We get our tickets in advance far enough that the cost per ticket is usually not too bad.




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  8. Frequent Flyer says:

    It’s even simpler: in 2014, most travel decisions are made after consulting a site like Expedia, Kayak or Priceline.

    Those sites automatically list flights by lowest fares.

    Consumers, as Joyner notes in this article, generally choose the lowest fares.

    Thus it is in the airlines interests to have Kayak et al show the lowest fares possible. They quickly figured out that they could bring the base fare down by charging extra for just about everything, hence baggage fees and the like.

    Another bonus for baggage fees in particular: their core customer base of business travelers rarely check bags: they’re on the road for 2-3 days and a carry-on will suffice. It’s the occasional leisure traveler who gets hit with those mega fees.

    Finally, the flip of all this is that airfares are pretty much the same as they were 20 years ago. Book far enough in advance, and you can get from the East Coast to California for $250-$300. So the ability for many more people to travel by air is balanced against crappy conditions.




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  9. michael reynolds says:

    I tend to fly Virgin first class, and that whole experience is pretty good, really. My home terminal – Virgin at SFO – is new and really quite nice, even if you’re flying coach. Clean bathrooms, good coffee, good food choices, lots of electrical outlets.

    At some point I just decided it was either the front of the plane or I stay home. There’s nowhere I need to go so badly that I would spend 5 hours in the back end of a USAirways jet.




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  10. The combination of most customers being unhappy with the flying experience and airlines being unable to easily market a better flying experience is a classic market failure.

    No it’s not. You clearly don’t understand what the term means.




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  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Another addition to the long and seemingly unending list of “First World Problems.”




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  12. Another point to consider:

    Most of the pressures that apply to airline flights would also apply to hotel rooms, yet we have not seen the same race to the bottom in the hotel industry. Why not?




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  13. @michael reynolds:

    I tend to fly Virgin first class, and that whole experience is pretty good, really. My home terminal – Virgin at SFO – is new and really quite nice, even if you’re flying coach. Clean bathrooms, good coffee, good food choices, lots of electrical outlets.

    At some point I just decided it was either the front of the plane or I stay home. There’s nowhere I need to go so badly that I would spend 5 hours in the back end of a USAirways jet.

    Wow, that was Mitt Romney level cluelessness about what life is like for people who aren’t rich. Yeah, I’m sure flying would be great for us too if we could afford to plunk down $1500 for a flight, but we can’t.




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  14. EddieInCA says:

    I travel more in 6 months than most people travel in a lifetime. Last year alone, I flew 140,000 miles. I’m over a million lifetime miles on both American and Delta.

    The frequent flyers, those who REALLY fly alot, don’t deal with any of the extra bullshit. I can pack for two weeks in a backback. Why? Because I learned of something called a “laundry” and “dry cleaning”. Going on a big vacation? I ship my golf clubs and large suitcase a week ahead of time to the hotel at which I’m staying, No worries about dealing with airline baggage fees. And it’s cheaper if you send it slow boat via Fed-Ex or UPS.

    Like Michael, I’m fortunate enough to fly first class (or Business Class) most of the time as my company is flying me most of the time. But when I do have to book my own travel, I also have the advantage of being Executive Platinum on American/US Airways and Diamond on Delta, so I get upgraded most times.

    On the rare occasions when I have to fly coach for an airline on which I don’t have elite status, it’s a nightmare, and I always think “I should have driven.”

    But the reality is that air travel is now a commodity. Lowest price wins out 99% of the time, regardless of the extra fees. However, if people aren’t savvy, they’ll end up paying more for that Spirit flight than a discounted AA or Delta flight once the seat fee, baggage fee and the carry on bag fee are tacked on. Those fees often reach $100, which would make the ticket more expensive than the ticket on a regular airline.




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  15. EddieInCA says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Most of the pressures that apply to airline flights would also apply to hotel rooms, yet we have not seen the same race to the bottom in the hotel industry. Why not?

    Mostly because there aren’t things you can really charge as “extras” when it comes to hotels.

    They’ve tried with food, and with internet service. In fact, Marriott got fined for actually blocking people’s personal wi-fi connections. They wanted people to pay for their overpriced internet (sometimes $20 per day) instead of using their own hotspots.

    But what else can you do it with in a hotel? Towels? Cleaning? TV? They try to gouge you on the pay-per-view movies. But really; what else could they try to charge you for?




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  16. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @superdestroyer:

    “… there is only so much the airline can make a trip pleasant for an economy class flyer.”

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Another addition to the long and seemingly unending list of “First World Problems.”

    … no.

    For a few years, recently, I used to live I Brazil.

    The airlines in Brazil flew between Rio and Sao Paulo so often that you:

    1) Bought a ticket for the day you wished to fly (jet service, of course). Time of flight was open ended.

    2) Showed up at the airport, and checked in.

    3) They gladly took your bag, and assigned you the next flight (usually less than 30 minutes)

    4) You went to the gate, walked out to the plane, where the purser and head flight attendant greeted you on a red carpet next to the plane.

    5) walking up the airstairs, you are offered a paper and a sweet as you turn to take your seat.

    6) the plane is bright and absolutely clean. More often than not, the plane is full to near capacity.

    7) The flight attendants are pleasant and concerned for your comfort (rather than hiding in the back of the plane, doing their best to avoid contact).

    8) the flight is less than an hour, but in that 2 -3 jet configuration, the flight attendants have the time to serve a box snack and beverage, as well as pick up everything.

    9) Of course, the snacks reflect the time of day of service.

    10) You land, your bags are waiting.

    So, no, whining about bad service is not a first world problem.

    GETTING bad service (and being told that it is for your “benefit”) is a first world problem.

    Getting screwed financially for really bad service is the American Way ™ !




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  17. ElizaJane says:

    Just to defend American airlines, I recently flew from Frankfurt to SFO (11 hours) on Lufthansa which does not offer the equivalent of Economy Plus. The seats were unbearably small and narrow, there was zero leg room, and in 40 years of flying a lot I have never been served food that was so utterly inedible — my standards are pretty low, but this was pigswill.
    Nor were these cheap tickets. For the worst flight of my life.
    And this is Germany! I guess you could say that they have a genuine 2-tier society (the 1% and the masses) in a good feudal way, rather than the American Entitled 1%, Deluded 10%, and Screwed 89%.




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  18. Mikey says:

    @ElizaJane: I’ve always found the food on Lufthansa quite good, especially for flights originating in Germany.

    Then again, I haven’t flown them in a couple years, maybe things have gone downhill.




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  19. Mikey says:

    When I’m flying for leisure–which generally means Dulles to Frankfurt with my wife and son–price is pretty much the only thing I care about. Saving $100-$150 per ticket for three tickets is huge. Being stuck in a cramped seat for eight hours isn’t much fun, but it’s certainly worth it in light of the extra stuff that money gets us while we’re in Germany.

    I have United’s Mileage Plus credit card which gets a free checked bag for each of us, which helps too.




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  20. @EddieInCA:

    They’ve tried with food, and with internet service.

    Except they haven’t. Many midrange hotels offer free wifi and breakfast. I’ve even been to hotels that give you a free drink in the evening. And weirdly, the hotels that do charge extra for everything tend to be the high end luxury hotels, which is the exact opposite from the airline model.

    But really; what else could they try to charge you for?

    Make the rooms smaller, go to communal bathrooms, less furniture, cheaper bedding, etc. But again, midrange hotels seem to be going in the opposite direction in most cases.




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  21. Mikey says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Perhaps people figure they can suck up a few hours in a cramped seat but won’t stand for a reduced level of service in hotels? I mean, a hotel is basically your home when you’re on vacation. All an airplane is, is a really fast bus. People view the two very differently.




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  22. @EddieInCA:

    But really; what else could they try to charge you for?

    Specifically, note that no one is arguing that this is the future of the US hotel industry:

    Capsule Hotel




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  23. anjin-san says:

    @ James

    Since this race to the bottom is at least partly a result of the decision to de-regulate the airlines in the late 1970s, it’s not unreasonable to argue that having the government set higher minimum standards.
    At some level, I support the idea.

    At what level is that? Could you flesh that statement out a bit?

    Your party believes that a business exists solely to create a maximized profit for “job providers.” Regulation, pretty much any regulation, is tyranny.

    What is happening here is not a market failure. The market is working exactly as it is intended to in America in the year 2014. The little guy is getting bent over, the 1% are doing very well, thank you, and the elite among the 1% own or lease their jets and give little thought to the travails of the peasants.




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  24. Rodney Dill says:

    @ElizaJane: Sorry to hear that. I’ve had excellent service on Lufthansa (3 years ago). Decent food, real silverware, free wine, beer, and brandy after dinner, (even for coach). Very professional attendants. Much better than domestic flights I’ve taken over the years.




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  25. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    No, it was not cluelessness, it was honesty. I can pretend to be someone else if you like, I’m good at that, but I thought instead I’d try to be straightforward.

    I grew up in trailer parks living on my dad’s E4 pay. I was poor well into my 30’s. I doubt anyone here has paid more poverty dues than I have. But thankfully that’s no longer where I am.




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  26. michael reynolds says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Preach it, brother.




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  27. Slugger says:

    Perhaps a slight thread kidnap:
    Why don’t we have high speed rail in the US? Europe and Japan do. Rail is generally more comfortable, and the slowness compared to air is often ameliorated by being city center to city center rather than to some outlying airhub. At 100 mph a Boston-NYC-DC or SF-LA would probably work for most.




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  28. EddieInCA says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I agree with you there. At the Hyatt House I stayed in recently, I was surprised by the morning breakfast – full breakfast with Eggs, ham, bacon, waffle station, juices, toast, rolls, fresh fruit, cheeses, etc – and the afternoon social – with free wine, beer, tacos, and cheese and crackers from 5pm to 7pm. This was all complimentary, and was well taken advantage of. Given what a basic breakfast costs on the road, it certainly lowers the cost-basis of the hotel when one figures in all the free meals I took advantage of.




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  29. Mikey says:

    @Slugger: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acela_Express

    Note that Acela has taken so much of the passenger traffic between D. C. and New York that some airlines have reduced service.

    This only works in places with relatively close city centers and high population densities. Even high-speed rail in Europe doesn’t go everywhere.




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  30. Guarneri says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Correct




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  31. @Mikey:

    Perhaps people figure they can suck up a few hours in a cramped seat but won’t stand for a reduced level of service in hotels?

    Which is kind of my point. It’s not that people can’t get information on how good different airlines are and factor that into their decisions; they do that with hotels even when shopping for hotel rooms via priceline/Travelocity/etc. They simple don’t care too. The current state of the airlines is what it is because it’s reflecting the legitimate preferences of the people buying airline tickets.




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  32. Guarneri says:

    Spirit makes about a 15% operating margin. That’s pretty good, but abnormal for airlines. Most airlines make low single digits. That stinks, and look at their trading multiples to understand what the capital providers think.

    To the consumer reaction… This is no different than complaining about Wal-Mart. People complain about all kinds of things wrt WM, but buy on price. Foreign purchased, foreign built, low retail wages etc or not. People take the deal. Same for many goods, like clothing, agricultural products, consumer electronics. But it brings relatively good quality goods to a vast number of consumers. If you want to pay for a different buying experience go to Whole Foods, Nordstrom etc or, as Reynolds points out in the case of air travel, first class.

    This is no market failure, it’s the market sorting out (rather well I might add) what various types of customers are willing to pay for a product or service in terns of complete price: explicit price, quality, service, wait time, etc.




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  33. PD Shaw says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I do think hotel pricing is often strange with high-end hotels tending to have higher costs, plus more fees. I suspect that these are largely different markets though, with the Hilton catering more to business travelers, conventions and special events. The Hampton Inn a mile away may be better for family travel.

    I suspect that pricing differences btw/ rooms and air travel are a result of (a) greater importance of location for high-end hotels and less competition; (b) less willingness to bargain price on the sheets you sleep on than the seat you sit on; (c) different fixed versus variable costs (hotels are more ambivalent about “selling out” as it will increase housekeeping expenses); and (d) less value attributed to transportation (I can book a beachside condo in Florida for a week at a price comparable to flying there, which will I enjoy more?)




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  34. Rodney Dill says:

    @EddieInCA: Basically the same deal at a Drury Inn, for breakfast and happy hour. I just stayed at one on my own nickel in San Antonio on the Riverwalk.




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  35. michael reynolds says:

    @PD Shaw:

    And don’t forget the connection between price and prestige. If you’re a Four Seasons customer do you want to see the Four Seasons being priced with Hyatt or Hilton? If I see a Four Seasons with $200 rooms I figure something has gone terribly wrong at that hotel. The high end needs to cost more than the next tier which needs to be more expensive that the third tier.




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  36. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The combination of most customers being unhappy with the flying experience and airlines being unable to easily market a better flying experience is a classic market failure.

    No it’s not. You clearly don’t understand what the term means.

    I’m pretty sure I do. The pareto optimal situation would be for passengers to be able to spend no more money than they have to for the services they want but airlines to be able to sell as much of what passengers are willing to pay for as demand exists. Because passengers mostly shop by price and have no really good way of figuring out ahead of time how much they’d enjoy an extra four inches of leg room on a given airplane configuration, some who would be perfectly willing to pay for it in a transparent market don’t. Meanwhile, because there are a finite number of seats, some people who don’t need the extra leg room are forced to pay for Economy Plus seats they don’t want because they’ve gone last.

    @Stormy Dragon: Pretty much everyone knows hotels are tiered goods. While the truly high end hotels are the equivalent of First Class airline seats—you pay a lot more to get a better experience—everyone understands that there’s a difference between, say, a Hampton Inn and a La Quinta. The difference between US Airways and Delta is next to zero.

    @Mikey: The Acela from DC to NYC is okay. But I took Amtrak a couple weeks ago from Quantico to Philly to Princeton. That’s not much better than flying and much slower.




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  37. michael reynolds says:

    My first thought was to agree with JJ that it’s a market failure, but then I realized, well, truth is, they pegged me pretty well.

    I hate traveling – didn’t used to, but there’s nothing like book tour to turn you off on travel – and because I now dislike travel I’m desperate to eliminate all the unpleasantness I can afford to eliminate. I’m 6’2″ and 22 inches shoulder-to-shoulder, why would I cram myself into a torture seat for a 5 or 6 hour SFO to JFK flight that I don’t really want to be on in the first place if there’s a way out?

    I suspect most of the people in the back of the plane are flying for fun (tourists) and most of the people in the front wish they weren’t flying at all (business people.) There’s a big difference between what you’ll put up with to get to your vacation in Hawaii and what you’ll put up with to go somewhere to work.




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  38. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: I think you might have it backwards. People will put up with crap from work because they need the job, and most companies will not pay to fly employees first class.

    I needed VP approval at my last job to break spending caps. I was in a position to be able to stand my ground, damn the consequences (and to tie my request to a medical condition), but the rest of my team was back in steerage. I watched them pass me as they boarded, which made it even better of course.

    People on vacation can choose whether to fly, and how much they will spend.




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  39. Mikey says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The current state of the airlines is what it is because it’s reflecting the legitimate preferences of the people buying airline tickets.

    Indeed. And they love to fly–maybe not the full experience, but the speed and relative convenience of being able to travel in hours distances that used to take days.

    I fly fairly frequently for business, and it’s a rare flight the last few years that hasn’t been full.




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  40. PD Shaw says:

    @michael reynolds: I think there is some Veblan goods aspects to lodging (at some point, paying more itself is associated with greater worth), but even at lower levels of spending prices might seem too low to communicate comfort and cleanliness. I think part of lodging prices are in the “branding.”

    But I think what Stormy was getting at is the opposite of what you are suggesting. When I stay in Chicago on business, I usually stay at the Hilton Palmer House, or one of the Hampton Inns nearby. The basic cost to stay at the Hilton is usually less than the nearby Hamptons, until you look at fees, particularly parking and internet, or consider free hot breakfast at Hampton.

    I think its artifact of what it meant to be a full-service hotel, which is a lot of amenities on site, not necessarily provided by the hotel directly, at additional costs. The moderate priced hotels are more opportunistically adding freebies themselves.




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  41. PD Shaw says:

    @Rodney Dill: We enjoy Drury hotels, and have taken advantage of the free drinks (I believe three per adult) from time to time. My favorite time was staying at the Drury Inn near the St. Louis Cardinals ball park. We had drinks and a Dinner buffet before going over to the ball park. It was a bit of a tailgate atmosphere, and we were just looking to snack before we went to the game. But the hotel had free hot dogs, and nachos and as mentioned three drinks, beer, wine or mixed. And then when we got to the ballpark, the price point changed radically. Eleven dollars for a large Busch beer. It’s so strange the food and drinks were so much the same, but in the first environment it’s a freebie, almost a gesture of good will, and in the second environment it’s a luxury good.




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  42. al-Ameda says:

    I fly periodically during the year, to the northwest, midwest and to the northeast, and most of my complaints derive from inconsideration created by passengers.

    Experienced business travelers know the deal – they get on and off flights with a minimum of difficulty, and they don’t hassle staff. However, there are a lot of inconsiderate people who make life difficult for airport staff and airline staff, and in so doing they drag down the flying experience for the 95% of the people who are trying to get somewhere without customer created drama.

    Also, many people insist on trying to stuff mini-fridge sized luggage and carry-on gear into the overhead bins, and then refuse to get out of the way (hold up the line) while they try to extricate their gear from the temporarily jammed bins. Some people blame baggage fees as an incentive for people to carry-on Mini-Coopers and so forth, I blew the customers for not paying the fee and getting on the damned flight without bringing all their gear on board too.




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  43. wr says:

    @Slugger: “Why don’t we have high speed rail in the US? Europe and Japan do. ”

    Because Republicans hate spending money on infrastructure when they could be shoveling it to their billionaire friends as tax cuts.




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  44. anjin-san says:

    @Slugger:

    Why don’t we have high speed rail in the US? Europe and Japan do. ”

    You can’t really expect us to have the nice things that advanced countries do.




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  45. Mikey says:

    @wr: @anjin-san: You know, there is high-speed rail in America. It’s in the place it actually makes sense: DC-NY-Boston corridor, which has a population density and distance between large city centers very similar to that of Europe.

    For the rest of America, high-speed rail would be inferior to flying. It would take longer and be more expensive.

    There are a lot of economic and practical reasons there isn’t a lot of high-speed rail in North America. Canada has none. Is that the Republicans’ fault, too?




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  46. frogger says:

    I think people forget that ticket prices haven’t gone up in a long time. The amount that I paid for an economy seat from NYC-LAX 15 years ago would give me a business class seat now after adjusting for inflation.

    As far as I’m concerned, airline travel has actually gotten cheaper over time. I’m willing to suffer for rock bottom prices – I’d rather spend that money on a fancier hotel I’m staying in for 36 hours rather than a seat I’m sitting in for 8 hours. Plus the worst part of air travel is security and customs, and airlines can’t do anything about that.




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  47. @James Joyner:

    The pareto optimal situation would be for passengers to be able to spend no more money than they have to for the services they want but airlines to be able to sell as much of what passengers are willing to pay for as demand exists.

    The airlines are currently pareto optimal. The only way the customers can benefit (better flight experience) is at the expense of someone else (either lower profits by the airline are higher tickets by the customers). Since customer behavior demonstrates they consider the lower price to have more utility than the extra comfort, providing a nicer baseline flight experience would be a net loss for most of the customers.




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  48. Gustopher says:

    @frogger:

    Plus the worst part of air travel is security and customs, and airlines can’t do anything about that.

    There are special lanes for first class passengers.




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  49. Guarneri says:

    @michael reynolds:

    JJ is leaning on an asymmetrical information argument and lack of customization. It doesn’t wash. Precious few people don’t know the flying gig. And airplanes can’t be reseated and tailored for the patron mix of each flight. Further, to do what he wants would require far more flights, and therefore seats. Load factors would plummet destroying the economics. Airlines have gone bankrupt on that issue. He might as well tell me the Stadium should be reconfigured for the Stanley Cup finals but scalpers prices remain unchanged.

    I know this will get me in trouble but what has happened in air traffic is that the former bus people are flying because price points have been lowered, bringing carry on baggage like Jed Clampett, and you have decided its worth it to pay up for first class to escape that. There is nothing wrong with all that and it’s markets working like clockwork. BTW – I know one of the original investors in Jet Blue and could regale you with airline stories. One of the worst businesses in the world.




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  50. Guarneri says:

    @anjin-san:

    I think you should be a founding investor, oh enlightened one. Can I put you down for a half million?




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  51. @michael reynolds:

    No, it was not cluelessness, it was honesty. I can pretend to be someone else if you like, I’m good at that, but I thought instead I’d try to be straightforward.

    Yes, but what was the point of this honesty? It doesn’t make anything better for the people stuck in coach. It doesn’t suggest a solution to the issues being discussed here. It doesn’t even express sympathy for their suffering.

    All it does is rub the noses of the less fortunate in how much better off you are then them.




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  52. anjin-san says:

    @Guarneri:

    I think you know enough about business to know that the excellent public transportation system we once had in this country, which was mostly rail, was deliberately destroyed by a consortium of oil companies and auto manufactures. It’s not that rail can’t work, it’s that it was sabotaged.




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  53. anjin-san says:

    @Mikey:

    I agree that it does not make sense to have high speed rail in Nebraska. San Diego to Vancouver on the other hand…




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  54. jmc says:

    @Slugger:

    Why no TGV in the US? The answer is very simple. Federal laws passed between the 1930’s and 1950’s make it impossible to build a TGV in the US.

    You should dig up the story of the time Alstom tried to build a TGV for the Eastern Corridor and had to give up in the end in total disgust as the Federal government insisted that the TGV trains that had run for 30 years with no fatal accidents should be re-engineerd to conform to a 1936 law written for steam power trains made of heavy steel. That was just one of the many insanities. We wont even deal with the state regulatory bodies, who were in some ways even more dysfunctionally stupid..

    The Cal “high speed rail” project is pure political corruption. Cooked up by Jerry Brown and the usual suspects. Right before the project defacto collapsed a few years ago the state desperately approached the French to dig them out of the impending catastrophe. The French took one look at the Cal project, quickly came to the conclusion is was insider corruption pure and simple, and said there was no way they wanted to be associated with the project. You know things are bad when even the French are repelled by the level of corruption. Those of you who are familiar with how things work in France will have some idea of just how bad the Cal project is.

    Roll back the regulations back to what was on the books in 1930 and you might have high speed rail. Roll back the operator regulations to 1901 and you might even have a functional passinger services again.

    If you want a French, German or Swiss style passenger railway system then first you need a French, German or Swiss style regulatory regime. That means the US has to repeal several telephone directories thickness worth of laws and regulations.

    As for the main thread subject. Until you have flown RyanAir you have no ideal of just how nasty an airline can be. And after almost 50 years of flying the single biggest improvement has been the banning of smoking on ‘planes and the invention of mp3 players. But the pointless stupidities of the TSA are the single biggest reason why the flying experience is so much worse than what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Pure security theater whose only purpose is to cover DC’s ass when the next big attack happens. Get rid of the TSA and you might have a half way decent flying experience again.




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  55. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I liked that. Do we have a winner of the thread?




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  56. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Where are you going that first class is only $1500? From where I travel, first class starts at 3 and can be higher. Coach is $15-2400.




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  57. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @al-Ameda: My favorite carry-on was on a flight from Incheon to Portland, OR and in first class, of all places. One of the passengers got permission to carry his golf bag on board. The most interesting thing about that was that it was a hard cover bag designed to be stowed in the baggage bay. (I see a lot of these in Korea.)

    Because it was first class, the bag fit behind his seat just fine, but I wondered how many other passengers looked at it and thought “maybe I should have insisted, too.”




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  58. superdestroyer says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Once a customer is in the parking lot of a hotel, the hotel has control of the entire experience to include the room, the hallway, the lobby, whatever food is provided, and even the parking. The total experience is controlled by a single company. However, an airline does not control very much of what the customer is purchasing. The airline does not really control the baggage handling, the parking, the TSA security, the food for sale inside the airport or even the waiting area.

    Also, If I do not like a hotel, I can check out and move down the street. If I get upset with an airline there is little that I can do.

    I have notice that hotels that depend upon meetings and conventions are the worst hotels to stay at since they nickle and dime a person whereas a suburban mid-priced hotel does not.




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  59. Tony W says:

    @al-Ameda: The first airline to rip those damn overhead bins out of the plane has my loyal business forever.




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  60. Tony W says:

    @wr:

    “Why don’t we have high speed rail in the US? Europe and Japan do. ”

    Or…..“Why don’t we have high speed rail in the US? Because Europe and Japan do. ”




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  61. James Joyner says:

    @Guarneri:

    JJ is leaning on an asymmetrical information argument and lack of customization. It doesn’t wash. Precious few people don’t know the flying gig.

    I don’t think this is right. The vast number of travelers fly maybe twice a year and have no way of figuring out the score. Plane configurations, crowding, fee structures, and the like—not to mention who owns which airline—change constantly. Business travelers with the luxury of choosing their own airlines have a lot of personal experience and have the incentive to do the research to learn the system. The vast majority of flyers, not so much.




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  62. superdestroyer says:

    @Tony W:

    Germany is smaller than the state of Texas. High Speed Rail works in a country where the distances are shorter. However, even at high speed, a train would take much longer from NYC to Florida than flying.




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  63. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “High Speed Rail works in a country where the distances are shorter. However, even at high speed, a train would take much longer from NYC to Florida than flying.”

    This may come as a shock to someone who has never left Dogpatch, but there actually are frequently traveled routes between major cities that are not NYC and Miami. For instance, San Diego-LA-SF-Portland-Seattle could benefit greatly from HSR.




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  64. PJ says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Germany is smaller than the state of Texas. High Speed Rail works in a country where the distances are shorter. However, even at high speed, a train would take much longer from NYC to Florida than flying.

    In Texas you could connect Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio with High Speed Rail.




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  65. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    So, no, whining about bad service is not a first world problem.

    Let me put it to this way: Did you eat today?

    OK, you are now free to return to your overprivileged whining about things that are not quite as miraculous as you seem to think they ought to be.




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  66. Tony W says:

    @PJ:

    In Texas you could connect Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio with High Speed Rail.

    Exactly. Because you cannot solve every conceivable travel scenario with a high speed rail system, we’ll do nothing. And when people try to do something regionally (California, LA-Vegas, etc.) the Koch brothers will scream SOCIALISM/European-style-elitism (while driving their BMWs) and they’ll add the auto manufacturers, other oil producers, highway contractors and others interested in maintaining our silly car-focused system to their cynical plan to thwart any sort of progress.

    Democracy, and the free market, depend upon perfect information distributed perfectly. Money disrupts that balance.




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  67. Eric Florack says:

    this discussion is interesting for the connection that doesn’t make. I wonder how many of you complaining about the cost for you’re getting service, once particular path of revenue is discovered, are the ones who are telling us the government based services will be so much better Obamacare for example.




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  68. James Pearce says:

    @anjin-san:

    I agree that it does not make sense to have high speed rail in Nebraska.

    I don’t know about that…..

    We tend to think of these transportation projects as serving existing needs. We need to think of them as laying the groundwork for future expansion and development, just like the transcontinental railroad in the 19th Century and the interstate highway system in the 20th.

    You ask me, it’s a shame how the “American West,” a place so fertile in our cultural imaginations, became “flyover country” within decades of the invention of the airplane.




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  69. superdestroyer says:

    @wr:

    Flying from Los Angeles to Portland or SEattle would be much faster than taking a train that makes several stops along the way.

    Also, If you live in a suburb north of Los Angeles, why drive into downtown to catch a train when one can walk to your car and start heading to the SF/Oak/San Jose area faster?

    I suspect that more people take the bus between DC and NYC and the train in a given day considering how many bus companies run that route and how cheap the bus service is.




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  70. superdestroyer says:

    @James Pearce:

    The reason the train makes no sense is that most of the counties in the far west are losing population and especially losing middle class and above classes who are less than 50 y/o to the few large metropolitan areas. The future of Nebraska is to become less populous, older, and poorer. Not exactly a market to spend billion on a train system that few people would ever use.




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  71. MBunge says:

    The difference between hotels and airlines is that there are specifically hotels for those on the lower end of the economic ladder. Most everywhere you can find a hotel room for $70 or less a night. And those hotels for lower-income folks are most often perfectly fine. The rooms are big enough and they’re usually clean enough, as long as there are no bed bugs.

    Essentially, the hotel industry segregates the poor and the cheap into their own “separate but equal” system. Airlines can’t really do that.

    Mike




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  72. Andre Kenji says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Flying from Los Angeles to Portland or SEattle would be much faster than taking a train that makes several stops along the way

    To be fair, trains are interesting as transportation precisely because of these stops. Going to a trainstation is much cheaper and easier than going to an airport.




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  73. James Pearce says:

    @superdestroyer:

    The reason the train makes no sense is that most of the counties in the far west are losing population and especially losing middle class and above classes who are less than 50 y/o to the few large metropolitan areas. The future of Nebraska is to become less populous, older, and poorer.

    You say that like it’s an inevitability written in stone, instead of part of a legacy of cultural, economic, and -yes- geographic isolation. Haven’t you ever read your Cather?

    At any rate, it’s wrong. NE’s population and GDP grew last year. It’s unemployment rate is the 3rd lowest in the country. The Wall Street Journal said it was the 10th fastest growing state in the union.

    So, as usual, you are as wrong as you are short-sighted.




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  74. Mikey says:

    @anjin-san: Perhaps. There’s a pretty good case for San Diego-San Francisco, or Los Angeles-San Francisco at least.

    Still, a San Diego-Vancouver high-speed rail line would be a single line covering the same distance as France’s entire TGV network collectively does, but would serve a far smaller percentage of our population.




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  75. rodney dill says:

    @James Pearce:

    We tend to think of these transportation projects as serving existing needs. We need to think of them as laying the groundwork for future expansion and development, just like the transcontinental railroad in the 19th Century and the interstate highway system in the 20th.

    Sounds like the Bridge to Nowhere.
    😉




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  76. superdestroyer says:

    @James Pearce:

    If you look the census number reported for Nebraska then yes the state is growing but many counties in the state are shrinking. With a global economy, rampant credential-ism, and assortative mating, it appears that only urban areas are growing in the U.S. http://neded.org/files/research/stathand/bsect4b.htm

    Also, Nebraska is whiter than average but has a percentage of the population above 65 at average. If you look at the trends in Nebraska it is gong to get older and less white. Not a place to spend billions on lightly used infrastructure. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/31000.html

    Also, I am surprised you mentioned Cather when she left Nebraska and moved to New York City. That is the trend of today. The upper middle class white kids in Nebraska moving somewhere, not getting married, and not having children.




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  77. superdestroyer says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Union station in DC is probably harder and more expensive than driving to BWI airport. Unless one is young, dragging your luggage through the metro is a pain. Downton train stations are always expensive and hard to get to for suburbanites.




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  78. anjin-san says:

    @Mikey:

    The SD/LA/SF/Portland/Seattle/Vancouver metro areas have a combined population of 35 million. LA & SF are two of the top tourist destinations in the world, and all of the other cities are important tourist destinations as well. I’m not sure that the percentage of Frances population served is all that meaningful to the situation here.




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  79. Guarneri says:

    @anjin-san:

    You mean the regulatory capture of your precious government by the saboteurs, and the archaic union rules afflicting rail?

    You don’t really think independence and speed aren’t the real reason, do you? You can still put in The 500k if you want. You’ll be rich.




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  80. Mikey says:

    @anjin-san: It would probably cost upwards of $200 billion to build high-speed rail from San Diego to Vancouver. That’s a gigantic investment. So federal funding would be necessary. Proposing federal funding that’s sourced from all American taxpayers to pay for a multi-hundred-billion dollar rail line 90% of them will likely never use is going to be as popular as cancer.




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  81. anjin-san says:

    @Guarneri:

    Knowing history – it’s a good thing 🙂

    http://www.brooklynrail.net/NationalCityLinesConspiracy.html

    your precious government

    Do you have a few spare days to hear my critique of the government(s)? It’s quite long, and I go into a lot of detail. That being said, if we don’t have government, we have a lot of things that are much worse. The assumption that liberals “love government” falls somewhere between intellectual laziness and outright ignorance.




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  82. Mikey says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Union station in DC is probably harder and more expensive than driving to BWI airport.

    I assure you for anyone in northern Virginia, DC, and a good chunk of Maryland, this is not the case. BWI is nearly 90 minutes from NoVA with no traffic, it can be three hours at certain times of day.




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  83. Guarneri says:

    @James Joyner:

    James, it’s really a stretch to think people don’t understand the flying experience. There is advertising and people do speak with each other.

    I’m going to be serious for a bit here because I think the entire thread has missed the boat. The market for the overwhelming majority of products and services can be thought of as a triangle. At the base is a large potential served market. The offering is the most standard and commodity-like, and price competition tends towards cost plus. At tho top is a much smaller PSM carved up by attributes such as quality, reliability, features, convenience etc. pricing is not cost plus, but what the consumer will bear for his or her perceived value of attribute plus the small served market to amortize fixed costs by. The production and delivery of almost any good or service can be tailored to most effectively address it’s target market, whether that good or service provider be a multi-plant corporation or a cadre of specialized companies.

    The problem with an airline is the physical asset that delivers the service. It’s pretty much one size fits all, generally split at most into two modes: economy and first class. There is really no continuum of offering as the physical asset cannot be reconfigured flight by flight depending on the customer mix, and it would be dis economic (convenience and load factors) to have dedicated flights all first class or all economy, or a fleet customized small to large planes. So you have a crude service offering constrained by the nature of the physical asset. Attempts have been made to “smooth” this problem such as an economy plus section, or Southwests singular seating scheme. But it’s still a ham fisted approach.

    So you either suffer the attendant mess by flying cheap in coach, or as Reynolds points out, you buy your way out and in to first class. BTW. Said another way, any businessman better be able to answer they ultimate question: “why do people buy my service or product?” In air travel it’s speed first……and either cheap, or comfortable, second.

    That’s the story, and I didn’t say Pareto once.




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  84. Davebo says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    You are correct. You’ll always get free wifi and a continental breakfast at a Courtyard by Marriot or such but not at The Four Seasons (unless you ask which ironically you can almost always get amazing things for free)

    Recently stayed at a Four Seasons in a suite with a street rate of $700 per night. My girl talked them down to $240 which is less than the cheapest room but not satisfied she also convinced them to send up a free fruit tray and bottle of wine and toss in free parking.

    I was amazed. But it’s incredible what you can get if you are super sweet and ask for it. Being really really cute doesn’t hurt either I guess.




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  85. Davebo says:

    @rodney dill:

    In fairness, the bridge to nowhere, while ill conceived, wasn’t really to nowhere. Airports are sort of important especially in an area highly dependent on tourism.




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  86. James Pearce says:

    @rodney dill:

    Sounds like the Bridge to Nowhere.

    Funny you say that, because to me, it sounds like a bridge to all those jobs created by the Keystone pipeline.

    @superdestroyer:

    If you look at the trends in Nebraska it is gong to get older and less white. Not a place to spend billions on lightly used infrastructure.

    Your view of this country is so skewed I’m not even sure it can be considered a view of “this country.” Who cares if it’s “less white?”




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  87. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “Flying from Los Angeles to Portland or SEattle would be much faster than taking a train that makes several stops along the way.”

    That’s quite possibly true. But not everyone goes from LA to Seattle. Some go from Seattle to Portland, or Portland to SF or San Diego to LA.

    As for why would you drive from “a suburb north of LA to Union Station instead of just continuing to drive north to the Bay Area… well, if I drive from, say, Pasadena, it takes me a minimum of five and a half hours, plus stops. So that’s six hours in which I’m doing nothing, 12 if you include the return trip. On the train I could use those same hours to get a day’s worth of work done.




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  88. Grewgills says:

    @James Pearce:

    Who cares if it’s “less white?”

    racists




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  89. Mikey says:

    @wr: This is why I’ve taken the train from DC to NY–even if not on Acela. Yes, it takes about the same amount of time as driving, but I’m not driving, I’m working in my seat or enjoying the scenery or walking to the bar car for a snack. And I arrive relaxed and alert, not tense and tired from hours of driving on I-95 and the NJ turnpike.




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  90. anjin-san says:

    why would you drive from “a suburb north of LA to Union Station instead of just continuing to drive north to the Bay Area…

    I’ve done the SF/LA many times. When I was in my 20s, I did not think twice about jumping in the car and heading to LA. In my 50s, I’m going to to be pretty cooked after both the drive up and the drive back. Taking a train, having time to work, have lunch, check out the scenery, sounds great. I would go to LA twice a year via high speed rail if it was an option.




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  91. grumpy realist says:

    I’m one of the few that seems willing to pay extra for decent seats and treatments, but that’s because any of the present US airlines flying to Japan suck. I prefer JAL or ANA and am bloody happy to pay the extra $200 per ticket. (14 hours curled up like a pretzel ain’t no way to go through life, son.) Economy is still a good experience and I can also talk to the stewardesses and start getting my brain moved over into a Japanese-only mode. Plus the food is far more edible.

    3M used to have as company policy any international travel meant Business Class. Northwest Business Class was to DIE for. I must have put on 10 lbs one year with all the feasting criss-crossing the Pacific.

    (There’s a reason why one of my projects is to bring back zeppelins.)




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  92. anjin-san says:

    @Mikey: @Mikey:

    That’s a gigantic investment.

    Compared to what? We’ve poured quite a bit then that down the bottomless pit that is the joint strike fighter program.




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  93. anjin-san says:

    Madrid-BCN fast rail threatens to put air service out of business

    A high speed service between Barcelona and Madrid has gained ridership at the expense of a twin air link. In late-2013, Iberia, Spain’s flag carrier, admitted that many frequent travellers were turning en masse to the über-comfortable rail link.

    The CEO of IAG, matrix aviation group, confirmed today that the AVE service has stripped Iberia of most of its passenger count. “The Barcelona-Madrid air service will feed overseas routes from this latter airport”, he said. As for journeys within Spanish borders, the exec added: “”These routes are covered by train”.

    http://www.02b.com/en/notices/2014/10/madrid-bcn-fast-rail-threatens-to-put-air-service-out-of-business-8106.php




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  94. Guarneri says:

    @anjin-san:

    I have as long as you want.




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  95. Mikey says:

    @anjin-san: Gah, don’t even get me started on that awful money pit. Unfortunately, too many people are willing to accept those kinds of cost overruns for a fancy new fighter jet. And they think it’s a suitable replacement for the A-10? Horse pucky.

    I’d like to see high-speed rail in the places it makes sense. Here in the DC-NY-BOS corridor it actually turns an operating profit. There’s probably even a case for federal subsidies on the capital side–I mean, we do that for all the freeways, right? And most of us certainly won’t be driving every mile of freeway in America.




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  96. Mikey says:

    @anjin-san: Southwest killed flights between BWI and New York because Acela took so many passengers.

    http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-09-24/news/bs-bz-amtrak-high-speed-test-20120924_1_acela-trains-acela-express-northeast-corridor

    Given the competition, low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines is eliminating service between Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and two New York metropolitan airports, LaGuardia and Newark.




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  97. grumpy realist says:

    @anjin-san: Same thing for the Osaka-Tokyo leg. Good luck finding a flight (especially with the Nozomi Shinkansen.) Add on the extra time to get out to the airports and the time required for the security dance and you can see why everyone uses the Shinkansen instead.

    (We ended up sitting around Osaka airport for several hours waiting for the last leg to Tokyo because we had just flown in from Beijing and had gotten through customs earlier than expected….but our luggage had already been passed on to domestic air which meant we couldn’t just grab the bags and head over to the train station. So we got to experience the new wondrous airport out in Osaka Bay gradually sinking into the mud. Oops.)




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  98. anjin-san says:

    @Guarneri:

    Heading to Berkeley to hit Rasputin and Amoeba Records, but here’s a few.

    The city manager of Pleasant Hill, CA (pop 33K) makes more (a lot more) than Jerry Brown, the governor of California (pop 38 million). This pattern is repeated endlessly in municipal governments. The city manager of nearby Clayton got a 25% raise in 2009 when the economy hemorrhaging jobs. Over in Marin, a ballot proposal for an expansion of the county jail was defeated three times in the 80s and 90s. In spite of this, the board of supervisors approved the project and construction began with no notice to the public. They wanted to do it, so they did, in spite of the clearly expressed will of the voters/taxpayers.

    I can go on in this vein for a long, long time.




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  99. MBunge says:

    On the plane vs. train debate, there’s also the long term perspective. Namely, we’ll be able to run trains for a long time after the energy sources that power jets become cost prohibitive. Battery-powered 747’s?

    Mike




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  100. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Yes, but what was the point of this honesty? It doesn’t make anything better for the people stuck in coach. It doesn’t suggest a solution to the issues being discussed here. It doesn’t even express sympathy for their suffering.

    I didn’t think we were really talking about solutions, I thought we were just engaging in a circle jerk of bitchery about air travel. There is no “solution” because in market terms there’s no “problem.”

    If there’s a problem it’s in the decisions made by flyers, and I don’t see how any of us are proposing ways to get people to be less obsessed with price. American and Jet Blue have both tried the “more room” approach and it hasn’t worked for them. If you put up a coach ticket with an extra 2 inches of legroom but charge 10 dollars more than the next airline on the list, you lose.

    I don’t think it’s even always a necessity, I think plenty of flyers could afford another 10 or 20 bucks but have the bargain-shopping mentality so ingrained that they’d rather be on the rack for five hours than pay a penny more. Many airlines have special extended legroom seats – coach plus – but those are more expensive than if you had all of coach a bit roomier and spread the additional cost.

    But I’m afraid Americans – who will happily pay $1.95 for a black coffee they could make at home for 20 cents, will not pay a dime extra to avoid suffering on a plane for hours. People are irrational. Pay twice as much for a t-shirt with a logo over a plain t-shirt? Sure! Pay 20 bucks to avoid back pain? No way!

    The solution was in the hands of consumers but they blew it. If all you care about is price you’re not going to like the results much.




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  101. al-Ameda says:

    @Mikey:
    .

    Proposing federal funding that’s sourced from all American taxpayers to pay for a multi-hundred-billion dollar rail line 90% of them will likely never use is going to be as popular as cancer.

    I generally agree with you on that, but these days Americans don’t wat to pay for anything, especially services they directly benefit from




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  102. superdestroyer says:

    @Mikey:

    If BWI is three hours away from Springfield Virginia then getting to Union Station will take more than an hour and there will probably not be any parking.




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  103. superdestroyer says:

    @Davebo:

    Getting the cheap room and the throw ins means you were there in the very off season. Marriot has begun to tell their hotels not to give last minute deals since it trains their customers to wait to the last minute and expect a discount.

    I love how everyone believes that they are the cleverest person in the world and are capable of getting things that no one else can get. The economy cannot operate if so many clever people were getting such great deals.




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  104. michael reynolds says:

    Rail make no sense in the US. The country’s too big and too empty. I do a bit of rail when I’m in the UK and lower class on a train is no better than lower class on a plane. If you want to go coast-to-coast you’re turning 5 hours on a miserable plane into 50 hours on a miserable train.

    Here’s my useful suggestion since Stormy accused me of not having one: make Diazepam (Valium) over-the-counter and sell it in airports. Or bring back Quaaludes. I guarantee you five hours in coach would go a whole let easier if you’d popped a ‘lude.

    We have drugs for a reason. We don’t have to be so tediously puritanical about it. When I got a vasectomy I was not exactly looking forward to it. I asked my guy if I could have a drink or three and a Valium and my urologist, being an Irishman, said, “Sure.” It’s amazing how little anxiety you feel after a half pint or so of Bourbon and a Valium.

    Sadly we can’t just pour alcohol into people since a fair number of folk become flaming a-holes when they drink, but Valium or ludes or even a simple joint? Imagine how much more pleasant the entire experience would be for everyone.




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  105. wr says:

    @Mikey: ” It would probably cost upwards of $200 billion to build high-speed rail from San Diego to Vancouver. That’s a gigantic investment.”

    Yeah, what is that, about a fortieth of the money Bush squandered on his little toy invasion of Iraq? I mean, including the palettes of cash he was shipping over there to distribute to his buddies?

    God knows we can’t possibly spend money on infrastructure in this country when Republicans know it’s better squandered and stolen.




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  106. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “I love how everyone believes that they are the cleverest person in the world and are capable of getting things that no one else can get.”

    There’s an old saying in poker, Mr. SuperSpud: If you look around the table and can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.

    I have a strong feeling you’ve never seen a sucker in your life.




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  107. PJ says:

    @MBunge:

    On the plane vs. train debate, there’s also the long term perspective. Namely, we’ll be able to run trains for a long time after the energy sources that power jets become cost prohibitive. Battery-powered 747’s?

    There will have to be a solution because traveling to Europe, Asia, or further by boat will be a lot slower and lot more will die compared to flying.

    @michael reynolds:

    Rail make no sense in the US. The country’s too big and too empty. I do a bit of rail when I’m in the UK and lower class on a train is no better than lower class on a plane. If you want to go coast-to-coast you’re turning 5 hours on a miserable plane into 50 hours on a miserable train.

    High speed rail makes sense in the US as long as the distance isn’t too long and the destinations/end points have large enough populations.
    My experience differs quite a bit when it comes to rail travel in the UK and how I would compare it to flying in economy.




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  108. Guarneri says:

    “Here’s my useful suggestion since Stormy accused me of not having one: make Diazepam (Valium) over-the-counter and sell it in airports. Or bring back Quaaludes. I guarantee you five hours in coach would go a whole let easier if you’d popped a ‘lude.”

    The airlines would have to create a new class of customer……….very frequent flyers.




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  109. MBunge says:

    @michael reynolds: Rail make no sense in the US.

    Rail can make sense regionally. A midwest system centered in Chicago and extending into adjacent states where it’s an alternative to driving as well as flying would seemingly be workable. You’d have to overcome generations of driving culture.

    Mike




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  110. Mikey says:

    @superdestroyer: You’re not from here, are you?




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  111. Mikey says:

    @MBunge:

    Rail can make sense regionally.

    That’s how I see it, too. Coast-to-coast high-speed rail would make little sense because it would always be cheaper and faster to fly between NY and LA, but there are plenty of short-hop routes between good-sized cities (think Pittsburgh-Detroit-Chicago, Dallas-San Antonio-Houston, the aforementioned San Diego-LA-SF) that could be served very well by high-speed rail. It can work very well in that scenario–as I’ve posted previously, Acela service between Baltimore and NYC took so many passengers that Southwest Airlines cut service.

    We just have to realize there are circumstances where lack of vision isn’t to blame for the absence of high-speed rail, because there are real practical and economic factors at play and sometimes it’s just not a workable option. Once we get past those, we can concentrate on areas it will actually benefit.




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  112. grumpy realist says:

    We here in Chicago have been bitching for quite a while about getting a high-speed system between here and Champaign…

    The other benefit of rail is that it usually plonks you down right in the middle of the city and is connected to the rest of public transportation, rather than with a plane, where you’re lucky if you’re way out at the end of one of the train lines and if not it’s expensive taxis.

    Boy do I miss Japan’s transportation system….




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  113. superdestroyer says:

    @Mikey:

    If it takes three hours to get from Springfield to BWI, that means that the Beltway in PG county is clogged due to a wreck/traffic incident. That means that many drivers will try to bail out to 395/295 to try to go around. That means that the 14th street bridge is clogged. That means driving to Union Station will take much longer than normal. Even taking the Metro from Springfield/Franconia to Union Station will probably take 1 hour during rush hour. Dragging a suitcase through the metro at rush hour is a huge hassle.




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  114. superdestroyer says:

    @wr:

    I see that most people who think they are super clever are really just suckers. It is just another way to market. Do you really think that the Four Seasons makes a profit by giving huge discounts to clever people and depending on suckers?




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  115. stonetools says:

    @anjin-san:

    Not to mention the odd trillion dollar stupid war…
    Republicans will spend like drunken sailors on foreign wars, but when it comes to infrastructure or social spending in the USA, it’s all “We can’t afford it”.

    We can afford tax cuts for billionaires, though….




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  116. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I think plenty of flyers could afford another 10 or 20 bucks but have the bargain-shopping mentality so ingrained that they’d rather be on the rack for five hours than pay a penny more. Many airlines have special extended legroom seats – coach plus – but those are more expensive than if you had all of coach a bit roomier and spread the additional cost.

    But I’m afraid Americans – who will happily pay $1.95 for a black coffee they could make at home for 20 cents, will not pay a dime extra to avoid suffering on a plane for hours. People are irrational. Pay twice as much for a t-shirt with a logo over a plain t-shirt? Sure! Pay 20 bucks to avoid back pain? No way!

    I think most of us would pay the extra $20 if offered the choice directly. The problem is that, booking with one of the online fare shopping services, all one sees is the price. Even if one were aware that certain airlines tended to offer more leg room—and a tiny fraction of the flying public would have that awareness—there’s no way to know that on a given purchase because most airlines have multiple planes with multiple configurations in the inventory. There are times I’m reasonably comfortable in coach and times when I’m not. And, though I fly reasonably often, I haven’t cracked that code.

    Additionally, that extra $20 is actually $40 for the round trip. Still worth it. It’s an extra $120, though, flying with my kids. Probably still worth it to me, but harder to justify for many if not most people.




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  117. Mikey says:

    @superdestroyer: It’s not just 495 that’s a mess getting from NoVA to BWI, it’s 95 in Maryland.

    Metro from Franconia/Springfield to Union Station is about 45 minutes, including the transfer to the Red Line at Metro Center (although if you time it right, you can hop to the Yellow Line at King Street and skip the ride through Crystal City).

    I just don’t see any reasonable case that could be made for choosing a flight from BWI over a train from Union Station if you’re going to NYC from here.




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  118. James Joyner says:

    @superdestroyer: @Mikey: If you’re trying to get to NYC from Springfield, why would you be going through BWI to begin with? Reagan or even Dulles make more sense? And Southwest flies out of Reagan these days.

    DC to NYC is one of the few cases where train is probably the best option, although it’s a close call. Driving is a royal pain both en route and at the destination. Flying isn’t any faster than the train because of security-related padding. It would be a no-brainer if the train weren’t so expensive.




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  119. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner: SD had said:

    Union station in DC is probably harder and more expensive than driving to BWI airport.

    Not from NoVA it isn’t.

    Going to New York, I usually take Metro to Reagan and fly. I’ve taken the train, which was generally positive, but I’m almost always traveling with a government customer and he prefers flying.




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  120. Rodney Dill says:

    @Davebo: Yes I know, yet the 50 people living on the island were the only reason that ever seemed to be mentioned by opposition to the project.

    @James Pearce: True that is would be useful for getting to those jobs. Whether you’re politically for or against such a project would determine how it would be cast, which is why I brought up the Bridge to Nowhere.




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  121. Barry says:

    James: “Sure. But here’s the thing: most customers view air travel as a commodity, shopping for the cheapest base ticket to their destination, factoring in only obvious conveniences such as direct flights vs connections and arrival and departure times. An airline that sacrifices a couple rows of seats in order to make the remaining customers marginally comfortable gains nothing for the gesture. Ditto those checking bags or offering in-flight wi-fi for free. Frequent fliers might choose that airline over those who don’t all things being equal; but most customers wouldn’t know the difference.”

    Notice that what the airlines are doing is to f*ck people by shorting the commodity, and making it so opaque that their customers (except for the frequent-flyers) don’t know what they are paying for until it’s too late.




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  122. James Joyner says:

    @Barry:

    Notice that what the airlines are doing is to f*ck people by shorting the commodity, and making it so opaque that their customers (except for the frequent-flyers) don’t know what they are paying for until it’s too late.

    That’s essentially been forced on them by Expedia and company. The carriers who’ve tried to gain an edge by offering better accommodations—with JetBlue being the most recent example—simply haven’t been able to stand out from the competition while the truly cut-rate airlines—Spirit being one mentioned in these pieces—have suffered no penalty. I don’t think that’s a purely function of customers choosing price over everything else but rather of price being the only thing that’s obviously different when they’re making their choice.




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  123. Rafer Janders says:

    @Mikey:

    You know, there is high-speed rail in America. It’s in the place it actually makes sense: DC-NY-Boston corridor, which has a population density and distance between large city centers very similar to that of Europe.

    For the rest of America, high-speed rail would be inferior to flying. It would take longer and be more expensive.

    This is a very common mistake — in fact, there are large parts of the US that have the same or denser population density as much of Europe, inclue




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  124. Rafer Janders says:

    @Mikey:

    You know, there is high-speed rail in America. It’s in the place it actually makes sense: DC-NY-Boston corridor, which has a population density and distance between large city centers very similar to that of Europe. For the rest of America, high-speed rail would be inferior to flying. It would take longer and be more expensive.

    Try again, without blockqquote fail:

    This is a very common mistake — in fact, there are large parts of the US that have the same or denser populatino density as much of Europe, including Florida, the Southeast Atlantic corridor, southern California, and the Midwest.

    We tend to think of America as not densely populated because of the vast empty swath in the middle. But in the areas where people live, people live closely and in cities. As an example, France, which has high speed rail, has a population density of 289 people per square mile. Florida, which doesn’t have high-speed rail, has a population density of…353.4 per square mile.




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  125. Rafer Janders says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Flying from Los Angeles to Portland or SEattle would be much faster than taking a train that makes several stops along the way.

    But taking a train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or from Vancouver to Portland, would be faster than flying.

    This is a common dodge you use, pretending that travel is only between the two farthest points on a system and ignoring all the shorter routes in between.




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  126. Rafer Janders says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Also, If you live in a suburb north of Los Angeles, why drive into downtown to catch a train when one can walk to your car and start heading to the SF/Oak/San Jose area faster?

    Because you can work, read, drink alcohol and/or nap on a train, which you can’t do while driving a car.




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  127. Mikey says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    This is a very common mistake — in fact, there are large parts of the US that have the same or denser populatino density as much of Europe, including Florida, the Southeast Atlantic corridor, southern California, and the Midwest.

    When you get to my subsequent responses in this thread, you will see where I addressed those, with support for high-speed rail in those areas. As I said: put it where it makes sense.




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  128. Rafer Janders says:

    @Mikey:

    Still, a San Diego-Vancouver high-speed rail line would be a single line covering the same distance as France’s entire TGV network collectively does, but would serve a far smaller percentage of our population.

    The population of France is about 66 million. The population of California, Oregon, Washington and Vancouver combined is about 50 million. It’s not that big a difference. Moreover, one train line serving 50 million people seems like a pretty efficient train line to me.




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  129. Rafer Janders says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Union station in DC is probably harder and more expensive than driving to BWI airport.

    That all depends on where you’re drving from.

    Unless one is young, dragging your luggage through the metro is a pain.

    Whereas dragging your luggage through an airport is a pleasure? In most airports, if you don’t check baggage, you have to drag if for longer and further than you do in a train station.

    Downton train stations are always expensive and hard to get to for suburbanites.

    Well, first, not necessarily true. But they are, in fact, not expensive and easy to get to for urbanites. It takes me $2 and fifteen minutes to get to Penn Station in NY. It takes me $80 and an hour to get to Newark Airport.




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  130. Mikey says:

    @Rafer Janders: An example I’d like to see: DC-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Detroit-Chicago-Milwaukee. Perhaps few people would take it all the way from DC to Milwaukee, flying would still be faster and cheaper, but as you note in another comment there would be plenty of travel between the intermediate nodes. DC-Pittsburgh is about four hours by car, same for Pittsburgh-Detroit, Detroit-Chicago. High-speed rail would be cheaper than flying for those hops and probably take less time if you account for not having to deal with airport security.

    I’d personally hop on a DC-Detroit high-speed rail if it were available and cheaper than a flight. It would certainly beat the 9+ hour drive.




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  131. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Rail make no sense in the US. The country’s too big and too empty

    Again, a common myth. Sure, Nebraska / Wyoming / the Dakotas etc. are relatively empty — but no one lives there anyway, comparatively, so no one wants to build a train out there. But New England, the Atlantic Coast, the Southeast, Florida, the Pacific Coast, and the Rust Belt Midwest are not empty at all — in many places they’re just as or more densely populated than Europe.

    Plus, I don’t understand how ‘it’s a big country” is an argument AGAINST rail — if anything, you’d want to add rail to stitch a big country together.




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  132. wr says:

    @Rafer Janders: “Because you can work, read, drink alcohol and/or nap on a train, which you can’t do while driving a car.”

    Well… shouldn’t, anyway.




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  133. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I make the SFO to LAX jump fairly often. Might I take a train if it were available? Maybe, but as a California taxpayer I’m not sufficiently excited by the prospect to want to pay for it now in order to have it ten years from now. The air service is fine.

    My other regular jump is from SFO to JFK. Zero chance I’d take a train for that.

    Could you do regionals like Miami to Orlando, or Chicago to Champaign, or one dull Ohio city beginning with a “C” to one of the other dull cities starting with, “C?” Sure. But again, who’s paying for it? If you’re an Ohio taxpayer do you want to pay taxes for ten years and endure traffic disruptions in order to make a trip to Cleveland marginally easier?

    We’re probably no more than 20 years away from computer-driven cars. Trains are a dated solution to a problem that will be solved by much more convenient means. Planes will remain viable (though less frequently-used) but trains would be rendered completely obsolete by computerized vehicles.




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  134. jmc says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    Population in France is very nucleated. About 70% of the population live in the catchment area of the main TGV network axis- Paris /Bordeaux, Paris / Lyon, Lyon / Marseille, Marseille / Toulouse. Population on the West Coast is much less nucleated. And with no equivalent TGV/RER feeder network there is at most 5 million people in the western states in the immediate catchment area of any proposed high speed line the numbers are even worse than those for the proposed SF/LA route.

    Then there are the financial sleights of hand that the French use to hide the enormous subsides needed to keep the system running. My last TGV ticket cost 90 euro. The direct tax payer subsidy was around 40 euro. When you add in the real cost of the track operator company (which uses accounting practices that Enron would had thought twice about) the final cost to the French tax payer for my trip was probably closer to 60 euro…

    The TGV network was built for very concrete domestic political reasons. So Paris could tie the rest of country closer to the center to keep in under tight control. Which is why internal flights in France are still so expensive. To drive traffic to the TGV to keep down its total cost to the central government. Nothing to do with more efficient transport infrastructure.




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  135. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    My other regular jump is from SFO to JFK. Zero chance I’d take a train for that.

    No, and no one is proposing to builld a train from SF to NY. But I would take a train from NY to Chicago (700 miles approx.), which I can’t do now, just as I would and have taken a train from Paris to Hamburg (also 700 miles approx).




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  136. Rafer Janders says:

    @jmc:

    Population on the West Coast is much less nucleated.

    I’m not so sure about that. It’s largely concentrated on the coastal area that would be served by a train and clustered around the San Diego/LA/San Francisco/Portland/Seattle/Vancouver hubs Seven of the ten most densely populated urban areas in the US are in California, and most of those urban areas are coastal-centered.




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  137. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Maybe, but as a California taxpayer I’m not sufficiently excited by the prospect to want to pay for it now in order to have it ten years from now. The air service is fine.

    But that’s extremely short-term thinking, which sacrifices long-term prosperity and benefit for short-term pleasure. That’s a good way to have a good time in the here and now, but a disastrous way to run a country, governmen and economy.

    But again, who’s paying for it? If you’re an Ohio taxpayer do you want to pay taxes for ten years and endure traffic disruptions in order to make a trip to Cleveland marginally easier?

    I’m sure that taxpayers in the past didn’t love paying for the subway, or the interstate highway network, or rural electrification, or the railroads, or bulding airports all across the country — but we have the society we have now thanks to those things having been built and paid for.




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  138. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    If I’m making a long-term investment I’d be looking to technology not likely to be obsolete in 20 years, and I honestly think computer-driven cars will replace trains for medium hauls. I could get on the 5 and work as my car drives to LA. And then I’d have my car in LA as opposed to renting one. Door to door in your own car with your bags in the trunk, zero security hassles, no annoying people sitting beside you, recline whenever you like.




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  139. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    If I’m making a long-term investment I’d be looking to technology not likely to be obsolete in 20 years, and I honestly think computer-driven cars will replace trains for medium hauls.

    Again, I’m not so sure about that. The thing about cars is, they take up space — it’s far more efficient to transport 100 people by train than it is to transport 100 people by car over a medium-to-long distance.

    In Manhattan, to take one example, about 1.6 million people enter the island every day from throughout the tri-state area. That’s only possible because most of them are coming by train and subway. If 1.6 million cars tried to drive into Manhattan every day, it would be unworkable.

    (And that’s just for the drive. Where do you then put all these cars when they’re parked? You can’t park them all in downtown San Francisco, whereas with a train you can just send it on its way).




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  140. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Agreed, to the extent that I now spend so much time flying on firm business that I’ve managed to dictate that I’ll be driven out to and fly out of Teterboro on the firm’s Gulfstream. If I had no alternatives, I might be willing to endure steerage (which, if we’re honest about it, is what modern air travel equates to these days) if I’m headed for a few weeks of peace and relaxation in, say, Hawaii, but flying on business is something I’ve learned to hate with a level of passion only someone who has to do it with regularity can understand. In that scenario, they’re either going to make it comfortable for me or they can find someone else.




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  141. jmc says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Population is very dispersed by European on the West Coast. To give one example the Bay Area may have a pop of around seven million but less than a million actually live in any foreseeable catchment area for a HST. LA is even worse. Even Seattle it might be 400K out of the 1.5 million total…

    I’ve lived in SF, So Cal and Seattle and know Portland and Vancouver very well.

    So if I need to travel from Paris to say Nantes I’ll take the TGV. I have driven it too. If I need to go from SF to LA I’ll drive. And unless its for a very short visit I’ll drive Seattle / SF too. All long distance trips I’ve both driven and flown quiet a few times over the last 30 years. 101 to get to So Cal. I5 to get to Seattle..

    If you look at the travel patterns on the SF/LA corridor you’ll see that any HST route is unlikely to capture more than 5% of traffic. At a truly staggering cost. Just upgrade the current rolling stock, lay an extra track at key pinch points and get Amtrack (and the freight traffic priority) out of the loop and you might have a half way decent rail link. Cost. Maybe a billion or two.

    It will never happen because its not sexy enough. So lets spend 40 billion / 60 billion on a low actual speed HST line that goes from nowhere to nowhere in the Central Valley… And the tax payer will be paying off the bonds decades after its inevitable shutdown.

    But hey this is a state that built a $400 million dollar cycle lane on a bridge that will likely cost at least $60 for every cyclist who uses the lane over its engineered lifetime. Or maybe not. The bridge is so badly engineered that it is unlikely to survive intact the next big earthquake..




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  142. anjin-san says:

    @jmc:

    To give one example the Bay Area may have a pop of around seven million but less than a million actually live in any foreseeable catchment area for a HST.

    And what are you basing this statement on? Please be specific.




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  143. Matt says:

    @michael reynolds: Your post made me imagine what my last flight would of been like if people were passing around joints instead of hateful glances… Giggled for a bit too long at that.

    Last time I flew was out of Chicago when the restroom fan fire caused the entire area to be shut down for departures for nearly a day. That whole airport could of used some drugs.

    I’m extremely uncomfortable when flying. I’m six foot two with a terrible fear of heights (it’s not the height so much as the sudden stop at the end) and distaste for social endeavors. I had already popped some xanax before the flights even started being canceled so I rode out the day quite well.




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  144. Rafer Janders says:

    @jmc:

    To give one example the Bay Area may have a pop of around seven million but less than a million actually live in any foreseeable catchment area for a HST.

    That’s nut. The catchment area for train travel is roughly equivalent to the catchment area for plane travel. You think that six out of seven million people in the Bay Area aren’t in the catchment area for SFO, Oakland and San Jose airports?




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  145. Matt says:

    @grumpy realist: It’s been at least a decade of bitching so far. I have no idea why they haven’t gotten anywhere with it.




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  146. anjin-san says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    That’s nut. The catchment area for train travel is roughly equivalent to the catchment area for plane travel.

    That was my thought as well. It sounds a bit like jmc is presenting his opinions as facts, and he is not working with particularly well informed opinions. I’ve lived in the bay area 50+ years and I don’t think HSR would have any trouble drawing from the entire greater bay area as well as outlying areas.

    I know for sure I have zero interest in driving to Seattle at my age. It was a grinding two day drive when I was 20 years younger.




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  147. Raoul says:

    I flew BA to London and AA to Washington recently. BA was surprisingly sucky. AA, on the other hand blew me away with the food, seats, etc. This was in August. I read that AA is reconfiguring all its airlplanes. Also the stock price has grown subtstantially. Who knew?




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  148. Stonetools says:

    While we are discussing alternative transit systems, does anyone want to weigh in on Elon Musk’s hyper loop idea? I’m not an engineering type, so I got nothing.very informative thread, btw. Kudos to all commenters so far.




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  149. Mikey says:

    @Stonetools: I love the concept of the hyperloop, but man, the implementation…I’m not sure it’s even possible at this point.

    Of course Musk leaves that open for other innovators to work out, which is fantastic, but so far I haven’t seen a lot of interest expressed in moving forward.




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  150. Bokonon says:

    I disagree with the economics argument at the end. This isn’t an open and competitive market. Consumers don’t have a choice.

    All of the airlines are in lockstep, and due to consolidation and mergers and discontinued routes, you can’t really shop for a better or nicer airline on most flights. The airlines know that. So the only economic “choice” involved here is whether you pay for a higher or lower grade of service from the same bandits.

    The airlines that used to be better and tried to give their passengers that choice – like JetBlue and Frontier? They have gone over to the dark side.




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  151. grumpy realist says:

    @Matt: It’s partly a Chicago vs. everyone else thing, and mainly because the damn state is deeply in the red (due to the whole public pension mess).

    The major problem with driving is that Chicago is so bloody spread out. They’ve finally just got around to making the direct link between I-294 and I-57, which shaves off that annoying little jog on I-80 we always used to have to do. (Sort of like Breezewood in Pennsylvania. Dear god, how I hate Breezewood.)

    And because Amtrak isn’t the main owner of the rails it means that when it comes to disputing with a freight train we wait. And wait. And wait.




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  152. jmc says:

    @anjin-san:

    >> And what are you basing this statement on? Please be specific.

    True HST is point to point, so main big city station to main big city station. In SF this means 4’th / Townsend. Try find any parking around there. And given the dysfunctional politics of the City large scale long term parking infrastructure would not be built.

    So effective catchment area is purely those who can use public transport and are less than 1 hour away. Which means BART corridor / and Muni corridor and most bus routes in SF. Total population maybe a million max. Remember this is a city where a 20 min cross town trip by car takes 1 / 1.5 hours by public transport. I’m 6 miles from the train station and six blocks from a streetcar line and on a good day / non peak I could get to the train station in just under 60 mins. Normally sixty very unpleasant mins. I can drive it in 20mins.

    The one hour catchment area for Gare de Montparnasse/ Gare De Lyon in Paris is about 6 million. The one hour catchment area for St Pancras in London is almost 8 million.

    So for a SF HST station the one hour catchment might top one million. But I suspect once you factor in the actual reality of trying to get to the station just at this end the trip down to SFO, which is shorter for most parts of the City, is far more appealing. So that is why the passenger projections for a HST link to LA are pure fantasy. Flying out of SFO or Oakland wins every time. I can even drive to San Jose airport in just over an hour. Faster ( and more pleasant) than trying to get down to 4’th / Townsend on public transport.

    HST and their ilk are just fantasy projects for people who dont seem to know much about the realities and economics of transportation. As I said some simple upgrades and regulatory changes would make a huge difference to practical passenger rail travel. But not going to happen. Just trying unpicking the Amtrack debacle in order to get rid of the freight traffic priority. The unions would stop that at the first hurdle.




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  153. jmc says:

    @anjin-san:

    Well I’ve been in the Bay Area on and off for 30 years. So when was the last time you had to depend on public transport around here to actually get anywhere on a reliable basis? When was the last time you were on Muni? Know the current fare? Or on Caltrain? How much of the European public transport infrastructure have you used? When was the last time you were on a HST?

    Well I’ve done all these recently and on a regular basis over the last 40 plus years.

    Your comments sound like Marin / East Bay dinner party talk..

    The drive to Seattle is no bigger deal than it was when I first did it more than 20 years ago. Can drive straight through in 12/14 hours. Now usually stop and have a pleasant stop over in Southern Oregon. And the drive to So Cal, usually Santa Barbara is my base, by this stage after 30 years feels like just an extended drive to the South Bay. Five pleasant hours to SB, then an hour more down to the Valley.

    In my experience long journeys on HST are usually fairly pleasant, the RER, local rail links not so much. Bus and metro links. Blah. Getting to the main line station is usually a pain in the ass. Not so bad if family can drop you at the station. The normal situation in France (outside Paris) and Italy.

    So HST is basically the least worst form of public transport. Better than my worst flying experiences. (Pan Am in the 80’s) but not as good as my usual flying experiences. Long haul to Europe. Domestic Europe. And West Coast Corridor. (usually South West ). In my experience its the airports that usually suck. Dont get me started on Heathrow, Charles De Gaul, Terminal One, or Malpensa, Milan….




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  154. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @jmc:

    The one hour catchment area for St Pancras in London is almost 8 million.

    Let me get this straight – you are actually asserting that basically anybody in greater London can get to St Pancras station in one hour or less?




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  155. michael reynolds says:

    @Matt:
    I don’t have the anxiety element but I’d happily pop a Xanax just to quell the urge to murder the seated in front of me.




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  156. michael reynolds says:

    Nine times out of ten I can drive from Tiburon to SFO in under an hour. Getting to a train in the City would only save me ten minutes which I’d more than lose on the train if I was heading to LA. Also, while I hate LAX I’m quite happy at SFO in the Virgin terminal or the new United terminal. Somehow I doubt the train station would be as nice.

    Now, give me a train station to equal St. Pancras and maybe that would push me a little toward the train option. But Americans are generally not good at train stations.




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  157. anjin-san says:

    @jmc:

    So when was the last time you had to depend on public transport around here to actually get anywhere on a reliable basis?

    When I was working in downtown SF a few years back, Embarcadero station was a few blocks from the office. I found BART to be quicker, less painful, and cheaper than driving. The last time I was on muni was in September when I caught a train from Embarcadero to AT&T Park, something I do fairly often, though I prefer walking to the park from BART if time allows. I don’t use CalTrain, but I have several friends that live on the Peninsula that like it quite a bit. As for Europe, I have done the London/Paris by train a number of times & I prefer it to flying.

    In my experience, Air France has been very good, Virgin and Virgin America good to very good, Southwest has been good, Last time I flew American it was pretty dismal. I used to make a SF/NY run for work and Delta was our companies carrier. Some of those flights were basically the lowest circle of hell.

    I fly out of Oakland whenever possible, often taking a shuttle or having my wife drop me off & pick me up. I make a pretty regular run to Phoenix on Southwest. I drive to the airport perhaps every third flight. I almost never drive to SFO, BART takes me right there. So discounting shuttles, rail, and rides is something you are doing arbitrarily. It may not be your cup of tea, but I get the sense your ego is telling you that your way is the right way. Sorry, but that’s not how it works.

    As for driving to Seattle, I made that run a number of times back in the day, always stopped in Portland on the way. Making 15 hour power runs never interested me even when I was a kid. These days, my eyesight is not great for night driving even with glasses, and when I’m tired my autopilot and reflexes are not what they once were. I have no interest in pretending that the passage of time has not affected my driving somewhat. SF to Reno is about as long of a one day drive as I care to make now, and two days in a row on the road is not my idea of fun any more.

    So effective catchment area is purely those who can use public transport and are less than 1 hour away. Which means BART corridor / and Muni corridor and most bus routes in SF. Total population maybe a million max

    I’m sorry, but this is nonsense. I lived in Marin for 35 years, if there had been high speed rail from SF, I would have been using it. So would most of the people I know who live in the north bay.




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  158. al-Ameda says:

    @anjin-san:

    I’m sorry, but this is nonsense. I lived in Marin for 35 years, if there had been high speed rail from SF, I would have been using it. So would most of the people I know who live in the north bay.

    I grew up in San Anselmo, about 15 miles north of San Francisco, and for all of the many, many times I have taken trips to Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver – assuming TGV or even Shinkansen speeds – if I could have take HSR from San Francisco to Seattle or LA – if the price differential was not too severe – I would definitely do so.




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  159. anjin-san says:

    @al-Ameda:

    I think I can speak for my friends in Sonoma and Napa here. If there was HSR originating from SF, and they could catch a shuttle equivalent to the AirPorter to the train station, they would be using it.




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  160. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Nine times out of ten I can drive from Tiburon to SFO in under an hour. Getting to a train in the City would only save me ten minutes which I’d more than lose on the train if I was heading to LA.

    But aren’t you discounting the time you have to spend at the airport? You have to allow at least an hour for check-in, security, getting to the terminal, waiting around and boarding.

    Also, while I hate LAX I’m quite happy at SFO in the Virgin terminal or the new United terminal. Somehow I doubt the train station would be as nice.

    But the thing about a train station is, you don’t have to wait at them nearly as much as you do at an airport. Walk in, walk to the platform and get on the train, that should be it. It’s a ten minutes or less process. You don’t have the security lines, screening, or distributed gates that come with airports.




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  161. Matt says:

    @grumpy realist: I lived 2.5 hours south of chicago for 29 years.. It’s always Chicago vs the rest of Illinois. Hell Illinois would be a red state if not for Chicago.




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  162. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    The TSA already has authority over rail. I think it’s optimistic to assume that there wouldn’t be security hassles there as well.

    I have nothing against rail, per se. I’ve done the Eurostar from London to Paris and back and it’s lovely. An experience heightened by the fact that St. Pancras is probably the most beautiful transport hub I’ve ever seen. (Gare du Nord not so much.)

    But when I look at it pragmatically, is it worth it for me to pay tens of thousands of dollars in taxes to take a train to LA ten years from now? Is it something I need to get for my kids? I don’t see it. There are better places to spend tax money – we have a sketchy water supply and that threatens the state’s very existence, we have crap schools in much of the state, and our freeways are falling apart, especially within LA where trains will not diminish traffic.

    And I think the technology of computer-driven cars will render trains obsolete, so it’d be a huge investment in something that is not top priority and of dubious useful life. It could literally be obsolete five years after the first train rolls and we’d be out billions that could have gone to schools.




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  163. milprof says:

    I wonder if some of the issue is also due to business travel purchasing rules. I know government employees and military personnel get no choice in the matter, they _must_ take whatever fare is cheapest, and the government’s policy is that any seat that is legal by the FAA is acceptable. So if that means flying 15 hours from IAD – Delhi in a 28″ pitch middle seat that doesn’t recline, so be it. In contrast, there is simply a max rate for hotels and employees can choose whatever lodging they like so long as it’s within the limit.

    While higher end business travellers are a whole different story, I’d imagine many corporations also have blanket deals with preferred carriers or rules that limit the ability of rank-and-file employees to choose more comfort at a higher price.




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  164. milprof says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Paris – Marseilles is a 3 hour train ride.

    At TGV speeds, San Diego to Vancouver is a 9 hour train ride. More if there are any stops

    BUT, that assumes you can do 180mph the whole way, and that the track route is no longer than is I-5. Not likely given the terrain. Cal HSR, for example, is planning a longer but less mountainous way than going over the Grapevine from Bakersfield to LA. The Klamath mountains are worse — and they get enough snow that traffic on the existing freight main line is often disrupted during winter storms.




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  165. Rafer Janders says:

    @milprof:

    At TGV speeds, San Diego to Vancouver is a 9 hour train ride.

    So what? Few if any would take a train from San Diego to Vancouver. You would, however, take a train from San Diego to LA, or from LA to San Francisco, or from San Francisco to Portland, or from Portland to Seattle.

    As I said above, it’s a common dodge to look at only the two farthest points on a system while ignoring all the traffic in between. I woulnd’t take a train from Madrid to Berlin either — but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for a robust high-speed train network connecting all the areas in between Madrid and Berliln.




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  166. milprof says:

    Very few people would take a train between [PDX, SEA, YVR] and [SFO, LAX, SAN]. Even the shortest of those runs PDX-SFO, would be almost five hours at TGV speeds, vs 1.5 hours in the air. Most importantly, that doesn’t get around the problem of the 200 miles of mountains, mountains where freeway and train lines are often shut down by snowstorms, between Roseburg and Red Bluff.

    Even in Europe, travel of that distance dominated by air. What’s the rail share of Paris – Rome traffic? Answer: very small. And unlike your Berlin-Madrid example, there is virtually zero population in the 400 miles between Sacramento and Eugene, so there’s no real market in intermediate stops.

    HSR within CA is plausible, and probably the Portland – Vancouver BC corridor, but there are no global examples that suggest it makes sense connecting those two regions.




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  167. Rafer Janders says:

    @milprof:

    Even the shortest of those runs PDX-SFO, would be almost five hours at TGV speeds, vs 1.5 hours in the air.

    But travel time by plane isn’t time “in the air”. It’s also time getting to the airport (not in a city center), getting through security lines, waiting to board, and then getting out of the plane, getting luggage, and getting into the city. Trains, by contrast, operate largely from city center to city center, so most of your time is travel time. Even a 1.5 hour flight can take four-five hours when you factor airport travel and security time into it.




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  168. jmc says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    >> Let me get this straight – you are actually asserting that basically anybody in greater London can get to St Pancras station in one hour or less?

    Nope. Thats Zone 1 + Zone 2 + a goodish chunk of Zone 3 (the high density bit) . Greater London (the old GCL plus) is about 12 million. One hour would be a real push from outer south London Zone 3 (like Wimbledon) but can be done if you are a local and know your way around the network. Both above ground and underground. The multi-system Oyster card is your friend….




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  169. jmc says:

    @anjin-san:

    So apart from being a BART commuter from the East Bay not exactly a regular user of public transport then

    The reason I brought up the subject of public transport is because all likely transport options to actually get to a HST station are public transport. (or taxis). That’s how it works in Europe. You can survive (just about) using public transport in Seattle and Portland (I have) but SF and the Bay Area, forget it. Sure, taking the Marin Airporter to SFO is not too strenuous but have you taken the Marin Transit bus from San Rafael to downtown SF recently. Neither fast not terribly pleasant.

    Even if they did ever finish the $60B plus not quite HST line to LA (you do know about all the stops and all the low speed sections?) then your only like option if you wanted to get from say Novato will be a Marin Transit bus. Because SF would never give the private bus stop permits needed to create any effective private sector feeder routes.

    HST reminds me so much of light rail. Little more than shiny toys which make neither economic nor traffic engineering sense in most circumstances. Buses outperform light rail by all criteria in almost all circumstances. But buses just aint sexy. And HST is just so much more interesting than the mundanities of actually reforming the current rail regulatory status quo. You could cut by almost two thirds the travel time SF / LA by train just by getting rid of the freight priority rule. But if you get rid of that then the whole Amtrack compromise unravels. And then who pays the union pensions. Which was the main reason Amtrack was set up in the first place.

    One thing is sure. I will continue to make HST tourneys in Europe and I will never be able to make a HST trip in the US in my life time.




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  170. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @jmc:

    You’re referring to the London Metropolitan area, which has a population of around 13 million. Greater London has a population of around 8 million (which is the figure that you cited as being in the 1 hour catchment area).

    It extends from Hillingdon (farthest western borough) to Havering (farthest eastern borough), and from Enfield (farthest northern borough) to Croydon & Bromley (farthest southern boroughs). That takes us well into Zone 6, unless you’d like to revise your catchment population figures.




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  171. Anonne says:

    Oh, it’s about to get worse for some on Delta.

    http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2015/01/the-not-so-friendly-skies/




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  172. jmc says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    Nope. Its about 8 million, give or take, for this discussion about HST. I can think of some parts of Zone 5 that can get to Paddington a lot faster than some parts of Zone 2.

    The Tube map, which is the basis of the Zoning is a schematic map not a geographic map, And if rescaled for travel times it looks quite different. Like a Dali’esque distended octopus. So some areas in south London boroughs that look close in are actually less accessible than parts of Essex, Herts and Bucks..

    A user of London Transport for more than 50 years. I can still probably tell you the faster route between any two Tube stations in Zone 1…Including when its faster to walk. I dont know how much all the recent CrossRail construction work has disturbed traffic flows. But I’ll be finding out soon enough..




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